Isn't It Ironic?

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."

Scott McLemee
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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
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Mark J. Drozdowski writes frequently on higher education.

Report from the Academic Committee on Plagiarism

To the Dean of Academic Affairs:

Our special committee on plagiarism has concluded its research.* Below are the highlights of our findings.


Students are growing lazier about the whole process of copying, not even bothering to change fonts in a cut-and-paste excerpt or otherwise disguise their tracks. When asked why he inserted an entire page printed in Black Forest Gothic in a paper written in Courier, a student in freshman composition expressed surprise: "If you start changing things, that’s cheating, right?"

The path of least resistance continues, often refreshingly low-tech. A Psychology 200 instructor reported a student handing in a Xerox of an article with the author’s name whited out and her own inserted. "I did the best I could,” confessed the student. "I didn’t have my laptop with me, and I was in a hurry."

A student in an Art 303 seminar handed in a paper that had been plagiarized from another plagiarized paper, which was plagiarized from an earlier paper, which in turn seemed to be derived from another source. The instructor finally traced the work back to a papyrus scroll residing in the Cairo Museum.

In another recent case, a student handed in a paper that had been copied from the Lycée Populaire, all in French, though the student himself knew no French, and the course was an American literature survey.

Some of the faculty feel particularly betrayed, no longer sure of their ground. One instructor bemoaned "the lack of standards these days, when students are willing to plagiarize even mediocre texts.” He referred to a paper he’d recently received that duplicated a D+ paper he’d graded and returned the previous semester.

After one comp-lit lecturer told his students that plagiarism derives from the Latin plagium or "kidnapping," he received a ransom note: “Unless you leave $500 in small bills by the rostrum in 101 Henry Hall, you will see your darling lecture next in a paper for a world lit survey class at U Neau.” Luckily, proctors were able to apprehend the perpetrator playing a tape to the voice-recognition software at the Information Technology Center.


Spotted: a new trend called plagio-riffing, where students get together and mix and match five or more papers into one by sampling and lifting choice paragraphs to the beat of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” (plagiarized from “He’s So Fine”).


How to tell if a student work has been plagiarized, Old and New:

Old: It looked suspiciously well typed.
New: It has a Web address printed on the bottom.

Old: It read like a) Thomas Jefferson, b) the student’s girlfriend, or c) Abigail the Academic for Hire, from the tutoring agency down the street.
New: It reads like document #1209583 on

Old: It had key phrases that didn’t fit with the rest of the student’s diction. Example: “The height of the Roman empire represented the pagan apotheosis of imperial grandeur, but the seeds of its decline were inherent in its decadence, and to me that sucks."
New: Since all the writing looks like a pastiche of web-based gibble-gabble, we’re still studying this problem.

Making the punishment fit the crime for those caught plagiarizing: Have the student copy the same sentence over and over again. Note: reproducing without permission has an additional meaning in China, as our resident Sinologist has pointed out.


According to a report from another university’s home page, over 70 percent of all students admit having used sources without acknowledgment, and plagiarism is “growing by leaps and bounds.” Any resemblance between that report and ours is purely coincidental.

    * Note: The committee would have released its findings last year but for the unfortunate incident of committee member Professor Renquist’s "borrowings" for his latest book. The case has been settled out of court.

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 book is the short story collection Laugh Track (2002).

College in the 40s

Graduation is seven months away. For a 22-year-old undergrad whose post-baccalaureate plans are nebulous, this might seem like forever. Not for me. In January 2000, at the age of 42, I returned to college after a long academic hibernation. I've been a part-time college student ever since, creeping up on a long-delayed graduation.

There is no single, overriding reason why I returned to college after so long away, but I felt trapped between a spouse wrapping up work on her M.A. in journalism and a son in high school who demanded to know why his college dropout father was pushing him into higher education. Unless I returned to college immediately, I would soon be the least-educated person in the house. Baylor's then-generous tuition remission program for employee family members -- my wife is managing editor of an academic journal -- eased my concerns about the financial burden of returning to school and ensured that Baylor was the only university to which I applied.

Since returning, I have been challenged in unexpected ways. Baylor does little to accommodate nontraditional undergraduate students, offering no weekend classes and few evening classes. Some offices close during the lunch hour, and entire buildings are sealed tighter than Tupperware promptly at 5:00.

Initially, I held a traditional full-time job, and I often flew across town with minimal regard for traffic signals, hoping to beat the English department's noon lock-down. Each time I arrived to find the office door handle still warm from the hand of the person who locked it, I taught new and imaginative curse words to Baylor's abundant squirrel population.

Back then, registration and payment of tuition and fees required a day off work, a beach ball-sized bladder, and the endurance of a sequoia as lines moved slower than frozen molasses. While Baylor's adoption of electronic solutions reduced my frustration by allowing me to register and pay fees online, the university's constant upgrading of hardware and software soon outpaced my personal budget. Now I must travel to campus just to find a computer powerful enough to complete these tasks.

Even though I successfully overcame real and imagined obstacles, I had no specific plan when I returned to school. At first, I enrolled in one course each semester. I soon realized that I would qualify for AARP membership while I was still receiving student discounts, so I began doubling and tripling my class load.

When presented with the opportunity to move from conventional employment to self-employment, I embraced it. Rather than forcing my class schedule fit my work schedule, I could adjust my workload to fit my class schedule. This becomes increasingly important as I approach the end of undergraduate life, when only single sections of required courses may be offered each semester.

Hardest to adjust to was the realization that I am no longer young. Desks are too small for someone who gained his "freshman 15" and then spent nearly 30 years developing middle-aged spread, and what's left of my hair is now more salt than pepper.

Despite raising one of my own, members of the wired generation confound me. While my family didn't own a television until I reached third grade, my classmates came out of the womb clutching a computer mouse and a cell phone. A once-peaceful walk across campus is now interrupted at every step by the nonstop chatter of the connected, and the beep, chirp and moan of student cell phones regularly disturb classes.

When I was born, there were only 49 states, and I soon learned that most important events in the constitutional history of the United States have happened during my lifetime. This means that my fellow students study history, while I study current events.

In many classes, I've been the oldest person in the room, leading to an awkward sorting out of social convention. Will the instructor treat me with the respect due my age, or with the disdain appropriate for an undergrad?

At the beginning of each semester, professors often question students' about their future plans, and my classmates mention doctor, lawyer and engineer. Me? I want to be a Social Security recipient because there isn't enough time between graduation and retirement to actually have a career.

When I tell my wife about some of my class discussions -- discussions where life experience clearly colors my opinions -- she says, "Don't frighten the children." And it's difficult not to think of my classmates as children, even though many of them are in early adulthood, because my 21-year-old son is among them, and I often find myself enrolled in courses with members of his high school graduating class.

In a university where students of my generation can probably be counted in single digits, there's little opportunity to develop friendships. Even sincere attempts make me feel like the creepy neighbor my mother always warned me about.

But I have tried to experience college life the way a traditional undergrad might.

  • I've eaten cafeteria food, quickly realizing that the cast-iron stomach I had as a teenager is now one of the seven largest methane producers in Texas, and I must monitor my diet.
  • My wardrobe slowly devolved, and T-shirts emblazoned with one of Baylor's many logos are now my apparel of choice.
  • I joined three academic fraternities, but soon decided that my days as a chaperone ended with my son's high school graduation party.
  • Although I've yet to pull an all-nighter, I've certainly had my share of late-nighters, not opening my textbooks until my family finally retires for the night.
  • Along with other Baylor students, I've sat in the stands through losing season after losing season of football, and sat glued to the television as our women's basketball team advanced through the NCAA tournament to take the title.

While my son speeds through college without stopping for marriage, children and career, I relish the few advantages of being a college student at my age. I especially enjoy the reaction at the local multiplex when I request the "student discount," and my wife takes great pleasure in telling people that she sleeps with a college student.

I'll be 48 when I finally receive my B.A. in professional writing, having spent six years finishing half of my undergraduate requirements. At this glacial pace, dare I even consider grad school?

Michael Bracken
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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.

A Classic Revisited

It always comes as a surprise to learn that otherwise savvy and well-informed people in higher education have not read -- in fact, have usually never even heard of -- the compact treatise on campus politics known as Microcosmographia Academica. The short pamphlet with the grand title was written by F.M. Cornford, an eminent classicist at the University of Cambridge, and first published in 1908. After the better part of a century, it remains as sharp as ever: parts of it might have been written last week.

The Microcosmographia is written in the voice of a wise old don addressing the young academic politician. "I shall take it that you are in the first flush of ambition," Cornford declares, "and just beginning to make yourself disagreeable."

The most important advice is to avoid becoming a "Young Man in a Hurry" -- that is, someone who believes that reforms are not just desirable, but feasible, even overdue. (That pre-feminist assumption about the gender of the reader is the most easily remedied of the book's Edwardianisms. Its arguments apply just as well to the Young Woman in a Hurry.)

Such an individual is "afflicted with a conscience, which is apt to break out, like measles, in patches." The typical specimen is "a narrow-minded and ridiculously youthful prig, who is inexperienced enough to imagine that something might be done before very long, and even to suggest definite things."

Down that path, futility lies. The Young Persons in a Hurry "meet, by twos and threes, in desolate places, and gnash their teeth."

Instead, the ambitious academic politician must understand and accept the natural order of things. "While you are young," counsels the Microcosmographia, "you will be oppressed, and angry, and increasingly disagreeable." That is as it must be. But with time, you will become mellower, if not exactly more pleasant.

"When you reach middle age, at five-and-thirty," the advisor continues, "you will become complacent and, in your turn, an oppressor; those whom you oppress will find you still disagreeable; and so will all the people whose toes you trod upon in youth. It will seem to you then that you grow wiser every day, as you learn more and more of the reasons why things should not be done, and understand more fully the peculiarities of powerful persons, which make it quixotic even to attempt them without first going through an amount of squaring and lobbying sufficient to sicken any but the most hardened soul." (From context, one can determine that Cornford's "squaring" is today's "networking.")

In due course, the academic politician ripens into "a powerful person" with "an accretion of peculiarities" your colleagues must at least tolerate.

"The toes you will have trodden on by this time will be as the sands on the sea-shore; and from far below you will mount the roar of a ruthless multitude of young men in a hurry." writes Cornford. "You may perhaps grow to be aware what they are in a hurry to do. They are in a hurry to get you out of the way."
In one rare citation of the Microcosmographia from recent years, a professor stated that it was a product of Cornford's own conservatism. I am keeping that fact in a special file, along with other evidence  suggesting that many academics have to be kept at a safe distance from satire. (Likewise, small children should not, as a rule, be allowed to play with knives.) The voice of the advisor in the book is a persona -- a mask through which the author speaks.  

While Cornford did translate The Republic, his approach to ancient philosophy was the sort of thing that would (decades later) give Allan Bloom the heebiejeebies. He was part of a circle of scholars at Cambridge who were reading classical literature through the lens of then-current research on anthropology. That meant treating the Greeks, not as proto-Europeans (as, in effect, Victorian gentlemen avant la lettre), but rather as a tribe not that different from the "primitives" found around the world.

Apply whatever strictures you want to the imperialist worldview of anthropology a hundred years ago .... still, this was some radically perspective-shifting work. It was similar to what Friedrich Nietzsche had suggested in The Birth of Tragedy. No coincidence there: Cornford acknowledged the influence. He was also indebted to the sociological theory of Emil Durkheim and his disciples in France.

It was the kind of scholarship that dons of a more old-fashioned sort tended to call "brilliant" -- by no means a term of praise. After all, Nietzsche and Oscar Wilde had been brilliant. That was the first step to abject disgrace. (Better to be "solid.")

And Cambridge itself was undergoing any number of wrenching changes, from the admission of women to disagreements over campus expansion. The on-campus context of Microcosmographia Academica was vividly described by Gordon Johnson in his short book University Politics: F.M. Cornford's Cambridge and His Advice to the Young Academic Politician, published in 1994 by (appropriately enough) Cambridge University Press.  

Johnson portrays a kind of rolling crisis in university life at the close of one century and the start of the next. The library was getting overcrowded. There weren't enough cadavers for the medical students. Educational standards were in decline, or at least growing very worrisome. One professor noted that students reading Thucydides "studied the construction of the speeches" quoted by the ancient historian "but did not confuse themselves by trying to study their drift.... They read the Thaetetus, but did not know what Plato was driving at, or what Protagoras meant. They read twenty or thirty letters of Cicero -- they took care to read selected letters -- but they did not look into a Roman history in connection with them." Meanwhile, the science faculty were getting really good at carving out big slices of the budget for their research.

Nor was it realistic to expect the university community to sort things out. A joke had it that the Geological Museum and the faculty senate were similar: Both were "receptacles for fossils."

It was a blend of commotion and stagnation. In writing his satirical response, Cornford displayed some of the qualities found in his scholarly work. Microcosmographia is, as Johnson puts it, "light and tone, and deftly written; there is a fundamental seriousness about it, and its argument is profound."

The gist of his analysis of the university is that mere rationality will never be all that effective. Even the most coherent, forceful, and well-argued proposals for change will soon hit up against one firm law of human interaction: For every argument to be made in favor of doing something, there are several arguments for doing nothing.

As the Microcosmographia puts it: "Even a little knowledge of ethical theory will suffice to convince you that all important questions are so complicated, and the results any course of action are so difficult to foresee, that certainty, or even probability, is seldom, if ever, attainable. It follows at once that the only justifiable attitude of mind is suspense of judgment; and this attitude, besides being peculiarly congenial to the academic temperament, has the advantage of being comparatively easy to attain. There remains the duty of persuading others to be equally judicious, and to refrain from plunging into reckless courses which might lead them Heaven knows whither."

Cornford provides a general survey of the varieties of argument for doing nothing. The typology is so exact, yet also so capacious, that I doubt anyone will ever improve on it.

There is, for example, the Principle of the Dangerous Precedent: "You should not now do an admittedly right action for fear you, or your equally timid successors, should not have the courage to do right in some future case, which, ex hypothesi, is essentially different, but superficially resembles the present one. Every public action which is not customary, either is wrong, or, if it is right, is a dangerous precedent. It follows that nothing should ever be done for the first time."

There is also the Fair Trial Argument ("Give the present system a fair trial") and the Principle of Unripe Time ("The time is not ripe"). One canny move is to announce that a given measure "would block the way for a far more sweeping reform."

A really skilled academic politician will be able mix and match the various principles -- thereby creating unique and original arguments for doing nothing at all.

Many of the references and allusions are, of course, specific to Cambridge, circa 1908. But Cornford's insights apply, not just to academic politics, but to life in any large organization. (I halfway suspect any number of magazine and newspaper editors of being very close students of the Microcosmographia.)
"Beneath the elegant and witty prose," writes Gordon Johnson, "lies a profound (if somewhat pessimistic] argument about human political behavior: reason plays but a small part in politics, for people are driven more usually by prejudice and fear.... Cornford's essay bears the marks of a guileless and open-hearted man recollecting in a mood of resignation how that which needs and should be done is checked, thwarted, and threatened, by fear, by the inadequacies of others, and by the play of the political system."

The treatise is so perfect, in its way, that it comes as little surprise to learn that Cornford, who died in 1943, declined all opportunities to revise or update it -- and that he listed it alongside his major works of scholarship, most of which are still highly regarded. Copies of Microcosmographia Academica sometime turn up in used bookstores, and it appears as an appendix to Johnson's University Politics. The text is also available online.

Scott McLemee
Author's email:

Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Digital Disconnect

Cell phones are intrusive, not because they sound off during lectures, faculty meetings and commencement -- not even because they blur the line between home and work, with calls chiming at all hours -- but because university policy just about requires them.

I direct the journalism school at Iowa State University and am author of a technology book documenting the interpersonal divide caused by digital gadgetry. So I should have known better when my institution recommended cell phones as an option in a new policy prohibiting in-office personal long distance calls, which used to be allowed, as long as employees reimbursed the university -- a practice dubbed labor
intensive and unproductive.
Of course I know why the new policy was instituted: The old reimbursement system made secretaries monthly bill collectors put in the position of challenging the occasional employee making dozens of work-related calls to cities where families and partners just happened to reside. Cell phones cause other personnel problems. Because employees foot the bill, many feel they can use the mobile gadget on university time in off-limits settings like restrooms.

We won’t go there. 

We live in a brave new digital world where ivory towers have been replaced with cellular ones. Each new high-tech gadget paid for by employees resolves one ethical issue and creates a dozen more hitherto unanticipated conundrums. Some days it seems anything requiring human trust and interpersonal communication can be declared labor intensive and unproductive, what, with e-mail, computer networks, teleconferencing, digital television, pocket cameras and wireless Internet at our fingertips, all of which, incidentally, assimilated of late by the cell phone.

Administrators want to be good institutional citizens. So I gave each professor and staff member a copy of the new long-distance policy. Because I had recommended cell phones, I felt obliged to upgrade mine and along with that of my spouse. Diane, a journalism lecturer, heeding offers by Cingular, which had recently absorbed our carrier AT&T Wireless.
After last year’s $41 billion merger, Cingular informed us about its calling plans and focus on customer service and technical support -- both of which seemed like AT&T Wireless oxymorons. Reminders about the merger came with bills and bulk mail touting rollover minutes. A skeptical consumer, I had researched the allusion of individuality reflected in the Cingular brand, as if it cared about each single 46 million customers.

Like many of those customers, I could have ordered new phones and plans online and tried to migrate -- a curious word, as if consumers  flock like ducks in cyberspace -- from AT&T to Cingular. Instead we visited our local Cingular Wireless vendor in Ames, Iowa, and bought two phones with rebate savings (another oxymoron) and a $59.99 calling plan with $9.99 additional line. This was cheaper than my $69.99 AT&T Wireless plan with a $39.99 line for my spouse.
The salesperson, Kevin, switched our phones, charged the appropriate fees, wrote up bills and outlined plans meticulously. What follows is a narrative of what happened after Diane and I left the sales office. True, our story may simply be an anomaly, a bit of lousy cellular luck. So I’ll be reading the posted comments to see if mine is a Cingular experience.

Two weeks after placing our order I received my official welcome from Cingular Wireless -- my final AT&T bill with a $175 early cancellation fee for switching carriers. I called “customer care.” On its Web site, Cingular Wireless aspires to provide best-in-class sales and service.

Keeping with that shared vision, an AT&T Wireless representative told me that I would have to pay the cancellation fee. This was company policy. I asked for his supervisor. On hold, I listened to a female voice
sing the many virtues of the recent merger offering rollover minutes and more. Her silken voice was interrupted by the supervisor’s. Like Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine, she was adamantine. “When you break a contract, sir, you are obligated.”

This was a teachable moment. “That would be true,” I remember replying, if I had left AT&T for Sprint. But I left it for Cingular, “which owns you now.” I paused. I had meant that in a good way.I would have to pay, she said.

I called back later and spoke to a more helpful supervisor. She contacted the Ames wireless store and learned that a glitch occurred because my old cell phone had an Ohio area code. (Yes, I kept my old number, even though Diane and I had migrated to Iowa.) It took six weeks to fix that bill, about the time for rebate offers to be honored.

Remember those rebates? To get them, consumers fill out a form, copy serial numbers, enclose copies of receipts and cut barcodes from boxes. I did those chores on the day I purchased the cell phones with the kind of concentration I usually reserve for income tax itemization. I received two copies of a form letter from the rebate center in Young America, Minn. “We regret that we are unable to process your request as received. The cash register receipt enclosed was either not dated or not dated within the time period designated for this offer.”

I made several calls to rebate center representatives who gave conflicting instructions. At last I learned that in addition to getting a dated receipt from the local wireless story, I would have to return original barcodes cut from the box.

Did I mention that the customer care department did not send them back?

A snippy rebate representative told me to dismantle the cell phones and locate the serial numbers behind the batteries. Then I was to photocopy the cell phones so that the numbers were legible. I opened the cell phones and photocopied the serial numbers in the main office of the journalism building, telling the secretary that these were personal copies. There’s a policy on that, too. Then I mailed new rebate materials during the lunch hour and placed my personal cell phone next to my office phone in case I needed to make an emergency long-distance call.

My first emergency call was to Cingular Wireless when my new bill arrived showing two separate calling plans -- a $59.99 one for me and another $59.99 for my spouse (rather than the $9.99 additional line that
I was promised). With fees, the bill was $138.85 I had kept the original documentation of our calling plan -- as precious as copies of IRS 1040 forms in an audit.
“We apologize for the billing mistake,” the Cingular Wireless operator said.
“Please send me a new bill then.”

“That would cost an additional $5.”

I asked why I had to pay for Cingular’s mistake.

“Because that is our policy,” he replied, perhaps without sensing the double meaning.

I asked for his supervisor, Stephen, who also apologized for the mistake and told me to forget a new bill. “Just pay online with a credit card.”

But I wanted documentation.

He said that the company was not equipped to provide that.

At that moment I beheld a core truth about the state of customer service in today’s high-tech global media environment. The world’s largest digital calling company lacks a function to send, e-mail or fax a new bill
without a fee.

By now I was whimsical.  “Do you have a minute?” I asked, realizing that he had plenty of minutes, sold by the plan. I shared with him my cell phone saga that began with a university policy, continued with early termination fees, included denied rebate offers and now was approaching denouement. “When will this end?” I asked.

“Just cross out the $138.85 on the Cingular bill and send the correct amount,” he suggested.
By now I was anticipating the next glitch, an outsourced bill processor in Carol Stream, Ill., confronted with the conundrum of a $138.85 bill with an $82.17 payment.
“It’ll be fine,” the supervisor said. He didn’t say “trust me,” but I intuited that in his tone.
“Let’s make a bet,” I replied, predicting I would get another $138.85 charge.
“No, you won’t,” Stephen said. He gave me his full name and offered additional rollover minutes if the bill wasn’t corrected in the next cycle.

My next bill arrived stating that I still had two $59.99 plans and charging me another $138.85. I put in three calls to Stephen and left messages that he must make good on his bet. But he did not return messages even though he has my e-mail, cell phone, home phone, work phone, text messaging, fax and other digital means of access.

During my last call to Cingular, an operator apologized for the latest bill, telling me to cross out the $138.85 and just pay the $82.17. That is the same bad advice that the elusive Stephen gave, I explained. 
“I know what I am doing, and I’ll fix this for you,” she said.

The next week I received my rebate checks. Cingular eventually sent me a corrected statement. I remember opening the envelope and feeling a rush of relief, a curious emotional response that occurs when justice is served, along with the consumer.

That evening in my home office my Eudora pinged with a message from Sprint that somehow had circumvented the university’s spam filter: “Great news! Due to the affiliation with the State of Iowa, All University Faculty and Staff are now eligible for huge discounts with Sprint PCS. You now receive a 15% monthly discount on all rate plans, and a free phone with new activation. You are also now able to take your phone number from another carrier to Sprint PCS at no charge. For details on phones and rate plans please call Customer Solutions @ 877-777-4680 or 888-727-2003.”

Was this truly great news, this corporate affiliation with the state? Would I enjoy huge discounts and a free phone with new activation? Could I really take my Cingular Wireless number to Sprint at no charge?

I remain skeptical. But I no longer make personal calls on my university phone, although I still feel that I make monthly restitution.

Michael Bugeja
Author's email:

Michael Bugeja, director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University, is author of Interpersonal Divide: The Search for Community in a Technological Age (Oxford, 2005). He writes a monthly technology column for Inside Higher Ed.

Op. Cit. Etc.

Geography is destiny, at least during the summer. Our founding fathers, in their inscrutable wisdom, decided to build the capitol of their new republic in a swamp on the Potomac river. That was several decades before the emergence of the great (if now largely forgotten) school of thought that traced all the variations in human culture back to differences in climate and topsoil. "Lands, no matter how distant from one another they may be, whenever their climates are similar, are destined to be scenes of analogous historical developments," wrote the great German anthropogeographer Friedrich Ratzel in the 1890s.

You don’t see often see reductionism quite so robust, nowadays. But while trudging through the fetid armpit that is downtown Washington during July, I have to wonder if some ingenious interpretation of American history might not be worked out on the basis of Ratzelian theory.

If so, one could predict that Florida might, over time, prove to exercise a disproportionate influence on national government. (See the 2000 election.) The "spiritual impulses of the intellect and will of man," as Ratzel put it, are conditioned by the environment. Hence, the teaming mass of white-guys-in-ties who run the place might tend to behave with the viciousness of swamp rats. (See Karl Rove.)

A pattern seems to be emerging. Either that, or the heat is getting to me. Tempting as it may be to continue with this plausible and/or demented analysis, it might be better to drop it -- and instead to follow up on some developments, oversights and stray tangents from recent columns.

Microcosmographia Academica, as noted last Thursday, is both a product of British university politics of 100 years ago and a guidebook to life in large organizations that has stood the test of time remarkably well. The author, F.M. Cornford, declined to revise or update the work. It might be worth someone’s while to prepare an annotated edition one day, just to clarify some of the contemporary references and classical allusions. But if you overlook certain passages that haven't worn well with time -- the one on academic presses, for example, is now only half-accurate -- Cornford's treatise holds up very well.

And yet someone has, it seems, tried to retool the book for the 21st century. Microcosmographia Academica Americana, by Hugh Sockett, a professor of education at George Mason University, is available from the online publisher Lulu. Presented as a memorandum to a new assistant professor at Freedonia University (FU), the text explains that academe is now "a house divided between aspirations as a Corporation and a Republic."

It might be interesting to meet the dewy-eyed innocent who only learns this at the start of the tenure process. I started reading this opuscule in hopes that some element of irony might be in play, as it certainly was in the original. But Sockett's sense of humor owes less to the Cambridge dons than it does to talk radio: "Intellectual autonomy, like academic freedom, is an enigma inside a chimera, i.e. hogwash. So, if you want tenure, learn never to say what you really think, just concentrate on being politically correct and subjugate your independent spirit. Never make a politically incorrect remark, even in jest, or the po-faced PC police will have you ostracized before you can say politically challenged."

At a few points, the author does manage a passable pastische of Cornford's original. More often, though, Microcosmographia Academica Americana -- with its swarm of character sketches of faculty members such as Lazzee, Pickee, Hippee, and Messee -- reads like notes for a campus perhaps better left unwritten.

But as the saying goes. "For those who like that sort of thing, it is the sort of thing they will like." By the way, for a copy of Cornford's work in PDF, go here.

Late last month, this column attempted to launch a meme. The effort did not exactly set the blogosphere on fire -- though it did have one very interesting consequence. There is a lot of loose talk about "interdisciplinary research" nowadays -- but some may actually be spawned, however indirectly, by the first question posed by the meme.

It asked readers to imagine going into a library in the year 2015. What work of scholarship would you most want to find had been in the intervening 10 years?

By far the most interesting answer came from Michael Drout, a professor of English at Wheaton College, in Norton, Mass. Drout said he would look up "the results of my insane 'Manuscripts and Sheep DNA Project,'" in which genomic analysis of Anglo-Saxon documents would reveal "which piece of parchment came from which sheep and, furthermore, which sheep were related to each other."

This will have been "a multi-disciplinary effort that included mathematicians, biologists, paleographers, historians and literary scholars -- and people who knew a lot about sheep." The upshot would be the ability to trace the links among monastic scriptorums (the copy-shops of the middle ages).

Reading the future literature, Drout would note that his project eventually "paid huge and controversial literary and historical dividends when it demonstrated that yes, there was a 'royal writing office' (they were using sheep from the same herd for their materials), and that the Beowulf manuscript has a leaf that came from the same sheep as a leaf from the Blickling homily manuscript."

Initial discussion at Drout's blog suggested that his readers thought this was a pretty cool idea, even if he was joking. But he wasn't. His only reservation was that it might not be practical -- either because archives wouldn't want their parchment sampled, or because it there might be biotechnological obstacles.

It turns out that such hurdles could prove surmountable, and that there might be some interest in the whole idea. There is a lot of loose talk about "interdisciplinary research" nowadays, but Drout's project would count as the real deal. Check out his proposal.

Now Drout is concerned about becoming known as "the Crazy Sheep DNA Guy." That's understandable. But at least no puns are involved -- as has come to pass with "the McLememe." (That expression was not anticipated, though with hindsight it does seem kind of inevitable.)

A couple of months ago, after I confessed to reading reference books for pleasure, someone at a literary blog worked herself into a nice little simulacrum of huffiness that there was no mention of a book by A.J. Jacobs called The Know-It-All, published last year by Simon and Schuster.

Well, that's the price you pay for spending too much time reading old books. A large percentage of the hip, the hot, and the happening just flies right by you, winging its speedy way to the remainder tables.

Jacobs, who spent one year reading the Britannica, was engaged in a stunt, rather like those competitive hot-dog eating guys you see on TV sometimes -- ingesting without digesting, without savoring, without chewing. And a book about the exploit sounds about as appealing as a chance to watch the meal resurface.
An encyclopedia afficionado's education has nothing to do with the glutton's version of the will-to-power. Rather, it's a lot more aimless. You surrender to the cross-reference, with a faith that the networks among entries will slowly reveal more of the world than you might ever know otherwise.

No writer has ever caught the mood of it quite like Jorge Luis Borges, in his fiction and his essays alike (if that is a distinction worth keeping). I'm thinking in particular of the passage in his story "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius"  just after the narrator has discovered volume XI of the First Encyclopedia of Tlön. It is a gateway, almost literally, to another world:
"Now I held in my hands a vast methodical fragment of an unknown planet's entire history, with its architecture and its playing cards, with the dread of its mythologies and the murmer of its languages, with its emperors and its seas, with its minerals and its birds and its fish, with its algebra and its fire, with its theological and metaphysical controversy."

But you also learn to appreciate the odd bits, the pieces that don't really fit into a larger pattern. A few days ago, for example, I came across the entry "Hackenschmidt, George (1878-1968)" in the third edition of The Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy (published this year by Routledge).

The name rang no bell at all. I figured he would turn out to be the editor of Wittgenstein's collected dry-cleaning receipts, or something like that. But in fact, Hackenschmidt was an Estonian wrestler who "came to prominence in 1896 when he picked up a milkman's horse and walked around with it on his shoulders," and who routinely trained by hoisting enormous bags of cement on his back. Between 1898 and 1911, he won 3000 consecutive wrestling matches.

The entry does not reveal just what happened in 1911. But with the start of the First World War, Hackenschmidt was taken prisoner by the Germans. In captivity, he developed "a system of philosophy based on the values of spirituality, vegetarianism, and self-control."

One page earlier in the encyclopedia, someone had tried to explain Jurgen Habermas's Theory of Communicative Action in a single paragraph. Should Hackenschmidt be called a thinker in the same sense as Habermas? Does he really deserve to have an entry in an encyclopedia of philosophy? I don't really know -- but can't help being a little glad that he does.

Scott McLemee
Author's email:

Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

The Next Hit Reality Show


To: Tom Werner, executive producer, The Scholar
From: Donald E. Heller
Subject: Capitalizing on the success of The Scholar

I know you’ve been really busy with The Scholar, which I hear has had some great ratings.  Never mind all your work with the Red Sox – by the way, great to have a hit after 86 years of failure, huh? – and your on again, off again relationship with Katie Couric. But I hope you have a few minutes to review this work-up for what I am convinced is the next hit reality show: The Chosen One.

Everybody has loved watching the competition to see which of those spunky little 18 year-olds on The Scholar is going to receive the scholarship. But those kids are so bright and overachieving that the audience knows that all of them, not just the winner, will end up going to college somewhere. But think about how much more interesting the competition will be as graduate students battle it out for the holy grail of American higher education: a tenure-track faculty position! With so few graduating Ph.D.’s landing one of these babies, the competition in this reality show will make Survivor look like a walk in the park.

Here’s the outline of the show. I’ve indicated a few places where there are some great product placement opportunities (PPO) to help maximize the revenue from the show.

The Search Committee: Every good reality show needs a panel of judges that will grab the audience. After all, people don’t watch American Idol to hear talentless people sing; they tune in to see Paula bicker with Simon. This is what’s keeping The Scholar from knocking Idol off the top of the charts. The judges on The Scholar are knowledgeable, but they’ve got the collective personality of a medieval history conference.  

Here are a few ideas to kick around.  For the lead, there’s only one obvious choice: Lawrence "Larry the Barbarian" Summers. He's received more press lately than anybody in higher education other than Ward Churchill (my guys talked to Ward, but he’s laying low these days and wasn’t interested). And who’s better at playing the Simon role, insulting people and putting them in their place? Larry’s got to be the top dog in this show. It shouldn’t matter how much money it takes to land him -- you have to get him on board.  (PPO: Rather than the ubiquitous can of Coke on Idol, I see Larry with a bottle of Chardonnay in front of him -- lots of opportunities to get a vineyard on board.)

To create fireworks, you need somebody who will clash with Larry. Again, there’s a clear choice: Cornel West, Larry’s old nemesis from Harvard who flew the coop to Princeton after one too many insults. The idea of Larry and Cornel (can we get him to use the nickname “Corny” -- “Cornel” sounds a bit stuffy for a mass audience?) going at each other from opposite sides of the table has me salivating about the ratings potential.

The third judge isn’t nearly as important (who can ever remember Randy Jackson anyway), but I do have a few ideas. Stanley Fish looked like he would be tanned, rested, and available after he retired from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and who knows more about higher education than him? But then he took that position in Florida so he may be out. Skip Gates is another good choice, but that may make it look like he and Corny are ganging up on Larry. Might want to go after Elaine Showalter; she’s not nearly the household name the others are, but boy, can she dress! (Great PPO opportunities with her -- Prada or Versace?)

The Candidates: This is a little bit tricky. Ten students should work -- this is about the right ratio of Ph.D. graduates for every tenure track position available, and will ensure enough candidates to appeal to a broad audience. You need that combination of attractive looks and engaging personalities to keep the viewers coming back week after week. Need to avoid that library pallor so many graduate students share, so we’ll have to do a national search to find the cute ones with the bubbly personalities. (PPO: We’ll want to make sure they’re dressed well, so let’s talk to The Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch, maybe even Polo for the interview clothes.)

Diversity is important – every viewer wants to be able to connect with at least one of the candidates. So let’s make sure we get a good selection of people from different races and different parts of the country. And let’s make sure they’re not all from Ivy League colleges – it’s important for the world to see that there are smart people at other places too -- I’m having some people confirm this for me.  (PPO: Maybe there’s an opportunity here for a second-rung institution to “sponsor” one of their grad students into the competition. I can see somebody wearing a “Northwestern East Podunk University” sweatshirt -- institutions like that normally can’t buy that kind of publicity!)

We need to be careful about what disciplines the candidates come from, or we’ll lose our audience. While everybody likes the idea of a rocket scientist, nobody wants to watch them writing physics equations on a whiteboard (yes, I know it worked in Good Will Hunting, but they had Matt Damon and Ben Afleck). If we have an English student, at the first mention of Foucault people would be flipping the channel to Bill Frist on C-SPAN or Rachel Ray making green bean casserole on the Food Channel.

Everybody watching The Scholar has liked that the contestants share dorm rooms, so let’s have all 10 of the grad students share a house, sort of like on The Real World. (PPO: this is a no-brainer – Ikea!)

The Episodes: The episodes should be reflective of the typical career of a grad student, and give the judges the opportunity to assess their potential to be a faculty member. Nobody would want to sit through the life of a Ph.D. student in real time however, so we’ll collapse the normal seven year period into seven weeks of television. Here is a first cut at the episode list.

1. Meet the grad students. The audience gets to meet each student and choose favorites.  Students get a chance to introduce themselves, explain why they’re unique, and why they should be The Chosen One.

2. The students deflect a sexual advance from a tenured faculty member. This is an important milestone in graduate student life. To keep it interesting, we can throw in at least one same-sex harassment situation (we need to remember this as we cast the show). It is unlikely we will be able to hire real professors for this, but with all the out-of-work professors out there, some of them must have had some experience in this arena. (PPO: a law firm?)

3. Organize a TA union. What a great opportunity for conflict between the grad students and the judges! The grad students will be required to build the case for why they should be allowed to unionize, and the judges will test them by explaining why grad students do not do real work and should be considered students, not workers. (PPO: United Auto Workers or The Teamsters?)

4. Cobble together funds to attend a conference and network with academic stars. The grad students will run around the campus to various offices to beg, borrow, and steal the money necessary to attend an academic conference in order to schmooze with the big shots. They will then have to demonstrate how they can spend three days in a major city on a paltry sum, and still look presentable and impress the stars. Great opportunity here for cameos from some real academic stars.  I’m sure most would jump at the opportunity and work for union scale.  (PPO: airlines and hotels)

5. Form a dissertation committee. The grad students go in front of the judges and explain why they are worthy of having a faculty member serve on their dissertation committee. Each judge will require the students to jump through the requisite academic "hoops," such as babysitting the judge’s children, walking the judge’s dog, or picking up their dry cleaning.  Every good reality show has a weeding-out process. This episode is where we can reduce the 10 candidates down to a smaller number, as those who are unable to form a dissertation committee are cast aside.

6. The job talk. The candidates explain their research and why they’re worth of being The Chosen One. As I mentioned earlier, it is critical that we find grad students with interests that reach a wide audience. Let’s look for somebody in sociology who researches the interlocking sexual and economic relationships among suburban, upper middle class housewives. Or a criminology student who specializes in homicides among young, beautiful women who live in major urban areas with attractive friends and interesting jobs.

7. The selection. At long last, the judges choose the single graduate student who will be The Chosen One. The winner will be awarded a tenure-track job in their field at the institution of their choice. We may have some problems getting every college and university out there to agree to participate, but given the revenue constraints they’re all facing, throwing some of the PPO money their way should be enough of an inducement.

I think this one is a winner, Tom, so let’s do lunch and work it out!

Donald E. Heller
Author's email:

Donald E. Heller is an associate professor and senior research associate in the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Pennsylvania State University at University Park. The only reality show he is watching this summer is the Boston Red Sox.

No Joke

Scene: a foreign language classroom. Subject of the lesson: the Spanish verb, gustar, meaning, "to like," whose declension is most irregular. Teacher has students practice with each other by making up formulaic questions, such as, "What do Americans like?" Reply: "Hamburgers."

Two students give the following: "What don't the French like? They don't like to take showers."

Wait a minute! Suddenly an African-American student jumps up and protests -- in English -- at the student who gave this last answer. How dare he! The comment is "racist." Her great-grandfather was from Martinique. French was spoken in his household. Is her colleague now implying either her grandfather or she herself smells? The
African-American student demands an apology on the spot.

The teacher who told me this incident said that the whole class was dumbfounded. Literally speechless. Nobody laughed. And yet it's hard to hear of it without imagining somebody wanted to laugh. An African-American student who makes the accusation of racism not because she's African-American but because she's French! Not to mention a student who confuses a language lesson with a truth claim.

Or with a joke. Among a number or comments that could be made about this incident, the one that strikes me is that at the center is a hoary old joke about the French. It's stupid. The national or racial stereotypes upon which so much humor is based are all stupid. However, this hasn't stopped people continuing to purvey such stereotypes in the form of jokes. Of course much depends on the context in which these jokes are told. The classroom is no longer one of these contexts.
The above incident illustrates why: somebody is bound to be offended, and you can't predict who. Worse, someone is likely to protest -- either immediately or afterwards, perhaps to the dean. Fiction may deal with the consequences better than journalism. In one of my favorite academic novels, Mustang Sally, by Bruce Allen, the hero is foolish enough to tell a joke about a woman who asks a man to give her a seat on the bus because she's pregnant. When the man asks how long, she looks at her watch and says, "About 45 minutes." Some students file a written complaint, charging sexual harassment.

To relate an official response to some example of a joke, or even an unintended joke, on American campuses today is itself to appear to be telling a joke. Yet everybody knows speech codes that ban "inappropriately directed laughter" (say) are no joke. It's not clear to me if a professor can be held accountable for a student who spontaneously tells a joke in class. But a professor in 2005 who tells a joke or his or her own would be a fool.

No matter if a careful framework had been laid out prior to the telling or if the joke was told to "illustrate a point." Better to keep the framework humorless or the point abstract. Of course there are times in the classroom when the humor is there, suddenly, inescapably. Odd words are spoken or a stray thing happens; a professorial wink, nod, or comment is scarcely necessary to mark the comedy.  Everybody laughs. And then discussion continues. (Part of the pathos of the above incident with which I began is that this did not happen.) In such contrast, a joke is a deliberate act, emanating from the person of the teller. The joke doesn't emerge from the context. It's imposed upon it.

Or is it? "Context" is a tricky affair. If there are actually teachers who still tell jokes to their students on a regular basis, presumably they do so either to solidify a context, or else to develop one. But the "context" of a classroom is different than that of, say, a commencement speech. I read the other day that Chris Matthews, host of an MSNBC talk show, told at this past year's commencement a joke he once heard from Nelson Mandela, about Joseph begging the innkeeper for a room: "My  wife is pregnant." "It's not my fault," protests the innkeeper. "It's not my fault either," answers Joseph.

We are not told where Matthews spoke. Presumably it wasn't at a religious college. Or is the point that the authority of Mandela enables Matthews to elude a charge of mild irreverence? Or is it that commencement speakers, unlike professors, are culturally authorized to tell jokes? Of course we could extend these questions no end, including how a joke is different than a quip, a squib, or a witticism, or how laughter is not the same thing as
a smile.

My point begs to be a simple one: Jokes no longer play a significant role in American higher education because they have been effectively banished from the classroom. Why? Paradoxically, because the bonds of campus "community" are so frail. No jokes at least insures that none will be offended. Alas, it also insures that few will feel affirmed.  

"Community" of course forms one of our core values, invoked everywhere from an instructor's class syllabus to the president's last public speech. But this community at the present time is, as we say, no joke.

In a brilliant discussion of jokes in her book, Implicit Meanings, the anthropologist Mary Douglas gives the following logic: "The joke merely affords the opportunity for realizing that an accepted pattern has no necessity. Its excitement lies in the suggestion that any particular ordering of experience may be arbitrary and subjective." Just so, what is a community but its necessary and accepted patterns? A joke tests these, each time. A strong community survives the test. A weak one fails it. Whatever the word means, and perhaps especially if it really doesn't mean anything, academic "community" appears too fragile for the deliberate act of humor to be committed in the form of a joke.

Never mind if a hundred or a thousand exceptions come to mind. Each of them proves the rule. And, as so often in academic life, enforcement of the rule begins in the classroom with the figure of the professor. Personifying the community, he or she is empowered with authority but not the authority to tell jokes. Having begun with an incident that is founded upon a joke but was not manifest in that form, let me conclude with a similar incident from my own experience.

It took place in a composition classroom, many years ago. I had decided to experiment, and let students write anything they wanted to. No grades. The only thing they had to do, besides come in and write, was to show the results to me three times during the semester. In order to make it possible for all students to be seen regularly, I had to employ a student assistant.
Fortunately, I had at my disposal Pat, one of my best students. I told Pat to disallow nothing out of hand; just subject it to formal criteria of some sort, no matter how long or how short the writing. Above all, never laugh at anything. Toward the end of class one day, I was shocked to hear Pat suddenly begin howling! He couldn't stop laughing. The class started laughing.

Next to Pat was one of our poorest students, who seemed to be, Pat had told me, improving. How? Through frequent visits with Pat, who praised his "narrative organization." Trouble is, it was getting harder to judge the writing because the student was in effect telling jokes. Were jokes acceptable?

This particular day, I concluded that one of the jokes had anyway been irresistible. I was angry with Pat for laughing. But when I asked the student for his notebook the next class, I couldn't help but laugh pretty hard myself.

He began by telling about his father, a long-distance trucker. Often when the father was home, he would take his son out to the local truck stop, just to hang out together with him, usually at the counter. Late one recent night, two women came in. They looked rough. One had on a skimpy dress. She spread out her legs after sitting down in a booth. Father and son could see she wore no panties. They tried to stop looking. Finally, the woman sneered at them: "What's the matter? You came out of one of these, you know." The student blushed. His father replied: "Yeah, but I never saw one I could climb back into."
Did somebody say, "context"? I can't imagine one today that would justify me telling this joke (just to call it that) in the classroom. Did somebody say, "community"? I can't imagine any that at the present time would authorize me, as a professor, to tell this joke. (And few communities in which my freedom to do so, however misplaced, would be affirmed.) And yet the joke -- just to continue to call it that -- was told, in a manner of speaking, er, writing. Moreover, it was told at the heart of the practice of earnest classroom instruction.

By today's standards, should I have marched the student down to the dean's office, where he would be duly censured for sexism? Perhaps by these same standards I should have marched myself down, and written up a self-censure on the spot. If we no longer have to be confronted with jokes, what do we do with the ones that suddenly arise? Make a nervous quip about the return of the repressed? One thing for sure: the humor -- such as it is -- that we still enjoy in the classroom is a function of this same repression. It's no joke.

Terry Caesar
Author's email:

Terry Caesar's last column was about academic integrity (and lack thereof).

The Awkward Age

We interrupt this column's regularly scheduled broadcasting -- its usual assortment of philosophical obituary,  historical atrocity,  news from Iranian civil society and the occasional Fish tale -- to bring you this bulletin from the world of American pop culture: The complete run of Undeclared, one of the best television programs ever devoted to college life, will be released on DVD later this month.

If the title rings no bells, that is hardly surprising. Like Freaks and Geeks, the previous show by Undeclared's creators, it was the victim of remarkably clueless network executives who never quite knew what to do with it. Neither program seemed to air more than two consecutive weeks in a row. And when a loyal following emerged anyway (with television critics lauding the shows' humor and intelligence) it didn't make much difference. The ratings were too low.

Freaks and Geeks lasted from 1999 to 2000 -- just as the major networks were discovering that the audience really wanted to watch people eat bugs and marry strangers. The first episode of Undeclared aired on Fox two weeks after 9/11. Its picture of dorm life at the imaginary University of North Eastern California was neither cathartic nor particularly escapist. And the realities it portrayed (for example, "free money" being handed out to students, i.e., credit card companies signing them up) were probably too campus-specific.

The revival of Undeclared on DVD is in part a matter of its cult status. As with Freaks and Geeks, it seems to have developed a solid core of fans on college campuses, with videotapes circulating long after cancellation. (Last year, F&G was issued on DVD to generally rapturous acclaim.)

Adolescence is usually portrayed by pop culture in terms that are themselves pretty adolescent. Which is to say, either cloying in its sentimentality or histrionic in its cynicism -- arguably, two sides of the same coin. Teenage life is presented as a time of profound life lessons ("And that was when I understood that things would never be the same again..."). Either that, or as a spell of wrenching agony (same voiceover, but with a bitter snarl).

In either case, growing up is portrayed as the loss of innocence, or some moment of hideous realization that innocence was always a sham, rather than a process of gaining new powers and responsibilities. So adolescence becomes a privileged phase in life -- a period when you haven't yet succumbed to all of the compromises and disappointment that must follow. Whole sectors of the economy are devoted to reinforcing this belief, in however bizarrely distorted a form. The desirability of being able to recapture part of adolescence must be the subtext of half the SUV advertisements. And the themes and attitudes associated with that part of life (alienation, vulnerability, irony) are pretty much identical with the dominant tone of mass media now, as as Andrew Calcutt shows in Arrested Development: Pop Culture and the Erosion of Adulthood (Cassell, 1998).

What made both Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared stand out is that each broke out of this pattern. They depicted adolescence in a recognizable way, but the sensibility was more adult than anything the characters themselves could have manifested.

That was especially true of Freaks and Geeks, set in a suburban high school in Michigan in 1980-1. The central character, Lindsay, was an academically talented middle-class kid who, in the wake of her grandmother's death, begins to idealize the underachieving stoner kids. She turns her back on the Mathletes and starts hanging out with the school's clique of rebels-without-a-cause. The pop-culture norm would be to celebrate Lindsay's metamorphosis from brainy "geek" to disengaged and sardonic "freak" (a bit of period slang that didn't last much longer than the subculture itself).

But the program was a lot more astute than that. It tracked her disillusionment with disillusionment. Gradually, Lindsay saw that the romantic vision of her friends as outsiders is totally inadequate. They were as prone to self-deception, inauthenticity, and inner numbness as anyone. The result was a story of real maturation, rather than of easy epiphanies.

As Judd Apatow, the producer for both programs, writes in the booklet accompanying Undeclared, he started the second series while mourning for the first. He hoped to gather some of the earlier cast together and recreate its chemistry.

While Undeclared certainly has its moments, I don't think that quite happened. For one thing, Paul Feig, who created F&G, didn't write any of the scripts for Undeclared, though he did direct a couple of episodes. His book Kick Me: Episodes in Adolescence (2002) is the quintessential account of nerd life -- a memoir that is excruciatingly funny, when not simply excruciating. Feig has described its recently published sequel, Superstud, or How I Became a 24-Year-Old Virgin, as the second part of his "trilogy of shame." (Both books are from Three Rivers Press.)

Minus Feig's scriptwriting, Undeclared doesn't have much of an introspective edge. But its picture of life in a coed dormitory (at a not-very-impressive university) is funny often, often enough, to be memorable.
In particular, it renders an utterly believable (and slightly quease-making) account of a high-school romance that goes rancid when one person heads off to college. The line between affectionate cuteness and emotional breakdown can get pretty thin. Only small nuances of tone make it comic, rather than horrifying.

Watching the program again after three years, I'm also struck by how often it shows presumably full-grown adults regressing to an adolescent state, thereby making themselves ridiculous. The singer-songwriters Loudon Wainwright plays a father who starts hanging out at the dorm during his divorce, happy to be treated as a cool guy by his son's friends. A history professor (Fred Willard) is challenged by a student to liven up his lectures. So he reenacts the Kennedy administration using costumes and props -- his idea of what the kids want. Edutainment has seldom been so awkward.

And Will Farrell makes an appearance as a familiar type: the guy living just off campus who will, for a fee, write term papers. (He's even equipped to take credit cards.) Clearly a brilliant student in his prime, he now sits around the house in a robe playing video games. For a student who needs a paper on Jackson Pollock or The Brothers Karamazov, he's ready to churn one out in a few hours.

How does he do it? "I read eight or nine books a week," he tells a customer. "I also take a lot of speed.

Apart from the usual (and wildly uneven) selection of deleted scenes and commentary tracks, the DVD set offers an episode called "God Visits" that never aired during the original run of the series.

It shows one dorm resident embracing pure nihilism (well, as pure as the sitcom format will allow) and another becoming a Bible-totting religious zealot. Naturally, each student returns, in due course, to a state of nonphilosophical normality. That is to be expected. But what's remarkable for a network television show of any kind, let alone a comedy, is that both worldviews get a bit of airtime -- and neither is held up for ridicule, as such.

In fact, Undeclared may be one of the first times that TV has shown the proselytizing of incoming students by evangelical Christians. The phenomenon (a fact of life on any reasonably large campus) was portrayed on at least a couple of episodes.

Evidently it made the in-house watchdogs at Fox nervous. Perhaps it wasn't in keeping with the official line that universities are reeducation camps for left-wing indoctrination?

Then again, it's possible that something else bothered the executives. Television networks are, after all, easily frightened. Anything involving brain activity would tend to do it. Watching Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared when they first appeared, you knew they were too smart to survive. But it's good to have both in durable form. That way, they'll last longer than the courage of any given broadcast executive.

Scott McLemee
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Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Suggestions and ideas for future columns are welcome.


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