I am talking about the old days when men and women had to step outside the office buildings in order to smoke. They were always huddled together, and invariably by near the entrance doors.
And they loved to talk with non-smokers also. Only later did the etiquette evolve of non-smokers barely nodding a hello to the smokers as we kept on walking by the entrances.
Which is how one day I ended up talking with David.
He was much older than me, and was nearing retirement. I was barely enjoying my lucky break into academe.
We talked about what I wanted to do in the academic world. I brief him, to the extent that it was clear within me, about my rather non-traditional interests in scholarship and about public intellectualism.
He puffed away. And nodded as he listened to me.
And then, as he exhaled the last of the cigarette smoke while stubbing the glowing tip, he looked me in the eye.
I didn't have to wonder for long what he was going to tell me. His message was simple: If that is what guides me, and if I am convinced about it beyond doubt, then that is what I should pursue.
Looking back at it, I am thankful that he and my graduate school professor, Jim, were so strongly supportive.
Or, maybe I thank them only because life has turned out alright? What if that approach had not worked out? What if I had to return to the life of drudgery and monotony of the "real world," which is where I was for more than five years before that lucky return to academia?
Even if things hadn't worked out, I am confident that I will be thankful to them--at least there were two people who thought I was capable enough of their support.
A few month ago, I wrote a lengthy thank-you email to Jim. Among other things, I wrote to him:
I want to thank you again for one particular aspect of my intellectual and professional life: There is a good chance you do not remember a conversation that I had with you during my grad school days, when I said I wanted to directly contribute to the public, instead of the traditional research. You encouraged me in that, but also cautioned me that academia does not value public engagement. You went one step more and said that society needs active engagement from academics.It's a wonderful life!