Saturday, October 13, 2007

Lex Luthor Hearts Superman

Read this scintillating article from The National Post about my research, and about SSHRC. Since Robert Fulford is reading my blog, I'd like to say hello to him, and wish him all the best!

Here is a pasted copy:


Lex Luthor hearts Superman: Your tax dollars at work

Robert Fulford, National Post

Published: Saturday, October 13, 2007

If you were a cash-starved scholar and you received the initial payment on your grant from the federal government, what would you do first? Buy some books? Acquire a new computer? Not Dr. Jes Battis. Last month, three days after the cheque came through, he reported on his blog that he had acquired a tattoo and a nose piercing.

That may not be entirely outlandish. Battis has made his career by writing about popular culture. He writes about everything from hidden gay themes in TV to comedies like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A tattoo and a piercing will no doubt help him see deeper meaning in his subject. His grant from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) pays for a two-year postdoctoral fellowship that allows him to work as an adjunct instructor at City University of New York. There, he lectures on I Love Lucy and Leave it to Beaver while working on his research project, "Queer future: LGBT narratives." (LGBT stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender.)

Battis is a 28-year-old Canadian Phd in English literature and the author of Blood Relations: Chosen Families in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, published in 2005. He sometimes uses Queer Theory, an academic discipline that prides itself on finding gay subtexts in apparently heterosexual stories.

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Last year a journal called Jump Cut published The Kryptonite Closet, Battis's article on the TV series Smallville, which is set in the Kansas town where Superman arrived from outer space as a baby. Smallville revolves around a big secret, Clark's alien identity, but Battis sees beyond that. Clark is friendly with Lex Luthor, Super-man's arch enemy in the years ahead. So Battis studies "the erotic potential emerging from this relationship."

That suggests the current level of research in the humanities. Battis, who chronicles his life through a blog, comes across as gormless, in the sense of foolish, lacking sense and discernment. He chatters endlessly about difficulty negotiating the New York subway and fills us in on his liking for chocolate soy milk and cornbread muffins: "I need nothing else to survive."

He's an example of the chronic irrelevance that afflicts much recent academic work. Last February, when he was given the fellowship for his LGBT narratives, other scholars received grants for, among other things, "The culture and aesthetics of amateur movie-making, 1954-2006" and "Tracing cattle exchanges in the early Iron Age of Southern Africa." Scholars pursuing cultural studies believe, like historians, that there's nothing too trivial to study.

Outsiders don't always take SSHRC (always pronounced "shirk") as seriously as SSHRC would like. While it often supports worthy research, it can look like a $319-million-a-year joke. This attitude angers the council. Chad Gaffield, a historian who has been president since last September, insists that the humanities deserve respect (that's true, of course) and so, by association, does SSHRC.

Gaffield tries hard to convey what he considers the importance of SSHRC to the public. Recently he told a Globe and Mail interviewer that the council doesn't deserve a penny from Parliament if it can't compellingly articulate the value of what it does: "We are asking the public to support us. I think they have every right to know what public money is being spent and why."

Actually, that doesn't quite describe SSHRC policy. If you ask for details of a fellowship, as put forth by the scholar in a proposal, the council answers that research proposals are "protected," meaning secret. James Turk, executive director of the Canadian

Association of University Teachers, doesn't like it when SSHRC's detractors criticize it by quoting titles. He rightly argues that you can't judge a research project from the title. But what if the council declares everything except the title confidential? Is Turk's criticism fair?

He told a Globe reporter, "The anti-intellectual argument is always the easy one to make." Does the word "intellectual" apply in the case of Dr. Jes Battis? That's a matter of judgment. So far he's been judged with great generosity. He's made his way upward from grant to grant. In graduate school, he received$24,000 in Simon Fraser University fellowships and $40,000, plus small travel grants, from the SSHRC. His postdoctoral grant last February, the one partly used for piercing and tattoo, was $82,000.

For $147,000 or so, have the taxpayers furthered the career of a brilliant scholar? Well, he's already achieved some international recognition. In 2004, at the Slayage International Conference in Nashville, he won the prize for Best Essay on Buffy Studies.



G.Lyons said...

This is rather amazing, Jes. I love the fact that Fulford seems to undercut his own thesis--"obscure" humanities are a waste of tax money--by his own squeamishness with LGBT. Clearly, your work *does* have an effect on the real world (or at least on Fulford's delicate stomach!).

Plus, I checked out Fulford's "Massey Lecture", which links 'high' narrative to public discourses and mass culture: strange that your work reflects a "chronic irrelevance" in academia, yet his lecture highlights the centrality of seemingly irrelevant subjects...

Anonymous said...

You got rumbled. What an excellent exposé, what truth finally made into journalism. Don't worry, Jes, my grandpa was more than willing to forego knee replacement surgery so that you could get a tattoo.

Christine Marie said...

Jes, this is fucking ridiculous. I cannot even believe my eyes. I was just raving about you to my new friend Shar at Mac and I come home and find all this publicity--it's quite the scandle! You will be happy to hear that I'm promoting your book and you at Mac and it seems you already have lots of supporters there!

Christine Marie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Christine Marie said...

PS anonymous: In contrast to the $100 tattoo Jes got, maybe you should be more concernd in the "truth" about the conservative government's expenses on military enforcement in Afganistan.

Anonymous said...

Thought I would let you know I've sent the following letter to the editor to the National Post.

--Allison Sekuler, Vice-President Research, McMaster University

Mr. Fulford’s comments about Jes Battis and SSHRC funding are reminiscent of the great flying squirrel sex scandal of 2006, when John Tory attacked the Ontario Government and a Laurentian University researcher for what he perceived to be “trivial” research, without having a full understanding of the potential implications of the study – in that case, providing useful information about the effects of climate change. Jes Battis may not be solving the problem of global warming, but he seems to be trying, in his own way, to promote cultural diversity and tolerance. That is one of the main goals of cultural studies, and it is an important ideal for vibrant, modern societies. Mr. Fulford is correct that it is not always possible to judge the importance of research based solely on titles, and that the research community in Universities and in the granting councils needs to do a better job explaining to the public why research matters. The latter requires increased and coordinated efforts in knowledge translation and public outreach, and we are working toward that goal now. Meanwhile, I am extremely proud of the SSHRC-based research at McMaster University. Some of this research is easy to judge by its title, for example, Philip DeCicca’s work on “Behavioural effects of full-day kindergarten on children and their parents” has obvious potential benefits for society. Yet, research can be important without leading to immediate policy reform or yielding economic spin-offs. SSHRC researchers at our University and at others around Canada are making contributions with economic impact, but they are also contributing by helping us understand more about what make us human, what makes us Canadian, and how our society fits into the global context. As Harvard’s new President, Dr. Drew Faust, noted in her recent inaugural comments: “We strive to understand who we are, where we came from, where we are going and why.” SSHRC research is key to that understanding, and that understanding is key to the economic and cultural prosperity of our society.

Tez Miller said...

Woohoo, intellectual! And yes, you are intellectual - you're a doctor ;-)

Have a lovely day! :-)

Matt J. said...

I think all of these comments are fantastic - baring the hip surgery concerns - but I would like to briefly point out that no one who is talking about this article (should we wish to call it that) or those who are commenting on Jes's posting of that "article" is actually mentioning his Post-Doc project.

Why are we not mentioning that Jes is one of the few individuals out there who is talking about queer youth, specifically queer AT RISK youth? Yes, he teaching popular culture, specifically television - but that is is teaching job, it is the position that he was given through CUNY. He is not doing a Post-doc on television. He is doing a monograph on gay, lesbians, trans, bisexual teenagers and preteens who are seen as at risk for either public, private, and self violence - amongst other dangers. Is this not important? Is this not what the heart of this discussion should be about? Not that Jes got a tattoo or that he bought a book or teaches I Love Lucy in his classroom, but that he IS taking on a social responsible role as a young gay academic and is actually trying to make a difference. Could his work not be seen as Socially Responsible? In the vein that SSHRC strives to be?

Yes, Jes has published in the realm of popular culture and film and television studies, but what about his larger and more advanced work? What about his discussion of queer theory today? His look at gay youth? His discussion on queer fantasy novels and how that has social significance: in which he talks about drag culture, youth suicide amongst other topics?

I think we should perhaps keep that in mind when addressing Fulford's article.

Matt J. said...

I have added this comment to my own blog with some added thoughts. Please visit and read.

Christine Marie said...

Interesting thoughts Matt. I agree that in talking about Jes' work, it is important to take account what a varied scholar he is--something that I think Fulford grossly overlooks. Did you see the comment from the woman who is one of the heads of research at Mac? She talks about approaching the research in good faith (looking at it as contributing to a field in a way that isn't instant gratification for Fulford).

Thinking about your comment about fame, when has fame ever been exclusively positive? How many intellectuals do we know whose success is actually linked to some cohesive greatness or fame? Rather, it seems so often--theorists especially--become famous especially for those very ideas they are critiqued for. I don't think this is a bad thing. If I've learned anything in the Celebrity/Culture course with Lorraine York so far it's that the celebrity subject becomes an intensely fraught site--a site upon which the media does a sort of ethical violence (I've been reading lots of Butler lately) to the celebrity personality and upon which ideologies are grafted in the struggle for power.

BTW Jes Battis probably one of the most socially responsible people I know (other than Cec). He's a fabulous intellectual, a deeply caring person and my idol. ;)

Anonymous said...

Hi All,

As another "wasteful and frivolous" feminist and historian who might dare to buy brie cheese instead of the 5.99$ block of medium cheddar with her SSHRC grant, I think we all need to consider the larger implications underlying Robert Fulford's neoconservative, homophobic rant.
It seems as if Fulford gets his way, then we should all be sending him expense sheets at the end of each week, and he might decide whether our SSHRC funds are being spent appropriately.

Perhaps Dr. Fulford might consider the university funds (subsidized by Canadian tax dollars, of course) that surely at least partially funded his trip to Jerusalem where he spoke about Captain Kirk. I'm simply not sure how an analysis of Star Trek translates into a direct socio-economic return for the Canadian tax payer.

The simple fact of the matter is that SSHRC grants are not only to subsidize education and research, but to allow scholars to live. Perhaps Dr. Fulford might occasionally go out for a nice meal, or a bottle of wine. Perhaps he would like to start posting his expenses on his website so we all might evaluate how appropriate we find his spending. After all, every person employed in the academy in any capacity is indebted to the Canadian tax payer.

What is at the heart of this matter is not how one particular postdoctoral student is spending a government grant, but is the ease with which Robert Fulford undermines important cultural and critical research found in media studies, comparative studies, and queer theory.

There is already a structure of accountability built into all SSHRC research grants. I guess we'll all just need to get used to being accountable to Robert Fulford, as well.

~Jennifer Scott
PhD Candidate