Humor/whimsy

Designed to Please

If intelligent design gets taught in the college classroom, here are some other propositions we can look forward to:

Was Shakespeare the author of all those plays? Competing theories suggest that the Earl of Oxford, Francis Bacon, or even Queen Elizabeth herself penned those immortal lines. You be the judge. Henceforth, the prefaces to all those editions by “William Shakespeare” should be rewritten to give equal time to the alternate-authorship idea.

Does oxygen actually support that flickering candle flame, or is an invisible, weightless substance called phlogiston at work? First suggested by J. J. Becher near the end of the 17th century, the existence of phlogiston was eventually pooh-poohed by supporters of the oxygen hypothesis, but, as they say in the legal profession, the jury’s still out on this one.

Drop a candy bar on the sidewalk, and come back to find ants swarming all over it. Or put a piece of rotten meat in a cup and later find maggots in it, having come out of nowhere! This is called spontaneous generation. Biologists eventually decided that airborne spores, like little men from parachutes, wafted onto the food and set up shop there, but does that make any sense to you?

In the morning, the sun rises over the tree line, and by noon it’s directly overhead. At night, as the popular song has it, “I hate to see that evening sun go down.” Then why do so many people think that the earth moves instead of the sun? Could this be a grand conspiracy coincident with the rise of that Italian renegade Galileo, four centuries ago? Go out and look at the sunset! As they say, seeing is believing.

Proper grammar, the correct way of speaking, the expository essay model -- how rigid and prescriptive! There are as many ways to talk as there are people on this good, green earth, and language is a living organism. Or like jazz, an endless symphony of improvisation. No speech is wrong, just different, and anyone who says otherwise is just showing an ugly bias that supports white hegemony.

“History is bunk,” declared the famous industrialist and great American Henry Ford. All those names and dates -- why learn any of that when not even the so-called experts can agree on exactly what happened? Besides, most of those historical figures are dead by now, so what’s the point? From now on, all history departments must issue disclaimers, and anything presented as a narrative will be taught in the creative writing program.

Speaking of which, creative writing itself has long been controlled by a bunch of poets and fiction writers who determine who wins what in the world of letters. But who really knows whether the latest Nobel Prize winner is any better than, say, that last Tom Clancy novel you read. It all boils down to a matter of taste, doesn’t it?

Or what about that "Shakespeare"? Was he/she/it really any better than the Farrelly brothers? Let’s all take a vote on this, okay?

Author/s: 
David Galef
Author's email: 
david.galef@olemiss.edu

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).

The Time of Dead Grandmothers

It's that time again. Sometimes it's about the next class. Sometimes it's about the last class. There are semesters when you are told in person. There are semesters when you are informed through email. You can be sure only that it will happen in virtually every undergraduate class -- the larger the first or second-year student population, the more certain: grandmothers will begin to die.

Last week my first succumbed, around the usual time, just past the semester's midpoint. Her grandson informed me in an e-mail, which contained only one problem: the date of the class meeting for which he would have to be absent was mistakenly given to be two days earlier than in fact the class meets. Was this in fact the day of the funeral?
Is the student so overcome with grief that he can't even get his dates straight?

Or was there no funeral? Maybe there's not even any grandmother! What should I do? Insist upon a death certificate? (I've heard of some teachers who have.) At least seek clarification about whether the excuse has to do exclusively with the day of the funeral or else with some longer shadow of either family obligation or mortality itself?

You never know with student excuses, especially the most common ones. "There are 50 or 60 countries fighting in this war," protests a character in Catch-22. "Surely so many countries can't all be worth dying for." In the world of student excuses, there are a lot more than 50 or 60. They're all worth missing class for.

I wish at least there could somehow be a moratorium on dead grandmothers. (Why normally only them? Don't grandfathers die, too?)

"Oh, no," I exclaimed several years ago, when a student in a composition class stepped out afterwards to explain that she had been absent because her grandmother had died. "Another dead grandmother!"

The girl immediately burst into tears.

Of course I wished I was dead. The student's grandmother really had died. Or else her granddaughter was a good actress. But you want to try to avoid being too cynical about excuses, especially those involving death. Question these particular excuses and you may as well be questioning respect for the dead or the suffering of those left behind.

Indeed, death-driven excuses are the best ones because the mere mention of death is commonly uttered with the unspoken understanding that no more need be said; a teacher is expected to believe the excuse as a function of honoring the deceased. Objecting to one is like objecting to the other -- and of course each is ratified by the sheer fact of death itself, whose utter seriousness demands its own recognition and brooks no skepticism.

And yet after awhile it's simply impossible not to be skeptical about student excuses -- all of them. Not only does any one fit into some classification, having to do, say, with such things as technology (especially popular since the dawn of computers), health, or law. Worse, it becomes positively garish to hear them from students who speak as if their particular excuse has never been given before.

This can lead to a sort of paradox: the most exceptional the excuse, the more believable. Who would not be likely to credit a student who stepped up to disclose that his family feared he might be kidnapped by the Mexican Mafia, and so he would be absent the next two weeks? This excuse was given to a colleague of mine last semester. Early one afternoon, she also heard from a student who couldn't make it to class because the roof had just collapsed at the apartment house to which she had just moved.

To be fair, the colleague apparently knew each of these students, and already trusted them. In these circumstances, all credulous bets are usually off. Although many teachers would not like to admit it, the whole problem of student excuses in fact applies only to students whom one either does not know or cannot know.

Granted, this means most students. Part of the reason everybody is so uncomfortable about excuses is because excuses register education in terms of its sheer numbers as well as its inescapable routines and necessary rules. We're all happier when education is instead manifest as a more intimate, flexible affair.

Insisting, as many teachers do, that excuses will only be acceptable, if at all, when given beforehand, is really a way of trying to establish another model of education entirely. Too bad the shadow of dead grandmothers, like mortality itself, has to fall over this model. "Students recur," quoth a celebrated Oxford don. So do their excuses.
They know not their recurrence. But we do.

Finally, what to do? The solution the profession seems to have settled on, if only by default, is this: treat student excuses under the sign of comedy. There is of course some justice in this (as a hundred Web sites attest). So many students are utterly naive; how is a teacher not to laugh upon being told that "my best friend's father died?" Also, the very situation of having to give an excuse is so solemn that a comic rhythm is not easily refused.

In a way, the best solution to the situation is one I heard from a former colleague. He fondly remembered an early afternoon undergraduate class where the teacher told the students that if they missed class, they had to explain why during the next class. The whole class would judge whether they believed the explanation. This led, it seemed, to riotous fun, with each student trying to outdo the last in creativity and inventiveness....

In effect, what the teacher had done was to transform the deadly serious matter of absences into something wholly ludic. Yet was such a thing only possible in the late 1940s, in what must have been a small upper-division class,  among a group of largely men, most World War II veterans? My colleague usually brought up his experience when the students we were given to teach, in largely service courses, seemed bent only on manipulating or outwitting us. A class such as the one he remembered seemed inconceivable then.

It still does. I love outrageous excuses as much as the next person -- and the general aspect of student follies of various kinds still delights me. Sometimes, bracing myself for a student who is going to step up with an excuse about some past or future absence, I try to project an aura that suggests: "All right, since we know what's going to happen, let's see if we can get through this with some wit and intelligence as well as sympathy."

But it seems to me we seldom do. Usually it's another dead grandmother, or some uninteresting variants. Frank McCourt describes one encounter in his recent memoir, Teacher Man. Bored with patently false student excuses in his high school classes, he had students write out better excuses. It was fun until the assignment evolved into
writing excuses for such people as Hitler's mistress and then the administration got wind of it.

I admire this solution. But only from afar. Were there no students who stepped up to McCourt with, er, dead serious dead grandmothers, despite all? And would such play be possible in today's no-nonsense, grade-driven college atmosphere? Always, regarding absences, the teacher is in the inescapable position of someone-supposed-to-accept (a
grimmer version of Jacques Lacan's celebrated formulation of the teacher as "someone-supposed-to-know"). I can only haplessly try to transpose the terms of the acceptance into a cooler emotional register.

It's not satisfactory, though, and it's not satisfying. Finally, I believe no response on my part is. The excuses are amusing to read about on Web sites. The howlers may be wonderful to recount to friends and colleagues. But nothing really changes back in the classroom. The site of excuse-making is static, timeless. Classes to attend and tests
to take we have always with us, and therefore students who are, alas, absent, but with good reason. In a pinch, any reason will do, despite the fact that some are more plausible or more urgent than others, or that still others appear so true that they may as well be judged artless, and therefore become false.

As teachers,  it seems to me we finally have a choice with respect to student excuses: to become cynics or fools. Cynics disbelieve all excuses. (It's as if they all dissolve into dead grandmothers.) Fools believe them all. Myself, I'm probably incoherent by now, since, although I write about the whole question of excuses like a cynic, in practice I actually shrug over almost all of them like a fool.

In fact, it's worse. Each excuse-laden student who appears recalls to me a remark by Mary McCarthy, at the end of a chapter in The Stones of Florence. She quotes a Florentine who has recently remarked "that the pictures in the Uffizi had grown ugly from looking at the people who looked at them." By now I simply feel ugly from staring at so many lies. How rightly to regard a student  who is lying to you? No question about teaching is harder to answer because no question is less attractive.

Author/s: 
Terry Caesar
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Terry Caesar's last column was about the image of violence in the classroom.

The Life and Times of T-Shirts

I go to the gym to exercise wearing a maroon T-shirt from the University of Minnesota. I've had it for years, long before I ever visited the campus. Then I come home, shower, and put on another grey T-shirt from Montevallo. Again, I've had it for many years -- and I've never visited the actual campus. I just trusted there was one, somewhere, until a few years ago, when I chanced to learn where.

First response: disappointment. I never cared about the "real" Montevallo, any more than I did about the real Minnesota. Indeed, Montevallo has -- or had -- one immense advantage over  Minnesota: It could be the product of pure fancy, as if in fact it was a college of the mind or the imagination. Its location was nowhere, like More's Utopia.

Maybe it lacked a football team. Maybe it didn't even have an administration building! My inclination (just to use this word) toward college and university sportswear goes back to my sophomore year in college when I decided to order a sweatshirt from the University of New Hampshire, in order to substantiate my possession of a false driver's license from that state.

I no longer remember how I came by the license. But I still remember opening the package and pulling out the brand new, navy blue sweatshirt, short sleeved. New Hampshire! A pretty exotic place if you're going to school in Southern California. The sweatshirt never really helped with the license, which was such a poor imitation that I had to throw it away after a waitress at a pizza joint refused to accept it. The sweatshirt, though, was an immediate hit. I felt special wearing it. Nobody else had a genuine short-sleeved sweatshirt from New Hampshire.

I never claimed to have gone there. If anybody, seeing me, wanted to think so, fine. If in one sense wearing the sweatshirt was a means to call attention to myself, in a more important sense, though, it was a way to efface myself. People saw the shirt, not me. Wearing a sweatshirt from the University of New Hampshire, after all, declares some sort of affiliation with the university but does not specify its nature insofar as any individual wearer is concerned.

Fast forward fifteen years. I am standing inside the front entrance to the University of Oregon library. I am wearing a T-shirt from the University of Vermont. I bought it there, two or three summers earlier. Suddenly, a girl steps up to me and says, "Wow, Vermont. Do you go there?" I'm shocked, embarrassed, confused. "Well, no," I manage, "I don't really go there. I just, er, like the place." The girl just stares at me, and then turns away, disappointed.

How could she have assumed that just because I was wearing a T-shirt from a particular university I went there? But the more I thought about it, the more disingenuous this objection became. How could she not have assumed this? The T-shirt was a signifier after all, and what it signified was the most standard meaning, not the most wayward one: I was wearing a T-shirt from the University of Vermont because I had been or was a student or a teacher there.

Fast forward six more years. I am teaching at a provincial university in China. Alas (to me), the university has no T-shirts, sweatshirts, or sportswear of any kind. But I can wear a little circular red pin from China's railroad, given to me by a student who used to work for it as a conductor. He gladly got me a pin but can't quite understand why I would want to wear it. No Chinese can. "Why do you wear the pin if you don't work for the railroad?" Although everybody is too polite to say so, some undoubtedly think me just plain stupid. The T-shirts I've brought along, in particular the orange one from the University of Florida I'm always wearing, don't begin to clarify the matter.

How to explain to the Chinese that in the West membership in organizations is not as stable or fixed, as in China? Not only do people change jobs or affiliations. They identify with groups, teams, or institutions to which they do not actually belong. Nay, meaning itself is not so fixed. Signification itself can be (as theorists say) "floating," and an individual can be content to drift in various ways among several different organizations, sometimes ironically, sometimes fervently, at all times ludically. How to explain to the Chinese that wearing the railroad pin is to me a form of imaginative play? To them it is a means of employment identification, period.

By the time I came to teach in China I had succeeded in accumulating more college and university T-shirts and sweatshirts than I could wear. Many were given to me by a friend who was a salesman for a sportswear company. He traveled to campus bookstores all over the South as his company tried to take advantage of how so many other products -- ranging from coffee cups to sweaters and jackets -- were being merchandised in order to take advantage of the fact that institutions of higher education had become "brands."

Some institutions, like Montevallo, still mean something to me. (If only as an "empty" sign; I have another T-shirt, from Harding University, wherever that is.) Some, like Minnesota, don't mean anything. (So why keep this one? The color? The fit?) Yet by now I've gotten rid of more T's and sweats than I've owned. The shirt from Harvard -- that transcendental signifier -- shrunk. But I never liked the improbable strawberry color. The shirt from the University of Alabama was discarded because I never felt any emotional connection to the state. My beloved short-sleeved New Hampshire sweatshirt? It just basically disintegrated.

I still keep too many, one from the University of Washington, which I attended as a grad student (but the shirt no longer fits comfortably), or another from the University of Michigan, which I bought in Ann Arbor (during a moment when it suddenly felt like an improbable foreign village). Perhaps what's changed is not so much my relation to these items as their relation to the society at large. Some years ago in Pennsylvania I saw a kid wearing a UCLA T-shirt. As a teenager, I watched the Bruin basketball team on local TV. UCLA represents my oldest academic affiliation. How in the present to compare my lived experience with this kid, for whom UCLA represented -- well, exactly what?

Idle question. Both of us are ourselves products of an economy where everything is now up for grabs, ready for sale, and already in play, including the paraphernalia of colleges and universities. It's as if the imaginative identification once possible to make with these institutions on a personal level has already been accomplished by the economy itself. UCLA? It's famous. No need to concern yourself with more than this, unless you're concerned about its possible style or fashion relation to other famous institutions, much less to professional sports teams or the very latest rock stars. UCLA? Just finally a name brand on -- or of -- yet another T-shirt, like Prada or Tommy Hilfiger.

To put the same point differently: I've lately seen UCLA T-shirts being worn on the streets of Japan, during the time I was teaching at a Japanese university which lacked any sportswear of its own featuring an institutional logo. (At the five foreign universities at which I've taught, only the one in Brazil had a T-shirt with such a logo -- just one T-shirt, with merely the university's initials, amid a profusion of T-shirts filled with political slogans and poems.) How to explain the lack? The powerful global presence of American popular culture? The absence of any comparable cultural space in these respective nations where colleges and universities could manifest themselves? Or are institutions of higher education in most other countries simply more exclusive and remote -- literally walled and gated -- than any of their counterparts in the United States?

In any case, many are the individual ruses regarding T's and sweats. But they are not infinite, not even to an American, and they all abide in history. The exotic University of New Hampshire sweatshirt of my undergraduate years was only possible at an earlier historical moment, where the referent of the garment remained so to speak in place. Today, even if it remains true that you can still only buy the same garment through the UNH campus bookstore, you can do so in an instant online. Moreover, it is even conceivable you can come upon either a copy or the genuine article at a used clothing store in your area, even if your area happens to be in Texas. And what would a UNH T-shirt signify in Texas? You name it. Maybe just a dis-identification with the oppressive burnt orange UT T-shirts.

So we reach a point where college and university sportswear, once so special and institution-specific, now signifies everything and nothing at the same time. A few years ago I taught a couple of classes at Palo Alto College. At the beginning of the first semester, I almost bought a T-shirt -- on sale -- at the tiny bookstore. But then I paused. Was it because the identity of the community college was just too obscure, or else too real? Why didn't its possible confusion with Stanford strike me as amusingly ironic (as it usually would)? I don't know. But I failed to buy a T-shirt. It just seemed beside the point. What is the point? Perhaps the current American imperative to buy a T-shirt in order to confirm anything -- your team's victory, your trip's destination, your favorite this or that, the proud significance of you, you, you.

I'm still not sure what I've been doing throughout my adult life in accumulating college and university T-shirts from near and far. But it hasn't been primarily a form of self-assertion. Instead, I believe, it's been repeatedly fantasizing an identification with all sorts of institutions, both real and imagined. I haven't wanted to study or teach at any one. Somehow, I've wanted to claim them all, or, perhaps better, have each one claim me.

However, this only works if signification remains, well, purely academic. No more. Years ago in Brazil I saw an apparently homeless beggar wearing a filthy, pocket-marked T-shirt that read, Harlem University. Who created this T-shirt? Why? Could it have represented an object of fantasy to the man, whether or not he knew there is no such institution? Or was it something he just picked up on the street?

Today, all our T-shirts are subject to such questions -- the more so, the more globally marketed. Furthermore, the identifications they declare -- including the academic ones -- are now prey to all manner of ironies. Our personal imaginations can't govern them all, even if we are pleased to recall a time when such a thing felt possible.

Author/s: 
Terry Caesar
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Terry Caesar's last column was about dealing with unacceptable student behavior.

Decisions and Revisions

For years, the terms early decision and early action have meant binding and non-binding college acceptances before the usual notification date. With Harvard striking down its early admissions system, and other universities scurrying to follow, these old labels have become suspect -- even though, as recent articles have shown, universities may still practice some forms of early acceptance.

What schools really need now, though, is an end-run around the old terms. Here are some proposals now on the table at admissions offices across the country:

   oily admissions: for those acceptances with a certain slimy feel, necessary to the school’s financial welfare but best not to discuss. May derive from Texas-based alums who kick in oil company money to expedite the acceptance of their kids to business school.

   eerie admissions: a term meant to cover those unaccountable acceptances, such as the athletic scholarship extended to the chess whiz, or the offer made to a high school student with no extracurricular activities.

    only admissions: the new, no-frills form of acceptance, without any fat welcome packet or additional literature sent through the mail; the academic equivalent of an airline e-ticket.

    early submissions: a label for those eager beaver applicants who just can’t wait 'til fall of their senior year in high school and start bombarding colleges with material as early as July.

    yearly remissions: not technically an admissions matter, but these represent the annual tithing from wealthy graduates who will one day expect their offspring to apply to and be accepted by their alma maters.

    early revisions: this curious term signifies that percentage of accepted students who , well before the deadline, decide that they want to matriculate elsewhere.

    late action: a polite term for what used to be called the waiting list, or those applicants who have no reasonable hope of getting in unless someone else opts out.

    early faction: any admitted students likely to become a cohesive group, such as the College Republicans.

    proactive admissions: the new term for offers extended ahead of time to athletes who’ll be snapped up by other schools if another day goes by.

    early derision: a cover for those admitted students who in retrospect were ludicrous choices, such as those with bad debts or probation officers.

     easy submissives and early emissions: don’t go there.

Author/s: 
David Galef
Author's email: 
galef@olemiss.edu

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

Our Entering Class for 2008

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

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

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

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

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

Author/s: 
David Galef
Author's email: 
galef@olemiss.edu

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

Turning 30: A Self-Interview

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

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

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

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

Q: Is this wrong?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: Other ideas for future columns?

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

Q: Maybe with good reason.

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

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

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

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

A: Two.

Q: Do I have to ask again?

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

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

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

Q: What’s the other regret?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: Like to add anything more?

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

Q: You promised no more literature.

A: I lied.

Author/s: 
Terry Caesar
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Going South

From: "George Mannerly" <gmanner@uallpeople.edu>
Date: 2007/09/10 Mon AM 09:41:21 EDT
To: <mwall@uallpeople.edu>
Subject: travel request

To Professor Michael Wall, Chair, English Department:

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

Best,

George Mannerly
Assistant Professor
Department of English
U of All People

-----------------

From: "George Mannerly" <gmanner@uallpeople.edu>
Date: 2007/09/17 Mon AM 09:40:11 EDT
To: <mpuck@uallpeople.edu>
Subject: research request

To Myra Puckwith, Head of Research Office:

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

Sincerely,

George Mannerly
Assistant Professor
Department of English
U of All People

-----------------

From: "George Mannerly" <gmanner@uallpeople.edu>
Date: 2007/09/22 Mon AM 011:45:03 EDT
To: <ddon@uallpeople.edu>
Subject: equipment grant

To Don Donaldson, University Procurement:

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

Expeditiously,

George Mannerly
Assistant Professor
Department of English
U of All People

-----------------

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

To Fred Carson, Pedagogy Coach:

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

Thinking outside the box,

George Mannerly
Assistant Professor
Department of English
U of All People

-----------------

From: "George Mannerly" <gmanner@uallpeople.edu>
Date: 2007/10/06 Wed AM 08:27:17 EDT
To: <bwin@uallpeople.edu>
Subject: summer fellowships

To Bob Winters, Office of Summer Support:

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

Ingeniously,

George Mannerly
Assistant Professor
Department of English
U of All People

-----------------

From: "George Mannerly" <gmanner@uallpeople.edu>
Date: 2007/10/11 Mon AM 09:18:13 EDT
To: <pthrop@uallpeople.edu>
Subject: emergency relief

To Philip Thrope, Emergency Aid:

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

Abjectly,

George Mannerly
Assistant Professor
Department of English
U of All People

-----------------

From: "George Mannerly" <gmanner@uallpeople.edu>
Date: 2007/10/25 Mon AM 09:01:01 EDT
To: <engldept@listserv.uallpeople.edu>; <stdts@blackboard.uallpeople.edu>
Subject: book and bake sale

To All Faculty and Students:

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

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

Author/s: 
David Galef
Author's email: 
newsroom@insidehighered.com

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

Humanities Faculty For Hire!

I’m a little tired of hearing administrators claim that the low salaries of humanities faculty are a natural result of there being no competition for our services in the private sector. If that’s their sole argument for denying us fair wages, then I say we should make it work in our favor. According to their rationale, if we could simply prove that we are indeed desirable commodities beyond academia (as our colleagues in the business or law schools do), then we could also demand heftier salaries.

Well let’s finally set the record straight: We humanities folk actually do possess a number of highly marketable skills that have heretofore gone unnoticed and underappreciated by administrators, private-sector employers, and even ourselves. If we can successfully highlight these abilities more explicitly in our day to day working lives, our paychecks will soon inflate to reflect the true worth of our labors. Consider the following:

Lunchtime Banterer. Nobody I know in other colleges, in government labor, or within the corporate world, can match the wit, range, and profundity of the conversations that my colleagues and I put on display at the local taco shop each Tuesday between 11 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Our elaborate exchanges are dense with both literary and pop allusions; devastating put-downs; cleverly layered inside jokes; self-deprecating, self-reflexive asides; impromptu philosophical rants; withering caricatures of foolish colleagues; and even ironic deconstructions of the very food before us. Only 10-plus years of intensive liberal arts training could forge the formidable verbal skills on display during these mealtime conferences.

I wonder how many corporate managers or governmental bureaucrats would pay generously to have just one of us present to enliven awkward luncheons, spice up deadly boardroom meetings, or elevate the rhetoric at boring staff retreats? All of them, I’m guessing; they just haven’t known (until now) where to find us. Two hundred dollars an hour (or perhaps $10 per clever comment) seems a fair price for our conversational skills.

(Disclaimer to potential employers beyond academia: There is a vaguely cynical, leftist slant to much of our banter that may not match the spirit of many business settings, most fraternal clubs, and any gathering where people are easily offended by detailed diatribes against the myriad evils of the Bush administration and/or corporate America in general. As long as that’s clear, I think we can move ahead with whatever plans you have in mind.)

Organizer of Arcane Information. Because I had almost complete control of my schedule during graduate school (and was eager to find ways to procrastinate working on my dissertation), I was able to spend copious amounts of time tracking down, organizing, and cataloguing an immense music CD collection. The size of the lot was matched by its eclecticism: zydeco, blues, medieval chant, grunge, Americana, be-bop jazz, Norwegian folk, etc. In order to keep track of these discs, I was forced to create elaborate systems for arranging them according to date, artist, genre, relative social significance, jewel-case condition, good to bad song ratios, and on and on. While my wife may have occasionally questioned (with some acute shortsightedness!) the value of time spent creating the intricate charts, databases, and filing systems necessary for this job, I could sense at the time that I was developing useful skills of a highly marketable nature. In fact, I feel vindicated now when I see the reactions of new friends when I first show them the sum results of my improvisational, clerical genius. Indeed, they can only goggle in amazed silence at the color-coded reams of data that I have amassed.

Let me assure potential employers that these skills have not abandoned me in subsequent, busier years; I have since applied them to corralling the contents of my massive iTunes library, to the maintainance of an elaborately rotating podcast collection, and to the sorting and indexing of old copies of The New Yorker that I have every intention of reading once the current semester comes to an end. Imagine the way that my creative, free-wheeling—but almost obsessively detailed—organizational style could shake up the filing system of the average moribund office! I may have to figure out a clever way to catalogue the flood of offers from the private sector that will soon be coming my way.

Hyper-Confident, Knee-Jerk Critic of All Things High and Low. For a number of years my family and close circle of friends have benefited from my cutting-edge, almost encyclopedic knowledge of all that’s hip in popular film, television, music, and literature. Thanks to me, they have been able to refine gradually their cultural tastes as I have peppered them continually with suggestions of what to watch, listen to, and read. I’ve also been able to give them detailed analyses of why their former (and often incorrigibly persistent) viewing and reading habits were lame, embarrassing, or otherwise uncool. My students have also benefited from these authoritative recommendations, dutifully reading (with only the occasional murmur) the great books and films that I assign to them semester after semester. (Let me clarify that I mean “great” in a hip, cultural studies sense—not the stuffy “Great Books” tradition.)

While I don’t want to deal with the hassle of actually having to become a newspaper critic (writing all those columns would be a pain), I do think that media companies would benefit from hiring me as a sort of highly-paid, free-lance consultant or “super-critic.” This is how it might work: they could simply run movie ideas, book synopses, TV show concepts, etc, past me, and my lightning quick approvals or dismissals could save them millions in wasted development costs. If the authority of my opinion alone is not enough, I could back it up (for an additional fee, of course) with some vague references to Campbellian, Freudian, or even Lacanian, theory.

Information Obfuscator. From what I can gather from watching television, there is a great demand in the private sector for people who can mess with information so that the truth is obfuscated; apparently there are all kinds of highly paid spin doctors, book-cookers, double-speakers, and manipulative adsmen out there. I’m a little hesistant, for ethical reasons, of course, to offer my services in these fields, but if that’s what it takes to convince administrators that we humanities folk are indeed valuable commodities, then I am willing to make those compromises for the greater good of our profession.

In practice, my academic writing is devoted to discovering and communicating complex, and sometimes painful and unpopular, truths about American cultural history. But in theory (and if the price were right), some of my academic writing skills could be harnessed to a magnificent manipulation of whatever facts a company or organization may be eager to warp or hide.

One possible strategy would be for me to simply apply postmodern theoretical jargon to whatever information I am to spin. But I am afraid that this would do my corporate employers little good since that rhetoric is associated with longstanding culture wars and thus may raise the ideological hackles of most mainstream, conservative readers.

More effective would be a writing style that is employed by a great number of both traditional and postmodern scholars: an excruciatingly pedantic mode that features roundabout, redundant, and repetitive overexplanations again and again; a multitude of unnecessary parenthetical asides (that while impressive in their complexity, are ultimately just showy, and superfluous adding little additional information that is useful to the reader); a slavish citing of myriad other and often better written -- texts to add heft to an argument (Prescott and James give an excellent elaboration on this concept in The Academic Writer, chapter 19); and an officious, patronizing manner of diction that happens, somehow, to be simultaneously overwrought and dull.

This brand of writing would be ideal for all types of corporate or governmental documents in which you don’t want to technically lie, but that you hope will be so mind-numbingly dense and ponderous that no one will actually be able to read it all the way through (a press release about disappointing quarterly earnings, for example).

Marxist Turncoat. As long as I’m willing to put a price on my what I will write for the private sector, I might as well put my ideological and theoretical convictions up for sale as well. My particular graduate school training immersed me in a variety of Marxist theories that were designed to question and undermine the power of capitalist, corporate, and consumer cultures in peoples’ lives. For a healthy price, I would be willing to defect from this camp and bring with me valuable information that would help corporations do an even better job at manipulating consumers and opiating workers. For example, I could offer corporate seminars on the following topics:

“Coopting and Flattening Vibrant Ethnic Subcultures for Fun and Profit”

“Using Subversive Anti-Spectacles to make your Mainstream Spectacle even more mind-numbingly Spectacular”

“Brie and Baguettes for the Nouveau Riche Buffoons: Exploiting American Consumers’ Class Anxieties”

“iPods for the podpeople: Seven New Opiates for Highly Effective Media Capitalists”

There are lots more where those came from.

Some Conclusions (to be read only by my peers in the humanities): The nice thing about the strategy that I have outlined here is that none of us will ever have to actually do any of these jobs (other than a few sacrificial lambs, of course, whose showy departures from the academy will add some necessary bite to our threats). Our goal, as I’m sure you will agree, is not to actually leave the university for corporate or governmental jobs (let’s be honest, most of us would be hopeless in holding down a traditional 9 to 5 grind), but simply to give administrators the impression that we could leave and that if we did leave, we’d be earning a heck of a lot more than we are now.

So get out there and trumpet our unique and valuable skills. And let’s be stalwart in our efforts, for there will be some awkward moments ahead for example, having to say no to lucrative corporate jobs after executives spend a great deal of resources courting us, or being forced to play hard ball in financial negotiations with stubbornly resistant administrators. But the end results will be incredible: greater respect on campus and in our communities; healthier egos; fewer debilitating panic attacks, or chronic depression about immense student loan debt; and paychecks (potentially) in the upper five digits! Best of luck, comrades, er, I mean valued corporate citizens, in the months ahead.

Author/s: 
Kerry Soper
Author's email: 
newsroom@insidehighered.com

Kerry D. Soper is an associate professor of humanities at Brigham Young University.

Conference Confidential

As academics eagerly scan the latest listings for conferences to attend, this season’s offerings promise a bumper crop of something for everyone: a chance to share one’s findings on missing commas in Madame Bovary at the Annual Meeting of the Flaubert Society of America, for example, present a paper on the vibrational frequencies of wind chimes at the High Energy Physics Colloquium in Berne, or just get the hell away from campus for a while.

For those of us at U. of All People, located in the depressed region of a state shaped like a bent potato, conferences present an opportunity to travel, to stay in a hotel room by oneself and enjoy a meal out that’s not at Taco Bell or Burger King. Of course, conferences are also occasions to exchange scholarly ideas and see far-flung colleagues we may have not slept with or even encountered for years. In short, we’re the same as academics everywhere. And here are some of our choices for the coming months:

January 4-5, 2008: Seventh Annual Conference on Cold Fusion in Salt Lake City, Utah. This year’s conference is titled “Harnessing the Power of Water in a Glass.” Sample topics include “Can Cold Fusion Solve Global Warming?” and “How to Procure a Grant without Straining Credibility.” Abstracts required; research highly suggested. Guest speaker: the Energy Czar.

*

January 19-20, 2008: Inaugural meeting of the Arnold Frisk Memorial Society, a group devoted to preserving the memory of this prolific but unjustly forgotten author ( The Question of Whom, Writhe and Shine, A Sonneteer’s Diary). The meeting will take place at the Smithlawn Sanatorium in Bearville, Minn., where Frisk ended his days, surrounded by 70 unfinished manuscripts.

*

February 1-?, 2008: Conference in Belize, subject yet to be determined, but what the hell, it’s Belize in the winter. Possible topics: something on pedagogy, maybe something in the humanities, or even better, the intersection of the humanities and the sciences because that brings in a lot more people.

*

February 14, 2008: History Is Bunk: the one-day convocation of the D.H.T.A., Disgruntled History Teachers of America. 120 Main Street; Centerville, Anystate, U.S.A. Half scholarly presentations, half gripe session, this gathering is for those brave souls in the front of the classroom tired of teaching deadheads what happened in 1812. New addition: spousal support group and Valentine’s Day Party in Room 420 of the Holiday Inn.

*

March 7-9, 2008: Esperanto (Sigh) Again. Overly optimistic linguists and language teachers of all persuasions gather in Tijuana to promote the hopeless cause of this doomed but eminently practical means of communication. Special guest speaker: an actor channeling the spirit of language reformer George Bernard Shaw.

*

April 3-5, 2008: Sudoku R Us: Mathematics and Pedagogy for the 21st Century. Takes place on the campus of S.I.T. (Slobovian Institute of Technology) in upstate New York. Three days of workshops, lectures, and pure darn fun! Difficulty level: easy. Door prize for best mathematical costume at the Puzzlers’ Ball.

*

May 1-3, 2008: Conference on Conferences. Takes place in a large upscale chain hotel in a major city. Papers may range from the art of scheduling events to the provocative topic “When Is a Session a Session and Not a Panel or a Forum?” Please indicate on entry form whether you’d like to be a moderator, a contributor, or that rarest of attendees, just an audience member.

Author/s: 
David Galef
Author's email: 
newsroom@insidehighered.com

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

A Guide for Consumers of Theology

Our recent annual “America’s Best Churches” issue drew more than the usual deluge of reader and parishioner complaints. Hence it behooves me as editor of U.S. News & World Report to again offer a public explanation of our much-misunderstood church rankings methodology.

In thanking those who took the time to write, I would remind all in the community of believers that our rankings are intended as a public service to aid spiritual consumers in making one of life’s highest-impact personal choices. We claim no infallibility in our rankings. We strive to provide accurate, user-friendly data to allow seekers of quality worship to do their homework and grasp truth with full confidence that they are comparing apples to apples. Yes, we visibly spread the word about the handiness of our shopper’s tool, but we can’t be held responsible if certain churches choose, for example, to display, as a recruiting come-on, their U.S. News ranking on a banner atop their steeple.

We reject the assertion that church reputations are made or broken based on tables published once a year in our magazine. Nor do we find any signs that “America’s Best Churches” encourages a “one-size-fits-all” path to the mountaintop. Frankly, any American who would build an entire cosmological belief system on a two-or-three-point rise in a church’s year-to-year U.S. News ranking should probably stop, take a deep breath and meditate a bit on values, personal style, and the theistic limits of magazine journalism.

As proof of our good faith, we have always been willing to consider critiques of our research metrics and make warranted adjustments in our process for arriving at the rankings. That is why we have urged restraint upon those outspoken theologians who in recent months have been encouraging church ministers to boycott our informational surveys: A boycott will only make it more difficult for our researchers to compile a full portrait of America’s religious marketplace and present all good-faith competitors on a level laying field.

Neither our openness to methodological challenges nor our efforts to keep our influence in perspective, however, should be taken as a sign that houses of worship shouldn’t continue to seek ways to improve. Indeed, many of our reader complaints stem from feelings among congregants that our surveys failed to capture such measurable steps forward as energy-efficient stained-glass windows, form-fitting cushioned pews, and imported communion wine.

Some critics charge that our emphasis on counting average Sunday service attendance unfairly favors urban congregations over rural ones. But in recent years we have refined the formula for balancing the actual turnout with the local population’s potential. And we’ve enhanced accuracy by verifying the numbers reported by church secretaries with spot-checking through on-site visits by independent observers.

As “America’s Best Churches” has evolved over the past decade, we have adopted recommendations from our “loving critics” that we loosen some of the criteria that give higher rankings to the more doctrinaire denominations. We trust that this year’s methodology no longer penalizes parishes that favor folk masses or Christian rock over traditional organ music.

Our much-maligned “enforcement of dogma” measurement, which detractors complain is biased against Unitarians and favors Catholics and evangelicals, continues to prompt soul-searching among our nonsectarian team of clerical advisers. Suggestions for further improvements are welcome.

Matters of faith are -- don’t we know it -- highly subjective. The only dogma we maintain at U.S. News is a staffwide conviction that theology consumers who’re feeling their way to divinity should not be left to approach the deity without an up-to-date and well-packaged scorecard.

One admittedly self-interested point: It is true that “America’s Best Churches” has become one of our brand name’s top publishing successes. But as a private corporation, we don’t consider that a reason to do penance. We are hard at work on the first edition of “America’s Best Mosques and Temples.” We think you’ll find it enlightening.

Author/s: 
Charlie Clark
Author's email: 
doug.lederman@insidehighered.com

Charlie Clark is senior editor and director of press relations at the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

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