Submitted by David Galef on September 16, 2011 - 3:00am
As recently as a dozen years ago at U of All People, the music department chose its new director by arranging a set of wooden chairs in a row, with one too many potential sitters. The outgoing director would put Vivaldi’s Four Seasons on the record player, and while the violins stabbed the air, the candidates circled the chairs. When the music stopped, everyone grabbed for a chair to sit in, leaving one person standing. Some years, this process was repeated until one chair was left for two people, and the person who managed to grab the last chair succeeded to the post. Other years, depending on the whim of the outgoing head or the exigencies of the search, the first person left standing was drafted for the position. One year, the chair was awarded out of sympathy to the person who fell on her butt halfway through the proceedings.
Though this chair-selection process was deemed by the dean of inhumanities “too whimsical for the 21st century,” as a chair of a neighboring department who will remain nameless (but it’s Ed Courant of psychology) remarked, “Not a whole hell of a lot ever changes here, y’know?” Those of us in the history department think about this observation as we prepare to select a new chair for 2012. Here are our choices:
“Who amongst us will come forth?” muses Professor Manley Davenport, matching his fingertips together in what he hopes is a chair-like mannerism. “The brightest lack all conviction while the mediocre are full of passionate intensity.” He strokes his wispy beard, which he has been encouraging like a Chia Pet. “And then there’s me.” Where does he locate himself? Perhaps somewhere in between, but the incontrovertible part of Davenport’s claim is that no one really can pin down his political talents or beliefs, since his only foray toward activism was a six-month stint in the Faculty Senate, during which he attended no sessions at all.
Professor James Septa still considers himself a maverick in the department, mainly to explain why few people say hello to him in the hall, but also why he’s had such trouble getting published. “They’re all afraid of me,” he confesses to anyone who’ll listen, including, lately, the increasingly uneasy students in his Brilliancy class. “I’m what you call a Young Turk.” His rallying cry is “It’s time to shake up this department!” His ideas include abolishing exams, holding weekly faculty meetings, and revising the major to include reading ability in one archaic language.
The reasoning behind Professor Sidney Lento’s bid for the chairship is, alas, all too clear. In a prophylactic maneuver, he cheerfully announces it to everyone. “Fact is, I’m nearing 70 and staring retirement in the face. Fact is, it’d be nice to go out with a higher base salary for my pension. Am I qualified? Fact is, I know this department better than anyone.” He doesn’t discuss his brief but disastrous term as interim head of graduate studies, and in any event, the lawsuit was finally dropped because the student in question dropped out.
"According to Plato, a philosopher-king should lead the state, and the best leader is someone who doesn’t really want the job.” Professor Thomas Vance makes this pronouncement with a superior smile, hoping you’ll follow his logic, according to which Professor Vance would make a superb chair. He’s been playing this act -- with the chairship and with his marriage to his now-ex-wife -- for seven years.
Other candidates include Professor Dorothy Danto, a member of the rear guard that lost its majority voting power after a flock of retirements in the late 90s. She wants a return to normalcy; i.e., when she could quash any upstart suggestion by summary dismissal. There’s also Nina Frudd, an adjunct who argues that it’s time for an adjunct to hold the post, but since no one listens to adjuncts -- “That’s precisely my point,” she claims -- her bid hasn’t even been recorded. It’s even been suggested that our office assistant, Rweilla Smith, be the chair, since she already runs everything. But Ms. Smith has already decided to leave academia once she gets accepted to a graduate program in social work.
Perhaps we should conduct an outside search, though that would mean 1) the administration would have to deliver a salary and course-release commensurate with the post, 2) we’d be hiring someone not from U of All People, i.e., someone who doesn’t understand all our arcane regulations and can’t be trusted. In the end, the administration may decide this matter for us. At the last School of Humanities meeting, the provost announced that the university intends to replace department chairs with a dean who oversees an entire division. Where the dean will come from is an open question, but it’s rumored that the music division is already lining up a row of chairs.
David Galef directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University. His latest book is the short story collection My Date with Neanderthal Woman, coming out in November.
The student who wrote in a semiotics exam that "language is a system of sins" could well have been referring to this year’s Times Higher Education "exam howlers" competition.
That entry, submitted by Daniel Chandler, lecturer in media and communication studies at Aberystwyth University, was one of scores sent in to the annual contest, in which lecturers are invited to share their favorite mistakes and misunderstandings.
I've been waiting forever for Sheila to call. I've never met her, but Sheila's the most powerful person at the university where I work. She is to the university president what Stanley Fish is to an adjunct rhetoric instructor with a basement office outside a Dumpster.
We at the University of Iowa pray to Sheila the Almighty daily. Tenure might protect us in the classroom, but outside we are vulnerable to all kinds of calamity. That's where Sheila comes in.
My current ordeal began when my workplace, the journalism school, moved to a new building. For six years, the school had been housed in a termite-infested dungeon where the closest bathroom was two floors down. I knew the elevator repairman by name. Winged creatures of many varieties took refuge in my office, including a bat that did not leave.
The only good thing about the old journalism building was its parking lot. I had a spot 100 feet from the basement door.
Sheila, you may have guessed, is the parking-lot-assignment queen at the university, which, despite what readers in Chicago or Los Angeles might think, is not located in a cornfield. Parking here, as at Loyola and Harvard and Wayne State, is as sought-after as 50-yard-line seats at the Iowa-Michigan game.
But the new journalism building is across campus, for God's sake! And a parking lot spot anywhere near the new building takes a professor emeritus to die. Stories circulate that faculty members have resorted to sending Hermes scarves and Stuart Weitzman pumps to Sheila as inducements to bump up their names on the waiting list. I like to think that Sheila is beyond such enticements, though. When you're as powerful as she is, what tangible item could be so enticing?
Lot 3 is the sought-after prize for hundreds of my colleagues. So valuable is the slotted real estate in Lot 3 that entry privileges come with a gate. Occupants used to use an actual key to get in, but as a nod to the computer age, now they get those magical cards that, waved in front of a sensor, cause the gate to rise. The thought of swinging my mud-splotched chariot toward the gate, which would majestically rise as I cruise to a coveted stall, is nirvana.
Moving up on the wait list for Lot 3 is determined by a logarithmic formula developed by former cryptographers for the OSS. It's based on a complex formula of logarithms that include multiple determinates, including the number of years at the university and whether you are staff or faculty. In a blow to academic elitism, openings are alternated between staff and faculty; faculty rank has nothing to do with the selection process.
So what did I have to lose? Everyone who wins at Powerball buys a lottery ticket however small the odds of getting all five numbers. Same with the track. So, I completed the on-line application form for Lot 3, hoping like the guys at OTB hope that their horses will win the trifecta.
So it'd cost me $40 a month. At least when I speak up at faculty senate meetings, my colleagues would listen.
One recent day, as I trekked toward my distant lot braving gusting winds, I wondered how many years it would take before I truly arrived. It is important to note that I tried not to personalize resentment toward Sheila. Bad karma does not move your name up the list.
When I checked my office phone messages and email, there were the usual urgent messages: "I need a signed ad slip for Advanced Forms of Deconstruction and if I don't get in, I'm going to the dean"; "The scholarship committee will not meet as planned"; "Catalogue copy for the new minor in mass communications was due today, so where is it, bozo?"
I was about to hang up, when the machine indicated there was one last message. Like a shaft of golden light from the heavens, it was Sheila's voice, as dulcet-sounding as I had dreamed it would be, a combination of power and calm. Her message advised me that a spot in Lot 3 had miraculously opened and it was all mine. Maybe a professor emeritus had gone off life support the previous evening, maybe a fitness-fanatic administrator had flipped the bird to the nation's dependence on fossil fuel and bought a bike. A gift is a gift.
But Sheila left a warning: To secure the spot, I must call back within 24 hours. I frantically punched in Sheila's number. Alas, the Parking and Transportation Office had closed.
I slept very little that night. I knew Sheila would keep her word, but I still fretted. Whoever caused the vacancy might change his or her mind. Long-lost family members might surface and raise objections about the do-not-resuscitate order.
As soon as I got up that morning, I called Sheila. "Come over and we'll give you your key to Lot 3," she said cheerfully.
What a job this Sheila has -- a combination of long distance operator for the Nobel Prize Committee, captain of the Publishers Weekly Clearing House Team and the good people at MTV's West Coast Customs.
Unable to believe what I was hearing, I was momentarily speechless. Sheila, I think, was shocked by my silence. She's used to shrieks, sobs, incoherent blabbering.
"You are still interested?" she asked, sounding almost hurt.
"Yes," I said, my heart pounding. "Yes, yes, yes, yes!"
Stephen G. Bloom is professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Iowa and author of "Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America" and "Inside the Writer's Mind: Writing Narrative Journalism."
Minutes of the English Department Meeting, April 23, 2005
Meeting begins at 4:15 instead of 4:00 as scheduled because somebody forgot the keys to the faculty lounge.
The chair, Professor Bigley, brings the meeting to order.
Professor Twistwhistle, our Renaissance scholar, remarks that today is Shakespeare’s birthday.
Question posed by Professor Durrell: Why do we have to attend these time-wasting meetings? Seconded by Professor Aarondale. Professor Bigley asks if this is an issue we intend to vote on. Professor Durrell says something not worth repeating, then repeats it.
The chair brings the meeting to order again.
Discussion of library subscription cuts: because of budgetary deficits, necessary to suspend at least a dozen periodicals. Suggestions by Professor Smythe: Modern Philology, Ancient Philology and that semiotics journal requested by the assistant professor who left for Rutgers last year. Professor Kzykak: Why keep up Pop. Cult. Review? Only idiots who can’t read like that journal. Professor Smythe begs to differ. Professor Kzykak: Beg all you want. Professor Aaronson: What about Critical Inquiry or PMLA? General hilarity. The chair brings the meeting to order again. Will put list of periodicals in faculty mailboxes, and please mark off 12.
New course proposal, put forth by Professor Smythe: English 3XX, Women and Vampires, cross-listed with Gender Studies. Questions: Where is the reading list on the proposal? Why is there no final exam? What the hell has cultural studies done to academic standards, anyway? (Kzykak) Professor Smythe begs to punch Professor Kzykak in the nose. The chair brings the meeting to order again. Vote taken. English 3XX defeated 6-4.
Professor Kzykak suggests we hire a bailiff for these meetings. Ms. Cunningham, our administrative assistant, comes in with Girl Scout thin mints left over from her daughter’s cookie drive. Five-minute time-out.
Professor Twistwhistle hints that today is somebody important’s birthday.
Report from Professor Bowdler for the committee on undergraduate electives. Professor Bowdler not present. Need volunteer to act as judge for this year’s Quiz Bowl. Professor Bowdler elected in absentia by unanimous vote.
Proposal from the dean to establish a teaching-observation protocol. Discussion of McCarthyism. Professor Dale, our theory person, wishes to discuss the impossibility of objectivity. Professor Aaronson: Right. You can’t judge my teaching. It’s too subjective. Professor Smythe: Not any more than some anonymous clown in Kalamazoo assessing my research. Professor Aaronson: Are you referring to—? Professor Smythe: Yes, but never mind. Let’s keep my spouse’s unsuccessful promotion review out of it. Professor Dale refers to the post-subjective subject. Professor Aarondale: What about this [deleted] administration? Delegate Professor Aarondale to draft counter-proposal for observation of dean’s office.
Not on agenda, but Professor Ernesto wants to talk about plagiarism in student papers. Floor open. Questions: Is there really a problem here? (Smythe) Professor Ernesto: What’s the percentage of student work that’s suspect? Really, that high? Why don’t we just castrate their damn laptops? That’s obviously where it’s coming from. Professor Dale notes that the act of appropriation may sometimes be an homage. Professor Ernesto grabs Professor Dale’s briefcase and shakes out all the papers. Yells, "This is an act of appropriation, not an homage!" Professor Dale threatens to deconstruct Professor Ernesto. The chair brings the meeting to order again. Directs task force of Professors Dale and Ernesto to look jointly into student plagiarism.
Professor Twistwhistle hums "Happy Birthday."
Brief ad hoc discussion of faculty retirement. Questions: What does it take to break tenure, anyway? Will the dean consider funding a new Renaissance line?
Meeting adjourned at 5:00, an enjoyable time had by all. Thank God the responsibility for taking down these minutes is rotating, and it’s Professor Aarondale next month. Hear that, Aarondale?
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 book is the short story collection Laugh Track (2002).
There’s a wonderful scene in the 1979 film Manhattan that is parody, but as in most satire, perilously close to reality. Ike (Woody Allen) and Mary (Diane Keaton) are strolling in the Guggenheim Museum when Mary starts rattling off the names of members of what she calls the "Academy of the Overrated." Among the academy’s charter members: Norman Mailer, Gustav Mahler, Carl Jung, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lenny Bruce, Walt Whitman, Vincent Van Gogh and Ingmar Bergman.
Woody is beside himself. He can’t believe anyone would trash those so close to his heart.
Flash-forward to a meeting I attended recently. The journalism school at the University of Iowa is deservedly getting a new building, a marvel of technological and architectural wonders dedicated to teaching the wonders of communication to would-be 21st Century journalists. A colleague and I were selected to coordinate a day-long dedication for the new school, and through the benevolence of a benefactor, have a small pot of money to spend to attract a big-name speaker or two.
As in everything academic, the decision won’t be mine alone. The j-school will be sharing its new space with a hybrid, the Department of Cinema and Comparative Literature, and because universities like to act democratically, representatives from the two disciplines need to agree on who the speakers would be.
On the j-school’s list were such luminaries as Donald Barlett, James Fallows, Donald Graham, Bill Kovach, Daniel Okrent, James Steele and Bob Woodward.
Just as I finished circulating this A-list of names, a young professor from Cinema and Comparative Literature sneered. "Well, I'd hope we wouldn’t invite Woodward!" She was almost spitting.
"What's wrong with Woodward?" I asked, my blood pressure beginning to spike.
"Well, I just don’t think he’s a very good journalist!" the professor snarled.
A momentary pause for anyone who’s been living in a cave: Bob Woodward has taken us into the lives of Americans as diverse as the two George Bushes, Bill Clinton, John Belushi, the former CIA chief spy William Casey, the Supreme Court justices, Colin Powell and Alan Greenspan. With help from Carl Bernstein, he was responsible for showing Richard Nixon the White House door. Woodward has been one of America’s most gifted newspapermen for more than 35 years. He has changed how Americans look at our country and how journalists write about it.
Considering all the above, I stared at this Judas in my midst, my mouth forming an O-shape. I looked around the table for a nibble of support but got none. Just as I was about to jump on the table to protest, my own colleague from the journalism school joined Judas, voicing her assessment of Woodward as an opportunistic sellout.
The emboldened professor from Cinema and Comparative Literature hopped on the thread. "We definitely wouldn’t want Woodward," she said now with finality.
"But then who?" I asked.
"Well, I could see inviting Sy Hershman."
This cinema-and-comparative-literature professor was so chummy with the investigative reporter and New Yorker political writer Seymour Hersh, who broke the Abu Ghraib Prison scandal story, that she was comfortable enough calling him Sy, but somehow couldn’t get his last name right.
The rest of the discussion, as far as I could follow, involved how corrupt journalism is and how complicit the school is to take money from the likes of giants like Gannett, Lee Enterprises and other models of corporate greed.
After gathering my wits, I suggested that we ought to have two separate days of dedication -- one where academics could trash the corporate model of journalism, and another where professional journalists could talk about ways to enhance and improve American journalism.
Absolutely not, the professors around me railed. There should be one and only one program. The journalists (well, maybe not Woodward) should be invited to the dedication to learn from the academics. We need to publicly humiliate, flog and pummel these propagandists. Lock the doors so the lapdogs can’t escape. Call C-SPAN to document the bloodbath.
I’m not making this up.
What’s the lesson? Just another case of academic elitism at its most basic and sniveling core?
What happened is not new or different from how the academy has historically looked at anything popular or successful. Popularity means corrupt, and corrupt means without merit, worthy of scorn -- a ticket into the Academy of the Overrated.
That recent incident recalled a similar instance of incorrigible academic elitism I experienced when I was an untenured professor and about to submit a book proposal to a trade publisher. A tenured faculty member told me, point blank, that if a trade publishing house were ever to publish my book, I should be prepared to kiss tenure goodbye. Naïve and new to the job, I couldn't believe what I was hearing.
"You mean to say that if a reputable publisher, a place like Knopf, Doubleday or Harcourt, were to publish the book, and if it were to get positive reviews in places like The New York Times and The Washington Post, and a great number of people were to read the book, I wouldn’t get tenure?" "That’s right," came the acid response from the full professor. "Trade publishers will print anything that’ll sell."
As though writing a book that the lay people read would be bad.
I had never heard of anything so undemocratic in my life. Almost a decade later, I still feel the same way. I understand that there is a place for serious scholarship, which by nature has a limited audience. But I was a journalist, teaching in a journalism school. The definition of good journalism is to break new ground, and in doing so, reach as large an audience as possible. The idea is to discover and inform -- not really so different from the role of a university professor.
I’m glad to report that the full professor soon left the university, the book came out, I got tenure, was promoted, and life has been rosy ever since. But the professor’s elitist drivel still sticks in my craw because his snobbery runs so rampant in the academy today -- as what I experienced with the dopey professor from the Department of Cinema and Comparative Literature.
Frankly, I doubt whether Bob Woodward would even want to come to Iowa in the first place. The real action these days when it comes to improving journalism isn’t in the critical-cultural halls of academe. No surprise. It lies with smart, savvy reporters and editors pushing the limits of corporate media ownership by producing the kind of journalism that demands to be disseminated and read, stuff so good that no one can ignore it.
It’s hard to be a journalist today given economic constraints, not to mention a surging patriotic mandate from a large part of this nation that dictates to be critical of the government is to be Un-American. In my mind, to do journalism well today is a form of heroism.
For more than a century, the credo of millions of American journalists used to be “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." That magnificent credo still flies proudly at several rarified media outlets. God knows, such journalism is needed today. The way journalism is practiced today at many newspapers and electronic outlets is mediocre, often embarrassing. For many reasons, much mainstream journalism has entered a new kind of Dark Age.
But journalists shouldn’t -- and won’t -- put up with ivory-tower snipers pointing AK-47s at their real-world heads. Few newly minted journalism/mass communication Ph.D.s today have any familiarity with the great journalists of our times -- Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, John McPhee, Hunter S. Thompson, David Halberstam, Bob Woodward and Seymour Hersh, to name a few. Mention John Hersey, Rachel Carson, James Agee, Lincoln Steffens, H.L. Mencken, Hannah Arendt, Ida Tarbell and you’re likely to get blank stares. Doctoral students today receive few incentives to study journalists. Today’s graduate students in the field study critical-cultural theoretical icons who, I’m afraid to say, have little real understanding of today’s working press.
It comes as no surprise, then, that there’s so little scholarship that has contributed to improving the quality of journalism. I doubt whether scholars really want to do that, anyway. For most scholars, such activity would be considered beneath them — sort of like publishing a book that people could actually understand.
Stephen G. Bloom
Stephen G. Bloom is professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Iowa and author of Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America and Inside the Writer’s Mind: Writing Narrative Journalism. He has worked as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, Dallas Morning News, and San Jose Mercury News, and is co-founder of the Iowa Journalists Oral History Project (http://www.uiowa.edu/~acadtech/journalists/index2.htm).
I will soon graduate from your prestigious institution, and I would like to work for you. I know the usual procedure is to approach the Vice President of Human Resources, but the position I seek is one that does not currently exist. This position's duties are shared by administration, faculty, and staff, and I believe university efficiency would increase dramatically if these responsibilities were assigned to a single individual. I am applying for the position of University Scapegoat.
Recent research by a Ph.D. candidate at an online university suggests that faculty and staff at a typical four-year institution like yours spend an average of 4.7 hours per person per week involved with finger-pointing, blame-shifting and responsibility abdication. Among department chairs, deans and senior administration, that number rises to 9.3 hours per person per week.
If it were possible to know whom to blame for every failure, screw-up or misjudgment on your campus, faculty and staff would gain an average of 4.6 hours of productive time per person per week, while department chairs, deans and senior administration would gain an average of 7.8 hours of productive time per person per week. Imagine how many fresh ideas, unique approaches to problem-solving and innovative growth opportunities your campus would experience if your constituents no longer expended valuable time covering their backsides.
Your campus's failures will be my successes. I will serve as the university's go-to guy when projects implode, budgets fail to meet projections, and academic standards are threatened by grade inflation. Fall enrollment down? Blame me. Endowment donations below projections? Blame me. Building projects behind schedule? Blame me. Football team experiences another losing season? Blame me.
I have spent my entire life preparing for this opportunity and believe I am well-trained for the position. I have been a constant disappointment to my parents, the cause of every one of my children's faults, and my spouse's single greatest mistake. Prior to my return to college after years outside of academia, my employee evaluations reflected an inability to engage in creative thought, a lack of internal motivation, and a consistent failure to complete assigned tasks to my supervisors' satisfaction. Since returning to school, my grades have been consistently sub-par, and I have changed majors more often than a sorority girl changes her outfits.
With your help, I will draft an undated resignation letter within my first eight hours of employment. At the first sign of significant campus strife, you can blame me and announce that I have already tendered my resignation. However, because you will quickly realize how valuable I am to your institution, you will refuse to allow my departure. (In fact, you may even offer me a pay raise.) While the position of University Scapegoat may involve few conventional duties, it will require the ability to endure a substantial amount of public humiliation, and so I anticipate a compensation package commensurate with that level of responsibility. I also require a rider on the standard medical insurance benefits policy that would compensate me for any additional back pain caused my shouldering the burden of blame formerly borne by many others and for the sharp pain from the inevitable knives in the back.
I have enclosed a copy of my résumé, my curriculum vitae, and three letters of recommendation. I look forward to hearing from you soon, and, if I do not, I will set aside a few moments to speak with you during upcoming graduation ceremonies.
Sincerely yours, Michael Bracken Class of 2005
Michael Bracken is a 47-year-old senior at Baylor University. His latest book is Yesterday in Blood and Bone, a collection of short stories published by Wildside Press.
Right after 9/11, the obituaries started to appear: Irony, the reports said, was dead. Either that or in really bad condition.
It had been a very 1990s thing, this irony. Never before in human history had so many people so often used that two-handed gesture to inscribe quotation marks in the air. Or pronounced the word really with an inflection conveying the faux enthusiasm that doubled as transparent contempt (as in; "I really like that new Britney Spears single"). The manner had been forged in earlier times -- by pioneers at the Harvard Lampoon, for example. But it really caught on during the cold peace that followed the Cold War. Suddenly, irony became available to everyone, on the cheap. It was the wit of the witless, the familiar smirk beneath the perpetually raised eyebrow.
And then it died. Hard realities broke through the callow veneer of detachment. Everybody became very earnest. And then America entered its present golden age of high seriousness.
Oh, no, wait.... That last bit never actually happened. The rest of the story is familiar enough, though. So much so, in fact, that I am reluctant to note my own recent suspicion that, after all, it's more or less true. Irony really is dead.
It's not just that irony is a much richer notion than sarcasm. Broadly defined, it means the coexistence of two radically counterposed (even mutually contradictory) meanings within the same utterance. The simplest case would be saying, "What a beautiful day!" in the middle of a hurricane. But the subtler kinds spin out into infinity....
There is the irony of Plato's dialogues, where men who are very sure of their own competence try to explain things to Socrates (who says that he knows nothing, yet quickly, through simple questions, ties their arguments into the Athenian equivalent of pretzels). There is dramatic irony, in which action on stage means one thing for the characters and something very different for the audience. And let's not even get started on where the German philosophers went with it -- beyond noting that it turned into something like the essence of art, consciousness,and human existence.
I'm not saying that there is no connection at all between the Philosophical Fragments of Friedrich Schlegel and the camp value of listening to The Carpenters' Greatest Hits. Actually, they go together pretty well, if you're in the right mood. (As Schlegel put it: "For a man who has achieved a certain height and universality of cultivation, his inner being is an ongoing chain of the most enormous revolutions." So you might start out feeling all ironic about Karen Carpenter, then end up overwhelmed by her voice.)
But that just makes it all the more sad to realize that the rumors are true. Irony is now extinct, or at least in a coma. I got the evidence last week and have been bummed ever since.
The proverbial lightbulb over the head went on while reading American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, published last month by Alfred A. Knopf. It is a massive book, the product of about a quarter century of research into the physicist's ascent to power and his marytrdom under the original wave of McCarthyism.
It is an absorbing book. The authors are both distinguished, and the story they tell is almost unnerving in its contemporary resonances. My reviewer's copy now has the usual marks in the margin to highlight various passages that made a strong impression.
But flipping back through it now, I find the record of another kind of readerly response. At some point, the authors begin applying the word "ironic," in its various forms, to situations occuring in Oppenheimer's life. And astonishingly enough, it seems that the authors never manage to use it in a meaningful way.
For example, in the spring of 1934, Oppenheimer earmarks three percent of his salary to help German physicists who are fleeing the Nazis. "Ironically," write Bird and Sherwin, "one of the refugees who may have been assisted by this fund was [Oppenheimer's] former professor in Gottingen, Dr. James Franck." (Here, it appears that they think "irony" means either "coincidentally" or "oddly enough.")
During the depression, Oppenheimer's wife had been a Communist who, "ironically, survived on government relief checks of $12.50." (Ayn Rand living on welfare -- now that would be ironic. But an unemployed left-winger?)
Other examples could be offered. In no case that I recall do Bird and Sherwin use the word in anything like an appropriate way. Which is all the more striking because Oppenheimer's story is thick with ironies. For example, during the McCarthy years, his effort to rebuff a Soviet agent's attempt to recruit him as a spy in the early 1940s turns into the "proof" that he was disloyal. It is a reversal worthy of Sophocles -- a situation that is profoundly ironic.
Not that the authors ever use the word in that (for once, appropriate) way. Instead, we stay trapped in that Alanis Morrissette song from the mid-1990s:
It's like rain on your wedding day It's a free ride when you've already paid It's the good advice that you just didn't take... And isn't it ironic ... don't you think?
To which the answer is, of course, "No." Such things are not ironic in any sense. (Inconvenient, yes. Ironic, no.)
Now, it could be that I'm overreacting. Maybe the fact that two intelligent and capable writers -- in a major book, on an important topic, published by one of the country's top presses -- end up sounding like Alanis Morrissette is not as worrisome as it seems. Perhaps irony is not dead after all?
Either that, or we need to define the word in a new way. "Ironic, adj., of or pertaining to a situation involving no irony whatsoever."
Amid much fanfare and hoopla, one of America’s premier discount department stores recently unveiled its new tagline. After spending months on market research and millions on agency fees, T.J. Maxx came up with the memorable catchphrase "You Should Go," which narrowly defeated the runner-up, "Go…You Really Should."
That bit of Madison Avenue magic reminds me of similar attempts in higher education. As any college communications officer will tell you, it's all about branding. Stamats, a marketing consulting firm, defines brand as "a trust mark, a warrant, and a promise," as well as "a word a college or university owns in the prospect’s mind." To help marketers figure out how they might capture their own complex institutions in a few words, the firm offers a useful database of 551 slogans others have tried. A few patterns emerge.
Some colleges take the logical approach, simply stating what they are. Houghton College says it’s "A Christian College of Liberal Arts and Sciences." Stetson University brags about being "Florida’s First Private University," though I’m not sure this is a mark of distinction. The University of Texas at Austin gets right to the point with "We’re Texas." Can’t argue with that.
Trendy buzzwords abound. Phrases such as "A Culture of Success," "Excellence in Achievement" and "A Tradition of Excellence" must sound good to students, but they certainly don’t differentiate institutions from the competition. How’s an admissions tour guide to respond if a parent says, "The three places we visited last week said they were excellent, too"?
Also undistinguished are pithy efforts like "Making a Difference" or "A Distinctive Approach." Anderson University touts its "Excellent Performance" while Bethel College encourages you to "Take the Next Step." Warner College invites you to "Join a Community" and Calumet College of St. Joseph says "You Can." Can what?
I do like the ones that rhyme, no doubt the products of campus marketers unconvinced of the power of taglines but instructed to concoct one nonetheless. Witness Rasmussen College ("100 Years of Great Careers"), Grand Canyon University ("The You in GCU") and my personal favorite, the University of Alaska-Fairbanks ("Latitude with Attitude").
Another theme is thinking. Colleges like to make you think, and to think about them. So you’ll fine plenty that say "Think _____." People at the University of Illinois are "Always Thinking" and Wichita State University says it produces "Thinkers, Doers, Movers & Shockers" (Shockers is its nickname, in case you didn’t get the pun). Another way to get you thinking is to pose a question. Bethany College asks, "Where are You Going?" and Kettering University wonders, "Why Wait?" Widener University’s School of Law asks two questions: "Why Widener? Why Not Widener?"
Speaking of two, several taglines come in pairs, such as those from Southwestern College ("Come Here. Go Far.") and Waldorf College ("Faster. Better.)." But because everyone likes a trilogy, lots of places offer up theirs in threes. Rogers State University chose "Tradition. Innovation. Excellence." Trinity Christian College, as we all know, is "Distinctive. Christian. Incredible." Westfield State College added a bit of alliteration with "Explore. Experience. Excel," as did Ursuline College with "Values, Voice, Vision." The University of Florida’s Levin College of Law combined these themes with "Big Decisions. Smart Choice. Case Closed."
Still others appear to need re-thinking. Bentley College says it’s "America’s Business University" and Mississippi College calls itself "A Christian University," even though they’re both colleges. Bucknell University clarifies its standing as "A College-Like University." Teens like the word "like." Something seems missing in Berklee College of Music’s "Nothing Conservatory About It," whereas Thiel College’s "Thiel Time" could be confused with "Miller Time" or "Tool Time." Trinity Western University’s "Unwrap the Universe, Peel Back its Shroud" sounds vaguely obscene, as does the University of Richmond’s "Do it With Your Head." Don’t The Sage Colleges and Quincy College send mixed messages with "Change Your Mind" and "Think Again"?
And while some institutions promise fulfilling careers, some venture a step further. Trinity International University, for example, is "The College With a View of Eternity," and Bethany Lutheran College offers "Education That Lasts Beyond a Lifetime." Perhaps Shirley MacLaine is on the faculty.
Most puzzling, though, are taglines that try to capture an institution’s brand too succinctly. Colleges are increasingly playing a version of "Name That Tune," attempting to summarize themselves in fewer and fewer words. In the process, taglines lose all meaning. Can anyone tell what Concordia University-Seward’s "See You" really means? How about Georgia State University’s "Advantage" or Sherman College of Straight Chiropractic’s "True"? That only reminds me of the cheesy 1980s hit by Spandau Ballet.
Of course, admissions isn’t the only arena for taglines. Colleges also use them in job ads. The University of Pennsylvania Health System wants you to work "Where Careers Come to Life" and Jackson Community College calls itself "The Smart Choice!" Similarly, a few years ago Harvard tried recruiting the best and brightest with the line "Smart People Choose Harvard," much like Choosy Mothers Choose Jif. To its credit, it didn’t opt for "Dumb People Don’t Choose Harvard," which also holds true in the obverse.
Yet I’m left wondering what value these slogans add. Will a student be more attracted to a college if it claims a "culture of excellence"? Are institutions actually weakening their brands with such nonsense? Can universities reveal their true character in one or two words? Do they risk oversimplification?
Maybe, but taglines have become a necessary evil, helping institutions sell their products to consumers. And marketing consultants are only too eager to help colleges define a brand, condense it, package it and promote it. Never mind that most sound similar and many say nothing at all.
Here’s my advice to taglines: You Should Go.
Mark J. Drozdowski
Mark J. Drozdowski writes frequently on higher education.