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Speaking Out

Splice of Life

A few weeks ago, in the fifth-floor men's room in Williams Hall, I encountered a distinguished visitor to whom I had been introduced an hour before. He was to lecture on "Circumcision, Scarification, and Victorian Cookbooks" as part of the Desperately Interdisciplinary Visiting Lecture Series. Since he had been identified as an ethnobiosociologist, I thought I might ask him a question or two that had been on my mind for some time. The following is a transcript of our conversation, which I retail in the hope that it will promote in others the epiphany that it engendered in me. (Over the years that I have been chairman, I have formed the habit of hiding in the stalls and taping my male colleagues' conversations, which explains why I was able to record this particular exchange. Now, if I could only get a wire into the Other Room…but I digress.)

—I ("I"): "Professor Kirschwasser, why is it that members of university committees, not to mention others, almost never bother to look up and read the books and articles that pertain to the matters at hand? After all, they are all trained researchers."

—V ("Visitor"): "My dear Cheesepack, you are such a silly old humanist! To do such research would be to violate the root-like essence of committeeization. The function of a committee is to merely committeeize; that is, to meet, to talk off the top of one's head, and to produce a report that nobody reads, not even the next committee on the same subject. It is what we call a social, tribal ritual."

—I: "What an interesting term! I must try to remember it."

—V: "You would do well. Perhaps, humanist though you are, you now understand that to do research and to write a serious report based on that research would be like expecting a quorum at a faculty senate meeting. It would upset the basic economy of the tribe. It would violate, as it were, a taboo. You are familiar with the term 'taboo'?"

—I: "Taboo or not taboo. That is the question."

—V: "Ah, yes, Chespock, I was told about you. I must go now and prepare my multimedia equipment for my lecture. Everything, including the spraying of pheromones, is coordinated by a computer. Even the answers to the inevitable recurrent questions are programmed. Lectures too, you see, are tribal rituals, electronics aside."

—I: "The concept of visual aids is not exactly foreign to me. I do shadowgraphs with my hands in some of my courses. You should see my Voltaire. Of course, you have to have fresh batteries in the flashlight. But before you go, could you take the time to answer some questions about interdisciplinary work? Why is it such a rage, and why, given its fantastic prominence, has no one ever read, apparently, the studies that have been done on it and its results?"

—V: "Chasepick, your naivete is colossal! Don't you know that granting agencies started it all by refusing to give money for traditional work, so that everything had to be called interdisciplinary if it was to pry loose one red cent? Naturally, what granting agencies want is what everybody had better want. The alternative is tubesville. Money is the name of the game, along, of course, with tribal rituals."

—I: "But some of the studies I mentioned argue that this emphasis on interdisciplinary studies has had some bad results. It often merely variegates undergraduates' ignorance, and it forces graduate students to run before they can walk, so to speak, and then they often can't get jobs because traditional departments do the hiring, and…"

—V: "They were right about you. You really do belong in a museum."

The conversation ended there, but it continued to resonate in my mind. As a result, I am now working (although slowly, since it's hard to get good quill pens these days) on a grant proposal for a study of the semiotics of animal husbandry and particle physics. As soon as I solve the waste-removal problem, I'll be at the cutting edge. See you there?

— Clifton Cherpack,
Professor and Chair, Romance Languages


Originally published in Almanac January 13, 1987




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