Thursday, May 08, 2008

The Ivory Tower

I was struck recently by an exchange in the online review Bryn Mawr Classical Reviews between Lowell Edmunds, on the one hand, and David Fitzpatrick on the other. Edmunds is a professor of classics at Rutgers University, Fitzpatrick a professor in the history department of Trinity College, Dublin. The occasion for the exchange was a review that Fitzpatrick wrote of Edmunds's recent book, Oedipus: Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World, published by Routledge in 2006. While it is not exactly a glowing review, it is, in the main positive, and concludes with:
Notwithstanding my misgivings on certain points, I think Edmunds' Oedipus is a good contribution to series. The volumes are all presented very attractively: a casual bookshop browser could be tempted to pick up a copy. There is enough depth and breath in Edmunds' offering for such a customer to be happy with his/her purchase.
This apparently did not satisfy Edmunds, however, who felt moved to write a response to the review in a subsequent issue of the online journal (BMCR is one of the few review journals that prints responses to its reviews). The response is decidedly more prickly than the review had been, with such comments as the following:
His estimate of the intelligence of this readership [those to whom the book is addressed] is clearly lower than mine was....

Fitzpatrick seems to know something that even the experts, whom I cited, don't know, and I wish that he had told us what it is....

In order to grasp the relevance of the illustrations, one must first grasp the peculiarities just referred to and second look at Figs. 6 and 7. In writing as I did and in using these illustrations (which are quite remarkable), I had not thought that I would overtax anyone's intelligence....
I wasn't the only one to find Edmunds's response "prickly", for Fitzpatrick wrote a further response to Edmunds's response in which he, too, thought that somebody had gotten up on the wrong side of the bed:
His prickliness is due, perhaps, to an unfortunate conflation of two distinct points: a supposed difference of opinion between us about the level of intelligence of the intended readership and my (footnoted) comments on the handling of illustrations and iconography in Oedipus.
There follows a measured, if pointed, reply to Edmunds's criticisms. He was unable, however, to resist the temptation to conclude his response in this way:
Towards the end of his response, Edmunds declares that he makes "some original points". If I were to adopt, momentarily, the condescension towards the general reader which Edmunds imputes to me, I wonder would the general reader identify the points in question as original ones. We'd have to consult the general reader here, but I think the declaration betrays that Edmunds had another level of readership in mind too.
Well, such is life in the rarefied air of academia. The exchange came as no surprise to me, really, because I worked with Lowell Edmunds in the classics department at Rutgers during his first year there, 1988-89. I was there for a one-year position working for Project Theophrastus, fresh out of grad school (well, relatively fresh, anyway); he had just been hired in as full professor with tenure. We got along fairly well at first, and he even rented me a room in his condo, which was literally right next door to the department. Since I was only there for the academic year I had not moved much of my stuff to New Brunswick, and Edmunds kindly allowed me to use the computer he had in his office to read my email and write my papers.

During that academic year, the department was engaged in a search for a new faculty member with an interest in feminst approaches to classics. Since I was just a visiting appointment, I had no role in the selection process, other than to attend the colloquia that the candidates gave during their campus visits. One evening, after all of the candidates had visited, I was working late in my office and Edmunds came into the department with William Fortenbaugh, who was chair of the department at that time. They were talking rather loudly about the candidates, and even after I closed my office door I could still hear what they were saying. Now, Fortenbaugh was something of a curmudgeon, and the prospect of him hiring someone with interests in "feminist approaches" is already something of a hoot. When he hired me, for example, he explained my low salary by telling me that the college was being run by a "feminist lesbian dean" who did not like him and punished him by not supporting his projects. This was my very first day on campus, and he had never met me before, so arguably he didn't care what my own views of such matters might be. When he came into the department with Edmunds that evening, Edmunds was attempting to sell him on one of the candidates and, perhaps knowing his audience, Edmunds said about the candidate "She's a good feminist, and, unlike most feminists, she's actually attractive."

Well now. Strong words, even by the Cro-Magnon standards of 1989. In the end, they hired the "attractive" candidate. No surprise there. What was surprising, however, was my last interaction with Edmunds. As I said, he was very kind to let me use the computer in his office. On one occasion I left some papers on his desk when I left, and he brought them to me the next day and told me that it was OK for me to use his computer, but please don't leave anything in his office. I explained that it was just a mistake, and I wouldn't do it again. Then, about three weeks before the end of the academic year, I was in his office printing out a paper I had written. I wanted to put some paper in his printer to replace what I had used, so I fetched one of those bundles of 500 sheets of paper that are often stacked in the vicinity of copier machines, and I refilled his printer. Then I left. Apparently I also left the bundle of paper on his desk, because the next day he came up to me in the middle of the department, with several colleagues standing around, and he brandished the bundle of paper (now containing a mere 450 sheets, approximately, but still rather hefty). He yelled at me in a rather loud voice, "I told you not to leave any of your fucking crap in my office!" and he then threw the bundle of paper at me. It did not hit me, but I decided to maintain a low profile around him anyway, just to be on the safe side.

Life isn't always that exciting in classics departments, but the "attractive" feminist eventually quit working at Rutgers before coming up for tenure, and I've often wondered whether there weren't more things flying around that department than just bundles of paper. At any rate, if BMCR is any indication, academics will always find ways to irritate one another. It beats working for a living.

No comments:

Homily for Requiem Mass of Michael Carson, 20 November 2021

  Readings OT: Wisdom 3:1-6, 9 [2, short form] Ps: 25 [2] NT: Romans 8:31b-35, 37-39 [6] Alleluia verse: John 6:39 [...