The Lecturer's Tale
Picador, $25 (cloth)
At the end of a recent long, cantankerous, and often absurd faculty meeting, a graduate student assistant turned to me and said: "I have enough material here to write my academic satire and retire before I even get my Ph.D." It worried me: she hadn't gotten far enough in her career to really be that jaded. And yet, after many years in academia, first as a professor, then as a senior administrator, I often find myself wondering how I will be able to send my own children off to college knowing what I know.
James Hynes's new book, The Lecturer's Tale, certainly doesn't help to ease my uncertainty. His story is as cynical as you can get about life in American academia at the end of the twentieth century. Hynes's strange and compelling hybrid of suspense and academic satire—one step beyond his 1999 collection of Gothic/academic novellas, Publish and Perish—takes as its target the wounded ego of the academic white male and his perceived (note the qualification) loss of white male privilege in higher education. It also draws us a grim picture of a not-so-distant future when American higher education follows the penal system into privatization. At the same time, it manages to poke fun at the all-too-recent culture wars.
The protagonist in this tale is Nelson Humboldt, who arrives fresh out of graduate school as a visiting assistant professor in English at "Midwest University." As a graduate student, Nelson chose to take a middle road between trendy poststructuralism and the dull traditionalism of his advisor; his dissertation on colonialism and Conrad took a measured position "somewhat to the south of Alfred Kazin and a bit north of Edward Said" (in other words, nowhere). At Midwest, he holes up in the library's old clock tower—where the novels by dead, male authors are kept—researching books and articles that will never get published. After a couple of demotions, Nelson is summarily fired by Victoria Victorinix, a lesbian feminist theorist; that same day, his index finger gets accidentally sliced off by the spokes of a passing bicycle. Once the finger is surgically reattached, Nelson discovers that it has magical powers that allow him to control other people. First, he convinces the housing department to allow him to stay in university-owned housing for another semester. Then he begins to plot his comeback in the department.
If you haven't already come to a feminist understanding of Nelson's predicament, Hynes places several milestones. Nelson is emasculated by postmodern and postcolonial theories, which call his white maleness into question. Thus, the names of the two "female" protagonists both begin with the letter "V," for vagina: in addition to Victoria Victorinix, there is Vita, a proponent of gender theory whose own gender is not completely clear. "V" is also the shape of the new underground glass annex that has become the center of Midwest's research library and where all the works of theory are housed. The recessed "V" lies next to the metaphorically phallic clock (read cock) tower, where the rejected volumes of classic white male literature are now gathering dust. The clock tower, Nelson's refuge, represents the legacy of genteel white male Ivory Tower privilege. From its perch, Nelson can safely contemplate the enormous V-shape of the annex below him, staring down into the recesses of theory.
Nelson abandons the clock tower and his solitary act of contemplation (read intellectual masturbation) when he realizes that his index finger (another phallic symbol) holds special powers. But these symbols for male power do not get Nelson what he ultimately desires—tenure. For it turns out that the loss of Nelson's virility and the prestige of the academy is not the fault of the forces of postmodern theory but instead the New (white male) Order of corporate privatization. At the end of the novel, Midwest is bought by the Harbridge Corporation, tenure is abolished, the theorists flee, and Nelson ends up as head of what is left of the department, which is made up of mostly lowly female freshman composition instructors. The sensitive Nelson Humboldt, who once naively thought he "could walk comfortably among both princes and postmodernists, bringing them together with statesmanlike compassion," has gotten what he deserves: a mediocre job at a mediocre university with mediocre students and sufficiently downtrodden colleagues who are grateful to have a job—any job. (So much for his sense of entitlement.)
As someone who works hard to remain optimistic in the face of all odds, who knows that the corporate wolf is at the door and that the petty academic infighting of the culture wars has made it easy to satirize the academy, I resent Hynes's ability to pinpoint the worst of academia and unearth what we professionals would like to keep hidden from everyone outside the profession. I find myself reacting like a scholar and criticizing every facile jab, wishing to correct every exaggeration and point out mistakes: "Hah! This guy thinks department chairs actually have the power to grant tenure to a visiting adjunct lecturer with a nonexistent publishing record!" After all, I know the work that goes into all of those painful decisions about people's academic futures. I know what sort of constraints there are when it comes to hiring and firing, to reviewing people's scholarly work, their teaching and their service to the institution.
And Hynes's albeit sarcastic point, that there is no room left in academe for the genteel white men like Nelson Humboldt, seems singularly self-indulgent. It is not women and postmodernists who threaten the Ivory Tower. Instead, it is America's corporate mentality. Statistically, white men are still by far the ones who benefit the most from tenure in this country. It is ironic that now that there is, to some extent, a younger generation of academics made up of women and minorities, the security of tenure (for those who can get it) is quickly disappearing—not because theorists have done away with it, but because academic job security is becoming a thing of the past. If the Nelson Humboldts of this world suffer the same fate, we should blame it on America's suspicion and disdain of higher education, research, and academic freedom—not on political correctness.
But, despite Hynes's somewhat disingenuous "Let's blame it on theory" attitude, The Lecturer's Tale is at once a realistic and yet absurd reflection of American academe at its worst. It is also a delight to read because Hynes has a fine sense of language, which makes even the cheap shots seem much less cheap. It is the kind of book that all of us who spend hour upon hour trying to achieve consensus on ideologically divided committees fantasize about writing someday (if only we had Hynes's talent), in the hope that we too can take the easy road out of the real-life contradictions of trying to deliver higher education in a country that has no real respect for scholarship and the liberal arts.
In America, education may be a business—but it is also a vocation. What brings people to the teaching profession is not ultimately the privilege of tenure, and it certainly isn't the money. It is idealism. Research and teaching are not just about Ivory Tower isolationism or elite privilege—it is about having the time to go in depth and think a topic through from top to bottom and then share that knowledge and perspective with others. It is about communication and connection between people and across generations. Each time a real teacher connects with a student, a transaction of massive power takes place. The lucky ones among us all remember at least one wonderful teacher, and being introduced to a subject of study that changed our lives.
Those of us who teach look forward to the moment when our students are transformed by the texts we read and the discussions which follow. It doesn't happen every time, but it happens often enough. We would like universities to be perfect. But institutional failures are not anomalies we can correct or dismiss: they are part of the human condition. After all these years, I still find myself wishing to remain as stubbornly naïve and hopeful about the powers of literature to heal political divides as is Hynes' ridiculous Nelson Humboldt:, despite what I know about the seamier sides of academe, and perhaps because of it. "Is all that these kids need, is a book? I'll never know, thought Nelson, and that's the hard truth of teaching. It's also, he reminded himself, the glory of it." For as much as Hynes is a cynic, he is like all of us in the profession: an idealist at heart.