By John Frederick Kaufman
Rumor has it that the Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison is looking to fill three high profile positions in keeping with its new mission: “the ideas factory and innovation center for the state,” as Chancellor Rebecca Blank puts it. It appears that UW-Madison is no longer a traditional university where faculty and students converse disinterestedly upon the various arts and sciences, so there is little to stop humanities professors, academic ecologists and the odd astronomer from marketing their research for the good of D2P.
For those Wisconsinites woefully behind the times, D2P is computer code for “Discovery to Product”– a newer idea at UW-Madison–whose mission is to take academic research and turn it into all the money the state is not providing the university. D2P is looking to hire a director. I encourage all Ph.D’s and Ph.D candidates to apply, especially those who have discovered something that might be turned into a marketable product.
Say, for example, you have discovered evidence that Queen Elizabeth I invented William Shakespeare and all Shakespeares’s plays and sonnets. This may seem like arcane and esoteric stuff to most paying customers, but if you possess the “inner fire” along with what the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel calls the proper passion and accountability, you may discover some really cool ways of patenting your dissertation/academic article. English royalty are at least as popular as T-shirts (at least in the U.S.), so combining the two would be, maybe, the biggest thing since Microsoft. Poets should be hired to write the phrases to adorn the T-shirts. Some possibilities include “Queen Liz was a wiz when it came to iambics” or “Will Shakespeare– a queen in drag” or “Queen Elizabeth: Shakespeare’s mum. (See footnote).”
Pithy quotes from famous philosophers, artists and unmarketable scientists would also make attractive T-shirts, wallpaper, stencils and screensavers. Sales worldwide (in many languages) would expand the reach of UW-Madison’s brand to nearly everyone.
Just as manual typewriters are becoming trendy again, the printed book is poised to make a retro splash among the literate young. While academic bestsellers tend to be rare events, the truly passionate and accountable humanist ought to be able, with the appropriate corporate coaching, to churn out books with considerable mass appeal. As our moviemakers and TV execs turn to sex and violence to make a profit, academics can follow their example by creating fictional and historical products of salacious and homicidal sagacity. This would assure a larger pool of bestsellers and ease the way for movie and TV contracts; UW-Madison could become the Hollywood scriptwriting factory.
Even global warming can be glammed-up and spiced for pop culture profitability. Climate change, if left unchecked, will require more shedding of clothes and cause more violent weather events: combine the two–nudity and hurricanes–and you have the making of a first-rate ecological R-rated thriller which could be adapted for cable TV and a summer blockbuster.
But I don’t want to get everyone’s hopes up. The applied sciences are better at fulfilling our insatiable lust for gadgets and e-things, and no matter how innovative the other arts and sciences become their power lies in their essential connection to the past, to beauty and to truth. Save for evoking English royalty or the English aristocracy, most Americans care little about history, literature or the arts. And until winter stops happening or a major city floods, Americans are not going to get too excited by something so many don’t even believe in. No. Let’s face it. The humanities and her sister sciences are doomed to wallow in the obsolete ideas of wisdom and truth until such time that wisdom and truth are, if ever, profitable.
Still, hiring a scholar of the Restoration or an ecologist to lead the Department of D2P would be a compassionate and smart move. At the very least, a liberal arts or sciences academic might stop the D2P Dept. from creating something innovative that the university and all of us in Wisconsin would later come to regret. (See Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter.”)
UPDATE (2/18)– To see just how far the UW brand already extends and how much profit UW clothing and other branded stuff now make, along with how UW is trying to make sure the products are made in a humane way, I recommend this blog post by UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank.