When old friend Terry Boswell became chair of the Department of Sociology at Emory University I suspect life for his colleagues took a turn for … well, whatever! Even his family and closest friends would admit that Terry was a bull in a china shop. He personally decided on the original artwork that should adorn the departmental walls (in fairness, he was a sculpture in metal, as the Boswell garden testified). I doubt he sounded opinion before emailing me to invite Annette and I to be visiting professors of sociology for the spring semester of 1998. Two positions had opened up and what better opportunity for us to take temporary advantage. Old friends Dick Levinson, Mike McQuaide and Karen Hegtvedt were advocates. We assented, deeming this a rare opportunity. Our daughters would keep an eye on Ron, by this time more or less self-sufficient.
I sensed mixed feelings amongst Emory’s other sociologists. Terry, characteristically, would have consulted ‘selectively’. Were we welcome? Yes and no. I think in the event we delivered what was asked of us, and we certainly enjoyed doing so, but I was and remain sympathetic to those who felt the invitation extended to us by Terry was inappropriate: time to move on maybe. Revealingly, I offered a number of topics for the departmental seminar but was in the event given a single slot. When an opening became unexpectedly available it was filled a local, Alex Hicks, his second slot of the semester. But maybe that was just the prejudice of the Dutch right-winger, Frank Lechner, whose responsibility it was to deliver the series.
I had three classes lined up for me. Two of these were with undergraduates and, worse, involved standing in for two outstanding teachers, Dick Levinson on the Emory campus and Mike McQuaide on its Oxford offshoot. Dick was the smart, ex-puppeteer, state-of-the-art showman, Mike the uncompromising educator. At least they were classes in my subject area: the sociology of health and illness. Appended was a postgraduate/Masters class in contemporary social theory. Annette’s focus was on women’s studies.
I have a number of memories of this experience, which seemed on the whole to go well: my evaluations were okay.
First, we sampled a very different society and culture. ‘It is an offence to shoot anybody on these premises’, a prominent sign announced as we signed on as ‘resident aliens’. Off the premises … well? On campus we learned some details of our health cover. An American colleague asked: ‘if I were to have a road accident while attending a conference in New York, would I be covered by Emory’s insurance package?’ ‘Well, in the event you, or maybe a colleague, would be advised to make a phone call to check’, was the answer. And therein lies a stark and compelling rejoinder to ignorant or self-serving advocates of the privatization of the National Health Service. The USA is okay if you have assets, desperate, uncivilized, if you fall short. In fact, on a decent salary you can still lose your home in the event of traumatic or long-term illness.
Second, the undergraduates at least were different from our homegrown variety. They were outgoing customers paying for services and results. I confess I liked them: they were engaging and fun to be with. But here are a couple of incidents that are revealing. One female submitted several drafts of an assessed essay to me before achieving a B+. ‘Why didn’t I get an A?’, she expostulated, ‘I followed all your advice.’ Rightly or wrongly, one could not say: ‘Well, there is the matter of ability and aptitude.’ Another, by chance also female, rang me up on the eve of my departure for the UK: ‘You’ve given me a B+ and if I don’t get an A I will lose my funding for next year!’ ‘Sorry, there’s nothing I can do, the marks are submitted’, I replied. In short, in the absence of resolution and grit, grades awarded are only the beginning of a protracted process of bargaining. ‘I’ve paid good money for this course and I expect/am entitled to an A.’ American academics struggle to meet their students less than half way.
Third, ‘political correctness’ has its limits in this ‘politically correct’ society. ‘Nice buns’, read one course evaluation statement (aged 49, I was as chuffed as I was bemused). On another occasion I had finished a class on the Oxford campus and was packing my books when the last student to leave, who had previously invited me to dine with her at her parent’s Thai restaurant in Atlanta (an invitation I had politely but diplomatically declined) sustained eye contact while she lowered her jeans to adjust her underwear.
Fourth, there exist American cheap food outlets that offer unlimited crispy bacon. Regularly, making my way by interstate to the Oxford campus, I would divert to stock up. Oh my!
Fifth, American cafes pioneered the bottomless coffee, and Annette and I filled our boots. Barnes and Noble, Borders and numerous other café chains and outlets both remained out-of-hours ports of call and allowed not-yet-purchased piles of books to be perused over refreshment. I still miss this in one of the world’s foremost cities, London. Malls stayed open late and Borders hosted jazz gigs: personally I can see the benefits of a 24/7 society provided employees are safeguarded (and often they are not of course). I also, for the first and only time, availed myself of Amazon.com.
Sixth, my combined income from a UCL sabbatical and Emory permitted us to pay for visits to the US by our daughters. They came in stages. Paul Higgs came too. Variously we drove our visitors to New Orleans, Charleston, Savanna, and flew to New York.
But the mid-semester break was another story!