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Gregg Camfield <[log in to unmask]>
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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Mon, 24 Mar 2008 16:48:11 -0700
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I'm intrigued by how many postings over "the flap"--or perhaps "flapdoodle"--suggest that (1) the forum is mostly "academics" (2) the academy is "politically correct" (i.e. left-leaning,) and (3) college professors are elitists who have no time for naive questions.  As a college professor, I'm dismayed (not at all offended!) by the implications of these opinions.  These opinions suggest that certain negative feelings about college professors and the roles of higher education are wide-spread.  Have we, by failing to serve the public, earned these opinions? I hope not.  At any rate, I'd like to challenge them.
1) I have always enjoyed the forum because so many of the postings are NOT from my university-employed colleagues.  We get to provoke one another at conferences and in print in our spare time; here we get to see a range of ideas from another audience, one that is neither an audience with similar training and responsibilities nor one that is responding to us in our classrooms.  I, for one, love to hear the ideas of others, the wider the range, the better.  Here, I get it.  So why do those who are not professors (I believe, though a careful accounting might prove me wrong, that most posts are not by those of us with academic appointments) feel that everyone else on the list is?  Perhaps it's because some who are not professors, egs. Terrell Dempsey and Kent Rasmussen, are nonetheless published scholars.  But many others are not.  Some of the most profoundly well informed comments on this forum come from collectors, journalists, secondary-school teachers, students, and people w
hose vocations I know nothing about.  I recognize that sometimes comments about not being a professor are like the women Huck mentions who criticize their own cooking in order to be contradicted with compliments (Do you hear that Terrell?  Nobody's fooled by your country lawyer schtick--you're smarter and better informed than most of us on this or any other list!), but many more seem truly intimidated and diffident in the presence of college teachers.  If this is the collective effect we have on you, I apologize.     

2)Regarding the left-leaning sensibilities of universities: Jason Horn, a professor who just quit the list, was one of the more conservative of voices here.  Q.E.D., except that one case does not really prove most points.  To find further evidence, I'd invite anyone who holds the idea that the academy is a left-leaning monolith (would that be a leaning tower of P.C.?) to consider the large number of religiously affiliated colleges and universities that proscribe any faculty statements that would be even "humanistic," to consider the large number of conservative foundations and institutes affiliated with universities (the most prominent, I think, being the Hoover Institute at Stanford), to scan the work of economics and business faculties at U.S. universities for connections to mainstream or conservative economic and political doctrines, and, though it would be much more difficult, to poll chemistry, engineering, medical, and other faculties for their political biases.  In ea
ch case, I believe, you'd find a variety of opinions, with many, if not most, veering toward the right.  I grant that literature faculties tend toward the left (though there is a significant and voluable conservative faction among us, too), but often I feel that we're just ballast to keep the scholarship from capsizing.  

Having studied in two and worked in three universities, I've come to believe that there's not enough public money to build us ivory towers (universities like Stanford, Harvard and Princeton are the rarities.  Comparing most universities to those is like comparing my plumber to Bill Gates.  They share the fact that neither finished college and that each makes a good living, but I wouldn't draw too many conclusions based on those similarities.)  Yet somehow, the idea that we're divorced from reality but profoundly affect it by brain-washing children persists.  I speak from long experience when I say I work not in an ivory tower, but in a lightning rod.      

3)Judging by how much time my university colleagues and I discuss how to teach literature and by how much we talk about how we love to teach young people, I confidently say most of us don't mind responding to the same questions year after year. I do think that some people on this list--I don't know how to categorize them by profession--have grown testy at newcomers asking "old" questions for the same reason that all of us often bridle if someone new joins a gossip circle and asks the whole conversation to stop to catch that person up.  It's completely understandable, yet the Forum does not facilitate a traditional conversation.  Its asychronous nature and openness demand of us a different set up manners than would a real-time, face-to-face conversation.  Ideally, newcomers would bring themselves up to speed by reading the new-member information and the archives, but, realistically, that's not going to happen.  So I encourage those of us who've been with the list from the beg
inning to be welcoming or silent when new members pace over old turf.   

Gregg Camfield