About Critical Mass [dot] Writing [dot] Reviews [dot] Contact
May 30, 2002 [feather]
A number of people writing

A number of people writing in Joe Katzman's SFSU Blog Burst have addressed the role of the SFSU administration in allowing anti-Semitic behavior to poison the campus atmosphere. They have noted how equivocal the administration is, how eager it is to define the problem away, how it has invoked the language of tolerance to paper over the rank intolerance exhibited by pro-Palestinian students in recent months, how it has ignored its own policies on hate speech in order to avoid dealing with the fact that the campus was fast becoming an ethnic war zone. I blogged about this aspect of the problem myself on May 17. In this blog I want to focus on a different, more elemental aspect of the problem: the role of fashion in helping to create and sustain campus support for the Palestinian cause.

I will open with this caveat: a great deal of the tolerance that has recently grown up around the Palestinian cause on campuses has less to do with informed political decisionmaking than it does with the desire to be a part of a hip new political trend. That's right: on many campuses, supporting the Palestinian cause is not just the "right thing to do"--it's also the cool thing to do.

This is to me one of the saddest things about the current wave of anti-Semitism. It is not just that Palestinian supporters are continually crossing the line of free expression and entering the realm of threat, hate, and even violence--though that appalls me. It is not even just that so many academics seem to want to use the conflict as an occasion to destroy Israel via divestment--though that appalls me, too. It is the fact that it has become fashionable to support the pro-Palestinian cause. And when a belief or position becomes fashionable on campus, when something becomes, in other words, politically correct, all hell breaks loose. The double standards kick in--the people on the right side can say and do whatever they want; the people on the wrong side risk their careers, and even their physical safety, if they protest; the administrations start busily looking the other way; and the faculty--oh, the faculty!--they prey on the eagerness of young people to be part of a cause, to be political, to take part in a radical fight for justice that confirms their readiness to join the adult world.

The faculty should not be lumped in with administrators as we view events at SFSU, or at any other campus. Faculty have academic freedom to say what they believe; administrators have to toe the official university line. Faculty also have a professional--and moral--obligation to educate their students in a non-partisan, respectful way that honors students' ability to distinguish among viewpoints and challenges students to decide what they believe about how the world works and how it got to be that way. I know from personal experience that many faculty, and many graduate student instructors, do not make good on that obligation. I know from personal experience that many college teachers regard that obligation as spurious in and of itself. That they regard those who advocate non-partisan pedagogy as reactionary idiots who lack awareness of both postmodern theory and the true history of oppression. That they mock and dismiss those who believe there is more to history than the story of how white western men have subjugated everybody else.

If you doubt me, hop online and read syllabi for courses in English, women's studies, sociology, African American studies, and so on. Familiarize yourself with the scholarship that is coming out of these departments by looking up faculty members' books on amazon.com. Familiarize yourself with books on radical pedagogy such as bell hooks' Teaching to Transgress. And then you won't doubt me.

Instead of teaching students to think, a great number of leftist faculty teach students how to see the world through a leftist lens. Many do so without even knowing they are doing it, such is the singlemindedness of graduate training in the humanities and social sciences. You won't find conservatives teaching in these areas, and you won't make it through grad school, most likely, let alone find an academic job, unless you are a political clone of your professors. And so there is a situation where there is a powerful ideological norm dominating a large number of fields of academic study.

What is the net result? Sheeplike political behavior that is less about carefully considering issues and coming to independent decisions than it is about conforming to the positions adopted by the leaders in the fields. In the case of the present Middle East crisis, the leaders are the Noam Chomskys and Edward Saids and Cornel Wests of the academy, the pro-Palestinian socialists who despise Israel, who see a chance to mobilize the public--and their students--against Israel, who love revolution and revolt--any revolution, any revolt--and who don't mind if a little anti-Semitism comes with the territory. These leaders use transparently manipulative and inaccurate language about victimhood and martyrdom and oppression to recruit support for the Palestinian cause. Students follow because they respect their professors and look to them for political leadership. Students follow because they are primed by the rhetoric of multiculturalism to believe there is always a victim and a victimizer, to believe there is always an oppressor and an oppressed, to believe that subaltern violence cannot, by definition, be morally reprehensible because it simply expresses the depths of the Other's disempowerment. It goes without saying that this rhetoric acts as a substitute for actual teaching; it goes without saying that it accomplishes indoctrination in the name of education; it goes without saying that this is a terrible abuse of the teacher's authority; it goes without saying that such behavior is too, too common on campuses today. The silence that comes from dissenting faculty in moments such as this--the deafening refusal of all but a very few Laurie Zoloths to speak up for what seems such a simple, basic, unexceptionable thing--is devastating.

Some campus activists are supporting the Palestinian cause for personal, familial, and religious reasons; some for consciously political reasons. But too many students and faculty are supporting it because it is the thing to do. It's what hip intellectuals are doing. It's what hip students are doing. And so they figure it must be a good thing. And so they follow. They consent, freely, without a second thought, to the moral fascism that governs campus life, and they look the other way when things get out of hand--when Jews get beaten, or when swastikas get painted on buildings, or when blood libel becomes the stuff of campus flyers. They do it happily, believing they are doing what's right. And so, having checked their morals and their reason at the door, they can't discriminate between a victim and a terrorist, between statehood and repression, between political resistance and genocidal mission. Thus do they demean themselves, their education, their citizenship, and their country. But what the hell. It's the cool thing to do.

For more on the SFSU incident and the alarming trends it represents, see the SFSU Blog Burst Index at Winds of Change.

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink




May 28, 2002 [feather]
Here's part three of my

Here's part three of my ongoing serial blog on racism at Iowa State's school of journalism. Scroll down to the entries for Sunday and Friday to get background on faculty resignations and classroom tensions arising from the school's racially fraught atmosphere.

I want to begin this blog with an hypothesis: That at Iowa State, the issue is not racism, but radically different generational concepts of what higher education and scholarly excellence are about. It's worth noting that the racial balkanization at the journalism school divides sharply along generational lines. It's worth noting, too, that these generational lines are in turn hierarchical professional lines: the older professors are not only mostly white, they are also tenured; it is untenured minority faculty who are angry enough with them to want to leave. When the old guard objects to the way its department is pursuing diversity, it is simply stupid to assume that the sole motivation is festering, unenlightened white privilege. The journalism school's senior faculty are seasoned professionals, people who have, for better or worse, dedicated their lives to academe. At the very least, they deserve to be heard, however difficult it may be to acknowledge and address the issues they raise. This blog is an attempt to outline those issues as I see them.

Iowa State's provost has vociferously denied that there is any problem at the journalism school other than that of some singularly offensive faculty who have made some singularly offensive remarks. Nonetheless, his comments on the matter unintentionally express the very problem he is working so hard to deny. On the one hand, he observes that "Individuals who make the claim that they are being discriminated against to favor minorities I think simply do not understand the constraints that are put in a minority's way." On the other hand, he explains that "We cannot be competitive if we don't offer salaries and perquisites that other universities are offering, and we're happy to offer them." The provost's comments unwittingly reveal how closely bound hypocritical pieties and manipulative pragmatics are in the logic of affirmative action as Iowa State practices it; together they ensure that the mercenary and ethically dubious practice of buying minority faculty, of bidding for the honor of the ethnic hire, cannot be challenged, or even properly named. As the provost makes abundantly clear, to do so is to show an ignorance so embedded in the blindnesses of white privilege that it is virtually indistinguishable from racism.

Without meaning to, the provost has acknowledged the unspeakable double standard the journalism senior faculty have been trying unsuccessfully to bring to light: that the priority is neither parity nor a recruitment strategy that meshes with the particular culture and quality of Iowa State's journalism faculty, but doing well in the bidding war that frequently surrounds young scholars of color. Without meaning to, too, the provost here confesses to an otherwise unspeakable fact: that one of the "constraints that are put in a minority's way" is the onerous task of deciding among multiple job offers, of playing prospective employers off against one another in order to jack up one's starting salary. We should all be under such constraints.

The real constraint here, however, is the one facing Iowa State schools as they attempt to meet the state Board of Regents' pressure to achieve the ever-elusive, all-important "diversity." The Regents want 8.5% minority enrollment--a tall order in whitebread Iowa. ISU is currently at 7%, and has recently begun bolstering its minority recruitment program by making special efforts to attract minority faculty. Last year, almost 14% of ISU's 1757 faculty were minorities; in 1995, only 9% were. As rapidly as the numbers have changed, however, the push for faculty diversity has been both expensive and disappointing. Just about two years ago, the university launched a $5.8 million plan for recruiting minority faculty (among other things, the plan included a provision for finding jobs for the spouses of minority hires). But even so, the university has had a hard time competing with other schools for top candidates for the simple reason the Iowa State is, well, in Iowa. As one professor put it, "I think if you have a situation in a job market where you don't have very many of the kinds of people you want to attract and you want to bring them to a place where most of them aren't from, you have to offer them something to encourage them." Exhorbitant salaries and perks are thus being offered to minority job candidates in the hope that money and privilege will mitigate the monocultural horror of having to live in homogenous Ames.

The results: distorted, distracted hiring practices in which a job candidate's race becomes her most important professional qualification; and a race-based class system in which minority faculty are so much more valuable than white faculty that they begin their careers making substantially more money than their experienced, established senior colleagues are making after many years of proven service. I would imagine that a related result would be differential tenuring patterns for white and minority faculty: a university that is investing so much money in minority recruitment and retention is not going to want to fire its recruits.

The issues I outline above are issues affecting just about every university in the country. The nation's most elite schools spend a lot of money competing for minority faculty, too. They pay them disproportionately well, too. They tenure them more readily, too. And they breed resentment for doing so, too. But there is a crucial difference between the social engineering that goes on at, say, a Columbia or a Berkeley, and an Iowa State, and that is a difference in degree. The machinations involved in attracting and keeping minority faculty at top schools are nothing compared to those involved in trying to get those faculty to take second-tier jobs at landlocked schools situated smack in the middle of the Bible belt. And the payoff for those machinations will inevitably be much higher for those schools that can offer their candidates not only a pretty salary, but location and prestige. Those are the schools that are going to get the top candidates. The Iowa States of the world are going to end up jostling for the job candidates that are left after the Ivy League and the schools on the coasts take their pick.

Iowa State administrators admit as much when they acknowledge that it is a challenge to get any minority job candidate to come to Ames. What they do not say--and what they do not want anyone to ask--is whether, in paying through the nose for minority faculty, they get their money's worth. My guess is that the top minority job candidates in the field are going to Harvard, and Columbia, and UCLA, and Berkeley, and NYU, and Duke, and so on. My guess is that the minorities who do wind up on the faculty at Iowa State are not "top tier" scholars--if they were, they would be getting better offers from better schools. And my guess is that a lot of what is behind the frustration of the supposedly racist journalism faculty is just that: the painful realization that their unit is being fragmented--and oddly segregated--by an absurdly misguided race to produce an ideal demographic. Even if the junior hires are marvelously talented scholars at the absolute top of their field, the means by which they are being hired are wildly divisive and for that reason alone highly questionable.

Academics know that they cannot question, or even frankly discuss, affirmative action without risking being accused of racism. It's crucial to recognize that when they do question affirmative action, it isn't, in most cases, because they are "racially insensitive," but because they are concerned about the quality, credibility, and future of higher education--concerned enough to open themselves to an incredibly damning accusation. At Iowa State, there are some journalism professors who have paid that price, voicing concerns that, in the provost's telling words, "could be construed as racist" in order to call the administration on its own discriminatory practices. There is courage there, and quite possibly some naivete. But I don't see any bigotry.

As for the outraged faculty who are leaving, that seems to me to be the combined result of their own and their university's unreasonable expectations. The minority junior faculty who were receiving the high salaries and special perks apparently expected that no one would question the fairness of their privileged position, not even those whom their position personally affronts. The university that doled out the high salaries and special perks expected, too, that white faculty would put their white guilt ahead of their sense of fair play, that they would happily look aside while preferential treatment of minority faculty both glorified genetics over ability and demeaned the very idea of intellectual seriousness and professional accomplishment. My point--and I think this is also the point of the senior faculty at Iowa State--is that everyone, minorities included, is belittled when the pursuit of instantaneous diversity becomes an end in itself, when it is so important that it must be achieved immediately, at any--and all--costs.

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink




May 26, 2002 [feather]
As promised, here is part

As promised, here is part two of the serial blog I began Friday about racism at Iowa State's school of journalism. Part three--there is much to say about this topic!--will follow shortly.

I wrote Friday about how a black woman journalism professor at Iowa State kicked a white male grad student out of her class for questioning the "anti-white" bias of her pedagogy. The larger context for that particular fiasco is the thick racial tension permeating the entire department. That tension comes from generational disagreements within the department about its recent hot pursuit of diversity. Before the exodus of this year, there were 22 faculty members in the journalism school, four of whom black. Of those four, three were untenured; there were six junior faculty overall. Three of the six assistant professors have now resigned because some senior faculty members have made "racially insensitive" remarks about the junior faculty. Two of these individuals are black; a third black junior faculty member is also considering leaving. Subscribers to the Chronicle of Higher Education can read a whitewashed version of the case here, and anybody who likes can read a more detailed, balanced version of the story in the Des Moines Register.

So what did senior faculty say that was so awful? They said minority faculty were receiving special treatment that a white professor would not get. Specifically, they said it wasn't fair that minority junior faculty get paid more and get more perks (research funds, graduate student assistants, etc.) than white senior faculty (the three junior faculty members who are leaving were making $48,550, $55,000, and $59,500 respectively--a wide spread for same-rank faculty, and very high for junior faculty at a midwestern state school where the cost of living is comparatively low; alas, the salaries of senior journalism professors are not available for comparison, but I will say that I know plenty of tenured professors of English who make considerably less than these untenured people do). The senior faculty in question suggested that such preferential treatment was discriminatory. For this, they have been labelled "hostile," "racist," and "uncivil." In the words of the provost, "Senior faculty made statements to the chair and to others which I and other people could construe as having negative racial overtones." That's what he said to the Chronicle. He told the Des Moines Register that "some people would construe [the comments] as being racist."

And what is being done? The journalism school's chairman and associate chair have been removed from their posts and new leadership is being sought. Again, in the words of the provost, the departures of three--and possibly a fourth--junior faculty "required some strong and immediate action to make clear that a culture that apparently did not welcome and support" minorities "would not be tolerated."

Interesting language. I parse:

Crucial point #1: The provost does not say that senior faculty members said racist things about junior faculty. He says they said things that people could construe as "having negative racial overtones," which he then equates with "being racist." Notice that he is concerned not with the substance of the remarks that were made--which are themselves substantial criticisms that are worth airing--but with what people might make of the remarks. The provost does not differentiate between the actual content of a remark and the reaction other people have to that remark. In this logic, a reasonable, well-intentioned individual with legitimate questions or criticisms voices them at his own risk. Such an individual is entirely at the mercy of the raw nerves, overinflated egos, grinding axes, callow careerism, and chipped shoulders of everybody else.

Crucial point #2: This logic only works one way. When white faculty suggest that they are being unfairly treated in comparison to black faculty, they are called racists and told to knock it off; when black faculty suggest that the complaints of the white faculty create a hostile environment, they make the news, they get job offers, and their home university bends over backwards to keep them. In this logic, black faculty can play the race card to great advantage; in effect, they can use it to advance their careers. By contrast, white faculty who don't like the way race is getting confused with professional accomplishment are expected to just shut the hell up.

Crucial point #3: The provost removed the chairman from his post not because of any wrongdoing (even the outraged junior faculty are careful to exonerate the chair), but because a symbolic gesture of that sort had to be made. The chairman is being punished not for any wrongdoing of his own, and not even for any wrongdoing on the part of his faculty, but because the appearance of punishment must be created in order to respond to the appearance of racism. Baudrillard would be so proud.

What's most disturbing here is not the free-floating accusations of racism, though. What's most disturbing is how those accusations distort and even obscure real, legitimate questions about what diversity is, how diversity is best achieved, and about what the pursuit of diversity means for everything from departmental harmony to definitions of scholarly excellence.

I'll develop this idea more soon--stay tuned for part three of the series.....

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink




May 24, 2002 [feather]
A white male graduate

A white male graduate student at Iowa State was expelled from his journalism class this semester for allegedly making racist comments. The professor, a black woman, banned him last February after he challenged her for teaching with an "anti-white" bias. She called him a white supremacist; he says he was simply insisting on balance: "If you're going to make claims that white America is intentionally suppressing, holding down, oppressing African-Americans . . . you have to let some students give their opinions on it, and that wasn't happening." The university backed the professor; the student is still fighting the decision two weeks after the term has ended.

Though the professor claimed the student harassed her and made the class impossible to teach, it seems clear enough that he did not do anything more inflammatory than to question what he perceived as his professor' biased approach. That is his own take on his behavior, and other students in the class attest to this. One said his questions were a welcome change from the silence of the majority of incurious, passive students. The worst anyone had to say was that he spoke so often that it was disruptive. Maybe so--but that doesnt make him a racist. It makes him a stickler.

Experienced teachers know this type well and have strategies for dealing with them. They often are white men (ooh: racial profiling!), and they are often extremely intelligent, articulate, and exacting men. It can be intimidating to run into sticklers when you are new to teaching, especially because they can and do tap into deeply embedded anxieties many of us who are not white male sticklers have about power, authority, and respect. It can be very easy to attribute the stickler's behavior to racism or to misogyny or both, to project onto him your belief that he believes he is superior to you and needs to dominate you, the professor, publicly. It's especially easy to do this when the student in question isn't a boy of 19 but a man of 38, as in the case at Iowa State.

Such neurotic pedagogy may be lame, but it is also pretty commonplace in our ever-so-sensitive academy. I know women who allow their work as teachers to be dominated by their fear that male students might try to dominate them. Some even try not-so-subtly to dissuade men from enrolling in their courses--by focussing exclusively on gender issues in a course on the rise of the novel, for instance. But nine times out of ten, the putative gendered and/or racial disrespect these teachers think they detect just isn't there. A white male student, articulate and quick and hungry for clarity and even for debate is not a threat. He is a blessing in the way that any student eager to learn and ready to take risks is a blessing. It is the teacher's job to overcome any insecurity she might have about her ability to stand up to this student and meet his challenge--to teach him, to convince him, to press him to think harder and better--and to do so with imagination, patience, and respect.

The Iowa State fiasco is not a case of a racist graduate student but of a professor who does not know what she is doing and a university so afraid of being called racist--now that she has played that card--that it cannot call to task either her partisan teaching methods or her penchant for attacking skeptical students. This professor should be questioning her competence. But instead, she is calling upon Iowa State to help her cover for herself by persecuting the student who exposed her.

The wider context for this imbroglio is the thick racial tension at Iowa State's journalism school, where three out of six assistant professors have resigned their posts because of what they see as the senior faculty's racial insensitivity.

Stay tuned--I'll blog about the Iowa State exodus within a day or two.

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink




May 22, 2002 [feather]
The latest trend in the

The latest trend in the campus diversity frenzy has arrived: in addition to wooing minority students with free campus visits, separate dorms, special campus centers, and so on, colleges are now actively recruiting gay students. The first ever college recruitment fair for gay high school students was held in Boston last Saturday. Harvard, Yale, Brown, Stanford, Grinnell, and a host of other schools participated.

Gay teens, college recruiters are saying, are often very high achieving students. Coming out makes them more mature, hones their leadership skills, and challenges them to cultivate their individuality. Recruiters do not have any statistics to back this claim, but they make the claim nonetheless: "Schools are inviting these students because they question the norms," says Judith Brown, who directs the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Center at Tufts. "They make people question their own assumptions, and that's a key to learning and growing as people."

If I've got this straight (no pun intended), the logic here is this: the presence of a gay, or lesbian, or bisexual, or transgendered individual on campus in and of itself improves the learning environment for all students, and it does so because gayness, or bisexuality, or lesbianism, or transexuality in and of themselves make people question their assumptions and thus grow. Maybe so, but only if you agree to one of two equally peculiar premises. The first is that gay people somehow are their sexuality in the same way that, in the logic of multiculturalism, people are somehow their race. The second is that homosexuality is an enriching activity that will enhance the campus culture in the same way that being a musician, or an actor, or an athlete, or a science fair champion, will enhance campus culture. In this logic, being gay is a kind of skill or talent that deserves special recognition.

Neither of these premises is at all attractive, though the first has become so commonplace that many people have become innured to its uglier insinuations. Hence the widespread belief that campus diversity can be measured in terms of the percentage of minority students decorating its dorms and greens and classrooms--and not, for example, by the variety of intellectual and political viewpoints espoused by students and faculty. Under this logic, gay students are desirable on campus because the fact of their gayness forces non-gay students to confront their homophobia (which is taken as a given), and to learn tolerance (which, it is assumed, they have not already learned elsewhere, and would not acquire without the confrontational aid provided by gay students). In this logic, gay students--like minority students--are, oddly, expected to act as inspirational props for straight students' ongoing sensitivity training.

The second premise, that homosexuality is an enriching talent, is positively laughable--but it is nonetheless the thesis of some college recruiters, who are operating under the assumption that being gay is somehow on an extracurricular par with being good at science, or being especially smart. As the Boston Globe article puts it, "In the cutthroat world of admissions recruitment, where schools try to build diverse freshmen classes by targeting teenage subgroups like female science enthusiasts and poor students with high SAT scores, gay students are emerging as an appealing new niche." I can see the admissions committee meeting now. There is Mary, who plays the oboe. There is Joseph who runs cross country. There is Jack, who edits the school newspaper, and there is Jill, who sings in the school choir. Then there is John, who is gay. Who do you choose? They are all so creative! They are all so motivated, such individualists, such leaders! Unless John submits a sample of his "work," I don't see how he can compete with the others. But that is just what admissions officers seem to be suggesting he do.

The flaws in their reasoning do not trouble recruiters, whose desire to do good seems to have cut off the flow of blood to their analytical abilities. Instead, the only real problem recruiters seem to be struggling with is how to find the gay students they want to recruit. After all, unlike race and sex, homosexuality can be pretty hard to see. Unlike most black and Hispanic students, and unlike women, gay students are not readily identifiable unless they want to be. Many are in the closet. Others do not yet know they are gay. There is no box for gay students to check on their application forms, and there is no guarantee that gay students would check a box so offered--though the Globe notes that there are admissions officers who are advocating doing just that. "If we truly want these students, it's vital to ask the question," says a recruiter from the University of New Hampshire. "It will help us really tailor a message of support to them." Under the guise of doing good, college recruiters are devising ways to ferret out gay applicants. Under the guise of welcoming those applicants, they bid fair to make them feel targeted and exposed.

And as such, they completely miss the point. Gay students are hard to identify because being gay--or being straight for that matter--is a private matter. Gay students should not feel that they have to out themselves in order to make their best application to college. Nor should they ever have to feel that colleges want them on campus because they are gay. They should never have to wonder what the "beneficiaries" of affirmative action must often wonder: whether they have been accepted not because of their hard work and their intellectual promise, but because they are expected to help make the campus culture more colorful.

I use the word "colorful" pointedly: it strikes me that one way colleges could identify gays more readily is if all gay students had to wear bright yellow stars to identify them as members of this exotic, unusually successful group. But wait--the yellow star has already been taken, and it already has worked, very successfully I might add, to identify members of another exotic unusually successful group. (The analogy is not so terribly forced: as John Leo notes, Jews have recently become hot commodities at Vanderbilt, where administrators imagine that they can raise the school's profile by increasing the numbers of Jews on campus. As Vanderbilt's chancellor observes, Jews are lively, interesting, hardworking, and have such a rich culture.) My point is that tokenism and stereotyping are never a good thing, not even when they are done, as they routinely are, in the name of "diversity" or "multiculturalism." Whether the motivation behind it is "good" or "bad," the logic is essentially the same, and essentially scary.

As misguided as the gay recruitment push is, though, it may ultimately be a good thing precisely because it is such a clear exemplar of how invasive the logic of diversity is. Women and minorities can't escape the condescending logic of the inclusive label. Their names and skins and bodies announce them as members of oppressed groups who require special treatment, and so, whether they want to or not, they walk through life stigmatized as victims in need of social assistance, chased by an unctuous good will that might better be called pity, dogged by the rightful resentment of those whom they unfairly displace, and embarrassed by the feral way certain members of their group exploit their privileged status for petty personal gain.

But gay students have a choice about when, and where, and how, and whether, they make their sexual choices public knowledge. Here's hoping that instead of parading their sexuality before admissions officers who would make their erotic tastes the stuff of academic assessment, they choose to conserve their dignity and just say no.

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink




May 19, 2002 [feather]
Will dying-a-painful-academic-death historian Michael Bellesiles

Will dying-a-painful-academic-death historian Michael Bellesiles take the gun control movement down with him? Considering how heavily the gun control lobby relies on Arming America's highly dubious information about early American piece-packing practices, it looks like the answer could be a resounding yes. Don Williams explains in detail on the History News Network. So much for peer review.

Bellesiles' is an example of thesis-driven "scholarship" whose distortions and omissions of fact were never caught because a) peer review in the non-sciences is often more a game of partisan matchmaking than evenhanded assessment (i.e., in the soft-serve world of the humanities, where a work's putative "quality" is often inseparable from its politics, friendly editors often try to place manuscripts with reviewers who will be "receptive" to them, and reviewers often base their assessment of a manuscript on how well it accords with their own beliefs about what is or ought to be true); b) peer review in the non-sciences is at its very best built like Swiss cheese (i.e., even the most even-handed reviewer may not be qualified to assess how a manuscript handles its materials, and whether it deals fairly with the archive from which those materials are drawn); c) b begets, necessitates, and perpetuates a.

The Bellesiles case is a nasty one, not least because it is pretty clear at this point that the man is just plain lying about how he did his research, and about what sorts of records he kept. Glenn Reynolds has kept close track as problems with Bellesiles' book, and with his story about how he wrote his book, come to light. As has The Weekly Standard. And now, thanks to the blogosphere, there is some pretty damning stuff coming to light from the aptly named Cranky Professor. But my point here is not so much about Bellesiles' ethics, or scholarship, or lack thereof; nor about what his discreditation (it should be a word, so I'm using it like it is one) will mean for pending gun control legislation. Emory will take care of the one; the courts will take care of the other; and I have little to add in the way of commentary to either.

What concerns me more, here, is the scholarly pattern that Bellesiles' book exemplifies and to some degree exposes: the grossly unethical manipulation of "evidence" to accord with one's views. To take just one parallel case, Christina Hoff Sommers has discovered similar patterns of scholarly abuse in a great deal of feminist cultural criticism (most notably in Carol Gilligan's refusal to make her research materials available to the public, but also in the mass mishandling and even misreporting by feminists of statistics on rape, domestic violence, eating disorders, and the wage gap). In an academic climate where politicized scholarship is increasingly the norm, the rewards for confirming a politically desirable stance with one's selective "research" are as great as the deterrents are negligible. As Christina Hoff Sommers' work shows, you can totally debunk individual scholars and even whole movements, and have no real effect on the credibility--and funding--each enjoys. Gilligan is sitting pretty at NYU, and is as famous and influential as ever. Campus women's centers and women's studies programs thrive, despite the often questionable ideology and even more questionable information with which they justify themselves.

If your politics are good enough, you can even get caught lying about your own past and not suffer any real professional damage. Edward Said has been caught fabricating the details of his childhood to make him look more properly like an oppressed Palestinian. But that doesn't affect his status as the god of postcolonial theory. Betty Friedan lied about her background in The Feminine Mystique, omitting to mention her twenty-five year history as a marxist journalist in order to make herself look more properly like a victim of the patriarchy. But no matter: she will always be the grand old dame of the women's movement. Rigoberta Menchu's autobiography was a hoax, but she is still hailed as a goddess of resistance, she is still the exemplary image of the downtrodden mestiza-cum-revolutionary, and she still has her Nobel Prize. So attached are feminists and postcolonialists to the mythography surrounding their academic heroes that they have repeatedly and knowingly chosen consoling lies over hard truths. The damage to scholarship, to the integrity of the professoriate, and to the credibility of the academic left is profound.

Bellesiles is attracting media attention in part because he appears to be an anomaly--despite the recent flap about historian-plagiarists, we still tend to believe that most scholarship is, well, scholarly. We like to believe that when errors occur, they are understandable errors of human oversight, not rank, intentional manipulations of data (hence both Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns-Goodwin's rationales for why their plagiarisms were not plagiarisms). Looked at in the context I have sketched above, however, Bellesiles' case appears to be an anomaly of an entirely different order. The oddity in his case is not that he falsified his data, or even that he got caught. The oddity is that it looks as though he might actually have to pay for what he did.

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink




May 18, 2002 [feather]
Over the weekend, if you

Over the weekend, if you have a few minutes, check out the complete text of David Horowitz's pamphlet, "How the Left Undermined America's Security." It's long, but worth it to hear an alternative, and uncompromising, perspective on the Clinton years, U.S. foreign policy, and the role of the academic left in preparing the U.S. citizenry to become apologists for terrorism. This is the long version of the talk Horowitz has been delivering at the nation's campuses since September. Or, more precisely, it's the long version of the talk he has been trying to deliver at the nation's campuses since September. Conservative student groups often can't afford to bring him to campus; liberal student groups don't want to bring him to campus; and radical student groups frequently try to disrupt his visits by protesting and even shouting him down. But whether you buy what he has to say or not, his views are worth taking seriously for the simple reason that they pose serious challenges to the truisms about oppression, imperialism, and resistance that many us who came of age during the Clinton years have uncritically believed but never truly examined. Far from trying to keep Horowitz off campus, students of all political persuasions should be mad as hell that their own professors do not make his opinion, and opinions like his, available to them.

A truly liberal education does not pre-select what perspectives you will hear, because it is not trying to control what you believe. An education that not only denies students access to conservative viewpoints, but teaches students that there is really only one right way to understand history and politics, is not an education, but an indoctrination. We are seeing the effects of such illiberalism right now at Berkeley and SFSU and the University of South Carolina and countless other campuses. And, as the American people begin to demand answers, we are hearing how deafeningly quiet are the faculty--over 90% of whom are left of center--who have collectively taught their students to think like fundamentalists rather than responsible citizens.

Horowitz's piece deals mainly with Clinton's languid foreign policy and casual attitudes toward defense. But he does touch on the place of academe in the creation of national security problems, noting how the politicization of the academy not only created a climate of marked tolerance for terrorism, but failed to produce graduates with the sorts of linguistic and cultural knowledge necessary for high-level intelligence work. If you want still more on the relationship between anti-Americanism and academe, see Stanley Kurtz's current column for The National Review. Kurtz has long insisted that liberalism has become a religion, and has lots of good thoughts on the issues Horowitz raises about how too many "clueless liberals" discredit themselves by contemptuously refusing to familiarize themselves with conservative viewpoints.

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink




May 17, 2002 [feather]
Glenn Reynolds (a.k.a. blogger Instapundit)

Glenn Reynolds (a.k.a. blogger Instapundit) has written a guest column for foxnews.com on the recent disturbing events at San Francisco State University. Reynolds reads the University's tepid equivocating non-response to the rabid and threatening behavior of pro-Palestinian student agitators as "simply the latest stage in a long-standing and widespread trend of giving some student groups the permission to engage in behavior that the university would not permit for a moment if it came from groups not favored as politically correct."

An academic himself, Reynolds knows whereof he speaks, and the nation should listen--even if college administrators do not, and have not--when he says that

The result of impunity, of course, is escalation. Just as the toleration of 'broken windows' and other petty acts of lawbreaking leads to more serious crime, so a policy of tolerating acts of lawlessness by overpoliticized students leads to more serious problems.

Such previous events as the theft of conservative student newspapers by groups who disagree with them (as happened earlier this year at Berkeley when an entire press run of the Cal Patriot was stolen from its offices) have now escalated to riot. If it is not addressed, last week's riot may be next week's--or next year's--politically motivated murder.

Such may seem unthinkable to Americans, but we saw such behavior on college campuses thirty-five years ago, and we're seeing such behavior in Europe now. The tolerance of smaller-scale violence and illegality by university administrators has laid the foundation for worse in the future, unless swift action establishes an example that such acts are not tolerated.

So what do you do? What can you do? And how do you parse the issues? Reynolds offers insight, explaining the difference between peaceful demonstration and criminal behavior, differentiating between strong speech and threatening acts, and putting the actions of riotous pro-Palestinian students in a variety of contexts (including the context of SFSU's own policies on hate speech, hate crimes, and general conduct).

Reynolds also provides a link to blogger Joe Katzman, who was moved enough by the SFSU situation to take time away from sitting Shiva for his grandmother to record his thoughts about what can be done there and at other campuses across the country. I won't summarize it because it's too important to paraphrase. Read it, and don't miss the follow-up blogs recounting additional advice from readers.

The bottom line: college administrators cannot be trusted to act swiftly and fairly on this one, if left to their own devices. It's going to be up to fair-minded students and faculty, to parents, to alumni, and to taxpayers to force colleges and universities to stop undulating in the winds of political correctness. For the sake of scholarship, study, civility, and free inquiry, let's hope higher ed finds its spine. Let's hope it has a spine to find.

Signs of a spine have emerged in Cambridge: Harvard faculty, disgusted by Noam Chomsky's petition urging divestment from Israel, have begun petitioning back. Alan Dershowitz has also spoken out on Chomsky's politics and ethics.

For a clear indication of what exactly the pro-Palestinian campus energy is feeding on, consider this poster, paid for with public money, and posted on the SFSU campus this past April. Student organizations involved include the Associated Students of SFSU, GUPS (General Union of Palestinian Students), and MSA (Muslim Student Association). This isn't "expression." It's blood libel. It's crucial that we comprehend and honor the difference. It speaks volumes that university administrations at SFSU, Berkeley, and elsewhere have not.

Food for thought: neo-Nazi David Duke, former leader of the KKK, is very popular among militant Islamic groups such as Tanzeem. He has embraced the Palestinian cause in terms that frequently--and eerily--echo those of certain campus radicals.

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink




May 16, 2002 [feather]
Here's a corker from Victor

Here's a corker from Victor Davis Hanson of The National Review on why and how support for Palestinians has taken off amongst the European and American left since 9/11.

Pay special attention to number five in Hanson's list of reasons why so many people suddenly hate Israel: "Aristocratic Guilt and the Cult of the Underdog." The section pretty much says it all about what's going on on U.S. campuses, if nothing else. Take an insulated, affluent, largely white and largely young student population; add the influence of an insulated, overwhelmingly left-leaning faculty; stir in the omnipresent guilt-inducing leavening of "diversity" and "multiculturalism;" and what do you get? Not an educated opinion on the situation in the Middle East, nor a measured, respectful discussion about policy and the prospects for peace, but a dangerously naive radicalism on the part of students who are better schooled in the pseudo-sensitive machinations of multiculturalism than in actual history or actual political science or actual economics or actual ethics, along with a dangerously disingenuous radicalism on the part of a professoriate that feeds (very well) off America at the same time that it makes contempt for this country the very fabric of radical intellectual chic. If nothing else is being proven by the current wave of campus unrest, it is that radical thought can become fundamentalist dogma on American campuses just as readily as it can elsewhere. Especially when it never has to explain itself, or encounter opposition.

On a related note: The University of Michigan has successfully defended itself (barely) in the discrimination lawsuit filed in 1997 by Barbara Grutter, who claimed that the law school unfairly denied her admission in order to make room for less-qualified black and Hispanic students. The decision, which overturned a previous ruling and conflicts with related rulings in other states, was tight (5-4) and contentious. An appeal is expected to be heard before the Supreme Court in what will certainly be a landmark ruling on the constitutionality of race-based admissions policies.


Different people have covered this decision different ways, depending on how they feel about affirmative action. Here are links to articles:

The New York Times
The Washington Times
Washington Post
The Chronicle of Higher Education (with lots of deep links to earlier stories)
The Michigan Review, conservative campus paper
The Michigan Daily, liberal student paper, with many additional related stories and editorials

The ruling gets depicted a bit differently from one article to the next. Form your own opinion by reading the full text of the court's decision.

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink




May 15, 2002 [feather]
Laurie Zoloth, Director of Jewish

Laurie Zoloth, Director of Jewish Studies at San Francisco State University, writes an open letter about the virulent anti-Semitic taunts and threats pro-Palestinian students recently directed at Jewish students and community members during a Hillel-sponsored Peace in the Middle East campus rally.

As the pro-Palestinian movement gains momentum on campuses across the country, and as this movement increasingly calls for divestment from Israel, it's worth thinking about what, in the name of tolerance, we are tolerating, and what, in the name of tolerance, we stand to lose.

Some perspectives:

From The New York Times

From Boundless

From Front Page Magazine

From The Harvard Crimson

From The Daily Californian

From The Guardian

From The Washington Post

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink




May 14, 2002 [feather]
Roger Kimball has weighed

Roger Kimball has weighed in on the Berkeley course controversy, as have many of Kimball's readers. Kimball is his usual contrarian contentious self in the piece, which is titled "The Intifada Curriculum." He is also his usual highly intelligent, deeply literate self, and reminds us in words worth quoting how far today's college curriculum has strayed from the ostensible ideals of academic inquiry:

Universities used to be dedicated to the advancement of knowledge. It was understood that if they were to be successful, they had to presuppose what Matthew Arnold called the ideal of "disinterestedness." In describing criticism as "disinterested," Arnold did not mean that it speaks without reference to a particular point of view. Rather, he meant a habit of inquiry that refused to lend itself to any "ulterior, political, practical considerations about ideas."

We might say that Arnold looked to criticism to provide a bulwark against ideology, something that John Searle, a very different sort of Berkeley professor, put with his customary lucidity: "The idea that the curriculum should be converted to any partisan purposes is a perversion of the ideal of the university."

Since the 1960s, however, universities have become havens for displaced radicals and the humanities instruments of political agitation. Arnold's vision of the civilizing potential of "the best that has been thought and said" gives way to a smorgasbord of attacks on Western civilization that are a part of the "multicultural" agenda.

Matthew Arnold and John Searle: Kimball does know how to bait the academic left. Arnold, a Victorian poet and critic who has become symbolic of all that is wrong--in the academic left's mind--with liberal humanism, wrote a stunning essay in 1865 about why disinterested criticism is a necessary and important contribution to a culture increasingly oriented around profit, politics, bottom-line practicality, and self-interest. Entitled "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time," it's worth a look to see where Arnold, and the Kimball who quotes him, is coming from.

Searle, for his part, is in many ways a latter-day Arnold. A major philosopher who has no truck with the post-structuralist continental theory that underlies a great deal of postmodern academe's pretensions to methodological and pedagogical radicalism, Searle exemplifies a reasoned rejection of the pseudo-intellectual claptrap that has come to stand in for thought in far too much scholarship and in far too many classrooms. In 1990, Searle reviewed Kimball's Tenured Radicals as part of a fantastic essay about the campus "culture wars" for The New York Review of Books. Entitled "The Storm Over the University," it is as timely today as it was twelve years ago. Don't miss his definition of a well-educated person (it's at the very end). Match yourself up against it, match your education up against it, and see what you think.

Searle's essay is long, but you can't find a better introduction to the issues that are at work in the Shingavi situation, which is, after all, simply one instance of a far more widespread conversion of the undergraduate classroom into the scene of political re-education.

For background on Shingavi and the Berkeley situation, see this piece by Rory Miller (a.k.a. blogger "Angry Clam"), which documents in chilling detail the anti-conservative bias that is the norm at Berkeley, as well as how the pro-Palestinian movement on campus has been accompanied by virulent and unchecked anti-Semitism.

And, if you want another example of a prof who demands political conformity from students, check out FIRE's most recent cause: a women's studies professor at the University of South Carolina who makes adherance to a certain set of ideological principles the condition of speaking in class. Class participation is 20% of the grade. In order to speak, you have to agree to the professor's "Guidelines for Classroom Discussion," which include acknowledging "that racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, and other institutionalized forms of oppression exist," agreeing that "we are all systematically taught misinformation about our own group and about members of other groups," assuming "that people always do the best they can," and promising to "create a safe atmosphere for open discussion." Sounds more like the professor is running a support group than a graduate class, no? And not a terribly supportive one at that. Such guidelines do less to create a "safe atmosphere" in women's studies than to prevent anyone from challenging the founding principles of women's studies itself.

Lynn Weber, the professor in question, has published these guidelines (they originally appeared in Women's Studies Quarterly 18 [Spring/Summer 1990]:126-134, and a revised version appeared in "Empowering Students Through Classroom Discussion Guidelines," in Marybeth C. Stalp and Julie Childers, eds., Teaching Sociological Concepts and the Sociology of Gender, Washington, D.C.; American Sociological Association Teaching Resources Center, 2000). In other words, Weber has been recommending for over a decade that these guidelines become part of the women's studies curriculum. If you are a teacher and you use these guidelines, you might want to think twice about both the constitutionality and the morality of your pedagogy. If you are a student and you have been subjected to such guidelines, you might want to contact FIRE. I'm sure they'd love to hear from you.

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink




May 12, 2002 [feather]
Snehal Shingavi's controversial course, "The

Snehal Shingavi's controversial course, "The Politics and Poetics of Palestinian Resistance," is no longer listed on Berkeley's roster of fall English composition courses. This is mysterious indeed. Has it been cancelled? Cancelled courses are marked as such on the roster, so that seems unlikely. Has the course description merely been pulled until it can be revised and brought into accordance with Cal's Faculty Code of Conduct? That seems unlikely, too. You don't have to erase the entire entry for a course to revise the description; all you do is pull the description from the entry until it's ready to be re-posted. Besides, from the sound of things, extensive revision was not in the offing. All Shingavi had to do was to excise the problematic statements that "This class takes as its starting point the right of Palestinians to fight for their own self-determination" and "Conservative thinkers are encouraged to seek other sections." There seems to be no logical explanation for the course's disappearance from the English web. It has simply vanished without a trace. And yet, web sites don't erase themselves. To controversy has now been added mystery. Call it the Case of the Missing Course Description.

Hunting for signs of Shingavi, I trawled through the rest of the freshman English course offerings for fall 2002. I didn't find any clues to his course's whereabouts, but I did find much of interest. For instance, I learned that Shingavi is not alone in his use of the freshman writing seminar as a political platform. Nor is he alone in his failure to mention writing--the ostensible subject of a composition course--in his description.

Most of the course offerings announce that they will be concerned in some way with the politics of race, class, and gender. Statements such as the following are typical: "We will examine how gender and race inflect the dynamics of power and identity in our readings." Such statements may seem innocuous enough, but if you look closely, you will see that they are actually deterministic--and dubious--claims about what constitutes identity, and how power works: your gender and your race are the stuff of your identity, and they are the materials of power. Not everyone would agree with such a claim. But it is taken as a given here, and in many similar statements in the fall course roster.

Some descriptions go considerably further than the one above. This one, for example, is every bit as partisan as the unabashedly pro-Palestinian stance in Shingavi's missing course description: "The approach to the course and texts will be ethno-feminist and homo-positive. We will challenge our assumptions of what constitutes 'male' and 'female' as well as 'writer' or 'artist,' letting us imagine gender while resisting the systems of racism and heteronormativity." The instructor stops short of saying that students who are not feminists, or who do not feel that homosexuality is "positive," are not welcome. But that's because he's a bit smarter than Shingavi when it comes to dissuading students of unlike mind. And for that, his course description stands.

Overall, politics seems to interest Cal's fall writing instructors more than writing does. Roughly twice as many courses promise to address politics--which they define, predictably and uniformly, in terms of race, class, gender, nation, ethnicity, ideology--than promise to address the craft and technique of writing. Many instructors seem to have forgotten entirely that they are teaching writing courses, and make no mention of writing at all in their descriptions of what students who take their class will do.

Maybe that's just as well, though, since I found a lot of bad writing in the course descriptions themselves.

There were plenty of grammatical errors like this:

"Students who enroll in this course with the intention of engaging with the material and with his/her classmates will find the work rewarding." ("His/her" refers to "Students," and should thus be "their.")

And this:

"We will also be examining other kinds of artistic production that is considered modernist..." ("Is" should be "are:" making a verb agree with the object of a preposition is a classic grammatical slip that composition teachers, of all people, should be able to avoid.)

And this:

"We will see how the scene of a male writer taking artistic license to create females of his imagination into literary characters becomes a very style-which 'actual' women take up." (Hopeless.)

I also found typos like this:

"we will examine texts that explore the meaning of the home in forming and reflecting indiviudal and national character"

Spelling errors like this:

"Is their a particular form of political membership involved in being a spectator?" ("Their" should be "there.")

And egregious instances of linguistic incapacity like this:

"In this class we will examine US prison narratives--particularly those of African Americans--and the way captive narration interrogates liberal tenants such as "progress," "freedom," "democracy," et cetera." (A tenant rents an apartment; a tenet is a belief.)

There was also much jargon and murky prose like this:

"Our readings will put pressure on the binary opposition between 'original' and 'imitation...'"

And this:

"We'll then consider [the hero's] place in the imperial project and in the construction of normative masculinity. We'll examine that positive stereotype, as well as its countertype, in order to understand something about both the reasons for its production and the effects of its deployment."

And this:

"Documenting the development of our own ideas, we will try to responsibly address those aspects of circumstance which our writing crops or foregrounds, and thus to become more aware and dialectically rigorous thinkers."

These examples of obfuscatory prose do not bode well for either attracting students (who are not likely to register for courses whose descriptions they cannot follow) or for teaching those who do enroll how to write clear, persuasive prose.

So, in fairness to Shingavi, he is not alone. Ideologically motivated courses abound in his department, as do courses that shirk their pedagogical responsibilities. Even Shingavi's great sin--his willingness to say that some will not be welcome in his class--reappears in other descriptions, albeit in a pedagogically acceptable way. Where Shingavi wrote that "Conservative thinkers are encouraged to seek other sections," one especially rigorous instructor attempts to dissuade slackers: "Those who are looking for an easy way to fulfill a requirement are encouraged to look elsewhere." The language is strikingly similar, and one can see how readily the rhetoric of righteous pedagogy (stay away from my course if you don't want to work) can morph into the rhetoric of righteous ideology (stay away from my course if you don't believe). In a writing program where most courses are making political inquiry the vehicle for teaching writing, and where many get so caught up in that political inquiry that they lose sight of the fact that it is not supposed to be their principal objective, there is bound to be the occasional Shingavi who takes things too far. Or, more precisely, there is bound to be the occasional Shingavi who gets caught taking things too far. And in such an environment, the real problem is not the person who gets caught, but the people who don't.

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink




May 11, 2002 [feather]
More on Snehal Shingavi, the

More on Snehal Shingavi, the UC Berkeley English grad student whose freshman composition courses are more invested in indoctrinating students than in teaching them to write: a fine San Francisco Chronicle article with some choice quotes from the ACLU, UC Regent Ward Connerly and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education's Thor Halvorssen, and a Daily Cal article that has been reprinted in the portal of portals, the Drudge Report.

UC Chancellor Robert Berdahl was quoted thus in the Daily Cal: "It is not appropriate for an academic class to discourage or exclude anyone from attending on political grounds ...That is very objectionable. The discourse cannot be constrained by the political perspective of an instructor." Cal has published an official statement on its web site, which I reprint below. If you have written personally to any Berkeley admins about the issue, you may recognize it as the text you received in reply to your letter (I know several people who took the time to write to Berkeley today; those who addressed their emails to Janet Adelman, Chair of English, received the press release--mailed in bulk--in lieu of an actual reply with actual manners of the "Dear So and So" and "Sincerely yours" variety). I paste:

The following is a statement addressing questions raised about a course scheduled for the fall 2002 semester titled, "The Politics and Poetics of Palestine Resistance."

There was a failure of oversight on the part of the English Department in reviewing course proposal descriptions for the reading and composition sections. This failure is in the process of being addressed. Structures will be put in place to ensure all course descriptions will be developed in accord with the Faculty Code of Conduct, specifically that courses not exclude or discourage qualified students on grounds other than lack of preparation.

In this particular case, the English Department will immediately revise the course description to ensure open access. In addition, the department chair will provide oversight for this class to ensure that it is conducted in accordance with the Faculty Code of Conduct. Among the code's requirements is that there be no "discrimination, including harassment, against a student on political grounds, or for the reasons of race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, ethnic origin, national origin."

Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl stated: "I am concerned that this failure of oversight has occurred and I am pleased that the English Department is acting immediately to remedy it. Universities should not avoid presenting controversial material, and we do not. It is imperative that our classrooms be free of indoctrination -- indoctrination is not education. Classrooms must be places in which an open environment prevails and where students are free to express their views."

You gotta love the passive voice. The statement "address[es] questions raised about a course" -- but does not say who raised the questions or what, specifically, they were. "There was a failure of oversight on the part of the English Department" -- but there is no person who committed the oversight. "This failure is in the process of being addressed" -- but not by anybody in particular. "Structures will be put in place" -- but, again, not by anybody in particular. The Chancellor is "concerned that this failure of oversight has occurred" -- funny how things just "occur" all by themselves, isn't it? Especially when "oversight" is not occurring.

My favorite thing about the statement, though, is its use of metonymy to deflect attention from the people who are responsible for creating--and remedying--the intellectual climate that made it possible for Snehal Shingavi to engage in blatantly partisan non-pedagogy for the better part of the past two years. Notice that the problem will be addressed not by individuals (who could then be held accountable for any future failures of "oversight"), but by "the English Department," which is "acting immediately to remedy" the oversight and which will "immediately revise the course description to ensure open access." I've spent the last fifteen years of my life in one English department or another (four of them at Berkeley) and I have yet to see an English department act, immediately or otherwise. But by promising that an inanimate entity will immediately remedy the situation, the Berkeley spin doctors create the effect of purposeful collective action without actually drawing attention to individual actors or their individual acts. Nobody is taking responsibility here. Or, perhaps it would be more correct to say that no responsibility has been or will be taken.

Ironically, in Berkeley's effort to convince concerned citizens, students, and parents that proper action is being taken, more "failures" of "oversight" have been made.

One wonders whether--and how--the "English Department" will remedy these new "oversights."

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink




May 10, 2002 [feather]
Angry Clam, a UC Berkeley

Angry Clam, a UC Berkeley blogger, reprints in his May 9 blog two freshman English course descriptions that are guaranteed to make your hair curl. The courses are taught by English graduate student Snehal Shingavi, who is a leader of the International Socialist Organization (ISO), Stop the War Coalition, and Berkeley's now-notorious Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). The courses are blatantly ideological: the first is called "Why the Modernists hated wars, and why you should, too," while the second is titled "The Politics and Poetics of Palestinian Resistance." They are also blatantly partisan: they require ideological conformity as a condition of registration. Appended to the description of the Modernism course is the following: "This class has an anti-war emphasis; most of the literature that we read and essays that will we [sic] examine will take as their starting point the claim that wars are not the solutions that they claim to be, that they in fact destroy the lives of the people who lose and those who win. ... If ideological conflists [sic]will make it difficult for you to engage in the discussion, please select another course." Appended to the course on Palestinian poetics is an analogous statement: "This class takes as its starting point the right of Palestinians to fight for their own self-determination. Conservative thinkers are encouraged to seek other sections."

Keep in mind that these are supposedly composition courses designed to fulfill Cal's Reading and Composition Requirement. Shingavi's first description treats the ostensible purpose of the course, to teach students how to write clear, persuasive prose, as an afterthought: "In this class, we will discuss the nature of war, its impact on historical consciousness, and strategies for writing about literature." The second description does not mention writing at all. This graduate student is not interested in teaching writing. He is using the writing classroom as a political bully pulpit. He is exceptional in his willingness to be so open about that. But among the ranks of grad students teaching freshman comp in this country, he is very far from being alone.

The message this "teacher" is sending is unmistakable: "You are only welcome in my classroom if you agree with me. You are not welcome if you seek to learn about perspectives different from your own, and you are not welcome to develop a perspective different from mine in the course of this class. In other words, far from teaching you critical thinking, I will make conformity to my ideological position a condition of your academic success in my class. Never mind that my job is to teach you to write. Never mind that my job is to help you learn to think for yourself, to discover what your own views are and to articulate them clearly on paper. Never mind that debate and challenge are essential to this process. In this class, we will not question, or explore, or challenge anything at all. Instead, we will spend the entire semester reinforcing our pre-existing beliefs. Your grade, it goes without saying, will be entirely contingent on your ability to parrot my beliefs back at me. Extra credit for telling me what I want to hear."

The Berkeley English department web site is woefully counterintuitive and thin on information, as is the College Writing Program web site. It's hard to tell who is in charge of the writing program there, and who, if anyone, vets graduate student course syllabi. Professor Janet Adelman is Department Chair, however, and can be emailed at adelman@uclink4.berkeley.edu, should you be moved to express your thoughts about how students in her department are abusing their authority in the classroom. If you want to shoot a little higher, here's a list of Berkeley administrators. Conservative and liberal thinkers are encouraged to respond.

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink




May 9, 2002 [feather]
A California high school student

A California high school student is suing his school district for violating his free speech rights. The student, who writes for his school paper, wrote two controversial editorials in which he opposed illegal immigration and argued that minorities were guilty of reverse racism. After the first in the series was published--with the approval of the paper's faculty advisor--students and parents protested. The school capitulated, pulled the remaining issues of the paper, and publicly reprimanded the student: it sent a letter out to all students and parents saying that the editorial "negatively presented immigrants in general and Hispanics in particular" and stressing that it should never have been printed. The student's second article was never published. Now he is suing the school for censoring him: "I just wanted to write about illegal immigrants and was hoping people would read and discuss it," he said. "That's what journalism is about. But they thought it was better to appease the crowd of Latinos than to stand with the fact that they already approved my work. They blamed me, and it caused me to become a target." His lawyer puts the case succinctly, noting that the school district turned "what could have been a lesson about our cherished right to protected speech" into a lesson "about the tyranny of the majority." The result, she notes, "was mob rule. They stifled Andrew's voice because he had an unpopular viewpoint."

Michelle Malkin links the California case to wider cultural pressures not to criticize U.S. immigration policy, noting in particular that even the traditionally protectionist Republican party has yielded to political correctness on this issue. If you can get past the rah-rah Grand-Old-Party-ism of the piece, Malkin has much of value to say. Malkin rightly notes that the student's pointed comments about illegal immigrants were quickly misread and distorted: the school district blamed him for his "negative" presentation of "immigrants in general" and for targeting "Hispanics in particular." She notes, too, that this distorting generalization culminated in the most damning of contemporary epithets: the student was branded a "racist" and castigated for his "ignorance."

Malkin lists a number of recent instances in which Republican officials have "bent over backwards to appease the pro-illegal alien crowd," including New York Governor Pataki's support for legislation that would allow illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at New York State schools and the recent wave of attacks on Colorado Representative Tom Tancredo's campaign for immigration reform. Malkin doesn't come right out and say it, but her point is pretty clear: policymakers have caved to the pressures of political correctness. Rather than be labelled "racist" or "anti-immigrant," they are both endorsing questionable legislation and distancing themselves from those who dare to criticize the present system.

It's bad enough to see politicians trading in their spines for votes. But that's to be expected. The other point to be made here is much scarier: that schools are training students to base their behavior not on their beliefs but on racial etiquette--on the governing assumption that it is far more important not to offend anyone than it is to air ideas and encourage debate. Media portrayal of Fortuyn's concerns about the danger unassimilated immigrants pose to Holland's liberal culture makes clear what the costs of such opinions are these days. Fortuyn was branded a "racist" and a "fascist." And, having been made into an object in this manner, he was finally shot. In the U.S., we are responding to ideas like Fortuyn's with similarly dangerous anti-intellectual word games. We even teach such tactics in our schools. It's not hard to figure out that in doing so, we are setting ourselves up for disaster.

If our current politicians tend to be gutless crowdpleasers, I can only imagine what our future ones will be like. Raised not to think but to appease, not to debate but to protest, not to respect dissent as the fabric of democracy but rather to demand punishment for those who express unpopular views, not to value informed thought but to cultivate instinctive outrage, today's students are going to make one terrifyingly unprincipled and--dare I say it?--potentially fascistic group of leaders.

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink




May 8, 2002 [feather]
Eight words: Read Andrew Sullivan's

Eight words: Read Andrew Sullivan's blogs on Pim Fortuyn's assassination. (Scroll a bit -- the bulk of Sullivan's posts were made on the 6th and 7th.)

Four more words: Read the linked articles.

One last word: THINK.

On a distantly but deeply related note, here are some additional articles on the subject of yesterday's blog: partisan politics and uneven funding patterns in higher education. David Horowitz has written a follow-up to his article on Vanderbilt, and Christina Hoff Sommers has a piece in the current Christian Science Monitor on campus political bias.

Horowitz's article is very strongly worded, and most academics will not immediately recognize themselves in his portrait of them as "Gramscian communists whose quest for control over universities, churches, media and other institutions of the political culture is part of a grandiose effort to destroy the foundations of American society and replace it with a 'socially enlightened' totalitarian state." Nevertheless, it's worth asking how Horowitz arrived at such a dismal picture of academe. He's right about the left-wing bias. He's right about the academic romance with Marxist theory. He's right about the academic contempt for mainstream American culture. He's right about the academic hatred of conservatives. He's right about the casual--and occasionally virulent--anti-Americanism that goes along with it. He's right about the disrespect for tradition. He's right about the abuse of parental trust. He's right that many college teachers believe it is their job to rescue their students from their oppressive and unenlightened political and social assumptions (in other words, he's right that education and indoctrination are tightly intertwined). He's right that nonconformists are not welcome, and that dissent (real dissent, not conformity to the prevailing posture of dissent) is punished. He's right about the smugness of the believers. He's right about the spinelessness of those who see a problem but do not speak out. He's right about a lot of things. So ... maybe he is also right to use words such as "Orwellian" and "McCarthyism" to describe the climate of the contemporary campus.

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink




May 7, 2002 [feather]
David Horowitz's account of his

David Horowitz's account of his recent visit to Vanderbilt is a great case study of campus partisanship. Read it and see how through the uneven distribution of student activities funds and other crafty measures, Vanderbilt does all that it can to block conservative student groups from forming, and, if they do form, from surviving. Horowitz makes Vanderbilt into an example, but he is quite clear that he sees Vanderbilt as no better or worse than the majority of American universities. The exclusionary and biased patterns he finds at Vanderbilt exist at countless other institutions. As a well-known conservative who speaks regularly on campuses--and who thus witnesses firsthand how little money conservative student groups have to fund speakers; how little respect those groups and their guests command among students, faculty and administrators; and how much effort administrators and students will expend thwarting conservative events--Horowitz knows what he is talking about.

When conservatives contend that campuses have become unbearably partisan and left-leaning, the left typically laughs. Everyone knows, the campus left argues, that American higher education is as conservative as can be. The university has been corporatized, they argue, and as a result the pursuit of knowledge has yielded to the pursuit of the almighty dollar. Tuitions are too high, big-money athletics are too important, and keeping alumni happy matters too much. Science is being subsidized by private interests, the left continues, and thus works to support and sustain the nasty biases of big business. Meanwhile, the liberal arts are being devalued and defunded. Departments are folding, enrollments are down, graduate students are exploited, and tenure-track jobs are disappearing. The left could go on, and on, and on, and it usually does. The left's favorite subject is oppression, especially its own.

But there is another side to this story. It has to do with the political affiliations of faculty (only 3% of Ivy League professors identify themselves as Republicans). It has to do with what the inevitable resulting political slant means for the curriculum, which tends to teach--or preach--radical philosophy while excluding the work of conservative thinkers (students are exposed to Marx but not Hayek, to Cornel West but not to Thomas Sowell, to Catharine MacKinnon but not to Christina Hoff Sommers). It has to do with what you can and cannot say on campus (an ethnic or misogynist slur can land you in sensitivity training while intolerant comments about Christians or white men or Republicans are de rigeur; it's okay to steal conservative campus papers but not liberal ones; and so on). And it has to do with where the money goes.

Tracking the allocation of student activities fees is always an informative adventure: it tells you exactly where a given school stands politically. More often than not, ironically, it's the "oppressed" groups--ethnic students, women, gay and lesbian students, and so on--that get the money for organizations, events, and speakers. It's the "marginalized" groups that have campus centers and theme dorms. And it's the so-called "dominant" groups that get little or no funding, and that are routinely refused the same level of recognition and support that other groups get. The funding story on campuses conflicts absolutely with the official narrative of white male privilege. It is in fact the conservative and religious groups that routinely get left out in the cold.

You can find scads of examples of the partisan suppression of politically incorrect campus groups in the case archive on the FIRE website. And those, FIRE is quick to point out, are just the tip of the iceberg. Have a look, and ask yourself these questions: Why is it that, in an age of ever-increasing sensitivity, and ever-louder calls for tolerance, it's okay to be intolerant of selected groups? Why is it that this selective intolerance is not seen as inconsistent with the push for increased tolerance and respect for difference? And how is it that this rank hypocrisy has become so "institutionalized" that it is actually embedded in university policy and enacted in such seemingly neutral venues as the distribution of fees?

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink




May 6, 2002 [feather]
I got a lot of

I got a lot of great correspondence this week, some of which I excerpt below. But first, check out John Leo's current U.S. News & World Report article about the blogging revolution. Leo is especially good on the blog's relationship to mainstream journalism, which it simultaneously complements, critiques, challenges, outpaces, and occasionally replaces.

A reader from Oregon has this to say in response to my May 3 blog about Harvard law students who have decided that theirs is a racially insensitive environment:

Don't you get the feeling that this victim hypersensitivity (and reparations) are the inevitable result of only wanting to work the victim position and not having anything more worthwhile to whine about? What a social success to be out of real issues! How did all these wimps get into law school? Did they earn their way in or get a gift? If they earned their way, they are convincing evidence that they have overcome these hurtful little slings and arrows. If they got in on affirmative action, then they got their 'gift' from society and should shut up and prove they deserve to stay. Can someone who just can't stand any discomfort without wilting in a flood of tears really expect to hold a job? These hypersensitive people are the emotional equivalents of the princess and the pea.

There is definitely much to be said about the peculiar pettiness of much of what passes for activism and consciousness raising on the multicultural campus. Student protests against A&F t-shirts, for example, reek of ignorance, hypocrisy, and opportunism.

Ignorance: the T-shirts depend for their humor on our collective recognition that the stereotypes they depict are definitively past; they literally cut those stereotypes down to size. Far from perpetuating negative stereotypes of Asians, the t-shirts announce that the negative images they depict no longer have currency except as kitsch.

Which brings me to point two: hypocrisy. It's fine when Asian-run companies like www.chinkdesign.com capitalize on outmoded Asian stereotypes. It's not fine when A&F does it (even though their t-shirts were created by an Asian designer). In other words, the protests aren't about the images at all. The protests are about who wields the images. Which makes no sense at all in a mass cultural environment where images are always detached from their makers, and where there is no such thing as intent, only impact. Unless, of course, you look at the situation through the lens of opportunism.

Which brings me to point three: the A&F protests were not about an issue so much as they were about an opportunity to create an issue. This is a crucial point. It's hard not to see students selectively protesting a particular fashion as making a strong fashion statement themselves: the A&F protests are a classic example of how fashionable campus activism has become. In their hysterical hatred of a certain fashion line, we can see students turning protest itself into popular culture, into a style, a trend, a cool thing to consume. This is campus activism in the age of spectacle. Protest no longer expresses outrage; it performs it. And like all popular performances, people will pay to support it. In demanding money from A&F, this is what student protesters are counting on.

But I digress. Here's another letter. In response to my May 2 blog about why I keep a blog, a reader from Australia writes this eloquent riff on academic conformity; the rote, destructive character of institutionalized academic dissent (especially as it manifests itself in grad student unions); and the singular importance of realizing, cherishing, and preserving the pleasure and privilege of scholarly work:

The combination of the daily confessional of blogging and academia is welcome, because in critiquing some of the more sordid and dubious practices currently taking place in the Academy, it inevitably helps to affirm the importance of disputation and debate in academic work. The impetus to confront, to unsettle, to challenge, is a longstanding intellectual tradition which, in the contemporary climate of America -- where, I think, professionalization has always been valued and emphasized more strongly than it has been elsewhere -- has curiously been institutionalized. It's been absorbed into organizations. It's been co-opted into efforts to unionize en masse, and has helped to shape endeavours to create a consensus which is paradoxically based on the belief that there must and always will be a fundamental tension, an unresolvable difference of opinion between students and the administration.

What is missing in this formulation is the very thing which is crucial to academic work: pleasure. In Australia, less than 10 hires were made by English departments last year. The vast majority of graduates are consequently obliged to take up 'post-doctoral fellowships', which in practice are the equivalent of enrolling in another PhD and biding one's time before an opportunity for employment emerges. Increasingly, those working in the Humanities are beginning to see academic work as a temporary engagement, and are having to seek other means of employment once they have completed two or three fellowships. Education is not a game, and love of learning is not a trivial by-product of what Borges called the "romantic seriousness" of childhood. Yet research is a stimulus for delight and creativity. Employed staff and enrolled students alike shouldn't forget the extraordinary opportunity they have been given to pursue their own creative interests.

Go readers! Keep the comments coming. That's what blogs are all about.

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink




May 5, 2002 [feather]
Weekend entertainment: the partial transcript

Weekend entertainment: the partial transcript of Greta Van Susteren's interview with two students from Syracuse University who oppose the school's decision to invite Rudy Giuliani to speak at this year's commencement exercises. Giuliani turned down a lot of invitations to speak this year, but he accepted the one from Syracuse. You'd think Syracuse students would be honored to be chosen by the former mayor of New York City. But instead they are concerned for the damage he might do to their tender sensibilities.

Van Susteren grilled the Syracuse students about why they didn't want TIME magazine's Person of the Year to speak on their campus. Here are some of their more cogent reponses:

Are we in pain yet? If Van Susteren's grilling shows nothing else, it shows how murky is the thinking behind this student protest. If these two characters are its most articulate representatives, Syracuse has bigger problems than student unrest.

These two young men--elected student leaders as deadly earnest as they are irrational and inarticulate--can't explain why Giuliani is a bad choice. But they expect not to have to. Reading the transcript of the interview, it's clear they do not even recognize what Van Susteren is asking them to do: to justify their position logically, to put forth a reasoned argument against having Giuliani be the one to speak the inspiring words that launch this year's class into the future. What they do instead: mouth the platitudes of therapeutic multiculturalism. If Giuliani comes to campus, they claim, the student body will feel "stigmatized" and "marginalized." This is so because, unlike Syracuse University, Giuliani does not support "diversity and caring." Instead, he is emblematic of oppression: he "represents a nationwide problem." To certain student "sects" (cults? multicults?), Giuliani's actions in the wake of 9/11 were just "one single incident," and as such do not "count."

Ahhh. I love close reading. I totally understand now. Giuliani is an oppressor. His presence is therefore not only oppressive, but a symbol of Oppression itself. He cannot speak at Syracuse without wounding students. It doesn't matter what he says. The very fact of his speaking will "stigmatize" and "marginalize." His is an uncaring manner that is inherently hostile to diversity. Good students: you have learned the lessons of cultural sensitivity well. Sprinkle your talk with the buzzwords. Use said buzzwords to manufacture racism by accusation. Do not trouble to accuse only those who deserve it. Assign blame wherever you can. Blame white men. Blame images. Blame white men for being images. Hold fast to your outrage when it is challenged. And make sure you let those who disagree with you know that they, too, are insensitive, uncaring, and hostile to "diversity" (which you never bother to define). Syracuse should be proud. Or scared.

So who would these ambassadors of campus harmony recommend instead as a commencement speaker? "Someone who does not divide," they say. And who might that be? Either Bob Costas or Conan O'Brien, they say. Why? Because "no student would have really cared." Is this what it has come to? Graduating seniors about to embark on life in the world would rather have completely innocuous speakers--speakers who will either divert them with topical patter or treat the whole affair as a sporting event--than speakers who will challenge them to live up to their own hard-won wisdom?

I can see Costas now, with his mike and headset: "And here is graduating senior John Doe, major in economics, coming down the stage toward the dean ... he's closing in, he reaches out, and it's the hand off! He has the diploma! He's off! The field before him is clear ... he's making a great walk, heading straight for the end of the stage ... and he's clear! He scores! He graduates! [crowd roars; parents do wave]." Well, if it came to that, you couldn't really blame poor old Bob. Graduations do tend to take place in football stadiums. Such a setting can get pretty confusing for a veteran sportscaster such as himself.

Maybe I'm just a sucker for sentiment, but I think Syracuse would be hard-pressed to find a better commencement speaker than Giuliani. This is a man who knows a thing or two about leadership. He knows about higher purpose. He knows how to keep himself and his constituents together in times of crisis. He knows how to use words and gestures to turn mass panic into concentrated community cooperation. He knows how to channel the grief and anger and pain of his citizens into positive, focussed action. He knows how to create collective hope, how to guard and sustain communal belief. What he did in the aftermath of 9/11 was positively heroic. There is no other word for it, and there are few people who ever truly deserve to have that word applied to them. Surely the students at Syracuse would want to hear what such a man has to say about meeting life's challenges? Surely they would want to close out their college careers to something more lasting and substantial than the flip, ephemeral banter of professional conversationalists?

Not at all. Not in an era when even our presidents dream of being on TV when they grow up. If Bill Clinton can seriously aspire to become a talk show host after eight years in the Oval Office, Syracuse seniors can certainly look to late night personalities for guidance and inspiration. What more is there to life, after all, than a good suit, a ready wit, and a steady stream of celebrity guests whom you can mock or praise as you please? Add to that a nightly musical performance by a band eager to promote its new CD, and you've got professional heaven in an age of hollow expectation. Who needs a real live hero when you can get canned style?

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink




May 4, 2002 [feather]
So, was I unduly harsh

So, was I unduly harsh yesterday in my impatience over Asian students' outrage about the Abercrombie & Fitch t-shirts? I don't think so. I don't doubt that the pain the protesters feel is real. I don't doubt that they really believe lasting, terrible damage is being done by the stereotypical images A&F slapped on their $25 shirts. I don't doubt their fear that the shirts will harm the self-esteem of Asian Americans and also send the message that racial stereotyping is hip and cool. And I don't doubt their fear that the images themselves bespeak a latent--or not so latent--racism in American culture, an ugly intolerant streak that is all-too reminiscent of xenophobic days gone by.

But just because their pain is real does not make it legitimate in the ways they want it to be. Personal anguish does not itself prove the existence of a wrong. Nor can it justify either the sort of censorship or the sort of reparation the protesters are demanding. These are controversial opinions in an era when feelings are being given the kind of credibility they currently enjoy, and when the bearers of institutionally inflicted wounds (women, gays and lesbians, people of color) have so much social power. But I stand by them. To privilege feelings as we have been doing is to consent to the utter degradation of our public and private lives. To teach students to privilege hurt feelings over knowledge, or reason, or tolerance, or broader purpose--as we are increasingly doing in the name of diversity--is to blaspheme the very idea of education.

In such campus-centered phenomena as speech codes and sensitivity training and boilerplate multicultural curricula, we are watching the profound anti-intellectualism that accompanies the cultivation of mass woundedness, and we are reaping the results. Instead of showing tolerance, these students demanded censorship. Worse, they smelled profit. A&F may be a "racist" company, but its money is apparently not sullied by its "racist" marketing practices or its checkered colonialist past (A&F were originally producers of safari gear). So a moral shakedown accompanies the demand that A&F be boycotted: A&F must now demonstrate its "commitment to diversity" in stacks of pretty green dollars. That we are capable, as a culture, of using our moral wounds as extortionate levers, that we are not only willing to be bought off, but demand to be bought off, should tell us something about ourselves. It should tell us just how damaging our emerging culture of injured one-up-manship has become. And it should make us ask what in God's name is happening on American campuses that instead of producing capable, qualified citizens, universities are becoming ever more efficient at transforming young adults into walking emotional wrecks who are utterly incapable of understanding, or even coping with, the world. Face it: if you can't handle an off-color T-shirt, what can you handle?

A case in point: the multiple meltdowns Harvard law students have had this year about the alleged racial insensitivity of their classmates and their professors. These students are supposedly the creme de la creme. They represent the nation's finest college graduates, and will become some of the most influential and powerful lawyers, judges, and law professors in the land. And yet they can't hear the "n" word without decompensating. So mortally bludgeoned are they by one professor's completely legitimate, if awkwardly phrased, comment that "feminists, Marxists, and the blacks" have done nothing to advance tort law that they can't physically attend his lectures for fear of further psychic injury (in fact, critical race theorists and feminist legal theorists such as Catharine MacKinnon have completely screwed tort law by eroding the crucial distinction between words and acts). Another law prof upset students so much that he has simply been removed from the classroom. The administration has promised to hold faculty workshops on diversity this summer (Blue Eyed, anyone?), and may even bless Harvard with a racial harassment policy.

How will these fragile young legal souls handle the gritty reality of professional life after law school? Will they sue disrespectful clients for harassment? Will they demand "time-outs" in court when they get ruffled by opposing counsel or hostile witnesses? Will they show no commitment whatever to the laws they are bound to uphold, and devote themselves instead to banning, censoring, and sanctioning everything and everyone that give them a bit of a twinge? These are neither idle nor paranoid questions. We should all be asking them. We should all be watching the anti-intellectual, hystericizing effects of universities' "commitment to diversity." And we should be extolling the virtues of thick skin, reasoned debate, and a sense of social purpose that does not get its energy from our narcissistic need to feed and feed and feed our ever so pleasurable, profitable pain.

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink




May 3, 2002 [feather]
What's in a logo? Hate,

What's in a logo? Hate, oppression, insensitivity, and racism, among other things. But American students, faculty, and activists are on the case. Taking seriously the idea that clothes make the (wo)man, they are working overtime during the end-of-term crush to ban racist clothing and, presumably, the racist sentiment it produces in those who wear it.

Here are some highlights from the kinder, gentler clothing campaign:

Law students at the University of Oregon petition to have the University's athletic teams barred from competition with schools whose mascots or logos are deemed to be "offensive."

In California, the Alliance Against Racial Mascots is lobbying for a law prohibiting all public schools from using Indian (woops, Native American) team mascots.

Stanford students are spearheading a nationwide protest against Abercrombie & Fitch for trying to market t-shirts with logos featuring stereotypical images of Asians. A&F pulled the t-shirts (which were the brainchild of an Asian designer) from their shelves, but this is not enough in the eyes of the wounded students. They have a list of "National Unified Demands." You can see them at www.boycottaf.com. Michelle Malkin's column on the A&F debacle is priceless.

Meanwhile, students at the University of Northern Colorado have honored the sensitivities of the racially fragile by christening their men's intramural basketball team the Fighting Whites. You can read media coverage of the Fighting Whites, and shop for inoffensive Fighting Whites wearables, at www.fightingwhites.org. Proceeds from Fighting Whites clothing sales go to the Fighting Whites Scholarship Fund, established to support the education of Native American students.

Last week, the University of Northern Colorado also hosted a two-day conference entitled "In Whose Honor? A Symposium On Ethnic Stereotypes and Mascots." David Yeagley, a humanities professor, member of the Comanche Tribe, and self-professed patriot, describes the event, including how he was himself barred from further participation in it once he expressed his opinion that the whole thing was an ideological charade.

But don't let Yeagley's false consciousness get you down, and don't fret about Malkin's contempt for the hypocrisy of her fellow Asians. Theirs are just lone voices shouting into the winds of change. They can do nothing to stem the tide of the new multicultural feel-good fashion industry. Soon, if all goes well, our clothing will be properly schooled in radical politics. Then we can all literally wear our socially engineered hearts on our sleeves.

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink




May 2, 2002 [feather]
If you are wondering what

If you are wondering what a blog is, and why a fine upstanding academic such as myself would choose to spend time self-publishing daily opinion columns, you might be interested in some of the writing that has been done recently about weblogs (blogs) and bloggers. Andrew Sullivan's "Blogger's Manifesto" was the piece that got me thinking about starting a blog. There is also a good description of the "blogosphere" in a recent Washington Post column. If you want still more, see Newsday's "Jog Around the Blog".

The basic idea behind blogs is freedom. Blogs make it possible for anyone with an internet connection to make their thoughts available to the world. The overhead is minimal, and if you are any good at what you do, the payback is phenomenal. Not in terms of dollars, but in terms of satisfaction. If you have something you want to say, you put it in your blog. No selling the idea to overworked editors who don't know you from Adam, no waiting months for readers' reports, no wondering if anyone, ever, anywhere, reads what you write. With a blog, you get instant gratification. You capture a thought that would otherwise pass into oblivion. That's gratifying. You take the time to find words for the thought, and to write them down. That's gratifying, too. There is a precision to it, a discipline and even a bit of art. Instead of just grunting at something that strikes you in the morning paper, you take a minute to work out what it was that struck you and you write it down. Then you post what you have written, and you have transformed what could have been just a passing private reaction into a formed, framed piece of lasting communication. Anybody in the world can now link to your blog and read what you have written. And, amazingly, all kinds of people do.

I've had thousands of readers in the first six weeks of Cant Watch, from all over the world. Some of them I know--they are students and colleagues, friends, family, and the occasional enemy. Most of my readers I don't know. They are from Finland and Japan and Estonia and France and Jamaica and just about anyplace else you can think of. Some are regulars, others just pass through. The regulars I know not by their names, but by their internet providers. These regulars and I have a sort of relationship. They stop by each day, usually at about the same time. Some are morning surfers--I try to get my daily blog posted early enough that I won't miss them.

I started my blog with the goal simply of catching some of the day-to-day thoughts I would otherwise lose. I had hoped it would give me a way to think more systematically about a subject that occupies me more or less continuously--academic cant, and the damage it is doing to higher education, doctoral training, and to scholarship. My goal was to use the blog to track patterns, to frame questions and to follow up on them, to learn a little history, and to begin forming a vocabulary for talking about what ails contemporary academe. The blog has done all that and more. Not only do I have a place to try out ideas, but I have an audience. My audience, in turn, votes with its feet (or its mouse). My blog gets read as long as it is worth reading. For an academic used to writing for the proverbial audience of none, this is heady, thrilling, invigorating stuff. I recommend it highly.

As I have made abundantly clear in previous blogs, I think the bulk of what passes for scholarship in the humanities is terrible, terrible stuff: unreadable, ill-conceived, irresponsible, uninformed, unconscionably solipsistic and disingenuously pretentious. If you think this is harsh, know at least that I am fair: I include my own first book in that assessment. I believe, too, that academic writing is as bad as it is because it is done not to communicate, but to impress; not to convince but to dazzle; not to express the writer's original ideas, but to advance a career. Many, many scholars write not because they want to, but because they are required to, because they will not get jobs, or tenure, or promotion to full professor, without it. As a result, most academic writing does not have a developed sense of an audience. It does not even typically believe it needs one, nor is it written with a mind to acquiring one. This is a sign of deep professional pathology. To require and reward such writing is criminal. To perform such writing is a crime against intellect, conscience and personal dignity. At the same time, it is a crime made utterly mundane by the sheer number of people who willingly commit it year after year, and who assess their students and colleagues by their willingness to collude in the intellectually dishonest culture of publish or perish.

As a writing mode that offers the possibility of instant, guaranteed, self-determined publication, blogs are a fantastic way of getting around (or over or beyond) writer's block and the related procrastinations and self-censorships that come with more traditionally "scholarly" forms of writing. Blogs are also amazing ways to overcome the debilitating sense of "audiencelessness" that plagues so much academic writing. When you know you are posting to the world wide web, and that you are doing it now, and that you are then going to be able to watch readers flock to your blog or flee, it's amazing how readily words and ideas come together. Obfuscation ceases to be either an ideal or a problem. Your word choice becomes at once more colorful and more concise. Your tone varies when and as tone should. Your prose cleans itself right up, becomes clear, accessible, and sometimes even trenchant. You might even discover a sense of humor. Certainly you will discover what writing ought to feel like: meaningful, connected, rewarding.

Blogs are a godsend to academics laboring under the debased conditions of a professional system that perverts the act of writing by demanding that it be done on cue, to prove oneself to others rather than to record one's ideas because one is moved to do so. Or they might be, if more academics--particularly young ones--began blogging. I know it has been a godsend to me.

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink




May 1, 2002 [feather]
At Columbia University, the games

At Columbia University, the games have begun. In March, graduate teaching assistants voted on whether to unionize. The Columbia administration promptly appealed the vote, claiming that graduate students are not employees, but students who teach as part of their training. The ballots were sealed, and graduate students are protesting the administration's appeal (still pending) in the good old-fashioned way: by walking out. On Monday, several hundred grad students and supporters picketed before the University's front gates while Columbia's clerical union struck in sympathy.

The stand-off is predictable. Graduate students are angry because they see the administration's appeal as an attempt to block the union. According to Kimberly Phillips-Fein, a history Ph.D. student and union leader, "The appeal is really an attempt to break our union and to put a stop to the movement." Meanwhile, the Columbia administration sees the one-day walkout as proof of the would-be union's bad faith. Jonathan R. Cole, Columbia's provost, notes that the walkout "should finally lay to rest UAW Local 2110's claims ... that the union would only use strikes as a weapon of last resort and that the unionization of graduate students would not adversely affect the academic environment of the university." Indeed. Walking out was the would-be union's way of trying to intimidate the administration into repealing its appeal. But all the pro-union grad students have shown is that they see confrontation and disruption not as methods of last resort, but as manipulative weapons that they are not at all reluctant to use. Walking out in the middle of the appeals process was a tremendous act of bad faith on the part of Columbia's grad students. Ironically, it could not have been better calculated to prove to the Columbia administration that the last thing it wants on its campus is organized graduate student "labor."

Though the strike itself was peaceful, it was timed to make a powerful impact. It's the end of the term, classes are ending and students are scrambling to complete term papers and prepare for final exams. Walking out on Monday allowed graduate teaching assistants to make their point about how much of Columbia's teaching they do by turning their backs on the undergraduates who take their classes--more than 3/4 of freshman composition classes were cancelled Monday, for example. Screwing over undergraduates is a tried and true technique of grad student unions, which have learned that disrupting the education of innocent--and paying--bystanders can be an effective means of pressuring recalcitrant administrations to meet their demands. Columbia's grad students have now joined the proud history of grad students who have exploited their students, and diminished their role as teachers, in order to further their own agenda.

Phillips-Fein argues that "What really threatens education at Columbia is having classes taught by teaching assistants who aren't paid a living wage." But it seems obvious enough that what threatens Columbia is graduate students who abuse their privilege and misrepresent themselves as laborers. Yes, many of Columbia's lower-level courses are taught, or assisted, by graduate students. But it does not follow that those students themselves are exploited. What follows is that undergraduates who have to sit through freshman comp with a second-year grad student who has never taught before are being exploited. What follows is that the parents who pay over $30,000 a year for their kids to be guinea pigs to beginning TA's are being exploited. Yes, Columbia profits from putting grad students in the classroom. But it isn't the grad students who are getting robbed. And if they want to hold on to the very great opportunity to do college teaching while they are still uncredentialed students, they would do well to behave themselves.

Read about Columbia's grad student union effort in The Chronicle of Higher Education (subscribers only), The New York Times, and Columbia's student paper, The Columbia Daily Spectator.

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink