Thursday, August 06, 2009

Inside Higher Ed and ACADEMIC LIVES

In Inside Higher Ed today, an interview with Cynthia Franklin about the questions that led her to write her new book ACADEMIC LIVES; reporter Scott Jaschik also queries her on what will happen in the future with respect to academics and the genre of memoir.

Franklin explains in detail the book’s roots in the large number of academic memoirs published in the late 1990s, including memoirs Franklin praises as beautiful or illuminating such as Edward Said’s Out of Place (1996) and Michael Berube’s Life As We Know It (1996); her chapters, which are organized in terms of disciplines such as postcolonial and feminist studies, cover many other academic memoirs from this period which she holds up to sharper critique.

The noticeable trend encouraged Franklin to hold these books up to further scrutiny: what is the relationship of a memoir to other non-autobiographical works by an academic, and what can a memoir contribute to a theoretical discipline where identity is an important topic of discussion? While Franklin finds that the possibility for memoir to contribute to a discipline such as whiteness studies is compromised by many factors, she is more sanguine in the area of disability studies: “Engaging a disability — whether one's own or a loved one's — often brings the author up against the limitations of intelligence as it is conventionally defined. This means that the academic is often not capitalizing upon, but exploring the limits of, her or his academic celebrity, and also grappling in often-uncharted ways with the value structure that underwrites the academy.”

The interview also explores what has happened in the genre of academic memoir since the 1990s, a time Franklin considers the apex of the “academic star system.” She points out the rising permeability between public and private spheres, mentioning the way Michael Berube’s blog functions in many ways as an extension of his published memoirs. At the same time, she calls attention to the Ward Churchill controversy and his loss of his academic position as a sign of greater risks for academics in expressing views counter to the dominant political current.