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!

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