Toothbrush Academia


In episode 6, season 11 of The League, Ruxin discovers a toothbrush left behind in the law office’s men’s room. The suggestion that someone is possibly brushing his teeth in the bathroom while taking a crap drives Ruxin crazy. He’s disgusted. But I’m that guy. I brush my teeth in our men’s bathroom. I don’t brush my teeth, however, while going to the bathroom.

Who doesn’t want clean breath at work after downing a giant travel mug of coffee and eating a big salad for lunch? Everyday, sometime after noon, colleagues can see me walking down the hallway with a toothbrush in hand. Despite my attempts to be hygienic at work, they give me looks of disgust. I told my dental hygienist that I keep a toothbrush and toothpaste in my drawer at work, but she wasn’t completely impressed. She did tell me what she had for lunch. Most people seem to think that faculty keep alcohol in their drawers at work. I suppose teaching or writing is so stressful that professors need a fifth of bourbon to calm the nerves. We’re not slackers like those heart surgeons or deployed soldiers. Signing our names to documents keeps us on edge. Brushing one’s teeth regularly, though, should be something one already does, not something that one does for the hell of it. In that way, I suppose it is like drinking alcohol.

As department chair, there are few things more frustrating than sitting in the biweekly chair’s meeting and hearing how the departments need to do the thing your department already does. Entrepreneurship? Check. Internships? Check. Balancing life of the mind/Humanities with career preparation? Check. It’s as if, though, we’re not in the room. Once, during a discussion of needs and new degrees, one of our deans commented that no one in the college specialized in digital studies. “Uh,” I raised my hand, “digital studies is in our department’s name.”

If I don’t brush my teeth in the middle of the day, I have that dirty feeling in my mouth. Coffee, which tastes so wonderful in the mouth and going down the throat, lingers around as coffee breath and becomes rotten and disgusting after an hour. Following Fredric Jameson, who believes that all texts are allegorical, one might identify the academic allegory in drinking coffee at work and being professional. Being an academic is a wonderful job, but sometimes, that metaphoric hour kicks in and it all feels disgusting. Digital studies is in our name. Are we not on the college’s list of departments? Haven’t we met? You know me! I’m disgusted. If I were not so busy signing my name to documents that get filed away somewhere in our college where no one will ever see them again, I might do some cognitive mapping of this issue.

Being an academic is also being frustrated. Recently, Kentucky governor Matt Bevin called upon the state’s universities to be more career minded and asked universities to eliminate programs that functioned otherwise. Bevin, following a fairly traditional commonplace narrative popular among some voters who think professors keep alcohol in their drawers at work and do stupid things like brush their teeth during the day, equated Liberal Arts education as superfluous and not practical. Despite the success of many Liberal Arts graduates, including Bevin who studied French, the Liberal Arts degree is viewed in public discourse as worthless. Bevin singled out a major in interpretive dance as exemplifying the opposite of what he meant by career minded studies, though I can imagine people dancing for a career. Dance companies do exist, after all.

For some time, I have heard colleagues in the Liberal Arts dismiss the notion of being career minded as being vocational. Vocationalism, we are supposed to believe, is bad because its focus is not of the mind, though I would think someone learning electrical work or gastronomy or car repair needs to think about what he or she is doing. I once worked in a garage as a pretend mechanic, for instance, and I had no idea what I was doing because all I could think about was leaving and going home. When I taught the capstone course at the University of Missouri, and our department chair visited the class, a student asked why Chemistry and Biology had career fairs, but English didn’t. “English doesn’t lend itself to that,” she said. I’m reminded of a comic I clipped out of a newspaper when I was in my early ’20s; it featured two garbage men standing in front of their truck, one quoting a haiku in response to their work. English majors was the caption. The suggestion, if not obvious, was that English majors become garbage men. Indeed, it has long been accepted internally within the university that having an English degree will not lead to a job or, at least, to a job that would require the skills one learns in an English department such as reading poetry and novels and discovering the allegories in them. Jokes, as Marshall McLuhan would have noted, reflect that active participation in the acknowledgement of a media’s power of influences. Passion reflects the other aspect of this framing. “Love of literature.” “Life of the mind.” These are the cliché excuses used to deflect whether a degree has value or not, much as “student success” is an administrative deflection of any actual financial investment in students or attention to curriculum. When I was faculty in graduate programs, almost all of the graduate students in literature I knew told me that they didn’t care if they didn’t get a tenure track job. They were studying for the PhD out of love. They didn’t care about a job until they actually didn’t get a tenure track job. Then they cared. Slate and The Chronicle of Higher Education are good places to read about how much they care. I, of course, have a B.A. in English. And a PhD in English as well. I now teach in a department that is not called English.

English majors. Can’t live with them…
Can’t live without them….

Just as when I don’t brush my teeth, I get that dirty feeling when we are dismissive of employment in the Liberal Arts/Humanities. A student who spends over $40,000 on a degree (or goes into debt for such a degree) has the right to think that there exists potential employment for that degree. Saying that the degree studied for doesn’t lend itself to a job fair is unethical. Our department doesn’t have a graduate program, and for some of us, having a graduate program is unethical given the current state of the job market in Humanities related fields (despite the fact that our field outperforms all other fields under the MLA umbrella, and if we did have a graduate program, we’d probably outperform most or all of the college’s Humanities related areas). If I raise the issue of employment — undergraduate degree or graduate degree — with colleagues, I might as well be brushing my teeth in the bathroom. The look I receive is one of disgust.

What do we talk about when we talk about career minded studies? We either are dismissive (Bevin or a typical Humanities response) or we are narrow in vision (“How can we create an online degree to generate revenue, but not have the expensive research faculty teach that degree?”). We have very few broad plans which offer the potential of stability, quality, and financial resources at once.

Toothpaste really is cheap. For $4 or $5 you are increasing the chance of both being healthy and of not having coffee breath. That’s less than my co-payment when I go to our health care and get misdiagnosed. A great deal of public discussion regarding academia, whether it is doing X or whether it is doing Y, is a misdiagnosis. Matt Bevin doesn’t know what is studied in a given state university because he has not spent time with us, watching our teaching, reading our scholarship, or being in the campus bathroom while we brush our teeth. But often, neither do our colleagues in the administration we work for and with. Declarations are made. Requests are passed on. Crisis is among us. Recruitment happens elsewhere. Someone in power forgets that a department with digital studies in its name exists and teaches the very thing that power feels there is need for. But if that is the case, if one department such as my own is being ignored internally for the work it does and the success it has (we have a highly successful internship program only three years into our existence, for instance), then most of the departments, as well, are being ignored at some level.

At the end of the bathroom episode, Ruxin discovers that Bethesda, his superior, is the one who has been brushing his teeth in the bathroom. In a finale of ultimate disgust, Ruxin takes a crap in the open while Bethesda brushes his teeth and they both look each other in the eye and scream at the same time. There must be an allegory in here somewhere. But since I am as suspicious of Jameson’s desire to turn all narrative — particularly popular culture narrative — into allegory, I resist it. Instead, I wonder which one am I: The pooping Ruxin or the supervisor brushing his teeth in the company restroom.

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