A recent article in The Chronicle Review, “The Sweet Lure of Your Graduate-School Town” (2/22/08 issue), has been a topic of discussion in the part of the academe-o-sphere in which I orbit. In the essay, the author, Murray Sperber, proposes that many academics view the site of their graduate school days as Eden, and therefore choose to return to live in the vicinity of their old grad school when they retire.
The author of the essay spent most of his academic career in Indiana, but is retiring to Berkeley, where he went to grad school. It might be difficult to convince some people that this particular trajectory is evidence for a trend in academic society. To do so, it would be necessary to show that the opposite trajectory is likely as well – i.e. that Berkeley faculty who went to grad school in Indiana are longing to return there. Indeed, to support his hypothesis, the author mentions some academics he knows who plan to return to Indiana (site of their grad school days) after living many years in France.
If this grad-school-as-Eden-retirement-magnet idea is true, this is interesting. I can see why the place you end up as a professor might not be your ideal place to live – we tend to go where the jobs are, and most of us don’t end up living in our geographic location of choice. But why would GradSchoolVille be more Edenic than, say, the place where you went to college or did a postdoc or the place where you grew up or even some other random place you’ve never lived before but have always wanted to?
Sperber proposes that we long for GradSchoolVille (GSV) because when we were in grad school we were young, energetic, independent (perhaps for the first time), optimistic, and intellectually stimulated. After grad school, “.. we had to work at a demanding, often frustrating full-time job, usually devoid of the stimulation of graduate study.” In fact, I think that is a very sad statement considering the unequal distribution of time (for most people) between duration of grad study vs. academic career. Furthermore, I have found that being a professor is much more intellectually stimulating and rewarding than being a graduate student or postdoc.
According to the Sperber hypothesis, your postdoc year(s) could also be Edenic. You are still young(ish), intellectually stimulated, further on your career path, past the stressful exams and will-I-get-my-PhD stage, but not yet burdened with (too many) administrative tasks and other frustrations and stresses that come with a faculty position. Or perhaps the stresses of being a postdoc (and being in the will-I-get-a-job stage) negate any Edenic potential. I would not move to my postdoc town because I have unpleasant memories of being harassed there, an Eden-wrecking experience if there ever was one.
Nor is Eden a word I would associate with my grad school experience. However, it so happens that I went to grad school in a geographically excellent place, and I would love to live there again.
Despite my willingness to move back to my old GSV, I guess I’m not convinced that there are flocks of professors longing to return to their GSV. I have met very few who have made such a move, and am not aware that my grad school contemporaries long to return to our GradSchoolVille. It might be fun if we all did, though. We could move to a retirement villa in GSV and recreate our grad school days. To make the experience authentic, our rooms must be very small and lit by flickering fluorescent lights, squirrels and/or other rodents must die and rot in inaccessible sites between the walls, and we must occasionally be told that we are inadequate. It will be just like old times, but at least we will be living in a beautiful place.
9 months ago