• November 28, 2014

You Can Go Home for the Holidays

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Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

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Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

An assistant professor in the sciences once described a particularly unpleasant Christmas visit home during which his cousins needled him relentlessly about the title and topic of his latest research paper. Eventually, he got so angry that he walked out and did not return for hours. He spent the rest of the holiday simmering with resentment and longing to get back to the lab.

Being a graduate student or a professor is a peculiar profession by the standards of most others—with quirks that are hard to explain. When switching jobs academics may give nine months' notice. We may work hard for many months to produce an article for which we get no direct monetary profit. (A graduate student told me that her grandmother, incensed at such an outcome, threatened to call a journal's editor and demand they "pay up.") In a typical university system we achieve only two promotions in our lifetimes (administration is less advancement than another track altogether). People pursuing other careers—CIA agent, lobster fisherman, banker—can be mystified by our system, its nomenclature, demands, and rewards.

A recent story in The Chronicle, "Here's Smarty-Pants, Home for the Holidays," explored the particular difficulties that doctoral students from working-class backgrounds undergo with their families during holiday gatherings. But returning home—and talking about just what it is that we do—can be culture shock for most academics. Certain frames of mind, coping mechanisms, and practical tactics, however, can alleviate your anxiety and lessen possible clashes with the natal clan.

Accept the disconnect. Tension about the nature and focus of work is common between academics and nonacademics.

Academe is my family business: Both my parents were professors. So I never really had to explain or translate any of our peculiarities to my own relatives. Most people, however, including me through marriage, end up facing people for whom the eccentricities of faculty work may not make sense or may even seem wacky. Academics may be very good at teaching, doing research, and performing service duties, but we are often undertrained in how to explain to nonacademic audiences why we do those things and why they might matter to someone besides our peers.

So don't be surprised if your parents "don't understand" why you have to leave so soon after Christmas because you have to finish a lab experiment; or your friends from your undergraduate years are stupefied that you can't go out on a reunion pub crawl because you have to revise a literature review; or your great-uncle encourages you to try finishing your dissertation "right away" so that you can "get to work."

Furthermore, don't resent them for not validating your choices. After all, why should they? If you are the first local role model of what academics are like, they may hold the media-inspired stereotype that we spend our days sitting around faculty lounges in tweed jackets, smoking pipes, taking summers "off," and having affairs with undergraduates. Your area of research may be as alien to them as HVAC repair is to the average scholar. If there is a disconnect between you and the family, it's perfectly normal, and the holidays just act to throw it into stark relief.

Appreciate the fear. Biddy Martin, president of Amherst College, was interviewed on the Freakonomics podcast about how much her rural, non-college-degreed family opposed her going away to pursue higher education. She described it as a "fear" of losing her, of her changing, of her looking down on them. I have heard many graduate students describe the same dynamic. Often, the fear is justified: College changes people—graduate school perhaps more so—and leads them to take jobs far away from family, and even can create cultural-intellectual distance.

Such family fears can inhibit you from going to college and graduate school, deter you from the professorial path, and even debilitate your progress along the way. Holidays may, thus, feel like a big step back.

What can you do when challenged about what you do? (There seems to be a rule that every large family must have a "Cousin Bob," a loud skeptic about your career path, as in, "Wow, you study that crapola? What a waste of time!") The best responses to anti-academic rants mix affection, reassurance, and realism:

  • "I'll always love and respect you for how you raised me."
  • "People change anyway: Didn't the Army change Dad?"
  • "This is my calling in life, and I would be unhappy if I didn't follow it."

And so on—all the while not dismissing family concerns. They're your folks and you know them best, but at some point you have to be firm that, to paraphrase a quote from one of The Godfather movies—and quoting from The Godfather is always popular with Cousin Bob—"This is the business I've chosen."

Explain why you do what you do and underline the consequences of failure. Before you villainize family members for not understanding academic work and life, consider whether you have adequately explained your situation to them.

Get their attention, get them seated, and detail the requirements facing you. Make a few jokes about the differences between their professions and yours. But above all, make clear that failure, as it is defined in your chosen profession, has just as terrible a consequence as it would in theirs. The best way for your relatives to take what you do seriously is to express how seriously you take it and how much it means to you to succeed. Your attempts will not work on everybody, but you will win over some converts who may end up as your allies in future disputes.

Find a champion. A simple strategy to help you make the case that your career aspirations are valid is to recruit someone in the family to stand up for you, especially at those face-to-face holiday gatherings. A graduate student in the humanities described how her Aunt Rosie turned out to be a fierce defender of her doctoral pathway. The older woman had grown up in an era and place where her career options, even the option of having a career at all, were restricted. At family gatherings, Rosie could always be counted on to bolster her Ph.D.-bound niece with statements like, "Jenny is doing what I might have done if I'd had the chance. Look at all the places Jenny will travel, the ideas she's learning about, the people she's going to meet. I think it's great, and we should all be proud of her."

Accommodation is good training for the tenure track. This semester I taught a graduate course called "Approaches to Teaching." We used James M. Lang's excellent primer On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching. Both Lang and I emphasize (he in his work on pedagogy and I in my writing about promotion and tenure) that good teaching is important but that some of the teaching techniques you use must fit the culture of your campus, students, and work setting. For example, you will need to change your tone and style in the classroom if you teach in Louisiana versus New York City.

One way to benefit from a not-so-supportive family dynamic is to consider it a training ground for the necessary cultural compromises you will need to make on the job. Find yourself modifying your locution, style, and tone when at home for the holidays? Don't despair; study and learn. Think about what you are willing to alter about yourself to fit in—and where you draw the line. The holiday dinner table can be a wonderful laboratory for getting to know yourself as a teacher, researcher, and colleague.

Let it lie. If you scan through the threads on The Chronicle's forums dealing with family issues, especially those titled some variation of "toxic relatives," you will get a good sense that, no matter how bad relations are with your own family, others have it worse. The commenters who seem most at peace are those who have accepted that you can't win over everybody all the time. Cousin Bob will always stay Cousin Bob. The friend from high school who is convinced that being a professor is a pointless and lazy escape from "real work" will always think that.

Holidays, while bringing you up close and personal with your defenders, will also expose you to the chronic naysayers. An alternative to fighting back is just to not bother.

Unless you enjoy getting into verbal sparring with Cousin Bob types, let them speak their piece and pass the gravy while mentally editing your literature review. At the end of the day the old wisdom is true: Someone can only upset you if you let them. So why let them?

Build Family 2.0 ... if you must. An assistant professor once told me that his solution to a family that "continually tries to bring me down" is to see them as little as possible. Try not to judge someone else's family dynamics in such cases. Trite aphorisms—like "never give up on your family"—should be left to Hollywood movies.

I know quite a few academics who, as a last resort, have built Family 2.0, a network of friends and new loved ones who are supportive and encouraging, who shore them up and don't tear them down. If you feel that your natal family dynamic is dysfunctional, maybe it is time to consider celebrating Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Eid, or Festivus with a new clan at least some of the time.

Most families, whatever their culture or values, find a way to adjust to different lifestyle and career choices, even during the hectic holidays. But the early 21st-century tenure track is one of the toughest career pathways conceivable, and you deserve all the cheerleading you can find at home or elsewhere.

David D. Perlmutter is director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and a professor, Starch Faculty Fellow, and International Programs Faculty Fellow at the University of Iowa. He writes the Career Confidential advice column for The Chronicle. His book on promotion and tenure was published by Harvard University Press in 2010.

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