Evil Deans and the Academic Novel

Full vitae summer reading beach

Image: LWYang, Creative Commons

By Ms. Mentor

Question: ‘Tis the summer season, which means I actually have some time to revel in an academic novel. Will your annual list of tomes be forthcoming soon?

Answer: But of course. Ms. Mentor always responds to those who pant, quiver, and request politely — especially when they appeal to tradition. This marks the 10th time that she has published a column full of impeccable advice and praise for novels about academe. This summer’s selections will make you chortle, groan, or sigh with understanding and complicity — unless you are a dean.

Ms. Mentor, let it be said, has no master scheme for choosing each summer’s novels. When readers recommend their own books, her heart sings. She also peruses listings on Google and Amazon for "academic novels," "campus novels," and "professors." (Labels can mislead: The Professor by Cathy Perkins is about a serial killer of female college students.) The novels that Ms. Mentor finds each year are from different eras — but English and journalism are always the hot departments for drama.

This year, they’re killing their deans.

Once upon a time in academic novels, powerful English professors would be mysteriously offed at the Modern Language Association meeting. But now, on their own campuses, we have deans thrown down the stairs, deans betrayed, deans bludgeoned with their own trophies. One dean, from Murder in the Museum of Man, appears to have been dismembered and eaten by his faculty. He was served with a tasty beurre blanc.

Ms. Mentor has always had a warm spot for deans, who are the cat herders of academe. Deans are middle management — squeezed and budget-cutted from above, harangued and belittled from below. No one truly covets their jobs, and their standard manual, Deaning by Van Cleve Morris, now sells on Amazon for a mere $1.99. (It may be a great beach read.)

Real-life deans are the courageous ones who take one for the team, and they are usually tall — or if not, the majesty of the office makes them seem so. It is a sign of our barbarous times that deans are portrayed as victims, or even afterthoughts, rather than as heroes. In David Fleming’s 2010 novel, It’s All Academic, a shallow new provost starts the day whining about the lack of morning coffee. Once he learns that the dean has been found dead in a pool of blood — he keeps fretting about the coffee. No one mourns.

In The Red Queen’s Run— published in 2014 and written by Bourne Morris — the heroine’s mentor-dean has "fallen" down the stairs and died. Once the heroine becomes acting dean, she learns that her predecessor wasn’t the kind, upright man she thought she knew. He’d been sneaking about with another professor’s wife — and the husband was more than miffed. (When academics mate with their own kind, it often turns out badly.)

Little is said in academic novels about the undramatic minutiae of a dean’s life. Ms. Mentor cannot imagine a page turner about her own bête noire — assessment. Saul Bellow, in 1982’s The Dean’s December, transports his beleaguered dean-protagonist from Chicago to Bucharest, where the politics are much more intense and the stakes are not small. But the daily life of an ordinary dean is filled with meetings, paperwork, lukewarm coffee, and complaints. There are no "I Heart My Dean" greeting cards.

College administrators rarely have colorful lives. Naomi, the underappreciated college president in Jean Hanff Korelitz’s The Devil and Webster, published in March, is torn between her feminist ideals and the bureaucratic needs of her job at a Swarthmore-like liberal-arts college. But the first part of the book is filled with descriptions of the presidential residence, the trees, the campus — little of it relevant to telling the story. Ms. Mentor confesses to being irked and bored by furniture descriptions. She loathes the word "wainscoting."

Too many academic novels do start slowly, with architecture, footpaths, and pointless history ("Balaam College was founded by a clergyman with an asinine sense of humor …"). Some authors seem determined to empty their notebooks and display their research. She prefers that authors follow Elmore Leonard’s advice: "Leave out the boring parts that readers skip." They should follow such role models as Ernest Hemingway, who lopped off the first, throat-clearing chapters of a manuscript. Or Sidney Sheldon, who deleted every 10th page to make his novels faster-paced.

It is a melancholy fact that even scholars no longer have the patience for long-windedness in our device-obsessed age. Ms. Mentor doubts if John Gardner’s Mickelsson’s Ghosts,published in 1982, would hook today’s readers with its showoffy, 105-word first sentence: "Sometimes the sordidness of his present existence, not to mention the stifling, clammy heat of the apartment his finances had forced him to take, on the third floor of an ugly old house on Binghamton’s West Side — ‘the nice part of town,’ everybody said (God have mercy on those who had to live in the bad parts) — made Peter Mickelsson clench his square yellow teeth in anger and once, in a moment of rage and frustration greater than usual, bring down the heel of his fist on the heavy old Goodwill oak table where his typewriter, papers, and books were laid out, or rather strewn."

Millennial readers, especially, would give that a "tl:dr." Too long, didn’t read.

But Ms. Mentor has found a classic how-to-do-it model for setting the scene of an academic novel. Willa Cather’s The Professor’s Housestarts with a long description of the house the midlife-crisis hero is leaving. Each item has meaning: the creaking board that he never got around to fixing, or the seamstress’s female dress forms that always fired his secretly prurient imagination.

Cather was not a professor, but she understood the clashes between opportunism and idealism that have always plagued academics. Her disillusioned scholar-hero comes up with a utopian vision that "every man and woman who crowded into the cathedrals on Easter Sunday was a principal in a gorgeous drama with God, glittering angels on one side and the shadows of evil coming and going on the other, life was a rich thing." He’s no longer suited to the academic world.

Most of this month’s authors are knowledgeable and brisk in explaining academic life. Their descriptions of the tenure system are clear and precise. So are their explanations of "publish or perish" on campuses where it does or doesn’t apply. (Deans sometimes lie about whether it does.)

Academic infighting seems more intense now than half a century ago, when Bernard Malamud helped create the academic novel form in A New Life. His protagonist, a New Yorker, is hired by an institution very like Oregon State, where he is amazed by the customs of a "cow college." Ms. Mentor expected good satire, if not crude snark, about oafish locals. She has written before about geographical bigotry in academia.

Instead Malamud writes pages and pages of nature description. Seasonal flowers. Chronic rainfall. Ms. Mentor skipped all that. Some things have changed since 1961. Malamud’s hero is hired in one phone call, because the chairman’s wife likes his photo. Everyone smokes cigarettes, and men "doff their hats." English professors are referred to as "men," and all of them are male, except for one "spinster" who frets about her "virtue." (The hero admires her big breasts.)

The hero spends a lot of time grading papers — rare in academic novels. But mostly he interacts with women who are types. There’s the lusty barmaid who sneaks him into a barn. There’s the student nymphet who seduces him (now a trite male fantasy — but maybe not in 1961). Finally there’s the bored faculty wife who makes her move. Although the hero dislikes her tiny breasts, he talks himself into being in love. His laments when things go sour are, by modern standards, hopelessly mawkish. Ms. Mentor cringes.

She much prefers the sprightly humor of Kim A. Smith’s The Cora Crane School of Journalism, a 2016 book that no one except herself seems to have read (perhaps because it’s full of typos, including a Facebook post that "went virile"). It starts with the attempted murder of a journalism-school director (a dean-equivalent) and includes the trials of teaching, such as student plagiarism.

The dialogue crackles, and the quotes from bad student papers are excruciatingly real. The author, a 30-year veteran of academe, trots out his best material. One student complains, with her mother, that she’s "not doing well in your course because you’re an unfair jerk." Ms. Mentor’s flock may quibble with the author’s cynicism. As in the real world, truculent personalities don’t change — including the professor who regularly threatens to "beat the crap out of you in the parking lot." Faculty resolutions have no impact, and the fights are so intense because the stakes are so small.

Smith also produces a handy list of professorial personality types: Ardent, Stealth, Poseur, Confessor, Maligner, Obstreperous, Doctrinaire, Misanthropist, and Non Compos Mentis. Ms. Mentor invites you to study them, figure out where you and your colleagues belong, and celebrate or flagellate yourselves as appropriate.

Or, for some lighter summer reading, try Joanne Rendell’s 2008 novel, The Professors’ Wives’ Club. It offers a view of the great male professor through the eyes of the little woman. How does a woman with dreams and talents of her own live with a young professor on the make?

Rendell also brings the friendship novel to academia. As in Mary McCarthy’s The Group,women share the same boat in life, follow different currents, but remain linked to each other. No man is a hero to his valet, it’s said — and no professor is a hero to his wife. Before marriage, the men in Rendell’s world were all good-looking, and exceptionally good listeners. But afterward, they expect their wives to be appendages — superb hostesses and trophy beauties. The younger men fret about tenure and slavishly curry favor with the senior professors who’ll be judging them. Eventually the wives rebel.

The worst husband is a mansplainer and a batterer. He also conspires to bulldoze a charming little garden park, an oasis where the wives meet. He wants to pave it over and put up a parking lot.

His nickname is Demolition Jack.

He is, of course, a dean.

Question: Will you provide a handy list of this month’s books? And will your next column be about more peculiar academic novels, in which conventional expectations are overturned and readers are supposed to be shocked, shocked?

Answer:Yes (see below), and yes.

Sage readers: Here is this month’s list of academic novels scrutinized for literary tastes:

  • Alfred Alcorn, Murder in the Museum of Man (1997).
  • Saul Bellow, The Dean’s December (1982).
  • Willa Cather, The Professor’s House (1925).
  • David Fleming, It’s All Academic (2000).
  • John Gardner, Mickelsson’s Ghosts (1982).
  • Jean Hanff Korelitz, The Devil and Webster (2017).
  • Bernard Malamud, A New Life (1961).
  • Bourne Morris, The Red Queen’s Run (2014).
  • Cathy Perkins, The Professor (2012).
  • Joanne Rendell, The Professors’ Wives’ Club (2008)
  • Kim A. Smith, The Cora Crane School of Journalism: a Novel of Academic Shenanigans(2016).

As always, Ms. Mentor welcomes rants and comments, especially while she prepares her next column on some irreverent portraits of academe. There may be tawdriness.

Ms. Mentor regrets that she can rarely answer letters personally, and never speedily, and she recommends regular perusal of The Chronicle’s forums. She cannot give legal or psychiatric advice. All communications are confidential, details are obscured, and anonymity is guaranteed. Ms. Mentor will not tell the world that you’re writing The Academic Novel to End All Academic Novels — until you do it.

Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Her most recent book is Ms. Mentor’s New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia (University of Pennsylvania Press). Her email address is ms.mentor@chronicle.com.

(c) Emily Toth


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