How to be a better ‘senior scholar’

I’ve been meaning to write some version of this post for a couple of months, but the spring semester and then COVID-19 got in the way. I’ve been thinking since January that I need to think more carefully about what it means to be a ‘senior scholar.’ It’s a weird term, because I don’t consider myself ‘senior’ — I’m 45 44 years old — but when I was freaking out about getting a job, it was 2006-2008, which in academic terms is a lifetime ago. It’s sobering, and a bit sad (for me, I mean), to think that the students who are on the job market now (such as it is) were graduating from high school while I was desperately trying and mostly failing to convince search committees to give me a job.

The first time I realized that I was a weird old guy was in 2016, when I was on sabbatical and spent a spring semester in Athens. I was staying with my family in the northern suburbs of Athens and commuted on the Α7 bus down to the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, where I’d work in the library all day, eating lunch at Loring Hall. The place, and the pattern, reminded me of when I was a student, and I even felt like a student again. I tried to engage the students at the School over lunch. It was pretty awkward. Then I remembered when I was a student, and when rando old guys would show up in the middle of the academic year. I avoided those guys (i.e., guys like me) like the plague.


Loring Hall; we smoked a lot of cigarettes here in 2003-4

So there’s that kind of delusion, where senior scholars — let’s define them loosely as tenured professors, the scholars who have “made it,” whether they feel that way or not — forget their own position vis-a-vis the students surrounding them, in my case out of a weird and heady mix of nostalgia (I was a student at the School in 2003-2004) and a dumb and totally imagined self-image of myself as ‘young.’

There’s another kind of delusion, though, which is far more pernicious and damaging, in which the senior scholar decides that their position in the field is some kind of mark of merit, that they know best because they have “made it,” and that their job should be to “help” students and junior scholars (or maybe the field as a whole) not only by helping people they think are doing good work, but also by shutting down bad work. I’ve been thinking about this as “gatekeeping,” but I think that’s not quite right, although that’s terrible too. I’m talking about senior scholars who throw their weight around to compel less powerful members of the profession to “get it right,” and if their juniors won’t acquiesce, to shut them down.

I suspect that these senior scholars think that they’re doing the right thing. After all, as teachers, our job is to guide students, and ultimately to judge them with a letter grade.  If they apply to graduate school, we’ll have to write a letter of recommendation and we’ll have to carefully calibrate it to indicate to the readers what we really think of the student. It follows, maybe, that if we see a junior scholar (say, an advanced PhD or a pre-tenure but post-doctoral scholar) doing something that we think is wrong or maybe even misguided, we’re doing the right thing by telling that person that they’re wrong. And if we can’t help them, we can help the field by shutting down their research (which, after all, is wrong and therefore potentially damaging).

This is an insane way to think, although I think that I understand it — after all, we are trained as graduate students to be insanely critical of everything that we read, of poking holes in theories, of dismissing them as reductive or under-theorized. It gets more complicated when you start going to conferences and meeting some of the people whose work you’re reading, and finding out that they’re really interesting and smart… and nice. I took out a lot of mean-spirited critique out of some of the footnotes in my dissertation after a lovely conference in Rome. The earlier drafts of those footnotes were shameful; I’m still ashamed of them.

Anyway, I don’t want to be (or become) one of those senior scholars, and so I’ve been trying to come up with a list of things that I can remind myself of, so that I don’t act like a jerk. Here goes:

  1. Your first impression is often wrong. A famous Linear B scholar once told a group of us as graduate students that he was probably right about 10% of the time. He was okay with this awful batting average — although he’s a scrupulous scholar and probably bats well over the Mendoza line — and that’s a good attitude, I think. I’ve certainly misjudged people and situations and evidence and arguments a lot, and there’s no reason for me to think that I’m getting any better at this thing. In fact, I’m probably getting worse. Related to this:
  2. You often change your mind. There are a lot of ideas that I thought were absolutely stupid the first time I heard them and now I’m convinced that they’re right, or at the very least I’m not convinced that they’re wrong or stupid. I spent years trying to come up with good arguments against articles that I thought were dumb, only to conclude that they were right. (Once this process took me like 7 years). I’d like to think that it’s a good sign that I do change my mind — after all, I’m in a discipline that’s predicated on the practice of fieldwork, and if there were nothing that could change my mind then there’d literally be no point in doing fieldwork. (Incidentally, I think it’s really weird when I meet archaeologists who are committed to the idea that interpretations they came up with in the 1970s are still right. Why would you enter a field where the sands shift under your feet and then insist that the house you built on those sands is structurally sound 50 years later? Those people generally suck).
  3. Who the fuck are you? This, to me, is the main thing that senior scholars (especially men) need to be told, and constantly. I think it’s okay to be critical when that’s literally your job — when you’re teaching, or reviewing something — that’s what you’ve been asked to do. (Even there I need to be a bit more chill, but that’s a separate issue). But it’s a fucking awful thing to do, and a sign of real and inveterate arrogance, when you’re not being asked to do it by anyone. There’s no excuse for it, and it needs to be called out.

3 thoughts on “How to be a better ‘senior scholar’

  1. Pingback: Friday Varia and Quick Hits | Archaeology of the Mediterranean World

  2. Kate

    I have a number of archaeology professor friends who are limiting the number of grad students they take on because they don’t believe these students will get an academic job, no matter how bright the student is, and they can’t in good conscience encourage years of academic discipline for nothing.

  3. Pingback: Being a “Senior Scholar” and Hope | Archaeology of the Mediterranean World

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