Well, I had my first official public gaffe at the College here last week. I wouldn't share my pain, except it is pretty damned funny, and since I've been a delinquent blogger, I must pay for my bad, bad blogging track record by revealing painful incidents in Stewgad's stumbling steps up (and down?) the ladder of academia.

Last week, as a new faculty member, I was invited to attend a fancy-schmanzy dinner with the trustees and active alumni who were in town for the annual money-grubbing (oops, I mean fundraising) and socializing weekend. I didn't really want to go, mainly because I had to come back on Saturday for a conference I was involved in -- so that meant I'd stay late on Friday, drive home for an hour, get up the next morning, turn around and come back. I had a place to stay lined up, but it fell through at the last minute. I thought about a hotel, but Spousal Unit almost had a coronary when I told him how much the Motel 6 cost for one night. I almost didn't go, but when I asked around, I was informed in no uncertain terms that I SHOULD attend this fancy dress party dinner thingey if I wanted to justify my beloved tenure-track job.

Now, before I tell the story, let me assure you that there is a reason I became an academic. While I can schmooze if I absolutely have to, I'm pretty lousy at it. And, I hate it just about more than anything... except maybe grading. I'm awkward, when I get nervous I tend to babble or clam up, and I'm just a touch agoraphobic, so being stuffed into a room with a ton of people isn't a picnic for me. (That is, unless it is a picnic, then I'm fine.) Anyway, I became an academic so that I could spend my life hidden away in a dusty library filled with books. And then emerge occasionally for interesting and enlivening exchanges with young people who are learning about the kinds of things I'm learning about too. I did not want to be a corporate player. I did not want to have to exist in the full-court-press business world. So, it was a bit of a rude awakening when that world suddenly crashed my safe, insular academic universe at this dinner last week.

But, none of this is the humiliating part.

I love my job and I love the place where I work, so when the time came, I put on my suit and some lipstick, plastered on a big smile, and walked into the reception area room where the before-dinner-drinking and schmoozing was going on. As I walked through the doors, I realized that there were about 500 people crammed into this space that could hold 300. It was basically elbow to elbow people and I knew exactly 10 of them, and none of those very well. I gulped, and pushed my way to the bar, looking for a seltzer to give my hands something to do. On my way there I sort of bumped into a trustee. He turned around and started to chat with me about what we both did and who we both were. I started flailing. In these situations, it always takes me a while to warm up -- to adjust to the din of a billion voices, to be ok being in such a crowded space, and to switch gears from teaching/lecturing or just being me alone to performing and being smart. Well, I wasn't yet warmed up for this guy. I was not smart. He told me he had just given a talk on a really interesting and important area of his field. I asked if he was a practitioner of his field or a scholar of that field. He said, both, really. I said, and I quote, "Hm." That was about all I had. He asked what I worked on, and I told him it was an area of Constitutional history. He replied with something that he was thinking about, and I tried to differentiate what I did as Constitutional history, from what he did, and I failed badly - and wound up making a statement that revealed how truly stupid I was at that moment. At which point, he politely disentangled himself from the awkward, and dumb, new faculty member and moved on to greener pastures. As he walked away, I realized that his name was the name of a very big and new fancy building on campus. I had just blown it with a very important guy for the campus.

As I stood there, crammed in between all of these people, feeling awful, and looking down at my seltzer, trying to figure out a way to redeem myself, they made us all quiet down for a group of students to sing to us. And then the A cappella started. It was so awful -- the humiliation of me, the stuffed-in nature of the billions of people in this room, and then the ridiculousness of people going "btthff btuhff bttff" to simulate rhythm while others hum along and one dude belts it out. I almost started laughing, and crying at the same time. It was clearly my punishment for blowing it with Big Time Donor. (But, maybe not. To paraphrase BtVS, nobody deserves a cappella.)

Soon they let us out of the packed loud room, and we went in to dinner, where the new faculty were divided between tables of trustees-- one new faculty person per table. Clearly we were the performing dogs and ponies at this crazy show. We were there to show off for the college, and to show off for ourselves, and to justify the boatloads of money these generous folk give to the school. Anyway, the food was good, my dinner companions were lovely, and the conversation manageable. But, I was exhausted. Finally it was over and I could drive home.

By the next day, I had promptly forgotten the humiliation of the whole thing. I was pretty much willing to write it all off as an oh-well, better luck next time Stewgad kind of a thing, but it gets worse.

Today, I was telling a close colleague about my embarrassment at letting myself down in front of this big-time donor, trying to get a laugh. My lovely new colleague politely informed me that not only was this man a big-time donor, and important man on campus, but that he was one of the most important people in his field in the 20th century and a major figure in public America. He told me that there are scads of books written about him, and that he has been depicted in at least 2 major Hollywood films.

But the kicker that make my humiliation complete is his field: American Constitutional History and Law. Yep. The very thing I had tried to proclaim my expertise in. And I can't even blame the liquor, because, dammit, I was drinking seltzer.

So, give a big three cheers for The Stupendous Stewgad - the Diving Daredevil Trick Pony with the Stumblingest Career in the East.


At 8:45 PM Pilgrim/Heretic said...

I am in awe of your ability to make a good story out of this instead of (or perhaps along with) crawling under your bed for the next three weeks. That bodes very well for your survival in the weird world of academia.

Just think, when you yourself are a major scholar in your field a few decades down the road, this will be an even better story. :)

My previous place of employment did the same sort of thing, the mere memory of which gives me hives. My current university tends to play it safe by keeping new faculty at a good safe distance from trustees and bigwigs of all kinds!

At 11:28 AM lucyrain said...

What a frickin' nightmare--the event itself, not your teensy stumble. No worries, Stewgad. I'm sure you were much smoother than you realize, and like p/h said, think of miles this story will enjoy!

I say, brava! You should get a medal for simply attending such an event.

At 9:27 PM Suz said...

I remember a social event of some sort decades ago. I was a housewife meeting a faculty member from the law school I aspired to attend. He asked some bland question like "what do want to do after you finish your B.S".? I said, and I remember my words exactly, "I am toying with going to law school." He pointed his finger at me and barked, "law school is nothing you toy with".

Later he was my favorite professor even though he was never warm and friendly I always wondered if he remembered that short conversation years before..... I doubt it. I think it only burned in my mind.

Thanks for the story Stewgad -- it brought back memories of many of my 'foot in mouth' moments. Cheers for turning your moment into a good story. The story will outlive the memory!

At 6:14 PM zelda said...

try not to worry about it. Mr. Big was probably bored out of his mind at the event - met about a billion people - and doesn't remember any of it (for better or for worse).

At 12:24 PM Anonymous said...

I was once part of a 'schmooze session' with a bunch of alumni. We were trying to get them to donate money to our department. I'm not a good schmoozer, but somehow I did a good enough job that the chair told me how good I sounded. In fact, she wrote us all an e-mail saying how good our schmoozing was. But in the end, the alumni didn't give us anything! The moral--how good or poorly you think you presented yourself doesn't really matter that much, as long as you don't set anyone's hair on fire...

At 11:29 AM Stewgad said...

Thanks for the reassurance, guys. I'm sure it wasn't even a blip on his radar. And, I've been assured that while he is a big name, he's not all that active on the board.

I'm just glad to have gotten a good story out of it all!


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