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Margaret Wente

Margaret Wente

Margaret Wente

Adventures in academia: The stuff of fiction Add to ...

Every year around this time, thousands of scholars from universities across the country converge to share their best and newest thinking in the humanities and social sciences. This week they’re gathering in Ottawa. Naturally, it’s impossible to convey the richness and depth of the thousands of sessions on offer in a few hundred words. But I wanted to find out what’s hot in academia these days. So I dipped into some of the program listings.

In the field of English studies (my old stomping ground), nobody is interested in the classics any more. Who needs another boring monograph about Jane Austen? Time to break new ground. The presentation called Sexed-up Paratext: The Moral Function of Breasts in 1940s Canadian Pulp Science Fiction does just that. It is not atypical.

I wonder what Northrop Frye would make of modern English studies? Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), the giant of literary criticism is not around to say. The grand sweep of his work, with its timeless archetypes and universal themes of fall and redemption, enthralled a generation of students. Today he’s just another dead white male, along with Blake and Shakespeare.

Another example that nicely captures the zeitgeist of this year’s conference is a presentation called Whiteness, Nihilism and Class in Grand Theft Auto V. How does this fit into an English program? It fits because pop culture – in the form of video games, comic books and lowbrow TV shows – is a rich source of discourse about whiteness, gender, class, race, and/or postcolonialism. Also, it’s post book.

Themes of victimization and oppression – along with the evils of neoliberalism and the virtues of everything indigenous – have seized the humanities and social sciences by the throat, and show no sign of letting go.

Women’s and gender studies seem to be as robust as ever, with a tightly packed agenda that offers insights into such mysteries as why young men in Third World countries want to sleep with white women (Commodification and Racial Scripts in Female Sex Tourism). Sexuality studies, which now has a professional association of its own, offers further revelations in sessions entitled Foot Fetish as Decolonization and You Asshole!: The Truth of Jerkoff Porn/Art. If that’s too racy, there’s also Lesbians in Space.

What strikes me most is not the self-indulgent shallowness of this material. It’s the pretentious jargon wrapped around it. For example, what is the significance of indigenous hip-hop music? According to one scholar in Canadian studies, it signifies nothing less than a “resurgence in indigenous community resistance.” When aboriginal and white kids hang out together in hip-hop clubs, they aren’t just having a good time. They are building a “cross-cultural partnership” to combat capitalist and colonial “systems of oppression.”

In need of a little intellectual sustenance, I decided to check out the program for food studies, a popular new field. Surely there would be something serious on offer. No such luck. The real subject of food studies is food justice, especially the “redressing of race, gender, and class-based inequalities.” The chief way to address these inequalities, judging by the presentation topics, is not to enhance agricultural productivity or to improve the supply chain. Instead, we must decolonize our food movements and return control of food to the people. We must expose the hegemonic nutrition of the Canada Food Guide, and encourage marginalized, oppressed urban people to grow organic carrots.

Not all humanities and social-science scholarship is this bad. But it’s no wonder that the aspirational children of new Canadians are flocking into business, science, pharmacy, accounting, and other practical studies that will pay off in a good career. They have no time for this rubbish. The only people who can really afford it are the children of the haute bourgeoisie, who probably won’t be too scarred. They’ll just pick up some practical courses at community college and get on with their lives.

But I do have some sympathy for the members of the academic precariat – the graduate students and PhDs who’ve been led down the garden path by universities that exploit them for cheap labour and professors who fool them into thinking that they might have a shot at the ever-shrinking tenure track. If they’re lucky, they too will one day be able to denounce the system that supports them in such comfort. If not – at least they will be masters of pulp fiction.

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