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Cary Nelson, Provocateur
March 9, 2009 - 10:39pm


Well, that post title was a little redundant, don’t you think? For my readers not in academe, Cary Nelson is the Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Professor of English at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and the 49th (and current) president of the American Association of University Professors. Recent books include Revolutionary Memory: Recovering the Poetry of the American Left (Routledge, 2003) and Office Hours: Activism and Change in the Academy (Routledge, 2004). His Modern American Poetry site, multimedia companion to his Anthology of Modern American Poetry (Oxford UP, 2000) is a go-to resource for teachers and students. He’s also been known to write for Inside Higher Ed, most recently here, here, and here.

A week or so ago I went to a book release party at the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities for Cary Nelson and the Struggle for the University, eds. Michael Rothberg and Peter K. Garrett (SUNY, 2009). The book’s cover says, “This collection brings together distinguished and rising cultural studies scholars to explore the ways in which Cary Nelson's work unites scholarship and activism, demonstrating the need for radical engagement in order to democratize the academy and the production of knowledge in and about American culture. Neither a Festschrift nor a tribute, the volume looks at the new directions Nelson's work has inspired in research and activism about the history and politics of the academy, cultural studies, modern American poetry, and graduate pedagogy and mentoring. An engaging afterword by Cary Nelson is also included.”

It may not be a tribute, but it results in part from a tribute in 2006 that included a dinner at which Nelson was roasted by colleagues, former students, and his wife, the scholar Paula Treichler. I was there for that dinner, which was m.c’d by Michael Bérubé, a blogger of some note. My favorite story that night was told by Andrew Ross, and I’ve transcribed it below from the video of the roast:

Not long after I’d come to Champaign-Urbana, Cary took me to a faculty party. Paula [Treichler wasn’t able to go]…so it was just us and an adventure in male bonding. It was an afternoon event at the weekend, and so it was rather informal but polite. He introduced me to the hosts, and we went into the nearest room and ran into one of his colleagues, whose identity I will try to protect. The colleague informed us that he’d spent the summer in the South of France—Marseille, to be precise.

“So were you there to visit the brothels?” inquired Cary.

There was this look of quiet anxiety that came across the colleague’s face. In the course of time I would learn how to interpret such expressions on the faces of Cary’s interlocutors. But at that time of course I was at a loss to do so.

“I was there to do my research,” the colleague replied with confidence.

I have to say that before I came to Urbana, I’d led a rather sheltered life. Nothing had really prepared me for conversations like this, to tell the truth. I had to prepare myself for the academic life here. I had read some of these novels—you know, by David Lodge—and I’d made a point of viewing the film version again of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and from these texts I had learned that academics sometimes take liberties with each other—take personal liberties with each other—but nothing had really prepared me for conversations like this, and I realized that if this was typical of social life here, then I would be entirely out of my depth.

Cary moved his feet slightly towards the colleague as if to reinforce that he was not going to be brushed off very easily.

“So were the brothels any different from the last time you visited?”

And at that point the thought crossed my mind that this colleague’s research might actually involve French sex workers in some way. After all, the U of I [was] promoted as a place where cutting-edge research and cultural studies and the like was encouraged, and so I allowed myself to entertain this prospect. Something about the fellow’s appearance, his demeanor, gave me some doubts about whether he was indeed a sex-work ethnographer, and his response certainly dispelled any thought along those lines.

“Well, as a matter of fact, I was there to finish my book.” And then he told us his book was on some aspect of the fine arts, something like eighteenth-century English landscaping, or arts that were arguably less refined than those practiced by the French sex workers. By this point, the look on his face has shifted, somewhat, to a sort of alarmed impatience.

Cary undoubtedly sensed that his quarry was about to flee, so he moved in for his last shot, which was something along the lines of, “I’ve heard that they specialize in extreme discipline, is that correct?”

At that point of course the colleague bolted from the room with a parting shot along the lines of, “Well, yeah, I suppose you would know more about that than I!” He was an old U of I hand, an old Cary Nelson hand, and had long endured the slings and arrows of Nelsonian fortune, and he knew there was no graceful exit in this kind of situation.

Cary turned to me, and a sort of sly grin came across his face; the famous arched eyebrows went up. The event was still opaque to me at this point, but I realized at the very least I’d had some kind of initiation into the world of Cary Nelson Studies, a rather surreal world, [which I] would learn to appreciate…in due time.

I mentioned the brothel story to Nelson at the recent book party, and he said it was his favorite too. “Sometimes you just find yourself doing these things,” he said. “And then you have to go through with them.” The eyebrows went up.

I asked if he'd mind if I mentioned the story here. He said not to mention it but to quote it in full.


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