This is another draft of an essay for the North Dakota Quarterly blog and a case study for what happens when you have to clean up from a major thunderstorm while jet lagged. Comments, critiques, or ridicule welcome, as always!
I had been home from my summer field work for about 24 hours when I found myself in our yard, cleaning up branches from a major summer thunderstorm. For the next five or six days, I watched pick-up trucks full of fallen limbs, brush, and other debris transport their crumpled cargos to the local green-waste disposal site. I filled my 2003 Ford F-150 up with branches as well and hauled them out of my yard. In times like this, I appreciated the utility of the American half-ton pick-up truck and celebrated their ubiquity in my small town in North Dakota.
I recognize, of course, that this is not a popular position to have. Trucks are inefficient vehicles in the best of circumstances. The get miserable gas milage, their size and weight is unnecessary for grocery store runs, the daily commute, or finding parking in a crowded Starbucks, and their design language embodies a kind of hyper masculinity that puts brute strength before all subtlety in an increasingly complex world. Moreover, they’re not particular fun to drive, they don’t typically involve the latest and greatest in automotive technology, and they are designed around predictability and persistence. They’re boring and ubiquitous, and perhaps this accounts for widespread availability of parts and accessories to customize these vehicles. I can’t and won’t deny that my truck is boring, inefficient, and vulgar, but I do love it.
I also appreciate the willingness of truck owners to take on part of the collective guilt in society in the name of a kind of situational utility. After a big storm, few would doubt the utility of the truck and value of local truck owners. When it comes time to move, pick up that big purchase at a local store, load up on mulch, buy wood for rebuilding a deck, or any of the other suburban, middle class chores that seem to never end, the neighbor’s truck becomes a community resource. When weather disasters attract national attention, there’s the ironic celebration of monster or lifted-truck owners who bring their absurd vehicles to the rescue of beleaguered suburbanites, who invariably drive lesser vehicles or hybrids. Truck drivers, in some ways, have become inverted scapegoats for their communities. They contribute during moments of particular need or crisis, but otherwise endure the criticism for their outsized and outmoded vehicles.
As a university professor, in the humanities, at a state university, I’m pretty comfortable holding an position that is unpopular among a sizable part of the population (although probably the same part of the population who also own more than their share of trucks). In contrast to the noble truck, in the absence of crisis, humanities faculty are politely ignored and is, at worst, seen by critics as a harmless concession to tradition, and, at best, as a useful way to prepare students for the complexities of everyday life. During times of financial or ideological crisis, however, humanities faculty become the scapegoats for perceived problems in higher education or, more broadly, the profligacy of obsolete public institutions that peddle in useless factoids or convoluted theorizing of limited practical value.