A friend who dates back to my middle school days posted Kipling’s “Gods of the Copybook Headings” on Facebook this afternoon, and I commented that I’ve alluded to the poem here on several occasions. This led him to ask:
[Mondo], how do you get along with your peers in academia? You don’t strike me as one to attenuate your passion or propensity to defend what you believe.
I started to answer, but after a bit, my comment turned into a blog post, so here’s what I would have said there:
Well, I hope I don’t do either of those last couple of things. I do seem to get along pretty well with my colleagues (although it’s worth noting that I’m at a college that’s in the South and would be considered a backwater by harder-charging academics. Were I at Harvard, things might well be different.) And much as I’d like to claim that my peers are awed into silence by my brilliance and rhetorical mastery, I know better. If anything, I’m more like Lear’s Fool, who can say whatever he wants — including ugly truths — with little if any consequence. (Of course, because he’s the Fool, he doesn’t really change the minds around him. But the audience notices. If I have any rhetorical impact, I suspect it’s on that sort of meta-level.) Putting it more hopefully, I suspect I operate in the sphere of the contrarian/devil’s advocate, at least among academics.
Despite the rhetoric that suggests that the academy (and particularly the subsection called the Humanities) is filled with would-be Kathy Boudins and Pol Pots (and I have met a few of those), by and large folks are pretty reasonable — as in most cases, the obnoxious folks draw the attention. And even if they aren’t reasonable, I try to be, simply because fanatics are tiresome. Most discourse these days is polarized by the assumption that the folks on the other side are a) stupid/deluded [the old Marxist “false consciousness” claim], b) crazy, c) malicious, or d) all the above. I hope it’s fairly apparent that I’m not stupid (although Mrs. M might differ.) I manage to refrain from stuff like racism and conspiracist unreason, and am willing to call it when I see it on my side, so crazy is out. And I hope that enough people see me as being pleasant, friendly, and genuinely interested in their well-being to rule out malice. (Being best friends with the Mad Dog is good practice for maintaining those habits in myself as well.)
What that leaves is someone who defies the conventional wisdom about a number of issues, but who can explain how he got to his position, even if it differs from theirs. Under those circumstances, my positions (for most folks) probably fall under the heading of “harmless eccentricity”, rather like my fondness for obscure 60s music, pulp novels, and UK basketball. In that respect, I’m apparently pretty tolerable.
And finally, there’s the fact that even if I were to “win” — whatever that might mean in this context — I’m not particularly interested in compelling others to join me. If people don’t join my position voluntarily, I’m not hurt — as long as I receive the same courtesy (which is often the problem, after all.) It’s the joke about the libertarian conspiracy that wants to take over the government and leave you alone. I try to walk that walk, and my peers respect that — for which I’m grateful. But if some people see me living the life I live and it draws them in my direction (or at least draws them to think about how and why I do that), then that’s fine as well.
Now back to grading, and then a few days rest before the onslaught of Gradeapalooza.