09 October 2009

A Nobel Laureate and a Full Professor

Barack's daughters mentioned the Nobel Prize, the family dog's birthday and the upcoming long weekend in the same sentence. Not bad for kids who haven't even finished their first decade.

So why am I mentioning it? Because I'm going to talk about winning the Nobel Peace Prize and academic titles in the same breath, for essentially the same reasons Sasha and Malia made their breathless utterance.

Yesterday, I was talking--well, I had an exchange, to be more precise--with another prof in my department. She once held a couple of fairly prominent positions, but she essentially missed a couple of years due to an "illness" and is probably--or should be--very grateful she has tenure. Of that latter fact she let me know in no uncertain terms. I forget why, exactly, but she made it known.

Then somehow another professor's name came up in relation to a sort of academic blood feud that sometimes boils over at departmental meetings. She talked about some of the strange things this other professor--whom I tried to, but never could, like--did and got away with. "I guess she has tenure, too," I commented.

"She's a full professor," she reminded me in a bellowing intonation.

I probably should have known that. But, really, I don't pay attention to such things. I know who the President, provost and deans of the college are. I also know my department chair and the chairs of most other departments. And I know that a couple of profs have been teaching there since the day the college opened, and a couple of others for almost that long. But other than that, I really don't know who has the higher or lower stature among the faculty. And, truth be told, I don't much care. I talk to people for my own reasons, not because of their titles or status.

You might say that I'm not impressed by very many people. I am willing and learning to love; I am bound to care, but I have little or no reason to be in awe. And I have never done well in situations in which I was supposed to be impressed with someone because of his or her credentials or because someone else said I should be in the thrall of that person.

I'm not some kid feigning the insouciance of her elders. Kids (or adults) who do that are merely insolent. Rather, I have seen that giving someone respect simply for his or her title, or withholding said respect for lack of said credentials, is no different than judging someone for the color of his or her skin, or for any number of other external characteristics.

Actually, I feel I'm rather like Sasha and Malia who respect and admire their father for winning the Nobel Prize even if they don't quite know what it is. But. at the same time, they're only but so impressed, and are so to the degree that they are only because the announcement of his winning the prize came, from so many commentators, in tones that bordered on the reverential. So all those girls know is that their daddy did something that much of the world admires. They do, too, but to them, it's no more important than their dog or weekend.

The first time I saw those kids, I knew they were smart. They haven't disabused me of that notion.