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October 31, 2003 [feather]
Diversity is good for your health

The rhetoric of diversity is in many ways a rhetoric of racial self-help: white people are improved, the logic goes, if they attend schools where there is a high percentage of ethnic and racial minorities. (This is something John Rosenberg has shown repeatedly on his blog Discriminations.) But the the nature of the benefits white people receive from being surrounded by non-white emblems of cultural and genetic difference remains somewhat vague: part psychological (one's sensitivity will be enhanced, and one will be able to get in touch with one's own racism) and part sociological (one will be better able to function in the global marketplace if one has been exposed to cultures other than one's own in school), the rationale for diversity is largely the rationale of prospective, unquantifiable good. Now science is stepping in to change all that. In a new study from Harvard, researchers have shown that white, male college students are less likely to have drinking problems if there are lots of women, non-traditional older students, and non-white students at their school:


Drinking rates among higher-risk drinkers on American college campuses -- those who are white, male and underage -- are significantly lower on college campuses with larger proportions of minority, female and older students. Researchers with the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study reported these findings in a study appearing in the November 2003 issue of the American Journal of Public Health. The study is the first to examine the role of college student demographics and diversity in moderating binge drinking among high-risk students.

Most significantly, however, the findings show that greater diversity on campuses may serve as a risk-protective factor, even for those who were binge drinkers in high school. The study found that incoming white freshmen who did not binge drink in high school were less likely to start binge drinking as college students if their universities had higher proportions of African-American, Latino, Asian or older students. Incoming white freshmen who were binge drinking in high school were less likely to continue drinking in this way when attending schools with higher percentages of minority or older students.

"This study has shown that having a diverse student body on college campuses is an important factor in lowering binge-drinking rates," said Henry Wechsler, principal investigator of the study and director of College Alcohol Studies at the Harvard School of Public Health. "In making decisions about admissions, colleges should recognize the many benefits of greater diversity on campus, including a possible decrease in problem drinking."

[...]

The findings suggest practical solutions for predominantly white colleges, including: creating a campus environment that would attract a diverse student body; increasing the numbers of minorities on campus; encouraging more women and older students to live on campus, and in fraternity and sorority houses; and decreasing the heavy concentration on campus of likely high-risk drinkers who are overwhelmingly young, male and white.


Correlation is not causation, but you wouldn't know it from this write-up. If the article accurately represents the study, there seems to be a major logical problem here with the interpretation of cause and effect, and that problem seems to be licensed by the researchers' evident desire to rationalize demographic social engineering on campus by depicting young white men as collectively incapable of making intelligent behavioral decisions and by suggesting that as such they are in need of the moral example of racial and sexual others who possess more discipline and self-restraint. If the racial roles in this study were reversed, people would be screaming racism. But since the racial profiling of the study conforms to the reverse racism built into the logic of diversity, it's able to present itself as both good science and good samaritanism.

UPDATE: John Rosenberg has Don't miss the statistical analysis in the comments.

Thanks to Sound and Fury for the tip.

Erin O'Connor, 5:15 PM | Permalink




October 30, 2003 [feather]
Making the grade at Brooklyn College

The Brooklyn College Kingsman, a student-run weekly paper, has taken up the case of Frederick Lang, the BC English professor who is no longer permitted to teach because he refused to inflate student grades. In a gutsy article, student reporter Samuel Steinberg records Lang's account of how the English department chair, Ellen Tremper, sabotaged his career after he resisted pressure to raise student grades, and of how Tremper was assisted by BC Provost Roberta Matthews, who helped ruin Lang by lying under oath during last spring's arbitration hearings. It's strong stuff, damning and incriminating, and though the article also quotes Tremper as saying that Lang is misrepresenting the truth, the mere fact that the article was written at all asserts its author's conviction that the real story here is not that of a disgruntled teacher who does not grasp why he can't be trusted to teach.

In his freshman composition courses, Lang was failing--or, at least, not passing--the majority of his students (BC has a "no credit" grading option for intro-level composition that allows students to retake a course they would have failed, with no record of that retaking). His point was that it would be dishonest to do otherwise, that BC has an obligation to ensure that its students can write, and that it is reasonable for freshman composition to become a repeatable proving ground for BC students now that the college no longer maintains a remedial writing program. Tremper's point was that Lang's standards were way out of synch with the rest of the department and school, and that he could thus not be entrusted with students' fragile egos and vulnerable transcripts.

Reading between the lines, you can see competing ideas about professional standards and ethics coming into harsh, irreconcilable conflict in this case. The larger picture of the Lang debacle is one in which the goals of education have ceded to the pragmatics of expediency as state budget crunches and funding cuts hang punitively over schools that do not move their (often ill-prepared) students quickly and reliably toward their degrees. Within such a climate, standards have to change (specifically, to lower), and teachers and administrators have to collude in agreeing not to notice that they now pass work they once would have failed. Yes, Lang stood out from his colleagues as a teacher who was giving much lower grades than they were, failing many more students, and, consequently, upsetting students who were not used to being told that their writing was below par. But that doesn't mean Lang is the one who is in the wrong. It just means that he was alone.

Critical Mass has covered Lang's case at length, and has also published several pieces by Lang himself. You can access the Lang archive here.

Erin O'Connor, 6:33 PM | Permalink




Anatomy of a speech code

Yesterday, Greg Lukianoff, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education's director of legal and public advocacy, testified about campus speech codes before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. Lukianoff's testimony offers an excellent brief on how colleges and universities go about restricting expression, showing how speech codes get written into harassment and conduct policies and looking at the various tricks speech code authors use to make truly chilling rules sound innocuous and unexceptionable. The analysis is so good--so tight, clear, and pointed--that it is worth quoting at some length:

The current generation of speech codes come in many shapes and sizes, including but not limited to e-mail policies that ban ìderogatory comments,î highly restrictive ìfree speech zoneî policies, ìdiversity statementsî with provisions that outlaw ìintolerant expression,î and so-called ìharassment policiesî that extend to speech that may ìinsultî or ìdemean.î While they may not call themselves ìspeech codesî anymore, a speech code by any other name still suppresses speech.

FIRE has been combating speech codes as a part of its general operations for the last four years. We have come to the defense of thousands of individuals who have been the victims of rules and regulations that should have no place on our campuses. Drawing from that experience, we decided to undertake a colossal program that seeks to catalog the restrictive speech policies on every college and university campus across the country. The preliminary results of this massive research undertaking can be found on a public website, speechcodes.org. The websiteówhich, according to our research, is current through this past summerónow features nearly 200 hundred public and private colleges and universities. FIRE has rated each of the non-sectarian universities using a ìlighting schemeî: green lights indicate that we found no policy that seriously imperils speech; yellow lights indicate that a university has some policies that could ban or excessively regulate protected speech; and red lights are awarded to universities that have policies that ban a substantial amount of what would be clearly protected speech in the larger society. Of 176 rated universities only 20 have earned green lights, while 80 earned yellows. A distressing 76óforty-three percent of the institutions ratedóearned red lights.

Some of these red light polices are truly bizarre. For instance, Hampshire College in Massachusetts bans ìpsychological intimidation, and harassment of any person or pet.î Others are almost quaint, like Kansas State University , which bans the use of ìprofane or vulgar languageî when it is used in a ìdisruptive manner.î It has long been settled in constitutional law that free speech is not limited only to the pleasant or the pious.

Some codes are remarkably broad and vague, like that of Bard College in New York , which states, ìIt is impermissible to engage in conduct that deliberately causes embarrassment, discomfort, or injury to other individuals or to the community as a whole.î By banning speech that ìdiscomforts,î Bard takes a position that has been adopted by many colleges and universities: valuing and promoting peace and quiet at the expense of robust debate and intellectual engagement. To be sure, politeness is a commendable value, but it simply does not compare in importance to unfettered debate and discussion in a pluralistic democracy. Furthermore, it is not the place of college administrators to force students to speak in any particular fashion. Civility should, perhaps, be inculcated when a student is young, by his or her elementary school teachers and by parents. In college, it should be learned by example. Furthermore, conditioning speech on civility virtually denies the existence of justified moral outrage.

Other codes define the ìprotected classî of the speech code so broadly as to ban even the most basic forms of free speech. The University of California-Santa Cruz, for example, warns against speech that shows ìdisrespectî or ìmalignsî on the basis of, among other categories, ìcreed,î ìphysical ability,î ìpolitical views,î ìreligion,î and ìsocio-economic status or other differences.î One can only imagine what dreary places colleges would be if students weren't even allowed to express passionate political criticisms.

Still others dangerously trivialize society's most serious crimes in an effort to get at ìoffensive speech.î Ohio University 's ìStatement on Sexual Assault,î for example, declares that ìSexual assault occurs along a continuum of intrusion and violation ranging from unwanted sexual comments to forced sexual intercourse.î One should be very concerned about any university that cannot make a principled distinction between loutish comments and rape.

Most colleges, however, rely on this strategy: they redefine existing serious offenses to include protected expression. Hood College in Maryland , for example, defines ìharassmentî as ìany intentionally disrespectful behavior toward others.î While ìdisrespectful behaviorî may be rude, it certainly does not rise to the level of the crime of harassment. No one denies that a college can and should ban true harassment, but hiding a speech code inside of a ìracial-harassment code,î for example, does not thereby magically shield a college or university from the obligations of free speech and academic freedom.

A particularly pernicious brand of speech code goes beyond punishing what one says and extends to what one feels, thinks, or believes. Transylvania University in Kentucky bans ìoral, and written actions that are intellectuallyÖ inappropriateî if they touch upon a broad list of protected classes. Florida State University's ì General Statement of Philosophy on Student Conduct and Disciplineî states, ìSince behavior which is not in keeping with standards acceptable to the University community is often symptomatic of attitudes, misconceptions, and emotional crises, the treatment of these attitudes, misconceptions, and emotional crises through re-education and rehabilitative activities is an essential element of the disciplinary process.î All citizens should be very concerned when state universities, which often offer only a bare minimum of due process, take upon themselves the ìre-educationî of adult students and empower themselves to compel correct ìattitudes.î That is not worthy of a free nation.

Another kind of speech code is the so-called ìspeech zoneî policy, which limits protests, debates, and even pamphleteering to tiny corners of campus. FIRE has identified or fought these polices at over two dozen public universities. Until this past summer, Western Illinois University provided students with only one ìFree Speech Area.î This area was only available during business hours and had to be reserved five days in advance. Even within the ìFree Speech Area,î additional speech restrictions applied. Until FIRE intervened, Texas Tech University óa school with 28,000 studentsóprovided only one 20-foot-wide gazebo to be used as a ìFree Speech Area.î Protests, demonstrations, pamphleteering, speeches, and even the distribution of newspapers had to receive prior, official approval if they were to occur outside of the ìfree speechî gazebo and requests had to ìbe submitted at least six university working days before the intended use.î


Lukianoff goes on to give an excellent account of why unfettered free expression is so important, how campuses abuse anti-discrimination policies to facilitate censorship, and what kinds of cases FIRE is currently carrying. So read the whole thing.

If you want to see whether a given school has a speech code on its books, you can do so by looking it up at www.speechcodes.org. You can also look up any school you have in mind on the web and locate its codes for yourself--they'll be tucked into the policies on student conduct, sexual and racial harassment, hostile environment, discrimination, diversity, and free expression. Try it--it's a little bit like looking under a rock. You almost always find something, and it's almost always something kind of sickening.

Erin O'Connor, 3:40 PM | Permalink




October 29, 2003 [feather]
KC also goes to Washington

I mentioned yesterday that FIRE's director of legal and public advocacy, Greg Lukianoff, will be testifying today before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. The subject of the hearing is the increasingly visible problem of "intellectual diversity" on campus. The Committee is interested in finding out if it's true that there is not much intellectual diversity at all on American campuses, and wants to know what it is about the higher educational system that produces a stultifying uniformity and conformity at precisely the moment that difference, debate, and genuine intellectual vitality should emerge.

You may remember KC Johnson, the Brooklyn College history professor who was denied tenure last year when his department chair decided he was "uncollegial." Johnson is not "uncollegial"--he's a popular, effective teacher; a workhorse; and an excellent citizen of his department and his school. But he also has a brain of his own, and he uses it--even when it means disagreeing with colleagues who have more power than he does. That's what he did shortly before coming up for tenure, arguing, for example, that a hiring committee's explicit aim to hire a woman (preferably, in the immortal words of the department chair, one who isn't a "whiner" and who does not need "therapy as much as [she needs] a job"), was misguided and that the committee should instead seek to hire the best candidate for the job. For such hostile, antisocial, and uncollegial stands as this, Johnson became the target of his chairman's campaign to get rid of him. The case made the news (and Critical Mass) many times last year, and it did finally have a happy ending: last spring, CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein overturned BC's decision and awarded Johnson tenure. He also stated unequivocally that "collegiality" is not a viable evaluative category, that while it matters, it should never trump an outstanding record of scholarship, teaching, and service. In overturning BC's decision, Goldstein effectively acknowledged the big problem with collegiality criteria: they are what the evaluator wants them to be; they are thus eminently abusable; they reduce academic advancement to a popularity contest and force a numbing conformity on scholars whose work ceases to be meaningful if it is not independently and freely pursued.

Johnson's case was unusual, not because of what happened to him (that's depressingly common), but because the people who tried to end his career at Brooklyn College left behind a damning and incriminating virtual paper trail. Usually, people know very well when their careers have been damaged by the unethical whispering campaigns and self-serving agendas of their colleagues, but they can't prove it. Johnson could--and did--prove it. Because his case documents a form of procedural malpractice that is quite common on campuses, Johnson will also be testifying today before the Senate Committee. He has--fittingly--posted his testimony on his Brooklyn College website.

Johnson's testimony documents how he came to be deemed "uncollegial," explaining with hair-curling precision how his beliefs about balanced inquiry, merit-based hiring and promotion, and what kinds of historiography matter became the means of his political and professional undoing. Although Johnson has written two books about left-wing congressional dissenters and wore a Hillary Clinton button during the 2000 election, his sense of academic ethics and his focus on more traditional forms of historiographic work got him labelled a conservative by his colleagues. The "conservative" label being the academic kiss of death, it was all downhill from there. Johnson goes on to put what happened to him in context, showing how the discipline of history has become increasingly hostile to traditional approaches that focus on the big events and the people in power, tending to favor, instead, social-historical work focussed on women, minorities, labor movements, and so on. The result is not diversity, but ideologically-driven imbalance--one that gets passed on to students in the form of one-sided classes that present a partial and highly politicized picture of history as the evenhanded, simple truth.

Read the whole thing, as they say, feel your hair curl, and hope the senators' curls, too.

Erin O'Connor, 8:57 AM | Permalink




October 28, 2003 [feather]
FIRE goes to Washington

Exciting news: The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education's ongoing campaign to eliminate speech codes on campus is drawing the attention of Washington. Tomorrow, FIRE's director of legal and public advocacy, Greg Lukianoff, will testify before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. The details are in this press release from FIRE:


For the first time in ten years, the U.S. Congress will consider the menace to free speech caused by campus speech codes. The U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions has invited Greg Lukianoff, director of legal and public advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), to testify on Wednesday, October 29, 2003. Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, chairman of the Committee, is holding the hearing as part of an effort to provide oversight on the critical topic of intellectual diversity in higher education.

"We are very fortunate to have this opportunity," said Harvey A. Silverglate, co-founder and vice-president of FIRE. "This is an invaluable opportunity to share FIRE's concerns about both speech codes and other abuses of student and faculty free speech rights with lawmakers. Senator Gregg and his colleagues should be commended for focusing the light of national attention on the vital issue of free speech in higher education."

Lukianoff will alert the Committee to a number of ways in which the freedom of speech of college and university students is curtailed on so many campuses. Speech codes are, unfortunately, the rule rather than the exception in higher education, and they include bans on "offensive speech" and "intolerant expression." Often, they are inserted into "verbal conduct" sections of "harassment policies," with the goal of suppressing "hostile" viewpoints and words. Because these codes are so overbroad that even mildly controversial speech can be punished under them, they have frequently been used to silence students and faculty on all parts of the political spectrum.

For example, Bard College in New York forbids "conduct that deliberately causes embarrassment, discomfort, or injury to other individuals or to the community as a whole," ignoring the fact that in any debate, parties on one side will feel "discomfort" when their views are challenged. Similarly, Penn State asserts that "acts that show contempt" on the basis of "political belief" may be forbidden. FIRE has compiled policies from nearly two hundred leading schools across America at a new website, www.speechcodes.org, where students and the public can find crucial information on whether and how a particular school restricts freedom of speech.

The Senate committee will also hear about "speech zone" policies -- another threat to freedom of speech on a growing number of our nation's campuses. Colleges and universities use such policies to restrict demonstrations and sometimes even displays and pamphleteering to a minute portion of the campus. One such speech zone at Texas Tech, a public university of 28,000 students, consisted solely of a gazebo 20 feet in diameter. Holding any expressive activities outside the gazebo required students to apply for a permit six days in advance of the planned event, thus eliminating the possibility of timely protests. A policy at Western Illinois University restricted students even further, providing only one "free speech area" on campus, restricting its use to business hours, and requiring a permit five days in advance in order to use the "free speech area."

Lukianoff will also inform the Senate about one of the consequences of these institutions' refusal to educate their students in freedom: the epidemic of college newspaper thefts that is plaguing the nation. Censorship of this kind usually involves students throwing away or even burning newspapers containing viewpoints with which they disagree. In the past decade, this brand of censorship has resulted in the theft of hundreds of thousands of copies of student newspapers.

Campus administrators steal and censor student papers too. At Hampton University in Virginia, the entire press run of last week's Hampton Script was "confiscated" by administrators angry about the paper's content. At Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, administrators took a different measure to ensure a paper there would never be read: they froze an entire year's worth of printing funds for a student newspaper, The Hawk's Right Eye, after it published articles they considered offensive.

"I am honored to have been invited to testify before the Senate," said Lukianoff. "The regime of censorship at so many of our institutions of higher education must end if intellectual diversity is to flourish in academia."

Mr. Lukianoff will testify at 2 P.M. on Wednesday, October 29, in Room 430 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, DC. A copy of Mr. Lukianoff's written testimony to the Senate will be available after the hearing on the FIRE website.


To learn more about FIRE and its work, see the organization's website and case archive.

Erin O'Connor, 4:22 PM | Permalink




October 27, 2003 [feather]
Still more on political sciences

This from a reader who signs himself "An engineering professor who is not a pet researcher," in response to today's earlier posts on the political climate of the academic sciences:


In response to the poster who claims that science is highly politicized, I frankly don't see it. Any researcher in a disputed field knows, or should know, that there are multiple funding sources out there. No one forces anyone to take a contract, and moreover if a point of view is not being heard, a researcher can usually get enough funding to be heard. He just has to find the right source.

As for corporate funding, I would say that most of the time, the researcher serves his corporate client best by being honest with him. Most corporate legal dept. do not want to be held liable for a dangerous product. Granted, they want to control the flow of information, but the fact that it was sent to the corporation means that a good plaintiffs attorney can use it against the corporation if it is suppressed. Of course, there are stupid managers, and of course telling the corporation things it doesn't want to hear can cost you next year's funding. That's life.

Yes, it can be messy. The Berkeley researcher has an ethical responsibility to step forward, and the university has a responsibility to protect him. That's what academic freedom and tenure are all about. He can expect people to dispute his findings and his techniques. That's also part of freedom of speech. The corporation has a right to defend itself. He could, after all, be wrong. BTW, the research contract is signed by the university, with the researcher as principal investigator (PI). Funds go to the university. Usually contracts are vetted by the legal dept., plus whatever department administers the contract. In this particular case, they were apparently sleeping when the contract went through.

It is certainly true that administrators want researchers to put in for research in areas where large expenditures are planned. These areas are usually best guesses about the most fruitful fields to explore. I've never quite figured out how they are chosen, but the results (in my experience) have usually been relatively untainted by bias. What is more annoying is that administrators also divert funds into those areas and into the research budgets of pet researchers. Often these funds come out of overhead, i.e. overhead from my research funds. This is really annoying and on a very local scale, political, but it has nothing to do with left/right, democrat/republican politics. A** kissers span the political spectrum.


Again, thanks. At the very least, what's emerging here is that it does not necessarily make sense to try to talk about the structural, procedural, and methodological issues facing the academic sciences in the same breath that one tries to talk about the structural, procedural, and methodological issues facing the academic humanities (the social sciences would also be its own analytical entity, albeit one whose features overlap with both the hard sciences and the humanities at different points). Even so, it's interesting to see how divided readers are on what it means for academic researchers to accept corporate funding for their work. The scientists themselves seem to be saying that this is simply how things are: it takes money to do science, and the money has to come from somewhere; corporate funding is not inherently unethical, though corrupt corporations and corruptible scientists can do a lot of damage when they find one another. Non-scientists seem, on the whole, to be quicker to point fingers, and to suggest that there is no such thing as a "pure" relationship between academic research and corporate interest--a point that may be both technically true and entirely not useful from either an analytical or a practical perspective. Derek Bok takes this stance in Universities in the Marketplace, arguing that there is no sense worrying about whether the university is becoming corporatized, because that has already happened. His book is devoted to working out ways that universities can handle their never-ending quest for ever more revenue in an ethical manner than enhances inquiry and education rather than undermining it.

More responses are welcome. I'd be particularly interested to hear about specific cases that illustrate either the ethical and political pitfalls of corporate funded academic science or the ways business and academic research can collaborate ethically and productively.

Erin O'Connor, 7:41 PM | Permalink




Political sciences

A reader who is an academic scientist writes in to respond to the reader I quoted this morning as claiming that science and engineering departments are "the most overwhelmingly politicized departments at virtually every major research university." The issue: when, where, and how the academic sciences are corrupted, or at least determined, by political concerns.


In some ways, I *absolutely* agree with this correspondent. But, to return to the original question/argument (in particular as expounded in the blogosphere): politics meant left/right, conservative/liberal, and PC vs. -'ist's. As someone who has argued about "politicization", and the lack thereof in hard sciences, I was only referring to the more social (?)/traditional(?) (don't know the right word here) aspects of politics. I'd say your correspondent probably doesn't know half of what does go on. It's not so much the heresy of proving someone wrong (there is always a cachet in that). It's *what subfields* constitutes valid research, an agenda that is set by a complicated system/process that probably makes Vatican politics look simple, straightforward and transparent.

On the other hand, someone who is not actively in a science department now, only sees what makes it into the paper. How much of social science/history/literature research or scholarly activity would a scientist working for a defense contractor see? The fight as to whether Stephen King constitutes literature? The stuff that does make it into the paper is much more high profile and, to use a favorite word of many colleagues "sexy science". There are still lots of people doing lots of un-sexy work that wouldn't be seen by anyone not actively looking for it. I can list dozens of journals in my sub-discipline, that publish 1000's of pages a year, of peer-reviewed, edited, and un-controlled (by the "agenda") science.

There is also a larger point about how science works. Administrators want funding, but they can't make anyone write a grant on a specific topic. The people controlling the money make decisions about what gets funded, but not what that work finds or how its reported. And NIH, NSF, USDA, EPA, etc, the major Federal grant sources let other scientists review the grants, not necessearily the administrators aching for money. Yes, the examples of the individual researcher who didn't read their contract with the satans of industry is true. But there are legions of other workers who are honest, and who do have a moral and ethical sense, and, importantly, aren't funded by industry, and do report what they find, good or bad, up or down. Upper Administration may have sold their souls, but by and large the scientists in the trenches have not.

I think the problem lies in the need for grant money, and overhead or indirect costs, to subsidize the research mission of Universities. Thus people will work on things for which they can get money - it's a subtle form of redirection. The pressure is overwhelming to get a grant to get tenure (it's written into most tenure documents these days). That's one of the most egregious forms of politics. Can people do research without grant money? I think so, but given the regulatory climate (that's Federal regulations governing most aspects of research), it's getting harder, but it's still possible. Lots of people do, and publish good nationally recognized work.

It's not so much that you can't object to things, or develop a new idea or even prove an old one wrong. There is money for that. Its the idea of deciding what larger area of research are valuable. The Gates Foundation has just given a huge amount of money that NIH is going to administer. It's their money, and they have set a particular agenda (it actually made the news, but the call to investigators had more detail). I'm not sure why that Foundation shouldn't set their goals. I'm disappointed they're not funding my work (physiology of feeding in infants), but I'm not (nor are most of my colleagues) going to start doing the things that they do fund. There will be lots of people in those fields however, who perhaps do bend their interests to get that money. But no University can make any individual put in a proposal for something they don't want to do. I'd argue that scientific work as a national enterprise is probably less constrained, more free, and certainly wider ranging than at any time in the past. It's not perfect, but no one was ever denied tenure for publishing a specific scientific perspective. Tenure committees by and large count publications (which in the end is a reflection of effort - nearly anything can and does get published). Tenure committees by and large don't give a damn about the content of the grant, just does it reach a dollar threshold.

Think of it like a haiku: the form is rigid, limited and set, but the content, the message is a product of the unlimited imagination of the author.


Thanks for writing. This is an important, complicated, and, for some of us, highly emotional subject. I welcome further thoughts from readers.

Erin O'Connor, 4:19 PM | Permalink




Something in the water

A reader with a Ph.D. in history and a nonacademic career writes:


I found (and continue to find) myself considerably more afraid of the growing corporatism of academic life than I do the theoretical musings and obscure (ok, incomprehensible even to those with perfect SAT verbal scores) prose of a tiny subset of humanities scholars. Those very science and engineering departments that many of your correspondents suggest are untainted by politics are, I would suggest, the most overwhelmingly politicized departments at virtually every major research university. With literally tens of millions of dollars at stake in NIH, Defense, Energy, and Corporate Research grants, they abandoned any pretense of academic freedom decades ago. As "Deep Throat" advised Woodward and Bernstein, "follow the money." Were you to do so, you'd doubtless discover that the humanities - flawed though they may be - allow (at the least the possibility of) dissent from the prevailing norms (note, I did NOT say hegemony). Such heresy would be unthinkable at grant-craving engineering and scientific departments. When big bucks are stake, those who don't tow the line are shown the door. And unlike scholars in the humanities who need little more than a library and a modem, scientific renegades (who just might find the cure to cancer, AIDS, cold-fusion, you name it) end-up silenced altogether.

This week's Chronicle of Higher Educatiom has a long piece on corporate-funded academic research that speaks directly to this reader's concern. It's subscription-only, unfortunately, and it's too long to summarize. But the main plot points are these: a Berkeley researcher who contracted with Ecorisk, Inc.(acting on behalf of Syngenta) to study how the widely used herbicide atrazine (made by Syngenta) affects amphibians; a contract stipulating that Ecorisk and Syngenta would have the final say about whether the research results would be published; a professor who did not read his contract thoroughly enough to notice that stipulation before he signed it; research results showing that atrazine adversely affects the development of frogs even when exposure is a fraction of the current legal level (by inhibiting larynx growth and by stimulating so much estrogen production that testes effectively turn into eggs and ovaries); scary implications of that research, since what estrogen-inducing atrazine does to frogs is suggestive of what it may be doing to humans (breast cancer, for example, is associated with increased levels of estrogen); impending EPA reapproval of atrazine; billions of dollars hanging in the balance; and a nasty, prolonged subsequent fight about who own Hayes' data, whether he is a credible scientist who does credible work, and whether he has the right (not to mention responsibility) to make his findings publicly known. Read it and weep--and then think twice about what's in your water.

On the positive side of things, cases likes Hayes' are causing some schools to assess the extent to which their research departments are becoming corporatized, and to initiate discussions about how to identify conflicts of interest and prevent corruption. Former Harvard president Derek Bok's recent book, Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education discusses these issues at length. I've reviewed Bok's book for Knowledge@Wharton, and will put up a link when the review is available on line.

UPDATE: John Rosenberg quotes one of his readers and adds a pointed point of his own:


"Erin O'Connor has a posting complaining about corporate influences in universities. ... Perhaps this is a good excuse for you to point out that the people who usually complain the most about this (not Erin) are the same people who offer as a reason for racial preferences: 'This is what the corporations want us to do.'"

Consider it pointed out.

Perhaps it is worth adding that these are often the same folks who applauded the military brass as a progressive force in society for filing a brief in support of racial preferences in the Michigan cases but who now want to bar military recruiters from campus because of the militaryís policy regarding homosexuals.

UPDATE UPDATE: Mitch at Blogfonte has more links on the Berkeley case, and some sharp comments:


My feeling is that the Berkeley member of this particular research project decided to bail on the project when it became clear that the rest of the panel showed little inclination to run with the most alarming interpretation of their collective data. He apparently pulled out of the project in 2000. It's hard to tell who has their thumb on the scales in the scientific dispute - I've been involved in similar situations in which the activists were the malefactors. The contractual dispute, on the other hand, stinks. Hayes's publications seem to be several years after his 2000 resignation from the Ecorisk project. Exercising contractual restraint upon a research scientist who has resigned from your project is a damned ugly way to run a business. It's as bad as AccuWeather's noncompetition clauses, in its own way.

Erin O'Connor, 11:23 AM | Permalink




October 26, 2003 [feather]
Whistleblowers and cowardly administrators

University of Illinois physicist George Gollin has done the world a great service. Annoyed by those pop-up ads that promise to sell you the degree of your choice for cheap, Gollin decided to look into the institutions that are selling such degrees and the people who are buying them. He put together a massive onlive archive of "schools" that are actually fronts for fake degrees, along with an overview of his research, detailing how he locates a diploma mill; showing how these mills lift their course catalogs, web content, and promotional photography from the sites of legitimate schools; showing how they clone one another; and, finally, showing how some incredibly stupid people actually post their fake educational pedigrees online, for all the world--or at least all fake diploma-hunters--to see. Some of these fraudulent folks are working in the education and health care industries. The employees of businesses that failed to do decent background checks, they are lawsuits--and tragedies--in the making. Don't miss Gollin's overview--among other things, it is a breathtaking display of the beauty of Google.

Gollin's findings are so striking and so authoritative that he was featured last summer in a CBS news special report. You'd think the University of Illinois would be proud to have Gollin on its faculty, and would hold him up as an example of the sort of level-headed, judicious engagement with issues in higher education to which all university faculty should aspire. In an era when faculty are frequently accused of living with their heads in the sand, and when their attempts to address questions of policy frequently come off as shrill, manipulative, and ideologically-driven (remember Nicholas De Genova?), work such as Gollin's should be recognized for what it is: solid, scrupulous, and undeniably worthwhile, a true instance of the "service" that is part of every professor's job description.

That wasn't how administrators at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana saw things, however. When some of these fake universities threatened to sue the school, the school's response was not to defend Gollin's academic freedom and to stand by his right to publish the results of his research, but to tell Gollin to get the problem material off the university's server and to rationalize their decision to do so by describing the work he had done as outside of his area of professional expertise, and therefore as undeserving of the protection academic freedom otherwise provides. There was no attempt to verify the accuracy of Gollin's work or to determine whether the legal threats had any basis in fact. There was simply a desire to get the controversial material Gollin had posted off the university's server in order to deflect a potentially unpleasant wrangle with people who appear, by all accounts, to have absolutely no case. Fear of a lawsuit--even a scurrilous one--was enough to make administrators censor the work of one of its faculty. It was also enough to make them come up with an absurd justification for that censorship, one that insults the mission of higher education and that chills the academic freedom of everyone on campus.

Gollin's work--which does stand up to careful scrutiny--is now housed at the Oregon Student Assistance Commission Office of Degree Authorization. Alan Contreras, who is an administrator there, says Gollin's work is "superb," and adds, "We think it's a very helpful consumer-protection tool."

You can read more about Gollin's case in The Chronicle of Higher Education and in the Daily Illini, and you can read some excellent commentary on it at Eric Rasmusen's site and at the Volokh Conspiracy.

Erin O'Connor, 11:24 AM | Permalink




October 24, 2003 [feather]
Censorship at Roger Williams

At Roger Williams University, censorship is alive and well. Here's a memo the university president sent to everyone at the school:


October 9, 2003

To: The University Community

From: Roy J. Nirschel, Ph.D.
President

Re: Free Expression, Civility and Mutual Respect

Roger Williams University is committed to intellectual inquiry and discourse. Among our core values is a celebration of the liberal arts, service, a global perspective and respect for the individual. Inherent within these core values is the affirmation of free expression as well as civility and mutual respect.

In recent days, a publication of a student-funded organization has crossed seriously over the lines of propriety and respect. In the past, this organization has flirted with racist and anti-Islamic rhetoric. The most recent issue of their publication, the Hawks Right Eye, is pornographic in nature, puerile, mean spirited and stereotypes gay individuals as child molesters, criminals or deviants. The views expressed therein do not represent the viewpoint of the Republican Party or most individual members of the party.

While we affirm the right of campus organizations to hold different points of view and to disagree, the university will not condone publications that create a hostile environment for our students and community.

Roger Williams continues to believe in respect for diversity of opinion and a civil exchange of views as well as respect for individuals regardless of their beliefs, backgrounds, or orientation. As an institution whose namesake preached, for his time, inclusiveness and respect for human dignity, we are a university too busy for hate.


Apparently, President Nirschel and Co. are also too busy to understand their obligation to the law. After publicly singling out the school's one conservative student publication as an exemplar of "hate," the school froze the group's funding, and thus effectively shut the publication down. That's viewpoint discrimination, pure and simple. There is even a Supreme Court ruling on the subject--in 1995, in Rosenberger v. University of Virginia, the Supreme Court ruled that the school had violated the First Amendment when it denied funding to a campus evangelical newspaper because of its viewpoint. But administrators who are too busy for hate don't have time to make sure their efforts to stomp it out are actually constitutional. FIRE publishes a free guide explaining how the First Amendment affects the funding of student groups and explaining, too, how even private universities such as Roger Williams are obligated to fulfill their contractual obligations to students. If a private school presents itself as committed to free inquiry and open expression--as this one does--then it is committing fraud when it stoops, as this school did, to censorship to suppress offensive views. It would behoove President Nirschel to take some time out of his busy schedule to read FIRE's guide. Among other things, it might help him realize that by chilling expression on his campus he is the one who is promoting a hostile, discriminatory environment--not the students who write for The Hawk's Right Eye.

So what exactly did the paper publish that was so offensive? Strictly speaking, it doesn't matter. But in the interests of complete coverage, I'll summarize (for more detail, read the editor's account and the coverage in The Providence Journal). The paper criticized the school's decision to force incoming freshmen to attend a "diversity" talk delivered by Judy Shepard, the mother of Matthew Shepard. It also criticized the talk itself, which advocated for hate crime legislation and which accused organized religion of being a bastion of intolerance. Both are legitimate criticisms: the school should not be making new students attend political harangues as part of their orientation; there are legitimate arguments to be made against hate crime legislation and reasonable defenses to be made of organized religion. The Hawk's Right Eye endorses the view that homosexuality is wrong. That is its right. It also employs a deliberately inflammatory rhetorical style to make its views known. That is also its right, and it is one routinely exercised, with no trouble at all, by more politically correct student groups across the country. If people on the Roger Williams campus disagree with the views expressed in the paper or with the paper's rhetorical style, they should respond in kind--by expressing their views and arguing with those put forth by The Hawk's Right Eye.

Unfortunately, it sounds as if President Nirschel's actions foreclosed on that civil possibility, and instead licensed members of the campus community to harass and threaten campus conservatives. In a letter (scroll down) to President Nirschel, Monique Stuart, Executive Director of the Roger Williams University College Republicans, explains:


You claim that ìthe university will not condone publications that create a hostile environment for our students and community.î ÝAre the College Republicans excluded from that? ÝIt is you, who with this very publication of your own, that has created a hostile environment for every member of the club or anyone who associates with members. ÝIn this effort to calm the situation, which didnít even become volatile until you alerted the campus, you have only inflamed the matter.

My roommates have been harassed and have to fear for their safety because your letter gave free reign to everyone on campus to lash out against the College Republicans. ÝYou set the example that it is okay to treat us negatively because you stepped over the line and did it yourself. Through your actions you have shown your contempt and disapproval of us; you the rest of the community free reign to demonstrate their disapproval and seek actions that they deem fit to vent.

Other members of the club have been physically harassed and verbally threatened. All members have become fair game to be ridiculed and degraded in class. ÝMany students feel that there is no need to respect us because the president of the school doesnít. ÝMutual respect is nonexistent for our club. ÝThis is the hostile environment that you have created, not us.


These are uncorroborated assertions--but they are not very hard to believe.

Meanwhile, school administrators have agreed to restore the paper's funding--but only if students agree to have the paper "reviewed" by an advisor before it goes to print. Somehow I don't think that a thinly veiled policy of prior restraint is going to work. I also don't think that the school's newfound commitment to defining formal standards for civil campus discussion will do anything more than create endless additional problems. Speech codes usually do.

Thanks to Reginleif for the tip.

UPDATE 10/30/03: Eugene Volokh has taken up the Roger Williams case, arguing that the college's decision to defund the paper doesn't make sense even according to its own stated logic.

Erin O'Connor, 12:30 PM | Permalink




October 23, 2003 [feather]
More on choosing colleges

From a reader who points out that the best liberal arts educations are often to be found at smaller colleges rather than at large research universities:


As a graduate of both a largish research University (UC Santa Cruz) and a small liberal arts college (St. John's College, Annapolis), I can't tell you how much better my experience was at the liberal arts school. St. John's is, of course, quite different from most liberal arts colleges, but ... I've gotten to know some other schools as well and I have found that the intellectual climate at theÝaverage liberal arts school (e.g., Wabash, Dickinson, U. Dallas, St. Olaf, Thomas Aquinas, Lewis & Clark, etc.) is simply more conducive to learning. These schools don't offer nearly the range of courses that a student would find at Ohio State or Brown, but that often turns out to be a positive boon, because students can't fulfill their "Citizenship" requirement on courses like "Post-Colonial American Empire." Some of them, like St. John's, U. Dallas and Thomas Aquinas College, don't even give their students the oportunity to choose how to fulfill their distribution requirements, thus forcing them to getÝa literary culture from their "Bible, and Chaucer, and Shakespeare, and Milton, and Hobbes, and Bishop Berkeley." Their graduates are often admitted to the best graduate programs in every discipline including the sciences despite the fact that they rarely have elaborate science labs.Ý

The basic truth that these colleges have grasped is that 18 year-olds rarely have a good idea of what they want to do with their lives, nor are they generally competent to decide what they should learn if they are to become truly educated adults. In the big universities they are led toÝbelieve that taking one or two classes from a list of 30 suffices to ensure they haveÝthe breadth of learning that is expected of a liberally educated individual, but that is rarely case. When I was at UC Santa Cruz, I tried as best I could to cobble together a liberal education, but still never managed to read Chaucer, Virgil or anything written originally in Greek, and I majored in Literature!

Another advantage to the small liberal arts college is that faculty are less often judged by their publications than by their ability to impart knowledge to the young. I know senior faculty at St. John's with Curriculum Vitae that are shorter than those of many Ph.D. candidates, but because the institution is focused on undergraduate education, nobody in the administration cares that they don't publish. Too often in the big research universities, undergraduates are taught by grad students or adjunct faculty--that is rarely the case in the liberal arts colleges. Also, the schools are generally not big enough to hold classes for more than 20-30 students at a time, another downfall of our large universities.

Touche. When I was an undergrad at Berkeley in the late 1980s, I took a number of English courses that had more than a hundred students enrolled in them (some had several hundred). They were lecture courses by necessity, with no discussion section. Papers were graded not by the professor--who never learned our names--but by grad students who were paid peanuts for their trouble and also did not know our names. Needless to say, they did not write comments on our papers--all you got was a grade and (maybe) a sentence of reaction. In one class, taught by a prominent scholar of American literature, we did not write papers at all. Instead, there were the infinitely easier-to-grade bluebook midterm and final exam. I happened to get a surprisingly solid grounding in American and English canonical literature--but the assemblyline impersonality of it all left a lot to be desired. Among other things, it utterly negated the purpose of a liberal arts education, which is to talk, searchingly and creatively, about what you have read (ideally also searchingly and creatively) with others who have done the same. If what you want is a strong liberal arts grounding, a smaller school may well be the place to get it.

Erin O'Connor, 2:51 PM | Permalink




October 22, 2003 [feather]
Punishing the student press

Newspaper theft is a cornerstone of misguided campus activism. Outraged students do it (usually when the paper prints a story that they deem to be racially insensitive). Even political candidates do it (in Berkeley anyway). It's illegal to steal newspapers, and doing so shows a lamentable ignorance about the importance of a free press and the point of writing letters to the editor. But it's popular nonetheless as a swift and effective means of suppressing offensive stories and of punishing the people who write and print them. So popular has newspaper theft become, in fact, that even campus administrators are getting in on the action.

At Hampton University, a historically black school in Virginia, administrators recently stole the school paper's press run after the paper refused front-page placement of a letter from the administration. The campus cafeteria had been cited for numerous sanitary violations and was in danger of being shut down; the administration wanted to notify the campus community that the cafeteria had just managed to pass an inspection that would allow it to stay open. The paper's policy is to print letters on page three--and that is where the administration's letter went (the front page did feature a pointer to the letter). When administrators found that the editor had followed the paper's policies instead of obeying their "request," they had University Trucking Services seize all 6500 copies of the paper. Though the all-important letter did appear in the issue, no one got to read it. A display of force finally mattered more than the dissemination of important information. The Hampton Script (not available online) has won awards for the quality of its journalism. But it doesn't sound like the Hampton deans will be winning any awards soon for the quality of their leadership.

UPDATE 10/27/03: Eugene Volokh and En Banc have more.

Thanks to Ralph Luker for the link.

Erin O'Connor, 10:14 PM | Permalink




More on choosing colleges

In response to my invitation to readers to write in with their suggestions about how to choose a college, I received this excellent letter from an academic scientist:


There are some disciplinary consistencies that travel across universities. The hard sciences are far less politicized than social sciences or humanities (this may also not be helpful if you've got a child bent on majoring classics or poly sci). After a dozen years, I still don't know the political perspectives of half of my colleagues. I doubt they know mine. It's just not relevant.

I'd also disagree with your view that English & History are the "pulse points". Yes, if you are in the humanities. From most sciencists perspectives, they are (sad to say) irrelevant. The pulse points for science students & teachers are revolve around opportunities to do research in science. Doing is learning.

The visiting/application questions could be a little different. What percent of the majors are involved in research? Research with a faculty member is one of the most rewarding, challenging & enriching experiences for an undergrad, but if its less than 5%, that's telling you something about the climate at the University. Research with a professor is usually more limited at the small colleges (the formal teaching those folks do is much greater, there are fewer profs per discipline, etc). But the trade off is that those profs are teaching the laboratory sections themselves. A University with a graduate program, the labs will certainly be taught by graduate students. How many are foreign? The trade-off in sciences for a Research University vs. the small college can be tough, if you are interested in a research future.

Is your child interested in a clinical career (the vast majority of science majors)? Medical schools look favorably on (if not requiring) volunteer experience at a hospital. That's probably not possible at a small school, or an isolated University without a med school. While most med schools are notoriously stand-offish, many faculty there are eager to interact with undergraduates. They may not teach classes, but they offer opportunities that are just not going to be available in a non-university college.

Engineering? Does the University have a co-op program? What are their ties with industry? What are the out of classroom opportunities? What is the first year drop-out or transfer to other program rate (notoriously high in some engineering programs)?

More questions: What is the lab space like? When was the last time they were renovated? Or do they look like something out of Young Frankenstein? Intro science courses may have big lectures, but what are the size of labs (10 is great, 20 is OK, 30 is probably a disaster waiting to happen)? What kind of lab fees are required in addition to tuition? If you are interested in a field-oriented science (geology, ecology), are there field trips on weekends, over break? Having Big Names in Science teach courses is a mixed blessing. Some do a good job, and some don't. But young, enthusastic scientists (who may get judged on research more than teaching for tenure) are some of the best opportunities for learning about science. Sit in on a class or two in the area you like. Can you tell if the prof loved their science?

Young scientists still take English and some version of social science.The questions about core courses you & Myers point out are important. But, in the end most figure out which courses are going to be disasters (politically or otherwise). It is a shame, in my book, that scientists aren't getting a real humanities & social science core. But in choosing a college today may be another factor weighed into the final decision.

Finally, you can probably get a good education nearly anywhere. I know that's not helpful for a parent making an extremely expensive decision, but its still true. A good student can find good teachers, and do what it takes to make that education happen.


Thanks for taking the time to write.

Erin O'Connor, 9:02 AM | Permalink




October 20, 2003 [feather]
Lucid is as lucid does

From a review of Alfred Kazin's oeuvre, written by a literary critic who laments his profession's failure to understand its proper social and aesthetic role:


German literary critic Walter Benjamin observed: "When we read a book, the book is reading us." Far too often, however, the teaching of literature is a guessing game in which students attempt to figure out the professor's take on a book, then feed it back to her in ungainly prose. Professorial opinion of books is, quite often, shaped by the critical community, so when students read a book, their job is to determine how those books are to be read as defined by literary critics filtered through their profs. It is kind of like attempting to enjoy a banquet someone else has eaten. No surprise, then, that most students abandon reading literary criticism as soon as they leave school. Lots of them abandon reading literature, too, and critics and professors may have a hand in that.

Literary criticism has become increasingly more arcane, obtuse and unreadable. I pity the English grad students who have had to read the stuff over the past couple of decades, a time when it was a mark of pride among critics to be opaque, when scholars whose meaning was too readily apprehended were thought to be intellectual bantam weights.

[...]

Kazin and his generation of critics knew they were less important than the writers they wrote about, knew their task was to probe those writers and their texts for the richness (or the foolishness) being offered, the insights about the culture and our varied lives in it. Too many literary critics since Kazin think that they are more important than the writers and the primary texts from which they work. I even heard one of them say in an address before a conference that deconstructionists don't really need the primary texts anymore.

Perhaps the republication of so much of Kazin's work will help nudge the critical community away from such nonsense and toward a view of their function as more window than door.


Perhaps. But if the recent publication of Just Being Difficult?: Academic Writing in the Public Arena is any indication, it's not bloody likely. Edited by Cornell English professor Jonathan Culler and Cornell Ph.D. candidate Kevin Lamb, the collection sets out to defend the academic humanities against the accusation that it is rotten with rotten writing. The basic premise: that it's not bad writing we are reading when we encounter the convoluted and unintelligible prose of a Judith Butler, a Homi Bhabha, or scores of less decorated, less known theoreticians, but difficult writing. The insinuation: clarity is for the simpleminded, convolution is a value unto itself, and the reader who fails to understand this is no reader at all. There's an excellent review of the book in this week's Chronicle of Higher Education.

Thanks to About Last Night for the Kazin link.

Erin O'Connor, 6:39 PM | Permalink




More on choosing colleges

Justin Katz, proprietor of the Timshel Arts page, responds to my post inviting readers to contribute their suggestions about how to choose an appropriate college:


Having read the email that you posted from a father who is 14 years closer to the travail of college-picking than I am, and as a staunch conservative who graduated from college not too long ago, I thought I'd mention some additional considerations as parents choose where to send their children for higher education.

For my part, I found being just about the only vocal conservative in any of my classes to be a tremendous motivator and fabulous experience, all told. I suppose it depends on one's children and their individual ambitions. I had spent some time in manual labor when I decided to finally finish off my degree, so I knew why I was there. I'm also outspoken and intended to become a writer of some sort. A relatively meek adolescent who wants only to get through the required courses unscathed on the way to more career-specific training would be a different matter.

Another thing I would mention, that I wish I'd known to consider when I reached for the most prestigious school possible out of high school, is that the level of the school will not prohibit a student from acquiring a top-notch education, nor will the level ensure it. If one knows his or her children to be particularly bright and motivated, it may be that they will learn the most valuable lesson --- how to learn --- where the resources are not overflowing. Of course, career intentions arise here, again.

Lastly, I would suggest that various pundits and other writers are professors and make their email addresses available. Specifically, I'm thinking of the conservatives, mostly because they are the embattled minority on campus. A short note to such people might yield an honest inside perspective.


Great points. Justin's right: there is nothing like adversity to help you clarify your views. And there is no substitute for self-motivation when it comes to getting an education.

Erin O'Connor, 4:58 PM | Permalink




Choosing a college

A reader writes about the difference between college then and college now, and laments the difficulty of finding a college that will actually deliver the kind of education he wants his kids to have:


...this reader ofÝyour blog happens to be the parent of two boys who are a junior and a sophomore in highÝschool. All too soon they will be going to college. I can't help but worry about the extent to which the intellectual dishonesty, academic trendiness, and doctrinaireÝpostmodernismÝyou chronicle carries over into the instruction and evaluation of undergraduates.Ý

One of the things that bothers me the most is the fact that, based on all the evidence I glean from your blog and from other sources, I can't use my own college experience to inform my decisions about my sons, and where to send them to college. I went to Dartmouth College from 1968 to 1972. I was a conservative, at least by the standards of the campus (although I tended to keep my own counsel), and the campus was certainly aflame with political activism in those years. In the spring of 1969, and again in spring 1970, college administration buildings were taken over by students in protests ultimately related to the Vietnam War (although the proximate cause in at least one of those takeovers was ROTC on campus). The campus was shut down in spring 1970 due to the Kent State protest and subsequent killings --Ýalthough I was unaffected because I was in France at the time with a group of Dartmouth students (one of whom told me one day about his stay in jail a year earlier,Ýwhich had resulted from his part in the spring 1969 administration building takeover).

Notwithstanding all this, however, I don't remember my education being politicized in the manner described by you, and your correspondents in your blog, as being current today. Certainly politics was ever present, and campus property was frequently used for rallies and for heart-felt (and almost always liberal) speeches by both faculty and students. But "Truth" itself was not yet considered the malleable instrument it is conceivedÝto beÝtoday (except maybe by Thrasymachus in Plato's Republic, and then only as a straw man to be refuted). In the introductory political science (at Dartmouth, "Government" department)Ýsurvey course we were assigned and read the classics of the Western tradition -- Plato's Republic (the whole thing), Machiavelli's The Prince (the whole thing)Ý, Rousseau's Social Contract (again, the whole thing), etc; we were instructed in the conservative tradition with readings from Calhoun (John C., that is), DeMaistre, and Doestoevski, as well as the Socialist tradition (with readings by Marx and Franz Fanon, among others) and the liberal tradition (Locke's entire Second Treatise and James Mill, among others). I passed out of the English requirement, but most freshmen were required toÝread Milton's Paradise Lost. I myself took an electiveÝcourse in Shakespeare, in which we read thirteen plays and were given the opportunity to become familiar with secondary sources such as Bradley and Goddard (and were lectured, I might add, by a truly excellent faculty, about whose political opinions I do not, to this day, have any inkling).

Should one or both of my sons succeed in getting admittedÝto Dartmouth -- or any small liberal arts school --ÝI wonder whether they will get the same sort of even-handed education, given the contempt in which the bedrock concept of "truth" seems to be held in academia today. I have no problem with a faculty whose politics, on the whole, disagree with mine; I do have a problem with a faculty in which a substantial number think "truth" is a function of those politics. This orientation on the part of faculty distorts the choice of content to teach in the first place (because it overemphasizes the last 50 toÝ100 years of intellectual history, at the expense of the previous millenia) and it renders the evaluation process -- from the point of view of the student, anyway -- completely arbitrary, from any objective viewpoint. (The student can, of course, render it non-arbitrary by expressly acknowledging that a given course is an exercise in political indoctrination, and then simply kowtowing to that reality. But what then of actual education?) And although my elder son and I haven't really started the college search process, I strongly suspect that there's absolutely nothing in any of the application literature provided to prospective students that gives any clue as to whether the bedrock educational mission of a given college has been compromised in the manner I've described.

I don't ask you to change the focus of your blog -- but it would certainly be appreciated if you could devote an entry or two to the clues that you, as an insider, might provide to outsiders such as me, which will help us figure out whether undergraduate education at a given college, or at departments at a given college,Ýhas been compromised in the fashion described.

Winfield Myers wrote a piece for NRO about a year and a half ago addressing these very issues. Entitled "Reading Between the Lies During Campus Visits", it's a good guide for parents who want to figure out how to cut through schools' self-promotional fanfare (a longer, more detailed guide, also by Myers, is available from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute). I elaborated on some of Myers' comments here.

Myers has lots of good advice about how to assess the political and intellectual climate of a given school. Even if you disagree about whether some things are problems (co-ed dorm bathrooms, for example, or racy film screenings at orientation), the guide is a great model for how to begin to evaluate a school. To Myers' suggestions, I would add: read the student newspaper (which ought to be online) to find out what's happening on campus and to see how students and administrators think about what's happening on campus; use Google to search for recent news--or scandals--about the schools that interest you; and become a regular reader of websites that focus on issues in higher education. Some of the best of these are Invisible Adjunct, Discriminations, Number Two Pencil, SCSU Scholars, and NoIndoctrination.org; you should also keep close tabs on FIRE's website, and on its subsidiary sites, speechcodes.org and thefireguides.org.

I'm not a parent, and many heads are better than one. Additional thoughts from readers, particularly from parents, college students, and recent college grads are welcome. I'll post updates when and as readers write in.

Erin O'Connor, 8:39 AM | Permalink




October 18, 2003 [feather]
Kenyon's commitment to diversity

A reader writes in response to yesterday's post about Kenyon College's racially exclusive dissertation fellowship program:


You may be interested to know more about Kenyon College and its interest in diversity. They hold (or at least did when I applied for colleges in the early 1990s) an annual fellowships weekend when they invite promising applicants from high schools to visit the school, see classes, and then participate in interviews for the wide variety of merit-based fellowships to help to offset an otherwise hefty tuition bill. One of the points the college used when attracting applicants was this competition, the most lucrative prizes of which were the full-tuition scholarship for the most qualified. It turned out later that there were more than one 'weekends' going on at the same time, and that the fellowships for minorities were the only ones actually offered up to full tuition. The most a nice white guy like myself could win (regardless of academic merit) was a half-tuition fellowship. None of this was immediately apparent to the applicants at the time .... I found the college I ended up attending more attractive for other reasons (individualized tutorials with professors) and rejected Kenyon's acceptance offer, but came away surprised by Kenyon's duplicity. Thus your account of this restricted fellowship is in keeping with what I've already seen at Kenyon.

Thanks for writing.

Erin O'Connor, 12:52 PM | Permalink




Separatism, Native American style

Oklahoma tribal leaders are planning to launch the state's first "tribally controlled college." Here's the AP report:


OKMULGEE, Okla. (AP) _ Oklahoma State University and Oklahoma tribal leaders will look into establishing the state's first tribally controlled college.

Leaders of the Five Civilized Tribes have agreed to endorse the development of a small, two-year college for Oklahoma's America Indian population, said Creek Nation Chief Perry Beaver.

A task force of tribal leaders, led by the Creek Nation, is working toward creating the college that could be called the ``American Indian University.''

The proposed American Indian University has the endorsement of OSU President David Schmidly, who said the joint venture between OSU and the Five Civilized Tribes looks to be a good fit.

If established, the American Indian college would be overseen by the Creek Nation Board of Regents, which also would have to be established.

The Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee and Seminole tribe are supporting the establishment of the American Indian University.

Preliminary plans would have the school located at the OSU-Okmulgee campus if federal funding is secured, said Bob Klabenes, president of OSU-Technical Branch in Okmulgee.

If funding is obtained, the tribal college would share OSU-Okmulgee facilities without disrupting OSU's technical educational programs, Klabenes said.

Indian leaders believe that families from Oklahoma's 39 federally recognized Indian tribes would support the new college. Enrollment options for non-Indian students have not been decided.

``One-fourth of Oklahoma's population is Indian, and many other states have these colleges, so why not Oklahoma?'' Beaver asked.

Beaver said the proposed American Indian University in Okmulgee could offer degree programs specific to Indian nation operations, such as Indian gaming management, hazardous waste management, transportation management, law enforcement and fire safety.

The task force hopes to have a proposal submitted for federal funding within six months.

The federal funds would be used to hire faculty members and create academic programs for the American Indian University.

There are about 40 tribally controlled colleges that use federal funding through the American Tribally Controlled Colleges and Universities Assistance Act. Some of the tribal colleges have as few as 150 students enrolled.


To learn more about the tribal college movement, check out the Tribal College Journal, which currently features an article on a disturbingly touchy-feely new pseudo-discipline called "indigenous science education."

Thanks to reader Fred R. for the link.

UPDATE: Doctor Weevil notes that the Five Civilized Tribes designation may be read as a rather supremacist term, particularly if you come from one of the 34 other, presumably uncivilized tribes residing in Oklahoma.

Erin O'Connor, 12:46 PM | Permalink




October 17, 2003 [feather]
Increasing faculty diversity

As academic departments seek to increase faculty "diversity" (by which they mean, "increase the variety of skin colors, ethnicities, and sexual preferences on the faculty," not "increase the variety of philosophical, political, ethical, and methodological commitments expressed in the scholarly work of the faculty"), they are hard-pressed to find ways to advertise their needs while still adhering to their schools' policies on equal opportunity.

Desperate times beget clever measures, however, and an entire shorthand has evolved to enable enterprising search committees to do discriminatory job searches without appearing to discriminate.

Here's one from the University of Washington's biology department, as posted in the current issue of Science magazine. The department seeks a population biologist for a tenure-track job.


Appointment is anticipated at the ASSISTANT Professor rank. In exceptional circumstances appointment at the ASSOCIATE or FULL Professor level may be considered for candidates who offer extraordinary opportunities to further the University's commitments to mentoring underrepresented students in the sciences.

Translation: non-white, non-male applicants for this job are not only desired, but very materially preferred when it comes to rank, job security, and salary. I suppose it's possible that an outstanding white male candidate could out-compete others (or should I say, Others) for the job, but it doesn't sound likely. This advertisement comes as close as it can legally come to saying, "White men need not apply." Code language for that in the description itself: "The University of Washington is building a culturally diverse faculty and strongly encourages applications from women and minority candidates. The University of Washington is an Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action Employer."

Here's another non-discriminatory discriminatory ad, this one from the English department at Georgetown (as listed in the Job Information List at www.ade.org):


Tenure-track assistant professor, with or about to receive the Ph.D., to teach courses at all levels (first-year through M.A.) in critical gender and sexuality studies. We welcome applications from candidates working in any historical period. Georgetown University is an AA/EO employer and strongly encourages applications from women and minority candidates as part of its commitment to professional excellence and diversity.

Translation: non-female candidates need not apply, minority women candidates are preferred to white women ones. Of course, academic identity politics being what it is, very few white, straight men are going to be specializing in "critical gender and sexuality studies" to begin with. Job descriptions like these, where the type of job advertised almost guarantees an applicant from a particular demographic, are common as dirt in the academic humanities and social sciences. It's a way of "diversifying" faculty demographics while at the same time ensuring that demographic differences do not translate into ideological ones. The content of the candidate's scholarship is as important as the arrangement of chromosomes or the color of skin. That scholarship--centered on questions of identity, oppression, and power relations--is in turn a sign of a particular political commitment. Faculty "diversity" must only be pursued insofar as it ensures and perpetuates ideological uniformity.

Schools also define traditional areas of study in ways that indicate their desire to make a minority hire. Here is how Marquette University advertises its tenure-track assistant professorship in the seemingly unexceptionable area of American literature:


The Department seeks one tenure-track Assistant Professor in AMERICAN LITERATURE written after World War I. Candidates specializing in any area of drama, prose, and/or poetry in the period are invited to apply. Desirable emphases include Latino/Latina Studies, Asian American Literature, African American Literature, and Native American Literature.

This is an ethnic studies job for an ethnic candidate dressed up to look like an American lit job. Worth noting: it's not just the white applicants who drop out of this equation, but the twentieth-century American literary canon.

UC Irvine at least has the grace not to pretend that hiring a minority specialist in minority literature is the same thing as hiring a specialist in American literature proper. It "invites applications for a tenure track assistant professor in American Minority Literature--with a preference for a specialist in Latino, African-American, Asian, or Native American literatures." If you are wondering just how rarified it can get, consider the University of Iowa's announcement of a "a tenure-track position in U.S. Minority Women's Literature and Culture at the Assistant Professor Level, to be jointly appointed in Women's Studies and English OR American Studies." Candidates should have "substantial training and experience in Women's/Gender Studies" and "must be able to teach core courses in Women's Studies such as Introduction to Women's Studies; Race, Class and Gender; and Feminist Theory." No mystery there about what the race and sex of the lucky applicant will be. Iowa should be proud. In the logic of diversity calculus, Iowa's going to get two for the price of one--a woman and a person of color--with this hire.

The above examples should give some indication not just of how academic departments can advertise jobs earmarked for minorities, but have also rearranged their entire disciplinary landscape--not just for the moment but for the indefinite future--to suit their political ends. How far will schools go in their pursuit of faculty "diversity"? How far can they go?

Kenyon College seems to be trying to find out the answer to that question. Kenyon actually has dissertation fellowships specifically for minorities:


The Kenyon College Dissertation/Teaching Fellowship for Minority Scholars is for scholars in the final stages of their doctoral work who need only to finish the dissertation to complete requirements for the Ph.D. We hope the experience of living and working for a year at Kenyon will encourage these fellows to consider a liberal arts college as a place to begin their careers as teachers and scholars....Eligibility to apply for the Kenyon College Dissertation/Teaching Fellowship for Minority Scholars is limited to:*Citizens or nationals of the United States at the time of application.*Members of the following minority groups: Alaskan Natives (Eskimo or Aleut) Native American Indians Black/African Americans Mexican Americans/Chicano Native Pacific Islanders (Polynesian or Micronesian) Puerto Ricans.

The good people at Kenyon must not have heard about how there is a little problem with racially restrictive application criteria, at least as far as the Office of Civil Rights is concerned. Or perhaps--good-hearted souls that they are--their commitment to diversity outweighs their commitment to continuing to receive federal funding.

UPDATE: Great minds: John Rosenberg is also thinking about how the pursuit of diversity in hiring shades into discriminatory hiring.

UPDATE UPDATE: A reader who is an academic working in the sciences writes,


Part of what troubles me is that I *assumed* your examples were going on in the humanities & social sciences. I have thought that the hard sciences were better than this (my dept actually turned down, a couple of years ago, a "hire of opportunity" because the applicant just wasn't a good scientist). This is the first ad like this I've seen in the journal SCIENCE.

For me, this is still part of the larger science vs. humanities discussion in which I have participated since I was in college, getting a great books education (and usually I'm arguing that my colleagues are poorer for not having read Thucydides). Scientists have, maybe less than I thought, stayed more focused on excellence, merit & quality because they are more insulated from politics in their day to day scholarly activities. Its a slippery slope for humanities, and social science in particular. When you bring the politics into the department, and into the hiring, you get personal & academic mixed up, you make stupid hiring decisions, all of which perpetuate themselves in a large downstream ripple (and you end up pandering to an administration which in turn panders to public opinion and a highly politicized Board of Trustees).


Thanks for writing.

Erin O'Connor, 9:19 AM | Permalink




October 16, 2003 [feather]
That was then, this is now

From Thomas Henry Huxley, 1883:


I have said before, and I repeat it here, that if a man cannot get a literary culture of the highest kind from his Bible, and Chaucer, and Shakespeare, and Milton, and Hobbes, and Bishop Berkeley, to mention only a few of our illustrious writers--I say, if he cannot get it out of those writers, he cannot get it out of anything; and I would assuredly devote a very large portion of the time of every English child to the careful study of the models of English writing of such varied and wonderful kind as we possess, and, what is still more important and neglected, the habit of using language with precision, with force, and with art.

From Terry Eagleton, 2003:

Structuralism, Marxism, post-structuralism and the like are no longer the sexy topics they were. What is sexy instead is sex. On the wilder shores of academia an interest in French philosophy has given way to a fascination with French kissing. In some circles, the politics of masturbation exert far more fascination than the politics of the Middle East.

Nothing could be more understandable. There are advantages in being able to write your PhD thesis without stirring from in front of the TV set. In the old days, rock music was a distraction from your studies; now it may well be what you are studying. Intellectual matters are no longer an ivory-tower affair, but belong to the world of media and shopping malls, bedrooms and brothels.


Eagleton's new book, After Theory, was published last month. Among other things, it details how the theoretical trendiness of the academy has led far too many students to confuse embarrassingly trivial pursuits with meaningful intellectual work: "Cast adrift in the stormy currents of postmodernism," an Independent writer paraphrases, "they prefer to focus their energy on 'the history of pubic hair' or the evolution of Friends, a trend that Eagleton regards as 'politically catastrophic.'"

Thanks to Jim C. for the Huxley quote.

UPDATE: There's more at Tightly Wound.

Erin O'Connor, 9:50 PM | Permalink




October 15, 2003 [feather]
In defense of poetry

Poet Tom Henihan has some harsh words for the "cottage industry" that has grown up around poetry in recent years:


The teaching of poetry has become epidemic. The question of having the ìgiftî never comes up; the assumption being that poetry can be acquired like everything else. I have to say that the poets who head up these little retreats are very sensitive, preferring to lie rather than give any genuine criticism that may offend the student. You see they must keep these aspiring poets coming back, year after year, stanza after stanza, by shamelessly lending credence to the most flat literal efforts. I have yet to meet anyone who has been told the truth about their work, (good or bad) at one of these little soirÈes in the woods.

The blame shouldnít go so much to the hapless souls that sign-up for these exercises but to the purveyors of snake oil that put them on. I am not suggesting that poets cannot teach one another a trick or two, but taking 10 to 15 aspirants to a nunnery in Sooke for a 3-day workshop is so sweet it could make one cry. It goes up against everything radical, wild and individual in poetry. These people would be better served and brought closer to poetry if they got drunk, got laid, or went dancing.

The teaching of poetry whether in university, college or high school is the single most damaging force to the creation and appreciation of the genre. One of the underlining advantages of studying poetry at a university or college is that if you fail to create any poetry of merit you can always fall back on teaching it. This ensures that the damage will be perpetuated onto the next generation. I think the people who elect to teach and de-mystify poetry and make it accessible should keep Mallarmeís dictum in mind. ìTo suggest is to create, to explain is to destroy.î This assertion is particularly important when the explanations offered are misguided and wrong. If someone wants to write they should work quietly, trust their instincts and study literature.

When student poets get up to read they almost always thank their teacher for making poetry fun. Poetry should be protected from fun. There is so much fun in the world it isnít funny anymore. Poetry is essentially a solemn and devotional form. Funny poetry is a contradiction in termsÖitís the equivalent of kneeling in a church and saying funny prayers or chanting at a funny ritual. I am not saying that there is no room for humour in poetry but I am saying that there is very little room. We need things that are serious. What could be more pessimistic that wanting everything to be funny? Like failed musicians and actors who become childrenís entertainers, I sometimes suspect that comedians that arenít that funny decide to be poets.


The same may be said of fiction-writing classes. The MFA in creative writing has a lot to do with the precious, overcontrived, boilerplate quality of so much contemporary fiction (particularly of so many first novels by new authors).

Henihan may come off as a snob at first glance. He may come off as one of those vaguely anti-intellectual artistes who hold critics and teachers--the people who try to analyze the why and the how of their art--in unapologetic contempt. But to read his essay that way would be to miss the point. There are some things that cannot be taught. Inspiration is one, creativity is another, having a "feel" for language a third. Skills can be taught, and those are certainly necessary if one wants to be a writer of any caliber. But too often creative writing courses are about far more than the teaching of skills--there is a dishonesty to them, as Henihan notes. Their premise is that everyone enrolled in the course can write; their guiding principle is that deep down, we all have a poet or a novelist in us just waiting to come out. We don't. But in premising themselves on the notion that we do--and on the notion that coursework can bring it out, that all we need is practice and encouragement (and a few good contacts)--creative writing courses encourage a level of self-deception and communal pretension that are positively damaging to the art.

I have over time developed quite similar feelings about literary and cultural criticism. Unlike more genuinely research-driven fields, where there truly are findings that truly require to be written up, most academic writing in the humanities is the result of trawling for material that will allow one to produce academic writing in the humanities. The briefest glance at the writing schedule built into doctoral programs and assistant professorships confirms that it has to be this way. The priorities are backwards: the professional need to produce a piece of writing occasions the search for something to write about, which then converts what should be the meaningful work of expressing ideas into the makework of trying on paper to pretend that one has them.

Link via the always excellent Bookslut.

UPDATE: Reader David W. writes with some additional thoughts. "One could argue that by moving into the university, writers (and philosophers) have gotten less interesting and less able to think originally. Perhaps the current collapse of liberal education is a reminder that much of it wasn't supported by a specific institution and no small amount of it was forcefully opposed by institutions at various times," he observes, noting that "there is little historical basis to the belief by some of your correspondents that their passion for the noble and the beautiful should be remunerative. If anything, this should be one of the reasons why they love it; ie., its apparent "uselessness" within the context of quotidian life. Allan Bloom makes this point in a couple of places so I can hardly claim to be original here. The true worth of the life of the mind is only knowable to those who live it." David cites Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot, great twentieth-century poets who did their writing after doing their day jobs in an insurance agency and a bank, as models of how we might better conceptualize the where, the when, the why, and the how of the literary life.

I think that's right. Plenty of great writers have lived hand to mouth, writing to pay the bills and put food on the table--for a Dickens or a Thackeray or a Trollope, writing at top speed for money was not at all incompatible with tapping into their creativity and producing lasting works of art. But there is a difference between the nature of their work and the nature of the work of the academic writer (be he poet, novelist, or critic). These guys weren't expecting to get paid for their "passion," but for their product. They were highly professionalized--but they were also responsive to the marketplace rather than to a prefabricated set of aesthetic and intellectual norms designed to guard and police an elite and obscure academic culture. Obviously the marketplace is not an ideal arbiter of intellectual and artistic value. But it may at times be better--freer, more disinterested, and more honest--than the peer-reviewed, assembly-line system of compulsory, high-speed production and publication that regulates writing in the academic humanities.

UPDATE UPDATE: More at Blogfonte.

Erin O'Connor, 8:45 AM | Permalink




October 14, 2003 [feather]
From a former would-be professor

This morning's post on whether one should or should not go to grad school in English drew this letter:


I was one who felt the call to pursue a graduate degree, and I felt it right down to my 30-something year-old bones. I just didn't want the initials next to my name, I wanted to teach, to wear myself out teaching, studying, being a Big Scholar. I chewed onÝthe ideaÝfor years, fought against it, but finally, happily, gave in, willing to endure penury and the death of a social life to do this wonderful thing.

My first year of pursuing this dream seemed perfect. I discovered I had a talent for writing (well, more of a talent for post-first-draft editing) that matched my passion for the subject matter. I won writing awards and was having a blast. By the end of the third semester of my official pursuit I was telling myself, "Well, I still want the degree, but only so I can bring the system down from the inside."

Then I took time off,Ýwandered the UCLA bookstore and perused the "Literary Criticism" stacks. I matched what I was readingÝwith what I had received (and quietly rejected) in lecture from some truly excellent instructors and came to the very depressing conclusion that I had almost nothing in common with the Big Scholars I would be obliged to emulate.

What I read, later, in the blogs only confirmed what I already was intuiting, which is that I would have received an education that I couldn't take seriously, and all so I could get in front of students and tell them that graduate school was pointless.

I think it is because I didn't discover "classic" literature until long after my earlier college days (I was a music major, and in high school I wasÝan overgrown Bart Simpson). I was able to enjoy Shakespeare precisely because I didn't have to worry about what anyone felt about my opinions. I could like this, hate that, and be indifferent about the rest, and, better, not feel obliged to give deference to Authority.

Bad enough to be conservative, religious, and outspoken. But to believe that my interpretations (developed for free instead of at the cost of $6000 a quarter) are as valid as any Professor's - now THERE'S an intellectual crime.

I return to these blogs because I keep hoping - even while I know it is a waste of time to do so - that I will see something that says, "Hey! It's safe for guys like you to come aboard!" In the meantime, I'll keep on reading these many, many posts that only tell me that I made the right choice when I put awayÝ"The Evolution of Post-Modern Theory"Ýand picked up a computer manual instead.

This note goes to the heart of the issue: Feeling "called" at age twenty--or even thirty--is no gauge of anything except high immediate interest level combined with an active and optimistic prospective imagination. It's common--even expected--for people contemplating pursuing academe's version of the literary life of the mind to declare their "passion" for their "work" and to announce their profound sense of (often political) mission. But real passion is rare indeed, and rarer still in a life that is yet so young. Too often, enthusiasm is mistaken for, and glorified as, passion by people who are simply too young to tell the difference. For individuals like this particular correspondent, preparing for an academic career on the strength of that supposed passion forced him to realize how much of his certainty was centered on misplaced pipe dreams. Feeling passion, or an untroubled youthful simulacrum of same, is not the same as understanding reality, and should never be allowed to mask it.

Thanks for writing.

Erin O'Connor, 4:40 PM | Permalink




To grad school or not to grad school?

Dispatch from Berkeley:

i'm an immigrant but an english major; or maybe i should write that i'm an english major because i'm an immigrant. english is my second language; learned it on the fly as i arrived in california at the age of 14 & began to adjust to the (brutal) climate of american high schools. out of the five languages i speak & write, i consider english to be the most beautiful.

i've been gobbling up piles of books since i was five or six. when i began reading in english, often revisiting works i originally experienced in my native tongue or french, that's when i knew w/ spine-tingling certainty that study of english language & literature is what i want to & can do best. i've worked hard to place myself in a financial & academic position where after obtaining my ba, i wouldn't have any problems pursuing a doctorate degree. but now, a semester & spare change away from graduation, i'm becoming increasingly certain that i'm in many ways incompatible w/ the bureaucracy, the institutional & institutionalized bias & pervasively & pervertly corrupt environment i'm about to head into.

i consulted w/ the professor who guided me through my initial ventures into critical theory as a freshman & sophomore. although a textbook example of an "academic progressive," the man is extremely honest & an excellent instructor to boot. his basic advice was, don't even. he said, if i'm honestly & consistently comitted to my current principles (political but also my traditional-humanist stance) chances are that i'll be ground to fine dust long before i have a chance to be roundly bitch-slapped by an examination comission that would deride my simplistic & critically uninformed take on the world in general & subject of my disertation in particular.

sooner or later, i'm going to have to make a practical decision. i don't want to be 40 & hating every minute of whatever it is i'm doing & getting getting paid for, but i can't afford to be 30 and out of a job because i refuse to pay proper homage to the proverbial altars of lacan, derrida & foucault.

we don't always get what we want in life, but we're supposed to get what we need--in my case, the opportunity to be heard, taken seriously & judged on the merits of my arguments. as things stand right now in humanities departments of the land, that opportunity doesn't really exist.


I get a lot of this sort of mail. Just last night I received a long letter from an Ivy League alum bent on going to grad school in English but horrified by what he reads here about the culture of the academic humanities. "I shouldn't be writing this," he wrote. "I say that for the same reason I shouldn't be reading your blog, namely that it profoundly depresses me. It's a strange sort of 'watch the car wreck' masochism that keeps drawing me back."

From my response:


Critical Mass is in part a record of my profound ambivalence about and anger at a discipline and a profession that I have given myself to totally and completely since I was twenty years old (I am now 35). I have lived it, and only it, for my entire adult life. For many years I lived it with absolute naivete and dangerous trust. Critical Mass is in large part a response to an extremely rude awakening I had several years ago, the details of which do not matter, but the outcome of which is a recognition that it is precisely the passion you express below that needs to be tempered with awareness. Disillusionment manifests itself in direct proportion to the intensity of prior faith. I'm not a malcontent, so much as I am someone seeking balance and answers, and, frankly, some kind of ethical means of reconciling what I now know about the structure of academe and the culture of the academic humanities with the very wonderful, beautiful things that come from living a life dedicated to reading, writing, and teaching about material one loves.

I never try to dissuade people from going to graduate school. Don't imagine that I would attempt that with you. What I do tell people--and what I have stated repeatedly on Critical Mass--is that it is crucial for people to make informed decisions. They need to know what the job market is like and what the political climate is; they need to know what they will have to be and do in order to have a hope of success. They should take a graduate course or two while still undergrads. They should not go in blind. I get a lot of mail from people in your position. I never tell them not to follow their heart. I do tell them to make sure they know what they are getting into. There are a *lot* of people who go to grad school not really knowing what to expect, and who wind up feeling massively betrayed. They may waste 6 or 7 years before they make up their minds to leave. By then their twenties are gone, they have no savings, and they have to start over again at something else. This is avoidable. Whatever you do, don't get taken in.

I do think you are right, that too many people go to grad school without feeling "called." You'll find a lot of people populating PhD programs who are looking for an extension of the undergraduate experience, a lot of people who are there for reasons of ego, others who are blatant asskissing careerists, others who are avoiding growing up and figuring out what they really want to do by convincing themselves that they are meant for academe. You'll also find plenty of neurosis and competitiveness and petty oneupmanship--even among those who feel "called." It can't be otherwise with the job market--and the consequent competition for professorial favor--being so tight. If you can find your way past all that, and you can find meaning of your own on your own in the work that you do, then you'll be okay.


I do think that the academic English department is committing slow, unwitting suicide. I do think that it is only a matter of time before budget-conscious administrators realize that at many schools, particularly at elite ones, there is very little, if any, actual "English" being done in English departments, and that there is thus no clear rationale for preserving English departments as such. If the people who work in them can't agree that literature is their purview, and continue to craft themselves as incoherent mishmashes of off-topic hyperspecializations (sexuality studies, postcolonial studies, material culture studies, and so on), then they are asking to be merged and consolidated with other disciplines. Under the guise of a largely irresponsible and anti-intellectual "interdisciplinarity," a great many English departments are making forceful arguments for their own dissolution.

What does this mean for people who want to enter the field? It means, above all, that they should understand that there is no agreement about what "the field" is, and that this is a sign of massive philosophical, ethical, and professional rudderlessness. That doesn't mean that a person can't get an awful lot out of devoting the better part of their twenties to intensive literary study (if that is indeed how they want to spend their doctoral years--many come to English to do something else). But it does mean that they should not expect to feel there what their friends in law school or med school feel--that they are entering a genuine discipline with genuine conventions and genuine, identifiable standards of expertise; that their training will, as a matter of consequence, be rewarded by stimulating, challenging work. It's hard to anticipate, or to explain, the psychic erosion that results from the creeping recognition that you are most definitely not devoting your best intellectual and moral energies to something definite, honorable, and real. The gruesome economic realities of the job market and the adjunct labor system only heighten the sense of imminent institutional betrayal and incipient self-loathing that defines the emotional landscape of far too many graduate students (and that then shapes the peculiarly forgetful and rationalizing mentalities of those who do manage to land tenure-track jobs and keep them).

Erin O'Connor, 10:12 AM | Permalink




October 13, 2003 [feather]
The Case of the Bogus Brooklyn "B"

Critical Mass readers will recall Frederick Lang, the Brooklyn College English professor who was forcibly removed from the classroom for refusing to inflate his grades. I posted on Lang's case last spring (see posts for April 4, April 21, April 23, and April 26) and last August, Critical Mass hosted Lang's updated analysis of his situation (see posts for August 18, August 19, August 20, and August 21). These days, Lang is caught in institutional deadlock. He is not allowed to teach, but he has been given administrative "assignments" that it is not possible for him to perform. So he spends his days in his office, without work, fearing for his job, and waiting for the next administrative shoe to drop. Meanwhile, self-serving Brooklyn College administrators continue to break the rules and to manipulate students. Here's what's happening, in Lang's own words:

The Case of the Bogus Brooklyn "B," by Frederick Lang

In my last guest posting, ìIgnorance is Business,î I wrote in part about my lack of success at my arbitration hearing in the spring, and of the consequences of having had my grievance denied. Although I continue to be an employee of Brooklyn College, City University of New York, I have been suspended from teaching for yet a third semester. I will probably not teach as long as I remain at the college, and, since I am constantly threatened with ìdisciplinary charges,î I will probably not be there for very long.

I said that the provost of Brooklyn, Roberta Matthews, and Ellen Tremper, chair of the English department, both testified against me. I may have neglected to mention that three students also submitted testimony. When, on the first day of the hearing, I was told that students might appear to testify against me, I said that I would waive my right to cross-examine them. This may have been why the three students didnít appear in person. Rather, they told CUNYís lawyer want they would have said if they had appeared, and she read these sworn statements into the record.

Tremper has fabricated a departmental recommendation that the grade of one of these three students be changed.

At Brooklyn, if a student is dissatisfied with a final grade, and if an instructor refuses to change it, the student has the right to file a grade appeal with the department. The student must have completed all the class assignments and must submit copies of all essays and examinations to the committee, along with a statement giving a reason for a change.

As a department chair, Tremper is obviously aware of this policy. Indeed, in a memorandum dated April 4, 2002, she recorded a studentís complaints about me and gave the student advice: ìI suggested that she remain in the course, being careful to meet all class requirements (not miss quizzes, papers, have good attendance, etc.), and then appeal her grade if she doesnít pass the course.î

(I have a copy of this memorandum because it was submitted as evidence at my hearing along with several like it.)

Before copies of all the class assignments are sent to the grade appeals committee, the instructor has the opportunity to review the material and to write a statement defending the final grade. Then the studentís work and the two accompanying statements are read by members of the committee, who must either uphold the instructorís final grade or recommend a change.

The department chair notifies the instructor of the committeeís decision. Tremper gave me a written notice, but the earlier steps had been skipped over.

On September 4th, I wrote to her,


When I sorted my mail on Tuesday, I found your letter claiming that members of the departmentís grade appeals committee had read ______ís essays, written in spring 2002 for one of my three sections of English Composition 2, and had recommended that my final grade of C be changed to B.

I was quite surprised, for I had not been given the opportunity to re-read ______ís essays before they were submitted to the grade appeals committee, and to include with them an explanation as to why _____ had received a C.

According to college policy, if a departmentís grade appeals committee does recommend a change of grade, and the instructor still contests it, the instructor must write to the Committee on Course and Standing, again defending the original final grade.

The head of Brooklynís Academic Advisement Center submits to the Committee on Course and Standing all material pertinent to a departmental recommendation for a change of grade. I wrote to her, pointing out that, when I had checked my grade book, I had discovered that the student had not completed all the class assignments, and that on this basis alone the recommendation for a change of grade should be denied. I included a copy of my grade book along with a break down of the studentís grades and the value of each in relation to the final grade.

Then, I received a surprise, which probably turned out to be a shock for Tremper.

On September 16th, I again wrote to the head of Academic Advisement,


On Tuesday, September 9th, I delivered to your office material relating to _______ís grade appeal. I thought I had given you all the material I had, but on Friday, when I was going through my files, I came across an additional relevant item--the essay ______ wrote in class during the period scheduled for a final examination. If you examine my breakdown of the grades I gave her, you will see that this essay counted for 10% of her grade in the course.

According to the English departmentís stated procedure regarding grade appeals, ìthe student must submit all class assignments.î Professor Ellen Tremper has notified the Committee on Course and Standing that the departmentís appeals committee recommended that _______ís original final grade, a C, be changed to a B. But members of the appeals committee could do so only after reading ìall class assignments.î


Now that I had even stronger proof that the recommendation had been fabricated I asked President Christoph Kimmich to intervene:

Professor Ellen Tremper has falsified a departmental recommendation for a change of a studentís final grade. The student was one of the three who gave testimony against me at my arbitration hearing.

To discover whether there is a connection between Tremperís impropriety and the studentís decision to testify will require a careful investigation, an investigation that can be initiated only if, by exercising your authority under Article 21 of the PSC-CUNY Agreement and Section 7 of the CUNY Bylaws, you bring charges against Tremper. Her action certainly constitutes ìbehavior unbecoming a member of the staff.î


It is highly unlikely that Kimmich will act. The administration needs the complicity of the chair of the English department if it is to impose its will on Brooklyn College.

On my own, I canít discover whether the fact that the student testified against me is linked to the fact that Tremper has tried to get her a grade that would be to her liking. But I can show that Tremper promised her such a grade.

In a memorandum dated April 25, 2002, Tremper recorded the studentís complaints, ending with this paragraph: ì______ is very nervous about the last assignment because of the length of this paper and the likelihood that Prof. Lang will find so much wrong with it. I assured her that I would personally oversee the appeals process.î

Tremper was obligated to the student. She wrote two other memoranda recording the studentís complaints. Having come to complain three times the student had provided Tremper with far more material than any other student.

One of the studentís complaints Tremper was able to use to harass and discredit me. In the memorandum dated April 9, 2002, Tremper writes, ìHe leaves the papers to be returned in a pile on his desk [so that grades are public-my comment].î

On May 8, 2002, I received an e-mail letter from one of Brooklyn Collegeís attorneys:


A student complained that you placed studentsí papers on your desk for students to retrieve. Students are able to look at the grades of other students while they try to find their own paper. If this is your practice, this would violate a studentís right to privacy under federal law.

Only the student for whom Tremper had fabricated the recommendation for a change of grade had complained that I left papers in a pile on my desk,

Tremper had to wait until my arbitration hearing was over to fabricate a recommendation. Also used as evidence against me was the fact that my final grade had been appealed six times. Ironically, I had submitted the appeals as evidence in an attempt to show that my grading policy was in accordance with the collegeís standards. In my closing argument I said,


Only six students have challenged my final grade by submitting a formal protest to the departmentís appeals committee, even though, as I have shown, in spring 2002, Professor Tremper sent a letter to all my students in which she encouraged them to protest their final grade. Only one student did, and the collegeís Committee on Course and Standing upheld my final grade.

That leaves five other formal protests. In four cases, my grade was supported by the departmentís appeals committee. In one case, a change was advised, a recommendation I accepted.

Professor Tremper testified that I had taught approximately 750 students while in the English department. (See transcript of arbitration, March 25, 2003, p. 225)

This means that not even 1% of my students have formally protested my final grade.


However, during her testimony Tremper had insisted that 6 was an inordinately high number of grade appeals.

Now, if Tremper had fabricated a grade appeal in time for my hearing, I would have had seven strikes against me. However, I would also have had the opportunity to demonstrate to the arbitrator that the seventh had been fabricated. Tremper didnít want to take the risk.

I am not particularly angry with Tremper for fabricating the grade appeal. Indeed, I almost feel sorry for her. Her effort was so transparent that it was easier to detect and expose.

I am very angry with her for what she did to the student for whom she fabricated the recommendation. Because I have revealed that Tremperís recommendation was fabricated, the Committee on Course and Standing will not give the student the B she wanted. But the student would probably have achieved a B on her own if she hadnít become involved with Tremper. The time and energy she put into her complaints she should have used to improve her writing, or at least to complete all class assignments. She failed to complete one assignment, to do another, and to write the last part of her term paper, even though I gave her an opportunity to do so.

Tremper made the student feel important, and convinced her she would receive the grade she wanted without having to improve her writing or even do all the assignments. In short, she interfered with a studentís education.

Erin O'Connor, 8:42 AM | Permalink




October 12, 2003 [feather]
Freudian slip

From a San Jose Mercury News piece on how progressively-minded area high schools are sending their students to diversity camp:


Sixty-five Gunn High School students tackled an unusual homework assignment the other night: They scoured their brains for every stereotype they knew about African-Americans, Middle Easterners, Latinos, Asian-Americans, whites, gays, lesbians and bisexuals.

The harsh words -- 35 or more of them per group -- poured out until they covered huge sheets of paper hung on a large brick fireplace at a remote campsite. A day later, the "wall of ignorance and pain" was still posted -- a visual reminder of prejudices some of the students didn't even know they had.

Such was the Palo Alto students' indoctrination into Camp Anytown -- diversity training for high-schoolers. Learning to appreciate economic, gender and racial differences might seem like a no-brainer in multicultural, progressive Bay Area, but slights still can fester, and divisions can flourish here.


My guess is that the author really meant to say "induction," or "initiation," or even "introduction," rather than "indoctrination." But the slip is a telling one.

At Camp Anytown, a secluded forest setting in the mountains forms the backdrop for intensive sensitivity training:


Campers were uplifted with activities including group hugs and a campfire capped off with four verses of "Kumbaya."

And organizers frequently shouted for "rainbows" -- the command to scramble around the room until everyone was sitting next to someone of a different race, religion or gender -- and "two ups" -- the reminder that every critical comment must be countered with two positive remarks.

Students delved into serious discussions about how prejudices have held them back in life and how the fear of hate crimes curtails what they do and where they go.

An outdoor exercise Thursday afternoon, called "The Privilege Walk," showed how race, religion, class and sexual orientation have helped or harmed each camper.

In the exercise, students lined up shoulder to shoulder. An adult asked questions: Were your ancestors brought to the United States as slaves or indentured servants? Did you ever have to skip a meal because you did not have enough money?

Indicators of privilege -- being white or never going hungry -- allowed students to step forward. Students of color or those who lacked bare necessities stepped back.

After all the questions were asked, a white girl stood out in front. Several African-American and Latino classmates were scattered in the rear. Others were clumped in between. Sniffles and sobs echoed through the clearing, drowning out the singing birds.


Indoctrination is the right word for this, though the reporter probably wishes she had proofed her piece more thoroughly. Kids at the camp are being taught that they are their class, their gender, and their race. They are being encouraged to believe that the experience of personal pain is a fair and reasonable substitute for historical knowledge and a textured understanding of contemporary social problems. They are being placed repeatedly in situations where private revelations are the condition of group belonging, and where they are accorded prestige in proportion to how much oppression they can claim either to have experienced or to have knowingly--and disapprovingly--witnessed. They are being primed to become advocates of speech codes and the various censorships that attend them. To the extent that they buy into the cheap lessons taught at camp and reinforced at school, they stand to become the thought police of the future.

Erin O'Connor, 11:40 AM | Permalink




October 10, 2003 [feather]
History, memory, literacy

Terry Teachout, fresh from a marathon of mad indexical labor, found world enough and time last night to post a wonderful riff on the disappearance of a common American culture:


...the middlebrow culture on which I was raised was a common culture, based on the existence of widely shared values, and it is now splintered beyond hope of repair. Under the middlebrow regime, ordinary Americans were exposed to a wide range of cultural options from which they could pick and choose at will. They still do so, but without the preliminary exposure to the unfamiliar that once made their choices potentially more adventurous. The rise of digital information technology, with its unique capacity for niche marketing, has replaced such demographically broad-based instruments of middlebrow self-education as The Ed Sullivan Show with a new regime of seemingly infinite cultural choice. Instead of three TV networks, we have a hundred channels, each "narrowcasting" to a separate sliver of the viewing public, just as todayís corporations market new products not to the American people as a whole but to carefully balanced combinations of "lifestyle clusters" whose members are known to prefer gourmet coffee to Coca-Cola, or BMWs to Dodge pickups.

The information age offers something for anybody: Survivor for simpletons, The Sopranos for sophisticates. The problem is that it offers nothing for everybody. By maximizing and facilitating cultural choice, information-age capitalism fused with identity politics to bring about the disintegration of the common middlebrow culture of my youth. Letís return for a moment to those unlettered folks who donít know who painted the "Mona Lisa." I assume, since youíre reading this, that youíre distressed by this unmistakable symptom of the widespread cultural illiteracy with which what Winston Churchill liked to call "the English-speaking peoples" are currently afflicted. But it so happens that a great many American intellectuals, most of them academics, would respond to your distress with a question: so what? To them, the very idea of "high art" is anathema, a murderous act of cultural imperialism. They donít think Leonardo da Vinci should be "privileged" (to use one of their favorite pieces of jargon) over the local neighborhood graffiti artist. And as preposterous as this notion may seem to you, it is all but taken for granted among a frighteningly large swath of the postmodern American intelligentsia.

Which brings us right back to the problem of cultural illiteracy. How can we do anything about it if we canít even agree on the fact that it is a problemóor about what basic cultural facts ordinary people should be expected to know? The answer is simple: we canít.


There is much more, all worth reading. There is embedded in Teachout's post a nascent critique of Virginia Postrel's analysis of how consumer choice may be understood as a means of creating an individualistic common culture. There is embedded, too, a recognition that, ironically, identity politics--the ultimate contemporary American mechanism for asserting that individuals who share race, sex, or ethnicity with one another also share a culture--is doing more to divide us than to bring us together. There is also a recognition of how much the academy has to do not only with the disappearance of our sense of common culture, but with dismantling the rationale for one.

Two recent events resonate.

The first is the decision of an Indiana high school to cancel its production of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird because it contains the "n-word." Never mind that Lee's work addresses the problem of racial injustice. According to the local NAACP expert on such matters, Lee's inclusion of the word in her story of a southern girl who comes of age during the 1930s sends a negative message about black people and also encourages racism: To stage the play "would be giving another reason to say, 'OK, if they use it in the play, we can say it outside the play.' And that's not right," she said. "Don't we have some positive things going on with black people that we can highlight now? Find those plays and use them." The school bought her argument, saying that cancelling the play is "being sensitive to issues still bubbling below the surface." In this instance, cultural illiteracy paves the way for more cultural illiteracy. In focussing on Lee's use of a word, rather than on how Lee's use of the word enables her to paint a realistic portrait of the southern culture she criticizes, the Indianapolis NAACP and the school that follows its directives are using identity politics to promote ignorance. The lesson they teach is that cheap simulations of sensitivity are superior to genuine expressions of it, that censorship is preferable to knowledge, that context and tradition do not matter, that history and memory exist to be strategically shaped and selectively suppressed according to the needs of the moment, and, lastly, that kids are really, really stupid.

The second event is the decision of a Tennessee court to allow administrators at Vanderbilt University to sandblast the word "confederate" off a campus dormitory known as "Confederate Memorial Hall." In 1935, the United Daughters of the Confederacy donated $50,000 to help build a residence hall for female students of confederate descent. Accordingly, the building's name reflected its financing, as campus buildings typically do. But three years ago, the Vanderbilt student government passed a resolution saying it wanted to change the name of the building, and since then there has been a campus-wide movement afoot to get the word "confederate" off the building in order to make the campus more "diverse." That goal has now been achieved, and Vanderbilt now has the legal right to efface its past in the name of promoting racial sensitivity on campus: "The name 'Confederate' on its building, with the stigma of the institution of slavery, is in contradiction of its policy of diversity and makes it extremely difficult to recruit minority faculty members and minority students,'' ruled Irvin Kilcrease. Kilcrease found that Vanderbilt has fulfilled its contractual obligations to the UDC, and so was not obligated to preserve the building's original name. Thus has history ceded to the politically correct prerogatives of the present; thus will collective memory--the basis for a common culture--be erased. As one reader wrote to me, "Southerners like me are truly glad our ancestors lost the War of 1861, but
we are truly sick of seeing history being PC'D." Worth noting: no one at Vanderbilt seems to be arguing that the building itself should be razed--despite the fact that by Vanderbilt's own argument the building was financed by putatively racist dollars and was designed for putatively racist ends. As with the cancellation of the high school play, certain words trump context, and the display of "sensitivity" becomes synonymous with a tradition-destroying, illiteracy-inducing censorship.

I wrote quite a bit last fall about the UDC's lawsuit against Vanderbilt. You can read more here, here, and here.

UPDATE: There's more at The Goat and SCSU Scholars.

UPDATE UPDATE: John Rosenberg has even more. He writes, "I find it both odd and typical (which is itself odd) that a university can claim to enhance ìdiversityî by erasing evidence of one part of that universityís and communityís past that some elements now find objectionable." Rosenberg's post is in part a response to Stephen Bainbridge's response to mine.

Erin O'Connor, 9:47 AM | Permalink




October 8, 2003 [feather]
Echlin on English

Well worth reading: novelist and journalist Helena Echlin's account of her experience as a Ph.D. student in the Yale English department. "How Yale Strangles Literature" was published in late 2000 in The New Stateman, the Sunday Times, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Hudson Review, and Arete. Here's how it begins:


I am sitting in a windowless conference room. The walls are lined with sets of leather-bound books with gold-lettered spines. ëThe ode must traverse the problem of solipsism,í a young man is saying. He pauses for a long time. Underneath the table, one leg is twisted around the other. A stretch of gaunt white ankle shows between trouser and sock. ëIn order to approach participating in.í He pauses again, his body knotted like a balloon creature made by a childrenís entertainer. Finally, in one rush: ëThe unity which is no longer accessible.í My fellow students utter a long soft gasp, as if at a particularly beautiful firework.

ëBrilliant,í says the professor. ëVery finely put. But I didnít quite understand it. Could you repeat it?í I write the sentence down in my notebook, like everyone else in the seminar. The ode must traverse the problem of solipsism before it can approach participating in the unity which is no longer accessible. When I have pieced it together, I realise he is talking nonsense. I am struck by the thought that literary criticism ñ at least as it is practised here ñ is a hoax.


And here's how it ends:

T.S. Eliot once divided literary criticism into ëthe elucidation of works of art and the correction of tasteí. Nearly a century later, his vocabulary seems suspect. ëElucidationí is too final ñ it suggests that a text offers up a single absolute and correct meaning, rather than a range of possibilities. And ëcorrectioní is a little chilling, with a savour of the penal institution. But he is right about the twin pillars of criticism, analysis and evaluation. Until it cuts back on one, and makes room for the other, Yale will continue to be the place where language goes to die.And in the next century, we will look back upon literary criticism as it was practised in those Disneyland cloisters with pitying wonder ñ the same wonder with which we now look back upon medieval scholars quibbling over lists of rhetorical terms.

Along the way, Echlin describes the dysphoric and intellectually dishonest quality of advanced literary study as she encountered it at Yale, noting that the emphasis there was on reading theory rather than reading literature, on impressing people with one's brilliance rather than on discussing ideas, and on obfuscating and convoluting one's meaning (or lack of meaning) rather than on clearly expressing it. She describes the peculiarly preprofessional character of the wilfully obsurantist culture she encountered at Yale, in which, for example, a course on Chaucer would stress learning to write reviews of Chaucer criticism over learning to read Chaucer, and in which students would actively and shamelessly trawl for ideas that could get them jobs and tenure. And she notes how strangely disconnected the world of academic literary theory is from the dire economic conditions that surround it--for every six-figure tenured Yale prof, there are countless underpaid and uninsured adjunct lecturers keeping the system afloat so that the rarified marxisms and poststructuralisms of the chosen few can continue to be expounded in graduate seminars and unreadable, nonselling monographs.

A strength of the piece is Echlin's awareness that as hypocritical, harmful, and out of touch as the world of Yale's literature department was, it was filled with people--students especially--who believed heart and soul in what they were doing, who were so at one with the crazy world they had entered that they could not see it for what it was. There is a deep earnestness about the whole culture Echlin describes. It has to be this way if you think about it. English professors are so universally mocked outside their own enclave that English departments can't afford to accommodate much in the way of criticism--let alone cynicism--from within. The sanctity of the enterprise of English must be understood and honored by all. Graduate school is an initiation not only into professional norms, but into certain rites of belief. You won't find many practising Christians in programs like Yale's, but you will find a whole lot of religion.

Thanks to Ophelia Benson at Butterflies and Wheels for the link.

Erin O'Connor, 9:29 AM | Permalink




October 6, 2003 [feather]
Tainted love

Last summer, the Regents of the University of California voted to ban "romantic" and "sexual" relationships between faculty and students. The new policy forbids faculty from becoming involved with students for whom they have direct responsibility and for whom they might "reasonably expect" to have responsibility in the future. The ban is the result of a nearly year-long campaign to put a policy of this kind in place. The campaign itself was initiated last fall by former Boalt law student Jennifer Reisch, who anonymously accused Boalt dean John Dwyer of sexual harassment, and whose lawyer subsequently told the media that what she and Reisch wanted to see was a tightening up of policies on faculty-student relationships at the university.

I've been saying for months now that the policy is not only intrusive, but unworkable. I've also been saying that it will produce the sort of sexually charged environment it is ostensibly aimed at eliminating. Now the UC faculty are starting to say pretty much what I've been saying all along. A September 30 New York Times piece reports that faculty on the Berkeley campus are beginning to question and challenge the policy.


The new policy prohibits faculty members from entering into consensual relationships with any student for whom they have, or "reasonably expect" in the future to have, academic responsibility. That includes students the faculty members are teaching or supervising or evaluating in any way. Faculty members who violate the policy are subject to disciplinary action ranging from a reprimand to dismissal, penalties typical of the policies in effect at other institutions as well.

While the University of California's new policy was approved by an overwhelming majority of the academic assembly, it continues to stir debate here. Professor Gallagher is one of more than 60 faculty members, mostly from the humanities and including many from women's studies, who have objected to the new policy as too vague and too sweeping.

They say it is impossible to know with certainty which students they may "reasonably expect" to have academic responsibility over.

Professor Gallagher wonders whether her own romance would have been against the rules. She has been married for 30 years to Martin Jay, a professor of European intellectual history. They met on campus in 1970, when she was a graduate student of English ó not his student ó and he was an assistant professor in the history department. But since her speciality is British literature and history, Professor Gallagher wonders if someone could have said that her future husband might have "reasonably expected" to have had academic responsibility for her at some point.

In a letter to the administration, the Berkeley faculty members argued that the policy goes too far. They said it would be more realistic to assume that there would be faculty and students who entered into relationships, and to allow faculty members who did so to recuse themselves from evaluating or supervising the students.


I've got a version of that letter (not, alas, the final one, but one quite close to the final one). In it, the authors note that the policy is troublingly ambiguous, failing, for example, to provide "any procedural guidelines for responsible recusal and for distinguishing between consensual intimate relations and sexual harassment," consistently clouding the difference between a faculty member who has a direct supervisory relationship over a particular student and any faculty member, and repeatedly failing to clarify the distinction between punishable "unacceptable" behavior and behavior that is deemed "inappropriate." The authors note that the policy fails to define when exactly a faculty member may "reasonably expect" to have a supervisory relationship with a student, and point out that the policy also fails to define what exactly it aims to ban when it neglects to explain what constitutes a "sexual" or a "romantic" relationship.

The letter makes it quite clear that what Berkeley and the other eight UC campuses now have on the books is not a policy that will raise the UC system to a new ethical level by creating clear and reasonable guidelines, but a policy that uses vague wording and imprecise reasoning to create an atmosphere of confusion, paranoia, and incipient threat. Anything goes under the new policy; an unacceptable relationship between a faculty member and a student can be just about anything a punitively minded administrator--or unscrupulous accuser--wants it to be. A cynic would say that was precisely the point.

Barry Dank, a professor of sociology at Cal State Long Beach who edits the journal Sexuality and Culture, who has been immersed in these issues for years, and who happens to be married to a former student, will be discussing the UC policy tonight on CNN, between 8 and 9 p.m. EST.

UPDATE: Dank's CNN appearance has been bumped to make more room for coverage of the California recall election. If they reschedule his appearance, I'll post the date and time.

UPDATE UPDATE: There's more at Invisible Adjunct, Crooked Timber, and Amitai Etzioni.

Erin O'Connor, 8:54 AM | Permalink




October 4, 2003 [feather]
Still more...

I've been posting this week on how the label "conservative" operates in the academic humanities to demarcate and demonize not just those who are conservative per se, but those whose ideas about what literature is and what it means to study it depart from prevailing politicized methodological norms. Nowhere is that process of demarcation and demonization more powerful, and more potentially damaging, than at the gate. Advanced English majors who want to go on to graduate school in the field, and beginning graduate students who are commencing a course of study that is also a prolonged period of professional initiation, are extraordinarily vulnerable to the policing techniques of faculty and fellow students.

Here's a letter I received last winter from an English major at an Ivy League university:


I thought I should send you an e-mail since you appear to verbalize what I encounter everyday at [prestigious Ivy League university]. For about a year now, I have planned on attending graduate school in English but now I am starting to doubt my choice. The wave of postmodernism has not only crushed graduate students in its wake. Now, it's beginning to take hold of undergrads. In almost every class I attend, I encounter some sort of leftist pyschobabble. A class on Renaissance poetry no longer examines a poet's conceptions of beauty or virtue. Instead, it depicts a sixteenth-century sexual revolution complete with metaphors in which language acts as a prophylactic, separating the speaker from the reader. If the professor ... chooses to give sex a break for one afternoon, he declares, with great suspicion, that all the poets of the period employ their work as a means of acquiring social elevation. When a student (me) doesn't buy this garbage, his classmates gather together after the seminar in order to complain about his conservativism, and he receives an e-mail from the professor that acknowledges his intelligence but that threatens to lower his grade if he "monopolizes" the class with his opinions again.

My dilemma, Erin, is that I love literature. I would like to be able to make a career of studying and teaching it. Can one get through graduate school without becoming a supposed Spenser, without saying what's needed in order to procure admiration? Your posts on the corruption that mires graduate programs have frightened me. I can see that you are right. Teachers no longer read texts with the spirit in which they were written in mind. They just seek opportunities to inculcate their liberal political agendas. One cannot win this battle. Whenever I try to speak out, which is rare, I'm either told that I don't have the right opinions or I'm threatened with the possibility of losing a necessary recommendation for graduate school and fellowship applications.


And here are excerpts from letters I received a little over a year ago, from a former doctoral student at a top-ranked Ph.D. program in English:

Several years ago I went to grad school in English and found its political and (anti)intellectual atmosphere intolerable. "Cant" is too mild a term! After getting a low grade and spirit-crushing comments on a "naive" and "humanist" paper I'd spent all semester researching, I abandoned my professorial career plans and went to work in the corporate world.

I joined the graduate program in the Fall of 1999 (fresh from [ancient, honored British university], where I got my B.A.) and lasted until the following summer. Words like "alienation" and "humiliation" come to mind. Hipper-than-thou graduate colleagues literally smirked when I voiced my thoughts in class, then snubbed me in the hallway; professors dismissed my papers as naive and romantic. In a private meeting, one professor questioned me about my "evident resistance" to critical theory, which she described as a "problem." Chiding me to "rise above the undergraduate level," she encouraged me to adopt more "rigorous" critical approaches. When I asked her to elaborate, she reeled off a dozen theorists--Jameson, Spivak, Said, etc.--whose "sophisticated" analyses should "inform" my thought. Even though I don't identify myself as a conservative, such slavish imitation of "loony left" (as they say in Britain) theory wasn't something I felt willing or able to perform. To cut a long story short, I grew so disillusioned that I dropped out. At present I work as a project manager for [very large corporation] in New York. My job isn't a "perfect fit" (I'm considering law school in '03), but at least I work among relatively SANE people!


These are two of the most eloquent testimonials I have received since I began blogging in March 2002 (they are all the more eloquent for having been unsolicited, and for coming from strangers). But they are far from the only such letters I've received. Though the authors of the above notes attended different schools and never knew one another, they tell very similar stories, in similar language, about very similar kinds of intellectual cliquishness. They do so not because they are ventriloquizing an established style of complaint--the essence of their experiences is, after all, that they had them alone, and could not discuss them with anyone else--but because they are telling the truth.

UPDATE: At Tiny Voices, J.M. Coetzee's Nobel Prize occasions fond reminiscences of graduate school:


I heard about it this morning on the news and immediately, I wanted to reread Disgrace.

It also brings back horrible memories of a post-colonial literature class in graduate school, in which we read Foe and then were made to re-enact conditions on slave ships traveling through the Middle Passage, as well as scenes from the book, all the while listening to the sound of a fetal heartbeat being played on a c.d.

I drank straight whiskey after that. This fact means a great deal.


I've said it before, and I'll say it again. You can't make this stuff up.

Erin O'Connor, 9:17 AM | Permalink




October 3, 2003 [feather]
Conservative conformity, contd.

The mail on anti-conservative bias in the academic humanities keeps coming in. This from a lawyer who studied English at Berkeley and then went on to law school at the University of Chicago:


The last few days' exchange on what truly passes for (and is condemned as) "conservative" in the humanities was very insightful.

I think that Horowitz, et al, make a terrible mistake in focusing their efforts on the proportion of registered Republicans in humanities faculties. This gives tenured radicals an unearned rhetorical defense against censorship and political oppression, when in reality they are the censors and oppressors. Anyway, I don't really think we're going to get a lot more Republicans pursuing humanities academia no matter what we do -- there'd be much more bang for the buck in efforts which would encourage Democrats and non-political types to resucitate modes of analysis other than post-colonialism and other more-or-less noxious modes of study, and, basically, teach and think more honestly and open-mindedly.

Of course, there's always been a part of me which says, "let them have it." Academic humanities sucks in literally thousands of the smartest and most ambitious of leftists and renders them harmless -- they can't do actual damage to the economy or to communities outside of their college towns. If we had to have a purge, I'd start it in the schools of education and public health, where the leftists firmly hold sway, and aren't content to limit their influence to the quad and refereed journals.

I also think that the big losers in this whole process are liberal students. Conservative and moderate students get a bracing lesson in the unreliability of authority (professors) and the intellectual slackness of modern leftists. Liberal students get indoctrinated and lose whatever hope they had to develop the capacity of critical thinking, and also lose the ability to actually read and enjoy literature, appreciate history as actual history (what happened, when, and the likely reasons why). My own experience bears that out. Studying English as an undergraduate at Berkeley, I saw many liberals get absolutely nothing out of course after course after course. Studying law at Chicago, though, with its strong corps of conservative and libertarian faculty and students, I saw liberal students consistently confronted and led to examine their ideas and biases. Some didn't stay liberals. Many stayed liberals, but with a better understanding of their own views, and a new ability to articulate their views with some nuance.


Thanks for writing in.

UPDATE: Another reader, this one a graduate student in history, takes issue with parts of the above:


I am a Ph.D. student in American History, with a focus on Early and Revolutionary America. I cannot tell you how difficult it has been for me. The difficulty is not academic as much as it is social. Many of mine friends who decided not to pursue graduate degrees did so because they knew their personalities would negatively affect their academic success. Furthermore, for the most part, I am ìcloseted.î

Anyway, the reason I write is because I would like to rebut the post that states ìAcademic humanities sucks in literally thousands of the smartest and most ambitious of leftists and renders them harmless -- they can't do actual damage to the economy or to communities outside of their college townsî

I think this article contradicts this assumption. The problem is academia legitimizes these radicals instead of keeping them in the margins. It affords them a platform that they otherwise would not have. Donít get me wrong. I think they are entitled to their beliefs and I actually think academia is a good place for them so they can offer new perspectives to students. However, there needs to be a balance, which there is absolutely nothing close to.

And the worst part is they are so blind to their own hypocrisy. By and large they are a group that hates any sort of institutional power, yet they wield it, along with hateful stereotypes, without even knowing it.

I really think this is caused by the maturation of the radical Leftists of the 60's who have now reached positions in the academy where they can have influence. Their "hate and blame America, the true 'evil empire'" infuses the curriculum now being taught to our children. I can guarantee you discussion of race, class and gender dominate these textbooks, leaving students both perplexed and generally uniformed. ÝI think unbiased historical perspective has been overshadowed by the personal activism of the authors.

Another case in point is the exhibit that is going to be unveiled when the Liberty Bell is moved to the spot Washington lived as President. The theme of the exhibit surrounding the bell is called "Liberty Denied." It has been run by a self-proclaimed radical historian from UCLA and the focus is going to be on the plight of African-Americans, Native Americans and immigrant communities that often encountered hardships. It chronicles, through photographs and artwork, the way the country has systematically "denied liberty" throughout its history, including today. Now let me be clear, these are not unimportant discussions, but, in my opinion, it should not be the main exhibit leading up to the Liberty Bell. What type of message does this send to Americans, foreigners (who may be anti-American enough already), children, etc.? What about the millions that came here escaping persecutions, what about the Irish immigrants who left certain death during famines in their land, what about the social mobility that does exist in this country? This case has been under the radar, but I certainly think it should be picked up by someone in the national news.


Again, thanks. It's great to get some of these issues articulated, and especially good for them to come interleaved, as they have been, with readers' experiences.

Erin O'Connor, 1:03 PM | Permalink




October 2, 2003 [feather]
Conservative conformity

At Butterflies and Wheels, Ophelia Benson picks up on my post about how the label "conservative" may be used to create, teach, and enforce intellectual norms in the academic humanities. And plenty of readers are writing in as well. From a liberal academic philosopher who is not as far left as his colleagues, and has consequently found himself erroneously labelled "conservative" and "reactionary," comes this:


Part of what's informing the brouhaha over Brooks is astounding ignorance about conservatism. I tend to think of conservatism as an intellectual tradition and tendency that I respect but do not endorse for reasons that I can give at some length. But 'conservative' as used of you and me has nothing to do with actual conservatism. In this all-too familiar commons-room usage, the term only means *unprincipled* or *vulgar*. It has no intellectual content at all.

I'd say it was a bad pun were it not for its impact on people.

Still, underlying Brooks's observations is an intellectual -- not merely a political -- phenomenon. "As a conservative in the academy, Ephebe, you'll encounter many who will regard you as unprincipled and vulgar...." is nowhere near as bad or as sad as "To many in the academy, Ephebe, your conservatism will be simply indistinguishable from unprincipled vulgarity..." The latter merely remarks on a failure of understanding. It isn't even (yet) nastiness. It's sheer incomprehension, from people who ought to know -- and teach -- better.


And a conservative ex-academic sends this harrowing account of how his colleagues treated him once they had "detected" that he was not of their political kind:

Your post on David Brooks's NYT column is completely accurate. An example of the means by which one's politics are deduced by colleagues is shown by my own experience at my final teaching job at [large state university]. I held a two-year appointment in history and taught medieval, Renaissance, and Reformation history and the philosophy of history along with asÝentry level course on early modern intellectual history. I chose mostly primary sources as texts, both because of my own training in intellectual history at [prestigious doctoral program], and because my classes lent themselves to the close examination of ideas within the context of the period in which they were expressed. Students generally loved it and I received excellent evaluations even though I was not an easy grader.

I also checked my political baggage at the classroom door, agreeing as I do with your thesis that bias from conservativesÝis no more acceptable than from liberals. I was the quintessential humanist of whom you write. After all, my period, the Italian Renaissance, gave birth to the very idea of the humanist as we still conceive it, whatever ahistorical barnacles may cling to that image in the popular imagination.

Nevertheless, it quickly got around the department that I was a conservative. By the end of my first year there, the usual suspects refused to speak to me, shot me their best malocchio, and attempted to talk students out of taking my class, seeing as how I was a "Nazi," "racist," and "reactionary."

The card posting my office hours and some Renaissance posters were twice torn off my door by, I learned after I'd left, a colleague (he's now at [prestigious private university]); without warning, a couple of weeks after my last class, I arrived to find all my belongings in the hallway and my name pried off my door. It wasn't so much anything that I said in class that caused such hostility, but rather the texts that I assigned. My colleagues simply strolled to the bookstore, looked at such volumes as The City of God, History of the Peloponnesian War, The Inferno, The New Science, The Prince, Utopia, Colloquies of Erasmus, and the like and knew that I didn't belong. On top of all that, I was aÝnative Georgian who sounded Southern. Surely, I was the enemy amongst them, and needless to say my bid for a tenure-tack position was literally rejected in a day. (Not to claim that I was the most qualified candidate or anything of the sort, but the message was clear.) My few allies were old enough to have been my father.

I honestly take some pride in the fact that I got along beautifully with the janitors and secretaries.

So, my word of advice for new professors: beware of the your reading assignments. TheyÝcan and will be used against you.


Those to whom this sort of thing has not happened--and those who do this sort of thing to others--deny that it exists. But blithe dismissals by people with a vested interest in refusing to recognize the brutality of their own intellectual culture should not be mistaken for credible refutations of other people's lived truth. There are a lot of stories like this one out there. Thanks for writing.

UPDATE: At the Volokh Conspiracy, George Mason University law professor David Bernstein writes about some of his personal brushes with anti-conservative bias in academe. Start here and scroll up.

UPDATE UPDATE: King Banaian corrects the above comment about how on too many campuses incomprehension surrounds the concept of conservatism: "Slight correction: it's sheer willful incomprehension. I remember my mother putting up one of those refrigerator magnets that said 'My mind's made up. Please don't confuse me with facts.' I had no idea that was a research agenda."

Erin O'Connor, 5:21 PM | Permalink




October 1, 2003 [feather]
Speaking out at Bucknell

Bucknell University has a speech code. The Bucknell University Conservatives Club thinks the student body should know about it. So they sent a letter to all incoming freshmen alerting them to the existence of the code, describing what kinds of expression are not acceptable at Bucknell, and explaining how it is that Bucknell students effectively relinquish their First Amendment rights when they enroll. You can read the whole letter at bucknellconservatives.org, but here are some choice excerpts:


Dear Fellow Bucknellian,

On behalf of the Conservatives Club, I'd like to welcome you to campus. I hope that you've been enjoying your Bucknell experience so far. Bucknell is a wonderful institution-- one I'm proud to attend.

However, there is one thing Bucknell doesn't advertise that I think you should know about: our speech code. Our administration has decided that while you're here, you cannot exercise your free speech rights.

Of course, Bucknell can take away your rights if it wants to, since it's not a public university. But let me ask you this: did you come to Bucknell knowing that you would be less free than your friends at, say, Penn State? Somehow, I don't think so. And I doubt that the folks in Admissions told you that being a Bucknellian involves checking your First Amendment rights at the door. Rather, they probably said that Bucknell values free inquiry and free speech, blah, blah, blah.

There's a name for that: false advertising.

One of the many problems with our speech code is that the administration refuses to call its restrictions on speech what they are. Instead, they are placed in policies we must have--those banning harassment. The most egregious example is the "Student Handbook Documents" booklet that was mailed to you a few weeks ago. Check out page 12, at the very top, where it says that "engaging in conduct which alarms or seriously annoys such other persons" is harassment, for which you may be punished.

Think about that. Do you think you should be punished if you inadvertently "seriously annoy" someone? How many times a day are you "seriously annoyed?" Don't 8 AM classes "seriously annoy" you?

Or, take the "Bucknell Guide About Bias-Related Harassment and Violence." Some aspects of the policy are very reasonable--such as "bias-related graffiti." Graffiti is bad, whether "bias related" or not. But look what the policy lumps in with graffiti as "examples of bias-related action as understood by the university":

--"disparaging or condescending remarks about a person's nationality, religious beliefs, or sexual orientation"
--"verbal abuse, including anti-gay jokes and disparaging remarks about one's race or language"

That might sound okay in principle, but it's not. It's vague, overbroad, and a violation of your rights. What's "disparaging" or "condescending" to one person is not so to another. And since when do people need to be protected from the punchline of a joke? Ask a lawyer--that's not what "harassment" really means.

You can check out this policy online at www.bucknell.edu/deanofstudents/Bias RelatedHarassment.shtm. You might also like to peruse Bucknell's "Guide About Sexual Harassment." That policy takes the extraordinary step of lumping the following in with real sexual harassment:

--"disparaging or condescending remarks about a person's gender or sexual orientation"
--"verbal abuse including sexist jokes, and inappropriate remarks about one's body or clothing"
--"sexual innuendoes made at inappropriate times"
--"subtle pressure for unwanted sexual activity"

The Guide About Sexual Harassment is also available online--at www.bucknell.edu/deanofstudents/SexualHarrassment.shtm. It includes lots of great examples, too.

Of course, you need to judge for yourself whether or not you think the Bucknell administration has any business banning all the kinds of speech that it does. I, as you might guess, think those people ought to have better things to do than figuring out and outlawing what's "condescending" or "disparaging" to each of us.

But it appears they don't. They wrote these policies, and they have enforced them.

Doesn't it bother you that our deans evidently think it's their job to tell us what we can and cannot, should and should not, say on campus? Do you think you need your hand held every time you feel "offended"?

Last I checked, we're adults. We can be forced to fight and die for our country in foreign lands. Yet, on the campus of our own university, we're not allowed to say anything that someone might feel offended by.

Don't get me wrong: harassment should definitely be illegal on campus, as it is in all 50 states. But "annoyance" or "offense" is not the same as harassment. Saying it is trivializes the real thing.


There's more, also worth reading, including examples of the kinds of speech Bucknell's policies could be invoked to punish. Predictably, Bucknell denies that its harassment policies operate as de facto speech codes. As the Vice President of Academic Affairs told the school paper, "Bucknell does not have a 'speech code' now, in either of the guides cited in the letter, and it will not have one later in the year, when its new bias-related harassment policy is completed and implemented. The University is deeply committed to preventing harassment and to protecting students' abilities to pursue their educations, which does require civility. Certain acts and utterances are therefore discouraged...But that is part of living in a community, and it falls far short of a full-frontal attack on First Amendment rights." In other words, it's part of Bucknell's speech code not to call its speech code a speech code. The good people at Shippensburg University tried to make a similar argument, but it hasn't gone too well for them.

What's great about the letter: the Bucknell Conservatives are taking on a cause that affects all students at the school, and are handling that cause in a non-partisan, even-handed way. Fighting for free speech on campus has become, unfortunately, identified with conservatism, and has thus become something too many people feel they can dismiss as self-serving conservative agenda-driving. It's no surprise that this is the case, as the people who tend to find themselves on the wrong side of campus speech codes tend to be those whose outlook differs from the liberal orthodoxy that is entrenched at many schools (see the FIRE case archive for endless examples). Naturally, they will become the poster people for campus speech. But even if the issue has largely been taken up by conservatives, and even if taking up the issue gets you labelled a conservative (as has often been the case with Critical Mass), the issue is not itself a conservative one, but one that affects us all.

Here's hoping more student groups at more schools follow the lead of groups like the Bucknell Conservatives and the University of Virginia's Individual Rights Coalition. And here's hoping a growing number of those groups are made up of students from a range of political orientations. Groups like FIRE are invaluable (and it's no accident that the president of BUCC has interned at FIRE). But the campus climate isn't going to change until students themselves organize, educate one another, and insist that their school adopt policies that are consistent with the First Amendment and with the school's ostensible commitment to the free and unfettered exchange of ideas.

Erin O'Connor, 9:23 AM | Permalink




Half-baked defense

An SMU student defends her school's decision to shut down the anti-affirmative action bake sale held by campus conservatives last week. Daryl Cobranchi responds.

Erin O'Connor, 8:46 AM | Permalink