Spam email — your ticket to tenure

Jon Sanders
Posted: Jan 02, 2007 9:47 PM

Dear aspiring university professor,

Happy discredited-patriarchy-established New Year!

As you know, it is wildly popular to find new "literatures" to make up incredibly easy-to-teach courses that let you lecture on "cruise control" while you spend your time preparing for far-off academic conferences about how the fate of the nation hinges on forcing kids to stop saying "you guys." Unfortunately for you, all of the good topics — comic books, movies, TV shows, lesbian pulp fiction (alas!), pornography (alack!), video games, advertisements —seem to have been taken. Goodness, even queer pets and queering food studies have already been taken!

What that means for you is that somewhere, some lucky harridan is already getting herself tenure with a course couched in the language of "teaching students to think critically about what [insert one of the aforementioned cultural dregs here] teaches us about how we as a society view issues of race, gender, and sexuality." She's the one receiving the invitations to speak from Maui to Toronto. She's the one getting published in the journals that only her department, your department, and your peers' departments buy. She's carved out her lifelong niche. You won't be able to displace her from her slop-slinging sinecure; she's got no place else to go. You, however, need something new.

That's where I can help you. I have found a new "subversive body of literature" that, to the best of my knowledge (ay, there's the rub), no one else has thought to start a course about yet. And if you act quickly, you can take my suggestion and build your life's nonwork on it. But you'd better act quickly before you're relegated to the hinterlands of academe, and you don't want to spend your time teaching survey courses in English literature and American history. How regressive!

This idea came to me this morning while checking my email. I received several run-of-the-mill conformist messages, including one forwarding Young America's Foundation phalloreactive "Dirty Dozens" list of college courses. It revealed that several more potential topics for you have already fallen by the wayside. Adultery novels — taken. Mail order brides — already delivered. Cyberfeminism — e-liminated. The lesbian phallus — well, you can just envy whoever dreamed up that one.

My proposed topic presented itself in the other email I received. It's subversive, it's transgressive, it's post-postmodern, and for me, it shows up under "Junk E-mail" and gets immediately sorted by my email program to "Trash." (Yes, "trash," that epithet of oppression leveled against so many other gender feminists' career topics of study. I mean, Gaia's wounds, are we so close-minded, etc.?)

What is it? It's spam -- gendered spam. And it's your ticket out of teaching 100-level survey courses, with all that roll-taking, grading multiple-choice tests, and watching "Pretty Woman" and "American Beauty" semester after semester.

And it'll be easy. All you'll need to do is apply proven, cookie-cutter syllabus-crafting concepts and you'll have your very own "critical thinking" course where students come in as familiar with the course subject as the instructor and are happy even if they have to drop $85 on a "supplementary" text written by you, the instructor. You can issue spam-gathering homework assignments to your students with you all in full knowledge that you've already been "gathering" the stuff for years. Just let the daily cache become the day's lecture; better, make it a "communal knowledge" course where "the students are the teachers; I am just the facilitator" (who interrupts occasionally to carp about testosterone, "hetero-norming," George W. Bush, and whatnot).

I'll even get you started on the course description. First, you'll need a catchy course title followed by a jargon-filled subtitle. I suggest "E-Masculation: Spam and the Attempted Reconstruction of the Cyberphallus" or "The Long and Short of Spam: Deconstructing Heteromasculine Panic in Cyberspace."

Next, you'll need to describe your course. For that you'll want a liberal use of course-description tools to make your "easy A" sound scholastic. First and frequently, you'll need to unleash the barrage of silly questions. Here are some to get you started:

Do you like getting spam e-mail? Have you ever thought of spam as transgressive literature? Does spam have a plot, a protagonist and antagonist, like other literature, and if so, what does climax mean? What are the different genres of spam? Who is represented by spam e-mail? Who is left out?

Be sure to have plenty of question-begging to sound as if only a naïf would doubt the self-evidential nature of the problems described. Leading questions would serve nicely as well. You'll want to sprinkle in a few scholar's ellipses here and there to appear so thoughtful and concerned as to be unable to finish a sentence:

Why is it that the body of spam literature is so concerned with enlarging the phallus? What kind of "body" is this, do you think? Why do so many resort to euphemisms like "sausage" and "unit?" Perhaps there is a taboo against identification -- is the phallus the Rumpelstiltskin of the digital medium? No spam messages attempt to enhance someone's "flower power" ... And no spam has ever offered to shorten "it" ... How does this phallocentrism represent the emasculation of heterosexual males in cyberspace? Could spam reflect a reactive reconstruction of masculinity in the Internet age? This course will take us on an exploration of these themes and more. As fellow participants in the gender-neutral (one may question if it can or should be called that ...) arena of "cyberspace," participants will co-facilitate their own learning experience and develop critical thinking tools to help them interrogate other surrounding texts.

A good labored paradox is always welcome. Insert this sentence anywhere:

Participants will also be challenged to consider if we are reading the spam ... or is it reading us?

Finally and most important, you'll need the social-guilt redirection, without which few courses would exist outside of the hard sciences:

At the end of the course, students will be able to interrogate not only spam messages, but all the other invasive messages in judeo-xtian/capitalist/heterofascist American society, on what they reveal about our views on issues of gender, sex, race, and power.

Here's one last hint, which you probably already know: the fewer papers and exams, the better. Understand, of course, that many of your fellow peers are reading this. Move fast enough and you'll be set for life with tenure, easy teaching loads, conference invitations, the whole shebang. Miss out, and you'll have to return to scrounging about for a "new field." My only advice for you then is to resume your search at the local grocery store, but now you'll have to skip the pet and vegetable aisles.