March 24, 2009
Beware the Academic Joke
Somewhere I’ve heard Tom Wright tell the joke about the scholar who was in the habit of writing nasty critical reviews of the work of his academic colleagues at home and abroad. Then he started attending academic conferences and actually meeting some of these folks. Lo and behold, he found that he liked them. . . . So he made a very difficult choice. He decided to quit going to conferences.
Now to me that joke is hilarious. I smile every time I think of it. “So he quit going to conferences!” I can barely say the punch line without cracking up! But I’ve told that joke to a few nonacademic friends, and they don’t seem to think it’s funny at all. They look at me with that strained sort of okay-I’ll-feign-a-laugh look, but I can tell they’re wondering just what kind of bristling, asocial people I hang out with.
So he quit going to conferences! Perhaps you just need to have spent several years observing academic behavior—from the office to the classroom to the seminar to the convention hotel lobby—to plug any number of faces and caricatured figures into this brief sketch of a joke. Or your own frame of mind. Maybe if I were a famous bishop and had an Oxbridge accent, it would go over better.
Let’s analyze this mini-narrative framed as a joke. An ordinary person would be led to expect some repentance and reconciliation on the part of this prickly academic. He has seen the light. There’s no future in being so abrasive and wounding his fellows with his vicious reviews. Let him now be welcomed into the fold of his peers. Return from his self-imposed exile. Surely his wider circle of colleagues will embrace him and let bygones be bygones. But no. In order to preserve his career path—after all, his strategy has been working for him!—he chooses the utterly logical and elegantly simple solution. Or at least so it seems from his academic vantage point, of course. He quits the conferences. He has seen them for the occupational hazard that they are. Familiarity breeds collegiality, which sets you on the slippery slope toward an uncritical mind and soft-minded, compromising reviews. And who knows where that might lead.
If you are still tracking with me and starting to sketch out Greimasian maps of the deep structures of this story, you too need help.
All of this makes me wonder just how strange academic behavior must seem to those who actually have to work for a living, like making and marketing and selling real widgets and stuff rather than just thinking up new ideas and criticizing other people’s points of view—to which they are entitled, wouldn’t you say? How do we manage to make a living out of it anyway?
Well, I’ve had a few breakthrough moments in the past when I have indeed thought academic—and by association, academic editing—is a right strange profession. Ours truly is an alternate universe. Humor is often shaped by particular cultures, and it doesn’t necessarily transfer well to another. So enjoy the joke if you can. And watch who you tell it to. You may reveal more about yourself than you want.