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."

The feminism in Faculty Towers is generally no more than a tic, which the book's author by now probably cannot really control, and after a while one gets used to it, without missing it when it fails to show up. The only place Showalter's feminism seriously gets in the way, in my view, is in her judgments of Mary McCarthy's The Groves of Academe (a forgettable--and now quite properly forgotten--novel that she rates too highly) and Randall Jarrell's wickedly amusing Pictures from an Institution (which she attempts, intemperately, to squash). The two misjudgments happen to be nicely connected: the most menacing character in Jarrell's novel, Gertrude Johnson, is based on Mary McCarthy, who may well be one of Showalter's personal heroines, of whom Jarrell has one of his characters remark: "She may be a mediocre novelist but you've got to admit that she's a wonderful liar." Sounds right to me.

Being with the show has doubtless clouded Showalter's judgment of Pictures from an Institution, which contains, among several withering criticisms of university life, a marvelously prophetic description of the kind of perfectly characterless man who will eventually--that is to say, now, in our day--rise to the presidencies of universities all over the country. Cozening, smarmy, confidently boring, an appeaser of all and offender of none, "idiot savants of success" (Jarrell's perfect phrase), not really quite human but, like President Dwight Robbins of the novel's Benton College, men (and some women) with a gift for "seeming human"--in short, the kind of person the faculty of Harvard is currently hoping to turn the detoxed Lawrence Summers into if they can't succeed in firing him straightaway for his basic mistake in thinking that they actually believe in free speech.

C.P. Snow's The Masters, is a novel about the intramural political alignments involved in finding the right man to replace the dying master of a Cambridge college. In this novel, the worthiness of the university and the significance of the scholars and scientists contending for the job are not questioned; the conflict is between contending but serious points of view: scientific and humanistic, the school of cool progress versus that of warm tradition. In 1951, the university still seemed an altogether admirable place, professors serious and significant. Or so it seemed in the 1950s to those of us for whom going to college was not yet an automatic but still felt to be a privileged choice.

One might think that the late 1960s blew such notions completely out of the water. It did, but not before Kingsley Amis, in Lucky Jim (1954), which Showalter rightly calls "the funniest academic satire of the century," first loosed the torpedoes. In Lucky Jim, the setting is a provincial English university and the dominant spirit is one of pomposity, nicely reinforced by cheap-shot one-upmanship and intellectual fraudulence. Jim Dixon, the novel's eponymous hero, striving to become a regular member of the history faculty, is at work on an article titled "The Economic Influence of Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485," a perfect example of fake scholarship in which, as he recognizes, "pseudo light" is cast upon "false problems." Amis puts Dixon through every hell of social embarrassment and comic awkwardness, but the reason Jim is lucky, one might tend to forget in all the laughter, is that in the end he escapes the university and thus a life of intellectual fraudulence and spiritual aridity.

Amis's hero is a medieval historian, but the preponderance of academic novels are set in English departments. The reason for this can be found in universities choosing to ignore a remark made by the linguist Roman Jakobson, who, when it was proposed to the Harvard faculty to hire Vladimir Nabokov, said that the zoology department does not hire an elephant, one of the objects of its study, so why should an English department hire a contemporary writer, also best left as an object of study? Jakobson is usually mocked for having made that remark, but he was probably correct: better to study writers than hire them. To hire a novelist for a university teaching job is turning the fox loose in the hen house. The result--no surprise here--has been feathers everywhere.

Showalter makes only brief mention of one of my favorite academic novels, The Mind-Body Problem by Rebecca Goldstein. Ms. Goldstein is quoted on the interesting point that at Princeton Jews become gentilized while at Columbia Gentiles become judenized, which is not only amusing but true. Goldstein's novel is also brilliant on the snobbery of university life. She makes the nice point that the poorest dressers in academic life (there are no good ones) are the mathematicians, followed hard upon by the physicists. The reason they care so little about clothes--also about wine and the accoutrements of culture--is that, Goldstein rightly notes, they feel that in their work they are dealing with the higher truths, and need not be bothered with such kakapitze as cooking young vegetables, decanting wine correctly, and knowing where to stay in Paris.

Where the accoutrements of culture count for most are in the humanities departments, where truth, as the physical scientists understand it, simply isn't part of the deal. "What do you guys in the English Department do," a scientist at Northwestern once asked me, quite in earnest, "just keep reading Shakespeare over and over, like Talmud?"

"Nothing that grand," I found myself replying.

Professor Showalter does not go in much for discussing the sex that is at the center of so many academic novels. Which reminds me that the first time I met Edward Shils, he asked me what I was reading. When I said The War Between the Tates by Alison Lurie, he replied, "Academic screwing, I presume." He presumed rightly. How could it be otherwise with academic novels? Apart from the rather pathetic power struggles over department chairmanships, or professorial appointments, love affairs, usually adulterous or officially outlawed ones, provide the only thing resembling drama on offer on the contemporary university campus.

Early academic novels confined love affairs to adults on both sides. But by the 1970s, after the "student unrest" (still my favorite of all political euphemisms) of the late 1960s, students--first graduate students, then undergraduates--became the lovers of (often married) professors. If men were writing these novels, the experience was supposed to result in spiritual refreshment; if women wrote them, the male professors were merely damned fools. The women novelists, of course, were correct.

The drama of love needs an element of impossibility: think Romeo and Juliet, think Anna Karenina, think Lolita. But in the academic novel, this element seems to have disappeared, especially in regard to the professor-student love affair, where the (usually female) student could no longer be considered very (if at all) innocent. The drama needed to derive elsewhere. That elsewhere hasn't yet been found, unless one counts sexual harassment suits, which are not yet the subject of an academic novel but have been that of Oleanna, a play by David Mamet, who is not an academic but grasped the dramatic element in such dreary proceedings.

Sexual harassment, of course, touches on political correctness, which is itself the product of affirmative action, usually traveling under the code name of diversity. Many people outside universities may think that diversity has been imposed on universities from without by ignorant administrators. But professors themselves rather like it; it makes them feel they are doing the right thing and, hence, allows them, however briefly, to feel good about themselves.

Nor is diversity the special preserve of prestige-laden or large state-run universities. In the 1970s, I was invited to give a talk at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. I arrived to find all the pieces in place: On the English faculty was a black woman (very nice, by the way), an appropriately snarky feminist, a gay (not teaching the thing called Queer Theory, which hadn't yet been devised), a Jew, and a woman named Ruthie, who drove about in an aged and messy Volkswagen bug, whose place in this otherwise unpuzzling puzzle I couldn't quite figure out. When I asked, I was told, "Oh, Ruthie's from the sixties." From "the sixties," I thought then and still think, sounds like a country, and perhaps it is, but assuredly, to steal a bit of Yeats, no country for old men.

By the time I began teaching in the early 1970s, everyone already seemed to be in business for himself, looking for the best deal, which meant the least teaching for the most money at the most snobbishly well-regarded schools. The spirit of capitalism, for all that might be said on its behalf, wreaks havoc when applied to culture and education. The English novelist David Lodge neatly caught this spirit at work when he created, in two of his academic novels, the character Morris Zapp. A scholar-operator, Zapp, as described by Lodge, "is well-primed to enter a profession as steeped in free enterprise as Wall Street, in which each scholar-teacher makes an individual contract with his employer, and is free to sell his services to the highest bidder." Said to be based on the Milton-man Stanley Fish, an identification that Fish apparently has never disavowed but instead glories in, Morris Zapp is the freebooter to a high power turned loose in academic settings: always attempting to strengthen his own position, usually delighted to be of disservice to the old ideal of academic dignity and integrity. Fish himself ended his days with a deanship at the University of Illinois in Chicago for a salary said to be $250,000, much less than a utility infielder in the major leagues makes but, for an academic, a big number.

By the time that the 1990s rolled around, all that was really left to the academic novel was to mock the mission of the university. With the onset of so-called theory in English and foreign-language departments, this became easier and easier to do. Professor Showalter does not approve of these goings-on: "The tone of ['90s academic novels]," she writes, "is much more vituperative, vengeful, and cruel than in earlier decades."

The crueler the blows are required, I should say, the better to capture the general atmosphere of goofiness, which has become pervasive. Theory and the hodgepodge of feminism, Marxism, and queer theory that resides comfortably alongside it, has now been in the saddle for roughly a quarter-century in American English and Romance-language departments, while also making incursions into history, philosophy, and other once-humanistic subjects. There has been very little to show for it--no great books, no splendid articles or essays, no towering figures who signify outside the academy itself--except declining enrollments in English and other department courses featuring such fare.

All that is left to such university teachers is the notion that they are, in a much-strained academic sense, avant-garde, which means that they continue to dig deeper and deeper for lower and lower forms of popular culture--graffiti on Elizabethan chamber pots--and human oddity. The best standard in the old days would have university scholars in literature and history departments publish books that could also be read with enjoyment and intellectual profit by nonscholars. Nothing of this kind is being produced today. In an academic thriller (a subdivision of the academic novel) cited by Showalter called Murder at the MLA, the head of the Wellesley English Department is found "dead as her prose." But almost all prose written in English departments these days is quite as dead as that English teacher.

For Professor Showalter, the old days were almost exclusively the bad old days. A good radical matron, she recounts manning the phones for the support group protesting, at the 1968 Modern Language Association meeting, "the organization's conservatism and old-boy governance." Now of course it almost seems as if the annual MLA meetings chiefly exist for journalists to write comic pieces featuring the zany subjects of the papers given at each year's conference. At these meetings, in and out the room the women come and go, speaking of fellatio, which, deep readers that they are, they can doubtless find in Jane Austen.

Such has been the politicization of the MLA that a counter-organization has been formed, called the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, whose raison d'être is to get English studies back on track. I am myself a dues-paying ($35 annually) member of that organization. I do not go to its meetings, but I am sent the organization's newsletter and magazine, and they are a useful reminder of how dull English studies have traditionally been. But it is good to recall that dull is not ridiculous, dull is not always irrelevant, dull is not intellectual manure cast into the void.

The bad old days in English departments were mainly the dull old days, with more than enough pedants and dryasdusts to go round. But they did also produce a number of university teachers whose work reached beyond university walls and helped elevate the general culture: Jacques Barzun, Lionel Trilling, Ellen Moers, Walter Jackson Bate, Aileen Ward, Robert Penn Warren. The names from the bad new days seem to end with the entirely political Edward Said and Cornel West.

What we have today in universities is an extreme reaction to the dullness of that time, and also to the sheer exhaustion of subject matter for English department scholarship. No further articles and books about Byron, Shelley, Keats, or Kafka, Joyce, and the two Eliots seemed possible (which didn't of course stop them from coming). The pendulum has swung, but with a thrust so violent as to have gone through the cabinet in which the clock is stored.

From an academic novel I've not read called The Death of a Constant Lover (1999) by Lev Raphael, Professor Showalter quotes a passage that ends the novel on the following threnodic note:

Whenever I'm chatting at conferences with faculty members from other universities, the truth comes out after a drink or two: Hardly any academics are happy where they are, no matter how apt the students, how generous the salary or perks, how beautiful the setting, how light the teaching load, how lavish the re-search budget. I don't know if it's academia itself that attracts misfits and malcontents, or if the overwhelming hypocrisy of that world would have turned even the von Trapp family sullen.

My best guess is that it's a good bit of both. Universities attract people who are good at school. Being good at school takes a real enough but very small talent. As the philosopher Robert Nozick once pointed out, all those A's earned through their young lives encourage such people to persist in school: to stick around, get more A's and more degrees, sign on for teaching jobs. When young, the life ahead seems glorious. They imagine themselves inspiring the young, writing important books, living out their days in cultivated leisure.

But something, inevitably, goes awry, something disagreeable turns up in the punch bowl. Usually by the time they turn 40, they discover the students aren't sufficiently appreciative; the books don't get written; the teaching begins to feel repetitive; the collegiality is seldom anywhere near what one hoped for it; there isn't any good use for the leisure. Meanwhile, people who got lots of B's in school seem to be driving around in Mercedes, buying million-dollar apartments, enjoying freedom and prosperity in a manner that strikes the former good students, now professors, as not only unseemly but of a kind a just society surely would never permit.

Now that politics has trumped literature in English departments the situation is even worse. Beset by political correctness, self-imposed diversity, without leadership from above, university teachers, at least on the humanities and social-science sides, knowing the work they produce couldn't be of the least possible interest to anyone but the hacks of the MLA and similar academic organizations, have more reason than ever to be unhappy.

And so let us leave them, overpaid and underworked, surly with alienation and unable to find any way out of the sweet racket into which they once so ardently longed to get.

Joseph Epstein is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.