Three Banes

Bane (bān), n.

  1. Fatal injury or ruin: “Hath some fond lover tic’d thee to thy bane?” (George Herbert).
    1. A cause of harm, ruin, or death: “Obedience,/Bane of all genius, virtue, freedom, truth,/Makes slaves of men” (Percy Bysshe Shelley).
    2. A source of persistent annoyance or exasperation: “The spellings of foreign names are often the bane of busy copy editors” (Norm Goldstein).
  2. A deadly poison.

[Middle English, destroyer, from Old English bana.]

In many institutions teaching, research, and service are ranked in that order, although with my R-1 mentality, I tend to value research first. This having been said, I will now expound briefly upon three banes of my academic existence.

1. Those individuals who claim a primary interest in teaching, when what they really mean is that they like to pontificate, wield power over students, and avoid learning anything new themselves.

This is a relatively small Bane, as it need not affect my own life, except when such individuals also become really lazy teachers, doing an actual disservice to their students, with whom I then have to deal in some manner; or when they rise to positions of power, from whence they are able to oppress researchers.

2. That standard advice whereby one should spend as little time and effort as possible on teaching, since it is not rewarded, and focus all energies on research productivity which will “move you up and out.”

Out in this context means out towards the wider world, not necessarily toward a different job – just out to a broader perspective than that of one’s usually dysfunctional and claustrophobic department.

This appears to be pragmatic advice, and I fully understand the spirit in which it is given. However, it is a major Bane. I object strenuously on two grounds. It is irresponsible to students, and it doesn’t work. If you have classes to give, they will inevitably take up a certain amount of your time. It is possible to save time on any given day by letting up on something, in some manner. However, the bottom line is, it is less stressful and time consuming to do a decent job, and to plan for that. You then come away refreshed, unworried, and even inspired. “At least we got through it” is a draining thing to have to say. It is the kind of statement which makes me want to watch the television I do not have. “Well, now that’s done!” is more chipper. If I can say that, I am also motivated to use the gym membership I do have. “That was fun and interesting,” on the other hand, is the sort of reaction to class that makes me want to sail home and write.

3. Arguably the worst Bane of all is the perception that service and administration are worthless. People seem to believe that in order to prove their identity as intellectuals, they should be unable to accomplish anything practical at all. This means in practice that others must carry this burden for them. I do not know how these individuals imagine that the great universities were built, if not by up to date intellectuals who could in fact think practically about how an institution of learning, or a worthwhile degree program, could be effectively designed and run.

I could, of course, say a great deal more about all of these Banes, and tell colorful anecdotes about each. Perhaps I shall do so one day. In the meantime, I will point out that many of the better Professori are good at all of these things. They go together, b****** (as my students would say, outside of class).

No, no, go not to Lethe, neither twist
Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine . . .

While the Banes I have discussed here may be in some senses Three Capital Banes, there are others. And all Banes are based upon fallacies. It is, for example, a fallacy that all institutions are equally problematic. It is a fallacy that it is possible to do exactly the same things at all institutions. It is also a fallacy that all meritorious individuals can work themselves “up and out,” except after the manner of the bodhisattvas. (It’s the economy, for one thing. And to get a dollar, you have to have one. And gaps, once created, often tend to expand. Note, however, if everyone left, we would only create gridlock around Harvard Yard, and reap illiteracy elsewhere.) The fallacies that “speaking up” can get you fired just like that, and/or that it is pointless as it will get you nowhere, are particularly widespread.


1. That which destroys life, especially poison of a deadly quality.

2. Destruction; death. The cup of deception spiced and tempered to their bane. (Milton)

3. Any cause of ruin, or lasting injury; harm; woe. Money, thou bane of bliss, and source of woe. (Herbert)

4. a disease in sheep, commonly termed the rot.

poison, ruin, destruction, injury, pest.

oe. bane destruction, as Bana murderer; akin to Icel. Bani death, murderer, OHG. Bana murder, bano murderer, murder, OIr. bath death, benim i strike.

Finally, with respect to the putative, eternal battle of teaching and research, or teaching versus research (and I will remind you, Carnival and Lent go together), what about asking a different question, about marking time, going through the paces (and publication, by the way, can be like that; I speak from direct experience) versus engaging intellectually in some way or another. It could be a magnum opus one year, an interesting seminar another, and a creative administrative stint at yet another moment. In the end, they still go together, and one way or another, is good enough for me.


10 thoughts on “Three Banes

  1. Dear Professor Zero,
    I think that this is a healthy way of viewing our roles inside and outside the classroom.

    Right now, I’m grading a set of freshman composition papers and while they still have the usual errors, it’s great to see some of them opening up and telling the stories of their lives. It’s particularly heartening that many are from Haiti and they have told me that back in “their country” they did not have these opportunities.

    On the other hand, I have to approve payroll, so excuse me.

  2. Thanks Geoffrey and good luck with the paperwork! If you (or anyone) wants a Fun Break, look up BANE in the OED. I suspect copyright law prohibits my copying the entry, and without a subscription you can’t get in, so I’m not linking, but anyone who can, look, it is fascinating.

  3. Great commentary.

    It is sad that tenure-systems don’t reward teaching (as lip service is merely symbolic and becomes quite empty once reality happens).

    And on the flip side there is the pattern of fetishizing the classroom–I’ve seen this from a subculture of English faculty who build their publication careers off of student “testimonials” that verify the fact that the teacher/author in question is unquestionably the flawless expert in all-things-Other.

    Some Anglo pedagogues in particular seem to love using un-named students of color in their scholarship…

  4. Bravo again, Z! This time to the writer rather than to musicians and dancer. The first three banes strike me as useful to the rhetorician when arguing from a weak position (as they must)

  5. I’ve seen that subculture, Tenoch! I’ve even seen a rhetorician who wanted to put a letter to the editor published in the local paper on his vita as a research / creative publication … he said it counted FOR HIM because rhetoric was his field (shouldn’t I get extra credit then, if I also do it?)!

    Thanks Charlie and that is interesting: rhetoricians must argue from weak positions, I will keep this in mind.

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