May 3


I suppose I shouldn't be surprised any more when this happens, but for some reason fights in academic circles still surprise (and amuse…they never fail to amuse!) me.  My regular readers might remember my post a few months back where I talked about the controversy within the Modern Language Association regarding some formal resolutions about political issues.  At the time I wasn't sure anything could top that catfight for sheer ridiculousness.  But they say records are made to be broken, and sure enough, I found out about a doozy this week–this one from the MLA's one time rival, the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics.

To understand why I say "one time," you'll need a bit of background.  For a long time the MLA has been the most important humanities association in the world, boasting tens of thousands of members…and for a long time it basically served as an advocacy and networking organization (and the sponsor for the hideously boring and/or terrifying annual conventions, but I digress).  But as it entered the weirdness of the sixties and seventies, then staggered into the eighties and the early nineties, it grew increasingly political and driven by ideology…ideology which took away from the business of literary criticism, at least according to some of the old guard.  Eventually the discontent got loud enough that some people decided to do something about it, and in 1994 a group of scholars formed a new organization–the ALSC.  In the beginning the ALSC joined the culture wars in support of the old guard, and so was more or less in opposition to the MLA–often vocally so.  Roger Shattuck, one of the ALSC's most notable members, even got into a big fight with the late Edward Said, former president of the MLA, where words like "pathetic" and "idiotic" got thrown around like they were going out of style.  (Okay, not exactly a street fight, but we're talking about people who think elbow patches are the height of fashion here…)

In the late nineties I was pretty down myself about the MLA's obsession with criticism which didn't rely on weird notions like, you know, actually talking about literature, so I joined the ALSC.  They weren't quite past the march on Washington stage, but they had matured enough that they were starting to create an identity that wasn't all about being not-MLA, and for a while I found a lot of value in their more reasoned approach.  But as time went on I started noticing a change–not only in the tenor of the organization, which went from fiery to, well, flat, but in its mission.  With the end of the culture wars (the only conflict in history where no one outside it knew who won, lost, or even that a fight was going on in the first place) the ALSC seemed to lose its mojo, and the annual conference got to be a pretty depressing affair of white haired white male academics talking about issues which, well, only white haired white male academics cared about.  Even their journal, Literary Imagination, got incredibly self-indulgent.  (One issue was devoted entirely to Saul Bellow.  No, not criticism of Saul Bellow, or work by Saul Bellow, or even interviews of Saul Bellow.  Instead it was about people discussing how much they loved Saul Bellow…really.  How compelling can you get?)  And so an organization dropped from a membership high of about 2500 members to 850 today, with no sign of the drop slowing down any time soon.  Confronted with the stark reality of the numbers, the ALSC had no choice but to rally together and forge ahead.

So instead they decided to eat their young. 

Well, okay, not exactly.  But over the last month the organization has been engaged in a contested election for VP–the first in its history–and boy, has the fur flown.  The problems all started when ALSC elders objected to the VP put forward by the ALSC Council, claiming (more or less) that the candidate was too committed to the current path which was, well, a complete failure, and put forth their own alternative candidate.  No problem; we'll just have an election, right?  Except that the ALSC isn't exactly super efficient when it comes to these sorts of things, and, er, mistakes were made.

Like forgetting to let the membership know who the other candidate was.


In fairness, this isn't what everyone says went down.  The Council–specifically the President and the Ssecretary-Treasurer (that's your problem right there…never give someone the power to both write AND cash checks!)–claimed it never got the information to send out about both candidates, and so instead sent a very cursory description of the "challenger," while the Council's own choice got plenty of print.  But this was obviously just an oversight, right?  Pheh, and I bet you buy ideas about bullets that take left turns in mid-air, you credulous fools!  For in truth–as the membership were told by the challengers via E-mail a couple of weeks ago–the President and Secretary-Treasurer lied to the people putting up an alternative candidate about deadlines and procedures, and by the time anyone figured out what was going on the election was already in full swing.  The challengers called foul and demanded a new election, and so the President immediately acted to resolve the dispute in a fair and equitable manner.


Uh, no, actually, not so much.  Instead the President (a guy named Christopher Ricks, who had already sent a letter–on ALSC stationery, no less–to everyone explaining why it would be a bad idea to elect the challenger candidate) sent out an E-mail to the membership accusing the challengers of "bullying" and "lying" and indicating that there would be no new election of any kind.  In a rambling thirty-plus page diatribe (and "rambling" is probably a little kind), Ricks laid out the "truth" as he understood it, with plenty of sarcasm left over for the people who wanted to challenge the status quo.  (Hey, the culture wars are back, woohoo!)  The challengers fired back with their own response, laying out counter accusations and charges, and the battle was on.  And just yesterday we got the "official" result of the election from the Secretary-Treasurer…who made it clear that there would be no redo of the election forthcoming.  I figure the next step is to bring in a juicy sex scandal, just to fire up the troops.

Why do I bring all of this up?  Because all of this back-and-forth, this virtual jousting, is being done for the benefit of a grand total of eight hundred members.  That's it.  Eight hundred.  Of that eight hundred, about four hundred voted. (And this ain't Sparta, so I don't want to hear how cool a few hundred people can be when you put them in armor.)  So all of the vitriol, all of the claims of the ALSC's destruction at the hands of this or that party, is being waged for an organization one fortieth the size, if that, of the MLA it was once designed to oppose.  This is like fighting the Trojan War, uh, now.  (I know Helen was hot, but seriously, a couple of millennia ought to do it for the sex appeal, right?)  A simple question: what is the point?  And more importantly, who the hell is minding the store while this world-class bitchfest continues?  Answer: none, and no one.  And yet rather than putting aside the absurd spectacle of grown men and women fighting over the vestiges of a rapidly dying organization, both parties seem quite content to keep the war going…a war of small resources and limited impact, the only effect of which will be to further shrink what's left of the once scrappy upstart.

(You know, though, the biggest reason I love Saul Bellow is…) 

The point here isn't to wax philosophical about how worthless academic organizations are.  Some of them are important, and they've hardly got a moratorium on pointless conventions anyway.  But I just can't fathom why academics, who are constantly accused of being out of touch with the majority of society, love this movie so much, or why they feel excited to play the same performances over and over again.  The culture wars ended ten years ago, folks, and no one really "won" as much as got tired of fighting.  And if there's one thing we all should have learned from that fiasco, it's that when we fight we ought to make sure we get a cause worth fighting for.  A VP election for an eight hundred-person strong organization just isn't one of them.  If you're really interested in making an impact for a group you care about, you just might start by trying to pull together: circle the wagons, do some soul searching, and come out swinging…but do it collectively, not separately and mutually opposed.  

Ultimately, of course, those of you not in academics, or in the ALSC, might not even care about this whole business–and that is, of course, really the big issue here.  Until we figure out how to get people to care about what we do, we're destined to end up relegated to the back pages and quirky blogs of the Internet…and when that happens, we'll have no one to blame but ourselves.  

Of course, there will always be Saul Bellow.  And I really dig that guy.

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