The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

“There is no politics quite as vicious as academic politics…” —Kissinger (apocryphal)

While on vacation in Laos, I got word that one of my old professors was denied tenure and will not be teaching at Columbia anymore. I didn’t have much of a relationship with him, and I’m sure he has no clue who I am. Yet to my surprise, the news really affected me.

This week I am going to apply to a new Princeton-in-Asia post, and I’ve had to think about that whole future thing. I’ve always wanted to do some combination of teaching, writing, and saving the world, and being a professor always appealed me. I guess it still does to a certain extent. But…

when Owen Gutfreund, a fifty-one-year-old expert on urban sprawl and the director of the Urban Studies program at Columbia, was denied tenure, it reminded me how ruthless academia is. Not only was he the director of the department who had been at Columbia for over a decade, he wrote a “groundbreaking” and accessible book on sprawl—which, out of modesty, he didn’t assign to his classes—as well as countless academic articles. On the one hand, his lectures were packed, and on the other, he loved to talk with students one-on-one. While I was waiting for a slice of pizza, he overheard me talking about a couple of urban studies classes, and he quizzed me about my experiences. He really cared about his program, and he listened to my blathering with genuine interest.

Professor Gutfreund is married, middle-aged man who has no idea where he’s going to be next year. He’s done everything he could as an instructor, administrator, and a scholar. I’m sure Owen won’t become some invisible adjunct for the rest of his career, but still, he has to uproot his family (if he has one) and face an unknown future. For someone so involved with local urban issues, it will be hard for him to leave New York.

There’s a glut of cheap labor with Ph.Ds in the liberal arts, and, with a dwindling number of jobs, universities can take for granted the fact that they can keep hiring accomplished lecturers for low-pay. I’m sure Owen’s replacement will also be talented and wonderful. That is until they also refuse to award him/her tenure.

Walk On

In college, my friends and I walked. We walked the entire length of Manhattan. We walked a portion of the 6 train, eating and smelling the neighborhoods along the way. We walked from the East Village to Morningside, finishing with the sunrise.

At times, these walks were a way to have a Star Trek adventure, beaming ourselves down to worlds different from the familiar one at Morningside Heights. In other cases, these walks were a way of creating a particular sense of being-in-the-world, a sense that connected us to the larger, networked geography of the city. For us, walking was skimming over pages in a book. We’d catch certain details while blowing past others, expanding and recreating our narratives of New York City.

Here in Hong Kong, there have already been a number of ‘walkabouts,’ the name a friend has given our aleatoric wanderings. Our walks have become adventures through the varied ambiences of the city. Though our walks are not completely random—we’ll chase smells, search for an overlook, or navigate our way to the waterfront—we always entrust chance as our primary guide. Hong Kong is a delightfully messy city that lends itself well to meandering twenty-somethings. Great cities allow for what the American suburbs permit only reluctantly to the dregs of society: drifting, loitering, strolling. With our characteristic blend of tarrying and pressing forward, we want to the impossible: to grasp the whole of Hong Kong, to sample all the flavors of this Baskin Robbins of a city.

At least for a moment, we’ll be able to satisfy our curiosity of what’s around the next corner.