November 20, 2006 at 6:34 pm (Uncategorized)

When I joined the Army at the rather crusty age of 24, I was quite surprised to find that it was a lot like the movies. Drill sergeants really did line us up at 3 am, having dragged us from our bunk beds or sleeping bags where we were enjoying our four-hour quota of sleep, to yell at all of us because one soldier had gotten shoe polish on the floor. We really did march around in formation in the rain and do endless rifle drills. We really did run in formation calling cadence, singing songs about Airborne Rangers and the company commander’s grandmother.

And the cadences were hilarious, some of them – or would have been, if we’d been allowed to laugh. “CO ain’t got no socks / I seen him when he took ‘em off / They jumped up on the chair / demanded voting rights and welfare / I hate it / I hate it / I hate hate hate it.” There was precisely one form of criticism allowed, and that was the authorized roasting of the marching or running cadence. In order to earn the privilege of being able to give voice to it, you first had to be able to keep pace with the formation, and you then had to master your breathing so you could sing and run at the same time. You had to set the pace for the group, making sure your rhythm had every left foot of every soldier striking the ground at precisely the same time. Finally, you had to be able to run up a hill and keep from puking while simultaneously thinking of a new verse to an old song, one that could be at the expense of your squad leader without getting you into trouble. Enterprising satirists would stay up at night, composing them in their heads while they shined their boots.

Some songs were reserved for special occasions. The old favorite “Airborne Ranger,” sung in a minor key, was reserved for occasions of dignity – a slow march to a funeral detail or a change of command ceremony – and it was never, ever appropriate to change the words, though the talented could sing counterharmony. Every type of unit marched to this cadence – personnel battalions, mechanics, infantry, cooks, and linguists. There was no sense of irony at all* when the personnel sergeant, who essentially filed papers most of the day and had never jumped out of an airplane, sang

I’m going to tell a story
And all of it is true
About an Airborne Ranger
And the hell that he went through

My buddy’s in a foxhole
A bullet in his head
The medic says he’s wounded
But I believe he’s dead

Most of us, I think, had a sense of irony — or something akin to it — on a larger level, though. We were, in a way, very much aware of the tactics, tricks, and mind games that went into turning us into soldiers. We knew the 3 am pushup sessions were designed to mobilize peer pressure against the one wayward recruit. We knew the ceremony associated with the awarding of a small, cheap aluminum Driver/Mechanic badge was designed to give gravity and pride to the otherwise tedious and detested tasks of being the commander’s driver and learning to grease wheel bearings. We knew the songs were designed to give us a sense of place and identity in a tradition that stretched back beyond us and would continue long after we were gone. We knew we got our butts chewed over bullshit so we could learn to take it with a stiff upper lip later, when the stress was for real and not over how tight the bunk’s corners were.

We knew all of this and could see it, but at the same time, with a strange sort of double vision, we watched it all work on us, watched ourselves respond, watched ourselves turn into the soldiers they wanted us to be, and watched ourselves become people who wanted to be those soldiers.

In my first critical theory class as a full-time undergraduate after my separation from the Army, when I encountered the term “interpellation,” I understood it in my bones, immediately. I could even see the ways in which the Army manipulated the simultaneous currents of “unit cohesion” and “individual excellence” in order to seem to acknowledge the individual in a structure in which soldiers, after separation, relocation, or disintegration and dismemberment on a battlefield, were always replaceable: They’d just floated the new slogan, “An Army of One.”

In his review of William Clark’s history of “academic charisma,” Anthony Grafton writes, “The university has never been a sleek, efficient corporation. It’s more like the military, an organization at once radically modern and steeped in color and tradition. And it’s not at all easy to say how much of the mystique could be stripped away without harming the whole institution.” [1]

I find myself inclined to agree. One of the things I learned, rather quickly, in the Army was that everything I thought about the limits of the body, the limits of possibility, and the limits of humiliation as a pedagogical technique was wrong. I learned that people really can learn to put up with almost anything, especially if there’s a “stop date” on the horizon, if it’s temporary. And I learned that the ethos of the drill sergeant, the warrant officer, the crusty old weapons NCO, had just as much to do with stories we knew they weren’t telling as the stories we heard them tell. As privates, we would never hear the conversations that went on behind closed doors in the commander’s office, the ones that had the platoon sergeant’s brow all furrowed and the weapons sergeant running off at high speed to order new inventory. We didn’t know why we were suddenly ordered to leave work one afternoon, go get our gear, report for weapons issue, and spend the night in our offices on a newly locked down post on September 11, 2001 — but we did it. We trusted that somebody knew what they were doing, and it seemed perfectly natural to follow these orders without being aware of the bigger picture, which wouldn’t come until later.

The process of professionalization in academia is much, much slower, but I see — and feel — some parallels. I can’t think of another profession in which training for the profession so frequently involves being kept in the dark about the bigger picture and being forced to dig holes and then move them while the supervisor evaluates us on our performances. I remember the feeling, as an undergraduate, that I was in the hallway while some strange and mysterious conversation was going on, and all I could catch was the occasional phrase: Interpellation. Decentering the canon. Feminist pedagogy. Differance. Postcolonial. I remember being a new graduate student and finding myself in a similar hallway, and though the vocabulary was different, it was just as mysterious: Tenure. Assistant. Associate. 2/2. 4/3. AAUP. ABD. Adjunct. Soft money. We are willing to undergo an incredibly lengthy, often alienating and disorienting, and sometimes very mysterious process of “professionalization” to get into that office behind closed doors in “the academy,” and while it’s true that we don’t have to do pushups or shoot anyone, it’s also true that we are willing to pay a significant amount of money for the privilege. And we may very learn that we can, in fact, put up with just about anything in order to hang onto our developing senses of professional identity. (Look, that some grad students pick up their advisors’ dry-cleaning just proves my point. Don’t tell me they’re not out there.)

I’m not trying to misrepresent Grafton’s point, and I’m aware I’ve verged a bit from the charisma quote. I’m also not really complaining — I have had some very good teachers and mentors and I have an approachable and endlessly helpful advisor who has taught me more about “professionalization” in the past two months than I learned in two years prior to my signing up for his course. But I felt compelled to ramble a bit about where his connection really made sense to me as a student, a former soldier, and someone who is aiming for one of those elusive Jobs in Academia, and maybe speculate on just why we don’t have a system that’s immediately transparent to the people who enter it, despite the fact that I’ve yet to have a professor who says, “I’m keeping it all a mystery because I think that’s a good idea, dammit.” I don’t think the issue is usually gate-keeping and exclusion.

I sort of feel sometimes like I’m learning to sing cadence while running uphill, learning to march in time on my way to a frankly uncertain destination, because I seem to have some faith that the people giving me suggestions (and even requirements) know what they’re talking about. And I’m grateful to have been told, now rather than later, that much like the military, academia has a “get promoted or get out” system. But I have a similar sort of double vision as I look around, seeing how the system is shaping me into someone who wants to be “that kind of professional.” It’s all very strange, though certainly safer than lobbing grenades across a line in a sandy wasteland.

Now excuse me while I make up a song about my department chair’s socks.

* That’s not to imply that real Airborne Rangers didn’t make fun of us for singing that song, because they did, but that’s another post.




  1. Eileen Joy said,

    I don’t think we can press the military-to-university analogy too hard, and a lot of the, let’s say, mystification of graduate-level-type knowledge partly has to do with how impenetrable the jargon has become over the last twenty or so years, which is not a reason, necessarily, to turn away from that discourse as too purposefully obfuscating, because after all, in order to think at certain “higher” levels, one has need of specialized language–how else could physicists, for example, explain their ideas to each other? At the same time, though, some physicists also feel the need to explain their ideas to more lay audiences, and often with literary-type analogies. As to the difficulties of actually securing and keeping a university faculty position, and the various humiliations one has to suffer to accomplish that, I think your comments are dead-on, although I like to encourage students to resist that kind of indoctrination as much as possible. In simple terms: if you’re very smart, and an excellent writer, and an original thinker, be your own person and always follow your own path, and you’ll succeed, regardless of the more narrow-minded thinkers who might try to stand in your way. Fear, of anything, is always a great detriment to becoming your own person, but it never ceases to amaze me how many people operate out of fear, especially fear of so-called “authorities,” gate-keepers, etc. But I think the larger question that your post raises has to do with why you, or anyone, would choose such a daunting, and often soul-crushing, profession, and for such few rewards [monetary or otherwise]! The key is to really think hard about why it is you think you want to be, say, a scholar of Old English literature, or Anglo-Saxon [or Norse, or whatever] culture more generally. First, you should have a fairly unexamined, natural passion for it–you don’t know why, but you just know you love reading certain texts and pursuing certain questions. That’s the personal enhancement part of things, but that’s not yet a reason to be a professor. Seond [and this is where the deeper examination comes in], you think somewhat harder about what you think might be valuable, on a somewhat more broad social level, in the scholarship you hope to write and also convey through teaching. How will this be both personally rewarding but also give you a sense of purpose that extends beyond the boundaries of your singular self? The humanities, in general, are under siege. Are they worth saving and for what, more pointed purposes [other than: they’re intrinsically “good” for everyone], and could your work, as both a scholar and teacher, help advance that cause, however *you* might like to articulate it? If you think it can, then you are in the right place, and we need more people in the profession willing to think beyond their narrowly-define disciplinary ambits. Judging from your posts so far, you have already demonstrated that you are that kind of student/scholar-to-be.

  2. kdegruy said,

    The military analogy collapses if you sneeze on it, of course, in many areas, but what you’re saying about specialized language and “levels” is one of the places where it kind of holds — in a lot of ways, it makes sense that this language is something that is gathered over time, that in some cases must be actively pursued and investigated (imo). It’s useless to people who are doing a lit class for a req and have no interest in the inner workings of [fill in the blank], just as the full list of working acronyms for survival training, or grenade lingo, are useless to the non-specialist who has a different goal in mind, whose job isn’t grenades.

    Ref. thinking about how one’s own pursuits can matter on a slightly larger scale than one’s favorite book — I am a Libra with a double stellium in her sixth house.[1] I bring this up because I’m reading _Medieval Identity Machines_ instead of working on my writing sample for PhD programs, and I’m also working on a few custom art pieces that involve milagros right now (one of the ways i pay for school) — milagros are little representations of bodies and body parts that are often pinned to the clothing of a saint when a petition is made in Catholic churches in Mexico. The whirling worlds of stars and influences and retrograde planets and sympathetic magic by which a host of ailments may be treated, by an herb which resembles the body part or a tin charm that resembles the area afflicted, are all helping me, right now, to see not only the body but also its connections, the places where the skin doesn’t end it at all. I’m trying very hard to make this connection in my current thesis chapter, but I am missing a huge chunk of the patristic angle, I think, and relying too heavily on wolf-skins. However, I *feel* in my traitorous and shape-shifting bones that thirty-some-odd years of fascination with fragments, bones, crustaceans, manuscripts, patterns, languages, icons, myths, and other people’s texts is very slowly making some pattern that might be discernible, might mean I get to be explicable, if I could just get enough air to see it clearly. (It’s tough for me to talk about teaching, as my students are in the throes of their final paper and you can lead a horse to water, etc., and I think I’ll just shelve that train of thought for now as I’m only managing to take it personally.)

    I guess the next judge on that explicability thing will be the admissions committees 🙂 In any case, I appreciate your taking the time to comment.

    [1] The sixth house is the house of work, service, commitment in the sense of community (and sometimes debt); a stellium is a group of three planets. A double stellium is six planets that congregate in a single house in a person’s natal chart — it’s a rather unusually dense grouping that would indicate, to “believers,” a deep-seated “drive” to engage in exactly the sort of questions you’re raising in terms of “what’s at stake” outside the borders of my own little cluster of cells.

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