Scott McLemee
Recent Work
Commonplace Book
Cat Blog

Chronicle of Higher Education (Daily Online Edition), 21 December 2001

Next week, at the annual convention of the Modern Language Association, copies of the long-awaited "Academostars" issue of The Minnesota Review will at last be available. It should provide ideal reading material for all the established, incipient, and merely wannabe academic stars gathering in New Orleans to give papers and endure anxiety-inducing job interviews.

The theme issue on the phenomenon of celebrities in the humanities has been in the works longer than the journal's editor, Jeffrey J. Williams, would care to admit. It was all but ready for the press two years ago. But Mr. Williams's duties as co-editor of The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, published earlier this year, took precedence.

Then again, work on the anthology might qualify as research for the special issue. The recent American thinkers selected for that volume -- including Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Stephen Greenblatt, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick -- would undoubtedly count as "academostars," to use the neologism that Mr. Williams, an associate professor of English at the University of Missouri at Columbia, coined 10 years ago. The term refers to scholars who enjoy not only intellectual influence, but also material affluence: big salaries, light teaching loads, support for their research, and the loving attention of publishers. No paper by an academostar is scheduled for the 8:30 a.m. session of a conference, unless specifically requested -- in which case, admirers will begin lining up for seats at 8.

The special issue includes interviews with three academostars. Louis Menand, an English professor at the City University of New York's Graduate School and University Center, disavows any sharp distinction between doing scholarship and writing for The New Yorker -- while also distancing himself from the example of Edmund Wilson, who "had no ability to think theoretically." Lauren Berlant, director of the Center for Gender Studies at the University of Chicago, provides a detailed account of how she went from youthful "nerd" to influential American-studies scholar. And Stanley Fish expresses suspicion of anyone who invokes "the life of the mind" against worldly blandishments. "The censorious form of judgment that academics enjoy exercising," he complains, yields "a physical environment [in academe] that reflects the bleakness of that judgment."

But anyone who picks up the Review for the vicarious thrill of reading about the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous may be in for a surprise. Most pieces are analytic, rather than descriptive. Contributors treat academostardom not as a perplexing new development within their profession but as a phenomenon that raises essential, defining questions about the university as an institution.

The discussion has built up some momentum over the past five years or so. A small body of critical writing about the topic of scholarly celebrity has emerged -- including such landmark essays as David R. Shumway's "The Star System in Literary Studies" (PMLA, January 1997) and the chapter "Superstars" in Cary Nelson and Stephen Watt's Academic Keywords: A Devil's Dictionary for Higher Education (Routledge, 1999).

There is also, of course, a less theoretical body of speculation about the origins and effects of academic stardom -- conducted whenever unhappy adjuncts or bemused nonacademics contemplate the matter. After all, America is where Andy Warhol's prediction of a future in which everyone is famous for 15 minutes may eventually become an amendment to the Constitution. But Mr. Williams has reservations about such demotic mutterings.

"Frequently," he says by telephone, "appeals to the zeitgeist substitute for good arguments. I want to debunk the usual idea that this is some kind of illicit importation [into university life] from Hollywood." The phenomenon owes less to popular culture, he argues, than to processes taking shape within academic culture. In particular, it is a side effect of the dominance of theory within literary studies. The steady growth of literature programs stimulated what Mr. Williams terms "the theory market." By the 1980s, thinkers who offered powerful, capacious, and stimulating models of critical analysis were becoming household names.

And not just in professorial households. The Review includes an article by Tim Spurgin, an associate professor of English at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., who analyzes the coverage of "academic megastars" in the Sunday magazine of The New York Times. Mr. Spurgin also sketches a useful typology of the species, distinguishing "stars" (who are "known and highly esteemed by others in their subfields or specialties") from "superstars" (who tower above whole disciplines).

"Superstars," in turn, pale before the awesome "megastars," known to a public far beyond the academy -- figures whose "faces and personal histories," writes Mr. Spurgin, "may be as well-known as their ideas." No academic has quite reached the Cher-like fame of being known by one name. However, conversational citation as "Cornel," "Eve," or "Skip" is one reliable index of megastardom. (See another article from today's report, on Henry Louis (Skip) Gates Jr.)

The effects of this system are not necessarily all bad, argues Mr. Williams. "It's certainly better than the old patrilineal system," he says, "whereby where you went to school and whose student you were determined everything." The notion of "stardom" has penetrated all levels of the institution: A famous professor in the Ivy League can be described as a star, but so might a brilliant graduate student, at least within his or her program. This has a democratizing effect, Mr. Williams contends: "It projects a vista of merit. The problem isn't the star system itself, so much as the winner-take-all economy."

Another contributor to the special issue, Sharon O'Dair, doubts that the star system has any democratizing effect on the profession. An associate professor of English at the University of Alabama, Ms. O'Dair argues that the star system is one aspect of what she calls a " two-tier system of employment" resulting from "the expansion of higher education to the point of universality." With up to 70 percent of Americans attending college at some point in their lives, she writes, English departments find themselves required to produce "not just explanations of the subordinate clause but low-cost explanations of it."

The result is a small, highly competitive, and richly rewarded number of extremely desirable positions coexisting with a broad market of untenured aspirants, their eyes on the prize, like the members of a bar band dreaming of the day they sign a contract with some major record label.

Stanley Fish challenges the common belief that academic stars' salaries are paid for at the expense of the professorial proletariat. "At every level of the university there are cash reserves ... which are, in effect, slush funds," he tells the Review in an interview conducted while Mr. Williams drove him from St. Louis to Columbia, Mo. These rich financial deposits cannot be extracted to meet the demands of long-term faculty members, however; only the arrival of academic celebrities can persuade administrations to tap into the slush funds. "Ironically," he notes, "if you succeed in hiring people who are considered stars, the material conditions of your own working life will eventually, if not immediately improve."

"Another way of putting this," he adds, "is to say that the entire tone of a unit will be enhanced if someone arrives who is being treated exceptionally well. The spirit changes." (Yet another possible formulation: What's good for Mr. Fish is good for everybody.)

As Mr. Williams notes in an interview, the discussion of academostardom emerged in earnest during the 1990s -- a time of transition for the humanities, during which the academic profession underwent painful restructuring, despite the overall economic boom.

In "Name Recognition," his essay for the journal's special issue, the editor underscores how scholarly celebrity met a basic psychological need during this wrenching period. "Against the common academic anxiety of ineffectuality, especially in the humanities," he writes, "the star system heightens the sense of the academic realm as one of influence, acclaim, and relevance."

Which raises a delicate matter. Is Mr. Williams himself an academostar?

The question evidently surprises him. "No," he says, after some hesitation. Later, in an e-mail message, he qualifies that response. "I'm implicated in [the star system], of course," he writes, "though you'd never tell from my salary."