Turning 30: A Self-Interview

May 15, 2007

Q: You’ve written thirty “Purely Academic” columns. Can you reflect on the experience?

A: Toward the end of Thomas Pynchon’s V, a girl asks one of the heroes, Benny Profane, about what he’s learned. Benny, we read, “didn’t have to think long. ‘No,’ he said, ‘Offhand I’d say I haven’t learned a goddamn thing.’”

Q: Surely you jest. And I don’t like literary types.

A: Well, all right. One thing I’ve learned is that anything having to do with students is guaranteed to draw lots of comment. It scarcely matters what you write. Everybody gets very agitated over giving excuses, leaving class to go to the bathroom and drawing up syllabi.

Q: Is this wrong?

A: No, but it’s one thing to try to compose a reasoned argument about such subjects, while it’s another thing to express an opinion. Once I read somewhere -- all right, no more literature, although now you’ll have to pardon my French -- that the great Dodger manager, Walter Alston, once stated: “Everybody has two things, an opinion and an asshole.” About some subjects, an opinion is just too easy.

Q: So what are readers supposed to do, just agree with you?

A: Of course not. Another thing I’ve learned is that not everybody will agree with you, even if you think you’re being eminently reasonable, and not everybody will disagree with you, even if you take yourself to be contrary. The wonder of the site’s format is that a column draws all sorts of comments. You shouldn’t be surprised at anything. At first, I was; like any academic, I wasn’t used to having actual readers. Now I anticipate them.

Q: What do you mean, academics are not used to readers? I don’t know about you, but over the years I’ve gotten some appreciative comments about something I’ve written.

A: Sure, but how many read a standard professional journal? How many reviews can we expect for our scholarly books? Most articles and books are written for the personnel file. My guess is, we’d write very little if we didn’t have to be tenured or promoted.

Q: You sound like you’re about to commit a column. Some of them -- a recent one on bosses comes to mind most recently -- were awfully cynical.

A: Guilty as suspected and judged. So much so, I could mention another example of what Borat (remember him?) would term a “learning”: how amazing it is if you write two-and-a-half to three single-spaced pages once a month for some two years you come to feel that this is a nice comfy fit for just about any subject.

Q: Are we now talking about the wrong end of Walter Alston?

A: Touché. Put it another way. A friend tells me of a new DVD that includes a short 30s film with Boris Karloff as a mad scientist being exploited by a newspaper magnate. Best line from Karloff’s crippled manservant, who declares: “I don’t mind dying but to be accused of journalism!.” What I meant is that at times not only have I accused myself of journalism, but I’ve felt no shame.

Q: Why should you? What’s the matter with journalism? Academics can be such snobs.

A: C’mon. Begin anywhere, say with the fact that journalism is written for the moment, whereas literature is written for the ages. At first, I suppose I took myself often to be writing, well, literature -- artful examples of a venerable genre, the personal essay. Then I ceased to think about it this way, even if the composed dimension of each column still means a lot to me. Readers rebuked me. Responses still stampeded over, or away with, the most incidental asides. I write about things happening on campus right now -- sex and violence or parking lots and classroom jokes. That’s how I’ve been read from the beginning. Now it’s simply how I expect to be read -- and let the response balloons inflate as they may.

Q: It sounds to me as if you’re in effect writing a blog. What’s the difference between the column and a blog?

A: Less than it might seem, especially when you consider how some bloggers regularly seek a formal shape to even the most occasional comment. Other than the fact that “Purely Academic” appears as part of on online magazine, I suppose its main difference from a blog is that a blog is content with its personal, occasional character, whereas a column aims to be more broadly discursive, less consistently personal. But this is a tricky difference. It deserves a column.

Q: Other ideas for future columns?

A: You have to wait. Like me. Just when I think there’s nothing more for me to write about, I’ll hear or read something, and then lurch keyboard-ward. The only thing I’m conscious of is considering odd, wayward, or marginal subjects -- wearing ties, having a dog in the classroom, dreaming about being elsewhere, finding a place to read. Nobody writes about these things.

Q: Maybe with good reason.

A: So readers have at various times pointed out. That’s what it’s like to have a dialogue -- as well as to write for a magazine. You’re always being judged. A column or two ago one reader urged the magazine to drop me entirely. Another addressed me as a “professor thug.” It’s not my magazine. But if the column were my blog, I’d be the judge.

Q: What in your opinion is the leading issue in higher education today?

A: Read the rest of Inside Higher Ed. In a sense, I go in search of the least leading issues.

Q: Maybe I have to read the column more. Any regrets about it?

A: Two.

Q: Do I have to ask again?

A: One regret has to do with comedy. Most academic novels are comic. Academic life is, I think, best comprehended in comic terms. Who was the Oxford don who opined: “Students recur?” Precisely. Everything in academe recurs -- the character types, the components of the setting, the nature of the conflicts. You won’t write well about it if you aren’t quick to sense the comedy. But it’s still hard to write about the comedy as a comedy. Instead, it’s easier to appear as harsh, abrasive, or insistent, while striving to be light, bouncy, and carefree.

Q: Maybe you should give up the column and write a novel.

A: Alas, no talent. There’s a lovely passage I just read the other day in Proust -- woops! I promised no more literature.

Q: What’s the other regret?

A: Celebration. Or rather, the lack thereof. What I mean is, there just doesn’t seem to be much that I like about academic life, on the basis of the published record. I like a place to read, granted, and so one of the few things I’ve praised in the column are libraries and librarians. But even when th subject is, say, conferences, it’s the other conference next door, not the academic one, whose pleasures I celebrate.

Q: So you mean that you do like academic life but somehow just haven’t found out exactly what?

A: No, what I mean is that even when I thought I found something I like, it comes out either that I don’t or that I can’t seem to write about it as if I do. Also, see comedy, above.

Q: Do you think this is typical of academics in general? We like ideas, research, teaching, summers off. Some even like committees. But finally we don’t like the whole life: the new president and the old dean through the lack of parking space and funding for research to disruptive students and the colleague down the hall who has a better office. Instead, what we really love is to bitch and moan.

A: If this were a trial rather than an interview, the question would to objected to on the basis of being “argumentative.”

Q: I’m just trying to make you feel better. How many times do you meet a fellow academic beaming with joy: The campus is wonderful, the division has plenty of money, colleagues are supportive, students polite and provocative, and the lawns always freshly mowed? Your own feelings -- let’s be kind and call them “equivocations” -- about academic life may be more typical than you think.

A: In a sense, this is the wager of every “Purely Academic” column.

Q: Like to add anything more?

A: Only a favorite line from Kafka: “How can one be glad about the world except if one takes one’s refuge in it?” Academic life, to me, remains the best refuge.

Q: You promised no more literature.

A: I lied.

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