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Columbia University M.F.A. Professor’s E-Mail Goes Viral

Have you read the letter sent by the Columbia MFA professor to her former students at the University of South Carolina? You might want to read it in conjunction with Thomas Benton/William Pannepacker’s piece in The Chron titled “Why Do They Hate Us?”

It seems that the two pieces together do a fabulous dance macabre illustrating the death of the profession in much the same way, for example, that a set piece from the Cirque de Soleil might illustrate the death of a planet consumed by its own gas.

Pannapacker, as always, makes provocative points throughout his often-humorous article. I say “provocative” because as of 2:06 on Monday, October 4th, over 113 readers have written comments in response to his assertions that non-academics despise academics. “I can’t remember a time when professors, particularly in the humanities and social sciences—already the survivors of a 40-year depression in the academic job market—had a stronger feeling of being under siege,” he writes. He tells people he’s an administrator rather than admitting to being an academic because he wants to avoid their vitriol.

One of my friends is a veterinarian. When asked what he does for a living, however, he says he’s a roofer. He doesn’t want to begin a conversational exchange that will dwindle to a list of chronic complaints concerning someone’s aging dachshund. It makes his life easier. Nobody wants to talk the roof biz because few people have strong opinions on the subject.

Everybody has strong opinions about professors—and for good reason—especially when those of us who shine the spotlight on ourselves end up highlighting our worst traits. It’s like holding a flashlight under your chin: nobody looks good from certain angles.

Take, for example, Janette Turner Hospital. I’m sure I should have known who she was, but since teaching English literature cuts way into my reading, I hadn’t come across her name until one of my friends sent me an article about her posted on September 29th on Gawker.com.

Titled “Columbia Writing Professor Sends World’s Haughtiest Email to Former Students” and written by Hamilton Nolan, the article has received Pannapacker-worthy attention, having been re-Tweeted 214 times and “Liked” by 3,667 on Facebook.

Having read the letter as printed in Gawker, I had two immediate reactions. My first thought was that Professor Turner Hospital might have at least anticipated a set of bruised egos from her former students when she writes about Columbia. “Each year,” she writes, “100 are admitted (in fiction, poetry, nonfiction) with fiction by far the largest segment. But 600+ apply, so the 100 who get in are the cream of the cream.” I mean, if these new students are, as Jean Brodie would say, la crème de la crème, then what exactly were her former students? Skim milk? Curds and whey? Chopped liver?

A few more bruises were delivered to her USC colleagues and students, I suspect, when she declared, “Although I have taught at a number of the most highly regarded MFA programs in this country and in England, there’s only one other place I’ve ever taught where there was a comparable atmosphere, and that was MIT, where I taught for 3 years. At both places the crackle of intellectual energy in the air is almost visible, like blue fire.”

But you can see that she’s attempting to be generous (isn’t she?) by saying that the students from USC might “car-pool up to NYC very cheaply and stay at youth hostels on Manhattan (within walking distance of Columbia U and Central Park) for just $30/night (shared room) with linen, towels, and breakfast provided.” Hey, I might just do that myself—I had no idea rooms could be had for that little money in NYC unless you were sharing a room with, say, Hannibal Lecter (in which case, you would be breakfast, which is a whole new definition of “providing”).

And you can appreciate that she puts the “New” in New Yorker when she gushes, “This is Cloud Nine living on the Upper West Side (which is known to my agent and my Norton editor, who live in Greenwich Village, as “Upstate Manhattan”).

I’ve spent most of my life in and out of NYC and I have never heard that phrase, but maybe that comes from not having caught up on my reading.

(I’ve heard the phrase “up the river” but that referred to being sent to Sing Sing, another institution associated with Old New York and in that way resembling Columbia, but I’m sure the nice people from Norton and the agent’s office weren’t making any insinuations.)

But apart from that one reaction (all those paragraphs were about my first reaction—I react a lot in a short space of time), I also felt a heartfelt and sympathetic cringe for “that poor woman.”  I instantly thought of her as “that poor woman” because I thought of how much I would hate to be in her position.

After all, I don’t want anybody sending my emails to Gawker. I’ve  unleashed a few doozies in my time I wouldn’t want them to get loose and bite any random reader on the ankle. (You can get arrested for that sort of thing in Upstate Manhattan).

We wouldn’t want to make our profession look even worse to outsiders, would we?

Could we?

 

 

 

 

 

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