Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Academic as Hero

Bronwyn told me that the irritating woman who buttonholed her yesterday in the Airport Departure Lounge was especially scornful when she heard what I did for a living.

"Who on earth would want to study Creative Writing? What can you possibly do with that?"

What indeed? It put me in mind of having to apply for some documents from tne New Zealand embassy in Brussels. When the man behind the desk heard what I'd been studying abroad (Comparative Literature - especially the creation of imaginary countries in fiction), his remark was: "You'll be a real asset to the country when you go home ..."

Well, maybe so. But then, I don't have any quarrel with people who want to study and specialise in more practical subjects. Why do they feel the need to express an opinion on what us Bohemians are getting up to? What is it that so gets up their noses?

Granted, our interests don't sound that useful sometimes. But when I turn on the TV and listen to a bunch of absolute morons discussing the absolute necessity of starting a war with Iran in order to (get this!) "avoid World War III," I begin to wonder if their time mightn't have been better employed in GETTING AN EDUCATION, rather than attending endless thinktank sessions on counter-terrorism.

Thinking outside the box, that's what I mean - seeing the other guy's point-of-view. Having the flexibility, above all, to observe the contradictions in your own position.

Those are all skills that any aspiring fiction-writer has to master - not to mention philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists, and all the rest of us frivolous egghead geeks.

It isn't that we can't fool ourselves just as easily as other members of the population. The sign of the true intellectual, I often think, is someone with the ability to rationalise any intellectual position, however absurd or abhorrent (Sartre as apologist for Stalin's show trials; Bertrand Russell advocating a unilateral nuclear strike on Russia in 1948 ...) The point is rather that our disciplines do at least encourage us to see more perspectives and take up less kneejerk stances. Whether we end up actually doing that or not is down to our own individual proclivities.

So, yes, I'm an advocate of the traditional university education. I have no problem at all with vocational degrees and departments, but I still think that they need us at least as much as we need them - possibly more.

One of my colleagues in the School of Social and Cultural Studies at Massey, Eleanor Rimoldi, is trying to put together an anthology of responses to this whole question of the beleaguered Academy (assaulted from within as well as without - witness the horrific debacle of the new PBRF [Performance Based Research Fund] system: a bureaucrat's wet dream and a teacher / researcher's nightmare).

She's given it the rather provocative title of The Academic as Hero, since (as she explains):

The title is from William Clark’s (Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University, 2006) account of medieval Bolognese jurist Bartolus and his pupil Baldus who referred to the Roman law code of the Emperor Justinian that defined “an athletic hero as one who had withstood at least three trials of courage in competition” (74).

Bartolus claimed a scholar also underwent three trials of courage at the university, firstly as a student tested by masters and doctors, second in private examination tested by representatives of the faculty, and thirdly “in the public examination and disputation one was tried under the auspices of the university and academic public generally” (74). And thus became a hero, entitled to a hero’s rewards.

Clark traces the development of the academic from medieval forms up to modern incarnations. The latter inhabit the research university, the origins of which this book seeks to illuminate:

A German Protestant academic had to pass muster with bureaucratic or rationalized criteria for appointment, which included productivity in publication, diligence in teaching, and acceptable political views and lifestyle. But to achieve success, one also had to acquire fame, be in fashion, and display ‘originality’, a spark of genius, in writings. This became a new sort of academic charisma tied to ‘applause’ and ‘recognition’. The modern academic emerged ... from the cultivation of this new legible charisma. But, despite the dominion of writing in modern academia, aspects of traditional oral culture persisted and, among other things, played an important role in fabricating reputation” (2006:3-4).
As players in the continuing history of the university, how do we see ourselves as academics, and what is the university to us, to our disciplines, and to society at large?
My own reply to the invitation is contained in the following three poems, which I've grouped under the collective title:

Let me know what you think.


Anonymous said...


this is actually about the Scheherezade post

is there any mention of the hashhashin in 1000 nights?


are any tales set approximately in Persia in the 10th-12th centuries AD?

The reason I ask is because I'm obsessed with the Assassins at the moment and eager to find out more about the world in which they lived. So would the Arabian nights assist with this and if not do you know of any other sources that could?

Dr Jack Ross said...

I have to say there's not much. Burton includes a footnote on vol. 3, p. 91 of his complete 16-volume translation which mentions the Assassins, buit it's only in the context of Hashish and "bhang-eating."

There's quite a lot of stuff tangentially about the Crusades, though, which puts in the era you want -- and a number of stories about hashish-addicts.