I meant to post this much earlier, but I just haven’t found the time. You see, I started a new job a few months ago– my first full-time academic position – and I been struggling to keep my head above water ever since.
The last year has been a whirlwind for me. Within a few months, I finished my PhD, moved back to South Africa from Belgium, spent two months of unemployment living in my childhood home before taking on the position I have now. Needless to say, I embarked on this new career path in a unprepared and frazzled state.
It didn’t help that I moved into a house that was completely neglected by the previous tenants; I’ve seen cleaner public toilets. Speaking of toilets, my own flooded the bathroom every time I flushed it. My own appearance wasn’t much better. I looked more like homeless person than a university lecturer. I had a deep tan after spending my unemployed time hiking and bird watching. Complementing the destitute-image was my shaggy mop of hair, which hadn’t been cut since I interviewed for the position 5 months earlier.
This scruffy look didn’t help the fact that I am easily mistaken for a student because of my age (28). While this doesn’t bother me too much, it does make it difficult for other staff members to take me seriously. This has already resulted in some funny interactions.
For example, I was stopped by a security guard while riding my longboard down the empty streets on campus during one of my first weekends here. He obviously thought I was up to no good, as all skateboarder inevitable are. I still remember the funny face he made while inspecting my staff ID card. He just couldn’t reconcile the dignified credentials on the card with the delinquent in front of him!
To say that I had seen better days would be an understatement.
To make myself feel better, however, I recalled the following story by Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize winning physicist, about his first experiences as a new lecturer at Cornell. So, even though it is utterly pretentious to compare myself to such a distinguished scientist, I’ll do it anyway because if even a once-in-a-generation mind can be completely overwhelmed and under-prepared for his first academic position, then suddenly I don’t feel as bad!
Here is the excerpt from his memoir, Surely, you’re joking, Mr. Feynman:
“I got off the train in Ithaca, carrying my heavy suitcase on my shoulder, as usual. A guy called out, “Want a taxi, sir?”
I had never wanted to take a taxi: I was always a young fella, short on money, wanting to be my own man. But I thought to myself, “I’m a professor – I must be dignified.” So I took my suitcase down from my shoulder and carried it in my hand, and said, “Yes.”
“One of the hotels you’ve got in Ithaca.”
“Have you got a reservation?”
“It’s not so easy to get a room.”
“We’ll just go from one hotel to another. Stay and wait for me.”
I try the Hotel Ithaca: no room. We go over to the Traveller’s Hotel: they don’t have any room either. I say to the taxi guy, “No use driving around town with me; it’s gonna cost a lot of money, I’ll walk from hotel to hotel.” I leave my suitcase in the Traveller’s Hotel and I start to wander around, looking for a room. That shows you how much preparation I had, a new professor.
I found some other guy wandering around looking for a room too. It turned out that the hotel room situation was utterly impossible. After a while we wandered up some sort of a hill, and gradually realized we were coming near the campus of the university.
We saw something that looked like a rooming house, with an open window, and you could see bunk beds in there. By this time it was night, so we decided to ask if we could sleep there. The door was open, but there was nobody in the whole place. We walked up into one of the rooms, and the other guy said,
“Come on, let’s just sleep here!”
I didn’t think that was so good. It seemed like stealing to me. Somebody had made the beds; they might come home and find us sleeping in their beds, and we’d get into trouble.
So we go out. We walk a little further, and we see, under a streetlight, an enormous mass of leaves that had been collected – it was autumn – from the lawns. I say, “Hey! We could crawl in these leaves and sleep here!” I tried it; they were rather soft, I was tired of walking around, it would have been perfectly all right. But I didn’t want to get into trouble right away. Back at Los Alamos people had teased me (when I played drums and so on) about what kind of “professor” Cornell was going to get. They said I’d get a reputation right off by doing something silly, so I was trying to be a little dignified. I reluctantly gave up the idea of sleeping in the pile of leaves.
We wandered around a little more, and came to a big building, some important building of the campus. We went in, and there were two couches in the hallway. The other guy said, “I’m sleeping here!” and collapsed onto the couch.
I didn’t want to get into trouble, so I found a janitor down in the basement and asked him whether I could sleep on the couch, and he said “Sure.”
The next morning I woke up, found a place to eat breakfast, and started rushing around as fast as I could to find out when my first class was going to be. I ran into the physics department: “What time is my first class? Did I miss it?”
The guy said, “You have nothing to worry about. Classes don’t start for eight days.”
That was a shock to me! The first thing I said was, “Well, why did you tell me to be here a week ahead?”
“I thought you’d like to come and get acquainted, find a place to stay and settle down before you begin your classes.”
I was back to civilization, and I didn’t know what it was!
Professor Gibbs sent me to the Student Union to find a place to stay. It’s a big place, with lots of students milling around. I go up to a big desk that says HOUSING and I say, “I’m new, and I’m looking for a room.”
The guy says, “Buddy, the housing situation in Ithaca is tough. In fact, it’s so tough that, believe it or not, a professor had to sleep on a couch in this lobby last night!”
I look around, and it’s the same lobby! I turn to him and I say, “Well, I’m that professor, and the professor doesn’t want to do it again!”