Speak of the Devil

by William Kerrigan

ACADEMIC KEYWORDS: A DEVIL'S DICTIONARY FOR HIGHER EDUCATION • by Cary Nelson and Stephen Watt • Routledge • 368 pp • $75 • $20 pb • April 1999

It seems to me that academics might earn fairly high marks for their political conduct. They are probably the best-informed and most liberal constituency in the nation. They know more about history and international affairs than any other occupational group, including politicians. They have done a great deal to implement the ideals of the civil rights movement, affirmative action, and cultural diversity. They hold well-considered views on justice and fairness. Indeed, the self-esteem of academics tends to derive at least as much from political conscience as from teaching and research: Politics is the native language of the academic superego. Yet these virtues fall short of the standards for political rectitude set forth in Academic Keywords by Cary Nelson and Stephen Watt, who find the professoriat indolent, immoral, and self-destructive.

They have written this work of "consciousness-raising and reeducation" as a "wake-up call" for professors "ignorant of the most basic principles governing work, advancement, and compensation in the building next door." They believe that tenured professors, in their bottomless vanity, "conceive their subject positions as eternal features of the culture": "Faculty members are a constitutionally cautious and conser vative breed." Nelson and Watt must stride through their workplaces with a certain swagger, their intellectual guts having distinguished them from the Milquetoasts and shrinking violets flitting about the office-lined halls.

The junior partner, Indiana University English professor Stephen Watt, is the author of Postmodern/Drama: Reading the Contemporary Stage (1998). Cary Nelson, Jubilee Professor of English at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and the CEO of this enterprise, is the author of books such as Manifesto of a Tenured Radical (1997), much of which is rehashed in Academic Keywords, and the co-editor of trendy anthologies such as Higher Education Under Fire: Politics, Economics, and the Crisis of the Humanities (1994). For some while, Nelson has yearned to draw breath in a fully politicized academic atmosphere. His time, he must feel, has at last come; this book is a prophet's bid for moral leadership. The main title alludes to Raymond Williams's Keywords, while the subtitle remembers Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary. The body of the work is indeed organized as a dictionary, with alphabetically ordered entries on topics such as "The Corporate University," "Distance Learning," and "Outsourcing." But this dictionary is largely a case of "moreover." Not only do its rambling entries overlap, but everything of real substance is said in the lengthy introductory essay titled "Between Meltdown and Community: Crisis and Opportunity in Higher Education."

The wooden prose of Academic Keywords lacks altogether the brilliance of Williams or the bite of Bierce. With commendably evenhanded malice, Bierce defined a bigot as one "who is obstinately and zealously attached to an opinion that you do not entertain," a conservative as a "statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others," and politics in general as a "strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage." In Nelson and Watt, these last phrases adequately characterize the politics of those they oppose but not, of course, their own, far purer opinions.

The reader is left to ponder just what personal advantages there might be in offering such a book at a time when three decades of theory have ground to a halt in identity politics and there may no longer be much for serious leftists to gain in listening to the droning on of ersatz disciplines such as queer theory. On every street corner on University Boulevard today, an academic is peddling a road map to the "ideology" of some period, medium, concept, work, or individual. No one appears to know exactly what the word "ideology" means, though many who have read Gramsci and Althusser in English translations seem to feel that they have probed the notion in sufficient depth. Students may be paying attention, at least for the time being, but do the passersby care? Does not the city hum along, pretty much oblivious to what the professors are hawking?

Academic Keywords offers itself to an intellectually politicized professoriat already somewhat bored with the political study of culture and uncertain of its efficacy yet confused over what to do next. These guys have an agenda for our stymied times: a temporary shift from politics at large to institutional politics. They want to unionize. They will show us how liberating it can be to think of employment worries as a consequence of the "job system" rather than the "job market." They even seem interested in appealing to moderates. The book contains defenses of merit pay, large lecture courses, the traditional dissertation, and academic superstars. And much of the political rhetoric is oddly tamped down, as if the authors aimed at the flattened clarity of good tech writing. A typical example occurs in their summary introduction: "We think it is time for a revolution in how we do business." The traditional Marxist summons to the ramparts ("it is time for a revolution") is here bracketed with the modestly relativistic "We think" and the tamely corporatized "in how we do business," which might suggest no more than putting up a departmental Web site or hiring a new accountant.

For those pursuing academic careers of full-time political anger, this may prove a useful guidebook. The authors provide enough practical suggestions to keep that anger busy with local university matters for maybe a decade or more.

But the first job is to make sure that our outrage is both deep seated and peremptory. To that end, Nelson and Watt recommend obsessional worrying. They equip a mental exercise ring with injustices, bad trends, ominous statistics, and "anecdotal evidence," then trot around it over and over again, occasionally stopping to ask, "Are we angry yet?" Administrators are once again the villains of the piece. If the faculty, in concert with graduate students and other university employees, cannot wrest power from short-sighted administrators, the corporatizing of the university will lead all of us in the near future to our own versions of the terminal hell of the University of Phoenix, with its lack of academic community, its minimalized campus, and its service courses taught by unreflective and "proletarianized" professors. Other causes for alarm range from a list of twelve threats to academic freedom (one of which, that the American Association of University Professors has been criticized by some professors, might in another reckoning count as an example of academic freedom) to the charge, supplied by what the authors call their "spy" network of "four dozen friends and confidantes at various schools around the country," that administrators are issued handicapped-parking stickers.

Their most serious and convincing issue is the plight of adjunct faculty, who are indeed oppressed in the full old-fashioned sense. Without health or retirement benefits, without job security beyond the current semester, adjuncts work hard for a meager wage and rarely receive the kindness of professional recognition from their lofty colleagues. But Nelson and Watt, hoping for solidarity, want to lump adjuncts together with graduate students. It is true that graduate students are also poorly compensated for their teaching, and the authors are no doubt right in arguing that the glut of humanities Ph.D.'s results not from demand but from an institutional need for cheap labor coupled with a faculty desire to be freed from responsibility for elementary courses while basking in the prestige of training graduate students. Nelson and Watt deal harshly with those who appeal to the metaphor of "apprenticeship" in distinguishing adjuncts from graduate students. They seize on this poor figure as if it were history's clearest example of false consciousness at work and launch a long, embarrassingly condescending lecture on the history of apprenticing. But the main issue behind the metaphor, the difference between degree-seeking graduate students and degree holders who have fallen into the trough of adjunct teaching, remains unaddressed. In my view, adjunct positions should be either eliminated or significantly improved. Graduate teaching should be much better compensated, but not much much better compensated, lest we remove one of the main incentives for finishing dissertations and transform a temporary condition at the beginning of a career--an apprenticeship, I daresay--into a full-blown profession.

Nelson and Watt suppose that attacks on the plummeting quality of academic thought in the humanities are just reactionary distractions. But those concerned over this sorry state of affairs will find some notable examples in Academic Keywords, especially when the authors seek to burnish their diatribe with theoretical commonplaces: "we are gradually learning that race is a social and cultural construction, not a biological fact. Yet skin color has real social effects in America even if race is a biological chimera." Here the authors seem to be saying that there is racism in America. But this straightforward thought stumbles into perplexity through their need to join the multitudes of academics lined up to congratulate social constructionism. If race is just a "social and cultural construction," one would be hard pressed to figure out not why "skin color has real social effects in America" but why there is skin color at all. There is nary a word here about the overreaching claims of literary theory, the excessive indulgence of identity politics, the growing tolerance for misreadings of literary works both great and trivial, and the insidious misrepresentation of sources in apparently scholarly books.

Academic anger, if allowed some time off from politics of any sort, ought to have a look at our rampant intellectual corruption. •

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