Rambling Man: On Fulbrights And In-Fights

by Joshua Michtom

Hello Rambling Man,

My spouse was recently awarded a Fulbright grant. I am so proud of him. He worked hard and in solitary conditions to obtain this award. He received no help from his current academic institution while writing this application, aside from obtaining letters of recommendation (and he was gracious and prompt is sending those folks thank you gifts/notes). He’s one month from moving abroad to start his 9 month research grant and now, now a professor in his department is all up in my spouse’s business and upset that my spouse did not include him on any of the previous 9 months worth of relationship buidling emails to the host country institution.

I don’t mean to bore you with details of the mechanics of this grant work, only to say that the money is awarded straight to my spouse and not to any other entity to dole out appropriately. So I see it as money he earned, and relationships he has built single-handedly with cold emails and calls, and for this professor to now come and complain seems rude and childish. Coattailing riding comes to mind.

My question to you: what is the appropriate response for my spouse to give this professor? (If any)

We should not discount the possibility that life will be like an action movie, and your spouse will find himself fist-fighting with another up-and-coming academic on a rope bridge over a high canyon because both of them have stumbled on a cherished artifact at the same moment, and in the course of the fight, both will end up hanging by one hand over the abyss, and the rude professor, who himself has been seeking the artifact, will arrive just then and only be able to save one of them, and your husband’s rival will have been the kind of goody-goody who brought the rude professor delicious cookies from an Italian bakery years earlier. That’s why we’re rooting for your husband to get the artifact, by the way: he keeps it real and earns everything he gets, while the rival kisses up and takes shortcuts.

I hope all of this ends up being true, because then you would be married to Indiana Jones, and also, it would prove this point: there is a lot to be said for apologizing sometimes, even when you’re not wrong, and for resisting the urge to say tough things to jerks. (Did I mention that the rope bridge is over a river with crocodiles in it? It is.)

The more likely possibility, of course, is that life will be like a boring movie. But even then, the rude professor, who is probably tenured and will be around forever, could end up frustrating your husband’s career possibilities. He might bump into some other old professor at a conference, and the other old professor would say, “So-and-so is up for tenure. He used to work at your university, didn’t he?” And then the rude professor would spin a terrible web of lies about your husband, frustrating his tenure application, and you guys would have to move to central Illinois or something.

Let me be clear: there is a part of me that relishes the opportunity to tell a rotten person some hard truth that he ought to hear. In high school, a gym teacher gave me an inexplicably low grade — a low grade in gym! — and I gave vent to my hard truth-telling instinct, the truth in question taking the form of “Fuck you,” said loudly and in a public place. It did not go well for me after that, although I avoided getting suspended through an insincere act of public contrition. The obvious lesson, though, is that sometimes the satisfaction of telling off a jerk is outweighed by the subsequent consequences. Your husband’s situation seems like just such a circumstance.

Is the rude professor coattail-riding? Sure he is. The young people probably have a saying about this, along the lines of “haters gonna hate,” but involving reputation-obsessed academics. But what can you do? Your spouse should swallow his pride, make nice with the person, take his Fulbright, and fly off to the jungles of Peru.

BONUS ADVICE: If your spouse’s research involves chasing monkeys through a South American jungle to make recordings of their monkey noises, you should DEFINITELY NOT go along to be his research assistant. You guys will spend a series of exhausting weeks on his project, and then you will go back to the states ahead of him while he gathers more data, and you will pack up your lives in New York, leave your job, and move to some place where the cost of living is cheap, like Burlington, Vermont, where your spouse intends to spend months writing up the dissertation from the monkey noise research.

While you are doing this, your husband will hire a new research assistant and have an affair with that person, and then come to your new home in Vermont and secretly go visit the research assistant in upstate New York, and then claim to be in love with the research assistant, and you will end up having to move in with your parents in Seattle. This happened to a friend of mine.

Sincerely,
Rambling Man

Rambling Man is the Billfold’s new advice column about trying to make a living and doing the best you can. Questions for Rambling Man? Email ester@thebillfold.com, subject line: Rambling Man.