i gather that a frustrated academic has gone on a killing spree over in America, driven to murder by lack of tenure:

The shootings on February 12 at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, which left three faculty members dead and two more professors and a department assistant wounded, have sparked a good deal of soul-searching within higher education. Amy Bishop, an assistant professor of biology at the university who was recently denied tenure, was arrested at the scene and has been charged with murder and attempted murder.


She reportedly flung herself at her victim with cries of “I am Dr. Amy Bishop” (italics mine). Bishop’s unpublished autobiographical novels apparently bristle with allusions to her Harvard pedigree. She is related, distantly, to the novelist John Irving, a fact she mentioned with exasperating regularity.

Each time i’ve been cruelly rejected for PhD funding, i’ve consoled myself with a flapjack and the thought that i think of my father as “Dr Elberry”, so would really prefer just to be plain old Elberry, thanks very much (you can call me Elb). i have of course considering going on a killing spree, to cheer myself up, but by the end of the flapjack i’ve usually forgotten everything and just want a cup of coffee.

Names are important – as i realise, contemplating the names i bore in my other lives – but titles strike me as a kind of Viagra. If you can’t get a hard on, for god’s sake just leave it alone. By all means change your name if need be, but a title is a way of telling people “my innermost identity is determined by a piece of paper from an institution” (“I need Viagra to get hard”). But it’s rather that one’s identity is determined by the desire that it should be so easily manipulated. Such a person is a slave.

i am reminded of a professor at my alma mater. When i was an undergraduate he was known as Mr ___, because his post-graduate qualifications for some reason didn’t count as a PhD; however, when i was doing my MA he was elevated to Professor____. i felt this was something of a demotion. He was strangely proud of his new title, despite being intelligent enough not to need external corroboration, especially by so corrupt an institution.

i found all this quite strange and indeed it was so strange that my terrifying fundamentalist Christian friend the Viking was inevitably drawn into the matter. The Viking and i attended a Chaucer reading shortly after Professor______’s ascension, taking turns reading from The Canterbury Tales; the Viking and i were the only students, the others being members of the English Depot, among them the newly-enobled Professor_____.

Although the Viking has recently become a Roman Catholic and insists i call him “Father”, he was at the time a rampant Proddy who regarded all non-fascist earthly authorities as evil and stupid and corrupt. His idea of a good church was a tin shack on a hill somewhere cold, with no windows or decorations or lighting, with a mad bearded preacher screaming about damnation and whores and sexual demons. Although he’s now a Catholic, ten years ago he was unimpressed by worldly titles. So, at the conclusion of the readings, he asked Professor____ a question, but mistakenly addressed him as “Doctor____”.

The Professor had only recently ascended to his eminence, and was therefore shocked and affronted to be addressed as “Doctor”. It was as if the Viking had thrown excrement at him. His entire (considerable) body quivered in a kind of full body ripple, as if he’d been bitchslapped by God. His face spasmed and he looked like he was going to either cry or scream. He gurgled horribly, in pain. All the other academics looked very gravely at the Viking, who was just watching this curious performance in his remorseless, inhuman way (he is a scientist).

i backhanded him across the chest and rebuked him with mock horror, “It’s Professor____!”

He was most amused by this and performed the emperor bow he now reserves for bishops, intoning solemnly, “I beg your forgiveness.”

Of course, the academics wanted him to beg for forgiveness and give them head; but they were also aware that it would seem a bit much, so instead they just tittered.

However, it was most amusing and confirmed my belief that the best way to deflate academic pretention is to unleash a raging Proddy Viking, armed with a spear.

i mention this as in one of the Professor’s earlier lives he was a street beggar who didn’t have a name; perhaps, just as Dr Johnson was so horribly voracious an eater because of his youthful near-starvation, so with the Professor, across his lives (Samuel Johnson being a rare example of a great writer for whom a title seems appropriate). If you have any real intelligence you don’t need a title, any more than you need Viagra if everything is working as Ishtar intended.

i don’t generally like what i know of T.S. Eliot’s personality – too stuffy, too eager for respectability – but i was nonetheless impressed to learn that, after writing his PhD (on FH Bradley) in 1916, he failed to return to Harvard for his viva voce, deeming the Atlantic journey not worth the trouble. He had by then written ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, so young though he was, he knew he didn’t need a title of any kind, that a PhD wasn’t worth an Atlantic crossing in 1916.

And indeed, it would not be worth crossing the street.