THE DEPARTMENT THAT FELL TO EARTH
BY DAVID YAFFE
IN 1967, STANLEY FISH WROTE ABOUT a character who built a mighty kingdom through sheer force of will. But this story had an ironic twist: The seeds of the kingdoms destruction were present from its inception. Although Fish was writing about Miltons Satan in Surprised by Sin, he could have been prophesying the fate of the Duke English department, which he chaired from 1986 to 1992.
The story of what happened during Fishs chairmanship is the stuff of academic legend and the source of epidemic institution envy: With shamelessand in academe unheard-ofentrepreneurial gusto, Fish took a respectable but staid Southern English department and transformed it into the professional powerhouse of the day. Fishwho had been recruited at the suggestion of the recently appointed Frank Lentricchiahad a knack for hiring scholars who were stars or who were about to become stars: neo-pragmatist literary theorist Barbara Herrnstein Smith, queer theorists Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Michael Moon, and, for a brief moment, future African-American studies institution builder Henry Louis Gates Jr. Even a decade earlier, it might have seemed crass for a department simply to buy its way into prominence. But the stigma of conspicuous consumption had faded considerably in the go-go 1980s, and academia was enjoying its moment of high glamour. For the most well known academics, the rules of the professional game had come to resemble big-time sports or stock market speculation: Play for maximum stakes and then get out while the getting is good.
And at Duke, getting out has become a popular option for most of the professors who made the department famous. When an external review committee arrived last spring to perform a routine six-year evaluation, they were shocked by what they found. Sedgwick, Moon, and their fellow queer theorist, Renaissance scholar Jonathan Goldberg, had just accepted offers elsewhere; Americanist Jane Tompkins had practically quit teaching, and had worked as a cook at a local health food restaurant; American Literature editor Cathy N. Davidson had bolted to administration; medievalist Lee Patterson and his wife, Annabel, whose field is the Renaissance, had defected to Yale; and Frank Lentricchia, though he remained at Duke, had left the department and denounced his field (in the pages of this magazine), becoming, in effect, The Artist Formerly Known as Frank Lentricchia.
There seemed little motivation to replenish the dwindling ranks. "We find the Duke English department in a seriously weakened condition; more weakened, perhaps, even than its own internal critics realize," the external reviewersPaul Hunter, Marjorie Perloff, Paul Strohm, and Eric Sundquistwrote last May. "Its meteoric rise has given way to a relatively rapid descent. This is not to say that the department lacks excellent faculty; but the current department, except by virtue of its afterglow, cannot reasonably be considered top-ranked." They cited the absence of a clear departmental mission; a leadership and personnel emergency; desperately low morale; and numerous procedural irregularities. They also recounted hearing what amounted to "litanies of perceived deception and duplicity" from disgruntled faculty. Even more disturbing, perhaps, the reviewers described a department in which basic serviceslike teachinghad become a random, arbitrary affair. "The department still finds itself without anything we would be disposed to describe as an undergraduate or a graduate curriculum," they wrote. Fish soon followed with a bombshell of his own: In July he announced that he and his wife, Jane Tompkins, were leaving for the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he would serve as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
The revelation that Fishs empire was in crisis provoked a wave of Schadenfreude through the literary profession and a front-page story in The New York Times. But understanding the exodus has proved an elusive hermeneutic game. The story of Dukes fall from grace seems less a morality tale than a postmodern pastichea dizzying refraction of the familiar narratives of academic dissension in the 1990s. Old Guard against Young Turks, cultural studies against literary criticism, left versus right, globe-trotting celebrities versus classroom-loving teachersall of these antagonisms seem at one moment to apply, at the next to be beside the point. The salient question may be not why did the Duke English department collapse, but what was it in the first place? The apt literary analogy might be not Miltons Paradise but Gertrude Steins Oakland: Perhaps there was just no there there.
Fish insists that his experiment was a grand success. "If something endures for twelve or thirteen years in the academic profession," he says, "if, as Yeats would say, the center holds for that long, then that is what should be marveled at, not that there is a loss of personnel now." And Eve Sedgwick, in spite of her current disaffection, agrees: "What I come away from this train wreck feeling is not, Oh, what a terrible train wreck, but that it was a real accomplishment."But where was the train heading before it ran off the rails?
DUKE ENGLISHS "METEORIC RISE," WROTE THE EXTERNAL REVIEWERS, "HAS GIVEN WAY TO A RELATIVELY RAPID DESCENT."
IN 1984 Duke administrators decided it was time to dry out the beer kegs and devote considerable resources to pushing the school into the front rank of national research universities. The man they brought in to propel the English department onto the national stage was Frank Lentricchia, who received a Ph.D. from Duke in the 1960s, back when the place was no big deal. Lentricchia turned out to be perhaps that departments most famous product. While writing a series of influential studies of Frost and Stevens and some groundbreaking books on critical theoryincluding After the New Criticism (1981), still used as a textbook for graduate theory surveyshe had moved from UC-Irvine to Rice University before returning to his alma mater.
It was Lentricchia who suggested bringing Stanley Fish and Jane Tompkins into the English department in 1985; he also suggested recruiting Fredric Jameson from UC-Santa Cruz to chair the Literature Program, a separate entity that would advertise itself as "a new approach to literary study"a comp lit, cultural studies, and critical theory program rolled into one. Fish had made a name for himself as a renegade Miltonist and an original proponent of reader-response criticism. His 1980 book, Is There a Text in This Class? had upended what was left of New Critical formalism by suggesting that the answer to its titles question was, in essence, no. When Duke approached him, Fish had just turned down an offer from the Columbia English department. Jameson, meanwhile, was also already famous. The author of Marxism and Form (1971) and The Political Unconscious (1981), he was considered Americas leading Marxist literary critic and a worthy heir to the Frankfurt School philosophers.
From the beginning, the new Duke was not just about critical theory, it was about critical theory in pairs. Indeed, couples hiring was an important status symbol for this nouveau-riche department. If for a particular couple a joint hire was the ultimate proof of desirability, evidence that theynot the universitycontrolled the terms of their appointment, then for the social-climbing Duke spousal hires were a showy way of publicizing deep pockets and infinite largesse. While Fish was chairing the English department at Johns Hopkins, Tompkins was teaching at Temple University, and they were eager to find jobs in the same place. Fishs colleague at Hopkins, Lee Patterson, and his wife, Annabel, a professor at the University of Maryland, had similar desires. By 1986 Duke had made both couples offers, and an academic empire was born.
Other crucial hires came in quick succession. The following year, Barbara Herrnstein Smith was recruited from the University of Pennsylvania ("She was already in the stratosphere," Fish recalls), along with Michael Moon, a talented young Johns Hopkins Ph.D. whose interests were in nineteenth-century American literature and gay studies. In 1988 Duke managed to snag Henry Louis Gates away from Cornell and to keep him for a year before he ascended to Harvard. (Fish now marvels at Gates as perhaps the only person more savvy than himself.) The year 1988 also brought the professor who, perhaps more than anyone else of late, has been responsible for drawing national attentionand notorietyto the department: Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.
Sedgwick, who came to Duke from Amherst, was a Victorianist committed to exploring the place of gender and sexuality in literature. Her book Between Men (1985), a study of latent homoerotic tropes and male power in Victorian fiction, was a crucial precursor to queer studies, written before the field even had a name. Her first book at Duke, The Epistemology of the Closet (1990), a collection of complex investigations of the logic of sexual desire and identity in the writings of Proust, Nietzsche, James, Wilde, and Melville, would consolidate her national reputation and help to inaugurate the "queer moment" in the humanities. Sedgwick may or may not have been the most famous person to teach at Duke during Fishs reign, but there is nobody more closely associated with what could be called a Duke School. Today, when it seems every other paper at the MLA has a title like "Queering Ben Jonson," Sedgwick is the scholar most creditedor blamedfor queer theorys ascendancy.
"I WAS VERY DISTURBED BY AN INCREASING AMOUNT OF ANTI-INTELLECTUALISM," SAYS EVE KOSOFSKY SEDGWICK.
IN THE EARLY 1990S, the Duke English departments growing appeal to graduate students and Fishs extraordinary popularity with colleagues and administrators masked a troubling reality. In retrospect, the report of an external review committee that visited the department in April 1992, toward the end of Fishs term as chair, has an eerie, prophetic poweras if written by a chorus of Cassandras. After pausing to applaud Fishs accomplishmentshis record on hirings, the new selectivity in graduate admissions, and the surge in undergraduate English majorsthe tone turned darker. The reviewers, Richard Brodhead, Myra Jehlen, Del Kolve, and Jerome McGann, issued a number of stern warnings. "The need to acquire distinguished faculty and to create the conditions that would lure them properly dominated the departments agenda in recent years, and made civic issuesissues of the facultys duties at the school it moved toa recessive concern," they wrote. "But Dukes very success in the phase of faculty acquisition...makes it time, now, for this temporarily-ignored other part of the departmental agenda to be embraced as a high priority. To put it bluntly: should the department fail to make progress on this important matter it might expect to face serious difficulties before long."
The committee enumerated the trouble spots. On the subject of the graduate curriculum, they reported that the single most frequent complaintor was it a boast?they heard from faculty was: "There is no curriculum; we each merely teach what we want to teach." This statement was borne out by a look at the course bulletin, "a hodgepodge of uncoordinated offerings" in which "broad foundational courses" were few and evidence of collective faculty planning was scant. With the rise of interdisciplinary scholarship and theory, it seemed that the period survey courselong the mainstay of graduate English educationwas going by the boards.
Was the graduate program "sufficiently rigorous"? the committee wondered. Eight courses, they noted, were all the course work required to obtain an English Ph.D. at Dukesignificantly fewer than elsewhere. (The reviewers had the same reservation about the undergraduate requirements, noting that "the number of courses that make a major in English at Dukeeightis strikingly low compared to other schools of comparable quality.") At the same time, they observed, graduate students were expected to carry a relatively heavy 21 teaching load beginning in their second year. (Presumably this policy allowed the department to compensate for the sweet deals that guaranteed its star hires permanently reduced teaching loads and other special considerations.) Too little foundational course work and too much grad student teaching, the reviewers implied, added up toif not exploitation exactly, then at least inadequate preparation for a tenure-track job. "We are not persuaded, in view of the dismal job market all Ph.D. programs have recently faced, that Dukes light requirements for extensive expertise are the sole cause of its sorry recent placement record," they wrote, "but it is a fact that the structure of its program virtually discourages generality of preparation.
Though the committee was optimistic that a faculty as talented as Dukes could solve its problems, overall the reports implications were ominous. But who was listening? For academy watchers, an admiring May 1992 profile in The New York Times Magazine confirmed Fishs presence on the national scene. Here was "the epitome of the academic as showman, a new breed of superstar as much concerned with professional notoriety as with the humdrum details of scholarship." He was also a blithely autocratic leader: "I would announce changes and see if anyone said anything," he told the magazine. "No one ever did." In passing, the article mentioned that the perceived radicalism of Fishs handpicked hires had provoked written complaints from alumni and compelled Dukes president to send out a reassuring letter citing the departments "traditional literary offerings." But this, the Times implied, was proof of Fishs extraordinary success as a provocateur. No mention was made of curricular disarray or of unhappy or overworked graduate students, or the external review committees visit. As far as the public could tell, the party at Duke was still in full swing.
CELEBRATED AND CASTIGATED FOR THEIR INNOVATIVE LITERARY CRITICISM, MANY OF DUKES STARS WERE TURNING THEIR ATTENTION TO OTHER SUBJECTS: MOSTLY THEMSELVES.
IN FACT, an unlikely transformation was under way. What had been a highly centralized fiefdom run by Fishs diktat became under his successor, eighteenth-century scholar Wallace Jackson, a diffuse assortment of individuals pursuing increasingly idiosyncratic, self-referential projects, often requiring them to disappear from campus for months at a time on extended unpaid leaves. Celebrated and castigated for their innovative approaches to the study of literature, many of Dukes stars were turning their attention to other subjects: mostly themselves.
True, there had been hints that the turn to introspection was coming. A 1987 article by Sedgwick, "A Poem Is Being Written," first published in the journal Representations and reprinted in her anthology Tendencies (1993), includes memories of childhood spankings and long passages of highly personal poetry. But nothing prepared academe for the sheer volume of confessional writings and recollections that emerged from the Duke English department between 1993 and 1994. The Moi critics, as Adam Begley dubbed them in a 1994 Lingua Franca article, peddled their life stories to commercial presses like Random House and Dutton. Already well known in the corridors of academe, with books like Cathy Davidsons 36 Views of Mount Fuji: On Finding Myself in Japan (1993), Jane Tompkinss A Life in School (1994), and Frank Lentricchias gritty The Edge of Night: A Confession (1994), the Moi critics were now striving for mainstream fame. (Anticipating todays memoir boom by several years, few of them received it.) Sedgwick herself produced a volume of poetry, Fat Art, Thin Art, in 1994. For his part, Fish, who has generally been content to let others write about him, was dividing his time between the English department and Duke Law School, where he had secured a joint appointment in spite of his lack of a law degree and his frequently stated position that legal interpretation and literary criticism had nothing in common.
In retrospect, the departments memoir-writing phase seems virtually predestined, an inevitable turn for an institution that made little effort to foster a sense of collective purpose or identity among its members, stressing their value as individuals instead. And for a department that never had much intellectual infrastructure or cohesion to begin with, the facultys inward flight left an irreparable vacuum. A couple of the Moi critics, notably Tompkins and Lentricchia, abandoned literary criticism and theory altogetherand stopped publishing the kind of work that career-conscious graduate students could emulate. By the end of 1994, the most professionally active figures in the department were the queer theoristsSedgwick, Moon, and Goldberg, who had been dividing his time between Hopkins and Duke. More often than not, the best graduate students who came to Duke during the Jackson years were interested in gender and sexuality, or in finding high-powered mentors. It must have been hard for the more traditional (and obscure) professors not to feel slighted. By the time Marianna Torgovnick ascended to the chair in 1996, the departments latent tensions and resentments had emerged in full force.
Torgovnick, a specialist in twentieth-century British fiction, had a publishing record that included both a much-discussed study of modernisms obsession with tribal cultures, Gone Primitive (1990), andvirtually obligatory by this pointa memoir, Crossing Ocean Parkway: Readings by an Italian-American Daughter (1994). In addition, Torgovnick was a protégée of Stanley Fish and the first woman to chair any major department at Duke, all of which made her, one might have thought, well qualified to improve upon Fishs vision, or at least to perpetuate it faithfully into the future.
But Torgovnicks term as chair was far from a success. "The dissatisfaction with the chair...is deep and widespread," noted the 1998 external review committee. "There was unanimous feeling that the present chairs term should not be extended beyond next year when her current three-year term ends.... More than a few of the faculty favored immediate change at whatever emotional and professional cost." Frank Lentricchia is one of Torgovnicks most outspoken critics. From his current perch in the Literature Program, he puts much of the blame for the departments current disarray on the shoulders of Torgovnick and her allies in the administration: "For two years prior to the devastating external review, a huge majority of the departmentdiverse in gender, race, and rankhad been informing the upper administration (and Stanley too, by the way) of its displeasure with the coterie that, with the chairs open assistance, subverted democratic process."
The charges are serious, yet the evidence of mismanagement is difficult to pin down. Many of the departures that took place on Torgovnicks watch, for example, cannot be attributed only to unhappiness with the department. Stanley Fish had long declared his intention to take an administrative position once a suitable offer materialized; Jonathan Goldberg was reportedly less than thrilled with North Carolina; Eve Sedgwick was ill with breast cancer and was seeking to join her husband, a professor of ophthalmology, in New York, where she is now Distinguished Professor of English at the CUNY Graduate Center.
Whats more, for all the strong rhetoric of Torgovnicks critics, the alleged subversions of the democratic process seem surprisingly modest. Several professors mention her decision to schedule separate departmental meetings for faculty of different ranks; the plan was scotched when some of those professors circulated a petition against it. Another oft-repeated story involves Torgovnicks decision to select a student to accompany her to an MLA conference, despite student demands that the delegate be elected. Ultimately, the visit to the conference was canceled, and Torgovnick allegedly chided one graduate student that when he and his colleagues grew up theyd realize that democracy had nothing to do with departmental politics. Torgovnick waves aside all these allegations, pointing out that the meetings she planned for various faculty groups were informal get-togethers and "entirely supplemental" to the regularly scheduled departmental meetings that everyone attended. As for her ill-fated attempt to bring a student with her to an MLA conference, she says the episode was "essentially a misunderstanding." She says she assumed someone would volunteer to come along"like having an extra ticket to a basketball game." She hadnt realized the graduate students would feel competitive and resentful.
Nevertheless, theres little doubt that tensions rose during Torgovnicks reign, and that these tensions were increasingly expressed in personal and ideological terms. Sedgwick paints a dark picture of intolerance and hostility. "I knew my time was very finite and my energy was very finite," she says of her decision to leave. "I have stuff I want to do with the next few years, and its not grappling with people whom I dont respect. Now I dont know what took me so long to leave. It was really because I was just very disturbed by what seemed to be an increasing amount of anti-intellectualism and lack of support and respect for theory in general, for queer thought, for African-American study and faculty, and it seemed to me that the colleagues I respected immensely were marginalized, and I just hated that."
Asked to detail the kind of anti-intellectualism she encountered at Duke, Sedgwick alludes, somewhat vaguely, to colleagues who laughed at and dismissed work that is theoretical, "difficult," or simply not demarcated by a traditional period boundary. Moon also complains of anti-intellectualismand adds another, even more incendiary charge. "The homophobia that I experienced and saw other people experience was certainly a factor in my decision to leave," he says, "but there were other matters of serious concern, such as anti-intellectualism. Im glad to be out of there."
"It is predictable for Eve to portray herself and Moon and Goldberg as martyrs of some form of intellectual intolerance," says Thomas Pfau, an associate professor who came to Duke in 1991 and is the author of Wordsworths Profession: Form, Class, and the Logic of Early Romantic Cultural Production (Stanford, 1997). "I think those people actually had an exclusionary and somewhat monomaniacal sense of what literature departments ought to be like." Pfau offers a specific example that he says illustrates these charges: "We had a search for a position in the department, and Eve found herself without any candidate that fit her bill. None of them seemed to be ideologically agreeable. In the department meeting, she actually suggested that we scuttle the whole search. And people considered that an act of sabotage because, of course, a lot of work goes into those searches. It was highly suspect that she would suggest such a thing, and it was very clear to everyone why she was saying that."
Sedgwick denies trying to commandeer faculty searches. "I dont understand what the deal is about that," she says. "People scuttle searches all the time. I came up with a bunch of candidates, I dont think any of them were very smart. It happens all the time." Besides, she says, many of the hires made by search committees that she chaired worked in fields that had nothing to do with queer theory. Indeed, Sedgwicks hires include Irene Tucker, a Victorianist who specializes in nationalism and Jewish issues, but not queer theory, and the medievalist David Aers, who writes about religion and ideology, not gender.
LOOKING FOR A SAVIOR, DUKE HAS DECIDED TO STICK WITH THE DEVIL IT KNOWS: STANLEY FISH.
AND SO WE reach a standoff: Some professors accuse others of homophobia and anti-intellectualism; the targets of these charges respond with their own charges of empire lust and totalitarian power plays. Yet the rhetoric of all parties, for all its intensity, seems strangely general and ungrounded. The chair is assailed for all kinds of malfeasance, but the evidence against her seems not to match the severity of the charges. Looking at the department in pieces, its difficult to imagine what it looked like whole or to identify the forces that shattered it.
Perhaps it takes a professor like Victor Strandberg, a scholar of twentieth-century American literature who has been at Duke since 1966nearly twenty years before Fish arrivedto offer the long view of the drama, to see the storys end in its beginning. "There was a huge change when Fish came in, and the change put this department on the map in a way that probably wouldnt have happened otherwise," he says. "I would say that we were a very standard, middle-of-the-road, probably conservative, traditional English department. I would say that there was nothing exciting about it, and I was probably a good representative of that status. When Fish and his new recruits came, what they bought here was critical theory. It was relatively new, and they were leading figures in itreader-response theory, Marxism, queer theory. This was considered cutting edge and exciting and new. It galvanized a huge amount of attention when the media got hold of it, and, as a result, the graduate school operations went into higher gear. But after a tremendous burst of excitement, its dissipated.
"When Eve says there was friction in the department, I dont think she is referring to old hands like me, who more or less sat quietly through most of this. She is talking about friction among the theory people, and thats understandable, because theory wants to be controversial and transgressive, and there was an inherent tendency for the important people to butt heads with one another."
LAST NOVEMBER, I drank with a group of Duke graduate students at an Indian restaurantturnedIrish pub in Durham. They were preoccupied with the job crisis (like graduate students everywhere) and especially worried that their departments very public breakup would harm their already parlous chances. I asked them whether, if they were applying to graduate school now, they would choose Duke. Denise Fulbrook, a Victorianist writing a dissertation on melancholy, creativity, and female anal eroticism in nineteenth-century British literature, shook her head, telling me that since she worked on gender and sexuality, there would be nothing for her at Duke in its present form. But most of the students I talked with defended their choice and spoke well of their various mentors, even those who would not speak so well of each other.
And perhaps the students have reason for hope. Despite the 1992 committees concerns about the job prospects of Dukes Ph.D.s, the departments record of placing its graduate students has been impressive through the worst years of the current crunch. From 1991 to 1995, as the bottom was falling out of the market, a remarkable 71 percent of Dukes English Ph.D.s landed tenure-track jobs. And last year, 60 percent of the students looking for jobs found themstill a respectable rate of success.
But will this recordperhaps the only empirical measure of the departments accomplishmentsprove sustainable? Will Duke continue to attract talented students without a core group of eminent professors to train them? Looking for a savior, Duke has decided to stick with the devil it knows: Last spring, the administration announced that Stanley Fish himself would serve on a committee charged with taking control of the department from Torgovnick and seeking to reverse its decline. And even as he tries to restore his old kingdom, Fish will be busy building a new one. The University of Illinois at Chicago has made him its first star hireto the tune of $230,000 a year, more than the governor of Illinois makes. "This is the biggest hire I will probably ever make!" UICs provost Elizabeth Hoffman gushed to The Chronicle of Higher Education. But can the Duke model succeed at an urban commuter campus dependent for funding on a skeptical state government?
Even as some wonder whether it can be transplanted to Illinois, others wonder about the models legacy back home. Echoing Thomas Pfau, Frank Lentricchia says: "There was an initial model at Duke, and with its aid, appointments were made on the basis of excellence alone. Ideological affinity counted for nothing. The initial model was displaced (after Eves arrival), and appointments were made on the basis of political loyalties. Stanley used to be a champion of the initial model, but he was converted to the later model, and the English department he built so famously upon the initial model was in effect torn down. Stanley is an enthusiastic convert to the Church of Whats Happening Now: I expect him to preach the new faith at UIC." For her part, Sedgwick remains a believer. In spite of the Duke English departments fall, she insists, its moment of glory will remain a lasting tribute to "Stanley and people that put him up to it, a number of us who were here, our students. It was a wonderful thing to have happened."
David Yaffe has written for The New York Times, and The Village Voice. His article, "Blooms Wild Children," appeared in the November 1998 issue of LF.