What happened to the genre of academic satire? In the Chronicle Review, Andrew Kay has some ideas; I’d like to offer a different take. Disclaimer: I’m no literary critic. But (a) I am an academic, and (b) I’ve read all of the novels he cites, suggesting that yes, I’m something of a fan.
He takes us through the common list – from the UK, Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, and various novels by David Lodge (he doesn’t single it out, but Nice Work has always been my favourite of his), and from the US Jane Smiley’s Moo, Richard Russo’s Straight Man, James Hynes’ The Lecturer’s Tale, and, more recent, Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members, which is a wonderful book. I’m not sure I agree with the premise that there’s been a marked decline in such novels – this group spans a long period of time, and so I’m not sure there was ever an era where it was noticeably more prominent.
Kay asks “what if, in a moment defined by fundamentalist self-certainty on left and right, a more merciful satire turned out to be precisely what we need?” But academic satire, especially in the US, has always been pretty gentle – see Moo, Straight Man, and Dear Committee Members, which make critiques of academic life while generally wanting to see good in the professors who work there. The most vicious satire of the academic world is not mentioned by Kay: Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man, from the early 1970s in an Essex-like university, which spares nothing in its exposure of the hypocrisy of superficially “progressive” academics. British writers seem willing to go those extra steps in satire (as been noted in television: compare the UK and US versions of “The Office”, or “House of Cards”, and it took a Brit to create the greatest ever satire of American politics, “Veep”).
Kay offers three hypotheses for the decline of academic satire.
One is in the relative decline in importance of the English department, the setting of most of these novels (though the “history man” is a sociologist, and Lucky Jim an economic historian). Note the word “relative” here – there are still English majors, but the great expansion of enrollments in higher ed was in other fields, and so most college students encounter the English department through Gen Ed requirements. I’m not sure the English department setting was so much a problem as, as Kay notes, the attention paid to Theory in those departments. Kay points out that it made people skeptical of the claims of literature, though I would add that it’s also a very boring subject in a novel (it made Hynes’ The Lecturer’s Tale, for me, almost unreadable). As an economist I’m very interested in Dixit and Stiglitz’s model of monopolistic competition and product diversity, but should I ever compose that novel I’ve dreamed about I will spare my readers the fine details of it.
This relates to his second hypothesis, that satire has become too dangerous:
the rising tide of outrage that threatens to engulf nearly any attempt, whether humorous or serious, to voice critique in or of academe. Any satirist at work now has to reckon with the creepy culture of mutual surveillance, from left and right, taking hold at many colleges: the “bias-response teams” that have arisen on certain campuses, or websites like Professor Watchlist, which documents “the specific incidents and names of professors that advance a radical agenda in lecture halls.”
He cites one professor who caught a lot of grief over satirizing a student’s notice of absence, but in that case the issue wasn’t satirizing the academy, rather the complaints were about “kicking down”. Faculty are, on the whole, more privileged than their students, and complaints by the former about the latter are not unknown (browse issues of Chronicle Review for more examples than I can tolerate). Professors maintain a tremendous amount of freedom to say and write what they like, and Kay is grossly overstating things here.
His third hypothesis is that times are tough in academia:
Academics aren’t laughing anymore; they’re despondent, angry, afraid. The disappearance of tenure-track jobs, paired with the vulnerability felt even by some of the tenured, has brought on a prevailing mood of humorlessness — as if, contrary to the bromide that jokes are a coping mechanism best suited to dark times, laughter were a luxury requiring a measure of security. You could make fun of English departments in the ’90s because their faculty members enjoyed some power, prestige, comfort …
I can’t follow him on this. “The vulnerability felt even by some of the tenured” just doesn’t ring true, and I cringe when I see it. Tenured faculty have the most secure, comfortably middle-class, with many fringe benefits and workplace amenities and freedoms, employment this country has to offer. Who has it better? K-12 teachers? Retail workers? Public employees? I once worked as an economist in the public sector, in a relatively high level position: it was very demanding, little time to pursue one’s own research interests, sharp time constraints, at roughly the same pay and with much less job security than a tenured academic has. Median wages for those with no college have fallen in real terms for decades now, and for those with a BA have managed to just stay even – it is we lucky few with advanced degrees who have seen pay rise.
The reason you can’t easily satirize academic life is not that it’s become so horrible, it’s that so many other jobs have, and it’s going to be tough to sell to a general reading public the horror of pointless department meetings, or the business school getting a nicer lounge than the humanities professors have. Tenure is an exceedingly rare thing in this world, and it’s coupled with decent pay, an interesting environment, more freedom to do what you like with your time than any other job I can think of, and that higher education social capital to pass on to one’s children. If we are going to be humorless about it, it ought to be because of the general state of things beyond the university gates, not in our academic faculties.