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I’m a fraud!

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I don’t want to steal anyone’s thunder or appear to be piling on, but one aspect of Hugo Schyzer’s “confession” strikes me as especially problematic, especially at a time in which the humanities are under assault from well-funded conservative forces: his claim of academic fraudulence.

He’s clearly not a fraud in the traditional sense, i.e. he didn’t falsify his credentials or publish papers on data he knew to be cooked. He claims that when he was in graduate school, “there was no such thing as porn studies,” so he lacked the credentials to teach it. Which, I suppose, is technically true. But he also claims to have “do[ne] the reading,” which in practice is all that’s required of scholars who work in a field that didn’t exist when they earned their doctorates.

The other “fraud” he believes he committed is that he spoke about feminism but “never published in any serious academic journal [because he] wanted to write for a popular audience.” Anyone familiar with the current state of academic journals knows about the incestuous nature of “blind” review: your name’s not on your submission, but if you’ve spoken at a conference or to another scholar in the field, you’re a known quantity. Your work whispers your name to the person who reviews it and that, as much as any independent factors, determines whether it’ll be published. (Why yes, I am that cynical.) But I haven’t come here to bury humanities journals—their “style” secures them a place in the deepest recesses of empty libraries—only to note that failure to publish in a discipline or subdiscipline doesn’t disqualify a person from teaching in it if they’ve done the reading. That’s all that’s required. If Schwyzer convinced his colleagues that he’d done the reading, he was qualified to teach a course in whatever it was he’d read.

Does this system require trust and lend itself to abuse? I suppose. But as someone who spent 13 years teaching at one of the best universities in the country, I can assure you that when you stand in front of a classroom of bright, motivated students you always feel like a fraud. You’ve never read enough, and you never will have. Your shelves will always be lined with books you should’ve already read. You feel like a fraud because you’ve only read thirty books on X, but your students consider you an authority for the very same reason.

Was I a hypocrite when I taught a literary journalism course after only having casually read Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, and John McPhee? What if I told you I’d also had a subscription to The New Yorker for a decade? How much literary journalism did I need to read to be able to teach it? How familiar with its style and conventions did I need to be? I can’t answer those questions, so instead I’ll say what every teacher knows to be true: I wasn’t qualified to teach the material until I’d already taught it a few times.

That doesn’t make me a fraud—it makes me a teacher.

Here’s a hypothetical: an academic writes a dissertation about, say, evolutionary theory in fin de siècle American popular culture, but later starts reading and writing about a subject in which he’d received absolutely no graduate level training. I don’t know, like film theory. He reads the seminal texts, then writes about it online, for a popular audience instead of an academic one, for the better part of six years. Would this academic be qualified to open an “Internet Film School” at the Onion A.V. Club? Would he be a fraud if he did?

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