The response to a trial-balloon issue of Lingua franca, the independent-minded, idiosyncratic and tweaky new "review of academic life," was apparently enthusiastic enough that regular publication can begin.

The first (December) issue deals with the uncomfortable topic of academic deadwood: the scholarly coasters and dodderers who inhabit the impregnable cone of tenure. Jon Wiener looks at efforts to weed them out by reforming (and thus violating) the tenure system at a few universities, including the University of Arizona and his own institution, Cal State Irvine. Having made the problem seem serious enough to fix, Wiener comes away unimpressed by the existing remedies.

In another article, the pseudonymous Chris Altacruise gives a thrashing to the already (and sufficiently?) well-thrashed master of fine arts programs in creative writing, which now number 328 in the United States and Canada. The proof of their baleful influence on literature, Altacruise says, is in the graduates' all-too-consistent pudding: "emotional restraint and a lack of linguistic idiosyncrasy; no vision, just voice; no fictional world of substance and variety, just a smooth surface of diaristic, autobiographical and confessional speech." A chart showing which swell young writers graduated from which programs speaks eloquently to Altacruise's point.

Lingua franca is full of intriguing windows on the scholarly world, windows non-scholars would find informative or amusing too: In "L'Isle de Gilligan" (a Dissent reprint), Brian Morton explores this "master-narrative of imprisonment, escape, and reimprisonment which eerily encodes a Lacanian construct of compulsive reenactment within a Foucaultian scenario of a panoptic social order in which resistance to power is merely one of the forms assumed by power itself."

The magazine's extensive publishing notes tell us why history monographs are not selling like they used to, what editors are looking to see books written on, and what research materials are going unprobed. Only higher-education junkies, probably, will care about the academic pensions thicket or Lingua franca's regular listings of who's been tenured where.

The magazine is brainy and likable, even if it displays crypto-conservative sensibilities and verges on the precious. For a six-issue subscription ($17.95), write Lingua franca, Suite 2245, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10160-0901.

Grassy Knoll Department

The people who bring you American Heritage are full of clever ideas, the latest of which was to ask prominent historians to identify the one mystery in U.S. history they'd most like to see resolved.

The replies are a mosaic of curiosity. There are, first, the lasting imponderables of personal motivation: James MacGregor Burns wonders why James Madison changed his tune about the Bill of Rights. George M. Frederickson is undecided about how racially progressive Abraham Lincoln would have been had he lived. Robert H. Ferrell still can't understand why a seriously ill FDR in his last term behaved as though he were immortal.

And there are questions foiled by evidence, or lack of it: Did Thomas Jefferson sire children by his slave Sally Hemings? (Thomas Fleming) Who really shot Huey Long? (Ken Burns) Could Francis Scott Key really have seen that tattered banner eight miles away? (Walter Lord)

Conspiracies do tantalize. Jacques Barzun still nurses the suspicion that secretary of war Edwin M. Stanton conspired in the assassination of his president, Lincoln. Charles O'Neill thinks the full story behind White House pressure to launch the space shuttle Challenger has yet to be told. Francis Steegmuller's question seems rhetorical: How did Kurt Waldheim come to be cleared by the CIA before he became secretary general of the United Nations?

J.C. Furnas, for his part, still tosses and turns over conflicting theories about the origins of the hamburger.

Also in this December issue of American Heritage -- and characteristic of its own catholic curiosities -- how the "new math" debacle happened; O. Henry's Manhattan; William Leuchtenburg interviews Mario Cuomo about Abraham Lincoln; ode to the electric toaster; and classic American jigsaw puzzles. One year (eight issues), $27: American Heritage, 60 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10114-0402.

Five Easy Pieces

Joseph Nocera, in the Dec. 24 New Republic, writes penetratingly about the rise and fall in just four years of Spy. Nocera ably -- and pitilessly -- twines the scabrous magazine's business trajectory (after a spectacular climb, it now points steeply earthward) and its satirical posture (once an antidote to '80s vanity and excess, Spy now reminds a sheepish era of a malice that seems of a piece with its target)... .

Vanity Fair for January is a bouquet of profiles, the best of which are Marie Brenner on the inscrutable David Dinkins and Bob Colacello on the unsinkable George Hamilton. Dominick Dunne's eye captures the glazed, robotic temperament of Jordan's Queen Noor-al-Hussein, but still he bows deeply in homage... .

In "Ending the Cold War at Home" (Foreign Policy, winter), Morton H. Halperin and Jeanne M. Woods invite a closer look at those repressive statutes and invasive institutions of the U.S. national security state that resemble (if more subtly) those that were overthrown in Eastern Europe a year ago... .

Now that Mother Earth News has finally bitten the dust, the folks the magazine left behind when it decamped North Carolina are looking for prodigal subscribers to come home -- to Back Home ("Hands-on & Down-to-Earth"). One year (four issues), $16: Back Home, P.O. Box 370-H, Mountain Home, N.C. 28758 ...

The biweekly gay and lesbian news magazine the Advocate (Dec. 18) has named its first woman and man of the year: Urvashi Vaid, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and Robert Mapplethorpe, the deceased photographer whose work has been at the center of 1990's censorship struggles... .