Wednesday, January 12, 2005


The unraveling helix

Blogging sociology prof Jeremy Freese reports dreaming that his tenure prospects were unravelling because, as a colleague tells him in the dream, "the emerging helix of opinion is that your talk sucked." He modestly calls "helix of opinion" an odd locution, but I say: don't sell yourself short.

A helix is "a spiral form or structure," and it is far from farfetched to imagine an emerging opinion taking a spiral shape, going round and round, but rising. The helix spiral may form a cylinder or cone, which is significant. A conical upward spiral of opinion reflects an emerging consensus, whereas a conical downward spiral suggests a nightmare of one's tenure chances being "confined to the vortex of the toilet." (I put that phrase in quotes because it, strangely, is the one line I remember from Nabokov's Lolita.)

I'm a firm believer in marketing one's original locutions. What a great thing if it were to catch on and become part of our language! With the fame and fortune that redounds to him as the creator of the "opinion helix," Freese could try to land a job with, say, a linguistics department in case his tenure at Sociology in fact unravels.

I don't mean to make light of a colleague's academic nightmare. I empathize, and I'll share my own. I graduated law school with the minimum required number of credits, and 2 of those credits were for a course that might be called the "conspiracy of laziness." The professor structured it as a colloquium, meaning that outside professors presented some talk for each class. Not only did this free the professor from any class prep, but he was freed from grading by the fact that there was no exam or paper required. I pushed the low demands of this course a step further by cutting every class after the first one.

The foregoing is all true. In the recurring dream, an audit is performed by some shadowy law school accreditation committee, and it is determined that the two credits for the Conspiracy of Laziness must be revoked. For me, this means not enough credits to graduate. My law degree is stripped away, and with it, my admission to the bar and my professorial status. The only thing that will prevent my life from unraveling is retaking a full semester of law school classes, which is fine, except that semester is over and I must take a battery of exams for courses that I have completely skipped. I have about 24 hours to study.

An even more nightmarish variant of this dream has a similar thing happening with college or even high school, except that the exam is in chemistry. With the removal of the college degree or high school diploma my career does not spiral downward, in a helix of failure, but rather implodes, like a building whose foundation is demolished by strategically placed charges. What a house of cards is one's professional credentials!

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