Monday, January 5, 2009

Back from the AHA

I did not spend much time at the AHA this year. I was really only around for a day. I have actually learned more about what was going on at the conference from reading the bloggers I mentioned in a previous post. Whatever the case, I am glad to be home--back in good old south-central Pennsylvania.

As I reflected today on my discipline's flagship conference, I recalled an essay I read a few years ago in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Thomas Hart Benton, the pseudonym of an English professor at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. (A school not unlike the school where I teach). Here is the most pertinent excerpt:

I still go to the gray winter conferences: New York, Washington, Boston. I get excited during the cab ride to the hotel. Such tall buildings! I hope I can find time for one of the museums and some secondhand-book shopping. But the hotel lobby fills me with tension. Should I work the room? Twist my face into a phony grin? Try to bask in someone's aura? Pair after pair of eyes move from my face to my name tag. (Am I worth talking to?) I find some old friends; we talk briefly, on our way to someone else. We're in on the conspiracy; we recognize the phoniness, and, of course, it doesn't apply to us. But our eyes still follow the important passers-by, hoping for recognition, hoping to renew a connection.

When I walk out of the airport near our small town, something lifts. I can inhale deeply again. My back loosens; my stomach relaxes. It's not really home, but I am happy to be here. I just want to continue writing and teaching, to contribute to the community, to raise my children, and to enjoy life with my family as the person I am. For once, all this seems possible. I drive home past green trees, black-and-white cows, and red barns. The "profession" seems 1,000 miles away.

And yet I know how predictable this all must sound. What a surprise that I should make virtues of my necessities. A populist is someone who tried to rise -- and failed. How conventional, self-deluded, and "offensive." Whatever.

As I approach mid-career, Benton's remarks seem to resonate with me like never before.