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LETTER TO THE ACADEMY IS LIVELY, THOUGHTFUL

Academic Instincts
By Marjorie Garber
Princeton University Press
187 pages, $20

Marjorie Garber's chic new book, "Academic Instincts," has a great cover. It's Raphael's glorious "School of Athens," into which have been dropped two pleased-looking golden retrievers. For a book on academia's current sore spots, this is brilliance. That the contents of the book -- while largely good -- don't quite measure up to this high level of edginess and irreverence is probably to be expected. Golden retrievers among the ancient Greeks -- after that, what would?

Garber is one to try and find out, that's for sure. She's one of the trendiest, funkiest academics writing today -- from her perch as a tenured English professor at Harvard -- with past work covering everything from cross-dressing and bisexuality to dogs and the erotics of real estate. ("I love this apartment" has a whole new meaning, in Garber's world.) Here, she offers a self-proclaimed "love letter" to the American academy. That's an apt description, for Garber's is a letter that defends its love interest hotly while only tenderly, and always respectfully, probing its faults.

"There are no cynics in these pages and relatively few, all things considered, in academic life," Garber writes. "Teaching and writing at a college or university is a job for optimists and for idealists, whatever discursive or critical mode we may use in trying to shape ideas and the world."

Well, then, what of that teaching and writing? In the first of the book's three essays, "The Amateur Professional and the Professional Amateur," Garber writes of the current disjunction operating on, and making important, the distinctions between the two labels of authority. Garber argues that the modern university has a certain nostalgia for the days of "professional amateurs," people like Edmund Wilson and Kenneth Burke, who didn't have university positions or doctoral degrees but who flourished admirably all the same. At the same time, the university has developed a culture of extreme professionalism, one that seals many professors and graduate students in watertight bags, safe from virtually anything unclean. This explains, Garber writes, the contemporary animosity between journalists and academics; there is a whole heap of distrust and disdain on both sides. A good point -- and a true one.

In her second essay, "Discipline Envy," Garber takes on that sexiest of university trends, interdisciplinarity. Why are academics always looking over the fence at their colleagues' backyards? Humanities professors, especially -- why aren't they happy in their own fields? Why, in some places, do you have to look mighty hard to find an English department actually teaching a course in Chaucer or Shakespeare? Garber (herself a Shakespearean who has written extensively on him) explains the phenomenon as a sort of Mad Hatter's Table; in the Lewis Carroll tale, Alice and her companions keep moving from place to place at the table, searching for a clean cup and a tastier piece of toast. So, too, in the academy; everything always looks better one discipline over.

Garber's third essay, "Terms of Art," may be the most thought-provoking in the book. It's all about jargon -- why people hate it, why the academy is considered to be full of it, why academics feel the need to write (and speak) with it. Jargon, in Garber's view, is merely language busy pushing back the boundaries of thought. It sounds tricky and difficult because it is tricky and difficult. But wait a few years, Garber advises, and watch all those academic phrases turn into commonplace speech. "Brunch" dates to the 1890s; "motel," to the 1920s. "It's been calculated that one in twelve of Shakespeare's words were 'new words' -- words he introduced, invented, popularized, or radically altered," Garber writes. "Could we imagine doing without them?"

No, we couldn't. We can never do without people and ideas that challenge us. Which is what makes Garber's little love letter -- golden retrievers and all -- so important.