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.
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, 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.
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 novel....one 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.
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
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.
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's last column was about academic integrity (and lack thereof).
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.
Submitted by J.P. Leary on August 12, 2005 - 4:00am
The 19th-century Welsh novelist Henry Clairidge (1832-74) stood firmly in the British eccentric tradition, publishing only two novels during his lifetime, __________ and [ ], each consisting of 200 blank pages. A posthumously published volume was put out by his sister, Ethel, in 1876: “******,” a heavily annotated work of 200 pages, also blank.
These three books constitute the Clairidge oeuvre and his claim to literary posterity. Apart from a few contemporary reviews in The Gleaners’ Gazette, Clairidge remains mostly a tabula rasa. No critic has adequately addressed this master of Victorian minimalism, who so clearly anticipated the work of the Parisian livre vide movement in the 1890s and the pared-down appearance of late Beckett some decades later.
Occasionally, commentators have projected their own preconceptions on Clairidge’s admittedly scanty plots. New Critics had a field day filling in the gaps and differentiating between hiatuses and lacunae.
Barthes proposed 53 distinct readings of page 100 in [ ], whereas Derrida declared, “There is nothing inside the text.” Greenblatt links the genesis of Clairidge’s corpus to a blank diary found among the effects of a drowned sailor from Bristol in 1835. Several attempts by white studies scholars to claim Clairidge’s pages as an oppressed majoritarian cri de coeur have been largely ignored by multiculturalists.
These previous approaches miss the mark. Clairidge’s grand emptiness, prefiguring the existential void of the 1950s, mirrors life itself -- or at least the life of Clairidge, who spent his last 20 years at the ancestral estate in Ffwokenffodde, staring gormlessly at the hay ricks. His sister, Ethel, who doubled as his amanuensis and nurse, would occasionally turn him toward a prospect of furze, but the shift seems not to have affected his subject or style.
I contend that Clairidge’s hard-won nullity is temperamentally different from nihilism, which is to say that believing nothing is not the same as Belief in Nothing. Moreover, if Clairidge’s art takes the blankness of life as its premise, its slow-building conclusions represent a sort of après vie. Though reconstructing a writer’s faith from his art is a dicey business (and Ethel burned her brother’s blank notebooks after his death), one of the few remaining social effects sold at a charity auction in 1876 is a hay-strewn, slightly warped Ouija board. In short, this project involves the unacknowledged fourth estate of the race, gender, and class trinity: creed. Any committee members in sympathy with the current political administration, please take note.
Nothing is familiar to me. As a blocked but tenured faculty member for the past 14 years, I can attest to the power of the blank page. The study I propose would be as infinitely suggestive as Clairidge’s own work. Having already compiled over 150 blank pages of my own, I estimate that I am about halfway through a first draft.
My spurious timeline, suggested by my university’s internal grant board to indicate progress, is as follows: chapter one by March, chapter two by April, chapter three by May, and so on. More specifically, I hope to have the large autobiographical or “life” section done by May, so I can go on vacation with my family, and the “after-life” section should be done before my department chair calls me in to discuss that tiresome annual faculty activity report.
I already have papers and books strewn impressively around my office, as well as a graduate assistant to help me sort through them. An NEH grant at this stage would not only help to renovate our breakfast room, but also answer the querulous looks that the dean of liberal arts has been giving me at public gatherings. Considering the projects you people have been funding lately, I -- but as with Henry Clairidge, words fail me. As Wittgenstein concluded in his Tractatus, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
Clairidge, Ethel. The Selected Letters of Ethel Clairidge to Her Brother, The Corresponding Grunts of Henry Clairidge to His Sister. Eds. Renée Clairidge and Friend. Metuchen, N.J.: Methuen, 1965.
In the hallowed halls of academia, Sexism no longer swaggers about in a wife beater with a Camel no-filter hanging from its defiant lip. Indeed, overt displays of machismo are rare, and all of the carefully crafted institutional rhetoric reflects and promotes principles of equality and tolerance. Our private liberal arts centered university, smack in the middle of a down-home red state, even has a women's caucus. In a stunning display of sheer determination and astounding courage, two of my colleagues (one untenured) swept away the decades-old dust left from the dirty dealings of the old boys' club and created the caucus. Today I am the head of this caucus, which boasts about 80 members of the faculty and staff.
Our most challenging work is finding the language to articulate the workings of an insidious sexism that results in what I like to call the quotidian miasma of discrimination, or the QMD (not to be confused with the chimerical WMD). The QMD is insidious because it is the byproduct of a constellation of factors that, when looked at individually, seem not to target women, but which converge on spaces where we are most likely to find women. This more nuanced version of sexism leaves us without a clear enemy, without the swaggering patriarch to flesh out the sinister intentionality behind the discrimination.
I remember as a grad student trying to understand the Matrix-like quality of the "patriarchal order." I always envisioned a bunch of old white men, semi-reclined in overstuffed chairs, hands clasped behind heads, cigars in mouths, gathered around a heavy wooden table in a locked room marked "Patriarchs." In the upper echelons of my university administration, there are plenty of Patriarchs who meet behind closed doors around heavy wooden tables, but the room lacks a clear label, although in the hallowed hall outside the university’s presidential suite, photographic portraits of trustees fill a wall with mostly male images. At my university, we have a male president and five male vice presidents.
Probably they don't overtly plan the continued subjugation of the second sex in their meetings, but regardless of their intentions, the dearth of women in the upper administration and in positions of power is a major contributing factor in the QMD. Because it is undetectable by the clumsy, outdated sexism radar we are still lugging around from the 70s, the QMD works stealthily and subtly.
So, if it's not wearing its hatred and fear of woman on its sleeve, what is Sexism wearing these days? On my campus, it sometimes saunters around in Birkenstocks, long hair, and maybe glasses. You know these guys. These are the men we went to grad school with, shared apartments with, read Judith Butler and bell hooks with. They eschewed virile formulas of manliness, embraced gender theory and were OK crossing their legs at the knees if it was crowded in the conference room. Now they have grown up and inherited the power positions at universities around the country, and, lacking real world experience as the discriminated, many of them have lost the sense of urgency they once felt about the rights of women and the distrust they once had for the administration.
Now they are the administration, if in a minor key. My friends and I have dubbed the administration "The Men's Caucus." Upon arrival, junior men are immediately and seamlessly made members of the Men's Caucus, invited to the all-male circles of power that spin the narratives of our professional lives in the lunch club, the wine club, the tennis group, Friday night basketball, Monday night poker.
To tell the truth, as I struggle through my Survivor-like work environment, male colleagues often have been my biggest supporters, and at times it was a senior woman colleague who made life miserable for the junior women in our department. She had internalized the patriarchal reward system and aligned herself with a senior male colleague, whose behavior and demeanor sent women around him back to the kitchen to make his coffee and fetch his metaphorical pipe. This aging Lothario was often seen bopping around in biker shorts, no shirt, and a cap worn backwards, or swaggering into meetings 10 minutes late wearing a huge, black cowboy hat. His persona stood in contrast to the values he seemed to espouse in his postmodern, liberal scholarship.
His self-styling, bespeaking a hyper-masculine posture and a desire for stark gender distinctions, emulated three of our most extreme forms of embodied virility: the jock, the cowboy, and the hip-hop gangster musician. My negotiations with the Lothario were always easier and more successful when I honored his role as mentor, protector, patron, father, leader, and Don Juan. He liked to make comments about our secretary's weight, and once he referred to our retired women colleagues as "dingbats." When one of the junior women got pregnant, he claimed in her written department review that her pregnancy had affected her job performance. At one of my first faculty dinners, he tipped back several glasses of wine and asked if I would be dancing on the table.
Unfortunately, our soft-spoken, measured, diplomatic dean did not take seriously the women who came forward with complaints about life in the kingdom of Lothario. Instead, the dean read women as damsels in distress to be rescued and then sent on their way with promises of inheritance, departmental ownership and pats on the head for good measure. But alas, in the end he returned the women colleagues to the oppressor's fiefdom, unwilling to betray the code of male privilege and loyalty that works to keep women distressed and in constant competition with each other for validation from the male power structure.
One wonders what would motivate him in this case. Maybe his loyalty to Lothario is rooted in some repressed nostalgia for the patriarch, or maybe he is overcompensating for his own imagined inadequacies when measured against the absent, yet longed-for virile authoritarian. Maybe sometimes the Birkenstock liberal yearns for a pair of cowboy boots and a Camel no-filter.
I managed to live through years of torment by self-centered, self-important, yet mediocre senior colleagues who eventually did grant me tenure, on the strength of my credentials, but to this day, old men roaming the halls tell tales of how the dean "saved" my job, or of how some other man was instrumental in my rescue. I might as well have been wearing a pointed pink hat and waving a hankie out the window of a medieval stone tower. In the patriarchal grand narrative, I was the damsel in distress. I began to wonder if I could ever emerge from this male tale.
The damsel in distress is a motif in the 17th century plays we read in my Golden Age literature class this semester. In these comedies, the women characters must negotiate their positions in an oppressive patriarchy that defines them as objects to be adored, possessed, protected, and rescued by the men, whose honor, virility, and social status derive form the women-objects they control.
Wait a minute, I kept thinking.... I've heard this story before.... Woman plays to the men in power by assuming roles that highlight and affirm male strength, and by disavowing the facets of her identity that are deemed threatening, irritating, or downright hysterical by the reigning paradigm. We shape each other's behavior by rewarding and withholding, by subtly voting for the parts of each other we like best. With many male colleagues, my damsel in distress routine is their favorite performance -- some wouldn't even call to talk unless there was a crisis on the table.
There is a multifarious and indefatigable pressure to be read as a damsel in distress, and, let's be fair, if women don't recognize our own participation in this system, then we preclude the possibility of creating new roles for ourselves, ones that do not require pointy hats or being tied to railroad tracks. How many of us let our need for substantiation from the powerful (all male, at least in my corner of academia) push us to create problems for our knights to solve? What will my professional future look like if I refuse to play the damsel in distress? I don’t want to play the women's roles we see in the formulaic Hollywood films like Pretty Woman, Maid in Manhattan, or Father of the Bride, but I don't want to end up playing roles like Monster or Thelma and Louise, either. I'm not ready for homicide or jumping off a cliff.
Women's Caucuses around the country must work to articulate the complex machinations of the QMD and to increase awareness about the ways many of us, including liberal men and feminists, are perpetuating it. Let us build alliances with our women cohorts and reject the paradigm that would have us compete against each other for male approval. We must be strategic and deliberate if we are to resist the immense pressure to accept prescribed roles that promise us "success" even as we are systematically excluded from the power structure that defines success and failure.
Phyllis Barone is the pseudonym of an ex-damsel and associate professor at a Midwestern, private university.
I'm a bitch. I realized this about six months after I started on the tenure-track at my small Midwestern liberal arts college. It took me a bit longer to figure out what the others in my cohort were. But gradually we all took our turns under the sorting hat. By the time I earned tenure last year, I had figured it out. There are three ranks of junior faculty: bitches, good soldiers and golden boys.
Despite our sexually progressive campus, bitches must be women, and golden boys will be boys. Good soldiers alone promise equal access to all.
Bitches and golden boys needn't work very hard to earn their titles. Often, the die is cast before heels or oxfords touch down on sod. A woman, rumor has it, might have asked for too much start-up money upon receiving her offer. Golden boy status is often earned far, far earlier -- frequently, birth, does the trick. While many bitches belie the canine etymology of their label -- many of our local brood are quite stunning -- for men, being golden often means, well, being golden. And tall.
After a few faculty and departmental meetings and the scuttlebutt from students circles up to faculty, cementing your title in the gendered categories requires only a few token gestures. A suspected bitch might express strong opinions about curriculum, hold only four office hours a week or grade tough. You can practically hear the sizzle upon flesh.
Golden boys will shine bright if they have some innovative ideas about revising the curricula, travel to conferences frequently and ask for lots of start-up money upon receiving an offer.
There's nothing much surprising about the above -- these are just gender stereotypes, after all. What's surprising is that they're really true. This, despite the fact that we're not stuck in the past here: scholarship by women is assigned in class without having to make a point of it, many departmental chairs, administrators -- well-nigh the highest administrators -- are women. We hire as many women as we do men and, overall, do well at helping with the work/family balance. On paper we've left those stereotypes behind.
But this is a place where buying a house before tenure can still raise eyebrows and where most junior faculty are to be seen but not heard. When it comes to that all important tenure criterion -- being a good colleague -- gender still gets in the way.
You might think, resentfully or aspriationally, that the best thing to be is a golden boy. Not so. Sure, when they're assistants, golden boys are the top of the class. But remember, we're a liberal arts college in the Midwest, so golden boys are both flattering and threatening. They smell too Research I. It's like when someone more good-looking than you asks you out -- you can't shake the suspicion that you're being played. And while golden boys make the senior faculty look good (we hire the most promising graduate students) and never have any problem getting tenure, once they become senior, the gilt falls off quick. Suddenly they become washed-up middle-aged guys who never fulfilled their promise.
If you're in this for the long haul, then, it's a good soldier you really want to be, and what I now advise recruits become. Good soldiers are the meat on our bones, the soul of our institution, our bread and butter, what makes the place tick. They're married to the institution; they're, well, they're us.
Unfortunately, unlike becoming a bitch or a golden boy, becoming a good soldier requires work. Grunt work. Serving on committees. Going to student plays. Taking on new course preparations. Asking good questions at departmental meetings. It means raising your hand when the question is "who can help?" not "what should we do?" Good soldiers are in town when you are hosting a dinner for a speaker, and they keep their office doors open, should anyone want to chat.
When the tenure enclave commences, golden boys, of course, sail through. No rules are broken, but mediocre teaching and a few less articles than promised are overlooked. It's the period after tenure golden boys need to worry about. Rumor has it, the therapists in town see them a lot. Good soldiers, though, are rarely done deals come tenure review time. Service is no problem, of course; they've already entered the ranks, have perhaps already served a tour of duty as temporary chair or on a major committee. Superior teaching evaluations are required. Research is usually fine but not great (guess why?). However, having earned the love of students and lessened the senior faculty's workload for seven years, good soldiers will, usually, sweatily, receive their medals.
Bitches? We're tricky. We tend not to even make it to tenure. Some of us get better jobs -- we may not smell Research 1 on this campus, but we do on those. A surprising number leave academia altogether. A good number read the writing on the wall early -- unlike golden boys, bitches can't sail through, and the senior faculty let us know that in yearly reviews. So those who aren't producing quite enough, or never could find a comfortable seat in departmental meetings, make lateral moves before tenure. You might say that bitches are smart.
As for me, I spent a few years holding my tongue, raising my students' self-esteem and volunteering for thankless tasks. I was being good, if not exactly a soldier. Some of this, I freely admit, was salutary: I stopped fighting losing battles, learned the value of the phrase "buy in," and relaxed during debate-filled faculty meetings. knowing I wouldn't be contributing.
I made it through, and to those who sorted me upon arrival, earning tenure meant that I had, at long last, arrived. In the photocopying room one summer afternoon shortly after the results had been posted, a career soldier congratulated me, shook my hand and welcomed me aboard. "It's nice to have you with us," he said, seven long years after my arrival on campus.
Still, it's lonely. I miss my bitches. However, I'm also, suddenly, thrilled. I'm not washed-up, I'm not stuck in the mire of the foxhole, and I can finally say, without impunity, what I think this institution should do to improve, hold my students to high standards and pursue an independent research agenda. And isn't that, after all, what being a professor at a liberal arts institution is all about? Maybe being a bitch isn't all that bad after all.
Ruth Haberle is the pseudonym of an associate professor of English at a liberal arts college in the Midwest.
Submitted by Robert Weir on September 21, 2005 - 4:00am
Every semester I hear the same shopworn appeals for special dispensation for missed deadlines, even though my syllabi specify that only written requests from a dean or a doctor will be considered. Referring students to the syllabus usually evokes astonished assertions that surely it was an oversight to exclude their particular circumstances, which, in the sweep of Western civilization, are unique.
It’s been at least 10 years since I’ve heard an original excuse, and I was beginning to suspect that the hip-hop generation was imagination-challenged. My mistake! New students simply don’t have the semiotics background to understand the difference between the sign (message sent) and the signified (message heard) of academic discourse. It’s not until the sophomore year that students begin to grasp this, thus I offer this humble Semiotics 101 lesson for first-year students, lest they inadvertently offend their professors.
"I was so busy with classes in my major that I simply didn’t have time for your assignment."
"Your subject is so irrelevant I’m surprised it’s even offered at reputable schools. Did you lack the requisite skills to become a garbage collector?"
"I work full-time, care for small children, and am involved in community charity groups. It’s hard to find time to juggle all of this."
"Unlike slothful bums like you who just show up to class, put in an occasional office hour, and then bugger off to drink coffee, and nap in the faculty lounge."
"I was completely done with my paper, tried to print it, and found out that my processing system is incompatible with that of the college." (Variants: "My ink cartridge ran out," and, "The computer erased everything on my diskette.")
"I haven’t started this paper and I’m hoping you’re a big enough sap to fall for such a lame excuse."
"This assignment was unfair and your instructions were unclear."
"I have never misunderstood anything in my life. The problem is that you’re a sadist. How did you escape the Nuremberg trials?"
"I had a 24-hour stomach virus and was so sick that my roommate got scared and took me to the infirmary. Doctors said it was probably just food poisoning."
"My roomie and I went out drinking at a local bar. The local fauna was looking fine, the music was loud, and I got plastered. But I wasn’t going to work on your silly assignment anyhow."
"A close relative died last night."
"It was actually the aunt of my fourth cousin thrice removed and last night was the 14th anniversary of her death."
"You’re too demanding. I’m spending all my time on your course and neglecting all my other classes."
"That’s because yours is the only one I have a prayer of passing."
"I’ve been under a lot of pressure and am seeing a therapist who suggested that extra time to do my work would be helpful."
"OK, it’s not a real therapist, but my friend did get a B in Psych 101 so I’m sure she knows what she’s talking about."
"I have a learning disability."
"Others seem to get things right away, but I have to study so I must have an LD. If you don’t pass me I’ll get someone to certify I do and sue your butt under the ADA."
"I’m sorry I missed the deadline, but I couldn’t get back from break because of the snowstorm."
"The parties on Aruba were so good that I stayed an extra three days. Did you know that ‘snow’ is a synonym for several classifications of powdered controlled substances?"
"If you give me a break this time, I promise I’ll never miss another deadline and that I’ll put extra effort into all other assignments."
"Yeah, and Bambi’s mother will come back to life, dodos will roam the wild Australian plain, and cold fusion will power every American home."
I could go on, but these humble examples should suffice to make first-year students realize that all utterances are texts and that they cannot privilege their interpretations over those of their professors. Armed with that knowledge there is but one failsafe response: Meet the deadlines!
Robert Weir teaches humanities and American studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and at Smith College. He is the author of four books, numerous articles, and has been teaching for 26 years. He has fielded approximately 47,311 excuses.