Notes for a 'Professor Profile,' February 2008

In February 2008, I received an email from a University of Guelph student who said that she and a colleague who worked with her on the weekly student newspaper, The Ontarion, were planning a new column, “Professor Profiles,” and would like to interview me for the upcoming issue. I was off work for a couple of days for medical reasons, and wrote a quick response. In the event, the proposed column was never launched: The Ontarion's editorial board may very sensibly have decided that such a feature would be unbearably dull. 

 

Dear G. (and C.),

Sorry for not responding earlier: I was in hospital for minor surgery yesterday. Nothing dramatic, though it means I have a fat bandage on one foot and will have to stump around for a couple of weeks more in the walking cast I've had to wear since before Christmas.

The new column sounds like a fine idea. Will Tuesday morning be early enough for a meeting? It would have to be early (say, from 9:00 to 9:30 a.m., because I have a graduate seminar that runs from 10:00 to 1:00). I could also be free from 2:00 to 2:30, if that would be preferable. We could meet in my office, or, in you like, get an earlier start over the telephone. I'll be working at home tomorrow, and this wretched foot will be keeping me indoors all day [...].

Let me tell you a bit about myself ahead of time.

Facts: six-feet-six-inches tall former not-very-good rugby player; degrees from the Royal Military College of Canada (B.A.), University of Toronto (M.A.), University of Sussex (D.Phil.); teaching experience at universities in France, England, and Germany as well as Canada.

I've had an upside-down career. Academics often do increasing amounts of administrative work as they get on in years (and supposedly wisdom). I did heaps of it when I was young and foolish: Chair of the English Department and head of the Senate (at a very small university); Chair of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council's Research Grants Adjudication Committee in Literature; President of the Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English (ACCUTE); and substantial involvement a decade ago in this university's Strategic Planning Commission. I'm now trying to focus on teaching and research. (Perhaps late in the day? I turn 60 this September.)

Some information on my research. I'm a Renaissance scholar by training: lots of articles and conference papers on 16th-century writers like Marlowe, Shakespeare and Nashe; and two new editions, in 2007 and 2008, of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus—both with lovely glossy covers and enough footnotes in them to make a scholar's tiny heart beat faster.

Also articles on Renaissance philosophy, on Descartes, and on the contemporary philosopher Jacques Derrida. That last name takes us into the uneasy borderlands between philosophy and literary theory—and perhaps into the battles over theory which raged during the 1990s, when literary theory and English profs were being represented in the media as (I kid you not) threats to the survival of Western Culture. As president from 1992 to 1994 of ACCUTE, a national association of people supposedly devoted to the destruction of Western Culture, I got drawn into those debates—hence my book Lunar Perspectives: Field Notes from the Culture Wars (1996), in which I found myself trying to explain and defend contemporary literary studies and, more largely, the social function and value of humanities research and critical thinking in universities and “the public sphere.”

I feel strongly that scholars who have devoted years of study to research on cultural history and cultural processes, and who have thought hard about issues of ethics, justice, and human rights, have a responsibility to apply our capacities as researchers and critical thinkers, in the public sphere, to the crises of our own time and place.

In my case this has meant taking a public stand against crimes of state committed by our own government, and by those of friendly powers. Not just any old public stand, I would insist, but one that is supported by strenuous research and a scrupulous sifting of evidence.

And why against our own government and its allies? Doesn't that seem vaguely perverse? Noam Chomsky has remarked that as citizens we bear some responsibility for what our government does, and can aspire to change its behaviour for the better: there's no moral courage involved in ignoring our own country's crimes and misdeeds, and those of friendly states, and joining a chorus of critics denouncing 'enemy' states for crimes we cannot hope to control.

Stealing elections, to take one example, is a crime of state. I've argued in a series of articles that the Bush Republicans stole the 2004 presidential election—which means, since they weren't elected properly in 2000 either, that for the last seven years the United States has been governed by a regime that has no democratic legitimacy. (Does that seem “off the wall”? It is confirmed by a very large body of evidence.) Other abuses have followed from the primal abuse of disrespecting people's right to vote and have their votes fairly counted: among them the systematic gutting of the US Constitution and Bill of Rights, the cancelling of habeas corpus, the institutionalizing of torture....

Wars of aggression are criminal in a larger sense. Unprovoked aggression, as the Nuremberg Tribunal ruled after World War II, is the primal crime from which all the others follow. At least 1.2 million Iraqis have died since 2003 as a result of the invasion and occupation of their country by the US and Britain. The invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was likewise a war of aggression. (There is conclusive evidence that it was planned before 9/11, that the Taliban regime offered to hand over Bin Laden for trial in Pakistan, and that, as the FBI has itself acknowledged, the US has no evidence linking Bin Laden to the appalling crimes of 9/11.)

The occupation of Afghanistan, in which Canada is participating, is thus also a violation of international law—and Canada's treatment of prisoners is, in particular, a flagrant violation of the Geneva Conventions. Canada has also, rather more seriously, been involved in crimes against democracy and human rights in Haiti. (I'm completing a long article on that subject at the moment.) I won't say more about my political writings: many of them are archived, if you're interested, at the website of the Centre for Research on Globalization (http://www.globalresearch.ca), where you can get to them via the Author Index.

What about my teaching, then? Right-wing polemicists like the creepy David Horowitz, or his feeble epigones in this country who run the Western Standard magazine, assume that any professor whose political views challenge those of the complacent 'mainstream' must be a frantic indoctrinator, bullying students into echoing his or her opinions. (That's the explicit assumption of the Western Standard, which did me the honour a little more than a year ago of including me in a list of the twelve “nuttiest”—by which they clearly meant “most deserving to be unemployed”—professors in Canada.) But perhaps this tells us more about their own ethics than anyone else's.

At the start of every one of my courses, I preach a little sermon. I tell students that “academic freedom” isn't just something that tenured faculty possess: it's an essential condition of intellectual life in a community of scholars. That means students possess it too: they have the right to dissent firmly from their professors' opinions, mine included, and to have their work judged by its intrinsic merits—its handling of the evidence, its argumentative coherence, and its rhetorical polish—and not its similarity or dissimilarity to my views. I tell my students I'm not running a cloning factory: our job is to read texts that are much more interesting than I am, so I don't want them wasting time by “reading the professor” and trying to please me by parroting my opinions. (How boring that would be for all concerned.)

I add that there's a major issue of intellectual history at stake here as well: professors who want to clone themselves have failed to understand the historical process at work in their own disciplines. Literary scholars of my own generation differed in important ways from our teachers: we came to understand, as most of our teachers didn't, the importance of feminism and gender studies, and the value of new methodologies carrying names like “poststructuralism,” “discourse theory,” or “cultural materialism.” How stupid it would be not to recognize that our own students will inevitably differ from us, developing in the same manner new methodologies and new orientations to their research. Their development of new insights will of course be linked to their recognition of the zones of our partial blindness.

So what's involved here is not just the crucial principle of students' academic freedom, but also an understanding of the historicity of critical thinking, including our own.

What this means, I hope, is that the classroom becomes a genuinely open space, within which my students and I can give voice to conflicting interpretations and opinions in an atmosphere of honest mutual respect. For I aspire, equally importantly, to making the seminar room or lecture hall a place where we can take the risk of saying things that we're afraid might perhaps seem foolish. (That's what truly original ideas often feel like the first time around.)

I take this risk myself in class—with comments that sometimes, I'm told, end up on Facebook in a page that is devoted, apparently with affection as well as some tincture of satire, to “The Man Who Knows Everything About Everything Always.” (There is a long and worthy tradition of this kind of student commentary: students of Benjamin Jowett, the Plato scholar and Master of Balliol College, Oxford, teased him more than a century ago in a doggerel couplet: “I'm Jowett, Master of this college; / Anything I don't know ain't knowledge.”)

Self-mockery can be instructive, as readers of such classics as Nicolas Cusanus's De docta ignorantia (Of Learned Ignorance) or Desiderius Erasmus's Praise of Folly will learn. But in my classrooms we don't mock one another, and an insistence on politeness and respect opens up the possibility of real debate.

I don't hide my opinions from my classes. I take seriously the injunction of the philosopher Hannah Arendt that teachers need to take responsibility for the world into which we are introducing our students. That means resisting the paradox enunciated by psychologist Robert Jay Lifton in his despairing suggestion that there is an inverse correlation between the importance of any given subject-matter for human survival on this planet and the likelihood of it figuring in the curricula of our universities.

End of sermon. End of this message too, which has gone on far too long. But now I can just sit silently and smile like the Cheshire Cat when you interview me.

Best wishes, 
Michael Keefer