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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.
Barrs 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Academic is out of date, but the question is a good one: what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 Ive 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 Prufrocks 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 Russos 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, yesand the effects on students. Russos
dark and comic vision of college life may resonate with some readers:
Students have learned from their professors that persuasionreasoned
argumentno longer holds a favored position in university life.
If their professorsfeminists, Marxists, historicists, assorted
other theoristsbelong 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 were not at meetings or begrudgingly teaching
classes, were engaged in solving crimes. When professors cant
find enough to do they become amateur detectives. A murder on campus
is often the occasion; if the victim is the college president, theres
a certain glee on campus, and the task is that much more challenging.
In a 1956 English novel, Eilis Dillons 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
were not solving or plotting murders, we are wandering around
second-hand bookstores. I like novelist Javier Mariass 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 Mariass 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 implicationsfrom Grudins
Book: A Novel), look for other media to analyze. In James
Hyness The Lecturers Tale, Liliths masters
thesis threatens to psychoanalytically excavate the representations
of gender in Hallmark cards. Lilith is still working through
the confusion generated by her parents mixed marriageDad
followed Jung; Mom was a Lacanian. Psychoanalysis, outmoded
in the therapeutic marketplace, apparently still engages academiciansbut
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.
What then prepares us for the trinity of teaching, research, and
service? Here the satirists are particularly hard-hitting. James
Hyness 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
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 Grudins 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
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 dont have to take your classes say
they understand what you are saying, then youve made it. In
Hyness The Lecturers 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.
Hey! Why is the theoretical left the object of so much novelistic
ridicule and scrutiny? Doesnt 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 Hyness Publish and Perish, that is exactly what happens.
At Longhorn State University in Lamar, Texas, the culture wars arrive
latebut 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 academicians
work in progress is The Missionary Position: The Franciscan Construction
of Rapunui Gender, 18621936. 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 Im told.
But most of it was just the same old stuff hed always done
. . . only tarted up with a lot of pomo jargon.
In another recent novel, Lennard Daviss The Sonnets,
Will Marlowe, an out-of-touch Columbia University professor who
thinks hes very hip, suffers grievous punishment for his ideological
sins. Unlike Karswell in Publish and Perish, he isnt
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 Shakespeares Sonnets was highly theorized, he couldnt
resist a romantic entanglement with his star graduate student.
Marlowe is told by the dean that he can stay at Columbiabut
as a functionary in the alumni office: Will, personally, Im
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, Im afraid well have to side with the administration
on this. I do regret that, and I wish you all the best on a personal
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 Devils Dictionary).
As Emory has no football team, we are, of course, exemptfrom
this and all other aspersions cast on the academy by jealous novelists.