Thursday, March 20, 2008

My day in the big leagues

Professional athletes, it's pretty safe to say, are not "late bloomers." From the moment people like Bobby Orr, Alex Ovechkin, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Hank Aaron, Greg Maddux or Tony Gwynn picked up a hockey stick, baseball or basketball, they rolled over everyone in their path. For every one Michael Jordan who was cut by his high school basketball coach, five hundred others dominated their sport from their days in organized athletics.

And depending on the sport, most athletes reach their peak by around 30 or so, after which they're generally characterized by the sports media as "elder statesmen," "on the downside" or "playing remarkably well, considering they're getting long in the tooth." Pick almost any sport, and tell me if you've ever heard a sports commentator refer to a team where the players' average age is over 30 as "young." Gotta tell ya . . . it's not exactly uplifting to hear some sportscaster refer to a 33 year-old pitcher as "crafty" as opposed to "overpowering," or a 37 year-old left wing in hockey as getting by on his "smarts" because he can't keep up with the 25 year-olds who can blow by him at any given moment. Makes me feel about 173 years old.

I always find it mildly amusing when students say to me that I was probably a National Honor Society geek in high school or suppress a laugh when they learn that I played competitive baseball up until college or continue to slog around ice rinks, run, play music and bike at the ripe old age of 46. Professors, in the minds of many students, are career nerds, now simply grown-up versions of the eight year-old dork who took an interest in the mating habits of turtles while on a Cub Scout camping trip or enraptured the elementary school assembly with a passionate call to her classmates to combat the social construction of gender that leaves young girls confused and repressed. Whatever I may have been between the ages of 6 and 17, the last one out of the library wasn't one of them. So, no, I wasn't one of those high school kids working up an ulcer over whether to attend Duke without financial aid or take the full-ride to the University of Virginia. I don't remember studying for more than 30 minutes on any given day in high school, and that given day came about two or three times a year. Fortunately, I did well enough on the ACT or SAT -- I don't remember which one -- so that I didn't have to attend one of the third or fourth-tier state schools in Georgia, like Georgia Southern University, which welcomed me during the fall of my high school senior year to the class of 1983, even though I never applied.

I thought about all this as I finished preparing a talk late last night and early this morning I was invited to give several months ago at Harvard. Even now, as I sit in the airport waiting for my flight back to Washington, I have no idea how the professor who invited me up found me or why I was asked to speak on a topic that many, many other scholars are much more qualified to speak about about than me. Even more harrowing was the audience that awaited me when I entered the seminar room. Two endowed chairs from the Harvard Law School, whose work encouraged me to structure an earlier book of mine the way I did, were present. They were very polite and looked far less imposing than I imagined they would. If I knew that either one had been invited to my talk I would have stayed home or developed some mysterious illness that required a 24 period of isolation. A well-respected professor from the Divinity School was there, as was the Chair of the Department of Government. Less well-known scholars were also there, as were a few graduate students, all of whom knew more about, it seemed, what I was talking about than I did.

After spending an evening and the better part of a day talking with people who are much smarter and accomplished than I am, I gave myself a bit of advice I sometimes give other people who overestimate their own abilities: there is good, and there is good. American University is a good school that might, in my professional lifetime, become a very good school if . . . if the administrators that make most of the decisions about what we do and how we do it ever learned to value the opinions of faculty and educators from outside the university with good ideas. American is a very insular place that is oligarchic in structure. Decisions are made at the top and then floated below, where, depending how far below you are on the bureaucratic totem pole, your opinion might matter but, most likely, it will not. Professors like me who have opinions on matters academic and organizational that aren't altogether bad tend to give up after awhile. Banging your head against a wall will, no matter how hard your head, leave you with a migraine or concussion. You reach a point where you decide that your time is better invested elsewhere, like working directly with your students or taking new chances in your intellectual development.

Harvard really is an amazing place. Just the three hours I spent in formal and informal conversation with the professors and students who came to hear me talk made me realize that a whole different world exists out there that is way beyond me. I'd be chewed up and spit out in three weeks if ever taught a class at Harvard, much less tried to build a career there. I've taught at American for 19 years as of this May. In that 19 years, I've been promoted and tenured, and then promoted to full professor. But, other than the school-wide (not university-wide) award I received in 1993 for "excellence in teaching," I have never received a formal award from my department, school or university for teaching, research or service. A few years ago, I was nominated by my school for the university's scholar-teacher of the year award but I didn't receive it. Strangely enough, I didn't receive either the school's teaching or research awards that year. Worse, an announcement went out university wide and to AU alumni that I had been named the SPA Scholar-Teacher of the Year, only to find out two days later, after I had received congratulations from a few colleagues and students past and present that the announcement was a "mistake." No such award existed. I had been nominated for the university-wide award, which, as I mentioned I did not win. That was my closest, and probably last, brush with fame at my university. I have enjoyed my 19 years at American, a period in which I have grown a lot and learned a lot. But my labors have been mostly anonymous, and my professional interests have grown increasingly eclectic and off the beaten path so that I am equally invisible in my professional discipline.

You know what, though? It's all good or, as a musician-friend of mine likes to say, "it's all groove." My students are, for the overwhelmingly part, great; my band is going to record some tracks soon for a possible CD; I am in good health, and my family is gorgeous, hilarious, crazy, argumentative, frustrating and perfect. This week, I became the Crash Davis of academia -- a career minor-leaguer who got the call from the big leagues, even though it was barely long enough to finish my coffee, to speak to people smarter than me at the finest and most famous university in the world. No, I don't expect to go back nor do I expect that invitations like this will become a regular part of my life. Still, for a public school kid whose mind thirty years ago was everywhere except where it was supposed to be, those few hours earlier today will be something I'll always remember.


Anne said...

Professor Ivers:

I was introduced to your blog by a link (I forget where)to your post about Ugg boots and Northface jackets at Starbucks and have been reading your stuff pretty regularly since then.

I graduated from Kogod in 1996.

While I never managed to take one of your classes, you regularly remind me of why I loved AU. And why, upon graduation, I rolled my eyes, took a deep breath and walked away, never to contribute to the Alumni Fund.

Here's hoping the new president makes an effort to engage the faculty in some kind of dialogue before a new course is set. But until then, best of luck in the classroom. I hope you can turn around the Uggesses, before they become Burberry Moms.

Carlos said...

"That was my closest, and probably last, brush with fame at my university."

I have to disagree. Your reputation is legendary among students. To some you're the asshole that hated them, to others you're the best damn thing that ever happened to academia.

Jeremy said...

Less well-known scholars were also there, as were a few graduate students, all of whom knew more about, it seemed, what I was talking about than I did.

Really? This is coming from the man who refuses to discuss grades with students because there is no way they can know more about the subject in a few weeks than he does.

Jeremy said...

I got an e-mail today about the candidates for provost. Maybe you got the same one. Any one in particular you favor? Maybe they'll finally start asking the faculty for their opinions?