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  • An Academic Exorcism
  • Michael Alexander Chaney
Cary Nelson and Stephen Watt, Academic Keywords: A Devil’s Dictionary for Higher Education. New York and London: Routledge, 1999.

Academic Keywords is that rare sort of polemic that consoles with humor as it enrages us with personal accounts and persuasive analysis of the current crisis in higher education. Provocative and conversational, urbane and intelligent, this is a volume that almost defies traditional categorization. Visually, the book resembles what its redoubtable subtitle announces it to be—a dictionary of keywords essential to expanding our understanding of the unfolding crisis in academia, particularly in the humanities. Entries both long and short cogently define new and often dispiriting trends, such as outsourcing, America’s fast-food discipline, company towns, and Responsibility Centered Management. Other entries trenchantly recontextualize more familiar terms like merit, faculty, and tenure in order to reverse what the authors denounce in their preface as a “vocabulary that reinforces various forms of false consciousness” (vii). As part of this effort to update our taxonomies of academia’s problems, Nelson and Watt include larger, full-length essay entries on sexual harassment, the corporate university, and affirmative action “to redefine familiar terms for each new generation, to rearticulate them to new conditions” (viii). The result is a compelling incrimination of corporatization as the source of our present academic woes.

Unfortunately, while the authors eloquently describe corruption and exploitation at all levels of the university, their dictionary is not counterbalanced with a lexicon of improvement or recovery beyond terms that many academics and administrators would read with a twinge of concern if not discomfort—terms such as union, collective bargaining, strike. And yet, Nelson and Watt anticipate this criticism. They explain in their preface that the book is no panacea but a wake-up call meant to “examine present conditions” and to show “that academia is indeed a workplace more than an ivory tower” (x).

What most distinguishes this book from others similar to it (Nelson’s Will Teach for Food: Academic Labor in Crisis; Robert Scholes’s The Rise and Fall of English; Michael Bérubé’s The Employment of English: Theory, Jobs, and the Future of Literary Studies) is the way in which the act of naming itself becomes not only a tool for recovering knowledge but also an effective and entertaining means of linking seemingly unrelated symptoms of academia’s hard-to-diagnose illness. Although the book predictably follows an alphabetical order, there is an unrelenting unity that governs each entry. A paragraph from the introduction explains this unity while demonstrating in a final hyperbolic flourish the rhetorical force of these linkages:

The multiple crises of higher education now present an interlocking and often interchangeable set of signifiers.


Conversation about the lack of full-time jobs for Ph.D.s turns inevitably to the excessive and abusive use of part-time faculty or the exploitation of graduate student employees, which in turn suggests the replacement of tenured with contract faculty, which slides naturally into anxiety about distance learning, which leads to concern about shared governance in a world where administrators have all the power, which in turn invokes the wholesale proletarianization of the professoriate (8). In any other dictionary there is no similarity between one entry and the next except for those phonetically-spelled pronunciation keys in parentheses. Not so in Nelson and Watt’s, though curious parentheticals full of schwas and umlauts abound. Theirs is a primer which, like Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary (1911), defines divergent topics with a yoking interpretive purpose that ranges from the serious to the satiric.

Without question, it is on the subject of university corporatization that we find the authors achieving a level of indignation comparable to any radical manifesto. But even the book’s most apocalyptic moments are softened by a sense of humor and an understanding of opposing views. After presenting these issues at the University of Chicago, the authors report that a “distinguished faculty member there rose to say, ‘Well, you’ve heard Mulder’s version of the story; now let me give you Scully’s’” (xii). This comparison to the X-Files conspiracy-obsessed radical is very revealing. Although the book...

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