'Footnote': An academic life

It''s been my good fortune to spend adult life as an academic at decent or distinguished institutions. The work has been challenging and satisfying, with colleagues and students from the better classes of both. Compared to a physician''s career or an attorney''s, the vast majority of my clients have been young, healthy, engaging, and in no more trouble than having to finish their semester’s work. My career involved considerable travel and encounters with a variety of culture and politics, even aside from the voluntary uprooting and hard work of adjusting during the 60 percent of my career spent at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
I have thought about all that as the result of an Israeli film meant to be experienced by academics, and especially those of my generation, and older, having an association with the Hebrew University. I use the term "experience" rather than "enjoy." The film is painful as well as brilliant. The dialogue is Hebrew and the setting Jerusalem, but there are English subtitles. International prizes should help it gain an overseas audience. Here the film is הערת שוליים, and the international version has the direct translation of Footnote.
The plot deals with different kinds of academic careers. One prominent figure is the specialist who plods through ancient texts in a narrow field, concerned to detail only what can be established with the utmost rigor. He produces few publications, has few students, and has received no more recognition than a footnote expressing respect for him in another scholar''s highly specialized publication with few readers. Another figure works in the same field, with more concern to portray insights of wider appeal. His numerous publications and lectures gain him students and recognition not acquired by the first, who is also his father.
Yet another figure is of the father''s generation, whose chance discovery of an obscure document undercut the importance of the plodder''s findings, and reduced the plodder''s career to insignificance.
Involved in the film are father-son dependence and rivalry, academic egos, jealousy, backbiting, and the politics associated with tenure and promotion decisions, as well as the awarding of a high profile academic prize.
The characters bear resemblance to figures I have observed over the course of 35 years. To some extent, the themes and personalities pertain to an older generation. The people I have conjured up after seeing the film are senior academics who came to Palestine or Israel with an ‘Old World’ style of research, along with the insecurities of Jews in pre-war or wartime Europe.
The film touches academic themes with wider relevance. There are downsides to an academic career that have their impacts in the better institutions of North America and Europe as well as Israel. A probationary period of several years and a demanding review of candidates for tenure produce personal insecurity and the pathologies that may be associated with it. Doubts felt on the committees that decide on candidates for hiring or promotion are also painful, although less fateful than the worries experienced by candidates.
Those tensions may be less apparent in institutions of lesser prestige, where tenure comes automatically, to almost everyone hired who manages to avoid the violation of general norms. However, budget limitations have added a constraint to an academic career at all institutions. Temporary positions offering low salaries and fringe benefits, heavy teaching loads, and no chance of tenure now account for 30 percent or more of university and college teaching opportunities in Israel and elsewhere.
The awarding of academic prizes is likely to have elements of politics or a crap shoot everywhere, and is not foreign to the committees that award the Nobels. Barack Obama''s receipt of the Peace Prize is no less bizarre than the story of the Israel Prize told in Footnote.
In keeping with its focus on senior professors at a distinguished university, the film does not concern itself with students. There is no attention to the worries involved in gaining acceptance to the school of one''s choice, the social insecurities of later adolescence, temptations to cheat, or the quandaries of choosing a course of study that will be rewarding intellectually as well as functional economically. One can find all of those phenomena on Israeli campuses. However, there are no competitive athletics associated with Israeli universities. Most students come to campus after two or three years as the property of the IDF. They apply to the department in which they choose to study, and gain entrance almost exclusively on the basis of a nation-wide examination.
Life is good in the thin slice of academia portrayed in Footnote, but not entirely so.