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June 29, 2002 [feather]
I'll be posting "Freedom of

I'll be posting "Freedom of Dissociation," part two of my series on student groups, soon. In the meantime, I wanted to flag a short piece by contrarian Camille Paglia on the sorry state of American higher education. The occasion for the piece is a letter to the editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer that appeared earlier this month. Written by appalled parent Michael Mayer, the letter speaks to the system of financial extortion that has become the collegiate experience in this country. It is an especially strong indictment of both the inefficiency of college (why is it that you can become a jet-engine mechanic in less than one year but it takes four years to graduate with a degree in English? he asks), and the wrongheadedness of higher ed's present disingenuous emphasis on "well-roundedness" (when college costs as much or more than a house, it's unreasonable to require students to spend a good chunk of that money mucking about in liberal artsy sorts of courses just so they can satisfy a set of superficial and misguided distribution requirements designed to give them "depth"). Paglia's piece takes the form of a letter as well: she writes to David Horowitz, editor of Front Page Magazine and long-time critic of higher education, drawing the other letter to Horowitz's attention and voicing a few choice observations about higher ed herself.

Paglia touches on the "bankrupting cost of American higher education" (noting that Mayer has founded Parents for Education Reform, and can be reached at ParEdReform@aol.com). She records her dismay that the Democratic Party, of which she is a registered member, has utterly failed to address the "major systemic problems in primary and secondary education." She notes that we need to "revaloriz[e] the trades," pointing out that it is a massive social and economic mistake to try to track all kids, no matter what their abilities, interests, and proclivities, for college. She notes that the post-WWII American project of making college effectively compulsory for all middle-class kids has not only failed those kids, but has resulted in bloated, inefficient, self-serving college administrations whose resident bureaucrats make far more than the faculty (amen) and who are typically more concerned with PR and fund-raising than with education per se. She notes that competition among colleges has turned many of them into pseudo-intellectual resorts--parents and students expect that their exhorbitant tuition tab will buy them certain amenities, among them a not-too-difficult curriculum that distributes a vast number of high grades and a minimum of harsh criticism. Paglia notes, too, that the competition for admission to top schools is now such that high school students are living under unreasonable amounts of pressure to excel, to do, and to achieve. She calls today's upper middle-class students "hamsters on a wheel."

It's harsh stuff, all the more so because she is so right, and because the truths she tells are truths that are denied by so many of the people who are part of the system she berates. Paglia reserves especially harsh words for the academic humanities, which she locates as the scene of an abominable and long-standing bad faith:

As a career educator for 31 years, I have watched with dismay as public schools have degenerated and as the humanities programs of colleges and universities have veered away from art and toward a shallow pretense of politics--a politics without authentic political science or knowledge of history. Learning and cultivation are no longer criteria for recruitment and promotion in the humanities. The end result is a lost generation of graduate students. Our best and brightest are no longer going into humanities teaching.

Ten years ago I would have rejected this characterization. I would have thrown the weight of all my politicized marxistfeministmaterialistpoststructuralist righteous theorization at it, and I would have smugly watched Paglia's reactionaryessentialistahistoricalapolitical accusation evaporate in a puff of deconstructed counterhegemonic smoke. Ah, but then I would have had to. I was in grad school then, entirely committted to becoming part of Paglia's "lost generation." By definition, I could not have agreed with her, or even seen her point. I was smart, by god! And I was going to theorize culture!

If I had read Paglia's words five years ago, I would have equivocated. I would have acknowledged that Paglia's was indeed a point of view (though I would not necessarily have admitted that it was a legitimate point of view--just an existing point of view, a point of view that it was possible to have). But I would have come down on the side of the the humanities' progressive project. I would have defended the right of the humanist scholar to abandon art and instead to write authoritatively about the politics of everything else--the body, the nation, imperialism, gender formation, identity, oppression. Ah, but then I would have had to. I was trying to earn tenure then, and my whole career rode on whether I could turn my non-literary extremely political dissertation about diseased Victorian bodies into a viable book and sell it to a top-rated press. I was a body critic, by god! I was interdisciplinary! And transgressive! And I was going to ride that scholarly identity, such as it was, as hard as I could, as far as it would take me.

Today, I read Paglia's words from the standpoint of one who is now free to admit their truth. She is right about the humanities. She is right that in their present ill-informed pretensions to "theorize the political," the humanities are utterly and absolutely off their radical little rocker, that taken collectively, today's humanist scholars are committers of massive professional and pedagogical malpractice and little more. She is right that the sad, sad, result of this is a lost generation of graduate students. The best and brightest are not, as a rule, going into humanities teaching. And those who do are very, very poorly trained, both as scholars and teachers. It takes years to be able to admit this from within the humanities, because it involves looking at your own education with devastatingly critical eyes. It involves sweeping away the pomp and circumstance with which the culture of academic humanism swaddles its members from day one of grad school, and looking at what's left when all the self-congratulation and all the self-justification are gone. It involves admitting, when all is said and done, that the Ph.D. in English has largely become a vanity degree, the rightful badge of membership in a profession that, for all its sound and fury, signifies next to nothing.

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink




June 27, 2002 [feather]
As tensions run high about

As tensions run high about extremist student groups such as GUPS (General Union of Palestine Students), SJP (Students for Justice in Palestine), MEChA (Moviemiento Estudiantil Chicano/a de Aztlan), the Muslim Students Association, and others, I thought I'd blog a bit more about what protects the rights of these groups to exist and about the rights of students who are offended by these groups not to support them. This will be a two-part blog series. Today, I'll talk about freedom of association. In part two of the series, I'll talk about what I call "freedom of dissociation," or the rights of students not to pay fees that go to support student groups whose views they abhor.

As I've argued in previous blogs, public universities cannot get involved in the business of political or moral adjudication. Student groups get to define their own political and moral parameters, just as long as they follow school rules and obey the law. File your paperwork on time and behave, and you can found Students for a Pierced Counterhegemonic Society, or the Wiccan Women's Socialist Society, or Six-Fingered Students for Free Silver, or anything else you can think of. On the whole, this makes for a colorful, vibrant campus life, just as it makes for a colorful, vibrant national culture. That's the point. Like-minded individuals are free to form associations around common interests and beliefs. It's called freedom of association.

Freedom of association is not explicitly guaranteed by the Constitution. But a number of related rights are guaranteed, and together they add up inevitably to create this additional right. Specifically, the First Amendment guarantees the right to peaceably assemble and to petition the government; the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees due process. Taken together, the courts have historically interpreted these combined rights to guarantee freedom of association. You can find an excellent brief on what freedom of association is, how it works, and the case law surrounding it, at the First Amendment Cyber-Tribune (FACT). FACT also has an excellent page on the history, philosophy, and law behind the right to peaceable assembly.

The right of association is a major reason that politically extreme student groups at public schools cannot be disciplined or derecognized for their views alone (it's also the reason why private schools can have speech codes when public ones cannot, by the way). It's worth noting that the logic governing freedom of association was developed in large part during the civil rights upheavals of the 1950s and 60s--to defend Communist Party members from persecution (you cannot be guilty by association), and to protect the NAACP from the prying eyes of government agencies eager to get their punitive hands on the NAACP's membership lists. FACT has a fine run down of relevant court rulings, replete with quotes from the judges involved.

So here is how this works at public colleges and universities: public schools are bound by federal law and so cannot discriminate on the basis of viewpoint. But at the same time, private groups within those universities can form their own rules of association. Which in turn means that they can behave in ways that are openly partisan, biased, even racist or homophobic or sexist, without necessarily being guilty of discrimination.

A number of cases bear this out, most notably the recent ruling in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale 120 S.Ct. 2446 (2000). Remember this one? James Dale sued the Scouts for discrimination when they barred him from becoming a troop leader, citing his homosexuality as the reason for excluding him. The Supreme Court ruled that since the Scouts is a private organization, the Scouts' rights of free speech and free association trumped New Jersey's anti-discrimination law. The Court upheld the Scouts' right to limit membership to those of like belief. (For the record, an exactly analogous case occurred recently at Tufts University: a campus Christian group was derecognized for not allowing a lesbian member to seek a leadership position. Tufts claimed the group was discriminating against her. Civil liberties lawyers and watchdog groups disagreed, charging that the group had a right to ensure that its leaders shared its most fundamental beliefs--in this case, that homosexuality is inconsistent with Scripture. They were right, and the group was reinstated.)

The same principle applies to student groups at public colleges and universities. In 2001, Penn State refused to recognize the campus chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, charging that the group discriminated on the basis of religion. YAF's constitution--framed in 1960--refers to human rights as "God-given." As such, a board composed of students and faculty claimed, YAF was guilty of religious discrimination. The group was told that it would not be recognized unless it struck the phrase from its constitution. What happened? Penn State got its ass kicked (not, as I note in my June 25 blog, for the last time). FIRE got involved, and wrote President Spanier a letter reminding him of Penn State's obligations to the Bill of Rights, and noting that in barring YAF, Penn State had itself been guilty of discrimination on the basis of religion. The result? YAF got recognized, and Penn State publicly reaffirmed its commitment to the U.S. Constitution.

So there you have it. Freedom of association protects any and all student organizations, just as long as those organizations follow school rules and don't break the law. But the students who pay the fees that support these groups have rights, too. Just as students have the right to associate, so do others have the right to refuse to support associations that offend them. Seeking to have offensive groups derecognized or defunded is not the answer. Insisting on one's own right not to pay fees that go to support such groups is.

I'll explain how this works in part two of this series. In the meantime, check out the interesting posts by Glenn Frazier about whether GUPS' fundraising for the Holy Land Foundation is, or could be considered to be, complicit with terrorism.

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink




June 25, 2002 [feather]
Debate continues about my June

Debate continues about my June 23 post on free speech at SFSU. Today, I want to offer a few thoughts in response to Tish Jennings' argument, posted on GlennFrazier.com, that "Having access to the web via the SFSU is a privilege, not a right and SFSU has the right to regulate the content of its web sites. The first amendment does not protect this speech...." Tish defends this claim by citing the acceptable use policy for the Cal State system, arguing that it has "EXTREMELY rigid regulations regarding content," and concluding that this means that SFSU, as part of that system, "has the authority to cancel any web site they own."

Not so. Let's look at the policy, and do some close reading.

First of all, SFSU policies on acceptable use--which are the same as those for the entire Cal State University system--mostly refer to conduct on the web, not content. You have to respect copyrights and licensing agreements for programs and data, for example. You can't disseminate viruses. You can't plagiarize. You can't hack into the system. You can't use your site as a storefront. And so on.

There is one passage in the policy that deals with content, and it looks like this:

"Any illegal or inappropriate use of 4CNet, or use in support of such activities, is prohibited. Illegal use shall be defined as use which violates state, or federal law. Inappropriate use shall be defined as a violation of the goals, purpose and intended use of the network. This includes, but is not limited to, the following: stalking others, supporting partisan political activities, transmitting or originating any unlawful, fraudulent, defamatory, or obscene communications, or any communications where the message or its transmission or distribution, would constitute or would encourage conduct that is a criminal offense or would give rise to civil liability."

Let's go through these restrictions one by one. Did the GUPS web site stalk anybody? No. That's an easy one.

What about "transmitting or originating any unlawful, fraudulent, defamatory, or obscene communications"? I discussed in my June 23 blog why I think it is not valid to consider a web site to be a "communication." I would add that the language of this policy is very dated, and smells strongly of the type of rhetoric developed by the Communications Decency Act--which did include web sites, and which was found unconstitutional in large part because it was too broad and too unresponsive to the unique nature of the web. The repeal of the CDA effectively gave web content the same legal status as print.

What about transmitting or originating "any communications where the message or its transmission or distribution, would constitute or would encourage conduct that is a criminal offense or would give rise to civil liability"? Again, the GUPS web site was not a communication. If you want to argue that the site encouraged terrorism with its gif and its links, think again. According to Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444 (1969), individuals can be held responsible for inciting the actions of others only when they directly advocate "imminent lawless action" to those who are likely to commit it. Impassioned political advocacy is not itself incitement, especially when it takes place on a web site (as opposed to face to face communication). As for civil liability--it's the act of removing the site, rather than allowing it to remain, that gives rise to civil liability in this case. State schools that behave in such wantonly partisan ways--censoring this speech while allowing that speech to stand--are just asking to have their socks sued off.


Now for the moment we've all been waiting for.

Did the GUPS website support partisan political activities? Yes indeed it did. Does that mean that the site should be removed? No, it means that the Cal State system has a chilling, morally undesirable, and probably unconstitutional acceptable use policy. Private ISPs can and do use such regulatory language. A private college or university may use such language, though it would effectively eviscerate the character and quality of campus culture if it did so. A government-funded public college or university may not, under any circumstances, limit the content--political or otherwise--of student or faculty expression. It is simply not possible to do so in a non-partisan, non-discriminatory manner. (If anti-Semitic GUPS can't have a website, neither can pro-Israel Hillel.)

Sometimes schools try to limit expression, invoking "hostile environment" policies to ban controversial views in the name of campus "civility." When they do, the results are uniformly disastrous and embarrassing. In the wake of 9/11, for example, Penn State administrators went after a professor whose web site advocated a strong military response to the terrorist attacks. Students decided the opinions expressed on the website offended them, and complained to the administration. And, instead of defending the professor's right to free speech, the Vice Provost for Academic Affairs sent him a letter informing him that his site was "insensitive and perhaps intimidating," with the clear insinuation that the site could cost the professor his job (at Penn State, probably unconstitutionally, "intimidating expression" is grounds for dismissal). What happened? Penn State got its ass kicked. FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) became involved in the case, and shamed Penn State into a ringing endorsement of the First Amendment. The web site was allowed to stand. (For more on the unconstitutionality of using "hostile environment" to regulate expression at state colleges and universities, see civil liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate's excellent brief).

The episode shows how vulnerable universities become--legally, and public-relationally--when they start playing God. It also clearly affirms that student and faculty web content at public universities comes under the protection of the First Amendment--an affirmation that echoes the language surrounding the repeal of the Communications Decency Act, where the Supreme Court clearly and unambiguously ruled that attempts to regulate "indecent" or "offensive" web content are in violation of the First Amendment, and therefore unconstitutional.

Technicalities of school policy and specific cases aside, I want to ask a philosophical question. Why on earth would anyone want to regulate student and faculty web content? What purpose does that serve, beyond punishing people who express arbitrarily defined "incorrect opinions" and chilling the educational environment for everyone else? How exactly is declaring campus web space a "no free speech zone" anything other than an authoritarian move designed to quell dissent--specifically, designed to quell the expression of opinions and beliefs that are not in line with reigning orthodoxy? How are students served by being taught that when they don't like someone's opinion, they should run to the authorities and demand that the offensive point of view be removed from sight? How is teaching thin-skinned dependency on a totalitarian model of authority useful training for young adults about to begin full participation in a liberal democracy? The rigid anti-intellectual norms embedded within the attempt to control and regulate campus speech defeat the whole purpose of education.

At SFSU, the solution is not to suppress the nastiness of the GUPS site, but to expose it before the world--via the media and the internet--for the intolerant, ignorant, unconscionable piece of hatred that it is. You can't do that if the site is down.

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink




June 24, 2002 [feather]
My comments about SFSU's questionable

My comments about SFSU's questionable decision to remove the GUPS website have caused some controversy, but that's a good thing. The more we hash out the complicated issues surrounding civil liberties on campus, the more debate we have, the better off we will all be.

One point that can't be made too strongly, and a major reason why campus speech codes keep getting thrown out of court, is that it is simply impossible to define "hate speech" effectively and fairly. Once you start trying to regulate the content of someone's expression, as opposed to the time, place, and manner of that expression, you enter the zone of authoritarianism. One person's hate speech is another person's heartfelt belief; no one has the authority to adjudicate matters of private conscience, no matter how well-meaning or community-minded he or she may be. It is that simple, and it is a truth our campuses have worked very, very hard in recent years to make us forget--or, in the case of younger students, never know. Universities were not created to be "nice" places where nobody ever gets their feelings hurt or has their ideas challenged. They were created for the purpose of education--and real education, true education, education in independent, meticulous reasoning, cannot occur in an environment where everyone is more concerned about not causing offense than about pursuing truth.

You may say that there are cases where it is absolutely, unequivocally clear that all that is being expressed is hate, and that it is right and fair to punish in those cases. You may say the GUPS website is a classic example of such a case. I will say to that that I know first hand just how slippery the slope of "hate" can be. Last year, I posted a web site that offended certain graduate students in my department. The site didn't contain anti-Semitic gifs, or links to terrorist fronts, or even any profanity or porn. What it did do was voice strong words about graduate student culture in the humanities, which I find to be enormously unhealthy and counterproductive on a number of levels, and to offer advice to graduate students for getting through grad school with their minds and spirits intact. Certain students did not like the site. They complained to departmental administrators that they felt "menaced" and "threatened" and "targeted" by it--language that will be familiar to those following the SFSU situation. And guess what? I got a call from the then-graduate chair suggesting that I risked losing my job if I didn't remove the "offending pages."

What I posted was entirely within my rights, and was very, very far from what any reasonable person might define as "hate speech." And yet the rhetoric of hate speech was invoked to condemn what I had written, and it stuck--because "hate speech" is fundamentally in the eye of the beholder; because it is an eminently abusable category; because it is whatever the would-be censor wants it to be. Students felt threatened and menaced; therefore, I was threatening and menacing them.

My point? We have to defend the expression of groups like GUPS if we want to be sure our own expression is protected. These are tough truths to swallow when one is on the wrong end of bigoted and nasty expression, but they are the truths we have to swallow if we are to preserve the liberty that makes our lives so preciously free.

I'll blog more about the rights issues that surround student groups, and the student fees that pay for those groups, within a day or so. In the meantime, if you are looking for more to read on the subject of hate speech on campus, see the ACLU's briefing paper on the subject. It runs through the relevant case law, and it also explains why it is not only illegal, but morally and politically undesirable, for public schools to attempt to limit or regulate the content of student or faculty expression.

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink




June 23, 2002 [feather]
It finally happened: SFSU has

It finally happened: SFSU has pulled the plug on its rabidly anti-Semitic student organization, the General Union of Palestine Students (GUPS). According to Saturday's L.A. Times (link courtesy of Armed Liberal) SFSU announced Friday that it was putting GUPS on probation and cutting off its funding for one year because of the way GUPS members behaved at a pro-Israel peace rally held on the campus last May 7: "The university said that it disciplined the General Union of Palestine Students because its members interfered with the pro-Israel rally," the Times reports. "After reviewing videotapes and interviewing witnesses about the incident, campus authorities concluded that the counterdemonstrators had violated campus regulations by hurling racial and ethnic epithets, using bullhorns and drums and refusing to remain in their designated area."

This is great news, and in many ways it is the result of the extended, concerted efforts of a number of professors, parents, students, citizens, and outraged bloggers who helped to expose GUPS' behavior for what it was, and who insisted, loudly, lengthily, and, much to President Corrigan's eternal dismay, publicly, that the SFSU administration stop equivocating and act. Truly a victory--one small step for campus justice, one giant step for administrative accountability.

But there is a little problem with the way SFSU proceeded last week. I refer to SFSU's decision to pull GUPS' web site.

Last week, SFSU convened a committee to evaluate the web site of the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS). The site, hosted on the SFSU server, featured rampant anti-Semitism, including an animated gif of a figure throwing a rock at a Star of David (currently viewable at GlennFrazier.com), a link to the Holy Land Foundation (a front for the terrorist organization HAMAS), and a link to ummah.net (the Muslim directory, which in turn contains a section on "the Holocaust that never was"). It was the last straw for parents, students, and professors who have been continually outraged in recent months by the lawless, hateful, and threatening behavior of members of the student organization. And it seems to have been the last straw, too, for a university administration that has taken a great deal of heat lately for its failure to address the ongoing outrageousness--and sometime illegality--of GUPS. After looking at the GUPS site, the committee pulled it, citing various violations of university policy and California law.

The Times notes in passing that before deciding to sanction GUPS, "school authorities also took down the group's Web site earlier this week because it showed an animated image throwing a rock against the Star of David and because the site carried a link to a separate Web site that made claims of 'Jewish ritual murder.'" A more detailed article in the Jewish Bulletin reports that

"The 14-member committee found the site violated SFSU Web policy in disseminating 'obscene, harassing, threatening, or unwelcome communications,' and contradicted sections of the student code of conduct in directing 'abusive behavior toward members of the campus community.' The committee also found the site to be in violation of sections of Title V of the state administrative code regarding disruption of the educational process and misuse of campus property. The Web Committee recommended SFSU's dean of students and office of programs and leadership development look into possibly punishing the Palestinian student organization."

Later in the week, GUPS was indeed punished in the manner outlined above.

So what's wrong with this picture? What's wrong with this picture is that the rationale for removing the web site--which we should note is different from the rationale that was later given for putting GUPS on probation--crumbles into nothing when looked at closely. GUPS members and their supporters will react to the summary removal of the web site by crying censorship, and they will have a point. The reasons given for removing the web site do not hold up against either university policy or the law (as I understand it--I'm no lawyer, just a dedicated student of how rights work on campus).

Let's start with university policy. According to the committee, the GUPS site violated SFSU Web policy in disseminating 'obscene, harassing, threatening, or unwelcome communications.' They've got GUPS dead to rights here, right? Wrong. Read it again. It's totally nonsensical. A web site is not a communication, but a publication. It sits quietly--if offensively--at its little URL, and only bothers you if you voluntarily go to it to be bothered. So what's going on? Sloppiness on the part of the people who wrote this policy. The wording is copied wholesale from SFSU's Computing Ethics and Security page, and it refers to improper use of an email account ; i.e., spamming or stalking. Needless to say, a website is not spam, and cannot stalk. No matter what its content, a website cannot in itself be considered an 'obscene, harassing, threatening, or unwelcome communication.'

Is there a policy governing web content at SFSU? Not at all, beyond the injunction to obey the law, and rightly so (more on this below). What there is, however, is a perfectly proper disclaimer: The university is quite clear that student organization web pages are classified as personal web pages, not official university pages (the way a departmental home page would be, for example). And it is careful, too, to disclaim the content on personal web pages, stating up front on the Student Programs page that "official recognition of a student organization does not by itself constitute any type of endorsement by the University of the organization's purpose, and it does not constitute any assumption of responsibility, liability, or sponsorship (fiscal or otherwise) by the University for the organization's activities."


What about the alleged violation of the Student Code of Conduct, that the GUPS web site constitutes "abusive behavior toward members of the campus community"? Is a web site a form of "behavior"? According to SFSU's code of conduct, it is indeed. The code clearly specifies that "The term 'behavior' includes conduct and expression." A web site is a form of expression. So SFSU has got GUPS dead to rights on this one, right? Wrong. SFSU is a state school, and is thus bound to uphold the First Amendment. This means that any restrictions the school places on expression have to be content-neutral, centered on time and place (you can't disrupt a class to demonstrate, for example, and you can't shout in my face--not even if what you are shouting is really nice).

SFSU's policy conflating speech with acts, and attempting thereby to limit expression to that which is not considered "abusive" (large, subjective category, that), is most likely unconstitutional, and would not hold up in court. Speech codes instituted by public universities never do. (For many examples, see the case archive at The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.)

A web site does not--cannot--constitute abusive behavior or expression. Yes, the GUPS site pummels the sensibilities of anyone who abhors anti-Semitism, terrorism, and vicious historical revisionism such as Holocaust denial. But wounding sensibilities is not an actionable offense.

SFSU does have a hate speech policy, which reads like this: "Hate speech is a generic term that has come to embrace the use of speech attacks on race, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation while the First Amendment does not permit the government to impose special prohibitions on those speakers who express views on disfavored subjects. Speech or actions directed at inciting or producing imminent lawless action and speech likely to incite or produce such actions will be prohibited. Fighting words, which are likely to incite an immediate breach of the peace, will be prohibited. Communications, which create an imminent danger of uncontrolled violence, are prohibited."

This policy is grammatically disastrous, but the sense is clear enough on a couple reads. Basically, it acknowledges that the First Amendment protects hate speech. And then it stipulates those types of speech that are not covered by the First Amendment: fighting words and communications that "create an imminent danger of uncontrolled violence;" i.e. terroristic threats. We've already covered how a web site cannot be considered a communication. What about fighting words? Surely the GUPS site, with its image of rocks destroying the Star of David and its link to Hamas, constituted fighting words? No. As the AAUP (academe's watchdog organization for academic freedom) notes in its statement on Academic Freedom and Electronic Communication", "The doctrine of 'fighting words,' which is the basis for certain campus speech codes (as at the University of California) simply has no counterpart in digital expression; the imminent threat of physical response that may warrant silencing a provocative speaker does not have an obvious analogue in the virtual world." The AAUP is also very clear that academic freedom extends to cyberspace: words posted on the web are every bit as "real" and thus protected as words printed in a publication.

Hmmm. This web site is starting to look pretty censored.

What about the last rationale for pulling GUPS' site, the claim that it was in "violation of sections of Title V of the state administrative code regarding disruption of the educational process and misuse of campus property"? First off, the text of Title V is, conveniently, the same as the text of SFSU's student code of conduct. The relevant sections run as follows:

"Article 2, Title 5, California Code of Regulations 41301. Expulsion, Suspension, and Probation of Students. Following procedures consonant with due process established pursuant to Section 41304, any student of a campus may be expelled, suspended, placed on probation or given a lesser sanction for one or more of the following causes which must be campus related: .... d. Obstruction or disruption, on- or off-campus property, of the campus educational process, administrative process, or other campus function. ... g. Unauthorized entry into, unauthorized use of, or misuse of campus property."

Let's just say I have my doubts whether these policies have been reasonably applied in the case of the GUPS website. GUPS students were certainly guilty of (d) at the May 7 rally. But I don't see how the website itself obstructs or disrupts the educational process, for all the reasons outlined above. Nor do I see how a recognized student group using designated university web space to express its views (albeit controversial and hateful ones) constitutes a misuse of campus property, again, for all the reasons outlined above.

What we have here is not a case of a university administration finding its spine and acting swiftly and fairly to repair a wrong, but a university administration that is continuing its hallowed tradition of responding inappropriately to the provocative, menacing, and truly egregious behavior GUPS members have engaged in over the past year. As much as it may appall those of us who disagree with them, the students who belong to GUPS do have the right to express their beliefs before the eyes--and the judgement--of the world.

So here is where things stand at SFSU: in the past week, GUPS has been wrongfully censored and rightly sanctioned. Being on probation means that GUPS remains intact as a student group. (Here is the definition of probation, according to SFSU's Office of Student Programs: "A status imposed for a specific time period. Organizations on probation may continue with all or some of the rights and privileges of organizations for a specified period of time. Any violations within the time period will result in the immediate loss of all organizational privileges. The organization will be closely monitored by the Student Programs Office for the probation period.") So GUPS has gotten a little slap on the wrist: no allowance for one year, and plenty of surveillance. But it still gets to meet on campus, and to be affiliated with SFSU, and we can bet it will work this censorship issue for all it is worth. My guess is that GUPS will either get its university URL restored in short order, or it will put up the same site at an off-campus server where SFSU administrators can't touch it.

I end with a disclaimer of my own: the aim of this post is not to endorse the content of GUPS' expression, but to defend the group's right to express its beliefs. My point, finally, is not to diminish the seriousness of GUPS' actions, or to belittle the impact GUPS' anti-Semitic expression has had on those it targets, but simply to clarify the issues at stake in what is a very ugly business all round. If one is to fight effectively, one has to know what one is fighting, and one has to know the rules of the game.

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink




June 21, 2002 [feather]
Today, we have at long

Today, we have at long last Part III of the Amazing Grade Inflation Blog Series (see Parts I and II in the June 5 and June 11 blogs). My apologies for the slow and intermittent character of the series, though if I do say so myself my serial tardiness in writing about grade inflation constitutes a peculiarly apt deconstruction of the chronic tardiness built into the grading system itself, which revolves around two equally annoying but ever so common procrastinatory poles: that of The Late Paper and that of The Even Later Grade. (So it's a bad excuse. At least I didn't try to get you to believe that the dog ate my blog.)

So, without further ado, here are two more entries in the Encyclopedia of Grade Inflation:

Wordsworthian Genius Theory: This theory has two versions: a diachronic version and a synchronic version. The diachronic version of the Wordsworthian Genius Theory argues that since students are on average much better prepared for college today than they were in the days of yore (not to be confused with yesteryear), they should get higher grades than students used to. The synchronic version of the Wordsworthian Genius Theory applies only to elite schools, and argues that since admissions standards at elite schools are so high, the students attending these schools are just smarter than students at lesser institutions, and therefore just do better work than their comparatively impaired compeers.

The diachronic version of the Wordsworthian Genius Theory is not only laughable (suggesting as it does that all students from all time inhabit the same transhistorical classroom, and make up the same transcendent bell curve), but highly debatable. Try telling the tenured Temple University math professor who lost his job for refusing to dumb his courses down that students are better educated today than they used to be, and see what he has to say. Also try the little math test included in the article, and see for yourself the simple problems this professor's college students could not solve.

The synchronic version of the Wordsworthian Genius Theory of grade inflation is similarly laughable (if students at elite schools are such brilliant autodidacts, why have elite schools?). It is, nonetheless, very much a part of the rationale for grade inflation at places like Harvard, where eminent professors such as Stephen Greenblatt describe their student work as "astonishing" and "amazing" in order to justify handing out a disproportionate number of A's. Thus does snobbery justify pedagogical irresponsibility (sorry, Professor Greenblatt, but if the silver spoon fits...). In Greenblatt's words, ''Is someone who graduates summa cum laude at a less selective university really the same as a summa at Harvard or Yale?'' Maybe not--probably not--but Harvard students aren't in competition with students from St. Mary of the Swamp Junior College. They are in competition with each other, and, more importantly, with themselves, and they need real, stiff grades if they are to do their best work. A grade is not, after all, just an assessment after the fact. It is also, like it or not, a motivation before the fact. We all do better if we are aiming for something; we all do better if we know we are accountable for our performances; we all take more pride in our work if we believe that it will meet with firm, judicious judgment when we submit it. Genius theories of grade inflation confuse admission to an elite college with intelligence, and compound the problem by confusing raw ability with hardwon achievement.

James Brown "I Feel Good" Theory: This theory of grade inflation, which might also be called the "Do No Harm" theory of grade inflation, says that it is more important not to wound a student's feelings, or to damage her prospects (which amounts to the same thing), by giving low grades. Guided by the premise that self-esteem is all, this approach to grading understands low grades as petty punishment rather than honest assessment, and seeks above all to protect poor students from the painful consequences of doing crappy work. At once radically egalitarian and militantly sensitive, the Feel Good approach to grading leads teachers to give artificially high grades in order not to have to discriminate among poor, middling, good, and excellent work. This approach tends to accompany an eviscerated, or at least overly simplistic curriculum: you will find feel good graders in feel good classrooms, where nothing is too hard, where nothing offends, where there is no failure, and where, as a consequence, there are no standards.

So popular is this approach to education that teachers who do not provide it are being punished. Michelle Malkin's current column describes the plight of a teacher who was threatened with a lawsuit from the parents of a student she failed, another who discovered that his school was quietly changing F's to D's, and a third who resigned after the school board refused to allow her to fail students she caught plagiarizing. As in secondary school, so in college. I myself have received concerned phone calls from sensitive administrators, asking me to consider raising a particularly beset and troubled student's grade.

All of the entries in the Encyclopedia of Grade Inflation (see June 11 blog for more) offer convincing and credible accounts of the problem, especially when you keep in mind that it is not necessary to choose among them. Social change is, after all, a messy business, and causes are as multiple as effects. Grade inflation owes much to each of these phenomena; in turn, it helps to perpetuate them (it's hard to restore standards, for example, when you've defined them away; likewise, it's hard to undo the consumerist model of education when the degree has become something you effectively buy, rather than earn, and when a name brand degree functions as a ticket to certain grad schools and certain jobs).

In the fourth and final part of this series I'll conclude my discussion, such as it is, of the many causes, theories, and rationales for grade inflation with an analysis of what I call the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" compact that binds professors and students in an intellectually dishonest, but mutually compensatory commitment to bloated grades.

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink




June 20, 2002 [feather]
Would that I could write

Would that I could write up all the dissertations I have been thinking up lately (see blogs for June 7 and June 18). If I could I'd have so many degrees I might even have professional mobility. But I am but mortal, and so I pass on to motivated others the epiphanic results of my intellectual cogitation. Here's another hot topic for the dissertationally challenged. Write it up in good faith, and may the job market be with you.

I like to call this one "Who Stole Recess? The Politics and Poetics of the Playground." But it's your dissertation, and you can of course call it whatever you want. Do think twice, though, before giving up the allusiveness of this title. It's not every diss that can invoke Christina Hoff Sommers and the legendary Stallybrass and White in one fell theoretical swoop.

"Who Stole Recess"? grows out of recent events at a Santa Monica, California grade school. At Franklin Elementary, the school principal, concerned for the well-being of her young and impressionable students, banned the game of tag, decreeing it to be too emotionally dangerous for that rocky moral trial we like to call recess. She explained her rationale thus in a column in the school newsletter entitled "Safety on the Playground": "The running part of this activity is healthy and encouraged; however, in this game, there is a 'victim' or 'It,' which creates a self-esteem issue. The oldest or biggest child usually dominates."

The liberatory genius of this administrator ought to be readily apparent to any rightminded multiculturalist. She is freeing school children from the ideological constraints of games based on violence, objectification, and othering. They will not grow up to think like victims, or victimizers, because they have not been taught to do so by tag. And yet, Franklin's principal has been shockingly misunderstood, castigated, even mocked, by the crude and unfeeling racist rednecks who comprise the American people. "This is the kind of foolishness that makes wonderful grist for the talk-show circuit," wrote one parent. A radio personality has proclaimed the anti-tag decree to be "laugh-out-loud funny .... They're practically criminalizing an innocent child's game by applying terms like 'victim.'"

Thus does the role of the socially conscious dissertator reveal itself. There is cultural work to be done here, work of an enormously complex, extraordinarily important nature. Only a theorist properly schooled in the work of Lacan, Althusser, Gramsci, and Spivak can do justice to the manner in which the ideological state apparatus of the playground saturates children in hegemonic structures of power, teaching the slow and the uncoordinated to live as silenced, defeated subalterns to the oppressively athletic victors, and causing all children to become, by dint of tag's continuous shuffling of "it" and "not-it," eccentric to themselves, the breathless and bruised victims of tag's brutally dehumanizing fort-da of the soul.

That's chapter one. Other chapters might include:

Swings and Swingers, an analysis of how swings, by putting in motion the essentially oscillatory rhythms of alternative, nonhierarchical sexualities, are inherently homopositive and GLBT-friendly.

Behind the Monkey Bars, a reading of the racist assumption built into this ideological playground apparatus that "monkeys" (clearly a slur for black kids) need to get used to being around--or behind--iron bars.

On the Down Slide, an analysis of how the slide stages downward mobility as a fun and desirable thing, thus contributing to the devastating cycle of urban poverty.

Counterhegemonic Kickball, a celebratory expose of the feminist tour de force that is the kickass game of kickball, centering on the spectacular display of resistance to male dominance that is encoded in the act--enjoyed thoughtlessly by so many boys, and not enjoyed nearly enough by girls--of kicking hard where it counts: in the ball.

"Who Stole Recess?" will steal your advisor's heart, if your advisor has a heart. So get to it, young dissertators! As Marx might have said, you have nothing to lose but your minds.
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Meanwhile, my review of Sam Williams' Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software is up now at Knowledge@Wharton.

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink




June 19, 2002 [feather]
I've blogged a lot lately

I've blogged a lot lately about the nasty conformity of campus culture, and I've paid particular attention to how that conformity both maintains itself (through a combination of playground bullying, cliquish exclusivity, cultish pressure, and good-old fashioned emotional blackmail) and manages not to know itself (by creating a fashionable norm of left-leaning radicalism that carries with it the savor of independence by defining itself as a form of embattled resistance to established hegemony). What obsesses me about this phenomenon is not just how it works, though, but where it comes from. I'm convinced that the damage it is doing can't be stopped--or repaired--until we have a clear understanding of what brought the reigning mode of campus groupthink into being. And I'm continually impressed by the fact that no matter how many truly fine studies of the phenomenon are published, nothing really seems to change on campus.

This is in part because some of the studies take the form of elaborate pot shots (Roger Kimball's Tenured Radicals comes to mind). Pot shot books preach to the converted and they alienate everyone else. It's also because some books--understandably--only deal with one isolated strand of a much larger and more pervasive problem (Christina Hoff Sommers' Who Stole Feminism? is a fine instance of a book that follows one thread in a complicated and variegated knot). More broadly, though, it's because we have not yet fully historicized (I know, junk English: sue me) the problem. Most histories of the politically correct campus begin with the sixties, where they locate the origins of a political attitude toward education in the era's extended unrest--in the civil rights movement, in anti-war protests--and where, consequently, they identify the creation of a newly radical professoriate (those who came of age then are in positions of academic power now--they are provosts and deans and "tenured radicals"). But these histories commit an elementary mistake, becoming so enamored of the sixties as the root of all contemporary campus evil that they forget that no historical moment ever produces something out of nothing; that even times of revolutionary change owe at least some of their energy to patterns and potentials that quietly, innocuously existed long before the period of transformation began.

So I've been on the lookout for things that might be read as part of a longer history of higher education's penchant for proselytizing. And recently, my hunt turned up this striking passage from Randall Jarrell's 1952 campus novel, Pictures from an Institution. Jarrell is describing a small, exclusive but undistinguished women's college several years after the close of World War II:

"Their education was, for a good many of the girls, what they themselves would have called a traumatic experience. Two of the psychologists of the school talked of education not simply as therapy but as shock therapy: 'The first thing I do with a freshman,' one of them said to [a professor], 'is to shake her out of her ignorant complacency.' [The professor] knew one of her freshmen, a cheerful scatterbrained girl who was neither cheerful nor scatterbrained about her; this girl said viciously, 'All she does is pry. She thinks I'm a bourgeois prejudice and she wants me to get rid of myself.' But he said nothing of this, and muttered under his breath, in German, 'God spare us our ignorant complacency.'

"If Benton had had an administration building with pillars it could have carved over the pillars: Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you feel guilty. Just as ordinary animal awareness has been replaced in man by consciousness, so consciousness had been replaced, in most of the teachers of Benton, by social consciousness. They were successful in teaching most of their students to say in contrition, It was I, Lord, it was I; but they were not so successful in teaching them to consider this consciousness of guilt a summum bonum, one's final claim upon existence. Many a Benton girl went back to her nice home, married her rich husband, and carried a fox in her bosom for the rest of her life--and short of becoming a social worker, founding a Neo-Socialist party, and then killing herself and leaving her insurance to the United Nations, I do not know how she could have got rid of it.

"The demands American education could not meet--that it give a continent a college education--had forced this portion of it into regression: Benton was in its second childhood. It had sloughed off the awful protean burden of the past .... So, most of their burden flung off, the people of Benton went light and refreshed on their way, their broad smooth concrete Way; and when, soon, their legs got tired, they said to one another that it is the destiny of man to get tired.

"The people of Benton ... had not all been provincial to begin with, but they had made provincials of themselves, and called their province, now, the world. And it was a world in which almost nothing happened, a kind of steady state. Benton was a progressive college, so you would have supposed that this state would be a steady progression. So it had been, for a couple of decades; but later it had become a steady retrogression. Benton was much less progressive than it had been ten years before--but somehow this didn't bother people, didn't make them feel less progressive, didn't do anything to them. Is an institution always a man's shadow shortened in the sun, the lowest common denominator of everybody in it? Benton was: the soldiers, as always, were better than the army in which they served, the superficial consenting nexus of their lives that was Benton.

Long, I know. If this blog were a class, I'd make you take ten minutes now to write down everything you notice about this passage, from interesting word choices to broader patterns. And then we'd put our heads together to come up with a collective reading of what this passage is up to and why it matters. But this blog isn't a class, so I'll just point a few things out. First, Jarrell is noticing in the fifties patterns that contemporary critics describe as definitively post-sixties: there is the concept of education as therapy, and the related concept of education as political enlightenment; there is the notion that college teaches social responsibility by inculcating guilt; there is the notion of the progressive school that is, in its unchanging attitudes, as static and stagnant as can be; there is the notion of the school that cannot recognize the deeply reactionary character of its static, all-purpose progressivism; there is the notion that the teaching of politics, especially the teaching of politics as a mode of rehabilitating the complacent consciences of students, arises to fill the void created by a curriculum that has abandoned the honest effort to teach about the past. Fascinating stuff, when you think about when it was written, and how prescient it was.

Fascinating too to see that Jarrell places the blame on what he sees as the doomed institutional character of college--and, more broadly, mass education. He may well be right. After all, he was writing about patterns that have been variously blamed on the sixties, on affirmative action, on postmodernism, and on multiculturalism back before any of these things existed. The implication is clear enough: contemporary historians have got it wrong. The sixties did not lay the groundwork for the repressive anti-intellectualism of today's oh so correct campus. That groundwork was laid long before the sixties, and has its origins not in a particular political agenda, but in the structure of American education itself. Food for thought and future blogs ....

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink




June 18, 2002 [feather]
Today: a new dissertation topic

Today: a new dissertation topic for the oppositional thinker. In keeping with my new humanitarian tradition of supplying ace diss topics entirely free of charge, wholly out of the good of my giving heart (see my June 7 blog), I share this one in the hope that it may help some stumped grad student launch the lead balloon commonly known as a doctoral thesis. This is an all-purpose topic, guaranteed to work in a variety of disciplines (sociology, history, English, American studies, women's studies, education, possibly even political science, law, philosophy, and urban studies).

Title IX in the Toilet: TP, PC, and the Sexual Politics of the Bladder

A fabulous dissertation could emerge from a close, Geertzian analysis--a thick description, if you will--of the misogynistic restroom renovations that were recently completed at the University of Michigan's historic Hill Auditorium. The newly expanded women's room has thirty toilets (as compared to twenty-two in the newly renovated men's room). But having eight more toilets than the guys does not, in the eyes of feminist legal theory, constitute adequate affirmative action (bear in mind that Ann Arbor is Catharine MacKinnon country). According to attorney Jean King, women should get forty-four toilets--twice what the guys get--in order to have an equal opportunity to pee during intermission. Anything less, claims King in her complaint to the U.S. Department of Education, is sexual discrimination and thus violates Title IX. King claims discrimination despite UM's clear compliance with state law requiring one toilet for every 65 patrons (by law, UM needed only to supply 28.5 toilets).

This episode could provide grist for many enterprising dissertators in a variety of fields. It's a wonderful cultural set piece--akin to Geertz's Balinese cockfight--and offers similar opportunities for broad theorization (which is the best kind in the paradigm-happy world of cultural theory). At the heart of that broad theorization will be a new, remarkably ripe category for materialist feminist work: the bladder. Though full to bursting with analytical potential, the bladder has remained something of an empty signifier for feminists, who have yet to tap its political and ontological potential. Events at Michigan show that the time is right for the bladder to make its entry into feminist legal and cultural theory. It's been nearly twenty years since Joan Scott argued that gender was a useful category of historical analysis. Now is the time to particularize. "Title IX in the Toilet" (title optional) stands to revolutionize radical critical praxis by showing definitively that the bladder is a useful category of feminist-historical critique.

On a philosophical level, the female bladder offers a fresh approach to an otherwise tired debate within feminism over the problem of "woman's nature." The crux here is that this is one body part that behaves according to radical feminist norms. The female bladder is a site of women's inborn resistance to patriarchal hegemony, and as such it reconciles the longstanding conceptual rift between essentialist and social constructivist feminisms. Carnivalesque in its disregard for rules, manners, time, and place, it is an anatomical upstart, a bodily rebel with a radical cause. Small and pushy, impatient and unwilling to wait, the female bladder is a model feminist organ. Needing to pee everywhere, all the time, no matter what, it cannot be contained by institutionalized norms of bladder endurance. The female bladder thus exposes and undermines the stoical historical standard of urinary retention, revealing the masculinist privilege embedded in the assumption that all bladders ought always to be wholly contained, tightly controlled, and infinitely able to repress their needs. As such, the bladder ought to replace the womb as the synecdoche for woman: where the one speaks anachronistically to woman's maternal instincts, the other speaks progressively to the sheer, unapologetic activism of her physiology.

On a political level, the battle over bathroom space in Ann Arbor shows definitively that--contrary to the unimaginative and reactionary claims of equity feminists--the work of fighting patriarchal hegemony is never done. To dismiss the dispute at Michigan as petty, or to see it as simply a question of architectural limitations, is to miss the point. The real issue raised by the battle over bathroom space is the issue of women's rights itself. Without a place to pee, women cannot function effectively in the public sphere. Depriving women of adequate bathroom facilities is, indeed, akin to footbinding or corsetry in its capacity to impose debilitating physical constraints on women who would otherwise pose serious threats to male dominance. A bursting bladder hobbles a woman, prevents her from functioning at peak capacity, and contributes to the paucity of women at the highest levels of business, academe, and government. The urinal is political. If we want more women CEOs, full professors, and elected officials, we need to build women more bathrooms.

The possibilities (pissabilities?) here are endless. This is a topic that will make the career of the graduate student who can just relax into it, and go with its own natural flow. Provided, that is, that the student has easy, unfettered access to a bathroom.

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink




June 14, 2002 [feather]
From Winfield Myers' guest comment

From Winfield Myers' guest comment for NRO, "Reading Between the Lies During Campus Visits":

Before you embark, examine the school's website carefully. Remember that the goal of a college's web designers is to present the school as administrators want it to be seen, not necessarily as it is. Look at course descriptions and syllabi in the History and English departments, two bellwethers of curricular trends. Take note of the treatment of these subjects (chic professors make a living at unintended self-parody) or descriptions that employ the words race, class, or gender along with other trendy terms; these indicate a high degree of politicization -- the substitution of politics for genuine learning.

Myers makes a number of other suggestions to the prospective student (find out how much teaching is done by grad students rather than faculty, find out what kinds of student groups are funded by student activities fees and what are not, find out whether the school has an actual core curriculum or whether it has mush that it calls a core curriculum, find out whether the residences are PC gulags, and so on). All good advice, by the way.

But what interests me about Myers' list is the diagnostic priority he gives to History and English departments. These departments are the pulse point of campus culture. Figure out what the climate is like in these departments, he says, and you've figured out the campus climate. Look at them first, before you look at anything else. Examine their course descriptions for signs of absurdity and ideological rigidity, and read those signs for what they are: indications that education has ceded to a perverse combination of posing and politicking. Then read those signs as omens of a larger institutional decline.

This is just the sort of rhetoric that makes people in English and History departments roll their eyes with contempt for the reactionary right. It's Roger Kimballesque, it's D'Souzish, it's just the sort of thing humanities academics regularly dismiss as misguided and misleading, as a form of cheap pandering to a conservative anti-intellectual public. But it's hard, on some level to see why, since with the exception of the comment about unintended self-parody Myers' description of the humanities tallies perfectly with the humanities' most treasured descriptions of itself: academic humanists want desperately to believe that they are deeply relevant, that they affect and even set culture on campus and beyond, and Myers says they do; academic humanists want desperately to believe that they are at the forefront of curricular innovation, and Myers says they are; academic humanists proudly proclaim that they and the work they do are political, and Myers echoes that proclamation. Myers is not mischaracterizing the humanities at all; what he is doing, however, is suggesting that the humanities as they seek to be are deeply and dangerously flawed.

He's right. Proof? The fact that by and large humanists respond to such charges in just the way I described above--with withering contempt, mockery, dismissal, and tired ad hominem attack. Any discipline that refuses to explain itself to the world is an intellectually dishonest discipline. Any discipline that prefers instead to close in on itself, whose members respond to challenges from beyond not by answering them clearly and inviting public discussion of its mission, but by retreating ever deeper into jargonized language that no one outside the club can understand, is a discipline more defined by defensiveness than by inquiry. Any discipline that makes challenges from outside the basis for a rigid system of internal control, such that any similar questioning from within the ranks becomes grounds for ritual expulsion (via ostracism, or bad grade, or tenure denial) of the offending individual as an evil right wing reactionary, is not a discipline at all. It is a cult.

The fact is that practitioners of a politicized humanities do not think they should have to answer to anyone whose politics do not come up to their standard of righteous radicalism. They see their work as that of exemplifying the right, radical way of the mind, and they envision their teaching and writing as opportunities to stage their exemplary approaches for readers and students who will, ideally, be morally edified by what they call their "praxis." A student who questions that radicalism is a problem--someone to be watched closely and handled with care and graded accordingly. Students who do not question that radicalism, but rather accept it--eagerly, in some cases, unthinkingly in others--are the students radical teachers want in their classes. Radical pedagogy of the sort I am describing here requires passive, unreflective students because it is often unthinkingly reflexive itself, adopted more as a matter of conformity with prevailing professional norms rather than as a matter of deliberate, informed personal choice.

Hence Myers' astute observation that you can tell if a department has conceded intellectual content to fashion and politics by looking at how heavily it leans on those three rote little words, "race," "class," and "gender" (to this I would add "identity"). There are other categories of analysis, but in some courses, and some departments, you wouldn't know it. Likewise, there is nothing magical about these categories. They do not automatically lead you to truth, but in some courses and some departments, you'd think they do. What they do lead to is foregone conclusions. An English course that purports to address race, class, and gender is more than likely to be oriented around a predictable and rigid series of claims about identity, power, and oppression. These claims do not vary much from course to course, though the ostensible content of the course may vary a great deal--race, class, and gender work as well for Shakespeare as they do for Victorian novels and black women writers, reducing every text in their wake to a variation of the same old political cipher.

So, to make a long blog short, Myers is right about the academic humanities, depressingly so. And he'll stay right as long as humanists respond to legitimate criticism by rolling their eyes rather than cleaning up their act.

Last spring, I had the honor of sitting next to John Searle at a dinner. He asked me, on finding that I teach college English, what I thought English departments would be like in twenty years. I replied that if they kept on as they are, English departments would probably not exist twenty years from now. "That's what I thought," he nodded, biting into a piece of steak.

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink




June 12, 2002 [feather]
Eric Raymond's paired "Top Ten

Eric Raymond's paired "Top Ten Reasons I'm Not a (Left) Liberal" and "Top Ten Reasons I'm Not a Conservative" are worth their weight in gold (as is most everything Raymond writes in his blog and elsewhere). The lists are a compact and clever way of pointing out the ludicrousness of the political classification system that seems to hold so much sway over American public discourse (not to mention academic discourse). On the one hand, there are political positions that are labelled "right" or "left." On the other hand, opposing positions have much in common. As Raymond's mirror-imaging of the list items shows, hard "left" and "right" opinions about guns, abortion, values, religion, and so on are yin and yang; they complement one another, and even beget one another; though their adherents would rather die than admit it, they are also equally extreme, and hence equally untenable.

The best part, though, is how Raymond sets up the ideologically inclined reader. A leftist who sees his beliefs become fodder for Raymond's portrayal of cliched radicalism will rationalize his discomfort by dismissing Raymond as a right wing reactionary masquerading as a centrist. A conservative who sees his beliefs become fodder for Raymond's portrayal of knee-jerk narrowness will rationalize his discomfort by calling Raymond an anti-American communist masquerading as a centrist. Taken together, the lists mock--and expose--the entirely anti-intellectual habit Americans of all political persuasions have of needing to label a person's politics--or, more basically, a person--this or that. They also point out how the need to classify is closely tied to the need to contain what is not readily classifiable, and how containment-through-labelling can be in turn a mode of demonizing that permits the demonizer not to have to try to understand the very thing that he claims--via his label--to know.

This blog is a classic example of the phenomenon that I (via Raymond) have been describing. It has been the subject of some very colorful classificatory adjectives since I began writing it last March (reactionary, dysfunctional, and so on). Likewise, I, as the writer of the blog, have also been the subject of disciplinary labelling (my favorite: a former student of mine who amused himself by using the search string "Erin O'Connor is a bitch" to google my blog). The adjectives and invective that surround my blog in certain circles operate in the manner that Raymond finds so contemptible: to legitimate the labeller's failure to comprehend that which does not confirm his own prejudices.

All of this is to say that if you don't already know about Eric Raymond, get thee to his blog and get to know him. Raymond is a crackerjack programmer (or "hacker") and a proponent and theorist of open source software. But you don't have to know jack about computers to appreciate Raymond (I, who do not know jack about computers, am living proof of the truth of this proposition). What Raymond stands for transcends the particularities of programming, or even technology. To me, he exemplifies what might be called "playful professionalism," or "professional playfulness," or maybe, more simply, "play." He loves what he does, he does it extraordinarily well, he is serious about what he does, and yet he is always having a good time. Work is not work for him, but neither is it a game; instead, it's a vital form of self expression, a creative outlet, a source of sustenance. Raymond is an expert and an authority who is not impressed by the trappings of punditry; you won't find Raymond pontificating or posturing but you will find him expressing himself in frank, clear, creative language that is unafraid to be accessible and sincere. He is capable of being funny and smart at the same time; he is a generous thinker as well as a deep one, as ready to admire the ideas of others as to offer ideas of his own.

What I like most about Raymond, though, is the absolute intellectual comfort that shines forth from his blog. It's not just that he is whipsmart and a good writer and well read and, like, cultured and stuff, though he is all these things. It's that he is at once fearlessly opinionated and extremely thoughtful; he writes about teen sex (which he gleefully and graphically supports) and gun control (which he most emphatically does not support), without a care in the world about whether his opinions or his manner might offend the sensibilities of sensitive readers, or alienate potential employers, or damage his reputation. The ideas alone matter.

Maybe this sounds trite to you; I suppose it all depends on where you work and how you live. In my corner of academe, there are few, if any, Raymonds. The spirit of individualism is so dead in the humanities that it is mocked outright as a bourgeois conceit. The desire to express unpopular views (i.e., views that would displease, offend, or disturb one's colleagues) is so nonexistent that academic freedom has come to seem like a quaint vestigial structure, a protection that has little, if anything, to protect. Truly joyous, invigorating engagement with one's work has, as a result, become very hard to find--grad students are depressed, worried, stressed out careerists (and rightly so); junior faculty are simply more advanced depressed, worried, stressed out careerists (and rightly so); and senior faculty, well, they are either depressed and burned out or riding a self-flattering wave of glorious repetition (recycling their own arguments, reiterating the arguments of others, staking out tiny corners in already over-trafficked theoretical cottage industries). There are exceptions, but I describe the general rule.

And so I am glad to have found Eric Raymond. Unlike, say, a Jane Gallop or a Cornel West, both critics who pose as provocateurs and call it intellectual work, Raymond allows his intellect to take him wherever it leads--even if it leads him where others fear to tread. The humanities needs new heroes, though humanists may not be willing to admit as much. I've been looking about for intellectual heroes for awhile now, ever since I realized that there was no one in my own field who I want to be when I grow up. Raymond is one of the people I am lucky enough to have found.

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink




June 11, 2002 [feather]
Part II of the Amazing

Part II of the Amazing Grade Inflation Blog Series; in which the principle theories of grade inflation are enumerated, their signature characteristics adduced, and their various foibles exposed.

In Part I of the Amazing Grade Inflation Blog Series (see my June 5 blog), I discussed Harvard's new grading policy, and showed in a local, pragmatic way why it will not address grade inflation so much as offer a panacea to those who want to believe that grade inflation is being addressed (this includes professors themselves, who, in designing Harvard's new system and voting it into being, showed themselves as eager to appear--and perhaps to feel--that they are addressing the dire problem of grade inflation as they are not to actually change anything about how they design their courses and how they grade).

In this blog, I turn to context, looking at how grade inflation has historically been explained--and at times explained away--in order both to exonerate Harvard a little bit (by showing how what is happening there is symptomatic of trends everywhere) and to blame Harvard all the more (if any one school ought to be leading a serious campaign against grade inflation, it should be the peerlessly prestigious Harvard). What follows is an annotated list of reasons why grade inflation exists (or, more precisely, of reasons people are fond of giving for why grade inflation exists). Some of the reasons are historical, some are philosophical, some are just silly. But they are all regularly offered to rationalize grade inflation. In Part Three of the Amazing Grade Inflation Blog Series I will talk about why the reasons for grade inflation tend to function as rationalizations for it; in other words, how it is that explaining the problem has become a way of excusing it.

The Encyclopedia of Grade Inflation; or, methinks we do protest too much

Vestigial Draft Dodge Theory: This theory ties the birth of grade inflation--especially at Harvard--to Vietnam. In order to help men students avoid the draft, the theory goes, the professoriate began dealing out high grades in order to make them look like serious scholars who deserved to stay in school. According to this theory, the academy simply never recovered--or tried to recover--from the exemplary leftist good will of 1960s professorial resistance. Under this logic, grade inflation is a symptom of something we might call Post-Traumatic Protest Syndrome; it is academe's vestigial reminder--a flashback, if you will--of activist days gone by.

White Guilt Theory: This theory says that as affirmative action began increasing the numbers of minorities on college campuses, professors relaxed their grading systems in order to cover over the fact that these populations a) were not as prepared for college-level work as their white male counterparts, b) did not, as a group, perform as well as their white male counterparts. Predictably, people who espouse this theory are labelled racist--Harvard's Harvey "C-" Mansfield is a case in point. But according to the Harvard Crimson's own in-depth study of the origins and history of grade inflation, the theory actually does hold water.

Vulnerable Teacher Theory: This theory links grade inflation to the disproportionate amount of teaching graduate students have been doing since the 1960s. In this theory, novice teachers give exceptionally high grades in order to avoid being challenged by grade-grubbing students and in order to bribe their students into giving them positive course evaluations. The idea is that grad students sell out because a) they lack the experience and the training to handle grade-grubbing students, and b) giving honest grades could hurt their job prospects by hurting their evaluations.

The Vulnerable Teacher Theory has two important correlatives:

Corollary A: A theory that has great currency today is that grade inflation is perpetrated in disproportionate amounts by adjunct lecturers. Hired--and fired--by the course, adjuncts have no job security. There are also infinite numbers of them; they are eminently replaceable. The theory is that they hand out high grades in order to keep their jobs--to create the impression that they are teaching successfully and to avoid disturbing or displeasing the students on whose good opinion they ultimately depend. According to conventional wisdom, an adjunct who grades harshly is a troublemaking adjunct. A troublemaking adjunct is, in turn, an unemployed adjunct.

Corollary B: In an era when all college teachers are subject to anonymous student evaluations, all college teachers--even eminent full professors--are Vulnerable Teachers who risk all by giving low grades, and who are thus pressured by the system into giving exceptionally high grades. Those who argue this tend to be marxist theorists who are inordinately impressed by the notion that the corporatized university system has co-opted their agency. An aside: When I hear them expounding on this theme, I am less impressed by their--or my--co-optation than I am by the lengths to which they will go to theorize their way out of personal responsibility for their questionable pedagogical ethics.

The Commodity Fetishism Theory: As the cost of education skyrockets, this theory goes, so do students' (and parents') expectations about what they ought to get with their money. Education has become a commodity, universities sell a product that students consume, and students willingly pay for high status educations: designer degrees cost several times what serviceable ones do, without reliably offering much more in the way of quality. In this logic, the customer is always right, and the customer also has the power to dictate how she wants her product delivered. $30K+ for a year at a top private college, the consumer says, ought to be good for a few A's (which will, like any good investment, pay dividends in the form of job interviews or admission to grad school). Virginia Postrel explains in compelling detail how the massive grade inflation and tuition hikes that characterized the 1980s and 90s were created by an increased demand for education in a market with static supply.

The Degeneration Theory: This school of thought sees grade inflation as a sign of a much broader and deeper cultural degeneration, one that includes the decay of morals, the erosion of family values, the displacement of meritocracy by affirmative action and political preferment, the death of taste, and an overall decline in standards. The degeneration theory of grade inflation is more nostalgic than diagnostic; it is not invested in identifying causes or proposing solutions so much as it is in hearkening back to the good old days when men were men and the gentleman's C was a badge of honorable mediocrity.

The Status Quo Theory: A monument to the stasism that inevitably arises from "consensus-based" (i.e., bureaucratic) approaches to change, this theory says that no one can stop inflating grades because everyone inflates grades. The logic is that no one can change unless everyone does, because to do otherwise would be to penalize some students unfairly. Because there is no way to get everyone to agree to stop inflating grades all at once--or to ensure that everyone deflates grades in the same way and to the same degree--grade inflation must be allowed to persist as the lesser of two evils (the greater evil being a scenario in which individuals address grade inflation in their own way according to the dictates of their imaginations, consciences, and experiences).

Closely tied to the Status Quo Theory is the Why Bother Theory, which argues that since grades are meaningless, a) they can't be inflated, b) it doesn't matter what grades we give, and c) therefore we might as well give out all A's.

Which is closely tied to the Denial Theory, which argues a) that we don't need to use the full grade scale in order to differentiate among students; b) that through its array of A+'s, A's, A-'s, B+'s and B's the inflated scale tells us all we need to know about a student's performance; and c) that therefore grades are not actually inflated, and the grading scale is as rigorous as it ever was.

To be continued...

Coming soon: the Wordsworthian Genius Theory of grade inflation, the James Brown "I Feel Good" Theory of grade inflation, and my own personal contribution to the fray, the Don't Ask Don't Tell Theory of grade inflation.

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink




June 8, 2002 [feather]
Note to avid readers of

Note to avid readers of the great Grade Inflation Blog Series (part one of which can be found by scrolling down to my June 5 post): The promised additional posts on grade inflation's origins and continued causes are forthcoming. I find that, through some peculiar post-traumatic pedagogical transference, the prospect of blogging about grading is affecting me in very much the same way that the prospect of grading itself does. To borrow a phrase from Dana Carvey's Garth, grading "sucks my will to live." I therefore avoid it; I become enormously productive in all other areas of life as I find ever more inventive reasons not to do it; I age and wither as the stack of unmarked papers gathers accusatory dust; I struggle with my conscience in the manner of my puritan forebears, wracked with spiritual doubt, feeling my faith in the world sorely tried, knowing in my soul that I am a sinner in the hands of a bad case of procrastination. And then I suck it up and I do it, and, as best I can, I do it right (and, as best I can, I don't inflate). As with the grading, so with the blog: it will come, and hopefully, like the grading itself, it will be of some use.

Meanwhile, I quote two remarkable passages from the conclusion to Richard Bernstein's Dictatorship of Virtue. On the subject of radical (Marxist, feminist, materialist, postcolonialist, anti-racist, anti-homophobic, etc.) academic scholarship, Bernstein says point blank what so many scholars, bent on believing that they work on a revolutionarily sharp cutting edge, seem so unwilling and unable to see--that too often what they do, and the way they do it, reeks of self-congratulatory, self-discrediting, unimaginative conformity:

"The fact is that assaulting the establishment, declaiming against the racism and sexism of society, reiterating the approved phrases about oppression and exclusion, promising to uncover previously neglected worlds, these require not a jot of courage these days. These are the sanctioned activities of the counterestablishment, the gestures and idioms that gain approval and lead to good opportunities, to jobs, to prizes, to book contracts, to prominence in American life. It takes no bravery to be a multiculturalist. There is no risk in smashing the icons. There are millions of dollars in foundation grants for people who claim they are doing so."

Had someone handed it to me this straight in grad school, I might have been spared some of the long years I spent finding out this hard truth on my own. But then, I might not have been terribly receptive to this perspective in grad school. Radical claptrap was new to me, after all; it didn't sound like claptrap and it did give me a sense of purpose (it is, indeed, designed to do just this, and as such it works wonders on the wide-eyed humanities grad student eager for a way to explain to the parents why she is still in school). Which leads me to the second important passage from Bernstein's conclusion, wherein he argues that the thrilling novelty of the radical stance will, in the manner of all novelty, eventually wear off:

"It might not last. I sense that a lot of the enthusiasts of the New Consciousness are like the Red Guards of China's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. They will be swept along by their zeal and enthusiasm for quite a while, wreaking considerable damage during that time. They will impose the characteristics not of real but of ideological multiculturalism: they will replace the truly inspiring notion of greatness with the tepid concept of representativeness. They will push people to adopt, not a personal philosophy, but ethnicity, race, or sex as the principle of personal identity. They will exalt racial and sexual rage over reason. They will cover us over with a thick glue of piousness, which, in turn, will smother argument. They will undermine the quest for objective truth with a riot of subjectivities. They will turn almost anything they do not like into one of the new cardinal sins--racism, sexism, sexual harassment, homophobia--and they will try to punish those who commit those sins. They will confuse knowledge and appreciation of other cultures with cultural chauvinism, the superpatriotism of the small group. They will turn reading into an exercise in ethnic boosterism and the cultivation of "self-esteem," forgettiing Kafka's admonition that a book should be "the axe that breaks the frozen sea inside us." And then their immoderation and mindlessness and the fact that they do not fulfill basic needs will get the better of them. The pendulum will swing eventually in the other direction."

Bernstein wrote these words in 1994, when the trends he discusses were only a few years old. But here we are in 2002, and the novelty doesn't seem to have worn off. I got good and bored with it eventually, and the boredom helped me to see that much of what I had originally embraced, in the heat of the professional awakening that is graduate school, was a nasty soup of cliches, questionable opinions masquerading as truth, simplistic ideas dressed up in zippy jargon, embarrassing illogic, anachronistic philosophy, and patent misinformation. And since I grew bored, I've looked around me in wonder and disbelief at the many academics I know who are either not bored at all or are very good liars, to whom boilerplate thought seems to spring eternally new, who consecrate their missionary methodological zeal by ventriloquizing worn platitudes about race, class, gender, and identity, who teach their students to do the same. And I ask the same question over and over again: "Aren't they bored yet?" They aren't, they haven't been, and it doesn't look like they will be anytime soon.

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink




June 7, 2002 [feather]
Two dissertation topics for the

Two dissertation topics for the aspiring cultural critic:

Butt Cleavage: It's in, it's transgressive, and it's a cheeky postcapitalist allegory of women's divided self. On the one hand (or should I say cheek?), butt cleavage signifies the soft, vulnerable underside of women's entry into the pub(l)ic sphere. On the other, nothing says "kiss my ass" like butt cleavage. The fashion for showing the top inch or so of the crack is thus a classic postmodern statement about the modern woman's fissured identity, one that is all the more savvy for the fact that it is written on the body. A kick ass diss topic if I ever saw one. Get cracking, body critics!

Topless yoga: This is a topic with bottomless possibilities. Topless yoga may be said to exemplify the liberatory power of the female bricoleur, who owns her body within the objectifying male gaze by occupying the eternal subversive otherness of the eastern pose. It may also be said to represent an orientalist appropriation of the female body, a pornographic mystification of the pornographic gaze itself. Topless yoga also invites extended analysis of iconographic tradition. The depiction of topless yoga in British tabloids reflects, resists, and reinscribes the painterly tradition of the odalisque; there are, in addition, very clear allusions here to Manet's Dejeuner sur l'Herbe, which also features an incongruously topless subject looking daringly out of the frame, into the eyes of her beholder. You'd have to be a real boob not to see the intellectual potential here.

Diss on either of these ripe, hitherto untouched subjects, and in a few years you'll be able to watch the radical (i.e., bored, prurient, standards-free) hiring committees flock to you, begging to be entertained, diverted, distracted from the tedium of their comparatively tepid intellectual lives. This will be especially true if you refract your subject matter through the lens of identity politics. If hiring committees think that you are theorizing topless yoga because you are a topless yogi, or if they think your interest in butt cleavage stems from your own butt's historical victimization, their combined desires to promote diversity and to see you naked will pay off big time. You'll be up to your butt crack--or maybe even your breasts--in job offers.

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink




June 6, 2002 [feather]
There's a very smart review

There's a very smart review in Salon of Paul Buhle and David Wagner's new book, Radical Hollywood. Written by Michelle Goldberg, the review is basically a hilarious account of how two Marxist scholars--one a lecturer at Brown, the other a former political editor at Arizona Republic--accidentally demonstrate that McCarthy had a point. Radical Hollywood is a study of Hollywood leftism during the 1930's and 40's that aims to show how very radical (and thus very chic and relevant and important) film was then. But in being totally obtuse about the implications of such an argument, all the authors really manage to do, according to the review, is broadcast the utter bankruptcy of their own project.

Basically, the point of the review is this: in trawling through Hollywood for evidence of subliminal cinematic leftism (e.g., the joy in Munchkinland after Dorothy does in the Wicked Witch signifies "the feeling of liberation that [the screenwriter] and his fellow Popular Front artists dreamed for a Europe free of fascism and for colonial citizens across what became known as the Third World, free of colonialism, both political and economic"), the authors unwittingly make a retroactive case for McCarthyism. Hollywood was crawling with Reds, they argue, and their work was filled with deliberately subversive messages about the evils of capitalism and the joys of collectivism. So far so radical: sniffing out the ideological subversions and complicities of cultural "texts" via painfully farfetched overreading is standard methodological procedure in leftist scholarship. The problem is that when you are employing this technique on the material that McCarthy was so interested in, it doesn't look so radical anymore. In fact, it starts to look positively reactionary.

When your critical practice is leading you to do readings that both confirm McCarthy's premises and replicate the good senator's penchant for willful misreading, then you aren't doing radical intellectual work and you aren't serving progressive aims. What you are doing is indulging in embarrassingly--and dangerously--wishful thinking that has more in common with the worst impulses of a censorious neo-fascism than with anything that might reasonably be called responsible scholarship. As Goldberg puts it, the book "reveal[s] the weird intellectual netherworld where academic wishful thinking meets right-wing hysteria":

...the analysis [the authors] employ to tell the story of the Hollywood left in the '30s and '40s is one borrowed from the most stultifying corners of academia, and it leads them into a critical dead end with surprising parallels to the worst Cold War thinking.

Cultural studies has long made a fetish of "subversion," lionizing pop phenomena like skateboarding, sampling and Madonna videos -- anything that seems to stick it to the Man, however obliquely. Often this sort of lionizing is vapid but harmless. Here, though, it has real consequences, lending weight (at least retrospectively) to a crazy witch hunt that eviscerated lives.

It's become common for conservative commentators to compare contemporary academic leftism, with its love of speech codes and its puritanical delight in vilifying those who deviate from its righteously correct orthodoxy, with McCarthyism. Now a pair of putatively radical scholars have devoted an entire book to proving the justice of the comparison.

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink




June 5, 2002 [feather]
Harvard has been in the

Harvard has been in the news a lot lately. First there was the Cornel West Debacle, then Henry Louis Gates published what he believes is the first novel by a black woman, then there was the flap about Harvard's new and improved sexual misconduct policy (apparently its commitment to due process, accountability, and the U.S. Constitution offends certain campus constituents), and now there is the uproar over an Islamic student's commencement address, which was originally entitled "American Jihad" (after a petition, a death threat, national news coverage, extended ad hominem attack, and extensive blogosphere coverage, the student has changed the talk's title to "Of Faith and Citizenship: My American Jihad--I guess the logic here is that people who want to censor or kill you for touting the term won't mind a bit if it just comes later in the title).

Amid all the uproar, there has been another little development up at Cambridge, one that has received surprisingly little coverage and virtually no criticism: last month, Harvard voted to change its grading policies in order to curb grade inflation.

The pressure to do something about the grading system at Harvard began last October, when the Boston Globe reported that 91% of Harvard's 2001 graduates received honors. That's not a typo--I really did type 91%. (Point of comparison: at Yale, Princeton, and Dartmouth, 40-50% of seniors graduate with honors.) The Globe ran a two-part series on grading at Harvard, which culminated in national embarrassment, pressure to do something about the problem, task forces and symposia, and, last month, approval of the great new policy that will restore Harvard to evaluative respectability. The only problem is that the new policy is a joke.

What are the terms of this new policy?

First, Harvard will move from its idiosyncratic 15 point scale to the standard 4 point grading scale. Under the old system, there was a disproportionate gap between the A- and the B+. Under that system, half of all undergraduate grades last year were an A or an A-. Under the new system, the distance between an A- and a B+ will be the same as that between any other two grades. The theory is that the reason there were so many A's under the old system was that professors were reluctant to give B's and B+'s when those marks would unduly burden the grade point averages of students. The hope is that the switch to a standard four point system will encourage faculty to start handing out the B+'s. Thus will Harvard restore its grading system to respectability.

Second, it is decreed that henceforth, no more than 60% of a graduating class can receive honors. The theory is that capping the number of honors recipients will restore honor to graduating with honors.

Some observations:

In other words, Harvard's new grading policy substitutes cosmetic changes for substantive ones. It reads more like sleight of hand than like a serious attempt to address Harvard's (and higher education's) increasing unwillingness--or inability--to judge student work firmly and fairly.

In a future blog, I'll offer some thoughts on why the new grading policy is so toothless. Stay tuned!

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink




June 2, 2002 [feather]
Welcome Blog Burst readers! If

Welcome Blog Burst readers! If you are looking for my post on the SFSU incident, scroll down to my entry for May 30. Currently, I'm working up a post or two on grade inflation, which should be available within a day or so. In the meantime, here are a couple of fun articles:

Spiked has a thoughtful and intriguing essay on conceptual similarities between Islamic fundamentalism and radical leftism, one of whose great virtues is to trace how the anti-imperialism of mid-century radical politics has mutated into the sort of virulent anti-Western, anti-American, anti-humanist style of thought that is so disturbingly fashionable among radicals today.

Also worth a look: Stanley Kurtz's current NRO column on the professoriate's hostility to the National Security Education Program. NSEP gives educational grants to college students on condition that after graduation, those students work at a federal agency devoted in some way to national security. Applications for NSEP grants are presently up by 50%--but the problem is that the faculty of the language and area studies departments where NSEP recipients would go to do things like learn Arabic and study the Middle East are trying to kill the program, whose national security service requirement they find objectionably imperialist. The African Studies Association, the Latin American Studies Association, and the Middle East Studies Association are all boycotting NSEP--even though, under Title VI, language and area studies centers receive millions in federal funding for the express purpose of enhancing national security and even though area-studies professors recently argued before Congress that they need huge funding increases in order to advance the cause of American security in the aftermath of 9/11. Kurtz tells you who you can write to if you are sickened by the moneygrubbing hypocrisy and two-timing anti-Americanism of our noble professoriate's behavior.

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink




June 1, 2002 [feather]
The New York Times has

The New York Times has a fascinating and outrageous article on how the New York State Regents Exam (taken by all graduating high school seniors) bowdlerizes literature in the name of sensitivity. Over the past three years, the English portion of the exam has both cited passages from authors such as Isaac Bashevis Singer, Annie Dillard, and Anton Chekhov and thoroughly distorted--or "lacerated," to use Dillard's word--the wording and the meaning of those passages. Gone are any references to race, gender, sexuality, God, ethnicity, alcohol, or even fat that might potentially offend someone somewhere; gone, too, are the heart and soul of the prose itself, which no longer means what it was written to mean and no longer sounds as it was meant to sound. Needless to say, the living writers whose prose has been butchered and blandified to suit the Board of Education's "sensitivity review guidelines" were not notified about what was being done.

A spokesperson (note my sensitive gender-neutral terminology) for the Board of Ed said that the passages were altered because writers don't write with the needs of woundable test-taking students in mind. Stating his/her belief (note my continued gender-neutral sensitivity) that no student "should be uncomfortable in a testing situation," s/he (god damn I'm correct!) went on to observe that "Even the most wonderful writers don't write literature for children to take on a test." No, they don't. Does the Regents exam want to test how well students can read actual writing, or does it want to test how well they can read canned writing that has been expressly jerrymandered to suit the exam's ideological agenda? I guess they've already answered that question themselves. The funny thing, though, is that in altering the passages, the Board of Education has undermined its own ostensible goal. It seems clear enough from the Times article that the questions students were asked to answer about the passages depended on their having access to the original, untampered prose. I quote:

"In the Chekhov story "The Upheaval," the exam takes out the portion in which a wealthy woman looking for a missing brooch strip-searches all of the house's staff members. Students are then asked to use the story to write an essay on the meaning of human dignity. ....A paragraph in John Holt's "Learning All the Time" is truncated to eliminate some of the reasons Suzuki violin instruction differs in Japan and the United States, apparently not to offend anyone who might find the particulars somehow insulting. Students are nonetheless then asked to answer questions about those differences."

If I were a student, it would make me very uncomfortable to be asked to answer questions that could not be answered. My sense of fairness would definitely be bruised by such a flagrant disregard for reasonable expectations. But this does not seem to have occurred to those who bowdlerized the exam in order to prevent it from making anybody uncomfortable.

The absurdity--not to mention the abuse--involved here reminds me of a passage from that great literary expose of institutional hypocrisy, Catch-22. Here is Joseph Heller on the soldier Yossarian's stint working as a censor during World War II:

"All the officer patients in the ward were forced to censor letters written by all the enlisted-men patients, who were kept in residence in wards of their own. It was a monotonous job, and Yossarian was disappointed to learn that the lives of enlisted men were only slightly more interesting that the lives of officers. After the first day he had no curiosity at all. To break the monotony he invented games. Death to all modifiers, he declared one day, and out of every letter that passed through his hands went every adverb and every adjective. The next day he made war on articles. He reached a much higher plane of creativity the following day when he blacked out everything in the letters but a, an and the. That erected more dynamic intralinear tensions, he felt, and in just about every case left a message far more universal. Soon he was proscribing parts of salutation and signatures and leaving the text untouched. One time he blacked out all but the salutation "Dear Mary" from a letter, and at the bottom he wrote, "I yearn for you tragically. A. T. Tappmann, Chaplain, U.S. Army." A.T. Tappmann was the group chaplain's name.

"When he had exhausted all possibilities in the letters, he began attacking the names and addresses on the envelopes, obliterating whole homes and streets, annihilating entire metropolises with careless flicks of his wrist as though he were God. Catch-22 required that each censored letter bear the censoring officer's name. Most letters he didn't read at all. On those he didn't read at all, he wrote his own name. On those he did read, he wrote, "Washington Irving." When that grew monotonous he wrote, "Irving Washington." Censoring the envelopes had serious repercussions, produced a ripple of anxiety on some ethereal military echelon that floated a C.I.D. man back into the ward posing as a patient. They all knew he was a C.I.D. man because he kept inquiring about an officer named Irving or Washington and because after his first day there he wouldn't censor letters. He found them too monotonous."

One wonders what the Regents Exam would do with this passage. There is sexual harassment in it, after all, and white male authors, and ignorance of white male authors, and war, and the military, and religion, and hierarchy, and parts of speech (mentioning which could be threatening to students who don't know what they are), and grammatical jihad ("Death to all modifiers"), and universalism, and homo-insensitive language (Yossarian censors with "careless flicks of his wrist"). There's also deadly parody of just the sort of activity the Board of Education engages in when it writes its exam. Somehow I don't imagine Heller would care, though, if the passage made self-appointed censors uncomfortable. Somehow, I think he would say that that is its point.

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink