NOVELS ABOUT ACADEMIC
Kenneth Westhues, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012
The dozen novels below offer not just reading pleasure but insight into workplace mobbing in academe. I would appreciate (by email) suggested titles for addition to the list. There is more truth in good fiction than in bad social science.
John Williams, Stoner (Viking, 1965). ... Fortunately for Stoner, Finch nips the mobbing in the bud. He says to Lomax, “quietly, almost affably, ‘There will be no charges. I don’t know how this thing is going to resolve itself, and I don’t particularly care. But there will be no charges. We’re all going to walk out of here in a few minutes, and we’re going to try to forget most of what has been said this afternoon. Or at least we’re going to pretend to. I’m not going to have the department or the college dragged into a mess. There will be no charges. Because,’ he added pleasantly, ‘if there are, I promise you that I will do my damnedest to see that you are ruined. I will stop at nothing. I will use every ounce of influence I have; I will lie if necessary; I will frame you if I have to.... READ THE FULL REVIEW HERE: ACADEMIC LIFE AS IT WAS, IS, AND EVER SHALL BE (SIGH)
Thibeault, Thomas, Balto's Nose (Ridgetop, 2011). ... Like its author, Balto’s Nose is foreign to the postmodern mentality. The sometimes elusive difference between perception and reality is one of the things that makes this novel so gripping, so hard to put down. A plausible account of something turns out, pages later, to be an illusion. Again and again, the reader has the pleasure of discovering that what initially looked true is actually false, or vice versa. But such pleasure depends on knowing that some things really are true or false, that not everything depends on opinion or power. This novel is about a real world wherein people kill and are killed, betray trust and live up to it, speak honestly and lie, behave as heroes and as coward.... READ THE FULL REVIEW HERE: THE KIND OF NOVEL A MOBBED PROFESSOR WRITES
Phillip Roth, The Human Stain (Houghton Mifflin, 2000). Strange, Roth observes, "that people so well educated and professionally civil should have fallen so willingly for the venerable human dream of a situation in which one man can embody evil. Yet there is this need, and it is undying and it is profound" (pp. 306f). Stranger still that this basic point of Roth's story about a professor's mobbing got lost in the screen adaptation. Skip the movie. The book tells the truth about an eliminative ritual enacted over and over on college campuses in our time — enacted also in the impeachment of Bill Clinton (to which the book's title alludes) and more recently in the war on Saddam Hussein. Augustine called it original sin. Konrad Lorenz, who inspired research on workplace mobbing, called it instinct. Roth calls it the human stain, and graphically portrays one of its current manifestations. Any adequate social science has to recognize and come to terms with this darker force in human life — as I described it in a 2001 essay on this novel and some other ones.
William Hart, Never Fade Away (Fithian, 2002). One weakness of Human Stain is that Roth's Vietnam veteran is just a foil, a messed-up, destructive force. Hart's vet, by contrast, is John Goddard, a college English instructor plagued by demons but caring, dangerous mainly to himself. This is the simple, gorgeous story of John's relation to student Tina Le, an immigrant from Vietnam with demons of her own. The tale is told in alternating entries from their respective diaries. Against the human complexities of John's and Tina's lives, Hart juxtaposes the college bureaucracy, embodied by an official he calls The Hump. John eventually is axed for being "an insurbordinate instructor who overidentifies with his students and abuses colleagues." Any professor who contemplates hiring a lawyer, filing a grievance, and going through an arbitration ought to read this book first. John concludes: "It would appear my little rebellion didn't accomplish much, except to screw me and a few select others foolish enough to believe in me." On its dedication page, Hart says the book is "For students and teachers everywhere, who have suffered misguided administrators." There are lots of enthusiastic reviews on amazon, or try this one by Jessica Powers. Hart has published a brief account of what led him to write this novel.
Helen Garner, The First Stone: Some Questions about Sex and Power (Free Press, 1995, 1997). This author is a major Australian novelist, but this is a nonfiction book. As a woman aware of how many women (including herself) have been wrongly turfed from jobs done well, often for no other reason than their sex, Garner might understandably have overlooked the mobbing of the master of Ormond College, University of Melbourne, in 1992, on charges of sexual harassment. Instead she described and analyzed his ouster in factual detail, and gave her book a title that alludes to an anti-mobbing story at the heart of Western civilization. Perhaps the main relevance of her book to research on mobbing is its depiction of how the college's governing council hung the master out to dry not because it was convinced of his guilt of serious offense but because he was not an insider in the first place, and once he became the focus of controversy, he became an unbearable burden. Garner quotes one council member: "To us, it was more important to get Ormond back on an even keel. The truth was at the bottom of a well." Not surprisingly, Garner's transcendence of allegiance to just one of the two sexes called forth many defenses of a narrower feminism. One example is Jenna Mead's edited collection, Bodyjamming (see online reviews of the latter by Caitlin Mahar and Robert Manne). Another example is Anthea Taylor's online essay about The First Stone and one of Garner's subsequent books.
George L. Colon, Confessions
of a Rogue Teacher (NY: iUNIVERSE, 2008). No caricatures in this
gritty, suspenseful story of a teacher in the South Bronx who is assigned to
the Rubber Room following accusations of . . . , well, it takes him a while
to find out which of his sins landed him in the soup.
READ THE FULL REVIEW.
Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim (Penguin, 2000; originally published 1954). Jim Dixon, Assistant Lecturer in History at a university in post-war England, is indeed mobbed in Amis's classic novel. "Everybody hates you, Dixon, and my God I can see why," says Bertrand, the son of Jim's boss, Professor Ned Welch. Jim doesn't fit in the social circle of the Dixon family, the History department, or the College Council, and so in the end he gets the sack. But the story is farce, not tragedy. Jim is young, in his first year at the college. He has not yet invested his identity in his workplace. His stint at the college is a lark. Uncontrollable forces deep inside make him mock his administrative superiors — and the academic world itself in all its elitist, duplicitous pomposity. Jim asks for what he gets. He cannot be personally hurt by academic opprobrium because his heart is not in the academy. "Well taught and sensibly taught," he says, "history could do people a hell of a lot of good. But in practice it doesn't work out that way." The joke is therefore on the college, not on Jim. No sooner is he fired than a wealthy businessman offers him a better position in the real world of London. It is the position Bertrand was hoping for. And in the end, Jim gets Bertrand's girl. In real life, the target of workplace mobbing rarely fares so well. Usually, the position at issue matters a lot to the target, and being eliminated from it hurts.
Francine Prose, Blue Angel (HarperCollins, 2000). In the original novel of this name by Heinrich Mann (1905), and in the movie starring Marlene Dietrich (1930), the professor is not mobbed, merely seduced by an off-campus femme fatale. His infatuation by itself brings him down. In Prose's updated version of the story, English Professor Ted Swenson succumbs to the wiles of an on-campus femme fatale, a bright but unbalanced student named Angela Argo. For the first three-quarters of the book, Ted and Angela flirt and spar about his writing, hers, and that of others in the class. They get naked in her dorm room. But then Prose steers the story in a direction that suits our time, a direction Mann would never understand. Angela secretly records a conversation with Ted, hands the tape over to Dean Francis Bentham, charges Ted with sexual harassment, and threatens to sue the college. The last quarter of the book describes how Ted loses everything — his wife, his job, his good name — but not of his own accord like the first Professor Unrat, instead at the hands of a mob consisting of Angela, her friend Matt, Dean Bentham, and colleagues both male and female. The novel isn't funny from this point on. Prose's account of the tribunal hearing powerfully illustrates the darker forces in human affairs. Ted "is extremely sorry for having spent twenty years of his one and only life, twenty years he will never get back, among people he can't talk to, men and women to whom he can't even tell the simple truth. That is, if he knew what the truth was...."
Richard Russo, Straight Man (Vintage, Random House, 1997). Fittingly, this Pulitzer-Prize winner has a bit part in the film version of Phillip Roth's The Human Stain: Russo shares with Roth keen insight into the cruel frivolity of academic politics. Also fittingly, Russo used to teach at Southern Illinois, where faculty mobbings have made a lot of news. Straight Man is a depiction of academic life centered on Henry Devereaux, Acting Chair of English at a college in Railton, Pennsylvania. Henry is the sort of professor who is not easily mobbed. You couldn't get past the layers of cynicism shielding his clever, contrarian self. Henry comes in for a rough time even so. Toward the end of the book he tenders his resignation, but his letter gets lost in the bureaucracy and he ends up merely on sabbatical. One has to take a deep breath before plunging into the decaying swamp depicted in this book. It is laugh-out-loud funny, full of pathos and empty of joy. "There are lots of dull teachers. You can't make them all deans." The authorities have what Russo describes as "the mentality of all bad cops. Exceed your authority until you're questioned, then back off, regroup, attack again from a different angle." By the end of the book, one wishes Henry and his colleagues would pack up and move to the Falkland Islands, grow potatoes or herd sheep, and shut up.
Ian McEwan, Atonement (Vintage, Random House, 2001). Robbie Turner was not a professor. He might have become one (he was doing well at Cambridge), though his heart was set on becoming a physician and natural scientist, a kind of Renaissance doctor. The imagination of his beloved's little story-telling sister changed everything. "They turned on you, all of them, even my father," his beloved tells him years later. "When they wrecked your life, they wrecked mine." I have to include this novel on this list, though professors play no part in it, on account of its insight into the social psychology of false accusation and ganging up, and into the impossibility of setting things right again. Insight, too, into the vocation of a novelist: " Bring down the fogs of the imagination! What are novelists for? Go just so far as is necessary, set up camp inches beyond the reach, the fingertips of the law." Laura Miller's review in Salon captures the book's flavor.
C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength: a Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups (Scribner Classics, 1996; originally published 1945). Mark Studdock is a young sociologist, a Fellow of Bracton College, Edgestow University. His wife Jane is preparing her doctoral thesis on John Donne. The Progressive Element in the faculty is surrendering Edgestow to N.I.C.E. — the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments. The story is about how Mark and Jane respond in their respective ways to this leading-edge opportunity. Many mobbing targets in the present day will recognize N.I.C.E. as the mob that is pursuing them. In one guise or another, this institute controls most public colleges and universities in the Western World. To appreciate this novel fully, one has to let one's imagination run freer than I am able to let mine. I have never read any of Lewis's works straight through. But even I can recognize his prescient grasp of the cult that would tyrannize many faculty and students a half century after he wrote this book. I recommend the commentaries by Edward J. Larson and Steven Hayward, "C. S. Lewis and Public Life" (1998).
Darian Land, The Teasdale Primer (For MBAs) (Writers Club Press, 2003). So far as I am aware, this is the only novel yet published in English that applies the word mobbing to a concerted effort among adminsitrators and colleagues to humiliate the targeted professor. Having read the excellent book on the subject by Noa Davenport et al., this author incorporates the very term mobbing into his account of one quirky, funny instance of the phenomenon. The action takes place in the Intensive World Languages Department of the Teasdale Intensive Business School in Scottsdale, Arizona. Professor Ben Amado came to Teasdale after quitting his previous job on account of administrative abuse. "Little did he know that when he left one nest of iniquity, he had merely entered another one that was just as vile." Commercial values reign supreme at Teasdale, and education is reduced to busywork. Administrators rule, supported by their toadies and minions. It is not in Ben to be a team player and he is forever on the outs. But then he takes a vacation in Hawaii, and returns to Teasdale an apparently changed man. He has learned to kiss up. His reward is to be absorbed into the corporate body and promoted to the position of Vice President of Cultural Affairs. In that capacity he invites the Teasdale executives to a dinner of Portuguese moqueca in the 5-star dining room of the Administration Building. Most professors have met Land's characters on their own campuses and will savor Land's delicious plot.
Anonymous, A Campus Conspiracy (Impress Books, Exeter, UK, 2006) Click here for reviews of this comic account, reminiscent of C. S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength, of administrative mobbing in a British university. The target here is.sixty-year-old Harry Gilbert, Professor of Christian Ethics at St. Sebastian's College. Especially in two ways, this novel captures recurrent themes in the real-life mobbing cases I have studied. First, once Gilbert is on the wrong side of the administration, the complaints about him come in one after another; he is always under the gun; defending himself consumes his waking hours. Second, accusations of sexual impropriety are central to the eliminative process (a student named Lisa falsely accuses Gilbert of trying to seduce her). In two other ways, this novel is distant from the mobbing cases in my research. First, Gilbert's accuser is a manipulative liar who knows exactly what she is doing; in most of the mobbing cases I have studied, truth is threatened less by deliberate falsehood than by hysteria and moral panic, and outcomes hinge on how small events are interpreted. Second, this novel ends in the manner of Lucky Jim, with its protagonist heading off to a better job — in Gilbert's case a distinguished professorship in an American college enamoured of the trappings of English aristocracy. Few real-life mobbing targets escape so handily. I find none of the characters in this novel easy to admire. In a cruel counterattack, for instance, Gilbert's wife plays a practical joke to humiliate the dean who has persecuted her husband; the dean then has a nervous breakdown. In this novel, academic life comes across as a pompous, petty parasite on society at large, one that only a fool would take seriously.