Are English professors the new celebrity sex symbols? CHLOE PIXEL investigates what happened to the tweed jacket brigade.
The academic formerly known as Cedric Pinkwattle sat with one leg crossed over the other, a position of repose typically favoured by women, libertines and intellectuals that he found pleasantly conducive to thought – in spite of the pressure his scissored thighs placed upon his testicles, creating a sensation that, if he paused to think about it, he would have to define as painful (and reputedly unhelpful for one’s sperm count). He leaned forward over the table, holding open with splayed fingertips the pages of a supine book. While he would have been more comfortable reading Judith Butler, say, or even Charles Bernstein for goodness sake, he considered the well-thumbed copy of Dante’s Inferno to be a suitable counterbalance of classical erudition to his popular image of hip contemporaneity. Suspended above the table by the awkwardly pincered tips of his thumb and fingers, its ridiculously tiny handle offering barely a purchase, was an espresso cup containing what he knew was designed to be a quick shot of pure caffeine, but which he nonetheless felt compelled to linger over as he read, taking infinitesimal sips of liquid blackness, the heat of which had long since ebbed.
He was, of course, acutely aware of the pretentiousness of his appearance, but could not bring himself to feel embarrassed because he believed there was a natural earnestness about his own behaviour which preceded this awareness, an ease which saved him from being a wanker. Indeed he cultivated an air of pretentiousness with a certain amount of irony, not to show that he could laugh at himself, but to highlight his earnestness. In short, he was a classic post-postmodernist. For surely the true wanker is not the person who does not know they are a wanker, but the person who tries to be a wanker.
The academic was waiting for a journalist from the national broadsheet, a feature writer called Chloe Pixel, who, he supposed by her name, was more than likely to be youngish, slightly built and pretty, with a Communications degree. He imagined she might be wearing a neat blouse and knee-length skirt with black pumps, and wondered whether he would hear the skittish sigh of her stockings as she crossed and uncrossed her legs under the table. Maybe her blouse would be open enough to display her clavicular structure, the sophisticated man’s fetish. Perhaps they would flirt with each other.
When journalist Chloe Pixel appeared, she was already thinking about how she might open her feature article. ‘I arrive,’ she thought (making a mental note to herself), ‘puffing and dishevelled, at Hernandez, a trendy café in Sydney’s Kings Cross.’ She was late for their interview. ‘I feel like a disorganised student rushing into a lecture hall, hoping the lecturer’s gaze won’t burn me with disapproval, or that his stentorian voice won’t ring out to embarrass me. In fact, my subject does not even look up from his copy of Dante’s Inferno, and if he did, it is doubtful he would see me through the pall of cigarette smoke.’
At university, Chloe had been fascinated by the ‘fourth genre’ of creative nonfiction, studying its roots in the New Journalism of the 1960s, the documentary novel, faction. She loved the idea that she could be creative with her feature writing, immerse herself in the story, provide her own subjective and affective responses to the interview subject, and make the interview itself the centre of the article, setting the scene before filling in the piece with background information and quotes.
Chloe Pixel was puffing, but her slightly loosened strands of hair and the fine patina of sweat on her forehead did not seem to warrant the description ‘dishevelled’. She knew she would write that he looks taller in real life. ‘And when those eyes do finally lift from the pages of hell and fix me, I feel as if I’m in some Regency romance. He’s dressed in black. Rock god? Movie star? Reality TV contestant? No, he is Dr Donovan Cassius, Senior Lecturer in English at the University of _________.’
They shook hands. Cassius looked expectantly behind her as she took her seat. She told him the photographer would be arriving later and placed a tape recorder on the table. ‘I have a confession,’ Chloe Pixel will later write. ‘Like many of my fellow students, I used to have a crush on my English professor. But it’s not just impressionable and bookish undergrads who would be charmed by Dr Donovan Cassius (the academic formerly known as Cedric Pinkwattle). He is one of the new breed of English professors: sexy not stuffy, full of warm-witted intelligence rather than intimidating knowledge, a metrosexual who would be as comfortable on a catwalk as he is behind a lectern.’
Chloe Pixel has done her research for this story and she will explain to readers that Cassius works at the forefront of what is being called the ‘New Humanities’. Pick up any literary journal these days and you will see not only refereed articles and book reviews, but human interest stories on academics that reveal the hidden pain of being research-inactive, the books they read for guilty pleasure, the students they’ve fantasised about, and all the inevitable gossip about who’s bonking whom at the annual ASAL, CSAA, AAL and AAWP conferences. There are also features on the best houses of the professorial set, lecturing tips for Level As, and ads for stainless steel common-room ware.
Apparently there are even plans afoot for a new Australian Idol-style reality TV talent quest where Early Career Researchers give a series of ten-minute lectures throughout the ratings season on a variety of topics, from Shakespeare to Deleuzian rhizomes, and each week one is voted out by the audience. The judging panel, sources say, will consist of a learning and teaching consultant, a public intellectual, and the nation’s most hated Arts Faculty Dean (to be determined by an online poll). The winner will be crowned ‘Australian Academic’ and offered a one-semester fixed-term casual tutoring contract at a regional university. The show will be produced by a Creative Industries Faculty on the Gold Coast and screened nationally on pay TV.
But how is it that the typical egghead in an ivory tower, the sad tweed-jacketed, paunch-saddled, bespectacled middle-aged professor, typically portrayed in twentieth-century campus novels as desperate for a rejuvenating relationship with a young student, suddenly became desirable, not for his mind, but for his sex appeal?
One night, during his Honours year, the academic formerly known as Cedric Pinkwattle got drunk at the Judgement Bar on Taylor Square with the girl from his methodology class. He loved her, but he would only ever be her friend, because she loved him for his mind and really loved how they could talk about literature without it having to be about sex. The girl, also drunk, told him she’d never seen a guy masturbate, and so he told her that he would masturbate for her. In her one-bedroom ground-floor apartment in Kings Cross she sat down on her couch, her stockings sighing skittishly as she crossed one leg over the other, and he knelt in front of her and jerked off while she bobbed her foot and slowly turned her ankle and dangled her black pump from the edge of her toes.
It all started in the 1980s with the new culture of managerialism and the corporatisation of universities. ‘Something which really exploded in Australia after the Dawkins reforms of the late eighties and early nineties,’ Donovan recalls, enjoying the looseness of the interview format, ‘when suddenly we were vocationally oriented, accountable to public funding, and responsible for the economic productivity of the nation.’ Some complained that this was a capitalist attack on the very idea of the university, a prostitution of education and an erosion of academic freedom. Cassius demurs: ‘Academic “freedom” (raising his fingers to trace scare quotes in the air) is just another term for political quietude. If there’s one thing Theory taught us, it’s that the whole idea of a “disinterested” (raising his fingers to trace scare quotes in the air) pursuit of “knowledge” (keeping his fingers in the air to trace scare quotes) is a hegemonic trope which maintains the status quo. Accountability is opportunity. Think about the anti-political correctness campaigns that came out of America. Academics copped a lot of flak from conservative commentators for being left-wing, neo-Marxist, bleeding-heart thought-police, but suddenly we were getting quality column space. Here was an opportunity to sell ourselves to the public, to show them what we do.’ He takes an infinitesimal sip from a near empty espresso cup.
Sceptics say that universities have caved in to the neoliberal user-pays philosophy of advanced capitalism, but Cassius will have none of this. ‘It’s more complex than that. This has been a genuinely interdisciplinary enterprise: Cultural Policy studies gave us a new paradigm, Media and Communications gave us the tools for understanding how PR operates, and this helped frame the various “returns” to literature, to aesthetics, to humanism, and so on. This enabled us to give a sexy new slant to a moribund discipline.’
What about the argument that the ‘interdisciplinary discipline’ of Cultural Studies is in fact the perfect scholarly manifestation of the corporatised university, with the critical skills designed for reading contemporary culture aligning neatly with the concept of transferable skills for the global economy? ‘Forget about Cultural Studies, forget about corporatisation,’ Cassius says, waving his hands excitedly, leaning forward with one leg crossed over the other, grimacing in masochistic pain. ‘This is a paradigm shift. We relied too much on the exploitation of foreign students throughout the nineties and noughties, but when that cash cow fell over we were fishing around for other alternatives. At our university in particular, the Vice Chancellor was pressuring the Arts Faculty to justify its existence. We kept seeing all those glossy brochures and billboards the university was churning out to promote its climate change scientists, and we realised these guys are ugly. Sometimes the best solutions are the ones which are staring you in the face, but it took a lot of lateral thinking to work out: sex sells.’
As they speak, Cassius pauses to autograph a course outline held out with trembling hands by a star-struck undergrad. He just shrugs when the journalist looks at him, wondering how often this happens. ‘A number of studies coming out of America were showing that good-looking academics tended to get the highest level of student satisfaction in teacher evaluation surveys,’ Cassius says, fingering his coffee cup and leaning forward across the table, forehead creasing in a constipated attempt at an Elvis-like stare. ‘University of Miami student-evaluation forms have a section on the hotness level of lecturers, and the results are published on its website. So we started to use good-looking staff in online promotional material and handouts, at booths on open days and talks to schools. Some enterprising universities even used models to hand out course outlines in trendy bars promoting course work Masters.’
But the real breakthrough in public perception came with the notorious 2009 ‘makeover’ of Aurora, the country’s oldest and most prestigious literary journal. In response to declining subscriptions and pressures to go online, this previously austere publication went coffee-table glossy and changed its name to Literary Lifestyles. The first issue featured Sydney academic and Jane Austen expert Clara Edgerton posing nude for a centrefold spread between two articles on the postcolonial diaspora. She stood naked except for the blood on her body and a strap-on dildo, which she used to penetrate the mouth of a skull that she held in her hands, a homage to the notorious scene in Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho where Patrick Bateman walks around his apartment with the head of one of his victims perched on his erect member. The caption read: ‘Alas poor Yorick, for I knew him well.’ Edgerton later recalled: ‘It was incredibly empowering for me as an academic to pose nude and shatter all the stereotypes, to feel that I could be sexy. But more importantly, I knew I was making a real statement. This image was obviously an inversion of Ellis’ heavily misogynistic, albeit overtly ironic, representation of Wall Street rapacity. So not only was I playing around with intergendertextuality, I was drawing attention to the little known fact that Hamlet is really a play about the link between sex and death. Hamlet wants, literally, to fuck death, as a way of avoiding his sexual desire for his mother.’
The photograph was granted 0.025 points in the Higher Education Research Data Collection (HERDC) under Category Z: Public Intellectual Work. Debate has raged about this category since it was first introduced in 2009. Some think it’s a good way to help academics overcome their professional myopia and engage with the general public, either by bypassing the deadening jargon of theory, or by giving theory a more user-friendly gloss. Those who disagree challenge what they feel is an outmoded concept of the public sphere and argue that as teachers in public institutions, as researchers who publish their work, and as professional media consultants, academics already operate as public intellectuals. Others point out that one cannot simply choose to become a public intellectual: this depends on the workings of the media (Cassius says it’s usually the ugly ones and those who write passive sentences who make this claim).
Despite the debate, most universities now have a workload formula that actively encourages their staff to acquire their own newspaper column – or at least the occasional opinion article – along with Wikipedia entries, blogs and Twitter followings. One recent controversial Australian Research Council grant, over which conservative newspaper columnists had a field day, gave more than $100 000 to a Cultural Studies scholar to appear as a contestant on the reality TV show Big Brother. What caused the biggest stir, however, was the fact that this academic was not proposing to publish the results of his ethnographic participant observation in the standard scholarly journals. Instead, he argued, appearing on the show would be the research in and of itself. Here he drew upon the model of the creative arts to argue that he would be researching in and through popular culture, rather than about popular culture.
The girl from his methodology class enjoyed this onanistic performance very much, not so much for the voyeuristic eroticism, but because of the intimacy required for this act to take place, the level of trust it developed between them, the comfort of their relationship. It was as if any lingering sexual tension between them was eradicated by this act of autoeroticism. And they started to do it regularly, every week until their Honours theses were due. Sometimes she found it amusing to get him to ejaculate in her shoes, or in a wine glass, or on the pages of her Norton Anthology of Literature, opened randomly.
While this move towards sexing up the humanities has been a genuinely interdisciplinary enterprise, the main drive has come from English studies. Why were other disciplines so slow to follow? ‘They’ve never had the history of crises of legitimacy which we have had to deal with,’ Cassius explains. ‘I mean, right from the start the Regius Professor of History at Oxford pooh-poohed English as mere chatter about Shelley. It was called the “poor man’s classics”, “the women’s subject”. FR Leavis did a lot of good work to make English the centre of the university, but his was a moral mission, which could never last in the Enterprise University. I think we lost our way a bit towards the end of the twentieth century.’
But sex can’t sell anything if there’s no product to sell – and Cassius is convinced there is a product worth exploiting: literature. ‘Back in 1913 the first professor of English at Cambridge, Sir Artie Q, argued that, “By consent of all, Literature is a nurse of noble natures, and right reading makes a full man.” The key is to show that literature can make you a better person, but not in an elitist, moralistic way.’ Cassius has an interesting take on the mission of literary studies, for those who will listen (and it is an obvious sore point for him that his work in this area has been rejected by numerous peer-reviewed journals). ‘The real reason behind the explosion of “isms” in the sixties and seventies,’ he says, ‘is that classic literature lost out to the emergence of the self-help industry. Suddenly people didn’t need to read Hamlet to tell them about the human condition, they could just read Authentic Happiness or Reclaiming Your Inner Child and look inside to find themselves. So we literary academics rebelled against the self and the notion of character, we challenged the whole Enlightenment concept of subjectivity, but the theory thing just became dated. We were, like, in a Post-Theory exhaustion phase. We couldn’t sell it anymore. People were tired. The kids didn’t care. So we had vision days with lots of butcher’s paper, and decided to go retro-traditional. Now one of the key learning outcomes and graduate attributes for all our courses is that students who study literature will be better people.’
Creative Writing programs, as it turned out, played a large part in this shift. ‘During the big explosion in the self-help industry, we noticed that creative writing programs were actually booming – and they became our best channel to the market, a way to bring students back to literature.’ Of course, authors have always been sexier than academics, and in recent years the celebrity of authorship has been crucial to the success of the publishing industry. The rise of Creative Writing helped to bring some of that sexiness to the academy. ‘Where once fiction and poetry workshops were the most popular, we now have thriving enrolments for workshops in text-messaging. We have full-fee paying Masters courses in writing for Twitter and Facebook, which help students hone their skills in pithy observations about quotidian banalities designed to attract the maximum number of comments and “likes”.’
At home he would masturbate and fantasise about masturbating for her. When they were together she would ask him to tell her what he fantasised about, what he wished he could do right now as he was jerking off in front of her. He would say he was fantasising about having sex with her, that right now he wished she was sucking his cock, that he could bury his face between her thighs, but in fact he was fantasising about masturbating in front of her. And then he would ejaculate all over an Elizabethan love sonnet.
Chloe Pixel wonders out loud about what this has to do with literature and literary value. ‘Value is arbitrary. It’s about lifestyle management,’ Cassius explains. ‘ED Hirsch called it cultural literacy. He pointed out that if you can quote Shakespeare in a job interview, it is obviously going to impress potential employers. While we believe in the vocational goal of universities, we also feel, particularly in the humanities, that cultural capital is a technology of the self. We want our students to be able to watch some drunken exploit at a party and say “What a piece of work is man” instead of “Man, what a piece of work”. We want to teach them that they can quote Derrida when dumping a girlfriend or a boyfriend via SMS: “There is nothing outside the text”. We want students to know what novels they should casually leave noticeable on their coffee tables, what books go with red wine, what books go with white. We want them to be able to suggest the most appropriate poem to be read at a friend’s wedding, or the perfect Christmas gift for a relative who has read everything by Austen and the Brontës but doesn’t like chick-lit. We’re preparing them for the book clubs and writers’ festivals and literary readings they will go to when they graduate. All these things comprise an index of personality and are increasingly important forms of “becoming” in contemporary society.’
Not everyone is happy with this brave new world of English studies. After all most academics are not, in fact, attractive and some fear that good-looking applicants will get jobs over the less physically blessed. ‘That’s always been the case,’ says Cassius, unsympathetic. ‘Anyway, there are many things one can do to improve one’s job prospects.’ Cassius himself is the first academic to have appeared on the reality TV show Aussie Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. ‘I refused to do Extreme Makeover, but I thought appearing on Queer Eye would boost my credentials in Queer Theory and Gender Studies, which was one of the desirable criteria for this job. I had to make myself desirable.’
So where to now for Donovan Cassius, the academic formerly known as Cedric Pinkwattle? ‘I don’t know,’ he said, staring absently at the collarbone of Chloe Pixel, journalist. He looked at his watch. ‘Should we move to Eau de Vie and get a cocktail?’
Chloe Pixel crossed and uncrossed her legs under the table, the skittish sigh of her stockings inaudible.