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December 31, 2003 [feather]
Funding anti-Americanism

There is a not-so respectable strand of conservative thought that sensationally labels those who criticize American policies and actions as members of a fifth-column "hate America" movement. That strand of hyberbolic ad hominem attack unfortunately works to discredit both patriotism (by making it look like unthinking jingoism) and that time-honored American tradition of demonstrating one's respect for one's country and its institutions by subjecting them to relentless scrutiny and energetic open debate. At the same time, there is a not-so respectable strand of liberal thought that holds that America has historically been little more than a consummate exercise in applied hypocrisy--that the rhetoric of freedom and equality have worked not to liberate people, but to imprison them in the belief that they are free when in fact they are the victims (and victimizers) of one of the most oppressive and arrogant regimes the world has ever seen. This strand of venomous thought works in tandem with its conservative counterpart to polarize and oversimplify public debate in the U.S.; together, the two are doing a great deal of damage to our collective civic sense, hijacking reasoned debate in favor of distorted rhetorical war, and implicitly asserting that the proper way to be a citizen of this country is to adhere religiously to an extreme and ultimately illogical position rather than to reason responsibly and independently from a base of balanced information and historical knowledge. Nowhere is the damage done by our present and deepening confusion of ideology with fact, and emotion with conviction, more palpable than in education.

Bear that in mind as you read Brooklyn College history professor KC Johnson's recent account of a new federally-funded program called "The Arts of Democracy." Johnson's essay is a chilling reminder of how even at the college level education in America has become hopelessly confused with indoctrination, so much so that taxpayers' money is now being used, ironically, to finance educational programs that seek to undermine young adults' understanding of and belief in their country.

At the Rochester Institute of Technology, for example, participation in "The Arts of Democracy" program means that federal funds are being used to hire a "cadre of new, multidisciplinary faculty" who will develop courses questioning "globalization." Johnson reports that that program's course offerings center on such topics as the "Western veil of ignorance" and the "apartheid" of globalization, and that as part of their grades students are required to keep journals about their "involvement in social-advocacy groups." At his own Brooklyn College, Johnson observes that there is no attempt being made at all to build critical analysis of democracy--or international relations, or political science, history, economics, or philosophy--into its "Arts of Democracy" program. Instead, students take courses in cultural diversity and global cinema. The end result is a distressingly anti-intellectual combination of political indoctrination and insultingly easy makework, one BC admins are eager to adopt as a curricular model:

...declaring "The Arts of Democracy" the model for making "an understanding of global perspectives an integral part of the general education curriculum," Brooklyn College hopes to use it to replace the college's nationally respected core curriculum.

The provost, Roberta Matthews, termed the idea that colleges should focus on transmitting knowledge "a very outdated notion." That, perhaps, explains why the instructors in Brooklyn's "Arts of Democracy" include the dean of student life--who notes that before the attacks of September 11, few understood the nation could be targeted by "those referred to as 'terrorists' or by other American citizens." The new curriculum will help students answer such questions as, "Was September 11 contrived?" and "What did the United States government know and when did it know it?" and "Whose rights would be violated now?"

Johnson sums up "The Arts of Democracy" project in words that are worth quoting in full:

Underlying the "Arts of Democracy" project is a fascinating attempt to redefine college education. The group coordinating the program--the Association of American Colleges and Universities--holds that middle- and working-class students enter college deeply sexist and racist. Such students need "education for the 21st century" to abandon their hostility to "diversity." The association's project director describes "The Arts of Democracy" as "one small way of beginning to work toward another kind of global community rather than the fractured, violence-ridden one represented by the kind of heinous acts committed on September 11th." The program will create "knowledgeable, empathetic members of society" who would "help ensure enlightened policy decisions."

The association seems unable to understand that different people may, in good faith, define "enlightened policy decisions" in different ways. Nor has the organization explained why or how a college curriculum should promote specific policy decisions--even those related to the "heinous acts committed on September 11th."

By underwriting the "Arts of Democracy" project, the federal government has used Americans' tax dollars for a program that views the entire modern democratic project as a sustained effort to suppress and marginalize in the interests of power, privilege, and profit--in fact, for a program that not only fails to inform students about their civic foundations but undermines respect for the American achievement.

Read the whole thing, and watch your tax dollars at work.

Erin O'Connor, 9:33 AM | Permalink

December 30, 2003 [feather]
Impolitic administrators

You may find the newest trend in conservative campus activism--anti-affirmative action bake sales--distasteful and ineffectual. You may even believe that campus administrators are right to shut such bake sales down. But regardless of your opinions about race-based affirmative action, conservative student parodies of same, and whether campuses should be bastions of free expression or "safe" spaces where speech codes aim to protect the sensibilities of non-white, non-male, non-straight students and faculty, we should all be able to agree that it is the absolute obligation of college and university administrators to behave decorously and decently when their actions are publicly questioned and criticized. Administrators are, after all, the public face of their institution; their work is never not, on some level, the work of public relations. This is particularly true of college and university presidents. Much of the work they do these days revolves around fund raising, and they command the salaries they do because they work day and night to enhance the reputations and endowments of their schools.

Timothy Sullivan, president of William & Mary, apparently sees things differently. William & Mary administrators shut down an anti-affirmative action bake sale held by a libertarian student organization, Sons of Liberty, last fall. Those same administrators subsequently threatened the organizers of the sale with disciplinary action, stating that the group had violated school policy but refusing, when asked multiple times to clarify their charge, to name the policy the group had violated. "Referring to the Student Handbook at this point in time is counterproductive," the vice president for student affairs wrote to one of the organizers. The situation at William & Mary went public after FIRE became involved; the case there was mentioned in The Washington Times, and on Fox News. FIRE also featured the case on its own web site. Predictably, the public exposure of William & Mary's indefensible actions drew criticism. Less predictably, and quite disturbingly, the college's president has responded to that criticism not with an apology, or a reasoned defense of the school's actions, or even with a polite canned noncommittal response, but with open contempt for his critics.

Sullivan's remarkable display of arrogance is recounted in an open letter written by FIRE to William & Mary's trustees:

This particular case of censorship took a very bizarre twist, however, when W&M's president, Timothy J. Sullivan, personally answered e-mails from people critical of W&M's handling of this case. FIRE has received what we fear are representative examples of his intemperate responses to individuals who wrote to express their displeasure with W&M's censorship. On Saturday, December 13, Curtis Crawford, a resident of Charlottesville, Virginia, wrote President Sullivan an e-mail that, while polite, was critical of W&M's actions (you will find this e-mail exchange attached). President Sullivan responded:

Dear Mr. Crawford, Some fool has sent me an e-mail and signed your name to it. You should do what you can to discover the identity of the person. He or she is doing real harm to your reputation. I will help you if I can. Tim Sullivan

According to Mr. Crawford, he wrote back to President Sullivan asking if he stood by this comment, to which Sullivan responded, "You can quote me." Two days later, Sullivan sent a very similar e-mail to another person who had expressed criticism of W&M's handling of the protest; this time he asserted that, "Some damned fool is sending e-mail messages and signing your name. I will try to help you if I can." It is bewildering and deeply disappointing that any college administrator, let alone the president of one of America's oldest and most respected institutions, would be so dismissive of reasoned debate, discussion, and criticism on issues as important as affirmative action and student censorship. Apparently, President Sullivan believes that he may both silence students and show outright contempt for citizens who believe in constitutional rights.

President Sullivan's e-mails, along with those of Mark Constantine and W. Samuel Sadler, fail to provide any logic or reasoning behind W&M's decision to censor the Sons of Liberty's political message. It is telling that, when asked directly about what policy the college could have used to justify its censorship, administrators invariably change the subject rather than simply answer the question. Free communities work when citizens invite and engage in debate and discussion; if President Sullivan sees no point in either debate or discussion, than we can see little reason why he would wish to be involved with the process of education at all.

FIRE will continue to pursue this matter until President Sullivan and the administration of the College of William & Mary decide to address the issue of censorship and to reaffirm constitutional rights on this great public campus. If the college has determined that it will silence certain political views, it should declare this openly and be willing to defend its position in the court of public opinion and, indeed, in the courts of law. We fervently hope that the College of William & Mary will soon determine that to censor the political beliefs of its students flies in the face of both the Bill of Rights and of America's traditional dedication to political libertyůa tradition of which the college has been a proud part since 1693.

The letter was sent on December 18. No reply has yet been posted on FIRE's site. The longer he is silent, the more Sullivan looks like--to borrow a phrase--"some damned fool." It's not just his own reputation he is hanging out to dry, but that of his school. As potential donors and loyal giving alumni turn away in disgust, the cost of Sullivan's contemptuous and contemptible display may well be measureable in dollars.

UPDATE: A reader who is presently applying for an academic position at William & Mary writes:

Your posting of December 30 is indeed very troubling, not least because one must wonder how the faculty of that august institution must feel about their nominal leader's intemperate words. I have an outstanding application to a job search that their [...] department is running. Reading this post and the FIRE material, I find myself conflicted now. Part of me wants to withdraw with honor from the search if the entire place is like that. Part of me wants to stick it out, for the chance at a good career there, and not embarrass the hiring committee or me if the president's views are not representative of the entire place. Regardless of one's political views, the danger is always this: What if they decide _my_ views are those of "some damn fool"?

I wonder if some of your readers have ever yanked their application for a job after finding out a place was the way W&M seems to be.

I'm wondering the same thing. I'm also wondering, along with this reader, what William & Mary's faculty, students, and tuition-paying parents make of Sullivan's actions.

UPDATE UPDATE: John Rosenberg has more.

Erin O'Connor, 12:27 PM | Permalink

December 19, 2003 [feather]
Bok on the business of higher ed

My review of former Harvard president Derek Bok's Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education, is online at Knowledge@Wharton.

Erin O'Connor, 3:48 PM | Permalink

December 17, 2003 [feather]
Roth, realism, and campus culture

Quote for the day:

There is something fascinating about what moral suffering can do to someone who is in no obvious way a weak or feeble person. It's more insidious even than what physical illness can do, because there is no morphine drip or spinal block or radical surgery to alleviate it. Once you're in its grip, it's as though it will have to kill you for you to be free of it. Its raw realism is like nothing else.

That's from Philip Roth's The Human Stain, the novel that has become a definitive document in the small but growing body of literature that addresses the human cost of the culture of campus speech codes. If you haven't already read the book, do. You know from the film trailers what the basic premise is: Coleman Silk, a former classics professor who has been passing for white his whole adult life, is conducting a fatally restorative love affair with the college janitor two years after his career was ruined by a student's spurious accusation of racism. But what you can't know from the film--because it can't be filmed--is the depth and nuance of Roth's portrait of what academic witch hunts do to those who are unfortunate enough to be the hunted. You need Roth's language for that, not least because much of the point of the book is that the kind of pain the Coleman Silks of the world feel is peculiarly, pointlessly discursive.

Silk's teaching career ends because of how two students choose to misinterpret his use of a single word (when, five weeks into the semester, he asks his class whether the two students who have never shown up are "spooks," those students, who happened to be black but whom Silk had never seen, file charges of racism that the college, in its lust to prove its racial sensitivity and its reluctance to be included in the accusation, pursues). The Human Stain opens two years later, as Silk completes his manuscript of Spooks:

Finished a first draft yesterday, spent all day today reading it through, every page of it made me sick. The violence in the handwriting was enough to make me despise the author. That I should spend a single quarter of an hour at this, let alone two years .... Who will believe it? I hardly believe it myself any longer. To turn this screed into a book, to bleach out the raging misery and turn it into something by a sane human being, would take two years more at least. And what would I then have, aside from two years more of thinking about 'them'? Not that I've given myself over to forgiveness. Don't get me wrong: I hate the bastards. I hate the fucking bastards the way Gulliver hates the whole human race after he goes and lives with those horses. I hate them with a real biological aversion.

Destroyed by an entire institution's willing collusion with two students' wilfully stupid and punitive reading of a single word, Silk responds with a self-imposed Sisyphean sentence of trying to write his way out of the unreason that others have imposed on his life. Roth's novel begins with Silk's realization that he needs to abandon the intellectual mindset that led him to try to order his tragedy through writing: "I read it and it's shit and I'm over it," he announces. "Writing about myself, I can't maneuver the creative remove. Page after page, it is still the raw thing. It's a parody of the self-justifying memoir. The hopelessness of explanation." Part of Roth's point in The Human Stain is that the aftermath of the academic witch hunt can be its own new layer of hell for the person who must now live out a humiliating legacy of communal ostracism, undeserved contempt, and illogical injustice all for something he didn't do. The nature of that hell is that the analytical skills of the trained academic only make it worse; when one's life becomes the nonsensical symptom of others' irrational need for scapegoats, no amount of thought is going make the madness of it make sense. There is no explanation that truly explains.

There are quite a few people out there living lives that resemble Coleman Silk's during the two years after he was symbolically strung up for saying "spooks." I know some of you personally; I'd love to hear from more.

Erin O'Connor, 8:56 AM | Permalink

December 15, 2003 [feather]
Cooking up controversy on campus

Anti-affirmative action bake sales--in which cookies are sold on a sliding scale according to the buyer's race--are the latest trend in conservative campus activism. Over the past year, such sales have been held at UCLA, UC Berkeley, Texas A&M, Southern Methodist University, UC Irvine, William & Mary, Northwestern, the University of Washington, Indiana University, and, most recently, at Utah State. Each time a conservative student group--usually the College Republicans--holds a sale, feathers are ruffled. Each time, the publicity the event attracts sparks debate--about affirmative action, about institutionalized racism, about the line between harassment and protest, about the competing claims of free speech and racial sensitivity. And often, school administrators become a part of the mix, forcibly shutting down sales, investigating and disciplining the groups who hold them, ignoring the sometimes violent actions of those who object to them. At the University of Washington, police had to restrain two students after they started tearing down the sale display, throwing cookies, and threatening to attack the protesters; administrators then punished the students who held the protest instead of those who attacked them, shutting down their display and then publishing a letter in the student paper denouncing the College Republicans for being "tasteless" and "hurtful."

This fall alone, administrators at SMU, William & Mary, the University of Washington, UC Irvine, and Northwestern have shut down anti-affirmative action bake sales on their campuses, ignoring the groups' right to free speech and expressive protest while indulging the angry reactions of those who would rather condone censorship than encounter a viewpoint that offends them. While admins at some schools have (presumably grudgingly) allowed the bake sales to proceed unmolested, only administrators at Indiana have stood up in defense of the expressive rights of all students at the university: "It is a freedom-of-speech issue. I know some schools have approached these events differently, but prior restraint is not something we would normally engage in," Damon Sims, associate dean of students, told the Indianapolis Star. "This is one of the more significant social and political issues of our time. . . . It is exactly the kind of dialogue that should be encouraged on college campuses."

And thus a pattern emerges: If anti-affirmative action bake sales are conservative students' newest form of activist street theater, quashing such sales are misguided administrators' newest mode of revealing their contempt for intellectual diversity, their ignorance of their legal and ethical obligations to defend and protect free speech on campus, and their affinity for censorship. Admins who shut down bake sales come up with all manner of excuses--they say the sales are harassing and discriminatory, and thus violate school policy, or that there are safety issues to consider, or that the students are committing "financial misconduct"--but ultimately, what they are really doing is saying that there are some students on campus who have a right not to be offended, and that there are others who do not have a right to express their opinions. They are also, incidentally, revealing their utter distrust of democratic process--if you censor a point of view because you are concerned that it is going to offend (or even wound), you must not have a very high opinion of those you are ostensibly trying to protect; you only try to protect a group through censorship if you don't think that group can defend itself in the marketplace of ideas. When admins shut these sales down because students are complaining, they aren't protecting them so much as they are patronizing them.

Regardless of the psychology of it all, however, there are clear legal issues at stake. When public schools shut down these sales because their viewpoint offends others, they are violating the First Amendment rights of the students running the sale. When private schools with a stated commitment to free expression and academic freedom do so, they are violating their contract with those students and arguably committing fraud by not providing the freedom they advertise in their promotional materials.

Affirmative action is such a hot button campus issue that even reasoned criticism of it is readily, almost automatically, labelled racist. For that reason, there aren't a lot of people out there willing to stand up for the rights of affirmative action's critics--such people tend also to get labelled racist, such is the kneejerk orthodoxy surrounding the issue. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is a rare exception (GMU law professor David Bernstein is another).

FIRE has been defending the rights of students to run such bake sales, and in a monster press release last Friday explained both the extent of the censorship surrounding such sales and also pointed out the simple but apparently elusive fact that political satire is protected speech. FIRE means business: it is not simply publicizing the injustices that are taking place across the country, but is contemplating legal action against the schools that refuse to respect the First Amendment rights of students who don't accept their institutions' official position on affirmative action. "We are beginning a campaign to expose their administrations and trustees as being delinquent in their duties to protect the First Amendment, to the extent that they have sanctioned criminal violence to silence political debate," FIRE CEO Thor Halvorssen told the Washington Times. "We have not ruled out a lawsuit and are in conversations with the students involved as well as members of our legal network."

UPDATE: John Rosenberg has more.

Erin O'Connor, 1:05 PM | Permalink

December 12, 2003 [feather]
The Grinch who stopped hate

Responding to my morning post, a reader kindly sends the link to PSU's Report Hate page, which features an image that must replicate the one in the signs. Michelangelo and Dr. Seuss must be turning in their graves at the appropriation--and fusion--of their imagery. Papa Smurf may be a bit befuddled, too.

Meanwhile, a reader who is also an English professor writes with some reflections on the language of the nationwide anti-hate campaign:

One thing I've been thinking about for a while now, probably because I'm an English teacher. When and why did the speech-code and diversity crowds substitute the verb "hate" for the noun "hatred," a step that's all but obliterated what seems to me to have been a perfectly good way to differentiate between these two words? I've puzzled through this, trying to think of a reason why "hate" is better than "hatred," but I can't figure it out. Is it because one-syllable words have more impact than two-syllable words? Does hatred sound fussy or old-fashioned? Obviously, saying hate instead of hatred opens up all sorts of rhyming possibilities at publicly-funded universities--but is it something more than that? Any thoughts?

My guess is that "hate" has replaced "hatred" because it is a word that that casts a state of mind as an event, and thus makes that state of mind more amenable to attack (by laws, policies, or simply by campus activism) as a type of violent action (it is a short distance from the concept of hate crime to the concept of hate as a crime unto itself). It's an extension of the pro-speech code logic that casts offensive speech as damaging action by claiming that "words wound." But that's just off the top. I welcome responses--epistemological, philosophical, etymological, etc.--from readers. I'll post what comes in.

UPDATE: John Rosenberg, author of Discriminations, writes,

Interesting question (why hate instead of hatred), interesting answer. I think youŪre on the right track. Its victory must have something to do with the fact that žhate,Ó unlike žhatred,Ó can be a noun (filled with hate), a verb (I hate you), or an adjective (hate speech, although arguably žhate speechÓ is a noun). Of those, the verbiness, the association with action, is probably the most important. Hate Speech, the typical target, is thus viewed more as a speech act than as a vessel holding some particular content. Turning to the PSU poster, urging someone to žReport HatredÓ would make some overly sensitive souls squeamish (and properly so); they might be somewhat bothered if there were enough remaining residue of their former liberalism to be troubled over being asked to snoop around and turn people in because of certain thoughts and attitudes they entertained privately and silently. But ask that same person to report žHate,Ó and there are likely to be no such reservations because žhateÓ is so closely associated with the reality or maybe just possibility of action. ItŪs nipping potential violence in the bud.

We should be careful ourselves, however, about making too much of this speech-action dichotomy, lest we talk ourselves into a position where we canŪt defend affirmative action bake sales because theyŪre not žspeech.Ó (Post on this, based on FIREŪs press release etc., coming shortly).

Thanks for writing. I'll post more as it comes in.

UPDATE: Maurice Black points out that it is technically correct to use "hate" as a noun, and gives the definition from Webster's Collegiate Dictionary:

Main Entry: hate
Pronunciation: 'hAt
Function: noun
Usage: often attributive
Etymology: Middle English, from Old English hete; akin to
Old High German haz hate, Greek kEdos care
Date: before 12th century
1 a : intense hostility and aversion usually deriving from fear, anger, or sense of injury
b : extreme dislike or antipathy : (had a great hate of hard work)
2 : an object of hatred (a generation whose finest hate had been big business -- F. L. Paxson)

Another reader runs with the idea that the anti-hate crowd prefers "hate" to "hatred" because it is a more active-sounding usage, offering the following interpretation of PSU's "Hate Activity Report":

Feeling bold, I went to the PSU web site you linked, and clicked on the 2001-2002 Hate Activity Report, which alternately employs two phrases--"hate activity" and "acts of intolerance" (these are identical?)--to refer to everything from incidents "in which the target(s) were slightly concerned or annoyed about the incident to those where the target(s) felt physically threatened and feared for their safety" (i.e., there's now no difference between annoyance and assault). This goes a long way toward confirming what both you and John said--that using the verb in place of all the other forms of the word collapses states of mind and being into actions. The more grammatically precise phrases "hateful activity" or even "intolerant acts" sound too qualified, even waffling, as if an adjective necessarily weakens its noun.

It's interesting that the dictionary defines hate as a feeling deriving from fear, anger, or a sense of injury. That's an exact description of how PSU's Hate Report describes "acts of intolerance" making people feel. PSU's description of how victims react to alleged "hate activity" (with feelings of fear, anger, sense of injury) is intimately connected, at least as far as Webster's is concerned, to the origins of hate itself (in feelings of fear, anger, sense of injury). It's an interesting correlation, one that suggests 1) that the Stop Hate initiative may itself be creating hate; and 2) that hate may itself be manifestation of the hater's prior victimization. Perhaps the Stop Hate crowd should take a moment to feel haters' pain.

Erin O'Connor, 6:50 PM | Permalink

Stop the Hate at Penn State

A reader writes:

A small observation:

I was visiting Penn State this week to give a talk and noticed several copies of the following poster prominently displayed around campus.

The word "HATE" is blazed across the center of the poster with two stylized hands (drawn in different colors) pointing at each other. At the top and bottom of the poster is the chilling imperative,


Contact information (phone, email, for some campus office) follows.

If only they had used a Cyrillic, Stalinesque font, the effect would have been complete.

I couldn't justify stealing one of these beauties
(who knows, I might get reported). But if you have
any readers at PSU, you may want to coax them to
send you a digital photo. It would look good on
Critical Mass.

What a fine idea. If anyone out there at PSU wants to send me a picture of one of these signs, I'll post it. Similar signs from other campuses are, of course, also welcome.

UPDATE: A PSU alum writes,

For historical perspective, PSU had a similar campaign when I was there (89-96). This time the poster said "This is serious, so are we." It was adopted at the beginning of one of their pushes to remove "acts of intolerance." It was probably the most "diverse" set of nasty and rotten epithets around. And that may have been its downfall. Grumblings were still heard since they featured not only what we were told to expect (though never really heard) from the College Republicans and Young Americans for Freedom, but also little nasties like "Born Again Bigot" "Whitey" and "Jesus Freak." The posters didn't last long (I can't imagine why). Unfortunately, I don't have a copy for posterity. I imagine these new "Report it!" posters will last longer, since they don't point fingers at the wrong set of "haters."

Interesting that PSU's current campaign is, historically speaking, subtle and understated.

Erin O'Connor, 10:42 AM | Permalink

December 11, 2003 [feather]
Capping the PC curriculum

KC Johnson has written a provocative post at the NAS Forum on the emerging phenomenon of the collegiate "capstone project." Capstones are envisioned as culminating academic experiences; they are intended to allow seniors to close their college years with a large, synthesizing project. On the surface, they sound not only like a good idea, but also like a necessary corrective to the shapelessness that presently characterizes so much undergraduate education. But in practice, they offer enterprising administrators an opportunity to smuggle a political agenda into the curriculum. That sounds paranoid and counterintuitive, I know. But KC's analysis of who is using capstones, of how they describe the aim of the capstone, and of what sorts of topics students are directed to address in their capstones, is chilling, to say the least.

Noting that Brooklyn College provost Roberta Matthews is pushing to bring capstones to BC, Johnson turns his attention to how they work at Portland State, a school whose year-long capstone program Matthews has cited as exemplary. He writes:

A member of the "Consortium on Quality Education" of the Association of American Colleges and Universities -- an organization that consistently promotes infusing curriculum with one-sided political content -- Portland State requires its students to complete a two-semester capstone course before graduation.

According to the institution's website, the "capstone's purpose is to further enhance student learning while cultivating crucial life abilities that are important both academically and professionally; establishing connections within the larger community, developing strategies for analyzing and addressing problems, and working with others trained in fields different from one's own."

The capstone represents the culmination of the college's general education program, which contains four goals. Conspicuously absent is anything related to providing students with traditional academic content, or introducing them to the various disciplines of the liberal arts. Instead, Portland State holds that students can "become active, self-motivated, and empowered learners" only through interdisciplinary courses (which, naturally, can be tailored to fit the institution's other goals). And these other goals seem more related to behavioral and political issues than academics at a university level: Portland State wants students to learn how "to collaborate effectively with others in group work," respect "differences in ethnic and cultural perspectives, class, race, gender, sexual orientation, and ability," and appreciate the importance of ethical choices "through group projects and collaboration in learning communities." All of this, in an Orwellian touch, is presided over by the Center for Academic Excellence.

You might wonder how, exactly, an institution goes about teaching the importance of ethical choices "through group projects and collaboration in learning communities," or how "to collaborate effectively with others in group work" and respect "differences in ethnic and cultural perspectives, class, race, gender, sexual orientation, and ability." A glance through the institution's 44 capstone courses offered this semester shows how Portland State accomplishes these vague goals.

The capstone courses divide into two types. Most give six credits for what amounts to social work. Some typical offerings:

* "Empowerment of Youth on Probation -- Girl Power," where students work with teenage, female juvenile delinquents, exploring issues in the teenagers' lives through various collaborative activities;
* "Community in Performance," where students develop a performance in collaboration with the students of an alternative elementary and middle school for homeless children;
* "The Spirituality of Being Awake," which addresses such questions as, "How is one's spirituality informed by one's observations and awarenesses? How are one's observations and awarenesses informed by one's spirituality? What is the cost of being wide awake?" Spirituality is defined in an appropriately multicultural context to include such principles as "eco-feminism."
Each of these activities might be worthy for volunteer work. But it is hard to see how they represent a "capstone" experience that integrates the courses taken in a quality liberal arts education.

The second group of capstone courses all feature politicized messages-each of which reflect only one point of view. For instance, "Us and Them: A History of Intolerance in America," explores events in U.S. history "when intolerance arose from the fear and suspicion and anger of ordinary people -- the same impulses that still cause discord today." The course promises to bring students "face-to-face with the negative and often tragic consequences of prejudice and hate" while engaging "in collaborative projects that will consist of outreach activities in the community." (Note that the capstone courses all de-emphasize individual accomplishment, stressing instead "collaborative" work.) "Environmental Advocacy" requires students to work with various local environmental organizations. "Mathematics and Society," in almost a caricature of political correctness, examines "the impact of society-sanctioned math avoidance on marginalized populations."

The capstone initiative at Portland State is a prime example of how jargonized eduspeak can be used to create entire academic programs predicated not on intellectual content but on social engineering. More to the point, it is a prime example of how jargonized eduspeak can be used to scramble the difference between the two. Such deliberate obfuscation serves two distinct and complementary ends: in focussing on behaviors and attitudes rather than on the ways and means of scholarly inquiry, it allows ideologues to hijack the curriculum while at the same time hiding the fact that a growing number of students are not capable of much more than the sort of rote political parrotry programs like Portland's seem to require. As standards drop and grades inflate, as more and more colleges graduate students who lack the knowledge and skills they should have and that they would certainly need to do a meaningful senior thesis, capstone projects (the word itself indicates the makework quality of the venture) are going to gain in popularity.

UPDATE: A reader writes to protest blanket condemnation of capstone projects:

We have had such projects as a requirement for majors here at the University of Missouri (hardly a hotbed of radicalism) for a number of years now, and they have been a positive feature of undergraduate education. In the history department, the capstone involves a requirement for each major to take a special senior seminar,which includes some reading of scholarship on the seminar's topic, a few short papers on the issues involved, and then a substantial original research paper on some aspect of the topic. Each student writes his or her own paper; there is no community service, group projects, or any of the other potentially objectionable aspects of the idea. In some ways, the seminar paper is like a senior thesis, but because it is written in the context of a seminar--with presentation of prospectus, an oral report on the findings and preceding discussion of the scholarly literature--this collective aspect of the work enhances the experience.

It really is a capstone, in that our majors get to use some of the things they have learned in their courses--their empirical knowledge of the past, of course, but also the ability to read critically different opinions on a topic, to do their own investigations of past events and present their conclusions clearly and cogently. Students invariably have very good things to say about such courses and the faculty generally find teaching them the most rewarding part of undergraduate education. My impression from other departments is that the program and the experiences are similar.

I guess the point here is that there are capstones, and then there are Capstones, and that it is important for students, parents, and interested citizens to be able to tell the difference.

Erin O'Connor, 6:10 PM | Permalink

December 10, 2003 [feather]
Suing for free speech

An update from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) regarding its coordinated lawsuits to repeal speech codes on the campuses of public colleges and universities:

In response to the pressure of a free-speech lawsuit and student demands for constitutional rights, Texas Tech University is backing away from at least some of its severe restrictions upon free expression. In July, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) coordinated a lawsuit to force Texas Tech -- a public university with 28,000 students -- to eliminate a speech code that had designated only one 280-square-foot gazebo for free speech. In response, the university has greatly expanded the number of free speech zones from one small area to six substantially larger areas.

"We are heartened that the suit and student activism have prompted Texas Tech to move in the direction of greater freedom of speech. Students are now granted free speech areas that can be measured in acres instead of feet," said Greg Lukianoff, FIRE's director of legal and public advocacy. "However, the university's speech policies are still far too restrictive. Texas Tech should not be fighting for every possible bit of repression it might be allowed under the law. Its students deserve to be educated in an atmosphere that celebrates -- rather than quarantines -- freedom." The federal lawsuit was filed by the Alliance Defense Fund and the Liberty Legal Institute as part of FIRE's Speech Codes Litigation Project, which aims to overturn public university speech codes in every federal circuit.

Texas Tech originally required students to obtain a permit six days in advance for any activity on campus outside of the tiny Free Speech Gazebo. The revised code provides for five additional, larger free speech zones, for a total of nine acres, and it reduces the permit delay to two business days. Restrictions on what may be said at Texas Tech, however, remain unchanged. Ominously for political and controversial speech, the university's speech codes still define "harassment" as communications "intended to intimidate or humiliate any person." Such an overbroad and vague speech restriction could suppress pro-choice and pro-life rallies, pro-war and anti-war demonstrations, and almost any other student speech about a divisive political issue. Texas Tech's speech codes give as examples of sexual harassment the use of the terms "boy," "girl," and "honey" for adults. Further, Texas Tech also forbids advertisements that do not meet the hazy standard of "good taste."

Joining FIRE's battle for free speech rights on Texas Tech's campus is a new campus group, Students for Free Speech (SFS). SFS pressured the Texas Tech administration throughout the fall semester, organizing a campus-wide petition drive that attracted more than 900 student signatures in support of free speech. When administrators failed to respond, SFS members organized a creative protest event: a "funeral procession for free speech," complete with eulogies, a clergyman, and a full-size wooden coffin. SFS is also conducting a public information campaign that places accurate information about Texas Tech's speech code in the hands of students, the public, and the local media. FIRE also has publicly exposed Texas Tech's repressive policies in both local and national media and in testimony before the United States Senate.

FIRE's lawsuit continues, with both parties having filed motions for summary judgment. A court decision on the constitutionality of Texas Tech's speech code is expected soon. Stay tuned for further developments.

Speech Codes Litigation Project Update

This year saw the birth of FIRE's Speech Codes Litigation Project -- a national effort to overturn speech codes at public universities once and for all. FIRE's nationwide effort has already brought two other important victories for free speech on campus:

* Shippensburg University (PA) -- FIRE Legal Network attorneys David A. French and William Adair Bonner sued Shippensburg in April over its speech codes. In September, a federal judge granted a preliminary injunction against the university to prevent it from enforcing its speech code while the suit was in progress. The parties now have until December 17 to settle or the case will proceed to final judgment.

* Citrus College (CA) -- Citrus College was sued in May for a speech code that quarantined free speech to three small areas of campus. When sued by FIRE Legal Network attorney Carol Sobel, Citrus College quickly abolished its free speech zones and revoked a frightening policy banning "offensive...expression or language" which could have been used to make virtually any controversial speech illegal.

FIRE will file suit against unconstitutional speech codes in every federal judicial circuit and will coordinate additional suits in its Speech Codes Litigation Project in the near future.

To learn more about campus speech codes, see FIRE's companion site, speechcodes.org, where December's featured "Speech Code of the Month" award belongs to UC Santa Cruz:

The University of California, Santa Cruz, warns students that "actions of disrespect, intolerance, or any behavior (spoken, written or physical) which maligns another individual or group of individuals on the basis of age, creed, ethnicity, race, gender, gender identity, physical ability, political views, religion, sexual orientation, socio-economic status or other differences will not go unchallenged." The university also lists "terms of endearment," "exclusion from informal meetings/social events," and "uninvited, unwanted and/or unsolicited attention/conversations" as conduct that may violate the universityŪs sex offense policy if it occurs on the basis of sex. Any university that warns against any spoken or written statement that shows "disrespect" or "maligns" on the basis characteristics as fundamental as "political views," "religion," "socio-economic status," or "creed" rejects the importance of meaningful debate, candor, and intellectual inquiry. No one who tells you that you are too weak to live with freedom or the Bill of Rights is your friend.

One hopes that the administrators at UCSC are properly embarrassed by their prominent and well-deserved position as FIRE's chosen censor-of-the-month, and that they are busily consulting with their lawyers to bring their code up to code.

Erin O'Connor, 5:13 PM | Permalink

December 9, 2003 [feather]
Hijacking Michigan's curriculum

When David Halperin teaches his queer studies course at the University of Michigan, students race to sign up and protesters race to object. Halperin teaches in the UM English department, and is presently wrapping up a fall course entitled "How to Be Gay: Male Homosexuality and Initiation." Last August, the course made the news when Gary Glenn, president of the Michigan chapter of the American Family Association, attacked Halperin's "uncompromising political militancy" and accused UM of "perpetrating a fraud againt UM students and the people of Michigan [with] propaganda statements about so-called cultural studies and academic freedom" when what it is really doing is promoting "queer studies" on the taxpayer's dime. Glenn first went after the course in 2000, and nearly convinced the state legislature to cut off all funding for the course. In August, Glenn exhorted Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, the Michigan legislature, and the UM Board of Regents to "stop letting homosexual activists use our tax dollars to subsidize this militant political agenda." As far as Glenn is concerned, the course title should be taken literally: Halperin, he is convinced, is using his classroom to try to convert straight young men to homosexuality.

It's clear that this is not what he is doing. Halperin's course is a straight-up cultural studies course that takes up the question of queer male identity, attempting to analyze how that identity has been historically shaped, where it acquires its norms, and, according the course description, the "role that initiation plays in the formation of gay male identity." In Halperin's own words, the course "examines critically the odd notion that there are right and wrong ways to be gay, that homosexuality is not just a sexual practice or desire but a set of specific tastes in music, movies, and other cultural forms--a notion which is shared by straight and gay people alike. The reason these courses exist is not that homosexual teachers have hijacked the university for their own purposes; they exist because they convey the results of research which sheds genuinely new light on history, culture, society, and thought." Glenn's assumption that in teaching about gay male identity formation Halperin is trying to create more gay men partakes of the crassest, most phobic type of "monkey see, monkey do" non-logic.

That doesn't mean that Halperin's course is unimpeachable. It's not at all clear what Halperin's course is doing in a department of English Language and Literature, for example. The course description does not even pretend that "How to be Gay" is a literature course, announcing that the materials studied will include "a number of cultural artifacts and activities," among them "camp, diva-worship, drag, muscle culture, taste, style and political activism," and mentioning movies and music as the principal art forms to be examined.

There are also plenty of intellectually sound reasons to object to a course that enshrines identity politics; such courses too often substitute political advocacy for intellectual inquiry, and as such they both betray the mission of the university and fail students who have a right not to be waylaid by partisan politics masquerading as balanced study. (Not having taken Halperin's course, I am in no position to judge whether it does this, but I will say I wonder how a student who believed homosexuality is a sin would fare in such a course.)

If it's obvious (to all but people like Glenn) that Halperin is not in the business of trying to convert straight men to the gay way, it's also obvious that he is very much in the business of using the classroom to promote a "queer positive" view of the world. The course's very existence asserts this by taking as a given the validity of homosexuality, by asserting as a first premise that there is such a thing as gay male culture and gay male identity, and by assuming that these phenomena are worthy of careful study. Halperin is quite explicit about his pedagogical agenda; in 1996, he wrote that "lesbian and gay studies scholars" were leading the way in compelling universities and government "to adopt and enforce anti-discrimination policies, to recognize same-sex couples, to oppose the U.S. military's anti-gay policy, to suspend professional activities in states that criminalize gay sex or limit access to abortion, and to intervene on behalf of human rights for lesbians, bisexuals and gay men at the local and national levels." "How to be Gay" seems in part to be a course about how to be a gay activist. And, according to at least one woman who took and loved "How to be Gay," it is also a course with a therapeutic function, one that helps gay students come to terms with what it means to be gay.

Glenn's criticisms were so wild, so irrational, and so poorly framed, that they drew little more than dismissal from the folks at UM. That was a mistake. They should have paid closer attention to their critics. They should have recognized that even though Glenn's specific objections to the course are far-fetched, there are some very legitimate reasons to take issue with it--it's a nakedly political advocacy course, an English class that abandons literary study in favor of multimedia, interdisciplinary consciousness-raising. Until universities can offer credible explanations for why it's valid to use the classroom--and taxpayers' money--to promote particular political views (and no, I don't consider a starry-eyed invocation of "academic freedom" to be adequate as either an explanation or as a rationale for why no explanation is needed), more and more of them are going to run into the kind of trouble that Michigan is facing now.

The lead editorial in today's Michigan Daily notes that Republican State Representative Jack Hoogendyk has introduced a resolution into the legislature that would take "oversight for class offerings out of the hands of educators and put it in the hands of politicians with the ability to control how money at universities would be spent." The resolution would also allocate funding to state schools on the basis of the number of state residents attending them--a move that would penalize UM disproportionately. The editorial rightly argues that the resolution is "an assault on the University for not sharing HoogendykŪs narrow set of values," and notes that Halperin's course catalyzed Hoogendyk's resolution.

What's happening in the legislature has much to do with UM's refusal to recognize that, as interesting and fun and provocative as the course may be, it raises some serious questions about pedagogical responsibility, intellectual accountability, and the proper purview of the disciplines--questions that are much broader than one course, and much more complex than the current focus on a single course allows. It will be interesting to see whether Hoogendyk's resolution will spark the debate that clearly needs to take place, or whether it will simply further polarize mutually uncomprehending and contemptuous sides.

To go into effect, Hoogendyk's resolution would require the state constitution to be amended. It must be approved by 2/3 of the legislature and a majority of state voters.

UPDATE: John Rosenberg is also writing about the problems that arise when political advocacy and pedagogy clash. His focus is the law schools that are currently suing to overthrow the Solomon Amendment, which threatens to cut off federal funding to schools that refuse to allow military recruiters on campus as a way of protesting "don't ask, don't tell." Rosenberg cites GMU law professor David Bernstein's recent takedown of the suit, which is also well worth reading.

Erin O'Connor, 9:17 AM | Permalink

December 8, 2003 [feather]
KC on BC

KC Johnson elaborates on yesterday's post about Brooklyn College's misguided decision to make collegiality into a factor in evaluating junior faculty. Notice how collegiality is explicitly aligned--by Provost Roberta Matthews, no less--with BC's commitment to feminizing its faculty and reshaping its curriculum along feminist lines. Brooklyn College's new collegiality criterion is not just a means of getting rid of junior faculty who don't conform to senior faculty's wishes (on both scholarly and interpersonal levels); it is also a means of installing a politicized pedagogical norm at BC, one that junior faculty--particularly male junior faculty--disobey at their peril.

Erin O'Connor, 4:22 PM | Permalink

December 7, 2003 [feather]
Brooklyn College's death wish

Last year, when Brooklyn College attempted to deny tenure to history professor KC Johnson because of his putative lack of "collegiality," all hell broke loose. Johnson was able to document how his chairman, Philip Gallagher, conspired with senior colleagues and BC administrators to trump up a rationale for denying tenure to Johnson not because he was a poor scholar, a bad teacher, or even a truly uncollegial colleague, but because he had dared to disagree, civilly and reasonably, with how the department was doing business, and had angered his chairman when he criticized him for how he was conducting a job search (Gallagher wanted to hire a woman, no matter what, though he hoped they could find one who was not of the whiny, unhinged variety; Johnson had the temerity to suggest that the department would be best served by hiring a candidate on the basis of merit, regardless of sex). Johnson publicized his proof of what was happening and he appealed his case; the media jumped on it, and in the wake of a searing Wall Street Journal op-ed from Dorothy Rabinowitz, CUNY chancellor Matthew Goldstein overturned BC's decision and awarded tenure to Johnson. As he did so, he stated unequivocally that "collegiality" is not a viable criterion for deciding whether to promote or fire someone. (Read a detailed account of the whole affair here).

But Brooklyn College isn't listening. Despite having been humiliated publicly and repeatedly for its unethical and hamhanded handling of Johnson's case, the College has decided to institute collegiality as an official criterion for evaluating all junior faculty as they progress toward tenure. The memo makes it clear that collegiality should be assessed with regard to teaching, service, and overall performance; in other words, that excellence in any of these areas depends on the evaluators' subjective assessment of how "collegial" an individual is. Johnson has been studying tenure and promotion criteria at institutions across the country for some time now. He's astonished to see Brooklyn College--arguably the last school one would expect to embrace a collegiality criterion, given its recent experience with how unworkable it is--doing just that. "I'm not sure I know of any institution in the country with such a requirement," he writes.

Johnson has posted on his website the memo announcing this new policy, and he also took detailed notes at a recent meeting where BC faculty discussed what collegiality means and how one would go about assessing it. I reprint a telling section of Johnson's notes, which he took in full view of those who were at the meeting, below. They are fascinating and frightening testimony to the moral, intellectual, and procedural obtuseness that must be in place for academic collegiality criteria to seem not only appealing, but workable.

Defining Collegiality: meeting with Wm. Sherzer (Chair, Foreign Languages); Maggie Ciszkowska (Chair, Chemistry); Eric Steinberg (Chair, History); Rebecca Cunningham (member of College Review Committee, Theater)

Q: Could each of you define collegiality, in particular how it relates to research?

Eric Steinberg (Chair, History): Collegiality could enter into service; possibly there in teaching regarding Bylaws provision addressing relations with students; tough to see where it relates to research.

Maggie Ciszkowska (Chair, Chemistry): žUncollegialÓ research would involve publishing under one authorŪs name research done by several people; admits she might call such an action žunprofessionalÓ rather than žuncollegial.Ó

Wm. Sherzer (Chair, Foreign Languages): Collegiality is žif I get the feeling that somebody is going out of his or her wayůwhatever gives me that feelingůsomebody that doesnŪt want to play the game.Ó

--Collegiality provision was included because žthe committee [CAP] wanted it at least to be thereÓ

--žHalf the departments on this campus are doing collegial research.Ó

Rebecca Cunningham (Theater, member of the CRC): Question on collegiality is, žAre you working in the best interests of the whole department as well as yourself, . . . or are you throwing rocks?Ó

--Collegiality is žsometimes hard to defineÓ

--It is tolerable for untenured faculty to dissent from senior colleagues, provided žthe way you express it and proceed with your voice of dissent is not [pauses] divisive. [from the floor, Bill Gargan, Library]: Destructive. [Cunningham]: Yes, destructive.Ó

--Uncollegial person is someone who demonstrates an žunwillingness to adopt compromise positions.Ó

Nancy Romer (Brooklyn PSC executive committee): On collegiality: žYou sort of know what it is, but it is not necessarily it.Ó We need to žwork harder to define what it is.Ó

Don Landolphi (Phys. Ed., from the floor): Uncollegiality is someone being žarrogantÓ or having a ždifficultÓ personality.

The abusability of collegiality criteria is obvious; so much so that the AAUP has published a statement warning schools away from using them. It reads in part: žA distinct criterion of collegiality holds the potential of chilling faculty debate and discussion. Criticism and opposition do not necessarily conflict with collegiality. Gadflies, critics of institutional practices or collegial norms, even the occasional malcontent, have all been known to play an invaluable and constructive role in the life of academic departments and institutions. They have sometimes proved collegial in the deepest and truest sense. Certainly a college or university replete with genial Babbitts is not the place to which society is likely to look for leadership.Ó

The good people at BC seem, however, to suffer from a type of procedural hubris that leads them to believe that they are above the corruption such criteria invite and even mandate. The muddling arrogance evident at the meeting (in which it is seriously proposed that even though collegiality cannot be defined, one knows uncollegiality when one sees it; and that in its essence uncollegiality involves a refusal to conform to the senior faculty's party line--to "play the game" or "compromise") bodes poorly for future tenure cases at Brooklyn College, and speaks loudly to the school's refusal to learn from its past mistakes. Having been caught red-handed in the act of using collegiality criteria to try to get rid of a colleague who asked hard questions and who spoke his mind (who engaged in the reasoned debate and dissent that lies at the heart of free inquiry and should lie at the heart of departmental self-governance), Brooklyn College now wants to make it officially acceptable for departments to sink junior faculty for self-serving, unethical reasons (the desire to punish, or retaliate, or exclude) rather than for legitimate professional ones.

Erin O'Connor, 11:50 AM | Permalink

December 5, 2003 [feather]
Winston's Diary

Critical Mass is proud to welcome a blogchild to the world of edu-blogging. Winston's Diary is the work of a Ph.D. candidate in English who describes himself and his project thus:

After careful consideration, I decided to take the name "Winston's Diary" for this blog in part to reclaim Orwell from the legions of leftists who seem to think that Orwell would somehow approve of their own totalitarian leanings because they are fighting the good fight against the supposed fascism of Bush and the Republican party. Yeah, Orwell was a socialist. But Orwell was as horrified by Stalin as he was by Hitler, and his understanding of the dangers of Marxism were spot-on. While Orwell might have misgivings about the right, he sure as hell wouldn't be out blocking the streets with the denizens of A.N.S.W.E.R. and the rest of mindless ideologues whose religious devotion to a failed ideology and desire to control the words and thoughts of the "unenlightened" is certainly closer to the aims of Oceania than the Patriot Act.

As an academic--a job seeking graduate student who will remain anonymous until tenured, rejected, or so sick of academia that I leave it--I feel an affinity with Winston Smith. I'm not a radical conservative, but I'm not a member of the academic left, and my status as an outsider is made clear to me on a daily basis. I have, on occasion, dared to speak my mind against the use of the classroom to indoctrinate students, and I have watched the faces of colleagues lose all expression as they turned away from me, writing off anything I might have to say as the ravings of a conservative--and thus closed--mind. I have not yet been punished for speaking my mind--I think the powers that be know that I would fight back, viciously--but I have been ostracized. Thankfully, hiring committees don't ask for recommendations from one's fellow graduate students, and my left-leaning dissertation director has agreed to disagree with me, a rare display of tolerance at the postmodern university. Around the rest of my committee, I just keep my mouth shut.

At least once a week, I overhear colleagues describe their plans to turn literature courses into teach-ins against the war in Iraq, and I watch composition classes turned into symposia on the holy triumvirate of race, class, and gender, with any attempt at teaching composition and critical thinking skills abandoned in the desperate fight against "facism." I have even been presented with ridiculous attempts to use Beowulf to teach students about the horrors of the war in Iraq. I won't even begin to catalogue what I've heard from the sociologists. I often think that if average Americans knew what was actually being taught in this nation's universities--and if they knew what was not being taught--universities would have a real budget crisis. Hell, I'm appalled at what my taxes pay for.

There is a definite lack of intellectual diversity in academia. I am frightened by the hegemony (to steal their own word) of the left in academia, and by their attempts to silence the voices of dissent, unwilling to entertain the possibility of real debate. I am angered by the lack of professional ethics displayed by professors, instructors, and graduate students who use their classrooms to "enlighten" their students to the truth of their so-called progressive message. There are many O'Briens in academia. They may not pull people's teeth from their jaws, but their methods of persuasion are insidious nonetheless, and they are not above punishing their students for holding the wrong beliefs.

I intend to speak out against the O'Briens as forcefully and as often as I can, both those employed in academia and elsewhere. And if those of my own political stripe seem to be speaking for the Ministry of Truth, they will not be exempt from critique. But because the academic O'Briens can put me on the street, I'll be doing it here, hopefully out of the range of the viewscreen. Big Brother is watching, but he isn't John Ashcroft.

Don't miss Winston's instructive analysis of the UCLA English department's course offerings.

Erin O'Connor, 7:40 PM | Permalink

L'Affaire Berube, contd.

Last night I posted some readers' responses to my commentary on Michael Berube's Chronicle of Higher Education piece about a disruptive conservative student, including excerpts from Berube's letter calling my comments "fraudulent" and "unscrupulous" (read the whole thing at his web site). That post drew still more commentary--from Tightly Wound, Joanne Jacobs, and Discriminations (scroll down to updates II and III), among others. (UPDATE: There's still more at Discriminations, partially in response to the post you are reading now, here.)

The post also drew mail from readers, including one who writes:

I got hopping mad reading Berube's response to your piece, and I was already steamed to begin with. Some very smart people (including Berube) have opined that complaints about conservative suppression in humanities departments are probably the result of discomfort at hearing dissenting views. In other words, conservatives are used to--no, demand!--consensus. Bullshit. My husband and I haven't voted for the same presidential candidate once in the fifteen happy years we've been married; I know my way around dissenting views.

What we're talking about here is not squeamishness over English professors' obligatory asides about "the current administration«" and how "the monkey running the show disproves Darwin." While such comments are unprofessional, not to mention jejune, I've got plenty of callouses and can tolerate them in silence. I've even refrained from rolling my eyes during a ten-minute diatribe about American "imperialism" in a class on (this one's fun) American colonial literature.

No, these little annoyances are not the issue. The issue is a politicized worldview in literary studies that has taken hold of many scholars and turned them into true believers of such mystical intensity that they've become hostile to reason and evidence, even when such evidence might further liberal causes. It almost seems like a religion, this aimless rage; its very angry god would be Subversion (and its devil, of course, must be Hegemony).

These are some of the classroom scenes I've witnessed:

--In a discussion of English literature in the Age of Enlightenment, the professor and several students expressed dismay at the expansion of capitalism and the rise of the bourgeoisie during this period. After several minutes of snarking about the "elitist" viewpoints expressed by Addison and Steele (!), I raised my hand and inquired mightn't there have been some benefits to these economic changes? Benefits like increased literacy, expansion of representation to lower socioeconomic classes, and more access to publication for women? The professor nodded politely and said, "Interesting." Several students turned around and glared at me, and one spat, "All that did was add more soldiers to the hegemony's army!" Yes, she really said that; I went home and wrote it in my journal. Three cheers for feudalism, I guess.

--In a discussion of Cold War literature the professor repeatedly stated that Soviet expansion was an illusion rigged by a macho and neurotic United States. I've heard smart people argue that the U.S. overreacted to Soviet expansionism, but I'd never before heard someone say that the Soviet Union actually didn't expand. Students all around (most born a good quarter-century after the Warsaw Pact) nodded knowingly.

--The class was discussing the spread of the English language in the former British Empire and the topic of generational differences came up. Someone observed that an earlier generation of postcolonial elites had learned "Oxbridge" English and that later generations learned American English via movies and music. Several people observed that there was no meaningful political distinction to make between the two; both were "hegemonically imposed." I asked if perhaps we weren't glossing over an important difference: Oxford and Cambridge educations were available to elites only, whereas American popular culture reaches more people- that it is, in at least this one sense, populist. At the sound of the word populist the professor visibly sneered and rolled his eyes. The class went silent and several students shook their heads in apparent embarrassment over my naivete.

These are just some recent memories; there are many more in storage.

I also received multiple emails from Berube himself. I quote the first one (the one where he doesn't address me as "lassie") in full:

So you're cowardly as well as dishonest. Very well-- I thought you would do me the courtesy of a direct reply, but I overestimated you. Suffice it to say that the only other person who's pulled this kind of stunt with me is the loony far-leftist Alexander Cockburn at CounterPunch. Your commentary on my essay was indeed unscrupulous (regardless of the link), as is your behavior with regard to my letter to you.

But take comfort in your correspondents and their bizarre little theories about my class. Your business professor from southern Cal (who's really arguing with Powers, and really doesn't have the intellectual wherewithal to do so) and your English professor from Wheaton (who believes that I think conservatives support the AJA camps-- kudos to you for telling him that I wrote to you and said otherwise!) are real prizes. Cherish them. They're your readers, they're your fans. Be proud.

When you think you've scared up the intellectual integrity necessary to reply to me, let me know. I'll be at www.blusparx.com/berube, where I've posted my reply to you.

My apologies to those readers whose comments became grist for Berube's contemptuous mill. Here's my reply, with a small section removed to protect the privacy of innocent bystanders:

Dear Michael (if I may),

It was the discovery that you had posted your response to me on your website several hours before you wrote to me (your site says you posted at 12:37; your letter to me came in at 3:08) that led me to believe there was no obligation to write back to you personally. Your letter to me was an apparent afterthought to your web posting, one that, in failing to mention that it was in fact a copy of what you had already written on the web, mispresented itself as private correspondence. For what it's worth, I often reply to readers by way of posting their letters on Critical Mass. It's not cowardly, it's efficient. The cowardly thing in this instance would have been to pretend that you had not written to me, and to ignore your letter altogether. This way readers can make up their own minds about your essay and mine.

I'm not interested in returning the insults and the condescension with which you have felt free, in multiple unsolicited emails, to favor me. I will simply say that I have long been an admirer of your work, and that it was this admiration in particular that left me so disappointed with your Chronicle piece.

I take your points about reasonable accommodation, and I'm very willing to believe you bent over backwards for this student in precisely the ways you describe. But the snide asides about conservative students and conservative campus activism in your essay make it awfully hard to see your essay in the light in which you clearly mean for it to be seen. In your comments on Stanley Kurtz, on Horowitz, on Accuracy in Academia, and on the absence, as far as you are concerned, of any academic bias against conservatives, you undermine both your claims to tolerance and to be talking specifically about the problem of reasonably accommodating all students.

I concluded by mentioning the work FIRE does to defend the rights of all students; by pointing out how many of FIRE's cases concern conservative students who have been penalized by professors or punished by school administrators for their views; by observing that while Berube did not violate "John"'s rights, his essay did compromise John's dignity, as well as that of conservative students across the country; and by explaining that this had a lot to do with why I reacted to it as I did. I sent that off at 8 this morning. So far, no reply.

UPDATE: Berube has spoken. There's more to be said about the issues that have arisen in our exchange, and about the debate it has sparked in various pockets of the blogosphere, and I'll try to get some of those things said when I don't have the flu and do have some time. For now, it's simply nice to note the improved tone of the exchange.

Erin O'Connor, 7:18 PM | Permalink


Ralph Luker has transblogrified: his one-man Welcome to My World is now the collectively-written history blog, Cliopatria. The players are: Ralph, Timothy Burke, Oscar Chamberlain, Ken Heineman, Mary Catherine Moran, and KC Johnson (yes, that KC Johnson). It looks to be an excellent mix.

Erin O'Connor, 5:52 PM | Permalink

December 4, 2003 [feather]
Berube and readers react

Yesterday's post on Michael Berube's Chronicle of Higher Education piece about his experience teaching a course that was "derailed" by a conservative student has grown legs, it seems. A number of readers have written in to respond to both Berube's piece and to my take on it.

One such reader was Professor Berube himself. Berube does not like my reading of his essay--he calls it "fraudulent" and "unscrupulous." He writes:

There really is no question in my essay that the primary problem with "John" was that he was a blurter, and that this problem was compounded by (a) the fact that he blurted some exceptionally provocative things (I would hope, by now, that there is something like a consensus that a defense of the AJA camps is provocative), and (b) the fact that I was reluctant to challenge him precisely *because* his views differed from mine, in a pedagogical context where conservative students often do feel silenced by liberal professors.

Like so many other conservative critics I've dealt with this week, you also refuse to acknowledge the fact that I prevented liberal students from ganging up on John.

Having dismissed my commentary as a typical conservative refusal to acknowledge facts (and having thus confirmed that my assessment of Berube's assessment of conservatives was on target), Berube also suggests that I do not know how to read. "You completely-- and deliberately, unless you're utterly incompetent as a reader-- misconstrue the closing paragraph of my essay," he writes. "I explicitly said that *all* students are entitled to reasonable accommodation. The problem here is precisely that I know what I'm talking about, and you don't: "reasonable accommodation" both relies on and goes beyond the theory of "disparate impact" in civil rights law. It suggests that *all* persons be reasonably accommodated-- articulate conservatives, annoying loudmouthed liberals, shoot-from-the-hip Ivy League bloggers, and kids with Down syndrome. Your final sentence here is simply unworthy of a literary critic, and very likely unworthy of people who believe in civil discourse."

It's hard to see how a post that links to the piece it comments on, thus enabling readers to assess for themselves the legitimacy of the commentary, could be fairly labelled either fraudulent or unscrupulous, but in the spirit of full disclosure I thought Critical Mass readers should know that this is Berube's position. Many of them have, after all, committed a similar act of unscrupulous, illiterate fraudulence by also deciding that Berube's piece is a deeply disturbing example of academic cant.

Some of those readers have posted their thoughts on Berube's piece on their own blogs. See John Rosenberg's Discriminations, Michael Tinkler's Cranky Professor, Tightly Wound, and Eric Rasmusen's blog. Other readers have written to me directly. I reprint some of their comments below.

From a conservative student at Bucknell:

Your "fisking" of the Berube piece in the Chronicle made me want to stand up and cheer. I read Berube's garbage the other day and there was just so much there that made so little sense that I couldn't even bring myself to write a response for the conservative e-mail list here at Bucknell. Kudos to you for having it in you to give it the treatment it deserved.

BTW...I can already hear Berube's piece whizzing around the faculty listservs as one of those "Ah, yes! Of course!" moments.

From a member of the English department at the University of Oregon:

Thank you for your blog; I read it daily. As a non Marxist, non-Bush-hating, non-French-theory subscriber, I can't tell you how comforting it is to find I'm not alone in the academic wasteland. Good takedown of Berube's essay, too.

From a philosophy professor at Wisconsin:

The Berube›sermon reveals more than one could ever argue in so many words about the moral laziness of the academy. Do you suppose that A LDaily linked to it for this subversive reason? Nah, I expect many find›the sermon›genuinely wise -- a›reaction that itself speaks volumes.

From a business professor from southern California:

Great coverage of the story and some good reader comments too. One thing that struck me is that lit crit as currently practiced seems inherently susceptible to politicized and overheated discussions. As you have pointed out repeatedly, many profs in the area essentially talk about and teach things they know very little about: history, economics, etc. Berube's class seems just rife with this stuff. For example, I wonder if anyone in the class, instructor included, know much of the facts surrounding internment camps. And as someone who has written a bit of game theory and uses it sparingly in class, the class' treatment of the prisoners dilemma and game theory is almost pure butchery. The idea that peace can only exist when there is real trust between countries tosses out any real lessons that one could come by using game-theoretic reasoning.

Interestingly, I often encounter challenging students like John, except that they will be arguing that quantitative analyses are useless for decision making. These students are sometimes just innumerate and defensive people, but more often are intelligent and honest people who have seen numbers and quant analysis oversold and misused. They are about my favorite students 'cause they force you to honestly deal with the limitations of your analysis but also to highlight where you have actually made progress. I am sure that good English teachers can do the same!

From an English professor at Wheaton College:

You are precisely right, Erin, to point out the most egregious trait of Berub»'s essay: his conflation of the student's behavior with the student's political stance. To Berub» the former is so obviously caused by the latter that he never makes an argument for the linkage. (This is just incidental, but I wonder if Berub» thinks that support for the internment of Japanese-Americans in WWII is a common conservative position. I doubt he would be disappointed if his readers drew that inference.)

I'd just like to add a point about another feature of his essay: the line "I have never seen a conservative student on any of the campuses I've inhabited . . . penalized by a professor for his or her beliefs." How do you suppose Berub» would respond if he read an essay which contained the sentence, "I have never seen an African-American student treated with less respect than white students"? Or, "I have never seen a disabled student penalized for his or her disability"? I think such statements would bring an instant sneer to his face -- and rightly so. First of all, how many of us who teach have any idea what really goes on in our colleagues' classrooms? I get a glimpse when I'm called in to do a teaching evaluation or a guest lecture; otherwise I'm clueless, as no doubt is Berub». On those grounds alone his statement is a silly one.

But wouldn't he also see such a statement as a wonderful illustration of what it's like to be in the grip of ideology, to be a prisoner of false consciousness? *Of course* maltreatment of dissenters and the marginal is invisible to those who have internalized, and are even proselytizers for, the standards of the existing power/knowledge regime. What would Foucault do with the assumption that the "problem" students are those who have failed to meet adequate standards of "reasonable" behavior? One would think that Berub» has never read _Discipline and Punish_. The extent to which his rhetoric has left him open to the very critique which is the academic left's stock-in-trade is rather comical.

Another reader writes:

I found the essay hilariously patronizing, and impossible to believe (his descriptions of himself as endlessly patient and tolerant are so over-the-top it's hard to imagine him writing them with a straight face). But even if I take the author at his word that he's overly accommodating of diverse views, he never explains how he reaches his conclusion that all leftist (his word) English teachers share his preternatural tolerance.

I'm proud to be in the company of such fraudulent, unscrupulous, poor readers. Thanks to all for writing.

Erin O'Connor, 6:53 PM | Permalink

December 3, 2003 [feather]
Profiling the conservative student

Michael Berube, an English professor at Penn State, has penned a fascinating profile of The Conservative Student for The Chronicle of Higher Education. The representative conservative Berube describes takes the form of a disgruntled and disruptive individual who took a literature course from Berube during the fall of 2001; throughout the essay, Berube consistently scrambles the considerable difference between reasoned dissent and unreasonable disruption, so much so that by the end of the essay, he has rendered student conservatism as simply a type of behavioral dysfunction:

Over my 20 years in teaching, I've had many conservatives in my classes. I think I've even had a few Stalinists, too. I've had many intelligent, articulate students who behaved as if they had a right to speak more often and at greater length than anyone else in the room; I've had versions of Reese Witherspoon in Election and Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series, who knew the answers to every question ever asked; I've had my share of blurters with very little sense of social boundaries, a few of whom may genuinely have had some degree of Asperger's syndrome, with various autistic or antisocial symptoms. To all such students --›indeed, to all students, those with disabilities and those without --›I try to apply the standard of disability law: I make reasonable accommodation for them. The challenge, though, lies in making reasonable accommodations for students whose standards of "reasonableness" are significantly different from yours. Few aspects of teaching are so difficult --›and, I think, so rarely acknowledged by people who don't teach for a living.

The entire essay is written in this vein. On one level, it is accommodating and empathic, a genuine effort on the part of a self-proclaimed leftist professor to acknowledge the ethical and pedagogical complexities of teaching students whose politics depart radically from his own. On another level, the essay is condescending and patronizing, not to mention intellectually dishonest. To confuse--wilfully and systematically--conservative beliefs with aberrant behavior, as Berube does here, is to suggest on some level that conservative students (outspoken ones, anyway) are not only wrong, but sick. Berube does not use the disability comparison lightly: he has written at length about his son's Down Syndrome, and is one of the key figures in the emerging field of disability studies. When he says outspoken conservative students are best handled as disabled students, he knows what he is saying and he means it.

It sounds as though the particular student Berube describes was disruptive. But as the essay unfolds, Berube loses track of a crucial distinction, that it was not the student's conservatism that was disruptive, but his disruptive behavior that was disruptive--the talking out of turn, the monopolizing of class discussion, the increasingly extreme stance as class provocateur. When Berube equates that sort of behavior, which is hardly the private property of conservatives, and which is so common among students as to be barely worth mentioning, with student conservatism; when he illogically presents one difficult student who happened also to be a conservative student as a telling exemplar of the "problem" of conservative students; when he goes so far as to announce that he has never seen a conservative student penalized for his beliefs and even speculates that perhaps conservative tales of professorial liberal bias stem from disruptive conservative students' failure to understand that their professors were penalizing them for their attitude problems and not for their beliefs; when Berube makes these arguments, he has gone way too far.

It's hard to know, ultimately, what the point of Berube's essay is. If it's a piece about handling difficult students, it should discuss a range of problems students can cause, and should not be oriented around questions of political difference. If it's a piece about what happens when students differ politically from their professors, it should, again, acknowledge the range of problems that can arise when teachers and students clash; it should acknowledge, too, that it is not always the students who are in the wrong in such situations and that sometimes there are indeed conservative teachers who clash with liberal students. Berube's resolutely anecdotal approach suggests, however, that his piece is far more narrowly motivated and far less evenhanded than either of the above possibilities.

The title of Berube's essay, "Should I Have Asked John to Cool It? Standards of Reason in the Classroom," tells it all: what was wrong with "John," ultimately, was not his etiquette, but his thoughts. John's beliefs were unreasonable. Berube recounts how, when John argued that the Japanese internment camps were justified, he "was flummoxed. I rarely challenge students directly in the course of class discussion, but I was so stunned that I almost blurted out, 'You've got to be kidding.'" The problem with John was that he thought in ways Berube found irrational and offensive. Rather than acknowledge the profound challenge this posed for him as a teacher, however, Berube casts himself as the longsuffering teacher-who-is-never-wrong and describes John as part of a lunatic fringe, as one whose anti-social antics and crazy beliefs nearly ruined his course:

...the class had been completely derailed. John was confirmed in his isolation and sense of opposition, his classmates took to eye-rolling and head-shaking at his remarks, and, by the time we got in December to Colson Whitehead's 1999 The Intuitionist, a whimsical allegory about racial uplift and the history of elevator inspection, John was complaining that there were no good white characters in the novel. By that point, even I had had enough, and I told him, via e-mail, that his complaint was not only unwarranted on its face but thoroughly beside the point: In this class, I said, we are not in the business of pursuing reductive identity-politics enterprises like looking for "positive images" in literature, regardless of what group images we might be talking about.

When the semester was over, I wondered whether John's story was the stuff of which right-wing legends are made. Would he remember the seminar as the class in which his right to free speech and debate was trampled by politically correct groupthink (even though he spoke more often than any other single student)? He couldn't possibly contend that I'd graded him on the political content of his remarks, because he'd gotten an A for the course. But there was no question that he felt embattled, that he didn't see any contradictions in his argument about the internment camps, and that he had begun to develop an aggressive/defensive "I'm not a racist, but these people . . ." mode of speaking that would someday get him either in serious trouble with some angry hyphenated-Americans or the job Dinesh D'Souza held at the American Enterprise Institute.

Throughout his essay, Berube is at pains to present himself as a tolerant and thoughtful pedagogue, one whose example, he modestly implies, ought to be followed by other leftist profs who find themselves woefully beset by conservative students. But the contempt for John and for conservatism that drips from these paragraphs tells quite another story--one that is all the more revealing for the fact that Berube does not seem to realize just how much they say about him. Berube's argument seems to be that the conservative critique of academe is totally trumped up, the elaborate rationalization of socially inept and intellectually-challenged students who would rather invent stories about liberal bias in academe than get some manners and learn to think. In this regard, Berube's essay, for all its folksy personableness, bears a disturbing resemblance to a recent UC Berkeley "study" showing that conservatism is a type of mental disease (follow the link and notice how this account of the study mockingly anticipates Berube's association of conservatism with disability).

Berube rightly observes that many critics of academe are not teachers, and thus have no idea what sorts of intellectual balancing acts teaching always inevitably entails. But his companion suggestion, that critiques of academic bias are baseless, and that conservatives who object to the political and intellectual homogeneity of campus life are simply imagining things, simply does not follow. His own essay unwittingly but powerfully proves that point.

UPDATE: A conservative law student writes:

After reading your post on "Profiling the conservative student", a thought struck me. Perhaps one reason that the conservative student (accepting Prof. Berube's stereotyping for the moment) is so combative is because there is the constant impression from academia that conservativeness is obviously wrong and unwanted? After all, how many books in Prof. Berube's class would even be considered moderate? It doesn't seem like many. Even the first discussion between the professor and the student struck me as the professor telling the student that of course he would feel this way, the student was privileged for being white, and that if he weren't, he would feel differently.

In the end, being conservative myself, the environment is hostile and unaccepting to conservative views, which in turn makes the student more combative. If you feel like you have to unjustifiably defend your positions all of the time, then you would be a rude, combative jerk, too. Honestly, I wonder if this professor's tenor would change if he had to spend his years in an oppositely oriented, political environment?

Another reader, this one a college teacher, writes,

The most disturbing line [in the article] is: "We parted amicably, and I thought that though he wasn't about to agree with me on this one, we had, at least, made our arguments intelligible to each other."

What Berube is missing is that teaching isn't a debate between teacher and student. Of course our arguments are more compelling--they'd better be after years of practice--but what students need is our help in making their arguments stronger, better reasoned, more solidly supported. We're supposed to shoot holes in their positions even when they are our own and we're supposed to ask them how they would respond to opposing arguments and show them how if they can't, even when their positions differ from ours. ›We are not supposed to make our arguments intelliglble to them; we are supposed to show them how to make their arguments intelligble to the world, regardless of their views.

Thanks for writing.

UPDATE UPDATE: Last September, John Rosenberg had some choice comments to make on a piece Berube wrote about demographic norming of SAT scores. So did Kimberly Swygert.

Erin O'Connor, 10:30 AM | Permalink

December 1, 2003 [feather]
Suing for free speech

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has started a meme--and possibly a movement. In the past year, FIRE coordinated a series of lawsuits against public colleges and universities that use speech codes to deny students the First Amendment rights to which they are entitled by law. The idea seems to be catching on: following the example of students at Citrus College, Shippensburg University, and Texas Tech, a student at Southwest Missouri State University is suing the school for placing unconstitutional restrictions on campus speech:

SMS Junior Ryan Cooper claims the university's policies are unconstitutional and severely restrict spontaneous speech.

The suit, filed Friday in U.S. District court in Springfield, says the civil rights of all students are violated by the school's free speech policy on campus because it restricts protests and demonstrations to one area on campus.

SMS designates an area known as "The Bear Paw" near the student union and bookstore, as the only spot on campus where students are allowed to hold mass gatherings or pass out literature. Students are also required to notify the university about any gatherings before they are held.

Cooper is not alone in his protests of campus policy. Others believe students should have the right to gather anywhere on campus, for any reason, without prior approval. Brian Figus opposes the policy. "Look at it this way," Figus compares. "If the city of Springfield decided the downtown square was going to be a free speech zone and if you wanted to protest or distribute literature you would have to go there otherwise it would be illegal - the entire city would be up in arms."

University administration has appointed a committee to review the school's current policies to see if any changes need to be made or any of the rules need to be clarified. Not everyone has a problem with it. "I've never had a problem speaking my mind on campus - ever, even when my opinion is not popular" said student Kate Katsulas. "I just think you have to be respectful of the educational environment."

The Alliance Defense Fund Law Center of Kansas City is representing Cooper in the the federal lawsuit. It names SMS President John Keiser and seven members of the board of governors as defendants.

The Alliance Defense Fund is also involved with the Texas Tech lawsuit. Read SMS's "Public Forum Policy" and compare that with the case FIRE and the ADF are making against Texas Tech's "free speech gazebo."

Speech codes don't survive the scrutiny of the courts, as a host of schools have learned the hard way. Look for this one to fall, too.

Erin O'Connor, 7:42 PM | Permalink