The Next Hit Reality Show


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donald E. Heller
Author's email:

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

No Joke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Terry Caesar
Author's email:

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

The Awkward Age

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scott McLemee
Author's email:

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

NEH Grant Proposal #1095702H

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.”


Selected Bibliography

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.
Clairidge, Henry. __________. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1872.

---. [              ]. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1873.

---. “******.” Oxford: Clarendon P, 1896.

Galef, David. "Notes on Blank Space." Cimarron Review 98 (1992): 95-100.

Paige, M. T. “Their Eyes Were Blank: Zora Neale Hurston and Her Homage to Clairidge.” JLI [ Journal of Literary Influence] 25.2 (1972): 10-20.

Zaire, Nottall. “Pulling a Blank: On Nullity and Art.” Hypno-Aesthetics 1.1 (2002). 30 Feb. 2002. (

David Galef
Author's email:

David Galef is a professor of English and administrator of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the University of Mississippi. His latest book is the short story collection Laugh Track (2002).

The Quotidian Miasma of Discrimination

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
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Phyllis Barone is the pseudonym of an ex-damsel and associate professor at a Midwestern, private university.

Bitches, Good Soldiers and Golden Boys

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
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Ruth Haberle is the pseudonym of an associate professor of English at a liberal arts college in the Midwest.

Semiotics 101

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. 

Message Sent Message Heard
"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
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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.

I'm Not Really a Professor; I Just Play One on TV

When I was just a few years out of graduate school I wrote a “treatment” for a television series to be called “The Young Professors.” The show tracked the adventures of three new assistant professors as they negotiated the ins and outs of life at Soybean State College, a medium-sized, teaching-intensive public institution somewhere in the Midwest.

This was in the mid-1970s, when series about young doctors and lawyers were big. So, knowing that nothing succeeds in commercial TV like a knock-off, and hoping for a source of income other than teaching summer school, I took a crack at putting college on the small screen. While I billed the show as “The Halls of Ivy” meets “The Mod Squad,” my project had no legs. My plots were not exactly ripped from the headlines, and although any resemblance between the characters that I depicted and actual persons living or dead was purely coincidental, or so I claimed, those characters weren’t going to keep viewers from changing the channel. A small flurry of interest from a local public broadcaster led nowhere, and now the yellowing, typed pages of “The Young Professors” sit in a folder with the rest of my juvenilia.

My efforts to “write what you know” notwithstanding, the classroom remains an occasional backdrop for television, and while the successful shows from the medium’s golden age, like “Our Miss Brooks,” “Mr. Peepers,” and “Room 222,” portray a strikingly unrealistic version of the high school experience, occasionally we’re treated to a media distortion of college life as well.

To be fair, we may pretend that the media tells it like it is, but we know very well that even reality television is far from real. Cop shows are notorious for misrepresenting life on the streets, and lawyer series fail to capture the highly-nuanced world of torts and contracts. Life in the E.R. is not all high concept relieved by short commercial breaks. And Ralph Kramden was no ordinary bus driver. But college professors don't even get the kind of attention we lavish on Cosmo Kramer or Archie Bunker. TV hasn't brought us the Dead Deconstructionists' Society, or anything that looks at college from a faculty perspective. Woody Allen occasionally reduces Brandeis to a cultural stereotype in his movies, and there was a popular TV series about life of a pre-med at the fictional University of New York, but don’t hold your breath for a dramatization of Harvard MBA’s-in-training, not to mention the Sarah Lawrence experience.

When it does notice higher education, television can treat it as comic. For example, there’s Ross, the museum paleontologist who once taught an evening class on “Friends,” and who does wind up on the NYU faculty . But more often than not, TV prefers a lurid look at campus life. Hudson University, a recurring venue on “Law and Order” and its spin-offs, is more a source of L&O’s killers and corpses than it is a provider of expert witnesses to testify in court.

The hijinks at Hudson are a far cry from swallowing goldfish or stuffing frat boys into a Volkswagen. At Hudson’s labs, researchers are killed by animal rights activists when they’re not too busy subjecting students to trials of dangerous experimental drugs without informed consent. Hudson undergrads regularly lose roommates to murder, and grad students occasionally kill their advisors, or are killed by them, often after having sex without informed consent.

In fact, many of L&O’s higher ed plots revolve around “Sex and the City University.” In one episode a grisly murder leads the police to a Hudson anthropologist who’s desperately trying to hide from his wife his unhealthy appetite for young boys. In another, the president of Hudson is bludgeoned to death by a serial murderer from Australia masquerading as an English don. Instead of acknowledging her misdeeds and copping to “man 2,” the fake Englit specialist must face nonrenewal of her contract and the disappointment of her lesbian lover, who also happens to be her dean.

In contrast to the gritty reality of the L&O classroom cum crime scene, the 1950s half-hour sitcom, “The Halls of Ivy,” presents a bucolic Ivy College that is nothing like Hudson University. “The Halls of Ivy” starred Ronald Coleman and his wife Benita Hume as William Todhunter Hall, the genial, urbane president of Ivy College, in the town of Ivy, somewhere in the Midwest, and his wife Victoria Cromwell Hall, the college president’s equally genial and urbane wife. After a successful radio run from 1949-1952, “The Halls of Ivy,” following the earlier lead of “Our Miss Brooks,” migrated to television in 1954.

“The Halls of Ivy” had great promise and strong backing (it was one of the most expensive TV series of its day). But while Eve Arden’s portrayal of Constance Brooks, everyone’s favorite high school English teacher, captivated viewers for four years, America wasn’t ready for a show about college foibles, and “The Halls of Ivy” lasted only one season. Although created by one of the lead writers for the populist radio series “Fibber McGee and Molly,” the plots on ”The Halls of Ivy” were too high-brow for the television audience. Indeed, many of the 38 episodes that CBS aired (seasons were longer then) could have been ripped from the headlines, provided they were the headlines of Inside Higher Ed. One TV history says the show flopped because it was too literate and lacked action.

On the other hand, the fact that "The Halls of Ivy" drew a national audience at all was itself a cultural phenom. America was undergoing one of its most intellectually deadly moments at the time, with universities the target of rabid red baiters. On top of that, “The Halls of Ivy” dealt with issues that were surely sensitive in 1954 and are still pressing and controversial in the academy today: racism (in one episode, a Chinese student is ostracized by classmates and runs away); athletics vs. education (in another, the cross-country star quits the team because track is taking too much time away from his studies; in a third, a top pre-med student wants to give up dreams of the O.R. up to become a professional boxer). The show even dealt indirectly with gender stereotyping: while Vicky often plays the role of ditzy sidekick to her husband’s competent-administrator pose, a minute later she’ll put on her "Murphy Brown" persona and trade literate barbs with Toddy like any self-assured and hip chronicler of human foibles.

To be fair, whole episodes of “The Halls of Ivy” were devoted to issues over which the American public both then and now might be expected to yawn: the eroding faculty/student ratio; professors who aren’t publishing; a candidate for a named chair who might be a fraud; a department in danger of being closed because of low enrollments. There was even a half hour devoted not to drug trafficking, a problem that’s endemic at L&O’s Hudson University, but to traffic congestion on Ivy’s no-longer-sleepy campus, and Dr. Hall’s attempts to dodge a ticket he got from the college police. I doubt if even the readers of Inside Higher Ed would have patience to sit through those segments today, compelling as they seemed to the show’s producers at the time.

But “The Halls of Ivy” did deal unashamedly with the facts of college life. While Ivy’s president is in no danger of being bludgeoned to death, in the pilot episode of “The Halls of Ivy,” President Hall nervously waits while the board of Ivy College votes on renewing his contract. Hall does get the nod, but a short three episodes later we see that the president is still insecure: Toddy and Vicky hurriedly throw together a meal without letting on that their guest -- the fussbudget chairman of the governing board -- has come to dinner one night too early. In other episodes, Hall sweet-talks an eccentric donor who demands that the college display one of her sculptures in exchange for a new gymnasium, and he must find a way to avert a mandatory faculty retirement that will be disastrous for the college. In two episodes Hall deals with the problems of what we now call returning or nontraditional students, but in the blunt language of the 50s were simply old folks going back to school. Later in the season he intervenes to quell rumors that the new Latin professor is a sexual predator. And in another segment, Hall deftly confronts the problem of an honor student who is about to be expelled because she never finished high school. Toward the end of the show’s run, Hall puts on kid gloves to handle a gangster come to campus to find out why his nephew was kicked off the football team.

It wasn’t the limited-interest plots or the controversial issues that kept “The Halls of Ivy” audience coming back week after week. It was the finely-tuned scripts and the ensemble acting, and the show’s theme song, a Whiffenpoof-style chorale that managed to enjoy some commercial success independent of the series. But while Dr. Hall had no trouble convincing the board to renew his contract, it soon became clear that Ronald Coleman had done far, far better things than portray a college president, and the audience eventually dwindled to a point where it was too small to warrant CBS picking up the show’s option for a second season. As the redeemed Latin prof might have put it, “De gustibus non disputandum est.”

I was 10 when “The Halls of Ivy” aired, and though I knew nothing of academia I looked forward to the show each week. It still seems to me that academic life should generate at least as much public interest as infomercials for food processors or exercise equipment, but perhaps it was best that “The Halls of Ivy” bowed out gracefully. And while it was nice for me to dream that the “The Young Professors” would one day generate as many spin-offs as “Law and Order,” which seems to be on one cable channel or another every hour of the day, I know that it’s best that my show never got off the ground. Even public-access cable channels aren’t ready for a series focusing on tenure, struggles over who gets the nice office, or endless committee meetings. “The Young Professors” would have been, in effect, a show about nothing, and as such it was no doubt far ahead of its time.

While I don’t expect television to portray college faculty with docudrama accuracy, I still believe there’s a role for higher education on TV beyond “Law and Order,” “The College Bowl”-style quiz, the “Book World” interview, or the CNN talking head. For some reason, the movies are more likely to get it right, with films that show professors as just like everybody else, only more so, like "The Blue Angel," "Good Will Hunting" and "A Beautiful Mind."  Most academics are not pretentious boors or stuffed shirts like the one in “Annie Hall” who expounds vacuously on Marshall McLuhan’s theories while standing in a movie line, prompting an exasperated Woody Allen to bring out the real Marshall McLuhan to chide him. McLuhan was also an academic, by the way, though clearly not much of an actor. And few of my colleagues have the get up and go of Indiana Jones, a movie professor who can turn into a villain-bashing superhero just by taking off his glasses and putting on a pith helmet.

Instead of reducing us all to cultural stereotypes, it would be nice to see shows in which professors contribute to the solution rather than the cause of crimes, have sex lives which are dramatically compelling without being criminally dysfunctional, or participate in witty sitcoms like “The Halls of Ivy,” or what I hoped that the “The Young Professors” might become. While there’s no “Law and Order” network, at least not yet, there are entire networks devoted to animal antics, do-it-yourself projects, and city council meetings. Surely a show about professors could find a niche on one of the 500-cable channels while being both too literate and lacking action.

Dennis Baron
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Dennis Baron is a professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

One Cheer for Meetings

"We only wake you up for the important meetings."
--N.Y. Yankee co-workers to George, on an episode of "Seinfeld"

In a recent New Yorker cartoon, a group of people is seated together at one end of a table with upraised hands. The caption reads: "It's unanimous: effective immediately, we spread out around the table."

One of the things that has always most fascinated me about meetings is the agreement that must be already in place before the meeting takes place. Surely not, whatever else, including the arrangement of seating itself! And yet another of the things that has always fascinated me about meetings is that absolutely nothing can be taken for granted about them. Not even seating, as confirmed by meetings that begin --
much like classes -- with everyone present bid to either spread out or form themselves in a circle.

Who does the bidding? Not only the chair. Indeed, one could make a case that academic meetings are distinctive either because authority is regularly delegated (in departments, to the heads of other committees) or else always open to decentralized procedures of various kinds (often the establishment of sub-meetings).  To whom is the bidding to be seated made? Not only to departments -- just to continue with this organizational "unit." Or rather not only to departments whose membership is fixed; for many years I was part of a department that fudged the question of whether the secretary could attend meetings and fumbled the question of whether adjuncts were part of the department by requiring them to leave before voting on anything began.

What about the meeting's agenda? Surely at least these are agreed upon? In theory, agreement is secured by publishing or circulating an agenda beforehand. In practice, though, consideration of anything during a particular meeting is often not limited to the agenda. Just as often, the meeting really heats up when something additional is either added or something unforeseen erupts.

I still recall my very first department meeting. I don't remember whether it had an agenda. I do remember the moment when a senior member jumped up from his seat and began cursing the chair. The subject wasn't some new disciplinary perspective. (I had assumed this was what departmental meetings were about.) It was about a private quarrel between the two men, involving the fact that a student had fired a gun into the living room window of one of them.

Later I found out that the senior man was a retired CIA agent. The person who told me this was himself a former CIA agent. What? How could I find myself in a department, two of whose members were CIA? I thought this was the sort of circumstance that happened in academic novels! These were the same novels, of course, in which meetings were mentioned, but not described.

If a department is not reducible to its meetings, are its meetings reducible to the department -- or is the department, in turn, reducible to its members? For many years in my own former department, I used to feel that we would have better meetings if we had a better department, and we would not have a different department until we had different members. In time, we did. But the members were arguably worse. However, the department meetings were occasionally better.

Now I'm not sure what to think about such meetings, except that when all is said and done, on the part of just about any group, meetings are inherently boring, forever driven by a few people who like to hold forth about curriculum planning or the latest Vision Statement from the administration. Everyone else -- especially the untenured -- feigns polite interest, unless something of personal consequence appears. If it doesn't appear, well, there is always the next meeting.

Once I knew a woman new to American academic life who professed herself stunned at the sheer tedium of so many meetings during which so little was accomplished. One day she was near tears. "Most of what's discussed is completely superfluous!" I blurted out in response: "Don't forget: the purpose of the meeting is to have another meeting." It was suddenly as if somebody else had uttered these words. Maybe somebody else once did to me -- after a meeting.

After a meeting: ah, this is a golden time, when frank talk can ensue with intimates about what really happened, how predictable it was that so-and-so said such-and-such, and whether -- given the administration, the chair, the union, the alignment of the planets -- the final vote would ultimately mean anything. Meanwhile, too bad there had to be a meeting at all, that exquisitely formal affair in which much was considered and little decided.

I once had a colleague who told of a friend who had counseled him thus: the best way to endure meetings was to smoke a pipe. People saw the pipe, not you. For better or worse, these days are now gone. We who must continue to meet today have fewer weapons at our disposal to do battle against the inevitable fatigue. Idle scribbling on a print-out of the agenda or the last minutes: Is this the promised end?

Of course I appear too cynical. Some issues of course demand meetings. Just don't ask me to give examples. Some meetings prove to be absolutely necessary. Blame me if  it seems these particular ones are usually the most boring. Lastly, we must agree at least that a department simply cannot conduct itself without meetings. Yet is there no better, more efficient way for it to do its business?

I've heard of departments that try to do so exclusively through e-mail. This might work, especially in excessively factionalized departments. But then the department deprives itself of a chance to be visibly recreated as a collective whole. Such deprivation is not accomplished without peril. Another way to put the issue: the purpose of meetings is to have a department.

Members may teach alone. They usually research alone and they certainly write alone. But each belongs to a department (and through it, to an institution). Meetings are crucial in assuring members of their own common cause, ranging from curricular change to tenure votes.

We can bemoan meetings. We can't easily give them up. Consider the situation of adjuncts. Most departments are virtually forced to dream up occasions for adjuncts to meet, under the auspices of "professional development" or institution-specific "strategies."

Here the purpose of the adjunct-only meeting is not so much to have another meeting. (Many in attendance could be gone by next semester.) The purpose is to have the meeting (and therefore a "department" of sorts) in the first place! Are adjuncts thereby constituted as a group? Of course not. Not only do such matters of high moment as curricular change fail to concern them.

Adjuncts are excluded from even such lowly questions as the selection of new textbooks. Indeed, consolidating ideals of any sort -- apart from the scandal of there being adjuncts at all -- are not available to them; adjuncts are paid to teach, not to attend meetings about teaching -- or anything else. And yet, there must be meetings for them to be "encouraged" to attend, lest their professionalism itself be endangered. Of course, once they do, just once, another meeting is theoretically possible, and then all seems well.

No matter, somewhat paradoxically, that freedom from meetings, in fact, is the usual virtue of their lot regularly invoked by adjuncts themselves! Everyone is expected to smile knowingly. (Unless full-timers suspect sour grapes. ) Nobody, it seems, is expected actually to like meetings. Just so, though, all are expected to acknowledge their abiding necessity, therefore to attend the next meeting.

In sum, one cheer for meetings. Readers will recognize my allusion to E.M. Forster's famous essay, "What I Believe," wherein he gives democracy a grudging two cheers. One is because it admits variety. The other is because it permits criticism. The departments of my experience admit variety, but far more grudgingly than in Forster's democracy. Worse, they permit little real criticism. Nothing is harder at a meeting than to raise some fundamental objection to an item or an issue, and then expect to have it thoroughly treated.

Forster's democratic model is Parliament, whose deliberations, I suspect, would put most academic departments to shame. Not only because Parliament abides the individual "nuisance" intent on exposing some abuse. Not only because Parliament is virtually mandated to "chatter and talk." But also because Parliament's "chatter," claims Forster, is "widely reported." In comparison, a department's deliberations are of course impeccably -- not to say, preciously -- private.

One cheer for meetings seems to me quite enough. There had better be one because,  academically, we're all in it together, and we somehow manage to remain so (unless we're adjuncts) even through our mostly dreary, ill-starred meetings. Also, one cheer gestures at the existence of more departments than an individual can easily imagine, where variety actually speaks on a regular basis (even without tenure!) o where criticism remains an animating voice. Meetings, finally, are just one of those fateful things about academic life that most of us have to tolerate, when all is said and done (though preferably not at another meeting), like non-committal deans, rude office staff, and students who won't turn off their cell phones. Meetings we will always have with us. But please God, not next week, and not too late in the afternoon.

Terry Caesar
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Terry Caesar's last column was about college presidents.

Festivus Cerebration

It's only October, but already you can feel the nip of holiday commercialism in the air. That's especially true at the big chain stores for cultural goods, where the public-domain Dickens books and the discount CDs of Bing Crosby are now on display, priming the pump for seasonal cheer.

And making your way to the checkout counter, you might notice a new title positioned for maximum impulse-buying convenience: A small book called Festivus: The Holiday for the Rest of Us, by Allen Salkin, published by Warner Books.

Late last year, Salkin wrote an article for The New York Times about how some people now celebrate the "Seinfeld"-spawned faux tradition. More precisely, they (or rather, we) invite friends over to Festivus gatherings in early December -- in lieu of the regular Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanza parties. In the course of his reporting, Salkin learned about the Festivus party my wife and I have held in early December for some years now. He gave me a ring to discuss it.

Evidently this interview took place not long after I had downed a large cup of strong coffee -- for I distinctly recall doing a prolonged riff on how Festivus was a postmodern variant of the British social historian Eric Hobsbawm's concept of "invented tradition." This is an exercise known as "bullshitting." You could read a book about it.

None of my improvisation, alas, ended up in Salkin's article. (Nor was there any reference to my effort to add to the Festivus traditions by making the song "Now I Wanna Be Your Dog" by Iggy and the Stooges into a carol.)

Anyway, a couple of months after the piece ran, Salkin was back in touch. He had just gotten a contract to do a book on Festivus, and wondered if I might write up certain aspects of my rant for inclusion as a short essay.

Well, the book is now out. And the essay is in there ... but now in a form much abbreviated. The reference to Eric Hobsbawm, for example, has been removed. (A grievous omission, though it's possible that the great man would prefer it that way.) Some degree of cutting is to be expected. But what did come as a surprise was, rather, the addendum: A sarcastic little item running alongside the piece, scoring easy points off its "overintellectualization" of the holiday. (As though that were not a tendency the essay itself is mocking.)

It seems, in short, like a very curious way to repay someone who contributed his work for free. Then again, free-floating rancor was always the dominant tone on "Seinfeld."

In any case, I've retained rights to the essay, and am running the full text of it here, in the hope that this version be considered definitive by scholars in the field of Festivus studies. If any...


Each year, my wife and I invite friends to gather around the aluminum pole -- or at least the place it would be, if we ever got around to buying one -- and discuss the True Meaning of Festivus. Of course it's gotten so commercialized now. But Festivus is here to stay. After long cogitation (too long, probably) I've concluded that there is more to it than an excuse for non-religious seasonal holiday. Festivus is the postmodern "invented tradition" par excellence.

Admittedly, the phrase "postmodern 'invented tradition' " is something of a mouthful, but there is a more or less serious historical argument behind it. Let's see if I can make it with a straight face.

Once upon a time -- let's call this "the premodern era" and not get too picky about dates -- people lived in what we now think of as "traditional societies." Imagine being in a village where few people are literate,
everybody knows your name, and not many people leave. A place with tradition, and plenty of it, right?

Well, yes and no. There are holidays and rituals and whatnot. As spring draws near, everybody thinks, "Time for the big party where we all eat and drink a lot and pretend for a few days not to notice each other humping like bunnies." (That one was a big hit even before New Orleans was on the map.)
And yet people don't say, "We do X because it is our tradition." You do X because everybody else around here does it -- and as far as you know, they always have. Not doing it would be weird, almost unimaginable.

But then, starting maybe 300 years ago, things got modern. We tend to imagine that profound cultural dislocations (from war, industrialization, the global marketplace, yadda yadda yadda) only kicked in within recent decades. That's just because our attention spans are so short. Well before Queen Victoria planted her starchy skirt upon the throne, people were nostalgic for the old days.

And so, according to the British historian Eric Hobsbawm, they started inventing traditions from bits and pieces of the past. In the 19th century, for example, folks started singing "traditional Christmas carols" -- even though, for a couple of hundred years, they had celebrated the holiday with pretty much the same hymns they sang in church the rest of the year.

In short, if you say, "We do X because it's traditional," that is actually a pretty good sign that you are modern. It means you have enjoyed (and/or endured) a certain amount of progress. What you are really saying, in effect, is, "We ought to do X, even though we sort of don't actually have to." There is a world you have lost. Tradition is a way of imagining what it must have been like.

Postmodernism is what happens after you've been modern so long that "being modern" doesn't seem all that special -- but at the same time, you don't feel like "being traditional" is all it's cracked up to be, either. And you start putting things in quotation marks all the time.

Does that sound familiar? I could cite a bunch of stuff here about "the decline of metanarratives" and "the simulacrum." But if you're a "Seinfeld" fan, you've had a pretty good taste of pomo without the theory.

What makes Festivus a postmodern invented tradition is that it comes straight out of the mass media, without any moorings in a vague sense of reviving something lost or forgotten. Nobody ever felt a yearning to celebrate it. Frank Costanza just makes the holiday up, and all the "traditions" that go with it. It's hyper-individualistic -- the perfect holiday for the culture of narcissism. The beauty of the Festivuscelebration is that it lays bare all the stuff that you have to squelch just to get through the holiday season.

We gather with family at Christmas or Hannakuh in order to recapture the toasty warmth of community and family. And because, well, we have to. So you'd best bite your tongue.

During Festivus, by contrast, all the vague hostility of enforced togetherness gets an outlet. You have a chance to air your grievances -- and to pin the head of the household to the floor, if you can. It's hard to get sentimental about an aluminum pole. But as long as there are midwinter holidays, the spirit of Festivus will fill the air.

Scott McLemee
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