Academic Competition, Academic Conferences, AERA, American Educational Research Association, Burnout, CMU, Collegiality, Conferences, Harvey Kantor, Jack, Joe William Trotter Jr., Michael Fultz, Milford Plaza, Mom, Narcissism, Obsequious, Self-Awareness, Spencer Foundation, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Yonkers
Jack-o’-Lantern, Jack-in-the-Box, Monterey Jack, Colby Jack, and jackknife all have something in common with the Jack I’m writing about in this post. They’re all the kinds of Jacks that I’m not a fan of or outright dislike. They also tend to surprise me at precisely the wrong place and at precisely the wrong time. My Jack, the Jack who finished a doctorate in the School of Education at UWisconsin-Madison in the late-1990s, was one of the most competitive and obsequious humans I had ever met. What made my knowing him worse was that he never had to be cutthroat in the first place.
I first “met” Madison Jack the summer of ’95, via telephone and email. My favorite benefactor at the Spencer Foundation in Catherine Lacey had provided Jack my information. It made sense at the time. Both Jack’s dissertation and my own discussed the process of Black migration, White flight, and school desegregation, though his work involved Milwaukee and mine was on DC. Jack had gotten a small Spencer grant, and I had a Spencer Dissertation Fellowship.
Most importantly, Madison Jack wanted to put together a panel presentation for the April 1996 American Educational Research Association (AERA) Annual Meeting in New York. The panel would involve a group of Spencer-funded folk working on various angles of school desegregation, involving community control, racial discrimination, White anti-desegregation protests, and ideas like my own on multiculturalism and diversity. Over a three-week period between mid-July and early August ’95, we put together a panel of five presenters and a moderator. The moderator was none other than Jack’s dissertation advisor Michael Fultz. Two presenters were 1995 Spencer Dissertation Fellows (including me), and two others would become Dissertation Fellows in 1996 (including Madison Jack).
It could’ve been a powerful panel under the right set of conditions. But it was to be underwhelming by default. We had at least two too many people on the panel. Our panel’s presentation date and time in New York was on the last day of the conference, Friday, April 12th, at 8:15 am, both too early and too late at the same time. With my own troubles with my HNIC advisor in Joe Trotter — not to mention a dissertation nearly complete — AERA wasn’t exactly my primary focus. Plus, visiting my home area with my family living in temporary housing in Yonkers post-616 fire didn’t exactly help with my concentration.
But it was Madison Jack’s obsessive competition that reared its ugly head and left a raw horseradish taste in my mouth. It was that much more disgusting because I knew it would be my last conference presentation as a graduate student. Jack and I had agreed that all five of us would have twelve minutes apiece for our presentations, leaving time for audience questions. On that brisk spring morning after a rough night at the Milford Plaza, I began the panel with my talk timed for exactly twelve minutes. With my Mom having not yet arrived and only six people in the room to start, I muddled through as if I needed a cup of coffee just to know that I needed to wake up. Mom arrived five minutes into the second presentation, one by my fellow 1995 Spencer Dissertation Fellow, where she used the term “a cacophony of voices” in describing the different sides involved in the 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville (Queens) controversy over community control and racial inequality. Two scholars I knew well were in the audience — including one who was a one-time professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz School (now Heinz College). She said to Harvey Kantor, “This presentation’s ‘caca’ all right” and they both laughed, loud enough for my sleep-deprived mind to notice.
Madison Jack was the last to present. My co-organizer broke our agreed-upon rules. He spoke for more than twenty minutes, all to garner more attention for his work over myself and the other three panelists. Jack also used a slide show, another thing that we had agreed we wouldn’t do, mostly because of the time constraints on the panel. It was a classic example of narcissistic behavior at the doctoral level. By the time Jack had finished — combined with his advisor’s ten minutes of droning commentary — there were only six minutes left for questions from an audience of nearly twenty people, most of whom had missed the first four presentations. Jack fielded all but one of the audience’s questions. If I’d been in my right frame of mind, I would’ve jammed a slide down Jack’s obsequious throat.
Fast-forward nearly a decade to the 2004 AERA conference in San Diego. It was my first time attending the conference since grad school. I decided to go to the Spencer-sponsored talk (an annual tradition), to see if any of my fellow Fellows from 1995 would also be there. A couple of them did show up, which was the good part about this gathering. But so did Madison Jack. He made a bee-line toward me. I made a point of not making eye contact until he was nearly in my face with his grizzly beard and outstretched hand. I shook it as hard as I could, feeling my right hand squeeze his knuckles into each other.
After I let him talk for three minutes about his professorship at some small New England liberal arts college, about his first book, and after introducing me to his wife, he wanted to know how I was doing. Or rather, if I had bested him in my career up to that point. I didn’t take the bait. Knowing that a couple of big wigs had just walked into the room, I started with small talk about my wife and newborn son. I knew. Madison Jack being Madison Jack, I knew he would walk away, with me in mid-sentence, seeking to soak wisdom and advancement out of his next unknowing victims.
With colleagues and friends like Madison Jack, who needed enemies? What made his sycophantic displays and overt attempts at dominance so pitiful was that I never cared. I was too ambivalent about my place in academia and too much in turmoil about myself as a writer to ever care. Fighting over a job or a book with a scholarly publisher? To me in 1996 and in 2004, it was a waste of time and energy.
To me in 2016, it’s also a waste of potential friendships and connections beyond the “what’s in it for me?” perspective. I know lots of folks, but few I count as friends, and only a small number of those are in academia. While much of my work is independent of others, it isn’t work I do or think about alone. Madison Jack probably knows tons of folk in high places. But with an approach to career that is me first, me foremost, and me last, I’m pretty sure that he repels more true connections in his world than he attracts. Kind of like smelling week-old Monterey Jack that’s been left out in the sun too long.