Friday, January 29, 2010

January 29

I am writing this on Friday afternoon at the end of the first week of spring semester classes. Well, I found out what Shivvy’s surprise for me was. Unfortunately, it was not a good one.

Without telling me she was going to do so, she enrolled in Briggs’s introductory international relations class for which I am the TA. I didn’t notice her among the large number of undergrads attending the first lecture session (I was concentrating on listening to Briggs). I could not help but notice her, though, in my first discussion section where she was one of the (rather surprisingly to me) few students who showed up. It was very embarrassing because she kept making flippant remarks while I was trying to foster a serious intellectual dialogue. In this crucial first discussion session when it was essential for me to establish my credibility with the mainly freshmen and sophomores in the class, Shivvy seemed to be going out of her way to undermine my authority. She was treating my discussion section as one big joke!

She approached me afterward saying that her enrolling in this class was her surprise and asked me how I liked it.

“I’m afraid I don’t like it at all,” I responded. “You have put me in a very embarrassing situation!”

“Just because I teased you a little?” she asked. “I was just trying to get you to relax. You seemed so uptight!”

“I didn’t appreciate your disruptive behavior,” I told her, “but that’s not the main problem.”

“Then what is?” she asked, finally sensing that I was genuinely upset.

I explained to her that the university’s code of conduct strictly prohibited sexual relationships between students on the one hand and professors and TA’s on the other. “I can either be your boyfriend or your TA, but not both simultaneously.”

She appeared shocked to hear this. “But we began our relationship before you became a TA!” she insisted. “It’s not like you’re using your position of authority to take advantage of me!”

I tried to explain to her that it wasn’t just the reality of our specific relationship that was important here, but also its appearance to others as well as the principle that must be upheld.

“What you and I do together is private! Our relationship is nobody else’s God damned business!” she practically shouted.

I then explained to her that our relationship was, in fact, the university’s business since she was a student in a class for which I was a TA. The only way around the problem, I suggested, was for her to drop the class and take it again when somebody else was the TA for it.

“I can’t drop it!” she responded. “I was supposed to take it a year ago, but I waited until somebody other than Michael the Rat was the TA! It’s a pre-requisite for a lot of other classes. You’re probably going to be the TA for it next fall too, and I can’t wait until spring semester of my senior year when somebody else will be the TA.

“Besides,” she added, “Why should I drop it to stay with you? Why don’t you quit as TA to stay with me? Weren’t you going to be a TA for Trizenko anyway? You could switch!”

I asked her to please be reasonable and consider my position. Briggs was the professor I wanted to write my dissertation with while Trizenko was not. After accepting Briggs’s offer to be his TA, it would severely damage my relationship with him to back out of it now that the semester had begun. “Besides,” I added, “I want to have the experience of being a TA for Briggs.”

Shivvy suggested that since she was unwilling to drop the class and I was unwilling to step down as its TA, then maybe we should just try to keep our relationship secret both from Briggs and the other students in the class. “It would be exciting,” she said enthusiastically, “to be having a clandestine affair!”

Much as I hated to, I had to nix this idea. “It wouldn’t work. Too many people know about us. And if the authorities found out that not only were we having a sexual relationship, but that we were trying to keep it secret, my career in academia would be ruined.”

“So then we won’t try to keep it a secret!” she replied. “We’ll acknowledge our relationship openly! That’s what I’d rather do anyway, and I don’t see what would be wrong with that. The system has to have a little give in it that takes human relationships into account.”

I told her that I wished she was right, really I did, but that unfortunately she was not. “Here’s the problem,” I said. “I’m going to be grading the work you do for Briggs’s class. There’s not a living soul who’s going to think that our having sex wouldn’t influence the way I grade you.”

“So don’t grade me!” she said. “Explain the situation to Briggs and ask him to grade my work while you grade everyone else’s. It wouldn’t hurt him just to grade my stuff alone, would it?”

This wasn’t a bad solution, I thought. I told her that I’d check with Briggs and get back to her. “You do that!” she said and walked off in something of a huff.
Later that day, I went to Briggs’s office where I presented the problem to him along with Shivvy’s proposal that he grade her work directly. I could tell right away, though, that he was not pleased.

“It looks bad, Jonathan,” he told me, “for everyone to know that a professor or a TA has a girlfriend in class. Even if I graded her work—or someone else did entirely—the other students aren’t going to believe that she’s not getting special treatment.

“No, Jonathan,” he continued, “I think you’re going to have to choose between being a TA and continuing your relationship with this girl. And I would certainly understand if you chose the latter. But I need to know now before we proceed any further into the semester.”

For a second, it crossed my mind that he just didn’t want to go to the bother of grading Shivvy’s assignments himself. But then I realized that Briggs was too humane a guy to think anything like this—especially when he, like Shivvy, suggested that she just postpone taking the class until next spring when someone else would be his TA.

I explained how she needed to take the class now, and how I really wanted to be the TA for it. He shook his head, and said, “Well, I really don’t see any way for you to avoid having a conflict of interest except to put your relationship with her on hold.” Then he winked and said, “At least until the end of the semester.”

I told him I would remain his TA and that I would follow his advice. As I got up to leave, he said, “You know, I almost wish you hadn’t told me about this girl. Now that you have, though, I felt bound to give you this advice, even though I know it’s unpleasant. I just don’t want you to risk jeopardizing your career before it’s even begun.”

As sad as I felt about Shivvy, it was comforting to know that Briggs was so concerned about me. I called Shivvy that night in her dorm room to tell her what Briggs had said and suggest that we follow his advice about putting our relationship on hold until the end of the semester.

“I can’t believe this!” she practically shouted. “Did you ask his permission as to whether I could be your girlfriend? You were supposed to just tell him what the situation is, and that he would simply have to grade my assignments instead of you!”

I told her that it was impossible to speak in such a manner to Briggs. Besides, it wasn’t like we were breaking up or anything. We were just putting things on hold until mid-May, and surely that wasn’t all that far away.

“What makes you think I’ll wait until May for you to finish playing Mr. Simon Pure?” she asked sarcastically. “You’re not the only guy out there interested in me.”

I told her that I still thought of her as my girlfriend and that I’d hope she’d wait, but that, clearly, the choice was hers.

“This makes no sense!” she exclaimed. “If you think of me as your girlfriend, then how does our not having sex make you more objective about grading my assignments? If you are emotionally attached to me, then it seems to me that you cannot grade my assignments objectively even if we don’t have sex. And if that’s true, then we may as well have sex since the emotional attachment is still there!”

This conversation, I told her, wasn’t getting us anywhere. I said that in order to protect both our professional reputations, I hoped she would join me in following Briggs’s advice. In the meantime, I thought that she should come over and collect all her stuff. She said she’d only do it if I agreed to take her to dinner tomorrow and have a serious discussion about the future of our relationship. That’s what I thought we had been doing, but I agreed to meet with her tomorrow—Saturday. What else could I do?

All this has not only been extremely distracting, but also very, very distressing emotionally. But as painful as the decision I had to make about Shivvy was, I feel some consolation in knowing that my future biographers who read this will undoubtedly conclude that my behavior during this episode has met the very highest ethical and professional standards.

Friday, January 22, 2010

January 22

I am writing this entry on the Friday before the start of spring semester classes here at Charles—exactly five weeks since my last entry. I realize that getting just a summary report on my intellectual development over such a long period will not be as useful to my future biographers as weekly or even biweekly ones. The truth of the matter, though, is that I don’t think I’ve experienced all that much intellectual development over this period. Well, that’s not really true, of course. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that not all that much has happened for me to report on in weekly installments. In any event, I fully intend to get back to making more regular entries during the upcoming semester.

I went back to Barstow for a little less than two weeks right after fall semester finals. It was great to see Mom and Dad again, of course, but it was also a little hard. They’re just not in my intellectual league. Of course, they weren’t in it even when I was at Cal State Barstow. But things were different then: even though I lived in the dorms, I saw them fairly regularly and we were used to each other. Since coming to Charles, though, I hadn’t seen them for over four months. And now we really aren’t used to each other any more.

I know they were really trying hard to communicate with me. They kept asking me questions like what I thought about American foreign policy toward China or how I assessed the latest developments in the Middle East. They didn’t understand that I wasn’t studying these sorts of issues or that I wasn’t interested in them. “So what are you studying?” they kept asking. I tried to explain neo-radicalism and its importance, but they just couldn’t get it. “What kind of job will that get you?” they kept asking.

In discussing the classes I took last term, the one that appealed to them the most was the one I had with Trizenko. “Now that sounds interesting!” they said. They just didn’t understand how low on the political science totem poll are descriptivist courses like this one. I tried to explain, but they just couldn’t comprehend it. Yes, it really is tough when you’ve outdistanced your parents intellectually to the extent that I have with mine.

The best part of being back in Barstow was hanging out with my old professor, Brendan Cohen. I remember being slightly embarrassed to be seen with him at the International Relations Association conference back in September. Seeing him here, though, was fine. Indeed, I was quite pleased that he made such a fuss over me this time—when Briggs and my fellow grad students weren’t around to witness it. I even had him come over to dinner with my folks. I think they felt reassured by his telling him that my focus on neo-radicalism was “cutting edge,” but even he couldn’t make them understand what it was all about.

I noticed one thing funny in talking with him. I knew that Charles, like Harvard and M.I.T., was an incredibly prestigious university before I enrolled there. But when I was actually there last semester, it just seemed normal. In fact, even taking a class at Harvard seemed fairly ordinary to me after the first week or so. But to Brendan, my having done all this was really exalted. I think this was because while I had entered this elite world, Brendan could only look at it from the outside. Indeed, I was his closest link to the Cambridge world which I knew he wanted so much to be a part of.

I felt sorry for him. As a result, I ended up agreeing to something that I later sort of wished I hadn’t. Brendan told me he had recently received word that he would be getting a sabbatical—his first one—from Cal State Barstow next year. The way it worked, he explained to me, at Barstow as well as most other colleges was that you could either take one semester off at full pay or two semesters at half pay. He, of course, would prefer to take two semesters off, but couldn’t afford to live on half salary for a year. The only way he could do it, then, is if he managed to get sufficient outside funding to cover the other half of his salary. But whether he could only take one semester off or two, he was hoping to come to Cambridge next year as a guest scholar at either Harvard, M.I.T., Charles, or wherever.

These guest scholarships, he told me, were designed for people on sabbatical. They provided office space, library privileges, and an affiliation, but usually no money. Even so, getting one was highly competitive, since everyone in our field with a sabbatical wanted to spend it in Cambridge. In order to get one, he said, you had to have connections—and he didn’t. What he was hoping, then, was to visit Cambridge during Cal State Barstow's upcoming spring break to introduce himself around. But as usual, he was low on funds.

What would really be great, he told me, is if he could be invited to give a lecture somewhere in Cambridge that week by an institution willing to give him an airline ticket and maybe even cover a couple of nights in a hotel. He was wondering, then, if I could ask Briggs to get him an invitation to speak at Charles that week. “But if doing this would be at all awkward for you,” Brendan added, “just tell me and I’ll try to figure something else out. I wouldn’t dream of putting you in an embarrassing situation.”

It was a couple of nights before my flight back to Boston and Brendan was treating me to a dinner at the best Mexican restaurant in Barstow. I’d gone to a few Mexican restaurants in the Boston area with Shivvy, but they were not nearly as good as the ones in southern California. Maybe it was the effect of the excellent food and a couple of cervezas, or maybe it was because Brendan’s request made me feel important. In any event, I heard myself tell him, “I’ll see what I can do. I’ll bring it up with Barry when I see him.”

Brendan thanked me profusely. At the time, I felt like a real big shot. Once I got back to Cambridge, though, I regretted having agreed to pass on Brendan’s request to Prof. Briggs. Why couldn’t Brendan just ask him directly? Perhaps sensing that I would get cold feet, Brendan sent me a couple of e-mail messages thanking me in advance for passing on his request to Briggs, commenting that Briggs was sure to accept my recommendation that he be invited to Charles as a guest speaker.

I wasn’t so certain, but it turns out Brendan was right. I didn’t see Briggs until today when he had me meet with him about what all he wanted me to do as a TA for his introductory international relations class this coming semester. (Basically, I’m to attend his lectures so I know what he’s telling the students, hold a weekly discussion section for students wanting to discuss the material, keep my regularly posted office hours, and do all the grading—subject to his approval.)
When I put it to him about Brendan coming to speak in the Political Science Department’s lecture series, Briggs surprised me by responding, “Sure, Jonathan. I owe you one for stepping into the breach after Doug defected to Gates on me. And for helping with Angie’s move. I remember meeting Cohen at the IRA conference.”

He said his one concern was that Cal State Barstow’s spring break would coincide with our own, when everyone would be away. But a quick check on the internet revealed that it did not. He took Brendan’s contact information from me and said that he’d have someone in the department office take care of it all. Later on this afternoon, I e-mailed Brendan with the good news that Briggs said he’d arrange an invitation for him, including airfare, two nights in a hotel, and even an honorarium! I got an e-mail back from him almost immediately, thanking me ecstatically. It felt good to be influential enough to help him out.

There’s not much else to report about the break. It’s basically been cold and lonely since I got back from California—except for a couple of fun days I spent hanging out with Shivvy before she flew off to Barbados for her January intersession course.

For the benefit of my future biographers, I should further describe the paper I was finishing up for Saltz at Harvard when I wrote my last entry. As I mentioned before, it was a critique of the Briggsian approach to international security. I was able to draw on part of the senior thesis I wrote at Barstow for it, but I also added a lot of fresh material since I didn’t really consider international security issues in the thesis. Saltz liked it, but I know Briggs wouldn’t. Fortunately, Briggs will never see it, as I have no intention of showing it to him. Cohen was right to caution me against showing him any critiques of his work before knowing him better. And now that I do, I know that it would definitely rub him the wrong way—which is something I want to avoid.

Shivvy called a few minutes ago. She got back from Barbados today. She said she’d be coming back to campus tomorrow afternoon with, as she put it, “my brown, Barbados bod!” She also said that she had a little surprise for me coming up next week, but she wouldn’t tell me what it is just yet. God, I can’t wait to see her!