who is michael bérubé and why is he saying these terrible things about us?

who is michael bérubé and why is he saying these terrible things about us?

1996-04-01

Joe Amato muses on academic stardom, the poetics list, and the corporation that motors his university.

part i: macaroni and meatballs

everywhere i turn these days - the new yorker, harper’s, the voice, the chronicle of higher ed., not to mention the academic presses - i seem to run into either a piece of writing by or a reference to michael bérubé, proof-positive that he’s attained academic superstar status of the kind enjoyed during the turn-of-the-eighties by andrew ross… and now i have before me yet another of bérubé’s institutionally-centered ruminations, cultural criticism and the politics of selling out… sheesh… this one reads at times like an apologia, with bérubé self-consciously quoting himself by way of defending, revising and, extending his earlier assertions regarding the “public intellectual” (in his new yorker piece, published last january)…

let me say immediately that i know michael bérubé personally… to put it agoraphobically, we shared a building with each other - and with seventy or so other english faculty, a hundred or so graduate students, and a number of staff - for the two years i spent down at u of i at urbana-champaign in a visiting position with the dept. of english, division of professional writing… i consider michael and his wife, janet lyon (who is also on the u of i at u-c english faculty), professional acquaintances, and casual friends… we didn’t have much occasion to interface professionally or personally during my non-tenure at u of i, in part because of our disparate professional commitments, in part because of some rather divisive institutional barriers in place in that dept. of english, in part because of the nature of our social circumstances and of american constructions of community in general in late twentieth century midwestern college towns… and in observing so, i have no wish to take aim at the u of i at u-c english dept… for me, all such organizations tend to be less than the sum of their respective parts, and my current institutional situation, which I will have occasion to detail a bit later, is no different…

bérubé’s superstar status troubles me… part of this is no doubt due to sheer envy, and part is due to the sorts of pressures (esp. these days) this creates for so many who, like me, will likely never see such celebrity - not that any recent incident of academic celebrity is necessarily a cause célèbre, and not that academics are not in need of visible, talented spokespersons (the title of this piece is playing with that of an old dustin hoffman flick - remember?)… bérubé has in fact recently recommended (in the american association of university professor (aaup) mag, academe) that job search committees not pass up talented candidates simply because they have few or no publications - yet he is, after all, so prolific as to set an example despite such advice… of course this is not his fault, and i’ve no interest in quibbling over his sheer output… but at least part of my perturbation is due to an occasional critical pose bérubé strikes in his essays in which he would seem - however self-consciously - to become a spokesperson for the many who are oppressed… he knows this is a problem, like i say, but sometimes a better policy, not to say strategy, might simply be not to speak or write, to excise that occasional gloss that gives offense… or exhibit some unease regarding same… because otherwise one risks coming off as, well, glib - to those who hurt…

i know - i should talk… i don’t know much about racial oppression, finally - and as a white hetero forty-year old male, nothing *first-hand* about it, and nothing first-hand about gender oppression… but i do know a great deal about economic class oppression owing to my background, my personal experiences (and i’m not talking the forced and elected privation of grad. school, folks, which of course shouldn’t itself have to be that way)… my occasional in-your-face working class-derived assertiveness has been misread as aggression, it’s fair to say, by academic after academic, whatever the academic context… whereas it went over quite well (and still goes over quite well) in many non-academic contexts… but that’s another matter, really… i’ve only *derived* these - is it tendencies? - from the working class realities of my folks… i’ve never actually been a working class worker by trade, and as far as “working class heroes” go, john lennon (and marianne faithfull) should be listened to carefully here - they’re “still fucking peasants as far as i can see”…

those little accents over the e’s in bérubé’s name don’t translate here - that is, in email, my space of composition and editing - and his name loses that quasi-euro flavor it may otherwise have (but the web accommodates, and voilà! - electronic cappuccino) huh… mine, i’ve been told, becomes strangely more exotic around these parts, even asian - which is why i used to opt simply for “tomato” as a signature - much more authentic, yknow… and besides - i like tomatoes…

but something else missing, too, and it has to do with my not noting the integrity (no ass-kissing implied or intended) of bérubé’s attempt in his paper to confront conservative politics and pundits… i mean - by gosh! - he actually quotes rush limbaugh, albeit less by way of praise than by way of illustrating the conceptual efficacy with which enemy camp(s) may be up to little and no good… me, i’m lazy - i’ll stick with the title of al franken’s forthcoming book and merely observe that “rush limbaugh is a big fat idiot”… in any case, given my economic class orientation, at least it should be clear that marxist thinking has a certain appeal to me… much of what passes for postsecondary institutional analysis hasn’t gotten much farther, imnsho, than richard ohmann’s superb 1985 essay, “teaching as theoretical practice” (see ohmann)… ohmann’s “third platitude” needs, i think, to be re-attended to, again and again: “that what universities pay us to do - teach - is our main political praxis”(131)… but how to re-attend to this agenda in these troubled times, when in fact universities are now under such incredible pressure to get with the fortune 500 program?… ohmann was, after all, unwilling in 1985 to see the possibilities for institutional alternatives (i.e., good not bad) emerging as a result of electronic technologies…

perhaps one might explore online realities as a function of those dominant, residual, and emergent forces raymond williams identified as characterizing complex processes of cultural change (121-127)… surely such categories of analysis are pertinent to the electronic structures (“of feeling”) in which i’ve found and find myself a willing participant… but despite williams’ consistent orientation toward differential intricacies of “new forms or adaptations of form” (126), including art, my departure from marxist analysis occurs precisely at the point at which i’m struck with the recognition that new forms are just that - new… though implicated in the general ebb and flow of historical-material change, new forms are often subject to prevailing historical (not to say class) analyses with the effect of converting the category of the “new” itself to the reductive methodological-empirical logic of market economies (in which, in truth, everything is convertible - whether to capital or to information)… the new then becomes a matter solely of political expediency, and whatever aesthetic value pertains thereto is wished away through application of historical fiat…

uh-uh… doesn’t feel right to me… my reading of history dictates that i do aspire to some hybrid of class consciousness (most of the time, that is), and i can’t quite understand how this is avoidable, let alone undesirable… nor do i see how everything under the electronic sun has been done before, is susceptible to older methodological programs… i mean, sigh, yeehaw… etc…

anyway, bérubé gives us some idea of the (at least print-based) work that we have cut out for us (please permit me free-play with the collective personal pronoun for a few more minutes), and he does so by delineating “the disjunction between cultural studies and public policy”… bérubé is worried, in short, that “we will underestimate - or worse, ignore - the difference between theoretical work on such [popular culture] subjects and the practical political effects such work can have for the people we’re talking about if not necessarily to “… i’ll excerpt what i take to be bérubé’s core statement, which he follows with mas’ud zavarzadeh’s marxist critique of the activist “public intellectual” as “a figure invented to combine this deep anti-intellectualism and counter-revolutionary affirmation of the commonsense with reformist localism” (qtd. in bérubé):

i now want to suggest that there is at least as important a difference between the literary public sphere and the public policy sphere as the difference between cultural politics and public policy, and that most cultural studies intellectuals, myself most assuredly included, have not yet begun to think seriously about how best to negotiate that difference.

so in all, the nasty implications of bérubé’s argument about us academic intellectuals - the ‘terrible things he is saying about us,’ including himself - have to do with how (as we have come to expect) to “negotiate” yet another “difference” - BUT the difference here denotes a different institutional context… in his words, what “we need most desperately in the wake of 1994 are new discourses of national identity, new discourses of national unity”… hence bérubé is (i think wisely) telling us (1) that if “selling out” is, as customarily construed, a sacrifice of ethical or political commitment in the face of monopolizing structures, then forget it; and (2) if “selling out” is, on the other hand, to be construed as engaging directly, if cautiously, with the “public policy sphere” - and to get paid for doing so, no less, by writing for trade publications, magazines, and the like - then we would do well to sell out… further, bérubé is, against zavarzadeh’s provocations, yet unwilling to “fetishize the local”…

my question, then, and the question with which i shall in fact begin (again), is to ask: how, then, to get from the local - what hits home every day - to the national, or global?… one theoretical way of addressing this concern would be to turn to the work of michel serres… an intriguing place to start is the recently published michel serres/bruno latour exchange… serres is clearly concerned with our capacity as a species to “dominat[e] the planet,” our “global powers, ” which leads him to pose the most elemental, and in some ways most pressing questions, to wit: “will the earth depend upon the city? - will the physical world depend upon the political world?” (173-174)… his answer, in the abstract, is that “a new kind of feedback… turns practical action inside-out,” thus highlighting the philosophical-moral dilemma reflected in his assertion “we construct the givens” (174)…

but in fact i’ve elected to take a different tack, to stick with the local - my local, my institutional home as i’ve come to understand same, inflected by my provisional understanding of myself as a professional… “selling out” is not simply a matter of intellectual activism - it can have as much to do with received wisdom regarding what constitutes proper professional conduct… this is what i mean by “what hits home”… and in fact this sense of home, this quotidian construction of a quotidian reality, has been entirely complicated by my participation in online realities…

part ii: notes toward a supreme fiction

my primary intellectual interest these days, what informs my teaching in so many ways, is poetry/poetics… and one of my primary interests as a poet is the emergence of new electronic forms… and one of the primary ways through which i accommodate said interest is by participation in electronic lists (listservs, majordomos, liststars, what have you)… i’m not much for muds, moos, mushes - i’m an ascii-kinda guy, hoping for the new improved versions that will handle accents, and arabic… i don’t like passing, either, whether as a plump red berry (i never pretended actually to be a tomato) or an interlocutor of arguable sexual identity and motivation… but that’s just me… please don’t feel offended if you’re a mush afficionado - i’ve got nothing against yous…

one of the more valuable intellectual communities i’ve been participating in for some time now is the suny/buffalo poetics listserv… begun by charles bernstein a couple of years ago, this list currently has something like 250 subscribers residing on a few different continents (most, as expected, in the u.s.)… now before folks jump up and down in front of their screens protesting my use of “community,” let me jump right in here for a change without referencing howard rheingold’s work on same… there are times when electronic lists are far, far less than communities…[see Jamie Daniel’s essay on electronic communities and the public sphere, eds.] i’m reading edgar lee masters’ spoon river anthology (first published in 1915), and those voices and revelations of the dead that comprise masters’ necromantic narrative evoke for me the occasionally ghostly (or perhaps, after jack spicer, lowghostly) presences conjured by the conjunction of light and letters that flickers across my retina while online… but at its best the electronic list, and poetics in particular, does in fact constitute a community for me, a place where i go to, well, hang out… and on poetics, i hang out with a sometimes contentious and temperamental, but always engaging and intelligent group of folks, relatively few of whom i’ve met ftf… many of these folks are poets, some are critics, some publish, some publish and critique and write poetry… some are faculty, some are students, some are more orthodox writers, a number are language poet-writers, a number are keyed into the zine world… it’s a diverse group, in fact, diverse in aesthetic inclination, theoretical conviction, livelihood (i.e., source of bread and butter)… and some are old, and some are not so old, and some are young… and some are gay, and some are not gay, and some are bi… and some are rich, and some are poor, and few (methinks) are starving… and some are women, and most are men, and some are african-american, and most methinks are caucasian… and most, if not all, probably have some formal education… but ysee - i’m venturing into my perceptions here, and my assumptions, which are always a bit fuzzy regarding such a list, given the lurker constituency… and like any community, there are rumors…

still, some would certainly describe themselves as academics, and some would be entirely suspicious of such a description… most, it’s fair to say, seem interested in theorizing their activities - but there is nonetheless more stated resistance to certain activities than to others, at least to the extent that most subscribers bring to the list a working set of assumptions as to what all the list is to be “about,” and how such lists “work”… hence there may be stated resistance to a group renga (there was and is), and stated resistance to a particular theoretical activity (there was and is)… so the list, from this perspective, becomes something of a contested site…

imagine, if you will, posing the sorts of issues bérubé focuses on to this diverse group of poetry/poetics-centered individuals… imagine the mixed reception:

{….}

part of your imaginative effort no doubt hinges on the way you understand “creative writers” generally, poets specifically… and if you’re an academic (not unlikely, in my view) you’ll probably have at least as many doubts about poetic motive as you might about scholarly motive… one way of correcting this bias is to have a look at jed rasula’s the american poetry wax museum: reality effects, 1940-1990 (just out on ncte press)… it’s likely you’ll emerge from this latter with a better understanding of precisely how intertwined poetry and broader english dept. imperatives have been right along (i certainly did)… but this is not quite what i’m about here, for in fact what i propose to do is to buttress my request that you intervene imaginatively with a bit of information - several of my posts to poetics, by popular demand (and edited)…

what happened on poetics - for me, personally - was that i ended up asking myself whether i was selling out - as a poet… whether my daily commitment to teaching, as conflicted as it can be, was nonetheless compromising my commitment as a poet, my sense of what constitutes valuable discourse… whether my current desire to do freelance writing (of the sort that bérubé has succeeded in doing, for magazines that pay) isn’t in fact selling short a socially-inscribed, not-for-profit slot, “poet - maker of poetry”… and never mind that some poets will assert that poets in general shouldn’t make money from their writing (which is rarely the case)… a fact further complicated, for me - because of my upbringing - by a general unwillingness within academe to talk paycheck… hence i was in some folks’ eyes, if not quite mine, selling out as a poet-writer, and in other folks’ eyes, given my sense of teaching as a job, selling out as an academic (-writer)… and finally, because i’m opting to air my dirty institutional laundry here too, i guess i’m selling out from a true believer’s pov… going public with pain, esp. in more macho spheres, is often viewed an inappropriate response…

please do understand that other poetics folks contributed to the discussion in substantive ways, provoking their own responses etc. - my posts served merely as one institutional-conceptual locus for this thread before it unravelled… also, as with most electronic discussion lists, the vast majority of poetics subscribers remained in lurker mode (albeit this does constitute participation - a silent majority-audience brings to the fore questions of performance and spectacle, even exhibitionism)… now: i’ve constructed and inserted a narrative thread [cough] to link the posts reproduced here… in doing so i risk attributing to the list discussion a certain closure, not to say historical awareness, that is generally attenuated in such exchanges… more often than not, threads just fizzle out… in truth, i am ultimately leaving it to each reader to construct the audience against which i was moved progressively to flesh out my local situation and recommend ways of thinking and acting that could have more national import… and i’m being anything but objective in my method of revealing and documenting retrospectively my apprehensions… that is, i am apprehensive about my apprehensions…

so call me irresponsible… this is not the first time i’ve reckoned with such anxieties… but it is the first time my online/offline selves - the variations of intellect and mood that characterize my public to private projections - have been so fraught with institutional turmoil… as of today, iit is managing somehow to stay afloat financially… money is coming in even as morale is low… there are a number of committed folks at iit, committed both to keeping the institution alive and to providing a worthy educational environment… but they’re up against it, as will become clear in what follows… and indeed some of the folks at iit have, as i see it, swallowed the party line hook, line, and sinker… so some residual harshness is unavoidable, and i do name a couple of names, those who in my view wield real power… though there is perhaps some vitriol in my remarks, i nonetheless attempted to render the situation as accurately as possible… and after rereading the results, i must admit to feeling as though i’m committing professional suicide… yet “going public” in any sense of this latter - finding ways to make those passages from the local to the global in institutional terms - is often a hazardous activity…

and i’m certain michael bérubé, for one, understands just what i’m talking about…

in any case, for those who prefer the full text, with responses and contributions from others, all poetics list exchanges are archived (unabridged) at the suny/buffalo electronic poetry center (epc) on the world wide web, anyway, in media res, first item, my entry into the… conversation - with Subject line:

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Subject: Re: The break you’re seeking

for any of you who are academics, methinks you would do well to regard yourselves as academic “professionals” EVEN AS you strive to rethink said distinction vis-a-vis the “non-professional” (whether “amateur” zinist or “independent” alternative etc)… in fact, i would argue that most folks proud of their work see themselves as “pro’s,” and that this latter distinction still has value in such terms… it seems to me that academic professionals, for example, OUGHT to consider [gasp] unionizing… that they OUGHT to consider their expertise no “better” than lay expertise of various sorts… i’m thinking here of the work of cheryl geisler, and am well aware of how the term “professional” has been used (particularly during the 19th century) to disenfranchise “other” worker-groups… but it seems to me we’re FAR too far into this century to propose a new term, steeped as we are in our various institutions… hence i’d argue for wholesale reform of the category… and i find it somewhat dubious to argue that academics are NOT professionals, and i find it in fact convenient (however necessarily blurred) for poets to argue for such “disconnection” when in fact most poets i know are actively seeking a form of validation that strikes me as particularly professionalized… so to me the danger is the “professional” as currently construed, and it seems to me that (some) “we” needs to take this term out of the hands of the professions as such…

joe

———–

i thought about my post some, as i’m wont to do in such a speedy medium, *after* i posted it… it seemed to me a little thin insofar as i didn’t support my ought-take on academe with any evidence… going through my snail mail a bit later that day i spotted the mla newsletter, decided to give it a browse… and i immediately posted the following as an elaboration:

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Subject: Re: The break you’re seeking

and at the risk of boring those w/o academic affiliation per se, one final opine:

(6) i would call attention to sander gilman’s more recent proposal in the brand spanking new mla newsletter to institute (by way of doing more in the face of a dismal job market) “postdoctoral fellowships”… now i like gilman’s scholarship, and i think he’s an entirely well-intentioned mla president… but there’s a certain irony comes of listening to him urge such action - from *my* pov… ysee, he teaches right around the corner from me, at the u of chicago… and i teach up the street (so to speak) at illinois institute of technology, where we just six months back lost two of our three PREdoctoral fellowships (english and philosophy), and are doing what we can to preserve a four-course humanities (abet) requirement on a tech. campus gone, well, a bit haywire… gilman’s various assertions - that “Students want to study what we want to teach,” that “The system of higher education in the humanities in North America should be recognized as what it is - the best in the world,” that “There is even a nascent language-across-the-curriculum movement…” - it strikes me that these sorts of assertions simply MUST be uttered from an institutional vantage-point that only a minority of academics share… such disparity (detailed nicely in james sosnoski’s token professionals and master critics: a critique of orthodoxy in literary studies (suny, 1994)) reveals what’s at stake in ANY revaluation of economic-material-academic realities, and in reworking the “professional”… as gilman rightly asserts (and to paraphrase), “we” are the mla - BUT this is not quite to emphasize how vested some of us are in more orthodox institutional habits… further, such assertions fall somewhat flat in the face of more vitriolic appraisals of academe, such as the recent barron’s piece, variously “Slow Learners” and “Campus Unrest” (by jonathan r. laing, nov. 27) - “Why parents are up in arms about tuition bills, and colleges will finally be forced to change their free-spending ways”…

———–

those were my first two posts after having been out of town, and away from the list, for ten days… gilman’s keep-our-chin-up advice in the face of laing’s bile and my despair seemed to me woefully inadequate… again, while catching up on my mail, i stumbled across a magazine-full of what appeared to be pertinent articles, hence my next post…

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Subject: Re: The break you’re seeking

re cary nelson, and to set aside his scholarship for a sec: he’s got an *excellent* piece in the newest issue of academe (published by aaup), “lessons from the job wars”… he really hits the nail on the head regarding the present postsecondary state of affairs, and he offers a provocative “twelve-step program” of reform… also a few other nice pieces by michael bérubé, stephen watt and others… check it out///

joe

———–

nelson hedges in his piece on the question of faculty collective bargaining, though he comes out strongly in favor of english grad. student collective bargaining (witness the current controversy at yale)… he seems to take for granted that all grad. students in english ultimately aspire to professorial jobs (which, while generally true, may itself be a function of professional-cultural indoctrination)… whatever misgivings i may have as to the marxist impulse in nelson’s work (in general, i mean), i think he does an excellent job in his article of demonstrating why english studies has become anguish studies, and what english faculty might do about it - that is, how to act without repression, and with a sense of solidarity… but what happened next was, in retrospect, to be expected…

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Subject: Re: Poetry and the Academy

i really do think that the alternatives are not simply the “professional” as currently construed over and against the “hobbyist”… and although one may locate oneself outside of academe per se (thankfully) the reality is that academe per se will always have something to say about poetry/poetics…

which is to say, simply, that nobody operates outside of (some conjunction of) institutions…

———–

i can’t pretend i didn’t find the “hobbyist” post annoying… but after having spent a number of years on electronic lists, it’s become [ahem] my policy to try not to communicate hostility or anger… that a few list participants would seem to have agreed with the connotation of “hobbyist” (in subsequent posts) confirmed for me what i knew would be (un)stated resistance to viewing things in terms of professionalism…

my next two posts were in response to - a friend, whom i’ve never met f2f… in fact i posted him backchannel at the same time that i posted my more public remarks… and i ended up sending him hardcopy of a paper my wife, kass fleisher, and i had recently coauthored and copresented, “institutions, professions, expertise: the economy of creative writing classrooms”…[Amato and Fleisher address the topic at length in the ebr thread they initiate in Reforming Creative Pedagogy, eds.] to paraphrase badly: the primary concern in this portion of the exchange revolved around the extent to which an institutional consolidation would of necessity represent a constraint on aesthetic liberty… which in essence is the source of my continuing ambivalence regarding this matter of the “professional”… my friend hit this virtual nail on the head, and this gave me a chance to feign modesty…

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Subject: Re: Poetry and the Academy

i’m arguing that the designation “professional” may be unavoidable finally if one wishes to be viewed as “legit” by so many powers-that-be… and by “legit” i mean “have a say in”… i’m thinking specifically in political terms here, and i’ve no doubt this will upset more than a few even on this list, b/c many poetry communities i’m aware of, and writing communities in general, often display a very american bias against “collective” identification except in the most innocent terms… despite the active presence of some very powerful organizations, even more “vested” writers tend to act as though their work is independently sucked up and into the “system”… and those who are not part of this latter network continually decry its more ominous workings… in any case, it’s this same sort of bias that prevents academics, in fact, from wanting even to talk about collective bargaining (just had that experience in my dept. again yesterday, and it always begins with “but i thought a professional was - “)…

i’m landing on the term “professional” in part b/c of the problems i’ve experienced on my campus (a tech. campus that is beginning to feel more like a business institute) - it’s clear to me now what the corporate educational imperatives of the 21st. century will likely be centered around (in the case of my campus, it’s motorola that’s doing a good portion of the pushing)… and the term “professional” will likely be a key term in this latter development…

but i really think that we need new professional identity mechanisms - associations, virtual communities, unions, what have you - that permit for a much broader range of professional legitimacy than orthodox structures currently do (james soskoski, whom i mentioned in an earlier post, uses the term “paraorganizations”)… thinking of [other poetics subscribers], it seems to me we need new (social) structures and organizations that facilitate such diverse artistic-writing *lives*, and provide us with a formal means, for example, to get “us” academic writing professionals to start to listen more closely to what those “outside” of academe (which latter term alone often puts off many of my non-academic friends!), but with at least as much commitment, are doing… and mebbe in the process we academics will find ways to alter our more exclusive habits, and those on the “outside” will find us less elitist…

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Subject: Re: Poetry and the Academy

you’ve hit on precisely the reason for my stated ambivalence regarding the “professional” as i’m provoking same… i can hear it already - “professional poets? - c’mon joe!”…

but i mean, like, why not?…

really though: i don’t have an answer, in short… the best way i know to deal with such issues is to go ‘theoretical’ with identity formations and the like even as one pushes for more solidarity, solidarity predicated on dissensus as much as consensus… i think there’s a distinction to be drawn twixt political action (what’s necessary, i mean) and substantive intellectual differences… but of course one domain ultimately impacts on the other, and it’s precisely in this space of collision that the problems (and anxieties) you suggest emerge…

so i guess i’m at a loss here, and could use some help…

———–

of course i *don’t* have all the answers, and i don’t want to take up everybody’s prime time, and i do want to know what others have to say about these issues (uhm - usually)… anyway, my crack about motorola evidently struck a chord, one respondent voicing curiosity as to the nature of the motorola influence on my campus… always easy to bait, i pulled a book off the shelf that i’d held onto for just such an occasion…

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Subject: Re: Poetry and the Academy

‘fore i try to answer that question, lemme make one thing clear: I understand that most of the students i teach (esp. given that i’m currently teaching half-time in a prof. writing program) go on to work for corporate america, or entrepreneurial america in any case… that doesn’t prevent me from having my students ask the same ideological-institutional questions I ask myself (about my institution)… i mean, i don’t mount some sort of postindustrial-capitalist critique in my classroom w/o a corresponding critique of my own contested site-practice… this way *nobody* appears to enjoy a free lunch, and i’m not “saving souls” in the classroom… i think it’s important to complicate the institutional in general, not simply to decry how nasty a profession “engineering” or “accounting” is (albeit there may always be specific sorts of jobs in any profession that i will continue to have difficulty justifying, and mebbe even specific professions)…

anyway, one way to describe what i’ve heard motorola is looking for in the late nineties (it’s been PUT this way at times in meetings on my campus, no shit) is to relate a little incident that occurred shortly after i came to iit (and note that one of the two most powerful folks on our board of trustees is bob galvin, son of the founder and former ceo of motorola)… since this is a bit off-the-wall, mebbe it’ll do for an *initial* sense of what’s going on at motorola vis-a-vis illinois institute of technology…

on a saturday back in fall of 92, the entire iit faculty was asked to attend a motorola training seminar out in the west chicago suburbs, at motorola corporate headquarters… this seminar was designed to inculcate us in motorola’s corporate quality control program, which is known in shorthand as QCEL - quality/creativity/ethics/ leadership (in conjunction with their ‘6-sigma’ approach to standards - ‘sigma’ as in standard of deviation)… QCEL is essentially motorola’s reworking of TQM (total quality management) - and let’s be certain to give credit where credit is due… motorola is by all accounts a highly successful corporation, this post coming to you courtesy (in part) of their 68030 chip… they have a reputation for providing free and frequent training for all their employees…

QCEL fever struck iit shortly thereafter - forms, reports, and the like, yknow, sop for bureaucrazies… rumor had it ‘we’ were indulging galvin in the hope that he would dig deep into his pockets and throw something like $10 mil our way… never happened (and in fact QCEL mutated into a million dollar “national commission” and, once our board refused to cough up the bread to offset our “losses,” the present crisis management strategies we’re currently experiencing)… in any case, the coup de grace of the QCEL affair was galvin having a copy of a book he wrote, the idea of ideas, distributed gratis to all faculty… it appeared in my mailbox with no warning whatever…

let’s have a look at it…

title page (** = boldface):

THE *IDEA* OF IDEAS

BY ROBERT W. GALVIN

Motorola University Press [!]
Schaumburg, Illinois
1991

the *idea*, i know!… to give you some idea of the “quality” of the production etc., i read from the verso of the title page the following:

Special Limited Edition published in April 1991
by Motorola University Press

Typeset in Perpetua
by Paul Baker Typography, Inc., Evanston, Illinois.
Five thousand copies printed [our faculty numbered at that time around 300]
by Congress Printing Company, Chicago, Illinois.

Soft cover in Mohawk Artemis, Navy Blue; cloth cover
is Arrestox B, B48650. End sheets are French Speckletone,
Briquette; text stock is Mohawk Superfine, Soft White.
Binding by Zonne Book Binders, Inc., Chicago, Illinois.

Design by Hayward Black & Company, Evanston, Illinois.
Illustration on page 6 by Noli Novak.
Quotation on cover by Robert W. Galvin.

this latter quotation, indicative of the “quality” of the writing in general, follows:

“We can and should apply consciously, confidently, purposely and frequently, the simpler, satisfying, appropriate steps to create more and then better ideas.”

you can understand why i keep this item, no?…

anyway, a more direct way to answer your question, w/o acquiescence to the various forms of lip-service (humanities) faculty here are subject to on a daily basis, would probably be to describe the large NOT around which educational ‘training’ as currently reconceived will be centered… but i’ll let it go for now, i’m already going on way too long in this post… suffice to say that it has all to do with “satisfying” the student “customer,” an educational marketplace in which desires and aspirations are increasingly influenced by successful corporations such as motorola…

———–

as i recall, a few folks had written in complaining about this thread, before i posted my motorola exegesis… but a few had exhibited interest, like i say, so what the hell - i’d continued… given the subject matter, it’s probably not surprising that i was a bit uneasy, even guilty about publicly displaying what i took to be the absurdity of my postsecondary situation - though i must confess to feeling somewhat liberated with having finally gone public with this material… and in fact at least some of the folks on poetics *would* tend to appreciate this sort of textual commentary, if only because going public with such institutional discourse helps in gauging resistance to the sort of public requisite to the formation of “public intellectuals” (see bernstein)…

what happened next shifted the conversation considerably… following is my first response to a post contra the institutional thread (appropriately titled at this point MLA EVENTS due to crossover threads), and i addressed it to the sender “specifically” (a self-avowed newcomer to poetics)… surely an ‘open letter’ is a blatantly political way of handling things, but i tried to be gracious even as i was feeling a bit, well, under-appreciated - which always makes me cranky…

———–

Subject: Re: MLA EVENTS

i hold myself in part responsible for the profession/al thread, which i’ve tried to pursue with some amount of stated hesitancy… to suggest that it’s “boohoo” is just plain wrong in my view - i’ve been trying to get at the economics of teaching, which for many of “us,” like it or no, is intertwined with our conception of ourselves as poets… there’s simply got to be a place for broader cultural discussions of this sort, esp. when one considers the influence of various literary organizations on the MAKING of poetry (by which i mean publishing, marketing, distributing, etc.)…

the thread is not for all tastes, no… but i read your resistance in fact less as disinterest than as yet one more attempt to decontextualize a discussion of poetry/poetics, to wrench it free from the institutions which give it shape and urgency…

but that’s just the way i see it…

best,

joe

———–

i followed this with a post that picked up a related “quality” thread… it’s important to note that i’ve come out in favor of exploring new writing technologies (hypermedia) many times on poetics (as have others) - which makes sense, given that it’s an electronic forum… but which in fact is yet another vexed topos in many poetry communities… anyway, after seeing on the list a conciliatory but still resistant post from the same individual, i wasn’t quite sure how to proceed… i even posted backchannel to another (sympathetic) list participant that i wasn’t quite certain i was being understood; she suggested, perhaps wisely, to refrain from responding directly…

after some thought, i decided, pushy me, simply to plunge ahead with a three-part post… the first part speculated that teaching, in the context of poetics, was seemingly gendered feminine, somehow less “manly” than writing (i used the tag “sissy” several times, ironically), perhaps b/c of a residual construction of the “poet-hero”… the second post tried to establish some formal scholarly links to help flesh out my historical perspective… and the third, well -

———–

Subject: academic incorporations 3…

now, more on the situation at iit:

it’s not just galvin/motorola who runs things at iit, it’s one of the wealthiest men in america, bob pritzger (last i heard, galvin was “worth” $1 1/2 BILLION, pritzger $3 1/2 BILLION)… these two men are simply the most powerful two folks on our board of trustees… why do i know this? - i mean, like, i’ve got OTHER THINGS to think about, yknow, like how to teach my classes, like tending to each and every student… and my poetry, for chrissakes, what on earth does this latter have to do with teaching even?…

well i know this b/c the shit hit the fan earlier this year on my campus - and undergrad. ed. was threatened with extinction… and this is, so to speak, my bread and butter… so i think those of you who work in academe would do well to begin to acquaint yourselves with your boards of trustees, your governing bodies… and those of you with any interest at all in what your friends and family are doing in higher ed. ought to start to wonder how things have gotten so screwed up… b/c boards are often the ‘mysterious’ players behind academic decisions… in fact they vote among themselves to ‘elect’ new members TO the board - so in effect, though governed in general by state laws, they are self-sufficient…

now as i’m certain many of you can imagine, even on my own campus there are opposing ideas about the usefulness of the coming changes… as i see it, there are the company folks - those for whom anything but absolute loyalty is disloyalty, and putting a good face on all losses (“no problems, just opportunities”) is par for the course… then there are admins. who are caught twixt their faculty loyalties and their loyalty to iit - to see it remain solvent… then there are faculty whose loyalty is to their profession (this is close to moi, though i’m even a bit more autonomous and self-serving, perhaps)… and finally are those who are, like some of the admins., loyal to iit… i’m using this grid of mixed loyalties as a way of describing the complex of institutional motivations… i’m probably in my evaluation, as you might note, one of the harsher critics of what’s going down… but in any case we each have loyalties to our families, ideologies, we have our writing commitments, etc. - so it’s all very messy… i offer only a brutal critique of the institutional contours…

here’s an excerpt from the (now foundational) *national commission for iit* document (distributed november of last year)… i’m excerpting only a few sentences (themselves italicized as headings in the original) from this fifty page booklet:

Professionals are dedicated to public service. Professionals are committed to continuing personal development. Professionals find hard work fulfilling. Professionals know that technological change is the main engine of economic progress and growth. Professionals recognize that the entrepreneurial spirit is the fuel for both individual and societal progress.

following each of these bylines is a short statement as to how iit is meeting such “professional values”… i leave it to each of you to imagine how the cumulative effect of such assertions is “instituted”… the next assertion (this time boldface):

Professionals must work in and value our multicultural world.

under which

This principle, drawn from IIT’s original mission, has led IIT to become a highly diverse, international institution. In the global economy of the 21st century, such a commitment to diversity will be even more important.

iit *does* in fact have a high number of international students, as do most technical institutes… in fact, there’s a strong recruitment effort at the moment aimed at drawing folks from southeast asia in particular… of course the point here is that the se folks can *pay* for their educations - which is why they’re being wooed… most recently, iit *has* in fact just received from its board of trustees some millions of dollars to fund 30 (and mebbe 60 or 100) ‘exceptional’ students in engineering-only majors - many of these scholarships cover room, board, tuition, the works… this is Good News for the most part, given that the scholarships presumably will be allocated to exceptional students regardless of economic background, ethnicity, etc…

many of us initially viewed the scholarship endowment as a ‘bribe’ to cajole us into approving (then imminent) faculty governance procedural changes that would in effect permit the institution to eliminate fully tenured folks (in the event of financial exigency) BEFORE untenured folks… in any case, these scholarships say nothing as to the woeful state of the institution - buildings need work, iit is now trying to lease some campus buildings for additional revenue (as programs are reduced or consolidated), etc. (to give you some idea: $262 per annum in english journals, and we were asked to whittle this down! - so now there *are* no english journals in our library…

and these changes say nothing as to the proposed accounting scheme (look carefully at this stuff, folks) that would in effect INCREASE humanities deficit spending with an INCREASE in freshman enrollment - b/c we have no majors (! - note that under the current financial model, we’re something like $750,000 in the red BECAUSE we’re a service organization and have no majors (mind you, with the lowest pay and highest teaching loads on campus))… further, that the new “financial principles” would have permitted the board of trustees to eliminate any program or dept. with a deficit two years’ running… this was effectively stopped (at least, for now), but the status of humanities is currently compromised by a proposal (now approved) to incorporate two or three of the required twelve humanities hours (that’s it - twelve hours required by abet in history, philosophy, english for an engineering degree) into an “interprofessional project”…

which in effect is a project meant to familiarize students with the ‘real world’ of the corporation… and we’re to find a way to do what we do within said rubric… consider, in addition, the extent to which corporate imperatives drive accreditation agencies like abet (this is the accreditation board for engineering and technology)…

———–

it’s worth mentioning that this final post is dated 6 december - only eight days after my initial post on this thread, a thread which seems to have resurfaced of late in altered form… i’m not certain i’ll continue to provide such detailed *local* elaboration; i’m not sure i’m able always to make the leap from the general to the particular (as i’ve tried to do here, in this self-absorptive, if not self-aggrandizing piece)… and i can only hope my posts were pertinent to others on poetics… i learned something through the four or five dozen posts on this thread, something about the dynamic community poetics constitutes, something about my inability to satisfy all of the subscribers even some of the time, and something about my public, if not private, self-construction *as* a professional, how resistance to professional agenda (of any sort) is likely to be articulated… but it’s through such give and take, remote yet strangely intimate, that one continually challenges the presumption that an electronic network has in fact begun to exhibit those signs of trust, responsibility, and mutual interest typically associated with the formation of community, personal and professional…

———–

i wish to thank kass fleisher and ebr editor joe tabbi for their editorial suggestions… all glitches, abrupt transitions and flat one-liners are my responsibility…

———–

–>link to Berube’s response

Works Cited

bernstein, charles, ed. the politics of poetic form: poetry and public policy. new york: roof books, 1993.

masters, edgar lee. spoon river anthology. new york: dover publications, 1992, 1915.

ohmann, richard. politics of letters. middletown: wesleyan up, 1987.

rasula, jed. the american poetry wax museum: reality effects, 1940-1990. urbana: national council of teachers of english p, 1996.

serres, michel, with bruno latour. conversations on science, culture, and time. trans. roxanne lapidus. ann arbor: u of michigan p, 1995.

sosnoski, james. token professionals and master critics: a critique of orthodoxy in literary studies. albany: state u of new york p, 1994.

spicer, jack. the collected books of jack spicer. ed. robin blaser. los angeles: black sparrow p, 1975.

williams, raymond. marxism and literature. oxford: oxford up, 1977.