The Magazine

Civilization and Its Malcontents

Or, why are academics so unhappy?

May 9, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 32 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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Faculty Towers

The Academic Novel and Its Discontents

by Elaine Showalter

University of Pennsylvania Press, 143 pp., $24.95

I HAD A FRIEND, now long dead, named Walter B. Scott, a professor at Northwestern University whose specialty was theatrical literature, who never referred to university teaching as other than a--or sometimes the--"racket." What Walter, a notably unambitious man, meant was that it was an unconscionably easy way to make a living, a soft touch, as they used to say. Working under conditions of complete freedom, having to show up in the classroom an impressively small number of hours each week, with the remainder of one's time chiefly left to cultivate one's own intellectual garden, at a job from which one could never be fired and which (if one adds up the capacious vacation time) amounted to fewer than six months work a year for pay that is very far from miserable--yes, I'd say "a racket" just about gets it.

And yet, as someone who came late to university teaching, I used to wonder why so many people in the racket were so obviously disappointed, depressed, and generally demoralized. Granted, until one achieves that Valhalla for scholars known as tenure--which really means lifetime security, obtainable on no other job that I know--an element of tension is entailed, but then so is it in every other job. As a young instructor, one is often assigned dogsbody work, teaching what is thought to be dull fare: surveys, composition courses, and the rest. But the unhappier academics, in my experience, are not those still struggling to gain a seat at the table, but those who have already grown dour from having been there for a long while.

So far as I know, no one has ever done a study of the unhappiness of academics. Who might be assigned to the job? Business-school professors specializing in industrial psychology and employer/employee relations would botch it. Disaffected sociologists would blame it all on society and knock off for the rest of the semester. My own preference would be anthropologists, using methods long ago devised for investigating a culture from the outside in. The closest thing we have to these ideal anthropologists have been novelists writing academic novels, and their lucubrations, while not as precise as one would like on the reasons for the unhappiness of academics, do show a strong and continuing propensity on the part of academics intrepidly to make the worst of what ought to be a perfectly delightful situation.

Faculty Towers is a report on the findings of those novelists who have worked the genre long known as the academic novel. The book is written by an insider, for Professor Elaine Showalter, now in her middle sixties, is, as they used to say on the carnival grounds, "with the show." At various places in her slight book, she inserts her own experience as a graduate student and professor, though not to very interesting effect. An early entry in the feminist sweepstakes, she is currently the Avalon Foundation Professor of the Humanities at Princeton, a past president of the Modern Language Association, a founder of "gynocriticism" (or the study of women writers)--in other words, guilty until proven innocent. She has also been described--readers retaining a strong sense of decorum are advised to skip the remainder of this paragraph--as "Camille Paglia with balls," a description meant approbatively, or so at least Princeton must feel, for they print it on princetoninfo.com, a stark indication of the tone currently reigning in American universities.

Professor Showalter's book is chiefly a chronological account of Anglophone academic novels for the past sixty or so years, beginning with C.P. Snow's The Masters (1951) and running through examples of the genre produced in the 21st century. Faculty Towers is, for the most part, given over to plot summaries of these novels, usually accompanied by judgments about their quality, with extra bits of feminism (mild scorn is applied where the plight of women in academic life is ignored) thrown in at no extra charge.

The book's title, playing off the John Cleese comedy Fawlty Towers, suggests the book's larger theme: that the university, as reflected in the academic novels Showalter examines, has increasingly become rather like a badly run hotel, with plenty of nuttiness to go round. The difficulty here is that Showalter believes that things are not all that nutty. Mirabile dictu: She finds them looking up. "The university," she writes, "is no longer a sanctuary or a refuge; it is fully caught up in the churning community and the changing society; but it is a fragile institution rather than a fortress."