Tuesday, March 23, 2010

March 26

I am writing this on Friday evening. This week just after spring break has been pure hell. It seemed like it would never end. But with the departure of Brendan Cohen back to Barstow, it finally has.

It started well enough when I met him at the airport last Saturday. We had a nice talk coming in on the T and during dinner at a cheap restaurant we went to which we found near his budget hotel (as always, he was low on funds). I had to admire his energy: not only was he giving the talk at Charles on Tuesday afternoon that I had arranged, but he had succeeded in having himself invited to give two talks at Harvard (one at the Center for International Affairs, the other at the Center for Science and International Affairs) as well as one each at the M.I.T. Center of International Studies, Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and somewhere or other at Boston University, Boston College, and even Northeastern University (which is truly the low man on the academic totem pole around here). He had also arranged some appointments with whomever he could in all these various places to talk about the possibility of his spending his sabbatical as a guest scholar. He hoped to make more such appointments over the course of the week.
He told me all about the financial arrangements he had made: a few were covering his hotel bill for a night while others (including Harvard) were not paying anything. “I don’t mind with Harvard,” he said, “since I consider myself lucky to wangle two invitations to speak there at all.” Cal State Barstow was not providing anything either since he’d spent his annual $500 travel allowance coming out to the IRA conference last September. He had flown in on the Saturday to get a lower fare, and would fly out the following Friday (today) since he really couldn’t afford to stay here for two weekends.

It soon became clear that he had assumed that I would spend the next day, Sunday, showing him around and that I would be going with him to his other talks. Our conversation started to grow a little testy when I informed him that I could do neither since I had so much work to do. Luckily, though, he seemed to realize that he was imposing on me and backed down. Feeling a little awkward, I invited him to come by my place Sunday evening for a little grad student fare, which he accepted.

I spent all Sunday catching up on my own work and was taken a bit by surprise when Brendan came by earlier than I had invited him for. I hadn’t had time to go to the store, so we dined on what I had: frozen fish sticks and ketchup. At least he brought a six-pack of some light beer with him; not my favorite, but I had none left myself.

The conversation was desultory. He told me how cool the weather was here compared to Barstow. I told him that it seemed warm compared to what it had been like only a few weeks ago. He told me about where all he had gone site-seeing today (as if I cared). I told him how I had fallen behind on my own work helping out with Briggs’s manuscript last week. He got really excited at this and pleaded with me to tell him all about it. I said that I’d really like to, but couldn’t due to professional ethics. He seemed shocked at my saying this, but all I could tell him was that the book should be out by the IRA conference this coming September, and that he could see it then along with everyone else.

He left soon afterward, obviously miffed. He even took the two bottles of beer we hadn’t drunk with him. He called me late the next evening, though, all full of enthusiasm over how well his talk had gone at Harvard CSIA in the morning and at M.I.T. in the afternoon. He had even had lunch with somebody-or-other from the former and dinner with somebody-else from the latter (neither of whose name rang a bell with me). He said he had a shot at being a guest scholar at both next year, but still had to talk to a few more people at each. I wished him luck and said that I was looking forward to seeing him tomorrow at Charles.

The next day, Briggs dutifully announced in class that “Jonathan’s old professor” would be giving a talk today during my discussion section. He urged everyone to show up, saying “something just might be on the final about it.” I knew he was joking, but the undergrads must have taken him seriously since they turned out in force that afternoon. I was a little surprised since I had never had so many show up in the discussion section just for me. In addition to the undergrads (among whom, of course, was Shivvy), there were several others, including Prof. Asquith, Michael, Lisa, and even Angie. Angie sat next to me in one of the student desks. I felt odd sitting in one instead of standing up front, but Briggs said he’d introduce Brendan and would moderate the session—which turned out to be an unmitigated disaster.

I don’t know what got into him, but Brendan’s talk was basically a critique of Briggs’s old book. Nobody else in the room knew it, but his presentation was essentially a summarization of the senior thesis that I had written for him! I couldn’t believe he would do something so stupid and unprofessional! And how could he be so rude as to critique Briggs after Briggs had, at my request, arranged for him to speak here?

I was too upset to make any comment when Brendan finally shut up and the Q&A session began. Michael, though, tore into him like a rotwiler, pointing out where his critique had “failed to grasp the complexity of Briggs’s argument” in his old book as well as where it was “outmoded” since Briggs had already dealt with similar critiques in his new book. Michael, it was clear, was very familiar with the new book.

A few others joined Michael’s bandwagon and made scathing remarks, but Michael, who had worked himself up into a righteous fury, was the star of the show. Brendan was completely taken aback and did not know how to respond. He tried to lighten the mood with the sort of witticisms that went over well with students back at Barstow, but they fell completely flat here. He kept looking over at me in what appeared to be an appeal for help, but I looked away each time.

Briggs himself just sat back and smiled throughout the entire session, especially during the Q&A part. He didn’t say one word in defense of his ideas; he didn’t have to, since Michael was doing it for him. Briggs finally spoke up to say that the session had to end now. He said that Brendan had raised some very interesting points (“No, he really did,” said Briggs in response to derisive laughter from Michael and others), but that he had already dealt with them all in his new book.

“You might want to have a look at it first in case you’re thinking of trying to publish what you said here,” Briggs said condescendingly to Brendan. This was followed by more derisive laughter. “And let me just end,” he added, “by thanking Jonathan here for arranging for you to come and talk.” Much to my embarrassment, the derisive laughter was then aimed at me. Michael sneered at me openly. Even Shivvy looked at me with open disgust.

Afterward, I really wanted to give Brendan a piece of my mind for having lifted what I had written in my senior thesis for his talk here, but didn’t want to do so in front of Briggs, Michael, and everybody else since that would have been an admission that all his arguments—which had just been punctured here—were really mine. Brendan himself was clearly embarrassed. “I guess that didn’t go over too well, did it, Jonathan?” he asked sheepishly.

Before I could answer, he said, “I’m afraid I can’t stay and talk. I’ve got to rush over to M.I.T. and meet somebody. I’ll get in touch with you later.” He was gone before I could tell him not to bother.

The room then emptied out quickly. Briggs, Asquith, Michael and a few others all went out together, laughing. Nobody said anything to me except Angie. “This was no reflection on you, Jonathan. I know Barry thinks highly of your work. Don’t give it another thought.” I thanked her and then practically ran out of the room myself. I was afraid I might break down and cry on her shoulder otherwise. I certainly wanted to.

Luckily, nobody came to see me during my office hours afterward—except Shivvy. She was in high spirits, rubbing it in about Brendan. “Wasn’t that the great Professor Cohen—the best of Barstow—whom you told me so much about? What a total loser! And I used to believe it when you told me how terrific he was!”

After getting tired of this line of attack, her voice turned cold as she said, “I know who it is you’re fucking now. It’s that little Southern simp, Angie, isn’t it?”

I told her that she was being outrageous. “I saw how you two were talking just now!” she shot back. “And a lot of people have told me that you and she seem to have spent the entire spring break together in the library and Briggs’s office. Jesus, Jonathan! Were you two so hot for each other that you couldn’t even go over to your apartment? You had to do it right there in his office? What if you’d been caught?”

I told her that we had been working together on Briggs’s manuscript at Briggs’s request, but she was incredulous. “Just be careful, Jonathan,” she said as she finally left. “Briggs will castrate you if he thinks you’re poaching on his private preserve.” God, what a bitch!

I got a phone call from Brendan last night. He started cheerily telling me, as if nothing at all had happened, how well his talks had gone elsewhere and that he thought he really had a shot at becoming a guest scholar at the Fletcher School. They might even pay him for teaching a class as an adjunct, but had asked for him to have, among others, a former student write a letter of recommendation for him. He said that, of course, he thought of me for this.

That’s when I let him have it. I chewed him out royally for having embarrassed the hell out of me by giving such a lousy presentation at Charles. I also said that I’d never thought he would have stooped to plagiarizing material from my senior thesis—and then to present this stolen material in a presentation that I myself attended. Did he think I wouldn’t notice?

He was stunned by this. At first, he started apologizing for embarrassing me. But then he started to go on about how much of what I wrote in my senior thesis were really ideas I had gotten from him both in class and our private discussions.

This made me so furious that I cut him off, saying, “Look, you asshole, I can’t carry you any more! I tried to help you as much as I could, and you embarrassed the hell out of me! You did enough damage this past week! I’m certainly not going to write any letter of recommendation for you so you can come back and do even more next year!”

I then slammed down the phone and turned off the ringer in case he tried to call back. In fact, the next morning I discovered that there was a voice mail message from him expressing shock at what I’d said after everything he’d done for me. I deleted it before the end.

To paraphrase a saying that I think was made up about somebody else from somewhere else: “You can take the boy out of Barstow, but you can’t take Barstow out of the boy.” That about sums up Brendan. It’s his own damn fault that I had to get rid of him like that. However useful he may have once been to me, I’ve clearly moved way beyond his league. Someone in my position just can’t afford to be dragged down by a loser like that. I had to do what I had to do.

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