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.
Those of us in the humanities were reminded recently of our place in the universe. Here's the deal: When space was handed out, we were out having coffee and lost our place in line to ... wandering cognitive scientists. But the coffee was good and gave us a chance to ponder yet again what we thought were the very serious questions: Was Heidegger a Nazi? Was Manet an Impressionist or was that Monet? Is the universe -- oops, the university -- in ruins? We learned on August 24, however, that a decision of importance to those interested in knowledge in general was made without our input and that -- on top of it all -- this decision involved shrinking the available space in the university -- oops, the universe -- allotted to humanistic endeavors. Is this gerrymandering? You bet. And Pluto's out. We're down from nine to eight in our naming rights, and that's what humanists do -- we name things.
I was prepared to research this decision. Before going to Belize last summer, I had taken my daughter, Lucy, to the Kennedy Space Center and we had bought a book about space. Find the Constellations was written by H.A. Rey and published first in 1954. You might remember that H.A. Rey was the illustrator of the Curious George series, which his wife, Margret Rey, penned. In fact, one of the Curious George stories has George blast off into space ( Curious George Gets a Medal). H.A. was an amateur astronomer so he wrote and illustrated this guide to the wandering planets for children. Here's what it says in the index, under "Pluto": "Planet Pluto discovered as recently as 1930." Here is how the planet is described: "Ninth, and so far, last of the planets; 3,700 million miles from Sun; only about 1,400 miles across. One moon. His trip around Sun takes almost 250 Earth-years. Don't go there unless you are equipped to stand a cold of about 400 degrees below." You don't have to be a literary critic to see that Rey was promising ("so far") that even more planets would eventually be discovered.
I needed to check more sources, so I consulted Lucy's bookshelf. Here's what 1,001 Facts About Space, published in 2002, has to say about Pluto: "The most distant of all the planets, Pluto is the least understood." And here's what Dogs in Space (1993), by Nancy Coffelt, has to say: "There is very little light on Pluto. Dogs in space are far from the Sun. They are very near the edge of the Solar System, where it is cold and dark and lonely." Coffelt claims that dogs like it in space because there are no cats there -- but the dogs cramped on Pluto don't look too happy. I had learned that Pluto was small, dark, cold, lonely, and misunderstood. Was this why scientists were cavalierly jettisoning it?
I turned to the Internet and found that the body of scientists responsible for the momentous decision is called the International Astronomical Union. This organization has 8,858 members. The Modern Language Association, by contrast, has "over" 30,000 members (notice which number is more precise). Clearly, democracy was not at work. I read the IAU resolutions that were passed in August. They apparently come from what is known as the "Planet Definition Committee" (I'm not kidding). Resolution 6A creates a "new class of objects for which Pluto is the prototype" and which are called (see Resolution 6B) "plutonian objects." We are told that astronomers chose the term "plutonian" instead of "pluton" after checking with geologists. I also found out that "plutonians" are really just a sub-category of "trans-Newtonian objects." In a footnote, we read that "An IAU process will be established to assign borderline objects into either dwarf planets and [sic?] other categories." How can I get elected to the borderline objects committee?
Just when you think you are a humanist finished with playing with language for the day you discover another doosy. The IAU states that one of the main reasons for no longer considering Pluto a "classical" planet but a "dwarf" planet is that Pluto "has not cleared the neighborhood of its orbit." WOW. Neighborhood -- are we talking community here? What does Pluto need to clear its neighborhood of, exactly? I see racial overtones looming.
My colleagues in Classics are pissed, with Latinists especially up in arms. You've got the Sun at one end of the solar system -- is anyone going to mess with the designation of "the" Sun as a sun? -- so it was proper, even poetic, to have H-E-double-toothpicks at the other end, where it's really dark and lonely and cold (pace the idea of burning in Hades). Now we have, hmmm ... the Sun (let's rename it Apollo) at one end and Uranus?, Neptune? -- who can really keep them straight? -- at the other. What's next? Should we replace all the names of planets or pieces of rock out there with numbers and rely on the mathematicians to keep track of them? Are the nice stories of lions and tigers and bears going to Pluto in a hand-basket also? On that note, should we pretend there is really no hell and that our parents invented it so we would do our homework?
When I was a graduate student in the humanities I had a boyfriend who was in physics. I was pretty proud to be dating a "theorist," a word that all us would-be literary theorists liked to say as often as possible. He was odd in a good way with some odd-in-a-bad-way friends, and even though it didn't work out I've always had a crush on the discipline of physics. I can report, however, that he once told me very seriously that his professors believed they were the ones answering "the big questions" and that he had bought into this. In other words, anyone else's questions just weren't as big. Even history's. Even philosophy's. Being in a humanistic discipline that doesn't attain to such heights, I marveled at the chutzpah. In any event, I think this goes a long way toward explaining why Pluto has suddenly been cut down to size: physicists and astronomers don't only want to reserve the big questions (Where do we come from? What are we? What's going on? -- to quote Gauguin, or maybe Joyce Carol Oates) for themselves, they want to demote celestial bodies. The universe is a big chess game and someone's got to move the pieces, they imagine. (You have probably noticed that all physicists play chess.)
Finally, as a baby-boomer -- and therefore as a tenured radical -- I bring, along with my humanities baby-boomer colleagues, a perspective on Pluto's demise that may be traced to German Romanticism and all that crying over the ruins of Greece and Rome: I loved Pluto. I loved having nine planets because I could then divide them into threes. This was not only a good mnemonic device, it looked pretty. Dividing eight into fours or twos does not come natural. I also liked the recognition of the outsider, the little guy, the underdog. As children, we liked the fact that Pluto was always dark and always cold, like the spooky closet in our rooms. No matter how many times we mixed up Jupiter and Neptune and Mercury and Saturn, we knew that Pluto was there, at the end of the line, the caboose of the solar system. I know many people of my generation who would much rather have seen a man walk on Pluto than on the Moon, even if it took him 2,000 light years to get there and even if he never came back.
Other recent decisions in the scientific community have also been pushed through committees without the input of the humanities. As everyone knows, any bona fide humanist reads The New Yorker. The bona fide among you will recall a recent article in that magazine on the "Fields Medal," the big shot medal in mathematics (we thought it was the Nobel Prize -- wrong again). According to The New Yorker, this Fields Medal business could lead to increased global warming, as Russian and Chinese scholars duke it out. (By the way, the Russian guy, who lives with his mother and has no friends, sounds suspiciously like a humanist). I am not saying that if someone from, say, modern languages and literatures had been on the committee that world peace would be ensured; I am saying that that person could have communicated in the native tongues to help sort out misunderstandings -- translation is, after all, just another way of naming things.
There's another science decision that has a human aspect, but about which we have been, again, not consulted. I refer to President Bush's insane desire to get a man back on the Moon by the end of the decade and (presumably) a different guy on Mars by the end of some other decade. I know a bit about this controversy and here's what I've been able to gather: Bush is a humanist; most scientists aren't. Hmmm ... make that Bush is a media hog, most scientists aren't. I've read a lot about the history of humans going into space and I know that the friction between scientists who want to do science in space and guys who want to do road trips there has been around at least since Eisenhower. Scientists, in other words, want to learn about space; the other guys want to go there. It's kind of like Galileo and Newton debating Lewis and Clark. Now, if I truly believed that sending a guy to the Moon and to Mars would actually yield something -- say, the discovery of a lost Munch painting or the Holy Grail (to get Dan Brown off our humanist backs) -- then I might be all for it. What we do know scientists will find there, however, is in the end excruciatingly boring: sand, dust, rocks, evidence that a bazillion years ago there was water, rocks, Jesus' face on the side of a cliff, more rocks. And although some of the snippets thought up by the Apollo astronauts to describe their experiences on the Moon could be termed poetic -- "It was so empty, man" -- most showed no sign of poetic impulse, or even a poetic pulse -- "My wonker stings, too, man." If they'd send humanists to the Moon it might be a different story, but they won't. They haven't even sent a woman or a person of color of color. When NASA had the chance to send an old person to space they sent Glenn and he had already been there! Hello? Or should I say Hell-o?
I'd like to end with Georges Méliès, who started the whole "film the Moon" craze. Méliès was a wonderful silent film director and he was French. That gave him all kinds of license. He made two short films that are of interest here: A Trip to the Moon (1902) and The Eclipse (1907). In the latter film, the Sun (a woman) and the Moon (a man) flirt with each other to the point of undergoing some kind of climax, that is, eclipse. It's pretty racy. In A Trip to the Moon, a fat rocket catapults into the cheesy Man in the Moon and this is a good scene for teaching students the phrase "phallic symbol." W.E.B. Dubois is famous for having written in the early 1900s that the question of the century would be the color line; Méliès revealed the second major question, the goings-on on the Moon. Some would have it that in the 21st century we are past the color line; they are, unfortunately, wrong. Others would like to believe we are done with the Moon; they are, unfortunately, wrong. But we do seem to be done with the nine planet consortium.
Returning to nomenclature, I wonder the following: Can we take the name Pluto and give it to the Moon? Other planets' moons have names -- why can't ours? Or how about Charon? That was the name of Pluto's moon, but since Pluto is no longer a planet Charon has been recategorized as a "satellite" of Pluto. Can I get on the committee that decides these things? Who's on the committee on committees for the IAU? Will this count as "professional service"? Will I get a boost in salary?
Not in this universe -- oops, university.
Fleur LaDouleur is the pseudonym of a professor of humanities at a Midwestern university.
For years, the terms early decision and early action have meant binding and non-binding college acceptances before the usual notification date. With Harvard striking down its early admissions system, and other universities scurrying to follow, these old labels have become suspect -- even though, as recent articles have shown, universities may still practice some forms of early acceptance.
What schools really need now, though, is an end-run around the old terms. Here are some proposals now on the table at admissions offices across the country:
oily admissions: for those acceptances with a certain slimy feel, necessary to the school’s financial welfare but best not to discuss. May derive from Texas-based alums who kick in oil company money to expedite the acceptance of their kids to business school.
eerie admissions: a term meant to cover those unaccountable acceptances, such as the athletic scholarship extended to the chess whiz, or the offer made to a high school student with no extracurricular activities.
only admissions: the new, no-frills form of acceptance, without any fat welcome packet or additional literature sent through the mail; the academic equivalent of an airline e-ticket.
early submissions: a label for those eager beaver applicants who just can’t wait 'til fall of their senior year in high school and start bombarding colleges with material as early as July.
yearly remissions: not technically an admissions matter, but these represent the annual tithing from wealthy graduates who will one day expect their offspring to apply to and be accepted by their alma maters.
early revisions: this curious term signifies that percentage of accepted students who , well before the deadline, decide that they want to matriculate elsewhere.
late action: a polite term for what used to be called the waiting list, or those applicants who have no reasonable hope of getting in unless someone else opts out.
early faction: any admitted students likely to become a cohesive group, such as the College Republicans.
proactive admissions: the new term for offers extended ahead of time to athletes who’ll be snapped up by other schools if another day goes by.
early derision: a cover for those admitted students who in retrospect were ludicrous choices, such as those with bad debts or probation officers.
easy submissives and early emissions: don’t go there.
David Galef is a professor of English and administrator of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the University of Mississippi. His latest books are the novel How to Cope with Suburban Stress and the co-edited fiction anthology 20 over 40.
It was Friday morning and the weekend was not off to a great start. My husband woke up with lymph nodes the size of golf balls. I had a head cold and an earache. My daughter Lucy had nothing and went to school. A few hours later, my head was even cloudier and my husband’s nodes were tennis balls. We were tired of lying next to each other in bed, moaning for no good reason, so I moved the tennis ball nodes out of my way and I got on the phone. The doctor’s receptionist said they don’t work Friday afternoons (how nice), but that my husband needed to get moving to the urgent care center. He drove himself, his cantaloupes hanging down, the sound of Girl Scouts singing “Do your Ears Hang Low” filling his head.
I had invited a group over to discuss the imminent closing of our local elementary school. Some of us were meeting for the first time. We were white middle-class women, so it took a while with the introductions. The women went into great detail about what last name they were currently using, why it was/was not the same as their husbands’, and how none of their children had the same last name as them nor even as each other. As if it was all by accident but at the same time purposefully progressive. After about half an hour of that, we got down to business, and were only interrupted every once in a while by the hostess sneezing into the biscotti and someone whispering “gross -- but isn’t she a college professor?” I found the “but” amusing.
After the group left, I wondered why I hadn’t heard from my husband -- was he dead in some ravine? At Target? Catching a matinee of Little Miss Sunshine? I knew that no matter which of these options was the answer, he would not call to tell me (he’s like that, self-effacing). I would have to do some work to find out what was going on. I called the urgent care facility and they said he was just leaving the doctor’s office and, yes, they would tell him to call me, which he didn’t. I pulled the blanket over my head on the couch and worried that I should be grading student compositions.
But all I wanted to read was the “people in the news” section of the paper, with its tales of Britney’s black hair and Tom Cruise’s postpartum depression. Reminding myself that I am in fact a college professor, I looked in the back of The New Yorker and tried, as every week, to come up with a line for the “cartoon caption contest.” As with every week, I came up blank. I went back to the local paper and read a letter to the editor about how the women who wanted the elementary school to stay open were acting like “unruly toddlers.” And they couldn’t even be identified because they kept changing their last names.
I turned back to the French compositions and my correction Code, which I have been using for 20 years. A is for accent (wrong one, needed, not needed); INT is for interrogative (wrong, needed, not needed—you get it); ORTH is for spelling mistake; SG/PL is for change singular to plural or vice versa; PAS CLAIR is for really, really, not clear; and MOT is for find a different word, please. After all these years, I can do this with my eyes shut, and that’s what I did.
But it was boring. I goofed around on the Internet, where I found that one scholar has the following to say about the usefulness of correction Codes: “Most students expect and value the feedback they receive in writing, and research has shown that there seems to be a connection between active correction of errors and improvement in writing skills.” I was equally pleased to find that “corrections place an importance on what is corrected,” for I myself have been doing this for years without realizing that it was a pedagogically sound practice.
I felt very pleased with my innate sense of pedagogically correct corrections. My own general impression is that students think that a “Code” is somehow modern, a type of technology even, making of composition writing a science. If A is B and C is D, then what is X? Should be a no-brainer. Thus, the teacher is exempt from accusations of being fuzzy, vague, and subjective about grading, that is, doing grading the humanities way. With science on my side, I sloshed through another composition.
My husband finally returned and recounted how worried everyone at the clinic had been, how many tests and IVs he had had, and in the end how many prescriptions he needed to get filled. No one at the clinic knew anything about what was going on with him, but it was Friday afternoon and they wanted to go home. By Saturday morning, his cantaloupes had devolved into lemons; my cloudy brain had devolved into Styrofoam. I drank tea and slowly battled my way through three compositions. “DEM” is for demonstrative adjective or pronoun (your choice). Then there’s “M” for verb mode. “Mal” (maladroit, awkward) is the least understood and usually ignored by students. When I corrected their revisions, I would have to decode their misunderstandings of the Code.
On Saturday afternoon, my husband took Lucy to horseback riding and they came back with a kitten. I was expecting this; in fact, I told Lucy she could keep a kitten if she promised not to quit Girl Scouts (after the sit-upon incident of a few weekends ago at Camp Hickiwawa -- if y ou read Fleur faithfully you’ll get this -- it was hard to keep her enthusiasm up). There she was, this eight-week-old tiny ball of white and gray fluff, already attacking our only armchair and already pooping indiscriminately. And the fleas. We gave her a flea shampoo and that provoked my husband to cite a cause for his neckline balls: He had had a leftover bot-fly from our August trip to Belize. It had been living in his skull for a while, quite a while, until he got sick of it a few days previously in the middle of the night and cut it out of his head with very sharp instruments. Then, unfortunately, he forgot Manolo’s (director of the Monkey Bay Wildlife Refuge -- again, try to read Fleur regularly) warnings and took a few showers with his special anti-dandruff medicated shampoo. It’s a real no-no to take a shower within three days of removing a cranial bot-fly; the water and soap sneak into the cavity vacated by the larvae and just sit there, ready to infect. Why the infection would move down to the neckline and form Monkey Bay balls is anyone’s guess.
I hadn’t had have to teach Friday, fortunately, but I had received my share of bizzarro academic e-mails, which I now read through. In response to a fairly straightforward recounting of some fairly obvious facts to the members of a department committee, I received a memo that accused me of making “strange allegations”: “Professor LaDouleur clearly knows nit of which she speaketh. She maybe was at the Macke machine when that decision was forced.”
Now, I’m the kind of academic old-timer who doesn’t mind at all accusations of making “false” allegations -- that comes with the territory. But “strange”? Was this like alien strange? X-Files strange? Kinky sex strange? And what were all these other borrowings from a Rosetta Stone that I couldn’t read? -- “nit”? “Macke machine”? (I didn’t even know our building HAD one!)
I decided this colleague must be speaking in Code, so I turned to my composition folder. PRON REL (relative pronoun); VOIX (active not passive; passive not active); MM (word missing) -- I found no references to “nit” and Macke machines (could that be MM?). I wished I had this guy’s Code. Maybe there was a link to it from the department homepage. Nope. I finally printed it out and underlined “nit” and wrote “ORTH” over it. I underlined “speaketh” and wrote “OLD ENGL” on top, thus inventing for the first time in 20 years a new entry for the Code. I underlined “forced” and wrote “UN CH” (unusual choice) above -- another new entry -- and I underlined “strange” and wrote “SEX?/ALIEN?” I gave the composition -- oops, e-mail -- a C-, because it was only midway through the semester and I figured my colleague had ample time to catch up to the level of the rest of the class.
Some students don’t appreciate the Code because they find my chosen symbols to be inane. Accents (A) are part of spelling (ORTH), as I’ve always said to them -- so why have a separate symbol that confuses everything? V is hard to distinguish from CONJ (conjugation) and T (verb tense), especially late at night over a 12th bowl of cereal (I tell them I understand, because I read an article about how college students really love cereal).
But I can’t change after all these years. I never had a secret handwriting when I was a child, although I certainly had many not-nice secrets I could have written down, and the Code was standing in for that. If I changed it, I would be changing my past, falsifying my secrets, using adjectives for adverbs and vice versa (ADJ/ADV). No, I wouldn’t correct their compositions on-line with red computer “tracking” ink. No, I wouldn’t use numbers instead of abbreviations in my Code. I was old, and I was tired; maybe I was even strange. They’d have to wait for me to retire to be moved into the 21st century, when Codes will surely come under fire, friendly fire in the Culture Wars.
The kitten, which Lucy insisted we call “Kitten,” still had a few fleas after her bath, but we told Lucy that was to be expected. A lesson in life, it turned out. We would do another wash, and then maybe another, and then just live with it until she was old enough to wear a collar and join the fat cats on the block. By Monday morning, the kitten knew where to poop, my head was clear, my compositions graded (most got C-), and my husband’s neck as smooth as a just-mowed lawn. 20 compositions, 30 fleas, and one bot-fly down, I thought; not a bad score for a weekend. And a really cute fuzz ball to look at. I chose a turtleneck with a triple collar to protect my neck from the fleas of academic life and set out for the office.
Fleur LaDouleur is the pseudonym of a professor of humanities at a Midwestern university.
It is indeed a rare and wonderful thing when the interests of seemingly disparate institutions coalesce and the members thereof can join forces to advance a hitherto unrealized common cause. But such is the opportunity that the officials of the Bush administration and we in the academy find ourselves facing today.
The Department of Defense finds itself desperately short of troops with which to sustain what promises to be a long and increasingly unpopular, inconclusive war in Iraq. The Department of Education finds itself suddenly alarmed by the relatively low percentage of Americans pursuing postsecondary education compared to the rate of participation in other countries. American colleges and universities find themselves bucking the current demographic trend such that some of them are lowering standards as they compete for fewer and fewer students.
The answer to all these problems, it seems to me, is as simple as remembering back to the last time we were fighting an unpopular war far away for reasons we couldn’t quite understand, the 1960s. Colleges and universities were bursting at the seams with more students than they could handle, and the sky seemed to be the limit for the expansion of programs and the hiring of new faculty members. What did we have going for us then in the American academy that we don’t have now? We had a Selective Service System -- a draft -- that until 1971 featured a calculated system of deferments for college and graduate school.
We need to restore that system today -- the most significant refinement being that, in keeping with today’s more enlightened sensibility, today’s draft would extend to young women as well as men. The advantages would be obvious and undeniable.
The Department of Defense would have more than enough fresh troops with which to “stay the course.” This should satisfy the critics on the right and the left who would use the current exhaustion of the all-volunteer military as an excuse to “cut and run.” The number of college deferments would remain relatively low compared to the number of young people available, especially if we made deferment contingent upon maintaining a passing grade-point average. We could even make deferment contingent on enrolling in programs that lend themselves to the kinds of assessment approved of by the Spellings commission -- if those classics and philosophy departments want to hold on to their students, they’ll come around to believe everything can be measured in tests or your post-graduation income.
Patriotic appeals and current threat levels notwithstanding, the prospect of being drawn into a shooting war in Iraq or Afghanistan, or even Iran, will continue to appeal to a limited spectrum of American youth. Matriculation and retention rates in American colleges and universities, then, are likely to soar, thereby alleviating one concern of the Secretary of Education and her Commission. We are also likely to see a war dividend in terms of increased accountability, as students and faculty alike face a clear and present incentive to assess and document student learning. (Obviously, the deferments would only be granted to those enrolled at places whose accreditors endorsed the commission’s approach.)
The sudden surplus of applicants, moreover, will force colleges to become more selective. This will greatly reduce, or even obviate, the need for remedial courses. And it will help ensure that graduates do not exhibit the sort of deficiencies in basic skills likewise noted as one of our national embarrassments in the Higher Education Commission’s recent report.
Carefully considered, in fact, this scheme would seem to present no serious disadvantages, unless it be urged that the liberal sentiments and ideals associated with higher education are incongruous with the prosecution of a war. To date, however, we have witnessed remarkably little dissent and protest directed toward the war from academic quarters. It is therefore safe to assume that we in the academy have outgrown our narrow principles and that we’re not likely to suffer the sort of paroxysms that tore campuses apart during the Vietnam era.
As for myself, I have nothing to gain or lose in proposing this scheme. I already served in Vietnam, I am within five years of retirement, and my one child is finished with college and beyond draft age. My only objective is to do my part, as a loyal American, to help the President out of a tight spot and to point the way toward a brave new era of academic and governmental cooperation.
Edward F. Palm
Edward F. Palm is dean of social sciences and humanities at Olympic College, in Bremerton, Wash.
It took nine months, like birthing a baby, but it finally happened: Out with the old and in with the new. Our department chairperson -- formally known as The Evil One and now known as “Who?” -- was given the boot toward the end of 2006. Now, I’m the kind of academic who generally supports department chairpersons (I’ve had six in my time), even if I find them to be flaky, slow, uncreative, or fidgety. I figure, it’s a tough job (I know because I did it for a few years), so why not just go with the flow? After all, someone’s got to do it and there’s no reason to think anyone would be better than the one currently doing it. But there is, I discovered along with some of my colleagues last year, reason to think there might be someone worse.
Let’s just say this guy was imported with a new dean (who got booted himself last summer) and that he had no real business running a humanities department, or a Starbucks, or a Mr. Coffee machine. Example: He did not know or care how many credit hours constitute a course in this country and kept counting half-credits, all so that he could teach two -- instead of three -- hours a week. Example: He wanted to keep on part-time lecturers who supported him, whether we needed them or not. This led to us offering a range of languages that had been declared dead long before by the Modern Language Association. If he heard a lumberjack speaking Sasquatch in the woods, he’d hire that person, tell him to use the communicative method, and then give him a list of the three students who signed up for the course. Example: When I first met the chair he asked me why a colleague spent so much time in Madrid. When I slyly mentioned that she was doing research there he replied, “Oh, no she’s not! She must be having an affair!” Final example: When the review committee discussed a colleague’s writing on political regimes in the third world, the chair blurted out “he keeps using the term ‘perverse’ [perverse government, state, etc.] -- and he doesn’t even mean it in an erotic way! You’ve read Georges Bataille, right? -- Now that’s perverted!” Need I say more?
Well, it took some time to get where we wanted to go, even after the axed dean found himself hanging out in the campus Chicken Delight instead of wheeling and dealing in elevators and at urinals. The new interim dean wanted to look over all the evidence that had been submitted to get rid of our chair, interview everyone, and read some Bataille. In the meantime, our chair assigned one of his minions to redo the department bulletin boards, which led to the removal of Fleur’s study abroad brochures. I was miffed. Eventually, I nailed one in and it was left there -- a testimony to the crucifixion we were all undergoing, a piece of glossy paper flapping in the weary wind of the dry, stale, second floor hallway.
After many meetings and many documents read and reread, the interim dean did the right thing and announced the end of the regime. When he asked me who I could suggest to lead the department over the next few months, while we “renewed our commitment to each other” (read: called off the death squads), I could spit out only two words: MAN ... SCIENCE. Yep, I wanted a guy in charge, a guy from the sciences. And preferably the hard sciences; the harder the better, in fact. Life scientists would be too much like humanists, interested in preserving things and feelings and signs of carbon-based life -- no way.
I’m sure you are saying to yourself: Well, Fleur, I know you are a humanist, so why a scientist? And if you know how to read between the lines, you are also saying: Well, Fleur, I know you are a feminist, so why the “y” chromosome? Here’s Y: I want some peace. Let’s face it, humanists will try to get any other humanist, even one in Falkland Island studies, on their side. We are, after all, political animals. We know that the university is political because we made it that way and we aren’t about to depoliticize it and look at things “objectively.” But for a few months, I was convinced, we needed the objective eye, the kind that would look at the registrar’s home page and see whole, even if odd, numbers under “credits.” And why a guy, you ask? Let’s face it, I may be a feminist but I’m not an idiot. I know that the world is run by two kinds of people: sexists and people pretending not to be sexists. There is basically no one in my department, including the women, who will respect a female chair the way s/he respects a male one. When I was chair people said things like “she must have had a fight with her husband” to explain why I suggested that people occasionally publish in refereed journals; when a man is chair they say “that’s because he’s a real man -- oops, scholar.”
So we ended up, as I suggested, with an interim chair who is also the chair of a science department. (I am keeping the name of the department to myself, for anonymity’s sake. Let’s just say it’s a pretty hard science). He’s only been chair for a few weeks, but significant changes have taken effect: The bulletin board has been put under the care of the department secretary, who yanked out the nail with the department hammer and nicely pinned up my brochures; all hires for next year have been put on hold as we determine which languages are actually dead and which are truly modern; there has been a ban on more than two (female) faculty members occupying one bathroom stall at the same time while snickering; and, e-mail is being used to convey information, not to create new myths of Biblical proportions. And something else has changed: Along with the smoking ban in bars in the state in which I live, people have stopped blowing hot air down the hall. We can now breathe. And I say, let’s drink to that.
But now Fleur wants to get personal, because it is true, in fact, that I had had an argument with my husband just before I declared the need to publish in refereed journals. And just as the department has changed chairs, Fleur is seeking to change partners -- seeking at least an interim, shall we say. Not that I’ve booted the guy; he’s a nice guy, and the father of Lucy, after all. But it was time, in 2006, to admit that we could not renew our commitment and that no trip to Belize can heal pathologies of our own creation (see Fleur on family vacations). I moved out -- long story, let’s not go there -- and have temporary digs in a very large house. I’m living like a grad student and just found out I can only check books out of the campus library for three months at a time. I have a miniature refrigerator but I’m thinking, hey, all of Europe lives this way and some of those people have families! And I have a huge walk-in closet, in the huge bathroom, where Lucy has set up a secret fort where we sometimes sit and have girl talk until 9:30 p.m.
Not long after I moved out -- say within 48 hours -- I decided I’d need a date for New Year’s this year. Celebrating the demise of Pluto (see Fleur on the booted planet) -- oops, of the chair -- at a colleague’s house would not be enough; I needed to celebrate big time. Now, I could write a whole column on single women in their late 40s trying to find true love on campus -- couldn’t we all? But for now I’ll just cut to the chase: Yahoo Personals. Yep, it’s cheap and it doesn’t require you to be officially divorced, as does E-Harmony. You can look at 1,000 guys and decide for yourself if they would fit in at a party to celebrate the downfall of a departmental regime. I personally was not looking for an academic, although my good friend Mira kept insisting I would not be happy until I found one (I disagree), but I did insist on a few things: He must have a college degree, he must have a full-time job, he must be liberal (that is, pretend not to be a sexist), and he must be able to dress himself. This narrowed the field down from 1,000 to 27.
Of those 27, I eliminated several whose introductions to themselves were scary. One began by insisting “If you got problems or drama, stay clear of me.” OK. Another wrote that he was looking for a “lady who knows how to act like a lady.” Tautological. Next. At least five claimed they were “teddy bears.” Not going there. In the end, I was contacted by three virtual guys. The first wrote “Hey -- I like your profile. I’m on again with my on-and-off again girlfriend right now, but when we’re off again I’ll write you and we can go out.” Intriguing, I thought -- if only he were available. Another wrote “I like NPR two; let’s grab a coffee.” Promptly corrected with the code (ORTH; see Fleur on codes). The third wrote “You are making me dizzy. Is it you? I can’t think straight.” Gotta be meth, I thought.
Then it hit me: MAN ... SCIENCE. Why wasn’t I using the fail-proof technique that had recently worked so well at work? So I wrote to a guy with a degree and a job in a hard science; he looked quite young in his photo, yet quite possible, in the grand scheme of the possible. And the rest is history, as we say in the humanities. In other words, I had a date for New Year’s Eve and it was not with a professor, it was with -- hold onto your seats, ladies and teddy bears of the Academy -- a race car engineer. Yep, this guy designs race cars. I can hear all my humanities colleagues, men, women, and in-between, crying out “Cool!” Yep, from a cultural studies, postmodernist, fin-de-siècle, party-like-it’s-1999 stance, that is definitely a cool job. It doesn’t pay as much as being a department chair, but you don’t get booted as often. I raced home the next day at a slick 40 miles per hour, anticipating date number two. Ring in the new.
Fleur LaDouleur is the pseudonym of a professor of humanities at a Midwestern university.