Thursday, June 13, 2013

Old Academe Stanley's Harsh Truths

I find several internet memes amusing, but I never had the chance to construct my own until Old Academe Stanley showed up, inspired by Old Economy Steve.  I was even there at Old Academe Stanley's creation and wrote some of the first quickmemes.  William Pannapacker (aka Thomas H Benton of the all-time classic "Grad School in the Humanities: Just Don't Go" fame) mentioned the idea on Twitter, constructed the template, and I very quickly jumped in.  Yes folks, this will likely be my one and only moment of internet near fame.

Like Old Economy Steve, Old Academe Stanley exposes the feelings of betrayal and anger in the younger scholarly generation over their elders' lack of empathy for, and even complicity in, their economic struggles.  In my many years in the academy, I met a lot of real Old Academe Stanley types who now provide plenty of meme ideas. I still remember the faculty meeting I attended when I was an assistant prof where a man who had been there since 1971 expressed puzzlement at how the number of classes taught by adjuncts had risen over the years, as if he hadn't been there the whole time!  Despite being clueless to the new realities of academia happening on his watch, he at least kept up on new scholarship and was well-known for teaching rigorous yet enlightening classes.  Two other elders in the department attained full prof without ever publishing a solitary thing.  In their day, they didn't even have to apply for tenure, it was just given to them!  One of the elders was such an awful teacher that his enrollments even in required surveys that students HAD to take were almost below the cut-off.  Another was known to give her ancient Egypt lecture to her modern Europe class and show up to class twenty minutes late and halfway in the bag on a consistent basis.  These folks were paid significantly more than me, and would be sitting on my tenure committee and judging my accomplishments, but would not be able to get a job in academia if they went on the market today.

I also recall a full prof with similar credentials with a campus radical twist at the school where I VAPed.  In response to a curriculum change mandated by the administration, he sent out a mass email to the whole department of Mario Savio's famous "throw yourselves on the gears" speech.  Fed up with being treated like an indentured servant by my department, I emailed him back to tell him that as an exploited visitor, I agreed with his viewpoint of the university as a capitalist machine.  His response?  He blew me off with a dismissive reply email.  That was confirmation of something I'd already seen in grad school: the "radical" politics of many professors stop at the university gates, or when it makes a dent in their pocketbooks.

A great many of these folks were actually nice people, but completely oblivious to their privilege and totally uninterested in doing anything about the horrible inequalities they benefitted from.  One exception was a guy where I VAPed who had been there since the late 1960s and actually treated us "visitors" as equals (which few did).  He even openly fought for our interests in department meetings, pushing to get us better pay and longer-term contracts.  At the same time, he was an unpublished full prof who gave his lectures without powerpoints or notes, claiming his style was "like jazz."  The students didn't seem to agree, or at least found it to be a kind of jazz as pleasing as the Albert Ayler variety.  As a VAP, my teaching evaluations were heavily scrutinized, so I did not have the luxury of being a scholarly jazz artist; I had to placate the little consumers as much as possible.  At least he was a stand-up guy and not a blatant hypocrite like the Neiman Marxists I so commonly encountered in academia.

My love of Old Academe Stanley is not necessarily indicative of hatred towards the people I've been discussing, but more anger and frustration at a system that refuses to listen to the grievances of those being destroyed by it while an older, oblivious generation glides into a retirement that people my age will never have.  It's an anger and frustration whose existence can be felt in the several quickmemes that have already been constructed.  I only hope that somehow this rage and resentment can be channeled into positive change and a better life for my academic generation.

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