Remembering SEK

The death of Scott Eric Kaufman -- an American critic and leading first-generation, graduate student blogger -- drives home the sense that this has been an especially cruel year, writes Scott McLemee.

November 23, 2016
 
Scott Eric Kaufman

Scott Eric Kaufman -- an American critic and journalist who developed a readership while blogging as a graduate student in English -- died in Houston on Monday following multiple organ failure and acute complications.

He was about a month short of his 40th birthday. A great many Inside Higher Ed readers will know his work -- whether from his blog Acephalous or more recently when he wrote for Salon and The A.V. Club, among other venues -- and I hope that they will join me in trying to help his family with medical expenses. Donations can be made at this website.

Everyone called him SEK, sooner or later. It always seemed like a hard nickname to get a reading on: both formal and informal, somehow. We met during and after the Modern Language Association convention in Chicago in 2007, which would have been around the time he turned 30, and that is how I remember SEK still -- looking vaguely David Foster Wallace-ish, my memory insists.

It compounds the dismay at realizing he has died so young -- and drives home the sense that this has been an especially cruel year. I’ve just noticed that he identified himself as (((SEK))) on his Twitter account, the parentheses being an anti-Semitic signal that the person whose name is so punctuated is Jewish. He’d found a way to neuter a whole class of trolls using one of their own devices. Anybody who can do that is someone you want on your side in a fight, and not just in spirit.

The past is full of dumb controversies -- their urgency made ridiculous with the benefit of hindsight. The stakes are difficult to credit since the outcome now seems inevitable. I doubt anyone coming of age in the present decade can imagine how intense the discussion once was over whether or not graduate students or junior faculty could afford the risk of having a blog -- indeed, whether even someone with tenure might not endanger any claim to professional respect by blogging.

No, seriously, it was an issue. The year was 2005. A would-be moral entrepreneur calling himself Ivan Tribble wrote an article full of dire harrumphing about blogs as an unscholarly and self-indulgent pastime that might (and probably should) render the hobbyist unemployable. The piece ran in one of the major journals of news and opinion covering higher education, read largely by administrators and senior faculty members who -- having, in many cases, only just learned how to download a PDF -- barely knew what a blog was, much less whether it might have any value.

Tribble’s admonishing of younger academics about the risks of blogging was, in reality, a bit of rhetorical sleight of hand: the real point was to rally the gatekeepers, to warn them that nothing good could come of this new way of constituting and engaging a public. The debate that ensued turned out to be a defining moment for the first generation of academic bloggers. (You can judge how Tribble’s side of the controversy fared by the fact that it was the first generation of academic bloggers.)

SEK was among the first to respond to Tribble’s argument, but he also contributed what I’d say was the last word on the subject. He was, at the time, a graduate student in English at the University of California, Irvine, working toward the Ph.D. he received in 2008. He’d begun blogging in early 2005 -- a mixture of reflections on his work, anecdotes from his teaching experience (most memorably about finding two undergraduates having sex in his carrel) and venting on whatever seemed to merit it.

In 2006, he organized a panel on blogging for that year’s MLA and took a survey of his readership, which proved to be, as he told a packed room at the convention, “highly educated, consisting of a group best described as ‘the unusually literate.’” Out of the nearly 800 responses, he said, “two hundred and eleven were graduate students in English; another 172 of them were professors; 164 were historians, most of whom were professors; after that the disciplines begin to break down. Forty-two philosophers, 27 sociologists, 24 neuroscientists, 18 students of religious studies, 11 political scientists, seven physicists, three classicists and one self-described ‘freelance librarian’ named Rich.”

He went on to explain, “My list isn’t meant to be exhaustive, merely suggestive of the intellectual community an unspectacular graduate student can create when he spends an hour or two writing for someone other than himself, his committee and the lucky 11 people who’ll skim his work, if, by some miracle, it lands in a flagship journal. My ideas are out there, circulating, in way not often seen outside of conferences and seminar rooms, but the diversity of the crowd forces me to find some way to communicate with my readers in terms they’ll all be able to understand. This doesn’t mean, as some would have it, that I’m simplifying my ideas for a general audience.”

That any of this might even be possible came as a revelation to some people. Earlier this month, a young professor at a conference mentioned to me that reading Acephalous and The Valve (a now-defunct group blog SEK participated in) had, in effect, bridged the gap between what he’d hoped to find in graduate school and the realities he had to accept once there.

At the time of the conversation, Kaufman was already in intensive care, and I regret never thinking to pass those remarks along. But anyone who benefited from his life and work can express their appreciation to his family, so here’s that page for donations again.

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