Some time has passed since I’ve encountered a post-graduate heartbreak narrative as deadening as that of Jonathan Gottschall in “Survival of the Fittest in the English Department.” Maybe this is because I’ve abstained from reading The Chronicle of Higher Education, concluding (rightly, I still think) that it lives on a kind of niche-demographic sensationalism meant to make its readers more neurotic than they already are.
Granted, the article is filed under “Opinion & Ideas.” And reading about the struggles of young Jonathan, one thinks there must be some opinions and ideas forthcoming—maybe just floating around in there like the lingering odor of a badly cooked meal. An over-fried opinion Denver omelet. A whiff of a curdled assumption. The effluvium of a half-baked generalization. Someone turn on the ceiling fan and open a window.
Honestly, I have nothing against Jonathan Gottschall, the subject of the article. I have nothing against David Wescott, either, who knows how to write a clean journalistic line and is, like Gottschall, just trying to get paid and do his thing. In fact, let them both get paid, especially Gottschall, who, according to Wescott, has been ignored by the Academy and relegated to perpetual-adjunct Siberia in spite of his unique “literary Darwinist” approach to English studies. Gottschall wants to critique literature in terms of evolutionary biology in order to make it more relevant and fundable in an increasingly STEM-dominated world:
On a tour of the campus, Gottschall points out what he calls the “Taj Mahals.” To the left, a multimillion-dollar, LEED Silver-certified science center with a grand entrance; to the right, a stately life-sciences building that contains labs, classrooms, and a greenhouse. Sandwiched between the two, he adds, is the “hovel” of the English department. (One English professor says that the small building, which has clearly seen better days, has been home to a hornets’ nest, toxic mold, broken windows, and even indoor mushrooms.)
“If you look at these buildings,” Gottschall says with a sweep of the hand, “it’s not hard to see what society values more.”
But apparently English departments—at least the ones hiring for positions more substantial than adjunct—don’t care for Gottschall’s ideas. It’s a tragedy, this pro-science bigotry, this perpetual adjunct gulag for those unwilling or unable to agree with the academic establishment. Worse, the article implies that just as there is no remedy for this neurosis-inducing decline, there is nothing to be done for Gottschall himself, who is yet another casualty of higher education: “Asked about Gottschall’s stalled academic career, David Sloan Wilson seems to regard it as unfortunate but perhaps inevitable in its larger intellectual context: ‘This is true of all paradigmatic changes. If you lose, you can’t get a job anywhere. If you win, you can get a job at Harvard.'” Can you hear all the stained glass windows in all the churches of the world shattering at once? I think you can.
Gottschall’s sad story is also a way for Wescott to introduce the same old formulaic axe that the Chronicle has been grinding for years: look at this bright young intellectual being denied an opportunity to pursue his life’s work by the agents of impersonal, anti-humanistic, anti-life academic bureaucracy. Oh yes, my child, there are malign forces lurking, waiting to destroy everything we love. Be very afraid.
Frankly, I am tired of this. Scientism is nothing new and it’s not going to save English studies. But who said English needs saving? Everyone loves apocalypse stories and The Chronicle seems particularly obsessed with a coming academic apocalypse in the humanities—some kind of English department Mad Max brought on by too much poststructural critique and too little funding. Shakespeare with battle-axes and leather jockstraps. Well, okay. After Derrida that might be the next logical step.
But look how Wescott’s piece begins: “For a scholar ignored or condemned by almost everyone in his discipline, a career adjunct unable to secure job interviews much less a tenure-track position, Jonathan Gottschall is unusually prominent.” The ordure of piss-yellow sensationalism is unmistakable, especially if we consider that the target audience is college professors and adjuncts who have lived through some austere times in academia.
People are as worried about their careers in academia as anywhere else—every hour of the day, every day of the year. So when Wescott pushes the same old fear-buttons, we feel the same old things: dread, angst, a certain pressure to read on to the end of the piece in case Wescott offers us some relief. But there’s no redemptive vision here and the destruction of Gottschall’s dreams appears unavoidable:
Inside the English department’s building, Gottschall points to the cubicle where he once held office hours. He had spent some lean years working here. Loans, credit-card debt, saving up for a house: From 2009 to 2012 he got by on an adjunct’s income, a small book contract, and the occasional speaking gig, along with his wife’s salary as a professor of economics at the college.
Wow three years of hardship like a three-verse funeral dirge in which every dream is dead and every flower has wilted. On the other hand, he is married to a professor who, it seems, has a full-time gig. So you mean Gottschall isn’t adjuncting at five community colleges simultaneously to pay for a studio apartment that violates the Implied Warranty of Habitability in 16 states? You mean he hasn’t been misled time and again into thinking that if he took on extra unpaid administrative duties he might be first in line when the latest hiring freeze is over? You mean he actually got a cubicle to use as an office instead of having to meet with students down the street in the Dairy Queen? You mean he’s published multiple books? He has interesting ideas that he’s been able to research without sleep deprivation giving him organ damage and a facial tic? You mean he’s the subject of a Chronicle article?
Hot damn. Maybe he isn’t doing so poorly after all. Maybe, just maybe, this article is a fine bit of sensational apocalyptic fear mongering, saying just the right things to rile the readers up. But maybe it has also all been said before, many times in more serious, more responsible ways. Maybe things will change in academia. Maybe they won’t. And maybe Generation Z will be learning IT instead of Milton and their comp teacher will look like Dennis Hopper in Waterworld.
But I can tell you one thing: I don’t weep for Johnathan Gottschall. I celebrate him. He’s doing what he wants to do, maybe what he was born to do. And even if I think a scientistic critique of literature will ultimately fail to bring status, money, and relevance to what many of my fellow neurotics believe is a dying discipline, I do like the idea, maybe the only idea worthwhile in this article. Let’s have more interesting ideas like that and fewer apocalyptic opinions.