The Guest Lecture by Martin Riker
Published in January 2023
In August 2020, during some of the darkest days when we were all navigating the pandemic, I published a piece called “Academic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren.” In that piece, I riffed on John Maynard Keynes’s 1930 essay “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren.”
Leaning on Keynes, I was also trying to make the point that within three generations, the current near-universal pessimism about the future of higher education will prove to be misguided. Just as Keynes thought that by 2030 the standard of life would be between four and eight times as high as in 1930, I believe that by any reasonable measure, the outcomes related to postsecondary education will progress at a similar rate over the decades to come.
(By the way, Keynes was right about the standard of living, as in constant dollars, the world’s GDP per capita has climbed from about $2,500 in 1930 to over $15,000 in 2020.)
So it is perhaps a result of my affinity for Keynes and for thinking that underlies “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” that I so loved reading The Guest Lecture.
With The Guest Lecture, Martin Riker, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis (where I went to undergrad), has written this year’s must-read academic novel.
The novel revolves around a single sleep-deprived night, in which a tenure-track assistant professor, an economist, is preparing to give a guest lecture on Keynes’s famous essay. To get ready to give her talk, the economist imagines a conversation with Keynes himself, and together she (the economist) and Keynes walk through a memory palace that corresponds to the main ideas of her talk.
The location that the economist utilizes (with the imagined Keynes) to remember the content and sequence of her talk is the home she shares with her contingent-faculty husband and young daughter.
The heartbreaking context in which the economist is giving the talk is that she recently learned that she had been denied tenure. The book the economist had recently published on the Keynes essay, a book that forms the basis for the guest lecture she is to give in the morning, was deemed insufficiently scholarly by her (almost all-male) peers. The extra committees, service, teaching, advising, mentoring and other academic citizenship work that the economist had taken on were not deemed relevant in her tenure case.
Riker, an English and creative writing professor, does a marvelous job of illuminating how nontraditionally thinking economists think. The novel is as much an indictment of mainstream economics as it explores what happens when one’s academic career goes off the rails.
As the economist (her name is Abby) relates while rehearsing the talk with the imaginary Keynes, the value of “Academic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” is not so much in being right but being useful.
While Keynes did get that the world would become eight times wealthier correct, he failed to foresee the movement toward economic inequality and extreme wealth concentration.
Where Keynes thought by now we’d all be working 15 hours a week, he did not envision that the most educated and highest-earning professionals would work the most hours per week. (Did you work over 50 hours a week?)
Both those questioning their choices to build a career in academia and fans of Keynes (a group with some broad overlap, I suspect) will take great pleasure in reading The Guest Lecture.
What are you reading?