Traveling through the Boondocks: In and Out of Academic Hierarchy

Terry Caesar
Albany: SUNY Press, 2000
203 pp., $19.95 pb

O. Alan Weltzien

Readers of Terry Caesar's earlier books know his penchant for exploring territory outside familiar canons. Caesar's first book, Conspiring with Forms: Life in Academic Texts (1992), was a relentless scrutiny of unexamined and unsavory facets of American higher education and of the professorate. That book's final chapter, "On Teaching at a Second Rate University," gained him national attention. Traveling through the Boondocks grew out of that essay. The title is borrowed from a satire, "Masterpiece Theatre: An Academic Melodrama" written by feminist critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. Gilbert and Gubar focus their spoof on "academized ideology" at a mythical Boondock State University.

To Caesar academe is a remorseless caste system with a tiny minority of academic superstars at the top. The other 95 plus percent of us are excluded as players by the superstars, who dictate disciplinary preferences and fashions by which the silent super-majority forever falls short. Usually Caesar avoids the looming trap of self-pity through an iconoclastic approach. Occasionally he pursues trivial minutiae, but mostly, though, he uncovers hidden aspects of academic power under which we spend our careers.

Traveling through the Boondocks does not focus on adjuncts, temps, or the non-tenurable but on those middling academics who teach at the Clarion Universities of the World (his school). Laboring away in second or third-rate institutions, they still take their prestige cues from the Yales and Cornells.

Caesar's analysis of academic hierarchy might release us middling sort from the tight grip of the elites. Traveling through his chapters, I find my own professional life echoed and indirectly validated in many ways. What does it mean to work at places lacking prestige. This book names what many know but don't care to admit about the realities of academic hierarchy and the repression is necessitates.

On some pages there are traces of envy, and once in a while his analyses veer into self-indulgence, though these passages are often funny. Caesar enjoys paradox and often states epigrammatically, as when he describes the book's genesis: "Much of this book arose during a particular moment in my career when I realized I had one--in deciding to write about why I didn't" (9).

For Caesar the discovery of career means writing books at a school that doesn't value such work. The agenda of IA research schools calls the shots. Caesar persuasively argues that teaching, "along with anything else, is subject to the imperatives of academic hierarchy" and is "embedded in a narrative of research" (5). Teaching, inherently ephemeral, just doesn't weigh as much.

In the Introduction Caesar cites two goals for Traveling: "to outwit the narrative of exclusion," and "to seek out what of my own professional experience is representative in nature" (18-19). Some chapters realize these goals better than others. I believe the core chapters are: "A Credit to the University," "Electing a Department: Differences, Fictions, and a Narrative," "The Politics of Institutional Affiliation," and "Getting Hired." Getting and staying hired entails the understanding and negotiation of academic hierarchy. Caesar believes academic hiring resembles "an amorous proceeding" at whose heart is "mystery" (126, 120). He argues that the good ol' boy/girl network survives stronger than ever though masked by official discourse. Duplicity and hidden power breed "widespread cynicism."

Although all is not bad in the boondocks, it is not, as we know, where the action is. To the elite, I just don't count. But this is rarely admitted on either side. As Caesar remarks in his opening chapter, "the more general discourse of American higher education flattens out the vast exclusions and purports to extend an available rhetoric to any and all institutions" (26). We're all in this together--except we're not.

In his third chapter Caesar pursues the contradiction through scrutinizing the annual Modern Language Association convention, the premiere gathering of language and literature professors, part conference, part carnival, and part cattle market. Many English professors tell horror stories about the MLA, others happy stories, though I've always imagined the former outnumber the latter.

Caesar believes "that most MLA sessions are the result of prior arrangement among the principals," "the most fundamental structural feature of the profession" (62). Something of royal place, the MLA enacts a bogus democracy wherein "all universities are pluralistically welcome to attend, but most are realistically excluded from the power either to determine or enunciate what goes on" (67). And why is this the case? Because "the system of representation which makes the play of institutional differences possible is not itself on any discursive agenda within the profession" (65). He goes further: "part of the reason race, gender, and class have become such overwhelming professional concerns is because the politics of institutional affiliation within the profession have not" (64).

Caesar advocates placing that "system of representation" with its "grand, progressive thematic of exclusion" (66) on the table. Echoing William Chaloupka's title in his recent analysis of the culture of cynicism, "what 'everybody knows' about the politics of institutional affiliation" (61) should become a topic for frequent writing and discussion in venues such as department corridors, The Montana Professor, and The Chronicle. I second Caesar's invitation to study and publicize academic hierarchy, which is seldom scrutinized.

This bold enterprise is risky. Most of us are not willing to accept the challenge and discomfort Caesar faced when writing about Clarion University. Most of us prefer not to name the unnamed. In any event, the reverberations of academic hierarchy constrain many facets of our professional lives. Peer evaluations, for example, "are finally not about teaching but departmental unity" (94). When and how do peer evaluations become something other than a common exercise in mutual back scratching? Caesar includes passages from parodic or even fictitious peer evaluations he's written during his Clarion career, which, though funny, may not advance very far his skepticism about the whole business. Even if his subversion doesn't unmask the conventions, they clarify his own antipathy. Although he has no use for peer evaluations (97), I believe them potentially useful though often flawed.

In other chapters Caesar studies academic hierarchy as it manifests itself when one writes grants, teaches literary criticism, or takes sabbaticals while working in the Boondocks. Caesar concludes that grant writing, like getting hired, "is fraught with circumstances exterior to the writing that the interior of the writing can't address. The story I would tell about grants features institutional privilege as the very name of those circumstances, if not of exteriority itself" (88). We're reminded of a harsh truth: "the more prestigious the grant, the lesser the chances for someone who commands no prestige" (77).

How, then, to gain any prestige when neither you nor your campus own any? Even though the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), as one example, maintains two categories for annual research grants (i.e., those applicants at Carnegie IA institutions, and those not), it's very hard to climb up the academic pyramid because the Boondocks thrive on inertia even as they ape the research institutions.

Caesar's final chapter, about "the relationship between academic life itself and travel" (152), features a witty self-interview (153-58). Caesar proposes a direct correlation between prestige and mobility, with those at the base of the power pyramid typically static or place-bound. Academic superstars, however, are the new nomads, perpetually traveling to conferences and new, temporary, academic affiliations.

In closing the book, Caesar writes,

By the circumstances, intricacies, and limitations of our individual institutions, we will be driven, as academics. By our travel away from them, however, we will be known--even if the best route we can hope for is the one represented by a sabbatical, and even if any particular one leaves you only traveling through the boondocks, while talking to yourself about its ins and outs. (171)

For Caesar, local identity obscures disciplinary identity. Obviously he regards the latter as real and the former, ephemeral. Some might reject his privileging disciplinary identity, arguing that local professional identity is what matters or that it reinforces disciplinary identity rather than undercutting it. Others might argue the difference between identity and reputation. Clearly, Caesar explores the trajectory and the tyranny of academic reputation; he also clearly believes such reputation doesn't matter much at home because it neither originates nor flourishes there. I think him both right and wrong.

The book is marred by a number of proofreading errors, and Caesar inadvertently confuses Louise with Gretel Erlich when citing the latter's The Solace of Open Spaces (80). While his sardonic humor might annoy some, I find it appropriate to his subject and approach. His deft transitions between chapters unify his survey of academic hierarchy.

His exposure of the reality of second classness in the professorate will offend some, but I believe his articulation of the vast academic underclass's plight compelling and true.

Everybody knows what he says is so, and if you don't, then you don't deserve to. To name the shape and agenda of hegemony is to begin subverting it, as we know from feminism and postcolonialist literary criticism. Reading Traveling through the Boondocks validates at least some of us in the underclass, for herein we read chapters from our own professional stories. I, for one, hope to see more accounts of academic hierarchy written and published. Through such accounts, people in the Boondocks just might be able to participate in the ongoing negotiation of academic reputation, instead of remaining subjected to those definitions controlled by the elites.

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