The Success of Frightened Professors

“When she was young, Mary saw a brilliant and original man lose his job because he had expressed ideas that were offensive to the trustees of the college where they both taught. She shared his views but did not sign the protest petition.”

So begins Tobias Wolff’s short story, “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs.” Mary, a historian, recognizes that she too is always on trial in one sense or another, and in response she perfects a kind of unimpeachable blandness, carefully scripting her lectures with the arguments and words of approved writers “so she would not by chance say something scandalous.” She’s not quite apolitical (even that might draw negative attention), but politically correct, and she favors causes too harmless and eccentric to concern anyone else. Tellingly, her book begins, “It is generally believed that … .”

When I first read the story, several years ago, I laughed at the hyperbole, but sitting down with it again this past week, I found it less funny. Meanwhile, I’ve spent enough time on the job market and in faculty lounges to have known a few Marys and to have been one a couple times myself, cowed by a majority position I disagreed with.

What really surprised me ,though, was the thought that Mary might actually be quite good at some things in the classroom. While she’s too timid to play devil’s advocate by challenging a popular opinion in her own voice, her fear of missing something ensures that her students hear opposing viewpoints in the words of those who hold them. She’s certainly never guilty of paraphrasing others into straw men to advance her own position. I get the impression that Mary’s students leave her courses well versed in the historical arguments they study, and with the sense that they know on which side “history” has landed (at least for now). It’s hard to imagine anyone leaving her courses inspired, but still there is something to be said for this nearly objective approach.

Mary’s scholarship isn’t terrible, either. By her own admission, it’s rather dull, but she is clearly a talented synthesizer of perspectives. We can assume that her book is painstakingly researched, grounded in evidence, and impervious to any criticism other than a lack of imagination.

Add Mary’s personal likeability, and it’s easy to see how this terrified woman, who has all but forgotten what it feels like to think for herself, earned tenure.

Allow me to play devil’s advocate. Does originality really have a place in academe? Just how brilliant would a job candidate have to be to make up for unpopular ideas? When was the last time your department hired someone truly “original,” and how did that hire turn out?

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