Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Annals of Academic Infighting

My adjustment to the productive tranquility of retirement has been nearly painless.  Just now, however, breaking news from California (where else?) has me as it were awash in nostalgia for the good old days of infantile political intrigue, backstabbing and simple bar-room brawling—otherwise known as “departmental politics”--in the ivied Halls of Academe.  Perhaps there is opportunity here to branch out in my writing?  Let me pitch my idea for a three-part TV mini-series entitled The Stakes So Small, taking my title from a hoary academic Q&A joke:
Q: Why is the infighting in Academe so fierce?
A: Because the stakes are so small.
Malmesbury Abbey: John the Scot's Last Stand

Episode One: The demise of John the Scot, or how “Rate My Professor” worked before the days of the Internet.  The scene : the grammar school, Malmesbury Abbey, in present-day Wiltshire, England.  The time: ca. anno 875.  John the Scot springs a pop quiz on his novices, with unhappy results.  John the Scot is my favorite medieval philosopher, for the obscurity surrounding his person is perfectly matched by the incomprehensibility of his doctrines and the opacity of the modern scholarship devoted to him.  We call him John the Scot because his name was Erigena and he was an Irishman; that’s the way it works in my field.  Erigena was one of the great intellectuals of the ninth century.  (Yes, I hear the clown at the back of the class asking who the other one was.)  He was unusual in that he knew Greek, and spread it pretty thick around his writings.  So he called his most famous work the Periphyseon, which is rendered in Latin De divisione Naturae.  But the choristers didn’t want it in any language.  They wanted to render John the Scot instead, and they stabbed him to death with their sharp-pointed writing tools.  John, who had had a rather monochrome life, thus achieved a most stylish death.  Unfortunately the account of the historian William of Malmesbury may actually be about another John the Scot, as there were lots of people who were not named John and who were not Scots.

The stilus was used to write upon wax tablets.  It could make a deep impression on a philosopher.

Episode Two: The birth of the modern Democratic Party.  The scene: telegraph office, Salem, Massachusetts.  The time: May, 1910.  Woodrow Wilson, president of Princeton University, and Andrew Fleming West, dean of its nascent graduate school, are both sons of the manse.  Furthermore, they are of that stripe of Calvinist who, while firmly upholding the doctrine of the Total Depravity of Mankind, is pretty sure that he himself, personally, has never made a mistake.  They have been warring for a decade about where the residential buildings for the Graduate School will be placed once the money is found to build them.  Wilson wants to build in the heart of the undergraduate campus.  West insists on a site some hundreds of yards distant atop of mound of earth with aspirations to become a hill.

Woodrow Wilson with Andrew Fleming West behind him.  He should have watched his back.

Both cite unassailably high-minded reasons, but West has just won.  Over many years he has assiduously cultivated a real estate tycoon in Salem MA (Isaac Wyman, Princeton Class of 1848).  Wyman’s dear old granddad had fought for our freedom at the Battle of Princeton (1777), and West has successfully insinuated the thought that building a memorial Gothic dining hall somewhere vaguely in the vicinity, or at least direction of the battlefield would be the best possible use of the Wyman fortune.  West has just hotfooted it from Wyman’s funeral to telegraph the news back to Princeton:  Wyman, naming Andrew Fleming West as executor, has left a bequest of millions provided the money is spent as West directs.
General Washington points to the site of the future Graduate College

The reproof is too much for Woodrow Wilson to bear.  He must find a new job, and the rest is history.  In the good old days the Democratic Party had done quite well, thank you very much, bearing the standard of Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion, though branching out occasionally to pioneer powerful political machines in the burgeoning great cities of the Republic.  When the Rebellion turned out rather badly it became the regional party of the Solid South, State Sovereignty, and Segregation.  Woodrow Wilson began to change all that.  He was one of the first American politicians to make a religious virtue of telling other people and indeed other nations how to live their lives.  They have not stopped since.  That is why ethanol production, which might be classified as a scam midway betwixt itinerant aluminum siding contracting and three-card monte, has been hailed as an ethical insight roughly comparable to the categorical imperative of Immanuel Kant.

Episode Three.  A sea of troubles and irrational numbers.   The scene:  Santa Susana Hall, home of the Mathematics Department, California State University (Northridge),  December, 2010.  As this is a current event, I must count on readers to supply their own allegeds or allegedlys as liberally as needed.  The star of the episode is an algebraic geometrician who, though in fact a binomial, will here and for obvious reasons be referred to simply as Professor Ρi. Professor Pi has been conducting a dispute with his colleague Professor Phi in a neighboring office.  Custodians report repeatedly finding, on their early-morning rounds, suspicious puddles of acrid-smelling liquid pooled at the base of Professor Phi’s office door.  It seems possible, shockingly so, that in Shakespearean terms "the gilded puddle which beasts would cough at" might in some way be related to the ongoing quarrel, Pi/Phi.  Acting upon these suspicions, innovative campus police take bold action.  They install a closed circuit security camera that scans the moistened hallway. 
 According to reports, “[ Pi] was captured on videotape urinating on the door of another professor's office on the Northridge campus. School officials had rigged the camera after discovering puddles of what they thought was urine at the professor's door”.
In the state of California performing an irrational number on a mathematician’s door is not felonious; but Professor Pi is nonetheless in plenty of hot water, so to speak.  He faces two misdemeanor charges.  Even such baleful episodes of academic animosity as this one may advance the cause of science, however.  The Northridge campus police , for example, seem to have raised the concept of peer review to an altogether new level.  On the whole, however, your bloguiste is quite happy in his retired state, and to be laboring in the solitary calm of his home study.
and that's just for starters...