'Academic Lives'

When professors publish their memoirs, what do their stories say about themselves, the state of academe, and their disciplines? These are some of the issues addressed in Academic Lives: Memoir, Cultural Theory and the University Today (University of Georgia Press). The author is Cynthia Franklin, professor of English at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Franklin discussed her new book in an e-mail interview.

Q: What drew you to the topic of academic memoirs?

August 6, 2009

When professors publish their memoirs, what do their stories say about themselves, the state of academe, and their disciplines? These are some of the issues addressed in Academic Lives: Memoir, Cultural Theory and the University Today (University of Georgia Press). The author is Cynthia Franklin, professor of English at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Franklin discussed her new book in an e-mail interview.

Q: What drew you to the topic of academic memoirs?

A: I started reading academic memoirs not as a research topic, but because they offered a way to take a break from the difficulties — and disappointments — of theory while still keeping my finger on the pulse of what was happening in literary and cultural studies. A lot of the theory I was reading was starting to seem overly familiar in its ideas, and I was feeling its limitations in addressing the complexities of human identities and experiences, and in accounting for the contradictions many of us experience between our ideological critiques and our daily practices. I wanted to see if or how academic memoirs would address some of these contradictions and dissatisfactions. I also was curious to see how theorists who have provided important critiques of individualism and humanism — hallmarks of the memoir genre — negotiated the contradictions of writing a memoir — or if they addressed these contradictions at all. Were the memoirs an escape from the rigors of theory and the pressures of academe, or a way to capitalize on being an academic star? Were they a disavowal of poststructuralist theory, or a way to engage this theory in a different genre, one that would allow for a broader audience?

As well, I was drawn to the topic because in the 1990s the writing of these memoirs seemed to be turning into a movement, one that was following the phenomenon I address in my first book. In Writing Women's Communities, I explore multi-genre identity-based anthologies as a form of community-building as well as a challenge to the exclusions of academe. What did this shift to the single-authored work signal about contemporary academic culture? Did it necessarily register a giving up on collective forms of activism?

Q: Your book is organized into chapters on subjects such as feminist
 studies, white studies, postcolonial studies as they relate to 
academic memoirs. Did you find key differences?

A: Although within the individual chapters, I find significant differences among the memoirs I address, I also find some key differences from chapter to chapter in the possibilities and limitations of using memoir to take up fields of study that play defining roles in the humanities today. I discovered that memoir works better for some fields of study than it does for others when it comes to carrying on — and productively complementing or challenging — that area of study. Some of these theoretical fields prove easier to address than do others in ways that both disrupt or reconfigure the conventions of the memoir genre and also extend the theoretical work the memoirs engage.

Although there are no hard and fast formulas here, let me give a few quick examples. In my last chapter, I argue that academic memoir is well suited to sustain the work of disability studies. In part this is because those with disabilities are so often seen as not (fully) human. That already gives memoirs about disability an important role to play in formulating more inclusive understandings of what a human being is, and what makes that human life valuable. And academic memoirs have a particularly interesting contribution to make here because engaging a disability — whether one's own or a loved one's — often brings the author up against the limitations of intelligence as it is conventionally defined. This means that the academic is often not capitalizing upon, but exploring the limits of, her or his academic celebrity, and also grappling in often-uncharted ways with the value structure that underwrites the academy. You can see this dynamic at work in memoirs by Michael Bérubé, Edward Said, and Eve Sedgwick. By contrast, I find that whiteness studies fares less well in the memoir form. Certainly, a memoirist can do valuable work in interrogating the privileges of whiteness, or in asserting an ethnic or other marginalized forms of identity that complicate the privileges of whiteness. However, due to the academic star system and the individualism of the memoir genre, it is much more difficult to use the genre in ways that don't end up re-centering whiteness and reinforcing ideologies of individualism. In this way the memoir genre highlights one of the dangers that attend whiteness studies itself. As these examples suggest, in each chapter I find that memoirs provide a way to expose the political and theoretical blind spots as well as to illuminate the possibilities of reigning fields of study, in ways that tell us a lot about contemporary academic culture.

Q: Many of the authors you discuss are stars in their respective 
fields and some are even known outside academe. Is the art of the 
academic memoir alive (and different) for those who are not well

A: A number of academics who are not well-known do write memoirs. Whether these memoirs are different is a difficult question to answer, because academic memoirs vary so greatly regardless of the author's academic position. That said, I can think of a number of types of memoirs written by those who are not at the top of the academic hierarchy. There are a few "how-to" memoirs written as guides by academics near the start of their careers for other aspiring academics. Some are written as exposés of a system gone bad — either by academics who didn't receive tenure or by those in or near retirement who don't like the politicization of the humanities. There are also memoirs written to investigate topics that academics, regardless of their institutional position, come to for personal reasons: transgender identity, sexual identity, mixed-race identity, pedagogy, family formations, adoption, care-taking, disability, the list goes on. At their best, these memoirs meet Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa's call in This Bridge Called My Back for a "theory in the flesh."

Q: Do you think some of the authors you discuss have been particularly 
successful at shaping their images or their ideas?

A: Edward Said's beautiful memoir, Out of Place, extends his theoretical investigations of colonialism and advances his political work on behalf of other Palestinians, despite his claims that it tells of a "pre-political" boyhood. Said's chronicling of his life also refutes representations of him as a "Professor of Terror." I see this memoir as a wonderful example of how humanism and the inward and literary qualities of memoir can be used on behalf of human rights struggles. Michael Bérubé, unlike Said, uses his memoir Life as We Know It to advance a larger political agenda and in the process of doing so, like Said, conjoins humanism and struggles for human rights, while putting into practice his urging that cultural critics appeal to a crossover audience. I see memoirs such as these as harbingers of the recent turn in the humanities to recuperate humanism and put it in the service of human rights. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's A Dialogue on Love became ever more interesting to me the more I read it, both because it evidences the political possibilities and generosity that can attend a self-consciously enacted narcissism and because in it she extends her explorations of queer studies and disability studies and enacts their important convergences. Although I am quite critical of Jane Gallop's and Jane Tompkins' memoirs, they have been highly successful in shaping these critics' images (Gallop's as "bad girl" and Tompkins' as unconventional teacher relearning the meaning of education) and in advancing their theoretical positions.

Q: How do you think blogging will change the academic memoir, given 
that many academics are arguably sharing their lives as they go on?

A: As I look to Michael Bérubé's blog, I argue that blogs are serving as a kind of "memoir-on-the-go," one that allows for dialogue and also a large readership. In Rhetorical Occasions, Bérubé publishes excerpts from this blog that also serve as extensions of his memoir. I believe the permeability between memoirs and blogging — and also practices such as "facebooking" — will, if anything, feed the memoir phenomenon: these sites are further popularizing autobiography; increasingly eroding the boundaries between the personal and the public; and extending the practices of personal narrative by combining it with political commentary and analysis. Rather than replace the memoir market or the desire to write autobiographically, then, I think the habitual public sharing of private life — and the increased blurring between the personal and the public, the political, and the professional — will, if anything, stimulate memoir writing and probably also influence its shape. An example: I have a friend who blogs, and then links his blogging to his Facebook site. The blogs, accounts of concerts he has attended, combine personal narrative, analysis of the dynamics of race and class and region in the U.S., and commentary on music. He is amassing a significant body of writing that is losing its extracurricular feel, and his readers have started petitioning him in their comments to write a memoir based on these writings.

Q: Does the academic memoir depend on a significant tenure track? Does 
the shift to adjunct positions, where faculty don't have much time or 
job security, threaten the academic memoir?

A: I do think these conditions could result in an end to academic memoirs as a movement. Adjunct faculty members don't generally have the privilege in terms of time or cultural capital to write and publish memoirs. And the "downsizing" of departments and increasing scarcity of tenure track jobs are resulting in an exponential rise in workload for those of us fortunate enough to have tenured positions. Writing a memoir takes time and unless you are part of the academic star system — which is currently in decline — memoirs don't build cultural capital in the academy or lead to promotions in the way that more scholarly forms of writing do. And the publishing industry is constricting and most memoirs do not sell in significant numbers. These various economic factors could very well result in fewer memoirs.

Memoirs also can seem frivolous in the current academic climate. In addition to the draconian cuts to higher education, the humanities has taken a more serious turn in response to post-9/11 human rights violations, and the related crackdown on academics' rights to freedom of speech. Recent developments in the Ward Churchill controversy, which was set in motion by politicians' and pundits' reactions against Churchill's essay on the World Trade Center bombings, are instructive in this regard. This July, Judge Larry Naves upheld the University of Colorado regents' refusal to reinstate Professor Ward Churchill after the jury found that the university fired him in violation of his First Amendment rights. This ruling suggests the lack of protection afforded to and the intolerance for academics who speak out against the dominant political currents. At the same time, because the personal remains as popular as it is political, memoir might very well remain a viable source for academics to reach a broad liberal readership in a non-threatening — and uncensored — way during a time when overtly political departments and programs as well as faculty members are under siege in the name of "academic freedom."


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