Borrowed Time: Parquet Courts and aging academics

Simple songs (and most songs of the punk variety are pretty simple) are at their best when a single strong feeling or thought pervades. Along with some driving chords and a solid backbeat, a meaningful turn of phrase can be the chain that that makes the whole gear system work. Duffy and the Doubters hit it perfectly in Spider Baby Jesus, and New York’s Parquet Courts do it with Borrowed Time, from their 2012 release Light Up Gold.

Of the drunk, bored and listless, endless waiting for something that I knew wasn’t coming.

And it seems these days I’m captive in this borrowed time.

Usually proceeded by “living on”, the phase “borrowed time” is a familiar one. Even Anne of Green Gables author Lucy Maud Montgomery turned to it to describe the elderly Mrs. Pitman in Rilla of Ingleside: “I haven’t made up my mind…but I’ll have to, soon, for at eighty a body is living on borrowed time” (p. 148).

Borrowed time, both in Parquet Courts version and the expression usually used to described people and institutions with little time left, always has a sense of unpredictability. It is borrowed from the worst library in the world, one that won’t tell you in advance what the due date is or sometimes even what the consequences are.

After this song (and my glee in getting to squeeze an Anne of Green Gables reference in), one of ways this expression hits me the hardest is in how often and meaningfully it applies to academic careers. The pre-tenure period can feel like a torturous bout of borrowed time. It can end well but there are no guarantees.

In 1945, at a time when mandatory retirement at age 65 was standard in most occupations, chemist George W. Muhleman begged the readers of the Bulletin of the American Association of University Professors to reconsider their views on older professors: “My purpose is to present to thinking men a protest as well as a denunciation of the poorly thought out plans of retiring college professors at a specific time in life no matter whether they are still in their prime or whether they are suffering from the infirmities of age” (p. 632)

He gave an impassioned plea that the negative outcomes of forcing scientists out of their labs must be avoided. “At best, there is a certain stigma to the word ‘retirement’ which surrounds the person retired, which makes him feel that he is out of everything, that he has had his day, that he may be an object of compassion, that he is a ‘has been’ and that if he continues to live he is living on borrowed time” (p. 633).

His argument is an interesting window into the self-concept of the mid-20th century academic too. Muhleman described programs at Ford and Dodge that provided special support and work conditions for older workers (including Dodge’s “Old Man Division”) arguing that programs like that should be more widespread for all: “To permit an individual to carry a full load with full responsibility up to a certain date and after that date to declare him incapacitated and no longer fit to have remunerative employment or adequate income is a situation that should be exposed” (p. 632). He argued though that it is especially important for professors, that the scientists’ work is essential to his (or her obviously, but this was 1945) well-being: “The retired professor is referred to as an ‘old man,’ and if he is not careful he will begin to act like one. He is all dressed up with no place to go. He is likely to be dissatisfied with himself and make himself obnoxious to himself, his family, and his friends. He does not live long” (p. 633).  “No professor who is physically and mentally fit is psychologically prepared for retirement at sixty-five. Only useful professional service can meet his psychological needs at that age” (p. 634-635). Academic culture and life is so often self-directed, and successes and failures are commonly assigned directly to individuals and their intelligence and work ethic (whether that’s appropriate or not is a whole other question). Suddenly being classified as useless and unfit must have been devastating.

Muhleman’s personal experience (and perhaps the source of impassioned bitterness) isn’t revealed until the end: “Here at the University of Florida, in the midst of a congenial and inspiring faculty, I am beginning the third year of one of the happiest periods of my life. Here I have found opportunity to continue those researches so brutally terminated on a two months’ notice” (p. 637).

Mandatory retirement isn’t common at Canadian universities anymore but it’s not far gone. The first university in Ontario to abolish it was the University of Toronto, which did so in 2005 while I was a grad student there. Having personally survived at least two bouts of borrowed time and continuing to fight along the academic career path, the thought of such an imposed purgatory is terrifying.

Luckily I have Parquet Courts to console me.

Sending special thanks to Adam from Needles//Pins for the rec on this one.

Muhleman, G. W. (1945). Must life end at sixty-five?  Bulletin of the American Association of University Professors, 31, pp. 632-637.

Author: mcshanahan

Science education researcher and writer

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