The relationship between a scholar’s subject matter and his or her personal life interests me. Some of my colleagues in grad school chose their dissertation topics based on what was marketable. They were duly rewarded. I chose something I felt passionate about, and was lucky to land a job. But I always wondered how they could write in the absence of inspiration. In today’s chapter, we learn that Milton scholar Jonathan Sebelius has a dubious passion of his own…
3. The Olive Grove of Academe
Back in her office suite, she knocked on Juniper’s door and explained what had just happened. Juniper “June” Jamieson was the enfant terrible of the Classics department, a tiny, wiry ball of energy with spiky black hair. She burst out laughing, cackling so uproariously that Owen Griffith, the third inhabitant of their suite, called out in Latin, “Aut taceat aut abeat!” Which meant, more or less, “Shut up or get out.” June pulled Jennet into her office, and, still chuckling, said, “Kiddo, prepare to be love-bombed. Hearts. Flowers. Long, soulful looks. And touchy-feely togetherness during those long hours of consultation… it’ll be like meeting Joe Biden at a campaign stop where you’re the only Democratic voter for miles around. Before you know it, you’ll be sitting in his lap.” She cracked up again.
“I do love your twisted sense of humor,” said Jennet. “What’s the deal with Sebelius?”
“He’s famous for attracting salivating crowds of female undergrads to his lectures on World Lit and Milton, especially when he wears those puffy Errol Flynn shirts. Lots of women faculty have put the moves on him too. I remember once he came to a Christmas party at Lynn Melton’s. He had this burgundy smoking jacket with satin lapels, and every woman there was freaking out, except me of course.” June was a lesbian and presumably immune to Jonathan’s charms, though she surprised Jennet by adding, “Even I thought he was kinda hot. But he won’t have anything to do with a woman. Basically, he’s Hippolytus. Or maybe Peter Pan.”
Jennet laughed, thinking of Euripides’ play Hippolytus, in which the misogynist hero spurned Aphrodite’s gifts in favor of perpetual adolescence with the virgin huntress Artemis. “Then what am I supposed to do with him?”
“Try talking to Lynn Melton. She’s the Chair of English and has to work with Jonny every day. Laura Livingston gets along with him pretty well, too. He and she are both gaga about old books. But she’s got an endowed chair now and works in New York during the Fall.”
Jennet made an appointment with Lynn, and stopped by her office the next morning. When she explained that she needed advice on working with Sebelius, Lynn smiled wryly and told her to take a seat.
“You know Jonny’s a Milton scholar, right?” she asked. “He’s also written several articles on Joseph Swetnam, who is chiefly remembered today for two things. He published one of the earliest manuals on fencing in English. And he produced a very popular and inflammatory 1615 pamphlet called The Arraignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward and Unconstant Women.”
“A misogynist pamphlet,” said Jennet.
“Yes. That’s partly how Jonny got his reputation. Then a gender discrimination complaint was filed against him by Jeanne Dupont a couple of years ago. She wanted him to fund a pet candidate of hers, since she was about to lose her graduate faculty status because of a lack of students. When he refused, and instead recommended a slate of male candidates…” Lynn shrugged. “It was the perfect opportunity to slam Jonny, given his jumpiness with women.” She paused again, as though remembering Jeanne Dupont, and said fervently, “Thank goodness she’s retired now.”
“How was the complaint resolved?” asked Jennet.
“Oh, they concluded that it was groundless, and even noted her obvious conflict of interest. But by then, Jonny’s name was already dragged through the mud. He’s not as bad as everyone says. He takes his job very seriously. In fact, he’s a perfectionist workaholic. If you pull your own weight and don’t miss any deadlines, he’ll respect you.”
A stickler for deadlines, eh? Jennet decided that “Jonny” could damn well email her himself to set up their meetings. If he was that obsessive, he would break down and contact her first. “Any other pointers? And what’s his problem with women, anyway?”
“Nobody knows,” said Lynn. “He’s been at Parnell for about ten years and has never had a girlfriend or wife, as far as anyone can recall. Of course, he could be hiding one away somewhere.”
“Is he gay?” Jennet’s son Kyle was gay, and she thought she understood some of the challenges that gay men faced. But Lynn shook her head. “No, I don’t think so, though it’s anyone’s guess what his sexuality is. And there’s plenty of speculation. In any case, I’ll tell you what works for me. Don’t sit across from him so that you’re looking straight into his face. Sit next to him. Direct eye contact seems to make things worse. Speak calmly and slowly in a low-pitched voice, and don’t let your voice rise at the end of sentences as though you’re asking a question.”
Jennet nodded, but said, “Sounds like advice from a manual on dealing with feral cats.”
Lynn smiled faintly. “That’s exactly what it is.”
Sebelius was getting angrier and angrier. Day after day had passed, and he had heard nothing from the Woman regarding the tenure files. If they waited much longer, they’d risk missing their deadline. Christ, he hated people who dicked around and then tried to get things done at the last minute. All right, Woman. I’ll abase myself and send you the first email. That’s what you wanted, isn’t it? He sent her a curtly worded message suggesting that they meet Thursday afternoon for two hours, and again Friday afternoon for another two hours. With luck, that would do the trick. Unless she turned out to be one of those females who babbled incessantly about trivialities and wasted precious time that he might have spent on something productive. God knew they were all too abundant on this campus.
She surprised him by answering immediately and agreeing to his proposed times; she’d already asked George’s secretary whether the college conference room was free. Good, he thought, feeling slightly mollified. I didn’t want to have to meet in her office or mine. It’s neutral ground.
After that day in the gym, he had remembered seeing her in Chester Hall and realized that she must be the new faculty member in Classics. Jennet Thorne. He vaguely recalled walking past her office once, to talk to Juniper Jamieson about a graduate student who was doing a double M.A. in Classics and English. Jennet Thorne’s office door was covered with feminist slogans and placards proclaiming her support for NOW, NARAL, Planned Parenthood, and Femen, a Ukrainian/Brazilian group that used naked, body-painted protestors to combat sexual exploitation. Definitely someone I should avoid, he’d thought at the time.
The word “feminist” brought to mind Jeanne Dupont, a Faulkner scholar who was now retired, much to Sebelius’ relief. Back when he’d first started as Graduate Coordinator, the gravelly-voiced Dupont had taken it on herself to file a complaint of gender discrimination against him on behalf of a prospective graduate student who, she insisted, had been wrongly excluded from funding. That year, Sebelius recommended four male candidates, based on the discussion in the review committee he chaired, as well as the clear superiority of their GRE scores, personal essays, and academic records. The accusations were baseless, yet he had to answer for them again and again as the humiliating charge moved through the bureaucratic machinery of the Affirmative Action office. Dupont had proclaimed his guilt far and wide, tarnishing his reputation at Parnell from the start. And all because he didn’t want to fund a barely sentient student who wrote a puerile, error-filled essay about The Sound and the Fury.
Now he was stuck working with another feminist on the tenure files. He’d be lucky to emerge this time with his career intact, Sebelius thought bitterly.
Thorne had been hired at the Associate level, with tenure, because of her outstanding research reputation. According to Jamieson, they needed an ancient historian to teach Greek history, and Dr. Thorne specialized in the Hellenistic period and Ptolemaic women. She probably studies Cleopatra. That figures. But Thorne came with a bonus: she was also a well-published papyrologist. This piece of information caught Sebelius’ attention. He himself owned a papyrus, a bequest from his grandfather, but he’d never found time to have it evaluated. He’d almost forgotten about it. It was tucked away somewhere in his files, in an acid-free archival folder. Maybe he ought to ask her about it. No. The less I say to her, the better.
Copyright by Linnet Moss 2015
Notes: I like to feature characters from one story in another. All my characters have some sort of connection with the fictional university town of Parnell, Pennsylvania. Juniper Jamieson appears as Laura’s best friend in the London Broil trilogy, while Owen Griffith is a character in The Libertine Belles.
In this story, I set myself the challenge of making a woman-hating man attractive. As a feminist, I wanted to explore the reasons an essentially good man might find feminists threatening or worrisome. Of course, some men simply can’t see a woman as an equal. But that’s not Jonny’s problem…
I wrote this while Barack Obama and Joe Biden were on the campaign trail. Biden, our current Vice President, is famous for being overly touchy-feely, especially with women. This cringe-worthy video shows him in action.
Oh. Oh! Is this a new multi-chapter piece of fiction? I have been out of the loop in that regard – but hooray if it is. I better check the last few Mondays and catch up. Because this used to be my Monday morning routine – read the latest Linnet 🙂 (Back with proper reaction as I catch up…)
Yes, a new story! After that epic trip, I imagine you have a mountain of catchup now. Take it easy… we’re just glad to have you back 🙂
Sylvie G said:
Very good ! Thank you Linnett
Thanks for reading!
I am enjoying this story set against the backdrop of academic machinations. Thanks LM! They are both characters you want to know more about.
That is a great comment, many thanks. The academic machinations are based on real life experience, LOL!
there is a positive aspect to working like mad! i didn’t have time to read until today, which means there is less time until next Monday! :-))) Can’t wait for these 2 to meet again 🙂 Looking forward to seeing him even more puzzled by her. I had a giggle at his angry email and the practical response which took the wind out of his sails 😉 It will be very interesting to find out gradually what secrets he is hiding that made him so…
The academia shenanigans are all too familiar! 🙂 Happy to have left them behind me 😉 But there were nice things about it too, i do miss the students sometimes…
Ah, what did you teach? I enjoy my students but what I like best is research. And least: administrative tasks, which require us to constantly learn new technologies. But even so I can’t imagine any work I would rather do 🙂
I taught.. wait for it.. international finance 😀 Anyone who has not instantly fallen asleep is forgiven ;-)) I didn’t like amin either and marking papers urgh! I much enjoyed oral exams, we still did those. I almost said i don’t enjoy research but it’s not quite true. I did like reading stuff but the pressure to write papers in a subject that i was interested in but never really loved got too much in time. I also realised about 4 years in that i did have to repeat myself in teaching as you have to share the same basic knowledge to every new year of students and by year 4 i was so bored of hearing myself i couldn’t bear the idea to keep doing it. It was all too dry for me and i probably always knew it, in school i thought i’d study engineering and wanted to be on building sites 🙂 I chose to leave academics much to the disapproval of my parents but i’m much happier in a more practical job. It’s a weird one, i still do theory and abstract stuff on processes and i still do finance, but i am involved with activities that make stuff, which area creative and that is so much better. ideally i’d like to move even closer to getting my hands dirty 🙂
What a great story! Doing a job that brings you satisfaction is extremely important. I have known a lot of people who left academia, but your explanation is the first one that really let me understand it. For me it’s the best job, but that is because I enjoy teaching and writing more than anything else. Some of what I teach is repetitive, but I also get to develop new courses. That’s how I kept from getting bored all these years 🙂
I can appreciate the appeal of nuts and bolts. It’s like cooking!
🙂 you do get it! i did love teaching itself, it’s great when they are interested and pitch in and such 🙂 I love cooking which you probably guessed by now. My general problem is that i like many things but not really a single one a lot more than others, i get bored doing the same thing so i have a job where i get the variety and get exposed to new stuff all the time which is good 🙂 And yes we spend way too much time in our jobs to not like what we do, i simply couldn’t because if i start hating it i do it very poorly 🙂
Being able to do something you love is the secret of happiness, I think.
It seems that academic life is not something quiet and peaceful. 🙂
Due to the absence of a vaporous shirts I have been able to focus a little bit more this chapter, excuse my ignorance, but I have not been able to understand what’s the task they have to do together. Maybe I’ll learn more in the next chapter?
In Chapter 2, the Dean assigned them to go through the personnel files for reappointment, tenure and promotion. That’s an annual task that senior faculty have to do. Very labor-intensive, but at least we get to have input on such decisions.