Post Academic


Speaking of Homi Bhabha: When academic celebs disappoint you…

Posted in Absurdities,First Person by Arnold Pan on May 14, 2010
Tags: , ,

"The sad clown" by steenslag (Creative Commons license)

No, we really don’t mean for this to be “Mock Homi Bhabha Friday”, but Caroline’s post reminded me of a personal interaction I had with the inimitable postcolonialist back in my first year of grad school, maybe even on this very day in May 1998.  It was one of the first cases for me that I was conscious of a celeb (at least in my geeky world) disappointing me–though maybe it wasn’t as bad as when Yo La Tengo forgot that my friend Mike and I got them an extra guitar strap after one of theirs had broken during a show, only to have them disavow what happened by saying that it would’ve been something they would’ve remembered!

But really, my disappointment in Bhabha has a lot more to say about me than it does about him.  Here’s what happened: Bhabha had been invited to give a theory lecture that wasn’t the Welleks.  The talk itself was somewhat incomprehensible, but I chalked it up to me being a first year grad student–well, that’s probably half the reason.  After the lecture, faculty members I had taken a theory seminar with invited me and some of my friends over to a potluck in honor of our esteemed visitor, which we were excited to go to and probably a bit puffed up to be chosen to attend.  We drove over to the faculty members’ home after getting something for the potluck, eager for the event as only the uninitiated and earnest often are.  Here comes disappointment, below the fold…

We got there a little early, so it was basically just a few of us younger grad students, the hosts, a few faculty, and the guest of honor.  Feeling both brave and the urge to be a proper host, I tried to engage Homi Bhabha in some small talk, which ended up being really awkward.  When we had even more nothing to say to one another, our convo quickly devolved into banalities about his flight and travel plans.  Though you’d think it would’ve been a golden opportunity to schmooze about whatever it is a famous intellectual and a dime-a-dozen grad student would, I was probably as happy as he was when we each found someone else to talk to.  However, I would say I couldn’t help but notice that he was much more charming and interested in talking to one of my young grad student friends, whom I think he even pecked on the cheek, giving me and my colleagues inferiority complexes ever since!

So how did this academic celebrity disappoint me, beyond the obvious–that my brilliant-ness as a diamond-in-the-rough grad student wasn’t somehow obvious to him?  Again, this says more about me than him, but I came to a not-so-profound realization that academics, even celebrities and giants, aren’t all that interesting to talk to if you really share nothing in common with them, which is likely.  Occasions like these probably shaped my mentality the way it is now, as a nervous chit-chatter and a horrible networker. But I also learned that, once I could get past the mortifying embarrassment of failed banter, I had pretty good psychic defense mechanisms for dealing with disappointment–and you’d better if you’ve had the kind of interviews I’ve had applying for academic jobs!

It’s moments like these that got me used to being forgotten on each of the 4 occasions I was re-introduced to the same kind-of-but-not-that-much-of-a-superstar from my alma mater, who is always very nice every time we meet for the first time.  Or when I tried to get a very esteemed person to sponsor me for something, only to be blown off more than a few times because s/he was either too nice or too passive-aggressive to say no the first time, which started to make me feel stalker-ish.  And then how I ran into this very same person in an elevator at MLA as s/he was going to conduct an interview, while I, unshowered and disheveled, was returning to my room on the same floor after getting my morning coffee.

In the end, though, it’s not like you can get upset that academic celebs forget or feel a little squeamish around their grad student admirers, considering that they’re bombarded with interactions like these and ones even more intrusive all the time.  Plus, there’s no need for us to feel mortified, cause it’s not like they’ll remember it anyway!  And I guess there is a good case to be made for trying to meet people and not be misanthropic: For every one of the disappointments, there have probably been more pleasant surprises, like faculty from other schools becoming actual friends and advisors, chaired profs who unsolicitedly offer to sponsor my projects, and semi-strangers who go out of their way to provide self-effacing encouragement.  That does happen and more often than you’d think, but maybe those stories probably aren’t entertaining as the embarrassing ones.

So tell us, anonymously of course, about your most embarrassing academic celeb stalker moments!  Who has disappointed you and/or surprised you, and how?

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3 Responses to 'Speaking of Homi Bhabha: When academic celebs disappoint you…'

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  1. annieem said,

    I keep checking back to see if anyone has posted their “most embarrassing academic celeb stalker moments”—but, alas, no one has commented. I suspect there’s a fear, even if one is anonymous, of being found out?

    Too bad: I was hoping to read about some good horror stories!

    • Arnold Pan said,

      Maybe we need someone to break the ice, annieem! But if no one wants to, I’ll try to come up with some more of my own, besides some mortifying interview stories of mine.

      Or if anyone has been tempted to post, but wants anonymity, contact us at our email account (listed in the right column) and we’ll compile them. Just nothing really sketchy or potentially slanderous, OK?

  2. Arnold Pan said,

    If you’re looking for an academic horror story, here’s one we posted before–“Inappropriate academic interview #1”.


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