Literary Accounts of Academic Wokeness
When truth is stranger than fiction, fiction has its work cut out for it
[Still from The Chair, a Netflix series on a pretty typical university Department of English about which I have written here]
I have a very fat file in my computer that consists of notes concerning crazy things that have happened in my professional life over the past 25 years. Colleagues saying and doing stuff no one outside of academia would believe, my encounters with students convinced they knew more about my work than I do, classes and speakers and other campus events so bizarre that I’m glad I got photographic images to prove they actually happened.
I have thought that, if and when I use material in that file for the production of a book, it will be a work of non-fiction, a journalistic accounting of a life in academia, illustrating all the ways in which the culture of higher education has deteriorated over the time I’ve lived inside it.
There are many good books along these lines. Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind was the first work in this genre I read, when I was myself an undergraduate student (it was published in my junior year). David Gelernter’s America-Lite, more concise and less historically oriented but also insightful and profound, is a more recent entry in this genre that I found impressive.
As the situation has escalated, however, and as the insanities in universities multiply and intensify to a degree unimaginable even a decade ago, I now increasingly wonder whether the ethnographic approach is the best way to point out how badly things have gone wrong.
It seems every day clearer to me that the reality of the higher ed corruption has taken on a surreal appearance. Daily, things happen that a short time ago no one could have imagined possible. Then, at the same light-speed, they are normalized and become everyday practice. I still have an email I sent several years ago that contains several parodic ideas for woke college courses. I have in the years since run across actual courses that could have been copied from my emailed endeavor at humor.
The novelistic parody might well be the only real chance the contemporary writer has to keep up with the acceleration of wokeness. And even there, the risk of being outflanked by reality at the moment of publication is not negligible.
This field too is already sizable and growing all the time. One of the most over-the-top I’ve read is James Hynes’ The Lecturer’s Tale. I read it just at the start of my Bucknell career, nearly 20 years ago, and before I had learned much about our English Department (the novel concerns the adventures of an adjunct professor in just such a department). I was quite entertained, and occasionally mildly frightened later as material I gathered on some of my colleagues here neatly fit the stereotypes Hynes sketched. Here’s just one of Hynes’ characters:
“But on his first day as a graduate student, at the very first meeting of Introduction to Literary Theory, his instructor—a gaunt and entirely hairless man in severe wire rims, a jacket of herringbone tweed, and a white roll-neck sweater—lifted a paperback edition of Aristotle with two fingers and set it on fire with a silvery Zippo. He dropped it in a wastebasket without a word and watched it burn, and when Nelson got up and opened a window to let out the smoke, he spun with a sharp, jerking motion and barked at Nelson to sit down.
“Don’t touch that, you!” the professor said, in a vaguely Gallic accent, and then, to everyone, “I want you all to smell that. I want it to penetrate to the back of your nostrils. By the end of the term I want that smell to come to you even in your sleep, to be as familiar to you as the stink of your own pale, oozing bodies.”
This struck Nelson as a little extreme on a September morning in Indiana.”
“For some of you,” the professor went on, “I will be an intellectual terroriste, striking brutally”—and here he lunged at a young woman in the front row, who cringed and clutched her notebook to her bosom—”ruthlessly and without warning at the foundation of everything you hold dear. But for those of you with the rigor and the intellectual humility to submit to my will, I will be your guerrilla chieftain, teaching you, disciplining you, driving you with a terrible love to do things you did not think possible. Some of you will not survive…But some of you I will lead out of the hills and down into the burning metropole.”
He lifted the wastebasket. Aristotle was still smoldering.
“This is just the first step,” he said. “We will have to destroy literary theory in order to save it.”
Philip Roth’s The Human Stain is another example I found enjoyable. In this one, a renowned older professor of classics finds himself the victim of a professional railroading by his administration after an “offense” of the sort that we have seen in the real university world multiple times since the novel’s publication more than two decades ago. This transgression occurs when Professor Silk wonders about the whereabouts of several students who are still enrolled in a seminar and who have failed to show up for the first five weeks of the semester:
““Does anyone know these people? Do they exist or are they spooks?”
Later that day he was astonished to be called in by his successor, the new dean of faculty, to address the charge of racism brought against him by the two missing students, who turned out to be black, and who, though absent, had quickly learned of the locution in which he’d publicly raised the question of their absence. Coleman told the dean “I was referring to their possibly ectoplasmic character. Isn’t that obvious? These two students had not attended a single class. That’s all I knew about them. I was using the word in the customary and primary meaning: ‘spook’ as a specter or a ghost…Consider the context: Do they exist or are they spooks? The charge of racism is spurious. It is preposterous.”
Preposterous it is, but it is used to force Silk to retire early.
Later in the novel, we learn that a gang of Silk’s colleagues, mediocrities envious of his high scholarly achievement, driven by “The Devil of the Little Place—the gossip, the jealousy, the acrimony, the boredom, the lies,” engineered the effort to remove him. It is also revealed that Silk, who publicly identifies as Jewish, is actually a light-skinned black man passing as white.
I just had the opportunity to read a much more recent ‘parody of woke’ novel, not set in the university but featuring comically politically hyper-sensitive characters with ideologies deeply informed by their experiences in institutions of higher education.
George Leef’s The Awakening of Jennifer Van Arsdale tells the tale of an uber-progressive writer who gets the assignment of writing the biography of an equally woke female president, Pat Farnsworth. Farnsworth has nearly brought the progressive dream to reality. She has packed the Supreme Court; free college and a universal basic income have been established; Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico are states; and such triggering pieces of traditional culture as Mount Rushmore and “The Star-Spangled Banner” have been eliminated.
During one of several interview sessions Farnworth conducts with Van Arsdale for the biography, the President recalls a formative undergraduate moment:
“Right off the bat, I got involved in College Democrats, the Dartmouth Progressive Alliance, and the Committee to Defend Against Racism. I also signed up for the debate team but only stayed on for one semester. I had taken an English course with a professor, Cecile Eagleton, who argued that it was a myth that there are two sides to every question. That wasn’t true, she said. People could know what was right from their instincts and sense of fairness. The notion that people should use logic to decide right from wrong was just a tool to privilege the power structure. That resonated with me.”
Our journalist protagonist admires Farnsworth immensely until she has a chance encounter with a leader of an anti-administration group that educates her on the realities of Farnsworth’s politics and her character.
The dialogue is briskly written and carefully skitters along on the boundary that separates satire from real life. The game is a difficult one, though, as I’ve noted, and some of the humor works precisely because the exaggeration is only one or two notches beyond what we can find in today’s news. Indeed, Kamala Harris, should she advance to the presidency at some point, would make for a Farnsworth perhaps still more Farnsworthy than the original. I have in my files evidence of Bucknell faculty colleagues straightforwardly telling the faculty listserv recipients that mere logical, factually-based argument must be trumped (in the everyday business of a university, I remind you, not in our familial lives, where the point would be perfectly valid) in some cases by emotion and “empathy.” How far from Farnsworth’s professor’s view of how to determine truth is this?
Reading The Awakening of Jennifer Van Arsdale, and rereading some pieces of other novels in this vein I read previously, has made it apparent to me that some of the notes I have from Bucknell, things I considered outrageous at the time they happened three, five, or ten years ago, will need to be considerably augmented and tweaked for any reader with experience in higher education circa 2022 to find them at all approaching the fictional.
Great essay. I'm intrigued by your suggestions. It sounds like we have similar interests, though in different genres. My Substack is all about reviewing fantasy novels. The positive reviews are free, and the negative ones are behind the paywall. I'm particularly bothered by the ideological creep of woke principles into otherwise good stories. Thanks for writing! I'm going to check out Roth and Hynes' novels!