Faking It, With 2 Books and More

Terry Caesar considers the assumptions academics make about fellow academics -- many times based on a less than complete reality.
October 25, 2007

"I think that everything to do with institutions should be faked."
--Slavoj Žižek

The class was about to begin. Everybody was tense with excitement. We were breathless to meet the teacher for the first time. Professors ourselves, we had applied to the summer postdoctoral program in order to have the opportunity to study under some of the most celebrated names in the field. The name of our particular Eminence did not lead all the rest. He was at the height of his reputation, though, close to the top.

I don’t think any of us had ever actually seen him. So a few minutes after the hour, when it seemed the seminar was fully assembled, we were shocked when someone walked in. But wait! He seemed a bit younger than we took our Eminence to be. Second, this man seemed uncertain, pausing at the front of the room, as if -- well, no, it seemed this guy was not actually our Eminence after all. He revealed himself to be just another student, like us, looking for an extra chair. Much nervous laughter.

Before this last student sat down, our Eminence finally did appear, immediately identified himself, and proceeded to take possession of the chair that had been accorded to him. More laughter, now flush with relief. All was well again. But what about that instant when it was not? What if the last student to enter had chosen to impersonate the Eminence? How long before we would have seen through him? What would have stood revealed -- about him, us, the profession, truth itself?

I think of this instant each time I read of some academic scandal, in which someone has somehow posed to be someone she is not. Most recently as I write (and as reported here), there is the case of Marilee Jones, the former dean of admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who claimed to have degrees she never earned. The scandal seems to have played out in exclusively ethical terms. (Was the woman justly fired, and so on.) What about other questions? When does an administrator suddenly cease to be an administrator? Must credentials always ground or certify an academic position?

Then there was the case (also reported here) of a student at Stanford who was not in fact a student. Yet until she was discovered (and then asked to leave campus), she went through the requisite student motions: attending classes, using the computer lab, and living in the dorms. That the young woman was not in fact a student undoubtedly represents a "security breach." She also represents a wonderful provocation for the long-standing production, College Life. What if being a student is just a role? How many fee-paying students fail because they don’t know how to "play the part?"

This Stanford, er, student recalls to me the young Tobias Wolff, who describes at the end of his memoir, This Boy's Life, how he faked application materials to posh Eastern prep schools, stealing school stationery and blank transcript forms, filling them in with utter lies about being an Eagle Scout and a powerful swimmer, and writing up phony recommendations from teachers and coaches. "It was the truth known only to me, but I believed in it more than I believed in the fact arrayed against it." He survives an in-person interview with an alum from the Hill School. In due time he is not only accepted but offered a scholarship! The alum offers to buy him a proper suit.

Perhaps the young woman at Stanford could be accused of insufficient creativity. But then in the same respect the older woman at MIT (whose job it once must have been in part to oversee the verification of applicants’ claims and identify anyone trying to pull a Wolff) stands convicted of -- what exactly? Changed academic circumstances, perhaps. It is possible now to check claims on all manner of official forms with the click of a cursor and a few keystrokes. It’s almost impossible to imagine a young man today bringing off a successful fictional application as Wolff once did. And if the admissions dean -- no less -- of a major university can't even get away with claiming three degrees she did not in fact have, what hope is there for the rest of us?

This brings me back to that Eminence. He not only embodies a person. He occupies a space, although he has to be absent from it, if only momentarily, before anybody else can realize that there is a space there. During this time, who claims it? In theory, anybody can! Call it the space of falsification, role-playing, lies, or, in a word, fakery. (Žižek describes how he used to fake colloquium invitations for Slovenian colleagues on American departmental university stationery so that they could go abroad.) In this space, you can even play the character of yourself, albeit from a different college, under a new identity, or on the basis of fresh credentials.

We recall the famous New Yorker cartoon showing one dog with his paws on a computer keyboard while delightedly exclaiming to another dog sitting below him: "On the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog." Precisely! The more relentlessly academic life becomes bureaucratized and credentialized, the more provocation either to ignore credentials or to fake them. Of course there is no dearth of reasons, depending upon how wide we want to cast our net. And speaking of that: we can even be inspired -- if inspiration we need -- by the radiant example of the Internet, which continues to hold out the lure for each of us to create a new identity.

Perhaps we don’t require inspiration. We merely need to look anew at our own business as usual, which comports all too intimately with the sort of thing engaged in by Jones and Wolff. During the past few weeks, for example, I chanced to have heard of a man who conducted an online course under the name of a colleague (it's not clear why he couldn't do the course under his own name), another who wrote a letter of recommendation for herself and sent it to the reference to sign, and a third who somehow -- again, details not known -- got into a bunch of student evaluations and removed the worst ones, from students who barely showed up all semester.

Falsifications all? Undoubtedly, although in each case a literal or factual standard against which the judgment can be made to me either uninteresting or else feeble, as over against a far more compelling reference to a wider, deeper framework of truth -- having to do (say) with the downsizing of teaching or the inflation of the application process.

Such frameworks don’t make each of the above actions right. But they do testify in each case to a state of affairs more worthy of inquiry in each case than labeling a suspect action that takes place within it as right or wrong.

Another example. A couple of weeks ago I chanced to see a letter of job application to an American university department from China. It’s so woeful as to be heartbreaking. "Dear Sir/Madam," the letter is addressed; the first sentence reads as follows: "Perhaps this is another failure, but I still want to have a try." The sentence is so lamentably true to its circumstances -- a Chinese teacher who so desperately desires to teach and study abroad as to have sent "thousands of applying letters" -- that it becomes just as sadly false to the context in which some phrasing of these circumstances will be received.

What advice to give to the man? Don’t begin on a note of failure. Be positive. You don’t have to falsify your own experience. Just try to stylize it so that it you apply on the basis of achievements rather than dreams. How difficult would such advice seem to him to understand?

That is, how suspicious? My guess is, one culture's notion of truth would collide with another's. And if we tried to explain to this Chinese man the thrill of self-invention underlying the New Yorker cartoon I strongly suspect he would find the thrill simply a license to commit fraud. Would our best reply be that, well, it could be both? Moreover, we Americans just like to think that we're sure of the difference?

Myself, I’m not so sure. The thrill of self-invention takes many forms, and I tend to view them as all of a piece, fraudulence in the legal sense be damned. If I was president of MIT, Jones, after being slapped on the wrist, would still be dean. As president of Stanford, I’d at least have urged that non-student to talk to the dean of admissions. And if I led Hill School, I'd try to get Wolff to speak at commencement; the fact that he got booted out would make him an unusually instructive example, especially since the instruction he might be expected to give would prove to be so deep and devious that it might not even strictly qualify as "instruction" at all.

A final modest example of my own. I know a woman from another country who was startled during one of her first academic conferences in the United States. I believe she was still a grad student. Before her session, one of her co-presenters stepped up to the organizer and began stipulating with great seriousness how she wanted to be introduced: two books, numerous articles, a degree from somewhere prestigious, further study at somewhere even more prestigious. What startled the foreign woman was the sudden spectacle of academic self-importance.

What did she herself proceed to do? Step up to the organizer to insist on her own credentials: namely, six books, numerous articles, study at the Sorbonne, one Ph.D., and another in progress at her present university. Apparently the organizer of the session unquestioningly accepted this information -- every item completely untrue except the last -- and duly informed the audience. That bit about the Sorbonne would have made me cough. But it seems nobody did. No visible response from the woman of -- now -- only two books.

This has long been one of my favorite academic stories. I always think of it when I hear a fulsome introduction of anybody at a conference. No one so grand he or she can’t be mocked. We do it all the time. Each conference -- each campus -- is full of people who deserve to be mocked. (Or are anyway even if they don't.) But we don't do it in public. In public, we strive to be serious, sober, deferential. Faced with the daunting spectacle of the woman with, for starters, two books most of us would, I believe, purport to be content with our own more modest achievements -- especially if we were grad students and didn't yet have any.

Or, to recall the figure of the Eminence with whom I began -- most of us would hasten to take a seat, lest we be mistaken even for a moment with him. Too bad. That moment might have been great fun. We probably need more fakery, not less in academic life. Two reasons. First, we already practice all manner of faking it anyway. Granted, puffery is not fakery. But the one thing is complicit with so many of our daily practices that have to do with being evaluated or evaluating ourselves that the other thing becomes too much like faking to be less than fakery.

Second, fakery often provides a more responsible platform upon which to act. Žižek mentions that in one instance there really was a colloquium. "But I said, no, this is not ethical and so I invented another one." How to legitimate his use of the word "ethical" in this context? Hard to do in the space of this column. The minimal force of my own argument here would simply have us acknowledge that the happiest way to attend to the truth -- transcripts be damned -- is often to make it up, just as the truest way to be yourself -- Eminence be praised -- is to impersonate someone else.


Terry Caesar's last column was about cultural messages on the dangerous topic of sex between a teacher and a student.


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