I fondly remember my days playing little league baseball. Although I usually played right field, my parents tell me that I played the entire outfield when the ball was hit. I did not think that much about winning or losing -- I just loved being with my friends and kicking around the dirt. At some point, I did realize the teams that played the best won the championship and each member won a trophy. One day while at a friend’s house, I stopped to admire his shiny golden trophies.It was at this moment that I said to myself “I want a trophy!” While I was not the brightest young man to play baseball in Paris, Tenn., I quickly deduced that I needed to be a better player and that my team must work together to win the championship. I am happy to report that the Moose Lodge won the B league championship in 1978.
In the past several years, youth soccer groups have formed all across the country and have expanded the access that kids have to organized sports. The opportunity for kids to play soccer is tremendous and has benefited numerous youngsters. One thing that worries me is the trend in which in many leagues, all the kids get participation “trophies” at the end of the season. Please do not e-mail me concerning self-esteem. I have heard the discussion and cannot grasp this concept. Interestingly, the first time I discussed this issue was at a faculty forum on the characteristics of current college students. Although many positive attributes were revealed at this forum, faculty members indicated that some students feel a sense of entitlement and that their attendance and meager participation and performance should be rewarded with at least a C in a course. I spoke up and termed this the youth soccer phenomenon. Although this is a broad generalization, some college students have never been challenged and want a trophy (a grade of C) for minimal effort and work because they were on the team (came to class).
Another event reminded me that the higher education version of a youth soccer league is not just at the student level. I recently heard a few administrators discussing a grant program for faculty aimed at improving teaching and learning. The conversation was such that I felt like I was listening to youth soccer coaches who proudly pass out participation trophies at the end of the season. There was less concern for identifying faculty who had written meritorious proposals and more concern for making sure every applicant gets a piece of the funding pie.
Certainly, not all students and administrators fit the mold described above. In fact, I hope they are in the minority. However, my somewhat exaggerated analogies do speak to the important issue of maintaining and promoting academic excellence at all levels of higher education. I am not the first or the last person to comment on academic excellence at the university level; and I suspect that this term is in most mission statements and numerous commencement addresses. A current problem with this term is that it has been overused and misused to the point that it has different meanings to the various stakeholders in higher education. Although most educators gravitate toward the principles of academic excellence that call for quality and relevant work with high standards for students and faculty, the term mediocrity is being used more often in discussions of higher education.
The association of mediocrity with higher education should be on the minds of every faculty member. Faculty members are facing an academic tug-of-war against some students who want less work and institutions that are accepting more paying customers not prepared for or willing to face college-level responsibilities. Challenges to academic excellence can be formidable, but it will be faculty members in classrooms, laboratories and across campus who must fight the battle against mediocrity in higher education on a daily basis. The youth soccer model will not be effective in this effort as faculty must provide courses, curricula and research opportunities that challenge students and only reward deserving students with academic trophies. Students who do not succeed must be inspired to try again and construct a plan to earn the trophies on their transcript.
The youth soccer approach is also not the best scholarly model for faculty scholarship and recognition. For example, I do not want to have a paper published or grant funded just because it was submitted nor do I want to publish work in a so-called “peer-reviewed” journal sponsored by my own university. The shiniest trophies faculty earn (papers or books published, grants awarded, tenure, promotion, etc.) only come after considerable work and critical peer review.
To be honest, I would not have it any other way because I know this system usually identifies and rewards excellence. I have had several papers rejected for publication and usually go through periods of disgust, frustration, anxiety and ultimately motivation to produce a better product. In the end, if a revised edition of a manuscript is published, it is a better piece of work and I am glad that I was “invited” to take a closer look at my work and words to produce a higher quality paper. Invitations for excellence extended to faculty from peers and to students from faculty will always result in the highest quality work and provide the best scholarly work and teaching/learning experiences for faculty and students.
Last year my parents had to move out of their house into a smaller apartment. I was asked to look through boxes that contained some of the sports trophies I had accumulated during my younger days. They were a reflection of many years of my life, and I like to think that I received each one of the trophies because I earned it or gave my best effort to a winning team. I only kept my very first trophy and a golf ball used to win a junior tournament when I was 10. I sent the rest of the plastic memories to the trash and I put the golf ball in my office at school. This MacGregor Tourney DX ball (number 4) holds a special place in my heart as it is a constant reminder that hard work usually pays off in the end and that dedication is just as important as talent.
Although I have used an analogy involving youth soccer, the overriding theme of this commentary is that the current environment in higher education will require professors to rededicate themselves to the principles of academic excellence that promote quality and standards and retard mediocrity. A famous quote by the late Vince Lombardi may help in this endeavor: “There's only one way to succeed in anything, and that is to give it everything. I do, and I demand that my players do.” If faculty members stop giving and demanding “everything,” there will be a real crisis in higher education.
James Ricky Cox
James Ricky Cox is an associate professor of chemistry at Murray State University, where he is also a teaching scholar-in-residence at the Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology.
What possessed me to ask to study with the scholar I'll call Sebastian Klugmann? The field of literary study he was at the top of wasn't the one I was limping toward, his critical method didn't especially appeal to me, his style wasn't the one I went for in professors. I liked them older, crankier, as the early signs of collegial neglect are bringing on their first dismayed glimpses of the end. Klugmann didn't have any bitterness to stave off. He was younger, smoother, still influential and assured -- the ambivalence that distinguished his arguments was purely intellectual. He had the privilege of knowing that what he thought mattered, and the pleasure.
I couldn't have been any more his type than he was mine. It's surprising that he let me in to his graduate seminar, and his mistake would soon have been clear to him. I would arrive late, sit in a fold-up chair against a wall -- the high-backed chairs around the conference table were safely taken -- and keep my mouth shut. There's a place in a classroom for quietly engaged students, but a sense of engagement wasn't what I gave off.
It was by all measures a successful seminar: there were verbal footnotes, heated yet cordial disputes, vital principles in play and at stake, shirts with sweat marks running down the seam. Some respond to the fear of whitewater rafting trips or the loudness of certain concerts by falling asleep: My response to the wholesale expenditure in Klugmann's classroom of conflicting yet harmonized energies was to yawn, fidget, count my change for the run during break to the candy machine for a box of Skittles, chosen perhaps because they too could be counted. Only Genevieve could puncture the membrane of my inertia: dark-haired and green-eyed, she would turn to face Klugmann at the head of the table, her collarbone riding high beneath a blouse tightened against breasts swelling like a majestic wave that I might just have caught if only I had known how to surf. Then her full mouth would close and she'd turn away, her frame retreating into her clothing, and I'd slump back in my chair.
So what was I doing there? My motives were probably the common ones, curiosity and ambition. Like everyone else I must have been intrigued by Klugmann's celebrity. It must also have occurred to me as to everyone else that his letter of recommendation would look nice in my dossier. But if my motives were the same as everyone else's, why didn't I try to score points at the conference table like everyone else? Maybe I didn't want to appear to be sucking up and was trying to distinguish myself by my apathy.
Whatever he represented, however polished his manner, Klugmann turned out to be highly likable. He wore his knowledge lightly, agreed and disagreed generously, laughed readily. The lines on his face when he laughed suggested a vulnerability that allayed my distrust of his smoothness.
I tried to see him to discuss my term paper. There was always a wait. Once when I'd had the patience to get to the front of the line I discovered that the dog I took with me everywhere -- a mutt disguised as a Belgian shepherd -- had drifted away. Across campus was a pizzeria where they used so much oil that the toppings tended to slide off the pizza and, often enough, to the ground. I found the dog there as usual. By the time I got back to his office Klugmann had gone. I called to set up another appointment.
My feeling for home across the country was embodied in my devotion to its professional basketball team, the Knicks. This devotion was dire: the Knicks' fate concerned me more than my own. To watch them play was always stressful, but the effect on me of their playoff series against the Bulls belongs in the annals of hysteria. The Bulls were better. I was dead set against an inevitability.
During those game days I'd grow ever more anxious. Once a game was underway I'd pass from muttering gloom to stunned frenzy to a quasi-religious despair in which every basket the Bulls scored was another abomination. The Knicks' mistakes brought on apoplexy, foul calls against them a species of persecution mania. Their triumphs gave me no compensatory pleasure, merely relief.
The appointment Klugmann had given me fell in the middle of the decisive game. Halfway through the second quarter I saw that it was time to leave for it. I watched the rest of the quarter anyway, and was twenty minutes late when I knocked. Klugmann appeared to say he'd be with me shortly and withdrew. Staring at the letters of his name on the frosted glass office door, I played out in imagination the third quarter I was missing, a fantasy all the less convincing for being continually interrupted by resolutions to leave. The door opened. Genevieve came out and turned down the hallway without meeting my eyes.
Klugmann was composed, but I wasn't. Only when he had had me take a seat, fixed his gaze on me with an owlish deliberation and covered the back of one hand with the other -- only then did it strike me that whatever thought I might have given my paper topic was gone. I found that I hadn't come to discuss my work at all but to disavow my classroom persona, to establish a connection to Klugmann, to befriend him.
I was clumsy and inarticulate. I meant to tell him something of myself, but the game clock was ticking. To explain my hurry I launched into a manic excursus on the Knicks: the illustriousness of their history, the nobility of their cause, the precariousness of their situation. Klugmann seemed puzzled, but in a spirit of cordiality he offered an irrelevant anecdote about his boyhood infatuation with the Dodgers. I steered the subject back from baseball to basketball. He looked at his watch and invited me to come to the point. I mumbled something about being too deep in the research for my term paper to be able to discuss it. "Come back and see me when you've got your ducks in a row," Klugmann said. When I resumed my position in front of the television it was late in the game and the Knicks were in trouble.
I turned in my paper. Klugmann liked it well enough. His comments were apt and courteous but gave no hint of our further association. And we had none.
But a term or two later I ran into him in a hallway. His greeting was friendly and we struck up the kind of spontaneous desultory chat that I'd hoped to have in his office. I found myself asking him to excuse my behavior in our meeting. "I remember only that you seemed a little crazy," he said indulgently.
We walked together down the corridor. At the end he went through the swinging door of the men's room, a quartz, marble, and porcelain prewar beauty. I followed him in, and heard my words echo from tiles as he approached a urinal at the far side. I hesitated before going to one at the near side and unzipping my fly. Instead of repairing to a sink at the back of the room when he'd finished, Klugmann took a step towards me and resumed the conversation.
There were no partitions between the urinals, and the sides of the floor-length structure I faced are not so high as in a newer model. This older urinal was more like a tub than a chest and provided less shelter and privacy.
I hadn't had to go in the first place, and my nervousness at talking to Klugmann didn't help. Nothing would come out, not a drop, a fact that would have been apparent from Klugmann's vantage. He was still talking -- was he also looking? I didn't dare turn my head to find out. I was too busy deciding for how long to hold my position. At some moment of headlong abandon I broke into the magic dance men do to purge the last drop, flushed the toilet, put myself together and turned around. Klugmann was heading to the sinks. I did too, averting my eyes while I scrubbed my hands with a surgeon's diligence. We didn't look at each other again till we were back out. His eyes seemed to flash with mischief, and an incisor snagged his lower lip as if he was holding back a laugh. "It isn't that I was crazy," I said. "It was ...."
"A performance?" He clapped me on the shoulder, pivoted on a leather sole and started up the corridor.
"Yeah," I said after him.
"Bravo!" he cried without turning, "bravo," and gathered momentum for the loftier matters that awaited him.
James Wallenstein, who has a novel in need of a publisher, teaches writing at the New School, Pratt Institute, and Wesleyan University.
I can’t remember when I snapped. Was it the faculty seminar in which the instructor used the phrase “the objectivity, for it is not yet a subjectivity” to refer to a baby? Maybe it was the conference in which the presenter spoke of the need to “historicize” racism, rambled through 40 minutes of impenetrable jargon to set up “new taxonomies” to “code” newspapers and reached the less-than-startling conclusion that five papers from the 1820s “situated African-Americans within pejorative tropes.” Could it have been the time I evaluated a Fulbright applicant who filled an entire page with familiar words, yet I couldn’t comprehend a single thing she was trying to tell me? Perhaps it was when I edited a piece from a Marxist scholar who wouldn’t know a proletarian if one bit him in the keister. Or maybe it just evolved from day-to-day dealings with undergraduates hungry for basic knowledge, hold the purple prose.
At some point, I lost it. I began ranting in the faculty lounge. I hurled the Journal of American History/Mystery across the library, muttered in the shower, and sent befuddled e-mails to colleagues. I’m fine now. Once I unburdened I found I was not alone; lots of fellow academics agree that their colleagues couldn’t write intelligible explanations of how to draw water from the tap. From this was born the Society for Intellectual Clarity (SIC). We intend to launch a new journal, SIC PUPPY (Professors United in Plain Prose Yearnings) as soon as we find someone whose writing is convoluted enough to draft our grant application. (We’re told we should seek recruits among National Science Foundation recipients.)
Until the seed money comes in our journal is purely conceptual, but upon start-up SIC PUPPY will enact the following guidelines for submissions.
Titles: Brevity is a virtue. Titles with colons are discouraged. Any title with a colon, semi-colon, and a comma will be rejected on principle. We accept no responsibility for doodles and exclamatory obscenities scrawled on the returned text, even if you do enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope.
Style: If any manuscript causes one of our editors to respond to a late-night TV ad promising to train applicants for “an exciting career in long-distance trucking,” the author of said manuscript will be deemed a boring twit and his or her work will be returned. See above for doodle disclaimers.
Audience: Hey, would it kill you to write something an undergrad might actually read? If so, please apply for permanent residency in Bora Bora.
Terminology: If any author desires to invent a new term to describe any part of the research, refer to Greta Garbo’s advice on desire in the film Ninotchka: “Suppress it.” There are 171,476 active words in the English language and the authors of SIC PUPPY are confident that at least one of them would be adequate.
Nouns and Verbs: Among those 171, 476 words are some that are designated as nouns and others clearly meant as verbs. Do not confuse the two. SIC PUPPY refuses to conference with anyone about this. We have prioritized our objectives.
Thesis: We insist that you have one. If you don’t have anything to say, kindly refrain from demonstrating so. We do not care what Bakhtin, Derrida, Jameson, Marx, Freud, or Foucault have to say about your subject or any other. We’ve read them; we know what they think.
Academic Catfights: The only person who gives a squanker’s farley about literature reviews and historiography is your thesis adviser. We request that you get on with the article and reduce arcane debates to footnotes. The latter should be typed in three-point Windings font.
Editing for Smugness: If your article was originally a conference paper and, if at any time, you looked up from your text and smiled at your own cleverness, please delete this section and enroll in a remedial humility course.
No Silly Theories:SIC PUPPY does not care if a particular theory is in vogue; we will not consider silly ones. For example, bodies are bodies, not “texts” and dogs are dogs; they do not “signify” their “dogginess” through “signifier” barks. While we’re on the subject, we at SIC PUPPY have combed scientific journals to confirm that time machines do not exist. We thus insist that human beings can be postpartum or postmortem, but not postmodern.
Privileging Meaning: We believe that sometimes you’ve got to call it like it is, even if that entails using a label or category. We know that some of you think we shouldn’t privilege any meaning over another. To this we say, “We’re the editors, not you, and we intend to use our privileged positions of power to label those who reject categories ‘ninnies.’ So there!”
Citations: We insist that you use the Chicago Manual of Style for all citations. Not because we love it, but because it annoys us no end to see parentheses in the middle of text we’re trying to read. Why we read a theory on ellipses (Bakhtin, 1934) just last night describing how English authors (Wilde, 1905; Shaw, 1924) sought to embed Chartist messages (S. Webb, 1891) into....
Complaints: In the course of preparing a journal it is inevitable that typos will appear, that medieval French words will go to print with an accent aigu where an accent grave should have been, and that edits will be made to what you were sure was perfect prose (but wasn’t). Do not call the editors to complain that we’ve humiliated you before your peers and have ruined your academic career. SIC PUPPY will not waste time telling you to get a life; we will direct your call to the following pre-recorded message: “Thhhhhwwwwwwwpt!”
Satire and Irony: To paraphrase the folksinger Charlie King, serious people are ruining our world. If you do not understand satire, or confuse irony with cynicism, go away. Try therapy ... gin ... a warm bath ... anything! Except teaching or writing.
Robert E. Weir is a former senior Fulbright scholar who teaches at Smith College and the University of Massachusetts.
It's that time again. Sometimes it's about the next class. Sometimes it's about the last class. There are semesters when you are told in person. There are semesters when you are informed through email. You can be sure only that it will happen in virtually every undergraduate class -- the larger the first or second-year student population, the more certain: grandmothers will begin to die.
Last week my first succumbed, around the usual time, just past the semester's midpoint. Her grandson informed me in an e-mail, which contained only one problem: the date of the class meeting for which he would have to be absent was mistakenly given to be two days earlier than in fact the class meets. Was this in fact the day of the funeral? Is the student so overcome with grief that he can't even get his dates straight?
Or was there no funeral? Maybe there's not even any grandmother! What should I do? Insist upon a death certificate? (I've heard of some teachers who have.) At least seek clarification about whether the excuse has to do exclusively with the day of the funeral or else with some longer shadow of either family obligation or mortality itself?
You never know with student excuses, especially the most common ones. "There are 50 or 60 countries fighting in this war," protests a character in Catch-22. "Surely so many countries can't all be worth dying for." In the world of student excuses, there are a lot more than 50 or 60. They're all worth missing class for.
I wish at least there could somehow be a moratorium on dead grandmothers. (Why normally only them? Don't grandfathers die, too?)
"Oh, no," I exclaimed several years ago, when a student in a composition class stepped out afterwards to explain that she had been absent because her grandmother had died. "Another dead grandmother!"
The girl immediately burst into tears.
Of course I wished I was dead. The student's grandmother really had died. Or else her granddaughter was a good actress. But you want to try to avoid being too cynical about excuses, especially those involving death. Question these particular excuses and you may as well be questioning respect for the dead or the suffering of those left behind.
Indeed, death-driven excuses are the best ones because the mere mention of death is commonly uttered with the unspoken understanding that no more need be said; a teacher is expected to believe the excuse as a function of honoring the deceased. Objecting to one is like objecting to the other -- and of course each is ratified by the sheer fact of death itself, whose utter seriousness demands its own recognition and brooks no skepticism.
And yet after awhile it's simply impossible not to be skeptical about student excuses -- all of them. Not only does any one fit into some classification, having to do, say, with such things as technology (especially popular since the dawn of computers), health, or law. Worse, it becomes positively garish to hear them from students who speak as if their particular excuse has never been given before.
This can lead to a sort of paradox: the most exceptional the excuse, the more believable. Who would not be likely to credit a student who stepped up to disclose that his family feared he might be kidnapped by the Mexican Mafia, and so he would be absent the next two weeks? This excuse was given to a colleague of mine last semester. Early one afternoon, she also heard from a student who couldn't make it to class because the roof had just collapsed at the apartment house to which she had just moved.
To be fair, the colleague apparently knew each of these students, and already trusted them. In these circumstances, all credulous bets are usually off. Although many teachers would not like to admit it, the whole problem of student excuses in fact applies only to students whom one either does not know or cannot know.
Granted, this means most students. Part of the reason everybody is so uncomfortable about excuses is because excuses register education in terms of its sheer numbers as well as its inescapable routines and necessary rules. We're all happier when education is instead manifest as a more intimate, flexible affair.
Insisting, as many teachers do, that excuses will only be acceptable, if at all, when given beforehand, is really a way of trying to establish another model of education entirely. Too bad the shadow of dead grandmothers, like mortality itself, has to fall over this model. "Students recur," quoth a celebrated Oxford don. So do their excuses. They know not their recurrence. But we do.
Finally, what to do? The solution the profession seems to have settled on, if only by default, is this: treat student excuses under the sign of comedy. There is of course some justice in this (as a hundred Web sites attest). So many students are utterly naive; how is a teacher not to laugh upon being told that "my best friend's father died?" Also, the very situation of having to give an excuse is so solemn that a comic rhythm is not easily refused.
In a way, the best solution to the situation is one I heard from a former colleague. He fondly remembered an early afternoon undergraduate class where the teacher told the students that if they missed class, they had to explain why during the next class. The whole class would judge whether they believed the explanation. This led, it seemed, to riotous fun, with each student trying to outdo the last in creativity and inventiveness....
In effect, what the teacher had done was to transform the deadly serious matter of absences into something wholly ludic. Yet was such a thing only possible in the late 1940s, in what must have been a small upper-division class, among a group of largely men, most World War II veterans? My colleague usually brought up his experience when the students we were given to teach, in largely service courses, seemed bent only on manipulating or outwitting us. A class such as the one he remembered seemed inconceivable then.
It still does. I love outrageous excuses as much as the next person -- and the general aspect of student follies of various kinds still delights me. Sometimes, bracing myself for a student who is going to step up with an excuse about some past or future absence, I try to project an aura that suggests: "All right, since we know what's going to happen, let's see if we can get through this with some wit and intelligence as well as sympathy."
But it seems to me we seldom do. Usually it's another dead grandmother, or some uninteresting variants. Frank McCourt describes one encounter in his recent memoir, Teacher Man. Bored with patently false student excuses in his high school classes, he had students write out better excuses. It was fun until the assignment evolved into writing excuses for such people as Hitler's mistress and then the administration got wind of it.
I admire this solution. But only from afar. Were there no students who stepped up to McCourt with, er, dead serious dead grandmothers, despite all? And would such play be possible in today's no-nonsense, grade-driven college atmosphere? Always, regarding absences, the teacher is in the inescapable position of someone-supposed-to-accept (a grimmer version of Jacques Lacan's celebrated formulation of the teacher as "someone-supposed-to-know"). I can only haplessly try to transpose the terms of the acceptance into a cooler emotional register.
It's not satisfactory, though, and it's not satisfying. Finally, I believe no response on my part is. The excuses are amusing to read about on Web sites. The howlers may be wonderful to recount to friends and colleagues. But nothing really changes back in the classroom. The site of excuse-making is static, timeless. Classes to attend and tests to take we have always with us, and therefore students who are, alas, absent, but with good reason. In a pinch, any reason will do, despite the fact that some are more plausible or more urgent than others, or that still others appear so true that they may as well be judged artless, and therefore become false.
As teachers, it seems to me we finally have a choice with respect to student excuses: to become cynics or fools. Cynics disbelieve all excuses. (It's as if they all dissolve into dead grandmothers.) Fools believe them all. Myself, I'm probably incoherent by now, since, although I write about the whole question of excuses like a cynic, in practice I actually shrug over almost all of them like a fool.
In fact, it's worse. Each excuse-laden student who appears recalls to me a remark by Mary McCarthy, at the end of a chapter in The Stones of Florence. She quotes a Florentine who has recently remarked "that the pictures in the Uffizi had grown ugly from looking at the people who looked at them." By now I simply feel ugly from staring at so many lies. How rightly to regard a student who is lying to you? No question about teaching is harder to answer because no question is less attractive.
Terry Caesar's last column was about the image of violence in the classroom.
English Department, Box 8765A, U of All People, Centerville, KR 58767 (www.uallp.edu/english). Assistant Professor in Renaissance literature. Ph.D. required. 3/3 load. Salary $40,000. Duties include teaching composition, gym, and specialty every fifth year. Send CV and letter to Hiring Committee Chair. Deadline Oct. 15.
English, Box 8765A, U of All People, Centerville, KR 58767 (www.uallp.edu/english). Please ignore previous ad. Visiting Assistant Professor in Renaissance studies, Ph.D. required. 4/4 load. Salary starts at $35,000. Perks include semi-private office and access to faculty get-togethers. Send CV, letter, transcript, teaching philosophy, dossier, and writing sample to Dr. R. Murgatroyd, Chair, Search Committee. Deadline Oct. 25.
English, Box 8765A, U of All People, Centerville, KR 58767 (www.uallp.edu/english). Never mind previous ads. Visiting Instructor to teach five sections of composition per semester, as well as acting as English tutor for our student athletes. Ph.D. required. Salary laughable. Send CV, letter, and evidence of sanity to Dr. R. Murgatroyd, Chair, Search Committee. Deadline Nov. 30.
English, Box 8765A, U of All People, Centerville, KR 58767 (www.uallp.edu/english). Soliciting any warm body to teach at a school in the sticks without any charm; workload incommensurate with anything you’ve done before. Need ability to tolerate mind-numbingly dull students, an administration in love with itself, and a faculty simply waiting to retire. Evidence of experience welcomed. Salary debatable. Just arrive in person, and we’ll put you in front of a classroom. Deadline: 21st of Never. Ha ha....
English, Box 8765A, U of All People, Centerville, KR 58767 (www.uallp.edu/english). Full professor to fill our prestigious new Murgatroyd Memorial Chair in Renaissance Studies. This job, occasioned by the untimely death of Professor Reginald Murgatroyd and heavily endowed by a long-lost cousin, carries a 2/1 load. Applicants should have a substantial body of published scholarship, an international reputation, and many influential friends. Send CV and letter to Professor Myra Blowenthorpe, Chair Pro-tem. Deadline Jan. 15.
English, Box 8765A, U of All People, Centerville, KR 58767 (www.uallp.edu/english). Search extended: Murgatroyd Memorial Chair in Renaissance Studies. Responsibilities include directing the new R. M. Renaissance Center and getting along with a chancellor who doesn’t respect the liberal arts. Send CV and cautious, diplomatic letter to Professor X. R. Clancy, Interim Chair. Deadline Feb. 15.
English, Box 8765A, U of All People, Centerville, KR 58767 (www.uallp.edu/english). Search postponed indefinitely for Murgatroyd Memorial Chair in Renaissance Studies. We could say that no candidates fit the bill or that our funds for the position were suspended, but instead we’ll let you guess as to just what administrative mess occasioned this screw-up. Send no CVs or letters, please, until next year, when we’ll probably try again.
David Galef is a professor of English and administrator of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the University of Mississippi. His latest book is the short story collection Laugh Track (2002).
I am a baby-boom parent with children in college. We baby-boomers, now in our pre-dotage, have become infamous on college campuses -- again -- this time for noisily hovering over our children as they try to make their ways in the world (see Wikpedia on “helicopter parents”). From my own bleak experience -- both professional and personal -- I can say with confidence that our children become adults not because of our involvement in their lives, but in spite of it.
Penny Rue, the University of Virginia’s dean of students, calls us “benign dictators.” We, who reacted against the enforced age hierarchy of our own dictatorial parents, have become instead oppressors whose rule is based on the illusion that we and our children are peers, Rue says. And the illusion is so strong, that our children are fooled into not claiming the birthright that we claimed at their age: personal autonomy.
This embrace of dependence is not surprising given the attitudes of contemporary college students toward their parents. At the University of Maryland at College Park, James M. Osteen, the assistant vice president for student affairs, writes, “I find that students and their parents generally have a much closer relationship in recent years as compared to earlier decades. Students are very likely to list their parents as significant role models; whereas in the past students might name people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King or Mother Theresa.”
It is sweet and fine for your 5 year old to think of you as sainted and heroic, but for your 20 year old to have the same attitude should be worrying. Why don’t we hear self-help sages speaking of the problem of arrested development any more? Where are the Erik Eriksons of yesteryear?
Rue and Osteen see the positive side of parental involvement. Both judge today’s parental role as student advocates to be an invitation to college-parent partnerships that can benefit students. But they also recognize the dangers: Both Osteen and Rue note that with parents handling everything from roommate problems to purchasing airplane tickets, students cannot develop a sense of mastery and the confidence necessary to live on one’s own. Erikson might observe that such parental behavior deprives young people of their identities as autonomous and competent adults.
I learned my own necessary lesson about meddling in my children’s education probably too late, after the critical period of Eriksonian development -- when the second of my three children was in sixth grade. Before that, I would regularly become concerned and then incensed about some way or other schools were failing my children. So caught up in tilting at windmills, I did not devote a moment’s attention to the big picture -- to problems of other students, teachers, schools, or to my children’s educational needs beyond small and preoccupying slights.
This is how I learned my lesson: My child, a superior sort of girl, of course, seemed not to be doing any work, while at the same time was receiving good grades. At a teacher conference I complained/boasted that my daughter was not doing any work and getting good grades. I suppose I imagined that with the complaint, her brilliance would be more appreciated, and she would get the special attention that as an exceptional person she deserved. Sure enough, it got her more attention immediately. Her grades plummeted. She became discouraged. And until she enrolled in college and had only herself to please, she never again studied for a test or did a lick of homework. To this day, this is the story my children tell their friends to describe the sort of person their mother is. There is no living it down.
As a parent of two in college and one in graduate school, I get involved only in questions of spelling. They may beg me to advise about conditional clauses, but I stand firm. I do listen to complaints about roommates, but have learned that in this area as in most issues of personal relationships it is best to listen only.
If other parents would fail earlier in their micro-management careers, college educators would not have to grin and bear helpful advice from over-bearing parents who threaten to bury student affairs offices under ship-loads of constructive criticism. Student affairs professional regularly remark to novices, “You see all those students walking around with cell phones? They are not talking to friends. They are talking to their mothers.”
And what are these students telling their parents? What they want to hear: that the people who run colleges don’t know half as much as their parents do and that life on campus is hell. And then their parents get on their mobile phones and call administrators who, if they weren’t chained to their desks would run screaming from their shabby little offices each time a call from a parent were announced.
I’ve looked at life from both sides now -- as a parent and as a college administrator. These calls can generate a lot of negative emotion -- raising blood pressure of both parents and college administrators. The number of these calls increase exponentially every year. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that in 2003, 16.6 million students were enrolled in college. I imagine that 16.6 million cell phones transmitting the troubled chatter of parents and children about what is going wrong in college must surely be capable of unbalancing the music of the spheres.
When I worked in a college president’s office, I often took calls from irate parents. I sometimes thought I felt the universe skipping a beat as they described the woes of their children in college: not being able to get into a popular (gut) class; wet, slippery floors in the bathroom; having to go to class in the snow/wind/rain; having an electrical box mounted outside their dorm room (which was sending out dangerous electrical waves); poor grades on tests studied for; having to study for tests over Thanksgiving break; having too short a Thanksgiving/Christmas/Summer break; administrators not doing something about hurt feelings caused by not being offered a place in a fraternity; not doing something about roommates having sex; not being allowed to cheat on exams; the president getting too tough on those who assault others, etc., etc. Some parents would call already angry. Some would become angry when they realized that no matter how much they wanted it, changing the university was going to take longer than 24 hours. They became angrier and angrier as they were transferred from one office to another. The political science department would get calls from parents complaining about fully enrolled courses out of which their children were closed out. The department would pass the calls on to the provost’s office, which would pass it along to the president’s office. What did I do? I told these parents to write to their legislators about getting more funding for public universities. I pitied the next person they would talk to after getting off the phone with me.
Sometimes I think that my generation doesn’t much care about what we are trying to control. It is the existential act of exerting control that is important to us. Not going gently into that good night makes us forget ultimate truths. We may have short memories, but those we plague with our demands do not. Student affairs officers shake their heads and remember that baby boomers in their own youths had demonstrated for increased personal freedom, and had gotten rid of the college practice of in loco parentis. Now for their children, irony of ironies, they are demanding that it be put back.
In our 45-60 years we have been promiscuous and irrational in many of the issues we have raised our voices about. We got the U.S. out of Vietnam and, 30 years later, into Iraq. We started the sexual revolution, and now we vote for anti-birth control and anti-abortion politicians. We rejected our elders’ assertion of control over our lives and we put chokeholds on the lives of our children.
The time has come to think about the consequences of indiscriminately throwing our considerable middle-aged weight around. It seems to me we have to face some facts. First of all, we need to let our children grow up. Second, we need to realize that we can’t stop the world from turning, that the generation we bred will replace us, and that they need to be prepared to do so. Most of all, we need to grow up, grow old, shut up, and step aside.
Margaret Gutman Klosko
Margaret Gutman Klosko is a writer based in Virginia.
The wedding announcements in The New York Times are, as all amateur sociologists know, a valuable source of raw data concerning prestige-display behavior among the American elite. But they do not provide the best index of any individual’s social status. Much more reliable in that respect are the obituaries, which provide an estimate of the deceased party’s total accumulated social capital. They may also venture a guess, between the lines, about posterity’s likely verdict on the person.
In the case of John Kenneth Galbraith, who died last week, the Times obituary could scarcely fail to register the man’s prominence. He was an economist, diplomat, Harvard professor, and advisor to JFK. Royalties on his book The Affluent Society (1958) guaranteed that -- as a joke of the day had it -- he was a full member. But the notice also made a point of emphasizing that his reputation was in decline. Venturing with uncertain steps into a characterization of his economic thought, the obituary treated Galbraith as kind of fossil from some distant era, back when Keynsian liberals still roamed the earth.
He was patrician in manner, but an acid-tongued critic of what he once called "the sophisticated and derivative world of the Eastern seaboard." He was convinced that for a society to be not merely affluent but livable (an important distinction now all but lost) it had to put more political and economic power in the hands of people who exercised very little of it. It was always fascinating to watch him debate William F. Buckley -- encounters too suave to call blood sport, but certainly among the memorable moments on public television during the pre-"Yanni at the Acropolis" era. He called Buckley the ideal debating partner: “pleasant, quick in response, invulnerable to insult, and invariably wrong.”
Galbraith’s influence was once strong enough to inspire Congressional hearings to discuss the implications of his book The New Industrial State (1967). Clearly that stature has waned. But Paul Samuelson was on to something when he wrote, “Ken Galbraith, like Thorstein Veblen, will be remembered and read when most of us Nobel Laureates will be buried in footnotes down in dusty library stacks.”
The reference to the author of The Theory of the Leisure Class is very apropos, for a number of reasons. Veblen’s economic thought left a deep mark on Galbraith. That topic has been explored at length by experts, and I dare not bluff it here. But the affinity between them went deeper than the conceptual. Both men grew up in rural areas among ethnic groups that never felt the slightest inferiority vis-a-vis the local establishment. Veblen was a second-generation Norwegian immigrant in Wisconsin. Galbraith, whose family settled in a small town in Canada, absorbed the Scotch principle that it was misplaced politeness not to let a fool know what you thought of him. “Better that he be aware of his reputation,” as Galbraith later wrote, “for this would encourage reticence, which goes well with stupidity.”
Like Veblen, he had a knack for translating satirical intuitions into social-scientific form. But Galbraith also worked the other way around. He could parody the research done by “the best and the brightest,” writing sardonically about what was really at stake in their work.
I’m thinking, in particular, of The McLandress Dimension (1963), a volume that has not received its due. The Times calls it a novel, which only proves that neither of the two obituary writers had read the book. And it gets just two mentions, in passing, in Richard Parker’s otherwise exhaustive biography John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2005).
While by no means a major work, The McLandress Dimension deserves better than that. Besides retrieving the book from obscurity, I’ll take a quick look at a strange episode in its afterlife.
The McLandress Dimension, a short collection of articles attributed to one “Mark Epernay,” was published by Houghton Mifflin during the late fall of 1963. At the time, Galbraith was the U.S. ambassador to India. Portions of the book had already appeared in Esquire and Harper’s. One reviewer, who was clearly in on the joke, introduced Mark Epernay as “a gifted young journalist who has specialized in the popularization -- one might almost say the vulgarization -- of what one has learned to call the behavioral sciences.”
The pen name combined an allusion to Mark Twain with a reference to a town in France that Galbraith had come across in a book about the Franco-Prussian war. (Either that, or on the side of a wine crate; he was not consistent on this point.) “The pseudonym was necessary because I was then an ambassador,” recalled Galbraith in a memoir, “and the State Department required its people to submit their writing for review while forbidding them to take compensation for it.... However, it did not seem that this rule need apply to anything written in true anonymity under a false name. Accordingly, I wrote to the then Attorney General, Mr. Robert Kennedy, proposing that I forego the clearance and asking if I might keep the money. So difficult was the question or so grave the precedent that my letter was never answered.”
But Epernay was just the foil for Galbraith’s real alter ego -- the famous Herschel McLandress, the former professor of psychiatric measurement at the Harvard Medical School and chief consultant to the Noonan Psychiatric Clinic in Boston. The researcher was a frequent recipient of grants from the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and sundry other nonprofit geysers of soft money. His ideas were the subject, as Epernay put it, “of some of the most trenchant debates in recent years at the Christmas meetings of the American Association for Psychometrics.” While his name was not yet a household word, McLandress had an impressive (if top-secret) list of clients among prominent Americans.
The work that defined his career was his discovery of “the McLandress Coefficient” – a unit of measurement defined, in laymen’s terms, as “the arithmetic mean or average of intervals of time during which a subject’s thoughts centered on some substantive phenomenon other than his own personality.”
The exact means of calculating the “McL-C,” as it was abbreviated, involved psychometric techniques rather too arcane for a reporter to discuss. But a rough estimate could be made based on how long any given person talked without using the first-person singular pronoun. This could be determined “by means of a recording stopwatch carried unobtrusively in the researcher’s jacket pocket.”
A low coefficient -- anything under, say, one minute -- “implies a close and diligent concern by the individual for matters pertaining to his own personality.” Not surprisingly, people in show business tended to fall into this range.
Writers had a somewhat higher score, though not by a lot. Epernay noted that Gore Vidal had a rating of 12.5 minutes. Writing in The New York Review of Books, Vidal responded, ““I find this ... one finds this odd.”
What drew the most attention were the coefficients for various political figures. Nikita Khrushchev had the same coefficient as Elizabeth Taylor – three minutes. Martin Luther King clocked in at four hours. Charles de Gaulle was found to have the very impressive rating of 7 hours, 30 minutes. (Further studies revealed this figure to be somewhat misleading, because the general did not make any distinction between France and himself.) At the other extreme was Richard Nixon, whose thoughts never directed beyond himself for more than three seconds.
Epernay enjoyed his role as Boswell to the great psychometrician. Later articles discussed the other areas of McLandress’s research. He worked out an exact formula for calculating the Maximum Prestige Horizon of people in different professions. He developed the “third-dimensional departure” for acknowledging the merits of both sides in any controversial topic while carefully avoiding any form of extremism. (This had been mastered, noted Epernay, by “the more scholarly Democrats.”)
And McLandress reduced the size of the State Department by creating a fully automated foreign policy -- using computers to extrapolate the appropriate response to any new situation, based on established precedent. “Few things more clearly mark the amateur in diplomacy,” the reporter explained, “than his inability to see that even the change from the wrong policy to the right policy involves the admission of previous error and hence is damaging to national prestige.”
One piece in the book covered the life and work of someone who has played a considerable role in the development of the modern Republican Party, though neither Galbraith nor Epernay could have known that at the time.
The figure in question was Allston C. Wheat, “one of the best tennis players ever graduated from Cornell” as well as a very successful “wholesaler of ethical drugs, antibiotics, and rubber sundries in Philadelphia.” Upon retirement, Wheat threw himself into he writings of Ludwig von Mises, Ayn Rand, and Barry Goldwater, among others. His studies left Wheat sorely concerned about the menace of creeping socialism in America. As well he might be. Certain developments in the American educational system particularly raised his ire. Wheat raised the alarm against that insidious subversive indoctrination in collectivist ideology known as “team sports.”
“Every healthy able-bodied young American is encouraged to participate in organized athletic events,” Wheat noted in a widely-circulated pamphlet. This was the first step in brainwashing them. For an emphasis on “team spirit” undermines good, old-fashioned, dog-eat-dog American individualism. “The team,” he warned, “is the social group which always comes first.... If you are looking for the real advance guard for modern Communism, you should go to the field-houses and the football stadiums.”
The tendency of the Kennedys to play touch football at family gatherings proved that “they are collectivist to the core.” And then there was the clincher: “Liberals have never liked golf.”
Wheat’s dark suspicions had a solid historical basis. “In 1867,” Epernay pointed out in a footnote, “the first rules for college football were drawn up in Princeton, New Jersey. That was the year of the publication of Das Kapital.... Basketball was invented in 1891 and the Socialist Labor Party ran its first candidate for President in the following year.” Coincidence? Don’t be gullible. As the saying has it, there’s no “I” in “team.”
The goal of Wheat’s movement, the Campaign for Athletic Individualism, was to ensure that young people’s McLandress Coefficients were low enough to keep America free. Today, Wheat has been forgotten. No doubt about it, however: His legacy grows.
In many ways,The McLandress Dimension was in many ways a product of its moment -- that is, Camelot, the early 60s, a time of heavy traffic on the wonky crossroads where social science and public policy meet.
Books like Vance Packard’s The Status Seekers were showing that the American social hierarchy, while in transition, was very much in place. A celebrity culture in the arts, politics, and academe was emerging to rival the one based in Hollywood. The sort of left-liberal who read Galbraith with approval could assume that the McCarthyist worldview belonged in the dustbin of history.
The McLandress Dimension satirized all these things -- but in a genial way. It said, in effect: “Let’s not be too serious about these things. That would be stupid.”
So Galbraith’s timing was good. But it was also, in a way, terrible. Articles about the book started appearing in early December -- meaning they had been written at least a few weeks earlier, before the assassination of the president. There was a lightheartedness that must have been jarring. Most of the reviewers played along with the gag. One magazine sent a telegram to the embassy in India, asking Galbraith, “Are you Mark Epernay?” He cabled back, ”Who’s Mark Epernay?”
But the season for that kind of high spirits was over. If Herschell McLandress was the embodiment of the number-crunching technocratic mentality in 1963, his place in the public eye was soon taken by Robert McNamara. Such “extremists in defense of liberty” as Allston Wheat were trounced during the 1964 presidential campaign -- only to emerge from it stronger and more determined than ever. Galbraith’s serious writings were a major influence on the Great Society programs of the Johnson administration. But that consummation that was also, with hindsight, a swan’s song.
As for The McLandress Dimension itself, the writings of Mark Epernay found a place in the bibliographies of books on Galbraith. But they were ignored even by people writing on the development of his thought. I recently did a search to find out if anyone ever cited the work of Herschel McLandress in a scholarly article, perhaps as an inside joke. Alas, no. All that turns up in JSTOR, for example, is a brief mention Galbraith’s book in an analysis of the humorous literature on Richard Nixon. (There is, incidentally, rather a lot of it.)
And yet the story does not quite end there.
In 1967, the Dial Press issued Report from Iron Mountain: On the Possibility and Desirability of Peace, which the publisher claimed was in fact a secret government document. The topic was the socio-economic implications of global peace. It was prepared, according to the introduction, by a group of prominent but unnamed social scientists. The prose was leaden, full of the jargon and gaseous syntax of think-tank documents.
The challenge facing the Iron Mountain group, it seemed, was to explore any adverse side-effects of dismantling the warfare state. The difficulties were enormous. Military expenditures were basic to the economy, they noted. Threat from an external enemy fostered social cohesion. And the Army was, after all, a good place for potentially violent young men.
It would be necessary to find a way to preserve all the useful aspects of war preparation, and to contain all the problems it helped solve. A considerable amount of social restructuring would be required should the Cold War end. The think tank proposed various options that leaders might want to keep in mind. It could prove necessary to sponsor new forms of extremely violent entertainment, introduce slavery, and concoct a plausible story about the threat of extraterrestrial invasion.
This was, of course, a satire on the “crackpot realism” (as C. Wright Mills once termed it) of the Rand Institute and the like. It was concocted by Leonard Lewin, a humor writer, and Victor Navasky, the editor of The Nation. But the parody was so good as to be almost seamless. It proposed the most extreme ideas in an incredibly plodding fashion. And the scenarios were only marginally more deranged-sounding than anything mooted by Herman Kahn, the strategist of winnable thermonuclear war.
Serious journals devoted articles to debating the authenticity of the document. One prominent sociologist wrote a long article suggesting that it was so close to the real thing that one might as well take it seriously. At one point, people in the White House were reportedly making inquiries to determine whether Report from Iron Mountain might not be the real thing.
In the midst of all this, Herschel McLandress, who had retreated into silence for almost four years, suddenly returned to public life. In an article appearing in The Washington Post, the great psychometrician confirmed that Report from Iron Mountain was exactly what it claimed to be. He had been part of the working group involved in the initial brainstorming. He chided whoever was responsible for leaking the document. By no means were Americans ready to face the horrors of peace. He did not challenge any of the report’s conclusions. “My reservations,” McLandress stated, “relate only to the wisdom of releasing it to an obviously unconditioned public.”
Writing from behind his persona, Galbraith turned in a credible impression of social-science punditry at its most pompous. (You can read the entire review here.) It must have been very funny if you knew what was going on. And presumably some people did remember that McLandress was himself a figment of the imagination.
But not everyone did. Over time, Report from Iron Mountain became required reading for conspiracy theorists -- who, by the 1990s, were quite sure it was a blueprint for the New World Order. After all, hadn’t a reviewer vouched for its authenticity in The Washington Post?
And what did Galbraith think of all this? I have to.... One has to wonder.
In view of the incidents surrounding several recent visits sponsored by our campus lecture series, the Charles M. Humfdinger Memorial Lecture Committee has issued some new rules for all speakers invited to campus. The latest guidelines issued by the AAUP, “Academic Freedom and Outside Speakers,” are welcome but simply too vague.
1. Visiting lecturers are to be chosen by a vote from all the committee members, which is to say a real assembly planned for everyone, not an ad hoc meeting hastily drawn up by the chair that almost no one can attend, during which an uncontested nomination for a speaker is put forth. 2. The makeup of the lecture committee shall consist of faculty from a range of disciplines, not a wedge from the Slavic Language and Culture Program. 3. The visiting lecturer should represent a field of interest to a broad spectrum on campus, such as architecture or sociology, not just one professor’s specialty on, say, Flemish ceramics from the 1860s. 4. The agreed-upon speaker’s fee shall be restricted to $5,000, even if the guest speaker claims to receive three times that much from other institutions. There shall be no percentage of this fee distributed to other parties. 5. The phrase “including travel and accommodations” should be normally construed as meaning a regular round trip fare in coach class, airport pickup and delivery by a graduate student, and a stay at our Alumni House Motel. While it is understood that extra exigencies may occasionally crop up, a charter jet and the rental of a Jaguar are not in that category. 6. Special provisions may be available for guest lecturers who wish to bring their spouses, but not additional family members, groupies, or so-called servants. 7. The lecturer should make him or herself available to interested parties, engaging in activities that include visiting classes and meeting students and faculty during our three o’clock coffee hour. Holing up in the Alumni House Motel all day should be at all costs discouraged. 8. The pre-lecture dinner with the chancellor is mandatory, though the choice of chicken or pork should be broadened to include a vegetarian option. 9. Though the committee is reluctant to impose a dress code, the speaker should be aware that the Humfdinger Memorial Lecture is a ceremonial occasion. Consequently, tank tops, cutoffs, and thongs are aggressively discouraged. 10. Mrs. Humfdinger, the widow of Professor Charles M. Humfdinger and the endower of our lecture series, is a dignified woman who should not be referred to as “that old bat,” “grannykins,” or other overly familiar terms. 11. The duration of the Charles M. Humfdinger Memorial Lecture is to be about an hour, not a five-minute improvised speech followed by a Q & A session. 12. All speeches are to be delivered in English or with the assistance of a suitable translator. 13. All speakers are to be reminded that U. of All People is not only a dry campus, but also a drug-free zone. A copy of our bylaws will be distributed ahead of time. 14. The rooms at the Alumni House Motel are orderly and clean and should be kept that way. Reimbursement for any damage incurred to the room shall come out of the speaker’s fee. 15. Speakers are reminded that all guests of U. of All People are also guests of the state and must abide by its sexual statutes. These rules include a proper regard for minors and the dean of liberal arts.
We make every attempt to make the speaker’s visit to campus a pleasant one. The recently set up Charles M. Humfdinger Memorial Lecture Investigation Committee has yet to issue its report, but we hope that the institution of these bylaws will render any punitive actions unnecessary.
David Galef is a professor of English and administrator of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the University of Mississippi. His latest book is the short story collection Laugh Track (2002).
I am a digitally-enabled, network-ready scholar. I check e-mail and browse the Web. I read RSS feeds. I leverage Web 2.0's ambient findability to implement AJAX-based tagsonomy-focused long-tail wiki content alerting via preprint open-access e-archives with social networking services. I am so enthusiastic about digital scholarship that about a year ago I published a piece in my scholarly association's newsletter advocating that we incorporate it into our publications program. The piece was pretty widely read. At annual meetings I had colleagues tell me that they really like it and are interested in digital scholarship but they still (and presumably unlike me) enjoy reading actually physical books. This always surprised me because I love books too, and it never occurred to me that an interest in digital scholarship meant turning your back on paper. So just to set the record straight, I would like to state in this (admittedly Web-only) public forum that I have a deep and abiding passion for paper: I love it. Love it.
It's true that there is a lot of stuff you can do with PDFs and the Web that you can’t do with paper, but too often people take this to mean that digital resources "have features" or "are usable" while paper is just, you know, paper. But this is not correct -- paper (like any information technology) has its own unique form of usability just as digital resources have theirs. Our current students are unused to paper and attribute the frustration they feel when they use it as a mere lack of usability when in fact they simply haven't figured out how it works. Older scholars, meanwhile, tend to forget about paper’s unique utility because using it has simply become second nature to them.
Some of the features of paper are well known: Reading more than three pages of text on a screen makes your eyes bleed, but I can read paper for hours. You can underline, highlight, and annotate paper in a way that is still impossible with Web pages. And, of course, in the anarchy after The Big Electromagnetic Pulse the PDFs will be wiped clean off my hard drive but I will still be able to barter my hard copy of Durkheim's Elementary Forms of the Religious Life for food and bullets.
But my passion for paper is about more than preserving the sociological canon in a post-apocalyptic future. Using paper is embodied in a way that using digital resources are not. Paper has a corporeality that digital texts do not. For instance, have you ever tried to find a quote in a book and been unable to remember whether it was on the left or right hand side of the page? This just a trivial example of way in which paper’s physicality is the origin of its utility.
And of course professors have bodies too. This is another way that scholarship is embodied -- we often do it while in libraries. Here our bodies are literally in a vast assemblage of paper with its own unique form of usability. And as scholars achieve total communion with the stacks, they find books based not just on catalog number, but on all of their senses. The fourth floor of the library I wrote my Ph.D. in sounded and smelled differently than the second did. How many of us -- even the lab scientists -- with Ph.D.'s will ever be able to forget the physical layout of the libraries where we wrote our dissertations? Or our undergraduate libraries? I find books in my current library by comparing its floorplan with the layout of the college library where I first studied.
And catalog systems! I am a DU740.42 man myself, although I freelance in B2430 at times and of course retain a broader competence in G and GN. I was visiting a colleague at Duke once and went into its library to see what sort of GN treasures it might have stored away only to find that the library used Dewey Decimal -- a fact I experienced with surprisingly raw sense of betrayal.
The very fact that libraries can’t buy every book is a form of utility, not a disadvantage. True, there is tons of hubub about Web sites that provide users "personalized recommendations" based on their preferences and the preferences of people in their social networks. But in practice all this has boiled down to the fact that after years of using Amazon.com, it has finally figured out that since I enjoyed reading Plato's Republic, I might also be interested in Homer's Iliad. But every book in my library has been "filtered" by my librarian, and browsing through stacks arranged by subject allows "discovery" of "resources" in a non-metaphorical pre-Internet way.
At Reed, where I went to college, the library had a disused, musty room dubbed the "multiple copy room." Not surprisingly, it was where all the multiple copies of books were stored. The librarians at a small liberal arts college like mine did not buy 10 copies of a book unless they sure that it was a keeper, worthy of being taught for eons, its wisdom instilled into countless generations of students who would value it so much that they would weep when bartering their own copies of it for food and bullets after The Big Electromagnetic Pulse. Browsing through and reading from those shelves was the best "filter" for "content" that I ever had. So much for "the long tail."
And of course browsing doesn't just happen in libraries. Amazon may have a bintillion books for sale out in the ether of the ethernet, but there is no better place to take the pulse of academic publishing that a good used book store near a university. Bookstores mark the life cycle and disposition of the community where they are physically located -- the end-of-the year glut of books dumped by students eager to rid themselves of dead weight like Anna Karenina in order to spend more time tinkering with their MySpace page is itself a good indicator of what a university has been assigning.
Bookstores also connect us to the larger scholarly community. Remainders -- books that are being sold at discount prices because publishers want them out of their warehouses -- are a remarkable measure of what fads have just passed in scholarly publishing or what is about to come out in paperback. And of course just being in a good bookshop can be therapeutic. A good friend of mine worked his way through college at a Walden Books. After work he would spend a half hour in the aisles of our local used book store, staring at the covers of Calvino novels until he had recovered from eight hours of selling people copies of The Celestine Prophecy.
The used book store is the horizon at which our human finitude and our books intersect. I have actually been turned on to the work of scholars based solely on the fact that I've purchased so many books from their collections. One book store I frequent actually put a picture of one recently deceased professor in the window to advertise that his library was on sale. Some find the practice morbid, but for me this sort of thing is the academic equivalent of the life-affirming musical number in The Lion King about how we are all part of the circle of life. Roscher and Knies costs $180 off the Internet and is scarcer than hen's teeth, but in that magical, electric moment that I found it used for 20 bucks I knew that in cherishing and loving it I would not only be honoring the memory of the previous owner, but perpetuating the hopelessly over-specialized intellectual lineage which we both cared about so deeply.
What I am trying to say is that owning and reading books is about our lives as scholars in a way that e-journals are not. Our libraries are furniture. They are decoration. They threaten the breathable air to paper ratio in our apartments and offices. Books spill over my shelves. They crowd my kitchen table. We are what we read. On my bedside I currently have one Hawaiian language textbook, Dan Simmon's science fiction novel Hyperion, Jonathan Lamb's Preserving the Self In The South Seas: 1680-1840, Eugene Genovese's Roll Jordan Roll and Jean-Luc Nancy's The Inoperable Community. In this combination I find elemental solace.
Our collections of physical, paper texts do not only help explain who we are to ourselves, they signal this to our visitors. When my guests first enter my apartment and make a beeline to my shelves they are actually learning more about me. When they admire my copy of Roscher and Knies I am learning something about them. When they spot my first edition of Ricky Jay's Cards as Weapons or Scatological Rites Of All Nations I know that I have found a true soul mate. I am convinced that this is somehow more important than finding out that the professor in the office next to me reads the same cat blogs that I do.
It is easy to see that paper will continue to be used by academics for a long time to come purely on the basis of its utility as an information technology. But we are not passionate about paper because it is a good research tool. We are passionate about it because of the way that it smells and feels. Our love of paper springs from the way it insinuates itself into not only our career, but our souls. This is why, after The Big Electromagnet Pulse, I won't be working desperately on some computer somewhere trying to resurrect my metadata. I’ll be fortifying the multiple copy room and trying to figure out how few copies of The Andaman Islanders I’ll have part with to keep alive until someone manages to turn the power back on.
Alex Golub finished his dissertation in anthropology at the University of Chicago in 2005 and is now an adjunct professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He blogs at Savage Minds, a group blog about cultural anthropology.
The table sits at the front of the bookshop, near the door. That way it will get maximum exposure as people come and go. "If you enjoyed The Da Vinci Code," the sign over it says, "you might also like..." The store is part of a national chain, meaning there are hundreds of these tables around the country. Thousands, even.
And yet the display, however eyecatching, is by no means a triumph of mass-marketing genius. The bookseller is denying itself a chance to appeal to an enormous pool of consumer dollars. I'm referring to all the people who haven’t read Dan Brown’s globe-bestriding best-seller -- and have no intention of seeing the new movie -- yet are already sick to death of the whole phenomenon.
"If you never want to hear about The Da Vinci Code again," the sign could say, "you might like...."
The book’s historical thesis (if that is the word for it) has become the cultural equivalent of e-mail spam. You just can’t keep it out. The premise sounds more preposterous than thrilling: Leonardo da Vinci was the head of a secret society (with connections to the Knights Templar) that guarded the hidden knowledge that Mary Magdeleine fled Jerusalem, carrying Jesus’s child, and settled in France....
All of this is packaged as a contribution to the revival of feminine spirituality. Which is, in itself, enough to make the jaw drop, at least for anyone with a clue about the actual roots of this little bit of esoteric hokum.
Fantasies about the divine bloodlines of certain aristocratic families are a staple of the extreme right wing in Europe. (The adherents usually also possess "secret knowledge" about Jewish bankers.) And anyone contending that the Knights Templar were a major factor behind the scenes of world history will turn out to be a simpleton, a lunatic, or some blend of the two -- unless, of course, it’s Umberto Eco goofing on the whole thing, as he did in Foucault’s Pendulum.
It's not that Dan Brown is writing crypto-fascist novels. He just has really bad taste in crackpot theories. (Unlike Eco, who has good taste in crackpot theories.)
And Leonardo doesn’t need the publicity -- whereas my man Athanasius Kircher, the brilliant and altogether improbable Jesuit polymath, does.
Everybody has heard of the Italian painter and inventor. As universal geniuses go, he is definitely on the A list. Yet we Kircher enthusiasts feel duty-bound to point out that Leonardo started a lot more projects than he ever finished -- and that some of his bright ideas wouldn’t have worked.
Sure, Leonardo studied birds in order to design a flying machine. But if you built it and jumped off the side of a mountain, they’d be scrapping you off the bottom of the valley. Of course very few people could have painted "Mona Lisa." But hell, anybody can come up with a device permitting you to plunge to your death while waving your arms.
Why should he get all the press, while Athanasius Kircher remains in relative obscurity? He has just as much claim to the title of universal genius. Born in Germany in 1602, he was the son of a gentleman-scholar with an impressive library (most of it destroyed during the Thirty Years’ War). By the time Kircher became a monk at the age of 16, he had already become as broadly informed as someone twice his age.
He joined the faculty of the Collegio Romano in 1634, his title was Professor of Mathematics. But by no means is that a good indicator of his range of scholarly accomplishments. He studied everything. Thanks to his access to the network of Jesuit scholars, Kircher kept in touch with the latest discoveries taking place in the most far-flung parts of the world. And a constant stream of learned visitors to Rome came to see his museum at the Vatican, where Kircher exhibited curious items such as fossils and stuffed wildlife alongside his own inventions.
Leonardo kept most of his more interesting thoughts hidden in notebooks. By contrast, Kircher was all about voluminous publication. His work appeared in dozens of lavishly illustrated folios, the publication of which was often funded by wealthy and powerful figures. The word "generalist" is much too feeble for someone like Kircher. He prepared dictionaries, studied the effects of earthquakes, theorized about musical acoustics, and engineered various robot-like devices that startled tourists with their lifelike motions.
He was also enthusiastic about the microscope. In a book published in 1646, Kircher mentioned having discovered “wonders....in the verminous blood of those sick with fever, and numberless other facts not known or understood by a single physician.” He speculated that very small animals “with a vast number and variety of motions, colors, and almost invisible parts” might float up from from “the putrid vapors” emitted by sick people or corpses.
There has long been a scholarly debate over whether or not Kircher deserves recognition as the inventor of the germ theory of disease. True, he seems not to have had a very clear notion of what was involved in experimentation (then a new idea). And he threw off his idea about the very tiny animals almost in passing, rather than developing it in a rigorous manner. But then again, Kircher was a busy guy. He managed to stay on the good side of three popes, while some of his colleagues in the sciences had trouble keeping the good will of even one. Among Kircher’s passions was the study of ancient Egypt. As a young man, he read an account of the hieroglyphics that presented the idea that they were decorative inscriptions -- the equivalent of stone wallpaper, perhaps. (After all, they looked like tiny pictures.) This struck him as unlikely. Kircher suspected the hieroglyphics were actually a language of some kind, setting himself the task of figuring out how to read it.
And he made great progress in this project – albeit in the wrong direction. He decided that the symbols were somehow related to the writing system of the Chinese, which he did know how to read, more or less. (Drawing on correspondence from his missionary colleagues abroad, Kircher prepared the first book on Chinese vocabulary published in Europe.)
Only in the 19th century was Jean Francois Champollion able to solve the mystery, thanks to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. But the French scholar gave the old Jesuit his due for his pioneering (if misguided) work. In presenting his speculations, Kircher had also provided reliable transcriptions of the hieroglyphic texts. They were valuable even if his guesses about their meaning were off.
Always at the back of Kircher’s mind, I suspect, was the story from Genesis about the Tower of Babel. (It was the subject of one of his books.) As a good Jesuit, he was doubtless confident of belonging to the one true faith -- but at the same time, he noticed parallels between the Bible and religious stories from around the world. There were various trinities of dieties, for example. As a gifted philologist, he noticed the similarities among different languages.
So it stood to reason that the seeming multiplicity of cultures was actually rather superficial. At most, it reflected the confusion of tongues following God’s expressed displeasure about that big architectural project. Deep down, even the pagan and barbarous peoples of the world had some rough approximation of the true faith.
That sounds ecumenical and cosmopolitan enough. It was also something like a blueprint for conquest: Missionaries would presumably use this basic similarity as a way to "correct" the beliefs of those they were proselytizing.
But I suspect there is another level of meaning to his musings. Kircher’s research pointed to the fundamental unity of the world. The various scholarly disciplines were, in effect, so many fragments of the Tower of Babel. He was trying to piece them together. (A risky venture, given the precedent.)
He was not content merely to speculate. Kircher tried to make a practical application of his theories by creating a "universal polygraphy" -- that is, a system of writing that would permit communication across linguistic barriers. It wasn’t an artificial language like Esperanto, exactly, but rather something like a very low-tech translation software. It would allow you to break a sentence in one language down to units, which were to be represented by symbols. Then someone who knew a different language could decode the message.
Both parties needed access to the key -- basically, a set of tables giving the meaning of Kircher’s "polygraphic" symbols. And the technique would place a premium on simple, clear expression. In any case, it would certainly make international communication faster and easier.
Unless (that is) the key were kept secret. Here, Kircher seems to have had a brilliant afterthought. The same tool allowing for speedy, transparent exchange could (with some minor adjustments) also be used to conceal the meaning of a message from prying eyes. He took this insight one step further -- working out a technique for embedding a secret message in what might otherwise look like a banal letter. Only the recipient -- provided he knew how to crack the code -- would be able to extract its hidden meaning.
Even before his death in 1680, there were those who mocked Athanasius Kircher for his vanity, for his gullibility (he practiced alchemy), and for the tendency of his books to wander around their subjects in a rather garrulous and self-indulgent manner. Nor did the passing of time and fashion treat him well. By the 18th century, scholars knew that the path to exact knowledge involved specialization. The wild and woolly encyclopedism of Athanasius Kirscher was definitely a thing of the past.
Some of the disdain may have been envy. Kircher was the embodiment of untamed curiosity, and it is pretty obvious that he was having a very good time. Even granting detractors all their points, it is hard not to be somewhat in awe of the man. Someone who could invent microbiology, multiculturalism, and encryption technology (and in the 17th century no less) at least deserves to be on a T-shirt.
But no! All anybody wants to talk about is da Vinci. (Or rather, a bogus story about him that is the hermeneutic equivalent of putting "The Last Supper" on black velvet.)
Well, if you can’t beat 'em.... Maybe it's time for a trashy historical thriller that will give Kircher his due. So here goes:
After reading this column, Tom Hanks rushes off to the Vatican archives and finds proof that Kircher used his "universal polygraphy" to embed secret messages in his the artwork for his gorgeously illustrated books.
But that’s not all. By cracking the code, he finds a cure to the avian flu. Kircher has recognized this as a long-term menace, based on a comment by a Jesuit missionary work. (We learn all this in flashbacks. I see Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Athanasius Kircher.)
Well, it's a start, anyway. And fair warning to Dan Brown. Help yourself to this plot and I will see you in court. It might be a terrible idea, but clearly that's not stopped you before.