A long journey to genius grant

On Tuesday, the new list of MacArthur “genius award” winners will be announced. If you're on it, here's what to expect:

Most likely, you didn't know you were being considered. Winners are often plucked from obscurity, and nominations are secret.

You've been told to wait for a phone call from an acquaintance, but it's a set-up. When you answer, a serious-sounding stranger will ask if you're alone, and if you've heard of the MacArthur Foundation and its famous fellowship.

You have, of course.

The foundation disavows the term, but everyone else knows the MacArthur as the “genius award.” Winning it means never having to prove yourself again – plus $500,000, no strings attached.

Once a year for five years, $100,000 will be deposited in your bank account. Nobody will check up on you. The idea is to give very smart people five years to focus on their work, without having to worry about money.

If you're fortunate, some things will change in your life in the following year.

Mad about monks

Jay Rubenstein – medieval historian, amateur musician, aficionado of science fiction and barbecue – sits in a Knoxville pub and recounts how he first got excited about the monks who made him a genius.

The story starts in 11th-century France. A Benedictine named Guibert of Nogent was struggling to make his way in the world and build a career in the church. In his own time, he never hit it big. But he was a deep thinker, a prickly observer and, courtesy of his mother, possessor of a ferocious Oedipus complex.

All of this made for a fantastic autobiography. Or so it seemed to Rubenstein, 900 years later, reading it as an undergraduate at Carleton College in Minnesota.

There was something surprisingly human about monks, he thought.

His studies took him to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and then to the University of California-Berkeley for a doctorate.

But his road soon got rougher. He shuffled around in one-year teaching appointments – the fast-food jobs of academia.

“He was discouraged but determined,” said Gary Barth, a close friend. “It was frustrating for all of us to watch. … Here is this clearly exceptional person, intellectually and in the classroom, going through this awful meat-grinder.”

Big topics, bold conclusions

After his years in the academic wilderness, Jay finally got a tenure-track job – at the University of New Mexico.

If not the most prestigious history department, it was a chance to settle down.

He expanded his dissertation into a 2002 book, “Guibert of Nogent: Portrait of a Medieval Mind.” It was no best-seller but boosted his profile. Young scholars typically play it safe, but Jay took on big topics and drew bold conclusions.

Gradually, papers and fellowships accumulated, and his star rose.

In 2006, the University of Tennessee recruited him with a generous offer: It would pay him to go to Europe for two years, to research the Crusades, before returning to Knoxville.

“It was finally like, ‘I don't have to feel ashamed,'” he said. “The job search seemed like such a hazing ritual. I think, it was, ‘Now I can settle down and disappear into obscurity. A year in Rome, a year in Paris, then I can settle down in Knoxville and teach.'”

The MacArthur award came when he was 40 and finally settled as a historian in Paris.

‘Exercise extreme caution'

What would Guibert, Rubenstein's intellectual companion for so many years and across so many centuries, have said about the MacArthur windfall? Jay finds it easy to imagine.

“You've been put in a very dangerous situation,” Guibert would say. “Exercise extreme caution. If possible, give it all away.”

While most of us would have partied across Paris in a champagne-fueled celebration, on the night Jay won he called his parents and grabbed a burger at a diner.

He keeps talking about buying a Fender Stratocaster guitar, but hasn't yet. On his blog, he holds out the possibility of using the money to become a “hillbilly crooner.” But really he plans to use it to write more books. His next one is on the Crusades. (Another MacArthur perk: Publishers call you.)

Jay admires monks for their pursuit of knowledge and self-understanding. But his outlook is different. The world doesn't have to be a terrible place, to be shunned for the university/monastery. You can have a delightful, adoring girlfriend and still write a good book. You can enjoy a well-deserved prize, guilt-free.

“I have good colleagues, barbecue, country music, and a babe to boot,” he says.

“What else does a guy need?”