Shortly before I left on my cross-country grad-school adventure, I presented a paper at my very first academic conference. Sheffield, where the conference was located, is best known as the location of The Full Monty and as an all-around paragon of a bombed-out post-industrial city, but also has a well-respected university with a strong development studies program. The conference was student run, so a pretty low-key event—which, given that I still know practically nothing about development, was a good thing.
Still, though, there was a pretty clear division between the four of us from Oxford and the rest of the presenters from other universities across the U.K. We moved as a pack, dominating the panels on which one of us was speaking and then monopolizing the questioning by directing all our queries at one another. I hate to say it, but watching the presentations, it was clear that the Oxford crowd was head-and-shoulders above the rest, at least in terms of coaching and preparation. The division cut down to really basic things, too: who managed to connect their work to theory; who had a clear division between the literature review and data; who appeared to have proof-read their powerpoint slides. The after-conference wine reception felt strained, as I found myself talking down Oxford as much as possible to a group of English students who clearly would kill to go there.
Reading the above paragraph, and reflecting on my experience at Sheffield, I realize something that has been dawning on me for some time: my university pedigree pretty much makes me feel like a complete twat. When I am in the U.S., and someone outside my usual social circle asks me where I went to school, I typically mumble something about central New Jersey and change the subject as quickly as possible. When I describe Princeton in negative terms—blasting the apathetic student body, for example—I am, more than anything, trying to hide my embarrassment at the massive leg-up Princeton has given me and avoid admitting that, deep down, I appreciate the help. One moment, I wish I had gone somewhere that I didn’t feel so guilty about. And yet, there is something intoxicating about the privilege of attending an elite university, and while Harvard has denied me any opportunity to complete my trifecta of douchebaggery—Princeton-Oxford-Harvard—the temptation to add another notch to my resume is undeniable.
I say all of this because I can think of no other reason than private-university snobbery why I had nearly written off the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor before I visited. Michigan is a top-ranked department, no doubt, but non-sociologists don’t know this. In the U.K., when I’ve expressed my enthusiasm at getting into Madison and Ann Arbor, even professors—who ought to know better—have asked “why would you go there?” This is a stupid thing to be worrying about, except that I’m already acutely aware that getting a PhD in sociology already makes me a bit of a failure in the eyes of the people back home who thought I’d be running for Congress by now. Even for my parents, my enthusiasm for Madison or Ann Arbor seems to a raise an eyebrow. In a sense, I visited Michigan with the hope that I could cross it off the list and make my list a bit shorter.
This decision, it would seem, is not going to be simple. Long preface aside, Michigan was fucking fantastic, and I loved every aspect of my three days there. Every presentation, every faculty meeting, every conversation I had made me feel like Michigan is a department on the way up. No one in Michigan is apologizing—a la Berkeley—about their inability to provide stipends comparable to the Ivy League; if you don’t want to come here, it’s your loss. By the end of my first day of visiting, my head was practically exploding with ideas for research projects and papers, taking me past my dissertation and long into my career as an academic. All the faculty with whom I spoke—ranging from the old-school Marxist stuck in the 1960s to the heady young junior professors—came off as genuinely interested in my work and ready to explain how they could contribute. One of them even offered to read over my thesis; I guess that’s Midwestern kindness for you.
More than anything—and this is something strange, given that I’m talking about Michigan of all places—is that Ann Arbor felt like a place I would like to live the next six years of my life. Among other things, Michigan has nailed the practice of recruiting, assigning me a “grad student buddy” with a strong interest in food politics and a talent for vegan cooking. He, like me, seems to be working to strike a balance between academic and non-academic pursuits, rounding out serious sociology with union organizing and bike building. The other students I met seemed genuinely happy, something I had resigned myself to not encounter very often during these tours. I really do love the Midwest, and definitely not for the weather: there is something different about the people here, something unforced and genuine. This, I think, is a place to which I could come and not be a douchebag.
Michigan: the dark horse candidate.