Annals of academic life: an exemplary tale.

Author:Kampf, Louis

The narrator of the following vignette is not to be mistaken for the author. Though the tale appears to be autobiographical, it must be a fiction. Academic institutions, as we know, are the repositories of rationality. Professors have been bequeathed the patrimony of the Enlightenment. Such evidence indicates that the events described below could not possibly have happened.

The faces are those of ten-year-olds playacting at seriousness. They belong to my colleagues, the tenured members of the English department. Alas, their performance is not staged for the benefit of parents at a grade school's annual Christmas play.

"It's the most agonizing decision I've ever had to make," mumbles Remington. I look for a trace of irony in his face, but find only the grimness of domestic tragedy. He runs his fingers through his neatly trimmed hair, directs the hint of a boyish smile my way, and lets his almost double chin sink onto the knot of his tie. Seated around the oval seminar table, his colleagues nod their heads knowingly. They too are in pain. Their brows are furrowed, their lips tightly shut, their eyes intently fixed on stacks of recommendations ominously marked "confidential."

"I've been up most of the night," Remington continues, "and though I really like Leah, I cannot approve of her scholarly methods. When she quotes from original manuscript sources it's done in the original spelling. This is very misleading for future scholars. She really should modernize the spelling." I'm facing Remington and begin to smile. I'd really like to double over with laughter, but Leah Scott's future is at stake, so I control myself. I glance at my colleagues. Maybe--just maybe--someone will giggle. No. Lips are even more compressed, brows more deeply furrowed. Remington does not respond to my smile. He plays obsessively with the buttons on the vest of his double-knit suit. Leah Scott's many publications--two books, articles, reviews, editions--lie scattered around the table. They draw little attention as this gathering of scholars arduously culls nasty little snippets from the file of confidential recommendations. My colleagues, after six hours of squeezing out scholarly reflections as profound as Remington's, vote to deny Leah Scott tenure.

That morning I had gone through my breakfast ritual of envisioning apocalypse. The newspapers were my book of visions: murder and destruction in El Salvador, the planned deployment of nuclear missiles, starvation in East Timor, a rape in my neighborhood, Reagan's cutback of medical services for old people. Death, destruction, and mean-spiritedness on a global scale. Neither my heart nor brain found much room for worries about Leah. After all, nearly everyone (except Leah) had known for at least two years that she would be fired. My colleagues could not officially say that a feminist doing women's studies was not to be taken seriously, but reasons would be found. And we shall sit around a table (do they sit around similar tables in the Pentagon, I wonder) and apply our collective interest to finding them. Six hours that might be spent on halting nuclear madness; on enlightening students; on enjoying oneself; on acts of generosity. As I savor the flavor of a particularly tart grapefruit, I know what the scene will be, and I can barely get myself in motion toward school.

Six hours! I walk into the meeting room beginning to feel ashamed of my revulsion. It's not six hours on an assembly line. It's not six hours correcting...

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