August 20, 2004

The Rule of Four and the Romance of the Professorial Life

I just finished The Rule of Four over the weekend. It was pretty weak stuff, and I’m not clear why it got the reviews or attention that it did. It’s mostly a padded and inauthentic coming-of-age narrative mixed some alumni nostalgia for the (exaggeratedly portrayed) student culture at Princeton, topped off with a bit of unimaginatively warmed-over Name of the Rose. The inner voice and experiences of the main character didn’t remind me of any undergraduate I’ve ever taught, met, or been.

One thing I did get out of it is that the authors carried away a woefully inaccurate sense of academic culture from their time at Princeton, but one whose inaccuracies are drawn from some deeper archetypical representations of academia and professors.

Academics know which authors who get it right, or somewhat right when they write about academia: David Lodge, Jane Smiley, Randall Jarrell. Many of these sorts of satiric or comic treatments of academic life have a wider readership. There are also hysterically wrong portrayals of academics that I don’t think anyone regards as credible or intended as such—did anyone besides me see Lou Gossett Jr. as an anthropologist in a television mystery series a few years back?

But The Rule of Four is another matter. It draws on an older, deeper expectation that people have about academics, that they are engaged in a romantic, eccentric, and often dangerously obsessive quest for truth and knowledge. The humanities professors and students in The Rule of Four are all driven by the thirst for discovery—they’re basically Indiana Jones and Belloq dueling amid the dusty library stacks, trying to be the first person to properly understand a 15th Century manuscript.

There are so few aspects of work in the humanities that are or ever have been like this. There’s an occasional flare-up of that kind of drama-queen “I have the secret to all knowledge locked in my office” stuff around Shakespeare, particularly between around the issue of the “true” authorship of his plays. But mostly, it’s not about discovery in that old romantic, explorers-in-unknown-lands sense. Even science isn’t like that operationally: the era of discovery, always something of a tarted-up mythology suitable largely for third-grade hagiographies of Newton, Curie and Edison, has got nothing to do with contemporary scientific research.

The Rule of Four is even worse on the details. One of the key turns in the plot is a nefarious professor plotting to take credit for the work of an undergraduate by preemptively accusing the undergraduate of plagiarism. Now something like this actually does happen, though it’s mostly professors vs. graduate students, and without the florid conspiracies. What’s wrong about it in the book is that the professor in question has been keeping up a long correspondence with an academic journal about a major article that he’s planning to submit (it will be the plagiarized version of the undergraduate’s research). Um, I just don’t think any journals in the humanities are waiting with baited breath for years for the hot scoop that some professor has promised them, no matter how prestigious the academic in question is. There isn’t a humanities equivalent to Nature, a journal that publishes work which is read avidly not just by academics but others waiting to hear announcements of major new discoveries about books, culture or philosophy.

There’s also another character in the book, a graduate student lurking about who is planning on applying for tenure-track posts using the same tactic, claiming responsibility for the undergraduate’s research, and he’s been drafting letters to various prestigious universities telling them that his research is almost done and he will soon be available if they want to hire him. I can tell you where a letter like that would go even if its graduate student author could plausibly claim to have found a new book of the Bible hidden inside some shopping lists written by Thomas Aquinas: way back into a file that would never be looked at again. Or the garbage can.

Now some of this is just part of the general clumsiness of this particular book. But I do think that this is still what a lot of Americans think academics are—basically a combination of the Nutty Professor, Professor Kingley from The Paper Chase, Dr. Frankenstein, and various and sundry novelistic alcoholic and lechers. People with secrets, people with strange and monastic passions, people with eccentric manners and esoteric knowledge, people who are sometimes horribly unprincipled but usually in an ethereal and otherwordly way. It’s not utterly wrong, but it’s not especially true either.

I wonder how much of this image, which is in an odd way complimentary—it makes the academic into a kind of liminal creature, a modern shaman—has to do with the savage disappointment that one class of academic hopeful experiences after several years of graduate work. I know I had a touch of this idea in me when I started my Ph.D, that one of the things drawing me to African history was the idea of “discovering” things which were unknown, and one of the things drawing me to academia as a whole was my perception that it combined the aesthetic freedoms and personal expressiveness that we associate with writers or artists with the austere purity of a social institution devoted to knowledge. Naïve, I know, but I do think that was in the back of my mind somewhere.

There are many things that I really do see as inadequate or flawed about contemporary academia, particularly the way it goes about reproducing itself through graduate education. But this one disappointment I don’t hold academia especially responsible for. Most institutions have a romance connected to them that gets shattered in the face of the banal, humdrum reality of their everyday functioning. I hear all the time from undergraduates who’ve been disabused of their hopeful fantasies about politics or government work, about nonprofit and charitable organizations, about development work in the Third World, about K-12 education. I even hear some disappointment from former students who went to work on Wall Street or other big businesses, but at least there is a shorter distance between the exalted image and the grubby reality in those cases.

When someone is bitter about academia for that reason alone—that it isn’t about the pure, passionate, eccentric pursuit of truth and beauty, that being a professor isn’t like being a free-spirit writer or artist who also gets a health care package and a regular salary, I don’t know what to say. I think the image is a lovely one. I had it in mind myself a bit when I chose this. I’d like there to be more freedom, more passion, even more honest eccentricity in academic life. (Though not the murderous rivalries that this leads to in The Rule of Four, of course.) But anyone who has an angry bone to pick with academic institutions that is meant to be a serious call to reform or change has got to have more (and there is more, much more, that could be had) on their bill of particulars.