A Forum for Vigorous Debate, Cornerstone of Democracy

[For the journal (guidelines, focus, etc.), go to www.theamericandissident.org ].
Encouraged censorship and self-censorship seem to have become popular in America today. Those who censor others, not just self, tend to favor the term "moderate," as opposed to "censor" and "moderation" to "censorship." But that doesn't change what they do. They still act as Little Caesars or Big Brother protectors of the thin-skinned. Democracy, however, demands a tough populace, not so easily offended. On this blog, and to buck the trend of censorship, banning, and ostracizing, comments are NEVER "moderated." Rarely (almost NEVER) do the targets of these blog entries respond in an effort to defend themselves with cogent counter-argumentation. This blog is testimony to how little academics, poets, critics, newspaper editors, cartoonists, political hacks, cultural council apparatchiks, librarians et al appreciate VIGOROUS DEBATE, cornerstone of democracy. Clearly, far too many of them could likely prosper just fine in places like communist China and Cuba or Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Russia.

More P. Maudit cartoons (and essays) at Global Free Press: http://www.globalfreepress.org

Friday, October 24, 2008

Too Many for the Road

Some for the Road: Poems for Gerald Locklin. Edited by Paul Kareem Tayyar. World Parade Books. Huntington Beach, CA. 44pp. 2008.
Poets ought to take a moment midway through one of their numerous verse-hatching sprees to contemplate Brecht’s “Schlechte Zeit für Lyrik” (“Bad Time for Poetry”).

Some for the Road is an anthology of poems praising “outlaw” poet/professor Gerald Locklin, who has gained fame in the small press for, as noted in Fred Voss’ poem, “he even knew Charles Bukowski/ had gotten drunk with him/ exchanged letters with him.” Has it really gotten that bad in the milieu?

Todd Fox’s foreword reads like a speech delivered at the annual Used-Car Salesman of the Year Banquet. It’s as embarrassingly eulogizing as it gets in poetry, and that’s pretty damn embarrassing. Do we really need hagiographic volumes like this, considering the state of the world, not to mention the state of the literary established-order?

“And to make finding the words even more daunting is the fact that Gerald Locklin is a writer who needs neither our praise nor our criticism!” writes Fox. So, why the slobbering praise? “What does one say about a writer with over 200 published books, a few thousand poems in magazines too many to number…” he continues. For one thing, it says Locklin produced far too much innocuous crap like Bukowski, Lifshin, and so many other “established” poets. But even more revealing, it indicates he was not a threat to the established order. Unsurprisingly, Lifshin is one of the eulogizers in this thin volume: “…How can I write a poem/ about Bukowski and I/ and Locklin looking for a liquor store for Buk…”

Why are poets so admiring of poets who publish like beavers with pens up their asses? Rather than Fox’s two pages of vacuous tribute, it would have been interesting to read a compilation of Locklin’s own words of wisdom—are there any? “Do not be mistaken!” hails Fox. “This could easily be about Billy Collins…” Yeah, no doubt! “I mean, I write about saltshakers and knives and forks—and talk like a politician," wrote Collins.

“When does a writer know he is unimportant?” asks Fox. “The answer is easy—no one reads or talks about him.” What a simplistic assertion! So, if someone reads or talks about me, then I’m important? It doesn’t matter what I have to say? That assertion underscores just how much Fox and so many other poets so easily and willingly gravitate to the herd-yoke of adulation of the popular and famous. Who were the teachers who taught this guy? They ought to be fired on the spot. Well, it turns out that Locklin was actually one of Fox’s university professors. He was also one of Patricia Cherin’s, who writes in “An Occasional Poem for the Toad”: “I learned panegyric from you/ and encomium/ so here it is.” Perhaps the toad should have also taught the fledgling poet manicomio and suckup.

“As his successes, decade after decade, in both the academic and mainstream publishing world piled up, he continued to welcome and make room for us in his classroom and English department,” fawns Fox. It’s enough to make one vomit. What Fox needed was a professor to push him to question and challenge what being accepted really tended to mean in America. Donna Hilbert’s “Ode to the Toad,” as in “O Gerald our toad,” should have perhaps been titled “Ode to the Toadie.”

Poem after poem in this volume should not have been published, but rather sent directly to the toad god himself. To add to the inbred nature of the anthology, there’s even a syrupy poem written by son Zach, which ends thusly: “…I remember seeing the cover of Poop,/ the picture of my father naked in the bathtub,/ bearded, longhaired, spectacled,/ with a rubber ducky and an open beer can,/ and thinking,/ But Dad doesn’t drink Coors Light.” Perhaps those lines sadly sum up the reality of the average hippie recycled into tenured university professor.

Finally, these poems represent the kind of pap one would expect from poet laureates extolling the hand that feeds. They do not make one think at all. They question and challenge nothing at all. They offer no new insights or interesting thoughts. They are entirely socio-politically disengaged. If they do anything at all, they likely put a smile on Locklin’s warty face and add to the endless publication credits of the poets who wrote them. If Locklin had had any sense at all, he would have told Fox and company: no thanks. This volume epitomizes what poetry has become and is becoming in the USA today. Don’t buy it! Don’t support it!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Warning: The Citizen General Has Deemed the Current Academic Culture May Be Harmful to the Spirit of Democracy

An “Extremely Presumptuous,” “Aggressive” “Too Pointed,” “Insulting and Reviling” “Jeremiad”
—An Open Letter to the English-Department Faculty of the University of Massachusetts—

But the same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and periodicals, as well as in plays, films and radio. At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trouser in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.
—George Orwell, “The Freedom of the Press”

Originally, this essay was sent as an open letter to roughly 60 English-department faculty of the University of Massachusetts, as an experiment to test the waters of democracy in academe and otherwise determine how many of those professors contacted agree de facto with the 1972 Supreme Court ruling in Healy v. James (408 U.S. 169, 180) that the university "is peculiarly the ‘marketplace of ideas'”. I’d been performing such experiments for over a decade. A week later, I put it up on the Internet as a blog entry (see wwwtheamericandissidentorg.blogspot.com) and informed those professors in a second missive.
The original essay was embellished with the responses received (only three of the 60 professors and none of the four student editors contacted), as well as with the new thoughts those responses provoked. Two self-protecting established-order taboos were transgressed: 1. naming names and 2. overtly defining and criticizing the academic culture. Regarding especially the first taboo, a retired professor and editor of a journal devoted to ethics and not part of the University of Massachusetts responded to the piece as a submission for publication consideration: “The essay is too pointed for general dissemination, so I am sorry but I cannot use it.”
His curt reply actually implied much, so I provoked him to respond in greater length by suggesting the essay probably implicated him personally. His response was the following:

I cannot use it because it is much too specific, geared to the problems, as you see them, at a particular set of institutions, and a small group of their professors who have displeased you or who do not like you. It would be of little interest to general JIE readers. It is also something of a vitriolic jeremiad, a way of getting back at those folks, a catharis [sic] and vindication for you (but not for us); it lacks credibility: Your experience has not been that of others, mine for example. Additionally, your perspective on freedom, truth, intellectual freedom, and especially democracy do not tell the whole story. Democracy, for eaxpmple [sic], can be horrific, as I am sure you know. All of this was contained, sub rosa, in my previous note, the one that indicated that I cannot use it. I hope this helps. (I too am a dissident.)

The topic of academic culture was perhaps a lot hotter than I’d initially suspected—downright taboo in the Orwellian sense. Needless to say, I addressed the points made, noting first that my goal was not at all to upset him, for after all, he’d previously published me. His lack of interest in the core fundament of the essay, that is, the need to radically alter the academic culture for the sake of democracy surprised me. Clearly, that culture was fundamentally corrupt, one that rewarded those who never questioned or challenged it and banished those who did in precisely the same manner as the Wall Street financial culture which had managed to cripple the country today. How, I wondered, could he be blind to it? Perhaps those who are well fed by it tended to perceive it with rose-colored glasses in the same manner as those in the financial community immediately prior to the egregious debacle. Greenspan hadn’t even seen it coming, he’d said.
Furthermore, the academic culture which I decried was not simply restricted to a “particular set of institutions” (i.e., the University of Massachusetts). It was widespread like a carcinoma in the belly of democracy. One had to begin somewhere. Also, since I did not know any of the professors contacted personally, they did not particularly displease me, at least not any more than professors elsewhere. And those professors did not know me, so did not necessarily dislike me. Granted, I had written a negative review of a book written by one of those professors. But certainly that did not give me cause to dislike 60 of his colleagues. The reason I targeted the University of Massachusetts was simply because I live and publish in the state. Also, I’m quite familiar with William Bulger, former president of that university, who received a controversial one-million dollar public pension and banned Ralph Nader from entering the campus building where a presidential debate was being held back in 2000. Where, I wondered, were the English professors then? Thus to imply I wrote the essay simply to get back at professors who I didn’t like and who didn’t like me was a paltry excuse to avoid dealing with its essence and akin to ad hominem.
Why, I asked the editor, would readers interested in ethics not be interested in ethical issues regarding academe? And why did the essay necessarily lack “credibility”? Where precisely was it lacking? Was it not credible that if a professor spoke out against a corrupt college president or dean, he would likely be punished, right or wrong? When teaching, I always insist students back their statements with precise examples to illustrate them. Unfortunately, the editor didn’t respond to any of the points I made. Well, he did respond that he had responded, but:

Perhaps ypu [sic] misunderstood what I said, which was that I did reply at some length but the computer deleted it and I refused to rewrite it. But even if you did not, you overreact. I said I could not use this essay which is merely a jeremiad. Thousands of editors continually reject millions of submissions, for hundreds of different and legitimate reasons. I did not say that I would not publisher others that you tender. This type of aggressive action toward another human being is why many of your "correspondents" ignore or hassle you. And it is extremely presumptious [sic] of you to indicate that all of these many folks do not stand up for what they believe. Many do; many suffer; some die. Indeed, my own father died because he stood up for high standards at his college and was hurt, became depressed, and died!

Yes, maybe his father had stood up, but what about him? More ad hominem! To denigrate efforts to attract attention to a serious problem—after all, academe represents the intellectual core of the nation—by labeling them “overreact,” “jeremiad,” “extremely presumptuous,” and “aggressive” is not surprising, because uncomfortable truths will likely always be labeled thusly. One must, however, wonder why so many grown adults have such thin skins. Clearly, the educationist focus on self-esteem building in the nation’s schools and even colleges will end up making them even thinner. Anything apt to implicate them will likely be perceived as “aggressive” and serve to explain their resultant silence or ad hominem. And doesn’t the use of ad hominem reflect anger? And doesn’t anger reflect a target hit square in the bull’s-eye? Another thing I ask students to do, especially writing students, is to contemplate their taboos. Perhaps professors ought to do that also. Most know precisely what they dare not speak openly about. In fact, any writer likely knows damn well what he should not write about, if he wishes to eat. The same goes for a professor. Perhaps good writers and good professors are not only aware of their taboos, but actually dare transgress them from time to time.
Over the past couple of decades, I’ve had ample experience questioning and challenging many academics, which has enabled me to draw certain conclusions, including most “do not stand up” and/or simply do not possess strong principles. Clearly, the culture attracts such people. What most end up believing in is turf domination, job security, and money. Those are not strong principles. Because the culture acts as a cocoon (the ivory tower!), assuring a life as a protected species of sorts, many professors ineluctably knee-jerk react when somebody like me suddenly appears. Only several weeks prior to this experiment, I’d sent a critique of The Kenyon Review $1,000 per person literary gala to some 23 English-department members of Kenyon College. Only the professor-editor responded, though he essentially ignored the points made. What about the other 22 other professors? How had they become so adverse to debate, so adverse to the university’s essential role as "the ‘marketplace of ideas'”?

Even if my “perspective on freedom, truth, intellectual freedom, and especially democracy do not tell the whole story,” why should that constitute a reason to truncate debate? Where is the logic in that? “Sub rosa”? And if one is a dissident, why quietly put that fact in parentheses? Dissidents do not hide out in democracies! They hide out in autocracies, where free expression can result in execution or incarceration! Dissidents consciously think of those areas deemed taboo by their superegos, those areas that could affect their “success.” Dissidents consciously transgress those areas periodically. That’s what makes them dissidents. A key taboo for a professor inevitably includes the institution feeding him and his immediate colleagues. It is odd, to say the least, that even the tenured dare not transgress that key taboo. They—not all, but certainly most—have become conditioned like Pavlovian dogs or rather cows and sheep vis-à-vis electrical fences. As an example, one of those electrical fences where I taught several years ago at a public HBCU was the prayer held at each faculty meeting. Consciously, I thus dared touch that fence and openly criticized the prayer in an article published in the student newspaper. Unsurprisingly, at least to me, not one colleague responded. A student, however, stated: “Dr. Slone, man, you’ve got balls!” No, I’m not patting myself on the back at all, just presenting the facts. Besides, what that student said confirmed that even he was well aware that the academic culture dictated that professors should not be critical of the institutions employing them, requisite behavior at antipodes to the needs of democracy.
Due to that editor’s criticism (“too pointed”), I decided to rewrite the essay in an effort not to transgress the first taboo, naming names, though likely that wouldn’t help get it published, especially not by professor-editors, for how can professors possibly accept an essay that might actually implicate them as, amongst other things, indifferent to the needs of democracy? What the nation could use today is a citizen general akin to the surgeon general. Such a citizen general would likely issue a warning that the current academic culture may indeed be harmful to the health of the spirit of democracy.
The academic culture has bred a professorate largely indifferent to the needs of democracy. Likely, most professors today would be as content under a dictatorship, as long as that system fed them well and offered life-time job security. Theirs is the same academic culture that responded with deafening silence during the Nazi regime in Germany and McCarthyism in America (the AAUP kept its mouth shut!). So what if other citizens are not well fed, do not have jobs, and do not have health benefits and pensions! So what if professors cannot openly criticize certain things! So what if they have to turn a blind eye now and then, especially regarding colleagues and the institution! Theirs is and has been a largely selfish outlook on society and civilization. They are being paid for their silence. Theirs and the very tenure process have become shameful Faustian pacts.
In the spirit of democracy, openness to other points of view, desire to debate with those holding opposing ideas, encouragement of criticism, a certain equality amongst citizens—as opposed to autocratic president-dean-chair hierarchy—, and unabashed truth telling ought to be held in high regard. Yet most professors are either indifferent or downright hostile to those things. In academe, truth telling has largely been replaced by herd-like multiculturalist groupthink and other politically-correct orthodoxy, not to mention the panoply of copycat, educationist diversionary fads of the day, including learning centers, portfolios, assessment, technology in the classroom, and leadership academies. Clearly uncomfortable truth telling has no business at all in the business of higher education.
The academic culture has indeed become selfish and exclusionary and is based on sycophancy, fear (e.g., professors and administrators, more and more frequently, sign articles with pseudonyms in the Chronicle of Higher Education), cowardice, careerism, networking and resultant cronyism, rampant self-censorship, speech codes, self-congratulating, image distortion, and indifference to the needs of democracy (i.e., courageous truth telling and vigorous debate). As for the latter, the curt response from one professor illustrates the point: “I specialize in English literature between l485 and l650 and will be happy to read anything connected with that.”
In other words, the health of democracy and the nation is not that professor’s concern at all. Yet if we do not somehow change the ostrich-head-in-the-sand academic culture he illustrates, how can we expect our democracy to be a healthy one? The academic culture also seems to favor the denigration of anyone apt to offer opinions not of the herd. Indeed, another professor wrote: “do [sic] you really think that insulting and reviling the faculty is the way to persuade us to read your publication? You don't kmow [sic] anything about sany [sic] of us and your e-mail suggersts [sic] that you don't know aything [sic] about politics either.”
Yet if trying to instigate vigorous debate, cornerstone of democracy, is to be deemed “insulting” and “reviling,” how indeed can we expect our democracy to be a thriving one? The third professor to respond wrote even more curtly: “Quit spamming us, you loser.” Evidently, for that professor, a loser is a man who questions and challenges what others dare not. It’s also a man who has different opinions than his and who dares ponder the health of democracy. If a man questions and challenges a university and its professors, when he doesn’t belong to that community, that man is easily dismissed as “spamming.” Yet the 60 professors contacted were all teaching at a public institution funded by taxpayers. Shouldn’t non-connected citizens be curious and even attempt to involve themselves in it? Following that professor’s logic, citizens should keep their noses out of the banking industry currently wreaking havoc on the nation because, well, they’re not part of that community. Clearly, that professor somehow felt implicated by my less-than laudatory description of the academic culture he evidently embraces. Needless to say, I brought those thoughts to his attention. His reply was again base ad hominem: “You're a dullard who imposes himself unwanted on strangers. Cut it out.”
Well, how not to add that remark to my webpage on ad hominem, which explains the phenomenon and illustrates it with the numerous epithets hurled at me over the years by angered intellectuals (see theamericandissident.org/AdHominem.htm). Because I’ve been the brunt of ad hominem so often, I’ve become quite conscious of it and make a determined effort to avoid it. I informed that professor he was now part of that webpage, but he never again responded.
Having had ample contact with college professors over the past several decades, as a publisher and professor, I’ve sadly discovered the large majority of those professors to be entirely indifferent to the spirit of democracy and lacking the courage to speak openly critical of their particular institutions and colleagues, no matter how nefarious. Now and then, as editor of The American Dissident, a journal devoted to literature, democracy and dissidence, I receive poetry submissions from English professors. Always those submissions avoid dealing with particular institutions and colleagues. Always I write back to those professors requesting poems that risk criticizing the immediate, as opposed to the distant and safe, as in the Iraq war or the president, and always I receive no further response.
The lack of hardcore criticism of institutions of higher education by employees of those institutions must be decried, which is precisely what I’ve attempted to do here. “Let your life be a counterfriction to stop the machine,” had advised Thoreau. Why is there not one English-department member at the University of Massachusetts who has the courage to heed those words? Look at what that machine—and not just the academic component—has become today! “Go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways,” had written Emerson. Why is there not one member who actually has the audacity to do that and even risk, just a little, his or her precious career? Is it the burning desire to achieve the final carrot of Emeritus designation? But what does that designation, more often than not, really imply today, if not did not make waves and buck the system?
Why is there not one English-department member at that university open to the ideas expounded in The American Dissident? Note a handful of other universities and colleges are subscribers, including Harvard University, Buffalo University, Brown University, University of Michigan, University of Wisconsin, Endicott College, and Catawba Valley Community College. Why is there not one English department member at that university who would at least introduce his or her students to the journal’s website (theamericandissident.org)? After all, the journal is quite unique in the agora of literary journals, for it actually dares counter the academic/literary established-order. Likely, the libraries at that university possess nothing like it in their collections. Yet the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights stipulates, in particular: “II. Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.”
Shouldn't professors be encouraging students to consider "all points of view"? Indeed, if they cannot brook criticism, let alone encourage it, what kind of role models have they become for students? Have the English departments of that university become so business-oriented that the model they seek to project and inculcate is nothing more than the faithful academic apparatchik? Not long ago and not as a result of this particular experiment, another English department member of the University of Massachusetts responded to a simple criticism I’d lodged regarding a rather vacuous statement he’d made on poetry (see theamericandissident.org/Reviews-Rattle.htm).

Dear Mr. Bone [sic]: I am always inyterested [sic] when one of my many students bring to my attention any remarks regarding all my many publications. The follwoing [sic] was recently brought to my attention: “Jack Conway writes: ‘I teach my students at both Bristol Community College and the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth that the genre of poetry is a ‘big tent’ with room beneath it for many different forms and styles. I also teach them that there are many people with measuring tapes out there in the world of poetry today trying to measure American Poetry for a coffin and to beware of them.’ Perhaps Conway also needs to inform his students that poetry is, or at least should be, much more than “form and style.” It is, or at least should be, also substance. He needs to inform them which “substances” constitute taboos; for example, criticism of the University of Massachusetts and its creative writing professors. Conway needs to challenge his students to break those taboos. Moreover, he might inform them that that coffin is being measured perhaps because of the nation’s poetry professors, including Conway himself.” I presume it apperad [sic] in your blog or something. I am not sure. I find it hard to believe that you migth [sic] write something like this with so little information, including what I teach. Well, the Internet has been good for one thing: It has allowed people like yourself who woud [sic] not be published otherwise to try and feel some limited success. Good for you. As for me, I guess I'll get back to real publishing. Thanks for the comments. I's [sic] too bad you have it all wrong but I'm pretty sure your readers expect that. I kknow [sic] the student who brought this to my attention did. They said, "Look at this trite shit.." I had to laugh. When I sked [sic] who wrote it she said, "Some undereducated pig." Yikes. So there ya go. I guess the good news is that those of us who teach in colleges and universities reach far more people than stuff like this. In fact, I recently read a wonderful statement saying that blogs and self-publishing sites like I presume yours is, are now looked upon by t he current generation as vanity presses without the paper. Well, goodluck [sic] in whatever it is you do and I am sincerely glad that even without much of an education you can feel some limited success publ;ishing [sic] even if it is seen as pedestrian.

The pattern illustrated by the responding professors is frightening, to say the least, especially if one considers that some of them, like the one who wrote the above email, might actually be encouraging students to engage in similar ad hominem rhetoric. Also, one must wonder why not one of the 60 professors contacted would entertain the thought of introducing his or her students to alternative ideas and invite me to speak in front of one or several of his or her classes on literature, democracy, and dissidence? Like those professors, well, perhaps not all of them, I too have a doctoral degree. To date, only one English professor has invited me to speak. Indeed, he invited me several more times after that and even uses The American Dissident in his creative-writing courses. He was not a friend or even an acquaintance and teaches at a private college in Massachusetts. He was, however, unusually open to alternative points of view and unusually curious. He should be praised, though I fear the opposite might result… and probably behind his back. He risks disfavor of his colleagues and department chair by inviting someone like me. By no means do I belittle that risk. I praise him for taking it.
Finally, the current academic culture seems to work to soften professors, rather than strengthen them, and not only physically but also mentally. Thought is often better provoked when one is standing on the edge of society, as opposed to sitting in an armchair in a wainscoted office well inserted into society. Certainly, if I’d been accepted by academe, that would have happened to me. Instead, I’ve continually been rejected by it, which not only has continually reinforced my critical edge and eye, but also enabled me to have experiences I wouldn’t have had if I’d succeeded at the tenure game, including teaching gigs at two HBCUs (North Carolina and Louisiana) and on two Navy battle ships. Moreover, I wouldn’t have created The American Dissident and wouldn’t have written hundreds of pages of critical essays, poems, and creative nonfiction. Instead, I would have written tedious scholarship in the field of geolinguistics. In any case, the academic culture must be radically altered if our democracy is to survive. The university must reconsider its hiring and promotional practices and begin rewarding those who actually dare "go upright and vital" and value the importance of “the marketplace of ideas,” while eliminating those who do not, even if well published. Professors need to stop being so corporate-like in their demeanor and attitude. Given the exposed corrupt tie-and-jacket mob on Wall Street today, one would think intelligent, honest individuals with PhDs would reject that attire and demeanor.
What do those 60 professors contacted intend to do to help alter the nefarious academic culture briefly described here? Remain in denial and tighten up the old muzzle and apply for a sabbatical, extra courses, grant monies, or early retirement, business as usual, or rather, literature as usual? I was really looking forward to their responses and really hoped a free and open debate on the concerns expressed here might actually be engaged. Unfortunately, professorial anger and/or apathy were all I’d obtained from the English-department members of the University of Massachusetts. Over the years, however, I’ve grown used to such disappointments. After all, my entire generation—the Sixties—sold out… to the Academy and elsewhere! Nevertheless, I will continue until the day I die hacking away in certain futility at the immense brick wall, of which those professors choose to form part.

Sent to UMass--Amherst: jenny@english.umass.edu, almeidab@english.umass.edu, cbachelder@english.umass.edu, bartolomeo@english.umass.edu, mailto:mjblack@english.umass.edush.umass.edu, nbromell@english.umass.edu, carlin@english.umass.edu, mailto:mclingman@english.umass.edumass.edu, sdaly@english.umass.edu, janed@english.umass.edu, ldoyle@english.umass.edu, mespada@english.umass.edu, kfarrell@english.umass.edu, tjfernan@english.umass.edu, jfreeman@english.umass.edu, egallo@english.umass.edu, gizzi@hfa.umass.edu, sharris@english.umass.edu, murhen@earthlink.com, anneh@english.umass.edu, hhoang@english.umass.edu, fholland@english.umass.edu, ruthj@english.umass.edu, afkinney@english.umass.edu, knoper@english.umass.edu, donnal@english.umass.edu, masonl@english.umass.edu, mordecai@english.umass.edu, sabinamurray@comcast.net, nadkarni@english.umass.edu, mjobrien@english.umass.edu, jrosenberg@english.umass.edu, russworm@english.umass.edu, skerrett@english.umass.edu, jlsolber@english.umass.edu, jspencer@english.umass.edu, tate@hfa.umass.edu, dtoomey@english.umass.edu, rwelburn@english.umass.edu, daraw@hfa.umass.edu, jeyoung@english.umass.edu, azucker@english.umass.edu

Sent to UMass--Lowell: Melissa_Pennell@uml.edu, Diana_Archibald@uml.edu, Todd_Avery@uml.edu, Laura_Barefield@uml.edu, William_Coughlin@uml.edu, Andre_Dubus@uml.edu, William_Hersey@uml.edu, Hilary_Holladay@uml.edu, Jeannie_Judge@uml.edu, Susan_Kirtley@uml.edu, Mary_Kramer@uml.edu, Bridget_Marshall@uml.edu, Marlowe_Miller@uml.edu, Michael_Millner@uml.edu, Keith_Mitchell@uml.edu, Julie_Nash@uml.edu, William_Roberts@uml.edu, Jonathan_Silverman@uml.edu, Anthony_Szczesiul@uml.edu, Joseph_Zaitchik@uml.edu, connector@uml.edu

Sent to UMass--Boston:
pamela.annas@umb.edu, margherita.cappellli@umb.edu, carole.center@umb.edu, carol.chandler@umb.edu, teddy.chocos@umb.edu, ann.erde@umb.edu, john.hess@umb.edu, sandra.howland@umb.edu, esther.iwanaga@umb.edu, janet.mickevich@umb.edu,

Sent to UMass--Dartmouth
chouser@umassd.edu, jblitefield@umassd.edu, acohen@umassd.edu, sharrison@umassd.edu, wnelles@umassd.edu, pwhite@umassd.edu, jblitefield@umassd.edu, jbobrick@umassd.edu, ceisenhart@umassd.edu, sevans@umassd.edu, jgardner@umassd.edu, sharrison@umassd.edu, chouser@umassd.edu, jkellerman@umassd.edu, rlarschan@umassd.edu, jmarlow@umassd.edu, wnelles@umassd.edu, mpeters@umassd.edu, j1riley@umassd.edu, jschaaf@umassd.edu, lsun@umassd.edu, rwaxler@umassd.edu, cwhite@umassd.edu, pwhite@umassd.edu

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

An Experiment in Democracy: Kenyon College

Money, Tenure, and Tuxedo Literature
Well, the sudden idea to write each of you actually put a grin on my face, though short lived. My question is simple: might there be one—yes, just one—English Department member at Kenyon College who might be able to perceive, even if but for a brief moment, beyond the paradigm of established-order literature? Might there be one of you—yes, just one of you—who might actually be willing to “listen”—not necessarily agree with, but just “listen”—to what is not within that paradigm?

As a professor (when employed, that is), I fully understand the expectations of tenure, which render taboo the questioning and challenging of ones colleagues, department, institution and, in the case of literature, the canon. University life from grad school on up is a kind of subtle and sometimes not so subtle indoctrinating process. If a student, question and challenge your professor’s fundamental aesthetic tastes and you will likely not obtain a letter of recommendation. It has become a bite your lip, shut your mouth culture. Few escape established-order indoctrination, though many will argue they’ve not been infected. The rewards are too great to escape.

In any case, nine months ago I sent the editors of The Kenyon Review a not very fawning email asking why the need for self-vaunting, which seems to have become all too commonplace in the milieu of poets and professors. “Always dazzled by its riches, when it arrives, I grab it and read it no matter what else there is to do,” states Susan Hahn on the review’s website.

What are Kenyon College English professors teaching students today? I asked the editors. Icon worship, icon ingurgitation, literary networking, self-aggrandizement, and self-congratulations? Shouldn’t professors be teaching students rigorous questioning and challenging of the academic/literary established-order instead? Shouldn’t they be teaching that vigorous debate is the cornerstone of democracy?

Nine months later, yesterday in fact, I received an email (not a response) from The Kenyon Review, which startled me: “The Board of Trustees of The Kenyon Review is pleased to honor Richard Ford as the 2008 recipient of the Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement at a gala dinner on Thursday, November 6 at the Four Seasons restaurant in New York City. Tickets are $1,000 per person and include dinner and cocktails, with proceeds benefiting The Kenyon Review.”

Wow, has it really gotten that bad? A literary journal with a board of trustees and hosting a thousand-dollar per plate cocktail dinner at the Four Seasons! Writers in tuxedos! Poets in tuxedos! Professors in tuxedos!
If indeed you are teaching—exclusively teaching—the kind of tuxedo literature evidently promoted by Kenyon Review, perhaps one of you—yes, just one of you—might be daring enough to stretch your ears just a little beyond the walls of that comfortable tuxedo paradigm, listen, and even better yet encourage your students to do the same. You might wish to begin by introducing them to this open letter, which, since it is “open,” is posted at wwwtheamericandissidentorg.blogspot.com. You could encourage them to even respond to it. You could even encourage your colleagues to respond to it.

Finally, you might also wish to get Kenyon College’s library to subscribe to The American Dissident, a journal of literature, democracy, and dissidence, which stands in direct opposition to the Kenyon Review in its open critical stance of the academic/literary thousand-dollar dinner established order. A one-year subscription costs only $16.

Your students deserve to be introduced to all points of view, not simply those approved by the Chamber of Commerce, pillars of the community, and bourgeois suburbanites.

Will one of you actually surprise with a response?

Sent to: boeckelere@kenyon.edu, carson@kenyon.edu, clarvoe@kenyon.edu, davidsoa@kenyon.edu, fernandok@kenyon.edu, garciai@kenyon.edu, hawkst@kenyon.edu, heidts@kenyon.edu, hyde@kenyon.edu, klein@kenyon.edu, klugef@kenyon.edu, laycock@kenyon.edu, lentzpe@kenyon.edu, lobanovrosto@kenyon.edu, lynnd@kenyon.edu, mankoff@kenyon.edu, masonte@kenyon.edu, matzj@kenyon.edu, mcadamsj@kenyon.edu, mcmullen@kenyon.edu, schoenfeldj@kenyon.edu, smithju@kenyon.edu, vigdermanp@kenyon.edu, kenyonreview@kenyon.edu