Out With the Old

The death of a scholar of ancient mathematics may mean the demise of a unique department and -- some fear -- an area of research.

January 9, 2007

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.


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