A God in Colchester

February 28, 2005

In the 1976 BBC television series I, Claudius, the stammering, lame, and openly derided scholar of the title is dragged from behind a curtain and -- partly as a joke -- made emperor of Rome by the Praetorian Guard after the mad emperor Caligula is assassinated.

"You, emperor? Who would have thought it possible?" asks the ghost of Augustus in a dream.

It turns out that Claudius became a successful empire builder, though he continued to be subverted and mocked at home. He conquered the Britons, and a magnificent temple was built for him at a minor Roman outpost. A fool in Rome, Claudius was a god in Colchester. So-called simple people "prayed to him to bring rain and cure their father's gout."

A scenario like that happens in academe with some frequency. Our students don't know a lot about us. And professors often don't know a lot about each other's lives outside of department meetings. We're too preoccupied by our own reputations to think about what others are doing in their own little empires.

Did you know that the gnome-like nebbish down the hall (the one who rarely teaches and eats alone in the faculty cafeteria) is the greatest living scholar of the print cultures of Reformation Germany? His name is Melvin. Every few years he gives a lecture somewhere in Europe that is attended by professors and students who nearly prostrate themselves before him.

Shyly awkward grad students ask Melvin to sign copies of his famous book on the Münster uprising. Tense, serious professors ask his advice on their derivative projects and he blesses them. Flashbulbs pop and men-in-black circle Melvin with video cameras as he walks abstractedly between buildings. Melvin is Mick Jagger in a subculture of 200. Meanwhile, back at the department, his colleagues regard him as a tweedy nonentity who should have retired a decade ago.

I suppose we are all much more aware of the God-in-Colchester phenomenon in popular culture than in higher education. Everyone has heard that Jerry Lewis is worshipped in French film circles as a comedic genius on a par with Charlie Chaplin. And, of course, David Hasselhoff (star of Knight Rider and Baywatch) is a huge musical sensation in Germany. I understand he's bigger there than Wacko Jacko is in Japan. Apparently, the power of Hasselhoff's singing helped to bring down the Berlin Wall in 1989. Or at least that's what his publicists claim.

Of course the moral is that any person you encounter may well be someone somewhere, no matter what it says on his or her conference badge. The solitary, threadbare geezer wandering the book fair might have won the MLA's James Russell Lowell Prize in 1961. (He'll be "rediscovered" in 2011.) That skeevy, inarticulate kid in the leather jacket whose manuscript you rejected may become next year's Slavoj Zizek. And then you'll be sorry.

A related point is that many of us feel that nonacademics -- particularly our students -- just don't know enough about what we do. And for that reason, they seem to regard us with an unflattering mixture of pity and resentment based on three major misconceptions:

  • The hours professors work are equal to the number of hours they spend in the classroom. I have heard more than one student say some variation of, "Profs only have to work, like, 12 hours a week and they get summers off. What an easy gig!"
  • Tenure equals lifetime employment without continuing professional development. Last fall one of my seminar students mentioned that he had heard I'd just published a book. I nodded and the other students seemed impressed by this commonplace, as if they had no idea professors are expected to do more than teach the material they learned in graduate school.
  • It is so easy to become a professor that anyone can fall into it. Students often tell me they want to go to grad school because they think it will be fun. If they don't find something better to do when they tire of grad school, they think they can just become professors, as if becoming a professor is a slightly disreputable consolation prize for having spent one's 20s hanging out at a university instead of working in a brokerage house.

I don't think I am alone in wanting people to know that I am not exactly a man of leisure. I suppose that's why I created a Web site that presents all of my publications, presentations, courses, and other relevant professional materials. Of course, because it's obvious that I created the site myself, I have to be rather modest, even when I write about myself in the third person.

Instead of just putting my CV on the Web like everyone else, I kind of think I would like someone to make a fan site for me, possibly something like the one created for Hasselhoff. Oh, yeah! Check out my experiments with facial hair in the 90s. Instead of building temples to ourselves -- which is something best left to academic administrators -- maybe professors should all have "Web shrines" developed and maintained in our honor.

Maybe our "fans" could be outsourced to India. Perhaps with some ironic detachment (at least in public), we could begin every day by checking our Web shrines and reading new and unfamiliar forms of flattery:

"Professor Thomas H. Benton is the greatest mind of his generation. His new book will redraw the boundaries of several disciplines. What's more, he's a good man, a very, very good man. I named my first son after him. His name is becoming very popular in my country."

Eager low-wage workers in the developing world could eliminate the need for sullen graduate students to stroke our fragile egos. And so, by this means (let's call it "ego-porn"), we professors could all become Gods in Colchester: at last receiving our well-deserved adulation and, in return, bestowing our blessings upon our most devoted disciples. It will be better than Warhol's 15 minutes of fame because, properly endowed, the Web shrine can go on forever.

On the other hand, something tells me that my drive for recognition could easily become a slippery slope toward narcissism and cruelty masquerading as civic virtue. Perhaps this impulse is a relic of my experience in the celebrity culture of my Ivy-League graduate school.

As an undergraduate, my best teachers were all highly accomplished people, but I didn't know it at the time. They did not have an "image" that preceded them and choked off the possibility of genuine dialogue in favor of "I'm-not-worthy" gestures of adulation.

I used to walk into professors' offices as an undergraduate just to chew the intellectual fat with them on all manner of subjects, completely unaware that I was, perhaps, speaking with a famous scholar on some related topic that neither of us brought up.

All of that changed when I went to graduate school. I read the sacred texts of the profession, became scared of the professors, and surrendered too much of my intellectual freedom in order to become a disciple. My dissertation was like the annual ritual of the Los Hermanos Penitentes, the lay order whose members flagellate their backs and submit to being crucified to demonstrate the intensity of their faith.

I remember going on a long car ride with someone who has since become an enormously famous scholar. He was merely an associate professor at the time, so I felt relatively at ease with him, and we talked about all kinds of subjects related to our mutual interests. Now that he is famous I am tempted to wonder whether I said the wrong things. Did I reveal my ignorance on some topics I should have avoided? Was he not a deity disguised as a mere mortal? Did I treat him with the proper deference?

And so education is corrupted by the institutionally conditioned extremes of self-abasement and contempt based on perceived ranks in the Great Chain of Academic Being.

It is probably inevitable that some variety of "celebrity" will become a quantifiable part of the average academic job, along with teaching, research, and service. I remember being asked during an interview for an entry-level position at a branch campus of a state university to explain, exactly, "how my work had reshaped the boundaries of the profession." Some departments routinely joke that in today's academic job market, they could "hire God."

It takes some hubris to contend for such a position -- and to offer it. It's probably worth remembering that Claudius' temple was razed by resentful Britons shortly after it was built. And the curators of the Berlin Museum at Check-Point Charlie will never erect a statue to the famous singer of "Looking for Freedom."

Thomas H. Benton is the pseudonym of an assistant professor of English at a Midwestern liberal-arts college. He writes occasionally about academic culture and the tenure track and welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at