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Read my book, TEACHING BEAUTY IN DeLILLO, WOOLF, AND MERRILL (Palgrave Macmillan; forthcoming), co-authored with Jennifer Green-Lewis. VISIT MY BRANCH CAMPUS AT INSIDE HIGHER ED

UD is...
"Salty." (Scott McLemee)
"Unvarnished." (Phi Beta Cons)
"Splendidly splenetic." (Culture Industry)
"Except for University Diaries, most academic blogs are tedious."
(Rate Your Students)
"I think of Soltan as the Maureen Dowd of the blogosphere,
except that Maureen Dowd is kind of a wrecking ball of a writer,
and Soltan isn't. For the life of me, I can't figure out her
politics, but she's pretty fabulous, so who gives a damn?"
(Tenured Radical)

Friday, February 27, 2004

lostillusionslady: omg howd u gt my screen name?

[email protected]: my lawyer

lil: lol... ur kiddin rite?

mdy: no

lil: wt do u wnt

mdy: nm to talk

lil: talk to MY lawyer

mdy: lol...i bn thinkin about that night...

lil: gtg

mdy: ...the sherry...ur poemz...

lil: sht up

mdy: yr 'aura of election'

lil: ttyl

mdy: wt i really sed wuz...

mdy: 'oh - an erection' ...

lil: drp dd

mdy: y do u want t destroy me

lil: ur ugly

lil: i dont like ugly peeps

mdy: iz zat y u barfd

mdy: aftr i touchd ur thigh?

lil: YES ttfn

mdy: wait.. meet me in the cafeteria

lil: r u nutz?

mdy: u noe the one near the quad

lil: ur nutz

mdy: i want t b ur boyfriend

lil: dream on ugly

lil: brainz arent everything

mdy: i know thatz y i like u

27 February 04

To: A Team Members

From: Janice

Subject: Alas and Alack

Hi again guys: Sorry to bombard you with emails.

The shit’s hitting the fan. Excuse my French, but I can’t mince words anymore and we’ve got to get our asses in gear now. We are officially under siege.

Even as Harvard remains a beacon of reinflationary hope (see my email below), lesser institutions, as I anticipated, are just climbing on board the U.S.S. Grade Deflation. Point Park University in Pittsburgh just docked grade inflating faculty merit pay! I quote from the Brown Daily Herald, February 11: “Six professors at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, Pa., saw their merit-based bonuses cut in half because of alleged grade inflation this year, a move that caused faculty to pursue unionization.”

Let us pause to consider the confusion and demoralization going on at just this one American university. For years, its faculty has understood that the basic classroom transaction was the following:

A. Give all students As.
B. Receive in return high teaching evaluations.
C. Receive merit pay based upon high teaching evaluations.

Now merit pay is being withdrawn because of all-As and high teaching evaluations! Bait and switch doesn’t begin to cover the case here.

William Breslove, professor of business and president of the faculty assembly at Point Park, is quoted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

‘ "I'm outraged," Breslove said yesterday. "Frankly, I'm less outraged about the financial aspects of this than the intrusion by the administration on academic freedom. How to grade students is, frankly, something that any competent faculty member should be able to decide. This has never happened here before," he said.’

Fuckin A! This is an academic freedom issue, and I can’t wait until Point Park’s faculty is unionized, and mandatory As across the board are in the effing by-laws!

Okay, let me catch my breath. I’m know my rhetoric’s over the top here, but I feel strongly about this. Some of us are going to suffer bigtime in terms of our psychological well-being if we have to start grading according to merit (which would also, I remind you, involve reading final papers and exams). As Noah Davis, student reporter for the Yeshiva University newspaper Commentator wisely notes, “It is widely believed that the faculty tends to dispense inflated grades to avert stress.” There are of course many things we teachers do to avert stress: we listen to Gregorian chants, we feng shui our bedrooms, we take bubble baths. But I have found - and others have found - that nothing takes the pressure off quite as effectively as typing in a long solid line of As each semester for our happy students. Take that away, and I can assure you you’ve got a costly degree of psychological disturbance among the professoriate.

So what can we do? First, we’re picketing. We’ve already (with the union’s help) printed up signs that say Boycott Point Dark, A Thousand Points of Krap, and Point Park Loses its AAA Rating. We’ll be setting a date soon for a bus trip to Pittsburgh and an all-day gathering at the campus where we’ll make our opinion known! Watch this space for further information.

Yours in Alliance for As...


Wednesday, February 25, 2004


In a nation riven by the question of same sex marriage and other divisive issues in the culture wars, it was a healing experience for UD, and I think others, to attend Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ the other night. To my eye, the audience seemed almost equally divided between two normally warring factions: morbidly pious Christians, and sadomasochism-friendly Foucauldians. Clearly both groups found something to love in this film, which Josh Levin, in Slate’s review, calls “one of the cruellest movies in the history of cinema.”

For two hours, audience members moaned and sighed through the graphic torments of young Jesus; and whether their ascesis was downward or upward, transcendence was very much in the air. Some might have been seeing an animated Mapplethorpe and others a kinetic Goya, but whether coming from the left or the right, everyone seemed satisfied with the rich spectacle of agony and degradation.

If we, as Americans, can find common ground in these smaller venues of popular culture, UD feels confident we can build on this foundation for the sake of the larger polity.

Tuesday, February 24, 2004


Women's Libber details super-shocking grope, booze, and barf incident at hyper-prestigious Yale

The oh-so-proper ivy walls of Yale University in Connecticut were blushing brick-red today as revelations of sexual hijinks among the haughty hit the media all over the world. Super-eminent professor Harold Bloom is said to have grabbed the thigh of one of that august institution's sexy egghead coeds. How the mighty are fallen! Bloom has been riding high for years as the nation's numero uno Heavy Thinker, and now he's a guy with a defamation lawyer.

"You bet we're suing," said Harold Wolf (no relation to either party), Bloom's super-high-powered attorney. Wolf, who graduated from Central Hartford State University School of Law, is notorious for his mad-dog defense of personal injury clients. "Professor Bloom did absolutely nothing wrong," he said. "And as to the lady's claim of injury because she vomited afterwards, we are prepared to show that all Yale undergraduates vomit after sex."

To support his claim, Wolf plans to review all of the accounts of sexual misconduct at Yale that have poured in since the Bloom bombshell. A preliminary review, he says, indicates that every woman claiming a Yale professor sexually abused her also claims to have thrown up immediately after the alleged event.

Thereby Hangs a Tail

Bloom's curvaceous accuser has told a shocking tale of trust betrayed and innocence slaughtered. Her esteemed Herr Professor, her role model and much-admired mentor, transmogrified one nightmare evening into a digit-dipping dipsomaniac! This professor-student drama has all the elements of great literature: the stuffy highbrow done in by tragic flaws (lust, liquor), the sensitive student treated like a piece of meat by a man supposedly devoted to higher things. And what a beauty and the beast plot! Where else but on a university campus could a man with Bloom's looks get anywhere near the gorgeous girls he has reportedly seduced?

Reign of Terror

In the wake of the Yale revelations, which suggest a decades-long reign of sexual terror against undergraduate women at the topflight institution, psychologists have been speculating as to the link between educational excellence and reckless humping.

"It's just a total hothouse atmosphere," remarked Dr. Jerome Gropeman, a noted therapist. "You've got bright ambitious young women with their budding sexuality. You've got restless older men lecturing those girls on physical and metaphysical longing in the great poets. It'd be surprising if they weren't lighting each others' fires - to quote The Doors, who by the way got their name from a proverb by William Blake."

Dr. Laura Schlesinger, who did not attend Yale but sometimes claims she did, agreed. "Oh yes, their little hearts are just going thumpety-thump, aren't they?" she said of the Yale undergraduate women. "They think they're so smart and then they get all googly because some guy can explain iambic pentameter to them. Is that smart? I don't care how rich your parents are or how high your SATs are, a jerk's a jerk."

A "Take Back the Thigh" rally is planned for this weekend on the Yale campus.

Monday, February 23, 2004


Toulouse is a happy city (with chemical assistance, to be sure - the French really love their psychotropics) that retains the elements of European urbanism to which Americans are so drawn: cobbled curving streets end-on to cathedrals; restaurants whose owners shake your hand or kiss you when you come in; quiet pedestrian lanes with flower shops whose olive trees spill onto the sidewalk. Elegant squares, human-scale, with small carousels at their center, open up as you stroll.

There are tearooms along the edges of the squares, in front of which sit lively people sending cigarette and bergamot smoke into the air. As you approach the umbrellas that shade the cafe tables, there’s an odor of perfume, coffee, and wine. The atmosphere is muted, with submerged human chatter, and at the same time sharp with the oddity of street life: the macho man in black leather on whose left shoulder perches a kitten; the old woman with pancake makeup dusting the breast of her jacket; six kilted Scotsmen entering a pub to watch their rugby team on tv; a clutch of girls arm in arm along the pavement, each of them wearing a bright pink scarf over her turtleneck.

And even if you know that the narrower and more tempting the city street, the likelier it is to be a pissoir, these are still Amelie-streets, and you yourself are happy without chemical assistance, sipping sweet Moroccan tea from corner stalls and stopping every few moments to lift your face to the sun.

Almost any French city remains this sort of other place, to which Americans go to get away from superstores, McMansions, and SUVs. Yet if you look underneath the charm, it turns out that intellectually, for instance, France is in a bad way - even, some say, under a state of siege: The Guardian’s reporter in Paris wrote recently about a petition signed by 20,000 “artists, thinkers, film-makers, scientists, lawyers, doctors, and academics” which accuses the government of, in the words of the petition writers, “waging war on intelligence [and instituting] a new state anti-intellectualism.”

Much of this latest skirmish is about cuts to the arts and proposed reforms (most of them, I think, sensible) of the universities; some of it is about “regulating the status of psychotherapists” (this also would be a sign of sanity). But in a wonderful burst of Gallic rhetoric, the protesting intellectuals also accuse the government of thinking in terms of “simplistic and terrifying” alternatives - pro-veil or anti-veil? lenient judges or tough cops? etc. The government, they say, lacks a sense of life’s complexity. (The protestors have transferred to their government the language that the French traditionally use against Americans. Hubert Vedrine, not long ago France’s Foreign Minister, did a lot of sniffing about American simplisme.) And I’m sure it does lack this. I’m sure all governments do. A government isn’t the sort of thing that sits around pondering ambiguities. It legislates.

No doubt the French government is tired of subsidizing to the extent that it does the forms of meditating and militating in which many of their intellectuals engage. The university where I taught last year exhibited the odd mix of frenzy and paralysis that characterizes a good deal of French intellectual life right now. It’s a place where “students strike and strike out,” as an American faculty member there recently put it. It has been closed a number of times in the last five years by student agitators who physically threaten people attempting to teach or attend classes. Some of these are “virtual strikes,” also known as warning strikes - “They aren’t striking to protest any particular policy,” the American explained to me, “but the possibility of a policy being handed down at some unspecified later time.”

“Are you telling me that the students are striking against the future?” I asked him.

“You could say that. The French don’t like change. Or the whiff of change.”

And yet the French also think they are soixante-huitards manning the barricades - or, rather, the French retain an unexamined sympathy for people who make noise about change and continue to act like ‘68ers. As a result they feel unable to criticize acts of institution trashing that they privately deplore. French universities are “dangerously approaching collapse, if not of a material kind, at least morally,” Jean-Michel Rabate, a French professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, writes, because of the “defeatism and cynicism among staff and students.”

At my defeated and cynical university in Toulouse, the latest strike was one more insult piled onto so much injury that the place has become a kind of laboratory of misconceived modernity. Its already ugly architecture, the most degenerate Corbusierianism, has been scrawled on, spat on, locked down, locked up, ripped up, and just generally befouled in a hundred ways, so that people enter campus, take or give classes, and flee. Every ten feet or so, as you walk along its outdoor corridors, long transparent plastic bags dangle in the wind (their metal containers having been removed, presumably for security reasons), looking like dancing condoms.

This ugly world is at the center of the notorious Michel Houellebecq’s novels, especially The Elementary Particles, whose appearance in France sparked the rage and debate that became known as l’affaire houellebecq. An extended character study of various post-’sixties casualties, the novel is particularly interested in the rotten legacy of political radicalism. It nauseatingly literalizes Donald Rumsfeld’s “Old Europe” conceit, dwelling on the physcial degeneration of free love advocates whom no one any longer wishes to touch. Houellebecq’s pathetic soixante-huitards drag their rears through soulless lives which end in suicidal self-disgust.

America is much farther along than France in maturing past its ‘68ism. “Across the
country,” writes Kate Zenike is a recent New York Times article, “the war [in Iraq] is revealing role reversals - between professors shaped by Vietnam protests and a more conservative student body traumatized by the attacks of September 11 ... On campuses like Yale and Berkeley, professors say their colleagues are overwhelmingly against the war. By contrast, students polled by The Yale Daily News are 50-50.” The perplexity of one professor says it all: “’We used to like to offend people,” Martha Saxton, a professor of women’s studies at Amherst, said as she discussed the faculty protest with students this week. ‘We loved being bad, in the sense that we were making a statement. Why is there no joy now?’”

The offended parties at present are Saxton’s own students, in part because they sense how much ‘68ism was about - or has turned into - a selfish effort toward “joy.” The French have not seriously begun - as has a new generation of Americans - resisting their own corrupt radical traditions. Instead, they remain a societe bloquee, stuck in sullen bad faith. The new literary movement in France labeled “deprimisme” (depression - it’s also sometimes called “dolorisme”) is one sign of this. The Elementary Particles has been called its masterwork, as J. Hoberman noted in his review in The Village Voice, because it captures more powerfully than any other novel what Mark Lilla calls “the night thoughts disturbing the slumber of the French centrist republic today.” Houellebecq has exposed the odd underside of the post-’sixties European ideal, in which an enviably subsidized life run by benign centrist governments which patronizingly view dissent as a theatrical letting off of steam turns out to inspire not joyful solidarity but corrosive anger and self-destruction. The French are stewing in their own cassoulet.

Sunday, February 22, 2004


To: My Sisters and Brothers

From: Janice [for background, see UD, 14 February 04, 19 January 04, and 30 November 03]



First, the good news: Our efforts to bring deflated grades back up to pre-2003 levels in colleges and universities across the country are working! As is often the case, Harvard is leading the way. I’ll let rival Yale tell the tale (hm. I’m a poet and don’t even know it!). (Sorry. I’m giddy.):

February 17, 2004
Yale Daily News
By Amy Kaplan
Staff Reporter

Two years after Harvard University attracted accusations of grade inflation, a letter released by Harvard Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross said grades are once again on the rise among Harvard students.

In an October 2001 investigation, the Boston Globe reported that 91 percent of Harvard undergraduates received honors upon graduation. Responding to the alleged grade inflation, Harvard altered its grading and honors policies. As a result grades dropped during the 2001-2002 school year. But a study of the 2002-2003 grades indicated a turnaround. ... With Harvard’s campaign to reduce grade inflation, some Harvard students [had] expressed concern over competing for jobs - or admission to graduate schools - with students from school whose grades are inflated.

We saw the same thing at Boston University. Students at deflationary campuses are confused and hurting. Whereas they once operated in a predictable world in which they could anticipate As, grades are now oscillating like crazy, and we’re beginning to see some grade-related mental health disorders. Faculty too are reacting against the new repressive regime in which their academic freedom is being compromised by nosy administrators mandating that professors not only submit grades every semester but also grade their own grading patterns.

One courageous history instructor at Harvard [see the Crimson online] has refused to submit personal grading patterns reports and has said that he will “not be intimidated” by these gestapo tactics: “We are not in the business of giving C’s,” he said. Right on. The deflationary regime at Harvard has generated intense student resentment as well. “There were people whose life mission it was to lower my grades,” one Harvard student complained: “Some government and economics professors and teaching fellows went on a grade-deflation spree last year.”

Spree is definitely the word. This irresponsible adventure, reminiscent of the Bush dynasty’s ongoing boondoggle in Iraq, was based on faulty intelligence, faulty assumptions, and faulty procedures. We should never be ashamed of being a winner-take-all society. Our ancestors worked hard so that we, and our children, and our children’s children, could have a life of (if I may quote the Emory University assistant director of admissions' description of his campus) “Disneyland and roses.” Bs and Cs are Blah and Cruddy. The first letter in "America" is A.

And now the bad news: The trend at many other colleges and universities lags behind Harvard. If Harvard realizes the error of its ways in 2004, the rest of the pack will take a few more years to get back on track. So our work is not yet finished. So long as one student sees one B on one grade sheet, I pledge that I will be there, working to keep each and every one of our campuses inflated. Because you can’t keep a good grade down.

Saturday, February 21, 2004



(Violently.) Fellowchristians and anti-Bloomites the man called Bloom is from the roots of hell, a disgrace to christian men. A fiendish libertine from his earliest years this stinking goat of Mendes gave precocious signs of infantile debauchery recalling the cities of the plain, with a dissolute granddam. This vile hypocrite, bronzed with infamy, is the white bull mentioned in the Apocalypse. A worshipper of the Scarlet Woman, intrigue is the very breath of his nostrils.

He has recently escaped from Dr Eustace’s private asylum for demented gentlemen. Traces of elephantiasis have been discovered among his ascendants. There are marked symptoms of chronic exhibitionism. Ambidexterity is also latent. He is prematurely bald from selfabuse, perversely idealistic in consequence, a reformed rake and has metal teeth.

Feel my entire weight, Bloom. Bow, bond-slave before the throne of your despot’s glorious heels, so glistening in their proud erectness.

I promise never to disobey.

I only want to correct you for your own good. Hold him down, girls, till I squat on him. The sins of your past are rising against you. Many. Hundreds. Mr Bloom, all is changed by woman’s will since you slept horizontal in Sleepy Hollow your night of twenty years. To attempt my virtue! Sully my innocence! You are not fit to touch the garment of a pure woman.

[Bloom transfigured into pig, woman, teapot, then nothingness.]

Friday, February 20, 2004



Mr. Harold Bloom read with relish the inner torments of Keats and Ammons. He liked strong poetry, full of heart. Most of all he liked that deathsman of the soul as Robert Greene called him William Shakespeare.

Home from the market one morning he saw a letter on the hall floor. He slit it open and glanced down the page. It perplexed him:

Dear Harold:
I am sorry you did not like my last letter. I am awfully angry with you. I do wish I
could punish you for what you did. I call you naughty boy. I think of you so often
you have no idea.

Full of wonder, Mr. Bloom put on his coat and walked to the offices of the Yale Daily News to see if he could find out something. There he saw the following headline:


More perplexed than ever he scanned the first paragraph. Something about his long-ago naughty fingers and the fingers of virtually every male faculty member at his university - they had all been sexual predators for decades and no one until this crusading woman came along had noticed a thing. There was a quotation from the British paper, The Guardian:

- America’s intelligentsia was today scandalised by the revelations that one of its leading feminist theorists, Naomi Wolf, is publishing a book alleging two decades of sexual harassment against women at her alma mater, Yale.

Mr. Bloom felt disgust, despair, but he thought It’s no use. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of this that is really life. Love. The opposite of hatred.

He caught sight of Stephen Dedalus entering with a friend Nighttown.

Damn your yellow stick. Where are we going?

Lecherous lynx, to la belle dame sans merci...

Out of concern for Dedalus Bloom followed, only to be confronted by a bevy of accusing women:

Bloom urged me, stating that he felt it his mission in life to urge me, to defile the marriage bed, to commit adultery at the earliest possible opportunity.

He urged me to chastise him as he richly deserves, to bestride and ride him, to give him a most vicious horsewhipping.

Me too.

Me too.

I am in a grave predicament.

Bloom. Of Bloom. For Bloom. Bloom.

[Each lays a hand on Bloom’s shoulders.]

Caught in the act.


Once upon a time, and a very long time it was, Mr Harold Bloom - it is said - touched Miss Naomi Wolf's naughty bits. And this Bloom, a scholar, who touched Wolf's naughty bits, became old and ill and planned to retire from the world with many laurels upon his head. But at the last minute, Miss Wolf - who for twenty years forgot about the bits - woke up one morning and remembered.

- He touched my naughty bits, she suddenly said aloud. - That act poisoned my life. I can never get my girlhood back, but I will sue for sexual harassment.

So Wolf contacted Yale University, the school whereat the naughty bits were touched, but the people there told her it was too late: after Mr Bloom did that thing to her she had only two years time to tell the school about it. At the end of two years the whole thing vanished like smoke. Poof!

- Poof! repeated Stephen, gazing at his father. - Poof!

- That cannot be right, said Miss Wolf. - I suffer the trauma of that event every day of my life. I must do something to bring him to justice.

For shame! some said to her. Mr Bloom is an old man with many white hairs upon his head.

- What of it? she answered. - So was Klaus Barbie.

- Would you for the love of God stop telling the child such stories? Aunt Dante suddenly said.

- Stevie likes them, said his father mildly, and continued.

- Mr Bloom said it was very vicious indeed for Miss Wolf to make such accusations against him, but there was little he could do for the wheels were turning. All the newspapers and magazines took up the story of the eminent much-respected professor who touched the naughty bits of a young student who only wished to show him her poetry. Miss Wolf went on the television - which Mr Bloom, reviling television, refused to do - and demonstrated what he had done to her. Wearing an earth-toned robe, she gestured with her lovely hand toward the bottom middle of her torso and descried with an elegant sweep of her arm the general trajectory of Mr Bloom's long-withdrawn offending hand. In her other hand she held her baby daughter.

- I am not doing this for myself, she said. - I am doing it for my daughter and all daughters who come after, so that this sort of trauma need not be visited on future generations!

Miss Oprah Winfrey wept, and the audience shook their fists at a large photograph of Mr Bloom which had been placed on a screen in front of them.

Things looked very bad indeed for Mr Bloom.

Wednesday, February 18, 2004


Alumni magazines are strange birds. The only one I’ve seen that’s anything other than an arm of the booster club is Harvard’s. Harvard Magazine, while full of the winsome self-puffery you’d expect, is also able on occasion to express criticism of the instititution. It doesn’t avoid controversies which make Harvard look bad, and it’s generous in printing and taking seriously peeved letters from readers.

The University of Chicago Magazine on the other hand stays loyal to the rah-rah stereotype. The latest issue begins with a vague bland inoffensive welcome from the president in which he protests that just because he’s a university president he has no intention of becoming vague bland and inoffensive. Here’s a sample sentence: “True, university presidents might be tempted to opine about things of which we know not.”

Many readers wrote sharp and intelligent letters to the editor in this issue, protesting in particular what sound like pretty rank political views that a professor opined in the last issue; but although these letters are closely argued rebuttals, no one seems to have been able to find the professor and get him to respond.

And then there is the curious puff piece on the University of Chicago cultural theory journal, Critical Inquiry. Time was I found great stuff in CI - I’ve already mentioned [in my post on the tenure manuscript] the wonderful exchange years ago in CI between T.J. Clark and Michael Fried on modernism, and how much it inspired me. But like many other people (circulation, the magazine writer notes, has dwindled), I’ve stopped reading the journal.

This had partly to do with its silly editorial decision years ago to publish Jacques Derrida attempting in his suffisant beating-around-le-bush way to suggest that Paul de Man should not be condemned for having been a Nazi symp. Coming from a Jew this was particularly sickening.

One of the editors acknowledges that the current small readership (less than 3,000) has in part to do with this: “People who had been interested in Critical Inquiry were no longer interested.” But no one stopped reading the thing because of one absurdity. For whatever reason, CI gradually settled into being a major purveyor of puffed-up has-been pomo prattle. A typical article last time I looked had about fifty pages and ten paragraphs. Each paragraph was the length of a good-sized phallogocentrist and was stuffed full of convolution, abstraction, obliqueness, wordplay, and sneers about appalling reactionary America. Humorless, desperate, and verbose, reprising precisely the deadheads who did it in (the writer concludes the article by boasting that the journal “recently received an essay from Derrida”), CI is now indistinguishable from the dread October [I quoted Eric Michaels on this journal in a recent post].

Faced with the death of theory and the dwindling of one of theory’s champions, CI, the writer for Chicago Magazine might have chosen to do something other than take at face value the Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf-like claims from the journal’s editorial board that victory rather than defeat is just around the corner.
The Dumb that Dare Not Speak its Name

A Kinsley Gaffe - named after the journalist Michael Kinsley - occurs when a politician speaks the truth. A Sechrest Gaffe - named after Professor Larry J. Sechrest, who in a recent essay called the students at his university “appallingly ignorant, irrational, anti-intellectual, and, well, ... just plain stupid” - is the same thing, for professors. Not all American universities have stupid students and despairing professors (Sechrest notes that “Half the teachers in my department don’t give final tests, so that means they just take an extra week off.”) but some do, and even though it’s obvious to everyone that they do, few people say it out loud.

A lot of dumb people are dumb, and we can thank Sechrest for reminding of us this. But a lot of smart people are dumb too. I’ve been around smart people all my life, and they’re often strikingly dumb.

They got high SATs. But they believe in astrology, vitamins, and witches. They are attracted to people who abuse them. They think there should be a violent overthrow of the American government. They think Castro’s fabulous. They’ve been married four times and are studying Hopi vows in preparation for five. They are unable to distinguish between their child and a god. They are in debt up to their asses and teach all summer to dig their way out but they never dig their way out. They go to cheesy psychotherapists and follow their advice. They play no musical instrument of even the rudest kind and do not know the meaning of the word “notation.” They cannot speak or read even one foreign language. Their travel outside of the United States consists of Caribbean islands (see UD’s recent Teaching Today and De Profundis posts) and alumni tours of the Hebrides. They think the film Death in Venice is brilliant. They think The Sopranos is brilliant.

This country has scads of junior colleges, colleges, and universities, and it’s easy to pick up your New York Times and sneer about lowbrow places like Sechrest’s Sul Ross University. It’s easy to laugh at Randy Newman when he sings about “college men at LSU who went in dumb and come out dumb too.” But it doesn’t get appreciably better as you go up. It just goes from lowbrow to middlebrow. Not until you get way up does it begin to look highbrow, and even there it’s spotty. Students at Harvard and Princeton are unhappy enough about the absence of intellectual life on their campuses that committees have been formed to investigate the problem.

A cultured, inquiring, and idea-generating intellect is a rare thing, and all sorts of topflight, expensive, self-satisfied American universities lack any. Their faculties include technicians, motivational speakers, administrators, summarizers, pop-culture addicts, profit-generators, workforce trainers, grammarians, and politicians. Don’t go looking for Goethe.

Sunday, February 15, 2004


The key claim of most of the theories that people now say are dying in literature departments is that human beings are pitbulls who use so-called reason to cloud and justify their sadism. Take your eye off of any person - Gandhi, Mandela, Helen Keller - for one moment and watch that person become a barking hitlerian.

Theory’s here to tell us that we’re bad bad bad and must be kept in line. Harsh lacanian reminders of our innate nastiness, our inability to understand enough about ourselves to have any moral autonomy, our cynical exploitation of metaphysical concepts to give our evil actions higher warrant, intend to snap us back like a choke collar from any sniffing outside foucauldian paths.

Much of this attitude came to the U.S. via the postwar French, as Camille Paglia and others have pointed out. The postwar French had good reason, given their degree of collaboration, to worry about their inner himmler. (Paul de Man was a Belgian collaborator.) Many great French novels - Tournier’s The Ogre may be the best - agonize over that nation’s susceptibility to anti-semitism, authoritarianism, and so forth. The word “fascist” for the French has the same broad common-noun provenance as, say, “creep” does to us. The French call everybody a fascist eventually. When I was living there last year the fascist du jour was Brigitte Bardot.

Fascist finger-pointing has become endemic among many leftists in the U.S. as well. Paul Berman, in Dissent, reports a conversation he recently had with an acquaintance:

"My friend said, 'I'm for the UN and international law, and I think you've become a traitor to the left. A neocon!'
I said, 'I'm for overthrowing tyrants, and since when did overthrowing fascism become treason to the left?'
'But isn't George Bush himself a fascist, more or less? I mean-admit it!'
My own eyes widened. 'You haven't the foggiest idea what fascism is,' I said. 'I always figured that a keen awareness of extreme oppression was the deepest trait of a left wing heart. Mass graves, three hundred thousand missing Iraqis, a population crushed by thirty-five years of Baathist boots stomping on their faces-that is what fascism means! And you think that a few corrupt insider contracts with Bush's cronies at Halliburton and a bit of retrograde Bible-thumping and Bush's ridiculous tax cuts and his bonanzas for the super-rich are indistinguishable from that?-indistinguishable from fascism? From a politics of slaughter? Leftism is supposed to be a reality principle. Leftism is supposed to embody an ability to take in the big picture. The traitor to the left is you, my friend...'"

I wish I had a euro for every academic who’s ever told me someone was a fascist. Literary theorists tend to believe that there are two sorts of people - commendable people who acknowledge their inner pit bull and keep a choke collar on it, viewing passion as much as reason as tantamount to fascism; and dangerous people in denial about their inner viciousness. A positive phobia in regard to conflict of any kind - from geopolitical to interpersonal - often manifests itself among people with these convictions. The late great political theorist Gillian Rose had this to say about conflict-phobia among the theorists:

"This decision by the intellectuals that reason itself has ruined modern life, and should be dethroned and banned in the name of its silenced others, is comparable to the decision to stop small children, girls, and boys, from playing with guns, pugnacious video games, or any violent toys. This brutally sincere, enlightened probity, which thinks it will stop war and aggresssion, in effect aggravates their propensity. This decision evinces loss of trust in the way that play (fairy stories, terrifying films) teaches the difference between fantasy and actuality. The child who is able to explore that border will feel safe in experiencing violent, inner, emotional conflict, and will acquire compassion for other people. The child who is locked away from aggressive experiment and play will be left terrified and paralysed by its emotions, unable to release or face them, for they may destroy the world and himself or herself. The censor aggravates the syndrome she seeks to alleviate; she seeks to rub out in others the border which has been effaced inside herself.

Philosophers who blame philosophy for the ills of civilisation have themselves lost the ability to perceive the difference between thought and being, thought and action. It is they who expunge the difference between fantasy and actuality, between the megalomania projected on to reason and the irreverent forces which determine the outcome of actual conflicts. They have inflated the power of philosophical reason, conferring on it a supposititious dangerous potency. It is the philosophers, not reason, who thereby degrade the independence of political realities and contingencies. Terrified of their own inner insecurity at the border between rationality and conflict... they proceed as if to terminate philosophy would be to dissolve the difficulty of acknowledging conflict and of staking oneself within it. To destroy philosophy, to abolish or to supersede critical, self-conscious reason, would leave us resourceless to know the difference between fantasy and actuality, to discern the distortion between ideas and their realisation. It would prevent the process of learning, the corrigibility of experience. This ill-will towards philosophy misunderstands the authority of reason, which is not the mirror of the dogma of superstition, but risk.”

The shrinking from risk as much as reason, from passion as much as propositional statement, has contributed to the odd robotic feel of academic prose in fields like queer theory (Lee Siegel wrote the definitive analysis of this prose in the New Republic), in which, “it is possible to read dozens of papers [in queer theory] without coming across the world [‘love’] at all,” writes Andrew Sullivan in his book Love Undetectable. In Unbecoming, the remarkable diaries he wrote while dying of AIDS, the cultural anthropologist Eric Michaels complains about a recent issue of the uber-theory journal October:

“I began to feel I was trudging through a swamp of discursivity, sinking deeper and deeper into a too-predictable rhetorical mud... [By] exempting gays from criticism, [this writing] renders us passive, and so victims in terms of our own arguments... I stuck my tongue (and my arm, and my cock) in some pretty odd places during the 1970’s, and remain unsure about some of that... Is there no way to discuss these things, to evaluate them and possible complicities in our present condition, outside the tacky theologies of guilt and retribution? ... October recapitulates for me my growing dissatisfaction, not merely with deconstruction and discourse analysis, but textuality as a subject/metaphor in general.”

Todd Gitlin notices similar problems with the theory of Jean Baudrillard, in which

“we leave any recognizable world of life and death and plunge into a world of nothing but language. The dominant tone is [one in which] nothing is real, nothing to get hung about -- except American militarism, American capitalism, America. Al-Qaeda is not much of an enemy, but bad interpretation is.”

Terry Eagleton’s recent broadsides against theory say as much - theory dicked around with language in an effort to scare us off of any serious reckoning with ourselves as flawed passional reasoning human beings. It convinced us all we’re fascists or proto-fascists. Reactionaries used to find commies under every bed; theorists find fascists under every flagpole. And they do not exempt themselves: like alcoholics in recovery, they will have to go to AA meetings and write essays about sobriety for the rest of their lives if they are to avoid staggering around killing people.

Pascal Bruckner, a French observer, writes that “Europe’s great virtue lies in an awareness of its dark side, its pathologies, the fragility of the barriers protecting it from its own dishonor. But the suspicion that hovers over our most striking achievements always carries the risk of descending into self-hatred and facile defeatism. Obsessive attention to past abominations has blinded us to the horrors of the present. ... The truth is that Europeans do not like themselves, or at least not enough to overcome their disgust and to exhibit toward their own culture the quasi-religious fervor that is so striking in the Americans. ... European democracy resembles a rest cure that its once turbulent peoples have taken after losing their taste for battle.”

Many academics have lately slipped free of the choke collar that this view of the world had placed upon them. Ignoring lacanian leash laws, they are now engaged in an exploratory pre-amble along the avenues of actual human experience.

Saturday, February 14, 2004

14 February 04


TO: Robert Brandon
Chair, Philosophy
Duke University

FROM: Janice Sidley
Chair, Women’s Studies
Someplace Similar [for details and background, see University Diaries, Nov. 30 2003, and Jan. 19, 2004]

Hi Bob (hope it’s okay if I call you Bob)!

Janice Sidley here. You don’t know me -- unless you know my work! My latest book (Menopause, Andropause, The Academy: A Volatile Mix) is coauthored with other women who’ve been victims of harassment in the academic workplace. But I feel I’ve come to know you through your recent remarks about the mysterious but undeniable link between successful university professors and, as you put it, “left- leaning political views.”

As you may know, Women’s Studies in particular among academic departments has long been singled out for ridicule and denunciation by right-leaners for low grading standards and mushy course content; and beyond spending a lot of my time trying to right grading wrongs throughout my university (many of my colleagues routinely give psychologically damaging grades), I unfortunately also have to spend a lot of time fielding complaints from parents, fellow faculty, the public at large, and even occasionally our own students that Women’s Studies courses are ideological tripe.

I’ve always had trouble finding words to defend what we do and the way we do it. We do, for instance, give A’s to all of our students. A B in Women’s Studies is considered failing, and in order to fail... No one has failed. But I’ve had trouble formulating for skeptics the ground of our enterprise, the reason we do what we do in the classroom and on the grade sheet.

Your comments not only help me answer questions specifically about Women’s Studies; they help me more generally answer people when they ask Why grade inflation? Why are students at Duke and at my institution overwhelmingly likely to get A’s in whole swathes of subjects (English, Philosophy, History, Psychology, Education, etc.)? Let me, if I may, quote you to yourself [italics mine]:

"Maybe I'm missing something, but it seems to me that the only viable hypothesis left is something like the following: There is a statistical association between the qualities that make for good academics and those that lead to left-leaning political views. Said another way, a larger proportion of academics are likely to be liberal, but certainly not all, and this may also vary by field and subfield because of the nature of knowledge, learning and the advancement of knowledge in that field. But, stated this way the hypothesis still remains incredibly vague. What qualities, what traits are we talking about? What causal relations underlie these statistical associations? These questions are worth exploring, but I think the hypothesis is right headed."

It’s precisely the left-leaning qualities that go into making a good academic that I’d like to talk about.

I’d submit that one of those qualities is a politically-grounded sense of the sort of students you have in your class, the sort of homes they come from, the sort of tuition their parents are paying, etc. I’ll give you an example of what the absence of this quality looks like - here’s a letter a professor at Boston University wrote a few years ago to the New York Times:

"Professors award high grades most often, I believe, to avoid having to deal with angry and self-righteous students and their parents. Over my strong objections one semester, the chairman of my department changed a student's F (32 out of a possible 105 points) to a passing grade. The justification? 'Both of his parents are lawyers.'" [Wohlberg, Janet W. "Grade Inflation Demeans Good Students. The New York Times (Jul 7, 1995) Sec: A P. 24. ]

This professor has a lot to learn! She is clearly a woman of the right. In her univocal way, she has failed to look holistically at the situation of her student -
something people on the left have learned to do routinely. You see, what you’ve helped me understand about the environment out of which students considered intelligent enough to attend universities like ours emerge is that that environment has created in them a basically unanswerable, unalterable, infallible intelligence - again, we can never satisfactorily account causally for this quality of intelligence, but our admissions committees have recognized it and awarded it with admission to our universities. Our job as professors is to understand that the very concept “failure” fails to pertain to this particular highly intelligent student/parent population. Some of us understand this, and some don’t.

If we come from the left side of the political spectrum, as I think is implicit in your argument, we are better equipped to have these understandings. Our “qualities,” our “traits” as thinkers are suited to the contemporary American university; whereas conservatives, with their fussy value distinctions and insufficiently critiqued devotion to historically canonized cultural expressions, lack the flexible adaption to the fast-changing academy - and the larger culture it mirrors - that left people tend to have. We are trained to think not in narrow intellectual content terms but in broad sociopolitical terms about our roles as teachers and our students’ roles as students.

We see the larger position of the university in society; we see our students as living, breathing, hurting human beings who are doing their best under all sorts of traumatic conditions - fear of nuclear holocaust, anxiety about sexually transmitted diseases, gender insecurity, etc., etc. - just to get up every morning and attend class.

We derive our pedagogical inspiration from left thinkers like Paulo Freire - and I know I’ve gone on too long for a Valentine but let me just quote from a textbook we use at our university in teacher-training our graduate students in English for the classroom “dialogue”:

>"This dialogue-a model inspired by Paulo Freire-makes teacher and
>learner equals engaged in a joint practice that is '[l]oving, humble,
>hopeful, trusting, critical'.This is contrasted with the unequal power
>relations in the authoritarian classroom, a place where the teacher
>holds all power and knowledge and the student is the receptacle into
>which information is poured, a classroom that is '[l]oveless, arrogant,
>hopeless, mistrustful, acritical.'"

I’m sending you this Valentine on Valentine’s Day to thank you for helping me see all of this more clearly: I shudder at the thought of any classroom of mine being arrogant and - especially on this day of all days - loveless. You have had the courage to say what we all feel about ourselves and our students, and for that...

i luv yu!xxxxxxx


Friday, February 13, 2004


Katherine Anne Porter's rambling short story, "Holiday," is little-read today ("Pale Horse, Pale Rider" is the one that gets anthologized), but I've always admired its account of life on a German immigrant's Texas farm. And I like the sentiment in its opening paragraph:

"At that time I was too young for some of the troubles I was having, and I had not yet learned what to do with them. It no longer can matter what kind of troubles they were, or what finally became of them. It seemed to me then there was nothing to do but run away from them, though all my tradition, background, and training had taught me unanswerably that no one except a coward ever runs away from anything. What nonsense! They should have taught me the difference between courage and foolhardiness, instead of leaving me to find it out for myself. I learned finally that if I still had the sense I was born with, I would take off like a deer at the first warning of certain dangers. But this story I am about to tell you happened before this great truth impressed itself upon me - that we do not run from the troubles and dangers that are truly ours, and it is better to learn what they are earlier than later, and if we don't run from the others, we are fools."

I agree that you should take off like a deer from troubles that aren't your own. That's why I believe that when someone comes at you, from the left or the right, yelling DIVERSITY, you should run away.

Diversity is a modern piety-word, invoked by colleges, corporations, and correctional facilities to affirm the heavenly mix of people at their institutions. The greater the range of types, the greater the blessings, seems to be the doctrine; and beyond questions of distributive justice, it's likely that something of this sort is true. Universities are particularly fervent worshippers of diversity.

What's awkward is that amid clamorous and often quite successful campus crusades for diverse student bodies, faculty bodies have remained quietly mired in homogeneity. Jews like me, for instance, are madly overrepresented in many academic departments, and in university administration. If universities were representative of the American population, Joe Lieberman would be president and Jackie Mason would be vice-president. The loudest voices in the current "intellectual diversity" debate (Horowitz, Pipes, Fish) are Jewish. If they cared about religious diversity, these people would hire Ba'hai spokesmen.

If I may be permitted to disclose a little bit more about myself -- I represent David Horowitz's worst non-diverse faculty nightmare. Registered Democrat (voted for Gore), environmental nut (belong to many conservation groups and own taunting anti-SUV bumper stickers which are supposed to be affixed to the backsides of Hummers but I'm too wimpy to do it so they sit in a drawer), tres gay-friendly (teach course in Literature of AIDS), secular, indifferent to the naughty adulterous ways of politicians. I live in a town that's a Nuclear Free Zone and that everyone calls The People's Republic.

In fact, though, because I'm a "conservative" in the intellectual context that matters - the context of the typical American English department - I do represent intellectual diversity. I'm a lonely anti-Deleuzian voice in the wilderness. I think students should stop reading shit like The Awakening and go back to Paradise Lost.

It's tricky - that's all I'm saying. Academia is a rather narrow social subculture and that ain't gonna change. But what we should care about is the integrity of university teachers in the classroom. This is also tricky, as I've tried to suggest in earlier posts, because above all we should wish to protect academic freedom. Demogogues and dunces there will always be, - these are the troubles and dangers that are truly ours. We should always be thinking of ways to neutralize the damage they do. But diversity initiatives and mandates are not the way to go.

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Sunday Kind of Post on Wednesday

Having glanced at the religion of some religious professors (see Sunday Kind of Post II), let us glance at the religion of some secular professors. We have already seen, from the writing of Jonathan Culler (see Sunday Kind of Post I) that among a lot of university professors there’s an open disdain for and and indeed a sense of threat from religious America, a country where American Airlines pilots ask their Christian passengers to get up and proselytize their non-Christian (see addendum to Sunday Kind of Post I), and Nascar hoods advertise Mel Gibson’s Passion of Christ (see yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle on line), etc.

It’s a class thing - religion, like smoking, is perceived among the professoriate as tres prole - a sign of credulity, fear of truth, kitschiness, sentimentality, smugness. Religion tends to be associated in many professors’ minds with incorrect political and social positions - opposition to abortion, support of the death penalty, opposition to same sex marriage. Professors connect religious belief with unquestioning faith in leaders, both religious and secular, and with faith in and willingness to die for abstractions like Nation.

The corporate nature of religious activity - everybody gathering every week in synagogues and mosques - tends to give withdrawn independent minded professors the creeps, just as religion’s sometimes histrionic aspect (the weeping televangelist, the babbling charismatic) appals professors, whose demeanor is tightlipped and ironic. Put most broadly, professors find baffling and embarrassing strong emotions and strong belief (emotionally, as I’ve suggested in earlier posts, despair is acceptable and even admired among the professoriate, but things like the “good news” aspect of Christianity, for instance, and the gladness that sometimes accompanies it, are really over the top), and religious people dramatically and openly exhibit these. Religious people are irony-impaired. They have never learned to put quotation marks around words like virtue, love, soul, country, faith, belief, and leader. They have never encountered the word contingency.

Despite all of this, it would be wrong to call professors themselves secular. Professors have their own sect, with its own deity and doctrine. While Buddhists adore Little Buddhas and Christians venerate Baby Jesus, professors revere The Smartest Child.

No one should be surprised that intelligence in itself is a god-principle for professors. A philosophy professor at Duke put it well recently in response to a controversy on his campus about “intellectual diversity” (apparently almost the entire faculty is made up of Democrats):

"If, as John Stuart Mill said, stupid people are generally conservative, then there are lots of conservatives we will never hire. Mill's analysis may go some way towards explaining the power of the Republican party in our society and the relative scarcity of Republicans in academia. Players in the NBA tend to be taller than average. There is a good reason for this. Members of academia tend to be a bit smarter than average. There is a good reason for this too."

Intelligence here functions first as a principle of political analysis. This professor’s
foundational creed, based on a mystery, is that most Americans are stupid. Stupidity, understood according to classical liberalism, is the inability to perceive the complex truths of social life and to improve the world based on those perceptions. Because most Americans are too stupid to intuit forms of enhanced social life, they seek out political leaders and arrangements that maintain the status quo, whatever that happens to be. They are like dogs who always expect their food bowl to be in the same place. Hence, they are “conservative,” and attracted to conservative politicians like George W. Bush. Bush’s main appeal to stupid Americans and his most notorious characteristic to smart Americans is that he is stupid. I have rarely been to an academic dinner party in the last few years that did not feature a ritual obeisance at some point to the following articles of faith:

1. Bush is stupid.
2. We are smart.
3. We should be President.

Just as the reason for most Americans being stupid is enigmatic, so the reason most American university professors are smart is enigmatic, too, although this professor’s analogy to basketball players suggests some genetic determination, some Bell Curve form of belief. Some people are born physically taller than other people, and some people are born cerebrally over the heads of other people, and who can say why? But it makes sense that many in the first group will dominate the sport of basketball and that many in the second will dominate the faculties of universities.

If you will allow me to pursue the genetic feel of this argument, we could go a little further and suggest that just as children of very tall people are liable to be tall, so children of very smart people are liable to be smart - indeed, genetics being what it is, we might expect that these children will be even smarter and taller than their parents. And this I think is where the core of the religious life of professors tends to reside.

Non-professors love their children and wish them well; professors love their children and demand that they be worshipped as transcendent geniuses. Professors are the only social class I’m familiar with for whom having bright but not brilliant children is considered a tragic mishap, a grotesque twist of fate, an assiduously not-commented-upon freak of nature, akin to Gregor Samsa waking up an enormous insect. Just as Christians like to contemplate miracles like Jesus’s turning water into wine, professors like to gather in their livingrooms with an audience and contemplate the miracle of Jason beating the local chessmaster at chess or speaking Chinese to a visitor from China or listing all the State capitols in alphabetical order in three minutes. Just as there are intense disputes among religious sects pertaining to the relative powers of various saints and prophets and seers, so academic parents are constantly undermining one another’s claims to having the Smartest Child by carefully tracking little lapses and failures on other claimants’ parts (didn’t get into the best private school; is brilliant in history but gets low A’s in math). All sect members can be identified by their common and striking mode of child raising which I won’t spend time describing here... But ask yourself: If you were the parent of the reincarnation of John Stuart Mill, how would you raise your child?

Monday, February 09, 2004

Honesty is Such a Lonely Word

In a recent interview, Steven Erlanger, the culture editor of the New York Times, said this about the new books NYT writers review: “To be honest, there's so much shit. Most of the things we praise aren't very good.”

Little is verboten in America - you can flash your tit during the Super Bowl (far right wits have taken to calling the event the Toilet Bowl), etc., etc. - but saying that most of the cultural products Americans praise (new books, bad poems, the Billy Joel song “Honesty,” one of whose ludicrous lines titles this morning’s post) are actually shit will get you into the sort of trouble Erlanger’s been in since he made his remark.

And yet who among us has not had the experience of rushing out in a post-rave state of arousal to buy Bel Canto or The Hours or The Shipping News or A Heartbreaking Staggering whatever only to question the very grounds of our intuition of The Real when the novel turns out to be shit?

One of the most surreal experiences I’ve had occurred after a well-known feminist theorist gave a talk to the summer faculty seminar I attended (I mentioned this seminar in my recent Prolegomena post) many years ago. The talk - delivered in the Mitford girls patois of British-educated academic Marxists - was, although heartfelt, unintelligible. When our seminar group reassembled a bit later to discuss the talk, we did not, given its inexistence as discourse, discuss it. Instead around the seminar table a drama staged itself in which excited shared knowing grins and breath-gulping wide-eyed nods mixed with bits of dialogue (“Brilliant...blew me away... marvelous...she’s incredible that’s all I can say...transformative...”) to create a hypnotic mise-en-scene... The pleasant immateriality of the moment made me feel light... ethereal... a Rossetti painting floated in front of my eyes...I saw... silken hair .... Julia’s clothes .... liquefaction... sweetly flows...sweet Afton... swee-ee-ee-eet FORgiveness...

Sunday, February 08, 2004


The indispensable organization FIRE, which attacks speech codes and defends free speech for professors and students, asks me to be concerned about the recent treatment of a philosophy professor at a college in Ohio. This professor’s department is making his life miserable because on his syllabus for Introduction to Philosophy the man tells his students to “please be aware of where I am coming from. [I am a] committed Catholic Christian philosopher.” FIRE sees nothing wrong with this sort of candor, which it compares to a feminist disclosing her ideological commitments in class and on syllabi, and the organization demands that the college stop harassing the professor.

Well, of course the college should stop bothering this fellow (it’s been messing with his course selection and that sort of thing). But those of us who care about the intellectual integrity of the humanities classroom should find him bothersome.

The particular course in question, again, is Introduction to Philosophy. American undergraduates coming to a course of this type early in their career are liable to know next to nothing about the topic. Do you think it’s a good idea for their first reading in the subject to be an affirmation on their syllabus of “Catholic Christian” (somewhat confusing, that) faith on the part of the instructor? Why should my initiation into the thought of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Plotinus, Descartes, Leibnitz, Hegel, Kant, Schopenhauer and Wittgenstein be a rather baffling profession of faith from the person who is supposed to be leading me dispassionately through this history of thought? What is the point of this personal profession at this place and time?

The professor’s confession expresses the following to me: “Please be aware that I’m incapable of any degree of objectivity in regard to the subject matter at hand. Please also be aware that my moral superiority to the secular thinkers on our reading list needs to be established at the outset.” Does the professor intend for me to read his confession in this way? Who knows. But all I see in these sentences is a need to display one’s piety to an audience.

And finally -- “please be aware of where I am coming from”? Why do I, your student, need to be aware of much of anything about you? (And please be aware that ‘sixties cliches make me barf.) If I cared about your origins I would have looked for a course titled “Your Professor's Origins.” As it is, I’m given to believe that the thought of Martin Heidegger has a stronger claim on my attention than my professor's religious history.

UPDATE Sunday Night: Another Instance of Inappropriate Mention of Religion

Pilot asks Christians to talk of faith in jet

Associated Press
First published: Sunday, February 8, 2004

NEW YORK -- An American Airlines pilot flying passengers to New York asked Christians on board to identify themselves and suggested the non-Christians discuss the faith with them, a spokesman for the airline said Saturday.

Flight 34 was headed from Los Angeles to John F. Kennedy Airport on Friday afternoon, said spokesman Tim Wagner. The pilot, whose identity was not released, had been making flight announcements and then asked that the Christians on board raise their hands, Wagner said.

The pilot told the airline that he then suggested the other passengers use the flight time to talk to the identified Christians about their faith, Wagner said.

The pilot later told passengers he would be available at the end of the flight to talk about his first announcement.

Wagner said the airline was investigating the incident, and that the company had guidelines about appropriate behavior. He said the pilot had just returned to work from a weeklong mission trip to Costa Rica.

"It falls along the lines of a personal level of sharing that may not be appropriate for one of our employees on the job."

Saturday, February 07, 2004

Prolegomena to Any Future Invisibility

The Invisible Adjunct has had it. Her comments section is draining even her impressive reserves of goodwill and forebearance. To put it in the language of science, this highly literate and popular blogger on the subject of the crisis in the humanities has been done in by the A-H Factor (see Archives, The Journal of Irreproducible Results) latent in her wide readership. A certain contingent of commenters to her threads are Palcontents (“All day long with hammer greasy/ We bash yer nut in good and easy...”) and this being a democracy, etc., etc.

But (to cite Gershwin), isn’t it a pity. Rendered invisible first by the exigencies of adjuncting, IA is now being made to disappear by the nastiness of some of the members of her own crowd - grad students, professors, ex-grad students, ex-professors, most of them in the humanities. As Ophelia Benson, Jane Galt, and other empirically minded observers have noted, many humanities types are emotivists rather than reasoners, and their emotionality can be discouraging. No, more than discouraging, as IA demonstrates -- seriously upsetting and depressing.

Years ago I took part in a summer seminar for English professors. I came to call one of the participants The Lighthouse. A punishingly doctrinaire feminist, The Lighthouse would swivel her eyes from one discussant to the next the way the lights of a lighthouse circle a harbor. All utterances were subject to her harsh surveillance, and when she spotted heterodoxy she came down on you like a ton of bricks.

That trigger-happy hyper-irritability has become pretty endemic in the profession, which is why everybody’s busy not stepping on anyone’s toes. Reason not the need to be offended; rather count the ways: race, class, and gender, to be sure, but ooh la la... body size, disability, accent, piercings, age, sexual orientation, nationality... The act of taking personal offense - rather than accepting in a calm way sometimes harsh but nonetheless impersonal criticism of ideas you may cherish - has become the way humanities professors deflect actual argument about something. One’s identity trumps any subject.

Being petulantly offended as a way of shutting someone up whose ideas confuse or challenge you is an act of passive personalizing; deciding to go on the attack is often a gesture of active personalizing of the other. Thus IA complains that she’s tempted to shut down her site not because of forceful but non-personalized disagreements from readers, but rather because of “another type of response altogether: the kind of comment that seems to take issue with the very existence of this weblog. This type of comment generally combines wholesale dismissal of the site and its purpose with heavy-duty psychologizing about the motives of anyone who would run, and of anyone who would participate in, a site called Invisible Adjunct.” [italics mine]

As Vladimir Nabokov was among the earliest to complain, being psychologized by other people is maddening for two reasons:

1. The content of the analysis is numbingly stupid.

2. The act of psychologizing another intends to be superior, intimidating, and chilling of further discourse.

All thoughtful reflective people doubt their own motives, question their intellectual clarity and their moral virtue, have a certain healthy degree of dislike for themselves, see themselves as sort of cheap and ridiculous in a lot of ways, etc. You’d have to be strong as an ox - someone like Christopher Hitchens or Andrew Sullivan, say - to sustain all the damage that wounding, searching words from the blogsphere that target very precisely your self-doubts and self-dislikes can do to you. You want to retain your vulnerability, your openness to being wrong or small-minded or whatever; you also want to assert the privilege of making some moral judgments, despite your own lack of moral perfection. The claim of others that because you are such and such a type of person (the act of psychologizing you, that is) you cannot make moral statements, or that you are condemned to false moralizing, can have a powerfully undermining effect on your confidence in your own perceptions. It’s your very seriousness, your very willingness to consider that you may be wrong or out of line, that Palcontents recognize and exploit terribly.

So it is that the inability of some of her posters to see beyond their own prejudices and to attack without restraint what they can only see as the prejudices of others has stymied and exhausted the dispassionate, reasonable, and soon, perhaps, to be doubly invisible Invisible Adjunct.
The Normal Heart

I've noticed that opponents of gay marriage can give no arguments against it; but I've also noticed that I - a proponent - can give no arguments for. I intuit, over years of life with gay people in the world around me and in the novels and essays I read, that people attracted to people of the same sex are (somewhat disappointingly) just like everybody else. Beyond the need of gay couples to indicate (left; right) who's who in their photograph, I discern no interesting difference between the Sunday New York Times straight and gay wedding announcements.

Children, from what I've seen and read, are subject to the same blessings and curses in gay as in straight households. The fifty percent of children whose gay parents will divorce will suffer precisely the same damage as the fifty percent of children whose straight parents divorce. Having two fathers or two mothers is no doubt odd, but having no television in your house (my daughter's stigma) or a father who's a manic depressive or a mother who's a renowned mezzo soprano is also odd, and you adjust, as does the world.

I find claims that gay homes are bad for children rather disgusting. Gay people often adopt children whom no one else wants. Whatever the genetic provenance of their children, these parents display, to my eye, the same loving intensity toward them that straight parents do toward theirs. Will gay parents' kids turn out gay? Some of them. So?

A small number of Americans will always believe that all gay psyches are twisted and all gay sex is perverse. A much larger number of Americans, faced with the increasingly apparent truth that bland Uncle Melvin and sweet Aunt May have been flamers all these years, will, on their big days, smile and wish them well.

Thursday, February 05, 2004


Saul Bellow uses the word “odd” about thirty times in his rather short novel, Ravelstein. Early in Re-Joyce, Anthony Burgess's wonderful book about Bellow's literary precursor, this paragraph appears:

"It is the lack, not merely of the cliche, but of the rhythm that suggests a cliche, that makes both [Gerard Manley Hopkins and James Joyce] odd. Yet this oddness springs from nature: English is never abused, never given exotic flavouring... . Both writers build, not on the accumulations of the centuries, but on the freshly uncovered roots of English. This, then, makes them look odd. ...Oddness is more easily excused in a poet than in a novelist. The poet's trade is with words, an odd trade anyway, and he has to arrange them oddly to draw attention to the mystery of language."

Henry James’s The Ambassadors relies just as heavily on variants of the word: oddness, oddly, oddity all over the place. Bellow, Burgess, and James aren’t the only ones.

We’re all odd birds, odd bodies, and the best writers intuit forms of human oddness that resonate and clarify. These writers make language odd too - as Burgess suggests - so that it can carry the impress of human oddity. To be odd is to display the nuanced individual markings of your biography and your vulnerability. Chad’s shabby Paris apartment is to Strether part of his “small sublime indifferences and independences, [expressing] an odd and engaging dignity.” A nihilistically inclined poet like Philip Larkin will throw up his hands and say that since our oddities are hopelessly contingent to each of us, there’s little of interest to be said about them:

And what’s the profit? Only that, in time,
We half-identify the blind impress
All our behavings bear, may trace it home.
But to confess,

On that green evening when our death begins,
Just what it was, is hardly sastisfying,
Since it applied only to one man once,
And that one dying.

But writers who deal in the odd epiphany (Joyce, DeLillo) argue something else: that the most painstaking elaboration of human oddness tends, paradoxically, to reveal a deep-lying commonality.

Queer or odd? What do you prefer? Queer Theory (now known cynically as Career Theory; or sometimes Drear Theory) offers a secret society identity - it’s like being a Straussian. There’s an implicit affirmation of superiority to unhip unenlightened bourgeois people. Queer Theory takes odd and colonizes it for one group.

As of May 17, gay people can get married in Massachusetts. The State Supreme Court ruled in favor of it today. A vote for odd over queer.

Wednesday, February 04, 2004


Being the Prison Diaries
of Gerald M. Goldhaber [see yesterday's post below: Teaching Today]
Director, Communications Department
University of Buffalo

1 February 2004
The City of Georgetown
Cayman Islands
Her Majesty’s Correctional Facility

The hardest part is lack of eye contact. My guaranteed effective “Donahue” teaching technique relies above all on constant eye contact. I never use notes when I teach because you have to look down, if only for a second, to check them. I’m always dashing around the lecture hall, fixing students with my bold stare, challenging them, stimulating them!

But now, friends, I’m trapped within four thick walls, and making eye contact with the guys around here would be a mistake. The energy, the one-on-oneness which is my trademark is impossible in this prison, where I pace my cell alone, awaiting word from my lawyer, my dean, whoever.

Lying on this filthy cot, exhausted from pacing, I ask myself what happened to catapult me from my waterbed to a malodorous pallet.... Only a few hours ago I was gazing at Seven Mile Beach from my breakfast room. Now, as I peer through the hazy window of my holding pen, the darkness gathers...

I ask myself - - Why is it that the most high-profile, emulated, talented, attractive people always seem to end up hounded, harassed, indicted, even imprisoned? I’m one of many influential personalities - Martha Stewart, Michael Jackson, Jennifer Lopez, Kobe Bryant, Rush Limbaugh, William Bennett, Ariel Sharon, Alain Juppe, Janet Jackson - whose very success seems to spell their doom. What does the world have against ambition and acclaim? I have to figure it’s envy.

People love to bring successful people down. I had a guy write to me saying, “Big-shot communicator! Aren’t you supposed to be a specialist in analyzing social differences? Didn’t you notice that the Cayman Islands differs from the United States in having draconian drug laws?” Sure - I know the Caymanians are culturally conservative church-goers and all that. But put yourself in my place. Here’s a pissant protectorate - not even a country - whose sole industry is money laundering. Would you assume they’d give a shit about some guy in a condo scoring Ecstasy? It’s an effing Caribbean island! Everybody’s drugging!

2 February 2004

My lawyer’s getting me out today. He says I’ll have to pay a few thousand dollars and act contrite in front of the judge.

In a way I’m grateful for this time alone. I’ve been living a crazy life, with the consulting business plus the university gig. Things like this are nature’s way of telling us to slow down.

I’m thinking of getting into the Simplicity thing. Zen, saunas, feng shui or however you spell it, meditation ceremonies, retreats, mindfulness - that shit. ... And there’s always the anti-drug talk circuit -- Don’t do what I did, look how I’ve been brought low, blah blah... the “patter of penitence” I believe Gore Vidal calls it...I’ll start my talk with Oscar Wilde - classy writer:

“The gods had given me almost everything. But I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease. I amused myself with being a FLANEUR, a dandy, a man of fashion. I surrounded myself with the smaller natures and the meaner minds. I became the spendthrift of my own genius, and to waste an eternal youth gave me a curious joy. Tired of being on the heights, I deliberately went to the depths in the search for new sensation. What the paradox was to me in the sphere of thought, perversity became to me in the sphere of passion. Desire, at the end, was a malady, or a madness, or both. I grew careless of the lives of others. I took pleasure where it pleased me, and passed on. I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character, and that therefore what one has done in the secret chamber one has some day to cry aloud on the housetop. I ceased to be lord over myself. I was no longer the captain of my soul, and did not know it. I allowed pleasure to dominate me. I ended in horrible disgrace. There is only one thing for me now, absolute humility.”

Tuesday, February 03, 2004


From the University of Buffalo Center for Teaching and Learning Resources:

The "Phil Donahue" Approach to Large Lecture Halls
Professor Gerald M. Goldhaber, School of Informatics

School of Informatics professor, Gerald M. Goldhaber, draws on a variety of techniques in approaching his lessons. Today, he talks to us of a particularly unique approach he utilizes with large lectures. Asked about his technique, Dr. Goldhaber expressed:

“My lecture technique is modeled after the former talk-show host, Phil Donahue, who wandered around the audience placing the microphone in front of audience members so they could respond to guests or each other's comments. I lecture from the middle of the classroom (Knox 20) and then wander up and down the aisles and throughout the rows of seats, pausing a few minutes in each location so as to not make the students "dizzy". I rarely use notes (they distract from maintaining constant eye contact with students--important for good communication).

I take a seating chart with me; required attendance with assigned seats enables me to learn their names. I frequently call on students by name to ask them a question or elicit a response to a comment of mine. Then, I will dash to another part of the room and, using the wireless mike, ask another student to react (as Phil D. did) to the comments or answer that the prior student just gave. This keeps the students on their toes and alert, since they don't know who will be called on next. They are told in advance verbally and on the syllabus to read certain chapters, articles, etc. for each day's lecture. I supplement what I do via lecture with power point, films, exercises, etc. I also give out prizes for participation in exercises, top test scores, etc. as a motivation. Students love this.

All in all, the whole point is to AVOID AT ALL COSTS STANDING IN FRONT OF THE ROOM AND READING NOTES OR SLIDES OR JUST TALKING FROM A DISTANCE TO STUDENTS WHO ARE OFTEN BORED, SLEEPING OR HIDING… The technique has proven effective in engaging students and maximizing active participation."


Curious about what the prizes are?


Pollster, professor Goldhaber pleads guilty to drug charges in Caymans

News Staff Reporter

Gerald M. Goldhaber, a top local political pollster and a University at Buffalo communication professor, has pleaded guilty to marijuana and Ecstasy possession charges in the Cayman Islands, authorities confirmed Monday.
Goldhaber, 60, of Meyer Road, Amherst, spent two nights in jail after being arrested Jan. 8, along with two 23-year-old UB students.

The Caymanian Compass reported that Goldhaber pleaded guilty Jan. 15 to possession of 9.8 grams of marijuana, possession of 4.35 grams of Ecstasy and consumption of marijuana.

He pleaded not guilty to possession of a small amount of cocaine.

Goldhaber was fined a total of $2,500 on the three guilty pleas, the newspaper reported.

"His fall from grace will be greater than any penalty we can impose here," his defense attorney, Lloyd Samson, told the Cayman court, according to the Caymanian Compass.

The two students, identified as Jose Antonio Sierra and Bernardo N. Tagliareni, both pleaded guilty to consuming marijuana and were fined lesser amounts than Goldhaber, according to the newspaper.

A UB spokesman declined to comment on Goldhaber's status Monday, calling it a personnel matter.

Goldhaber serves as director of graduate studies in UB's Communication Department.

The spokesman did confirm that the two students are UB communication students; one reportedly is a graduate student, the other an undergraduate senior.

The spokesman also wouldn't comment on the two students, citing possible disciplinary action against them.

A UB policy on drug and alcohol use by employees and students refers only to on-campus activities. It's not clear what sanctions, if any, would apply to off-campus activities.

Goldhaber could not be reached to comment. Prosecutors told the court that Drugs Task Force officers noted a strong odor of marijuana outside Goldhaber's Cayman Islands condo early on the afternoon of Jan. 8.

The marijuana, Ecstasy, some pills and some "crystal meth" were confiscated, but the prosecutor said the crystal methamphetamine did not meet the criteria for drug charges.

Goldhaber is best known in Western New York as president of Goldhaber Research Associates, which conducts public-opinion polls and market surveys on political races and other public issues.

He also has carved out a reputation as a political commentator whose observations on top issues are quoted frequently in the media.

Goldhaber, reportedly a frequent visitor to the Cayman Islands, owns the condo where he was arrested.

The Cayman Islands are in the Caribbean, south of Cuba and near Jamaica.


Sometimes, when you teach, you have these little moments of - I want to call them synesthesia, but I just looked that up and it's wrong. A more accurate word is the less lovely gesamtkunstwerk -- a kind of aesthetic and natural synthesis, a feeling of being wrapped inside a world of art. You're analyzing the opening lines of The Waste Land, and outside the windows of your classroom it's exactly the sort of April Eliot has in mind; or, as is the case with me today, you're discussing James Joyce's story, "The Dead," and snow is general all over the Atlantic seaboard, just as it is general all over Ireland when Gabriel Conroy, during his aunts' annual New Year's party, blunders into some truths about the living and the dead. At moments like these, things are strangely in alignment, the world is your objective correlative, and teaching can be bliss.

The "ghastly developments" in American university life to which Kramer refers in the sentence at the top of this page are ghastly by way of contrast. Without wanting to be as fondly nostalgic as Gabriel's Aunt Julia, I do want to suggest that things used to be better, and that University Diaries wants not merely to observe the ghastly but also to recall how glorious teaching and writing used to be - how glorious they can still be.

Glorious here doesn't mean mindlessly happy. It means infused with so much
dark and light (here the word is lovely: chiaroscuro) as to be intellectually and emotionally exhilarating. For instance - the wintry mix in today's weather lets me mix the cold muddled streets of early twentieth century Dublin with the streets of my city today - in both places, the same morbidity, the same confusion.

Instead of suggesting how art - generation after generation - makes the world opulent, professors push their students into little linguistic pissoirs. The "unstable candle" in Gabriel's hotel room is his detumescent tool, of course; and his "snow-stiffened frieze" is also his root, elevated a bit. A psychoanalytic critic writes, in the much-used Bedford/St. Martin's critical edition of Portrait of the Artist, that "the position of the birdlike girl Stephen gazes at, and the noise of gently moving water that issues from her, probably indicate that she is urinating. The stream of her urine could constitute a phallic symbol and so add to the fetishism of the scene." Ick.

Sunday, February 01, 2004


"Marxism has gone to the academy to die in comfort," wrote Irving Howe. It will die there without benefit of clergy.

Even in the academic left’s weakened body politic, ninth inning conversions just ain’t gonna happen. It would be a waste of time for Mormon missionaries to fan out to Comp Lit departments.

To be sure, conversions from Marxism to what people now like to call "chastened” liberalism are a dime a dozen these days. But it’s a long way from John Stuart Mill to Jesus H. Christ.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that! No, what’s striking about this subject is the illiberality many academics bring to it.

Sounding every inch the fundamentalist, Jonathan Culler, in an essay called “Comparative Literature and the Pieties,” warns that for the “sake of the political and intellectual health of our nation,” university teachers must incorporate a thoroughgoing critique of religion into their classes. In practice, this would mean that when teaching Paradise Lost or the Inferno or the later poems of T.S. Eliot or Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory or fiction by Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, George Eliot, Charlottte Bronte, etc., humanities professors would be obliged to “compare Christianity with other mythologies [and] make the sadism and sexism of religious discourse an explicit object of discussion.” Professors in the humanities are particularly obliged to do this because, “almost alone in universities, we are the ones who explicate and decline to criticize religious conceptions, themes, and doctrines.... Instead of leading the critique of superstition, comparative literature is contributing to the legitimation of religious discourse.”

Rather than critique religion in the way Culler suggests (“Just as some people believe witches eat people and poison wells, so Jane Eyre believes God brought Rochester back to her.”), humanities professors - perhaps unwittingly - collude with repressive religious institutions. “The complicity of comparative literature with religion in our own day,” Culler writes, “is a subject that has scarcely been broached but that cries out for attention, not least because religion provides an ideological legitimation for many reactionary or repressive forces in America today and thus is arguably a greater danger than the ideological positions comparatists do spent their time attacking.”

Anyway, along these lines -- I’ve often wondered what would have happened if that industrious graduate student who went to Belgium a couple of decades ago and set going the series of revelations about Paul de Man - he was a fascist, an anti-semite, and, according to some sources, a bigamist; and, again according to some sources, he lied about his politics to the American immigration authorities - if this industrious graduate student had instead discovered that all of de Man’s adult life, despite what Harold Bloom calls his “serene linguistic nihilism,” his relentless rejection of all metaphysical consolation, he had in fact faithfully attended a Catholic church at a secret location in New Haven, would only hear Mass in Latin, and enjoyed biannual retreats during which much enthusiastic discussion of Thomas Merton went on. Talk about a scandal.