Tis the Season for Conference Wankery!

by Tedra Osell on December 28, 2011

Do you know what’s more boring than the insularity of academia? Bold Rebels Who Take Stands Against the Insularity of Academia by using minor players/subfields as weapons to bash someone who is mistakenly thought to be Really Important because he has a Column in the New York Times.

I so do not miss this kind of wankery. I had spent a few minutes feeling mildly wistful about lacking a reason to go up to Seattle this year, since I like and miss Seattle and would have enjoyed having drinks with some old friends and acquaintances, but dear god do I prefer sitting on my couch in 70-degree December weather thinking about taking a walk to the grocery store to having to listen to people preen themselves on their superior cynicism. If I’d stayed in academia I’m afraid my eyeballs would have gotten stuck staring at the ceiling and I’d be unable to walk anywhere.



Dave 12.28.11 at 11:24 pm

Convenient dismissals of such academic bloviation include “neat!” and “interesting!”


Tedra Osell 12.28.11 at 11:25 pm

Heh. I always liked the eyeroll, myself.


Jeff 12.28.11 at 11:29 pm

Fish is not the object of the critique, but thanks for calling me a rebel (I’m not). The post you read really is a continuation of posts going back to Nov 20. Think of it as the serialized, fragmented academic article spread over posts and not refined.


bigcitylib 12.28.11 at 11:36 pm

Totally OT, but Michael Dummett is dead. All hail Michael Dummett, probably the worst writer among the 20th century philosophical giants.


Tedra Osell 12.28.11 at 11:48 pm

The author of the wankery informs me that he wasn’t criticizing Fish. And here I was giving him the benefit of the doubt. Instead, he was criticizing “DH”, though I’m not sure what for. For having actually gained traction in literary studies? For not being “Real Literary Studies”? For not being Sufficiently Revolutionary? Gawd.


Nancy 12.29.11 at 12:01 am

For those seeking less wankery and more information, there is this response to Fish:



Steven 12.29.11 at 12:19 am

A person who has a column in the NYT is de facto pretty important. Less so these days than in the olden days, but still…


what's THIS for? 12.29.11 at 12:27 am

To the non-academic, the description of that stuff conforms to the view (not that I share it) that modern academia is nothing more than talk about work, preferably other people’s, as opposed to actual work of one’s own. Awfully meta, with it’s sessions on library organization and search. Yes, it’s important to know how things are organized but in these days of full-text search, how important is this interpretive or intercessionary function?


Tedra Osell 12.29.11 at 12:27 am

Fish is beside the point as far as the linked piece is concerned, but his NYT columns are not terribly important to the profession was what I meant.


Manuel 12.29.11 at 12:34 am

As someone who married into the humanities but whose own field worships at the alters of Science and Nature, I enjoy reading brief takedowns such as the ones you provide, but longer ones such as Mr. Fish’s and Yellowdog’s rarely get finished. Once the cream has been skimmed and the low hanging fruit picked (as Siva V. has done several times already), the argument seems kinda Oaklandy in a Steinian manner.


Andrew Smith 12.29.11 at 12:46 am

What do you mean? Seattle’s perfect right now! 50 degrees and raining.


jim 12.29.11 at 1:09 am

Actually, I like MLA. We’re not going to Seattle because getting there from the east coast is too hard and then TSA. But we’ll be in Boston next year, despite wankery (which won’t abate over the year).


Barry 12.29.11 at 1:18 am

You know, if you ‘digital humanities’ people were worth anything, you’d have digitalized Fish and his ilk into a Tron world, and forced them to fight to the delete vs glowing enemies :)


Tedra Osell 12.29.11 at 1:27 am

“Awfully meta, with it’s sessions on library organization and search. Yes, it’s important to know how things are organized but in these days of full-text search, how important is this interpretive or intercessionary function?”

Are you kidding? How important are library organization and search functions? Not at all, if you have no interest in ever actually finding information, I suppose. And hey, why would anyone want to teach students how to perform decent searches or to assess which information sources are reliable and which are hogwash?


Tedra Osell 12.29.11 at 1:29 am

Jeff! If you have time between panels, fill us in. I freely confess that I have not been a party to the argument your blog’s been making, so I am taking you entirely out of context. That said, I have kind of a hard time taking your statement elsewhere that DH is “meet the old boss same as the new boss” as anything other than a complaint that what, DH isn’t revolutionary enough? Or what?

Would seriously love to talk about this if you’re willing, here or in dialoging blog posts…


John Quiggin 12.29.11 at 2:24 am

Isn’t “Fish” a practical joke based on a David Lodge novel? The climactic scene is at the MLA, IIRC.


Tedra Osell 12.29.11 at 3:58 am

I like that theory, I’m gonna go with it.


Meredith 12.29.11 at 6:41 am

Still in academics, I avoid the national meeting when I can. The eye-rolls thing. Regional meetings and conferences (of my choice) — there are so many now! — and lots of money for visiting speakers make the national meeting unnecessary for most purposes (like catching up with friends). As does email. And more recently, cell phones (“long distance” phone calls were once, not so long ago, very expensive). Until recently, academic life didn’t know these rhythms. It interests me that people not that much younger than I take so much for granted — the world has changed so much, so quickly in just the last twenty-thirty years. Philip Swallow had no idea how far things would go. (Funny if Morris Zapp, Lodge’s Fish-like character, has become Swallow. Maybe inevitable, though. It probably happens to us all. Be warned.)
I’m kind of confused by this post and several others on CT I’d missed over the last week and have just been scanning (in the older sense). The humanities — moral philosophy and metaphysics, literary studies (including in foreign languages), history (including, e.g., the history of religions), books, with their type-sets and tangible pages (in contrast to Kindle and ipad texts): are these traditions so easily discarded? So readily over-ridden by econ and poli-sci and empirical sociology and digital texts? Is it really that simple?
Having spent too many hours last semester in boring meetings wasting time over Digital Humanities issues (if only, Tedra, they confined themselves to the important issues you mention), I’m not out of sympathy with Jeff’s NYT post, though reading it in isolation (I don’t read Stanley or other NYT blogs regularly), I don’t pretend to know whether I’d agree with Jeff or not on fundamentals. But I think it may be unfair to dismiss his post.


Dr. Hilarius 12.29.11 at 6:48 am

Whenever I read the word “hermaneutics” I reach for my gun.


Dr. Hilarius 12.29.11 at 6:50 am

hermeneutics: it’s late and I’m suffering from SAD here in Seattle (and it’s still raining).


theophylact 12.29.11 at 2:58 pm

Too bad; I thought you were making a nice pun on Goering’s name…


Michael H Schneider 12.29.11 at 3:49 pm

The phalanx of digital humanists has walked through the on-line Yellow Pages and cleverly put its finger on the same old shit. Film at 00001011. Or so I read the linked post as saying.


Ralph Hitchens 12.29.11 at 4:41 pm

What’s the deal? Text is text, digital or otherwise. A blog post is as much a text as any other, which multiplies confusion or enlightenment, take your pick. What’s wrong with being able to find more texts easily, or the comfort of knowing that the Internet never — well, hardly ever — forgets? I liked Henry’s CT post on Churchill’s (Winston, not Ward!) long-forgotten counterfactual essay on a Southern triumph in the Civil War. Imagine: a mature and well-read politician and occasional historian writing such unbelievable nonsense, yet a decade later rising to heroic stature as his nation’s leader in a global crisis! Thanks, Internet — I owe you one.


Freddie deBoer 12.29.11 at 4:41 pm

Of course, this post is the purest expression of academic wankery that you could imagine, of the “I’m too cool to play, so I’ll play by preening on about how I’m no longer playing” variety.

Either get back in or stay out. Trying to have it both ways is tiring, and of limited interest to anyone who isn’t personally involved in your own psychodrama.


P O'Neill 12.29.11 at 5:18 pm

The real fun this season is to be had with those picket-passing marginal-utility-calculating economists in Chicago.


Dave 12.29.11 at 5:36 pm

Freddie, your comment is exemplary academic “I’m too special to listen to you” whining. It is of some interest to refugees from academia, though, so by all means, continue.


Tedra Osell 12.29.11 at 6:52 pm

Freddie, actually, the subtext of my post isn’t “I’m so cool”; it’s “I don’t miss snooty academics.” Like, apparently, yourself.

Also, for the record, I have no intention of returning to academia, you’ll be happy to hear.


nick s 12.29.11 at 8:21 pm

Isn’t “Fish” a practical joke based on a David Lodge novel? The climactic scene is at the MLA, IIRC.

Stanley Fish was indeed created in the image of Morris Zapp, with the aid of a time machine powered by Calvinistic temporal disjunction. (I saw him at the one MLA convention I attended, at the time of his political spats at UIC, and he was on typical form.)


Marc 12.29.11 at 9:55 pm

As per the link: I find it amusing that a professional could give a talk about Bill Richardson’s decision to pardon Billy the Kid.

Since, of course, one is only a Google search away from finding out that the governor actually decided against doing so.

Insert jokes about postmoderism, irony, and Internet literacy as required.


JB 12.29.11 at 10:46 pm

The academic humanities are suffering attacks everywhere, and people seem to find literary criticism a particularly soft target. But I’m a bit surprised to see this site engaging in that kind of thing; Like Meredith above, I’ve noticed an anti-humanities turn in a few of the posts here in recent months, which I find deeply disconcerting. I’m sorry you apparently had a miserable experience in academia, Tedra; mine, though vexing in certain respects, has been worthwhile precisely because of the people, whom I’ve found on the whole to be passionate, diligent, and sensitive readers. Of all the people you might choose to mock, those of us who are trying to spend our lives teaching literature with very uncertain prospects ought to be pretty low on the list.


Belle Waring 12.30.11 at 3:11 am

Perhaps due to downstream contamination, I thought this was “Confederate” wankery and was like, who’s being a dick about the Confederacy? (Which, it turns out, was raaacist.) This seems like the right place to note that I hate Stanley Fish with the searing heat of the heart of an O-class star…wait, no, that’s false. I hate him with lukewarmly violent intensity, like a deadly, viciously serrated weapon forged from tepid, dirty bathwater. That he should sit up there all smug next to Ross “I Would Do Anything for Love, But I Won’t” Douthat is pluperfectly irritating.


Patrick 12.30.11 at 7:51 pm

You can take the wanker out of academia; you can’t take the academia out of the wanker. The eye roll is a dead giveaway. We all do it.


BillCinSD 12.30.11 at 11:11 pm

and again I’m glad I didn’t go into a humanities field. Skipping out of talks that would make you roll your eyes is a long standing tradition. that’s why we have exhibits


Dave 12.31.11 at 1:13 am

Oh, JB, exactly how uncertain are your prospects?


Tedra Osell 12.31.11 at 1:21 am

JB, you badly misunderstand me. My objection to the piece I cite is that *it* mocks current research in the humanities. Did you read it?


leo from chicago 12.31.11 at 9:32 am

Ya know, if Fish has no use for digital humanities, that’s fine — but why bother writing about it, in the New York Times, no less?


JB 12.31.11 at 8:50 pm

As one of the people going up to Seattle in a couple of days (and facing the depressingly long odds everyone currently on the academic job market faces), I was probably being a bit too sensitive, so my apologies. I doubt we’re really in disagreement here. I did read the piece, and I take absolutely no issue with your (warranted, I think) objections to it. It was only the general remarks, i.e., “If I’d stayed in academia I’m afraid my eyeballs… etc.” to which I was responding. It does seem to me that a disproportionate amount of commentary on ‘academic wankery’ focuses on caricatures of literary scholars, which rarely seem to have anything at all do with my own experience.


Tedra Osell 12.31.11 at 10:38 pm

I’m glad for you. I often found academics (not lit scholars specifically) quite insular and frustratingly unselfaware. I don’t miss that world, much as I continue to value many of the people in it.


Mike Schilling 01.01.12 at 11:46 pm

Tom Friedman, Ross Douthat, David Brooks, Maureen Dowd …

I give up. Why would anyone think that having a column in the NYT makes someone important?


total 01.02.12 at 7:26 pm

To the non-academic, the description of that stuff conforms to the view (not that I share it) that modern academia is nothing more than talk about work, preferably other people’s, as opposed to actual work of one’s own.

Yeah, cause taking the worst example of something and making it representative is so the way to go. No avenue of human activity could withstand THAT assumption.

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