“The Likelihood of Feeling Lonely Scale”

In response to Tim’s last post, one person mentioned the phenomenon of “celebrity scholars,” and how they, alone among English professors, are able to finance lavish and jet-setting lifestyles. Although surely not all celebrity scholars are bad (I’m afraid that I can’t say here that some of my best friends are celebrity scholars), I have taken a class with one and it involved neither a syllabus nor the learning of a single student’s name, which meant that very little learning of any kind happened. Thinking about celebrity scholars, though, made me wonder in what ways these superstars of academia compare to other types of celebrity. These scholars have been able—because their work transcends niche publishing markets—to turn themselves into desirable commodities within a market that is otherwise stacked in favor of the academic institution. Such scholars can move around from university to university apparently at will, garnering well-paid temporary contracts during the term of which they may or may not do very much work, and landing up at prestigious institutions of higher learning where all they have to endure are the glowering looks of their colleagues and their possible appearance in an academic satire.

Any affinity with general celebrity culture is short-lived, however. For good or ill, celebrity culture is obsessed by physical appearance, forcing those who would maintain their place within its ranks to endure a punishing routine of exercise, dieting, teeth-whitening, hair-dyeing, and couture-following. One would expect, given the shiny desirability of their names, that celebrity scholars would be positively Barbie-and-Ken-esque in their plasticky-ness. Not so. They are likely to be as cardigan-ny as the next English professor (if not a little more so, since they need to assert membership in a community of the oppressed). Not all of them, of course. Some wear expensive sport coats and look like they just came from lunch at the country club. In either case, though, it’s hard not to feel a sense of dislocation on meeting a “name” in person.

This phenomenon is not restricted, though, to celebrity scholars; it’s simply more pronounced for them because we are so over-exposed to their work and names. Every time you meet a scholar whose work you have previously read, you experience the disconcerting sense that they “don’t look anything like their book.” Yes, we can read oodles of post-structuralist theory that explains all this, but however much we know about author functions and implied readers and narrative voice etc. etc., upon being confronted with the physical form of an author whose books we love or hate (or have just spent a lot of time with), we are still going to think, “Ooh, I thought he would be fatter/better looking/more elegant/hairier/a woman.” It just can’t be helped. Prose has a personality; it has a shape.

And then there’s the fact that you, the reader, feel that you know this person, the author, because you’ve spent so much time hanging out together in coffee bars and libraries respectively annotating and being annotated. Meanwhile the author doesn’t know you from Adam. It’s a phenomenon similar to the type of “social surrogacy” that researchers at SUNY Buffalo and Miami-Ohio have recently demonstrated results from watching your favorite TV shows. This study–one section of which, “The Likelihood of Feeling Lonely Scale,” gave me the title for this post—finds that “thinking about valued television programs appears to yield the experience of belongingness.” Watching Friends, in other words, makes you feel like you have friends, even if you don’t (which you probably don’t if you spend your whole time, well, watching Friends). Reading academic books, especially those you return to repeatedly, makes you feel as though you know, in some sense, their authors. In reality, however, even the authors themselves don’t know the version of themselves that you know, since they actually wrote the book you have been reading long ago, have moved on to other projects by now, and can’t remember for the life of them what they wrote on page 251 or what chapter four was about.

Anyway, it’s always exciting to go to a conference and get the chance to talk with those scholars who wrote the books that excite your interest in your field. If you liked their books, you’ll probably like them too. And until then, you have shelves full of “friends” (OK, and some acquaintances and, let’s be frank, some total strangers) waiting for you.

–Jackie Stodnick

Published in:Jackie Stodnick |on March 4th, 2010 |4 Comments »

Myth-Busting Redux (Graduate Edition)

To follow my colleagues Laura, Desiree, and Jackie, who have lately been exploring myths about English departments, students, and faculty, I thought I would explore three myths about graduate study that I encounter as Graduate Advisor.

Myth #1: You Must Get Your Degrees from Different Places. Not that it’s a bad idea to get degrees from different places. If you get your BA, MA, and PhD from three different schools, or at least from two different schools, then you meet more people, you’re exposed to different ideas, you find different library collections to explore, you enjoy life more and become more cosmopolitan, and dozens of other advantages.

But the myth I’m talking about here is more like “nobody will hire me if my CV shows three degrees from the same place, because that’s an automatic resumé-killer.”

And really, it doesn’t work that way. If you’re applying for a teaching-heavy job, the first thing they look for is how much, how varied, and how strong your teaching experience is. (Unless it’s the 25th of August and the semester starts on the 26th, in which case they look for whether your breath will fog a mirror and you aren’t currently incarcerated.)

If you’re applying for a research-oriented job, they look to see how interesting your dissertation is, and what you’ve published to establish its high quality.

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Somewhere down the line, the trivial matter of where you earned all your different degrees (always assuming none of them is from Dr Nick’s All-Nite Research University) might come up over drinks, but really, nobody uses that fact as a quick CV weeder.

Myth #2: I’ll Never Get a Teaching Job Because I’m Too Old / White / Anglo / Male. Because you’re right, there are hardly any old white Anglo males in this business. Hell, there’s only one in my office.

Age: first of all, the ideal job candidate nowadays is probably someone who’s 62 years old and will retire as soon as s/he earns tenure, saving their employer decades of seniority raises. Second, no, you will not go far in the profession if your idea of cutting-edge scholarship is Cleanth Brooks and your dissertation idea is “The Influence of Existentialism on the Beat Generation.” But aside from that, ageism in the academy, from all I can tell, is at a historical low.

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The same applies to worries over your various un-PC attributes: your whiteness, your native English, your maleness. The counterpart myth, “All the Jobs go to Young Black Disabled Lesbians,” is equally trite. They strike me as excuses. Yes, if you are an intellectual reactionary, if you come across as tacitly racist or with a chip on your shoulder about how beleaguered you are as a member of a majority group, you might not get much sympathy in a humanities department. If you, by contrast, keep an open mind and seek out new ideas, why wouldn’t you get a fair chance at any jobs that are going?

Myth #3: College Teaching in the Humanities is an Upper-Middle-Class Profession.

It’s not.

College English teachers can expect to make poverty-level salaries as adjuncts, working-class salaries as full-time untenured faculty, and skilled-trades salaries as tenured senior faculty.

bob_seger

Bob Seger had a song back when I was in high school:

I wanna be a lawyer
Doctor or professor
Member of the U.M.C.
I wanna drive a Lincoln,
Spend my evenings drinkin,
Have stock in GM and GE.

Lawyers and doctors, if they survive to senior levels in their professions, yes, they can aspire to such giddy circumstances. English professors? we drive ancient Hondas, spend our evenings grading papers, and the only coupons we clip are the ones that offer 40% off at Half Price Books.

William Pannapacker has recently made waves with a series of increasingly embittered attacks on the hypocrisy of graduate education in the humanities in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The myth of the academic meritocracy powerfully affects students from families that believe in education, that may or may not have attained a few undergraduate degrees, but do not have a lot of experience with how access to the professions is controlled. Their daughter goes to graduate school, earns a doctorate in comparative literature from an Ivy League university, everyone is proud of her, and then they are shocked when she struggles for years to earn more than the minimum wage.

“Graduate school in the humanities,” Pannapacker concludes, “is a trap. It is designed that way. It is structurally based on limiting the options of students and socializing them into believing that it is shameful to abandon ‘the life of the mind.’” Despite his histrionics, I tend to agree with Pannapacker. Not about the “trap” aspect, mind you, but about the myth that lots of advanced degrees will bring you luxury cars, single-malts, and bulging portfolios.

In fact, I very much doubt that teaching English ever entailed such things unless said English teachers had them already. Teaching English is a working-class occupation. We do not control the means of production; we do not possess independent capital. We are ill-paid. Thanks to an economic principle called the Baumol effect, we can’t become more productive over time, so the only way for a school to afford English teaching and its irreducible labor-intensiveness is to keep eroding our salaries in real terms. Basically, society doesn’t value what we do, and we’re paid accordingly.

coolhandluke

Pannapacker bemoans the lack of “real jobs” in the humanities, but lots and lots of us have real jobs. We keep them as real as possible by working for what prison guards or truck drivers make. And folks, that’s not as tragic as Pannapacker insists. Lots of prison guards and truck drivers, after all, own their own homes, have hobbies, and get out to see the occasional movie or NASCAR race. If it would mortify you to be seen at the Motor Speedway, well, the Fort Worth Opera has $20 tickets. Culture, precisely because it’s consumed by the underpaid, is often an excellent bargain. Reading is still pretty much free.

The most important thing for people to know about college teaching as they go into it is that it’s a working-class occupation. Some initial myth-busting on that score can save a world of grief later on.

— Tim Morris

Published in:Tim Morris |on February 26th, 2010 |16 Comments »

Birth of a Meme

snowfall1

Let the record show: on the single snowiest day in the history of Dallas/Ft Worth, the University of Texas at Arlington was open for business as usual.

UTA usually closes at the hint of a flake in the wind, so faculty and staff were perplexed at finding themselves on campus yesterday. It was tough to drive, tougher to walk in from your car, and once you’d walked in, Thursday provided a ghost-town experience, classes and meetings mostly unattended by people who’d had the sense to stay home.

Among those who soldiered in, the questions bubbled up: why are we here? Why isn’t UTA closed? In the universal human struggle to make meaning, people asked themselves: why is this day not like other days? Since it apparently wasn’t Passover, people started scanning the UTA Events Calendar for something out of the ordinary.

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Come to find that Earvin “Magic” Johnson was fixing to talk Thursday evening at Texas Hall. His topic was “32 Ways to Be a Champion in Business.” (As one wag put it, the first of the 32 is “Be a basketball Hall of Famer.”)

Critical thinking in the English Department quickly centered on a connection between Magic and the fact that we were tramping through a foot of slush to get to our depopulated classes. Or rather, a connection between somebody and the slush. Certain faculty opined that Michael Jordan was to blame. Others suspected Michael Irvin. But whoever they thought was speaking, suspicions ran high: they’re not closing UTA because they don’t want to cancel the sports guy.

F2F in offices and classrooms, on Facebook and Twitter among those who’d stayed toastily at home, we saw the birth of a meme: yeah, they’ll close this place at the first flurry, but if there’s any schmoozing with the stars scheduled for that evening, they’ll make us all drive in from Waxahachie.

Memes are fascinating things: in moments, they morph from snarky remark to common wisdom, with minimal pause for reflection in between. Because really, the “can’t close, Magic’s here” meme makes no logical sense whatsoever. Classes started at 8am; Magic was going to talk at 6pm. If it was important for Magic to speak at all costs, why not cancel daytime classes and announce that the University would open at 6pm? For that matter, why not announce that everything but Magic would be cancelled?

Worst case, the lecture itself would have to be cancelled. But reflect. Magic’s in town already. His speaker’s fee is a sunk cost. Instead of putting everybody through the ordeal of “32 Ways to Be a Champion in Business,” the great man could have proceeded directly to whatever upmarket watering hole the suits had picked out for his face time with the high rollers, sparing all concerned an hour of their lives and actually increasing the benefit to UTA.

mcqueen1

No, I gotta call nonsense on the Magic meme. And I don’t have any very good theory to offer in its place. To invoke Steve McQueen in The Magnificent Seven, “It seemed to be a good idea at the time.” When I got up at 6am on Thursday, there was snow on the lawn, but the paths and streets were clear. By 630, I remarked to my plus-one, “Could that be new snow on the walk?” By 8am, the new snow was ankle-deep, and we were splashing doggedly through it on our way to deliver quality instructional minutes.

No, I probably wouldn’t have closed UTA either. After all, when Magic Johnson and I (and 55,000 other people) were students at Michigan State in the 1970s, eleven inches of wet snow would have been just another school day. It wouldn’t have been one of my brightest decisions, but I’d have kept UTA open, and (as in the actual event) no real harm would have resulted.

But people crave order instead of randomness, key determining factors instead of “whatever,” and sinister motives instead of inertial forces. And always, everywhere, memes represent a collective distrust of authority that is salutary for a community.

UTA – like nearly every school, government, and corporation in the world – is in the business of producing hot air. Our leaders insist on branding us “Mavericks,” when we seem to be indistinguishable from any other large state university in the country. They loudly proclaim that we are moving toward “Tier One” status, when many faculty in the humanities are staggeringly overworked, and paid at near-poverty levels ($12,500 a semester to teach five classes is common). Neighbors of UTA get cheery mailings suggesting that UTA and Arlington are working together to make our city a real “college town,” although, in a city with a downtown so empty that every day seems like a snow day, a city famous for razing neighborhoods to put up stadiums with vast parking lots, UTA’s biggest new community initiative is . . . putting up a stadium with a vast parking lot.

Every institution in the world, I repeat, engages in such hollow rhetoric continuously. UTA is no worse than others, and is a pretty good place to work in lots of ways. But whenever there’s a high volume of white noise from officialdom, people stop listening pretty quickly. As a coping mechanism, they construct memes that cynically find hypocrisy at the heart of random, or even well-intentioned, behavior.

—Tim Morris

Published in:Tim Morris |on February 12th, 2010 |3 Comments »

UTA English Obituary: Simone Turbeville

Simone Turbeville, who died on 27 December 2009, was a long-time Associate Professor in the English Department at UTA – though it’s a measure both of the ephemerality of life and the huge turnover here in the past decade that few reading this obituary will remember her. It’s important to mark such passings – maybe more important to mark them than those of academics who get awards or professorships or buildings named after them.

Simone Turbeville taught at UTA for over 40 years. It doesn’t violate the principle of nil nisi bonum to say that Simone was a difficult colleague. In fact, if I were to write that her tenure here was one of sweetness and light, she would read that, raise her eyes to the ceiling, and say “Hmnph!” or words to that effect. No, Simone was a difficult colleague. She feuded endlessly with everybody over the most minor issues, leading one of our colleagues to muse that academic disputes are so very bitter because there is so very little at stake. Simone complained incessantly about her working conditions (something I of course would never do). She was easily and monumentally offended, and her character note was how little the world appreciated her. When she won the Gertrude Golladay Award for teaching in 1999, she remarked, “Too little, too late.”

Still, though she spent about ten of our 13 years as colleagues not speaking to me for one reason or another, it was impossible to stay mad at Simone forever. You always had the sense that if she took everything too bitterly, she chose the right things to be bitter about. Simone had a formidable education. She earned a PhD from Bocconi University in her native Milan in 1951 (a date that doesn’t square with her being born in the 1930s, as her obituary claims; much about her will remain mysterious). Upon arriving in the United States, she was told by somebody that a “foreign” doctorate wouldn’t cut it in America. So she set about earning a second doctorate, from Indiana University. Simone was thus one of the few people I’ve ever met to have two earned PhDs – real PhDs from major research universities, not a European summer school where you direct your own dissertation, or the On-Line University of Nowhere, or something like that.

Simone’s field was comparative literature of the Renaissance. She helped edit the journal Allegorica for much of its existence. She taught the high canon from Dante to Thomas Mann. She was fanatically opposed to literary theory of any description. (It was one of Simone’s students who, upon starting one of my theory courses, announced to the class “I don’t want theory. I just want facts.”) If you picture her as a bristling reactionary, you are of course half right. But Simone could surprise you. Her courses in literature and opera were in an interdisciplinary mode that became fashionable again just at the end of her career. She read feverishly, always adding contemporary authors to her syllabuses: when I met her in the late 1980s, she was into Umberto Eco, and made his work the centerpiece of her regular 20th-century comparative literature courses. When I started reading the Sicilian novelist Lara Cardella, who was half my age and a third of Simone’s, Simone sent agents into the bookstores of Europe to bring back the newest Cardella for us both to read. And almost as much as Puccini, she loved Robocop.

While she was intermittently talking to me, Simone always added energy to my day. When I arrived at UTA in 1988, I was given an office across from Simone on the 6th floor of Carlisle Hall. I would be minding my own business when Simone would strut in in a cloud of cigarette smoke and proclaim: “They have just determined the language family that Etruscan belongs to! Do you know what it is?” Beats me, Simone. “FINNO-UGARIC!” And she would pivot on one heel and depart as smokily as she’d arrived.

Simone loved animals, despite her legendary allergies: birds of all kinds, and Scottie dogs, in particular. She was a magnificent Italian cook. She loved students, especially those who loved her, and was savagely devoted to her favorites – and I do not say that as a bad thing; she loved people who loved the art, music, and books that she loved, and at heart there’s nothing wrong with that.

Simone witnessed a swath of Italian history. Her father was persecuted by Mussolini, and Simone would later see Il Duce hanging dead in a Milan plaza. On a lighter note, she once saw the Nobel Literature prize-winner Salvatore Quasimodo in his underwear. The story goes that the great man had become enamored of one of Simone’s schoolfriends. Upon bustling into her friend’s flat one afternoon, she encountered Quasimodo in his BVDs. There are only a few degrees of separation between any of us and unclad Nobel Laureates.

Simone, you were often impossible to get along with, but as I said when you retired in 2001, “ti vogliamo bene” – and now, “ti avremmo voluto bene.” Rest well.

—Tim Morris

Published in:Tim Morris |on December 31st, 2009 |12 Comments »

Welcome to the New Website of the Circumlocution Office

In the popular imagination, the “English professor” is pictured as an individual of middling gender, sporting a certain amount of corduroy and tennis shoes, and having a really bad hair century. We imagine English professors, if they’re over fifty, as being halfheartedly obsessed with symbolic archetypes in the plays of T.S. Eliot and keen on converting the young to the latest version of MLA style. We think of under-50 English professors as simmering with a desire to reveal how naturalizing heteronormative cultural practices under late capitalism are inscribed on disabled bodies in the graphic-novel-style advertising of polyglot postcolonial spaces.

In real life, much as English professors wish we could be doing such exciting things, we resemble every other institutional employee on the planet. Our days are spent reading memos, drafting memos, and complying with mandatory paperwork. As in all other corporations, we’re often told how easy that paperwork is “because it’s all on line now!” – as if enduring browser crashes, getting scolded for lack of cookies, being interrogated for one of 75 inmnemonic personal passwords, fording unnavigable interfaces, and waiting for 30 seconds between screens for individual bytes to be schlepped by carrier pigeon from some antiquated server, only to see, after 10 minutes, the dreaded “your session has timed out” message – as if that were Bob’s-your-uncle compared to filling out a paper form.

UTA is no exception. Much as we are told that we are “Mavericks” who think in mercurial, untramelled ways, our work routines are (like everyone else’s) increasingly strangled by red tape.

In the paper-ridden 20th century, English professors would hand out class syllabuses, try to get papers published, and occasionally fill out a tax form to record their meagre earnings, or maybe a travel-reimbursement form if they were lucky enough to deliver a talk in some glamorous conference venue like Toledo in February.

In the 21st century, we hand out syllabuses, but we must also post them on line at our “Research Profiles.” If we publish or deliver papers, we must enter them on the same Profiles. If we direct dissertations, we must read and comment on them as always. But soon we must also enter our contacts with students on the on-line “DS-PRO” database, so that every step of the process is replicated by a on-line data trail. (As one Graduate Advisor put it, a grad student using “DS-PRO” is like a swimmer in a race looking over her shoulder every other stroke to see if anyone’s gaining on her.)

If that graduate student wants to travel to deliver a paper, she must fill out request forms and reimbursement forms and save receipts – and now must also supply three letters (from herself, her supervisor, and her conference host) that all contain the same information – plus an itemized estimated-budget spreadsheet. But no problem – it’s all on line!

If that graduate student wants to do research that involves speaking with any living being, she must run a gantlet of Institutional Review Board protocols to seek a sanction hard-won, temporary, and easily revoked. Rules originally meant to discourage vivisection now bloatedly govern questionnaires that ask you what your favorite poem is.

In the 20th century, English-professor ethics were straightforward. If you didn’t commit theft, assault, plagiarism, or aggravated mopery, you were probably OK. In the 21st century, in order to become keener ethical thinkers, we undergo regular “compliance” training – naturally, all on line! In the early 21st century, this training was provided by slides followed by tough exam questions. For example: “Are you in compliance with University best practices if you require each of your students to pay you $500 to attend a Mazola party on University property where scheduled drugs will be consumed by students under the age of 21 while they are forced to use University photocopiers to duplicate Libertarian Party leaflets?” The radio-button options were Yes and No, and if you answered Yes, you were redirected back to the slides for a refresher course.

Well, that got to seem silly even to the Compliance Office. So the tests were replaced by slides that merely ask you to affirm that you’ve read them, making Compliance training a matter of seeing how fast it’s humanly possible to click through a slideshow.

This past week, in the latest of the new electronic straws on faculty backs, we were informed that every professional service duty we undertake – the bread-and-butter of academic life, such as peer review of scholarship and peer evaluation for promotion and tenure – must now be approved in advance as “outside employment” (even though such work is expected of faculty as a matter of course in their inside employment). Don’t worry, an administrator told me – it’s all on line, and it only takes a few clicks, a form, and a few days of waiting to get approval!

It seems a matter of time till toilet doors on campus will be fitted with ID-card swipelocks, opening only if an instructor has first submitted an on-line Request for Evacuation form that indicates #1 or #2, estimated paper consumption in square meters, and carbon footprint of ambient heat generated by zipper friction.

All such red-taping appears to increase accountability for spenders of taxpayer nickels and dimes, of course. But its cumulative effect is to ensure that less and less intellectual work gets done on campus. I hope that’s not the intent. But as compliance and monitoring bureaucracies grow, there’s less focus on true accountability, and more on expanding the missions of the compliance officers.

Two serious principles are involved in my rant. One is the incremental burgeoning of bureaucracy. To be fair, this is nothing new. Mission creep was at the heart of the Circumlocution Office, and I’m sure of Roman Senate subcommittees, and has probably been around since the first Sumerian beancounter said to his staff “But it’s only one more cuneiform tablet, guys! How long does it take to press a couple of sticks into wet clay?” To which my answer is, sure – it’s not much skin off my nose. But it makes my life a little harder, a little more stressful, every day. And it takes time away from my students and from the flagging life of my mind. Impose such obstacles if you must, but don’t pretend that they improve anybody’s life.

The other principle is newer and more insidious. Now that databases are ubiquitous, storage space is infinite, and Internet access universal, everything that can be measured will be measured, whether or not the measurement serves any practical purpose in any conceivable world. We assume that the more data a computer stores, the better off we will all become. But when record-keeping becomes an end in itself, the machines that were supposed to save us labor and shrink our bureaucracies end up generating work and spawning new offices full of staff to keep up with it. What kind of Maverick keeps a spreadsheet with columns for Distance Traveled from Herd, Cowpunchers Dodged, and Estimated Time Spent Bucking and Snorting?

—Tim Morris

Published in:Tim Morris |on November 27th, 2009 |1 Comment »