When Carol Gilligan published In
When Carol Gilligan published In a Different Voice in 1982, she created what might be called the Woman-as-Victim Industry. Arguing that the moral reasoning of men and women differs dramatically--that men operate according to "an ethics of justice" and women operate according to "an ethics of care"--Gilligan suggested that women's morality was at once more nurturing and more self-limiting. Because women's nurturing morality typically privileges a concern for others and a desire not to cause pain, women often avoid conflict, suppress emotions, and silence themselves. Although Gilligan's findings were based on research that she refused to publish and that others have not been able to replicate, the book nonetheless became a major cultural force. Over the last twenty years, it has galvanized campus feminism (think: women's studies programs, campus women's centers, sexual harassment policies, speech codes), it has inspired scads of pop psychology books about the pain of being a woman in a patriarchal culture (think: The Beauty Myth and Reviving Ophelia), it has inspired studies (think: the AAUW's 1991 report "Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America"), it has garnered massive financial support (think: Jane Fonda's $12.5 million gift to Harvard for the founding of a center on gender inequity in education), it has justified law (think: the 1994 Gender Equity Act in Education), it has led to "backlash" (think: the hostile reception of Christina Hoff Sommers's The War Against Boys), and it has also led to lots of subsequent work by Gilligan on the agonies of female adolescence and the educational disadvantages of girls (newsflash: Gilligan's latest, The Birth of Pleasure, is coming soon to a bookstore near you). Not enough money can be thrown at the idea that girls are traumatized by adolescence; nor can the damage this traumatic time does to women's self-esteem be emphasized enough.
Maybe that's why The New York Times is running a promotional puff piece on Gilligan right now. In recent weeks, several books and articles have appeared that suggest there is more to the problem of girls' self-esteem than meets the feminist eye. Phyllis Chesler's Woman's Inhumanity to Woman documents the nastiness that frequently permeates women's relationships with other women, Margaret Talbot's February 24 NYT piece "Girls Just Want To Be Mean" discusses in lengthy detail new research into the cruelty of girls, who it turns out are just as aggressive as boys are, but far more subtle and far more malicious. Where boys throw punches, girls gossip, backstab, exclude, and betray. On the pop psychology front, the workings of girl-on-girl aggression are described in Rosalind Wiseman's Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence, Rachel Simmons' Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, and Emily White's Fast Girls: Teenage Tribes and the Myth of the Slut. Taken together, these accounts don't report anything new; instead, they simply speak up about something many, many women know from personal experience to be all too true. But in doing so, they are also, implicitly and inevitably, speaking out against the prevailing concept of adolescent girls as wounded, weakened beings, a concept we owe ultimately to Gilligan.
And so The New York Times, ever a staunch fan of Gilligan's work, runs a little reminder that the truth about girls still lies with Gilligan. Girls may have closed the "gender gap" in education, and schools all across the country may be setting up programs to manage the damage girls do to one another (Talbot's article gives a good summary of these efforts), but we should always remember and never forget the crippling reality of female adolescence. When asked what she made of the phenomenon of the Alpha Girl, the mean queen bee who determines, often arbitrarily, always brutally, other girls' status, Gilligan replied that this is "the opposite of assertiveness .... this is a girl who has lost her voice. What you realize when you read about this is that it's all about some external standard. There's no voice coming from within." The Times article ends on that note, as if Gilligan's easy dismissal of the new work on female aggression made perfect sense, as if there were no problem with redescribing girl bullies as girl victims, as if a theoretical absence of self-esteem excuses real misbehavior. Gilligan, it is clear, is the last, best word on girls, no matter what.
But why? What I can't understand is why so many people can't seem to see that the narrative of girls' poor self-esteem is just that: a narrative. Gilligan never gave us stats to back up her original claims, and there are plenty of stats today to show that if anybody is in trouble in the self-esteem department, it's boys. But still we cling to the concept of the fragile, downtrodden girl, despite the ample evidence of our own lives that it is puberty, not patriarchy, that makes the teenage years so hard, and that girls do unto girls at least as much harm as boys, if not more. It's hard to see why the concept would be so desirable to so many women, and why more women would not leap at the opportunity provided by Christina Hoff Sommers and others to reject the idea that they are singularly unequipped to cope with life or succeed in the world. Unless such women are somehow flattered by the image of themselves as inadequate; unless they find in their victimhood an opportunity not to become fully accountable adults. Some women will pay a lot for the privileges of scientifically-certified oppression--just look at Jane Fonda.
March 30, 2002
Stanley Fish's most recent contribution
Stanley Fish's most recent contribution to The Chronicle of Higher Education, "Is Everything Political?," should be required reading for all administrators, faculty, and students--especially faculty and grad students in the humanities. In this short, hardhitting column, Fish destroys what has become, on too many campuses, a sort of pseudo-intellectual rationalization for not thinking well and not doing one's job, showing how the phrase "everything is political" is actually a self-negating claim that does nothing to advance argument, raise consciousness, provoke thought, or teach ethics. Why is Fish interested in such a lame claim? Because even though its lameness should be obvious--if "everything" is political, than everything might as well not be political; if "everything" is political, then important distinctions between kinds of things and kinds of acts, between contexts and behaviors and beliefs, disappear; if "everything" is political, then politics itself gets emptied out--the notion that everything is political holds tremendous sway on campuses.
What kind of sway? Thought control, for one. Fish links the prevailing idea that "everything is political" to the administrative debacles about student and faculty speech in the wake of 9/11, pointing out that admins who make it their business to adjudicate sensitivity, who punish or censure those who express unpopular beliefs, are not doing their job. The "everything is political" thesis also causes great confusion among students and faculty about the difference between being a scholar, a teacher, or a student, and being an activist. Fish is delightfully clear on a point that seems to give folks in the humanities no end of trouble, and he is uncompromising in his commentary about the all-too muddled concept of the "scholarship of engagement." "Literary criticism and partisan politics are both political in this general sense -- any style of their performance will be controversial in the field -- but the point of the one is to produce a true account of a poem, while the point of the second is to win elections. If you mix them up and try for an account of a poem that will help a favored candidate or advance a political cause (unlikely but possible scenarios), you will only be pretending to practice literary criticism, and you will be exploiting for partisan purposes the discipline in whose name you supposedly act," Fish writes, adding that "This is more than a logical point; it is a point about bad academic practices and the sloppy thinking that accompanies them."
It's no accident that administrators and literary critics are the folks who fare worst in Fish's essay: where admins are notorious careerists who routinely abdicate their tougher responsibilities for the short-term crowd-pleasing gains of public relations, the people over in English have ridden the "everything is political" wave longer and harder than just about anyone else on campus. In fact, English has the dubious distinction of being the one academic discipline whose practitioners are by and large frankly embarrassed to be practising it. As anyone who has worked or studied in an English department for any length of time can tell you, traditional literary study--and traditional literary scholars--are the bane of the field's existence. Why? Because they are apolitical. They do not accept the governing, central, unassailable truth about the world: that everything is political. With the help of the Jamesons and Foucaults and Althussers and Spivaks of the world, English departments sold their souls during the 1980s (they mortgaged it during the 60s), and have spent the intervening years desperately trying to prove to themselves that they are socially relevant, that they are the radical interrogators of oppression and the transgressive theorists of progress, that they are the subversive instigators of truly enlightened thought, that they are uniquely equipped to describe the workings of power and resistance and desire, that they are the vanguard of ideological demystification, that they are, in short, so much more than mere literary critics, that they are, indeed, political, and that everything they do, and say, and think, is political too. "Being political" is increasingly how English departments, particularly in their younger constituencies, in their junior faculty and their graduate students, justify their existence to themselves. It's peculiarly self-hating and self-defeating behavior; it's hard to imagine literary study surviving far into the future when more and more members of English departments don't even really read literature, let alone value it.
All this is to say that as right as Fish is about the anti-intellectualism of the "everything is political" stance, it is nonetheless a stance that certain people in certain corners of the university are deeply invested in, a stance to which they have committed themselves for upwards of a generation now. The people in English, for instance, can't throw the stance off like an unbecoming hat or a pair of shoes that pinch. It's what they know, and it's who they are. Take it away, and they cease to exist.
March 29, 2002
Growing up in Indiana, as
Growing up in Indiana, as I did, you notice a few things about the place. It's beautiful. The people are friendly, overweight, and overwhelmingly Republican. They are called Hoosiers. Basketball is a religion. There is no cappucino (or at least there wasn't until a couple of years ago), and there is a southern twang to Indiana speech. You also notice that Indiana has made some embarrassing contributions to U.S. culture over the years--Michael Jackson, Dan Quayle, Bobby Knight, the Klan. The Klan? One of Indiana's dirty little secrets: it was the KKK capital of the U.S. during the twenties. The Klan was a sort of insular, insulating social glue in Indiana after WWI--it brought together native-born white Protestants from all economic and social levels, and it united them against Catholics, Jews, blacks, alcohol, and immorality in general. Corruption from within destroyed the Klan's power by the mid-twenties, but the memory of Indiana's Klan period lingers on--not so much as a memory of events, but as a set of national assumptions about what Indiana is like. I encounter those assumptions whenever I tell a hip, worldly West Coaster or East Coaster that I am from Indiana. Eyes widen, mouths grimace, shudders may commence. "How can you be from there?" they ask, all attention and empathy for my warped beginnings. These are typically people who profess great tolerance for difference, and who wear their love of diversity like a membership badge, or a medal. Which brings me to the point of my blog.
In recent weeks, there has been a furor at Indiana University's Bloomington campus about a mural painted by Thomas Hart Benton for the State of Indiana Exhibit at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair. The mural features scenes from Indiana history, and in one panel, amid figures of reporters and farmers and mechanics, a white nurse tends to two children, one black and one white, and a few robed Klan members dance before a burning cross. Benton's aim was to cover as honestly as he could both the good and the bad of Indiana history; at the time, his inclusion of the nurse and Klan images was considered quite daring and progressive. Now the Black Student Union is protesting the mural, saying that it makes them feel unwelcome, that it creates a hostile learning environment, and that it typifies the "institutionalized racism" at IU. The University's response? Utter drooling abasement in the face if what has become the most potent--and predictable, and dishonest, and downright dull--weapon of the campus left: the accusation of racism.
Chancellor Sharon Stephens Brehm has prostrated herself, and her university's budget, before these accusations, and just this week laid out a three-point plan for reparation (note the noun: the argument in favor of paying blacks reparations for slavery gains credence and credibility from actions like Brehm's). Reparative point one: All groups meeting in the classroom where the mural hangs are required to be educated about it, lest it do damage to the unprepared. It reminds me of chemistry class, where you have to be trained how to protect yourself from toxic substances before you can enter the lab. Perhaps they should issue protective goggles to everyone coming within eyeshot of the mural. Reparative point two: IU will create a "One for Diversity Fund," which will raise money for more "diverse" art on IU's campus, "art that will celebrate, recognize and memorialize the multicultural past and present of both Indiana and Indiana University, as well as the importance of diversity for education." The fund will also allow IU to "strengthen [its] commitment to multicultural artists by commissioning their work, hiring them on our faculty, and inviting them to campus for exhibits and conferences." Tokenism, anyone? Reparative point three: more affirmative action, more classes on issues pertaining to diversity, and mandatory sensitivity training in all summer orientation plans. We wouldn't want any incoming students to think IU actually condoned the behavior of the KKK, now, would we? After all, it's such a real possibility.
To IU's credit, the administration refused to simply take the mural down (despite the BSU's threat to do "whatever it takes" to get rid of the mural). But to the administration's discredit it overcompensated for its principled decision not to remove the mural by showering the disgruntled with money and praise. I wonder if future murals of Indiana history will feature white administrators cowering on their knees before militant student groups? And I wonder if IU's administrators realize--if they are capable of realizing--how much they just contributed to Indiana's unfortunate historical role as national embarrassment?
March 28, 2002
Mark your calendar: April 4
Mark your calendar: April 4 is the nation-wide Student-Labor Action Day. In honor of A4, Graduate Employees Together -- UPenn (GET-UP), will be co-sponsoring a teach-in on the corporatization of the university. The event, which focuses on "issues facing students and faculty in the face of a national trend toward treating education as a commodity and the university as a business," crowns GET-UP's year-long push to unionize graduate students at Penn, a push that is itself taking place alongside many similar efforts at other private institutions across the country. (For a little history on this, as well as for a clear articulation of the pro-union platform, see Gordon Lafer's "Graduate Student Unions Fight the Corporate University" in a recent issues of Dissent Magazine.) On the surface, this all seems fairly innocuous and deliciously Marxian; on the surface it seems only right that the notoriously beknighted population of impoverished graduate students at an elite Ivy League institution would join together to resist exploitation at the hands of the massive corporation that is Penn. After all, they provide the cheap labor that lets the university turn its terrific profits; they are the anonymous workers of the academic world who have nothing to lose but their chains. Right? Wrong.
Grad student unions depend on a definition of the grad student as an employee of the university. And this is where the superficially unimpeachable logic of the pro-union argument breaks down. Certainly, most grad students spend some time teaching in classrooms or working in labs or simply doing the repetitive grunt work of grading. And yes, as part of their support package they are paid for the time they spend at these activities. Does this make them employees? Not necessarily. Consider, again, the case of English, which I discuss here because it is what I know best, and because it is what I discussed yesterday in terms relevant to today's blog. I noted yesterday, in my discussion of how Ph.D.-granting institutions typically staff freshman English courses, that grad students in English do the bulk of that teaching, and that they are assigned to do that teaching by virtue of their status (yes, status) as graduate students in the English department. In other words, they do not apply for the job. They do not interview for it. They do not demonstrate basic competence in the skills required to do the job (knowledge of grammar, understanding of the mechanics of argument, understanding of the goal of the composition classroom or the debates within the field of composition). They do not even have to have any prior experience dealing with students. Instead, they learn--or not--on the job. They are given groups of unsuspecting freshman on whom to practice--freshmen who, it is cynically imagined by the powers that be, will not realize that they are being practiced on, and will not thus report the fact to their tuition-paying parents.
Don't get me wrong--this is often a mutually beneficial arrangement in which grad students learn to teach while at the same time actually doing real teaching. When it works, both the student teacher and the student come away from freshman English with new knowledge and enhanced skills. But I would not call this arrangement one in which a university employee is exploited, in which s/he is overworked, underpaid, and inadequately insured in order to pad the pockets of the powerful. What would I call it? Apprenticeship. Which is exactly what administrations have been arguing in the face of grad student unions, who reject the term as a pejorative paternalistic cover for the true economic relations between graduate student teachers (labor) and their institutional employers (capital).
Most administrators have, to my mind, been remarkably tactful in the face of such arguments. At Penn, for example, Deputy Provost Peter Conn has painstakingly attempted to explain to GET-UP why he thinks graduate student unions are a bad idea--how it will create more problems than it will solve, and how it erodes the graduate student's identity as a student and, in many cases, as an apprentice to an academic career. Conn has gotten a lot of flak for his trouble, much of it from grad students in his own home department (which is--surprise, surprise--English!). But I back him fully on this. It wasn't so long ago that I was a graduate student myself. And it seemed to me then as it seems to me now, that the idea of a grad student union rests on a sadly misguided view of what it is to be a graduate student. At a place like Penn, where, for example, teaching two sections of freshman English a year (which comes to about 8-10 hours per week) gets you a livable stipend and a tuition waiver, it misdescribes the privilege--and, yes, honor--of studying full time toward an advanced degree at an elite institution as exploitation at the hands of the oppressor. But it's exploitation only if you see your graduate student years not as a rite of passage but as a way of life. It's exploitation only if you can somehow imagine that the university owes you when in reality you owe it. This is not to deny that the life of the graduate student is economically uncomfortable, or that grad students deserve better health care for less money, or that some schools pay students too little while demanding too much. But it is to say that the union route depletes the dignity of graduate students in the name of empowering them.
The place of the English department's graduate students in producing and sustaining the union mentality at Penn is material for another blog--but let me simply conclude here by observing that English grad students have plastered their offices and lounge with posters featuring the question, "Are You Being Conned?" -- an act of "consciousness raising" that mocks, and arguably libels, one of the most accomplished and honorable senior members of their own department.
March 27, 2002
The Chronicle of Higher Education
The Chronicle of Higher Education has an odd habit of printing feel-good personal essays that, when read closely, chill one to the bone with their blithe naivete and their inability to see the implications of their position. Such a one is this week's column by James M. Jasper, "Why So Many Academics Are Lousy Writers." The essay purports to be a gentle analysis of why so much academic writing is bad--so gentle that the noble reader will not feel personally implicated in its operative premise, will not feel attacked as a bad writer, but can instead sit back with Jasper, nod knowingly and conspiratorially ("Yes, my boy, academic writing is rather awful, now that you mention it"), and muse along with him about the possible causes for this pervasive yet unacknowledged problem ("What can it be, do you suppose? Is it the corporatization of the university? Is it hegemony? Our interpellation as discursively-transcoded subjects?").
To his credit, Jasper steers clear of such absurd explanations (explanations that carry real weight, I should add, in certain politicized corners of the university). Academics are lousy writers, Jasper suggests, because no one has ever told them they need to work on their writing. He uses himself as an example, pointing out how at every stage of his career, from student onward, he has flattered himself, as so many of us do, that he is a fine writer indeed; how this self-flattery grew not out of positive knowledge, but out of the absence of criticism; and how, at several points in his career, he has been lucky enough to encounter teachers, editors, and colleagues who take the time to show him a thing or two, and so help him improve a product he had not realized was lacking. It's a sweet essay, as far as it goes, with a useful reminder that we should all, always, be looking to sharpen our writing, and that we should never simply assume our writing is good, or even merely acceptable, just because we don't hear arguments to the contrary. But it's also a disturbingly blinkered essay, one that resolutely refuses to name the pedagogical malpractice it is describing for what it is.
Let's redescribe the problem. Why do so many academics write so poorly? Because their teachers did not teach them to write well. They did not do their job. And because they did not do their job, they produced students who could not write--some of whom went on to become academics who not only did not teach their own students to write well, but could not, for the simple reason that they did not know good writing from bad. It's one thing when this happens in the sciences. It would be lovely if all chemists described their work in melodious, pristine prose, and the world of chemistry would certainly be a better place for it if they could. But science still goes on in the absence of clear expression. Writing is important to science, but it is not identical to it. Writing is not what science is, or what it studies. The situation is far different in the humanities, however, especially in English, where writing is the content and the form of both the curriculum and of the career. An English major reads literature and writes papers about it. An English professor reads literature (sometimes) and writes books and articles about it. Writing is not incidental to the study of literature or to the profession of letters--and yet English majors are, as a group, notoriously not good writers, while scholarly writing in the humanities is by and large jargon-ridden, clunky, obscure, and ugly stuff. The situation in English is disturbing, for it suggests that the main business of that department--to teach students how to express themselves clearly and forcefully in writing--is not only not getting done, but is not particularly valued by those whose job it is to do it.
A case in point: freshman writing. At Ph.D.-granting institutions, 96% of freshman English classes are taught by graduate students (the overwhelming majority of whom hail from English). Many of these grad students are only a year or two out of college; very few have more than a year or two of teaching experience; many have never taken freshman English themselves (having tested out); most are learning on the job, with little or no training beforehand; most have no interest in becoming teachers of writing--they want to become professors of literature, and leave the writing courses to future generations of grad students; many thus use the freshman English classroom to practice teaching literature rather than to teach the elements of composition. More to the point: no one ascertains that the grad students who are assigned to teach freshman writing can indeed write. No one checks to see if they know a dangling participle when they see one, or if they can make their subjects and verbs agree, or if they can write in the active voice, or if they understand the mechanics of sentences and paragraphs. It is assumed, for the purposes of staffing (this is a cheap and plentiful pool of teachers), that enrollment in a Ph.D. program with satisfactory completion of requirements therein is itself qualification for teaching writing. It is not. To put it bluntly: English departments leave the teaching of writing not only to students who have not demonstrated their qualifications in that arena, but who are, with few exceptions, not being taught to write by their professors, who either cannot recognize the problems with their grad students' writing, or do not see it as their job to descend from the lofty heights of idea to the low, dull level of grammar and syntax. There are exceptions, of course--but what I have just sketched out is the rule.
Jasper's kinder, gentler commentary on lousy academic writing can only seem kinder and gentler if we think of writing narrowly, as something scholars do for other scholars, rather than as something scholars ought themselves to be teaching. The case of English is a telling one in this regard. This is the department that lays claim to language like no other, that makes its case for itself by touting its ability to impart the ability to read and write. But this is also a department where the faculty do not themselves reliably cultivate clarity or grace of expression, and where the arduous work of teaching writing is first dumped into the ghetto of composition (as if literature classes could not also be courses in writing), and then shoved into the ill-prepared hands of graduate students who are expected to teach writing without ever having first been taught it.
March 26, 2002
Some events of note: Duke
Some events of note:
- Duke and Ohio Wesleyan continue academe's fine recent tradition of legislating matters of private conscience by creating policies condemning student-professor relationships.
- The media--and FIRE--are all over West Virginia University for its unconstitutional speech code. There are two small "zones" on WVU's campus where free speech is permitted. Each is about the size of a classroom, though there are 22,000 students at the school. The rest of the campus operates according to a strictly enforced speech code--outside the zone, you can't express dissent, or even pass out flyers, especially if you are conservative. As FIRE points out, such restrictions, not to mention double standards, are illegal at a public, state-supported school.
- The College Board is gearing up to revamp the SAT. The rationale behind the decision is complex and has a long history, but basically comes down to this: minority students don't do as well on the present exam as college admissions boards would like. And so, at a moment when affirmative action is under threat, considerable energy is being spent trying to work out a way to engineer higher scores--and thus higher admission rates--for minority students. The idea is that changing the SAT from an aptitude test to an achievement test (i.e., measuring not a student's capacity to learn but measuring what s/he has already learned) will make it easier to teach toward the test in high schools, and so produce higher scores for groups that have traditionally scored poorly on the SAT. The main push behind this move came last year, when Richard Atkinson, president of the University of California, proposed dropping the SAT from admissions requirements--a suggestion that was read as an attempt to circumvent Proposition 209, which forbade California's public colleges from using racial preferences as admissions criteria. For a couple different takes on this development, check out the disturbingly bland coverage in the New York Times and compare it with Stanley Kurtz's uncompromising critique of both the College Board's decision and the soft coverage it has received elsewhere. Kurtz's column builds on a stunning piece he wrote last year about the relationship between affirmative action and academic postmodernism. The situation raises some disturbing questions. Has America sold its soul--and its economic and cultural future--to an impossible ideal of diversity? Are universities now in the business of engineering model communities rather than educating? The fact that these questions cannot even be safely asked on campus today, let alone freely debated, speaks for itself.
March 25, 2002
In this week's Chronicle of
In this week's Chronicle of Higher Education, an editorial by Naomi J. Miller entitled "Following Your Scholarly Passions" suggests that the best way to survive in an academic climate that rewards conformity and punishes originality is, paradoxically, to write about what you love. Miller, an associate professor of English and Women's Studies at the University of Arizona, succinctly captures the defining problem of making it in academe: "Even as we are working to produce that original dissertation or breathtaking first scholarly book or scientific study, we are subjected to the pressure cooker of academic evaluation, in which a given number of citations or publications with a given university press spells success, and straying too far from the norms spells likely doom .... Realistically, what that means is that the academic system does not foster or encourage truly original work." She goes on to note that this tends to produce graduate students and junior faculty who are less invested in pursuing (or even identifying) what interests them than in leaping aboard the latest trend, and suggests that this is a recipe for personal and professional disaster: "If you ignore your heart and attempt to focus your research instead on hot trends, the pressure of the market can cause you to lose your mind, even your soul." Miller's solution: do what she did. Weave together your passions and your work, and do research on something that speaks to you personally. Miller uses herself as an example, explaining that as a Renaissance scholar who is also the mother of four children, she has written books on Renaissance representations of motherhood, and, more recently, on Shakespeare for children. Her colleagues have mocked her as both a person and a scholar, wondering if, as a mother of four, she might be a member of a cult, and dissuading graduate students from taking her courses because she is not, to their mind, a serious scholar. But that doesn't matter, because she has achieved personal and professional fulfillment by writing about topics that are close to her heart.
The editorial means to be a heartwarming, encouraging piece on intellectual independence, and aims in particular to offer supportive career advice to graduate students and junior faculty in the humanities. But it is actually a chilling indictment of the closedmindedness of the humanities today, with its anti-family mode of feminism and its nasty habit of using students to shore up faculty alliances, one that is all the more heartbreaking for its author's apparent belief that such intolerable treatment by her colleagues--the mockery, the slander, the ostracism--is a fair price for her putative intellectual freedom.
March 24, 2002
Just in time for Women's
Just in time for Women's History Month, here's a report from the Independent Women's Forum on how women's studies textbooks miseducate students. Divided into three sections--"Errors of Fact," "Errors of Interpretation," and "Sins of Omission"--the report shows how core women's studies texts manipulate students by creating and perpetuating a variety of misconceptions about such central women's issues as the wage gap, the frequency of rape and domestic violence, and the much-touted educational bias against women. Explaining that the survival of women's studies as a discipline depends on maintaining the feeling of urgency that originally animated the women's movement, the report documents how, in the name of "transforming knowledge," women's studies essentially sacrifices its educational responsibilites to an ideologically narrow, ethically fraught politics of self interest. (Lest knees begin jerking now in some academic quarters--and I feel sure that they will--I urge those who think this study reeks of anti-feminist misogyny to read the report first and form judgements later.)
The report follows the IWF's publication of an ad in several college newspapers last May. Entitled "Take Back the Campus," the ad attempted to do for feminism what David Horowitz had done for the reparations argument: it sought to demystify the idea of women's oppression by debunking ten commonly held "facts" as feminist mythography. The ad ran at Princeton and Yale without much fuss. But at UCLA all hell broke loose when women students joined in protest, demanding an apology from the Daily Bruin, denouncing the editors' decision to run the ad as cowardly, and denouncing the ad itself as hostile and damaging. The group was led by Christie Scott, a double major in women's studies and American literature and culture, who said that she found the ad "extreme," "hateful," "violent," and full of "vague accusations." "A lot of the facts are slanderous or demeaning," she said. That last one is worth thinking about. Question: How can a fact be slanderous or demeaning? How can the truth be untrue? Answer: When it contradicts your ideology or inconveniences your sense of yourself as a victim. Much of the controversy centered around the ad's dismissal of feminism's favorite trump card: the claim that 1 in 4 women is raped in her lifetime. Tina Oakland, director of the UCLA Center for Women and Men and one of the leaders in the protest, defended the 1 in 4 statistic by claiming that it was cited on the websites of the FBI and AMA. She was wrong. And when confronted with her error, she resorted to the exact sort of fanatical doublespeak that the ad sought to expose. "The statistics don't really matter that much in the big picture," she said. "We're just trying to focus on the real issue here .... not bicker about numbers."
March 23, 2002
In a guest column for
In a guest column for David Horowitz's frontpagemag.com, liberal students from The University of Michigan deplore the illiberal climate of their campus. The hostile reception Horowitz received when he spoke there last Tuesday occasions the column, which offers a rare, balanced look at the intolerance and anti-intellectualism that plagues campus liberalism these days (and that does so, following a Marcusean logic that many employ but few can actually identify, in the name of creating tolerance). The authors note the University's habit of inviting to campus only liberal speakers--Donna Shalala, Jonathan Kozol, and reparations activist Randall Robinson have all appeared recently on the University's dime, while Horowitz, who was sponsored by two conservative student groups, did not even warrant an official introduction. And the authors go on to call for greater tolerance on the part of campus liberals, and the wider educational exposure that goes with it. As they rightly point out, if you want to oppose a point of view, you need to know whereof you speak. But left-leaning liberals do not as a rule read the work of conservative thinkers--not even the Nobel laureates--and thus cripple themselves as citizens and as human beings. It's a biased bad habit that is built into the educational system at this point. How many self-professed marxist theorists have ever heard of Friedrich Hayek or Milton Friedman, let alone read them? How many hip deconstructionists have studied John Searle? How many feminists have seriously perused the work of Christina Hoff Sommers or Daphne Patai? How many agitators for reparations have read the work of conservative black scholars such as Thomas Sowell and Shelby Steele--work that not only discounts reparations as unwise and hypocritical, but also opposes affirmative action? Students, check your syllabi and see what's missing. Ask your professors to build a more varied philosophical diet into your curriculum. And when they refuse--as many will do--get thee to the library and do what the best minds always ultimately do: teach yourself.
On a related note, a piece called "Debate? Dissent? Discussion? Oh, Don't Go There!" in today's New York Times does a fine job of describing the tendency of today's undergrads to shy away from intellectual debate, exploring how a desire to display tolerance, a fear of offending, a focus on personal advancement rather than on ideas, and a debilitating relativism all contribute to a kind of insular quiescence that does not bode well for the future of democracy. The article cites some astute observations by Amanda Anderson, Professor of English at John Hopkins and author of the forthcoming The Way We Argue Now. "It's as though there's no distinction between the person and the argument, as though to criticize an argument would be injurious to the person," she notes. "Because so many forms of scholarly inquiry today foreground people's lived experience, there's this kind of odd overtactfulness. In many ways, it's emanating from a good thing, but it's turned into a disabling thing .... To keep democracy vital, it's important that students learn to integrate debate into their lives and see it modeled for them, in a productive way, when they're in school." Wise words from a wise Victorianist. Three cheers, Professor Anderson, for bringing John Stuart Mill to bear on the present moment, and for the cool Trollope reference.
March 22, 2002
Worth reading: Phyllis Chesler's new
Worth reading: Phyllis Chesler's new book, Woman's Inhumanity to Woman. This is one brave truthtelling book and it's bound to ruffle more than a few feminist feathers out there--which is a good and necessary thing. Chesler cuts through the claptrap about women's ways of knowing, female community, and sisterhood that comes hand in hand with so much contemporary feminism--especially in the academy--pointing out instead the naked but strenuously denied truth: that women are often just not very nice at all to one another. They gossip and keep score; they personalize and obsess; they are envious, even malicious, and they create cliques; they are emotionally dishonest, incapable of confrontation or admitting anger while at the same time given to nursing grudges and to passive aggressive behavior. Chesler isn't saying women have a lock on nastiness--it goes without saying that men can be pretty crummy to one another, too. But she is saying that women have a special kind of nastiness--a gendered nastiness, if you will--that they reserve specially for one another. Chesler spends a lot of time talking about mother-daughter relationships and backbiting women friends--all pretty standard stuff if you've ever been female or known someone who is. But where the book really shines, where it gets onto truly forbidden territory, is when it deals with woman's inhumanity to woman at work. It's one thing for women to have catfights at home. But it is quite another thing to suggest that women can't leave it at home, or at least take it outside.
Chesler backs away from the frightening implications of such an observation by arguing that a major reason women act this way is that they are taking out the stress of oppression on one another, that the behavioral patterns that characterize woman's inhumanity to woman are the dysfunctional result of centuries of patriarchy. Maybe, maybe not--but I'm wary of arguments that seek to excuse immature behavior and damaging attitudes by claiming they are the side-effects of victimization, especially when that victimization is increasingly an abstraction for women, increasingly a fact of the past rather than a factor in the present. Regardless, explanations are not excuses, and even if Chesler is right about this one, it doesn't change the most damning truth to emerge from her book: that too many professional women (not all, but enough) either cannot or will not behave themselves when their feelings get involved, when they feel threatened, or jealous, or insecure.
Such self-destructively shortsighted behavior on women's part (I call it shortsighted because I believe your average women in possession of her faculties can, all interpellation and hegemonic forces aside, choose how she comports herself) shows itself all too regularly in woman-centered professional environments. Laura Miller has written a hilarious article for Salon.com called "Women's Ways of Bullying" about her experiences working at a feminist co-operative. Miller is especially apt about how feminist theory seems to produce--or at least enable and excuse--inefficient and unprofessional behavior. More notoriously, and more damningly, Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertge have outlined the structural pathologies currently dominating women's studies departments across the country. Their book, Professing Feminism: Cautionary Tales from the Strange World of Women's Studies, proved their point twice over: not only is it well argued, but it inspired a great deal of woman's inhumanity to woman.
March 21, 2002
Outrage at David Horowitz continues
Outrage at David Horowitz continues at The University of Michigan after his talk Tuesday night was cut short by security. Yesterday UM students rallied against racism and ignorance, stating that "We are here to show a united front against ignorance. It's important to show that the kind of ignorant attitude (seen in Horowitz's lecture) will not be tolerated" and that "This rally is a significant step to let people know that the students of color have allies and that his view is not the only view." Closing out with the chant "I am black and I am proud," the rally--at least as it is reported in The Michigan Daily--exhibits some of the classic confusions of left liberal thought on today's campuses.
- Angry students confused philosophical difference with racism: because Horowitz's point of view about reparations and affirmative action differs from theirs, he must be a racist. It hardly needs saying that this type of slanderous ad hominem logic is itself racist. I don't like your opinions; therefore, you must be evil. Also worth noting: this is an attitude that breeds anger rather than resolving it. Students truly interested in a peaceful campus and a respectfully diverse nation would do well to ask exactly how their pitbull tactics are going to help create that.
- Angry students confuse philosophical difference with ignorance, thus revealing their own ignorance. As one brave soul at the rally pointedly asked: "How many of you have read the books he mentioned? How many of you recognize the people he mentioned last night? .... The point is you can't combat something like this [someone chalking the words "Only niggers want affirmative action" on a campus sidewalk--see Tuesday's entry below] unless you are educated. I want to challenge you to read the authors Horowitz mentioned and realize that history can be twisted and torn up. Without education, you can't say anything about it. Know what you are struggling for. If you don't, then there is not point [sic] of standing out here." Horowitz has solid reasons for his position. They are neither "ignorant" nor "racist." But it sure is convenient to say they are if a) they don't sit comfortably with your own world view; and b) you don't even know what they are.
- Angry students confuse another's free expression with their own forcible silencing--even though they effectively silenced Horowitz Monday night. Horowitz--the first conservative speaker at UM since Ward Connerly, dismantler of affirmative action at the University of California, came in 1998--was asked to end the event after the Q&A session turned ugly. But by yesterday, ralliers were urging students to "keep their heads up high" and to "let the community know that black students have a voice too."
Horowitz describes the evening at frontpagemag.com.
March 20, 2002
Leonard Edelman, a former biology
Leonard Edelman, a former biology professor at Lynchburg College in Virginia, is good to go with his sex discrimination lawsuit thanks to a Supreme Court ruling relaxing certain EEOC protocols for filing grievances. Edelman, who was denied tenure in 1997, claims he lost his job because he is a white man. The college's female dean, he alleges, has been systematically purging men from the faculty. Good luck, Professor Edelman, and may you get a fair hearing.
One skeleton in affirmative action's academic closet is that it turns just about every tenure denial into a potential discrimination suit. Four years ago, two black professors at The University of Michigan were denied tenure--and sued for racial discrimination. At The University of Oregon, UC Davis, UCLA, and a host of other schools, women assistant professors have responded to tenure denial with gender discrimination suits. Still others have charged their institutions with both racial and sexual discrimination when their cases have not been approved (a classic case occurred at UC Berkeley). Edelman's reverse discrimination case is a new variation on the old theme, and I have to say it has been a long time coming. White men in the academy do take it on the nose, especially in the humanities. I've seen more than one white guy's tenure case go south, when there is nothing whatever to differentiate him from his eminently promotable colleagues--except his objectionable status as Historical Oppressor.
I make no claim to judge the merits of these specific cases. I simply note that such lawsuits arise regularly and predictably from a tenure system that is, even when it works well, shrouded in secrecy and clouded by uncertain, often unspecified, eternally shifting standards. And I humbly suggest that as long as the tenure process continues to be structured in such ethically compromised, eminently abusable ways, it will be abused--by the tenured and untenured alike.
March 19, 2002
David Horowitz will speak today
David Horowitz will speak today at The University of Michigan. As part of the university's preparations for his visit, someone chalked these words on the Diag, the main campus footpath: "Only niggers want affirmative action." The Michigan Daily's coverage of this ugly exercise of free expression attributes it to campus tension surrounding the controversial Horowitz's visit. UM's affirmative action policies have been the subject of two high-profile lawsuits in recent months; Horowitz strongly opposes affirmative action. Horowitz's speech, "How the Left Undermined America's Security," will be live on line at 8 pm Eastern time.
Horowitz's visit follows hard on the heels of his most incendiary book to date: Uncivil Wars: The Controversy Over Reparations for Slavery(December 2001). Among other things, the book recounts how Horowitz brought the academic world to its PC knees last year when he ran (or tried to run) an anti-reparations ad in several college newspapers. The Michigan Daily was one of the papers that refused to run Horowitz's ad. Salon.com, which ran an article-length version of the ad in May 2000, covered the uproar with its usual nonpartisan aplomb.
Earlier this month, Uncivil Wars received a vitriolic review in the Brown Daily Herald. The full text of Horowitz's outraged response to the review, which he finds slanderous, is reprinted in FrontPageMagazine.com, which he edits. (The Herald ran a bowdlerized 253 word version.) Worth noting: the Herald was one of the few campus newspapers to publish Horowitz's anti-reparations ad. Also worth noting: when "radical" students suppressed the ad by stealing the entire issue in which it appeared, sixty members of the Brown faculty wrote a letter to the University president applauding their blatantly felonious and unconstitutional behavior. They say a leopard never changes its spots--but apparently the Herald does.
March 18, 2002
"All happy departments are alike.
"All happy departments are alike. All unhappy departments are unhappy in their own way," writes Stanley Fish in his current column for this week's Chronicle of Higher Education. Fish should know--when he isn't channelling Tolstoy he is Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and before that he chaired Duke's English department during its legendary period of spectacular growth (this was followed, during the 90s, by the even more spectacular decimation chronicled in Lingua Franca's article The Department That Fell to Earth). According to Fish, some of the telltale symptoms of departmental malaise are: ongoing quarrels whose origins no one remembers, using procedural questions and "fairness" as a way to avoid confronting substantive issues of mission and personnel, turning a blind eye on the behavior of rogue faculty members who don't do their job and who abuse their authority, and lack of strong leadership. The list goes on, and of course the joke here is that unhappy departments are all alike, and, moreover, that most, if not all, departments are, by these criteria, unhappy and utterly banal to boot. The symptoms of departmental unhappiness that Fish enumerates are the symptoms of bureaucracy, and the real point of the column--never stated, but glaringly obvious nonetheless--is that "the department" itself, as an academic unit, is an inherently flawed, fraught entity. Interesting words from a man whose own style of chairmanship has been likened to "empire-building," and whose present career choices reflect a zest for the bureaucratic culture of academic administration. But, then, who better to paint the flabby devil of departmental pathology than a man who knows him well?
The Washington Post has a nice piece on the overproduction of Ph.D.s. Currently, 42,000 of these things are awarded by American universities each year, despite the impossibly small academic job market. The article devotes particular attention to the overproduction--and devaluation--of the Ph.D. in English, which no longer guarantees such essentials as knowledge of the history of the English language, an understanding of the history of the field, working knowledge of foreign languages, or even knowledge of Shakespeare. If medical schools were granting M.D.s to students without knowledge of anatomy, heads would roll (literally), and things would change. But literature departments, as anyone who has worked or studied in one knows, play by different rules: in many programs, one of the implicit requirements for the Ph.D. in English today is to disavow, on political and methodological grounds, a belief in literary study, and literary value, as it has been traditionally defined.
March 17, 2002
Hot off the press at
Hot off the press at The New York Times is a field report on one of the bloodiest battlegrounds in academe, Columbia University's Department of English. Columbia's English Department has been so torn by the aptly named culture wars, so polarized by internal political factions, that it has been unable to do its own hiring for a number of years--today, only 37 of its 46 professorial slots are filled. The rest languish in the no man's land of ideological impasse, caught between traditionalists who want to hire good old-fashioned literary scholars and trendy radicals who want to see the positions go to people for whom literature is more a platform than a value, for whom it is less a thing of inherent worth than a means of approaching the pet issues of contemporary identity politics (race, class, gender, sexuality, oppression, imperialism, etc.). So paralyzed has the place become that it has finally entrusted hiring to five respected professors from other top-ranked English departments (one of whom is Penn English's own chairman, David Wallace). I sure hope for Columbia's sake that this is going to solve their problems--but I have to say it looks a little bit like using arranged marriage to treat someone who can't form lasting relationships. For more on departmental malfunction in academe, see Lingua Franca's classic "As Bad As It Gets: Three Dark Tales from the Annals of Academic Receivership."
March 16, 2002
Good news: Margaret Gratton, the
Good news: Margaret Gratton, the extremely illiberal president of Orange Coast College, has announced her resignation. During her tenure at OCC, Gratton spearheaded such egregious administrative maneuvers as Professor Kenneth Hearlson's summary suspension last fall after several Muslim students falsely alleged that he called them terrorists. She also failed to initiate disciplinary action against the students when it was finally shown--with the help of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education--that Hearlson had not even come close to saying the things they claimed he said. You can read about Gratton's tenure at OCC, the Hearlson case, and FIRE's role in both at www.thefire.org. Go FIRE, good riddance Gratton, and best wishes to Professor Hearlson. Nobody deserves the libel you've seen.
And here's a keeper from The Onion: Study Finds Sexism Rampant in Nature. From the photo of a manly patriarchal lion mounting his grimacing mate (caption: "One of the millions of lionesses trapped in an abusive relationship") to the fabulous estimate that "in 2001 alone, more than 170 trillion cases of abuse occurred in the world's forests, grasslands, and oceans--all of them unreported," the piece is a satirical tour de force, skewering everything from the now-legendary false rape statistics propagated by Mary Koss, Susan Faludi, Naomi Wolf and others to the ideologically ludicrous work of Catherine MacKinnon, whose idea of feminist emancipation involves depriving straight women of the right to consent by arguing that all heterosex is de facto rape ("Under conditions of male dominance...if sex is something men normally do to women, the issue is less whether there was force than whether consent is a meaningful concept"). Go Onion, and thanks for the reminder that feminism could use a sense of humor.
March 14, 2002
This morning, I read an
This morning, I read an article in this week's Chronicle of Higher Education about Michael Ardis, a former faculty member of Morris College, a small historically black school in South Carolina. Ardis was a popular teacher of criminal justice, an MA with an assistant professorship who had been promised a ride on the tenure track if he completed his Ph.D. by 2003. Now he manages a local Domino's, taking orders and tossing dough till the wee hours. Needless to say, the career move was not a voluntary one. Ardis was summarily fired--or, in administrative doublespeak, "not renewed"--during the winter term of 2000. One moment he was teaching a criminal justice seminar, the next his classroom was invaded by a whistling administrator serving him with his walking papers. Why? As Ardis puts it, "I'm a white man who didn't stay in his place."
Ardis was terminated--in violation of college policies on fair notice--shortly after a college trustee witnessed an altercation between Ardis and a waiter at a local restaurant. The waiter--also a Morris student--failed to fill an order for rolls. When Ardis brought the oversight to the waiter's attention, the waiter accused Ardis of racism. The accusation--which Ardis claims is patently false--quickly travelled the campus grapevine. Three days later, he was informed (such things always take place in the passive voice) that he would not be reappointed. The college claims--as colleges always do when they engage in vigilante purging missions--that Ardis' dismissal had nothing to do with the episode at the restaurant. Needless to say, the fact that the waiter/student has since apologized for his inappropriately volatile behavior has not mattered at all. Neither did the petition students (black students) signed in support of Ardis. Ardis filed a lawsuit for breach of contract that goes to trial this week. The place of racism--by which I mean not Ardis' putative racism, but the racism that fueled the summary dismissal, without cause or proper notice, of a popular, dedicated teacher whose only crime was to be an unapologetic white man--in Ardis' case will never be addressed in the courts.
Ardis' story is terrible enough in itself, but it acquires an eerily overdetermined aura when one realizes that it is simply one case among many, one isolated instance of a larger pattern on American campuses in which a distorted concept of reparative justice licenses a crudely programmatic, even pogrammatic, policing of behavior and punishment of perceived wrongs (emphasis on "perceived"--all that matters in such cases is the wounded party's belief that he or she has been injured). An analogous--though less personally devastating--case arose in New York last month when Candace de Russy, a SUNY trustee, candidly expressed her belief that many black studies departments were politically biased and lacking in rigor and ought therefore to be mainstreamed into more traditional disciplines. Such was the outrage at this blasphemy that The United University Professions, SUNY's 27,000 member faculty and staff union, called for her dismissal from the board. Luckily, Stanley Kurtz had a few choice words to say about that.
Yet another incident occurred last fall, when Barry Shain, a political science professor at Colgate, wrote a private email to a student expressing his belief that "too many students of color are seduced into taking exotic courses that make few demands on them rather than those courses that force them to grow emotionally and intellectually. It seems to me that if students of color graduate with inferior written and analytic skills to those of their white colleagues, Colgate faculty are certainly not serving the needs of all of their students." The email was widely publicized, and even read out loud at a public forum called to discuss what to do about the dastardly and insensitive Professor Shain. There were sit-ins and demands that Shain be sanctioned. In the heat of their lust for thought control and enforced conformity, students even demanded that all faculty receive mandatory sensitivity training. After all, additional hate speech like Shain's has to be prevented at all costs. They forgot to silence Linda Chavez, though. Check out her fine display of free speech on the Colgate case.