Friday, July 11, 2014

Home Alone: University Towns And Christmas

Published on  DEC.12.2013 

 In the small Midwestern university town where we attended graduate school the dominant calendar was not Gregorian but Academic. Around December 18th our town became a ghost town— everyone disappeared. It was as though the town's sole reason for  being was its university. We were surprised to see that not only the undergraduates' dorms were empty, but all the American graduate students left  as well. Moreover, it was quite unsettling to discover that most of the faculty members went away on the last day of the semester.

At the beginning of the school year, one of my favorite lecturers, a young assistant professor, invited us to his home and showed us his study. It was a  scholar’s dream: beautifully lit, hardwood floor, bookshelves up to the ceiling, and next to them stood an elegant ladder, like the one you could see in old fashioned libraries, or in the movies. I remember thinking that he was the luckiest man on earth to have such a study. When I heard that he too left town during Christmas, I couldn’t fathom why  anyone who owned such a study would choose to spend the holiday away from it. Those two and a half weeks at the end of December seemed to me a perfect opportunity for doing lots of reading and writing in that exact study.

We spent our first Christmas in Columbia Missouri together with the other foreign students who could not go home; most of us did not celebrate Christmas. The locals stayed in town as well since this was their only home. At that time we  have been in the United  States less than six months, and watched the reality of our new life through the prism of our old culture. As universities in Israel were only in the cities, we were not familiar with the concept of a university town and the Academic calendar.

Two years later later my husband got a teaching position at the University of Iowa, another small university town. We already had our first baby and Iowa City was an ideal place to raise a family. But there too we found that the ruling calendar was the Academic one; every Christmas break, together with the students, our friends and colleagues left town .

It is clear why university students would go home to their families for the holidays, but I used to wonder why our faculty members fled away at the end of the semester. Today we often see people sitting together supposedly having a conversation, but instead of talking each checks his /her smart phone. It is as though they are in two places at the same time, emotionally they are not committed to being where they physically are.

I feel that this was the case with many young faculty members in those small  communities, they could not commit themselves to the town. They were devoted to their job, and had obligations to the institution, thus they gladly stayed there during the semester. But as they viewed their stay in town as temporary, they had no ties to the community: it was not their home, their “real” life was somewhere else.

At this time of the year I usually remember our Midwestern experience, we were also young but viewed both towns as our home, and also we had no where else to go. That was a while ago, I can only hope that today when it is much harder for PhD graduates to obtain a university position, they would regard the [small] town where they land a job as a prize rather than an exile.

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