"Monsters University," more than being a comment on higher education, is a film about the limits of hard work and the value of diversity. It’s also “Revenge of the Nerds” with brighter colors and more limbs.
All year long, I eagerly await the year-end lists of superlatives. And, throughout December, I devote whole days to crafting my list of New Year’s resolutions.
Even more than the “naughty or nice” lists of Christmas, New Year’s Day, for me, wins the prize as Holiday with the Most Lists.
This year, I nominate the Harvard University soccer team’s “scouting report” for Most Tasteless List of 2016. As a gay poet, I viewed this particular list with an outsider’s rubbernecked inquisitiveness. I saw the report as part of a degenerate literary tradition of cataloging, indexing and registering.
Likewise, back in 2012, when Mitt Romney blundered by bragging about his “binders full of women,” I recalled that many poets had produced such binders.
Among them: the late-medieval French writer Christine de Pizan, author of The Book of the City of Ladies (an archive of stories about exemplary women like the Amazons, Sappho, Dido, the Virgin Mary, etc.). De Pizan’s proto-feminist project took a cue from the 14th-century Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio, whose On Famous Women had sought to recuperate the reputation of women. And Chaucer, with The Legend of Good Women, parodied the whole genre of medieval lady lists.
To this list of binders, I might add Charles Bukowski’s sex novel, Women. And I cross-reference Women with books that painstakingly index gambling debts, hangovers and menial jobs.
Those writers all felt the influence of one of the greatest list makers: Dante. I discern in the author of The Divine Comedy the spirit of someone possessed by a scholastic frenzy for compartmentalizing, codifying and classifying. Dante’s masterpiece is like a neatly arranged filing cabinet (three drawers, nine folders, with each folder listing afterlife denizens).
Dante offers a stunning rebuke to all those who slander bureaucracy as soulless. His poetry illustrates how the apparent tedium of list making can express the raging passions of heaven or hell, or someplace in between.
Each time I must deal with a bureaucratic snafu, I pray to Dante -- patron saint of bureaucratic beauty.
Sometimes collecting a list -- or recollecting one -- can reaffirm our humanity. Dante’s lists helped to sustain Primo Levi. In Survival in Auschwitz, when Levi and a fellow prisoner recite from the Inferno, the poem provides them with a rare moment of normalcy.
Dante, by leading readers through intricate lists and toward his beloved Beatrice, suggests that the practice of list making, in and of itself, bears upon the great philosophical questions (like death and sex and power).
List making is an anthropological universal, and the desire to make lists speaks to a fundamental human need. Lists, by embodying a rational order, appeal to our nature as embodied, rational creatures (creatures who are all too prone to misusing our highest faculties, like when we make distasteful lists).
Note that some lists are frivolous. In Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, T. S. Eliot calls the roll of various cutie-pie felines.
But other lists are foundational. Perhaps American poetry begins with Leaves of Grass, an all-consuming compendium.
Emily Dickinson, too, was “inebriate” of lists, as she would have put it. Narrating her famous postmortem carriage ride, Dickinson lists the earthly phenomena that she leaves behind her:
We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess -- in the Ring --
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain --
We passed the Setting Sun --
Some other examples to add to this list of important poetic lists:
Paradise Lost flips through Milton’s rolodex of demons, devils and demigods.
The Iliad recites a who’s who of heroic warriors.
The Hebrew Bible is a profound series of lists (e.g., of the days of creation; of various domestic dysfunctions; of plagues and sins; of wars and kings and songs and laws).
Supposedly, W. H. Auden held that all poetry begins from a love of making lists.
But something sinister lurks beneath the will to compile lists. As Hannah Arendt suggested in her discussion of totalitarianism, the list maker’s art -- though apparently banal -- can grease the wheels of bloody regimes.
A list of objectionable lists might include: slave galley manifests, Nixon’s enemies list, McCarthy’s alleged list of State Department Communists and the blacklist, as well as the works of the Marquis de Sade. De Sade critiqued the Enlightenment with long, detailed lists of sexual tortures. His lists exposed the wicked potential of reason’s will to define and enumerate. Indeed, perhaps such lists impugn the form of the list itself.
In the case of the “scouting report,” this list might attest to the barbarism latent in male bonding. Perhaps this list reflects an innate, masculine impulse to dominate. Boys, after all, often obsess about baseball card collections and merit badges. And men often obsess about tallies of conquests, stock reports and sports statistics.
Someone familiar with Michel Foucault might develop an argument about how -- by translating the oral discourse of “locker-room talk” into the textual discourse of a written list -- the report actually renders male sexual aggression more susceptible to modern regimes of discipline.
But I have no expertise in such matters, and I certainly have no moral credibility. After all, a list of my privileges would have to include my gender, and a list of my sins would have to count up -- along with my prurience -- many instances of pride, avarice, greed and lechery.
But list making is my favorite vice. I seize upon any opportunity to compose lists. I love to craft to-do lists, grocery lists and Christmas present lists. I enjoy composing lesson plans, syllabi and bibliographies. I once wrote an erotic memoir, in which successive chapters chronicle each of my African-American ex-boyfriends (to be released this February as an ebook for Black History Month). And my life’s work is an ongoing project called The Book-Title List Book, in which I record titles for books that I have titled but will decline to write.
Along with these lists, I’m enchanted by list-like practices (such as exercise routines, the Rosary and grading papers). Procrastinating, I spend afternoons reading Wikipedia’s “List of lists of lists.”
I identify, therefore, with my fellow list makers. Just last semester, Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences informed me by email that they had not included my name on their short list of candidates for an open professorship. More than feeling slighted, I swooned with enthusiasm for the fact of the list itself.
And I wondered about the other lists that Harvard might have consulted while making the decision to suspend its soccer team (for example, alumni donor lists).
Even writing this now, I prefer list making to analysis and argument. Then again, list making actually implies analysis. To make a list is to impose hierarchy, organization, order.
I have fallen captive to the spell of the list. Therefore, as I compose my list of New Year’s resolutions, I vow that this year, 2017, will be the year that I fully embrace my love of the list.
A. W. Strouse is a poet who teaches medieval literature at the City University of New York.
So you’ve published a paper on monetary theory, snagged that fellowship for research in Rome or received an award for best teacher of the year. Or maybe you’ve just served on seven committees this past semester, from tenure review to curriculum reform, and colleagues ought to appreciate that.
But they don’t, at least not to your face. And the pathetic “Faculty News” page of your department website just doesn’t cut it. (Take a look at the listing for Professor Dale’s publication in Southwest Annandale Historical Society Notes: doubly out of date, since both the professor and the journal are extinct.)
You want to be known as the foremost expert on forensic linguistics or the one who got a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to study Rilke -- back in 2011, but still. What to do? Think of Berkeley’s famous proposition, applied to academics: “If a paper is published in a journal and no one knows about it, does it make a sound?” Is it OK to toot your own horn? In this era of Facebook, are you kidding?
Consider the humblebrag, a seemingly modest utterance that’s actually a boast. The British have excelled in this charming self-deprecation for centuries: “Oh, I don’t suppose many people were in the running this year,” for instance, to explain why you won the London marathon. Only this is higher education in 2016, with access to Twitter.
Think brassier, think of that academic review coming up in 2017, and think within a 140-character limit:
Gosh, if I don’t send in that manuscript to Oxford by this fall, they’re gonna kill me!
I don’t see how I’m going to get any work done during my fellowship in Belize.
Darned if I know why the Fulbright committee chose my proposal over so many deserving others.
You know, if it weren’t for all the grateful letters that I’ve gotten from students over the years, I’d’ve given up teaching a long time ago.
Never mind all my publications. The Smoot Teaching Award I got this year makes me realize what really matters in life.
I keep thinking there must be some mistake: Why would the Guggenheim committee even consider my work on medieval stairways?
You know, I never set out to write a best seller. Everyone knows what people in academe think of that.
Promotion to full professor isn’t much, I guess, but I try to see it as an affirmation of all I’ve done here.
I don’t anticipate the deanship will give me much power, but I do intend to take the responsibility seriously.
It’s not fashionable to talk about service, I know, which is why I don’t discuss all the behind-the-scenes work I do for the college.
All that work for such a simple title: provost.
I’m sure plenty of people could have delivered the keynote address at this conference, but I’m the one who got suckered into it.
They said I’m the youngest program director they’ve ever had -- must be their code word for inexperienced.
The students in my econ class all say that I’m their favorite teacher, but you know what that means.
As an adjunct, I could just phone in my performance, but I always have to put in 200 percent. Sigh. That’s just me.
That’s what I told Mike -- I mean, the chancellor. No idea why he listens to me. Hey, I’m just custodial staff.
David Galef directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University. His latest book, Brevity: A Flash Fiction Handbook, has just come out from Columbia University Press.
Professor Will Knott, English Defaultment, School of Obsolete Practices
Professor Neura Gîme, English Default Chair, U of All People
Date: Monday, Jan 4, 2016, at 10:00 AM
Subject: New Year’s Resolutions
Looking back on a tumultuous fall semester, I can see now that I may have made a few missteps. Some were acts of omission, such as such as neglecting to upload my grades from Spring 2015. Others were admittedly more commission, such as my metaphor emailed to the Faculty Senate, noting that, if brains were fuel, they wouldn’t have enough gas to drive an ant’s motorcycle around the inside of a Cheerio. Of course, I can’t take back what’s happened, especially since some of that has gone on the web. But New Year’s is a time for making resolutions, and here are mine:
1. I will try to be more aware of students’ sensitivities concerning classroom “hot” topics. Though I still think that the classroom is no place for figurative hand-holding, issuing a dozen trigger alerts per class, yes, probably does make a mockery of the system. And no one seems to like my attempts at satire.
2. As for open communication with the higher-ups, I suppose there’s really no need for me to air a scheduling grievance from a decade ago, especially with a dean who came to U of All People in 2014.
3. I should stop playing Spider Solitaire on my laptop at faculty meetings, especially since it wakes Arvy Winkle, sitting slumped next to me. I could take up Candy Crush, but it would be kinder to focus on the business at hand, even if it’s just another rigged clicker vote.
4. It’s time for me to show up for my virtual advising hours, though I’m still annoyed at the dozen students who crowdsourced a complaint, as well as that little creep who actually made an appointment and then stood me up when I did pose in front of the webcam. Maybe I also should switch from the current slot of Thursday 9:00-11:00 p.m.
5. I really must vary course material more. My Contemporary American Literature class, which I’ve taught for many years, still stops at Jack Kerouac. Who’s Jonathan Safran Foer? At least revise the Am Lit II survey final exam, which apparently has been posted on Facebook since 2011.
6. Do a little outreach, that stuff the provost keeps pushing to improve the school’s crappy PR. If Earl F. Oxford can teach Shakespeare at the library, I’m sure I could record a podcast on Kerouac to be made available at the local correctional facility.
7. Volunteer for more committee work. The Committee on Digital Media doesn’t really count, since we never received a budget. And the last time the Salary Committee met was in 2007.
8. Do more research and writing. I feel guilty about not getting back to my book about Kerouac’s typewriter, which I started in 2002. Maybe I should just turn it into a longish essay on Kerouac, or maybe just finish up that poem about a typewriter that my wife once said she liked. I could post it on my blog, Knott Kidding.
9. Forget old grudges. That implies saying hello to old Curt Mudgeon, who hasn’t spoken a word to me since our falling-out over some issue that, for the life of me, I can’t recall. Must I also be nice to the department office manager who ratted me out over the photocopy paper?
10. Remember to smile more, especially in class. “Prof Knot look like he take botox lol!” read a Snapchat post that someone forwarded me. Despite all my complaints, I do like my job, and at this stage in my life, I feel eminently suited to be a professor.
After all, who else besides academia would hire me?
David Galef directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University. His latest book is Kanji Poems.
At this September’s address to the minions at U of All People, the provost announced a new initiative: to become a Research I institution within the next 10 years (though the head of the Faculty Senate stage-whispered that this particular term is outdated). The next day came a correction: U of All People will become a doctoral/research-extensive or -intensive university -- or at least feature one doctoral program that’s not just in the planning stage, for chrissake (this from the Faculty Senate head, who has since been replaced by a marble bust of Sophocles).
But the idea is gaining currency here. Research schools get more money, enjoy more prestige and are eligible for reduced faculty teaching loads, so hey, why not?
First off, it’s obvious that we need a better library or information resource center or whatever they’re calling it nowadays. The Crabbe Memorial Library, built in 1955, looks its age. Never mind the decaying infrastructure or the mold problem, which a good dose of bleach could probably fix.
The collections are haphazard, depending on the discipline of the library liaison faculty member in any given year -- 67 volumes about trains, for example, from a history professor writing a book on 19th-century transportation -- and periodicals oddly slanted toward the psychology department. We have more microfilm readers than computer terminals, and you can count our databases on the fingers of one maimed hand. Though we have access to the Academics ’R’ Us search service, it barely yields results for anything beyond the last three years. Of course, we could subscribe to something like Lexis/Nexis/Protexis, but that costs. Maybe we can share expenses with the high school library in Francis, the next town over.
Second, we’d like a lower course load so that people can teach less and research more, “a chimerical idea” (comment by the provost) that the Faculty Senate has been pushing for 40 years. Our current 4/4 load doesn’t include the mandatory faculty tutoring for students at risk, implemented back in 2000, or the service requirement that involves a weekly fund-raising activity (last week, sitting in the Bean a Prof carnival booth for five bucks a shot).
More to the point: it’s difficult to pursue a research agenda when you have a stack of ungraded essays as high as an administrator’s desk. It’s been suggested that doctoral programs will allow us to recruit graduate students for slave labor teaching. It’s also been suggested, if we pursue that path, that we closely examine the Bolshevik Revolution for precedents.
Third, we need better funding for research. Ha-ha! Ah, ha-ha … cgha ghh [indecipherable coughing sound]. The Office of Research at U of All People consists of a converted janitorial closet that now houses a laptop and a guy named Dale, when he’s around. Grants are broadcast the month after their deadlines, and the last time this school saw an NEH proposal supported was back in 2006, when something accidentally got forwarded from the vice provost’s Outlook Express account.
The Summer Support Program at U of All People has been downgraded to Research Weekend. The annual grants proposal workshop, which once provided free coffee and pretzels, is now an online Q & A session with the biology department’s Professor Theodore Winkler, who once got a fellowship for something and is happy to share what little he knows.
Fourth, a Research I -- make that an expensive research institution -- should offer a full range of baccalaureate programs, at least according to the Carnegie Foundation, which should spend a day walking in our shoes. In fact, it might be nice to expand our range or update what we already offer, like the home economics program remastered as food services and management, or bring back the philosophy degree, abandoned after a survey showed that none of our three philosophy majors ever donated a dime to our coffers after graduation. We sort of envy U Too, the all-digital university that offers every online degree imaginable and some unimaginable.
Fifth, we need to award a lot of doctoral degrees, but that’s difficult when we don’t even have doctoral programs. Maybe offer a doctoral program in doctorology? All we have is a baby M.A. program in a few departments that shunt their students off to God knows where after they graduate. Perhaps other research institutions should be granting -- wonderful verb -- fewer Ph.D.s. That’s not our problem. We can’t award any degrees till we get the programs, we can’t feature the programs till we get support and we won’t get any support until we figure a way out of this catch-22.
But who knows? Maybe one day, U of All People will decide to give real research a shot and somehow buck the odds, up the standards and make the grade -- in which case, there’ll probably be some professors nostalgic for the old days, when all you had to do was sit in place in a carnival booth and get beaned by a host of resentful undergraduates.
David Galef directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University. His latest book is Kanji Poems.
PHILADELPHIA -- The University of Pennsylvania has announced that Donald J. Trump will become the next dean of the Wharton School, one of the nation's leading business schools. For months, Trump has been polling as one of the front-runners for the Republican presidential nomination, but in what some are calling a stunning move, he officially dropped out of the race at a news conference held here today.
“I think this is a bigger deal,” Trump said of his appointment. “I mean, it’s huge. Huge. It’s more prestigious, and quite frankly it pays better. And there’s more job security. Not that I need money, of course. Or a job.”
The Trump campaign has lost momentum following several Republican debates, where experts say Trump did little to win over women, minorities, immigrants and unattractive people. His lead in the polls, once 25 points, has shrunk as he has lost ground to a surgeon who also has no political experience. When asked if his decision betrays a sagging confidence in his ability to secure the GOP nomination, Trump remained steadfast.
“If you want to see me get back in the race and win this thing, I will,” he said. “But I don’t want to. I don’t need to. I can, but I won’t. I’m on to much, much better things.”
Trump’s appointment is a homecoming of sorts for the real estate tycoon. He received his bachelor’s degree in 1968 from the then Wharton School of Finance and Commerce, a fact he’s always eager to share.
“That was a good name,” Trump said, “a great name when I was here. In fact, one of my first moves as dean will be to reinstate that name. It was great back then, and it’ll be great again.”
The university’s president, Amy Gutmann, refused to address the prickly notion of renaming the school, instead focusing on the appointment of such a high-profile leader.
“We are thrilled to have Donald Trump as the next dean of the Wharton School,” Gutmann said. “His business acumen, leadership skills and fund-raising prowess will serve the school well as we continue to redefine business education in the 21st century.”
Gutmann also deflected questions regarding Trump’s previous foray into higher education -- the ill-fated Trump University, which was established a little over a decade ago and quickly dissolved amid claims of fraud and illegitimacy. Trump, however, did not demur.
“Look, Trump University helped a lot of people make a lot of money,” he said. “It was a great institution that was ahead of its time. I have no regrets, and you shouldn’t either.”
Trump mapped out his plans for his first semester in office, including raising the school’s rankings, securing donations, and strengthening the faculty and student body.
“This is a great place, but it can be better,” he said. “How am I going to make it better? I just am. It’s really that simple. I’ve made billions and billions of dollars dealing with complex things, and this is a complex thing that can benefit from my experience.
“The first job we need to do is become more selective,” Trump continued. “We let in too many losers. I mean, not really losers, but you know what I’m saying. I want to build a great wall around this place, a big wall that keeps out stupid people. I make deals all the time, and I’ll make deals with countries to get their best students. But I don’t want anyone from China. We’re losing to China. They’re eating our lunch. And definitely no Mexicans.”
One reporter asked Trump how he planned to gain the confidence of faculty given that he does not hold an advanced degree and has never taught.
“Look, I love the faculty, especially that one right over there,” he said, pointing to a woman in the third row. “I mean, look at that face. But, you know, I’ll deal with the tenure thing when the time comes. You can’t have deadbeats who don’t produce. It’s that simple. If you’re not the best in your field, you can get lost as far as I’m concerned. I’m the best at what I do, and that’s why I’m here.”
On the topic of being the best, Trump had choice words for Wharton’s competitors.
“We’re not number one,” he said, referring to the M.B.A. rankings, “but we are and we should be. I mean, come on, who really wants to go to Harvard or Stanford? They’re a disaster. With me as dean, it won’t be long before we’re ranked number one, or even higher. We’re going to hire great people. We’re going to make Wharton great again.”
Finally, Trump was asked why he hasn’t been more financially supportive of his alma mater despite having a self-reported $10 billion in net worth.
“When you have a lot of money like I do, you have to make tough decisions,” he said. “I have been very generous. As generous as I could have been? Probably not. But that doesn’t mean others shouldn’t give us a lot more. People support winners. I was a winner as a Republican candidate, and I’ll be a winner as a dean.
“It’s that simple.”
Mark J. Drozdowski is director of university communications at the University of New Haven. This is the latest installment of an occasional humor column, “Special Edification.”
I am a junior scholar with a secret: I enjoy Masterpiece Theatre’s British period drama Downton Abbey. Actually, “enjoy” is quite the understatement. And this is a very, very difficult thing for me to admit publicly.
You see, I do not watch much television. In fact, I do not even have a television. Like a “good” academic, I eschewed television watching quite some time ago and gleefully admit to this fact in certain circles -- as though a refusal to engage with popular culture by way of television watching is the academic’s badge of honor. If I watch anything at all, I stream it from my laptop as I deal with the mundane activities known to infiltrate daily life (e.g., washing dishes, chopping vegetables, folding laundry and so forth).
But I am practically addicted to Downton Abbey and can engage anyone in conversation about the brilliant characterization dreamed up and brought to life by its creator, Julian Fellowes. (Even Highclere Castle, the series’ setting, is a character in and of itself.) If I am so inclined, I can even be caught invoking a favorite line or two, as it suits my purposes (such as when the sassy cook, Mrs. Patmore, playfully suggests to the rigidly traditional butler, Mr. Carson, that if enjoying a candlelit dinner with his peers is “too democratically overpowering,” he is certainly free to explore other, less desirable options). In short, this series has left me actively refraining from counting the days until the sixth and final season airs in the States in January.
But why bring all this up?
As an academic, I find myself apologizing, or overexplaining, to other scholars my interest in this show should the topic arise. Clearly, the vast majority of the characters are white, and as such, it is not difficult to see my race represented, episode after episode. In fact, with few exceptions, race and racial diversity could not be further from the themes that carry through each season. The series mainly centers on class. Classist hierarchies, however fictionalized for ratings, dominate the narrative -- a detail consistent with the period in which the drama takes place. In conversations, I find myself explaining that I am quite “well aware of the racial and classist problematics,” as a way of introducing, framing and apologizing for my love of the show.
I am also what some might classify as a critical scholar. Indeed, critical race theory and critical whiteness studies are fields that have informed my dissertation, my research agenda, my scholarship, my work with preservice teachers and, frankly, my way of being in the world. A critical pedagogy in education is something for which I am a staunch advocate, and my life’s work involves teaching preservice teachers to deconstruct texts of all kinds for their racialized and oftentimes classist hidden curricula.
My musings about race in education have received mainstream attention, and I like to think that I am becoming more skillful at deconstructing my own positionality as a white scholar with significant unearned privilege, both socially and institutionally. I like to think that, year after year, article after article, conversation after conversation, I am becoming a bit more adept at what Professor Kevin Hylton of Great Britain’s Leeds Beckett University described in an article about critical race theory in Race, Ethnicity and Education (2012) as walking the walk, or “agitat[ing] for change and … [a willingness] to defend positions that are marginal, challenging and sometimes plain unpopular.”
Yet, in truth, my professional and scholarly life is often at odds with what sometimes occurs when I leave the classroom or the conference or put away whatever data I happen to be working with. And I find it utterly mystifying as to why an academic (or anyone, really) would have to defend the perfectly innocuous ways by which he or she experiences enjoyment.
The person’s defense often begins with three or four caveats explaining how he or she “absolutely knows how problematic [insert television show, movie, book, genre of music here] is,” and how “sorry” he or she is to have to admit this, but boy, does he or she enjoy [insert television show, movie, book, genre of music here]. It’s as though the only acceptable engagement with “less critical” forms of popular entertainment are those about which the problematic components are publicly acknowledged, or better yet, explicitly tied to critical research and teaching agendas -- as though we are not entitled to personal lives and downtime free from scholarly theories and deconstructive practices.
In truth, I find the entire dance utterly exhausting. I am acquainted with critical colleagues who enjoy rap and country music, graphic novels and reality television. I can quote, practically verbatim, the apologies and explanations that precede these admissions, as though enjoying, for example, Eminem’s music (however problematic, depending on whom you ask) somehow undermines one’s entire research agenda, academic accomplishments and larger professional goals. As though engaging certain texts for the sheer enjoyment of it is a dirty little secret, acceptable only in the context of acknowledged “problematic themes,” critical theories and apologies. My dear, dear colleagues, do trust: this is an exhausting way to be.
And so it is here that I will publicly vow to not be an exhausting academic when it comes to my colleagues’ interests. I look forward to hearing of your passions and hobbies -- perhaps they will become my own. Indeed, this is some of the stuff I live for. I relish in a catchy tune, a fun book or a television series that has inspired my own learning and inquiry into an era or topic about which I was only superficially knowledgeable before, however fictionalized for ratings.
And here is another dirty little secret for you: I read a romance novel recently and just loved it -- as in a bawling-into-my-blankets kind of love. And I assure you, my professional identity has not imploded, my years of teaching experience have not vanished into thin air and my Ph.D. has not burst into flames upon consumption.
Christina Berchini is an assistant professor in English and education studies at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire.