October 06, 2003

Pod People

I've been following the excellent commentary over at Critical Mass concerning the treatment of academic non-conformists. I use "non-conformist" here instead of "conservative" because in fact a number of the folks being discriminated against aren't conservatives per se. Go and read and let what's left of the scales fall from your eyes.

I could point out the hypocrisy inherent in claiming to be "open minded" while persecuting those who think differently, but Irony, who dropped by to have a few beers and get away from it all, tells me it's too obivous for words. So we'll just move right along to the meat of this little treatise, which involves my adventures in academe and last night's episode of Surviving Nugent on VH-1. Looking back at that sentence I must grudgingly admit that post-modernism makes such a comparison felicitous--which could be either a compliment or an insult. Read on and decide.

First off, let me make a damning admission--in graduate school, I was a mercenary and a hypocrite and I didn't have a problem with being either. I was one of those students who had the unerring ability to read a professor's mind and give him or her exactly what they were looking for in scholarship--and I'm perfectly aware that this ability is probably something of a prerequisite for any student who is successful. The ability isn't a bad thing in and of itself; sometimes it comes in handy for pulling your GPA out of the fire of an unbalanced or hostile professor. But I used my power for evil, twisting texts to fit a theory and parroting theories that I found foolish, repugnant, untrue or only mildly interesting and treating them as though they were not only divinely inspired, but as though I agreed with them wholeheartedly. And you know what? I got A's, I got to present papers at the MLA, etc., etc. I mentally kept track of the hatch marks on the toteboard of scholarly success, and getting those hatch marks, not interacting with literature, became my main motivator. With a little more effort, I would have been on the fast track to PhD-ville.

Unfortunately, I fell in with the "non-conformists," the folks who openly questioned the sillier points of the theories we discussed in class, the ones who stubbornly insisted that the points they had to make about a particular work were valid even without the Homi K. Bhaba Stamp of Post-Colonial Approval, and the ones who either a) Turned to New Historicism as a last theoretical resort in order to get the damn MA, or b) Got MFAs in creative writing so that someone ELSE could do the theory thing on them later. I woke up and realized that the reason I had gone into the MA program--to be able to teach college students to love the literature I loved--had vanished. I felt empty, sad, and betrayed, and it took me the better part of a year and a half to finish my thesis because I could no longer stomach what I was doing. It wasn't fun, it wasn't challenging, and it was kind of a pisser to realize that the career I had envisioned probably wasn't going to happen.

I came to view my actions in grad school as a sort of innoculation against non-conformity. Let me clarify: You know the last scene in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, when the last survivor runs up to Donald Sutherland, her ally, and her relief turns to horror when he points at her and shrieks? I felt like that--like I had to pretend to be a pod person in grad school in order to avoid the unearthly screeching of the indoctrinated if I dared dissent. Was this a life-threatening position I was in? No, but it took a toll when I realized that in order to succeed I would have to live a lie until I got tenure. Thank you, no, academe.

And for those of you who are wondering how I'm gonna tie this into Ted Nugent, I was reminded of how tiresome and uncomfortable it is to be on the receiving end of the pod people's screeching last night as I caught some of VH-1's Surviving Nugent. For some reason that totally escapes me, an animal rights activist decided to take part in the challenge. Perhaps she thought she could Change The World by confronting The Nuge with the Eeeeevilllee of his ways, and she always had bon mots prepared for the camera, like:
"If you want to hunt and kill, you should do it naked with your bare hands. Otherwise it's hypocritical." This culminated in a shouting match replete with profanity about our "beautiful fucking planet" and some earth mother gang sign because some dude yelled at a chicken. Truly, it was amazing to behold. And the fact that it reminded me vividly of a theory class I took with a rabid feminist--screeching, hand signals, profanity and all--should convince you that I do not exaggerate with the Pod People comparison. I promise.

Posted by Big Arm Woman at October 6, 2003 09:51 AM

Hey, kids make mistakes, growups ownup. It's sad that the academy is a whorehouse for the time being but not very important since the web's there to take up the slack.

In fact, you wanta know what 'cyberspace' is? It used to be called "the world of letters."

You might want to read H. L. Mencken's essay on Thorsten Veblen in which Mencken excoriates "pedagogues" for groupthink... eighty years ago. It's kind of reassuring to know that even though our grandparents were as big sinners as we are, the whole thing somehow keeps on keepin' on....

Posted by: ManFromPorlock at October 6, 2003 07:17 PM

Reading the letters at Critical Mass, I'm amused (and amazed) that people consider Said and Spivak not only worth reading at all, but intellectually important and somehow relevant.

Fortunately, I only took upper-div English classes for fun, and as an undergrad at Portland State, I never got a lot of crap for saying "this is purely theoretical bullshit and it's not even evidenced in the text!".

Scary enough that as a Philosophy major, a field often known for complete theoretical bullshit, I knew enough to completely see through Spivak's blathering. Then again, we Phil types at least know how to close-read dense and confusing texts, and check them for evidence and self-consistency.

Pity the English faculties generally seem to either lack this facility or neglect to apply it.

Posted by: Sigivald at October 6, 2003 07:29 PM

i know my biggest fear lately in academia is the harm we're doing to our students by constantly putting down their beliefs, religions, and goals in the name of critical thinking and theory. I bothers me that we might be responsible for robbing someone of their freedom to have a belief.
I don't mean though that I support bigotry or fantacism, just I wonder how much harm we do to our students.

Posted by: someone who agrees at November 8, 2003 06:41 PM