Academic Life By the Book
A campus tour of satiric fiction

By Shalom Goldman, Associate Professor of Middle Eastern Studies


 

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Conscious as Bill was of the scorn the true scholar feels for the administrative officials of the academy, he secretly returned their scorn fourfold: he looked on professors as a special class of kept women, eager for their monthly allowances but unwilling to contemplate the sordid operations of the butter-and-eggs man who supports them. . . . Although a college graduate of sorts himself, Bill never discovered what the faculty was actually doing other than competing fiercely with each other, clamoring for more pay, boring or insulting the customers, and snubbing the non-teaching personnel.


Stringfellow Barr’s sexist language quoted here from his 1958 novel Strictly Academic is out of date, but the question is a good one: what do college faculty do all day? (Judging by the plethora of satiric novels set on academic campuses, our nights are filled with wild erotic encounters.) To answer this question I’ve read a shelf of novels that purport to give answers. What follows is a composite portrait of the contemporary American academy drawn from their pages. Any resemblance to our campus is purely coincidental. Or, as Robert Grudin states at the opening of Book: A Novel, “any resemblance to individuals living or dead is, at most, generic.”

1) We go to meetings: “How many meetings have we sat through in the last twenty years? How many hours, weeks, months would they total if measured out in Prufrock’s coffee spoons? How many good books have gone unread, essays unwritten, research discontinued, in order to make room for brain-scalding meetings?” This from Richard Russo’s 1997 novel Straight Man, which is set in a small Pennsylvania liberal arts college. Departmental politics and its effects on the most mundane aspects of faculty life are the theme here. Oh, yes—and the effects on students. Russo’s dark and comic vision of college life may resonate with some readers: “Students have learned from their professors that persuasion—reasoned argument—no longer holds a favored position in university life. If their professors—feminists, Marxists, historicists, assorted other theorists—belong to suspicious, gated intellectual communities that are less interested in talking to each other than in staking our territory and furthering agendas, then why learn to debate?”

2) And when we’re not at meetings or begrudgingly teaching classes, we’re engaged in solving crimes. When professors can’t find enough to do they become amateur detectives. A murder on campus is often the occasion; if the victim is the college president, there’s a certain glee on campus, and the task is that much more challenging. In a 1956 English novel, Eilis Dillon’s Death in the Quadrangle, the president of a small college receives threatening letters. A Professor Daly agrees to look into the case: “Daly had long ago ceased to wonder that anyone had threatened to murder President Bradley. The surprising thing was that he had been left so long alive. Possibly what had saved him was the fact that professors are not usually practical people. Even if they had worked out a dozen methods of murdering Bradley, unless they could hand on the actual task to a research student, nothing would ever be done.”

3) Impractical as they are, professors still need projects. When we’re not solving or plotting murders, we are wandering around second-hand bookstores. I like novelist Javier Marias’s notion in his 1989 novel All Souls that searching for books is biologically determined “hunting behavior”: “The hunter of books is condemned to specialize in subjects related to his main prey, which he tracks down with the greatest eagerness.” Once one is infected with bibliomania, the disease is impossible to shake. As Marias’s protagonist notes, “I got to the point where I often had the feeling that it was the books themselves that looked for and found me.”

4) We advise students. Now that books have been demoted to the generalized status of “texts,” graduate students, encouraged by their “subversive” professors (“subversive: anti-establishment; used only with positive implications”—from Grudin’s Book: A Novel), look for other media to analyze. In James Hynes’s The Lecturer’s Tale, Lilith’s master’s thesis threatens to psychoanalytically excavate “the representations of gender in Hallmark cards.” Lilith is still working through the confusion generated by her parents’ “mixed marriage—Dad followed Jung; Mom was a Lacanian.” Psychoanalysis, outmoded in the therapeutic marketplace, apparently still engages academicians—but as a theoretical commodity only. It seems that the successful completion of any concrete task eludes most academicians, even so abstract a task as the completion of therapy.

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What then prepares us for the trinity of teaching, research, and service? Here the satirists are particularly hard-hitting. James Hynes’s Publish and Perish, a 1997 collection of three loosely related novellas, describes a critical theorist who is “poised to ascend to the peak of his profession.” This son of a Dutch Reformed minister was educated to be a prince of that church, not of the secular academy, but his upbringing and training equipped him with “a cheerful ruthlessness in the practice of institutional politics, and a capacity for intellectual rigor within a closed theoretical system.”

“Closed theoretical systems” are all the rage in academic satires, and to succeed in the academy one must be theorized. The rising stars in Robert Grudin’s Book publish regularly in Hegemony: A Theoretical Quarterly. A representative article, “Literalizing the Decentering,” reminds the faithful, and those who might stray from the theoretical path, that “Theory in all its known or probably knowable forms, no matter how much its followers may disagree about details, partakes of a certain esprit, or you might say stimmung, that seems to distinguish it from other forms of inquiry and by the same token to demarcate its enthusiasts characterologically and politically from adherents of other methodologies.”

It seems that one can fly very high on the wings of Theory. The key is to market Theory to listeners and readers outside of the academy. If people who don’t have to take your classes say they understand what you are saying, then you’ve made it. In Hynes’s The Lecturer’s Tale, an English professor known only as P. is infamous for his “New Jersey Mafia” management style. By dint of “his own indomitable will and his gift for punchy salesmanship . . . he [becomes] a star of the profession and an influential public intellectual.” His book Screw Free Speech, “an aggressive defense of campus speech codes, [leads] to appearances on Charlie Rose and Politically Incorrect.”

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Hey! Why is the theoretical left the object of so much novelistic ridicule and scrutiny? Doesn’t the other side, the conservative, reactionary, Dead White Male side, also deserve to get skewered? In the third of the “Three Tales of Terror and Tenure” in Hynes’s Publish and Perish, that is exactly what happens. At Longhorn State University in Lamar, Texas, the culture wars arrive late—but when they finally arrive they generate a Texas-sized storm. History professor Victor Karswell fights the winds of New Historicism. To a new female assistant professor he says, “I see that you have become intellectually promiscuous, giving yourself wantonly, like the rest of your thrill-seeking generation, to the vulgar pleasures of postmodernism. . . . The result is that you have become infected with the French disease.” The young academician’s work in progress is The Missionary Position: The Franciscan Construction of Rapunui Gender, 1862–1936. Karswell, after attacking her scholarship, attempts to publish it as his own work. As one of his more vocal critics described the book (not that she had actually read it): “He underwent some sort of sudden conversion, and put out a theory-based book, very contemporary. . . . Some of it was actually quite good, very cutting-edge, or so I’m told. But most of it was just the same old stuff he’d always done . . . only tarted up with a lot of pomo jargon.”

In another recent novel, Lennard Davis’s The Sonnets, Will Marlowe, an out-of-touch Columbia University professor who thinks he’s very hip, suffers grievous punishment for his ideological sins. Unlike Karswell in Publish and Perish, he isn’t actually skewered like shish kebob, but he receives the personal and professional equivalent, losing his tenure, his family, and his Upper West Side apartment. Though his course on Queer Theory and Shakespeare’s Sonnets was highly theorized, he couldn’t resist a romantic entanglement with his star graduate student.

Marlowe is told by the dean that he can stay at Columbia—but as a functionary in the alumni office: “Will, personally, I’m behind you one hundred percent. But in my role as chair of the thirteenth-best English department in the country, I have a larger responsibility. We all stand behind you as a friend and a colleague but as an institutional body, I’m afraid we’ll have to side with the administration on this. I do regret that, and I wish you all the best on a personal level.”

Does any of this sound familiar? I hope not. Perhaps these novels should be relegated to the science fiction section of the bookstores and not carelessly stacked under “literature.” Almost a century ago Ambrose Bierce, the great American satirist, offered his thoughts on higher education: “Academe: An ancient school where morality and philosophy were taught. Academy: A modern school where football is taught” (The Devil’s Dictionary).

As Emory has no football team, we are, of course, exempt—from this and all other aspersions cast on the academy by jealous novelists.