Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Academia QotD

. Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Jim Dixon, the fortunate one in Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim, is described by Matthew Walther:

Its eponymous hero, Jim Dixon, is a junior lecturer in history at an undistinguished Welsh college. Dixon’s pleasures are simple: he smokes a carefully allotted number of cigarettes each day and drinks a rather less measured amount of beer most nights at pubs. His single goal is to coast successfully through his two-year probation period and become a permanent faculty member in the history department.

Standing in his way is the departmental supervisor, Professor Welch. (“No other professor in Great Britain, Dixon thought, set such store by being called Professor.”) Welch is a dedicated amateur flautist—or, as he insists, recorder player—and busybody who forces Dixon to attend chamber music recitals during impossibly dull weekend visits to the professor’s home and perform quotidian tasks such as doing Welch’s research for him and proofing his manuscripts.

In order to remain in good standing with his department, Dixon must also publish an article, “The Economic Influence of Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485,” in an scholarly journal. Dixon, despite his having little knowledge and even less interest in the period, is a medievalist. Amis’s description of Dixon’s article will ring true for anyone who has ever been forced into academic writing: “It was a perfect article, in that it crystallized the article’s niggling mindlessness, its funereal parade of yawn-enforcing facts, the pseudo-light it threw upon non-problems. Dixon had read, or begun to read, dozens like it, but his own seemed worse than most in its air of being convinced of its own usefulness and significance.”
That last bit, the "niggling mindlessness" and most especially the "pseudo-light it threw upon non-problems," is one of the great indictments of any profession in literature. As a description of quite a lot of social science it has the markings of the best satire: hilarity (it is even laugh-out-loud funny), recognizable truth, and melancholy.

Of course it isn't all that way. But still.

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