When asked if the university stifles writers, Flannery O’Conner stated that the university unfortunately doesn’t stifle enough of them.
I paraphrase that quote from our dear friend Rick Steinberg, who has done more to encourage young writers than anyone else I know. Encourage them in the proper way, of course, which he does with great flourish, energy, and skill.
But this isn’t about encouraging.
This is about stifling.
My naturally autocratic tendencies, which have held me back in the literary world for years, compel me to cast a pall on the enthusiasms of my young charges.
At this time of year, such endeavor could be considered . . . Scrooge-like.
Accordingly, as a business school professor, I urge my students to dispense with their flights of fancy picked up in undisciplined liberal arts courses.
In class, my audience is 29 students, half from foreign countries. They look at me, expectantly. Yes, we’re there – in class – now:
“You remember those idyllic scenes conjured by your imagination, back when you were young and unjaded? High school seniors . . . or even freshmen? When college still had its sheen?”
I roam the floor, the space in front of the rows of desks with their internet connections. It is my stage.
“Remember those scenes of professors and students out on the lawn under a late summer sun, students sitting cross-legged, perhaps chewing on blades of grass? Your kindly bearded professor, a tam resting upon his head, gesturing grandly while reciting something beautiful? Perhaps a passage from Faukner? Perhaps a trope from Aristotelian philosophy or verse from an angry beat poet?”
One student speaks up.
“I saw a group out there today! Why can’t we do that?”
“Wouldn’t that be nice,” I respond.
Nods around the room. Broad smiles.
“No, it would not be nice,” I say. “That’s not genuine. It’s not authentic. Just actors performing for touring visitors and posing for publicity shots. College isn’t like that. There is no authentic college of your dreams waiting for you to discover. Remember the lesson of Oliver Wendell Douglas.”
“Oliver . . . Wendell . . . Douglas.”
I’m concerned at this lack of essential preparatory knowledge of the modern college student at a major university.
“The star of Green Acres, the greatest television show of all time. Don’t you watch Nickelodeon or TVLand?”
Green Acres. I explain.
It was really an allegory, a metaphor for our time. Mr. Douglas was forever in search of the authentic. He had an idyllic conception of rural life. He abandoned his big city lawyer’s life in a quest for authentic Americana. Instead, he found a bizarre world populated by characters that could have been confected by Rod Serling and Flannery O’Conner.
And everyone was an actor in a drama staged for the benefit of Mr. Douglas’s dreams of the authentic rural life. The unifying theme of the show was Sam Drucker’s general store, where many of the crucial insights were revealed. Rural folk did not use oil lamps, “’cause we all got ’lectricity.” The barrel in Sam Drucker’s general store was filled with plastic pickles.
The store was a magical place for Mr. Douglas, a crossroads for many of the strange characters who annoyed him so naughtily. For the most part, they gave Mr. Douglas exactly what he wanted to see, because in the immortal words of Sam Drucker: “City folks seem to expect it.”
The idyllic outdoor-on-the-grass-communing-with-nature-scene.
Students seem to expect it.
Expectations I am determined to deflate.
“I suppose that no one in this classroom has seen Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan? And if you have, I’m betting you completely missed the theme of Jeremy Bentham’s philosophy of Utilitarianism expressed by Spock throughout the film. Never mind the obvious references to Melville’s Moby Dick.”
“Umm, Professor? Is this class Global Strategic Management?”
Yet again, those naturally autocratic tendencies assert themselves.
“This class is what I want it to be. And it is not going to be about outdoor-on-the-grass-communing-with-nature instruction. It’s going to be . . . authentic.”
I snap my fingers.
“How many people here believe in this . . . this muse?”
There is silence. No movement.
“You know. This writing trope. This muse. Anyone ever heard of this muse? Don’t hide from me. I know you were exposed to this . . . this muse over in that heinous liberal arts college.”
Hands begin to go up. Cautious hands.
More hands than I expect. More hands than are comfortable.
Time to disabuse them, time to explode their fantasies.
“There is no muse.”
A simple declarative sentence, but with the unsentimental power and imperious grandeur of a Thomas Carlyle proclamation.
Puzzled looks. A few of them distraught. Then, anger.
“But there is. There is a muse . . . there is!”
“Humbug! There is no muse! Get that Birkenstock notion out of your callow head.”
“But my English prof said—”
“Your English prof is teaching because she cannot earn a living foisting this muse-myth on folks who live and breathe and work and play in the real world. People who build bridges, crop tobacco, feed hormones to beef, fly you home over holiday break, and who serve you every day at the 7-ll. People who pay taxes and die.”
I smile with satisfaction. Smug satisfaction. Nothing infuriates like smug.
“You must know only one thing.”
My voice drops low, just above a whisper, and I lean forward. Pause.
“You must know only one thing.”
My students sense something profound coming. They won’t be disappointed.
“Yes, there is a muse . . . I am your muse.”
I smile a benevolent smile. I see several people actually taking notes, writing this down.
“I am on your shoulder whispering to you late at night in those moments when you lack inspiration,” I say. “I am your solution to the blank computer screen.”
My voice rises, I lean back and spread my hands wide, just as I have seen evangelicals do when working a crowd.
“I am the muse, the answer to your writer’s block and the source of your inspiration.”
Titters of laughter ripple through the room, and I scowl.
“You think I’m joking . . . that this is a joke?”
I pace like a panther, my hands clasped behind my back. I stalk the room, the entire space in front of the classroom and right in front of the giant PowerPoint projection screen.
I stop and face them, squaring my hips and flexing my jaw.
“I want you to remember that one thing when you’re up at night and time is trickling by, and you have an assignment but no ideas and no hope . . . .”
They are silent and they watch me.
“I will perch on your shoulder, and I will whisper to you just four words. I want you to remember those four words. Just four little words – just five little syllables. They are magic words! An incantation! A mantra to warm you on those cold nights bereft of imagination, as you trek that barren wasteland of words without order, without discipline, without a point.”
I have their attention now. They are
Will I win them over this time? Can I break through? Can I help them make the leap from soaring idealism to mundane responsibility? Can I put the bridle in their mouths?
“Remember these words: Love … the … Value … Chain!”
Groans. They’ve heard this before. They sound disappointed. Cheated.
So many fail to see the beauty of disaggregating the firm into its functional components. The analytical precision it provides, the world of discovery that it opens up! So many stop short of making that final connection . . . Except this time . . .
“I love the value chain, Professor Ridgley!”
“Really?” I’m skeptical, jaded. I search for signs of sucking up. But detect nothing but enthusiasm. I feel so fatherly. “Which part of the value chain do you feel the most affinity for?”
“Since I’m chronologically oriented, Professor, I’m partial to Inbound Logistics!”
There is a general murmuring and uneasiness in the class. Inbound logistics?
I nod sagely. “That’s fine, Margarite. It’s okay to privilege one segment of the value chain over another, if it provides you the key to identifying competitive advantage!”
A hand shoots up and a voice cries out before I can acknowledge it.
“Operations! That’s the ticket for me.”
And yet another!
“After sale Service!” a voice in the back calls out. “Professor, Customer Relationship Management has a symmetry and logic about it that outstrips anything we touched on in my basic philosophy courses!”
The dam had finally burst, and the classroom was abuzz with talk of core competencies, competitive analysis, environmental scans, core products, strategy formulation process, Five Forces analysis, and comparative advantage!
The Value Chain! Inbound logistics, Operations, Outbound logistics, Sales and Marketing, and Service.
If ever there were a time for sentimentality and outright weeping, this was it!
But then . . .
But then, one of the most staid literary conventions of all time reared its ugly head.
I woke up.
I awoke from a dream.
It was nothing but a sweet dream. Students excited at the prospect of writing a paper on value chain analysis . . . on identifying a company’s core competency and developing a strategic plan to gain sustained comparative advantage based on that competency . . . students who loved the value chain . . . who could see the art and creativity demanded of the accountant and financial manager. Who could see the beauty in efficient operations management. Who would strive for efficiency because it was the right thing to do!
It was all a sweet dream.
A cruel dream.
And I awoke to a cold, winter world where idealistic students still dream and irresponsible students still party and wiseacre students still wisecrack with a tiresome world-weariness. And write with an undisciplined lackadaisical casualness that drives me to distraction.
It is the little things that do this.
For example. “need to.”
Instead of expressing an action in terms of what should or must be done to achieve success, many students I identify a perceived “need” and inevitably use the construct “need to” when describing the proposed action.
The company “needs to” adjust its bottom line.
We “need to” move forward.
Management “needs to” modify its employee rewards policy.
If there is any single action that I “need to” take, it is to advertise this barbarism ad infinitum in my classes. Because, as the Russians say, “Repetition is the Mother of Learning.”
Now, I know that “need to” probably doesn’t qualify as a “barbarism” to most folks, and it may even appear perfectly serviceable.
But for someone who sees this furshlugginer construct far more often than is healthy, it is akin to poking me with a sharp pencil in the rib cage. Repeatedly.
Communication is the first rule for business memos and reports. They “need to” be clear and concise. Actually, they must be clear and concise. They should be clear and concise.
The memo doesn’t need anything.
Anyone sense the venting of a pet peeve? Well, it’s not off-topic, assuming of course that the topic is fairly clear. A bad assumption.
I do my best to convince my classes that strategy and value chain analysis can be an art. I even say positive things about accounting and accountants, observing that there is a bit of art and flair and imagination necessary to produce a product desired by the employer . . . or patron. Think of Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel for his patron. Accounting as art.
I close my eyes and maybe . . . perhaps I can recapture a bit of the magic. Recapture my dream.
I look up, startled to find a group of students gathered round my desk after I have dismissed class. They are heading home in the cold for their winter break.
“A gift, Dr. Ridgley.”
“Aren’t you going to open it?”
I peel the wrap away in a crinkle of coated Christmas paper. It’s a book. A copy of Peter Drucker’s Management.
It’s a first edition. I feel my eyes tearing up.
“We know how much you like Green Acres, Dr. Ridgley. And Drucker’s general store.”
“You do know that it wasn’t Peter Drucker’s store? It was Sam Drucker’s general store.”
“Does it really matter, Professor Ridgley?”
Does it really matter?
“In the grand scheme of things, I suppose that it does not. Merry Christmas.”
Why do I offer a hearty Merry Christmas instead of something ecumenically blasé in accord with the new appropriateness?
Well, because I can. Because I’m authentic. Because I have authoritarian tendencies. Certainly not because I “need to.”
And I heartily accept Chanukah and Kwanzaa and Season’s Greetings from anyone and everyone else who cares to send ’em my way.
Now, let me go read Sam Drucker’s book on Managing a general store in Hooterville.
I’m such an idealist.