Gideon Lewis-Kraus joins the herd of English professors in San Diego for the annual MLA conference and finds out that there are probably two things that elbow patch clad and preposition wielding are concerned about: tenure and publishing, that there are no problems, only crises at the MLA. And oh, tenure/publishing and crises in the academe. But basically, it’s all about tenure and publishing.
He went there expecting to ridicule “sitting ducks” and the pointlessness of the humanities in a world that needs an ever evolving sophisticated version of nanotech arms that can calculate carbs and identify a terrorist by the shiftiness of his eyebrows. But he also learns that much of the obscure titles produced by university presses (something like "Judith Butler Got Me Tenure (But I Owe My Job to k. d. lang): High Theory, Pop Culture, and Some Thoughts about the Role of Literature in Contemporary Queer Studies," or any meditation on Shakespeare) are borne out of the need to score brownie points for promotion and tenure. I.e., in order for you to join the ranks of the elbow patched and multi-hypenated existences in green campuses, you must publish at least one book. A book that everyone knows to be a beefed up journal article or a rewritten dissertation, or perhaps both. So now the guardians of the gate talk about a second book to assure promotion. It is a vicious circle, wherein you’d have steady nightmares of colons and semi-colons and multi-syllabic words which you can never use to pick up someone in a bar, unless it’s a bar populated by other jargon-spewing beings.
When you say you work as a “professor” in a university, never mind that you’re really only an instructor but people insist on that title, they look at you in awe, as though you’re the holder of some elite knowledge. Maybe they are, and maybe they got lost following the paths of Nathaniel Hawthorne and signifiers and other such things. They also think that what you do is utterly useless. Humanities people rarely have something to show for what they do, unlike the applied sciences dudes.
And so the eternal question is this: “What for is a university?" And consider the other variant as well, “What is a university for?” Consequently, you also try to answer what English professors are for, because they neither build bridges or clone seedless squash. It’s questioning their existence in a world that must have something to show in order for you to be legitimate, for you to be “contributing member of society.” It’s also part jealousy perhaps of the perceived independence. A scholar is only answerable to his fellow scholars, not to the sidewalk vendor, or to the pop song digester.
Existentialist blather, in inclement weather, it is, it is.