The old saying that academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are low is a little misleading: the stakes can be very high for individual academics, determining whether they have a job or are out on the street.
For example, as I pointed out in my new review of Jared Diamond’s latest book, Upheaval, cultural anthropologists routinely rage against Diamond because people like Bill Gates read Diamond’s books but not their own. In the days of Margaret Mead and Levi-Strauss, cultural anthropologists were celebrities, but few pay them attention anymore.
Similarly, the higher brow public once paid attention to English professors, roughly from 1945-1990.
The Chronicles of Higher Education commissioned a fellow who got a Ph.D. in English Literature but wasn’t able to then get a job as an English professor to wander around the annual Modern Language Association convention and reflect on the decline of the humanities as a career path:
By ANDREW KAY
May 10, 2019
Kay is a witty writer, but I didn’t get all that much out of his conceit of what if instead of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas being set at a cop convention, it was set at an English professor’s convention, as if Hunter S. Thompson wrote David Lodge’s 1970s comic novels about English professors, including Morris Zapp (Stanley Fish) who intends to be the first English professor ever to make six figures? Lodge wrote:
“As is perhaps obvious, 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. They happily tolerated the existence of opinions contrary to their own — they even, for God’s sake, sometimes changed their minds. Their pathetic attempts at profundity were qualified out of existence and largely interrogative in mode. They liked to begin a paper with some formula like, ‘I want to raise some questions about so-and-so’, and seemed to think they had done their intellectual duty by merely raising them. This manoeuvre drove Morris Zapp insane. Any damn fool, he maintained, could think of questions; it was answers that separated the men from the boys.”
Kay looks back nostalgically on the era of Peak English when literature professors like Lionel Trilling, Harold Bloom, and Stanley Fish could be mildly famous figures in America.
But more entertaining is the official response in the Chronicles to Kay’s essay by four fulminating young women professors of English:
The Humanities Without Nostalgia
Harking back to an era of ‘peak English’ betrays marginalized scholars
By Devin M. Garofalo, Anna Hinton, Kari Nixon, and Jessie Reeder MAY 17, 2019
Unlike Kay, these four have professor jobs, but that’s irrelevant: he, being a White Male is still Punching Down so they are entitled to Punch Up at him:
Devin M. Garofalo and Anna Hinton will both be assistant professors of English at the University of North Texas in the fall. Kari Nixon is an assistant professor of English at Whitworth University. Jessie Reeder is an assistant professor of English at Binghamton University.
… But it is also worryingly anti-intellectual — and damningly uninterested in women and scholars of color. At the nexus of those two problems lies the essay’s greatest danger: By characterizing the profession as sadly diminished since its white male heyday, it winds up eulogizing precisely the worst aspects of academia, the ones many of us are trying to eradicate….
More concerning to us than the essay’s anti-intellectualism is its investment in a certain kind of white male fantasy. One early vignette is a case in point. Searching “for victims,” Kay interrupts two older men in conversation, ignoring their lack of interest in his company (the luxuries of male privilege!). As Kay listens, the two wax nostalgic for the 1960s and 1970s, when literary studies was an “old boys’ club” populated by gentlemen who knew how to be “civil,” when the profession was raining down “solicitations” for white men, and when, by implication, the Peggys of the world knew their place and the Dawns were kept out of sight. A disciplinary moment that flourished not in spite of but because of its exclusionary politics — a moment in which white men possessed the power to determine the worthiness of the things around them.
Kay’s position in relation to this episode is disturbingly ambiguous. He calls this version of the field “deeply flawed,” but that description is immediately undercut by the qualifier “and more civil.” If this episode is meant to be satirical, it fails to achieve any tone of derision. Equally unsettling are Kay’s remarks that “the increased inclusion of women” and the rise of cultural studies “coincided with the shrinking of the field itself,” the verb “coincide” blurring the boundaries between correlation and causation. The paean to gentlemanly whiteness stands uninterrogated, with the author either sharing — or not caring whether he appears to share — the view that, golly, it sure would be nice to return to the halcyon days of overabundant employment for white men whose purported civility wasn’t, as it turns out, so civil. It is Kay’s choice to call this era “Peak English.” Peak for whom is obvious.
There is no denying the humanities have dwindled catastrophically. But as Kay laments this loss, he also suggests — winkingly or unwittingly, and, honestly, does it matter which? — that such attrition is the product not only of the devaluation of literary studies from without, but also the opening up of the field from within to historically excluded voices and conversations. In other words, some of what Kay figures as disciplinary attrition looks from our vantage point like the very necessary unsettling of white male dominance.
… But at no point does Kay appear to reflect upon how the inequities of this profession are magnified for those who are not white, straight, and male: people of color, women, queer and trans folks, the nonnormatively bodied, first-generation-college grad students and scholars, single parents, the economic precariat — the list goes on….
Kay’s essay perpetuates those exclusions. There are many MLAs, but the one he depicts is painfully whitewashed. Indeed, the 2019 meeting featured well-attended panels like “Critical Race Theory and New Directions for Victorian Studies.” It seems no coincidence that proper names in Kay’s essay tend to have something in common: Keats, Pepys, Hopkins, Coleridge, and Crane feature in his portrait of the profession, while Toni Morrison is cast quite strangely alongside John Milton as a canonical heavyweight pushing out the “exotic” likes of Victorian poetry. Such positioning smacks of nostalgia for the colonial purity of “Peak English.”
And of course, being young women, the four professors can’t help digressing at vast length about clothes and how Society views the looks of lady English professors:
Not only does Kay’s essay indulge in white male fantasy, it also subjects women to cruel mockery. Take, for instance, the moment when Kay sneers at a “dozen women” who “unwittingly wore the same suit from Ann Taylor, while myriad others went full flight attendant.” This was a real kick in the teeth. The fact is, these women aren’t “unwitting” (so much ignorance and disdain packed into that one word!). The charming dishevelment prized by so many male academics is not a posture available to women. Most every woman reading this essay knows what we mean, but let’s just go there, shall we?
To go “full flight attendant” is to do as you, a woman, have been repeatedly advised, in nuggets of professional “guidance” that wreak havoc on your sense of self long after the “market” has chewed you up and spit you out, on or off the tenure track. The act of dressing, let alone of sitting — whether on a bed or in a chair — is a gauntlet for those who are not men.
Quagmires abound. Do you wear a pant- or skirt-suit? Do you go with pantyhose (opaque or sheer? flesh-toned or black?) or do you rock bare legs (ballsy! — shave that shit, wear lotion, and pray you’re spared the creepers)? Should you wear heels (potentially too sexy or femme) or flats (comfortable, but might read grandma, plus you’ll have to shell out the money to hem pants you couldn’t afford in the first place)? Do express your interest and enthusiasm by leaning forward, ladies. But don’t lean too far forward or speak too confidently, because the committee might think you’ll eat them for lunch. (And because you couldn’t pump in the hotel lobby and you wouldn’t want to secrete breast milk down the front of your blouse while answering a question about mothering, er, mentoring.) Be “emotionally available,” ladies. But not too “available.” Your voice is annoying — you should work on that. Communicate openness! Passion! Energy! Enthusiasm! If you’ve never received such advice, you’re MLAing while white, straight, and male.
Oh, and have you thought about your face? Here’s the thing: Fix it. Don’t look washed out, or tired, or like you’ve been up all night for weeks rehearsing answers to interview questions while grinding your teeth and clenching your jaw to the point where it starts clicking again and you have to see your dentist — again (if you’re lucky enough to have dental insurance, that is). On second thought, though, you’d better avoid cosmetics altogether. That cat-eye is too much, the lipstick is whorish, and those glasses have an off-putting amount of personality. Please also consider changing your hair color and texture (but take pains to look “natural”). Take off that ring. Put on a ring. Now you’ve overaccessorized. Those pearls are too Audrey, the skirt too young. Don’t wear all black, but also avoid bright colors, quirky patterns, frills, and gaudy jewelry. A navy pantsuit might be best. If you’re tall, consider shrinking. If you’re short, there’s always Willy Wonka’s taffy puller. If you’re “old” (by some unspecified and yet ubiquitous standard), dump yourself in a vat of eye cream and cross your fingers. If you’re “young,” they’ll say you’re destined for “authority problems” in the classroom. We couldn’t imagine why.
And whatever you do, don’t buy a suit at Ann Freaking Taylor: You’ll look like a lemming. (Not to mention that on your current “salary” the Ann Taylor suit is aspirational at best.) On the other hand, since your personality is a liability, looking like a lemming is probably safer than looking like yourself — until you become a punchline in an article critiquing the exclusivity of academe. Ouch.
It’s almost as if young women are really, really obsessed with their looks and the looks of other women.