November 08, 2006

Best Part of Today?

Well, it's a toss-up between showing up for a dental appointment an hour early and having to reschedule and suffering an opthalmic migraine in the midst of discussing genome sequencing with a professor. I report, you decide.

I recently exchanged a few emails with a buddy from high school who is now an entomologist, and as usually happens, we started talking about academia and "collegiality" within departments. He had noticed that english departments seemed to be (as he put it) "snake pits" no matter where he was, and wondered why that might be the case.

Naturally, I prepared to leap to the defense of the beleaguered humanities, but then I started thinking about it, and came up with a possible explanation--which, since I came up with it, I rather like. Warning: sarcasm ahead! Like you needed that warning, but still.

Why are English departments the way they are? It seems to me that the explanation for their behavior is simple: you spend decades of your life studying something that's essentially static, and trying to come up with new reasons for it to be relevant, because it's simply not hip anymore to insist on the value of literature for its own sake. And really, there's only so much post-feminist Lacanian theory that you can apply to Chaucer before it becomes patently absurd. So you know you're smart, and you know that literature has value, but you're always having to justify your existence to each other and the world at large. It will eventually either drive you insane or turn you into an embittered scheming husk of a human. Which is why I do science writing.

You know, the irony is that English departments were the main proponents of the post-modernist theory that essentially gutted the "lit for lit's sake" position. What's that saying? Hoist by their own petard? Yeah.

Posted by Big Arm Woman at November 8, 2006 03:44 PM

Yet consider the snake pit as sterility and then look at

_Engendering Romance_, Emily Miller Budick, p.63

``One response to my recuperating Melville's Moby Dick as an antipatriarchal text might be simply to say, You jest. ... And yet isn't Melville's point in Moby Dick, as it is Hawthorne's in ``The Custom-House'' (or, for that matter, Harriet Beecher Stowe's in Uncle Tom's Cabin or a host of other nineteenth-century women novelists) that in an America otherwise so inclusive, the feminine sphere is the one place that has been ignored and abandoned, so that men recklessly seek absolute potency, only to discover sterility and death..''

The diganosis might be everybody going for potency, where at least the women used to know better.

Posted by: Ron Hardin at November 8, 2006 05:33 PM

Maybe it's the old quip about 'academic fights are so vicious because the stakes are so low' meeting a field with really low stakes. Or did you just say that?

Posted by: PersonFromPorlock at November 9, 2006 01:06 PM

Somewhere way back in response to one of your posts I made essentially the same comment. It must be terrible to be an English prof because you spend your time trying to find new meaning in a literature that's already been hacked over for decades and sometimes centuries. I remarked that engineers at least get truly new stuff to work on. That being said, don't fool yourself, departments in the hard sciences and engineering can just as easily become snake pits as any other.

Posted by: Locomotive Breath at November 10, 2006 11:09 AM

Oh yeah. As long as human beings are involved, anything can and frequently will suck. It's just a lot more prevalent if you're an academic in the humanities.

Posted by: BAW at November 10, 2006 11:58 AM

Were these departments less snake-pitty 40 or 50 years ago? I suspect they were, but it would be interesting to hear from people who were there and can compare with the current environment.

Posted by: david foster at November 13, 2006 11:01 AM