University Diaries
A professor of English describes American university life.
Aim: To change things.
Contact UD at: margaret-dot-soltan-at-gmail-dot-com

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(Tenured Radical)

Saturday, January 03, 2004

Must We Be Milquetoasts?
Must We Be Toast?

Part One

After American soldiers captured Saddam Hussein, the shouts of excitement from Iraqis gathered to hear the announcement said it all.

The soldiers who went down into the spider hole (whatever the hell that is) were brave.

Are you with me so far? Can we agree that a baseline definition of bravery would include the men and women who did this thing?

Okay. So we have a baseline definition of bravery - willingness to go after and capture Saddam Hussein. Or - let's say - the Israelis who went and brought Adolf Eichmann to Israel; or the Israelis who went to Entebbe. Are we still on the same page? These are clear examples of bravery. Others would include New York City firemen on 9/11 - that one's bravery plus transcendent altruism.

On the morning of 9/11, when I found out about it online, I went down the street to my mother's house to watch television (remember - we don't have a tv in our house -- see entry below for details). I watched it all, and then I went down to her basement and lay on the cold floor. Just lay there, thinking. Thinking: "Nothing to do but be brave. Nothing to do but be brave."

It's probably true to say of me that for most of my adult life I've worried about whether I can be a brave person when called upon to be so. My life from the start has been pleasant, privileged, protected. The bad stuff that's happened has been purely personal, and I can't stand the bullshit about "psychological" bravery you have to listen to in the US - "I'm brave because I'm a survivor of molestation by my cousin..." So I don't have any bravery to point to in my life so far (and I'm pretty far advanced in years) and therefore don't know whether I have what it takes to be brave.

Let us now move from the undisputed territory of real-world bravery to the ivory tower, shall we? Many writers seem to agree that far from showing even mild intellectual, institutional, or interpersonal guts, American university professors - particularly in the humanities, natch - are abject cowards on every conceivable level. Indeed so fetishized has cowardice become in the academy that I think you'll be able to see, in some of the comments below, evidence of an escalating Personal Cowardice Confession war among professors.

Here are a few sample comments about academics:

Camille Paglia on the MLA conference: “In the conferences, a host of Bartleby the scriveners tippy-toe thorugh showy verbal pirouettes and imagine they’re running with the bulls at Pamplona.”

Camille Paglia again: “Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault are the perfect prophets for the weak, anxious academic personality, trapped in verbal formulas and perennially defeated by circumstance. They offer a self-exculpating cosmic explanation for the normal
professorial state of resentment, alienation, dithery passivity, and inaction.”

“It’s a purebred English crowd, just as Swenson feared. The tepid predictability, the lack of interest or buzz.” [from the novel Blue Angel]

“That was in the days when you still taught. Now you spread futility, Ben. It creeps in, like your dirty socks do, into my drawers...”
[from the play Butley]

“Morris Zapp had no great esteem for his fellow-labourers in the vineyards of literature. They seemed to him vague, fickle, irresponsible creatures, who wallowed in relativism like hippopotami in mud, with their nostrils barely protruding into the air of common-sense.” [from the novel Changing Places]

“All right. I cannot... (Pause) I cannot help but feel you are owed an apology. (Pause) (Of papers in his hands) I have read. (Pause) And reread these accusations...” [from the play Oleanna] Okay, this one's a bit obscure: read David Mamet's play.

Gillian Rose describes a "routinely tedious faculty meeting [during which] I was aware of an intense aura emanating from someone whom I had never seen before, an intense sexual aura, aimed precisely and accurately at my vacant being. ‘A man,’ I wondered, ‘could there be a man in this meeting?’”

"I do get a chance every once in a while to talk with colleagues about their work," writes Timothy Burke in his wonderful blog, Easily Distracted , "but usually because of accidents or strange interruptions of routine. It is not because we are too busy. It is because we are afraid. For one, we are afraid because of having tenure, not because we have yet to have it: all of us with tenure fear starting a conversation that will reveal an irresolvable intellectual and political divide between ourselves and a colleague. [...]
Who wants to live for 30 years with someone who hates you and will work to undermine you, especially knowing as most of us do that an academic environment offers innumerable opportunities for a “dour machiavel” to damage colleagues in ways that cannot be confronted or stopped? I was speaking the other day with a colleague from another institution that I like a lot and I confessed (that's the right word for it) that I really liked Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism. He looked surprised, "But it's quite a neocon book, isn't it"? I suppose, I said, but on a few things, I think the neocons have a point.. That earned me a quick look of concerned surprise, much as if I had said I had cancer or AIDS. For most academics, better to keep silent and tend one’s own gardens in the very public privacy of one’s own specialization. We are afraid of our own intellectual ambitions, afraid that other academics will think us simple or lacking knowledge and expert command of our subject matter. That is partly an artifact of graduate school training, its internalization of shame and its paranoid wariness. More potently, it is an artifact of the massive saturation of the intellectual marketplace with published knowledge and academic performances of knowledge at conferences, workshops and events. We fear exposure of ignorance because in truth, most of us are ignorant."

English professors are “a herd of displaced social workers.” [Harold Bloom]

“Most of the academic world is a vast sea of conformity, and every time a new wave of theory and methodology rolls through, all the fish try to swim in its direction. ... What ought to be most distressing to everyone is the utter predictability of the great majority of the academic criticism that gets published.” [Louis Menand]

"Tenure should make the academy a joyful, passionate, uniquely liberated place. It should lead to people taking the time to allow books to simmer and stew until they're truly a pleasure to read both outside and inside the academy, a provocative stimulus to thought. Instead, it is a crucial part of a systemic imperative that makes the academy one of the most dour, joyless, and conformist parts of contemporary American society, a hive of insecurity and anxiety." [Timothy Burke]

"Down the road, however, to stop the exploitative cycle, the professors with the plum jobs will have to show some more courage than they have so far," writes Christopher Shea in Salon. "They'll have to fight against the very trends that make their own positions so esteemed. English departments can, on their own, vote to reduce the admission of graduate students; they aren't powerless. And senior professors can -- God forbid -- go into the trenches and help teach low-level courses, taking a hit in the free time they have for research. They can refuse to accept more adjuncts in their departments. No one wants to go first -- both out of self-interest,
and because the university president will scream, "Who's going to teach freshman composition?" But let the president figure out how to create a system that doesn't lean so heavily on graduate students and adjuncts. Her solution might actually include hiring more full-time, real, English professors. More courageous would be for mediocre-or-worse departments to wave the white flag and stop admitting graduate students altogether. Do Idaho State University and Middle Tennessee State University -- ranked 126th and 127th out of 127 graduate programs by the National Research Council in 1995 -- think they are doing anyone any favors by pumping out more Ph.D.'s?"

A woman reflects, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, on her years in graduate school: “Come to think of it, did anyone study art and aesthetics when I was in graduate school? I was such a coward then - I never told anyone that I thought texts should be studied for their aesthetic value as well as their political or historic significance. I was afraid that if I suggested that value was not always contingent, I'd be shipped out or something. I read in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education last December that Assistant Professor of English Anne Cheng, of Berkeley, said that engaging with aesthetics has been perceived as engaging in "political quietism" and in rejecting relevant political issues. That's how I felt at Duke in the late 1980s - politically mushy.”

Similarly, Lisa Ruddick of the University of Chicago English Department writes, "I felt I had to hide or smuggle in my humanist convictions about "what sustains people"--my faith for example in some quality of shared humanity that makes literary experience meaningful. ... I was writing about [James]Joyce's insights into the touching human need to bury, burn, or otherwise take care of the bodies of the dead--an impulse that is universal, however differently loss and the communal response to it are experienced across cultures. I was afraid I'd be attacked for "essentializing"--for supposing that there are features, shared across cultures, that constitute the essence of being human."

And, to conclude, here's a really bogus "I'm an abject coward" confession from another humanities professor at the University of Chicago:

“I myself was not able to write freely for a general audience until I had written two scholarly books that gave me tenure and promotion to full professor.”

I call this bogus because we know for damn sure that timid Professor X was perfectly able to write freely for a general audience (he's not writing in North Korea) from the time he became literate. He is not only indulging in high status boastfulness here - he is also pretending to cowardice. Much worse than sincere cowardice, don't you think?

And how bad are things in the humanities when we can see emerging a sort of competitive race among professors toward the most abject expression of personal, moral, and intellectual cowardice?

Anyway, you get the idea, and I quote the above stuff so liberally in order to establish the following simple fact in this first post: Humanities professors are cohones-challenged. Bigtime...