The Most Depressing Day of the Year

Academe is a dysfunctional Never Never Land whose denizens have barricaded themselves in their playroom.  Leave them alone, and debate the day’s issues with adults.

August, beginning of the Fall semester: for me, the most depressing time of the year.  I have long recognized that I will return home after the University’s opening round of meetings (convocation, college, department) with a dense cloud of misanthropy and pessimism hanging over me.  Friday was no different.  At least I have now grown to expect the indisposition, the way some people expect to come down with a cold after a walk in the rain.  When classes start on Monday, I will retreat to my work, and things will clear up again… for the time being.

What is the peculiar cluster of character traits (or flaws?) that causes some people to be enamored of meetings?  Why do these same people crowd into academe?  Is it so that they may have more meetings?  Or does the Ivory Tower bend and sag with constantly replete meeting rooms up and down its bowels because it draws people with certain character flaws?  Do not suppose that I am too obtuse to grasp the necessity of conferring with colleagues on occasion.  But among the many topics not fit for meetings are the following: 1) announcements of events—time and place—that, thanks to our e-world with its i-Gismos, are unremittingly cycled through our lives already; 2) recognition of and applause for good little doggies who have lately performed good little tricks; 3) airing out of grievances so specific or recondite in nature (parking spaces, document cameras in Business Building, incompatibility of degree requirements and transfer policy in Biology program) that they should be broached in private conferences, 4) personal anecdotes from Dr. X’s summer trip to China or Dr. Y’s recruitment expedition to darkest rural America aiming at humor and self-promotion in equal measures (and veering grossly wide of one).

Strain all of these from all of my Friday meetings… and you have sufficient content to fill most of an hour, as opposed to all of five hours.

I will say in this confined space (for I well know that very few academics of any stripe visit The Intellectual Conservative) that the flooding of academe with women over the past forty years has much to do with the problem.  Not that men don’t gossip and ramble; in some ways, they’re worse than women in that regard.  In a private-sector office setting, for instance, men probably shoot the breeze around the water-cooler far more than their fair compatriots.  The kind of woman who chased after a Ph.D. in the seventies, however, was a distinctive sub-species.  She had been told until she was reciting it in her troubled sleep that women are worthless without a career.  She had no marketing savvy and a smoldering contempt for any sort of dickering (perhaps because her own Plain Jane appearance had made of her an introvert, with few social skills and no ability to draw attention).  A bookworm by default, then, she was at least always highly rewarded in school… and so she proceeded from one level of schooling to the next.  The most popular fields for birds of her feather were those where she was encouraged to link her special gripes at the world to some vast, trans-epochal conspiracy.  History, literary studies, social studies… what the hell, why not just create Women’s Studies?  Now, as an established professor twenty or thirty years later with no life independent of her brilliant career, this person craves constant attention and recognition.  She lobbies for more committees where she may do yet more haranguing before captive audiences, she informs every news outlet in five counties about her latest article, she submits overworked and impatient subordinates to soulful soliloquies about that mysterious something still missing from cutting-edge pedagogy (and which will require a new committee to locate), and her hand rises in the air like a weed after a summer shower when the President or Dean (finally winded) asks the assembly, “Anything else?”

Of the topics that qualify as legitimate business, ironically, just about every one smacks of the marketplace.  Salaries are always on the docket: raises, to be precise.  Will there be raises this year?  Ancillary topics include grant money.  The front office, mediating between state legislators and faculty prima donnas, drive home the hard fact that new tax-based funds will not be forthcoming unless at the federal level (where, of course, it waits in limitless supply)—and that grants are the way to mine this bonanza.  Will faculty members (nowadays known simply, if brutally, as “faculty”) receive release time to write grants, or receive time-off if grants are awarded?  (In other words, can they draw the same salary for doing less work in the classroom)?  Discussion, explanation, question, discussion. 

Then there’s the matter of travel money.  Everybody knows how important it is for scholars to travel far and wide so that they may deliver their cutting-edge papers and also imbibe the cutting-edge research of others.  The location for all of these scholarly Ginsu-infomercials is invariably a flagship campus with posh hotel accommodations and a posh banquet at a cordon-bleu venue.  The scandal of underwriting such excursions with tax dollars pales in comparison to a GSA conference in Vegas or Hawaii, to be sure; but it is of the same lineage.  I recall the late Stephen J. Gould remarking in one of his books years ago how anomalous it seemed that literary scholars must travel hundreds of miles to read papers whose contents, unlike a scientific presentation, require no slides and elicit no collaborative discussions afterward.  Today one might as well extend Gould’s observation to the sciences, as well.  The Internet has completely obviated the need for the tweed pow-wow in New Haven, where physicists sketch prototypes of anti-gravity machines on cocktail napkins between sessions.  These jaunts are expense-paid vacations, plainly put… and to think that their beneficiaries are always clamoring for another raise!

A particularly repellent kind of discussion to me always takes place in departmental meetings: the shift to more technology.  Academics, one would think, ought to find themselves in rather a bind on this issue.  As progressives, they cannot logically resist the advance to the latest Lap Pad Tooth Ray MPX 5.4.  Yet the development of this technology (did I forget to say that it is cutting-edge?) has not only been driven by the sordid profit motive: it also extends our ruinous cultural vector into the “dumbing down” of eye-flutter ease and speed.  Literature professors, especially, fancy themselves the trustees of society’s conscience (including, but not restricted to, the New Awakening concerning the suppression of women).  In the name of clean conscience, how does submitting adolescents to yet more instant gratification prepare them for the labor of independent, sustained thought required in conscientious living?  The late Neil Postman, no particular friend to the political Right, asked such questions consistently, probingly, and usefully in an academic setting… but he belonged to a previous generation, when the word “liberal” still bore trace evidence of its etymological connection to “liberty”.  Now we have entire programs taught on iPads!  Naturally, some technology can in fact bring a greater variety of classic texts than ever to young eyes at a more affordable price than ever, and the iPad, if wisely reined in, makes the list… but I never detect that reading is the primary objective in our curricular transformation.  Instead, I am treated to the nauseabund spectacle of professors—some of whom fail student essays for lacking a title or not being double-spaced—dropping the word “cool” left and right in admiration of this or that “app”.  I am so flaming sick of hearing about “cool apps” in English Department meetings that I may have to put myself on the FBI “watch” list for ticking time-bombs.

And the answer to the conundrum above, by the way, about how academics negotiate this deep contradiction of values is… that they do not deign to notice it.  They breeze right past it.

Indeed, I am now brought to the reason why I have shared my personal headache with a larger audience.  The broader public needs to understand of progressives in general, and academics in particular, that no concern over coherence guides their words or their actions.  They suffer from a spiritual paralysis which will confine them forever (with very few exceptions) in early adolescence.  They “role-play”, like unsupervised children enjoying a romp through Mommy and Daddy’s wardrobe closet.  They are smarter than the rest of us, yet their writing makes little sense and their essential choices in life spring from pique, egotism, and peer pressure.  They will distill no end of scorn upon money-making, yet they expect regular salary hikes and are apt to high-five each other when some new committee-hatched gimmick increases enrollment.  They revile the traditional history-based model of teaching as mere propaganda for the ruling class, yet they insist that their students listen to long lectures about the Shelleys’ conjugal life or William and Dorothy Wordsworth’s relationship prior to regurgitating notes on cue for 50% of the total grade.  They cry foul upon white mainstream society for demanding that American citizens speak English, yet they eviscerate freshman essays for exceeding two pages or not having one-inch margins.  They sneer at Ann Romney’s thoroughbred and her other aristocratic trappings, yet they bristle if any student neglects to address them as “doctor” and deal out a cold correction.  About half of my own department raised a mild protest the other day when provided a “free” lunch from Chick-fil-A, yet all were placated when informed that the departmental budget would not allow them to feast so handsomely anywhere else, and not a one reflected (on this occasion or similar ones that I have witnessed) that the students struggling to pay inflated tuition rates—i.e., lowly taxpayers—were the ultimate source of such largesse.

Everything about these people is a fraud.  Their world is a bubble, and their lives never transport them beyond it.  Do not look for them to respond to reason.  Do not protest their hypocrisy when they attribute the Aurora shooting to the Tea Party but dismiss the Family Research Center’s assailant as a pitiable psycho.  Do not expect them to abstain from calling gracious, dignified public servants like Michele Bachmann and Alan West filthy names dredged out of the gutter.

Don’t waste your breath.  These are children—and they’re not your children, so you can do absolutely nothing to correct them.  Ignore them, then.  Be civil but not cordial, do not invite them into your private life, do not seek to include them in discussions of serious issues, and do not “reach out” to them unless you have nearby the wherewithal to sterilize your hand.  The rare few adults among them will find you—will seek you out.  Otherwise, keep the invisible wall in excellent repair.  Their world is not yours, and your world is not theirs.  Stop trying to compromise, and stop expecting apologies.

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