Academic friends

(A posting about my life and about the academic world, not specifically focused on language.)

In the June 8th/15th New Yorker, a letter about Adam Gopnik’s May 4th piece on Anthony Trollope (“Trollope Trending”), from Deborah Denenholz Morse, a professor of English at William and Mary:

As the author and the co-editor of two books that Gopnik mentions, I was glad to read a piece reflecting that Trollope stands the test of time. He is as relevant today on gender, race, and politics as he was in his own era. Still, I have never taught a student who has read a Trollope novel before taking my class. Many students are thrilled to discover a writer with whom few Americans are familiar. Over the years, I have come to appreciate his work more and more, thanks to scholars such as Robert Polhemus … and James Kincaid … Academic literature helps students see Trollope as writing not only about Victorian England but also about their own lives — about psychology, the environment, the political nature of all relationships, the comedy of human foibles — and about the need for faith in something, usually the love of one individual for another.

What caught my eye here (beyond the further good words about the admirable Anthony Trollope) was the mention of Polhemus and Kincaid, who are old academic friends of mine.

Background. First, briefly on Trollope, from a long and thorough Wikipedia article:

Anthony Trollope (… 24 April 1815 – 6 December 1882) was one of the most successful, prolific and respected English novelists of the Victorian era. Some of his best-loved works, collectively known as the Chronicles of Barsetshire, revolve around the imaginary county of Barsetshire. He also wrote perceptive novels on political, social, and gender issues, and on other topical matters [notably in his Palliser novels].

Then Polhemus and Kincaid’s books on Trollope:

Polhemus, Robert M. (1966). The Changing World of Anthony Trollope, Univ, of California Press.

Kincaid, James R. (1977). The Novels of Anthony Trollope, Oxford Univ. Press.

On Kincaid, currently the Aerol Arnold Professor of English at USC. From his faculty profile:

Professor Kincaid researches critical theory, American Studies and Queer studies. Before coming to USC in 1987, he taught at Ohio State, Berkeley, and Colorado. Kincaid’s earlier work in Victorian literature and culture and in literary theory has yielded to publication in cultural studies, most recently in the history and current cultural practices of eroticizing children and instituting elaborate scapegoating rituals to disguise what we are doing. He regularly teaches classes in criminality/lunacy/perversion, in age studies, in censorship, and in other areas of literary, political, and cultural studies.

Research Specialties: Victorian literature and culture, sexuality studies, cultural studies

Academic connections. I got to know Jim Kincaid when he taught at Ohio State. Though he was in English and I was in linguistics at a very large university, the two departments were in the same college (Humanities), and we got to know each through serving on college committees together (there is sometimes a good side to academic committee work). Obviously a very interesting person.

Then when his 1998 book Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting (Duke Univ. Press) — following on his 1992 Child-Loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture (Routledge) — came out, to considerable uproar, I wrote him an appreciate note (by then I was deep into thinking and writing about gender and sexuality myself), and we exchanged e-mail. Eventually he said to me something like, Hey, you’re at Stanford now, you really should look up Rob Polhemus in your English department, I think you’d enjoy each other.

Now, I knew who Polhemus was, especially from his 1990 book Erotic Faith: Being in Love from Jane Austen to D. H. Lawrence (Univ. of Chicago Press), but I had never even met the man; as a perennial Visiting Professor, I didn’t participate in the wider academic community at Stanford and knew other faculty only if they were associated with linguistics (like Rob Robinson in Germanic Languages, Herb Clark in Psychology, and Yoshiko Matsumoto in East Asian Languages).

The idea that I should just introduce myself to someone who probably had no clue about who I was or what I did — eventually, I discovered that this was indeed the case — and say that we should get to know one another sounded like a tremendous imposition, just impossible, even if I could drop Jim Kincaid’s name. So I never approached him. (Nor did I ever approach the poet Adrienne Rich or the feminist scholar Diane Middlebrook, though both were Stanford colleagues.)

But then we get to 2005-06, when Rob and I were both fellows at  the Stanford Humanities Center, part of a small group of faculty (from Stanford and elsewhere) and graduate students (from Stanford) who ate lunch together and gave presentations to one another — an occasion for Rob and me to become academic friends. All very rewarding.

I guess Jim Kinkaid was right in the end.

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