A few years ago I ran into a recurrent acquaintance at a wedding. Someone I’ve never known well, but for a long time. Someone who knew that I finished my PhD at NYU, stuck around a few years teaching composition while trying to find a tenure track job, only to leave for visiting positions at the University of Michigan and Northwestern. The question finally arrived: where are you now? As in, where have the winds of inconsequence taken you? I answered: Oklahoma State University.
“Wow,” he said, “good school!”
How would he know? He never said this about Northwestern, for instance.
But then it dawned on me: what he knows because of college sports. He was remembering OSU’s appearance in the Final Four in 2004. But was he wrong to say so?
What his response indicated to me was not that OSU and Michigan were on the same level of academic distinction, but that they could be—that the only thing that prevented it from being so was a failure of the imagination of the ones who worked there, which in this case, means the stubborn refusal of professors in the humanities to take seriously what televised sports does for the institution—namely, its function as an instance of the political, as a representation that could become a place.
I know the problem: donors who give to sports never give back to the humanities. But that’s not really the point. However indirectly, the national presence of a university on television makes it possible to recruit good faculty because it is a place that appears. And if it keeps on appearing, and good people keep coming, then sooner or later people feel better about sending their students from outside the state, and it could become Michigan. And if you have a faculty of imaginative, talented scholars, demands can be made on the institution for support. But if we merely hang our heads every time a major donor gives only to our athletics programs instead of us, then we will continue to occupy the losing side of the jock/nerd dynamic. Instead, if your school appears, make use of that appearance as an instance of the political, as an opportunity to say: “Yes, it is a good school. It is a place.” And it may become so.
Norfolk State, the ball is in your court.