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June 30, 2003 [feather]
Bonnell in context

Macomb Community College English professor John Bonnell isn't the only teacher in Michigan's Macomb County to find himself on the bad end of a harassment complaint because a student was offended by an assigned literary work. According to the Detroit Free Press, the Michigan Department of Civil Rights is investigating a complaint filed by a high school student angered by his teacher's use of a "racial slur" while teaching Huckleberry Finn. The article studiously avoids the term in question, which has the unfortunate effect of heightening the trumped-up horror surrounding what sounds like a non-event. It's not hard to guess what the term was, however: Twain's novel, which is narrated by the boy Huck and which was written in a mid-nineteenth-century rural Missouri dialect, uses the term "nigger" to refer to black people.

The class in question was a special ed class. The teacher in question is white, the complaining student is black. He became agitated when the teacher read aloud from Twain's novel (apparently the offending word appeared in the passage she read aloud). His agitation was increased when the teacher used the word again during class discussion of the novel. The school defends the teacher, saying her use of the term was germane to the material at hand (I agree with this: I know from experience that you cannot teach Huckleberry Finn without talking about its terminology at some point--if the teacher doesn't bring it up, a student always does). But the student and his parents are not satisfied. They feel that the school district did not demonstrate adequate sympathy for their son's plight, and plan to file a lawsuit.

The position of the school district: "The reality is [the slur] is in the book," said a spokesman. "We feel very confident that in this specific case, things were put in context." The position of the parents: the school district is racist. They were appalled to find that upon bringing their complaint before the school's assistant principal, she also used the offending word: "She, too, kept saying the word," said the student's mother. "It was offensive to us. She was just throwing it around like it was no big deal." So the parents wanted to complain to a school administrator about a teacher's discussion of Twain's use of the term "nigger," but became upset when that word became part of the substance of the conversation. It's hard to imagine any other way the term could have been discussed, though I suppose the parties involved could have agreed in advance to protect one another's sensibilities by calling it the "N-word."

Perhaps in the future, Macomb County school administrators will remember to treat offended parents like children. And perhaps in the future, they will warn teachers away from literature that might somehow, someway injure impressionable young students. After all, it's much easier to avoid the issues a writer like Twain raises than to deal with students and parents who don't and won't get it. It's much easier to dismiss Twain and anyone who teaches him as racist than to recognize the moral complexity of the novel. Yes, Huck thinks of his fellow runaway Jim as a "nigger"--it's the only word he knows to describe blacks. But he also learns, during the course of their journey down the Mississippi, that Jim is human, a father-figure and a friend. The story of Huckleberry Finn is in many ways the story of Huck's realization that you can't classify people by their looks, and that that rare and precious thing--genuine friendship--tends to be found where one least expects it to be. (If you want to read a bit more about this, have a look at this black Missouri high school teacher's poignant account of teaching Huckleberry Finn. It speaks eloquently to the value of the novel--as a work of art and as a complex meditation on American race relations--and emphasizes the ethical and historical importance of confronting Twain's language head-on.)

John Bonnell's nightmare began in 1998, when an outraged parent filed a complaint against him for distributing a handout on the first day of class advising students that some of the reading for the course would include "adult content" and that his own discussion of that material would on occasion involve the use of graphic language. The parent pulled her daughter out of Bonnell's class, and the school began to pursue Bonnell as a proven harasser. At no point did the parent, the student, or the school administration approach Bonnell for clarification; instead, he was summoned to a disciplinary hearing with a letter informing him that the school believed he was a harassment lawsuit waiting to happen and advising him that the hearing could result in disciplinary action against him. His life since that time has been a long and painful series of absurd encounters with a school administration bent on casting him as a predator from whom vulnerable women students must be protected.

The recent events at Macomb County's Cousino High School help to put Bonnell's experience in context. Macomb County appears to be home to more than one set of parents who fail to grasp the fact that education is not always comfortable and does not always confirm one's ideas about what the world is and ought to be like. Those parents raise their children in an atmosphere of sheltered entitlement underwritten by a shallow identity politics: the result is children who react emotionally and intemperately to single words, who cannot hear racial or sexual slurs pronounced without automatically assuming that the person pronouncing them is a hostile oppressor who must be punished and that they are themselves abused victims who must be vindicated. There is no room in such a mentality for intelligent discussion of the power of particular words, nor of how certain words have historically gained and lost power. There is no room in such a mentality for intelligent discussion of any kind.

That said, it is noteworthy that it is the high school that is defending a teacher accused of harassing speech, and not the college. One would think that in the general scheme of meliorative school administration, a college would be more tolerant than a high school, and a high school would be more willing to mark students as children who cannot be expected to function as adults in an adult world. But--as Macomb Community College administrators have been eager to prove for several years now--there are different rules for John Bonnell.

Erin O'Connor, 9:36 AM | Permalink




June 29, 2003 [feather]
More on Bonnell

Media organizations seem reluctant to take up the story of John Bonnell, the Macomb Community College English professor who was recently suspended without pay for allegedly using harassing language in the classroom and for including unnecessary sexual content in his courses. Here's an exception, a story from Click on Detroit that reports the devastating fact that when all the hype and horror are peeled away, Bonnell was essentially suspended for teaching James Joyce.

Bonnell has been suspended by administrators at Macomb five separate times now, always for more or less the same reason. The latest suspension is the result of a complaint filed by a student (unnamed in the article, of course) who took offense after a class discussion of Joyce's short story, "The Boarding House":


A passage from "The Boarding House" reads: "She knew he had a good screw for one thing and she suspected he had a bit of stuff put by."

Bonnell explained to his class that Joyce, in the interpretive sense, was saying a "good screw" is a reference to the sexual function between a young woman in the story and a 35-year-old man.

Bonnell has protested his suspension by carrying signs around campus that say, "Loose Quips Sink Professorships," "Censors Don't Tread on Me," and a sign with a picture of an American flag covered with footprints.

"A relentless witch hunt has been in progress where the school has been trying with all of its might to silence me or get rid of me," Bonnell said.


If this report is accurate--and from what I have seen of the documentation surrounding Bonnell's case it is--Bonnell is being punished not for behaving inappropriately in the classroom, but for doing his job. English teachers are supposed to assign great works of literature to their students. And they are supposed to use class time to make sure that students grasp that literature. That means ensuring that students understand the author's colloquial expressions and use of innuendo. With a writer like Joyce, devoting some class time to basic comprehension issues is crucial: the usages of early twentieth-century Dublin are hardly those of early twenty-first century America, and to follow Joyce's meaning, an inexperienced reader often needs a bit of guidance. Joyce, moreover, was notorious for taking his subject matter beyond the comfort level of his editors and his public. He squabbled endlessly with squeamish publishers over word choice (Joyce's use of the word "bloody" was considered to be particularly racy). And though it is now considered to be a masterpiece, Ulysses was originally banned for obscenity in England and the U.S. To teach Joyce well, one must help students understand why and how putatively "obscene" or perverse material was important to Joyce's artistic vision.

Bonnell is in the painfully awkward position of being unable to publicize the precise details of his case for fear of further retaliation. His is a situation that both forces him to compromise his own credibility (the public reasonably expects that people with nothing to hide would not suppress vitally relevant information) and compels him to protect his accusers (whose names and rationales remain safely concealed). Bonnell is 64, and can't very well redirect his career by moving to another university. He needs the help of an organization like the ACLU or FIRE, either of which could provide the legal support and the access to publicity he requires.

UPDATE: Though the specifics of the present complaint and suspension are not publicly available, there is a very thorough online archive chronicling Bonnell's past clashes with the Macomb Community College administration. It includes the texts of complaints that have been registered against Bonnell by a parent and by a student, along with his correspondence with the MCC administration about them. It includes the details of his various suspensions and supplies documents from the lawsuit Bonnell filed against MCC in 1999 (among them is an amicus brief from FIRE). Finally, the page includes many testimonials from Bonnell's students--none of whom deny that he uses explicit language in class, but all of whom stress that his use of that language is germane to the course content and that Bonnell himself is one of the most qualified and respectful teachers they have ever had. Well worth a look.

Thanks to Jack W. for the link.

Erin O'Connor, 10:36 AM | Permalink




June 26, 2003 [feather]
Suspended for teaching

A press release issued yesterday by John Bonnell, professor of language and literature at Macomb Community College:


On June 16, 2003, Macomb Community College suspended me, John Bonnell, without pay until August 16, 2003. I am a professor of language and literature at this institution, and had flourished for thirty years without incident, until the College took it upon itself five years ago to initiate what can best be described as a witch hunt. The College took this action to strengthen its program of censorship, a program it believes finds support from a federal judiciary that, like the College, denies the relevance of the First Amendment to American campuses. The specific trigger for this assault was the complaint of a single student who objected primarily to discussion of the sexual content in a story by a famous author. (I am not at liberty to divulge specific elements of the complaint because the College claims that students who wish to censor professors have the right to do so in virtual anonymity and in guaranteed secrecy. This is a most effective way to encourage complainants who want to modify or silence teachers whose ideas or words they find irritating.) The College and the Faculty "Union," apparently independently, telephoned a dozen or so students from the same class in an effort to find support for the complainant's charges. However, no substantive support was forthcoming. In fact, some of these students found the College's invasive, scurrilous, and defamatory inquisition itself very upsetting.

On June 25, 2003 I appeared before the Macomb Community College Faculty Organization (MCCFO) to appeal to its governing officers and Senate to file a grievance against the College's suspension. The Senators and officers had been advised beforehand by me that the College's claims were essentially slanderous. After some discussion, larded with insinuations and even accusations, the Senate voted against my appeal. They argued that the College's speech code was a useful and necessary guide for professionals of the 21st century. They said offensive speech was any speech the College did not like, that any student might not like, or that they themselves did not like. By clear implication, the only person not qualified to judge the appropriateness of in-class discourse is the targeted professor. They remonstrated with me, and called my intelligence into question, because I persist in believing outmoded notions of free speech. They said that the Contract's first enumerated Right of Teachers, obviously patterned on the First Amendment ("The teacher shall be entitled to freedom of discussion within the classroom on all matters which he considers relevant to the subject matter under discussion."), does not mean what it seems to say, or what I think it means. Before discussion on this head could be fully developed, the chair closed debate and called for a motion.

As a result of this fifth betrayal in a row, I must now endure another suspension without pay. The principles of academic freedom, of due process in the face of allegations, and of union solidarity are finished at Macomb College. Free speech itself, along with the very idea of "higher" education and, indeed, of democracy, are on the brink of perishing altogether.


Confidentiality prevents me from elaborating on the above, but I can at least say this: this guy is for real, and his complaint is legitimate. I'll have more to say on this case, and on the larger patterns it exemplifies, over the next few days. But for the moment, I'll simply note that cases like Bonnell's are a dime a dozen these days (here's another case of a single student derailing a career with unsubstantiated allegations, and here's another).

One reason these cases are so common is that colleges and universities have created an environment that encourages them. In attempting to protect students' alleged sensitivities, and in confusedly assuming that the classroom should be a "safe space" where students always feel comfortable, administrators have written speech codes and harassment policies that deliver the power to destroy careers into the hands of students who are neither accountable for unfounded or exaggerated complaints nor fully aware of the damage they can cause. That these codes and policies are often unconstitutional, that they frequently empower complainants at the expense of the First Amendment rights of the accused, only adds a further dimension of sadly telling irony to an already outrageous situation in which political and ideological concerns that are frankly hostile to the spirit of inquiry are driving institutions of higher learning.

Erin O'Connor, 9:10 AM | Permalink




June 23, 2003 [feather]
Dirty little secrets

New York's Assembly Higher Education Committee Chairman Ronald Canestrari is sponsoring a bill that would make classroom materials used in public schools exempt from New York's Freedom of Information Law. Canestrari's idea is that academic freedom is inhibited by the law, which "only creates an unnecessary concern that may limit an instructor's ability to pass on knowledge and ideas to students."

Advocates of the bill see it as necessary to protect professors' rights. "Misuse of the (Freedom of Information Law) does have potential for intimidation and second-guessing," Frank Maurizio of the United University Professors union told the Oneonta Daily Star. "There is no place for that when you're talking about the kind of debate that needs to be fostered in an academic setting." "We are in favor of freedom of speech and expression," said William Simons, also of the UUP; "but we must also be careful about intrusions in terms of government or anything else. We live in an era where we need to be vigilant about civil liberties." "I'm not comfortable with someone calling me up and saying they want to see my syllabi," said SUCO adjunct professor of education Gary Turits said. "I don't want any Tom, Dick and Harry reviewing what I teach."

This has to be one of the more convoluted pieces of academic self-justification I've seen in a long time. Academic debate will be chilled if it is second-guessed? Debate is second-guessing. Allowing the public to see what's taught at public colleges and universities threatens the civil liberties of professors? Only if you think professors have the right never to be questioned. Syllabi should be treated as sensitive information? Only if the professor has something--perhaps lack of seriousness or lack of competence--to hide. The above quotes are the rationalizations of professors who don't want to be criticized, who don't believe John Q. Public is qualified to criticize them, and who don't want to acknowledge either their snobbery or their thin skin.

Luckily, Canestrari's bill has opponents. Among them are Richard Lee, a SUCO professor who says "people have the right to make open decisions and that requires having access to information. It behooves us to make this information available to parents or students or whoever needs it." Robert Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, also opposes the bill: "The public should have the right to know the kinds of materials used in public classrooms. ... There is nothing secret about the material that is displayed and distributed to students."

Thus far, the bill's most eloquent opponent is SUNY trustee Candace de Russy, who expressed her disgust at length in the New York Sun last week. Noting that if passed, such a bill could result in the peculiarly Orwellian scenario of students being required to sign confidentiality agreements in order to register for courses, de Russy goes on to outline the patent bad faith of the bill:


To invoke academic freedom in this manner is disingenuous and illogical. Academic freedom entails the liberty of professors to teach what they believe to be the truth, and to write and do research, without official interference. But this special protection of academic utterances is accompanied by contractual obligations and ethical responsibilities. As one expert on academic institutions, Edward Shils, has noted, once a professor has satisfied himself that his research is sound, he or she, with rare exception, is obligated to publish it openly. "Secrecy," Mr. Shils observes, "is alien to the obligation of university teachers." The same principle that applies to research applies to teaching. Academic freedom is not a licence to operate in secret; the classroom is a venue for openness. This bill would make the classroom less of an open forum.

It is a peculiar, and distinctly un-academic, breach of logic to imply, as this bill does, that the quality of college teaching will decline if the public is privy to what is being taught. What a high-wire act for anyone in the academic profession or in politics--for his or her own sake and for the sake of the profession--even to appear to wish to hide public matters. What an indefensible proposition it is to make higher education in New York less open, less responsive, and less accountable.


What a high-wire act indeed. As a circus performance, this bill is right up there with the University of California's proposed move to rewrite its statement on academic freedom as a virtual mandate for preaching politics in the classroom. Both efforts will be worth watching closely.

Hat tip: reader KCJ.

Erin O'Connor, 9:57 PM | Permalink




Court prefers ambiguity

Eugene Volokh has been all over the Supreme Court's split rulings in the University of Michigan affirmative action cases (just keep scrolling). I'll leave the constitutional theorizing to him, and will simply post here an excerpt from Justice Scalia's dissent in the law school case (the court upheld the law school's preference system while striking down that used in undergraduate admissions):


Unlike a clear constitutional holding that racial preferences in state educational institutions are impermissible, or even a clear anticonstitutional holding that racial preferences in state educational institutions are OK, today's Grutter-Gratz split double header seems perversely designed to prolong the controversy and the litigation. Some future lawsuits will presumably focus on whether the discriminatory scheme in question contains enough evaluation of the applicant "as an individual," ante, at 24, and sufficiently avoids "separate admissions tracks" ante, at 22, to fall under Grutter rather than Gratz. Some will focus on whether a university has gone beyond the bounds of a " 'good faith effort' " and has so zealously pursued its "critical mass" as to make it an unconstitutional de facto quota system, rather than merely " 'a permissible goal.' " Ante, at 23 (quoting Sheet Metal Workers v. EEOC, 478 U. S 421, 495 (1986) (O'Connor, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part)). Other lawsuits may focus on whether, in the particular setting at issue, any educational benefits flow from racial diversity. (That issue was not contested in Grutter; and while the opinion accords "a degree of deference to a university's academic decisions," ante, at 16, "deference does not imply abandonment or abdication of judicial review," Miller-El v. Cockrell, 537 U. S. 322, 340 (2003).) Still other suits may challenge the bona fides of the institution's expressed commitment to the educational benefits of diversity that immunize the discriminatory scheme in Grutter. (Tempting targets, one would suppose, will be those universities that talk the talk of multiculturalism and racial diversity in the courts but walk the walk of tribalism and racial segregation on their campuses--through minority only student organizations, separate minority housing opportunities, separate minority student centers, even separate minority-only graduation ceremonies.) And still other suits may claim that the institution's racial preferences have gone below or above the mystical Grutter-approved "critical mass." Finally, litigation can be expected on behalf of minority groups intentionally short changed in the institution's composition of its generic minority "critical mass." I do not look forward to any of these cases. The Constitution proscribes government discrimination on the basis of race, and state-provided education is no exception.

Hat tip: Reader Michael S.

Erin O'Connor, 6:55 PM | Permalink




June 22, 2003 [feather]
Relatively sincere

Writing in response to my post on the discomforts of academic relativism, Robert Bove argues that it's wrong to chalk up the academic humanities' problems to cynical careerism:


...a lot of the fads out there in academia are supported by well-meaning folk, who, though agnostics at best, and thereby inadequately armed to confront a hoary old enemy ... have been reacting to recent (19th century) utilitarian, mechanistic notions of what a university should beóand, it should go without saying, those same notions of what people should be. Disturbed by world systemsówhether mass corporate or mass science (the same thing, now, no?)óthey desperately want an ìidentityî that doesnít make them another cog or grommet. Who can blame them? Who can blame the sincere ones, that is, and not the cynics who play the identity game looking out for numero uno.

I agree that there is a great deal of sincerity and good intent out there. That's one reason why it's difficult to discuss this topic: if you want to be a fair commentator, you have to keep in mind that a great many of the people whose work you say is self-serving, short-sighted, and intellectually irresponsible are well-meaning, even deeply committed, scholars and teachers. But that doesn't mean they aren't fooling themselves, or being fooled by others, and that doesn't make them less responsible for recognizing when they or someone else substitutes trendy gimmicks for substantive scholarship and teaching. One of the hardest things to come to grips with about the academic humanities, in my opinion, is how much conviction people can bring to utterly bankrupt undertakings.

Take a test case: Consider the inexperienced but passionately committed young graduate student, about to embark on her dissertation. She is enrolled in a Ph.D. program in English literature, but for one reason and another (the zeitgeist of her field being one of them), she determines that she will not devote her thesis work to literary study, but to theorizing the cultural construction of the human body. With her advisors' encouragement and praise, she proceeds to write a book-length manuscript on the discourse of disease in nineteenth-century England. She tells herself that this is legitimate because, having read her Foucault and her Derrida, she knows that "textuality" is her real subject matter, and that it would be artificial and theoretically unsophisticated to confine herself strictly to literary texts. She also knows that for her dissertation to mean much to anyone, it must attempt to present an argument about how Victorian culture came into being and what its political dimensions were: sticking to novels and poems won't let her do that, but expanding her purview to include medical writing, newspaper reports, ads and cartoons, early anthropology, conduct books, public health reports, and even circus broadsides will.

So it comes to pass that she finds herself writing medical history from within a Ph.D. program in English. She has never taken a course on nineteenth-century history, and has no special claim to be able to write authoritatively about the history of science or about medicine. All she has is her good intentions, her excitement at the undertaking, and her will to make it all work. She does her best. She is sincere. She's also full of crap. But no one says so and no one seems to think so: she wins fellowships and garners praise; she lands a prestigious job and eventually publishes a revised and expanded version of the thesis with a prestigious press; she gets tenure; she is now established at her institution as the department's resident Body Critic (every top English department must have one of those, just as it must have a queer theorist and a postcolonial theorist and a squad of feminist theorists). She is never not entirely sincere. She truly thinks she is doing what she ought to be doing, and that she has spent her time and energy well. Those who should tell her otherwise do not--her advisors pile on the praise, her colleagues encourage her (even the older ones who know better). Historians are nasty, but she has been led to expect that from them, and has been taught not to take it personally.

Perhaps it is the case that she didn't wholly mangle the history she tried to write and that there may be something of worth buried deep in the book, past the generic race/class/gender-oriented framing, past the parrotry that is required for professional entry, deep in the close readings that were her greatest source of pleasure in the entire project. But then, perhaps the book--the product of five years of graduate school and five more years of assistant professorship--was just a complete waste of time, sweat, paper, and, yes, deep if misguided sincerity. That tends to be how I feel about it now, anyhow. It's a harsh assessment, but it's also mine to make since it's my book I'm talking about.

The above is a thumbnail sketch of how an academic absurdity is created from within the context of sincerity. I'm not proud to be Exhibit A in my argument, but I'd rather point honestly to myself than pick on someone else. A lot of people make asses of themselves in the name of making scholars of themselves--I think it's especially common in English, where the strain of coming up with original topics bumps up against the habit of using chic theory to cover up a lack of learning. The trouble is that once you've made that ass of yourself (which you do at dissertation stage if not before), you are locked into it for the next 8 or more years. The tenure clock and the assembly-line rhythms of expected publication demand it--there is no time to abandon a bum project once one is well into it, no opportunity to reconceive or even stop to get one's bearings. The show must go on. It's hard to realize you've become an ass in such a context, and harder still to admit it later, after the book has been published for the world to see. Far easier to stay ever so sincere and well-meaning, and never to know the truth.

UPDATE: Photon Courier responds with a post entitled "The Dictatorship of Theory." C.S. Lewis makes an appearance, as do b-school and a Procrustean bed. Worth reading.

Erin O'Connor, 8:46 AM | Permalink




June 20, 2003 [feather]
A bark that bites

My recent posts on the discomforts of academic relativism have led Captain Yips to reflect on the decadent degradation of the academic humanities:


It was around 1970 that I noticed changes in emphasis that I and others certainly found indigestible. We drifted from an emphasis on ìtext-and-contextî to an emphasis on, well, ME. This change was partly due to the relentless insistence on ìrelevance,î something I never quite got. It was my business to make myself relevant to Shakespeare, not Shakespeare to me, or so I thought. The politicization of the academy is another aspect; itís probably not possible to overemphasize the influence of a diluted Marxism in the 1970s academy.

I also felt strongly a sense of exhaustion. It takes a good deal of effort to become a ìlearned person.î You have to value the effort and the goal. If youíre going to teach A Tale of Two Cities, you not only have to know the text back to front, but also have a good idea about how Dickens understood the French Revolution, how the book fit with Dickensí other work at the time of composition: a fairly elaborate preparation, not even considering pedagogic technique. Among my professors in the early 1970s, I detected a certain impatience. After 1970, we began to get courses that often strayed a long way from traditional curriculum. The same professor who was catatonia-inducing at noon on The 20th Century Novel shone teaching a non-credit course on film noir seven hours later. Can there be such a thing as a spirit of a profession? If there can be, it was tired of the rigors of scholarship in 1970, and found no joy in its rewards. New and exciting ideas had come into the room, colorfully dressed and flirting madly.

Well. The post modern tidal wave has passed; at least some people seem sick of theories in their various flavors, and some realize that there are other ways to be a scholar. I wonder if, as people of my generation retire, the younger men and women who replace them will collectively exhale and resume the patterns of scholarship that prevailed 40 years or more ago? I only hope that it doesnít come to the method of promotion formerly used at Terry Pratchettís Unseen University; assassination of the older professors by the younger. That would be untidy.


It was around 1970 that I was learning to talk--so I appreciate the longer view offered here. The point about "relevance" is right on: the increasing shrillness, snobbery, and grandiosity of so much humanist scholarship can be traced directly to the attempt to argue for the social, political, and cultural relevance of the arts. And of course they are relevant--they give meaning, depth, and texture to our lives in precious, priceless ways. But they are not relevant in the ways many scholars insist that they are. You cannot discern the ideology of imperialism from Jane Eyre--but there are scores of critics who say you can. You cannot detect a uniquely homosexual literary style in the work of a Walt Whitman or a Henry James--but there are critics who say you can. You cannot argue that a poem or story singlehandedly subverts patriarchal hegemony or that a novel or play may be read as a microcosm of the culture in which it was written. But critics do it all the time, and they do it because they want to make works of art into something they are not. Making exaggerated, often irrelevant claims about the relevance of particular works and making those claims stick: that is the work of the professional humanist today. By and large, it's what gets rewarded, it's what gets published, and it's what gets taught.

For that reason, I am not as hopeful as Captain Yips that the people of my generation will restore the academy to a less preposterous and more responsible frame of mind. To do that, you have to have the wider view he mentions--and we, by definition, do not. Many of us were not properly educated or adequately trained, and many of us do not even recognize this. Many of us would also never be open to such a recognition--there is simply too much pride at stake, not to mention too many jobs.

My feeling is that the humanistic side of the academy is on a massive unintentional suicide mission. I'd like for it to be otherwise, and would love to be wrong. But I've got a sinking feeling the patient may already be dead.

UPDATE: Johnny Two-Cents responds. For more examples of the sort of thing I've been talking about, check out this Washington Post piece on the latest academic vogue, "Whiteness Studies." Joanne Jacobs has more--the comments from her readers are marvelous.

Erin O'Connor, 1:42 PM | Permalink




June 19, 2003 [feather]
Bad history down under

Last December, Australian historian Keith Windschuttle published The Fabrication of Aboriginal History: Volume One, Van Diemen's Land 1803-1847, a book challenging the widely accepted truism that the history of Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania) is the history of the programmatic genocide of aboriginal people by British settlers. Here is how Windschuttle summarized his argument in The Australian when the book came out:


Tasmania, or Van Diemen's Land as it was known until 1855, is widely regarded today as the site of the most violent relations between Aborigines and colonists in Australian history. It is our worst-case scenario. Authors such as Lyndall Ryan claim the Tasmanian Aborigines were subject to "a conscious policy of genocide". International writers now routinely compare the actions of the British in Tasmania with the Spaniards in Mexico, the Belgians in the Congo, the Turks in Armenia and Pol Pot in Cambodia. The Black War from 1824 to 1831 and the Black Line of 1830 are two of the most notorious events in the history of the British Empire.

However, after examining all the archival evidence and double-checking the references cited by the most reputable academic historians of the subject, I have concluded that most of the story is myth piled upon myth, including some of the most hair-raising breaches of historical practice ever recorded. Here are some of the transgressions by its leading historians.


In that piece, which coincided with the publication of the book, Windschuttle went on to summarize how the story of genocide that is so central to Australian history (not to mention national identity) is in no small part the fabrication of historians who play fast and loose with facts, misquoting as needed and even making up statistics when necessary. He goes on to list just a few of the glaring errors he found when he checked the major historical work on the subject against the sources they cite. The representative list he gives in the article is long, but worth quoting in full:

Lloyd Robson claims that settler James Hobbs in 1815 witnessed Aborigines killing 300 sheep at Oyster Bay and the next day the 48th Regiment killed 22 Aborigines in retribution. However, between 1809 and 1822 Hobbs was living in India, the first sheep did not arrive at Oyster Bay until 1821 and in 1815 the 48th Regiment never went anywhere near Oyster Bay.

Robson and four other authors repeat a story that 70 Aborigines were killed in a battle with the 40th Regiment near Campbell Town in 1828. But all neglect to say that a local merchant told a government inquiry that he went to the alleged site with a corporal on the following day but could find no bodies or blood, only three dead dogs. "To tell you the truth," the corporal then confessed, "we did not kill any of them."

Ryan cites the Hobart Town Courier as a source for several stories about atrocities against Aborigines in 1826. But that newspaper did not begin publication until October 1827 and the other two newspapers of the day made no mention of these killings.

Ryan cites the diary of the colony's first chaplain, Rev Robert Knopwood, as the source for a claim that between 1803 and 1808 the colonists killed 100 Aborigines. The diaries, however, record only four Aborigines being killed in this period.

Ryan claims that in 1826, police killed 14 Aborigines at Pitt Water. But none of the three references she provides mentions any Aborigines being killed there in 1826 or any other time.

Ryan claims a band of white vigilantes massacred the Port Dalrymple Aborigines in December 1827. None of the five sources she cites mentions either vigilantes or a massacre.

Between 1828 and 1830, according to Ryan, "roving parties" of police constables and convicts killed 60 Aborigines. Not one of the three references she cites mention any Aborigines being killed, let alone 60. The governor at the time and most subsequent authors regarded the roving parties as completely ineffectual.

Ryan says the Black War began in 1824 with the Big River tribe launching patriotic attacks on the invaders. However, all the assaults on whites that year were made by a small gang of detribalised blacks led by a man named Musquito who was not defending his tribal lands. He was an Aborigine originally from Sydney who had worked in Hobart for 10 years before becoming a bushranger.

Henry Reynolds claims the chief agent of the Van Diemen's Land Company, Edward Curr, was one of the settlers making "increased demands for extermination" of the Aborigines. The full text of the statement Reynolds cites, however, is a pessimistic prediction of what might possibly happen if Aboriginal violence continued, not an advocacy of their extermination. "I am far from advising such a proceeding," Curr wrote.

Reynolds claims lieutenant-governor Arthur recognised from his experience in the Peninsular War against Napoleon than the Aborigines had adopted Spanish tactics of guerilla warfare, in which small bands attacked the troops of their enemy. However Arthur's military career never included Spain. The full text of the statement Reynolds cites talks not about troops coming under attack by guerillas but of Aborigines robbing and assaulting unarmed shepherds on remote outstations.

Arthur inaugurated the Black Line in 1830, Reynolds claims, because "he feared 'a general decline in the prosperity' and the 'eventual extirpation of the colony' ". But Arthur never made the statement attributed to him. Reynolds has altered his words.


While American bloggers were busy celebrating the successful toppling of Michael Bellesiles, whose falsifications and sloppy citations underpinned his much-lauded but also factually challenged Arming America, Windschuttle was quietly exposing a host of Australian Bellesiles to view. As with Bellesiles, politically motivated historians had allowed their agenda to drive their presentation of material; as with Bellesiles, the skewed portrait they painted of their nation's history was accepted too readily because it conformed to a particularly desirable story of what the nation is and who its people are. Arming America appealed to people who wanted to believe that guns were not a major part of early American culture, and who wanted to argue that the Second Amendment should not be interpreted to mean that all private citizens have a constitutional right to carry guns. The genocidal narrative of Australian history appealed to people's unresolved guilt about the colonization of that continent, blaming settlers for the deliberate extinction of the aborigines and in the process helping to fortify a reparative agenda in the present. Windschuttle argues that the reality is far more complex and far less satisfying because it does not provide a clear, politically correct focal point for blame: "True, the full-blood Tasmanian Aborigines did die out in the 19th century," he writes. "But this was almost entirely a consequence of two factors: the long isolation that had left them vulnerable to introduced diseases, especially influenza, pneumonia and tuberculosis; and the fact that they traded and prostituted their women to such an extent that they lost the ability to reproduce themselves."

The flap Windschuttle's book was bound to cause is still flapping. The June 9 edition of Australia's Herald Sun reports that because it is "now more moral to seem good than be right," Windschuttle continues to be "savaged" by his fellow historians. Unable to refute his argument, they have collectively attacked both his character and his credibility as a scholar: "Historians are always making up figures," quoth Ryan, defending her false statistics by libelling the historical profession. Windschuttle is "malicious," others say. He is a "cultural chauvinist." He has a "twisted view of history" that leaves "no room ... for historical imagination." His work is "replete with misconceptions, distortions, character assassinations" and it commits the heinous crime of aiming "to take the discipline of history back to some golden age when it was all about facts." The picture of Australian historiography that emerges here is one that will speak to anyone familiar with academic politics: dissent is not welcome, and truth is not valued; genuine inquiry--which involves challenging prior work--breeds not renewed investigation of material but bitter acrimony; to question existing knowledge is to betray those who framed it. Clio, thy name might better be Ego.

(hat tip: Fred R.)

UPDATE: Windschuttle published a long and detailed piece on the fabrication of aboriginal history in the September 2001 issue of the New Criterion. Thanks to Emmett H. for the link.

UPDATE UPDATE: King Banaian has additional reflections on Australian historical memory and on history-writing in general. And Eugene Volokh has another example of an Australian attempt to suppress academic dissent.

ANOTHER UPDATE 6/22/03: Henry Farrell responds with some apt criticisms of my post. Windschuttle's opponents, it appears, level many of the same accusations at him that he levels at them. The economist-blogger John Quiggin, for instance, says Windschuttle is the one grinding the political axe. Ironically, Quiggin argues, Windschuttle's desire to repudiate a version of history he finds politically repugnant has led him to embrace the historical relativism he openly deplores in his 1994 The Killing of History. Others have pointed out potentially fatal flaws in Windschuttle's research, most notably Henry Reynolds (one of the historians Windschuttle attacks). Here's an account of a debate between Windschuttle and Reynolds that, if accurate, certainly does suggest that Windschuttle's own assemblage of data leaves something to be desired. Flawed arguments and failed syntheses aside, though, the citational problems Windschuttle identifies in major works of aboriginal history remain to be corrected and explained. Ryan, for example, contends that while her footnoting may be sloppy, she does have data to support all her points. It will be interesting to read her formal response to Windschuttle when it appears.

Erin O'Connor, 11:53 AM | Permalink




June 18, 2003 [feather]
True confessions

I'm still getting mail about my recent post on the discomforts of academic relativism. The latest comes from an English department chair. He writes:


I canít thank you enough for your blog on this topic. ÝYouíve hit the nail on the head in identifying the link between trendy philosophical relativism and academic fakery. ... Itís a sad situationóI feel a mixture of disgust and shame for all the times I looked the other way as the frauds preened and posed. I derive some comfort, though, from learning that there are others who are willing to acknowledge whatís going on.Ý

Hereís my story. After ten years at my current institution, the last four as the chair of English, I decided to try myself on the job market last fall. I applied for a job as chair of the English department at a public university in New York, and, after an interview at MLA, was invited for a campus visit as one of three finalists for the position. The head of the search committeeóan amiable fellow, and pretty seriously interested in my candidacy, as far as I could tellóasked me to devote about a quarter of my job talk to describing my ìscholarly approach and accomplishments.î I agonized over this, because for the past five years or so Iíve been trying to wean myself from my grad-school-induced reflex to doing the sort of ìtemplate-drivenî writing to which another of your correspondents referred. How truthful could I afford to be about my growing dissatisfaction with theory? Should I trump up some ghastly theoretical allegiances, or should I just come clean about my desire to leave theory behind to try to become genuinely learned? Hereís what I finally came up with, taken verbatim from my job talk script:

"In my writing I approach the study of literature from an interdisciplinary standpointóI use a lot of history, politics, economics, and psychology in my work. I do the same thing in my teachingóin my lectures for courses on Romantic and Victorian lit, for example, I always strive as much as possible to portray for my students literatureís contextsóboth from a larger, cultural point of view and from the standpoint of the writersí own lives. This makes me, I think, a good fit for this department. Your curriculum strikes just the right balance between exposing students to the various schools of contemporary theory and encouraging them to read widely in the literatures of various traditions. Though I teach theory and believe very strongly that students need to be made aware of what kinds of approaches are available to them, Iím not a theoretical axe-grinder myself. The writings Iíve published draw on a number of different theoretical perspectives: Iíve done a lot of work with the neo-mimetic theories of Rene Girard, but Iíve also used Julia Kristevaís concept of abjection to explore the psychoanalytic dimensions of Dickensís Oliver Twist. The overarching goal Iíve set for myself in my scholarship, though, is gradually to lessen my reliance on the theories of others. Instead, I want to become a learned personóthat is, I want to be one of those scholars who has read so deeply and widely, and who has such a comprehensive grasp of Ýthe time and circumstances that surround whatever Iím writing about, that my conclusions carry a weight of indisputability that mere theoretical coherence canít give them."

As you know, many years of teaching give one a pretty sure sense of when your audience is with you and when theyíre not. Up to this point, the twenty or so faculty gathered for the talk had responded well. But once Iíd finished this paragraph, I could see that Iíd lost about three quarters of them. The five or so who appeared to like this statement, not surprisingly, were the most senior members of the faculty (one of them later told me that she hadnít heard anyone say something like this in twenty years). I wasnít offered the job.Ý

A few years ago, I happened to be in the company of a senior professor of English at Oxford, a man whoís had a long and distinguished career as an editor and interpreter of the important works of English romanticism. He was recounting the various theoretical steamrollers heíd seen come and go over the past forty years when someone asked him, ìWhat comes after theory?î He paused dramatically, crooked one eyebrow, and said, ìHonesty.î I often think of that moment when the flim-flammery of our profession swellsóas it periodically doesóto manifestly absurd levels. Thanks again for your work, and for serving as an inspiration to those of us struggling to be deprogrammed from grad school. May they someday say of us, ìThey were honest.î


It's symptomatic of the professional "flim-flammery" this writer describes that the best way to be frank about life as a teacher of college English (I refuse categorically to refer to myself or most of my colleagues as "professors;" hence the awkward phrasing) is to own up publicly to the shameful awareness that the "profession of English" is by and large a sham. We live in a world that understands such honesty not as honesty per se, but as something on the order of a disgraceful display of personal inadequacy, one whose poor judgment and worse taste are proven by its evident tendency to project onto innocent and learned others one's own self-loathing. Those familiar with the culture of the academic humanities will appreciate the barriers snobbery and self-delusion pose to frank self-assessment and honest discussion about the state of the profession as a whole. Those who want to see that culture change--or, more pessimistically, who want to confirm for themselves that it can't and won't--must begin by making the sorts of confessions this writer has made above.

Saying to an audience of prospective colleagues that he wants most of all to become truly learned, that he distrusts "theory" and believes absolutely in acquiring knowledge the old-fashioned way, by reading widely, deeply, thoughtfully, and well, cost this individual a job. But my guess is that it felt damned good to say it all the same, and that perhaps the reaction he received revealed to him that this was not a job he wanted after all.

Erin O'Connor, 9:55 AM | Permalink




June 17, 2003 [feather]
Ideology or academic freedom?

Two interesting developments:

Congress has decided to hold hearings to assess the claim made by Stanley Kurtz, Martin Kramer, Daniel Pipes, and others that Title VI funded academic programs in Middle Eastern studies are hotbeds of anti-American propagandizing. The hearing, which will be called "International Programs in Higher Education and Questions of Bias," will commence this Thursday. Kurtz, who will be testifying, has the details. In short, his argument is that thesis-driven post-colonial theory (think Edward Said's Orientalism) has effectively derailed genuine inquiry in academic Middle Eastern Studies, so much so that many prominent programs actively work against the government that funds them.

To be clear: Kurtz and others are not arguing that Middle Eastern Studies should be parrots for American foreign policy, but rather that the government should think twice about allocating special funds to departments so politically driven that they boycott the National Security Education Program, a scholarship program that "supports foreign-language study for students who agree to work for national-security-related agencies after graduation." For the last decade, the African-, Latin American-, and Middle East Studies Associations have all boycotted NSEP.

Kurtz's killer point:


academic freedom and free speech must be protected. Free speech, however, is not an entitlement to a government subsidy. And unless steps are taken to balance university faculties with members who both support and oppose American foreign policy, the very purpose of free speech and academic freedom will have been defeated. The vigorous and open debate that's supposed to flourish at our colleges and universities cannot exist without faculty members who can speak for divergent points of view. Yet, by rewarding politically one-sided programs with gigantic funding increases, Congress is actually removing any incentive for deans and provosts to bring in faculty members with diverse perspectives. At this point, Title VI funding increases are only stifling free debate.

Read the whole thing, as they say. And then check out this piece from yesterday's Contra Costa Times detailing how the University of California is proposing to change the wording of its statement on academic freedom by excising the passages that exhort professors to avoid trying to convert their students to their point of view.

Critics of the current UC statement say that it is archaic, and that it needs to be revised to acknowledge that it is impossible for professors not to bring their politics into the classroom. They want to cut the section that reads, "To convert, or to make converts is alien and hostile to this dispassionate duty" as well as the section stating that the University "assumes the right to prevent exploitation of its prestige by unqualified persons or by those who would use it as a platform for propaganda" because, a spokeswoman said, "If we accepted that as our standard, we would not be able to offer a whole lot of courses we do offer. ... Some of the most interesting work in academia is political and passionate." The new statement would explicitly give students academic freedom, but it would also strike existing language that forbids professors from proselytizing. If the proposed revisions are accepted, the University of California would no longer promise to provide "facilities for investigation and teaching free from domination by parties, sects, or selfish interests."

Luann Wright, founder and president of NoIndoctrination.org, has been fighting the proposed changes for some time. Her take on them is simple and to the point: "It's almost condoning using the classroom as a platform for indoctrination." Supporters of a revised policy say the changes are long overdue, and that they would bring the UC statement in line with those at peer institutions. But one has to wonder about the timing and the motivation. After the flap the UC Berkeley English department endured last year when graduate student Snehal Shingavi wrote a course description warning conservative students not to take his class on "The Politics and Poetics of Palestinian Resistance," one would think that the last thing the University of California would want to do is revise its statement on academic freedom so as to seem to accommodate, if not actively encourage, such outrageously partisan behavior. But there it is.

So: Stanley Kurtz and others have convinced Congress to consider the possibility that Title VI funding is actually working against its own stated aims, and that the government should consider whether it wants to continue to spend dollars on programs that are not using those funds conscientiously and impartially. Meanwhile, the University of California is considering altering the language of its academic freedom statement in such a way that it turns every classroom in the system into a de facto political forum. Taxpayers may have something to say about that, as may the government that supplies the University of California with the bulk of its funds.

Thanks to readers Jeff P. and Fred R. for links to the NRO and Contra Costa Times pieces.

UPDATE 6/20/03: Stanley Kurtz reports on his day on the Hill.

Erin O'Connor, 6:15 PM | Permalink




June 16, 2003 [feather]
Safe zones for men

UNC-Wilmington criminal justice professor and practising gadfly Mike Adams has determined to launch a Men's Resource Center on his campus:


The principle purpose of my Center will be to provide a safe haven or a comfort zone for men who feel that they are working and/or studying in a hostile environment. I first got the idea for these safe zones for men in the Fall of 1994 while I was serving on the Sexual Assault Advisory Board. During one of our board meetings a feminist student suggested mandatory rape awareness training for male students who were members of fraternities. Under her plan, fraternity members would face expulsion from the university if they refused to attend the classes.

I though it would be nice to have a place where these men could go to get away from feminists who think that fraternity members are inclined to be rapists. In fact, six years later, a student of mine (a member of a fraternity) was falsely accused of raping a female student. After she retracted her accusation, the male student didn't have a special place where he could go to receive support from the trauma associated with his horrific ordeal.

Nor was there a safe haven for a philosophy professor at UNC-Wilmington who was viciously attacked by another professor in his department for his beliefs about the crime of rape. According to my conversations with both professors, their argument dealt with the issue of different degrees of rape. The feminist (and socialist) professor took the position that all rapes are equally bad. The man argued that there should be more than one degree of rape.

In order to support his position, he made a hypothetical comparison between the rape of a woman who was attacked in an alley and beaten severely versus a woman who consented to sex and then changed her mind at the last minute only to have the man proceed to penetrate. He simply concluded that the first scenario should be first degree rape while the second scenario should constitute second degree rape.

Despite the fact that the man's position was, and still is, the law in North Carolina and in most other states, she decided to take the matter to the Dean seeking a reprimand and possible dismissal. It seems to me that he could have used a place to go and seek reassurance from someone who cares.


There's much more, and it's both tongue-in-cheek and not. The Safe Zone Project is a real thing, with a strong presence at schools across the country (at the University of Oregon, for example, participants either display or wear a pink triangle surrounded by a green circle to indicate their support for the LGBT members of the community; similar programs exist at Eastern Illinois University, UNLV, the University of Southern Maine, and scores of other schools). But creating any kind of supportive campus enclave for men is, it goes without saying, not a real thing. As the argument goes, the whole campus, nay, the whole world, is already a safe zone for men (wealthy white ones anyway), so it would be redundant to offer them a campus support system. Besides, it's white, male, heteronormative ideology that safe zones protect people against.

The irony of this--one Adams sardonically indicates--is that one result of all the energy that has been poured into protecting all the women, minorities, and LGBT people on campus from straight, white men is that the supposed oppressors have become targets of animosity themselves. Plans are afoot at UNC for reconstituting men's damaged self-esteem, however, and for giving artistic voice to the systemic degradation they undergo as the favored whipping boys of campus orthodoxy: Adams is already planning the Men's Resource Center fall lecture series, and though he denies any precise plans, it's pretty clear that he hopes to stage UNC's first ever production of The Penis Monologues.

Erin O'Connor, 9:33 AM | Permalink




June 15, 2003 [feather]
Reader response

I got some interesting mail in response to yesterday's post about academic fakery and endemic insecurity. It was about evenly divided between anguished acknowledgement of the degradation of the humanities and cynical acceptance of that degradation as an inevitable and manipulable situation.

From a representative cynic, who is enrolled in an English Ph.D. program:


A friend and I, both English Graduate students at a state university, will habitually duck into empty STAFF lounges in hused conversation--huddle near an open window in the Writing Workshop, letting our sentiments harmlessly hurdle outwards. "How's hoop hopping going?" we ask one another, she looking over my shoulder, I looking over hers. We shrug back and forth and shimmy our hips in
a hula motion.

Back in the cooridors, in the sight-lines of those future authors of reccommendation letters, we wear the skins of Go-Getters. We are peppy, blithe. Head over heals in love with our career path. Fists clenched with ready-to-serve cliches.

Forced smiles hurt my face though. It gets stuck in this permasmile. Can't bring myself to stop smiling. What if the repeat button gets stuck, and I end up living out my life technocolorized reruns; sure circumstance makes its generational mark, but its the same old ball game, same old hula-hoop.

[...]

I would find it a very unhealhy proposition to believe that I was doing some good, accomplishing something more than egoism and a not-so-bad way to earn bread. Rather, at some point, I had to decide to have no shame about the game I was playing. I have to do things all the time that seem to do noone, especially myself, any good. We all do. Some of us might grimace at such things, but certainly arent stupid enough to complain.

We all wish for graduate school to be a comfortable and encouraging environment, but as long as the professors we work with evaluate us, write our letters of recommendations, we will treat them something other than human, extoling them in our minds one way or another for our own futures sake. If it were merely a matter of education, we could perhaps find an environment best suited to learning. But its about Jobs and Careers. Money. Food. Really, it is. Some of us are so jaded, so on the verge of driving an SUV through a supermarket, that if this doesnt work out, we don't work out.

So I play the game. Hula. Take my lumps. Smile and smile. Give talks, read papers, in mostly empty conference rooms, circling the compliments I've recieved just a few weeks before. Am I earning? Is it worth it? Shrug. The Myth of Tenure sounds nice--and then maybe I won't have to cover myself with closed eyes and I can be absolutely honest with someone who asks me what's the point.


He's right about over-earnestness being a part of the problem and a part of the pose--it's too simple to see it as an authentic reaction to a f-----d situation, particularly when so many of those sporting the pose don't believe (or say they don't believe) authenticity exists. But at the same time, cynicism this cynical is a frighteningly empty alternative and a damning commentary on what it means (or doesn't mean) to be a humanist today.

For balance, here's an excerpt from a 2001 English Ph.D. who is now an adjunct lecturer:


I have been teaching at [Prominent Private University] for the last two years, and I have been able to see the effects of this relativism on the undergraduates here. They are genuinely bewildered about what, if anything, counts as knowledge. One example that stands out for me: I taught a ìTopics in Theory and Criticismî course this last quarter. The usual approach to such a course here is to pick a flavor (Marx/Marxism, Queer/Gender, New Historicism/Foucault, Cultural Studies/Raymond Williams, etc. etc. etc.), read a series of that flavorís theoretical/critical texts, and then read a more traditionally literary text or two through the lens of the chosen flavor. It seems more than a bit template-driven. I tried to do something differentóthough hardly groundbreakingówith my course: take an historical trip beginning with Plato and working through the various paths that begin there and have ended up here (in the various flavors). I had to adapt the course on the fly, because I was supposed to be teaching a flavors course of my own, so I created a Classical vs. Renaissance theory course into which I snuck all kinds of other stuff ìoff-syllabus.î I thought the class was going miserablyóit was sometimes quite difficult to get students to talk about the material we were coveringóand I was sure that the approach I was trying was failing. On the last day of class, I got an ovation (thereís something thatís never happened before).

I didnít understand what was going on until a few days later. Several students came to see me during office hours to tell me that they had never taken a course quite like this one before. What they had expected was a template-driven, ìhereís how we apply ****ist theory to textsî approach, because that is how all of their classes are taught in the English department here. I still have a little trouble believing this, but according to my students, this course was the first time they had been asked to analyze the intellectual and/or historical bases of the critics themselves. They had gone into an English major thinking that it was going to be something about literary knowledge, aesthetics perhaps, maybe even history and social context, but none of the ones who spoke with me had been prepared for what you describe as the framework of ìdeconstructing race and gender, critiquing the concept of subjectivity, and theorizing culture.î Not a single one of these students had ever read a piece of ìtheoryî or ìcriticismî earlier than the 1960s (with the exception of one who had been asked to read a short excerpt from Marx). They simply had never been asked to do anything other than ìimitate without understandingî (to paraphrase your post).

Some of these students will enter PhD programs next year. [PPU] is quite fond, in fact, of taking people straight from a BA into its own PhD program (I was an exception to the general trend). The just barely-post undergraduate students who come here are then immediately put through an Introduction to Graduate Study class that is essentially no different from the template-driven ìflavorî courses I describe above (my own here was Marx and Marxism). It is painfully obvious to me now that such students are simply not prepared to do much of anything but accept what they are given (or reject it without knowing exactly why or how, or even what the myriad alternatives are). Graduate ìeducationî in a humanities discipline like English seems to be primarily about indoctrination and self-replication. By the time these students are ABD, knowing Foucault backwards and forwards while knowing almost nothing at all about Nietzsche or Plato (not to mention Shakespeare or any number of other ìcanonicalî figures) is not at all uncommon in my experience. Grandiose maneuvers without any background for themóthatís the graduate (and undergraduate) ìeducationî I have come to know.


This is damning stuff--but it describes a pattern that is endemic to graduate education in English and, insofar as English is the most "typical" of the humanities, of the academic humanities in general. The first letter-writer is the product of the environment described by the second one; survivalist cynicism is a necessary coping mechanism in such an environment--as far too many academic humanists know far too well, the more commonly espoused alternative is clinical depression.

UPDATE: Here's another story, from a comment posted at Dale Keiger's site:


Erin's commentary resonated with me as well.

I went through a graduate creative writing program, then switched into the Ph.D. literature program at the same university. One thing we creative writing students had noticed right away (and commented upon) was that the literature students were unhappy -- really, really unhappy.

My first two classes in the lit program, and I understood. The first I took a required survey course on critical theory. We were on Foucault by week four, and spent the next three weeks on Foucault.

Meanwhile, the professor teaching a survey course in drama decided that brain chemistry was really the important topic, and ended up spending his time talking about how emotions are generated in monkeys by their facial expressions. Fine: Could we turn to Moliere now?

As Erin touched upon, there is an expectation of a progression -- mastering the material of language and literature, then criticism, then critical theory. What had been cut out of the program was the learning of language and literature to make room for more and more critical theory.

Years later, I worked as a writer in a publishing house and interviewed and hired a few Ph.D.s who had given up hope on an academic career. Many of them were not as well-read (in terms of lit) as your average newspaperman, and no more versed in classical rhetoric and poetry as your average educated person.


As more stories come in, more shall be posted.

Erin O'Connor, 8:28 AM | Permalink




June 14, 2003 [feather]
The discomforts of academic relativism

There is a great discussion on Baraita about the emotional erosions of graduate school, with comments speculating on both why deep, even debilitating feelings of insecurity are endemic to the grad school experience (at least in the humanities) and on what can be done to make grad school more positive, constructive, and empowering (I hate that word but it's the right one to use here).

Some say it has to do with the low status of the humanities within the academy and beyond. Some say it's a function of growing up, or of being challenged intellectually. Some say it's a gendered thing, some say it's universal. One poignantly points out that it may well have much to do with the enforced infantilization of grad school, that not being allowed to lead, or even to undertake real responsibility, during one's twenties can result in the belief that one is terminally inadequate.

To these theories I would add one additional point: the feelings of insecurity, and the suspicion/creeping conviction that one is a fraud, are on some level very reasonable and accurate reactions to have to the academic humanities. Certainly a lack of mentoring, lack of community, lack of funding, lack of respect, and so on contribute to these feelings--the academy is a very abusive place. But certainly, too, the awareness that there really are a lot of frauds working in these disciplines contributes to the worry that one may oneself be one of them. We can all name professors, colleagues, even friends who are faking it--who don't know their stuff, who can't write a grammatical sentence, who don't even know that they don't know their stuff or can't write a grammatical sentence.

Some of us have covered for the frauds in our midst (doing their research, doing their grading, doing the committee work they won't do, teaching the classes they won't or can't teach, writing much kinder book reviews for them than we should). Some of us have just looked the other way--we don't help the frauds along, but we don't insist that they be accountable, either. Rarely are the frauds outed for what they are--and this is because we are implicated in the fakery ourselves. From day one of graduate school, we have to pose and posture. We have to talk a certain talk and walk a certain walk, and we have to do it in the full awareness that we are pretending to be something that by definition we are not.

Getting socialized as academics happens at the same time that we are supposed to learn what we need to know to become academics--so we are imitating long before we are truly doing, trying to pass for something we all know we cannot possibly be yet, and feeling dirty and doubtful about it from day one. In English, for example, there is no real notion of starting slowly and progressing rationally, of first acquiring deep knowledge of language and literature, of then developing a strong understanding of literary criticism (historical, theoretical, methodological), of then beginning to make one's own informed contributions to the field. Instead, one begins by learning grandiose maneuvers: first year graduate students may not know their Shakespeare, they may not be able to read Middle English, they may not be able to tell a ballad from an ode or explain what makes a novel a novel, but instead of spending their time filling in these gaps, they are taught to devote themselves to such woefully banal and impossibly vague activities as deconstructing race and gender, critiquing the concept of subjectivity, and theorizing culture.

It's ridiculous, it's widespread, and it means that for many of us there is no real moment of apprenticeship, no acknowledged period of quiet, patient, guided study. Instead, "learning" becomes synonymous with imitating what we don't understand, imitating in turn gets confused with knowing, and passing becomes a way of life. This is one reason, I think, why there is so much pretension in the academic humanities, and why the pretentiousness so often takes the form of speaking in unintelligible tongues: jargon is a protective shield in a culture where the intellectual not only knows not what he thinks, but does not want to know this about himself.

Add to this the corrosive relativism of the humanities--which means in practice that no one can agree on what the disciplines are and on what constitutes expertise in any of them--and you've got a situation ripe for feelings of self-doubt. It's not just that one man's fraud is another man's brilliant voice, but also that the lessons about writing, researching, reading and thinking that one professor teaches are the very lessons other professors are teaching against. There is no there there in the academic humanities, and in a very real sense, we are all faking it. We feel like frauds because we really are frauds. In a professional culture as relativistic as ours is, we literally cannot be anything else.

My own feeling is that much of what I describe above is the more or less inevitable result of attempting to professionalize a type of activity--"the life of the mind," for lack of a better phrase--that simply is not amenable to professionalization. Because of this, I'm not sure the answer is to work on making the system of graduate education more comfortable--though the blatant abuses of that system should certainly be corrected. More on this as thoughts arise.

Erin O'Connor, 5:23 PM | Permalink




Gone Fishing

Stanley Fish points out that "First Amendment opportunism" is running rampant on campus, where people are too often too quick to cry censorship when nothing of the sort is going on. He's right.

He also suggests that pretty much all the noise we have been hearing about First Amendment violations on American campuses is overwrought nonsense. "Are there then no free-speech issues on campuses?" he asks. "Sure there are; there just aren't very many." He's wrong.

Fish's essay, which appears in the current issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, makes no mention at all of the various First Amendment lawsuits that have been filed recently against schools with unconstitutional speech codes. It also fails to acknowledge the existence of FIRE, a non-profit organization whose entire reason for being is to defend First Amendment rights on campus. This isn't because Fish doesn't know about FIRE--he knows FIRE all too well.

So, one is moved to wonder why his essay ignores both the group and the very real First Amendment violations that keep the group in business. The result is an essay skewed beyond credibility--particularly to readers of the Chronicle of Higher Ed, who are well used to reading its coverage of FIRE's frequent defenses of campus free speech. Perhaps Fish is exhibiting a little First Amendment opportunism of his own, exercising his right to express his opinion, no matter how erroneous, ill-conceived, and self-serving it may be.

Thanks to reader Becky J. for the link.

Erin O'Connor, 4:53 PM | Permalink




June 13, 2003 [feather]
Summer reading

Diane Ravitch's latest, The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn, sounds like essential summer reading. From the Washington Post review, as kindly sent by reader Leonard F.:


It's difficult to exaggerate the importance of this book. Whether "The Language Police" will turn out to be one of those rare books that actually influence the way we live -- Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle," John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath," Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," Ralph Nader's "Unsafe at Any Speed" -- remains to be seen, but surely one must pray that it does. Meticulously researched and forcefully argued, it makes appallingly plain that the textbooks American schoolchildren read and the tests that measure their academic progress have been corrupted by a bizarre de facto alliance of the far left and the far right.

Diane Ravitch got the first hint of this several years ago when she "stumbled upon an elaborate, well-established protocol of beneficent censorship, quietly endorsed and broadly implemented by textbook publishers, testing agencies, professional associations, states, and the federal government." Appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1998 to a board investigating the possibilities and pitfalls of voluntary national testing, Ravitch soon learned "that it was standard operating procedure in the educational testing industry to submit all passages and test questions to a bias and sensitivity review," and that this was not at all what she had expected it to be.

Ravitch had assumed that any such review would implement "the sensible principle of removing racist and sexist language" from the tests, but in fact that had long since been accomplished. Now, she learned to her horror, "bias" has metamorphosed into "anything in a test item that might cause any student to be distracted or upset." Some of the examples she came across can only be described as absurd: A story about peanuts was eliminated from one test, because "the reviewers apparently assumed that a fourth-grade student who was allergic to peanuts might get distracted if he or she encountered a test question that did not acknowledge the dangers of peanuts," and an "inspiring" story about a blind mountain climber was rejected because, "in the new meaning of bias, it is considered biased to acknowledge that lack of sight is a disability."


Read the whole thing, and then read the book itself. And if you want more examples of PC bowdlerization of schoolkids' texts, read this June 2002 NYT piece on the New York State Regents Exam.

Erin O'Connor, 8:52 AM | Permalink




Flooding the free speech zone

FIRE isn't the only organization coordinating lawsuits against colleges and universities with unconstitutional speech codes, and it isn't the only organization getting good results with this approach. The University of Houston has just settled a lawsuit alleging that its restrictive free speech policy (itself of questionable constitutionality, since UH is a public school) was administrated in a discriminatory manner. The lawsuit was filed by a campus anti-abortion group with the help of the Christian legal advocacy group, the Alliance Defense Fund. UH has agreed to pay $93,000 in legal costs, and will revise the policies in question--which forbade students to post exhibits on the main campus plaza, prevented students from carrying signs or wearing sandwich boards, and banned anonymous leafletting--by June 30.

Thanks to reader Chuck H. for the link.

Erin O'Connor, 8:34 AM | Permalink




June 12, 2003 [feather]
FIRE strikes again

A press release just issued by FIRE:


Lawsuit Challenges Speech Code and "Free Speech Gazebo" at Texas Tech

FIRE Continues Assault against Speech Codes on Public Campuses

LUBBOCK, TX -- Today, June 12, 2003, FIRE launched the third legal challenge in its campaign against speech codes that prohibit constitutionally protected speech at public colleges and universities. Jason W. Roberts, a student at Texas Tech University, sued that public institution because of policies that violate his First Amendment rights. The suit was filed by the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a Phoenix-based nonprofit organization devoted to protecting religious liberty. Jordan Lorence, an attorney with ADF, and Kelly Shackelford, an attorney with the TexasÒbased Liberty Legal Institute, are assisting in the litigation. Both Lorence and Shackelford are members of FIRE's Legal Network.

"Texas Tech's policies show contempt for the Bill of Rights and, in particular, for the First Amendment," said Harvey A. Silverglate, FIRE's co-director and a Boston attorney.

The civil rights lawsuit challenges the code both for being invalid on its face and for its actual application to students. The lawsuit targets policies that are "overbroad, vague, involve content-based and viewpoint discrimination, and unconstitutionally restrict student speech."

Roberts, a law student at the university, risks punishment up to expulsion for his speech. Texas Tech bans "communications [that] humiliate any person." The university offers, as examples of such punishable expression, "sexual innuendoes," "referring to an adult as 'girl,' 'boy,' or 'honey,'" or "sexual stories."

Texas Tech, a university of 28,000 students, quarantines what it is willing to recognize as free speech to only one "free speech area," a gazebo approximately twenty feet in diameter -- leaving the rest of the campus a censorship area. Students must have official approval to engage in protests, demonstrations, pamphleteering, or even the distribution of newspapers outside of the gazebo. Students must ask for official approval for these activities at least six days in advance, meaning that they cannot respond in a timely and spontaneous manner to local, national, or global events.

"Students deserve more than 280 square feet of freedom: one square foot per 100 individuals," said Silverglate. "No one disagrees with reasonable 'time, place and manner' restrictions on expression, but there is nothing the least bit reasonable about barring free and spontaneous speech from all but a few square feet of campus. Texas Tech's policies are about as reasonable as allowing free speech for only ten minutes a day."

Silverglate continued, "Depriving Americans of their fundamental constitutional rights at a public institution is unlawful. The 'free speech gazebo' policy is a caricature of the law. An institution committed to free inquiry, robust debate, and a vibrant intellectual life should view such restrictions as antithetical to its very mission."

FIRE first learned of Texas Tech's speech code from Trevor Smith of Students for Social Justice, a Texas Tech student organization. Several months ago, the university tried to enforce its censorship area policy against that group, which had planned a protest against the Bush administration's policies towards Iraq. Texas Tech informed Smith that the protest would be allowed only in the gazebo. On February 6, 2003, one day before the protest, FIRE wrote to Texas Tech President Donald R. Haragan, urging him to respect his students' rights. The next day, Students for Social Justice held their planned protest outside of the gazebo without any interference from the administration.

"We are very excited to see that the speech code at Texas Tech is being challenged," said Smith. "Thanks to FIRE and its allies, Texas Tech will be held accountable for its policies. Texas Tech must learn that it may not disregard the rights of its students."

"Although administrators at Texas Tech recognized -- begrudgingly -- the First Amendment rights of Students for Social Justice, the continued existence of these policies means that other students are still being denied their rights," Silverglate said. "With our allies at the Alliance Defense Fund and the Liberty Legal Institute, we will ensure that Texas Tech administrators recognize the constitutional rights of all their students. We will tear down the barriers to free speech."

Silverglate concluded, "This challenge will make clear to universities across the country that they infringe on students' rights at their own peril. Texas Tech University itself must be a 'free speech area' in a manner consistent with the Constitution and, indeed, with the most essential principles of liberal education. America's universities must remember that higher education is also a higher calling."

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience on our campuses of higher education.

FIRE has already facilitated legal challenges to speech codes at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania and Citrus College in California. More information on FIRE's campaign against speech codes can be seen on FIRE's website, www.thefire.org.


It's only fitting that FIRE should be, well, on fire. Also worth a look: this ominous article by Silverglate and Carl Takei about how the University of Massachusetts' code of student conduct "reveals provisions strikingly similar to Shippensburgís paternalistic speech restrictions. Under UMassís surprisingly prudish rules, students can be disciplined for speaking in ways that create a 'sexually offensive working or academic environment,' for using 'sexual terms to describe an individual,' or even for engaging in symbolic speech that involves 'offensive or sexually suggestive' pictures, cartoons, or posters. Put more simply, basic expressive activity is banned." Watch out, UMass. I'd say that's a warning.

Erin O'Connor, 7:35 PM | Permalink




June 11, 2003 [feather]
From one who just said no

A reader writes with bittersweet thanks:


I spent most of the last few years dreaming of being a Professor (capital P) of English. What a wonderful way to spend the second half of my professional life, I thought; how wonderful it would be to educate coming generations about the joys of reading and writing, about the necessity of doing both well.

During my first three semesters of college I've excelled, winning awards, and being told by my professors that I've got what it takes to teach, and etc. Grad school loomed a couple of years ahead of me, and I was looking forward to it, even knowing that I would have had to spend the time keeping my politics (Republican) and my beliefs about Literary Theory (bullshit) hidden from view. I was willing to play the game if meant getting that piece paper that said I could teach.

A couple of weeks ago (or sooner? Time has flown!)ÝI visited your blogÝand readÝyour original post about grad school, then followed links as far through the Web as I could, and read everything I could find about whatÝcan be expected byÝthe prospective humanities major.

Between sites like yours (and Invisible Adjunct, etc.) and a chain of sites linked by Joanne Jacobs, not to mention books by Victor Hanson Davis and a few others, the picture is utterly bleak. I use the word "utterly" with some qualification: there are some hopeful voices, but they are raised by the people who have done the most to make our educational system, from kindergarten through grad school, the broken-beyond-any-chance-of-repair piece of shit it is. The voices of hope see that it can only go more their way.

Which is why I now look forward to getting my IT certifications.

Frankly, I much prefer to spend the second half of my professional life not just working,Ýbut alsoÝmaking enough money enough to support my family and enjoy an actual retirement. Shakespeare's great, but discussing why Stoppard's play was an abuse of Hamlet ain't gonna pay the bills, know what I mean?

Far from being bitter, I am profoundly thankful to have discovered all of this before I crossed some horrible point of no return (I'm 38 and gettin' a bit old for switching careers).

So, thanks. I'm glad you made that post.

I'm glad I did, too. But I'd be gladder still if there had been no need for it. Thanks for writing.

Erin O'Connor, 4:42 PM | Permalink




Academic plantation system

My post on how important it is to tell aspiring graduate students the truth about grad school and academe, and about how I often find that I am the only one among my colleagues that is telling prospective professors the truth, drew a wonderfully apt comment from reader John Mosier:


My experience in being honest with undergrads about English graduate school is like yours in that everyone else seems to be intent on nurturing them to the point of absolute idiocy. The facts of the matter seem irrelevant. I used to think this was the result of either nurture or denial, but then I thought about it. Look at it this way.Ý

Speaking objectively the situation is entirely to the advantage of those who already have tenured slots, as it perpetuates a sort of plantation system: our adjunct faculty are wildly overqualified, and also desperate--they're probably better teachers than our permanent faculty. And given the apparently endless supply of them the situation isn't likely to change.Ý

The current system provides the "owners" of the plantation (the English deprtment, and I'm sure you can see all the other parallels) with an endless supply of cheap labor. Administrators love the 'cheap' part, and the faculty love the 'slave' part--not like those uppity assistant professors who might actually rock the boat. Like an old fashioned fraternity with a permanent pledge class. And the 'best" part of it is the slaves seem to think they're actually pretty well off, not much chance of a revolt from that quarter.Ý

If you start working out the details, it's truly frightening.

So OF COURSE the profession is encouraging students to go on to graduate school, and particularly the amiable and docile ones. As Stalin used to say, 'it's no accident.'


It's true. The academic humanities stink, ethically speaking. They stink so bad that I wonder a lot--a lot--about whether there is any ethical way to inhabit them at all. So you tell students the truth when they ask ... but that's hardly organized resistance or a coherent critique of the system.

Along those lines, reader Fred R. sends in this marvelous quote from a 1999 interview with UC Berkeley English professor emeritus Frederick Crews:


What's happened in the humanities is a general assault on the idea of the empirical, the very idea of the rational, which is now associated with such social evils as racism, patriarchy, and so forth. And in the vacuum that is created by this denigration of the empirical, nothing is left but cliquishness, nothing is left but power. And this can all be put very concretely in terms of tenure decisions. A person submits a body of work for evaluation so that he or she can be retained for the rest of the career or fired. On what basis is this work to be evaluated? Well, if there isn't a critical mass of tenured people who believe in the empirical attitude, then the work can only be evaluated according to whom it pleases, whose interests it pleases. And then it's a question of what clique you
belong to and what kinds of fashionable references you're willing to make. And I must say that in my thirty-six years of teaching at Berkeley, I saw a changing of the guard in this direction that was very disturbing to me.

What Crews is basically saying is that whether or not a department invokes "collegiality" as a criterion in tenure decisions, all tenure decisions in the humanities are ultimately decided according to that criterion. It's a harsh statement to make about your home discipline: that its standards of excellence are those of the popularity contest. But it's damningly, all too visibly, true. This is one reason why I think tenure probably ought to be abolished, at least in the academic humanities. It's been corrupted and abused beyond recognition by people who won't even admit, by and large, that this is the case. Such people don't deserve the privilege and the power that tenure confers.

Erin O'Connor, 1:05 PM | Permalink




Mike Adams returns

University of North Carolina at Wilmington's resident anti-PC gadfly Mike Adams is back, this time addressing a women's studies professor at the school. His latest epistle opens:


Dear Women's Studies Professor:

I recently read the comments you made to a local newspaper during Womyn's Herstory Month (WHM), which, I believe, used to be referred to as "March." It may surprise you to know that I agree with your assertion that the university used bad judgement in sponsoring a concert by the rapper Ludacris during WHM. I don't think there is ever a good time to have the rapper sing about "bi***es" and "hos" in the name of campus diversity.

I also agreed when you told the paper that it was unfortunate that many people view feminists as "ridiculous man-hating lesbians." Your suggestion that feminists should employ humor more often in order to combat that stereotype is certainly correct. Along those lines, I hope you don't mind me writing to make a few more suggestions which will help to erode that unfortunate stereotype.

First of all, I think that it was probably a mistake when you decided to hang posters around campus in protest of the Ludacris concert. I don't question your general right to hang posters but, instead, your specific choice in this instance. I am referring to one that you created which shows a woman kicking a man in the face in an apparent show of women's "empowerment." While mine is only one opinion, I think that others will agree that such a poster could actually promote the view of feminists as "ridiculous man-hating lesbians."


Adams could go on at length on this topic--and he does. The letter is the latest installment in his project of using humor to expose the absurdities of academic double standards and political gamesmanship. The mocking, sardonic tone he is cultivating has been the subject of debate on Critical Mass, and it's worth thinking about what one gains and what one loses with such an approach. My own feeling is that Adams' is a welcome, refreshing, and revealing voice; I might not feel that way if his were the only voice raised on this topic, but in the wider context of deadly seriousness that pervades discussions about academic cant, his biting style breathes necessary life into issues that have been flogged to death without being resolved. Read his piece and see what you think about the tone of the piece, its content, and the way the tone shapes the content.

Thanks as ever to reader Fred R. for the link.

Erin O'Connor, 12:35 PM | Permalink




June 10, 2003 [feather]
Advocacy and the ethics of citation

Yesterday's post on FIRE's use of enhanced quotation in the Citrus College case drew some interesting email. Some of it focussed on explaining how polishing up a client's words to make them look better is common practice among lawyers and advocacy groups; some of it expressed distress at learning that at FIRE, a quote may not really be a quote; some of it both acknowledged how common the practice of quote enhancement is and questioned whether that practice should be as common, as casual, and as accepted as it evidently is.

From a reader who is also a lawyer:


I believe you may have been too harsh in your comments re Chris' statement posted on FIRE's site. As an attorney, if I release a public comment for a client, we will review it over and over to make sure it says what we want to say -- not too much and not too little. It is the nature of issuing public statements when lawyers are involved. I realize the attorney would have had a working relationship with FIRE, but neither the attorney nor FIRE should be unduly criticized for making sure a statement issued for public consumption is polished.

From a reader who is also an academic:

On the question of whether FIRE did something wrong in "helping" Stevens with his statement: I don't think so. Public figures all the time make speeches and issue statements that (presumably) accurately reflect their opinions, and no one worries about who actually drafted the words. (It is rumored that this even applies to a certain inarticulate senior official of the U.S. government.) This is generally understood, and accepted.

It is interesting that when a public figure issues a book, however, readers are much more concerned about the role of the "coauthor" or ghost-writer than when the same person makes a speech. It appears that the circumstances greatly affect how "authentic" we expect a person's speech to be.


The argument in both of these snippets is that what FIRE is doing is okay because it's what everyone in positions like theirs does. I see the basic logic here, but I also see the basic disconnect in the logic: so lawyers doctor their clients' words and represent them as not doctored; so public figures who can't string two sentences together on their own employ speech writers to make them look more articulate then they are. Neither of these practices, as strategic, common, and even accepted as they are, is going to win an award for moral probity anytime soon. We accept them because they are the way of the world and we can't do anything about them--not because they are right. My distress at seeing FIRE engage in similar practices may well be the distress of silly naivete, but I won't apologize for it--I have an enormous respect for FIRE, and I like to believe that FIRE is one of the very few organizations out there that can be trusted, even revered. I like to believe that FIRE is not only entirely aboveboard in its practices, but that it can also teach us all something about uncompromisingly principled behavior. FIRE has earned a reputation for reminding us what's right; it saddens me to see them implicitly asserting that it's okay to put words in a client's mouth and then to announce, via quotation marks, that those words are really those of the client himself.

That's what this comes down to: the truth claim contained within quotation marks. It's one thing to paraphrase or characterize a client's thoughts, and quite another to represent an idealized, tactically crafted statement as a direct, presumably unedited, quote. That was the gist of this letter:


FIRE doesn't state that the client 'agrees' or 'meant to say was'..., they say, 'he said....', which is not actually true. It may be common legal practice to rewrite the client's statement to say what the lawyer can defend or attack more easily, but to this innocent, there appears to be a world of difference between what a client actually says and what a legal mind rewrites for them and puts into their mouth. If both sides of a legal complaint are rewritten by their legal advisers, the contest isn't going to be based on the truth. When is a quote a complete rewrite? .... It is not common knowledge that quotes aren't quotes when an advocate is involved, and there isn't any good reason for the reader not be informed that a new author has been introduced.

And this letter:

FIRE put words in [Stevens'] mouth - they made him a sympathetic, idealistic victim for the purpose of propaganda. The quotation marks are what damns FIRE, and it was a silly error to make because they could have said all they wanted or needed to say without quotes.

Question: if it is unimportant for defending the principle of free speech that the fellow's words were changed (which is what FIRE implies), then what is the argument in favor of having changed them, if not for reasons of propaganda?

And this letter:

I think that the quotes are pretty misleading, and I
think it's sad that FIRE do what they do. Still ... it is commonplace for legal organizations to craft statements on behalf of their clients, have their clients agree to them, and then publish them as if the words came from the clients' mouth. Which gets me to wondering just where one should draw a principled line ... the quoted Chris words seems to be over the top, but in the great balance of things, FIRE was just doing what all attorneys do being a mouthpiece for someone who obviously needs one. I guess the question I wrestle with is this: is Chris less deserving of the best representation because he is a verbal clutz? Is FIRE, as his advocate, bound to abandon custom and acceptable common practice because Chris is inarticulate? How far is it permissible to go in defense of a client? If a grossly inarticulate client and his representation collaborate on a position statement, and the client agrees that the statement represents his exact position, does he have the right to claim the words as his own? Do his representatives step over some boundary by representing their collaborative work as his words? What precedent is there for sorting these questions out?

Pressing questions. Maybe a good rule of thumb would be, "If you can't quote your client accurately, don't quote him at all."

UPDATE: One last letter, from a reader who will be entering law school in the fall:


I'm fairly sure I agree with you. The problem I have with FIRE "fixing up" Chris Steven's statements and presenting it as a direct quote is that it appears to be something of a conflict of interest. FIRE got involved to defend Steven's right to speak freely, and in the process has molded/edited/influenced/bowdlerized his speech so that it better serves their goal. This is tactically wise on the public relations and legal fronts, yet seems impure to FIRE's mission of advocating free speech no matter how disagreeable.

Had FIRE merely restated Stevens' point and not presented an ostensibly direct quote, this would be a non-issue. (And as it is I think it is fairly minor.)

Erin O'Connor, 8:32 AM | Permalink




June 9, 2003 [feather]
Citrus College update

On May 20, Citrus College student Chris Stevens became the plaintiff in a FIRE-orchestrated lawsuit against the school for its unconstitutional free speech zones. Citrus College administrators and faculty defended the zones, employing a peculiarly lemming-like logic to argue that since other schools have them, they must be okay. But "everyone else is doing it" is hardly a viable legal defense, and if the Citrus College faculty and administrators don't know it, the Board of Trustees does. On Thursday, the Board eliminated Citrus College's free speech zones, striking from the school's regulations the two policies that led to the suit. "We wanted to err on the side of caution," the Board president told a reporter for the San Gabriel Valley Tribune. It would have been nicer if he had said, "We wanted to err on the side of freedom," but that's a minor, if revealing, point.

Stevens filed the suit with FIRE's assistance after he was twice refused permission to hold rallies on campus (the first time he was refused, he sought permission to hold a pro-America rally; the second time he was refused, he wanted to protest Governor Davis' education budget). On both occasions, he was told he would have to confine himself to one of the school's three very small and out of the way free speech zones, and that he would be arrested and expelled if he did not.

The San Gabriel Valley Tribune notes that "In perhaps an ironic twist, the board barred Stevens from speaking during the public hearing portion of the meeting." This was, perhaps, also a fortuitous twist. Stevens was not so barred from expressing himself on Critical Mass, where he posted two comments a couple of weeks ago. Those comments were not only self-discrediting in their grammatical insufficiency (a collegiate poster boy for free speech ought to be able to articulate his cause clearly), but also led some readers to wonder about the striking contrast between the eloquent Stevens quoted on FIRE's web site and the functionally illiterate Stevens who spoke for himself on Critical Mass. As one reader wrote in a comment to this post,


Here is Stevens as represented on FIRE's website (thefire.org):

"Citrus College believes that it may take away rights that this country has guaranteed for over two hundred years," said Chris Stevens. "On a college campus, speech should provoke more speech--not threats of punishment, expulsion, or arrest. Citrus College may continue to threaten me, but I will defend my constitutional rights."

I now doubt whether Stevens ever actually spoke or wrote those eloquent words. Far from being a smooth-spoken, principled defender of liberty and justice, the real Stevens [and thank you, Erin for verifying that this really *is* Stevens] is an illiterate, morally confused young man with a penchant for adolescent bravado. I support the principles motivating this lawsuit, but I can't endorse FIRE's journalistic ethics here.


Certainly FIRE's Chris Stevens and Critical Mass' Chris Stevens are very different rhetorical animals, and certainly it is reasonable to assume that the difference between the two is one of tactical airbrushing on the part of either FIRE or Stevens' FIRE-affiliated lawyer.

I would love to be wrong about that, and I suppose it is just possible that Stevens experienced a flash of semantic inspiration at precisely the moment that he uttered the sentences FIRE quotes. But I am left chewing on the more likely, more unpleasant, more brutally ironic possibility: that this is a free speech case where the plaintiff cannot speak freely without damaging his case; where he can only pass as a credible exemplar of unfairly muzzled student expression if he is himself muzzled and others speak for him; and where, in failing fully to recognize this, and in continuing, at least for a time, to speak his mind, the plaintiff has inadvertently undermined the credibility of the organization that is championing him by making it possible for readers to compare his unexpurgated error-ridden prose to the polished cadences supplied for him by his defenders.

Again, I'd love to be disabused of my niggling discomfort with this situation, and I know there are many Critical Mass readers who are also stolid FIRE supporters who feel the same. For now, though, the comment I quoted above expresses an unanswered discomfort that runs all the deeper for the broad context of contemporary journalistic slipperiness in which it festers. In the moment of Jayson Blair's plagiarisms, Maureen Dowd's citational fabrications, and The Guardian's politically convenient failure to fact-check, people are justifiably jumpy about indications that trusted media are misleading them. I'm grieved that there should ever be such a question about FIRE, whose work I value, admire, and believe in more than I can say. But there it is.

Erin O'Connor, 11:28 AM | Permalink




June 7, 2003 [feather]
Freethinking frosh report

Reader Bob Whaley sends this letter reporting on his daughter's first year in college:


Some months ago I wrote you about my college freshman daughter's first collision with academia's political correctness policies. My daughter has now completed her freshman year and claims to have had a very good educational and social experience, in spite of several minor run-ins with the PC police. There is one such episode I wanted to share with you for its simple, yet shameless, absurdity. My daughter and I had a good laugh about it on our way home for summer break.

As part of my daughter's social science requirement she took a course from the Woman's Studies curriculum last semester, I think partly out of curiosity and to verify or quash dad's opinion of this group. What my daughter encountered was a radical female instructor preaching on the evils of men and men-dominated culture who then, had the audacity to demand that her students complete the post-course assessment in a manner complimentary to the instructor's "fairness" and "open-mindedness" concerning gender issues. Failure to comply, to paraphrase the instructor, "would be an unwarranted stain on an otherwise stellar career", or something to that effect. My daughter rightly disobeyed, so we are now waiting to see if her grade was affected.

I've suggested to my daughter that if the worst happens, a public "letter to the editor" recounting the professor's practice might be in order - not that I hold out much hope that such a bigot would be susceptible to public humiliation.

My daughter's freshman year has indeed been enlightening, as much to me as to her.


I replied to Bob asking how the story turned out. From his response:

As to the implied threat, it appears to have been a bit more hot air erupting from our Woman Studies guide. My daughter says that she received the final grade she was expecting she would, so the experience turned out to be a harmless if not useful learning experience. I am proud of my daughter's self-confidence and ability to think for herself; ironically, something many parents hope will be fostered as part of their children's college experience.

There is a line of argument that says the pedagogical absurdity of so many politicized, therapized, or otherwise over-routinized college courses does not brainwash students (as the folks at NoIndoctrination.org would have it), but rather stimulates them to clarify their values and to refuse the petty manipulations of teachers like the one described above. This line of argument suggests that ultimately the efforts of college teachers to make their students conform to their political and behavioral orthodoxy will be self-defeating and self-correcting. This is a utopian argument, of course, and a disturbingly conservative one (conservative in the literal sense of preaching inaction). I don't buy it myself, and neither, obviously, do organizations like FIRE. But it has a definite appeal nonetheless, one that lies largely in its willingness to credit undergrads with the ability to think for themselves and to act on principle even when doing so may cost them. Stories like this one lend support to that all-too rare image of the undergraduate as an independent, principled adult who knows her rights and her mind. In an era when higher education is increasingly in the business of infantilizing students, of using speech codes and sensitivity training to teach them to think like censors, followers, and victims, such stories, as insignificant as they may initially seem, can do a great deal of good. They provide examples of how to refuse--with dignity and with grace--the attempts to manipulate conscience that so frequently stand in for free and unfettered inquiry on campus. If we want things to change, we need such examples.

Thanks, Bob, for taking the time to write, and all best to your daughter.

UPDATE: Another father writes in with this:


Along the same lines as Bob Whaley, I got fed up with my daughter's wailing about PC in her high school, so I told her to start a blog, Lone Dissenter. I, immodestly, think she does a good job. And while the posts are slowing down now that the school year is over, it should be interesting to hear what she has to say in the fall as a senior.

She does indeed do a good job. Here's her inaugural post:

Welcome to The Lone Dissenter. I am a sixteen year old high school student in northern California. The climate is balmy, the study pace is frantic, and the politics are liberal. Excessively so, in fact. I hear so many remarkably stupid comments in one day that I thought, hey, why not keep these recorded somewhere? The result is this.

Posts will be sporadic, depending solely on when the idiotarians decide to make themselves known. The names are changed, but the events are true to the word. Perhaps not to the word, exactly, but as far as memory will serve. The cast will be predictably vague. You may see some people come back again and again, you may see some only once. It all depends on what they do.

What more can I say? Sit back. Relax. Remember what it was like to be in high school. You're sixteen. The government is the man, communism is a pretty good idea, and the only thing you aren't entitled to is foreign countries.


What great dads there are out there--and what great daughters. Thanks for writing.

Erin O'Connor, 9:24 AM | Permalink




June 6, 2003 [feather]
Vanishing Comments

My sincere thanks to Maurice Black for upgrading this site to Movable Type 2.64. This version of Movable Type allows much greater control over comment threads than Movable Type 2.51; specifically, it enables me to close a thread without deleting it in its entirety. With Movable Type 2.51, disabling comments on a post with an active discussion thread deletes all posts on that thread. I did not want to delete any readers' posts, but at the same time, for reasons that will be obvious to regular readers of this site, I do want to disable comments for the indefinite future. Readers will note that they can no longer post comments on recent posts; they will also note that the discussion threads on those posts remain unedited and intact. I have not deleted or otherwise altered any of the comments that led to my decision--they remain as they are, for readers to make of what they will.

I'm very sad to see Critical Mass' comments section go, but in recent weeks the general tone and tenor of the comments has devolved so badly that I just didn't have much choice. Trolling behavior of various kinds has displaced the energetic and thoughtful exchange of ideas that originally characterized the comments section on Critical Mass; the reasoned and respectful debate that I had hoped to host on this site has gradually been drowned out and diverted by a few inexplicably hostile and embittered readers who have made a game out of trying to discredit this site.

I've been writing this blog almost daily for over a year. During that time, I've posted close to half a million words. Critical Mass has been a labor of love for me; I've paid for it out of pocket, and I've devoted countless hours of time and care to it. It's a project to which I am deeply committed, for both broad philosophical reasons and deeply personal ones. I'm not prepared to see the site damaged any further by the sniping activities of readers who use the comments section to act out their personal vendettas.

The vast majority of posters on Critical Mass have not been of this sort. They have been careful with their facts and respectful in their mode of argument; they have been receptive to differences of opinion and perceptive about the issues at hand; they have taught me and one another; they have been a constant source of inspiration. You guys know who you are: I've valued your contributions enormously, and am terribly sorry that the vital intellectual community you have been building has been so thoroughly soured by so few (you few, you too know who you are). I hope that at some future point, it will be possible to re-enable comments on Critical Mass. In the meantime, I'll post letters from readers who care to write.

Erin O'Connor, 10:18 PM | Permalink




Just say no to grad school

Earlier this week, an English professor at a liberal arts college in the midwest pseudonymously published an excellent and cutting piece entitled, "So You Want to Go to Grad School?" in The Chronicle of Higher Education. It's the sort of article that feels like long-awaited and much-welcome ventriloquism: what this individual has to say about both the corruption of graduate education and the dishonesty of the faculty who fail to inform prospective graduate students about the realities of the academic job market and tenure system echoes many of the endless dialogues and internal monologues I've had over the years. In short, his argument is that the only reasonable and ethical way to respond to the starry-eyed student who is considering grad school is to be brutally frank and honest about the distinctly non-romantic, often non-livable life that is the reality they have to look forward to: to tell them about how they are not likely to find a tenure-track job, for example, and to be straight with them about things like the exploitative labor structure of academe and about the way the petty politics of careerism frequently displace and even destroy the pleasure--not to mention integrity--of scholarship and teaching.

It's a subject that hits close to home for me (it's no accident, I think, that the author of this piece is an assistant professor of English, where the job market is especially bad, and where the failure to grapple openly and constructively with this fact is particularly heinous). I could have benefitted from such honesty myself once upon a time, and it's honesty I freely give now. But each time I tell a prospective grad student in English the truth about the life he or she is contemplating, I discover a disappointing parallel truth: that I am usually the only one of the prospective's many teachers who has levelled with him or her. One recognizes, in these moments, that telling the truth discredits one in the student's eyes--it's much easier, after all, to dismiss your teacher's unpleasant message as the erroneous commentary of a malcontent than it is to believe either that everyone else has lied to you, or to surrender your vision of yourself as a uniquely gifted budding scholar who simply will not be affected by the same market pressures as everyone else.

The essay hit a nerve with a lot of people--Invisible Adjunct picked the piece up a few days ago, and the comments section has swollen to more than one hundred posts. They are of unusually high quality, and well worth a look as well.

UPDATE: John Sutherland has written a devastating piece for the Guardian on the overproduction of Ph.D.s. He makes the crucial point that is so often not made in discussions of the disparity between the number of Ph.D.s annually produced and the number of tenure-track jobs annually available: that the vast majority of these Ph.D.s are not making, nor will ever make, substantial original contributions to knowledge. The answer is not to find more jobs for more Ph.D.s, as activists so often have it, but to vastly constrict the number of people who embark on this career path, and to train those people far better--far more intensely and thoroughly--than graduate students are currently trained.

Erin O'Connor, 2:59 PM | Permalink




June 5, 2003 [feather]
Another corrupt tenure case?

From The Sophian, Smith College's student newspaper:


James D. Miller, assistant professor of economics, believes that the decision earlier this year to deny him tenure was based at least in part on his political beliefs. Other economics professors argue that the department remains committed to academic freedom. Recently students have circulated a petition in support of Miller.

Miller, who has taught economics at Smith for seven years, was reappointed in April 2000. Because his reappointment letter was "purely positive," Miller said he was shocked by the decision earlier this semester not to grant him tenure. By a vote of five to three with one abstention, members of the department recommended that the Committee on Tenure and Promotion deny Miller tenure. The Committee affirmed that recommendation, and the Grievance Committee has since decided to consider Miller's appeal.

The College's "Policy of Appointment, Reappointment, Promotion, and Tenure" states that decisions on reappointment, promotion and tenure are based on teaching, scholarship and service to the college.

"My belief is that I was denied tenure because I am a conservative Republican," Miller said.

Faculty members write letters to the Committee on Tenure and Promotion explaining their votes. Letters by faculty who voted against recommending tenure for Miller say that he has not done enough scholarship. Miller has written a book, Game Theory at Work, and six scholarly articles, one of which he wrote prior to his reappointment. Miller said he would understand this reason "If they said in April 2000 'Jim needs 10 [articles].'" Because the reappointment letter was positive and because "what has happened since then is that I basically came out of the closet as a conservative," he suspects the tenure decision was based on his political beliefs.

Two of the letters explaining no votes in Miller's case refer to criticisms he has made of academia, though neither gives this as a main reason for a no vote. One letter cites part of his book Game Theory at Work, and the other cites an article he wrote for National Review Online entitled "Campus Colors."

The latter states, "I would also refer the committee to a piece included in Jim's 'Journalistic Articles' packet: the Guest Comment on NRO entitled 'Campus Colors,' in which Jim says, among other things, that 'professors are mostly left wing,' that '(t)he large number of non-U.S. citizens in American colleges necessarily makes these schools less patriotic,' and that '(p)ractically the only way for a women's-studies professor to get a lifetime college appointment is for her to contribute to the literature on why America is racist, sexist, and homophobic.' I find it extremely disturbingly [sic] that this could be Jim's image of academia."

"The person wasn't disturbed that it was poorly written or illogically argued, but rather she was disturbed by the conservative political views expressed in the article," Miller said. "This article is criticizing colleges for being politically correct. ... This was used as a reason to fire me. I consider that an absolute violation of my academic freedom."


The article, written by Smith student Elaine Stoll, goes on to quote various Smith faculty who swear that academic freedom and diversity of viewpoint are "alive and well" at Smith. That's the usual pattern in cases like this: when a KC Johnson or a Bob Uttl claims that political concerns affected their tenure decision, the accused colleagues counter by casting the individual as a malcontent of questionable scholarly acumen who is confirming the judiciousness of their no-vote by refusing to be fired graciously. Such cases often devolve into impenetrable he said/she said situations, largely because the confidential documents used to effect the firing never make it to the light of day. But on the rare occasions when such documents do make it to light--as they did in Johnson's case--they can be telling indeed.

These excerpts from Miller's tenure file are admittedly just that: excerpts. It would be helpful to see how they fit into the wider context of his file. But they are suggestive indeed, and raise serious questions about the integrity of both the authors of the letters (would that Stoll had published their names!) and the overall integrity of the tenure process at Smith. The charge that academic departments stack their faculties with liberals and discriminate against conservatives--that one must effectively pass a series of ideological litmus tests in order to get hired into a tenure-track job and then to get tenure--has been countered by academic scions such as Stanley Fish with the argument that the relative absence of conservative faculty in American academe has nothing to do with institutionalized bias and everything to do with the fact that conservatives simply are not interested in being academics. Cases like Miller's challenge such simplistic dismissals. This will be one to watch.

Thanks to Mitch at Gum for Thought for the link.

UPDATE 6/6/03: A reader who wishes to remain anonymous informs me that the Smith College Grievance Committee has unanimously agreed that Miller's academic freedom was violated. The decision to deny him tenure has thus been invalidated and he'll come up for tenure again--but the details of how that will work and when it will happen remain to be seen. I'll post more as I find out more.

UPDATE 6/9/03: James Miller writes to confirm the update above:


I have had some good news since the Sophian Article was written. Smith's 5 member Grievance Committee unanimously agreed that two members of my department violated my academic freedom during my tenure review and they recommended that I be reconsidered for tenure. Smith's President has accepted their recommendation so I will be coming up for tenure again this coming academic year.

There is a bit of huffing and puffing in the comments to this post about whether I was ethical in even posting it, and a reader goes so far as to suggest that the good news contained in the update--which was never made public in the media, which occurred after the Sophian piece came out, which was quite possibly facilitated by the Sophian piece, and which never would have reached me if I had not posted the Sophian piece--was not good news so much as proof that the system is working fine at Smith and proof, too, that Critical Mass is just not up to snuff as a blog: "If a site like Critical Mass publicizes 'possible' corrupt tenure cases without reference to key facts (such as the fact that the Smith process wasn't completed at the time of the initial post)," a reader wrote, "it won't have the reputation for credibility that has allowed the Reynoldses, Sullivans, or Kauses to influence debate and events the way they have. ... There are influential blogs and there are all the others." I'll note simply that Sullivan takes up the Smith case today, citing the same article that I cited last week. He makes no mention of the latest word on Miller's case (I am shocked, shocked, I say, that Critical Mass was not the first stop on Sullivan's fact-checking route!), but I imagine he'll be posting an update just about as soon as his readers bring the need for one to his attention.

UPDATE 6/12/03: SCSU Scholars has much more on the case, and on tenure review in general. Just keep scrolling.

Erin O'Connor, 7:43 AM | Permalink | Comments (22)




June 3, 2003 [feather]
More quick picks

I'm still blogging on the fly--Critical Mass should return to its usual patterns of posting late this week. In the meantime, a couple more things have caught my eye:

--KC Johnson, the Brooklyn College history professor who was denied tenure for his alleged lack of collegiality, has written a detailed retrospective of his case for History News Network. Johnson's denial was eventually overturned by CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein, and he was awarded tenure over the protests of colleagues and administrators at BC--but it would be a mistake to file his story away as an ugly administrative aberration that has finally been resolved into a happy ending. Johnson's story is a telling window into the administrative corruption that appears to be plaguing Brooklyn College. It's also a cautionary tale about how just about any department in the country can abuse the tenure process in order to terminate junior faculty who don't conform quietly and totally to the local procedural and political orthodoxies.

--Speaking of which, Bob Uttl, the psychology professor at Oregon State University at Corvallis who was denied tenure for similarly troubling non-reasons, has put up a website, www.uttllaw.com, to publicize his case and to place it within what he sees as the wider context of institutional corruption at OSU. Uttl's case hasn't gotten anywhere near the press KC Johnson's has; if Johnson has become a sort of poster prof for the failures of the tenure system, Uttl is one of the many junior faculty out there whose corrupted tenure cases come into focus when viewed through the lens Johnson gives us. Critical Mass first mentioned Uttl's case last winter, here and here. Uttl's new site contains links to media coverage of his case, as well as to audio clips taken from Uttl's recent grievance hearings.

Erin O'Connor, 9:10 AM | Permalink | Comments (11)