By Mark Bauerlein
If you browse through the list of dissertations filed in American literary and cultural studies last year, you will find many conventional and sober projects that fit well with traditional notions of humanistic study. Here are a few sample titles:
– “Rethinking Arthur Miller: Symbol and structure”
– “Tragic investigations: The value of tragedy in American political and ethical life”
– “Reading and writing African American travel narrative”
– “From demons to dependents: American-Japanese social relations during the occupation, 1945-1952”
– “The culture club: A study of the Boston Athenaeum, 1807-1860 (Massachusetts)”
But amidst these works, you also find a fair portion of projects with titles that border on the bizarre.
– “The fluviographic poetics of Charles Warren Stoddard: An emergence of a modern gay male American textuality”
– “Transperformance: Transgendered reading strategies, contemporary American literature”
– “Cruising and queer counterpublics: Theories and fictions”
– “‘Skirts must be girded high’: Spaces of subjectivity and transgression in post-suffrage American women’s travel writing”
– “Roddenberry’s faith in ‘Star Trek’: ‘Star Trek”s humanism as an American apocalyptic vision of the future”
– “Exhibiting domesticity: The home, the museum, and queer space in American literature, 1914-1937”
– “From sodomy to Indian death: Sexuality, race and structures of feeling in early American execution narratives”
– “The sentimental touch: Hands in American novels during the rise of managerial capitalism”
Hundreds more on last year’s list bear similarly outlandish and grandiloquent headings, and the fixation on race and sex prevails throughout. Indeed, the remarkable thing may be the ironic effect these edgy and breathless titles have when clustered together: monotony and conformity. After a few pages, the entries blur into a litany of loaded terms and academic cliches. After all, who wants to learn more about such endeavors, except for professors already so steeped in the race/gender/sexuality/capitalism mindset that they don’t realize just how strange the titles sound to outsiders? No matter how much intelligence the authors bring to the project, they can’t overcome the abstract, mannered, encoded, and all-too-predictably provocative subject matter, not to mention the tendentious thesis and theory they bring to the study.
But if you judge these topics and approaches in terms of their intellectual merits alone, you’re missing the point. Readers who come across the studies may look at it that way, but for the authors they serve entirely different purposes. Students address the subjects with four or five years of graduate work behind them, and they look forward to earning a doctorate and joining a department as an assistant professor on the way to tenure. The dissertation is the hinge, the gateway from student to professor. It caps their training in the discipline and situates them in the field. The topics students choose, the approaches they take, the precursors and groundbreakers they cite and invoke and confute…these ingredients cast the authors for years to come. The resulting dissertation positions them in relation to hot and cold issues, trendy and backward theories, rising stars and fading eminences. It represents them when they first enter the professional field. It brands them when they search for jobs, apply for grants, deliver papers at conferences, and submit essays for publication. In a word, the dissertation is their first professional identity.
A livelihood is on the line, and so, when forming their thesis, aspiring scholars must consider, “How will this look to a hiring committee?” Would it get a grant from a leading foundation? Will the power brokers in the field like it? This means that the dissertation isn’t only a scholarly inquiry. It’s a marketing tool.
So, when we look at the silly and bizarre and countercultural titles and subtitles in catalogs, conference proceedings, and dissertation lists, think of how they reflect upon the whole field, not just the author. No graduate student wants to court marginal and provocative topics in order to stay on the margins of the profession or to provoke leaders in the discipline. Young scholars conceive their theses expecting them to appeal to decision-makers in the profession. They want to attract attention and sponsorship.
This is to say that the academic system has steered young minds into this sort of tiresome and trivial labor, and the fact that many of them will get jobs and get published means that the process will continue for a long time. I think that many younger scholars sense that the obsession with the Other, the marginal, and the anti-normative often descends into ridiculousness. They may worry that so much absorption in identity politics estranges them from non-academic friends. They may even feel a slight embarrassment at the exposure of their work in public. But when they weigh that against rewards within the academy – jobs, grants, your name in print – the off-campus universe doesn’t matter. If you’re 30 years old and can’t imagine working anywhere else, you play the game. You don’t need integrity. You need a paycheck.