Wednesday, December 24, 2003


Apparently, I'm paranoid.

George H. Williams, over at Wordherders, objects to the contents of my posting on the theory question in MLA interviews. While I understand Williams’s position, I think perhaps his own politics and his personal experiences with MLA interviews have blinded him to the fact that others might have somewhat different experiences.

First of all, I’m not saying this is going to happen—I simply worry about the ensuing conversation if it does happen. Plenty of people I have talked to about interviewing at MLA have said they’ve run into the dreaded theory question. Some departments simply want people who do theory because they consider it “sexy.” Even in the MLA job list there were plenty of job listings specifically targeting post-colonial Victorianists, or feminist medievalists, or some other combination of era and theoretical bent. The theory question is out there; you are evidently lucky not to have encountered it. It’s also possible that your politics are enough in line with those of most of the people in the humanities that you fail to notice they are being questioned. You’re quicker to notice these things when you disagree with the people asking the questions than you are when you agree with them.

As for keeping up with the latest developments, those developments fall along two tracks, at least in my field. I keep up with the serious, textual scholarship, but I really don’t care what someone is doing with their application of theorist A to my chosen field. You fail to acknowledge the fact that those with the power to hire are also those with the power to choose what exactly constitutes “the latest developments.” It’s not like this is science, where the discovery of a new theory actually means something in the real world. For example, Edward Said has not invalidated I. A. Richards. I don’t understand why people in the humanities can’t get this. Copernicus and Galileo discovering that the earth revolves around the sun is a fact that must completely change the face of science. Foucault’s History of Sexuality is an interpretation. One is falsifiable, the other is not.

For that matter, Judith Butler’s theories of gender performativity often fly in the face of scientific fact. Perhaps some of these “recent developments” in the humanities don’t deserve the status they’ve been accorded.

Williams’s post generated a few comments, to which I would also like to respond.

Chuck, one of Williams’s readers comments,

Ah, but they don’t all ask for a writing sample at this stage. I’m not sure that any of the schools I’m interviewing for have seen a writing sample yet. All they’ve seen in my CV and letter.

Then, in a second comment, Chuck states,

Uh-huh. And lots of those not getting jobs are people who haven’t bought into the theory game. The really big jobs seem to go only to those playing the theory game.

I’m so glad conservative academics have given the left a chance to ridicule their fellow human beings. I can only hope that you didn’t buy into Hillary’s vast right-wing conspiracy crap, because that would seem to indicate that you’re just as paranoid as you accuse us of being.

There is prejudice against conservatism amongst academics. I’m not positing some vast left-wing conspiracy, I’m just saying that this sort of thing happens, and those of us who lean to the right of center worry about it. Perhaps you could show a little of that compassion the left is supposed to be so famous for.

Another reader, Matt K., states,

So committees and departments are looking for someone they can stand to be around for at least six years, eh? And when the majority of the department is left, often far left (in real world, not academic, terms)? Are they going to be able to stand someone who supports the Bush Administration and its policies in the Middle East for six years? Someone who doesn’t support Affirmative Action? Someone who thinks Judith Butler is a fool? Think about what you’ve said. I know for a fact that at the institution I am presently at, there is no way in hell they’d knowingly hire a conservative. There is, in fact, not a single conservative in our English department, which has at least 25 professors. Not one.

Finally, I'll quote a comment from Jason:

Whatever. See my above comments on “the vast right-wing conspiracy” and the ability of those on the left to only see problems that affect them.

You name me a conservative who agrees with Said. Or Foucault for that matter. The fact of the matter is, much of modern theory is politically inflected. It’s difficult—if not impossible—to buy into the theory without buying into the politics.

You’re correct in saying (in a part of the comment not quoted above) that not all theory is so revealing of one’s politics. Bakhtin, for instance, is embraced by those on either side of the political fence, and I happen to like a great deal of what he has to say. But he’s not nearly as “sexy” as the more vehemently left theorists are, particularly since the 2000 election.

You can disagree with me, but you haven’t walked in my shoes. It's really amazing how many academics on the left can cite their own personal experience and the experiences of others like themselves and allow them to speak for all and sundry. So much for respecting the Other. My experience has not been your experience. Quit trying to invalidate my experience.

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?