Skip to content
What About Me?
Memoirs of an academic reading academic memoirs


Anyone who’s spent time at a university knows what a deeply schizophrenic institution it is. Stridently oppositional and dedicated to cutting-edge research, American universities are also slow moving, riddled with annoying rules, conservatories of the past. Berkeley may have spawned the Free Speech Movement and the New Historicism, but even in the late eighties, it was almost impossible to do a dissertation on a living author—because, well, you know, a tradition of work on such a person doesn’t exist and such a dissertation by definition can’t be rigorous. What, exactly, would you read about Borges or Mamet?

Today Berkeley students, and hundreds of others, are permitted to produce such dissertations, and we know why: democratization. Finding suitable topics for all those dissertations is like breaking down all those terrible barriers between high and low cultures, or like encouraging ordinary professors to write their memoirs.

Yes: memoirs, books that used to be written mainly by people who were in some way exceptional—path breakers and presidents or their lieutenants and enablers. Such memoirs are still being produced today: Blood and Oil: Memoirs of a Persian Prince or Is She Coming Too?: Memoirs of a Lady Hunter. But as befits a demotic culture, in which, we are assured, even the everyday is exceptional, hot sellers on include Trauma Junkie: Memoirs of an Emergency Flight Nurse and Every Day Was New Year’s Eve: Memoirs of a Saloon Keeper. We can even read a memoir of amnesia, Past Forgetting.

And we can also read memoirs of life in the academy. We can read lots of memoirs of life in the academy. Published mainly by university presses, academic memoirs have become a fad, and like any fad, this one has a history. It began in the late eighties in a professors’ writing support group at Duke University, then one of the hottest English departments in the country. All of the group’s members were women, I’m sad to say, and quite a group they were—Alice Kaplan, Jane Tompkins, Cathy N. Davidson, and Mariana Torgovnick—each experimenting with memoir after having produced significant, and often highly theoretical, scholarly work. It was once more to the typewriter, girls, but this time, forget theory and scholarship: “write with feeling!”

The $40,000 professors and the $65,000 professors imitated the $100,000 professors and we are now awash in memoirs.

Ideally, fads should be short, like the urban cowboy or the lounge swinger or—what about me?—the wearing of suede saddle shoes, a fad I started while in junior high. But this one doesn’t want to go away. As with so much in the academy—multiculturalism, speech codes, postructuralist theory—the fad for memoir writing has trickled down the institutional hierarchy. Academics of lesser prestige and power tend to accept the authority of their betters, and so the appearance of Kaplan’s French Lessons in 1993 and Torgovnick’s Crossing Ocean Parkway in 1994 led inevitably to, among others, Leaving Pipe Shop by Deborah E. McDowell (University of Virginia) in 1996, Nightbloom by Mary Cappello (University of Rhode Island) in 1998, and Scenes of Instruction by Michael Awkward (University of Pennsylvania) in 1999. Thinking, naturally enough, that writing about oneself is a lot more fun and certainly much easier than writing about Austen’s prose or Auden’s prosody, the $40,000 professors and the $65,000 professors imitated the $100,000 professors and we are now awash in memoirs. How long will it be, I wonder, before I find on my desk a dissertation-turned-“tenure book” that is a memoir of graduate school?

Of course, if this fad for academic memoirs persists, it will do so for a number of institutional and cultural reasons, not just because of the fundamentally glacial and imitative nature of change in the academy. As is faddish to say nowadays, this fad is overdetermined. A good thing, too, because if I had to “tease out” and “proportion” the “causality” behind it, this magazine would run out of paper. Being a professor myself, however, I can’t help but ask a question, actually two questions: Do the professors’ memoirs set them apart from the demotic or make them part of it? Is Alice Kaplan like the trauma junkie or the Persian prince?

The professors themselves would probably plump for the trauma junkie, and for the usual reason: they think producing memoirs is progressive, empowering, subversive. “Autobiography is fundamentally a democratic enterprise,” writes Nancy K. Miller of CUNY in Bequest and Betrayal: Memoirs of a Parent’s Death. Elsewhere she writes that “the memoir craze feeds the hunger for a different, or a least a more interesting life.” Maybe so! But if so—and this is a big if—then we should be reading memoirs by “different” and “more interesting” people than ourselves. We should be reading the life stories of people who don’t bore us by lecturing at us, and who craft elegant, fast-paced sentences and paragraphs. And when you think of such people, do you immediately light upon those who taught you in college? Your professors? Not on your life. Not even for $24.95, which is a bargain, compared to what college costs. And why? Because there are hidden costs: with academics, you might not get a memoir, exactly. You might get an “autocritography,” or what Awkward calls a “self-reflexive, self-consciously academic act” that accounts for the “individual, social, and institutional conditions that help to produce a scholar and, hence, his or her professional concerns.”

And not only that—not only are you likely to get a text written from a specific “social position” or “cultural location”—but you are likely to get more of the political and ethical pedantry you thought you left behind years ago. Miller, for instance, can’t just write a beautiful or even disturbing description of coming to terms with her father’s death. As “a middle-aged therapized intellectual,” Miller must persuade us that writing about her upper-middle-class life “is not. . .terminal ‘moi-ism,’ as it’s been called” but rather provides “a rendez-vous, as it were, with the other.” Her memoir constantly insists that what she’s doing is somehow generous: We readers may not have won Guggenheim fellowships that allow us to write our own memoirs, so she will let us tag along with her, the “other,” as she recalls her elite education, her success in the academy, and her frustrations with her parents, who don’t respect her ambitions or achievements.

In what seems a different vein altogether, but isn’t, Jane Gallop of the University of Wisconsin sets out “to produce a sensation” by writing a book called Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment. The feminist so accused is Gallop herself, but as she well knows, little about Feminist Accused is sensational. Prudes may be shocked by the language the Distinguished Professor uses to describe her own efforts in graduate school—“I learned and excelled; I desired and I fucked my teachers”—but a few fucks in a text do not a sensation make. Nor does the self-dramatizing accusation of Gallop’s title: Even if the feminist was “accused of sexual harassment,” she wasn’t convicted, even by a university, much less a court of law, and only in the hothouse atmosphere of academic feminism would it be considered harassment to make a spectacle of oneself. For that is all that Gallop did, first by declaring at an academic conference that “graduate students are my sexual preference” and then, later that night, by kissing a female graduate student in a lesbian bar. Whew! As Gallop confesses, it was all performance, performance that took her back to 1971, to her days as a student when feminism was new and exciting and seemed to offer both sexual and intellectual liberation.

Ah, 1971! In 1971—and what about me?—I was still in high school, but I’m nearly a contemporary of Gallop’s and feminism didn’t light my fire, either sexual or intellectual. Thank God, because I’d hate to think I’d wake up twenty-five years later writing books defending my “admittedly. . .outrageous” behavior by proposing that the “most intense. . .and productive. . .pedagogical relation between teacher and student is, in fact, a ‘consensual amorous relationship.’” Thank God, because as pedagogical practice, the sexualized classroom is, at best, profoundly fucked-up and, at worst, tyrannical, irrational, and dangerous. The idea itself is only put forward, like the book itself, to justify the professor’s behavior, not to protect collegiate, or more specifically for Gallop, graduate education. And after reading Feminist Accused, you can’t help but wonder, with essayist William Gass, whether there are any motives for memoir-writing “that aren’t tainted with conceit or a desire for revenge or a wish for justification?”

There’s certainly a lot of conceit in the memoirs I have read over the past few years. Consider Kaplan’s evocation of the spirit of her father’s death: “I asked my mother what happened to people after they died. ‘Jews do not believe in an afterlife. We believe that people live on through their achievements.’ That year in school, third grade, I racked up sixty book reports.” It is shameful, I believe, to mock an evocation of a father’s death—and parents’ deaths loom large in academic memoirs—so I won’t. I’ll mock instead the causality implied in Kaplan’s achievement of racking up sixty book reports. Daddy dies; book reports follow; girl’s achievement mimics her father’s, who “was a lawyer at the Nuremberg War Crimes trials where they punished Nazi war criminals.” But what about me? I will tell you: In second grade, my dad didn’t die, he wasn’t a lawyer at Nuremberg, and I still wrote with fat pencils. But I did read 114 books that year, tops in my class, and for my effort I received another book, The Man Who Walked Around the World. 115.

The memoirist’s conceit is banal and therefore boring. It says, if you aren’t one of us, you know people like us and, probably, you hated us: we read 115 books while you read thirty; we learned the multiplication tables first and best, hogging the gold stars; and, in high school, we made it impossible for you to pass chemistry lab. As Tompkins puts it in A Life in School, “I always knew the answer, so why not get credit for it?” Torgovnick recounts how she skipped a grade, “a not uncommon occurrence,” she tells us, “for ‘gifted’ youngsters,” for those whose “IQ is genius level.” Never mind Torgovnick’s implication that she wasn’t really gifted, accomplished by placing quotation marks around the word; what I want to know is if her school district had kindergarten for the gifted. And if so, was this the result of a healthier tax base? No wonder—and what about me?—I am an academic flyweight: I had to suffer through three whole grades with the giftless!

When you like school, when school feels like home, eventually you realize there’s no reason to leave, so you don’t.

If you hated us, at least you could take comfort in the fact that we were nerds, an accusation Frank Lentricchia (Duke) puts into the mouths of his own daughters: “You showed us all those Scorsese movies because you want to tell us this is who you are, but this is not who you are because you read books all the time . . . . You’re not the Don, Dad, you’re the nerd of Little Italy.” Lentricchia is hardly unique in this. All of us were nerds, and we still are. We read books all the time. And we always have. Black, white, working-class, upper-class, as children we always had our noses in books. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Harvard) could read and write before he started first grade, and McDowell “couldn’t wait to learn to read.” Tompkins, too, “wanted to read so badly that I. . .made my mother teach me some fundamentals while I was still in kindergarten.” At age eight, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (CUNY) was already “really a ‘book-worm,’” according to her eleven-year-old sister. And me—what about me?—well, my mother, who was forty-four when I was born, loved to say that I was the easiest of her children to care for, because I was always sitting on the floor in a corner reading books.

Nerds also love school—another reason you probably hated us. Any sensible person, any person with a political consciousness, knew that school was to be resisted if not avoided at all costs. Most of us had to read Althusser in graduate school to discover that school is a particularly ugly Institutional State Apparatus, because we were the kids who liked school from day one. James Phelan of Ohio State “always liked school.” For Lennard Davis of the University of Illinois at Chicago, “school was where I was most at home.” By second grade, says Gates, school “was entirely my world; there wasn’t anything I couldn’t learn.” And when you like school, when school feels like home, eventually you realize there’s no reason to leave, so you don’t. You become one of those people, like Lentricchia, who has never really worked: “If you never leave school, which I never did, maybe you never work.” And what about me? Well, I never left school either, and except for summer jobs in high school and college, I have never really worked. Often I never leave the house, just like Lentricchia. Frankly, I’d like to retire, but, as my sister says, shaking her head and rolling her eyes, “you’re already retired.”

If you are one of us—the nerd of wherever, a professor at a university, with an elite graduate degree—these memoirs bore you because you have been there and done that, or you have been there and done some of that—knocking off book reports, skipping grades, getting teased for being an uncoordinated runt or for being uninterested in pom-poms and make-up. Being valedictorian; finding your working-class or Hispanic self woefully out of place at Stanford or Princeton; realizing that social life is much better in college than in high school—boys actually think you are cute! Discovering that graduate study with Paul de Man isn’t at all like teaching French to undergraduates at a state university; being denied tenure at a posh college even though you were still a straight-A girl and did the work right if not the socializing. Getting therapy. And then, beating the denial of tenure, that professional death sentence, with two more books, a better job, and the chance to rub it in their stuck-up WASP noses. Getting therapy, because socializing is still a problem.

Been there and done that. Yet if academic memoirs are banal and boring, if most people have no reason to read these “self-reflexive academic acts,” then why are they being written? Why is memoir-writing all the rage in the academy? What are the reasons behind all this telling of all? Consider, first, the cultural imperative to confess: telling all is entertainment, hugely profitable entertainment at that. Besides Jerry, Jenny, Ricki, and Montel, we can watch the former mayor of New York presiding over The People’s Court. ‘‘Are you stupid?” he bellows at the defendant or in another case, the plaintiff. Another judge, Judy, is enough of a big gavel to be spoofed on Saturday Night Live. Even the Animal Planet channel airs its own courtroom series, focusing, I guess, on disputes over pets, their inopportune droppings or vocalizations. If the personal is the political, then a lot of political work occurs on TV, at all hours of the day, every day.

Such “political” work goes on in the universities as well, which is another reason why so many tenured English professors not at the top of their profession have followed the lead of the Duke group and gotten personal in print, if not with Ricki. These days, most English departments are organizational nightmares. At my state university, for example, the English department includes the fields of creative writing, literary history and criticism, rhetoric and composition, and applied linguistics. We deliver John Barth at night, Stephen Greenblatt in the late afternoon, and freshman comp each semester at all hours of the day. Our faculty includes poets and social scientists, the applied linguists who co-author far too many articles the literary critics and creative writers have no idea how to read, let alone judge.


If there is a center to this universe, it is solipsism. What about me? Undergraduates write compositions about their summer vacations or their sundry oppressions, because just as Tompkins believes “a male standard of rationality” rigs the game of epistemology against her, so, too, does the Chicago Manual of Style rig the game of argument against our poorly educated freshmen, both black and white. The creative writers, both faculty and students, tell us about themselves in the fancy dress of form. Eight times a year, creative writers from other places arrive on campus to read about their selves. And so it doesn’t surprise me that among the lit-critics, who are most likely to be lifers—stuck in this dreary town until retirement—a few say to themselves, “I can do as well as this” and give up footnotes forever in an effort to have more fun. It’s not as bad as other options—becoming Professor Deadwood, for instance, or Professor Letch.

In contrast to my department, however, are other English departments, like Duke’s, where the center still holds and ambition still reigns, and where writing a memoir doesn’t express despair or a mid-life crisis. What do you do when you are forty years old and tenured in one of the hottest English departments in the country? Write about yourself because it is more fun? I don’t think so. No, for them, composing the memoir is another move in the professional game, a game the memoirist wants to win. You can tell this because these professors don’t just write their memoirs; they write essays justifying, and thus promoting, the writing of their memoirs. Tompkins published “Me and My Shadow”—a seminal essay in the effort to justify the merging of the personal into the professional—in 1987 in a major journal of literary theory, New Literary History. Two years later, Miller published “My Father’s Penis” as the afterword to Refiguring the Father: New Feminist Readings of Patriarchy; in 1997, she published “Public Statements, Private Lives: Academic Memoirs for the Nineties” in the prestigious feminist journal Signs; and in the fall of 2000, she published “But Enough About Me, What Do You Think of My Memoir?” in The Yale Journal of Criticism.

In “Me and My Shadow,” Tompkins confesses that her desire to write about her feelings is partly an attempt to reduce her “intellectual dependence” on her husband, Stanley Fish, and partly an attempt to change the rules of the game so as to favor her: “An epistemology which excludes emotions from the process of attaining knowledge radically undercuts women’s epistemic authority . . . . No wonder I felt so uncomfortable in the postures academic prose forced me to assume; it was like wearing men’s jeans.” I want to say, “Hey, Jane, divorce him!” Not only because Tompkins says one of her motives in marrying Fish was to become a “player” but also because—and what about me?—that’s what I did, when I tired of wrangling with my husband about epistemology and scientific method and laissez-faire economics. Since my ex hated conceding me a point, it was wrangling that reminded me of playing Over-the-Line against the neighborhood boys years ago: they would cheat in order not to lose to a couple of girls. And isn’t that what it’s about, Jane, having the game rigged so you lose?

Then again, while Tompkins may not like men’s jeans, many women—me, for instance—look good and feel comfortable in them. And sometimes, increasingly often, women win at Over-the-Line and epistemological argument. The point, however, is not that “we” should play “their” game; nor is it that “their” game is “objective,” not rigged in their favor, so that all these complaints are bogus. Rather, I would argue—and I hereby do argue—that what’s at issue is winning rather than losing. We’re intellectuals. We like to win, and winning is what our game is about. First gold stars, then full professorships. I know the answers, so why not get credit for it? As Sedgwick confesses—and this is a woman who thinks her shrink may be stupid—“I was awfully competitive.” We’ll do almost anything to win. Some of us will do more. We’re smart and we’re competitive, and if we are teaching in the hottest English department in the country, we are not one with the masses. Like the Persian prince, we are of the elite, but unlike the Persian prince, we don’t command millions of dollars or millions of lives, and no one cares that in elementary school we wet our pants while getting 100s on our tests. But what about me? I’m not teaching in the hottest English department in the country, so you can be sure I managed to score 100 without wetting my pants.