Marjorie Garber. Princeton Univ, $18.95 (179p), ISBN 0-691-04970-X

If leftist critics bash universities as sports crazy and profit mad, right-wingers often depict them as more interested in trendy multiculturalism than classic truths. How refreshing, then, to have Garber's perspective, according to which neither the left nor the right is asking the pertinent questions. Garber (Sex and Real Estate; Dog Love; etc.), a Harvard English professor, thinks like a cultural anthropologist as she looks beyond the surface products of academe and studies what academicians really do. The most effective of them, she finds, are "professional amateurs"; she offers the case of Harold Bloom, originally the author of footnote-encrusted, hard-to-read texts on Romantic poets and now an accessible authority on virtually everything literary. The various disciplines, too, are at their best when they push beyond their narrow boundaries, because "their desire is for genius, and genius... does not follow given rules or tread familiar paths." Disciplines keep a close eye on each other, writes Garber, both out of envy as well as the desire to commingle, as the great philosophers do with important figures of the past in Raphael's painting of The School of Athens. Recognizing this transcendent urge on the part of both the individual scholar and the various disciplines makes Garber much more sympathetic to jargon than other contemporary writers on academe, describing harsh-seeming technical terms as "language in action." Liberally sprinkling her prose with names ranging from Kierkegaard to Oprah Winfrey, Garber suggests that smugness and stasis are the real enemies in academe, not football and political correctness. The professor's life is not a position but a practice, and Garber practices, with gusto, everything that she preaches. Even better, she does so with commendable brevity as well as grace, and anyone interested in academic life or intellectual life in general will appreciate her fresh perspective. (Jan.)