Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Academic Vampires

Yesterday I mentioned the recent novel 36 Arguments for the Existence of God by Rebecca Goldstein (and some of its reviews) as an example of a recent contribution to the academic satire genre. In fact, with its long discourses on faith and religious principles, the book attempts to be more than a satire. Although I enjoyed many aspects of the book, ultimately I found it annoying because of its heavy-handed caricatures and self-conscious cleverness.

Also, although it is a novel containing many strange and unlikable characters, the intelligent female characters in the book are particularly unpleasant. There is a beautiful and brilliant female superstar professor character who excels at "fanging" her intellectual opponents, but she is widely loathed, loses her faculty position at Princeton because she gets an outside offer at an inferior institution (an entirely unbelievable scenario), and ultimately reveals herself to be insecure and petty, leaving the man who loves her (coincidentally, the "boyish" hero of the novel) because he gets an offer from Harvard. Explaining why she is leaving, she says:

..the fact that you have acquired more prestige than I have, when my work is so much more important, is not something I can tolerate. I can't degrade myself by being regarded as your female companion, the pretty young woman at the inferior institution who will be patronized by the Harvard elite. To be with you is to have everything that is wrong with academia constantly rubbed in my face.

And off she goes. Is it refreshing that a woman refuses to be the 'trailing' spouse (or significant other) or disturbing that she is so insecure she can't be in a relationship with someone at a "better" university? In fact, the smart female characters (all ex-wives or ex-girlfriends of the boyishly charming main character who, as it turns out, finds fame and success without even trying) are all deeply unlikeable, self-absorbed, and eccentric. The ultra-thin French poetess doesn't fare much better than the insecure vampire professor (i.e., the one who "fangs" people), and the self-absorbed anthropologist, albeit a bit more likable, is extremely bizarre (after retiring from Berkeley -- code for weird, I suppose -- her new research goal is to achieve immortality).

I concluded that a main theme of the book is that if we try too hard to be successful as intellectuals, we will lose, and we will deserve to lose because we will have destroyed other people to further our own success. Furthermore, those who try too hard to be successful in academia may do so by being aggressive back-stabbers and/or control freaks. It's better to drift along, feeling confused much of the time, because then somehow, without really trying, we may end up with fame, money, and a faculty position at Harvard! What a strange book: an anti-intellectual novel that shows off the intellect of the author.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

It's even stranger when you consider her own background.

Thinkerbell said...

Unfortunately, I also see examples around me where it SEEMS as if the just-drifting-alongers end up with the nice positions. Obviously, they must have been doing more than that. So what is the real secret of academia? Clearly, JUST being smart and working hard is not enough. There is a certain something that you must also have, posess, be good at, or be able/willing to take advantage of that is not captured in an easy term or task. Maybe the author is also referring to this? And there are indeed times when I think it's indeed the boyish hero who does seem to be comfortably drifting towards his deserved (?) place in science.

Nick said...

Several times, in this post and elsewhere, I have seen criticisms of professors branded, "anti-intellectual." Is there not a distinction between an anti-intellectual comment, which is contemptuous of intellectuals and their pursuits, and an anti-academic comment, which is contemptuous of universities and those who run them? Those prone to the former sort of thinking will likely subscribe to the latter sort of thinking, but the inverse is not necessarily true.

While the novel in question here may, indeed, be anti-intellectual (I haven't read it, so I can't say for sure), the comments and characterizations cited here seem to be entirely anti-academic in nature.

another young FSP said...

My favorite book about women in academia is still Dorothy Sayer's "Gaudy Night". Written in the 30s, and still very applicable today.

female Science Professor said...

The book is anti-academic in a satirical way, and I don't have a problem with that, although I found the satire a bit too thick. More problematic, in my opinion, is that it is also anti-intellectual: don't be too smart, people who are too smart are strange and possibly evil, it's better to succeed without trying too hard. As the first anon said, this is a particularly strange message when you consider the background of the author.

inBetween said...

The "drifting" strategy for success only seems to work if you are a man. I have yet to meet a woman who "accidentally" became successful in her academic career.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

FSP, why the fucking fuck are you reading this garbage? Read a real fucking book, for fuck's sake! Didja read Skloot's book? It's fucking great!

Happy Saint Patrick's Day!!

Patty said...

Sounds like a very interesting book, I like your review on it it's very concise, thanks for posting!

Anonymous said...

Furthermore, those who try too hard to be successful in academia may do so by being aggressive back-stabbers and/or control freaks.

Well I do tend to agree with this, judging from what I've seen. (I've been the victim of such backstabbing too many times that I've lost count by now)

female Science Professor said...

CPP - Yes, I read Skloot's book and it is great.

Anonymous said...

I am a female post-grad and I have to admit, the one sole female prof who I have ever been supervised by (UK system) was really like that 'vampire' character you've mentioned. When I was starting out she tried everything to interfer with me just getting along as my brief was very clear before I even started with her, and once I've reached a stage where I can do without her she tried to steal or to claim originality for my work. I'm sure that not everyone is like that but experience tells me that stereotypes rarely come out of thin air!

Carpenter said...

Not so much of a surprise given that the author is the long time partner of Steven Pinker, gender essentialist and infamous pain in the ass to us women in STEM fields.

see this debate
http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/debate05/debate05_index.html

Ann said...

I read your book report and checked out "36 arguments.." I found it enjoyable. True, for someone so fully steeped in academia as Rebecca Goldstein is, the world she wrote about was barely recognizable to me. And none of the characters are real 3+1 dimensional people. Still, the characters and situations were all familiar, in a sort of fun-house mirror way.