About this time of year one invariably reads fulsome, even orgiastic essays by academics professing the exhilaration and sense of joy they feel on the first day of class each August or September. In so doing, they often blather on about limitless possibilities and rituals of renewal, etc., and wax on about frisson A and epiphany B on the quad.
I must admit that my experience is quite different. Whereas for many professors the beginning of the academic year is a time of excitement and anticipation, for me it is — indeed, has been for the 30-plus years I’ve been teaching at the university level — a time of melancholy, even gloom. Indeed, late August/early September marks the peak period of my annual bout of SAD. To most clinicians, SAD denotes "seasonal affective disorder," a condition in which normally well-adjusted people experience a range of depressive symptoms, but for me SAD means "student affective disorder." Same symptoms, different etiology.
Around the beginning of August -- even earlier now -- I begin to suffer the symptoms: heightened anxiety; enervation; difficulty concentrating; social withdrawal; increased irritability; nausea. Over time, I’ve found that the reason for the onset of such conditions is the looming return of STUDENTS into my life.
It is not August, but the end of the exam period in May that elicits in me a sense of joy and limitless possibilities. Only when my grades are turned in, the seniors graduated, and the dorms emptied out do I begin to feel a sense of excitement and anticipation and the possibility for renewal. For it is only then that I can focus on research and writing without the threat of being interrupted by tedious office hours, middle-of-the night phone calls, and "urgent" e-mails ("Can I get an extension on my book review?"), not to mention lectures, seminars, grading, meetings, committee work, etc., etc.
Rather, with May comes "summer break" and the tantalizing possibility of finally honoring long overdue writing commitments, of making headway on a scholarly monograph, and of thinking deeply about new projects down the line. If sufficiently lucky, it might mean a trip or two to an archive to immerse oneself in source materials one has waited months, if not years to dive into. And it might even give one a chance to attend a conference, present a paper, and get some useful feedback from experts in one’s field. Talk about renewal!
But, alas, before one knows it, August comes around. David M. Shribman recently wrote a beautiful essay in The Wall Street Journal entitled "Whatever Happened to August?," an elegiac piece lamenting that August, once the Platonic ideal of summer, has been turned into a "month of work, school and calendars run amok." Nowhere is this more true than at universities. At colleges and universities across the land, the ecological system in town begins to become student-centric earlier and earlier each year, with suck-up seniors, jaded juniors, sophomoric sophs, eager-beaver fresh-faced frosh transforming the placid summer landscape on campus into a crowded cacophonous mob scene.
Even worse, by then the seemingly “limitless possibilities” for summer, the best-laid plans, the hopes and dreams have all been dashed. Some of the overdue commitments are still outstanding. Progress has been made on the unfinished monograph, but it still sucks. The trips to the archives brought disappointing results. The professional meetings were as boring as ever. And now the students are back. Any wonder that I get depressed?
To make things even worse, it seems more and more as though “summer break” is over just after the 4th of July. That’s when the first, vague symptoms of SAD begin to appear. They accelerate through July and peak about the third week of August when classes begin, at which time I feel like I’m about to embark on the academic equivalent of a death march.
Funny, though, every year the symptoms recede. Gradually, I adapt to the new ecology and again find my niche. By mid-to-late September — usually a few weeks after Labor Day — the symptoms are gone and I begin to feel like myself. The "new" landscape has been naturalized. I again begin to appreciate students — the putative causes of my seasonal plague — suck-up seniors, jaded juniors, sophomoric sophs, fresh-faced frosh all.
Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and director of the Global Research Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
As pervasive as it is perilous, the recurrent use of two words — "real world" — crystallizes many problems confronting the academy today.
The term gestures toward all spheres beyond the so-called ivory tower; an advertisement in the New York City subways lauded the "real world" experience of teaching in the New York Police Academy. But often this expression more specifically refers to the world of business. When it simply serves as shorthand to distinguish those realms from the university, the reference may be innocuous. And yes, professors and academic administrators indubitably benefit from learning from and collaborating with their counterparts outside those proverbial ivy-covered walls. As a faculty representative, I worked closely with the trustees of Carleton College on a presidential search; these interactions repeatedly demonstrated to me their shrewdness in evaluating people and the practical needs of any organization, thus dissipating lingering prejudices about the business world and reminding me that its variety complicates generalizations about it.
More often, though, contrasting the "real world" outside the academy with its putatively unreal counterpart within is pernicious for three interlocking reasons. First, the two words in question often frequently reflect and encourage self-denigration, even abnegation. Many people outside the academy regard its denizens in the way nuns are sometimes dismissively seen -- as exemplars of a life that in theory one may respect but in practice one greets with bemused condescension. Academics themselves sometimes on occasion refer to the "real world" because they have internalized such judgments. The strategic use of those two words in influential studies of higher education can reinforce these prejudices and insecurities. Thus Louis Menand’s Marketplace of Ideas tellingly defends pre-professional and vocational courses, in contrast to the traditionally defined liberal arts curriculum, in terms of their fulfilling "real-world goals."
Second, by implying that alternative values are unrealistic — indeed, naive -- these two words are likely to justify the increasing importation of certain troubled and troubling "real world" business practices. This shift has been tellingly encapsulated as the recent corporatization of the university, notably in Frank Donoghue’s The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities. The lamentable reliance on adjuncts is all too reminiscent of the emphasis on outsourcing in the business world. It is equally dangerous uncritically to copy hierarchies prevalent though not universal in business communities, as the trustees at the University of Virginia learned to their cost. Higher education’s star system went to school on Wall Street (and quite possibly in Hollywood as well). And "scorecards" that rate universities by the amount of money their graduates make after graduation similarly impose the worst values of the corporate milieu.
Third, distinguishing the "real world" of business from the unreal world of the academy misrepresents for better and for worse the longstanding workings of our institutions of higher education themselves. The very term "real" is clearly slippery ("reality TV"? "The Real Housewives of Orange Country"?); but many connotations — not all of them grounds for rejoicing-- do in fact already apply to the academy. To the extent that the adjective gestures toward the competition among ambitious people, many academics and leaders of their institutions not only read books about those issues but also, so to speak, wrote the book on them. The frequent references to “branding” within the academy demonstrate that marketing executives could teach certain admissions officers and other administrators nothing they have not long known about the half-truths that practice can foster.
But in fact the university is also a world committed to, indeed exemplary of, the "real" in more positive respects. Arguably our attention to using language carefully — teaching writing is surely a significant part of the mission of institutions of higher education — in fact encourages conveying a real picture, expressing what one really intends to say. Our emphasis on critical thinking, notably the marshaling of evidence, trains students to distinguish the real from the specious and self-serving. Alternatively, even if one subscribes to the poststructuralist credo that language can never express reality, we can still encourage those students to discern and distinguish positions along a spectrum between reality and deceit. In so doing, we achieve one goal central to a liberal arts education: building the very faculty of discernment — a capacity that, besides its many other potentialities, can and should encourage a re-evaluation of the expression "real world."
Heather Dubrow is the John D. Boyd SJ Chair in the Poetic Imagination at Fordham University. Among her publications are six single-authored monographs, a co-edited collection of essays, an edition of As You Like It, and a volume of her own poetry.
Two years into my doctoral program in English at the University of California at Santa Barbara, I left to spend a year in Paris doing research. Among other things, when I returned home, I was a year behind in doctorate colloquium, a course required by our department to prepare graduate students for the wondrous, painstaking world of dissertation prospectus writing.
I found myself in a classroom with our department chair, who ran the class, and six other students, all in the cohort one year junior to me. Because so many different professors in our department had taken turns teaching the doctorate colloquium, our chair would sometimes come to class with a large file folder, filled with papers of advice, samples, and notes from former professors. It was a neat little archive, and I imagined that it probably revealed a lot about the changing trends in academe and the shifting job market.
One day in class, our current chair at the time, Professor Alan Liu, picked up a Post-It note in the file and smiled. He looked up at the class and said softly, his voice full of warmth: "It’s a note from Richard. Look, his handwriting..." and lifted the Post-It to the class. I felt an immediate lurch inside me, and I blinked, smiled weakly, and looked around the classroom expecting to meet a similar expression on the faces of my classmates. But it was at that moment that Alan and I realized, possibly simultaneously, that no one else in the class had had Richard as a professor. He had died my first year of graduate school, and my original cohort was the last group of new graduate students lucky enough to be in his classroom.
Upon entering graduate school at barely 22 years of age, I was still much like an undergraduate. I was often critically unaware of what I was saying, but managed to chatter on quite a lot (probably to the delight of the older graduate students). I took Richard Helgerson’s class in the winter of 2008, the last class he taught before he died. It was required for students to take a Renaissance literature course, and as a 20th-century person, I was excited about the excursion into Shakespeare and Milton (not so much Spenser). Before I left for graduate school, a friend of mine who was an early modern scholar at the University of Wisconsin at Madison exclaimed his jealousy when he heard I would be attending UCSB. "I can’t believe you’re going to get to take classes with Richard Helgerson," he gushed. This was lost on me at the time, but I soon became aware of Richard’s celebrity as a scholar and teacher. I was set to take his class and find out firsthand what made this man such a literary legend.
But the first day of class was something unexpected. Richard came to class with a bucket. He said he might need it as he was ill. He was very matter-of-fact, reasonable, even apologetic. He had pancreatic cancer, he explained. Despite his condition, Richard’s mental sharpness and brilliance in the classroom made that course one of my most memorable experiences of graduate school. He was endlessly curious about our ideas, and I could tell that he valued the discussion of the texts above all else. The class had a kind of intensity to it, the most presence I’ve felt in a graduate seminar. Everybody read the work. Everybody participated. Everybody listened.
Most surprisingly, Richard maintained such a wonderful sense of humor throughout the course, especially with the younger, more inexperienced graduate students (ahem). As a modernist, I felt such a freedom to speak in that class. Once, I even told Richard that Spenser’s calendar was sort of like the Beach Boys’ "Pet Sounds," "you don’t want to admit it, but there is a weak link... and that link is November," I said with a smug face, thinking I had said something quite associative and brilliant. He didn’t laugh, but rather looked quite amused and pleased. This seemed to be a bold thing for a young graduate student to say with so much conviction. He was even more tickled after an older graduate student explained to him more slowly what had just transpired, what exactly "Pet Sounds" was, etc.
The next week in class when he handed out discussion question prompts, he wrote "Last week, Megan said X, which has led me to think about Y and its implications for Z." I am completely unashamed to say that I was beaming, so thrilled to be included in a Helgerson prompt. In truth, I had said nothing interesting or meaningful or provocative, but I think he saw in me someone who needed a little encouragement, who had a lot of ideas and not yet the ability to articulate or connect them. I still have that slip of paper.
What was mesmerizing about Richard in those last few months before he died was his grace in the classroom, the absolute thoughtfulness with which he considered every question or comment, the elegance in which he chose to talk about his illness. He was calm. I had never in my young life met someone so calm and soft-spoken in the face of what was to me at the time, something so monstrous and unfair. It was almost unnerving.
Once day in class, a graduate student baked all sorts of treats for Richard and the rest of us. She was an excellent and avid baker, and the aroma of rich chocolate brownies and sugar cookies filled the classroom. When Richard entered, he sat down, and looked at the dessert on the table. He was delighted, said, "Thank you, Annie. That looks so good; I wish I could eat it," and then proceeded to tell us that so many wonderful people in his life had been bringing food to the house that smelled so good and that ... he just couldn’t eat it because ... he just couldn’t eat much anymore.
We felt sick (poor Annie, most of all). Nobody said anything, but I will never forget that day in class. For three hours, the food sat at the center of our graduate table like a looming presence, and in an unspoken solidarity, nobody ate a crumb. There were other small moments like this during that quarter, all equally painful.
Sometimes I wanted to scream in class, Why are you here?! Why are you in classroom teaching silly first-years about Shakespearean sonnets when you should be making the most of your time left?! Go to the beach! Go whale watching! Once in his office, I kind of stumbled into this thought, to which he asked if I was O.K., if I felt uncomfortable in his class. The selflessness of his concern was almost unbearable. I said of course not, but the truth was that I was scared. It hurt to watch him deteriorate week to week.
But Richard was exactly where he should have been. He was with some of the great loves of his life: Milton, Shakespeare, Spenser. And I suppose one does not get tired of their great loves, but rather, in the face of death, devotes oneself to them mercilessly, reads the lines that have kept one spellbound in wonder since a young age.
Richard died a few weeks after our last class. When I went to Richard’s memorial at UCSB, there were many peers and former students who spoke of his generous nature, his kind eyes, his trips to Italy, his devotion as a father, husband, teacher, and scholar. I sat there, knowing that if I felt so terrible after knowing Richard for only a few months, how devastated his own graduate students and colleagues must be, who he had worked with for so much longer. I still think about Richard very often, perhaps too often for how long I knew him. But in my sixth and last year of graduate school, I reflect with affection on that difficult, transformative first year. I think Richard had the gift of being the mentor that each student needed at whatever stage they were at in their academic development, and he met his students there.
For me, at the risk of romanticizing (but what do I care, really), he taught me not only about the power of mentorship, but also adulthood, how to be a real person in a classroom. And whenever I become cynical about academe, the early professionalization, the politicization of the humanities, the defunding of foundational departments characterized as irrelevant, I think of Richard. I think of sitting on the beach in Santa Barbara, reading Shakespeare’s “young man” or “fair youth” sonnets for the first time, marveling over them. I think of Richard as someone who studied literature, first and foremost, because he loved language, and who, I hope, went gently into that good night. I remember thinking something odd in Richard’s class. I thought, I want to die like Richard. This is how a good person learns to die: brave, thoughtful, with gratitude.
Megan Fernandes is adjunct assistant professor of modern culture and media at Brown University.
Earlier this year, I gave an invited talk at a conference sponsored by the University of Caen on the procedures of proof in French medieval law. The conference, held at a medieval château, was open to le grand public — the general public. An audience of about 100 people showed up to hear a dozen academics talk about judicial duels, animal trials in medieval romances, torture, and other topics. A local official opened the proceedings, and during the coffee and lunch breaks, the speakers mingled with the le grand public.
I spoke with a retired corporate executive, a group of young law students, and a novelist who runs a local crêperie, as well as a doctoral student in history who was researching medieval noble courts in the regional archives. In nearly 30 years, I had never attended a conference attracting such a wide range of people. What, I wondered, are we American academics doing wrong? And could our tendency, at least among literature professors, to avoid the general public have anything to do with the widely discussed “crisis” in the humanities?
A few months before my trip to France, I was chatting with a publicist who works for a university in my state. His job is to publicize faculty research within his university and to the general public by pitching news articles or features to media outlets — online, print, radio and TV.
I asked him what he was working on right now. He told me that he was reading — or trying to read — a new book by a literature professor at his university. "What do you mean, trying to read?" I asked. He explained that the book, about a popular British novelist still widely read today, was impenetrable, and he simply could not make heads nor tails of it. The jacket blurbs from other literature professors praised the book as groundbreaking and worthy of a wide readership. But the publicist would read a chapter, a paragraph, even a single sentence over and over again without being able to understand it. The book had now been on his desk for several weeks, and he had no idea how he was going to finish it, let alone recommend or publicize it to others.
Wow, I thought. This is not a problem just for you, or the author. If a smart, dedicated publicist at a major research university cannot make sense of a newly published book about a major novelist still widely taught in English departments, this represents a problem for the whole profession of literature.
The problem, of course, is not new. For several decades now, literature professors have been retreating into a new ivory tower built from bricks of abstruse theory and mortar of impenetrable jargon. As a profession, we have abandoned the warm campfires of story where people once took comfort in meaningful narrative and each other’s company, and we have ascended the frigid heights of a new tower of Babel.
Moreover, in a strange irony, as the profession of literature has opened up by breaking down barriers to many previously excluded groups — including women and underrepresented minorities — an admirable record of progress, we have managed at the same time to close off our profession to much of the general public. Who woulda thunk it?
Higher education is now under fire everywhere, as tuition costs climb, legislators slash university budgets, the public views tenure as inexplicable or unjust, and skepticism grows about the value of the humanities or of a liberal arts education in general. It’s easy for academics to blame budget-cutting politicians, pragmatic university administrators, or a supposedly ignorant public, but we may bear some responsibility ourselves, as pointed out in a recent letter to The New York Times by a professor of Japanese studies at Tufts University:
“In recent decades the tendency has grown among academics to produce jargon-laden articles about obscure subjects that only their mothers and a few colleagues might appreciate. This tendency has helped alienate our core constituents — the intellectually curious public — who might like to read a stimulating academic work but who are too often befuddled and annoyed by baffling academic prose.”
Granted, academics in all fields, including literature, frequently write about topics or use terms that are difficult even for “the intellectually curious public” to understand.
No one expects the scientist to put her research on particle physics, dense with mathematical formulas, into “everyday language.” Or the linguistics scholar to report his findings on Indo-European velar consonants as a readable script for the evening news. But as the famous “Sokal Hoax” suggested nearly two decades ago, using technical language to share unavoidably abstruse research findings is different from the cultivated obscurity of some humanists, especially literature scholars, whose arcane theory and off-putting jargon often seem intended to drive off all but a tiny cohort of colleagues and acolytes who possess the secret code.
True, not all academics are good rhetoricians. Not every biologist can explain her subject in a layperson’s terms, nor can every sociologist turn his research findings into an immediate take-away. But literature professors? Our subject is very popular. People everywhere read novels, stories, poems, and plays — the things we teach and write about. Reading groups all over the country devour books. And we’re supposed to be good with language. So why do so many of us often keep to our own kind?
If a crisis should never be wasted, now would seem to be an especially good time for us to be reaching out to the general public, giving talks to alumni or civic groups, participating in programs at the local library, or just talking to people outside of academe about our teaching and our research and why it’s important. Not that it should take a crisis to pry us out of our offices and classrooms.
There are plenty of excuses for avoiding the public and staying in our own comfort zone with our fellow academics: People won’t understand my work. I don’t want to dumb it down. It’s a waste of time. I’m too busy. But how long can we remain in our protective tower before the growing pressures around its base — budgets, politics, anger, ignorance — cause it to crack apart and come crashing down?
* * *
A couple of years ago, while I was having a cavity filled, my dentist startled me by asking if I would give a talk to his Rotary Club. He’s a dedicated reader, and we always have a good talk about books, at least when my mouth isn’t full of dental equipment. But now he was asking me if I would give a talk, as he held his drill at the ready.
I quickly said yes.
The Rotary Club meets quite early in the morning — 7:30, to be exact, although they do serve you breakfast.
The meeting was held at a restaurant, and about two dozen local businesspeople and other club members were there, including my dentist. Over breakfast, I chatted with the people sitting near me, and then, as the dishes were being cleared, I was shown to a little lectern set up on one side of the room, as everyone settled down to listen.
The talk was on my recent book about a celebrated duel in medieval France. By now, I had given quite a few talks on this topic — a series of invited lectures around the state for a literary society, some talks at local bookstores, and several more at historical societies or book fairs. I had also done some radio interviews and even appeared in one television documentary, so I not only knew the subject back and forth but also had had some practice talking about it outside the academy.
Still, I had prepared carefully, trimming down an originally much longer talk to just 15 minutes, making it as interesting as I could, and including some informative background about the Middle Ages. I used short, punchy sentences written for a listening audience, and I strenuously avoided confusing academic buzzwords, such as “hegemonic” and or “subaltern.” I provided some history and analysis of the medieval judicial duel, even describing the specific legal conditions required for a duel in late 14th-century France. But mainly I told a story — about characters, and places, and remarkable events — since that’s what seizes people’s attention and helps them follow what you’re saying.
The talk went well and was over in no time. I got some good questions afterwards, and then had a chance to talk with a few more people, some of whom had children or grandchildren at my university and seemed to enjoy hearing from a member of the faculty. My dentist was obviously pleased, too.
As I was getting ready to leave, one of the Rotarians came over and asked if I would do the same talk for the local Optimist Club, to which he also belonged. Sure, I said, a little surprised to be asked again so quickly.
Two weeks later I was back in the same part of town, giving the same talk, to another early-morning and equally enthusiastic group. And once again, I found myself actually enjoying it. After talking to the Rotary Club, and the Optimist Club, I’d gladly talk to the Pessimist Club, too, if there were one.
* * *
One of my friends is a commercial pilot, a lawyer, and an M.B.A. Very smart and accomplished, he also claims to be “very unliterary.” But he can explain with great clarity the most arcane technical, legal, and financial matters.
Whether we’re talking about the global financial crisis, or a legal case in the news, or a recent airline mishap, I’m always amazed by how well he can explain a concept, a problem, or a situation so that I can understand it, and how he can do so in such an interesting and memorable way. Above all, he tells a good story.
Not all experts are good explainers. But every profession needs people who can describe a complicated thing in clear, everyday language to others — to members of the general public. And right now, when the profession of literature has some explaining to do, we could really use some more people like this.
If we in literature departments, and in the humanities generally, are as smart and accomplished as we think we are, and our work is as important as we claim it is, and the public appreciates us as little as we often say, why don’t we get out there more and talk to people about what we know and what we do?
What are we afraid of?
Eric Jager is a professor of English at the University of California at Los Angeles. His next book, Blood Royal: A True Tale of Crime and Detection in Medieval Paris, will appear from Little, Brown and Company, in 2014.
Penn State angered faculty when it mandated biometric tests for those on health insurance. Now it's charging extra to those who use tobacco. Faculty members -- including those who don't smoke -- are furious.