Yet again, in the anteroom…

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I went up to Middlebury College last night to watch a marvelous movie, Mr. Turner, about the English painter JMW Turner. It’s absolutely a marvel, with Timothy Spall giving a fully embodied performance of a deeply talented and deeply unlikeable man. But for our purposes, I’d like us to consider this brief clip of the Royal Academy of Arts annual exhibition.

If you are considering a career in higher education, these are the people who will—or will not—grant you entry. They all know one another, and have for decades. They know one another’s work, they have their ongoing friendships and grudges, none of which will be visible from outside. Pleasing one will offend another. And you, coming in with your avant-garde ideas, will have a hard time getting traction. You may be placed, yet again, in the anteroom…

As a thought experiment, imagine yourself coming into a setting like this and trying to become a part of it. Let’s give you the benefit of the doubt, and imagine that you have a sponsor, an ally on the inside… walking in unannounced and un-introduced will gain you nothing at all. So let’s imagine that the mighty Mr. Turner himself has taken you under his wing, and is introducing you to his colleagues in the Academy. How would you work the room? How would you do the ethnographic work of understanding how to position yourself?

And let’s now address those who are already inside the safety of membership. If you wanted to bring a young colleague into this community, how would you do it? What features of her work would you bring to the fore with different members of the chamber? Who would you make sure she met?

The faculty of higher education is a membership organization, no different than the Elks Club or the Masons, in which the current members elect new members. You need a sponsor, and that sponsor has to intercede on your behalf with skill and tact. And whether prospective member or sponsor, you need to think carefully about the tactics you’ll employ.