Of Deans and English Professors

By: Jeremy Teitelbaum

If someone had told me, say, 10 years ago, that I would end up as a dean, I would have laughed at the notion. “Not only am I a mathematician who would vastly prefer to spend a week completely alone in my office than an hour in a meeting with other people,” I would probably have said, “but I would much rather satirize the administration than join them.” And I would have pointed my inquisitor to a series of e-mails that I posted on an internal university list in which I skewered the administration for all sorts of boneheaded decisions.

Well, times change. One consequence for me of having somehow ended up an administrator is that I don’t have the opportunity to circulate satirical essays about the administration. Satire is a genre appropriate to the masses, not the bosses.

Even if my opportunities to write satire are limited, I can, fortunately, still read it. I just finished a nasty (in a good way) piece of academic satire by Walter Kirn called “Lost in the Meritocracy.” It’s a ruthless, but hilarious, memoir of Kirn’s rise through the percentile ranks in his high school and his subsequent experiences as a student at Princeton, where he received rigorous training in how social class functions at elite universities. He also learned how to use the words “gestural” and “heuristic” in order to get good grades on his English papers. He learned that all he needed to establish a certain credibility with other people was to tell them he went to Princeton. He learned how to use terms from the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein to seem smart. He didn’t learn much about science, mathematics, languages, history, or literature.

Reading Kirn’s book prompted me to think of some of the other satires of academics that I’ve read and enjoyed. Here’s a short list of my favorites (in no particular order):

Straight Man, by Richard Russo. This is the story of the chair of the English Department at a definitely not-prestigious working class university. Russo is a great writer. Part of my pleasure in reading this book derived from my sympathy with the main character, who is grappling not only with the lunacy of his colleagues and the impossibility of running his department but with the personal consequences of being in his fifties. Particular highlights of this book are incidents involving geese and, separately, English Department meetings.

Changing Places, by David Lodge. This book tells what happens when a high-flying Berkeley (oops, I mean Euphoric State) English prof named Morris Zapp trades places with Phillip Swallow, a professor at the University of Rummidge (Birmingham) in Great Britain. Zapp, who aspires to be the highest paid English professor in the world and hopes to write the “final book” on Jane Austen, is rumored to be modeled on Stanley Fish, who was Dean at the University of Illinois at Chicago while I was there. There’s a great scene where the English faculty at Euphoric State play a killer round of the game Humiliation. The sequels (Small World and Nice Work) are fun, too.

Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis. I read this a very long time ago, and I need to read it again. It’s the story of a very junior English instructor at a British college and his very miserable life. One scene, involving a gorilla, has stuck with me forever, and my wife and I still crack up every time we think of it.

Moo, by Jane Smiley. Uniquely among the books on this short list, Moo focuses on a large midwestern university. Hogs and budget cuts play key plot roles; literary theory is less important than state politics and big agriculture. This book is especially worth reading by anyone contemplating a move to the Midwest to take a leadership position at a major university.

I can’t help but remark that, except for Moo, all of these favorites are satires that focus on English departments. As dean of the entire College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, I believe it would be impolitic of me to draw any conclusions from this observation.

If you’d care to recommend other academic satires, drop me a line. I’m particularly interested in stories where deans are the good guys, but they seem to be rare in this genre.

Read more posts by Jeremy Teitelbaum, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, on his blog.

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