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Come Back to the Ranks Ag’in, Huck Honey!
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Come Back to the Ranks Ag’in, Huck Honey!

In the last handful of years, the esc roundtable has become an important ongoing feature of our association’s annual meeting and conference, a place to think out loud about the conditions of our work, and I was delighted to be asked to participate in this year’s event. Michael O’Driscoll’s original email inviting the five of us to participate in the roundtable described its topic as “academic rites of passage,” rites, in Mike’s words, that “serve not only to establish certain hierarchies and power structures but also to secure important relations and forge the bonds of community.”

“To establish … hierarchies and power structures” and “to forge the bonds of community”: it is this paradox, maybe even outright contradiction, at the heart of our academic rites of passage that I want to explore. To do that, I want to talk about something that is both no longer and not yet a rite of passage, but I think it should be—or it should be again. I am calling this little paper “Come Back to the Ranks Ag’in, Huck Honey!”

“Come Back to the Ranks Ag’in, Huck Honey!” is, of course, a play on Leslie Fiedler’s well-known—and, at the time, hugely controversial—article, “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!” Originally published in the Partisan Review in 1948, “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!” [End Page 17] argues that, at the heart of nineteenth-century American literature, and reaching forward into the early twentieth century, was an as-yet unrecognized—and yet disavowed—archetype1: the archetype of the “mutual [homoerotic] love of a white man and a colored” (146): Ishmael and Queequeg, Natty Bumpo and Chingachgook, Huck and Jim: “lying side by side on a raft born by the endless river toward an impossible escape” (145). At the heart of the disavowal, says Fiedler, is a regressive, “implacable nostalgia for the infantile” (144), the (white) American dream of boyhood, of “good clean fun” and “self-congratulatory buddy-buddiness” (144). This is the “child’s dream of love” (147), a dream that

Our dark-skinned beloved will take us in … when we have been cut off, or have cut ourselves off, from all others, without rancor or the insult of forgiveness. He will fold us in his arms saying, “Honey” … he will comfort us, as if our offence against him were long ago remitted, were never truly real.


The white American, says Fiedler, “dreams of his acceptance at the breast he has most utterly offended” (151).2

I wonder if it is by now clear that I am reading Fiedler’s reading of Huck and Jim together on the raft as a wishful allegory of university administration? Senior administration. Deans and up. Except it is we who are the dreamers, the Jims, who call out … I won’t say to “our oppressors” … to come back to the raft again, come back to the breast, to the dream of emancipation that is at the heart of real education.

A couple of articles have been circulating widely, on Facebook and other social media sites. The first is W. D. Smith’s Maclean’s article of January 2010, “Where All that Money is Going: Tuition Rises, Class Size Grows, and the Bureaucracy Gets Big.” The second is Barry Cooper’s article from May 2012—published in various newspapers—titled “Universities Have Been Taken Over by Administrators.” Both make the same argument: [End Page 18] that central administrative costs have skyrocketed; that is, that “a disproportionate share of new income has been used … to expand the central bureaucracy” (Smith).

Smith’s 2010 figures, from data compiled by StatsCanada, are shocking. In 1988, 12 cents of operating funds were “spent on central administration for every dollar spent on instruction and non-sponsored research.” By 2008, that 12 percent had risen to 20 percent. At an average Canadian university, that means $18 million dollars annually going to central administration that would previously have gone into the classroom and unsponsored research. At a G133 university, says Smith, that figure...