"Temporality is part of the truth" -- Chuck Klosterman

Monday, July 9, 2012

A PhD Can Still Be an Idiot (Guest Post)

(Apparently my wife has a lot on her mind lately. This is the second guest post from her in less than a month. I'm happy to let her speak her mind here, of course, but you all should let her know in the comments if you'd follow her sage wisdom to a blog of her own.)

It's about rebirth and second chances,
I got my Master’s Degree from the University of Phoenix. To those of you out of touch with the world of for-profit academia, the University of Phoenix is not located in Phoenix. Or more precisely, it’s not only located in Phoenix. They have “branches” all over the place. (At this point they’re more ubiquitous than Starbucks.) But I digress.

I freely confess that I enrolled in the University of Phoenix for the meanest of reasons. First, they didn’t require that I pass any annoying graduate entrance exams, obtain letters of recommendation, or write an essay extolling the virtues of their program and my fitness for it. Second, I was aware that they would make it tremendously easy for me to earn my next academic credential. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that by paying them a lot of money and showing up to class, I was designated a Master of Curriculum and Instruction.

When I tell people that I got my Master’s from the University of Phoenix, I’m very careful to do so in an ironic, snark-edged fashion. It’s important to me that others know that I know the University of Phoenix is something of a joke to real academics. When I think about my MEd, it’s not with pride in my accomplishment. Instead, I reassure myself that someday I’ll get a real degree from a real university.

Now I’m reconsidering. Here’s why. I just read the most inane, insane take on The Great Gatsby ever written. (Consider that I have ten years' experience grading 11th and 12th grade essays about Fitzgerald’s novel, and you’ll truly appreciate the superlative nature of this statement.)

How much more dreamy could this be?
Supposedly in anticipation of the Baz Luhrman film in a few months, Julia Keller, the “Cultural Critic” for The Chicago Tribune wrote a gob-smackingly bizarre take on The Great Gatsby for her paper. They published it, too.

The gist of Keller’s review is this: We’ve been reading The Great Gatsby wrong. Collectively, none of us understand that Gatsby is actually a novel that praises the American Work Ethic. F. Scott Fitzgerald's real point: If you work hard, persist, dream big enough, you can have it all.

Are you shaking your head, yet? Are you remembering that Gatsby doesn’t get it all? Are you remembering that when Gatsby tries the American Work Ethic as a way of achieving the American Dream, he fails? Are you remembering that Gatsby makes his fortune by falling in with criminals who show him how to game the system? Are you remembering that Gatsby gets rich but that it’s all a sham, complete with the symbolism of the literally hollow books within his library?

Keller states, “Fitzgerald rose from humble origins to become rich and celebrated on the strength of his labor and his imagination, on the beauty of his dreams and the sacrifices he was willing to make on behalf of them.” Even Wikipedia knows that Fitzgerald grew up in an upper-middle class household. He spent his youth attending prep schools and matriculated at Princeton. From everything I’ve heard about Fitzgerald, his major failing was that, while brilliant, he was notoriously hedonistic. As far as I remember, the only sacrifices that Fitzgerald made were in the name of commerce, not art.

One of my favorite touches in Keller's article happens to be her care in concealing the fact that Gatsby dies at the end of the novel. She writes that she is “treading delicately here, to avoid the dreaded spoiler.” How out of touch with the universe does she have to be to believe that anyone reading an article about Gatsby in a freaking daily periodical hasn’t read this book or at least knows the ending?

I could go on, but I don’t need to. The best part about reading the essay, was getting to read the outraged responses that followed.

Ben Gulley of Guilford: “This should have been bourne back ceaselessly to the editor’s desk."
Melissa Wiley: “It’s like describing The Scarlet Letter as a book about fashion.”
Ken Lowery: “This is a prank, right?”
Scott Peterson: “Apparently in another piece, the writer explains that Catcher in the Rye is about agriculture and the importance of a good prep school education.”

Are you wondering if Keller even read the book before she wrote her piece? Are you mystified as to why some fact checker at The Chicago Tribune didn’t at least point out to Keller that she was misrepresenting Fitzgerald’s origins?

I am.

To list, here are Keller’s qualifications to write a completely revisionist take on a century of Gatsby study. She has a B.A. and M.A. in English from Marshall University. She earned a Ph.D. from Ohio State University, writing her dissertation on the biographies of Virginia Woolf. She was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard and taught writing at Princeton. She won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for a feature piece on deadly tornados in Iowa.

There’s nothing in this C.V. that makes her particularly qualified to reinterpret Gatsby, other than that she should have a clear understanding of the principles of literary analysis. What I’ve always taught my 11th and 12th grade English students is that you can interpret a text in any way that can be supported by the text. If you leave out a significant detail because it doesn’t support your idea, then you’ve probably stumbled in your understanding.

But I guess this is just another example of the star system at play. (See my previous post if you'd like to see more examples of how this works.) In print journalism, it doesn’t matter whether you’re right or wrong. If you have fancy degrees and have won a writing prize, editors will print your ideas as if they’re gospel.

In my mind, all of this just reaffirms Fitzgerald’s actual point. It’s the surface that other’s see, and it’s the appearance that we value. So what if I got my Master’s from a second-rate diploma factory. I’m reaping the rewards of having that MEd after my name. And even if I’d gone to Harvard, I could still say dumb stuff.

I may only have a degree from the University of Phoenix, but I know that much. 


  1. This gave me a good giggle. : )

  2. Very funny! It proves that morons are running the world.

  3. Very nice. I've run into a lot of degree'd morons in my life. And for the most part they think that having that degree makes them something more than us poor plebeians. So far I have never run into anybody who got a degree in common sense.

    Me, I never got a degree in anything. All I have is a GED. But without trying to blow my own horn, I'm a heck of a lot smarter than most of those fools waving their paper around.

    And yes, Brent is right. You should have your own blog. Sounds like you might need it.

  4. ::snorts::


    Please write your own blog - I remember your other recent guest post and looking to see if you did already blog and feeling disappointed that you didn't. C'mon, all the cool kids are doing it. :-)
    Some Dark Romantic

  5. Unfortunately I haven't read Gatsby yet. I've meant to get around to it and haven't.

    I ate at a restaurant called Gatsby's. Does that count?

  6. Thanks for your comments on this one, everyone. I can't seem to get my wife to reply to comments on her guest posts. She says she doesn't have any time to maintain her own blog, and lack of commenting seems to prove that, but really, how many of us do "have the time" to maintain our blogs? Yet we do it anyway.