Monday, 02 May 2005

How to Open an Academic Essay, Part IV: The Self-Aggrandizing Personal Anecdote The majority of Americans laugh at the Academy. "You think you're so important," they say once they can catch their breath. To counter this and similar withering denunciations, many academics fluff up their introductions with the Self-Aggrandizing Personal Anecdote (SAPA). Since the SAPA frequently involves the dropping of names known to no one outside the academy, institutions often bear the load. For instance, in an essay entitled "Mao II and the War on Terrorism," one SAP (Self-Aggrandizing Person) informs general and academic readers alike of his important contributions to the New York Times' coverage of September 11th: Shortly after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon and the crash of hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 on September 11, 2001, I received a call from a reporter at the New York Times. Emily Eakin was working on a story about modern literature's response to earlier forms of terror, in particular the fictional representations of Russian revolutionaries in Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Possessed (1871–72) and European anarchists in Henry James's The Princess Casamassima (1886) and Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent (1907). Eakin reasonably assumed that great literature offers us means of coping with crises like September 11 and that this specific event was not historically unique. We talked by phone and e-mail about the national agendas of early modern revolutionary movements and the global terrorist aims of the Islamic fundamentalist Al-Qaeda, including the aesthetic means required to represent these different political cultures and historical periods. Call Don DeLillo, I urged Eakin, and read Mao II, his literary analysis of postmodern terrorism. Then call Jody McAuliffe and Frank Lentricchia at Duke, who are producing a dramatization of the novel in the spring of 2002. Eakin phoned none of the above and certainly did not read Mao II for her story. Reporters have deadlines; her story appeared eleven days after September 11. In a single introductory paragraph, this SAP earns his name. Through a personal anecdote readers learn that his name and number grace a card in one of the 4,397 rolodexes owned by people affiliated with New York Times; that he not only knows everything a person ought to know about forms of terrorism historical and contemporary; that he knows big shots like Frank Lentricchia and possesses inside information about upcoming theatrical performances of mediocre works of contemporary American literature; and finally, the reader learns how much better this SAP is than the one who called him for information on a topical news story because she didn't fulfill what this SAP, in the first sentence of the second paragraph, calls "the luxury and responsibility" of the scholar. Reading this SAP's introduction one would think Eakin didn't take any of his advice. (One would also think this SAP consulted because of his expertise about "the aesthetic means required to represent these different political cultures and historical periods." In her article, however, it's clear that Eakins consulted this SAP because, in her words, he's "a James scholar." I'm sure our SAP...

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