Monday, June 06, 2011

Chewing gum and...taking a step

If there is one thing that some disciplinary academicians despise, it's a polymath. Take a Noam Chomsky and toss him into a river known for schools of political scientists and they frenzy him with their bites at anything he does outside his circumscribed role, professor emeritus of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Chomsky always reminded me of a sheetrocker I knew, Mel. Mel would routinely get all his work done for the day by noon and just hang out in the afternoon (OK, fast sheetrocker Noam would have been writing books about architecture all afternoon). It was a union job and Mel was the fastest, a big, smart, agile man. Some poor electrician once asked him how he could just shoot the bull all afternoon, leaning on a pile of sheetrock. Mel pulled himself up and leveled his stare at the unfortunate. "How about tomorrow we both show up and try to get our work done by noon?" he asked. The electrician said he could probably do that, since they had a minimum amount of wire they had to pull every day, though it was obvious he wasn't too sure about it. "Should we put a couple of hundred bucks on it?" asked Mel.

"I would," said the electrician, "but my work is more technical and there might be complications. Yours is simple."

Mel laughed. "Fine. Let's make it $500, but at noon we switch and I do as much of your job as you did, and you have to hang 40 sheets of board, because I will have that on the wall by noon."

The electrician scoffed. "You couldn't do my job." Mel just stared. "Then you'll get my $500. Bring yours tomorrow and we'll have the Laborers pusher hold it." The electrician caved and walked away. Mel laughed. "Any day! I'll do my job and yours too!"

It's tough to be good at any work, so some people tend to get defensive and dented egos when an outsider does as well and does it in addition to her own work. It can get quite ugly in the academy when these traits are evoked by the work of a Renaissance woman or man. It can be very nasty when someone who is an excellent academic also speaks out publicly. This seems to trigger the outrage of those who have all they can do to keep up in the cloistered halls of academe. When a historian comments learnedly but negatively on the invasion of, say, Cambodia by Nixon, there may be a slashing attack on his tenure process (this happened to a friend of mine all those years ago, but he prevailed, thank goodness). When a psychologist helps organize a teach-in on a war he may also be suddenly derailed off the tenure track (also happened to a wonderfully accomplished academic who went on to a brilliant career elsewhere). Or there is another friend who is a historian, wrote a letter to the editor, and was dismissed from an Ivy League school on other, bogus, grounds. Speaking for peace or against war from the standpoint of someone who has actually made a study of it, or is an expert on one aspect of it, is turning oneself into a target.

However, some of us say, well, fine. If they fire me I didn't want to work there anyhow. Some years ago, when I was teaching in another state, I wrote an op-ed for peace, left town for a war tax resistance conference in Washington, DC, and got back home two weeks later (I drove and added some visits to peace friends along the way to my itinerary). My answering machine was full, mostly with increasingly urgent messages from the Dean, a wonderful man. I went to his office and explained that I has just returned to town. Turns out that my editorial was interesting enough to bring the publisher of the paper out of his closet to write a scathing rebuttal, vow to not donate any longer to the college, and to call for my firing. Then other donors to the college began to call to announce that they would not be giving any more as long as I was in the employ of the college. These are tough pressures on a dean. He withstood them. I was not fired, but he said I should no longer identify myself as a professor from the college when I did this sort of public commentary. I respected that, as I certainly didn't speak for anyone but me. I was not outside my expertise, at least, since I was running the Peace Studies program and my op-ed was about peace. But hey, I could always go back to hanging sheetrock with Mel and the boys.

These are not new issues. There is the case documented by Alexander Olson (2011) of Mary Hunter Austin's public scholarship and two friends of hers, Henry Smith of Southern Methodist University and B. A. Botkin of the University of Nebraska.

Austin was an inspiration for both men. As Smith put it, she found ways to bridge the domains of "botany, geology, archaeology, the psychology of genius, history, anthropology, literary history, sociology, prose fiction, regional culture, religion, and verse for children." (p. 53)

It does seem that if Austin could do all that back before women were even supposed to achieve anything intellectually, we who teach some aspect of peace from any discipline ought to be able to engage in our public discourse and offer some considered commentary that might counter the hegemony of the politicians, generals and war profiteers. We can walk our talk and chew gum simultaneously, right? Or work for peace and bike...


OLSON, A. I. (2011). "You have rescued me from academicism": Selections from the Correspondence of Henry Nash Smith and Mary Hunter Austin. Southwest Review, 96(1), 50-65. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

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