The Cutting Edge is a satirical novel about college life. The main character, a sociology professor, is especially concerned with problems associated with teaching sociology – including its seemingly abstract language and the fact that students who take courses in sociology are increasingly pragmatically oriented and indifferent to theoretical concepts and arguments. The sociology instructors that appear in this book are willing to try practically anything to make their subject matter relevant – including in one case stripping down to boxer shorts to make a point about social norm violation in a course about social deviance. And typically they are satisfied when any student produces comments or bits of writing that incorporate sociological language, even if only semi-coherently. The humor in the interaction between students and their professors is empathetic in nature – the author gives us an opportunity to laugh with the students.
By contrast, the interactions among faculty and between them and members of the administration provoke another kind of laughter. Repeatedly the reader is taken into an absurd world where academic language and the ability of professors and administrators to craft arguments with great precision make it difficult to figure out what anyone really means. The academic environment that Lansky describes is filled with petty personal politics and hidden agendas alongside endlessly rehearsed grandiose statements about the value of academic knowledge – statements that everybody involved apparently knows not to take seriously. Lansky invites the reader to think about academia as a place of struggle, where the winning side deserves some ridicule.
The Cutting Edge is divided into two sections. The first section is a memoir by Jenny Delight, who served on the Student Life Committee as a student representative. Jenny is driven, disoriented, and perpetually self-reflective. She has uncanny insights and a special knack for reproducing the language and arguments of her professors in disparate contexts where they are not exactly suitable. Her friend and roommate, Nicola, helps her do that. Together they seem to take a lot of notes, including when they are ‘lost’, or further lost when they ask professors to explain what they’re talking about. Versions of the line ‘we both wrote what he said down in our notebooks for later study’ appear often in the book, always in relation to vague conceptual arguments that strike these particular students as interesting and that they rehearse both methodically and haphazardly in order to pass their exams and become ‘educated people’.
The second section is a memoir written by Fred Snyder, a ‘beloved’ sociology professor who strangely everybody seemed to have some problem with. He was killed by an ‘emotionally disturbed’ student during a Student Life Committee meeting. The suspicion is raised in the book’s introduction, written by the college librarian, that both memoirs were written by Snyder. Both manuscripts have an acerbic quality to them. Both are preoccupied with institutional hypocrisy. Professor Fred Snyder was a serious man and a reliable source of criticism and activism against institutional policies that further bureaucratized or commercialized the institution. His generosity of spirit and preoccupation with the well-being and intellectual development of his students, with teaching them sociology as a source of cognitive liberation and empowerment, stood in contrast to his dealings with administrators and campus security – which included a criminally corrupt provost and a police chief who seemed determined to transform the college into a ‘police state’. Jenny, by contrast, understood these kinds of things with a rather contradictory attitude, a mixture of resignation and hopefulness.
What all the professors have in common is that they want their students to become ‘educated people’. The phrase appears over and over again. Alongside that contradictory impulse, which translates mostly into more rigid format and more rules about rules, there is a real problem that each professor recognizes – namely, that his/her students are not merely in a preparatory stage, where work comes after college, but are already in the workforce, most of them working 40+ hours every week. The same professors that pontificate about the social system and moralize about the commitments and preoccupations of students, or rehearse sociological theories indiscriminately and mostly badly in the classroom (but with the apparent conviction of a monastery priest), also realize that the majority of their students are paying more than they can afford for university degrees that might lead to the same kind of jobs that earlier generations could step into with a high-school education, or that lead nowhere; and that most of them are in tremendous debt as a result. Who would have imagined even a few decades ago a dismal situation of this kind? How is it possible now to justify teaching students anything that does not lead directly to a job or that does not make the prospect of life-long alienated labor more palatable?
Jenny is not a type of student but instead an amalgam of types. She routinely channels the voice of her professors when she’s thinking about her various personal dilemmas – about work, family, sex, friendship, etc. She seems to carry on conversations in her head after classes are over. She writes, for instance, that she understands that her parents can’t afford to pay for her cell phone because her father is unemployed, which she attributes to a class system in which ‘greedy capitalists’ are now less restrained. She writes in her memoir ‘I get all that but still need my phone!’ She listens to a professor talk about cell phones as self-alienating consumer items. But she wonders whether he understands that her cell phone is her connection to the outside world. She writes that her professors seem smart but also hypocritical since they too use their cell phones and drive cars, even while some of them appear in need of more fashionable attire.
An interesting contrast appears at this point. The students who talk endlessly about the American Dream and exude optimism about their own future are the same ones that don’t think they’ll ever get out of debt, or ever get a job with the kind of security and freedom that their professors take for granted. (There are no adjunct professors in this book.) These same students are more sincere in their optimism and affinity to the established system than are most of their professors, whose often-displayed radicalism is suspect.
Professor Snyder is different. His radicalism is consistent. He replaced the words of a children’s song with language from Marx. He rewrote the university’s mission statement to make it more honest – transforming it into a sarcastic comment about the commodification of knowledge. He was a consistent source of support to the Student Life Committee. His approach to teaching sociology was neither radical, nor innovative, nor controversial – except that he expected a lot from students and that he gave lower grades than his colleagues. And he was a thorn in the side of the administration. Consistency is what makes this character interesting. The college changed since he started working there in the 1980s, but Snyder did not change. He believed that the university system is the last bastion of hope for a decent society and thought that university administrators are mostly unscrupulous people. The narrative of events proved him right, time and again. The administrators are caricatures that any reader with experience in academic settings will likely pause to think about. Snyder’s fictive memoir makes vivid the absurdity of the contemporary situation in which students are told that they must concern themselves with higher goals while the university system becomes a business that produces knowledge workers for other businesses. If not for the humor in this book, it would read like heavy-handed social commentary.
Professor Snyder is also a caricature. It is easy to imagine him giving inspiring lectures and teaching great classes, as well as standing on the street corner yelling about the end of times. He was every student’s advocate and every administrator’s nemesis. He had distinct preoccupations and commitments – what students and colleagues thought of as an obsessive side. He was perpetually outraged over the fact that several top university officials, including the president and provost were deeply involved in real estate, using their posts to create speculative opportunities for themselves. The difference between abuse of power and mere opportunism, not always easy to discern, was irrelevant to Snyder. The provost embezzled university funds to buy a penthouse, an event that made headlines. But the president made no headlines when ‘he was pretending to want to build faculty housing on college land, but what he and his real estate buddies really had in mind was to build co-ops and townhouses and strip malls’ (199). The plan fell through in part because of opposition from Snyder and other faculty members. Snyder repeatedly made the case that real-estate moguls and venture capitalists have no place in the university system. He did that in every venue available to him within the university, mostly to indifferent audiences–including students and faculty that agree with him in principle but don’t see any point in complaining about something that they believe can’t be changed.
Snyder’s memoir, titled The Bill of Sale, is introduced to the reader as linked to The College essays of Jenny Delight by the common thread of real estate speculation. This supports the earlier suggestion that Snyder wrote both manuscripts. Snyder’s mind was a repository of memories of an older America in which renting and buying property were easier things to do, thereby making it easier for people also to do other things. It was easier being a student in New York City in the 1970s, Snyder recounts, not only because tuition was low or non-existent in the public university system; not only because economic pressure in to get degrees was lighter; but also because it was relatively easy to find a place to live that did not require boundless alienated labor to afford.
The world of Jenny Delight is very different. It is filled with starry-eyed dreams and brutal pragmatism mixed together in mystifying internal and external dialogues. Jenny and her friends Nicola and Tiffany know that they are being infantilized by the constant dependence on money from their parents. They put the best spin on things, they feign indifference, and occasionally they moralize, especially against people that have it easy and don’t know what it’s like being in their position. In a poignant exchange, Nicola tells Tiffany ‘the primary reason for attending college should be to develop your mind, not to sell cosmetics’ (71). Tiffany says that she is trying to pay her tuition because she doesn’t have rich parents, unlike Nicola. It turns out that Nicola doesn’t have rich parents either. Jenny, who thought it witty, earlier, to label her friend a socialist ‘because she borrows my stuff’, started the ‘rumor’ that Nicola had rich parents. This particular instance of lack of empathy and solidarity, which occasioned self-reflection and guilt, provides the basis for a trenchant point about the real world of students at public institutions – without actually spelling it out. The novelist, in this case, accomplishes what the analyst and commentator can’t do, namely take the reader through a range of experiences and emotions, while affirming the need to reflexively side with students who struggle to make sense of the world and find a way to live, even where the narrative makes it difficult to relate to their struggle.
That reflexivity is instantiated in the character of Fred Snyder. Snyder’s childhood was filled with unhappy memories. He came from a dysfunctional family with constant money troubles, alcoholism, and religion as part of the mix. His story is an allegory of post-WWII middle-America. The Snyder family was part of a rural community until real estate speculators found it. Snyder remembered the day that these people came to the door of his parents’ farm more vividly than he remembered what he did last night. He remembered that they managed to scare his parents into selling their small farm by telling them that factories were moving into the area – that the family could pocket some cash and leave or else live next to a factory. Since that time, Snyder related to real estate speculation as a crime with no name. When coupled with suburbanization, it became, in his way of thinking, ‘a crime against humanity’. Students took notes when he talked like this.
Snyder’s funeral brought together students, professors and administrators to talk about a man, a ‘beloved professor’, a fixture of the institution over several decades, but whom they barely knew and rarely understood. They took turns talking about his integrity and commitment to students. There’s even mention of his commitment to the ideals of the university – apparently missing the irony of the situation in which the radical became a stalwart of traditionalism against unscrupulous forces, the so-called winds of change. Irony appears through humor as each eulogist hedges comments or adds qualifiers to expressions of mourning and loss. (Snyder was a great but difficult man. He was strange too. Etc.) The provost and president say that he will be missed even though he did not cooperate with them and often labeled them lackeys and opportunists. The student speakers thought of him as passionate about sociology. They said that they learned much from him but that they didn’t understand why he graded the way he did. They were not opposed to radicalism or strangeness per se. Faculty members, most of them anyway, seemed happy that he was gone, but upset that he died.
The book contains an afterword written by the chair of the sociology department. It revisits many of the central themes in the book, including that idealism looks like pessimism when students feel powerless. The chair seems to think that he’s more of a pessimist than Snyder. The chair is a sociologist after all. But even this self-proclaimed pessimist looks to the bright side when talking about Snyder’s legacy. As a result of his death, the university now has more counselors for troubled students. As a result of Snyder’s opposition to the expansion of surveillance systems, the campus did not become a police state. The status quo was maintained – neither a police state nor a great learning environment. Around this cause for celebration, Jenny Delight might have commented that life is just like that sometimes, or that the evil capitalist system makes people emotionally disturbed but that it’s good that the university did something to address the issue of emotional disturbance.
Reviewed by Louis Kontos
Sociology Department, John Jay College
City University of New York