Wifi now available in the ivory tower
Academics in the humanities are finally evolving.
Half the room glared at me. So began the awkward silence. Heads turned down. A single cough echoed. The search committee chair forced herself to laugh. “So, that was…something. Questions?”
I’d just given a talk on the linguistic dimensions of social media discourse. To a bunch of English professors. Because I wanted a job. No, needed. Nobody really wants a job. Not even the ones who love work.
One elder professor said my scholarship had no value. He looked like Bill Nighy, so the insult cut even deeper than usual.
Later, the department chair asked me why I was even bothering to study how people talk online. “It’s just a bunch of noise,” he said. “Nobody means what they say on Facebook anyway.”
And then he walked me back to the hotel.
Few things suck more than dining with faculty after they’ve essentially killed your dreams. Can you just cancel? No, you have to sit there and pretend everything’s fine. You’re just thrilled for the opportunity to meet new people at the beautiful campus of University Wherever.
You have to sit there and pretend to drink wine.
A month after that awful campus visit, a first-tier journal accepted my project — the one so casually dismissed as worthless. And I eventually found a position, after a brutal job season.
My time in academia has taught me one key lesson. Despite what many professors claim, we’re not that liberal or progressive. Universities aren’t always civil, innovative, or open-minded.
Some departments just want to keep doing the same thing they’ve done for the last two decades. And they complain when nobody finds them relevant anymore. Maybe this trend affects the humanities more than the sciences. That’s a shame. There’s lots of room to innovate in English.
Some departments, like mine, embrace new technologies and pathways for research and teaching. My university might be fucked up. But I more or less like my department. For the most part.
Generally, the old guard doesn’t especially like the new kids on the cobblestone. They accuse us of focusing on fads and kitsch.
One of my friends, who studies zombies in literature, practically got laughed off one of his campus visits.
During an interview, a professor asked him, “So what’s your next book going to explore, perhaps Superman?”
As if that were a bad idea.
In grad school, one of my professors refused to watch films with any special effects. He was heavy into subtitles. If you even mentioned Chris Pratt, he would raise his hand and say, “Just stop.”
Another one of my professors spent an entire class ripping apart lyrics to Bob Dylan songs. His concluding remarks: “If you call that man a poet, it means you know nothing about poetry.”
Still, you had to wine and dine these types to succeed. This meant hours of pretending to be someone else. Say the wrong thing, and you’re suddenly a commoner. How dare you mention Chris Cornell and Andrew Marvell in the same conversation.
Sometimes, we grad students drank too much of pretension’s Kool-aid and went after each other in the same way.
Halfway through my MFA, I won our department’s creative writing award for a series of poems about a waitress at Hooters.
A couple of my friends asked to read them. They wrote, “Low brow” in the margins and stopped sitting next to me at workshops.
Anyway, those poems sucked. But my point stands. I even dumped someone because he didn’t know what the letters CV actually stood for. We laughed at people who went to Michael Bay movies.
Academics spend a lot of time scratching their heads about why enrollments are declining. Why politicians keep slashing higher education. Why the public despises us so much.
Well, duh. Our attitudes might be part of the problem.
Up to a third of any university’s faculty spend most of their time trolling each other on Chronicle of Higher Education forums. They cancel dissertation defenses if the candidate doesn’t show up in a tie.
They rejoice in passing cruel judgment on any type of music, entertainment, or literature that doesn’t pass their pretension test. Some of them are still complaining about Stephen King’s National Book Award.
If you want to get rid of an English professor, brandish a copy of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. It’s like waving a cross at a vampire.
Cheer up. There’s good news. Slowly, the humanities are catching up with the 21st century. Some of us even know how to manage Skype calls.
Critics of education say change isn’t happening fast enough. For them, a university can never keep up with the real world. It’s an inherent flaw, and the reason why it should be dismantled.
But that’s not true. A university’s ability to adapt depends completely on the departments and the faculty. Every semester, I re-plan my syllabus around developments in technology, trends in pop culture and political discourse, and innovations in teaching theory.
Some of us don’t sit around collecting dust. We move. We keep training and educating ourselves. In a shocking turn, I actually know more about social media and graphic design tools than most of my students. I’m still not sure who Selena Gomez is, though.