David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
A Tale of Two Pities

December 27, 2013: A Tale of Two Pities

It was the best of tomes, it was the worst of tomes.

Actually, who am I kidding, there is no best of tomes?

Nothing is more glorious than the days after Christmas when a pile of new books await my reading pleasure.  This year is no different than any other: 13 new books to read, ranging from several mysteries to multiple books about pop music, and a few non-fiction pieces rounding out my anthology.

My greatest challenge is deciding where to start, and since I always have vacation days immediately after Christmas, I inevitably read several at the same time:  a few pages of one, then a few pages of another, perhaps a section of a third, then back to the second, a return to the first, etc. etc. etc.

This year two of the books are ones I asked for, so I decided  Christmas Day to delve into these two books:

Presidencies Derailed: Why University Leaders Fail and How To Prevent It -- Steven Joel Trachtenberg, Gerald B. Kauvar, and E. Grady Bogue.  The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.

Autobiography -- Morrissey.  G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2013.

I expected no common ground when I started these, outside of some direct or indirect scathing indictments of education.

(If you don't know, Morrissey is the man that penned so many vicious lines about secondary education in England:

Belligerent ghouls run Manchester schools -- The Headmaster Ritual
A crack on the head is what you get for not asking/And a crack on the head is what you get for asking -- Barbarism Begins At Home.)
And there is little common ground, except that they are both painfully difficult to read.  One is devoid of any emotion or flourish, the other is fraught with emotional flourish and texture.  For the moment, neither is particularly enjoyable in the way that a book should encourage me to escape. 

Presidencies Derailed (which I discussed in an earlier post when the book was first reviewed for Inside Higher Ed) is horribly dry and scant on any richness of detail one might hope to find in a book basically about disgrace and dismissal.  Sure, the editors want to create a rather straightforward study of why presidencies failed, but as usually occurs when writers are given different chapters and told to follow a basic template, liveliness of language rarely shows up.

The primary part of this short book is the section on case studies, four chapters devoted to certain kinds of higher education institutions with four brief case studies of presidencies derailed at those kinds of institutions.  Each chapter starts by defining for us what distinguishes that category of college or university (private liberal arts or community college, to cite two of the four examples), then promises to show derailments based upon one of six usual themes (such as ethical lapses or board shortcomings, just to cite two).  However, with the exception of the chapter on community college derailments, the other chapters plod along with boring sentence structures, redundancy of points, and joyless writing.

Take the section on a "Richard" at Ridge State University.  The authors do change the names of the institutions and individuals, mostly because of confidentiality clauses, but let's face it, all of us in higher education have run into a "Richard."  Even though we barely get three pages on Richard and Ridge State, we are told multiple times that he "spearheaded" an unpopular faculty retrenchment; that when confronted, he denied it was his plan; that he was named a finalist for another college presidency, which he also denied when confronted; and that he tried to circumvent the state-wide system by planning a merger with a local community college.

That's about it in a paragraph, although as noted it must be dragged on for three pages.  We occasionally get a quote from someone that provides a little more meat to the discussion, but still not personality to the narrative(s).  Eventually the book gives us two first-person narratives from "derailed presidencies" that allow the writing to escape the confines of structure, and in one case even soar so that the imagination can take flight through the words.  One ex-President writes "I went from pillar to pilloried," and I pray he becomes a university president again just for his language use.  Mix in more of that with the straightforward pedantic lesson plan of the early sections and I would read the thin book from start to finish in probably two hours.

So, when faced with this depressing account of pitiful situations, not even truy academic in its writing, in that the writers don't ever succumb to jargon and/or academic sentence structure, I turn to Stephen Patrick Morrissey's Autobiography for relief.  Yet, here is the very antithesis to the writing of Presidencies Derailed (Morrissey's point, I am sure).  I am both brought into Morrissey's world and kept from it by the same unrelenting flowery style.  Take his section on the headmaster and teachers at St. Mary's Secondary Modern School, which "may indeed be secondary, but . . . is not modern." 
  • "I had no idea that life could get worse, or that schoolteachers could be more contemptuous than those of wilting St. Wilford's, but the snarling stupidity at St. Mary's is deathless, and it's wearisome echo of negativity exhausts me to a permanent state of circumstantial sadness."  (That sentence alone has more words than whole sections in Presidencies Derailed.)

 

  • "Sealed up like an envelope, he [Headmaster Vincent Morgan] is unable to act with kindness or humanity, for he has neither, and there is evidently nothing to humanize him."

 

  • "My only possession is a brave front, since I have never known how to fight, and even as Vincent Morgan whacks and whacks and swings that leather belt with the full and mighty force of his entire body, something in his face tells me that he alone pays for all of this misery.  Marooned, Vincent Morgan walks to and from school every single day by himself, an umbrella neatly propped on an arm that crosses the front of his body with marksman preparation."

These three quotes are just snippets from one 3-page paragraph dedicated (maybe) to just Morgan and St. Mary's.  It's hard to tell with Morrissey as the prose succumbs to poetry over and over, leaving me with a mind and heart full of strangely satisfying images of his life, and yet unsure and wary of following him.  I think of the video to "Tomorrow," where Morrissey wanders through narrow streets and alleyways, his band following at a distance, laughing and joking, perhaps at where their fearless leader will take them.

Ultimately, despite the two different genres, I still wish there was a little Morrissey in Trachtenberg et al, as well as a little of them in Morrissey.  The covers of both books have images of "protagonists" not willing to open their eyes (Morrissey's eyes are closed, as if in the middle of a trance; an un-named suit, clearly meant to be a president, sits with head in his arms in front of a stately manor for Presidencies Derailed), and these images seem somehow suitable for books that can't quite engage their readers enough.  I will finish them both, I have no doubt, but the first mystery I grab after finishing one of them is very likely to remind me of the beauty of resplendent and restrained prose.