This is an archived page. Images and links on this page may not work. Please visit the main page for the latest updates.

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, April 30, 2004

Observations Along Strathmore Avenue, Maryland

The oral iconography of the cig in the shuttered Chevy has been replaced in America by the cell phone in the Saab convertible - a kind of progress.

The lowest circle of cultural symbolics though - in the middle of which my ass is planted at the moment - is the bus stop. I'm at my town's main intersection, on a nice wooden bench shaded by an elm tree, waiting for a ride to the Metro station (careful readers will recall that I do not drive).

Needless to say, it fails to compute, among my also-affluent neighbors (it's a small town - they all know me), that I take buses. Buses are for the addled oldies who've had their licenses impounded by the state. Buses are for the Costa Rican girls who babysit the working mothers' children, and for the Guatemalans who mow their lawns. Buses are for the bums who blow into town looking for bibelots discarded along the curbs. They are no place for a Ph.D.

Which is why I'm often rescued from them. A neighbor in a Navigator sees me and screeches to a halt. "Margaret [high-pitched incredulity on the last syllable of the name]? Get in." Their voice is grim. This is serious business. They'll take me anywhere, no questions asked. But my Bobo butt must be swept up from this...this...exposure.

The number of car fatalities in America - an enormous sum, around 45,000 a year - is up again. The number of injuries is greater still. A couple of weeks ago a local kid got his leg broken by a car that plowed into him a few yards from where I'm sitting. The drivers who now move past me at a sluggish pace are hot, aggressive. Half of them blast angry bass notes out of their windows; the other half would like to kill the blasters.

But anyway I'm not supposed to be here. I'm supposed to be inside an airconditioned SUV calming myself down with Clementi. Professors are supposed to do...supposed to be...

There's a wonderful scene in Don DeLillo's novel White Noise in which its main character, a professor, explains to his daughter that no natural disaster will ever occur in the vicinity of their family:

"These things happen to poor people who live in exposed areas. Society is set up in such a way that it's the poor and the uneducated who suffer the main impact of natural and man-made disasters. People in low-lying areas get the floods, people in shanties get the hurricanes and tornados. I'm a college professor. Did you ever see a college professor rowing a boat down his own street in one of those TV floods? We live in a neat and pleasant town near a college with a quaint name. These things don't happen in places like Blacksmith."

No professor will ever give up tenure; no professor will ever teach anyone under eighteen. But professors - like Erin O'Connor, who is about to do these things - will sometimes surprise you. A socially insecure, sinecure-dependent lot, we some of us nevertheless will mix things up a bit.
HOT OFF THE PRESS...'s another statement - nice, concise, and available in this morning's New York Times - of UD's creed:

Those who run universities bear considerable responsibility for creating these inequities - and not only in [family wealth based] admissions. These trends are just the most visible sign of how much the market ethic has come to dominate higher education. To be sure, dollars have always greased the wheels of academe. What is new and troubling is the raw power that money exerts over all of higher education, including the emphasis on research that adds less to the storehouse of knowledge than to the institutional coffers, and the shift from liberal arts to the "practical arts." While competition has strengthened some colleges, embedded in the very idea of university are values the market does not honor: the belief in a community of scholars and not a confederacy of self-seekers; in the idea of openness and not ownership; and in the student as an acolyte whose preferences are to be formed, not a consumer whose preferences are to be satisified.

David L. Kirp's reminder that the student ought to be an acolyte, not a pandered-to consumer, reminds me in turn to mention that this year UD decided not to hand out teaching evaluations, although she vaguely recalls having read somewhere that they are "mandatory."

Well, what's tenure for? I've studied, observed, read, and experienced these things for decades, and I've concluded that they're corrupt. They corrupt our demeanor, our seriousness, and our grading. They grant factitious wisdom and influence to students, teaching them to regard professors as petitioners. Like so many aspects of the market-driven university, they deprive the student of the one great and good thing only the university can give: the chastening experience of devotion to thought rather than to the self.

Thursday, April 29, 2004

29 April 04

TO: Alliance for A's Members

FROM: Janice Sidley [for background, see various posts below]


If our organization had an enemies list (which we never will because it is so not nice), the name Stuart Rojstaczer would be right up there. This guy, a professor at Duke, has done all he can to attack grade inflation - and the culture of student comfort of which it is a part. Here's a typical quotation from him: "[College life is] pleasant for the type of students we attract, but is making students comfortable what education is about?"

I guess Professor Rojstaczer considers that a rhetorical question, but for us the answer is Yes. Yes, the American student tends to be majorly stressed out; and yes the American university should be a beacon of calm and comfort to him or her.

Knowing what your grades are going to be every semester is only a small part of that comfort-environment, however. As part of our outreach to university departments around the country, some of us have recently touched base with Peace Studies programs and asked them for suggestions as to how we can deepen the sense of student serenity at American institutions of higher education. We've already elicited a number of intriguing, and, I think, useful ideas.

Since the most stressed locale on the American campus is the classroom, most of our respondents concentrated on ways to make these environments more relaxed and welcoming. Here, in no particular order, are some of the things that arguably ought to be in every American college or university classroom:

1. Blood pressure stations of the sort you now see in larger supermarkets. At any time, students could check to see whether a turn in classroom discussion has disturbed them.

2. Barcaloungers.

3. Recessed, adjustable lighting.

4. Voice coaching for professors, with an emphasis on sustaining a low warm rich tone.

5. Downplaying "conflictual" words and unpleasant dialectic in lectures.

6. Cell phone lounge.

7. Smokers' lounge.

8. Restroom [Unisex, equipped with aromatherapy candles - should be located immediately adjacent to classroom.]

9. Large photos of yoga positions displayed above blackboard.

10. Food, drink, always available (goes without saying).

11. Classroom television always on - either to

a.] soothing ocean waves breaking on beach; or
b.] home movies of selected students as toddlers.

12. Plenty of Thank you/Suggestions for improved service cards always at the door to the classroom.

13. "Time out" (voluntary) cubicle adjacent to classroom: dark, semi-enclosed place just to be alone with your thoughts, collect yourself.

14. Translucent beige windowshades.

15. Professor-administered head massages for students who have just made particularly difficult points.

16. Soft white noise piped in.

17. Hot aromatic towels for face and hands distributed by professor after class (as in airplanes at the end of long flights).

18. Also at the end of class, professors would raise both hands high anglican style and say GO IN PEACE.

I have to admit that my favorite is number eighteen! As always, we welcome your thoughts...


Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Thom Gunn's Blues

The British - though long resident in America - poet Thom Gunn has died.

I discovered the poetry of Thom Gunn when I taught a course, a few years ago, called Writing in the Age of AIDS. Of all the poets we considered who wrote seriously and at length about AIDS, Gunn was the best. His technique was rhymed, traditional; he understood that the constraints of form deepen beauty, emotion, and meaning.

The worst poet we read was Paul Monette. He was a great essayist, but his poetry makes the mistake of assuming that intense emotion demands a flight from form. In Gunn the ceremonial lament for the dead has the well-wrought, redemptive cadence for which, as Mark Doty and others have eloquently pointed out, we go to art in the first place.

Since the season is spring, I'll content myself with quoting these lines from Gunn's poem "Lament." He has just described his very sick friend's admission to an emergency room:

That frown, that frown:
I'd never seen such rage in you before
As when they wheeled you through the swinging door.
For you knew, rightly, they conveyed you from
Those normal pleasures of the sun's kingdom
The hedonistic body basks within
And takes for granted - summer on the skin,
Sleep without break, the moderate taste of tea
In a dry mouth.

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

TO: Alliance Members (see too many UD posts to mention for background - or just scroll down a bit)

FROM: Janice


Dear Guys:

This is SO cute! I had to share it with you. Guess who's going to be the commencement speaker this year at Villanova University?

BIG BIRD! Yeah. Check out, today's news.

Apparently the decision has created something of a flap (haha!). A number of faculty and students on the Speakers Committee wanted Barney. They argued that he had more published work and was much wiser - "more of an educator," as one administrator on the committee put it. "Barney is always so moral, and he speaks clearly and well; whereas Big Bird is on occasion inarticulate and ethically confused."

But others pointed out that Big Bird has also published a book - though it's important to say "published," because he didn't write it; the "writer" of the book did. This is a little confusing, but if you go to Big Bird's website (, you'll see that on the book publicity page there are two categories - "author" - Big Bird - and "writer" - a guy whose name I forget - he's not Caroll Spinney, who's the man who dresses up as Bird Bird, because Caroll Spinney also can't write -- but he's, you know, a professional writer, which Big Bird isn't. ... Are you following this? Because actually now that I think about it there are three levels of "authorship" here - Big Bird himself (I think B.B. is male...), who of course can't write the book because he doesn't really exist as an entity; Caroll Spinney, who's not really Big Bird but a puppeteer who dresses up as Big Bird and says the lines that Sesame Street writers give him to say; and this guy, whose name I can't remember who's the actual writer of the book which Caroll Spinney "authored" and Big Bird, I guess, "inspired."

Some people on the committee argued that the fact that Big Bird AND Caroll Spinney have authored a book that they haven't written is in itself an ethical problem - that Villanova shouldn't be seen as endorsing this misleading "as told to" instant-book business so prevalent in the publishing industry, not to mention implicitly giving Villanova students the impression that there's an actual Big Bird who actually writes books. But others who have read the book insist that, whoever wrote it, it is chockful of values-clarifying wisdom and heartwarming wit. They also point out that while Barney has more published material than Big Bird, it's mostly popup books.

In his remarks introducing Big Bird, the president of Villanova reportedly plans to say that every year the university ends up choosing "some boring foreign policy type guy," which creates "a real downer of an effect, especially with the war on terror. This year I really 'bawked' at that! [The president plans to bawk like a chicken at this point.] After all, graduation's supposed to be fun." Big Bird, according to the university press release, will restrict his remarks to caring and sharing, as well as respect for all the peoples of the world.

Unseasonably hot weather and days of full sun have transformed UD's campus into a flowery retreat in the midst of the city. White-linened students lounge among the flowers. There are happy couples everywhere, floating on the euphoria of the day. There are calm solitary readers lost in their books. The sense of serenity survives even the sirens of cars transporting dignitaries to the White House or sick people to the university's emergency room. Years ago the President was brought, bleeding from a gunshot wound, to this same emergency room.

UD was aware, last week, as she strolled through this early summer dream, of another high-profile Washingtonian in the university hospital at that moment. Mary McGrory, a great writer and journalist, was dying in a room just steps away from this lush life. McGrory wrote this about Washington's spring:

"People who say Washington can't do anything right just haven't seen us do spring. Nowhere is it done better. Washington does spring without its usual maddening blather and lost motion: no delay, compromise, task force, czar, cost benefit analysis, no nattering about 'ongoing' and 'out years.'"

This morning's Washington Post describes her funeral, a gathering of famous journalists and politicians. I think she would have liked the view she might have had out of her hospital window of dreaming lovers at ease in the middle of the city.

Monday, April 26, 2004


April 26, 2004

Dear Corporate Executive/ Interest Group Representative/ Professor:

Well, the cat's out of the bag. William M. Adler's article in the April 16 edition of The Austin Chronicle details the way in which American public relations firms often write op/ed pieces reflecting our clients' points of view on issues, and then ask prominent professors to "sign" the pieces as if they'd written them. This is done in order to lend the pieces an aura of respectability, dispassionate thought, and personal commitment.

Until now, only a few insiders knew that some of the most heartfelt pleas for nuclear sanity, prescription drug reform, and firearms rights penned by concerned academics in our major newspapers were in fact written by lobbyists for corporations. Now that you know it too, Postdated Communications Inc. - a Washington DC public relations firm employing hundreds of highly literate Ph.D.'s - would like to offer you a new and exciting opportunity.

What's new about our approach? Well, historically, PR firms have pitched the advantages of using living authorities. But keep in mind that the reputations of still-living and even recently-deceased academics are notoriously fickle. What if your interest group had placed in the New York Times a "Paul DeMan"- authored piece on immigration policy, in which he expressed gratitude to the U.S. for admitting a warrior against fascism into our country? Today you'd be a laughingstock.

If you want your op/ed ghostwriter professor to have unimpeachable PR (industry shorthand for Probity Rep), he or she has to - our studies show - have been both dead and uninterruptedly revered for at least two decades.

What PCI does, then, is postdate "discovered" correspondence, essays, marginalia, journals, you name it, from irreproachably esteemed intellectuals and professors, all in the service of our clients' issues.

Let us give you a couple of examples of the sort of thing we do.

You are the AAUP or another educational group fighting a pitched battle over the issue of tenure. More and more American universities are reviewing, criticizing, reforming, and even attempting to abolish tenure, after all. What if your side suddenly discovered a letter from Lionel Trilling or Richard Ellmann or another icon of moral scrupulosity saying something like

"The world's going to hell in a handbasket. I can imagine a time when even tenure will be under siege. The thought absolutely chills me. Without tenure there'd have been no Joyce biography/Sincerity and Authenticity, and I'd no doubt have slit my wrists."

Or let us say you are a group of trustees and alumni who wish to expand your university's sports program rather than its library - even though your sports program is an international embarrassment and your students dolts. You announce that the twentieth century's greatest man of letters, George Orwell, never noted for his interest in physical fitness, in fact confided urgently to a friend, in a letter late in life, that

"As I write, highly civilized human beings are working underhandedly, trying to kill college athletics. The older I get, the more I realize that the simple virtues of comradeship, friendly competition, and realistic goal-setting are embodied nowhere more compellingly than in university sports. I wouldn't want to live in the - if you will - Orwellian world in which funds would be diverted for any reason away from them."

We hope you begin to see the advantages of Postdated's posthumous approach to publicizing your issues. Our literary advisors invite your further inquiries.

All the best,

The Postdated Communications Inc. Team

Friday, April 23, 2004

[Pls. note: "Gated" Correspondence]

23 April 04

Dear fellow members of the U.O.C.:

We are writing to you today because of the recent extraordinary media attention devoted to so-called "economic diversity" issues on American university campuses. (See last Sunday's New York Times magazine opinion piece by Walter Benn Michaels, and yesterday's front page NYT's article on the same subject.)

While we can understand how some of you may see this emergent national interest in wealth distribution issues in higher education as threatening, we would like to suggest that this situation could be a real opening for us and our concerns.

The Undergraduate Oligarchs Consortium has always been dedicated to the maintenance of a few special places where POMs (people of means) could pursue their educations among strong role models in a resentment-free atmosphere. As we all know, we have made great strides in terms of student population at certain schools, where a combination of networking and trustee activism has produced a pretty uniformly well-off group along with class-appropriate campus amenities (there is now, for instance, a heliport at Bennington).

One longstanding and sensitive area of concern, however, has been the striking disparity between professors' salaries and student assets at these schools. Whereas historically the American university professor was drawn from the upper or at the very least upper middle class, a sharp downward tilt in the last few decades has created a restive, sometimes abrasive faculty with whom we have difficulty interacting. The gentle unworldly renaissance man of yore has been replaced by the aggressive worldly careerist of today, who loudly ridicules that earlier model as a "dilettante."

Economic diversity cuts both ways. We have a right to ask that consideration be given to broadening the professoriate so that included among it would be adults with whom we can identify and whom we can respect as our equals. It is frankly embarrassing to be pandered to by servile professors eager to stay in our good graces so that we will give them the positive course evaluations which will guarantee them a raise. It would be nice to be around professors less interested in the bottom line and more interested in their subject matter.

And speaking of subject matter: the absence of appropriate role models among the faculty continues to have serious educational consequences for us. How many of us have sat through lectures on Henry James taught by people who graduated from public school in Hamtramck?

We will be calling a general membership meeting, where we will draft a letter to the administration, as soon as Josh is back from Bermuda.

Steering Committee, UOC.
TO: Alliance Members

FROM: Janice, of course (see below, and other places on UD)

SUBJECT: Intro Sleep

Okay, okay, okay, hear me out please. I have an idea - truly an original idea - about university curricular reform. It came to me when I read the following item from Yahoo News:

[Duke University] is ...considering new orientation programs this fall that would help freshmen understand the importance of sleep.
"Generally, the people I know, we don't see sleep as that important compared to what school and the curriculum have to offer," said Marcel Yang, a Duke freshman from Chapel Hill.

You've read about this, right? Duke is discontinuing 8 AM classes because no students take them because everyone is sleeping off late nights and interrupted sleep patterns and all-night last-minute study sessions, etc.

But rather than merely change the university's schedule, Duke is venturing into the wellness field. It'll be lecturing its students on good sleeping habits and maybe even doing personal health assessments for each of them.

Which is great.

Actions speak louder than words, however, and for this reason I would like to propose the following:

Remember when you were in kindergarten, and how at around midday your teacher would give everybody a blanket and put comfy mats on the floor and dim the lights and you'd have naptime?

Don't the very words I've used to evoke this memory make you weak with nostalgia?

That's because life was simpler then, and school was not just a place where you were lectured to. It was a place that cared. Recall the Duke student's remark up there: "[We] don't see sleep as that important compared to what school and the curriculum have to offer."

Well, why are school and the curriculum at odds with sleep in the first place? How did sleep get banished to the world outside of school?

What I'm proposing is a required first-semester freshman orientation course at around ten in the morning every morning that would in essence be a version of naptime.

Freshmen would be issued blankets, and comfy pads would be scattered about. Soft music (Brahms?) would be piped in and perhaps the professor/sleep facilitator would lead the group in a little directed meditation as everyone dropped off.

As I conceive it, this course will not work unless it is a regular part of the university curriculum for all students, not merely freshmen. Every morning, every year, students would gather in darkened classrooms for full-credit courses in going to sleep.

How would students earn their credits? Basically, they would be asked to read - on their own time or in class as they dropped off to sleep - sleep-oriented novels. For instance:

Swann's Way
Mrs Dalloway
Call It Sleep
The Big Sleep

They would then be asked to write a paper about the cultural representations of sleep in these novels, etc. Pedagogically, this kind of focused group meditation on and enactment of sleep would both make up for missed hours of sleep and train students in relaxation and sleep techniques. At the same time, students would collectively ponder the meanings of sleep as these are suggested in a variety of important novels.

I haven't worked out all the details of this requirement, but I really think it's an eye-opener!!


Wednesday, April 21, 2004

TO: Alliance for A's Members

FROM: You know who (for background, see UD post 19 April, etc., etc.)


Hi guys - It's course evaluation season all over America as our colleges and universities begin to bring another academic year to a close. One of our members recently passed along to me the latest draft of her university's course evaluation form, and I think it's hot stuff! I wanted to share it with you....

Proposed Revised Mandatory University-Wide Course Evaluation Form

Please put your hands together and give it up for Professor_________________ [place professor's name here]! As you know, your professor's salary is directly linked to your assessment of her/him. Throughout the semester, your professor, like all of this university's professors, has done all she/he can to anticipate and respond to your needs. This course evaluation form is your chance to give something back! Please answer the following questions about him/her.

How soon (roughly) did he/she learn your first name?

Does he/she begin each class by asking how everybody's feeling that day?

Is he/she attractive and well groomed? (Note: Studies show that students prefer attractive instructors.)

Does your professor show sincere interest in you as a person? Feel free to give examples.

Is your instructor able to hold his/her temper when student cell phones ring and students answer them in class?

Does your instructor snap at you when you read the newspaper during class?

Does your instructor lecture, as if he/she knows more than you do, or is the class student-based?

Did your professor ever show doubt when you offered excuses for having missed classes?

Did your professor share warm personal experiences with you to make him/her seem approachable and just like everyone else, or was he/she reserved and all intellectual?

What was more important to your instructor - fostering your creativity or correcting your spelling?

Circle one: My professor was primarily interested in my a] mind; b] personal development.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004


The literary world is abuzz with talk of a Nabokov scandal.

It turns out that in 1908 an obscure German housewife, Melitta Bentz, received a patent for a "filter top device lined with filter paper," which would make a better cup of coffee by ridding it of impurities. This revolutionary innovation made her fortune, and the company she founded, Melitta, continues to thrive today.

Apparently one evening late in life, in an uncharacteristically rhapsodic mood, Melitta Bentz penned a sort of prose poem to her coffee filter and the larger stock of coffee makers and other products into which her company had diversified. The work, titled MELITTA, remained in a fragmentary state - she never finished it - but what we have (discovered decades after the fact by a literary sleuth) is more than merely suggestive.

Nabokov, who lived during the '30's in the same Berlin neighborhood as Melitta Bentz, and who indeed was an enthusiast of her filters, clearly either found inspiration in (or plagiarized from?) her work.

Here are a couple of excerpts from Bentz's MELITTA:

Excerpt One, MELITTA:

Melitta, light of my life, fire of my grounds. My drip, my froth. Me-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Me. Lee. Ta.

It was Me, plain Me, in the morning, standing twelve inches high on the sideboard. It was Melly in the afternoon. It was Melitta USA on the dotted line. But in my arms it was always Melitta.

Did it have a precursor? It did, indeed it did. In point of fact, there might have been no Melitta at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial coffeemaker. In a cafe by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Melitta was manufactured as my age that summer. You can always count on a caffeine addict for a fancy prose style...

Excerpt Two: MELITTA:

"Now who are you?" Filty asked in a high hoarse voice, his hands grasping a cup of coffee, his eyes fixing a point to the northwest of my head. "Are you by any chance Brewster?...People," said Filty, "people in general, I'm not accusing you, Brewster, but you know it's absurd the way people invade this damned house without even knocking. They use the vaterre, they use the coffeemaker, they use the telephone."

"Speaking of coffeemakers, Filty," I said, "do you recall a little contraption called Melitta?"

Dmitri Nabokov, the writer's son, has called the whole thing "a tempest in a coffee cup," but other observers are shocked by the close resemblance in style and content between the two works. Some are calling for Nabokov to be disinterred for a proper dressing down.

Monday, April 19, 2004

19 April 04

TO: Alliance for A's Members

FROM: Janice Sidley (for background, see UD, April 8)


Hi guys.

Given the recent high-profile graduate student unionization stories coming out of places like Columbia University (where, the New York Times reports, students are preparing to go on strike), it's perhaps not surprising that rumors of various serious protest actions at American universities and colleges generally would be circulating.

One rumor of concern to our organization has it that some graduate student employee organizations are talking about engaging in a form of civil disobedience short of an all-out strike that has come to be known by the acronym G.I.S., which stands for Grade Inflation Stoppage. In this form of resistance, participating instructors would award their students the grades they earn.

In some forms of this rumor that have reached my ears, the plot gets more nefarious: A conspiracy is alleged, between instructors and university administrators (who, as we know, are constantly trying to deflate grades), in which in exchange for suddenly deflating grades through grade inflation stoppages, instructors would receive from administrators the benefits, salary increases, whatever, that they've been militating for.

Let me take this occasion to state unequivocally that there is absolutely no substance to these rumors. Yes, many universities are actively attempting to undermine grade inflation, and we have enough work on our hands, goodness knows, deflecting those efforts. But no - grade inflation stoppage is a work action whose time has definitely not come. If you must worry, worry about the above-board steps being taken by many of our best universities to deprive students of the GPA's which they want and for which their parents are paying.



Sunday, April 18, 2004


"Anal intercourse is still so taboo that chicks don't even talk about it among themselves," writes San Francisco poet Jan Richman in a piece of writing composed of the glib vacuities typical of "language poetry." Her themes include mass murderers, sexual humiliation, late night talk shows, and sundry acts of rebellion against ye olde bourgeois culture.

"I was stealing a hanes T-shirt from an already opened package at the chinatown Thrift's, silently thanking the real thief for leaving me the clean white moral high ground, I was watching a late-night sally jesse on humiliation: why we love it, I was treating myself to another itchy helping of yes-boy love-slave, I was speaking a language I've never heard before, chasing the bouncing ball of sentence structure into a brave new world, I was wobbling on the cliff edge of her mouth between my legs when I saw your face beaming big as tokyo..."

Big as tokyo? Whatever. Richman's a professor, or was until recently a professor, at San Francisco's Academy of Art University, which was itself until recently a college ("This promotion of colleges to universities is consistent with the long-honored American custom of raising a thing by adding to the number of syllables used to describe it," Paul Fussell writes in Class). Richman's been fired and free speech advocates are all het up about it.

These very expensive arts playgrounds in very expensive cities are a sort of exotic flower which our wealthy country can afford. Some on their creative writing faculties believe it's their mission to confront their students with taboos (anal intercourse, sadomasochism, murder, mutilation) because their students come to them all repressed and unable to write the ugly disturbing buried truth about violent America, etc.

So these creative writing professors take these eighteen year old kids all innocent and all - unless you count the forty hours a week of violent movies and video games some of them have been watching and playing with since they were ten - and they have them read, you know, American Psycho and that shit so they can get desublimated and out from under their repressive parents and the June Cleaver life they've been leading.

Truth be told, though, rather than a confrontation between a liberated aesthete (creative writing professor) and a repressed bourgeois (student), this sort of classroom interaction is a marriage made in heaven -- an already sadistically oriented American kid links up with a 'sixties type who thinks Bertolucci's Dreamers is high art, and who assigns novels, poems, and plays that have precisely the same content as the video games he's been playing but are gussied up as high culture and taken seriously by adults. This is a dream come true for the kid - a glossy legitimation of his darkest drives. His story about slicing a girl's nipple gets an A. A dark Lawrentian energy flows through this untamed narrative, writes his totally blown away teacher...

Even Richman got scared, though, at the depth of subversion that expressed itself in one student's story last semester, and like a fool she showed it to her superior who got all scared too.

Yet why was Richman scared? The student was imitating a writing model (David Foster Wallace) his teacher had assigned in class. Sure, the student story upped the atrocity ante a tad, but they don't call America the culture of inflation for nothing. You need to go bigger if you're going to get noticed.

Anyway, yeah, merde/ventilateur all over again. Universities have a tendency to overreact, as UD notes in its post (3 April) on the play Spinning Into Butter. Cops were called in to tease out whether Subject was a homicidal maniac or just a florid stylist. They settled on sadist and the school expelled him just to be safe, whereupon his pissed parents correctly pointed out that "their son had been encouraged to write about violence after reading a short story assigned in Richman's Narrative Storytelling class."

The March 25 San Francisco Chronicle interviewed her about the story she'd given her students to read. "Richman assigned the story, she said last week, as an example of 'an unsympathetic narrator, a guy who is sadistic and sexist.' But the story was not part of the class's authorized textbook, and fellow instructors say administration officials were angry that Richman had not offered the information sooner."

Nothing wrong in my book with diverging from a set syllabus, but the way Richman tells it, you'd swear she assigned a trendy S and M tale to eighteen-year-olds expecting them to tut-tut over the bad sexist people in it. "We're going to write The Death of Ivan Ilych now, teacher, and show people how their cruelty to each other is putting their salvation at risk."

Nor was Richman the only instructor laying some pretty heavy shit on students at Academy of Art University. "Apprehension over the content of the student's story grew when the university learned that the author also had brought a violent animation clip to film class after an instructor had screened excerpts of "Seven," the stylish 1995 serial-killer feature that was widely noted for its visual innovation." Seven? This student must have been in seventh heaven at Academy of Art University. He had, one administrator notes, "been interested in this stuff since he was a young child, and his parents were aware of some of his interests in this." Yes, and they found the ideal university for him too, and I'll bet they'll sue to get him readmitted.

Thursday, April 15, 2004

Mrs. Blogg

I've been trying to work this tidbit in somewhere on UD and have now given up - I shall simply dump it in your lap and have done with it.

G.K. Chesterton's wife' s name was Frances Blogg.

UD is always happy, in her very gracious way, to acknowledge things that universities are doing right. Some universities. In some departments. Sometimes.

Lunch yesterday with a student at UD's university who's going to graduate school in English next year reminds UD to mention, for instance, the welcome change in some English departments toward admitting very few applicants and funding them all. Judging by her student's current experience, UD concludes that the best schools aggressively recruit, generously subsidize, and actually place in tenure track jobs, most of the people they admit.

Why, in my day (insert croaky voice here), universities would admit eighty students, fund a lucky, loathed few, and then begin systemically shedding seventy. This procedure, while bracing in a neo-darwinian way, generated resentment, and didn't necessarily reward the best and brightest. Nurturing from birth a few highly selected and much-loved cubs seems more sensible and more humane.

Wednesday, April 14, 2004


Your bloggeure will now ask you to believe that her summer vacation has almost begun.

There's only a week or so of class to go until the end of the semester. Final exams and papers remain, to be sure, but teaching is about over, and instructors at UD's university are preparing book orders for September courses. Professors who, like me, don't teach during the summer, have many months of freedom ahead.

Like most of my colleagues, I'll spend these months working on manuscripts, preparing for fall semester courses, talking to scholars who share my interests (I had lunch yesterday with a Fulbright researcher from Russia who's writing the first book in Russian devoted to the American novelist Don DeLillo), and reading.

But I'll also take long pleasant trips, linger over the brewing of the perfect pot of "Creme Brulee" tea (a flavor I just discovered, available at, the online shop of a tearoom in Cambridge Massachusetts whose dim interior is indistinguishable from the interior of the fabled Mariage Freres tearooms in Paris), stare into space, etc.

It amazes me every year, this remarkable freedom. I do not take it for granted.

The president of UD's university testified before the US Senate last month (it's less impressive than it sounds -- one senator showed up) to argue for a revolutionary change in the academic calendar. He pointed out, reasonably enough, that university facilities sit idle, costing money and generating little revenue, for long stretches each year; and he proposed that UD's university be a kind of pioneer for the nation's higher education institutions in forging a new academic calendar in which classes would pretty much be in session all year. Professors would still have time off from teaching, but all of them would, for instance, have to teach summers on a pretty regular basis.

The president's effort to entice my university's faculty into trying this schedule has already failed. Although I said on the questionaire we were all given that I was willing to accept a change of this sort, most professors totally rejected the idea. So I suppose our president at that point decided to go national.

He's also done something less radical in the short term: we now have as many Wednesday/Friday classes as Tuesday/Thursday. This annoys the faculty as well, since professors want two day (or one day) a week classes, and they want them to be on Tu/Th ideally, since that frees up weekends on either side. I know of plenty of professors who show up on their campuses only one day a week. I often show up only two days a week. A M/W/F schedule is felt as an ultimate punishment, like being banished to the isle of Elba.

[A joke currently circulating among academics: "What's wrong with Wednesday classes? They spoil two perfectly good weekends."]

All of this is one reason why the evil on-line people are having so much success with their plot to abolish the physical university altogether. On-line courses generate revenue anywhere, anytime. You don't have to coax a computer to come in and teach a course on a Monday or a Friday. Professor Online can drink tequila, play with himself under a palapa, and teach Pascal all at once.

Sunday, April 11, 2004


is the title of one of America's great twentieth century poems, by Wallace Stevens, in which he follows the vague thoughts and sensations of a woman as she awakens on this day traditionally devoted to rest and spiritual meditation. A typical secular American, the woman is stirred occasionally, in an inchoate, rather frightened way, by thoughts of her mortality and by the question of life's ultimate meaning. She dreams a little, and she feels the dark/ Encroachment of that old catastrophe...

No one says you have to spend any time in your life reflecting upon your being-toward-death until you perhaps attain a little more focus and depth and emotional control than this woman; no one forces you - indeed everything in contemporary American cuture encourages you not to - think seriously about the ground of existence and maybe evolve some degree of clarity, nuance, and self-consciousness about it.

Yet even as Jacques Barzun notes that "as to what a college is, there is no agreement; it is not even discussed," we know that when the definition of a college is seriously discussed, the sort of descriptive language produced almost invariably features college as the locus of significant, sustained ontological thought on the part of students and faculty.

For instance, today's New York Times quotes the president emeritus of Dartmouth complaining that "students have been so programmed that they haven't had time to be reflective, which gets in the way of their education. ... [A] liberal education is about grappling with life's most important questions as preparation for the moral dilemmas and disappointments of life beyond the college years. The 'hyper-managed lives of contemporary students' get in the way of these questions, Mr. Freedman said." Nick Bromell, in Harper's Magazine [February 2002], writes that "the most fundamental value of higher education is the perspective a student gains by stepping outside the play of market forces and inhabiting, if only for four short years, what Yale president A.Bartlett Giamatti called 'a free and ordered space.'"

This difficult and often - as the University of Chicago's Faculty Handbook describes it - "upsetting" four-year activity of actual ongoing consideration of being is largely restricted to America's best institutions. Most of our thousands of colleges and universities make no pretense to intellectuality. Here, for instance, is the university webpage description of the English major at Penn State Altoona (a campus that recently fired a professor for being critical of one of its sillier programs):

The English major can provide students with highly marketable skills in critical thinking, writing, verbal communciation, and research. The major offers emphases in literature or writing. Students can incorporate a writing portfolio into their course of study, which will generate written examples of their work for prospective graduate schools or employers. All students complete the capstone seminar, in which they research and write a publishable paper that draws on their particular field of study. Internships allow students to discover whether or not a particular field is right for them and to develop skills and knowledge that many gain only after graduation.

It's all about how "highly marketable" your activity in an English department is, you see. Most American colleges and universities, writes David Harvey, are about "converting knowledge into information and students into consumers, and transforming the ability to think into a capacity for information processing." The serious consideration of human being demands human interaction with human intellectuals -- and the reason on-line learning is so popular in this country is because the words I just used at the beginning of this sentence are gibberish to the majority of university administrators, instructors, and students in this country.

Yet in the New York Times piece this morning, what the writer is noticing is the evaporation of serious intellectuality even at our best schools. Students are hyperbusy preprofessionals interested only in grades and the market from day one; they've come out of a hyper-active careerist milieu and that's really all they've ever known. A high-ranking administrator at Bennington College once described the student body there, writes Gillian Rose, as composed of "the cubs of our most successful predators." While shouting into their cell phones about real estate deals, the overworked parents of these students watched them, when younger, play hyperorganized soccer games.

For the half of these children whose parents got divorced, their lives became even more strictly organized -- they lived in two households, and their lives came to resemble the lives of traveling salesmen: pack for house one on Wednesday; repack to return to house two on Saturday...No time to rest and reflect at ease, and all in the context of emotional turmoil and bargaining...

The serious university should understand that it's admitting these sorts of people and ask itself whether it wants to deepen this desperate sense of hyperactivity (much of the activity an understandable escape from the inner chaos of a terribly depressing emotional landscape), or whether it wants to be a beacon of calm meditation not upon the self and its traumas but upon a world of thought and experience - embodied in philosophy, music, novels, history - broader than one's own, indeed liberatingly not at all one's own -- some of which might eventually be brought to bear on the question of how to conduct one's life.

Saturday, April 10, 2004

High-Steppin' Tennessee

UD, which has already had what to say about overcompensated, underwhelming, and sometimes quite corrupt university presidents and chancellors [see UD Archives, January 10 and March 12], is now prepared to declare the state of Tennessee the current winner in the dirty university leadership sweepstakes.

The latest developing scandal out of that state involves the president of Tennessee State University, who got free Superbowl tickets worth four thousand dollars or so from Aramark, the university's food contractor. TSU's president also recently handed out large sums of scholarship money when there wasn't any money to hand out (and when many of the recipients didn't qualify for the scholarships), thus causing a budget deficit.

TSU's president has turned to another inept administrator to produce some language defending him on the university's website. It's exactly the sort of statement that makes matters worse, full of pomposity about the president's long-unquestioned integrity (well, it's being questioned now, you see) and explaining that he gave admittedly undeserving students scholarships when he discerned "leadership skills" (great phrase, that) in them, and that his judgment in these matters has always been virtually "flawless." (Oh - we'll shut up then.)

This is all small change, though, compared to the John Shumaker dustup. He was until recently president of the University of Tennessee. As reported [August 9, 2003]:

Questions arose this summer about whether John Shumaker used the school's airplane for personal trips and charged personal expenses to his university credit card. He cut up the credit card and earlier this month reimbursed the university $25,000 for commercial and UT airplane flights.

A $300,000 no-bid consulting contract to a Shumaker friend in Washington to help start education programs in China also has been questioned.

"It is in the best interest of the university, its students, faculty, staff and alumni, to move forward and put these controversies behind us," Gov. Phil Bredesen said Friday. "I have to say it pained me as governor to watch this happening."

Shumaker, 60, came to the university, which has 42,000 students at five campuses, a little more than a year ago from the University of Louisville. Both schools have ordered audits of his spending.

Documents released as part of a contentious divorce in Louisville have also raised questions.

Shumaker testified under oath that he accepted a $10,000 "gift" in the mid-1990s from Hyundai after signing a $110,000 training contract with the automaker on behalf of Central Connecticut State University [a veritable forcing-ground of dirty presidents! Remember Pore Jud?], where he was president from 1987 to 1995. Connecticut officials said that violated state ethics laws but planned no investigation because the statute of limitations had expired.

Shumaker also testified that he took out a marriage license in Louisville with his nanny, a former CCSU student from Beijing, without actual plans to wed to help her with visa problems.

His ex-wife, Lucy, claimed during the divorce that the process used to select him as UT's 21st president was rigged in Shumaker's favor.

Shumaker did not respond to e-mail and telephone messages left Friday at his home and office. Bredesen said Shumaker was taking a vacation.

He became the second president of a large state university to quit under fire this week. On Wednesday, University of Massachusetts President William M. Bulger resigned after months of pressure over his relationship with his brother, a fugitive mobster.

Bredesen said a severance package would pay Shumaker his $365,000 base salary and accumulated deferred compensation through the end of this year. His total compensation package of $733,550 a year had ranked him as the nation's second best-paid public university president.

Shumaker's predecessor, J. Wade Gilley, resigned about two years ago citing health problems. E-mail released by the school romantically linked Gilley with a university administrator, Pamela Reed, who then resigned amid allegations she had embellished her resume

UPDATE, April 18: notes that people in Tennessee have begun defending one corrupt university president by comparing him to a concurrent, more corrupt university president. The paper quotes a local minister:

''Wrong is wrong, but there's a whole lot of difference between flying around the country on dates at university expense and taking four tickets to the Super Bowl,'' said Dixon, pastor of Hobson United Methodist Church in east Nashville, referring to former University of Tennessee President John Shumaker. ''There's a difference between taking millions to fix a president's home and taking half a million to send kids to school.''
Shumaker was reported to have spent close to a half-million dollars to renovate his university home.


From about President McPhee of Middle Tennessee State University:

In a complaint filed in October, Allen [a university employee] accused McPhee of repeatedly touching her sexually and making sexually charged remarks — such as calling his penis a ''seven wood'' — during golf outings, office meetings and trips to out-of-state football games over the previous 14 months.

While he denied those claims and said Allen was motivated by anger over her exclusion from an office golf team, McPhee acknowledged spending time with her ''in off-campus and after-hours situations'' and creating a hostile work environment. The Tennessee Board of Regents suspended him without pay for 20 days and cut his $186,170 salary by $10,000 for a year.

Allen later filed a civil lawsuit in Rutherford County against McPhee, MTSU and the state, saying the Board of Regents didn't sufficiently investigate her allegations. Allen, who now works in MTSU's development office, declined to comment Thursday.

The critics feel Allen's suit could hang over the university for a long time, keeping MTSU in the public eye for the wrong reasons. Moreover, they say, McPhee, 48, has shown signs of instability and shaky principles in recent months. They think he has discouraged criticism of himself and MTSU, and they're disturbed by his apparent suicide attempt before Allen's complaint went public

For years thou hast giv'n me none but A's;
Next quarter when thou changest, what wilt thou say?
Wilt thou then antedate some new-made B?
Or say that we
Are not just those persons which we were?
Or that those A's made in reverential fear
Of parents and their wrath, any may forswear?
Or, as true grades false grades untie,
So our loving bonds had also been a lie?
Or, your own end to justify,
For having purpos'd change and falsehood, you
Can have no way but falsehood to be true?
Vain lunatic, against these 'scapes I could
Dispute and conquer, if I would,
Which I abstain to do.
It's my parents I'll let sue.

Friday, April 09, 2004


It's probably my brief background in journalism (scroll down to "Medildo Days" post below), but few things rankle me more than blah news headlines, especially for really zippy stories. Here, for instance, is an excerpt from a story in a recent issue of the Dartmouth College newspaper [thanks to Jon W. for the tip]:

...a river otter attacked crew coaches April 2 during the varsity heavyweight afternoon practice.

No one was injured, but the incident, which occurred seven miles upstream from the crew boathouse, rattled the nerves of all involved.

The otter, running along the shoreline ice before the attack, jumped into the river to play in the wake of the coach's launch, according to varsity coach Scott Armstrong, who was directing two eight-man boats at the time of the encounter. Volunteer coach Todd Pearson and coxswain Kate Johnson '06 accompanied Armstrong in the launch.

Armstrong turned off the motor to avoid injuring the otter with the propeller. With the engine off, the otter immediately tried to board the boat in the stern. Armstrong then grabbed a wooden paddle and attempted to fend off the animal, pushing the otter back into the water every time its head appeared over the edge of the boat. The otter, however, outmaneuvered Armstrong and climbed into the launch.

"Scott, Todd and I immediately jumped up," said Johnson, who was sitting in the bow of the launch. "The otter was on the far side of one of the benches and was definitely trying to attack Scott."

The otter promptly began to lunge and hiss viciously at the coaches, who frantically used paddles and a megaphone to try to force the animal out of the boat. After a short battle, the two parties reached a standoff – the hissing and glaring otter in the stern of the boat, the coaches armed and ready for action in the middle.

Suddenly, the otter attacked again. As the otter lunged over the bench in the stern, Armstrong swiftly used his paddle to flip the animal into the river.

The otter's aggression, however, did not end there. Shortly after the otter had returned to shore, the animal jumped back into the river, swimming directly toward the second varsity boat that was in the process of turning around

Fantastic story, right?

And what's the headline? CREW BOATS FEND OFF OTTER ATTACK.

I mean, okay, young writer, student paper, etc. -- but really.

What about


Otter Disaster

The Otters [clever punning allusion to recent scary movie directed by a guy with a Spanish last name I can't remember]

Fall of the House of Otter

Otter Voices, Otter Vrooms

Thursday, April 08, 2004


Pursuant (ahem!) to my posts about the depressive aura of academia (see for example UD, Jan. 30), this is from Brian Weatherson at Crooked Timber:

"Here’s a long quote from Martha Nussbaum’s entry in Singing in the Fire: Stories of Women in Philosophy (edited by Linda Martin Alcoff).

Men’s ways of being infantile vary. Some are flirtatious and silly in a relatively harmless way. Some fear old age dreadfully, and believe that continual exercises in seduction will produce something like erotic immortality. Some long to tell you in no uncertain terms that you are a whore, because it makes them feel power. Some hate themselves and have contempt for any woman who is nice to them. Some — and these are the worst, I think — are satanic, by which I mean that they have an emptiness at their core that they fill with exercises in domination, which they market with a frequently dazzling charm. ...
The main problem of feminism in philosophy is the infantile level of human development of many of the men who are in it.

Naturally, I’d like to think that my generation is better than this, though I guess I suspect that if they (we) weren’t (aren’t) I wouldn’t be able to tell.

I do think ‘satantic’ is a wee bit over the top though. I thought demonic possession went out of fashion with witch-burnings.

To my eye the common thread behind Nussbaum’s tropes isn’t misogyny as much as pretty severe depression. That might be disheartening, or it may suggest that there’s a way around the worst of the problems. At least to the extent that we regard depression as effectively treatable. Of course if depression is that big a thread running through philosophy, that’s a story, and one we should be doing something about."

There are some problems with Weatherson's response to Nussbaum's remarkable statement, I think. First, he's not picking up on the Miss Grundy/Nurse Ratchet tone of her dressing down, although that seems to me its most noteworthy feature. Has Nussbaum always been a pill, or did philosopher satanists use their mojo on her and make her one? Do years contemplating philosophical truths eventuate in this brand of naked public vengeance as a mode of discourse and moral action?

Has this woman had any even remotely normal interactions with male colleagues in her long high-profile career in philosophy?

How did she determine which men sitting across from her at conferences and on committees were bursting with the desire to call her a whore? ...(Which reminds me of one of Jackie Mason's best bits...he's distinguishing Jewish women from Christian: "Tell a Christian woman she looks like a whore and she slaps your face. Tell a Jewish woman she looks like a whore and she smiles and primps and says, 'Really? What'd I do? Is it my hair? My skirt?'")

Anyway -- men hate themselves; men fear old age; men are empty at the core...and women? What are they? Suffering mature handmaidens to these infantile leering devils...We are invited to imagine years of professional life during which this woman was on the receiving end of unrelenting waves of suppressed erotic and murderous passion... Well, franchement, when I read descriptions of Nussbaum's sort (a certain self-congratulatory academic feminism is full of 'em) my main thought is that all this libidinal drama revolving around this woman certainly has the effect of making her look quite the stunner, don't it? Nussbaum describes a world of men obsessed with her - absolutely obsessed. Some are just flirting (damn them to hell); others are busily disclosing the most embarrassing aspects of themselves to her as they perenially attempt to seduce or convey their self-hatred or dominate or whorify...

Most of the men in philosophy are well-meaning nerds. I don't recognize any of the philosophers I know in Nussbaum's bestiary. I'm sure she's had dealings with a few ogres, as have we all. Why does she think she needs to slay them?

As for Weatherson's comment about how this description of men in philosophy speaks more to depression than misogyny... Well, I've already said quite a lot in UD about the highly existentially desirable demeanor of depression among humanities and social sciences academics generally, and philosophers are part of this. Weatherson thinks psychotropics are the answer, but until America's elites stop believing, as David Brooks said recently, that only stupid people are happy, philosophers are going to keep scowling. In any case, the only depressive emerging from Nussbaum's astounding ill will is Nussbaum.
From: Janice Sidley

To: Alliance for As Members [for background see UD Archives 22 & 27 February]


Guys: No doubt today's news from Princeton is disturbing to you. The New York Times reports that the administration there is on a grade deflation rampage, mandating that the percentage of A's must be slashed from 46% to 35% of all grades, and insisting that professors and departments be aware of their grading patterns.

But haven't we seen this before? Harvard tried the same gambit recently and, after a brief decline, grades shot right back up and stayed there! I think we can anticipate the same pattern here. Professors want to do the right thing. They may be temporarily intimidated into lowering grades, but they always come to their senses again pretty quickly, if the past is anything to go by.

So - never fear. And - if you will permit me - I'd like to share with you something a longtime student of mine wrote on her student evaluation form about me last semester (see below). I don't pretend it's great art. I only say -- this is why we are and will always be... The Alliance for A's.


-------In the space below, please write any further comments you would like to make about this course.


How do I love thee? Let me count my A's.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My grade can reach. When I'm feeling kind of tight
And unable to make any sense at all, even then you praise.
I love thee to the level of every A's
Most perfect little roof; whatever I say, you say it's right
And therefore I love thee truly;
I love thee purely, as pure as the line of A's
That run down my grade sheet. I love thee with a child's faith
In those who most deeply love her...

--- I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! --- and, even if, one darkling night
God smote the A's from all our sights,
Still - still! - I would love thee!! -------------

Wednesday, April 07, 2004


The April 6 Chicago Tribune reports that some administrators at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism are worried about grade inflation among their undergraduates. The dean remarks that it might be time to think about "reviving the nearly extinct grade of C."

Medill students beg to differ. "When you come to a school like Northwestern, everyone's a perfectionist anyway and is intelligent," one of them assures the Trib reporter.

I don't know about that. I started college life as a Medill School of Journalism student myself, and although it was a long time ago, it wasn't THAT long. I suspect Medill looks roughly the way it did when I attended, give or take a few computers. Gregg Easterbrook, who was a Medill graduate student after I was an undergrad there, describes what I remember: "One year of practice writing simple declarative sentences." The students were neither particularly intelligent nor perfectionist -- they were highly motivated hacks in training. Perfectionists become Martha Stewart or Hilary Clinton. Intelligent people are drawn to substantive undergraduate educations.

Medill was a trade school, and one of the reasons I became an English major after a year as an undergrad "Medildo," as we lucky few who'd been accepted into this inexplicably sought-after program were called, was that the cognitive dissonance of listening for two hours in the morning to a retired hack mutter about "who what where and why" as if this phrase were up there with "the unexamined life is not worth living," and then listening for an hour in the afternoon to Erich Heller talk about Hegelian spirit became insupportable to me.

In the morning I'd be dispatched with my eager fellow-students to the local Evanston supermarket to interview what our professor called "ordinary moms" about how inflation was "impacting their pocketbooks." In the afternoon I'd listen to Heller read Rilke in German and talk about how "nowhere will be world but within." In the morning I'd learn to write "lifestyle" when I meant "life." In the afternoon I'd consider the tragic ironies of "Death in Venice."

The marriage could not be saved.

To the amazement of my fellow fledgling hacks, I abjured the simple world of declarative sentences for the enigmatic world of the subordinate clause.

As to the grade inflation question.

As are simple. As are exactly what the declarative world of journalism is all about. The world of journalism keeps giving As to the great shit Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley and Janet Cooke are turning out because few in the world of journalism learned the intellectual and moral discretion you're supposed to learn in college.

Bs are relatively simple. Doin' okay, man. Doin' okay.

Cs are something else. Cs do not come trailing clouds of glory. Cs insinuate a world of limitation, darkness, reluctance, some sort of inadequacy, into the shining declarative world of J-school.

The people in J-schools, and the undergraduate "communications" majors who are having the same experience, are being given simple tasks. They are being trained to smile and talk slowly to the retarded people whom television news broadcasters believe (I have to assume they're right) constitute their audience. They are being trained to bring a crude intrusive sensibility right up to the nose of complex vulnerable human beings. They are being trained to write robotically. These are not difficult things to do, and if you're getting a C as you try to do them something is wrong. Something in you is resisting. You may not be a hack. It is understandable that J-schools would be reluctant to deliver this message.

Sunday, April 04, 2004


Okay, so David Brooks, New York Times columnist and chronicler of upper middle class American life, has been roughed up by various magazine writers and bloggers lately, and people are taking sides.

On one side are those who loathe him because he's a first-rate writer who's lent his high-profile mediagenic powers to the conservative cause. Like Bill Kristol, he's smooth, sexy, and rightwing. (Where are the good-looking witty liberals? The Brooks counterpart at the Times is Paul Krugman ...) There are also those who claim he's lazy and inaccurate in his cultural generalizations and therefore should not be taken seriously.

As Noam Scheiber suggests in The New Republic, some element of this response is envy - Brooks got all the goodies, and this seems unfair. But by my reckoning, given that Brooks's writing puts almost everybody else's to shame (look at his piece in today's NYTimes magazine), he deserves his success. It's always upsetting to me when good things happen to bad writers (see the Annual Bad Writing Contest for examples), and it's always a cause for celebration when the gods finally smile on a great writer like Brooks who deserves to be read.

Nobody cares whether some of Brooks's observations about American culture aren't empirically unimpeachable; like all great writers, he carries us along on a cloud of delighted assent by virtue of the fundamental rightness of his perceptions and the reliability of his sensibility. His humor, decency, energy, and kindness shine through in his writing so strongly that we can read his satirical descriptions of our American absurdities without taking offense.

The tone of his recent column telling American high school students to relax about the whole getting into college thing was quite genial, for instance; but underlying Brooks's gentle reminder that it really doesn't matter as much as they and their parents think it does where they go to school was sadness at the neurotic careerists so many sixteen-year-olds in this country have turned into. I've blogged already about the way some professors fuck up their precocious children by making too much of their exceptionality and too little of the humanity they have in common with everyone else. It's this slice of "Blue" America that Brooks is trying to reach with his admonitions about academia.

The main thing I wanted to say, though, is that the bedrock of Brooks's power as a writer, for me, is not merely his enviable writing style (though that's a lot of it), but his in fact staggeringly canny perceptions about... well, me. Say what you want about this and that inaccuracy, the man has definitively got my number.

I live in the same county in Maryland where he does - Montgomery County - and damned if he hasn't walked by my house and taken note of the tell-tale blue wrapper of our New York Times (The Washington Post ain't good enough for the assortively mated professors in that house!) -- not to mention our Chocolate Lab, our fuel-efficient foreign car, and our Krups coffee-maker.

Of course it's always a pleasure to read endless stylish pages devoted to characterizing in great detail one's much-loved self -- but these aren't simple narcissistic self-recognitions. They are exercises in cultural self-awareness that help me clarify precisely what I - and others - represent in larger American terms. Other people - Christopher Lasch comes to mind - do something very similar, and have been similarly valuable to me. But Brooks lacks the disdainful posture of people like Lasch; he implicates himself in the culture of narcissism he describes, and somehow makes things both alarming and forgiveable.
most of the post below appeared earlier in ud; somehow managed to delete it. but there's a little update at the end...

The Institutionalization of Umbrage

"The lecture room of the philosopher is a hospital. Students ought not to walk out of it in pleasure, but in pain."

The reigning humanities star today is neither Slavoj Zizek nor Jovals Aziz but rather Margaret Dumont, the high-pitched, busty actress who, in a slew of Marx Brothers films, drew herself up and said Well, I never! Dumont's classic outrage bit has become a template for interaction in English departments nationwide, where trembling, confused professors greet actual, straightforwardly expressed, polemic with deep offense.

"The banishment of disagreement within US academia reflects a deep level of insecurity," writes Munira Mirza in spiked online. "Academics in even the most prestigious US universities are reluctant to have their own orthodoxies interrogated - perhaps out of fear that they may not stand up to the scrutiny. As relativism becomes more widespread in academia, it is much easier to claim to be offended than to be forced actually to defend your ideas. This degree of accommodation to intellectual laziness cripples the primary aims of the universities to further knowledge. Instead of dealing in robust and critical arguments, universities in the USA have barricaded themselves in with the etiquette of 'appropriate language'."

This is one of the reasons why students at a number of Ivy League universities are so upset about the lack of intellectual substance on their campuses that at places like Princeton committees have been established to consider the problem. It's one of the reasons for speech codes, and for the gradual appearance, among particularly cracked teachers, of loyalty oaths as part of their syllabae omniae ("I, Student X, agree that everything Mister Rogers told me about mean words and self-esteem is revealed truth.") It's one of the reasons why many English professors think that "argument" means indignantly denouncing as classist sexist and racist anyone who disagrees with them. This shameful retreat into emotivism in the American academy is one of the reasons why the heavies of the profession are unintelligible charismatics.

"It is not just an occupational hazard that academics may be offensive to one another," Mirza continues, "but rather, one could argue, a responsibility, and one that needs to be maintained by an atmosphere of intellectual freedom. When this freedom is eroded, the first victim is critical thinking and debate. If an academic must think twice about what they say, in case they provoke personal offence, intellectual questioning - the lifeblood of the university - is debilitated."

There's a professor at one of the boonier Penn State campuses who right now is in danger of losing her tenure because she put down one of the dumber new programs on that campus. Colin McGinn, a philosopher at Rutgers, has recently drawn the umbrage reflex for his pointed criticism of some of his colleagues' ideas. Jane Galt, a scientist, complains on her website about "the glib politics of many in the academy who often seem to think that the amusing bon mots of a Doonesbury cartoon constitute serious policy thought. The reaction I get when explaining, say, rent control -- [is] that somehow I'm just being mean, and that if I wanted to, I could make it so that imposing rent control improved the housing stock rather than destroying it."

The mindless insistence that everybody make nice or risk being labled an evil ist dovetails with a broader cultural trend in wealthy America toward mental and physical comfort in all things. These attitudes radiate out toward one's students and produce grade inflation and indifference to plagiarism. Stuart Rojstaczer, a Duke professor, describes the difference between intellectually serious colleges and pandering universities like his own: "Recently, I toured college campuses in my new role as the parent of a college-bound kid (my daughter). Most of the places I visited have the reputation for intellectual intensity to which Duke aspires. Unlike Duke, they had no televisions in their cafeterias. I spent a Sunday morning at Wesleyan University, and I found the library jammed with students studying. At breakfast, I overheard students' conversations about the dangers of the global marketplace and the importance of improvisation in 17th century church music."

With places like Duke in mind, Rojstaczer asks: "Is making students comfortable what education is about? The students at academically focused institutions are similar in social and political attitudes, academic ability, economic background, and career aspirations to Duke students. But the atmosphere at their institutions is far more conducive to learning and intellectual discovery."

UPDATE: April 4 04: Another reason to be proud of the University of Chicago. From Erin O'Connor via James Lindgren, this is from Chicago's Faculty Handbook:

The mission of the university is the discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge. Its domain of inquiry and scrutiny includes all aspects and all values of society. A university faithful to its mission will provide enduring challenges to social values, policies, practices, and institutions. By design and by effect, it is the institution which creates discontent with the existing social arrangements and proposes new ones. In brief, a good university, like Socrates, will be upsetting.

Friday, April 02, 2004


In what I thought must be an April Fool's joke, I was told yesterday that I had won my university's Excellence in Advising award this year. But the two emails telling me about it looked authentic, and when I in turn emailed the dean thanking him for the honor, his gracious reply also seemed the real thing. Making it all unimpeachably real, finally, was the dean's reminder that now I have to attend TWO graduation ceremonies and say a few words...

Yet how did I, a faculty member who prides herself on having failed over two decades to learn any useful administrative information, and whose demeanor toward students has always been pleasantly distant, inspire some student to write an impassioned letter to the awards committee about my fantastic advisory skills?

Actually, I can think of one or two students who might have written something. There are, every academic year, a couple of undergrads who particularly move me. Last year there was the guy with perfect verbal SATs and a stunning writing style who explained to me that he didn't want to go to college but was being forced to by his wealthy political family. All he really wanted to do was drive and write about race cars. This year there's the refugee from a fundamentalist family who's going off to a first-rate graduate school to write about religion in the novels of Don DeLillo and other modern American writers. I guess signs of early rebellion and a kind of personal stubborness about what matters to you intrigue me... Although I'm useless in terms of directing these students toward the academic vp who will actually help them solve an adminstrative problem, I'm probably very good when it comes to authentic interest in their thoughts about school and life...

Not that, in principle, I'm all that interested in crawling into the world of twenty year olds. But every now and then I do learn something new. A student in my literary criticism group - a perky pretty sorority sister - recently wore to class a bright pink sweater with the first letter of her first name sewn on its right breast in large white cursive sweeps. This seemed to me the embodiment of uncool - like butterfly glasses - like something out of Bye Bye Birdie... But yesterday, when I told my [thirteen year old] daughter about it, she got all excited and jumped up and down in her chair and said I've been meaning to ask you if I can buy one of those they're the latest thing everybody's wearing them...


"A colleague in Religion recently revealed in a discussion of the increasingly thick boilerplate we are encouraged to apply to our syllabi," writes Jonathan Dresner in a comment at the website History News Network, "that he's been adding an 'offensive material disclaimer' to his, to the effect that 'some of the material we discuss and views we express might be offensive to people with strongly held beliefs.'"

This disclaimer is the latest dollop to be spooned into the already morbidly obese Syllabum Omnium (see UD post of January 14; and for UD's take on the thriving personal offense industry in American academia, see UD post of January 23).

So voluminous and critical to one's career is the new Syllabum Omnium that within five years, I predict, faculty will publish and earn tenure on the basis of what will be known as the syllabook. The Myth of Syllabus by Jean-Paul Camus...["There is only one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is the problem of the syllabus."]. Syllabus Shrugged by Ann Raynd, voted by college students most popular syllabook... A Syllabus Named Desire by Tennessee Ernie Ford...On the Syllabus by Nevyllabus Shute, a wrenching portrayal of the last syllabi to survive after a global nuclear holocaust...

In my own case, there's no real problem. I can avoid the offense disclaimer by removing from my Modern Novel course anything written by James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, Vladimir Nabokov, Alberto Moravia, Michel Houellebecque, Angela Carter, Doris Lessing, Elias Canetti, Gunther Grass, Norman Mailer, and John Updike. Have I forgotten anyone?