The Invisible Professor

A person wearing sunglassesDescription automatically generated with low confidence

Claude Raines in The Invisible Man, dir. James Whale, 1933.

Three years ago, I informed my colleagues I would retire in 2021. That’s when I became invisible.

I’d never been invisible before. As the youngest of three children growing up in Forest Hills, Queens, I received extra attention from my parents, or so my sister and brother regularly tell me. In college, at SUNY Albany, I spoke up in class, acted Shakespeare on stage, and flirted at parties. People listened, applauded and recoiled as they would with any visible person. I saw my reflection in mirrors and my shadow on sunny days. In short, I was seen.

In graduate school at Princeton, I called professors by their first names and asked them challenging questions in class. That got me noticed, and almost kicked out. And by the time I began teaching art history at Occidental College in Los Angeles in 1984, I was an art critic and aesthete. My knowledge, taste and affectations were like the coat, hat, gloves, sunglasses, bandages and prosthetic nose worn by the character Griffin in H.G. Wells novel, The Invisible Man, and by Claude Raines in the 1933 film by James Whale – they made me conspicuous.

In 1998, I was hired to chair the Department of Art History at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. I was fully visible there too. I know that because students, faculty and even low-level administrators regularly passed in and out of my office, asking me my views about numerous unimportant things — opinions which I tendered with gravity. I wrote departmental reports which faculty were expected to read and respond to and greeted visiting speakers and other guests with ceremony. After a short term as chair, I rejoined the regular faculty, content to don the academic costume and comportment that had previously kept me in public view. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to be seen, as that I just was seen, like anybody else.

The time I was most certain of my visibility came in 2015, when, as Faculty Senate President, I was subjected to a Title IX (gender discrimination) investigation after I spoke up in favor of the free speech rights of the feminist critic, Prof. Laura Kipnis. Laura was herself being investigated for a Title IX breech for publishing an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. It challenged newly established university guidelines that created, she wrote, an environment of “sexual paranoia.” After a national outcry, charges against us both were dropped. (That may have been be the only time The Nation and National Review published essentially the same editorial.) If I had been invisible then like I am now, none of that would have happened.

Three years ago, I decided that after 35 years of teaching, I’d had enough. The institution was simply unsupportable. Northwestern’s constant fundraising campaigns, emphasis on IP, and inertia regarding institutional or structural racism, overwhelmed all faculty and student efforts at reform. Instead of attacking structural racism, universities like Northwestern focus on personal bias, addressed by means of de-politicized “equity training” programs.

In addition, siloed university departments at Northwestern foreclosed meaningful, cross-disciplinary collaboration. And I became depressed by the tendency in my own and other departments to emphasize intellectual and political orthodoxy over critical inquiry. In U.S. universities, the only viable politics now is identity politics; that means that collective struggles – intellectual, political and expressive — for equality and a sustainable future are effectively foreclosed.

Absent that solidarity, academic work becomes routine, with days and years counted out in papers graded, articles published, and faculty meetings attended. Whereas I used to write out and rehearse every lecture for every class, I now consulted lecture notes that were well past yellowed – more like a dull tan. More often, I simply improvised before the class — performances which generally satisfied the students, but which I knew to be glib. So, having reached my decision, I made an appointment to see the Dean and discuss my options. It was a good meeting. Never had I felt so appreciated by an administrator as that afternoon when I announced my departure. His proposal was that I immediately commence what is called “phased retirement,” teaching less each year until I essentially faded away. I quickly accepted his proposal, (the financial terms were fair) heedless of what imminent retirement meant for my conspicuousness.

For a while, I kept my plans private. But when, at one of our department meetings, my colleagues began to discuss future hiring schemes and curricular changes, I felt the need to be more forthcoming. At first, I said I would be retiring “soonish,” refusing to provide an exact date. But after few minutes, and much tactful probing, (nobody wanted to appear over-eager lest I change my mind), I gave a firm date. As soon as I said the words “Summer 2021”, the ceiling light above me seemed to dim, and my colleagues squinted to see me, as if my contours had become blurry and they were making an effort to focus. I was like Griffin when he for the first time removed his coat, trousers, bandages, sunglasses, hat and prosthetic nose and became invisible. Or like the narrator in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), living incognito in his underground apartment illuminated by dozens of suspended light bulbs: “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”

I shouldn’t have been surprised by the turn of events. I have known faculty members at other institutions who became invisible after they announced their retirement. In fact, I once saw the transformation before my eyes. A few years ago, I gave a lecture at UCLA. The audience was large for such things – about 30 faculty and grad students – and after it was over, there was a small reception in an adjacent classroom. There I saw a distinguished man with a mane of grey hair standing completely alone in the middle of the crowed room, as if he was shunned. It was Prof. Davey Jones (name changed) whom I’d known for decades, but who never deigned to say more than a sentence or two to me. He caught my eye, quickly walked over and put his arm around my shoulder and squeezed as if we were the best of friends. “Stephen, that was brilliant,” he said. “You must join me for lunch tomorrow at the faculty club to discuss it further.” I was of course surprised and pleased by his attention and quickly pulled out my phone to schedule a time. “Tell me what works for you,” I said. He quickly replied, “My dear boy, I’m retired now so my calendar is wide open.” At just that moment, I saw the light in Jones’ blue eyes flicker and fade. His outlines became fuzzy and his face translucent. I recoiled, made some vague excuse and departed.

When I announced my phased retirement, I had few illusions about the three years before me. I didn’t expect them to be marked either by celebrations of my career or mourning at my departure – the iron law of the neo-liberal university is that everybody is expendable. But I did think that my role as elder stateman would continue until I was finally gone. When I spoke at department meetings in the time before the announcement, my combination of pomposity and wisdom settled many an unimportant question. Now however, invisibility made that impossible. During Zoom faculty meetings last year and this, the little square I occupied often appeared empty, or at best hazy. When our Zoom moderator put me into a four-person chatroom, only three faces appeared on my screen. And when I sometimes returned to my office to collect a book or some notes, I had a hard time maintaining the necessary social distance while walking down the hall – people simply didn’t see me coming.

I recently re-watched James Whale’s brilliant film and read the Wells novel upon which it was based. What’s so remarkable is that what began as a terrible accident – Griffin’s formula for rendering bodies invisible is irreversible – becomes a source of extraordinary pride and power, and indeed a greater visibility than he had ever known before:

And I beheld, unclouded by doubt, a magnificent vision of all that invisibility might mean to a man—the mystery, the power, the freedom. Drawbacks I saw none. You have only to think! And I, a shabby, poverty-struck, hemmed-in demonstrator, teaching fools in a provincial college, might suddenly become—this.”

I’m not planning to derail a speeding locomotive like Griffin does in the novel or be chased from a demonstration by the cops and fall into a manhole, like the narrator in Ellison’s Invisible Man. But during my last months as a university professor and in my retirement, I’ll embrace my invisibility as a form of stealth and my indiscernibility as power.

Stephen F. Eisenman is Professor of Art History at Northwestern University and the author of The Abu Ghraib Effect (Reaktion, 2007), and The Cry of Nature: Art and the Making of Animal Rights (Reaktion, 2015) among other books. His American Fascism Now, with Sue Coe, has just been published by Rotland Press. Eisenman is also co-founder of the non-profit, Anthropocene Alliance.