Finding Her Place

There’s nothing like a class reunion for putting you in your proper place.

Last weekend I went to my first one – the 25th anniversary of my graduation from college. In years gone by, it never seemed like a good time to go back to my alma mater,  La Salle University. First I wasn’t making much money. Then I didn’t have a kid, own a house, or have tenure. My classmates, to judge by the alumni publications, were all well into six-figure incomes and had at least three kids each by the time of our 10th or 15th anniversary gathering. I couldn’t bear to go.

But this year I ran out of excuses. I’d published a fair amount, including a book; I’d served as department chair; I’d been promoted to full professor. I had little or nothing, professionally or personally, to be embarrassed about anymore. I could hold my head high amongst my peers from the class of 1980.

So I set off for the five-hour ride south on I-95 to Philadelphia. I planned to stay at my mother’s house, to arrive two hours early, shower, fix my hair, and change into the fabulous new outfit I’d bought for the occasion -- the first new clothes I’d bought in ages. Five hours later I was still two hours away from my college, listening to a Harry Potter book for the fourth or ninth time and cursing myself for not having gone to the public library for a new book on tape.

The reception I’d been looking forward to, the one where I’d see all my old friends from the school newspaper, was fast approaching, and I was not. There was no time to drive to my mom’s to shower and change. I would have to go straight to the college in my jeans and sneakers and change in a bathroom.  

But then it hit me. I work at a college; I know the way alums are treated. So I called the alumni office and explained my plight. No problem, they assured me. They had a spare townhouse in which I could shower and change and still make it to the reception on time. I did so and arrived at the reception, clean, before any of my friends who actually live in Philadelphia.

I’d never been an alum before, not in person. It was all new to me -- the open-bar parties, the crab-cake hors d’oeuvres, the alumni office staff treating me like visiting royalty. I guess they never know who has money and who doesn’t, so they’re nice to everyone.  

I had a great time at the reception, which honored one of my favorite teachers, the economics professor who runs the college’s honors program. It was great to see him and to see him praised. In his speech, he even singled me out, which seemed to me to be patently unfair to the arguably much more successful alums in the room, including the many lawyers, one of whom is a state representative. They were old news, as they’d all been back before. I was the prodigal, back after 25 years.

The dynamics among my friends, the college newspaper set, had not changed a bit. One old sports editor still made fun of the counterculture choices and left-wing politics of another former sports editor; my old roommate laughed at both of them and did her best to keep the peace. The old photo editor, now a corporate lawyer, retained his photographer’s distance from the action, fond of all parties and unwilling to take sides. The state representative drifted in and out; I wondered whether she was saving me from the awkwardness sure to arise if we ended up in a political conversation.

The photo editor and I went off to tour the college’s excellent art museum, and I found myself in a different kind of conversation, one much more familiar in recent years. The museum’s curator, it turns out, is an alum of the institution where I teach. She and I talked about the college, its new president, the new strategic planning committee, and what the campus was like when she attended.  Now I was on safe ground, representing the life I currently lead without having to explain it. This was a persona I found easy to inhabit, and it was a bit of a relief after negotiating how to talk to people I hadn’t seen in more than 20 years.

The next night was the class of 1980 dinner. I’d looked at the RSVP list and had known almost no one except my roommate, so a lot was hinging on whether we could sustain a conversation through an entire dinner. We’d already exchanged photos of our children the night before; what if we had nothing left to say to each other?

As I approached the student union building tentatively, not sure where the dinner was, I stopped to chat with some dining services staff who were taking a break outside in the late-afternoon sunshine. One of them admired my new outfit, and I told her how excited I’d been to find it, in a little import shop not far from my house. We talked about the price (not bad at all, they commented) and the various accessories, and they envied me the little shop. I confessed to wanting to look good in front of a bunch of people I hadn’t seen in more than 20 years.  They told me not to worry: “You got it going on, girl!” I hoped they were right.

After chatting with the college’s president over drinks -- how much easier it is to talk to a college president now -- I sat with my old roommate at dinner and was relieved to find that we liked each other still, or was it again? She was working for a charitable foundation after years at big accounting firms, and I was amused to see the new schmoozing skills she’d acquired in her fund-raising work. I’d seen those skills before, in our own development office staff.

At yet another party after the dinner, I stopped to talk to an elderly woman who’d been at our class dinner but whom I didn’t remember from any of my classes. She told me that when the college first went coed, in the 1970s, some of the male students had suggested to her, a 55-year-old worker in the cafeteria, that she take some classes.  She enrolled in the evening division, tuition free for college employees, and finished up the year I did, with a degree in sociology. The college helped her get work at a women’s shelter, and she worked there until she retired 10 years later. She was so grateful to the college, she said: “They were the best years of my life, when I was taking those classes.”  

I think I eventually figured out where I fit in that funny anthropological experiment that was the reunion. Somewhere between the cafeteria workers who liked my outfit and the lawyers and corporate vice-presidents with whom I got re-acquainted at the parties, I found myself as an alum. No need to compete in terms of social class or income when you have a Ph.D. and an academic job. No need to be embarrassed (or proud) about driving the little Ford or not sending my daughter to private school. The class position of the academic had social capital enough, for better or worse, to pull me through. Talking to the curator, the athletics administrator, the college president -- there I was in familiar territory. Hearing from that retired alum about what her bachelor’s degree had meant to her -- the story was different from the ones I hear at my current institution’s reunions, but the genre was the same.  

That’s why my old professor was pleased to see me -- I had staked my claim in the same place he had, in higher education. He remembered me as a working-class kid from the suburbs, and he was happy to have helped me see my way to a career in academe. I’m happy about it to, and I’m glad I gave the reunion a chance. Maybe I’ll do it again in another 25 years.

Paula Krebs
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Paula Krebs is professor of English at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts.

Of Chivalry and Convention Badges

At the recent International Congress on Medieval Studies, at Western Michigan University, I received a mild surprise when I opened my envelope of conference materials: My badge had my name, the Congress logo, and a large blank space below my name where I was accustomed to seeing my college’s name.  

That’s right; contrary to the norms of academic conferences, the badge said nothing of where I was from. Wondering if this were a mistake, I quickly glanced around the room where confreres came and went and saw that no one had an institutional identity on his or her badge. Mirabile Mirabilis! Was this a new custom of the castle?

Well, at least there was now something to talk about at lunch. Of course, instead of glancing at a lunch partner’s badge and asking, "So what do you do at …?" I would have to ask, "So where are you from?" after which I figured the conversation could slip into safe, familiar channels (I’m used to this: The badges at the Conference on College Composition carry the conventioneer’s hometown rather than institution, so conversations quickly go the same way). If nothing else, there would be the topic of the blank spot below our names.

I imagined there would be inconveniences. This is a conference where many foreign accents and languages are heard, and it helps to know if someone is from Gröningen, Gdansk, or the Gutenberg Press (hey, some of us have book proposals to pitch). And sometimes one is happy to run across another who works with out-of-touch friends and schoolmates, something that can only be discerned from seeing a university name upon the badge.

These nuisances aside, the blank space below my name seemed downright chivalrous, as befits a medieval studies conference (and there were a few sessions on chivalry). It was one of the polite fictions of chivalry that all knights were fundamentally equal in their knighthood regardless of whether one was the Holy Roman Emperor or a pauper who couldn’t afford to keep his charger in oats. As in chivalry, so it was here:  we’re all medievalists. Does anything else matter?

Well, yes, it does, and the polite fiction that all professors are created equal runs about as far as the selfsame fiction about knights.  

At a scholarly conference, almost everything conspires to convey the notion that research is the privileged activity of our profession, and that, ergo, those whose badges say “I research” are the worthiest -- a good reason, I suppose, for the conference organizers to gamely try to suppress that signifier (and, to its credit, the medievalists’ group regularly offers a handful of sessions exclusively devoted to teaching – more than any other research-oriented conference I’ve attended).

It isn’t just the fact that we’re all here to exchange scholarship. When I catch up with a former professor from my prestigious grad program and begin waxing effusively about what I’m teaching, she cuts me short with, “But you are still writing, I hope” (I must be, since you are reading, but perhaps this isn’t what she meant). When my dissertation director asks me what I’m working on now, I know instinctively he’s not all that interested in how I taught the freshman research writing course.

Even at a session on “Teaching the Middle Ages at the Small Liberal Arts College,” a pleasant 90 minutes in which a tiny band commiserated and exchanged tricks for Monday morning (and got in the castle gate by disguising those tricks as scholarship), I felt a sense that we were huddled together, putting up a brave front against the profession’s real priorities. Other sessions discussed the hermeneutic practices of Cistercian monks and the play of signifiers in Chaucer. We discussed how to get our students to use the dictionary.

While, in the end, all of us at that session have found contentment, identity, and even a sense of calling teaching 12-credit loads at small liberal arts colleges or second-tier state institutions, nary one of us sits at table or in session across from a nametag advertising “Harvard” or “U. California” or “Carnegie Mellon” without a touch of envy and an anxious vacillation between self-affirmation and self doubt. But this is what I wanted, I tell myself. And I’m good at it. Teaching -- that’s what matters, anyway, not those obscure articles almost no one reads. Then again … could I have done something differently? Was it bad luck, or bad timing? Did I compromise too readily? Was I really not good enough?

As I popped my badge into its plastic holder, I mused that pride was the deadliest of deadly sins (there were sessions on those, too, for anyone who hasn’t yet mastered them) and wondered:  how long could this comity last? Not very, it turned out. I signed in Thursday morning, but by Thursday afternoon pens had been drawn and ink had been spilled. The first sighting was of a young lady who had written in large, legible letters under her name, “U. Toronto.” Then a few more popped up: Cornell. Yale. UCLA. All were sported by young adults who seemed to be grad students preening in their quality coats of arms, and I mused, "Flaunt it while you’ve got it. It won’t be long before you’ll be grateful to sign a contract to teach remedial writing at the Jonathan Edwards School for Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God." (I admit it. I’m prone to envy, with its accompanying bitterness and spite.)

And indeed, as a few more nametags popped up with handwritten university names upon them, I remarked that no one was advertising that he was from The Diminutive College of the Magna Mea Culpa, That Affordable Place across Town, or the Jim Bowie College of Cutlery Science. The handful who wrote in their colleges all touted names that suggested prestige, privilege, and class. And that’s chivalry. Where you’re from is who you are. Descent is destiny. Some knights are more equal than others.

On Friday I lunched with my dissertation director and some fellow medieval drama folk. One among us, this time a senior professor, had written “UCLA” under his name. He was engaged in an animated discussion about the trials of running department meetings with 65 members, when I interrupted: "My department has only six."

There was a moment of surprised silence and astonished looks, after which he asked me, "And where would that be?"

I told him.  He smiled and reached into his pocket, pulled out a nylon-tip pen, and offered it to me, saying, “Would you care to write that on your badge?” It was gracious. Courteous. Chivalrous.

I accepted, borrowed his pen, and wrote, “The College of St. Elizabeth.”  

"I’m leading a rebellion,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. Against what? I had to wonder, as I returned his pen. The new custom? The whole game of signifying prestige?

So for the rest of the conference, I happily bore my coat of arms, for which I received a few strange looks. Was it for violating the custom of the castle? For daring to advertise such a lineage? For mocking a prerogative of the prestigious? It may, of course, have merely been for my sloppy handwriting. Perhaps I was a curiosity of sorts as I entered the lists, my visor up and my heraldry fully visible, armed with nothing but a fresh bag of tricks for Monday morning.

And yet, revealing my origin was mostly to my benefit. It led to conversations with other small Roman Catholic college teachers who wanted to compare notes. One priest struck up a conversation about a nun of the order that founded my college whose spiritual conferences he had read. Monks and nuns looked kindly upon me. And conversations tended to begin, “So what do you do at the College of St. Elizabeth?” or “Where exactly is that?”  

Folks largely behaved as if seeing my college name was normal -- because it is, I suppose.

John Marlin
Author's email: 

John Marlin is a professor of English at the small but spirited College of St. Elizabeth, in Morristown, New Jersey. He teaches writing, journalism and literature -- from Aeschylus to Austen.

Measures of Success

I only saw her out of the corner of my eye as I rushed into the book exhibit at the conference, but I was sure I knew her. Her face registered as out of context, somehow, but familiar. A second later, I realized it was one of my students, a recent English-major graduate of the liberal arts college at which I teach. I stopped, turned around and called to her.

She was pleased to see me. She’s a marketing assistant for a major academic publishing house, it turns out. I could tell she was proud of her job, pushing English composition and literature texts to English professors like me. We arranged to meet for dinner the next day, two professionals on a business trip.

I stopped by the marketing assistant’s exhibit while she was out at lunch, and her colleagues were anxious to find out how she had been in my classes. "She must have been a great student, huh?" one of her colleagues prompted me. Hmm. She had been solid, reliable, a good writer, and she always had something interesting to say in class, but the marketing assistant had not been one of our stars. Still, none of our stars of recent years had jobs like hers, working with literature.

Clearly her co-workers loved her. They spoke very fondly of her, and, indeed, she seemed to be very good at her job. What I hadn’t noticed in the classroom was the key quality that was working for the marketing assistant in the world after college: not her knowledge of literature but her skills with people. This I discovered very quickly the next evening at dinner.

I had already had a date for dinner that night with a friend of mine, a fiction writer, so I asked the marketing assistant if I could bring him along. "Sure," she said. "I can expense it. I’m just taking two English professors out." A new verb for me: to expense. I liked it.

She quickly took charge of the expedition, finding good restaurants and putting her name on the waiting list of one while we searched for another (Why had I never thought of that? I guess it’s not really cheating).

The marketing assistant had always been ready with an answer in class, but we’d never actually talked much about anything other than Victorian literature. Turns out she’s pretty funny, and very professional. She told great stories, often at the expense of some poor academic schmuck who stopped by her booth, intent on pitching his or her latest project. I felt sorry for the folks she described, but not because she mocked them -- she didn’t; she described them quite affectionately, as if she knew they couldn’t help themselves. The fiction writer and I shook our heads with her when she described the guy whose project was so impossibly narrow that no academic press would ever publish it. We chuckled along, though less heartily, when she wondered aloud at the fashion sense of the professoriate.

"When you look around the gate at the airport, you can always tell who’s going to the same conference you are," the marketing assistant said. Of course, we could, too, and the fiction writer and I had already had that obligatory conversation, this being his first professional conference. But it was different hearing it from the perspective of the marketing assistant. After all, as a friend of mine said ruefully, gazing around the lobby of one of the convention hotels a few years ago, “These are my people.”

When the marketing assistant got to the social skills of professors, we felt ourselves on relatively safe ground. Fiction writer has a fabulous, wry sense of humor and is good to have at parties, and I have always prided myself on being able to talk to anybody. We are not nerdy bookworms -- we both went to our proms. I snickered at her description of awkward social interactions she’d observed between academics. “It’s amazing you guys found people to get hooked up with,” she declared good-naturedly -- in her eyes we were no different from the guy we had just seen mumbling to himself as he wandered through the book exhibit. Maybe we weren’t. Maybe these really were our people.

They weren’t her people; that’s for sure. The marketing assistant had perspective on our folk that we clearly didn’t have. And that made it really fun to talk to her. I enjoyed seeing her in her professional persona. I was proud of her, glad one of our grads seemed to be heading for a successful career in publishing. But seeing her made me realize that I may not be the best assessor of my students’ skills.

Although the marketing assistant is great at her job, I would not have been able to predict that. When I look at my students, I realize, I have always concentrated on particular skills that are not necessarily the ones that will serve them best after college. Who writes the best? Whose research is most thorough? Whose reading of the novel is the most subtle? Not the most marketable skills, though they will get you into graduate school.

The marketing assistant is the same young woman she was when she was in my classroom. But much of her incisive observation, her wit, her distanced assessment and clever summing-up had passed me by when she was in college. What a letter of recommendation I could write for her now. Of course, she doesn’t need it now.  She’s already moved on. 

Paula Krebs
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Paula Krebs is professor of English at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts.

NEH Grant Proposal #1095702H

The 19th-century Welsh novelist Henry Clairidge (1832-74) stood firmly in the British eccentric tradition, publishing only two novels during his lifetime, __________ and [              ], each consisting of 200 blank pages. A posthumously published volume was put out by his sister, Ethel, in 1876: “******,” a heavily annotated work of 200 pages, also blank.

These three books constitute the Clairidge oeuvre and his claim to literary posterity. Apart from a few contemporary reviews in The Gleaners’ Gazette, Clairidge remains mostly a tabula rasa. No critic has adequately addressed this master of Victorian minimalism, who so clearly anticipated the work of the Parisian livre vide movement in the 1890s and the pared-down appearance of late Beckett some decades later.

Occasionally, commentators have projected their own preconceptions on Clairidge’s admittedly scanty plots. New Critics had a field day filling in the gaps and differentiating between hiatuses and lacunae.

Barthes proposed 53 distinct readings of page 100 in [             ], whereas Derrida declared, “There is nothing inside the text.” Greenblatt links the genesis of Clairidge’s corpus to a blank diary found among the effects of a drowned sailor from Bristol in 1835. Several attempts by white studies scholars to claim Clairidge’s pages as an oppressed majoritarian cri de coeur have been largely ignored by multiculturalists.

These previous approaches miss the mark. Clairidge’s grand emptiness, prefiguring the existential void of the 1950s, mirrors life itself -- or at least the life of Clairidge, who spent his last 20 years at the ancestral estate in Ffwokenffodde, staring gormlessly at the hay ricks. His sister, Ethel, who doubled as his amanuensis and nurse, would occasionally turn him toward a prospect of furze, but the shift seems not to have affected his subject or style.

I contend that Clairidge’s hard-won nullity is temperamentally different from nihilism, which is to say that believing nothing is not the same as Belief in Nothing. Moreover, if Clairidge’s art takes the blankness of life as its premise, its slow-building conclusions represent a sort of après vie. Though reconstructing a writer’s faith from his art is a dicey business (and Ethel burned her brother’s blank notebooks after his death), one of the few remaining social effects sold at a charity auction in 1876 is a hay-strewn, slightly warped Ouija board. In short, this project involves the unacknowledged fourth estate of the race, gender, and class trinity: creed. Any committee members in sympathy with the current political administration, please take note.

Nothing is familiar to me. As a blocked but tenured faculty member for the past 14 years, I can attest to the power of the blank page. The study I propose would be as infinitely suggestive as Clairidge’s own work. Having already compiled over 150 blank pages of my own, I estimate that I am about halfway through a first draft.

My spurious timeline, suggested by my university’s internal grant board to indicate progress, is as follows: chapter one by March, chapter two by April, chapter three by May, and so on. More specifically, I hope to have the large autobiographical or “life” section done by May, so I can go on vacation with my family, and the “after-life” section should be done before my department chair calls me in to discuss that tiresome annual faculty activity report.

I already have papers and books strewn impressively around my office, as well as a graduate assistant to help me sort through them. An NEH grant at this stage would not only help to renovate our breakfast room, but also answer the querulous looks that the dean of  liberal arts has been giving me at public gatherings. Considering the projects you people have been funding lately, I -- but as with Henry Clairidge, words fail me. As Wittgenstein concluded in his Tractatus, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”


Selected Bibliography

Clairidge, Ethel. The Selected Letters of Ethel Clairidge to Her Brother, The Corresponding Grunts of Henry Clairidge to His Sister. Eds. Renée Clairidge and Friend. Metuchen, N.J.: Methuen, 1965.
Clairidge, Henry. __________. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1872.

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

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

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

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

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

David Galef
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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).

Students Read Less. Should We Care?

A new survey of literary reading in America by the National Endowment for the Arts, " Reading At Risk " has once again raised the alarm about the cultural decline of America. This one provides the news that we read much less literature, defined as fiction and poetry, than we did some 20 years ago. Indeed, the decline is substantial (10 percent), accelerating and especially worrisome because the malady of literature non-reading particularly afflicts the younger members of society, that critical 18-24 year old group (which shows a 28 percent decline in this survey).

Academicians rushed in to analyze, comment and explain this decline, but some of the commentary both in the report itself and in the academic discussion it provoked seemed to miss the mark. The predictable villains of the visual media, the electronic media and the Internet all came in for blame.
Truth is, I am not sure that the data represent a cause for alarm.   

I know I should worry. I am a historian, after all, and if people will not read fiction, surely they will read less history. And I'm a teacher, and like everyone else in the humanities, I know students just do not read like they used to do.  

The trouble is, I am not sure the changes in our cultural context are necessarily a bad thing. I read many airplane novels, and I have to say that if the younger generation is doing something else with their time, not much is lost. I read New Yorker fiction when I feel the need to be literarily virtuous, but the pieces tend to be mostly depressing stories about lives that do not work out in rather low-level ways.  

Then I go online. Here I find a complicated world filled with the good, the bad, and the ugly. Alive and constantly changing, engaged and engaging, requiring my constant decisions about what is worth reading or seeing and what is not. From the lowest pornography to tours of the treasures of the Library of Congress, from the stupidest blogs of the radical fringes, to the most sophisticated discussions of the decline of America's reading habits, everything is there.

What is missing of course is the prescriptive, gate-keeping censorship of the academic and other cultural mandarins, sorting out what is good for me and what is not. The college students who now show up in my classroom come with an informational sophistication unimaginable in my generation. They find what they want, they use what they find, and they discard immense amounts of information made available to them.

Are they naïve about authority, methodology, logic and accuracy in these endless streams of information? Sure, they are. Who should teach them how to sort this stuff? We academics, sophisticated readers ourselves who all too frequently escape into trendy obscurantism rather than engage the real world information flow that constitutes the actual cultural context of our time.

We, the literate part of the American population, need to reconnect with the actual cultural context, rather than fight micro-academic battles of almost no interest to people outside the elite tiers of the academy. We need a better metric than reading print books, stories and poems to define the active imagination and the creative industries of our time. Why is a trashy airplane best seller more of a valuable cultural artifact than the telenovelas watched with enthusiasm and discussed in endless analytical detail by the large and growing Spanish speaking part of America? Why do we assume depressing short stories or over-hyped formulaic bestseller novels represent more significant cultural artifacts than the film version of The Lord of the Rings, the Star Wars series, or the computer game community's imaginative products?

The decline in reading may well reflect the decline in formal study of the humanities in American universities. However, the problem is not the students but the material we teach, the sectarian nature of our controversies, and our general reluctance to put the humanities in the center of our culture rather than relegating them to fragmented enclaves along the partisan byways of academic enthusiasms.

We lose influence on campus to the sciences on one side because they appear and act as if they know exactly what they are doing, how they do it, and for what purpose they do it. We lose influence on campus to the professionally oriented disciplines on the other side because they have a purpose and a method anchored directly in the center of the real world their disciplines address.  

We in the humanities, and very frequently as well in the social sciences, often do not know and do not agree on what we think we are doing. We have few common standards and we ask little of our students who have time for non-academically related campus activities. We wonder why our voices carry such little weight when our culture seems to need us so desperately to sort out fundamental issues of values and judgment.

Our weakness on campus as humanists and social scientists reflects our frequent disconnect from the major issues that drive our culture and society. We know a lot, about many topics and issues. We have complex and specialized languages that define our place in political and intellectual sectarian spaces. While the best among us teach interesting courses to many students, most of us publish and build our prestige in the academy with mostly unreadable prose using such terms of art opaque to any but the specialists.  

Although our scientific colleagues are often even more incomprehensible than we are, they have found ways to demonstrate the utility of their work so that a whole industry translates their science into terms ordinary citizens can understand. Some of our humanistic and social scientific colleagues find audiences outside the academy, but many people find it hard to distinguish between the opinionated rant of an e-zine commentator and the reasoned logic and well-researched judgment of a humanistic scholar. Often the rant is easier to read and more accessible than the reasoned argument.

What to do? I am not sure, but the first thing would be to pay close attention to what people are reading, what they are seeing, and how they do engage the common culture. The message of "Reading At Risk" is that something other than literature in print form engages more and more of our fellow citizens, and we might want to try to learn how to speak to them in the voices they want to hear.

Where better to learn how to do this than with our 18- to 24-year-old undergrads?

John V. Lombardi
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Campus Sexpot

Campus Sexpot is the title of a moderately sleazy potboiler from 1961 -- a tale of faculty-student relations at a small-town junior college where, it seems, the graduates of Peyton Place High School continued their educations. The author was one Dale Koby. A search of online bookdealers reveals that he went on to a fairly prolific career as pulp author, turning out such memorable titles as Sex by Appointment, Lust on Wheels and Perverted Wife. Koby also edited some not-quite-scholarly editions of classic (or at least old) erotica. But most of his ouevre is missing from the catalog of the Library of Congress. It lists him only as the author of A Teacher Confesses to Sex in the Classroom, a work of nonfiction from 1965 revisiting certain themes from his first novel.

Koby was a terrible writer. (Sample: "She thrust her breasts up at him with a pert sauciness.") But by 1962, he had an attentive readership in the California mountain town of Sonora, where he had worked, for about three semesters, as a high-school teacher. David Carkeet, who was for many years director of the MFA program at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, was a student at the school at the time.  As he recalls in Campus Sexpot: A Memoir, published by the University of Georgia Press, it was not hard to figure out the real-life identities of Koby’s characters.

Chances are, Carkeet would have studied the novel closely in any case, even apart from the interesting questions it raised about the relationship between life and art. He was 15 when the book appeared, and glad for whatever information on sex he could find -- such as that information was, in a book that carefully avoiding descriptions of everything below the waist. "For all the genital detail we’re going to get," notes Carkeet about one of Koby’s characters, "Linda might as well be a mermaid."

Carkeet is the winner of the award for creative nonfiction from the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. That information is announced on the cover, just above a high-school newspaper photo of the author standing on a chair, kissing a much taller girl under the mistletoe. Any writer looking back at adolescence must, of course, face the complications of embarrassment. (It is not just one part of the memories, but part of the writer’s present toolkit: There is a skill involved in handling embarrassment, in using it to carve a shape out of the past.) Inspired by the insight that the trash that once fascinated us gives the quickest access to the identities we've shed, Carkeet uses Campus Sexpot as a way to excavate memories otherwise too disobliging to recall.

"When I read the book now," he says, "its verbal avoidance of body parts with which I am actually familiar returns them to a thrilling condition of mystery. I don’t have to make an effort to enter this frame of mind. Instead, the words in Campus Sexpot that lead up to a saucy scene fire ancient neurons, and before I know it, I am transported into a state of salacious ignorance."

Any work of pulp-era smut consists of two sorts of writing. There are "the good parts," which the reader revisits until they become very familiar, and the rest, which is just barely tolerable the first time. "The chief device for advancing the story," writes Carkeet, "is not action but constant banal dialogue; the reader of a Koby novel longs to enter it not in order to have sex but in order to tell everyone to shut up."

Umberto Eco once made a similar distinction regarding the semiotics of pre-video porn films -- which were, as he put it, "full of people who climb into cars and drive for miles and miles, couples who waste incredible amounts of time signing in at hotel desks, gentlemen who spend many minutes in elevators before reaching their rooms.... To put it simply, crudely, in porn movies, before you can see a healthy screw, you have to put up with a documentary that could be sponsored by the Traffic Bureau."

Carkeet reproduces the "good bits" from the original Campus Sexpot in bold. This is not just a typographical device, or a convenience to the reader, but an index of how much they had burned themselves into his memory. One passage in particular seems like a key to understanding the effect of the novel on him. (It is also a good example of Koby’s prose at its most fine-honed.) In it, a professor named Paul Skell comments on a student, Linda Franklin, who is the titular campus sexpot:

"Hips made for the act of love," Paul muttered, "and ideally designed to accommodate a pair of hot pants. If she's a virgin, I'll donate half of my salary this year to a home for wayward girls. I've spent my life being interested in girls with hot pants. I've studied them from every angle. I believe I know all the symptoms, and Linda Franklin has them."

This came as a revelation. The original of "Paul Skell" -- easily recognizable from his description to those who attended his school -- was the dull and high-minded pedant who taught Carkeet’s freshman English class, and a leader in the local DeMolay assembly. For those not in the know, the DeMolay order is the male youth auxiliary of the Freemasons. It provides "a regimen of enforced dignity for boys at an undignified age," as Carkeet writes, "and the primary engine of uplift is a vast body of ornate ritual that reads like the Boy Scout oath as revised and expanded by Samuel Johnson." To imagine that a severe and proper adult might have "spent [his] long career" studying hot pants "from every angle" was a decisive moment in Carkeet’s sentimental education.

My hope, as a reader, was that Carkeet would track down the author of Campus Sexpot and find out what he was doing now. Koby wrote and edited for the pulp-porn industry up through the late 1960s, and Carkeet tracks down some of these subsequent efforts. (" Appointment by Sex treats a phenomenon I was unaware of when I was growing up -- supermarket cashiers doubling as lesbian prostitutes who meet the needs of shopping housewives neglected by their husbands.") But his creative output declined after 1968,  for reasons that are anybody’s guess; and he died sometime in the 1980s.

Carkeet finds that, before arriving in Sonoroa, Koby had been a college instructor in San Jose, and also had affairs with two students at another high school. "There is no reason to doubt the report of A Teacher Confesses to Sex in the Classroom," writes Carkeet, "for it is hardly a self-aggrandizing story.... The author portrays himself as predatory and manipulative but shows no more contrition than one finds in the Roger Miller song of the period, 'Dang Me.' He plays mind games with his young charges, his favorite being exaggerated devotion even as the affair is ending, just to see what reaction he can get."

Insofar as the original Campus Sexpot may be said to have had a plot, its denouement occurs at the courthouse, where Koby has his characters gather for a final melodramatic reckoning. And in real life, too, Sonora had a courthouse, where Carkeet’s father served as the town’s judge. The final chapter of Campus Sexpot: A Memoir is a portrait of the author’s old man -- a recognition of his failings, but also a tribute to him as someone with the moral center that the pulp novelist lacked.

It's not for readers to determine the justice of that conclusion, of course: We know only as much as Carkeet tells us. But as an ending, it certainly follows from the book's effort to work out the parallels and the divergences between fact and fiction.

It also flows from the memoiristic logic of deriving insight from embarrassment. The 15 year-old reader of the novel grew up to be a novelist and a writing teacher himself. No doubt he had a somewhat romanticized version of Koby at the back of his mind -- remembering him as freewheeling beatnik living outside respectable society, and so on. How humiliating to discover that, all along, the more complex and interesting figure may have been your real father, not the surrogate.  

Scott McLemee
Author's email: 

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

Whereabouts Not Known

A recent entry at his blog Unlocked Wordhord, Richard Scott Nokes, an assistant professor of English at Troy University, recalls how he and some friends let off steam in graduate school a few years ago by making up an imaginary theorist, Pierre Mourier, to discuss on a lit-student listserv. (My thanks to Ralph Luker for pointing this item out.) Nokes says that a few people on the list who weren’t in on the joke began to pontificate on Mourier’s work –- even correcting the title of a translation of one of his papers.

It’s a good story. An edifying one, even: a cautionary tale about the danger of craving the au courant, even at the cost of making yourself ridiculous. But if you go to the archives of the departmental listserv in question, a slightly different picture emerges. Searching "Mourier," you find no messages by unwary poseurs dropping Mourier’s name. One or two puzzled souls do confess that they’ve never heard of the author of Murmurs in the Cabaret:  Finding Language through Noise (1951). Everybody else, however, is plainly goofing.

On a more sober note, we should perhaps consider the case of Henri Mensonge, that oft-neglected Franco-Bulgarian genius. He can most accurately (if also most confusingly) be labelled proto-post-structuralist. Mensonge is no mere online ghost. His work was the subject of a compact book by the late Malcolm Bradbury.

The Library of Congress has assigned a call number to My Strange Quest for Mensonge: Structuralism’s Hidden Hero (Penguin, 1987) that places it on the same shelf as Bradbury’s comic novels about British university life. But the Dewey system treats it as a work of philosophy. (I came across it in a public library, by chance, while looking for something about Jacques Maritain.) The confusion is exemplary. I suspect that Mensonge, and certainly Bradbury, would be pleased.

Bradbury notes that a translation of Mensonge’s treatise La Fornication comme acte culturel (which had originally appeared in either 1965 or '66) would be forthcoming "from the West Coast Marxist-Feminist Gay Collective Press, under the title Sex and Culture, with a lovely cover, in their ‘His and Her-Meneutics’ series."

Sadly, this edition never appeared. The Anglophone reader has no choice but to consult Bradbury’s volume. It comes with an afterward by Michel Tardieu, the professor of structural narratology at the Sorbonne best known for his work reducing the plots of both Pride and Prejudice and War and Peace to the same quadratic equation. A note indicates that Tardieu’s essay was translated by Bradbury’s close friend David Lodge. (Readers of Lodge's novel Small World may recall that Tardieu makes a brief cameo.)

Little is known about Mensonge himself. Early in his career, he served as a teaching assistant to Roland Barthes, but certain passages in Mensonge’s work suggest that it must have been a difficult relationship. In 1968, Barthes published his famous essay announcing, as its title had it, "The Death of the Author." But by that point, Mensonge had already anticipated Barthes’s argument and carried it one step further -- erasing nearly all traces of his own existence, to a degree that other reclusive writers might envy. We have, for example, a portrait of Thomas Pynchon from his high school yearbook, while the only surviving photograph of Henri Mensonge shows the back of his head. As he once put it: "I have sought a level of absence that is so complete it cannot be mistaken for anything other than it is."

He even sought to keep his name off the spines of books by or about him. In this age of the theorist as "academostar," such avoidance of celebrity is refreshing. And yet Mensonge is the man who, in Bradbury’s words "out-Barthesed Barthes, out-Foucaulted Foucault, out Derridaed Derrida, and out-Deleuzed-and-Guattaried Deleuze and Guattari." He opened (in Mensonge’s own words) "a new field of desacralizing inquiry." His influence (if that is the word for it) rests upon a single major work, though scholars writing in The Mensonge Newsletter have identified a number of anonymous texts that he may have published, including several unusually thoughtful restaurant reviews.

La Fornication comme acte culturel appeared in advance of Jacques Derrida’s first wave of publications (the three cornerstone works of 1967). But he had the misfortune to publish it in Luxembourg, rather than Paris -- and with an undistinguished publishing house that, as Bradbury mentions, "subsequently proved to be a very ineffective cover for the international drug trade." The book was printed on "porous paper of a kind conventionally used for purposes quite other than literary and philosophical dissemination." Copies of the first edition vary from 39 to 115 pages, reflecting a certain lack of attention on the part of the binder.

Nor was it well distributed. "Perhaps the title was misleading," suggests Bradbury. "Certainly it ended up in the kind of bookstore specializing in erotica and in genital technology of the more complicated kind." Even so, the book’s radical argument found a warm reception. Walking past any given café, one heard French intellectuals enraptured by "a constant intense discussion of La Fornication."

Bradbury writes about La Fornication in much the same way Francis Fukuyama might discuss the Home Shopping Network. Mensonge had written "the last book, the book that completes and concludes the shelf of modern thought."

He began, of course, with Saussure’s model of the sign. Then Mensonge pushed the arbitrary nature of the link between signifier and signified harder than the structuralists ever had. The absolute distance between them (between signifier and signified, that is, not between the structuralists; but them too, probably) made communication impossible.

This was not theoretical recklessness on Mensonge’s part, for the implications clearly troubled him. Either "we have everything to say, and nothing to say it with," as he wrote, "or alternatively the opposite. Most of my philosophical contemporaries choose the one or the other, but quite frankly this looks like trouble to me."

But he refused half measures. Mensonge went further -- challenging what he called "the coital cogito," that implicit structure underlying "the non-existent ego of the scholar him/her non-self." For is it not commonplace to refer to intellectual "excitement," to speak of the need to "lay bare the thing as it is" -- so that thought might "penetrate" reality? (As Mensonge sums it up with admirable lucidity: "Alas, the 'thing' as it is in actuality is not, for there is no thing, and actually no actuality for it actually not to be not in.") Nor is it sufficient to deconstruct what Mensonge called Lacan’s "great phallusy." One must also question "the metaphysical vagina."

All of this, mind you, in work published around the time Judith Butler was a kid watching "Batman."

As it happens, Mensonge’s book appeared just as Susan Sontag was publishing her famous essay "Against Interpretation," with its memorable closing line: "In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art." (I noticed this coincidence, not Bradbury. Please footnote accordingly.) And Sontag’s aphorism was itself a tribute to Mensonge’s former mentor, Roland Barthes, who would later go on to write S/Z and The Pleasure of the Text.

It is remarkable how effectively Mensonge distanced himself from B/S, even before they had articulated their own ideas. Clearly he had thought things through with a certain obsessional rigor. "Sex is difficult enough in bed," he wrote, "as my philosophic contemporaries should know. To try to perform it in the bookcase is hubristic beyond belief. In any case it is no use pretending we are at a whorehouse when we know we are at a funeral. Try the book any way you like. It will show no sign of enjoying it, and will certainly not give a squeak back."

The occasional reference to Henri Mensonge now appears, tucked away in the bibliographies of those literary scholars who practice annotation with tongue, as it were, in chic. And the index that Bradbury prepared for the book (embedding a few additional jokes in his cross-references) is cited in the library-science literature. But My Strange Quest remains the one study of Mensonge available – hence, as such, definitive. (If the author neglects to mention that the theorist’s last name means "lie" in French, that seems a trivial oversight.)

Bradbury notes that other scholars tried to dissuade him from writing about La Fornication -- "a work of such profound intellectual subtlety, linguistic density, and textual disorder that there is no way even of translating it, never mind understanding it, and that only a person of the most limited imagination, and probably the most unmitigated stupidity as well, would even dream of undertaking the task," he writes.

"Fortunately for the common reader," he adds, "there are just one or two of us who possess exactly those qualifications and are prepared to use them. Or maybe I am too modest. Just casting one quick eye around the worlds of journalism and scholarship, I realize there could be hundreds."

Scott McLemee
Author's email: 

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

Designed to Please

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Galef
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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).

Radio Free Moby

Early in the summer of 2002, the National Press Club, in Washington, sponsored a panel on the phenomenon of blogging. The turnout was rather modest. The journalistic buzz over blogging -- soon to become deafening, once the presidential campaign got underway -- was as yet little more than a puzzled murmur. The idea of blogging as a political force wasn't even that high on the agenda, if memory serves. It must have come up, of course, but it was not the most striking thing about the discussion. No,  what sticks in my memory, three years later, was the presence of Doug McLennan from ArtsJournal, the indispensable daily digest of cultural reporting, and of Dennis Loy Johnson, whose Moby Lives was one of the first literary blogs.

Later that day, Johnson, formerly an English professor at Allegheny College, sat in my living room, elaborating his grand vision of blogging as a means of revitalizing the culture. (It is hard to write about this now without some retroactive irony.) His idea was that literary blogging would provide an alternative to The New York Times Book Review and suchlike. But it could do more than that. It would help foster a kind of counter-public sphere: Writers and readers could meet sans the influence of the big publishing conglomerates. The do-it-yourself ethos would be revitalized, and Random House wouldn’t know what hit 'em.

I listened -- supportive, but skeptical. You can participate in just so many let's-overthrow-the-media discussions, after all, before being a little too familiar with the inevitable topoi. The great thing about the counterculture is that it comes from a tradition that is centuries old; the awful thing about it is that the apocalypse never comes.

In any case, having reservations about the impending showdown is not necessarily proof of cynicism. Rather, it's a matter of thinking that, in the end, somebody is going to have to put up or shut up. Having started out in the ‘zine world during the first Reagan administration, I’ve now read far too many cultural fatwas by literary "movements" uncontaminated by talent ever to take one at face value ever again.

Well, for his part, Dennis Loy Johnson has managed to put up. He went on to start an independent press, Melville House Books, which in three years has published about two dozen literary and political books. Countless literary blogs started in the wake of Moby Lives -- some by people who emulated Johnson, and some by people who loathed him. (Another countercultural tradition, that: By the time Allen Ginsberg got "Howl" into print, 50 years ago, there must have been some fierce young beatniks furious at the sellout.)

He's let Moby Lives "go dark" from time to time, as the theater people say when the stage closes down for a while. Understandable enough, given the effort required to keep Melville House running. The site went dark this summer -- with a page announcing, first, that Moby would return in August, then in September. By October, I was checking it more from force of habit than real expectation.

Then, last week, Moby Lives was reincarnated – as an online radio program. My wife, who is far more infotech-minded than I am, rolls her eyes at the expression "online radio program" and insists that it be called a "podcast." That locution is much too reminiscent of something from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, however. And anyway, you have to listen to Moby Lives through Real Audio. You can't actually download it to an iPod (or any other such gizmo), though evidently that option will soon be available. So technically Moby has only halfway metamorphosized from blog to pod. (O brave new world, that has such lingo in it.)

In any case, it was a surprising development, so I called Johnson to find out more about how it came to pass. The Melville House office (and impromptu radio studio) is in an old factory building. As we talk, I hear various booms and crashes in the background. It’s pretty clear that there will be times when Moby Lives 2.0 won’t quite sound like anything from National Public Radio.

"I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time," Johnson says. "It’s just been a question of finding the time to learn how to do it. The curve on it has been difficult for me. I’m not particularly astute at these things, which is why the blog never got beyond HTML. That was about as much as I could do."

He says the equipment "is all really small, and really expensive." A freelancer does the engineering work, helping him to edit the various recorded bits into a single program. At the end of the day, Johnson records a survey of publishing news to serve as the opening for the next morning's program. Other features are drawn from telephone interviews. During Moby's first week, guests included David Kipen, the new director of the literature program at the National Endowment for the Arts, and Sara Nelson, an editor at Publishers Weekly. There are also short humor pieces – including a sort of fractured Masterpiece Theater segment in which Johnson reads excerpts from classics of world literature as rendered by an online translation program.

Even apart from the occasional mysterious background noise, the recording quality is, he admits, a little rough. "That’s why we tried to sneak online with it. I didn’t send anything out to our mailing list about it, or contact the blogs."

But the latter decision might also reflect disenchantment with blogging. What he hoped, three years ago, might foster an alternative culture now strikes Johnson as a new tool in the hands of mainstream publishers. "Blogging has become another outlet for them," he says. "I hear from their publicists on a daily basis."

Are university press publicists making the same kinds of pitches? His answer comes as a surprise to me: "I don’t hear from university press people as much as you might think, unless they’re doing poetry, since they know I’ve covered poetry a lot. But scholarly books, no."

He doesn’t think of university presses as part of the problem. While references to "the crisis in academic publishing" are commonplace in some circles, few people in literary journalism or the blogosphere have heard of it. "University presses are as under assault as any other kind of independent publisher," Johnson says. "I don’t think people in the literary world really understand that."

The move from print to audio only looks like a new departure. "I was a film major as an undergraduate at Boston University," he says, "and took all my basic classes in communications from acolytes of Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly. I worked at the student radio station there, at the same time as Howard Stern, of all people, not that I really have any memory of him. But I always thought I’d end up a broadcast journalist."

It isn’t a question of creating some whole new form of alternative media, then, so much as it is keeping faith with the old school. "Back when Mary McCarthy went on 'The Dick Cavett Show,'" says Johnson, "he had her on because she was Mary McCarthy, not because she had a new book out. That’s the principle with Moby Lives radio. We want to have on people with something to say, not something to sell."  

Scott McLemee
Author's email: 

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

Meet the Press

From time to time, an academic organization will invite me to sit on a panel at one of its gatherings, where my role is to serve as a native informant from the tribe of the journalists – one charged with the task of explaining our bizarre customs, and of demonstrating the primitive means by which we approximate abstract thought. (Sometimes they then give me food.) It is a curious experience, full of potential for misstatement and hasty generalizations. For one thing, the tribe is quite heterogeneous. "Media" is a plural, or it should be anyway. And within any given medium, the "journalistic field" (as Pierre Bourdieu called it) is itself fissured and stratified. It is a point I try to communicate to the professors through a combination of grunts and hand gestures -- an awkward exercise, all around.

But one question-and-answer session sticks in mind as particularly embarrassing. The audience consisted mainly of English professors. Some of them practiced media criticism and analysis of various forms. What role (the question went) did such work play in how those of us in the media understood our work?

For once, I felt no hesitation about generalizing. The short answer was simply that academic media analysis plays no part at all, at least in its theoretically articulated variants. This should not be surprising. As a guest, though, you don’t want to be rude, so I padded the answer out with polite indications that this was a matter of some regret -- and that, to be fair, some kinds of media criticism do provoke a lot of attention in journalistic circles.

But that last part was a bit of a feint. The kinds of analyses produced by people in that audience have no traction. The most subtle and cogent analysis by a rhetorician of how  The Times or CNN frames its stories has all the pertinence to a reporter or editor that a spectrographic analysis of jalapeno powder would to someone cooking chili.

This is not a function of journalistic anti-intellectualism, though there’s certainly enough of that to go around. No, it comes down to a knowledge gap –- one in which academic media critics are often at a serious disadvantage. I mean tacit knowledge. There are, for example, things one learns from the experience of interviewing people who are clearly lying to you (or otherwise trying to make you a pawn in whatever game they are playing) that cannot be reduced to either formal propositions or methodological rules.

It is not necessary to read the collected fulminations of Noam Chomsky to learn that editors have ideological blinkers and blindspots. You tend to figure that one out pretty quickly, and may grow impatient with its protracted demonstration. What you want, rather, is some good old-fashioned phronesis -- that is, the cultivated practical wisdom required to know how to handle a situation.

One Web site quotes a scholar’s description of phronesis as "a sound practical instinct for the course of events, an almost indefinable hunch that anticipates the future by remembering the past and thus judges the present correctly." Start showing us how to get some of that, and I guarantee that folks will stand around the newsroom, debating your endnotes.

All of this is a roundabout way of framing the virtues of Danny Schechter’s The Death of Media, as well as its limitations. It is a new title in the Melville Manifestoes series published by Melville House, an independent press mentioned here on Tuesday. Schechter, one of the first producers for CNN and a winner of two Emmys for his work on the ABC program "20/20," has been a Neiman Fellow in Journalism at Harvard University. He is also the author of a book called The More You Watch, the Less You Know (1999), which I haven’t read -- though reportedly it did upset Bill O’Reilly, which seems like recommendation enough.

Schechter, then, is someone who brings tacit knowledge aplenty to the work of commenting on the state of the media. Last year, in his documentary WMD: Weapons of Mass Deception, he did more than reconstruct how the print and electronic media alike fell into line with the administration’s justifications for war. In that, he drew in part on a piece of scholarly research that certainly does deserve the closest and most shame-faced attention by the entire journalistic profession, the study Media Coverage of Weapons of Mass Destruction, by Susan D. Moeller, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Maryland at College Park. (The full text is available here.)

But Schechter went a step further -- zeroing in on moments when reporters and editors worried aloud that changes in the mass media were eroding the difference between practicing journalism and providing coverage. That distinction is not a very subtle one, but it’s largely missing from the conceptual universe of, say, cultural studies.

"Providing coverage" is rather like what Woody Allen said about life: Most of it is just showing up. The cameras record what is happening, or the reporter takes down what was said -- and presto, an event is "covered." The quantity of tacit knowledge so mobilized is not large.

By contrast, any effort to "practice journalism" involves (among other things) asking questions, following hunches, noticing the anomalous, and persisting until someone accidentally says something meaningful. There is more to it than providing stenography to power. It involves certain cognitive skills -- plus a sense of professional responsibility.

In his manifesto, Schechter runs through the familiar and depressing statistics showing a decline of public confidence in the mainstream media, increasing percentages of "infotainment" to hard news, and steady downsizing of reporting staff at news organizations.

One public-opinion poll conducted for the Pew Center found that "as 70 percent of the people asked expressed dissatisfaction with the news media."  And the same figure emerged from a survey of people working in the news media: about 70 percent, as Schechter puts it, "feel the same way as their customers." He quotes Hunter S. Thompson’s evocative characterization of the television industry as "a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side."

To all of this, Schechter offers the alternative of ... uh, Wikipedia?

Well, "citizen journalism" anyway -- through which "the ideas, observations, and energy of ordinary people" will serve as "not only a way of democratizing the media but also enlivening it." He points to "the meteoric growth of the blogosphere and the emergence of thousands of video activists," plus the contribution of scholars to "first rate publishing projects," including "a new online, non-commercial encyclopedia that taps the expertise of researchers and writers worldwide."

Well, it’s probably not fair to judge the possibilities for citizen journalism by the actual state of public-access cable TV -- or any given Wikipedia entry written by a follower of Lyndon LaRouche. (Besides, are either all that much worse than MSNBC?) But something is missing from Schechter’s optimistic scenario, in any case.

It is now much easier to publish and broadcast than ever before. In other words, the power to cover and event or a topic has increased. But the skills necessary to foster meaningful discussion are not programmed into the software. They have to be cultivated.

That's where people from academe come in. The most substantial interventions in shaping mass media probably won't come from conference papers and journal articles, but in the classroom -- by giving the future citizen journalist access, not just to technology, but to cognitive tools.

Scott McLemee
Author's email: 

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


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