Academia as gothic horror

25 January 2012

And they say professors are ineffective, boring types who spend all their time thinking about the esoteric. Clearly they haven’t been reading the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Usually academic novels emphasize satire. No one who has ever attended a faculty meeting doubts there’s plenty to mock. Also, satire is easier; it’s a form of humor that does not ultimately throw one into a state of existential angst or lead one to ask oneself, “Should I just quit this stupid job?” One tends to try to view one’s own work with the same sardonic grimace and soldier on.

But let’s face it — the worst aspects of academic are not grimly amusing but horrific. (James Hynes understood this with his utterly memorable collection of gothic-horror novellas, Publish and Perish: Three Tales of Tenure and Terror. Hynes, how did you also manage to make me laugh during these tales?)

In this week’s Chronicle we learn of the operatic drama taking place at San Francisco’s California Institute of Integral Studies, where two anthropology professors — a husband-and-wife team — have been fired after having worked at the Institute for 25 and 14 years, respectively. The school charges them with having “breached student confidence, falsified grades, misapplied funds, and otherwise engaged in unprofessional conduct, generally to ensure the loyalty and obedience of those they taught and advised.” Moreover, the school says it was

“shocked at the climate of fear and intimidation” Ms. Chatterji had fostered, and it found “deeply disturbing” Mr. Shapiro’s complicity in creating such a climate, “centered around a cultlike idealization” of his wife. It said his “unwavering and uncritical support” for his wife “gave little hope for reform or remediation.”

Where’s a screenwriter when you need one? “Cultlike idealization”? “Climate of fear and intimidation”? This is Hollywood gold! (Sorry, the Chronicle article is password-protected, but you can read more here.)

So here’s a couple of recommendations to screenwriters:

You have to capture the subject position of grad students accurately to convey the horror of this situation. All grad students are under the thumb of, indebted to, and subject to the whims of faculty advisors. Some advisors are good and ethical people; many are not. Many view grad students as clinging, unsatisfactory servants who need to just figure out how to be brilliant on their own. Some of them use grad students as chauffeurs, grading machines, or dartboards. Chatterji and Shapiro were accused of using grades to demand servile loyalty from grad students. But I also know of cases in which advisors demanded blow jobs from their female grad students or complained bitterly that a student had married someone the advisor disapproved of. Actually, I know other stories too, and I’m sure you do as well.

You have to capture the often nonsensical world of academic celebrity — those rare figures who achieve national or international acclaim for their work and command fawning respect from students and fellow faculty alike. In a strange world driven by intellectual insecurity and indefinable, vague notions of “importance,” no one among us can ascertain which individuals or books or articles are truly Important. Rather, it’s determined by ubiquity: if the crowd seems to be running in that direction, they must have a good reason. “Well, if Professor X’s book keeps getting used in grad classes and cited by scholars, it must be Important.” Thomas Kuhn, anyone? Structure of Scientific Revolutions? It often makes no sense why one academic becomes a celebrity and another does not.

And finally: You have to capture the ways academics are unable to keep boundaries between their personal lives and their work lives. This article makes reference to Chatterji and Shapiro gossiping about their grad students’ personal lives widely even after promising total confidentiality. For many academics, gossip is a way to traffic in power — but it’s also fun for its grisly combing over of personal details. Conferences are horrible places because of the gossip.

Looking forward to the film — aren’t you? And in case anyone needs a consultant for writing this script, I’m available at didion [at] ymail [dot] com!