A Modest Proposal on the Draft and Higher Education

It is indeed a rare and wonderful thing when the interests of seemingly disparate institutions coalesce and the members thereof can join forces to advance a hitherto unrealized common cause. But such is the opportunity that the officials of the Bush administration and we in the academy find ourselves facing today.

The Department of Defense finds itself desperately short of troops with which to sustain what promises to be a long and increasingly unpopular, inconclusive war in Iraq. The Department of Education finds itself suddenly alarmed by the relatively low percentage of Americans pursuing postsecondary education compared to the rate of participation in other countries. American colleges and universities find themselves bucking the current demographic trend such that some of them are lowering standards as they compete for fewer and fewer students.

The answer to all these problems, it seems to me, is as simple as remembering back to the last time we were fighting an unpopular war far away for reasons we couldn’t quite understand, the 1960s. Colleges and universities were bursting at the seams with more students than they could handle, and the sky seemed to be the limit for the expansion of programs and the hiring of new faculty members. What did we have going for us then in the American academy that we don’t have now? We had a Selective Service System -- a draft -- that until 1971 featured a calculated system of deferments for college and graduate school.

We need to restore that system today -- the most significant refinement being that, in keeping with today’s more enlightened sensibility, today’s draft would extend to young women as well as men. The advantages would be obvious and undeniable.

The Department of Defense would have more than enough fresh troops with which to “stay the course.” This should satisfy the critics on the right and the left who would use the current exhaustion of the all-volunteer military as an excuse to “cut and run.” The number of college deferments would remain relatively low compared to the number of young people available, especially if we made deferment contingent upon maintaining a passing grade-point average. We could even make deferment contingent on enrolling in programs that lend themselves to the kinds of assessment approved of by the Spellings commission -- if those classics and philosophy departments want to hold on to their students, they’ll come around to believe everything can be measured in tests or your post-graduation income.

Patriotic appeals and current threat levels notwithstanding, the prospect of being drawn into a shooting war in Iraq or Afghanistan, or even Iran, will continue to appeal to a limited spectrum of American youth. Matriculation and retention rates in American colleges and universities, then, are likely to soar, thereby alleviating one concern of the Secretary of Education and her Commission. We are also likely to see a war dividend in terms of increased accountability, as students and faculty alike face a clear and present incentive to assess and document student learning. (Obviously, the deferments would only be granted to those enrolled at places whose accreditors endorsed the commission’s approach.)

The sudden surplus of applicants, moreover, will force colleges to become more selective. This will greatly reduce, or even obviate, the need for remedial  courses. And it will help ensure that graduates do not exhibit the sort of deficiencies in basic skills likewise noted as one of our national embarrassments in the Higher Education Commission’s recent report.

Carefully considered, in fact, this scheme would seem to present no serious disadvantages, unless it be urged that the liberal sentiments and ideals associated with higher education are incongruous with the prosecution of a war. To date, however, we have witnessed remarkably little dissent and protest directed toward the war from academic quarters. It is therefore safe to assume that we in the academy have outgrown our narrow principles and that we’re not likely to suffer the sort of paroxysms that tore campuses apart during the Vietnam era.

As for myself, I have nothing to gain or lose in proposing this scheme. I already served in Vietnam, I am within five years of retirement, and my one child is finished with college and beyond draft age. My only objective is to do my part, as a loyal American, to help the President out of a tight spot and to point the way toward a brave new era of academic and governmental cooperation.

Edward F. Palm
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Edward F. Palm is dean of social sciences and humanities at Olympic College, in Bremerton, Wash.

Double Haiku on MLA Interviewing

Drinking half moon night
Career candidates awake
Morning thwap, thwap, thwap

Twinkling here and there
Helicopters fly like stars
Of English commerce

Will Hochman
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Will Hochman is associate professor of English at Southern Connecticut State University.

Out With the Old

It took nine months, like birthing a baby, but it finally happened: Out with the old and in with the new. Our department chairperson -- formally known as The Evil One and now known as “Who?” -- was given the boot toward the end of 2006. Now, I’m the kind of academic who generally supports department chairpersons (I’ve had six in my time), even if I find them to be flaky, slow, uncreative, or fidgety. I figure, it’s a tough job (I know because I did it for a few years), so why not just go with the flow? After all, someone’s got to do it and there’s no reason to think anyone would be better than the one currently doing it. But there is, I discovered along with some of my colleagues last year, reason to think there might be someone worse.

Let’s just say this guy was imported with a new dean (who got booted himself last summer) and that he had no real business running a humanities department, or a Starbucks, or a Mr. Coffee machine. Example: He did not know or care how many credit hours constitute a course in this country and kept counting half-credits, all so that he could teach two -- instead of three -- hours a week. Example: He wanted to keep on part-time lecturers who supported him, whether we needed them or not. This led to us offering a range of languages that had been declared dead long before by the Modern Language Association. If he heard a lumberjack speaking Sasquatch in the woods, he’d hire that person, tell him to use the communicative method, and then give him a list of the three students who signed up for the course. Example: When I first met the chair he asked me why a colleague spent so much time in Madrid. When I slyly mentioned that she was doing research there he replied, “Oh, no she’s not!  She must be having an affair!” Final example: When the review committee discussed a colleague’s writing on political regimes in the third world, the chair blurted out “he keeps using the term ‘perverse’ [perverse government, state, etc.] -- and he doesn’t even mean it in an erotic way! You’ve read Georges Bataille, right? -- Now that’s perverted!” Need I say more?

Well, it took some time to get where we wanted to go, even after the axed dean found himself hanging out in the campus Chicken Delight instead of wheeling and dealing in elevators and at urinals. The new interim dean wanted to look over all the evidence that had been submitted to get rid of our chair, interview everyone, and read some Bataille. In the meantime, our chair assigned one of his minions to redo the department bulletin boards, which led to the removal of Fleur’s study abroad brochures. I was miffed. Eventually, I nailed one in and it was left there -- a testimony to the crucifixion we were all undergoing, a piece of glossy paper flapping in the weary wind of the dry, stale, second floor hallway.

After many meetings and many documents read and reread, the interim dean did the right thing and announced the end of the regime. When he asked me who I could suggest to lead the department over the next few months, while we “renewed our commitment to each other” (read: called off the death squads), I could spit out only two words: MAN ... SCIENCE. Yep, I wanted a guy in charge, a guy from the sciences. And preferably the hard sciences; the harder the better, in fact. Life scientists would be too much like humanists, interested in preserving things and feelings and signs of carbon-based life -- no way.

I’m sure you are saying to yourself: Well, Fleur, I know you are a humanist, so why a scientist? And if you know how to read between the lines, you are also saying: Well, Fleur, I know you are a feminist, so why the “y” chromosome? Here’s Y: I want some peace. Let’s face it, humanists will try to get any other humanist, even one in Falkland Island studies, on their side. We are, after all, political animals. We know that the university is political because we made it that way and we aren’t about to depoliticize it and look at things “objectively.” But for a few months, I was convinced, we needed the objective eye, the kind that would look at the registrar’s home page and see whole, even if odd, numbers under “credits.” And why a guy, you ask? Let’s face it, I may be a feminist but I’m not an idiot. I know that the world is run by two kinds of people: sexists and people pretending not to be sexists. There is basically no one in my department, including the women, who will respect a female chair the way s/he respects a male one. When I was chair people said things like “she must have had a fight with her husband” to explain why I suggested that people occasionally publish in refereed journals; when a man is chair they say “that’s because he’s a real man -- oops, scholar.”

So we ended up, as I suggested, with an interim chair who is also the chair of a science department. (I am keeping the name of the department to myself, for anonymity’s sake. Let’s just say it’s a pretty hard science). He’s only been chair for a few weeks, but significant changes have taken effect: The bulletin board has been put under the care of the department secretary, who yanked out the nail with the department hammer and nicely pinned up my brochures; all hires for next year have been put on hold as we determine which languages are actually dead and which are truly modern; there has been a ban on more than two (female) faculty members occupying one bathroom stall at the same time while snickering; and, e-mail is being used to convey information, not to create new myths of Biblical proportions. And something else has changed: Along with the smoking ban in bars in the state in which I live, people have stopped blowing hot air down the hall. We can now breathe. And I say, let’s drink to that.

But now Fleur wants to get personal, because it is true, in fact, that I had had an argument with my husband just before I declared the need to publish in refereed journals. And just as the department has changed chairs, Fleur is seeking to change partners -- seeking at least an interim, shall we say. Not that I’ve booted the guy; he’s a nice guy, and the father of Lucy, after all. But it was time, in 2006, to admit that we could not renew our commitment and that no trip to Belize can heal pathologies of our own creation (see Fleur on family vacations). I moved out -- long story, let’s not go there -- and have temporary digs in a very large house. I’m living like a grad student and just found out I can only check books out of the campus library for three months at a time. I have a miniature refrigerator but I’m thinking, hey, all of Europe lives this way and some of those people have families! And I have a huge walk-in closet, in the huge bathroom, where Lucy has set up a secret fort where we sometimes sit and have girl talk until 9:30 p.m.

Not long after I moved out -- say within 48 hours -- I decided I’d need a date for New Year’s this year. Celebrating the demise of Pluto (see Fleur on the booted planet) -- oops, of the chair -- at a colleague’s house would not be enough; I needed to celebrate big time. Now, I could write a whole column on single women in their late 40s trying to find true love on campus -- couldn’t we all? But for now I’ll just cut to the chase: Yahoo Personals. Yep, it’s cheap and it doesn’t require you to be officially divorced, as does E-Harmony. You can look at 1,000 guys and decide for yourself if they would fit in at a party to celebrate the downfall of a departmental regime. I personally was not looking for an academic, although my good friend Mira kept insisting I would not be happy until I found one (I disagree), but I did insist on a few things: He must have a college degree, he must have a full-time job, he must be liberal (that is, pretend not to be a sexist), and he must be able to dress himself. This narrowed the field down from 1,000 to 27.

Of those 27, I eliminated several whose introductions to themselves were scary. One began by insisting “If you got problems or drama, stay clear of me.” OK. Another wrote that he was looking for a “lady who knows how to act like a lady.” Tautological. Next. At least five claimed they were “teddy bears.” Not going there. In the end, I was contacted by three virtual guys. The first wrote “Hey -- I like your profile. I’m on again with my on-and-off again girlfriend right now, but when we’re off again I’ll write you and we can go out.” Intriguing, I thought -- if only he were available. Another wrote “I like NPR two; let’s grab a coffee.” Promptly corrected with the code (ORTH; see Fleur on codes). The third wrote “You are making me dizzy. Is it you? I can’t think straight.” Gotta be meth, I thought.

Then it hit me:  MAN ... SCIENCE. Why wasn’t I using the fail-proof technique that had recently worked so well at work? So I wrote to a guy with a degree and a job in a hard science; he looked quite young in his photo, yet quite possible, in the grand scheme of the possible. And the rest is history, as we say in the humanities. In other words, I had a date for New Year’s Eve and it was not with a professor, it was with -- hold onto your seats, ladies and teddy bears of the Academy -- a race car engineer. Yep, this guy designs race cars. I can hear all my humanities colleagues, men, women, and in-between, crying out “Cool!” Yep, from a cultural studies, postmodernist, fin-de-siècle, party-like-it’s-1999 stance, that is definitely a cool job. It doesn’t pay as much as being a department chair, but you don’t get booted as often. I raced home the next day at a slick 40 miles per hour, anticipating date number two. Ring in the new.

Fleur LaDouleur
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Fleur LaDouleur is the pseudonym of a professor of humanities at a Midwestern university.

Chaos Theory

With some dreams, you don't need to consult Freud to understand the element of wish-fulfilment. A case in point is one that my wife occasionally reports. It doesn't take much interpretation to know that, when she has it, I have been pushing my luck.

In it, she makes a pleasant discovery: Our apartment turns out to have an extra room. Somehow we have overlooked it, all these years. It is large, brightly lit, and completely empty.

In other words: No stacks of magazines and newspapers on any surface. No row of books on the windowsill in the living room, waiting to be shelved whenever I get around to it. No jewel cases for CDs accumulating near the stereo. The well-being of our cats is not menaced by towering piles of JSTOR printouts and photocopies that have been (momentarily!) relocated from my study to the kitchen table for sorting.

That empty room is a refuge. Then she wakes up.

And then it is time to ensure domestic tranquility, by any means necessary. I make a quick, decisive march through the long-deferred process of sorting, purging, filing, and reshelving. But there is always a certain residue of clutter that won't go away -- material that proves resistant to any order I can impose. Hence my technique of "throw it all in a box, then find a place for the box."

Freud might have had something to say about the situation, after all. It sure does feel like a symptom of something.                                       

In part, it's an effect of working at home, in a tiny study. Some of the contents tend to escape, from time to time. Then it's hard to round them back up.

But according to A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder, by Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman ( just published by Little, Brown), there is more to it than that. A clean desk really does signify an empty mind. "Office messiness tends to increase sharply with increasing education, increasing salary, and increasing experience," they write, based on studies that I am inclined to accept without reservation.

Abrahamson is a professor of management at Columbia University's business school; his co-author is a business and science journalist. Their book belongs to a genre that has become popular in recent years: the pop social-science survey, intended for people who fly business class. Other examples include Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds, and Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner.

In each case, the volume will boil down a few technical papers by economists and psychologists, mix in a bunch of anecdotes and real-life problems, then shape the result into new management wisdom for the business professional. These books are discussed at management retreats. The quality of them varies quite a bit -- but as a genre, they are by no means the worst titles competing for the executive niche market. Reading them is more educational than watching Tom Friedman brutalize an extended metaphor, anyway.

One surprising thing about A Perfect Mess is that it is, in part, a polemic. It takes aim at the working assumptions of a new breed of consultants: the folks who belong to the National Association of Professional Organizers, which had more than 3,000 members as of 2005. (At that point, its membership had doubled over the previous 18 months. Its Web site now claims "close to 4,000 members.")

Thanks to NAPO, January is now Get Organized Month. I am willing to bet that they are also behind the recent appearance of a new kind of reality TV program, in which a team of organizers and designers descend upon a messy home and transform it -- mostly by throwing mounds of stuff away. At least two such shows are now on cable. I have seen a few episodes, and find them terrifying, but that does not represent the opinion of our entire household.

"An entire industry of sorts has sprung up," write Abrahamson and Freedman, "picking up steam over the past decade, to nurture the notion that if only we were more organized with our possessions, time, and resources, we would be more content and successful, and our companies and institutions would be more effective."

A multi-billion dollar market has emerged for videos, seminars, and consultants who "all purvey some variation on the theme of straightening up, rearranging, acquiring highly effective habits, planning your day/week/life, restructuring organizations, and rigidly standardizing processes."

The default setting of this industry's rhetoric tends to be "transformative," as Abrahamson and Freedman put it, "if not miraculous." But it all comes to a set of variations on some fairly obvious points:

"Throw out and give away a bunch of stuff. Put the rest on shelves. Set up a tightly scheduled calender. Repeat.” Also, you should probably buy more wastebaskets."

What is missing from the propaganda of the declutterification movement, according to A Perfect Mess, is any consideration of the costs versus the benefits of organization. (I have attempted to make this argument many times, but never so cogently.)

Simply put, apparent disorder often contains an implicit structure. The traffic of pedestrians on a sidewalk looks like a chaotic swarm, but its flow is more lawful, more organized, than it might look. A degree of randomness in a system can actually have the effect of maximizing its efficiency. Neatness is not a typical feature of the creative process. Cognitive leaps tend to involve a certain amount of scruffy thinking.

"In particular," Abrahamson and Freedman write, "academia is an unrestrained haven of the messy workspace, so much so that faculty and colleges and universities often behave as if they've been told their reputation will grow in direct proportion to piles on and around their desks. One Columbia university professor's office has gradually become so densely packed with towers of papers and books that the school finally assigned him a second office so that students could meet with him in relative comfort and safety. When Nobel laureate and University of Chicago economics professor Robert Fogel found his desk becoming massively piled, he simply installed a second desk behind him that now competes in towering clutter with the first. His colleague at the school, chemist Stephen Berry, recipient of a MacArthur 'genius' grant award, works among a landscape of 18-inch-high piles which have harbored individual documents for as long as two decades."

What to the naked eye looks like a messy desk may, in fact, be "a surprisingly sophisticated informal filing system that offers far more efficiency and flexibility than a filing cabinet could possibly provide," write Abrahamson and Freedman. "Messy desk owners typically, for example, have separate piles for urgent, less-urgent, and non-urgent documents."

A good point, that. But trouble comes when there is no more room for separate piles. They bleed into one another, or start to fall down, or both. By that point, using the desktop to create a new document is kind of impractical.

"As the mess grows, the rate at which the advantages grow tends to slow and eventually trail off," the authors write. "Meanwhile the rate at which the disadvantages accumulate will eventually start to take off...."

Well, you don't say. It's a fine balance you have to keep, then. It's as if there's a "tipping point" to your "perfect mess," almost.

"A formal analysis of any system's multi-dimensionally optimized mess levels would be a formidable task," note Abrahamson and Freedman. "Suffice it to say you're better off just playing around with mess and seeing what happens."

Thanks, guys. Lots of us were doing that already, actually. But it's good to have a thoughtful account of why it is a good idea. That is why A Perfect Mess will be assigned reading for clients attending seminars on my "throw everything in a box" technique.

Scott McLemee
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The Terrorist Threat Index

For years, the field of political science at U. of All People has attracted failed economists and cast-offs from the philosophy and psychology departments. Not surprisingly, poli sci ranked only with the music department in its near-poverty-line salaries. Only in recent years, with the university administration insisting that its faculty demonstrate the utility of their discipline, has political science rallied, marketing its services to the U.S. government as everything from policy analysis to quick-fix government solutions.

As with the success of any department, much of it is traceable to an active chair, in this instance Dr. Terrence Temerity, now in his third year at the helm. Under Temerity, a cadre of professors last year set up a consulting firm called Wonks 4 Hire, focusing on issues of national security. And with the Department of Homeland Security in flux over the pending shift in Iraq policy, W4H saw its opportunity, offering a more nuanced alert system than the clumsy old code yellow, orange, and red..

To galvanize today’s voters for the troops increase, argued an internal memo (mistakenly e-mailed to REPLY ALL from Dr. Temerity’s office, then leaked to the campus newspaper, Hey U), domestic terrorist threats have got to appear imminent. It’s not how endangered the country is but how unsafe people feel. Borrowing from psychology, mathematics and weather forecasting’s Temperature Humidity Index, W4H has come up with the TTI, or Terrorist Threat Index. Here are out-takes from the memo in garbled form from the student-run newspaper.


On a scale that starts at 90, the TTI formula is 100 x Q / .37 + D, where Q = some Quotient counted in decimals, and D = a vague feeling of Doom, but really the whole thing depends on mood, depending on “news” carefully leaked by the U.S. administration.

90: nothing major in the newspaper headlines, just genocide in far-off places like Darfur. People can enjoy a drink after work without feeling as if the swarthy guy in the next booth is taking notes on their conversation. The administration can bide its time.

92: some terrorist group in Indonesia or Sri Lanka attacks a group of tourists that includes Americans. People think of blindfolded hostages and reconsider their summer vacation plans. The administration should issue a statement about the domino theory and hope that people will forget about Afghanistan.

94: another report of a suicide bombing in Iraq, with the premonition that this could happen in the U.S. People at traffic lights may glance uneasily at the panel truck in the next lane, wondering what’s in the back. Time for the administration to push through a bill for stringing yellow-and-black DANGER tape all across our borders.

96: an anniversary marks a tragic death that happened last year with the implication that it could happen again today. The administration must use this opportunity to pass a counter-terrorist act that also sanctions clear-cut logging in Seattle.

98: a new look at Saddam Hussein’s diary for 2002 shows that he intended to acquire weapons of mass destruction from Mars. Time to make an argument in Congress that Americans need to hold on to their assault rifles in case the war gets carried to U.S. shores.

100: morning news reveals a plot to bomb the Washington, D.C., subway system using explosives fashioned from old bottle tops and motor oil. Better not commute to work today. The administration delivers an “I told you so” speech and can then order up 20,000 more troops.

Government official [name deleted] should be quite pleased with the scale and its potential applications. After the provost receives his percentage of the payment, this just might be a banner year for internal grants awarded to the political science department. Who knows? This could be the start of a beautiful relationship.



David Galef
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David Galef is a professor of English and administrator of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the University of Mississippi. His latest books are the novel How to Cope with Suburban Stress and the co-edited fiction anthology 20 over 40.

Grad School: A Primer

A is for Anxiety. Who are you, Derrida?

B is for the Bore you are, to all but Ma and Pa.

C is for the Coin you drop on Copies you deface,

D for the Despair you feel, producing at this pace.

E is for the Energy you wasted all these years,

F for Fraud, for Failure, Fake, whatever, these are tears.

G is for the Game you play, imagining you'll finish,

H for Harry Potter. You fancy games of Quiddich.

I's for Isolation, you're alone in this you know?

J for all the Joy you'll feel in this Hell when it snows.

K is for the grade you'd give, to see that student sob,

L for Lucky, like you'll be, to ever Land a job.

M is for the Money you'd be rolling in by now,

N for all the Notes you lost, although you're not sure how.

O is for the wailing, which continues in your sleep,

P for all the Pressure, which you handle [BLEEP] [BLEEP] [BLEEP].

Q is for the Questions, all the dumb ones that you ask,

R for the Revisions, Resubmissions in your past.*

T is for the Time spent, reading this instead of that,

U for Unproductive, like the time spent with your cat.

V is for the Virtues you can always cultivate,

When you have a real life. At some undetermined date.

X is for the ones you love, but avoid for your cause,

Y for you, you you you you, and working without pause.

Z is for the Žižek, he's really rad, I hear,

And now you know, Grad ABCs, who here wants more beer?

* S is for the Shit you inevitably leave out, or maybe for how stupid, you feel foot firm in mouth.

Scott Eric Kaufman
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Our Entering Class for 2008

This year, Harvard accepted only about 9 percent of those who applied, and Columbia University took an even lower percentage. What are these incoming students like? Are they all genius athletes arranged in an ethnically diverse spectrum?

At U of All People, where we understand the publicity value of such standards -- and like a good challenge -- we’ve set our goal even higher: Next year, we intend to accept only 5 percent of those who apply to our fabled university. However, in order to attract that many applicants, we’ll need to lower our admissions criteria somewhat. Here’s what we’re looking for:

  • a minimum SAT score of 400, calculated with a special bonus system that rewards extra effort
  • a GPA of at least 1.5, with special consideration given to vocational skills
  • a varsity letter—or some experience—in sports, with the term sports broadly defined to include Texas Hold ’Em, video games, and yodeling
  • at least one extracurricular activity: may encompass shopping and watching most television serials
  • community service, with special credit for parole activities
  • proficiency in at least one language, such as English
  • a vaguely ethnic look, if not true ethnicity (may be waived upon lawsuit)
  • a geographical location for place of residence, including foreign countries with whom the U.S. is not currently at war
  • a median family income of some median or other
  • a high school diploma or a reasonable facsimile thereof
  • an application at least two-thirds completed, or to the best of the applicant’s ability

Of course, if we don’t manage to attract such qualified applicants, we have our fallback position: our famous 100% acceptance rate -- “Educational democracy in action!” -- at U of All People, where enrollment is a way of life and our top priority.

Student success is important, but access to students is even more so. 

David Galef
Author's email:

David Galef is a professor of English and administrator of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the University of Mississippi. His latest books are the novel How to Cope with Suburban Stress and the co-edited fiction anthology 20 over 40.

Turning 30: A Self-Interview

Q: You’ve written thirty “Purely Academic” columns. Can you reflect on the experience?

A: Toward the end of Thomas Pynchon’s V, a girl asks one of the heroes, Benny Profane, about what he’s learned. Benny, we read, “didn’t have to think long. ‘No,’ he said, ‘Offhand I’d say I haven’t learned a goddamn thing.’”

Q: Surely you jest. And I don’t like literary types.

A: Well, all right. One thing I’ve learned is that anything having to do with students is guaranteed to draw lots of comment. It scarcely matters what you write. Everybody gets very agitated over giving excuses, leaving class to go to the bathroom and drawing up syllabi.

Q: Is this wrong?

A: No, but it’s one thing to try to compose a reasoned argument about such subjects, while it’s another thing to express an opinion. Once I read somewhere -- all right, no more literature, although now you’ll have to pardon my French -- that the great Dodger manager, Walter Alston, once stated: “Everybody has two things, an opinion and an asshole.” About some subjects, an opinion is just too easy.

Q: So what are readers supposed to do, just agree with you?

A: Of course not. Another thing I’ve learned is that not everybody will agree with you, even if you think you’re being eminently reasonable, and not everybody will disagree with you, even if you take yourself to be contrary. The wonder of the site’s format is that a column draws all sorts of comments. You shouldn’t be surprised at anything. At first, I was; like any academic, I wasn’t used to having actual readers. Now I anticipate them.

Q: What do you mean, academics are not used to readers? I don’t know about you, but over the years I’ve gotten some appreciative comments about something I’ve written.

A: Sure, but how many read a standard professional journal? How many reviews can we expect for our scholarly books? Most articles and books are written for the personnel file. My guess is, we’d write very little if we didn’t have to be tenured or promoted.

Q: You sound like you’re about to commit a column. Some of them -- a recent one on bosses comes to mind most recently -- were awfully cynical.

A: Guilty as suspected and judged. So much so, I could mention another example of what Borat (remember him?) would term a “learning”: how amazing it is if you write two-and-a-half to three single-spaced pages once a month for some two years you come to feel that this is a nice comfy fit for just about any subject.

Q: Are we now talking about the wrong end of Walter Alston?

A: Touché. Put it another way. A friend tells me of a new DVD that includes a short 30s film with Boris Karloff as a mad scientist being exploited by a newspaper magnate. Best line from Karloff’s crippled manservant, who declares: “I don’t mind dying but to be accused of journalism!.” What I meant is that at times not only have I accused myself of journalism, but I’ve felt no shame.

Q: Why should you? What’s the matter with journalism? Academics can be such snobs.

A: C’mon. Begin anywhere, say with the fact that journalism is written for the moment, whereas literature is written for the ages. At first, I suppose I took myself often to be writing, well, literature -- artful examples of a venerable genre, the personal essay. Then I ceased to think about it this way, even if the composed dimension of each column still means a lot to me. Readers rebuked me. Responses still stampeded over, or away with, the most incidental asides. I write about things happening on campus right now -- sex and violence or parking lots and classroom jokes. That’s how I’ve been read from the beginning. Now it’s simply how I expect to be read -- and let the response balloons inflate as they may.

Q: It sounds to me as if you’re in effect writing a blog. What’s the difference between the column and a blog?

A: Less than it might seem, especially when you consider how some bloggers regularly seek a formal shape to even the most occasional comment. Other than the fact that “Purely Academic” appears as part of on online magazine, I suppose its main difference from a blog is that a blog is content with its personal, occasional character, whereas a column aims to be more broadly discursive, less consistently personal. But this is a tricky difference. It deserves a column.

Q: Other ideas for future columns?

A: You have to wait. Like me. Just when I think there’s nothing more for me to write about, I’ll hear or read something, and then lurch keyboard-ward. The only thing I’m conscious of is considering odd, wayward, or marginal subjects -- wearing ties, having a dog in the classroom, dreaming about being elsewhere, finding a place to read. Nobody writes about these things.

Q: Maybe with good reason.

A: So readers have at various times pointed out. That’s what it’s like to have a dialogue -- as well as to write for a magazine. You’re always being judged. A column or two ago one reader urged the magazine to drop me entirely. Another addressed me as a “professor thug.” It’s not my magazine. But if the column were my blog, I’d be the judge.

Q: What in your opinion is the leading issue in higher education today?

A: Read the rest of Inside Higher Ed. In a sense, I go in search of the least leading issues.

Q: Maybe I have to read the column more. Any regrets about it?

A: Two.

Q: Do I have to ask again?

A: One regret has to do with comedy. Most academic novels are comic. Academic life is, I think, best comprehended in comic terms. Who was the Oxford don who opined: “Students recur?” Precisely. Everything in academe recurs -- the character types, the components of the setting, the nature of the conflicts. You won’t write well about it if you aren’t quick to sense the comedy. But it’s still hard to write about the comedy as a comedy. Instead, it’s easier to appear as harsh, abrasive, or insistent, while striving to be light, bouncy, and carefree.

Q: Maybe you should give up the column and write a novel.

A: Alas, no talent. There’s a lovely passage I just read the other day in Proust -- woops! I promised no more literature.

Q: What’s the other regret?

A: Celebration. Or rather, the lack thereof. What I mean is, there just doesn’t seem to be much that I like about academic life, on the basis of the published record. I like a place to read, granted, and so one of the few things I’ve praised in the column are libraries and librarians. But even when th subject is, say, conferences, it’s the other conference next door, not the academic one, whose pleasures I celebrate.

Q: So you mean that you do like academic life but somehow just haven’t found out exactly what?

A: No, what I mean is that even when I thought I found something I like, it comes out either that I don’t or that I can’t seem to write about it as if I do. Also, see comedy, above.

Q: Do you think this is typical of academics in general? We like ideas, research, teaching, summers off. Some even like committees. But finally we don’t like the whole life: the new president and the old dean through the lack of parking space and funding for research to disruptive students and the colleague down the hall who has a better office. Instead, what we really love is to bitch and moan.

A: If this were a trial rather than an interview, the question would to objected to on the basis of being “argumentative.”

Q: I’m just trying to make you feel better. How many times do you meet a fellow academic beaming with joy: The campus is wonderful, the division has plenty of money, colleagues are supportive, students polite and provocative, and the lawns always freshly mowed? Your own feelings -- let’s be kind and call them “equivocations” -- about academic life may be more typical than you think.

A: In a sense, this is the wager of every “Purely Academic” column.

Q: Like to add anything more?

A: Only a favorite line from Kafka: “How can one be glad about the world except if one takes one’s refuge in it?” Academic life, to me, remains the best refuge.

Q: You promised no more literature.

A: I lied.

Terry Caesar
Author's email:

Summer Summary

At U of All People, summer is a time for faculty members to recharge their batteries, maybe take on a second job to make ends meet, or just clean out that office filing cabinet growing mold on its north face. We asked a variety of professors at the university what their summer plans were; their responses follow:

Professor Valerie Lockhart, English Department:
"Reading Moby-Dick. I’ve taught it for over 10 years, and it’s about time I got all the way through it. Last year, a student started getting suspicious, and I can’t just keep relying on Masterplots. Then a friend of mine in San Diego has invited me to go whale-watching.”

Dr. Len Dresden, Philosophy Department:
“Finishing an article that was due back in 2003, a refutation of Kant’s answer to Locke’s refutation of Descartes. At least I think it was Descartes. It’s been some time since I looked at the piece. I think I even returned all my library books on the subject.”

Jackson Hobbs, Historian:
“Re-enacting the Battle of the Bulge with historical accuracy in my basement. It’ll be fun. I’m going to invite a bunch of colleagues from around the state. We’ll have authentic uniforms and weaponry, and the school cafeteria serves up something that tastes an awful lot like K-rations.”

Professor Jean-Luc Dupris, French Department:
“Paris, 17th Arrondissement, a little apartment on loan from a friend who owes me. I also have some leftover money from a grant last year to study the pluperfect tense, so I can live it up a bit over there. It’s the only thing that makes this third-tier job worthwhile.”

Kenneth Brown, math instructor:
“I’ve told people that I was working on three linked proofs in topology, but it wouldn’t get me anything, not at a place like this. The people tenured here haven’t published anything in years. I might just sit in a pasture and count cows.”

Associate Professor Stan Frude, Psychology Department:
“Writing seventeen, count ’em, 17, grant proposals to make sure I get some kind of funding next year. As it is, I’ve been re-using the disposable apparatus we used to sacrifice the lab rats, and it’s getting kind of gross.”

Karl Beame, Instructor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering:
“I’ve wangled a consulting job for Constructo-Tech in Seattle. They fly me out there, feed me, and give me twice my annual salary. I figure if I do this for three summers running, I might just be able to repay my student loans.”

Dr. Mark Chen, Physicist:
“I’ll be at CERN near Geneva, fiddling with tiny particles by day and drinking in the rathskeller at night. We’ll be studying the path of pions through a Hadron calorimeter. The rest of the stuff not even I have clearance to know about.”

Assistant Professor Olivia Kay, Political Science Department:
"I have to revise my Poli Sci 101 lecture notes after the students last year called the course a snooze and staged a sleep-in next to my office.
I'll also be working on a new course that I hope will be more provocative, called 'The President: Evil or Just Plain Dumb?'"

Cynthia Clarke, artist-in-residence, Art Department:
“Making public art downtown without a permit. I work with these large Dry-Erase boards that I marker graffiti on and leave at intersections. It’s cool, counterculture, and totally subversive. Besides, I couldn’t get a gallery to represent me this year.”

Professor Dirk Omsk, Theater Department:
“This’ll be the fifth year running that we’ve put on Romeo and Juliet, but we always get a good crowd, and it’s better than staging The Mikado with all those phony accents. Besides, we can reuse all the props and costumes from last year.”

Professor Henry Baum, Department of Music, Emeritus:
“Teach trumpet at summer school. I’ve been bored ever since I retired, and I can use the money.”

David Galef
Author's email:

David Galef is a professor of English and administrator of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the University of Mississippi. His latest books are the novel How to Cope with Suburban Stress and the co-edited fiction anthology 20 over 40.

Going South

From: "George Mannerly" <>
Date: 2007/09/10 Mon AM 09:41:21 EDT
To: <>
Subject: travel request

To Professor Michael Wall, Chair, English Department:

This has to do with the travel budget for the coming academic year. As we discussed last spring, I need something on the order of $700 for the annual Joyce conference, held this year in Miami, December 3-5. I saved the department money last year by using Blackboard exclusively rather than hand out Xeroxes, and in any event, this shouldn’t break the bank, right? Let me know soon, please, because I have to book the flight.


George Mannerly
Assistant Professor
Department of English
U of All People


From: "George Mannerly" <>
Date: 2007/09/17 Mon AM 09:40:11 EDT
To: <>
Subject: research request

To Myra Puckwith, Head of Research Office:

According to our department chair, Michael Wall, the entire travel budget for the English department has been frozen for fiscal 2007-08—or was it retroacted to the level of support in 1968 because of some administrative fiat? Something like that. Accordingly, he suggested that I contact you about a research grant for this December. I’m a James Joyce scholar, and I need to study the Joycean archives in Miami for a book tentatively titled Southern Joyce. I can provide full details of my proposal, including the new RPP (Research Planning and Perspectives form) from your office, along with a statement of purpose, for your perusal. Just let me know.


George Mannerly
Assistant Professor
Department of English
U of All People


From: "George Mannerly" <>
Date: 2007/09/22 Mon AM 011:45:03 EDT
To: <>
Subject: equipment grant

To Don Donaldson, University Procurement:

Myra Puckwith at the Office of Research read my proposal for research in Miami this December and sent me to you. Normally, a small equipment grant isn’t something that fits me, but given the circumstances, I’d like to purchase a used 1997 Honda Civic that should be able to get me to Florida and back, and which could be used for other academic trips, as well. I’ve already priced such a vehicle at Al’s Autos, and the price is surprisingly reasonable: only $700. I talked with Mark Meyers from the Physics department, and he says that last year he received $5,000 toward the cost of a new tachyon accelerator. As far as I know, the English department has been quite modest in its requests for equipment. Here’s hoping that you’ll honor my request.


George Mannerly
Assistant Professor
Department of English
U of All People


From: "George Mannerly" <>
Date: 2007/09/28 Sun PM 011:42:30 EDT
To: <>
Subject: request for teaching funds

To Fred Carson, Pedagogy Coach:

Pursuant to the bulletin you sent around last May, asking for innovative teaching proposals: I gather that you didn’t get many responses. In any event, here’s one I’ve been thinking about, though for a long time I wasn’t quite sure about how to put it into execution. Why not a film presentation of a great author’s critics at work? Since my specialty is the work of James Joyce, the 20th-century Irish writer, I’d like to go with that subject. Students really could benefit from a more intimate association with this important author, but Joyce’s writing is notoriously difficult for students to wade through. I’d like to grant my class a privileged access through actually viewing Joyce scholars presenting on the author and his texts—and I have a perfect opportunity to do just that at the Joyce Symposium in Miami this December. I do have some AV experience, and with the purchase of a handheld digital camera (about $500) and a conference package (roughly $700) I would come back with a two-hour DVD of Joycean scholarship that should be both dynamic and eminently instructive. I think you’ll agree that this defines the term “cutting edge” in teaching, but let me know what you think.

Thinking outside the box,

George Mannerly
Assistant Professor
Department of English
U of All People


From: "George Mannerly" <>
Date: 2007/10/06 Wed AM 08:27:17 EDT
To: <>
Subject: summer fellowships

To Bob Winters, Office of Summer Support:

I’m writing to you well in advance of the Summer Support deadline because I’d like to fly by you a rather novel proposal: to save time by conducting my summer research this winter in Miami (where it always feels like summer). In my case, I have a conference on James Joyce to attend this December, and if I wait till next June, I’ll miss the boat, so to speak. If you’re able to bend the rules slightly and permit this grant (around $700 will do), I promise not to apply for any Summer Support the next year—or the next three years, if you like.


George Mannerly
Assistant Professor
Department of English
U of All People


From: "George Mannerly" <>
Date: 2007/10/11 Mon AM 09:18:13 EDT
To: <>
Subject: emergency relief

To Philip Thrope, Emergency Aid:

Normally I’m not the kind of individual who throws himself on the mercy of the university’s charity fund, but a sudden fire has absolutely gutted my house, and I NEED YOUR HELP NOW. I’m staying with a colleague of mine from the Modern Language department, but that’s only a short-term solution. Though I’ve put a down payment on a new place, the outlay has exhausted my funds, and in any event the place won’t be ready for occupancy until next year. And I have no place at all to stay during the December break. My tentative plans involve flying to Miami to stay with relatives, but this will cost me. Can you spare money from your relief fund for a tenure-track faculty member?


George Mannerly
Assistant Professor
Department of English
U of All People


From: "George Mannerly" <>
Date: 2007/10/25 Mon AM 09:01:01 EDT
To: <>; <>
Subject: book and bake sale

To All Faculty and Students:

To raise money for a conference trip to Miami, I’ll be holding a book and bake sale this weekend outside my office in 211 Hallford Hall. There’ll be a tempting array of cakes, pies and cookies (including killer brownies and a lemon pudding cake based on a recipe from Jane Austen). I’ll also be selling select volumes from my personal library, most untouched since graduate school days. I hope you’ll be able to attend.

From “Chef” George Mannerly
Assistant Professor
Department of English
U of All People

David Galef
Author's email:

David Galef is a professor of English and administrator of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the University of Mississippi. His latest books are the novel How to Cope with Suburban Stress and the co-edited fiction anthology 20 over 40.


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