Lex Luthor hearts Superman: Your tax dollars at work
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 13 October 2007)

If you were a cash-starved scholar and you received the initial payment on your grant from the federal government, what would you do first? Buy some books? Acquire a new computer? Not Dr. Jes Battis. Last month, three days after the cheque came through, he reported on his blog that he had acquired a tattoo and a nose piercing.

That may not be entirely outlandish. Battis has made his career by writing about popular culture. He writes about everything from hidden gay themes in TV to comedies like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A tattoo and a piercing will no doubt help him see deeper meaning in his subject. His grant from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) pays for a two-year postdoctoral fellowship that allows him to work as an adjunct instructor at City University of New York. There, he lectures on I Love Lucy and Leave it to Beaver while working on his research project, "Queer future: LGBT narratives." (LGBT stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender.)

Battis is a 28-year-old Canadian Phd in English literature and the author of Blood Relations: Chosen Families in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, published in 2005. He sometimes uses Queer Theory, an academic discipline that prides itself on finding gay subtexts in apparently heterosexual stories.

Last year a journal called Jump Cut published The Kryptonite Closet, Battis's article on the TV series Smallville, which is set in the Kansas town where Superman arrived from outer space as a baby. Smallville revolves around a big secret, Clark's alien identity, but Battis sees beyond that. Clark is friendly with Lex Luthor, Super-man's arch enemy in the years ahead. So Battis studies "the erotic potential emerging from this relationship."

That suggests the current level of research in the humanities. Battis, who chronicles his life through a blog, comes across as gormless, in the sense of foolish, lacking sense and discernment. He chatters endlessly about difficulty negotiating the New York subway and fills us in on his liking for chocolate soy milk and cornbread muffins: "I need nothing else to survive."

He's an example of the chronic irrelevance that afflicts much recent academic work. Last February, when he was given the fellowship for his LGBT narratives, other scholars received grants for, among other things, "The culture and aesthetics of amateur movie-making, 1954-2006" and "Tracing cattle exchanges in the early Iron Age of Southern Africa." Scholars pursuing cultural studies believe, like historians, that there's nothing too trivial to study.

Outsiders don't always take SSHRC (always pronounced "shirk") as seriously as SSHRC would like. While it often supports worthy research, it can look like a $319-million-a-year joke. This attitude angers the council. Chad Gaffield, a historian who has been president since last September, insists that the humanities deserve respect (that's true, of course) and so, by association, does SSHRC.

Gaffield tries hard to convey what he considers the importance of SSHRC to the public. Recently he told a Globe and Mail interviewer that the council doesn't deserve a penny from Parliament if it can't compellingly articulate the value of what it does: "We are asking the public to support us. I think they have every right to know what public money is being spent and why."

Actually, that doesn't quite describe SSHRC policy. If you ask for details of a fellowship, as put forth by the scholar in a proposal, the council answers that research proposals are "protected," meaning secret. James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, doesn't like it when SSHRC's detractors criticize it by quoting titles. He rightly argues that you can't judge a research project from the title. But what if the council declares everything except the title confidential? Is Turk's criticism fair?

He told a Globe reporter, "The anti-intellectual argument is always the easy one to make." Does the word "intellectual" apply in the case of Dr. Jes Battis? That's a matter of judgment. So far he's been judged with great generosity. He's made his way upward from grant to grant. In graduate school, he received$24,000 in Simon Fraser University fellowships and $40,000, plus small travel grants, from the SSHRC. His postdoctoral grant last February, the one partly used for piercing and tattoo, was $82,000.

For $147,000 or so, have the taxpayers furthered the career of a brilliant scholar? Well, he's already achieved some international recognition. In 2004, at the Slayage International Conference in Nashville, he won the prize for Best Essay on Buffy Studies.

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