In 1978, Vivian Gornick wrote an article in The Nation on her semester-long experience as visiting professor at Yale. It’s a forgotten little classic of campus manners and mores that in many respects still rings true today. It’s been mostly inaccessible on the internet, but thanks to the heroic labors of my colleague Karl Steel, it’s been salvaged from that dustbin of history otherwise known as the digital archive of The Nation.
The article details a litany of sexist and boorish behavior from the male faculty, including one appalling incident of physical and verbal harassment, but it also captures a more general atmosphere of anti-intellectual puffery (“Poker is not a thing to kid about”) and antediluvian anxiety that I recognize from my grad school days in the 1990s. It may be 1978, but it feels like 1958:
At my table sat Whitcomb, myself, the sole other woman, and four other men. They were, variously, teachers of art, biology, history and sociology. I do not recall the substance of the conversation. What I do remember is this: the level of the talk was that of an insurance salesman’s—ranging from pure banality to low-grade shop talk—but the tone in which all remarks were delivered was exquisitely courteous: measured, moderate, State Department-civilized. The effect was uncanny: it was as though a package TV dinner was being eaten off the finest china, with heirloom silver and cut crystal.
My favorite part of the piece, the reason it has stuck with me all these years, is the concluding paragraph: a wonderful vignette about a conversation Gornick has with a non-tenured historian whose husband is a tenured professor in sociology.
Ruth Richards drove me to the station. As we sat in her car waiting for my train to come in she leaned back in her seat, lit a cigarette, then turned to me and said: “You know what keeps this whole thing going? What allows them to take themselves so seriously, and still go on behaving like this? It’s guys like my husband. My husband is a good man, a kind and gentle man, comes from a poor home, fought his way to the top. And he’s smart. Very, very smart. But you know? In spite of all that, and in spite of everything he knows, every morning of his life he wakes up, goes to the bathroom, starts to shave, and as he’s looking at himself in the mirror, somewhere inside of him a voice is saying: ‘Jesus Christ. I’m at Yale.’”
Same as it ever was.