Academic Lives: Memoir, Cultural Theory, and the University Today

Academic Lives: Memoir, Cultural Theory, and the University Today

Academic Lives: Memoir, Cultural Theory, and the University Today

Academic Lives: Memoir, Cultural Theory, and the University Today


Since the early 1990s, there has been a proliferation of memoirs by tenured humanities professors. Although the memoir form has been discussed within the flourishing field of life writing, academic memoirs have received little critical scrutiny. Based on close readings of memoirs by such academics as Michael Bérubé, Cathy N. Davidson, Jane Gallop, bell hooks, Edward Said, Eve Sedgwick, Jane Tompkins, and Marianna Torgovnick, Academic Lives considers why so many professors write memoirs and what cultural capital they carry. Cynthia G. Franklin finds that academic memoirs provide unparalleled ways to unmask the workings of the academy at a time when it is dealing with a range of crises, including attacks on intellectual freedom, discontentment with the academic star system, and budget cuts.

Franklin considers how academic memoirs have engaged with a core of defining concerns in the humanities: identity politics and the development of whiteness studies in the 1990s; the impact of postcolonial studies; feminism and concurrent anxieties about pedagogy; and disability studies and the struggle to bring together discourses on the humanities and human rights. The turn back toward humanism that Franklin finds in some academic memoirs is surreptitious or frankly nostalgic; others, however, posit a wide-ranging humanism that seeks to create space for advocacy in the academic and other institutions in which we are all unequally located. These memoirs are harbingers for the critical turn to explore interrelations among humanism, the humanities, and human rights struggles.


Humanist Returns and the Currency of Academic Memoirs

In this book I explore the insights that contemporary academic memoirs provide into the humanities as an intellectual and institutional formation. Since the early 1990s and continuing into the present, humanities professors, many of them working in English departments, have been writing their memoirs in unprecedented numbers. As David Simpson caustically remarks in The Academic Postmodern and the Rule of Literature, “the award of tenure now seems to bring with it a contract for one’s autobiography” (24). By partaking in this “memoir movement,” academics participate in what journalist James Atlas has dubbed “the Age of the Literary Memoir,” or what Nancy Miller speculates “may emerge as a master form in the twenty-first century” (“The Entangled Self” 545). They also contribute to the burgeoning field of life writing in the U.S. academy. Although the memoir phenomenon has been much remarked on and studies of memoirs have flourished within the rapidly developing life writing field, academic memoirs have escaped scrutiny. Academic Lives considers why so many professors choose to write their memoirs and why these memoirs claim so much cultural capital.

Even as academic memoirs constitute a widely noted phenomenon for the most part, literary and cultural critics have overlooked their cultural significance, giving them only cursory readings in articles or individual chapters before dismissing or celebrating them. A number of critics have read academic memoirs as evidencing a reaction against postmodernism or a fatigue with poststructuralist theory (Simpson), as unfortunate byproducts of the academic star system (David Shumway), or as the selfindulgent products of middle-aged academics experiencing identity crises (Adam Begley). Other critics have been more welcoming, championing memoir for its “crossover” appeal (Michael Bérubé), its democratizing capacities (Jill Ker Conway), and its feminist realization of the personal as political (Nancy Miller). Academic Lives complicates these claims, for even if there is some measure of truth to each of them, they do not capture the complex story that accounts of individual professors’ lives have to . . .

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