The adjunct novel is the new campus novel. As Maggie Doherty writes in The Nation, its concerns are less with manners than with survival, because for the newly proletarianized adjunct-professoriate “the stakes of academic work [are] extremely high rather than comically low.” Although set in 1960, Joshua Cohen’s new novel The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family (out next month from NYRB) nods to contemporary adjunct conditions more than once, as when its narrator, a tenure-track historian named Ruben Blum, describes the “tiny slovenly pigeonhole” he shares “with a roster of untenured faculty and adjuncts I never got to know beyond the mugs and moldy sandwiches that lingered after their contracts expired.”

But The Netanyahus is not primarily an adjunctroman. If the David Lodge-style campus novel is exhausted, then Cohen’s book resolves the exhaustion of the genre by other means: It is the only such work I know of to focus on the life and ideas of a real scholar. (Readers, let me know if there are others.) That’s Benzion Netanyahu, father of Bibi and influential scholar of medieval Jewry. In real life, Benzion taught at Cornell. In Cohen’s fantasy, he is an aspirant professor at the fictional Corbin, a second-rate college in Western New York State. Blum, the college’s only Jewish faculty member, is delegated to host Benzion’s campus visit. The theory is that Blum, as a co-religionist, will know how to handle Netanyahu.

He does not. Benzion and his wife, Tzila, show up in a snowstorm with their three children — Yonatan, Benjamin, and Iddo — in tow. The children are uncontrollable. Tzila keeps getting drunk. Benzion has destroyed the borrowed car he used to get the family to Blum’s, and he tries to bully Blum into dictating a letter to the car’s owner pretending that there are no competent mechanics in the region to assess the damage.

Although it’s not an adjunct novel, problems of labor are central. Corbin’s administrators are interested in Benzion because they hope that, being versed in Biblical Hebrew, he can do double duty in the school’s seminary. He bristles at this, even insists that the suggestion is anti-Semitic. Blum tries to appease him: “Corbin’s a small college, so we all have to double up. At least the new hires will have to, and I’m sure that’ll be the case for the rest of us soon enough. ... Dr. Kimmel and Dr. Galbraith are already preparing to teach elementary German and French.”

But the heart of the novel is Benzion Netanyahu’s ideas about the Iberian inquisition, ideas which, in real life, he would eventually publish as The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth-Century Spain (1995). At Cohen’s Corbin, Benzion rehearses, in lectures and monologues, the themes that would eventually make up that massive book, namely, that most Iberian Jewish conversos to Christianity were sincere, and that the Inquisition was designed not to root out insincere converts but to racialize Jewishness. In Blum’s paraphrase, the point of the Inquisitors was to show that “Judaism inhered in the blood.”

The Netanyahus, in other words, is a campus novel that is also a novel of ideas — a conjunction less common than one might expect. Luckily it’s also very, very funny.

The Latest

A Conversation with Amna Khalid

Recently, the Carleton College historian Amna Khalid argued in our pages against what she sees as unproductively bureaucratic or administrative approaches to student demands for social justice and diversity on campus. I spoke with Khalid about her essay and her larger thinking. Here’s some of that discussion.

You begin by noting what you suggest is an irony: While many student-activists insist that they are poised against the increasingly corporate logic of the contemporary university, they end up recapitulating and even intensifying it. What happens?

I don’t think it’s primarily the fault of the students. They are operating inside the über-administrative university. Every complaint on campus has to be filed through an administrative office. So I’m not really blaming the students — that’s the system they know. But I do want to point out that there is a contradiction within their own logic. A neoliberal logic has now suffused the ways in which we think to the extent that we are unable to conceive of alternatives to bureaucratic solutions.

But I also think that as educators it is our responsibility to point out to students where the gaps in their logic are. That’s our job. We must challenge them to help them grow. We must do this responsibly, but I don’t think that means handling them with kid gloves.

Some critics have suggested that students’ own real desire at some very intimate level is for bureaucratic management.

Perhaps. But it’s more complicated and I think they’re unaware of it. First, I don’t think that all students feel this way. Arguably it’s a minority, albeit a loud one, that is setting the tone here. These are students who feel that they’re entitled to a certain way of being treated. I don’t know why that is — I really don’t. But coming from the outside: I think it is a peculiarly American thing. I’d argue that kind of entitlement has been fostered by the growth of the administrative university. Students are told: You’re entitled to a certain standard of well-being, support services, recreational facilities, which is why we must create offices to cater to all these needs.

This entitlement dovetails with what I call “debased identity politics.” The result is powerful and potent. There’s both a sense of entitlement and a sense of being a victim — a dangerous combination.

You mention the “quixotic rhetorical goals” offered by many university administrations as they try to satisfy the demands of student activists. Another word for “quixotic rhetorical goals” is “cant.” Do students ever bristle?

Students are capable of noticing when administrative measures are perfunctory. Often they are further frustrated by this. But their next step is to ask for more administrative solutions. We have lost the capacity to think outside of administrative solutions: Whether it’s bias-response teams, diversity training, cultural competency or sensitivity training. Initiatives like these debase the very idea of diversity into a meaningless etiquette exercise.

There’s always the risk that an essay like yours will be received as a “kids these days” lament — a sort of debased culture wars piece. But far from just complaining, you offer solutions, like the course of study at Pitt. And what you suggest is, rather than hiring outside consultants or whatever, using the expertise of faculty members themselves.

At Pitt, they’ve used their own faculty — they’ve pooled their intellectual resources in order to understand social-justice problems in not just an academic and abstract sense but also in terms of the local situation. I love it because it’s truly multidisciplinary. They’re reading scholarship. Some of that scholarship you might agree with, some you might not. There’s viewpoint diversity that suggests robust engagement. And most of all the course seems to open up conversation and pose intellectual questions — as opposed to providing the kinds of pat answers that “trainings” provide.

A number of universities have created seminars and lecture series. I do worry sometimes that these lecture series are offering only one point of view, which is not that dissimilar from the kinds of “training” I refer to. My problem with the training model is that it presumes that there is a perfect recipe for doing diversity: Just put in the right ingredients and you’ll get your pie. That’s not how this works!

Conflict and disagreement are necessary for reaping the benefits of diversity. Engaging with difference engenders discomfort and risk. We have become conflict averse and the fear of causing offense reigns supreme. But you can’t do this work without taking the risk of occasionally offending someone, and learning how to forgive. Walking in someone else’s shoes is rarely comfortable or pleasant at first. But a novel perspective is its own reward. When you learn that, you become more willing to embrace risk and conflict as positives.

Recommended

  • “Whether Modernist or ‘traditional,’ many thinkers of the interwar period were obsessed by the role of history and the passing of time in art.” At The New Republic, Jo Livingstone’s essay on Robert Kanigel’s new book about Milman Parry, the classicist who consolidated the “oral-formulaic” theory of Homeric poetry.

  • “When talking to Frederick Douglass or talking to John Brown, one goes quiet inside.” At The Nation, the great author John Edgar Wideman talks with Elias Rodriques about fiction, history, basketball, and prison.
  • Imani Perry talks with Marc Lamont Hill on Black News Tonight about critical race theory ands its relationship to civil rights legislation.

I’m always hoping to hear from you — write to opinion@chronicle.com.

Yours,
Len Gutkin