At the end of a recent long, cantankerous, and often absurd faculty
meeting, a graduate student assistant turned to me and said: "I have
enough material here to write my academic satire and retire before I
even get my Ph.D." It worried me: she hadn't gotten far enough in her
career to really be that jaded. And yet, after many years in academia,
first as a professor, then as a senior administrator, I often find myself
wondering how I will be able to send my own children off to college
knowing what I know.
James Hynes's new book, The Lecturer's Tale, certainly doesn't
help to ease my uncertainty. His story is as cynical as you can get
about life in American academia at the end of the twentieth century.
Hynes's strange and compelling hybrid of suspense and academic satire—one
step beyond his 1999 collection of Gothic/academic novellas, Publish
and Perish—takes as its target the wounded ego of the academic
white male and his perceived (note the qualification) loss of white
male privilege in higher education. It also draws us a grim picture
of a not-so-distant future when American higher education follows the
penal system into privatization. At the same time, it manages to poke
fun at the all-too-recent culture wars.
The protagonist in this tale is Nelson Humboldt, who arrives fresh
out of graduate school as a visiting assistant professor in English
at "Midwest University." As a graduate student, Nelson chose to take
a middle road between trendy poststructuralism and the dull traditionalism
of his advisor; his dissertation on colonialism and Conrad took a measured
position "somewhat to the south of Alfred Kazin and a bit north of Edward
Said" (in other words, nowhere). At Midwest, he holes up in the library's
old clock tower—where the novels by dead, male authors are kept—researching
books and articles that will never get published. After a couple of
demotions, Nelson is summarily fired by Victoria Victorinix, a lesbian
feminist theorist; that same day, his index finger gets accidentally
sliced off by the spokes of a passing bicycle. Once the finger is surgically
reattached, Nelson discovers that it has magical powers that allow him
to control other people. First, he convinces the housing department
to allow him to stay in university-owned housing for another semester.
Then he begins to plot his comeback in the department.
If you haven't already come to a feminist understanding of Nelson's
predicament, Hynes places several milestones. Nelson is emasculated
by postmodern and postcolonial theories, which call his white maleness
into question. Thus, the names of the two "female" protagonists both
begin with the letter "V," for vagina: in addition to Victoria Victorinix,
there is Vita, a proponent of gender theory whose own gender is not
completely clear. "V" is also the shape of the new underground glass
annex that has become the center of Midwest's research library and where
all the works of theory are housed. The recessed "V" lies next to the
metaphorically phallic clock (read cock) tower, where the rejected volumes
of classic white male literature are now gathering dust. The clock tower,
Nelson's refuge, represents the legacy of genteel white male Ivory Tower
privilege. From its perch, Nelson can safely contemplate the enormous
V-shape of the annex below him, staring down into the recesses of theory.
Nelson abandons the clock tower and his solitary act of contemplation
(read intellectual masturbation) when he realizes that his index finger
(another phallic symbol) holds special powers. But these symbols for
male power do not get Nelson what he ultimately desires—tenure.
For it turns out that the loss of Nelson's virility and the prestige
of the academy is not the fault of the forces of postmodern theory but
instead the New (white male) Order of corporate privatization. At the
end of the novel, Midwest is bought by the Harbridge Corporation, tenure
is abolished, the theorists flee, and Nelson ends up as head of what
is left of the department, which is made up of mostly lowly female freshman
composition instructors. The sensitive Nelson Humboldt, who once naively
thought he "could walk comfortably among both princes and postmodernists,
bringing them together with statesmanlike compassion," has gotten what
he deserves: a mediocre job at a mediocre university with mediocre students
and sufficiently downtrodden colleagues who are grateful to have a job—any
job. (So much for his sense of entitlement.)
As someone who works hard to remain optimistic in the face of all odds,
who knows that the corporate wolf is at the door and that the petty
academic infighting of the culture wars has made it easy to satirize
the academy, I resent Hynes's ability to pinpoint the worst of academia
and unearth what we professionals would like to keep hidden from everyone
outside the profession. I find myself reacting like a scholar and criticizing
every facile jab, wishing to correct every exaggeration and point out
mistakes: "Hah! This guy thinks department chairs actually have the
power to grant tenure to a visiting adjunct lecturer with a nonexistent
publishing record!" After all, I know the work that goes into all of
those painful decisions about people's academic futures. I know what
sort of constraints there are when it comes to hiring and firing, to
reviewing people's scholarly work, their teaching and their service
to the institution.
And Hynes's albeit sarcastic point, that there is no room left in academe
for the genteel white men like Nelson Humboldt, seems singularly self-indulgent.
It is not women and postmodernists who threaten the Ivory Tower. Instead,
it is America's corporate mentality. Statistically, white men are still
by far the ones who benefit the most from tenure in this country. It
is ironic that now that there is, to some extent, a younger generation
of academics made up of women and minorities, the security of tenure
(for those who can get it) is quickly disappearing—not because
theorists have done away with it, but because academic job security
is becoming a thing of the past. If the Nelson Humboldts of this world
suffer the same fate, we should blame it on America's suspicion and
disdain of higher education, research, and academic freedom—not
on political correctness.
But, despite Hynes's somewhat disingenuous "Let's blame it on theory"
attitude, The Lecturer's Tale is at once a realistic and yet
absurd reflection of American academe at its worst. It is also a delight
to read because Hynes has a fine sense of language, which makes even
the cheap shots seem much less cheap. It is the kind of book that all
of us who spend hour upon hour trying to achieve consensus on ideologically
divided committees fantasize about writing someday (if only we had Hynes's
talent), in the hope that we too can take the easy road out of the real-life
contradictions of trying to deliver higher education in a country that
has no real respect for scholarship and the liberal arts.
In America, education may be a business—but it is also a vocation.
What brings people to the teaching profession is not ultimately the
privilege of tenure, and it certainly isn't the money. It is idealism.
Research and teaching are not just about Ivory Tower isolationism or
elite privilege—it is about having the time to go in depth and
think a topic through from top to bottom and then share that knowledge
and perspective with others. It is about communication and connection
between people and across generations. Each time a real teacher connects
with a student, a transaction of massive power takes place. The lucky
ones among us all remember at least one wonderful teacher, and being
introduced to a subject of study that changed our lives.
Those of us who teach look forward to the moment when our students
are transformed by the texts we read and the discussions which follow.
It doesn't happen every time, but it happens often enough. We would
like universities to be perfect. But institutional failures are not
anomalies we can correct or dismiss: they are part of the human condition.
After all these years, I still find myself wishing to remain as stubbornly
naïve and hopeful about the powers of literature to heal political
divides as is Hynes' ridiculous Nelson Humboldt:, despite what I know
about the seamier sides of academe, and perhaps because of it. "Is all
that these kids need, is a book? I'll never know, thought Nelson, and
that's the hard truth of teaching. It's also, he reminded himself, the
glory of it." For as much as Hynes is a cynic, he is like all of us
in the profession: an idealist at heart. •
Eliza Nichols is associate dean of The New School.