Academic Fashions Aren't Just Sartorial

At last year's annual meeting of the Modern Language Association, Elisabeth Ladenson found herself in discussion with a bus dispatcher while waiting for a shuttle. "You all have that look," the dispatcher told Ladenson, an associate professor of French at Columbia University.

December 28, 2006

At last year's annual meeting of the Modern Language Association, Elisabeth Ladenson found herself in discussion with a bus dispatcher while waiting for a shuttle. "You all have that look," the dispatcher told Ladenson, an associate professor of French at Columbia University.

Ladenson said she had to admit that the dispatcher had a point, and that it was easy -- as she verified standing outside the conference hotels Wednesday in Philadelphia -- to pick out academics from the "civilians" who just happened to be around. Just as MLA academics tend to dress alike (think black and brown clothing, she said), they share intellectual fashions, too. Indeed, she said that reading old issues of the PMLA gave her the same feeling as looking at old issues of Vogue: Times and fashions have changed.

Inspired, Ladenson determined to organize a panel for this year's MLA on academic fashion -- broadly defined. What's in? What's out? Are the right things in or out? Those attending heard worries about the dominance of the "new historicism" (which of course hasn't been new for a while), fears for the future of French even in an era of supposed interest in other cultures, and ideas about why professors (or their publishers) call their books what they do. And attendees also got to hear a paper with the sort of title MLA-bashers love ("Is the Rectum a Text?) but whose substance shows that academic fashion may be less sex-obsessed than MLA-bashers like to think.

Leading off the discussion was Jane Gallop, professor of English at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee and author of such books as Reading Lacan, Thinking Through the Body and Pedagogy: The Question of Impersonation. Gallop recounted a discussion with a job candidate for a position teaching 18th century British literature in which Gallop's would-be colleagues shared the opinion that one couldn't be published in her field these days without doing archival work.

For Gallop, the comment crystalized a sense that "new historicism," which replaced "close reading" as a dominant approach to literature, had gone too far, and was destroying the credibility of literature scholars. Gallop stressed that post-World War II emphasis on close reading was too "ahistorical" and that the "correction" of "new historicism" in the 1980s was an appropriate one. But while historical context is needed, at least sometimes, professors have lost their way, she said.

English professors have become "wannabe cultural historians," yet they lack the training of their colleagues in history departments, she said. She repeatedly called her colleagues "amateurs" for the tendency to focus on history, rather than actual text. She said she worried that while her generation of scholars knew how to do close reading, many others today do not.

Joanna Stalnaker, an assistant professor of French at Columbia, followed -- and she backed up Gallop's point, talking about a recent meeting with a doctoral student in which one dissertation committee member admonished the student to take out all the close reading before sending the dissertation off to publishers. They would never go for close reading, this professor advised.

Just as close reading may have fallen from fashion, so too has French, Stalnaker said. Her university is currently engaged in much discussion about "global thought" and how the university can create new programs to reflect globalization. Stalnaker said that she initially thought that these trends would make her perspectives valued; after all, if she can engage today's students in study of 18th century French literature, she is crossing borders of nationality, language and time.

But it turns out that while "global studies are in, area studies are out."

She described a committee meeting where a faculty member suggested having a language fair for new students, so that "students wouldn't just take French because they had taken French in high school." In another discussion, a faculty member voiced the opinion that global study needed to move beyond "reading a Molière play." Why, Stalnaker wondered, was it viewed as problematic for students ready for advanced study of French to do so, or to read a play?

The "dirty secret" in French departments, she quoted a colleague as saying, is that they would have more students (and, Stalnaker suggested, perhaps better students) if classes were taught in English.

If the academic fashion trends in literary and language study inspired many concerned nods in the audience, other trends led to knowing laughter.

Joseph Valente, professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said that book and article titles in the humanities tell quite a bit about how academics view themselves and their audiences. The norm these days (and Valente admitted his CV contains examples) is of course the metaphor, followed by a colon, followed by an explanation of what the book is about.

But he noted several trends emerging -- some of which even make do without a colon. One is the "gerund-driven name," such as Queering the Color Line or Reauthorizing Joyce. These suggest a "more activist" literary scholarship, he said.

Another new approach is to use three hot words whose combination will somehow make a book hot. He gave as an example a book that might be called Race, Sex, Shame. Such approaches, he said, amount to "pandering" to the audience.

What this trend shows, Valente said, is the way scholarship isn't being condensed in books, but is being "commoditized."

The most anticipated talk may have been by Paul Morrison, a professor of English at Brandeis University, who it turns out didn't even come up with the title about the rectum (which was in part a play on a famous work of gay studies, Leo Bersani's essay "Is the Rectum a Grave?"), but forged ahead anyway after Ladenson suggested it.

Provocative paper titles are of course something of an MLA tradition. They'd never admit it, but plenty of conservative critics of cutting-edge humanities scholarship live for the moment each fall that the issue of PMLA arrives with the names of the papers to be given at the meeting. What will be the most outrageous paper title? Will there be anything as good as the legendary "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl," a talk from 1995 that still gets trotted out as an example of all that is wrong with literary theory?

Morrison's paper talk was surprising because -- although it contained more uses of the word "asshole" than is the norm at scholarly meetings or most other meetings, for that matter -- he's actually arguing that there's more to life than sex and that focusing on body parts, even supposedly subversive body parts, isn't necessarily the best thing to do.

Morrison is a scholar of sexuality and the author of The Explanation for Everything (NYU Press), which explores "sexual subjectivity," and why our society obsesses over sex more than most others -- and what some of those obsessions suggest. The reason Morrison answers the question of his title in the affirmative is that society has declared the behind to have overtaken the breast. He quoted from a New York Times article: "After more than 50 years of breast fixation, the bottom has come into its own. Jennifer Lopez's generous seat may be driving the trend, or it may just embody, so to speak, the current ideal."

And it's not just the Times, but articles about anal sex in women's magazines, suburban workshops about (heterosexual) anal sex, and so forth, he said.

But before society applauds itself too much, Morrison said in an interview, it needs to recognize that it hasn't really evolved in shifting the focus downward from the breast. "I'm saying we haven't really moved in any meaningful way because we are still assigning too much meaning to the body," he said. 

"We are exerting the same kind of exaggerated, deconstructed power that we once gave to female genitalia," he said. "We're still within a Freudian economy of the body." What would be a true advance, Morrison said, would be to approach the behind "under the rubric of pleasure, not meaning."

Morrison knows that just as part of academic fashion is to give papers with titles with words that offend, it's political fashion to attack such papers. "I guess I know it's coming," he said. "Obviously there is something 'in your face' about the title."

But he's not worried. When you study sexuality, he said, "you are going to be mocked and derided by people who don't bother to come to the session -- it's a no-win situation so you might as well have fun."

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