Book Notes: Campusland by Scott Johnston

This novel is a satire of wokesterism at Yale, my alma mater. The author is an alumnus, so he knows the campus, the architecture, the weather, the traditions, everything. Anybody who’s been to Yale will chuckle nostalgically when they read this description of the Art & Architecture building, for example:

The building’s Stalinist slabs of rectilinear concrete, set here among Gothic and Georgian masterpieces, assaulted the eye. Naturally, that was the point… The concrete was cold and would sweat in the warmer months, giving off a dank, musty smell no countermeasures could ever fix. It was an angry, perspiring fortress.

I lived right across the road from the perspiring fortress the whole time I was at Yale, and the description is spot on.

The depictions of the crazy wokesterism that is convulsing academia are really great, too. That’s not surprising, though, because the material is so rich that the novel practically writes itself. The Mattress Girl, the Halloween protests, the “Dear Colleague” letter – you don’t need to invent anything.

What’s interesting, though, is that this accidental novelist managed something that tends to elude male writers in late middle age. He actually created a believable teenage female protagonist.

Few things are more awkward and unconvincing than portrayals of teenage girls by older male writers. Tom Wolfe’s I am Charlotte Simmons, one of the worst books I have ever read, is a great example. The reason why older men are so bad at depicting teenage girls is that for these authors the #1 quality of such a character is her extreme vulnerability. Teenagers, though, are physiologically incapable of seeing themselves as vulnerable even when they actually are. They think they are invincible and exercise notoriously poor judgement as a result. We all know this but male writers seem to enter into “protective Grandpa” mode once they hit 50 and start describing teenage girls as scared little flowers cowering with terror in their bedrooms.

Johnston is not a professional writer, so he somehow avoided this curse. His 19-year-old female protagonist is actually believable. And it’s very refreshing finally to read something so realistic.

There’s also a really interesting moment in the novel that doesn’t get developed a whole lot but I found it very important. An old, jaded Yale [called Devon in the novel] professor tells a young, idealistic colleague:

“Most of us are just dialing it in, you know. One of the best-kept secrets in the world is how easy this job is, not to mention how overpaid we are to do it… The bubble is so comfortable that no one wants to talk about how it’s going to pop. Eph, I tell you, there’s a tidal wave coming for higher ed, and it’s going to take out a lot of schools. Excuse the mixed metaphor.”

“But you don’t think that could happen here, do you?”

“Oh, Devon will survive. It has the brand. And the money. Devon will be here when the sun cools. But it will slowly lose relevance.”

This is what I strongly believe. We are pissing away the really great gig we’ve got going, and it will be our own fault when it blows.

It’s a very enjoyable novel. Not high art, obviously, but definitely fun, extremely funny, very easy to read, the ridiculing of the rich, spoiled “victims of systemic oppression” is deeply enjoyable.

Highly recommended to people with a sense of humor.

8 thoughts on “Book Notes: Campusland by Scott Johnston”

  1. A book I just discovered and decided to share with everyone since we talk a lot about modern capitalism here:

    Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy
    by Cathy O’Neil (a Ph.D. in mathematics from Harvard who worked as a data scientist)

    May the following supposed quote from Cathy O’Neil’s book be true about American courts?

    Quote from a book:

    // Prisoners are also asked about whether their friends and relatives have criminal records. Again, ask that question to a convicted criminal raised in a middle-class neighborhood, and the chances are much greater that the answer will be no. The questionnaire does avoid asking about race, which is illegal. But with the wealth of detail each prisoner provides, that single illegal question is almost superfluous.
    The LSI–R questionnaire has been given to thousands of inmates since its invention in 1995. Statisticians have used those results to devise a system in which answers highly correlated to recidivism weigh more heavily and count for more points. After answering the questionnaire, convicts are categorized as high, medium, and low risk on the basis of the number of points they accumulate. In some states, such as Rhode Island, these tests are used only to target those with high-risk scores for antirecidivism programs while incarcerated. But in others, including Idaho and Colorado, judges use the scores to guide their sentencing.

    Many would point out that statistical systems like the LSI–R are effective in gauging recidivism risk—or at least more accurate than a judge’s random guess. But even if we put aside, ever so briefly, the crucial issue of fairness, we find ourselves descending into a pernicious WMD feedback loop. A person who scores as “high risk” is likely to be unemployed and to come from a neighborhood where many of his friends and family have had run-ins with the law. Thanks in part to the resulting high score on the evaluation, he gets a longer sentence, locking him away for more years in a prison where he’s surrounded by fellow criminals—which raises the likelihood that he’ll return to prison. He is finally released into the same poor neighborhood, this time with a criminal record, which makes it that much harder to find a job. If he commits another crime, the recidivism model can claim another success. But in fact the model itself contributes to a toxic cycle and helps to sustain it. That’s a signature quality of a WMD.


  2. HE has been under attack since the 70s, though — it’s not “we” who are suddenly wasting it, and it’s not “wokesterism” that killed it.

    However: I object to the idea of going to ally training for LGBT today. I’m from the SF arts community from way back, I was raised with LGBT people quite political, I don’t want a condescending staffer to tell me whatever bureaucratic stuff I am supposed to say, I don’t know, I chafe. Can I go to the library, maybe, and read in field sometime, maybe?


    1. Yes, neoliberalism came to the scene in the 1970s. But the question is what are we doing to react to the change? We are sticking out heads in the sand hoping it will go away. But it won’t.

      Example. I’m the only person in my department who is distraught over the lost tenure line. Everybody else is completely certain the line is coming back next year. The funding for the line has already been repurposed by the dean’s office. Nobody even remotely hinted the line will be recovered. But I can’t do anything on my own if everybody else firmly believes this is a momentary setback and the line will magically reappear. I’m panicking over it but I’m una voz clamando en el desierto. People are living in a fantasy land. This is what I mean when I say we are pissing everything away because we are just sitting there passively.


      1. And you know how people explain not caring about the tenure line? “It can’t simply be taken away. That never happens. It’s just not something that ever happens.” This is literally what people tell me. We lost our entire Russian and Italian offering. Those tenure lines evaporated. But people are convinced this doesn’t happen. Because it’s not supposed to.


        1. Your colleagues are ignorant and also lazy. Sorry, but it’s true. Yes, this kind of thing is the problem. The minute people get tenure they MUST start working on this stuff, it is what tenure is FOR. !


          1. You don’t have to be sorry. If I had you at this department, we’d be able to do something to stand up for ourselves.

            Everybody here knows that I was just as loud and outspoken, getting into the administration’s faces before tenure. But if nobody is with me, what can I do?


  3. So this interesting fact and decided to check the book:

    (translation) At a demonstration organized by the Peron government in Argentina in 1950 against dissident intellectuals, demonstrators chanted: “Yes to shoes, no to books!”

    ~ A History of Reading [Alberto Manguel]

    На одной из демонстраций, организованной в Аргентине правительством Перона в 1950 году против инакомыслящих интеллектуалов, демонстранты скандировали: «Да — ботинкам, нет — книжкам!»
    Альберто Мангуэль «История чтения»

    The book is here in Russian:


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