The fearlessness and linguistic facility of a trio of provocative writers should serve as a role model for academics

By Rachel Toor

The Chronicle of Higher Eduction, Chronicle Careers, September 16, 2008

I suffer, on occasion, from a desire to please. When a published essay of mine gets a big, positive response, I am delighted. When people tell me something I wrote was muddled or wrong, it stings. Often I agree with them. That stings even more. I’d like not to care. I’d like to be confident enough in my judgments and abilities that I trust myself more than I do others.

In other words, I’d like to be a Stanley.

I have known three Stanleys: an African-American Angelino, a Texas Methodist, and a Rhode Island Jew. They are much alike. Two are even friends. When I find myself slipping into a crowd-pleasing routine — comfortable, anodyne, hesitant — I try to channel one of those Stanleys.

I’d never heard of Stanley Crouch when the collection of previously published essays that would become his 1990 book, Notes of a Hanging Judge, landed on my desk with instructions to “work with the author.” I was an editorial assistant at Oxford University Press and discovered quickly that there would be no working with this author; the best I could do was try to keep up.

Stanley — large, loud, aggressive (I heard that he’d been fired from The Village Voice for fistfighting with a colleague) — was a great, alternative role model for an overachieving good girl. The forcefulness of his opinions was appealing, even if those views were, at times, icky. About Toni Morrison’s Beloved, he writes, “Above all else, [it] is a blackface holocaust novel. It seems to have been written in order to enter American slavery into the big-time martyr ratings contest, a contest usually won by references to, and works about, the experience of Jews at the hands of Nazis.”

Instead of finding him offensive, as many did, I was amused. I appreciated his brashness. If I didn’t agree with him, I didn’t argue. I just settled in to listen to his riffs. The breadth of his knowledge and curiosity made it a pleasure. He was just plain fun to be around.

Stanley Crouch’s writing career has taken off since we last spoke. In addition to continuing to work on music, race, politics, and culture, he published a couple of novels. For a while he was on 60 Minutes. Now he has a column in the New York Daily News. He makes his Stanleyness work for him, even if it can get him punched out.

When I arranged to meet Stanley Hauerwas for the first time, he told me the number of his office in the Duke Divinity School was “double O seven.” It wasn’t. It was 009. But someone had once told him he looked like Sean Connery.

He’s written a gazillion books. He moves fast, thinks hard, and talks loud. He pushes himself physically. When I worked on his 1994 collection of essays, Dispatches From the Front: Theological Engagements With the Secular, he ran every day at high noon in the company of graduate students, even in the sticky North Carolina summer. Once I went along and outran him up a hill. He screamed out a word that rhymed with itch and said, laughing to his male acolytes, “See, women can be jerks, too.”

In a passage in Dispatches From the Front, Hauerwas writes: “Stanley Fish, my friend and next-door neighbor, likes to remind students who express admiration for Milton’s poetry that Milton does not want their admiration, he wants their souls. I lack Milton’s art, but my ambition can be no less than Milton’s. I must try, like Milton, to change lives, my own included, through the transformation of our imaginations. I must do that using the leaden skills of the theologian.… Thus, I tell my students that I do not want them to learn ‘to make up their own minds,’ since most of them do not have minds worth making up until I have trained them. Rather, by the time I am finished with them, I want them to think just like me.”

Hauerwas criticizes those to whom he is closest: Christians. He’s a pugilistic pacifist, an intense hater, and an equally intense friend. He hates liberalism. He is sometimes portrayed as conservative, but it’s not that simple. What he hates, he says, is what the enlightenment has done to those who want to take their faith seriously. In 2001 Time magazine named him “America’s best theologian.” Hauerwas criticizes those to whom he is closest: Christians. He’s a pugilistic pacifist, an intense hater, and an equally intense friend. He hates liberalism. He is sometimes portrayed as conservative, but it’s not that simple. What he hates, he says, is what the enlightenment has done to those who want to take their faith seriously. In 2001 Time magazine named him “America’s best theologian.”

The son of a bricklayer, he has an astonishing work ethic. He also has a potty mouth. He swears like a sailor, whether during a lecture at Oxford or speaking to blue-haired church ladies. When I asked him about his language once, he said, “I hate how civility works to disempower the lower classes.” Civility, he says, is also the language of the church. “People think you need to protect God,” he says, “but the truth is, God can take it. Read the &#$! psalms.”

When Stanley Fish was my boss, as director of Duke University Press, I once complained to him about a manuscript submitted to me by a famous academic. This author had written the same book over and over again, I carped. Stanley stopped me and said, with unusual gravity, “Not many of us have more than one good idea.”

Stanley Fish parlayed his column in The Chronicle into a similar gig with The New York Times. Now he’s upsetting people far beyond academe.

In his book There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech, and It’s a Good Thing, Too, there’s an essay called “The Unbearable Ugliness of Volvos.” In it, the Jaguar-driving author writes: “I acknowledge that the statements I have made are too sweeping and admit of innumerable exceptions: that some Volvos are beautiful, that no one here now owns or has ever owned a Volvo; that the life you experience in your various departments is characterized by amity and generosity; and that your relationship to the rewards and privileges of the profession is straightforward and healthy. I further acknowledge that I am necessarily (and multiply) implicated in the critique I have presented; that I have been a member of the academy for 30 years, in which I have been an eager participant in its economy, often providing, as I have here, the desired beating for those who have assembled to receive it; that every sin of which I have accused others is writ large in my own performance. And finally I acknowledge that there is no justification whatsoever for that performance, that it is irresponsible, self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing, and entirely without redeeming social or intellectual value. It is just something I have always wanted to do.”

I don’t have the guts, or perhaps the intellectual chops, to be a Stanley. But those three plucky writers are, I want to suggest, good role models — not just for me but for academics in general. The fearlessness of the three Stanleys, the depth and breadth of their interests, their willingness to weigh in on big topics, their senses of humor, their ability to wield language, sharp and strong, like a weapon, are qualities I admire and find lacking in much academic work.

At the risk of sounding like a Stanley, we could all benefit from a little Stanleyness.

Rachel Toor is an assistant professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University in Spokane. Her newest book is Personal Record: A Love Affair With Running, and her Web site is http://www.racheltoor.com. She welcomes comments directed to careers@chronicle.com.