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  • Celeb-Reliance: Intellectuals, Celebrity, and Upward Mobility
  • Bruce Robbins

“Scholars Fear ‘Star’ System May Undercut Their Mission.” Appearing on the front page of the New York Times in December, 1997, this headline advertised to the world the perplexity that has surrounded the emergence of so-called academic stars, both inside the academy and beyond it. Does the academy have a “mission” for these celebrities to undercut? If so, what is it? The sources quoted are not forthcoming on these points. Nor can they agree about whether it is brilliance or mere trendiness that gets rewarded, whether teaching suffers or benefits from the stars’ presence, whether they are to be admired as hyper-productive geniuses or despised as fakes and opportunists. This is not merely journalistic balance; it also traces the outline of a more widespread narrative. While worrying conscientiously about the cost of off-scale raises and reduced teaching loads, the Times titillates its readers with success stories like that of historian Alan Taylor, whose prize-winning book won him overnight offers from several prestigious universities. The thrill is familiar, and so is the way its enjoyment is hedged round by scruples about the means, misgivings about the ends. New the academic celebrity may be, but we have all heard stories like this before, from Great Expectations to Hoop Dreams.

For the Times, in other words, celebrity is a contemporary variation on the notorious national theme of self-reliance and upward mobility—a point that Jeffrey Decker has recently made at greater length (xiv–xv). And this suggests that academic confusion about the new academic celebrity may reflect a more general confusion about self-reliance itself.

Before elaborating on this suggestion, let me try to distinguish between what does and does not deserve complaint. What clearly deserves complaint is the tendency, in an increasingly corporatized university, to institute a two-tiered employment structure and a two-tiered salary scale: that is, to increase the already dramatic divide between fewer and fewer tenured and tenure-track people on the one hand (whether stars or not) and more and more untenured, adjunct, part-time people on the other. This drive to proletarianize the vast majority of university teachers is an abomination, though an abomination with non-academic precedents; one thinks for example of the increasing recourse to cheap and disposable part-time workers that helped precipitate the recent UPS strike. If it is allowed to widen much farther, the divide between part-timers and full-timers will destroy the relatively democratic version of higher education that has arisen since World War II. The two-tier system has to be maligned and mobilized against at every opportunity. Taking it on will require people organizing on the bottom tier, and without much expectation of support from those who have lucked out generationally and now find themselves with job security or reasonable expectations of it. And it will mean academics fighting corporatization in the university as part of a self-conscious struggle against the same corporatization elsewhere—speaking up against all forms of outsourcing, subcontracting, and systematic irresponsibility, making the exploitation of part-timers in the academy into a general case in favor of more accountability. Otherwise, where are our non-academic allies supposed to come from?

But vague sentiments about celebrity can only cloud current assessments of the academic job crisis and the shifting conditions of academic work. Celebrity is usually defined by starting from fame and subtracting something: fame minus merit, or fame minus power. The sparest of these definitions by deficiency is Daniel Boorstin’s: being known for being known. Whatever its other deficiencies, however, celebrity cannot be defined as a cause or result of two-tier employment. Arguing that stars “command an ever larger share of shrinking resources,” David Shumway adds, with understandable hesitation, that their salaries “may have encouraged the hiring of more part-time and temporary faculty members” (94). Sharon O’Dair argues with no such hesitation that we have the star system “because [the emphasis is hers] there are so few tenure-track jobs” (609). Are we really supposed to believe that if there were more jobs, there would be none of the inequalities of intellectual visibility, veneration...

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