Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The tyranny of the clock

Clock[T]he monosyllable of the clock is Loss, loss, loss, unless you devote your heart to its opposition.

— Tennessee Williams, The Catastrophe of Success

Carson McCullersI had occasion of late to send two slim volumes of American literature. I sent a dear friend a set of short stories by Carson McCullers, including The Ballad of the Sad Café. These stories, among the most lyrical in the American canon, remind us that love persists not only despite longing, but almost certainly because of it. For "sorrow parallel[s] desire in the immense complexity of love."

I sent the other volume, Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie, as a rebuke to its recipient, as a reminder that the Laura Wingfields in this world need not suffer visible lameness from pleurisy, nor appear destitute in material terms, to fall prey to the emotional recklessness or even opportunism of those who would trade a few moments of their own pleasure against another's lifetime of disappointment.

And then I rediscovered a single phrase among notes scribbled during a faculty meeting that took place a thousand days ago. This confluence of events confirmed a truth that Williams propounded in The Catastrophe of Success, an essay written in response to the enervating triumph of The Glass Menagerie: "the monosyllable of the clock is Loss, loss, loss, unless you devote your heart to its opposition."

Without doubt, the clock is an evil tyrant. But which clock?

Read the rest of this post . . . .The tyrannical clock that historically struck fear in the hearts of academics has been the tenure clock:
David Bowie, Five YearsFive years, what a surprise
Five years, stuck on my eyes
Five years, my brain hurts a lot
Five years, that's all we've got
But tenure denial is a relative rarity, and still rarer is the complete expulsion of a professor, strictly for want of academic merit, from the teaching ranks. Moreover, the forcible removal of one faculty member, even if mistaken on the merits, is rarely enough to doom an entire school.

No, the tenure clock is hardly tyrannical. An entire scholarly agenda can emerge — or disintegrate — in a thousand days. One thousand days are enough for a dedicated scholar to stake out intellectual turf and to defend it. Of course, a thousand days also exceed the time it takes for a comparably ambitious scholarly workplan to collapse altogether.

Rather, the truly tyrannical clock in academia is the long, slow timetable by which the forces of academic evil can afford to outlast more virtuous opponents. Negative and inappropriate opportunism, said the faculty meeting notes I had once so painstakingly committed to paper. Not once, not twice, but thrice the voices of sincere faculty members arose to praise their dean. Negative and inappropriate opportunism became the rallying cry of those who feared that odiously selfish, morally bankrupt faculty members might seize control of the university's review process to throttle a successful deanship — and with it, a once proud faculty where young, ambitious, and talented scholars did indeed claim and comprehend new intellectual ground.

Fox and rabbitIn the academy's never-ending struggle between good and evil, evil holds the upper hand. In their pathbreaking article, Arms Races Between and Within Species, 205:1161 Proc. Royal Soc'y London: Series B, Biol. Scis. 489-511 (1979), Richard Dawkins and John R. Krebs observed that "a lineage under strong selection may out-evolve a weakly selected one." Dawkins and Krebs called this idea "the life-dinner principle," and it explains why prey animals often — and usually — elude their predators. What is merely dinner for the predator is life itself from the prey's perspective.

Academic's tyrannical clock, which is perpetually locked at high noon, is simply the life-dinner principle projected on a temporal rather than a spatial scale. The virtuous, diligent professor knows that she is no better than her latest idea, no more valuable than she is capable of delivering genuine pedagogical value to her students. Her job, metaphorically speaking, is dinner. By contrast, the odiously selfish professor treats her job as a sinecure, an entitlement worth defending by any means necessary. An academic appointment, metaphorically speaking, is life. As a result, unless the forces of academic virtue devote their collective heart to opposing this tyrannical clock, eventually there will be absolutely nothing to do in academia. The soul rots with boredom. You might as well go down to the highway and listen to the chain gang.


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