I can’t remember when I snapped. Was it the faculty seminar in which the instructor used the phrase “the objectivity, for it is not yet a subjectivity” to refer to a baby? Maybe it was the conference in which the presenter spoke of the need to “historicize” racism, rambled through 40 minutes of impenetrable jargon to set up “new taxonomies” to “code” newspapers and reached the less-than-startling conclusion that five papers from the 1820s “situated African-Americans within pejorative tropes.” Could it have been the time I evaluated a Fulbright applicant who filled an entire page with familiar words, yet I couldn’t comprehend a single thing she was trying to tell me? Perhaps it was when I edited a piece from a Marxist scholar who wouldn’t know a proletarian if one bit him in the keister. Or maybe it just evolved from day-to-day dealings with undergraduates hungry for basic knowledge, hold the purple prose.
At some point, I lost it. I began ranting in the faculty lounge. I hurled the Journal of American History/Mystery across the library, muttered in the shower, and sent befuddled e-mails to colleagues. I’m fine now. Once I unburdened I found I was not alone; lots of fellow academics agree that their colleagues couldn’t write intelligible explanations of how to draw water from the tap. From this was born the Society for Intellectual Clarity (SIC). We intend to launch a new journal, SIC PUPPY (Professors United in Plain Prose Yearnings) as soon as we find someone whose writing is convoluted enough to draft our grant application. (We’re told we should seek recruits among National Science Foundation recipients.)
Until the seed money comes in our journal is purely conceptual, but upon start-up SIC PUPPY will enact the following guidelines for submissions.
Titles: Brevity is a virtue. Titles with colons are discouraged. Any title with a colon, semi-colon, and a comma will be rejected on principle. We accept no responsibility for doodles and exclamatory obscenities scrawled on the returned text, even if you do enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope.
Style: If any manuscript causes one of our editors to respond to a late-night TV ad promising to train applicants for “an exciting career in long-distance trucking,” the author of said manuscript will be deemed a boring twit and his or her work will be returned. See above for doodle disclaimers.
Audience: Hey, would it kill you to write something an undergrad might actually read? If so, please apply for permanent residency in Bora Bora.
Terminology: If any author desires to invent a new term to describe any part of the research, refer to Greta Garbo’s advice on desire in the film Ninotchka: “Suppress it.” There are 171,476 active words in the English language and the authors of SIC PUPPY are confident that at least one of them would be adequate.
Nouns and Verbs: Among those 171, 476 words are some that are designated as nouns and others clearly meant as verbs. Do not confuse the two. SIC PUPPY refuses to conference with anyone about this. We have prioritized our objectives.
Thesis: We insist that you have one. If you don’t have anything to say, kindly refrain from demonstrating so. We do not care what Bakhtin, Derrida, Jameson, Marx, Freud, or Foucault have to say about your subject or any other. We’ve read them; we know what they think.
Academic Catfights: The only person who gives a squanker’s farley about literature reviews and historiography is your thesis adviser. We request that you get on with the article and reduce arcane debates to footnotes. The latter should be typed in three-point Windings font.
Editing for Smugness: If your article was originally a conference paper and, if at any time, you looked up from your text and smiled at your own cleverness, please delete this section and enroll in a remedial humility course.
No Silly Theories:SIC PUPPY does not care if a particular theory is in vogue; we will not consider silly ones. For example, bodies are bodies, not “texts” and dogs are dogs; they do not “signify” their “dogginess” through “signifier” barks. While we’re on the subject, we at SIC PUPPY have combed scientific journals to confirm that time machines do not exist. We thus insist that human beings can be postpartum or postmortem, but not postmodern.
Privileging Meaning: We believe that sometimes you’ve got to call it like it is, even if that entails using a label or category. We know that some of you think we shouldn’t privilege any meaning over another. To this we say, “We’re the editors, not you, and we intend to use our privileged positions of power to label those who reject categories ‘ninnies.’ So there!”
Citations: We insist that you use the Chicago Manual of Style for all citations. Not because we love it, but because it annoys us no end to see parentheses in the middle of text we’re trying to read. Why we read a theory on ellipses (Bakhtin, 1934) just last night describing how English authors (Wilde, 1905; Shaw, 1924) sought to embed Chartist messages (S. Webb, 1891) into....
Complaints: In the course of preparing a journal it is inevitable that typos will appear, that medieval French words will go to print with an accent aigu where an accent grave should have been, and that edits will be made to what you were sure was perfect prose (but wasn’t). Do not call the editors to complain that we’ve humiliated you before your peers and have ruined your academic career. SIC PUPPY will not waste time telling you to get a life; we will direct your call to the following pre-recorded message: “Thhhhhwwwwwwwpt!”
Satire and Irony: To paraphrase the folksinger Charlie King, serious people are ruining our world. If you do not understand satire, or confuse irony with cynicism, go away. Try therapy ... gin ... a warm bath ... anything! Except teaching or writing.
Robert E. Weir is a former senior Fulbright scholar who teaches at Smith College and the University of Massachusetts.
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.
Terry Caesar's last column was about the image of violence in the classroom.
English Department, Box 8765A, U of All People, Centerville, KR 58767 (www.uallp.edu/english). Assistant Professor in Renaissance literature. Ph.D. required. 3/3 load. Salary $40,000. Duties include teaching composition, gym, and specialty every fifth year. Send CV and letter to Hiring Committee Chair. Deadline Oct. 15.
English, Box 8765A, U of All People, Centerville, KR 58767 (www.uallp.edu/english). Please ignore previous ad. Visiting Assistant Professor in Renaissance studies, Ph.D. required. 4/4 load. Salary starts at $35,000. Perks include semi-private office and access to faculty get-togethers. Send CV, letter, transcript, teaching philosophy, dossier, and writing sample to Dr. R. Murgatroyd, Chair, Search Committee. Deadline Oct. 25.
English, Box 8765A, U of All People, Centerville, KR 58767 (www.uallp.edu/english). Never mind previous ads. Visiting Instructor to teach five sections of composition per semester, as well as acting as English tutor for our student athletes. Ph.D. required. Salary laughable. Send CV, letter, and evidence of sanity to Dr. R. Murgatroyd, Chair, Search Committee. Deadline Nov. 30.
English, Box 8765A, U of All People, Centerville, KR 58767 (www.uallp.edu/english). Soliciting any warm body to teach at a school in the sticks without any charm; workload incommensurate with anything you’ve done before. Need ability to tolerate mind-numbingly dull students, an administration in love with itself, and a faculty simply waiting to retire. Evidence of experience welcomed. Salary debatable. Just arrive in person, and we’ll put you in front of a classroom. Deadline: 21st of Never. Ha ha....
English, Box 8765A, U of All People, Centerville, KR 58767 (www.uallp.edu/english). Full professor to fill our prestigious new Murgatroyd Memorial Chair in Renaissance Studies. This job, occasioned by the untimely death of Professor Reginald Murgatroyd and heavily endowed by a long-lost cousin, carries a 2/1 load. Applicants should have a substantial body of published scholarship, an international reputation, and many influential friends. Send CV and letter to Professor Myra Blowenthorpe, Chair Pro-tem. Deadline Jan. 15.
English, Box 8765A, U of All People, Centerville, KR 58767 (www.uallp.edu/english). Search extended: Murgatroyd Memorial Chair in Renaissance Studies. Responsibilities include directing the new R. M. Renaissance Center and getting along with a chancellor who doesn’t respect the liberal arts. Send CV and cautious, diplomatic letter to Professor X. R. Clancy, Interim Chair. Deadline Feb. 15.
English, Box 8765A, U of All People, Centerville, KR 58767 (www.uallp.edu/english). Search postponed indefinitely for Murgatroyd Memorial Chair in Renaissance Studies. We could say that no candidates fit the bill or that our funds for the position were suspended, but instead we’ll let you guess as to just what administrative mess occasioned this screw-up. Send no CVs or letters, please, until next year, when we’ll probably try again.
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).
I am a baby-boom parent with children in college. We baby-boomers, now in our pre-dotage, have become infamous on college campuses -- again -- this time for noisily hovering over our children as they try to make their ways in the world (see Wikpedia on “helicopter parents”). From my own bleak experience -- both professional and personal -- I can say with confidence that our children become adults not because of our involvement in their lives, but in spite of it.
Penny Rue, the University of Virginia’s dean of students, calls us “benign dictators.” We, who reacted against the enforced age hierarchy of our own dictatorial parents, have become instead oppressors whose rule is based on the illusion that we and our children are peers, Rue says. And the illusion is so strong, that our children are fooled into not claiming the birthright that we claimed at their age: personal autonomy.
This embrace of dependence is not surprising given the attitudes of contemporary college students toward their parents. At the University of Maryland at College Park, James M. Osteen, the assistant vice president for student affairs, writes, “I find that students and their parents generally have a much closer relationship in recent years as compared to earlier decades. Students are very likely to list their parents as significant role models; whereas in the past students might name people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King or Mother Theresa.”
It is sweet and fine for your 5 year old to think of you as sainted and heroic, but for your 20 year old to have the same attitude should be worrying. Why don’t we hear self-help sages speaking of the problem of arrested development any more? Where are the Erik Eriksons of yesteryear?
Rue and Osteen see the positive side of parental involvement. Both judge today’s parental role as student advocates to be an invitation to college-parent partnerships that can benefit students. But they also recognize the dangers: Both Osteen and Rue note that with parents handling everything from roommate problems to purchasing airplane tickets, students cannot develop a sense of mastery and the confidence necessary to live on one’s own. Erikson might observe that such parental behavior deprives young people of their identities as autonomous and competent adults.
I learned my own necessary lesson about meddling in my children’s education probably too late, after the critical period of Eriksonian development -- when the second of my three children was in sixth grade. Before that, I would regularly become concerned and then incensed about some way or other schools were failing my children. So caught up in tilting at windmills, I did not devote a moment’s attention to the big picture -- to problems of other students, teachers, schools, or to my children’s educational needs beyond small and preoccupying slights.
This is how I learned my lesson: My child, a superior sort of girl, of course, seemed not to be doing any work, while at the same time was receiving good grades. At a teacher conference I complained/boasted that my daughter was not doing any work and getting good grades. I suppose I imagined that with the complaint, her brilliance would be more appreciated, and she would get the special attention that as an exceptional person she deserved. Sure enough, it got her more attention immediately. Her grades plummeted. She became discouraged. And until she enrolled in college and had only herself to please, she never again studied for a test or did a lick of homework. To this day, this is the story my children tell their friends to describe the sort of person their mother is. There is no living it down.
As a parent of two in college and one in graduate school, I get involved only in questions of spelling. They may beg me to advise about conditional clauses, but I stand firm. I do listen to complaints about roommates, but have learned that in this area as in most issues of personal relationships it is best to listen only.
If other parents would fail earlier in their micro-management careers, college educators would not have to grin and bear helpful advice from over-bearing parents who threaten to bury student affairs offices under ship-loads of constructive criticism. Student affairs professional regularly remark to novices, “You see all those students walking around with cell phones? They are not talking to friends. They are talking to their mothers.”
And what are these students telling their parents? What they want to hear: that the people who run colleges don’t know half as much as their parents do and that life on campus is hell. And then their parents get on their mobile phones and call administrators who, if they weren’t chained to their desks would run screaming from their shabby little offices each time a call from a parent were announced.
I’ve looked at life from both sides now -- as a parent and as a college administrator. These calls can generate a lot of negative emotion -- raising blood pressure of both parents and college administrators. The number of these calls increase exponentially every year. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that in 2003, 16.6 million students were enrolled in college. I imagine that 16.6 million cell phones transmitting the troubled chatter of parents and children about what is going wrong in college must surely be capable of unbalancing the music of the spheres.
When I worked in a college president’s office, I often took calls from irate parents. I sometimes thought I felt the universe skipping a beat as they described the woes of their children in college: not being able to get into a popular (gut) class; wet, slippery floors in the bathroom; having to go to class in the snow/wind/rain; having an electrical box mounted outside their dorm room (which was sending out dangerous electrical waves); poor grades on tests studied for; having to study for tests over Thanksgiving break; having too short a Thanksgiving/Christmas/Summer break; administrators not doing something about hurt feelings caused by not being offered a place in a fraternity; not doing something about roommates having sex; not being allowed to cheat on exams; the president getting too tough on those who assault others, etc., etc. Some parents would call already angry. Some would become angry when they realized that no matter how much they wanted it, changing the university was going to take longer than 24 hours. They became angrier and angrier as they were transferred from one office to another. The political science department would get calls from parents complaining about fully enrolled courses out of which their children were closed out. The department would pass the calls on to the provost’s office, which would pass it along to the president’s office. What did I do? I told these parents to write to their legislators about getting more funding for public universities. I pitied the next person they would talk to after getting off the phone with me.
Sometimes I think that my generation doesn’t much care about what we are trying to control. It is the existential act of exerting control that is important to us. Not going gently into that good night makes us forget ultimate truths. We may have short memories, but those we plague with our demands do not. Student affairs officers shake their heads and remember that baby boomers in their own youths had demonstrated for increased personal freedom, and had gotten rid of the college practice of in loco parentis. Now for their children, irony of ironies, they are demanding that it be put back.
In our 45-60 years we have been promiscuous and irrational in many of the issues we have raised our voices about. We got the U.S. out of Vietnam and, 30 years later, into Iraq. We started the sexual revolution, and now we vote for anti-birth control and anti-abortion politicians. We rejected our elders’ assertion of control over our lives and we put chokeholds on the lives of our children.
The time has come to think about the consequences of indiscriminately throwing our considerable middle-aged weight around. It seems to me we have to face some facts. First of all, we need to let our children grow up. Second, we need to realize that we can’t stop the world from turning, that the generation we bred will replace us, and that they need to be prepared to do so. Most of all, we need to grow up, grow old, shut up, and step aside.
Margaret Gutman Klosko
Margaret Gutman Klosko is a writer based in Virginia.
The wedding announcements in The New York Times are, as all amateur sociologists know, a valuable source of raw data concerning prestige-display behavior among the American elite. But they do not provide the best index of any individual’s social status. Much more reliable in that respect are the obituaries, which provide an estimate of the deceased party’s total accumulated social capital. They may also venture a guess, between the lines, about posterity’s likely verdict on the person.
In the case of John Kenneth Galbraith, who died last week, the Times obituary could scarcely fail to register the man’s prominence. He was an economist, diplomat, Harvard professor, and advisor to JFK. Royalties on his book The Affluent Society (1958) guaranteed that -- as a joke of the day had it -- he was a full member. But the notice also made a point of emphasizing that his reputation was in decline. Venturing with uncertain steps into a characterization of his economic thought, the obituary treated Galbraith as kind of fossil from some distant era, back when Keynsian liberals still roamed the earth.
He was patrician in manner, but an acid-tongued critic of what he once called "the sophisticated and derivative world of the Eastern seaboard." He was convinced that for a society to be not merely affluent but livable (an important distinction now all but lost) it had to put more political and economic power in the hands of people who exercised very little of it. It was always fascinating to watch him debate William F. Buckley -- encounters too suave to call blood sport, but certainly among the memorable moments on public television during the pre-"Yanni at the Acropolis" era. He called Buckley the ideal debating partner: “pleasant, quick in response, invulnerable to insult, and invariably wrong.”
Galbraith’s influence was once strong enough to inspire Congressional hearings to discuss the implications of his book The New Industrial State (1967). Clearly that stature has waned. But Paul Samuelson was on to something when he wrote, “Ken Galbraith, like Thorstein Veblen, will be remembered and read when most of us Nobel Laureates will be buried in footnotes down in dusty library stacks.”
The reference to the author of The Theory of the Leisure Class is very apropos, for a number of reasons. Veblen’s economic thought left a deep mark on Galbraith. That topic has been explored at length by experts, and I dare not bluff it here. But the affinity between them went deeper than the conceptual. Both men grew up in rural areas among ethnic groups that never felt the slightest inferiority vis-a-vis the local establishment. Veblen was a second-generation Norwegian immigrant in Wisconsin. Galbraith, whose family settled in a small town in Canada, absorbed the Scotch principle that it was misplaced politeness not to let a fool know what you thought of him. “Better that he be aware of his reputation,” as Galbraith later wrote, “for this would encourage reticence, which goes well with stupidity.”
Like Veblen, he had a knack for translating satirical intuitions into social-scientific form. But Galbraith also worked the other way around. He could parody the research done by “the best and the brightest,” writing sardonically about what was really at stake in their work.
I’m thinking, in particular, of The McLandress Dimension (1963), a volume that has not received its due. The Times calls it a novel, which only proves that neither of the two obituary writers had read the book. And it gets just two mentions, in passing, in Richard Parker’s otherwise exhaustive biography John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2005).
While by no means a major work, The McLandress Dimension deserves better than that. Besides retrieving the book from obscurity, I’ll take a quick look at a strange episode in its afterlife.
The McLandress Dimension, a short collection of articles attributed to one “Mark Epernay,” was published by Houghton Mifflin during the late fall of 1963. At the time, Galbraith was the U.S. ambassador to India. Portions of the book had already appeared in Esquire and Harper’s. One reviewer, who was clearly in on the joke, introduced Mark Epernay as “a gifted young journalist who has specialized in the popularization -- one might almost say the vulgarization -- of what one has learned to call the behavioral sciences.”
The pen name combined an allusion to Mark Twain with a reference to a town in France that Galbraith had come across in a book about the Franco-Prussian war. (Either that, or on the side of a wine crate; he was not consistent on this point.) “The pseudonym was necessary because I was then an ambassador,” recalled Galbraith in a memoir, “and the State Department required its people to submit their writing for review while forbidding them to take compensation for it.... However, it did not seem that this rule need apply to anything written in true anonymity under a false name. Accordingly, I wrote to the then Attorney General, Mr. Robert Kennedy, proposing that I forego the clearance and asking if I might keep the money. So difficult was the question or so grave the precedent that my letter was never answered.”
But Epernay was just the foil for Galbraith’s real alter ego -- the famous Herschel McLandress, the former professor of psychiatric measurement at the Harvard Medical School and chief consultant to the Noonan Psychiatric Clinic in Boston. The researcher was a frequent recipient of grants from the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and sundry other nonprofit geysers of soft money. His ideas were the subject, as Epernay put it, “of some of the most trenchant debates in recent years at the Christmas meetings of the American Association for Psychometrics.” While his name was not yet a household word, McLandress had an impressive (if top-secret) list of clients among prominent Americans.
The work that defined his career was his discovery of “the McLandress Coefficient” – a unit of measurement defined, in laymen’s terms, as “the arithmetic mean or average of intervals of time during which a subject’s thoughts centered on some substantive phenomenon other than his own personality.”
The exact means of calculating the “McL-C,” as it was abbreviated, involved psychometric techniques rather too arcane for a reporter to discuss. But a rough estimate could be made based on how long any given person talked without using the first-person singular pronoun. This could be determined “by means of a recording stopwatch carried unobtrusively in the researcher’s jacket pocket.”
A low coefficient -- anything under, say, one minute -- “implies a close and diligent concern by the individual for matters pertaining to his own personality.” Not surprisingly, people in show business tended to fall into this range.
Writers had a somewhat higher score, though not by a lot. Epernay noted that Gore Vidal had a rating of 12.5 minutes. Writing in The New York Review of Books, Vidal responded, ““I find this ... one finds this odd.”
What drew the most attention were the coefficients for various political figures. Nikita Khrushchev had the same coefficient as Elizabeth Taylor – three minutes. Martin Luther King clocked in at four hours. Charles de Gaulle was found to have the very impressive rating of 7 hours, 30 minutes. (Further studies revealed this figure to be somewhat misleading, because the general did not make any distinction between France and himself.) At the other extreme was Richard Nixon, whose thoughts never directed beyond himself for more than three seconds.
Epernay enjoyed his role as Boswell to the great psychometrician. Later articles discussed the other areas of McLandress’s research. He worked out an exact formula for calculating the Maximum Prestige Horizon of people in different professions. He developed the “third-dimensional departure” for acknowledging the merits of both sides in any controversial topic while carefully avoiding any form of extremism. (This had been mastered, noted Epernay, by “the more scholarly Democrats.”)
And McLandress reduced the size of the State Department by creating a fully automated foreign policy -- using computers to extrapolate the appropriate response to any new situation, based on established precedent. “Few things more clearly mark the amateur in diplomacy,” the reporter explained, “than his inability to see that even the change from the wrong policy to the right policy involves the admission of previous error and hence is damaging to national prestige.”
One piece in the book covered the life and work of someone who has played a considerable role in the development of the modern Republican Party, though neither Galbraith nor Epernay could have known that at the time.
The figure in question was Allston C. Wheat, “one of the best tennis players ever graduated from Cornell” as well as a very successful “wholesaler of ethical drugs, antibiotics, and rubber sundries in Philadelphia.” Upon retirement, Wheat threw himself into he writings of Ludwig von Mises, Ayn Rand, and Barry Goldwater, among others. His studies left Wheat sorely concerned about the menace of creeping socialism in America. As well he might be. Certain developments in the American educational system particularly raised his ire. Wheat raised the alarm against that insidious subversive indoctrination in collectivist ideology known as “team sports.”
“Every healthy able-bodied young American is encouraged to participate in organized athletic events,” Wheat noted in a widely-circulated pamphlet. This was the first step in brainwashing them. For an emphasis on “team spirit” undermines good, old-fashioned, dog-eat-dog American individualism. “The team,” he warned, “is the social group which always comes first.... If you are looking for the real advance guard for modern Communism, you should go to the field-houses and the football stadiums.”
The tendency of the Kennedys to play touch football at family gatherings proved that “they are collectivist to the core.” And then there was the clincher: “Liberals have never liked golf.”
Wheat’s dark suspicions had a solid historical basis. “In 1867,” Epernay pointed out in a footnote, “the first rules for college football were drawn up in Princeton, New Jersey. That was the year of the publication of Das Kapital.... Basketball was invented in 1891 and the Socialist Labor Party ran its first candidate for President in the following year.” Coincidence? Don’t be gullible. As the saying has it, there’s no “I” in “team.”
The goal of Wheat’s movement, the Campaign for Athletic Individualism, was to ensure that young people’s McLandress Coefficients were low enough to keep America free. Today, Wheat has been forgotten. No doubt about it, however: His legacy grows.
In many ways,The McLandress Dimension was in many ways a product of its moment -- that is, Camelot, the early 60s, a time of heavy traffic on the wonky crossroads where social science and public policy meet.
Books like Vance Packard’s The Status Seekers were showing that the American social hierarchy, while in transition, was very much in place. A celebrity culture in the arts, politics, and academe was emerging to rival the one based in Hollywood. The sort of left-liberal who read Galbraith with approval could assume that the McCarthyist worldview belonged in the dustbin of history.
The McLandress Dimension satirized all these things -- but in a genial way. It said, in effect: “Let’s not be too serious about these things. That would be stupid.”
So Galbraith’s timing was good. But it was also, in a way, terrible. Articles about the book started appearing in early December -- meaning they had been written at least a few weeks earlier, before the assassination of the president. There was a lightheartedness that must have been jarring. Most of the reviewers played along with the gag. One magazine sent a telegram to the embassy in India, asking Galbraith, “Are you Mark Epernay?” He cabled back, ”Who’s Mark Epernay?”
But the season for that kind of high spirits was over. If Herschell McLandress was the embodiment of the number-crunching technocratic mentality in 1963, his place in the public eye was soon taken by Robert McNamara. Such “extremists in defense of liberty” as Allston Wheat were trounced during the 1964 presidential campaign -- only to emerge from it stronger and more determined than ever. Galbraith’s serious writings were a major influence on the Great Society programs of the Johnson administration. But that consummation that was also, with hindsight, a swan’s song.
As for The McLandress Dimension itself, the writings of Mark Epernay found a place in the bibliographies of books on Galbraith. But they were ignored even by people writing on the development of his thought. I recently did a search to find out if anyone ever cited the work of Herschel McLandress in a scholarly article, perhaps as an inside joke. Alas, no. All that turns up in JSTOR, for example, is a brief mention Galbraith’s book in an analysis of the humorous literature on Richard Nixon. (There is, incidentally, rather a lot of it.)
And yet the story does not quite end there.
In 1967, the Dial Press issued Report from Iron Mountain: On the Possibility and Desirability of Peace, which the publisher claimed was in fact a secret government document. The topic was the socio-economic implications of global peace. It was prepared, according to the introduction, by a group of prominent but unnamed social scientists. The prose was leaden, full of the jargon and gaseous syntax of think-tank documents.
The challenge facing the Iron Mountain group, it seemed, was to explore any adverse side-effects of dismantling the warfare state. The difficulties were enormous. Military expenditures were basic to the economy, they noted. Threat from an external enemy fostered social cohesion. And the Army was, after all, a good place for potentially violent young men.
It would be necessary to find a way to preserve all the useful aspects of war preparation, and to contain all the problems it helped solve. A considerable amount of social restructuring would be required should the Cold War end. The think tank proposed various options that leaders might want to keep in mind. It could prove necessary to sponsor new forms of extremely violent entertainment, introduce slavery, and concoct a plausible story about the threat of extraterrestrial invasion.
This was, of course, a satire on the “crackpot realism” (as C. Wright Mills once termed it) of the Rand Institute and the like. It was concocted by Leonard Lewin, a humor writer, and Victor Navasky, the editor of The Nation. But the parody was so good as to be almost seamless. It proposed the most extreme ideas in an incredibly plodding fashion. And the scenarios were only marginally more deranged-sounding than anything mooted by Herman Kahn, the strategist of winnable thermonuclear war.
Serious journals devoted articles to debating the authenticity of the document. One prominent sociologist wrote a long article suggesting that it was so close to the real thing that one might as well take it seriously. At one point, people in the White House were reportedly making inquiries to determine whether Report from Iron Mountain might not be the real thing.
In the midst of all this, Herschel McLandress, who had retreated into silence for almost four years, suddenly returned to public life. In an article appearing in The Washington Post, the great psychometrician confirmed that Report from Iron Mountain was exactly what it claimed to be. He had been part of the working group involved in the initial brainstorming. He chided whoever was responsible for leaking the document. By no means were Americans ready to face the horrors of peace. He did not challenge any of the report’s conclusions. “My reservations,” McLandress stated, “relate only to the wisdom of releasing it to an obviously unconditioned public.”
Writing from behind his persona, Galbraith turned in a credible impression of social-science punditry at its most pompous. (You can read the entire review here.) It must have been very funny if you knew what was going on. And presumably some people did remember that McLandress was himself a figment of the imagination.
But not everyone did. Over time, Report from Iron Mountain became required reading for conspiracy theorists -- who, by the 1990s, were quite sure it was a blueprint for the New World Order. After all, hadn’t a reviewer vouched for its authenticity in The Washington Post?
And what did Galbraith think of all this? I have to.... One has to wonder.
In view of the incidents surrounding several recent visits sponsored by our campus lecture series, the Charles M. Humfdinger Memorial Lecture Committee has issued some new rules for all speakers invited to campus. The latest guidelines issued by the AAUP, “Academic Freedom and Outside Speakers,” are welcome but simply too vague.
1. Visiting lecturers are to be chosen by a vote from all the committee members, which is to say a real assembly planned for everyone, not an ad hoc meeting hastily drawn up by the chair that almost no one can attend, during which an uncontested nomination for a speaker is put forth. 2. The makeup of the lecture committee shall consist of faculty from a range of disciplines, not a wedge from the Slavic Language and Culture Program. 3. The visiting lecturer should represent a field of interest to a broad spectrum on campus, such as architecture or sociology, not just one professor’s specialty on, say, Flemish ceramics from the 1860s. 4. The agreed-upon speaker’s fee shall be restricted to $5,000, even if the guest speaker claims to receive three times that much from other institutions. There shall be no percentage of this fee distributed to other parties. 5. The phrase “including travel and accommodations” should be normally construed as meaning a regular round trip fare in coach class, airport pickup and delivery by a graduate student, and a stay at our Alumni House Motel. While it is understood that extra exigencies may occasionally crop up, a charter jet and the rental of a Jaguar are not in that category. 6. Special provisions may be available for guest lecturers who wish to bring their spouses, but not additional family members, groupies, or so-called servants. 7. The lecturer should make him or herself available to interested parties, engaging in activities that include visiting classes and meeting students and faculty during our three o’clock coffee hour. Holing up in the Alumni House Motel all day should be at all costs discouraged. 8. The pre-lecture dinner with the chancellor is mandatory, though the choice of chicken or pork should be broadened to include a vegetarian option. 9. Though the committee is reluctant to impose a dress code, the speaker should be aware that the Humfdinger Memorial Lecture is a ceremonial occasion. Consequently, tank tops, cutoffs, and thongs are aggressively discouraged. 10. Mrs. Humfdinger, the widow of Professor Charles M. Humfdinger and the endower of our lecture series, is a dignified woman who should not be referred to as “that old bat,” “grannykins,” or other overly familiar terms. 11. The duration of the Charles M. Humfdinger Memorial Lecture is to be about an hour, not a five-minute improvised speech followed by a Q & A session. 12. All speeches are to be delivered in English or with the assistance of a suitable translator. 13. All speakers are to be reminded that U. of All People is not only a dry campus, but also a drug-free zone. A copy of our bylaws will be distributed ahead of time. 14. The rooms at the Alumni House Motel are orderly and clean and should be kept that way. Reimbursement for any damage incurred to the room shall come out of the speaker’s fee. 15. Speakers are reminded that all guests of U. of All People are also guests of the state and must abide by its sexual statutes. These rules include a proper regard for minors and the dean of liberal arts.
We make every attempt to make the speaker’s visit to campus a pleasant one. The recently set up Charles M. Humfdinger Memorial Lecture Investigation Committee has yet to issue its report, but we hope that the institution of these bylaws will render any punitive actions unnecessary.
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).
I am a digitally-enabled, network-ready scholar. I check e-mail and browse the Web. I read RSS feeds. I leverage Web 2.0's ambient findability to implement AJAX-based tagsonomy-focused long-tail wiki content alerting via preprint open-access e-archives with social networking services. I am so enthusiastic about digital scholarship that about a year ago I published a piece in my scholarly association's newsletter advocating that we incorporate it into our publications program. The piece was pretty widely read. At annual meetings I had colleagues tell me that they really like it and are interested in digital scholarship but they still (and presumably unlike me) enjoy reading actually physical books. This always surprised me because I love books too, and it never occurred to me that an interest in digital scholarship meant turning your back on paper. So just to set the record straight, I would like to state in this (admittedly Web-only) public forum that I have a deep and abiding passion for paper: I love it. Love it.
It's true that there is a lot of stuff you can do with PDFs and the Web that you can’t do with paper, but too often people take this to mean that digital resources "have features" or "are usable" while paper is just, you know, paper. But this is not correct -- paper (like any information technology) has its own unique form of usability just as digital resources have theirs. Our current students are unused to paper and attribute the frustration they feel when they use it as a mere lack of usability when in fact they simply haven't figured out how it works. Older scholars, meanwhile, tend to forget about paper’s unique utility because using it has simply become second nature to them.
Some of the features of paper are well known: Reading more than three pages of text on a screen makes your eyes bleed, but I can read paper for hours. You can underline, highlight, and annotate paper in a way that is still impossible with Web pages. And, of course, in the anarchy after The Big Electromagnetic Pulse the PDFs will be wiped clean off my hard drive but I will still be able to barter my hard copy of Durkheim's Elementary Forms of the Religious Life for food and bullets.
But my passion for paper is about more than preserving the sociological canon in a post-apocalyptic future. Using paper is embodied in a way that using digital resources are not. Paper has a corporeality that digital texts do not. For instance, have you ever tried to find a quote in a book and been unable to remember whether it was on the left or right hand side of the page? This just a trivial example of way in which paper’s physicality is the origin of its utility.
And of course professors have bodies too. This is another way that scholarship is embodied -- we often do it while in libraries. Here our bodies are literally in a vast assemblage of paper with its own unique form of usability. And as scholars achieve total communion with the stacks, they find books based not just on catalog number, but on all of their senses. The fourth floor of the library I wrote my Ph.D. in sounded and smelled differently than the second did. How many of us -- even the lab scientists -- with Ph.D.'s will ever be able to forget the physical layout of the libraries where we wrote our dissertations? Or our undergraduate libraries? I find books in my current library by comparing its floorplan with the layout of the college library where I first studied.
And catalog systems! I am a DU740.42 man myself, although I freelance in B2430 at times and of course retain a broader competence in G and GN. I was visiting a colleague at Duke once and went into its library to see what sort of GN treasures it might have stored away only to find that the library used Dewey Decimal -- a fact I experienced with surprisingly raw sense of betrayal.
The very fact that libraries can’t buy every book is a form of utility, not a disadvantage. True, there is tons of hubub about Web sites that provide users "personalized recommendations" based on their preferences and the preferences of people in their social networks. But in practice all this has boiled down to the fact that after years of using Amazon.com, it has finally figured out that since I enjoyed reading Plato's Republic, I might also be interested in Homer's Iliad. But every book in my library has been "filtered" by my librarian, and browsing through stacks arranged by subject allows "discovery" of "resources" in a non-metaphorical pre-Internet way.
At Reed, where I went to college, the library had a disused, musty room dubbed the "multiple copy room." Not surprisingly, it was where all the multiple copies of books were stored. The librarians at a small liberal arts college like mine did not buy 10 copies of a book unless they sure that it was a keeper, worthy of being taught for eons, its wisdom instilled into countless generations of students who would value it so much that they would weep when bartering their own copies of it for food and bullets after The Big Electromagnetic Pulse. Browsing through and reading from those shelves was the best "filter" for "content" that I ever had. So much for "the long tail."
And of course browsing doesn't just happen in libraries. Amazon may have a bintillion books for sale out in the ether of the ethernet, but there is no better place to take the pulse of academic publishing that a good used book store near a university. Bookstores mark the life cycle and disposition of the community where they are physically located -- the end-of-the year glut of books dumped by students eager to rid themselves of dead weight like Anna Karenina in order to spend more time tinkering with their MySpace page is itself a good indicator of what a university has been assigning.
Bookstores also connect us to the larger scholarly community. Remainders -- books that are being sold at discount prices because publishers want them out of their warehouses -- are a remarkable measure of what fads have just passed in scholarly publishing or what is about to come out in paperback. And of course just being in a good bookshop can be therapeutic. A good friend of mine worked his way through college at a Walden Books. After work he would spend a half hour in the aisles of our local used book store, staring at the covers of Calvino novels until he had recovered from eight hours of selling people copies of The Celestine Prophecy.
The used book store is the horizon at which our human finitude and our books intersect. I have actually been turned on to the work of scholars based solely on the fact that I've purchased so many books from their collections. One book store I frequent actually put a picture of one recently deceased professor in the window to advertise that his library was on sale. Some find the practice morbid, but for me this sort of thing is the academic equivalent of the life-affirming musical number in The Lion King about how we are all part of the circle of life. Roscher and Knies costs $180 off the Internet and is scarcer than hen's teeth, but in that magical, electric moment that I found it used for 20 bucks I knew that in cherishing and loving it I would not only be honoring the memory of the previous owner, but perpetuating the hopelessly over-specialized intellectual lineage which we both cared about so deeply.
What I am trying to say is that owning and reading books is about our lives as scholars in a way that e-journals are not. Our libraries are furniture. They are decoration. They threaten the breathable air to paper ratio in our apartments and offices. Books spill over my shelves. They crowd my kitchen table. We are what we read. On my bedside I currently have one Hawaiian language textbook, Dan Simmon's science fiction novel Hyperion, Jonathan Lamb's Preserving the Self In The South Seas: 1680-1840, Eugene Genovese's Roll Jordan Roll and Jean-Luc Nancy's The Inoperable Community. In this combination I find elemental solace.
Our collections of physical, paper texts do not only help explain who we are to ourselves, they signal this to our visitors. When my guests first enter my apartment and make a beeline to my shelves they are actually learning more about me. When they admire my copy of Roscher and Knies I am learning something about them. When they spot my first edition of Ricky Jay's Cards as Weapons or Scatological Rites Of All Nations I know that I have found a true soul mate. I am convinced that this is somehow more important than finding out that the professor in the office next to me reads the same cat blogs that I do.
It is easy to see that paper will continue to be used by academics for a long time to come purely on the basis of its utility as an information technology. But we are not passionate about paper because it is a good research tool. We are passionate about it because of the way that it smells and feels. Our love of paper springs from the way it insinuates itself into not only our career, but our souls. This is why, after The Big Electromagnet Pulse, I won't be working desperately on some computer somewhere trying to resurrect my metadata. I’ll be fortifying the multiple copy room and trying to figure out how few copies of The Andaman Islanders I’ll have part with to keep alive until someone manages to turn the power back on.
Alex Golub finished his dissertation in anthropology at the University of Chicago in 2005 and is now an adjunct professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He blogs at Savage Minds, a group blog about cultural anthropology.
The table sits at the front of the bookshop, near the door. That way it will get maximum exposure as people come and go. "If you enjoyed The Da Vinci Code," the sign over it says, "you might also like..." The store is part of a national chain, meaning there are hundreds of these tables around the country. Thousands, even.
And yet the display, however eyecatching, is by no means a triumph of mass-marketing genius. The bookseller is denying itself a chance to appeal to an enormous pool of consumer dollars. I'm referring to all the people who haven’t read Dan Brown’s globe-bestriding best-seller -- and have no intention of seeing the new movie -- yet are already sick to death of the whole phenomenon.
"If you never want to hear about The Da Vinci Code again," the sign could say, "you might like...."
The book’s historical thesis (if that is the word for it) has become the cultural equivalent of e-mail spam. You just can’t keep it out. The premise sounds more preposterous than thrilling: Leonardo da Vinci was the head of a secret society (with connections to the Knights Templar) that guarded the hidden knowledge that Mary Magdeleine fled Jerusalem, carrying Jesus’s child, and settled in France....
All of this is packaged as a contribution to the revival of feminine spirituality. Which is, in itself, enough to make the jaw drop, at least for anyone with a clue about the actual roots of this little bit of esoteric hokum.
Fantasies about the divine bloodlines of certain aristocratic families are a staple of the extreme right wing in Europe. (The adherents usually also possess "secret knowledge" about Jewish bankers.) And anyone contending that the Knights Templar were a major factor behind the scenes of world history will turn out to be a simpleton, a lunatic, or some blend of the two -- unless, of course, it’s Umberto Eco goofing on the whole thing, as he did in Foucault’s Pendulum.
It's not that Dan Brown is writing crypto-fascist novels. He just has really bad taste in crackpot theories. (Unlike Eco, who has good taste in crackpot theories.)
And Leonardo doesn’t need the publicity -- whereas my man Athanasius Kircher, the brilliant and altogether improbable Jesuit polymath, does.
Everybody has heard of the Italian painter and inventor. As universal geniuses go, he is definitely on the A list. Yet we Kircher enthusiasts feel duty-bound to point out that Leonardo started a lot more projects than he ever finished -- and that some of his bright ideas wouldn’t have worked.
Sure, Leonardo studied birds in order to design a flying machine. But if you built it and jumped off the side of a mountain, they’d be scrapping you off the bottom of the valley. Of course very few people could have painted "Mona Lisa." But hell, anybody can come up with a device permitting you to plunge to your death while waving your arms.
Why should he get all the press, while Athanasius Kircher remains in relative obscurity? He has just as much claim to the title of universal genius. Born in Germany in 1602, he was the son of a gentleman-scholar with an impressive library (most of it destroyed during the Thirty Years’ War). By the time Kircher became a monk at the age of 16, he had already become as broadly informed as someone twice his age.
He joined the faculty of the Collegio Romano in 1634, his title was Professor of Mathematics. But by no means is that a good indicator of his range of scholarly accomplishments. He studied everything. Thanks to his access to the network of Jesuit scholars, Kircher kept in touch with the latest discoveries taking place in the most far-flung parts of the world. And a constant stream of learned visitors to Rome came to see his museum at the Vatican, where Kircher exhibited curious items such as fossils and stuffed wildlife alongside his own inventions.
Leonardo kept most of his more interesting thoughts hidden in notebooks. By contrast, Kircher was all about voluminous publication. His work appeared in dozens of lavishly illustrated folios, the publication of which was often funded by wealthy and powerful figures. The word "generalist" is much too feeble for someone like Kircher. He prepared dictionaries, studied the effects of earthquakes, theorized about musical acoustics, and engineered various robot-like devices that startled tourists with their lifelike motions.
He was also enthusiastic about the microscope. In a book published in 1646, Kircher mentioned having discovered “wonders....in the verminous blood of those sick with fever, and numberless other facts not known or understood by a single physician.” He speculated that very small animals “with a vast number and variety of motions, colors, and almost invisible parts” might float up from from “the putrid vapors” emitted by sick people or corpses.
There has long been a scholarly debate over whether or not Kircher deserves recognition as the inventor of the germ theory of disease. True, he seems not to have had a very clear notion of what was involved in experimentation (then a new idea). And he threw off his idea about the very tiny animals almost in passing, rather than developing it in a rigorous manner. But then again, Kircher was a busy guy. He managed to stay on the good side of three popes, while some of his colleagues in the sciences had trouble keeping the good will of even one. Among Kircher’s passions was the study of ancient Egypt. As a young man, he read an account of the hieroglyphics that presented the idea that they were decorative inscriptions -- the equivalent of stone wallpaper, perhaps. (After all, they looked like tiny pictures.) This struck him as unlikely. Kircher suspected the hieroglyphics were actually a language of some kind, setting himself the task of figuring out how to read it.
And he made great progress in this project – albeit in the wrong direction. He decided that the symbols were somehow related to the writing system of the Chinese, which he did know how to read, more or less. (Drawing on correspondence from his missionary colleagues abroad, Kircher prepared the first book on Chinese vocabulary published in Europe.)
Only in the 19th century was Jean Francois Champollion able to solve the mystery, thanks to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. But the French scholar gave the old Jesuit his due for his pioneering (if misguided) work. In presenting his speculations, Kircher had also provided reliable transcriptions of the hieroglyphic texts. They were valuable even if his guesses about their meaning were off.
Always at the back of Kircher’s mind, I suspect, was the story from Genesis about the Tower of Babel. (It was the subject of one of his books.) As a good Jesuit, he was doubtless confident of belonging to the one true faith -- but at the same time, he noticed parallels between the Bible and religious stories from around the world. There were various trinities of dieties, for example. As a gifted philologist, he noticed the similarities among different languages.
So it stood to reason that the seeming multiplicity of cultures was actually rather superficial. At most, it reflected the confusion of tongues following God’s expressed displeasure about that big architectural project. Deep down, even the pagan and barbarous peoples of the world had some rough approximation of the true faith.
That sounds ecumenical and cosmopolitan enough. It was also something like a blueprint for conquest: Missionaries would presumably use this basic similarity as a way to "correct" the beliefs of those they were proselytizing.
But I suspect there is another level of meaning to his musings. Kircher’s research pointed to the fundamental unity of the world. The various scholarly disciplines were, in effect, so many fragments of the Tower of Babel. He was trying to piece them together. (A risky venture, given the precedent.)
He was not content merely to speculate. Kircher tried to make a practical application of his theories by creating a "universal polygraphy" -- that is, a system of writing that would permit communication across linguistic barriers. It wasn’t an artificial language like Esperanto, exactly, but rather something like a very low-tech translation software. It would allow you to break a sentence in one language down to units, which were to be represented by symbols. Then someone who knew a different language could decode the message.
Both parties needed access to the key -- basically, a set of tables giving the meaning of Kircher’s "polygraphic" symbols. And the technique would place a premium on simple, clear expression. In any case, it would certainly make international communication faster and easier.
Unless (that is) the key were kept secret. Here, Kircher seems to have had a brilliant afterthought. The same tool allowing for speedy, transparent exchange could (with some minor adjustments) also be used to conceal the meaning of a message from prying eyes. He took this insight one step further -- working out a technique for embedding a secret message in what might otherwise look like a banal letter. Only the recipient -- provided he knew how to crack the code -- would be able to extract its hidden meaning.
Even before his death in 1680, there were those who mocked Athanasius Kircher for his vanity, for his gullibility (he practiced alchemy), and for the tendency of his books to wander around their subjects in a rather garrulous and self-indulgent manner. Nor did the passing of time and fashion treat him well. By the 18th century, scholars knew that the path to exact knowledge involved specialization. The wild and woolly encyclopedism of Athanasius Kirscher was definitely a thing of the past.
Some of the disdain may have been envy. Kircher was the embodiment of untamed curiosity, and it is pretty obvious that he was having a very good time. Even granting detractors all their points, it is hard not to be somewhat in awe of the man. Someone who could invent microbiology, multiculturalism, and encryption technology (and in the 17th century no less) at least deserves to be on a T-shirt.
But no! All anybody wants to talk about is da Vinci. (Or rather, a bogus story about him that is the hermeneutic equivalent of putting "The Last Supper" on black velvet.)
Well, if you can’t beat 'em.... Maybe it's time for a trashy historical thriller that will give Kircher his due. So here goes:
After reading this column, Tom Hanks rushes off to the Vatican archives and finds proof that Kircher used his "universal polygraphy" to embed secret messages in his the artwork for his gorgeously illustrated books.
But that’s not all. By cracking the code, he finds a cure to the avian flu. Kircher has recognized this as a long-term menace, based on a comment by a Jesuit missionary work. (We learn all this in flashbacks. I see Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Athanasius Kircher.)
Well, it's a start, anyway. And fair warning to Dan Brown. Help yourself to this plot and I will see you in court. It might be a terrible idea, but clearly that's not stopped you before.
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.
Terry Caesar's last column was about dealing with unacceptable student behavior.
Spring 2006 was a difficult time in the department. At first, people weren’t speaking to each other; then, the halls were simply empty. I don’t know where most of my colleagues were hiding out. I frequented the medical school cafeteria, where you could count the people not wearing scrubs on one hand -- me and four others.
The whole university was in upheaval. Top administrators were dropping like flies. I had four campus visits for other jobs and came in second for each. I spent May and June finishing proofs for a book I had translated from French to English and revisions to an article on gorillas, Dian Fossey, and excrement. A friend was told her contract in the department would not be renewed for budgetary reasons, although the official story was that no one was to be laid off. I read Jared Diamond’s Collapse and saw the Al Gore movie. Hope was fading. I applied for another job and came in third. I’m tenured, a full professor, but in this type of climate no one feels safe. Or at least, no one feels happy.
I was tired of coming up with synonyms for excrement: waste, shit, dung, the abject, poop, caca, number two. The editor of the British journal that accepted the article wrote me that foax is the singular of feces. The local school board announced that my daughter’s elementary school will close for budgetary reasons. Amazon.com informed me that it couldn't send me the books for my fall classes because my university credit card had been rejected. I scanned the job ads and then booked us on a three-week vacation to Belize. I packed two paperbacks that I already owned, Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet for a graduate course, and François Mauriac’s Thérèse Desqueyroux for an undergrad course on crime in French literature.
My husband insisted we go light -- each of us would have a backpack -- so I wore my new Keen sandals and packed three pairs of shorts, four tank tops, one long-sleeved shirt, and minimal toiletry items. I got a bikini wax, a dose of antibiotics, and a hepatitis A shot. My daughter, Lucy, settled on three small stuffies and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, in the series by C.S. Lewis. My husband packed a relief map of Belize and said we should think of retiring there. Lucy breathed easy when I told her that they speak English in Belize (she had been traumatized by the French public school system while we lived there on a sabbatical). We took two planes to Cancun and a bus to Belize. I had set up an automatic e-mail reply that stated I would be back shortly before classes started and that I would not have regular access to e-mail in the interim. The Israeli-Hezbollah war began.
It was incongruous reading Bouvard et Pécuchet while riding on old American school buses in Belize. With the radio blaring two songs -- one about “de subway” and the other insisting “déme más gasolina” -- I read about the Frenchmen who were amassing a personal museum from medieval church fragments. Flaubert was mocking them. I mixed up the names, for Bouvard seemed more of a Pécuchet and vice versa. They had bought a farm to escape Paris. We passed by the Mennonite settlement of Shipyard. A very large Spiderman piñata occupied its own seat.
I plowed through B et P on the balcony of a hotel in Orange Walk at dawn, unable to sleep due to the time change. A Baptist missionary from Kentucky joined me on the balcony and talked of feeding the poor kids in town. We saw Mayan ruins and our guide talked of the destruction of Orange Walk due to crack cocaine. The hotel room was miniscule and not ventilated. Every evening the Orange Walk drum corps and baton team practiced across the street in a lot by the Shell station. We moved on to San Ignacio, in the Cayo District, and to a lodge in the village of Bullet Tree.
At Cohune Palms we had a thatched cabana for a week. The river was too flooded for swimming and canoeing, but Lucy and my husband went caving and I took her to Tikal, across the border in Guatemala. I had gotten a bladder infection in Orange Walk and had begun my antibiotics. I had also bought two rounds of Cipro over the counter for $8, just in case. Prescient of me, since the infection continued. I checked my e-mail. More fly droppings. No response from the last job I had applied for.
Bevin, from Idaho, ran the lodge with her Rastafarian husband, Mike. She was 10 years younger than me and in the “library” I found a version of Short Story Masterpieces that came out in the mid-80s and that had a completely different set of stories than the edition I had read in high school. Mine had Conrad’s “An Outpost of Progress,” Saki’s “The Open Window,” and Fitzgerald’s “Winter Dreams,” still one of my favorites. Hers had Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.” I read it in a hammock and tried not to let the wilted pages get away from each other. A fer-de-lance viper snake curled up on a chair on Bevin and Mike’s porch, inches from their daughter and mine. Workers killed it with a machete.
The only other tourist with Lucy and me on the trip to Tikal was Will, an American undergraduate at the University of Houston, in Belize to study HIV. He had taken Mythology 101 in the spring and was happy to tell Lucy the story of the Titans, again and again. He had to tell it twice at lunch and twice on the way back to Cayo. Lucy was in awe. By the second telling she was asking pointed questions and Will was inventing answers that incorporated the Mayan cosmology, laid out in the Popul Voh, which he was reading. Back at Cohune Palms I read Vance Bourjaily’s “The Amish Farmer.”
We took a bus on the Hummingbird Highway to Stann Creek, where the Garifuna population has a drum center in Hopkins. We sat outside our cabana and watched neighbors empty their trash onto the beach at sunset; papers fluttered in the wind. The hotel owner cut green coconuts with a machete and Lucy drank the juice. Trash made its way over, like fall leaves that are not bagged and make it into the neighbors’ yards. Buses always had their doors open and plastic bottles and wrappers made their way to the front and slipped out. We took a bus to Belize City and then a boat to Caye (pronounced KEY) Caulker.
Less expensive than Ambergris Caye, which we were told was built entirely on drug money, and more laid back, Caye Caulker was a small island of three main dirt roads, with golf carts instead of cars. We stayed a week in a small cabana back from the beach, rented bikes, and slept through the sizzling middle of the day. Lucy got to know the neighborhood children and five of them formed a gang: Lucy, the only girl but who is often mistaken for a boy; Kemar, an independent and unreliable Creole, also eight; Christian, a cheerful Mestizo six-year-old; Christian’s younger brother, who remained unnamed and had to be carried up and down ladders and trees; and “Fat Boy,” who insisted on being called by his nickname. They collected and ate coco plums and craboo berries, played on the rundown elementary school’s swings and slide, climbed fences and trees, and established a clubhouse in an abandoned beach shack. Lucy’s favorite moment was being chased from a yard by an old man who yelled “Git! Git!” By day three, she was determined that we would live forever on the island. She wore her McDonalds Happy Meal Pirates of the Caribbean bandana, a shark-tooth necklace, and carried a big stick. Fire ants laid claim to the gang’s bare feet and Fat Boy told her she would die from them. Christian, trying to cheer her, reminded her that her parents would die long before her. She returned to the cabana in tears.
The sun was stronger than I’d ever felt it. I read Thérèse Raquin and nodded off. I soon tired of reggae music and the Creole spoken by Rastafarians, peppered with the F-word every two seconds. The “beach” was a small bit of sand bordered by a concrete wall that had tumbled during the last hurricane. Thirst was ever present; the bottled water, rum and lime juice, and Belikins (Belizean beer) couldn’t or wouldn’t quench it. I had finished the first round of Cipro, began the second, and bought a third round, terrified of that stinging feeling in my private area while bouncing on a bus. We headed to the Zoo and Monkey Bay.
We were the only guests at Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary; our accommodations included latrines, hammocks, and mosquito netting around the beds, but no fans. We continued to remind ourselves that one does not flush toilet paper anywhere in Belize, here in particular because the excrement is used, in the form of methane gas, for cooking. I was back, knee-high, in primate foax. I imagined myself as Dian Fossey, always wet, always dirty, always itchy. Our rooms opened onto a “library” filled with books about herbal remedies, Mayan culture, and sustainable ecology, as well as fiction left by former interns. I abandoned Thérèse Raquin. I knew how it would end: not with a bang, but with a whimper characterized by the moaning of wind through pine trees.
I read Phillip Gourevitch’s A Cold Case, about a murderer found many years after his crime. A theme was emerging, from “A Good Man is Hard To Find,” to “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” to Leonard Michaels’ “Murderers” and O. Henry’s “A Retrieved Reformation,” the later of which I found in a collection of stories in Monkey Bay: criminal men (a nice contrast to would-be husband killer Thérèse), from a safe cracker to murderers and rapists. I thought of my father, also a criminal, although never a rapist or murderer. Robbery, drugs. When he could go back and forth between Miami and Cuba he was fine; once Cuba was closed off he had no outlet for urges that would put him in prison in the States. I’ve always felt odd, an academic with an uneducated and imprisoned father, a father who had joined the three branches of the military under three aliases and was once thrown off a navy ship in the middle of the sea for cheating at poker. In the end, he was found in a Dade County motel room, his gun by his side.
I found a Stephen King collection and more short stories. I had checked my e-mail at Caulker and knew it was best to dream away the rest of the summer. And then I had a very real excuse for not leaving the hammock: my left foot was the size of a football. On our second day in Monkey Bay we set out with Manolo, the camp manager, to St. Herman’s Cave and Blue Hole National Park. Finally, a trek that almost satisfied Lucy, who had imagined we would be working our way through jungle with machetes, killing off coral snakes that dropped from vines. It was wet, muddy, thick, and green. Fat orange and black centipedes crossed our tracks and hidden birds screamed above. We climbed up and then down, then up again, to get to a look-out tower after trekking through the submerged darkness of the cave. I began to step down an incline and murmured to Lucy, “Careful here, it’s slippery.” I saw my Keen sandal -- God love ‘em -- actually bend completely back as my foot slipped forward. I was astounded at the flexibility of the sole, which sprung back into place. At the same time, I vaguely realized that if the sole had bent back then so had my foot, like an accordion breathing in and out.
I crawled to the hammock on the veranda and read William Saroyan’s “Summer of the Beautiful White Horse” out loud, again and again, to Lucy. We laughed at the antics of the children and the grouchy uncle. We did a jigsaw puzzle. Rainy season finally descended and it rained bullets, night and day. Our passports curled into odd shapes on the shelf. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’s binding melted away and the pages blew over the drenched savannah. I read a chapter on Ted Bundy in a book about serial killers.
My husband discovered a bot fly larva dwelling in his inner left thigh. After Manolo told us about his own experience -- seis en la cabeza -- he prepared the ointment. If it wasn’t effective, Julio would come by and use his special fingernail. A bot fly’s lifespan is singularly short and sad: its egg is deposited by a mosquito and grows in its host’s body; after about six weeks it falls to the ground and pupates. My husband had a parasite in his thigh and an odd (and new) large patch of dark skin running from his neck to his scalp, like a map of Belize. I had 276 bites, mostly from mosquitoes, a swollen ankle, and a lingering bladder infection. Lucy had a pink fungal rash on her stomach, shoulders, and thighs. I read Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and Poe’s “Hop-Frog.”
When we rode back through Orange Walk the town didn’t look half bad. In the States, I rushed -- as much as I could -- to prepare my syllabi. The doctor did X-rays and gave me a handicapped tag for my car. The gynecologist looked at me in disbelief and told me to get off the antibiotics and focus on something else. We watched as our bites faded with each day that passed. JonBenet’s killer had maybe been found; two serial killers had maybe been found in Phoenix. Non-parasitic administrators have replaced the bot flies and I have a line on a good job for next year. We won’t decide on retirement just yet.
Fleur LaDouleur is the pseudonym of a professor of humanities at a university in the Midwest.