Courting even more trouble at BC
KC Johnson has more on administrative corruption at Brooklyn College, in the form of a Sun op-ed and a Cliopatria post on the school's "diversity commissars." One quarter of BC's hires over the past eight years have been minority hires. And yet, Brooklyn College now requires that every search committee include a minority faculty member--even if there are no minority faculty members qualified to evaluate job candidates in certain fields.
KC's op-ed summarizes the college's political agenda, as manifested in policy, public statements, and ethically suspect hiring practices:
If the collegeís own hiring numbers suggest no need for this untested scheme, then why has Brooklyn College embraced it? The administration apparently believes that hiring more minorities will further its goal ó pursued through a variety of questionable means over the past three years ó of creating an ideologically homogeneous faculty.
This is an institution, after all, where the provost, Roberta Matthews, maintaining that ìteaching is a political act,î has advocated restructuring the curriculum in order to train ìglobal citizens.î
To clarify the concept, a document recently distributed by Ms. Matthews stated that ìglobalî ó as opposed, apparently, to American ó citizens are those sensitized to ìconcepts of race, class, and gender.î
On another front, the administration endorsed a written testament from a senior womenís history professor ó whose Web site affirms her belief in combining scholarship with ìactivismî for ìassorted radical causesî ó condemning as ìold-fashionedî those who teach ìpolitical history, focused on figures in power.î
One job candidate, Sean McMeekin, recalled that this professor interviewed him not about his impressively reviewed scholarship but instead about the appropriateness of his having written for a conservative Christian webzine.
Not only did this ideological profiling pass without rebuke, but the Brooklyn College president, C. M. Kimmich, recently used his powers under CUNYís bylaws to install the professor on the departmentís personnel committee, where she can ensure that future hires conform to her ideological agenda.
Johnson also notes that Brooklyn College's current hiring policy requires white men--and only white men--to demonstrate a "commitment to furthering diversity."
July 27, 2004
Courting trouble at Brooklyn College
It is by now an accepted commonplace that the Brooklyn College administration thoroughly discredited itself with its botched and biased handling of history professor KC Johnson's tenure case. By the fall of 2002, when Johnson came up for tenure, he had run afoul of his chairman, Philip Gallagher, and several other senior colleagues for criticizing the procedural irregularities surrounding their professional conduct. He alienated some when he suggested that a campus conference on the aftermath of 9/11 ought to include more than one (left wing, anti-war) viewpoint; he alienated others when he suggested that a particular hire should be made on the basis of merit and not demographics (Gallagher had written that the search committee should concentrate on hiring a woman, ideally one of those rare women "we can live with, who are not whiners from the word go or who need therapy as much as they need a job"). Between his demonstrated ability to think for himself and his threatening unwillingness to subordinate matters of principle to the political machinations of departmental higher-ups, Johnson inadvertently canned his own tenure case: Despite having published several books and many articles, despite his stellar teaching and service records, Johnson was denied promotion because he was deemed "uncollegial" by hostile colleagues who did not appreciate the presumption with which he firmly but respectfully argued that, in instances like those cited above, there was a better, more ethical way to do academic business.
One of those hostile colleagues was Bonnie Anderson, a feminist historian who describes herself as combining her writing with "activism ... for assorted radical causes." Anderson's role in Johnson's case is the stuff of legend--described by her own chairman as an "academic terrorist" and "an unscrupulous and unprofessional mole", and characterized by colleague Ted Burrows as "someone who believes that she has license to lie and cheat as she pleases," Anderson nonetheless exercised enormous influence in the campaign to fire Johnson. Offended both by Johnson's belief that ideology should not be the decisive factor in hiring and by his scholarly focus on political history, Anderson allowed her politics to trump professional ethics when she weighed in on Johnson's case: Her considered opinion of his work, which she described as ìpolitical history, focused on figures in powerî--was that Johnson's is an ìold-fashioned approach to our field,î one that only attracts ìa certain type of student, almost always a young white male.î Anderson went on to suggest that white men's interest in the ìnarrowî topics that comprise Johnson's area of expertise is itself a symptom of intellectual limitation. With this kiss-of-death evaluation, Anderson set out to destroy Johnson's career for the simple reason that he does not see the world through the same lens that she does. She very nearly succeeded.
There was a good deal of unscrupulous behavior in Johnson's case (documented in relentless and revealing detail on Johnson's web site). What happened at the departmental level was matched--perhaps even exceeded--by what happened at the level of the Brooklyn College provost (Roberta Matthews) and president (Chris Kimmich). To CUNY's credit, Chancellor Matthew Goldstein overturned the decision to fire Johnson, and Johnson now enjoys tenure in the very department that sought to banish him. Not to CUNY's credit, however, the people responsible for the rank malfeasance of Johnson's case have not suffered any consequences for their actions. Gallagher was promoted to a new administrative post last fall. Roberta Matthews remains in her position as provost, Kimmich remains in his position as president. The college even formally adopted a collegiality criterion for assessing tenure cases--despite the manner in which such a criterion was used against Johnson (fortunately, negative publicity forced the college to retract the new policy almost as soon as it was framed). And Anderson? Kimmich recently named her to the history department's Appointments Committee, which means that for the next three years, she will have a decisive influence over hiring and promotion cases. In the Johnson case, Anderson showed herself to be deeply unfit for exactly this sort of administrative responsibility. But instead of keeping her far away from situations where she can do lasting and actionable damage, Kimmich has placed in her hands the enormous power she has already shown herself all too ready to abuse--the power to make and break academic careers.
With this appointment, Kimmich is making two announcements: 1) Political conformity is a condition of success at Brooklyn College; and 2) CUNY is courting lawsuits.
July 22, 2004
In medias res
Moving house -- back soon.
July 15, 2004
Shaping the 21st-Century College
Swarthmore history professor Timothy Burke has revealed his much-anticipated proposal for a new, improved liberal arts college. It's a detailed and daring proposal, one worth perusing carefully and discussing at length. From the prelude:
Iíve been messing around for a while with a blueprint for an alternative institution and have finally finished the basic sketch. This is no more than a sketch, and very clearly impractical or inadvisable in a number of the gestures it contains. It attempts to resolve through fundamental redesign three interconnected problems:
1) The haphazard, disconnected curricular design of both liberal arts colleges and research universities, both the range of subjects covered and the connections between areas of study. Rather than glossing over the relationship between integrative and specialized knowledge and trusting everything to turn out for the best, as most conventional liberal arts colleges do, or actively favoring specialized knowledge, as most research universities do, this curriculum proposes a much more consciously and rigorously organized relationship between integrative and specialized knowledge and between academic study and practical know-how. This is my own response to the kinds of curricular incoherence identified so expertly by Gerald Graff in his book Clueless in Academe, which I strongly recommend to both students and other academics.
2) The insular, timid and self-confirming character of a great deal of contemporary academic practice. This outline responds to this both by widening the labor pool of potential instructors and by systematically directing faculty towards communicating with wider publics while also demanding that faculty broaden their knowledge and intellectual practice rather than narrowing themselves towards more and more inward-looking forms of specialization. Rather than the laissez-faire spirit of most contemporary academic institutions, in which generalism is only one of many options for professional development and a responsibility to wider public discourse and needs is not a requirement, the 21st Century College would make these central conditions of continued employment. As part of this reorganization, this blueprint also advises the abolition of conventional academic departments and units.
3) The rise of the expensive "full-service" model of higher education coupled with the pervasive resurgence of in loco parentis, of the college or university as "nanny" determined to manage most aspects of community life and ethos. This blueprint counsels abandoning the vast majority of services provided by most colleges and universities while also maintaining a scrupulous disinterest in the private lives of students, faculty and administrators.
A couple of basic things about this outline.
First, Iím serious about it: if you happen to know where thereís 500 million dollars lying around, Iíd very gladly try to be part of building this institution for real.
Second, I think some aspects of this design would productively inform efforts to reform current institutions, but this is also an integral project, with all parts tightly connected. I think many of them would not work nearly so well if they were adopted on a piecemeal basis. I would be equally concerned about ìwatering downî key aspects of the design in order to make them more respectable by the standards of the current academy. The key idea here, more than any other, is to create an institution whose legitimacy is largely not measured within the normative terms offered by contemporary academia.
Read the whole thing, see what you think, and feel free to comment.
My own feeling about the proposal is that it's an excellent starting point. I have some reservations about how the curriculum is shaped, though I am also intrigued by it--I'm provisionally open to the idea of doing away with traditional departments (this may surprise some readers), but only if it can be shown that doing so does not fragment students' educations even more than they already are in the current system, and instead actually improves their abilities to master bodies of knowledge in a systematic and meaningful way. I do like how careful Burke is to envision a four-year course of study that builds logically from one year to the next and that has as its ultimate goal the intellectual independence of highly skilled, well trained, immensely competent graduates. I like, too, Burke's decision to jettison both the tenure system (in favor of a series of eight year teaching contracts) and the costly and intrusive bureaucracy that serves the ends of in loco parentis at so many colleges and universities. This is a streamlined, no nonsense, no frills approach to education that appeals greatly to me in its intellectual seriousness, its focussed sense of mission, and its daringness (no less than daring is needed in our present moment). It sounds like the sort of place where I would be proud to teach.
July 14, 2004
Styles of academic shaming, contd.
In response to my post asking readers to recount their experiences of academic shaming, one reader wrote the following:
I count myself among the shamed. I failed one of my comprehensive exams the first time around. My advisor at the time suggested that I write a paper that would more completely flesh out my response to one overarching question in my major field. I thought this was a good idea as I could complete the paper without the time constraints and stress of the exam. I spent every minute of every day of the next week (my deadline) working on that paper. When he read it, my advisor had only one thing to say...."I can't believe you got even further away from the correct answer; how can you be so stupid?" I was humiliated. He had voiced one of my private concerns that I was not smart enough to do this PhD thing and now it was out in the open (I'm sure that was his intention as well). I spoke with the department chair who called a meeting between the three of us. During the entire meeting my advisor would not look at me; he looked at the ground or at the dept. chair. He apologized for the use of the word "stupid", but not really for the intention. I ended up retaking the exam the following semester and passed without any problems. I passed because fellow students told me what I needed to write in the exam. Not the answers, but the strategy; for example, pick one theory and defend it to the death even though you don't agree with that theory. As they correctly pointed out, who cares, the exam itself is not a part of your record, just whether you passed. Lesson 1 learned in actually trying to synthesize information gained in grad school.
This same advisor (he was the only one in my particular field), during the dissertation writing phase, repeatedly failed to read my chapters, continued with questions (more carefully worded) regarding my intelligence level, and then in the end, announced that since he took another job ... he was dropping all his dissertation committee work and I would have to find a new committee chair and a new committee member. As far as I know, I'm the only one he completely dropped. This little adventure added a year to my dissertation. In the end, I finished up the damn thing under the "I'll show the bastard" banner. My second chair, who had been on the committee originally, was sympathetic and actually gave me good feedback. However, to this day, I seriously doubt my writing ability, do not like to submit articles to journals, and HATE to have other people read my work. I still think I'm too stupid to handle this career, despite the fact that I finally landed a tenure-track position, and despite the fact that colleagues other than my husband have commented very favorably on my work.
I'm still not sure why he behaved toward me as he did. Given the information I've gathered from others, I am the only one he treated this way.
This week's Chronicle of Higher Education contains a piece detailing a similar episode:
Brad asks for his students' love, and he gets it. We felt the knife when he had surgery one semester, winced along with him when his fittingly Tudor gout flared up. We listen sympathetically, trying not to let our reactions give anything away, when he wonders aloud whether he's too old for his students to find him attractive.
But I wish Brad would spend a bit less time in the English Renaissance with Elizabeth and a bit more in the Italian Renaissance with Machiavelli, who wrote that it was better to be feared than to be loved. Because whatever Brad thinks, it's fear, not love, that he wants.
Last semester, after waiting three years for Brad to read a chapter draft, I asked for more feedback in a tone that wasn't exactly courtly. And I implied --Ýin public --Ýthat one of Brad's suggestions for my dissertation might not work. Those were fatal errors.
Today I can no longer call Brad my director at all. He resigned from my committee with a curt note, and though he had approved my dissertation prospectus and passed me for my comps, he refused to sign the paperwork that would get me into doctoral candidacy --Ýand didn't bother telling me.
... I sure do feel eviscerated. The department hasn't quite kicked me out. I've found a new dissertation director, recently tenured. Brad seems to head every important committee, though, and I'm not too optimistic about my career.
Grad school is the center court of academic shaming, and these two anecdotes demonstrate some of its primary ways and means. In each, the author is absolutely at the mercy of an egomaniacal dissertation director; in each, the dissertation director abuses his power by playing emotional games, exacting homage, levelling insults, and by dumping inadequately obsequious students in mid-dissertation, when doing so is most disruptive and damaging to their progress, their prospects, and their confidence. And, in neither instance, did the student so manipulated have any recourse whatever.
As every graduate student knows, the best way to maximize your chances of getting fairly prompt and reasonable guidance and advice from thesis advisors is to stay in their good graces. The price of doing so is--not always, but often--tolerating a lot of crap. That's a high price to pay, but for many it is preferable to the price of complaining. The trouble arises when professors impose on their students in truly extreme ways--when they do things like sit on dissertation chapters for months or even years at a time (and while Brad is an extreme example, the phenomenon of the prof who can't be bothered to read his students' work is extraordinarily common). No one in a position to hold professors accountable for such behavior does; the students who are at the professor's mercy are left to try to reform him without antagonizing him. It's a tried and true recipe for a depressingly common disaster, one where the person who suffers, the person who is both shamed and blamed, is the person who should have been most protected from fallout.
July 13, 2004
More shame and blame in the student press
Oregon State is not the only campus where the student press has been attacked recently by misguided campus activists who think that the school paper should pander to special interest groups rather than publish fair and accurate stories and hardhitting editorials written from a variety of perspectives. Kansas State has got some pretty serious issues along these lines, too.
KC Johnson describes how Ron Johnson, the national award-winning Collegian's faculty advisor, was fired:
His offense? He ran afoul of the schoolís diversity coordinator, associate provost Myra Gordon. At Virginia Tech, Gordon had overseen a controversial faculty diversity initiative that built off the writing of Cathy Trower, who has argued that ìmerit is socially constructed by the dominant coalitionî and that white male (and only white male) job candidates should be required to demonstrate a commitment to diversity before being hired.
At K-St., Gordon backed the president of the schoolís Black Student Union, Natalie Rolfe, who complained after the Collegian failed to cover the Big 12 Conference on Black Student Government, which Kansas State hosted in February 2004. (The article doesnít mention whether the BSU issued a press release before the event, but it appears that the organization did not.) In response to Rolfeís complaint, the newspaperís editors publicly apologized for not covering the event, developed a new system for reporting to ensure that all campus events received proper coverage, and planned ìadditional diversity training.î
These moves did not satisfy Rolfe, who said that she wanted "a system to make sure the paper's more friendly to the campusî (interesting conception of a newspaperís role). She then organized a protest march, with 50 students wearing T-shirts reading ìW.W.R.G.?,î for ìWhen Will Ron Go?î Gordon, meanwhile, told Rolfe, "I'm backing you all the way,î and publicly stated that Johnson should be fired. (Gordon refused to comment for the Chronicle story.) Johnson then was removed from his position, after the college dean issued a report accusing him of a poor attitude in dealing with studentsóeven though the dean hadnít interviewed any of the students on the newspaperís staff, and has refused to say with which students he did speak.
Imagine, for a moment, that the following occurred: a state university newspaper received several national awards, and its journalism adviser, an African-American female, had developed a warm long-term working relationship with the students under her charge. The paper then failed to cover a conference bringing together campus affiliates of, say, the Center for Individual Rights, after which the newspaper editors publicly apologized and agreed to undergo ideological diversity training to ensure they were more sensitive to conservatives in the future. Nonetheless, the student leader of the campus CIR demanded the dismissal of the journalism adviser.
In both the Oregon State and the Kansas State cases, the trigger point was race. But notice that the issue here is not the offensive publications of the paper--as it was at Oregon State--but the silence of the paper on a matter some community members felt it should be foregrounding. Where the Oregon State case centered on whether the student paper should be printing editorials that offended members of the campus community, the Kansas State case centers on the journalism advisor's perceived failure to compel Collegian staff to politicize decisions about the paper's content. Though the Collegian's failure to cover the event was acknowledged as an oversight, and though the paper has since implemented procedures for ensuring that all campus events that should be covered get covered, it had to be described as racist, it had to be protested with a march, and a head had to roll. When Kansas State adminstrators fired Ron Johnson, they were engaging in the worst sort of pandering appeasement: Handing Myra Gordon, Natalie Rolfe, and the Black Student Union Johnson's head on a platter, KS admins were sacrificing an innocent man's career in order to avoid being called racist themselves. In allowing themselves to be shamed into blatantly unethical wrongdoing, the Kansas State administrators succeeded ultimately in shaming themselves.
The good news is that the Kansas courts understand what the people at Kansas State do not. A judge has just ordered the university to reinstate Johnson.
There's more at the Chronicle of Higher Education.
July 12, 2004
The state of campus speech
Reason's Cathy Young has written a piece detailing some of the more egregious recent efforts to suppress and punish politically incorrect campus speech. Exhibits A and B are the new--patently unconstitutional--speech code at Oklahoma State, and a controversial student column in the Oregon State paper that became the occasion not for reaffirming the importance of a free press, but for shaming the paper's staff into conformity with campus norms on what constitutes acceptable expression:
In April, for instance, the faculty council of Oklahoma State University approved a "racial and sexual harassment policy" that amounts to a far-reaching speech code. According to a report in The Daily O'Collegian, the policy's definition of harassment includes "a hostile environment that unreasonably interferes with the work or academic performance of those of a particular race, color, ethnicity or national origin," even if such "interference" is "unintentional." It covers "verbal and nonverbal harassment, as well as print and electronic harassment."
The policy does purport to exempt any "presentation or inquiry falling within justifiable academic standards covering course contents and pedagogy." But justifiable is a nebulous term, and the policy as a whole is so broad and so vague that it would surely chill the legitimate exchange of ideas, particularly outside the classroom -- in student papers, for instance.
Some recent incidents involving student journalism bolster these concerns. Around the same time that Oklahoma State approved its harassment policy, a controversy erupted at Oregon State University after the student paper, The Daily Barometer, ran an article by staff columnist David Williams titled "A message from a white male to the African American community." Williams argued that one reason for the social ills disproportionately afflicting blacks is that character and accountability in the black community are undermined by a tendency to rally around prominent African-Americans behaving badly, from O.J. Simpson to singer R. Kelly, currently facing child pornography charges on the basis of a videotape allegedly showing him having sex with an underage girl.
Williams went out of his way to qualify his message, saying he realized his article could be seen as "picking on the worst" of the African-American community and that his judgment on the issue might be suspect because he is not black. "I have never been the victim of racism," he wrote. "I am a white male. This all is very easy for me to say." Williams nonetheless concluded that blacks "need to grow beyond the automatic reaction of defending someone because he or she shares the same skin color and is in a dilemma."
Maybe it was a good column making a necessary point, and maybe it was tired and condescending. But the reaction went far beyond criticism of Williams' arguments or tone. Following a protest rally, The Daily Barometer ran a groveling editorial that repeatedly apologized for printing the column and called its publication "an inexcusable mistake." Williams was fired from his position as columnist. At a campus forum held a few days later, university president Ed Gray called the incident a "teachable moment" -- the teaching in question, of course, being about diversity and institutional racism, not about freedom of the press. The Barometer's Forum editor, Christina Stewart, offered yet another apology for letting the offending article appear. (In a twist, it was subsequently revealed that Williams' column had been inspired by an article on a similar subject by the Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts Jr., who is black.)
Young's examples point to the two principal ways speech is managed on campus these days: shaming the offending party into voluntary submission to expressive campus norms, and forcing an unrepentant violator of expressive campus norms to undergo the mandatory shaming of being punished for expressing his or her views.
Young's use of the word "groveling" in the Oregon State anecdote announces that this is an example of the first shaming principle: It speaks to the manner in which the OSU student journalists allowed their emotions--their very human desire not to be mocked, attacked, humiliated--to override their integrity as journalists. Christina Stewart, et al, were shamed into apologizing for publishing the unpopular opinions of a fellow student; worse, rather than defending their editorial prerogatives as well as the expressive rights of the offending columnist, they fired the columnist (when it comes to groups, ritual humiliation is never complete without a purge). The Barometer isn't likely to repeat the "mistake" of printing columns that question or challenge the political orthodoxies that prevail on the OSU campus; the staff there has learned its lesson, has caved publicly and abjectly to the pressure of public opinion, and will be actively engaged in self-censorship from here on out. So much for fearless reporting and engaged, challenging editorial pages that reflect a diversity of viewpoints.
Campus speech codes exist for the cases when individuals or groups refuse to be shamed into submission. They are institutionally ratified shaming devices that not only make it acceptable to punish students for saying things that offend others, but that use shame as the punitive weapon of choice. Sensitivity training, a common "sentence" meted out to those found guilt of violating campus speech codes, is a shaming device, a mechanism meant to make people repudiate their own consciences and accept instead an externally imposed set of rules about what kinds of beliefs and behaviors regarding race, sex, and sexuality are acceptable (Jane Elliot's Blue Eyed workshops on racial sensitivity are classics in this genre). Forced apology, another signal feature of the punishments meted out under campus speech codes, is entirely about shame, about compelling an individual who is by definition unrepentant, unwilling to apologize, to do so anyway, and to do so in a manner that is convincing to administrators and the offended parties. That such a punishment makes a mockery of the principles it is intended to uphold--sensitivity to difference, tolerance of that which is not like oneself--seems to be lost on those who so piously dole the punishments out.
Granted, harassment exists; granted threats and incitements are not free speech; and granted that even the freest of free expression should observe reasonable restrictions on time, place, and manner. But campus speech codes that attempt to restrict expression based on content, and that give the emotional response of others priority over a speaker's right to express himself, go way too far. They are designed to get inside people's heads and hearts, and they reserve the right not only to punish people for what they find there, but to try to reform their personalities along more "acceptable" lines.
The sick logic of the speech code, when it is used as a means of punishment, is thus that of invasion of conscience: When faced with a choice between apologizing for speaking your mind and being expelled, a student is forced to decide whether his principles matter more to him than his record, whether he is willing to risk his future for the sake of his ideals. There is indeed a great deal of shame in that. But it should be felt by the people who enforce and endorse the codes, not by those the codes attack.
Hat tip: Fred Ray
July 9, 2004
What to do
Given some of the comments here and in other posts on Critical Mass, I'd like to ask commenters in this thread the following questions in the most open, non-hostile way possible:
1) What is it you believe English professors are doing in their research and teaching?
2) How did you come to your conclusions?
3) What is it you think we should be doing?
Good ones. Comments are open.
Reading between the lines
The NEA has released a disturbing--but not surprising--report on the reading habits of Americans. Entitled "Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America," the report builds on a survey of 17,000 adults that was done by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2002. What it shows is what we already know--only more so. People who care about books and reading--teachers, parents, librarians, publishers--know very well that reading is a disappearing pastime, and that the reading of literature in particular is an increasingly endangered activity. The NEA study grounds that sense in some powerful statistics. I quote from Scott McLemee's Chronicle of Higher Education piece on yesterday's unveiling of the study at the New York Public Library:
The findings in the report show a steady drop, over two decades, in the percentage of Americans who read books of any sort -- with a much steeper decline in the consumption of literature. (The report defines literature as fiction, poetry, and drama, without regard to genre or quality.) In 1992, for example, 60.9 percent of those surveyed indicated that they had read a book of some sort during the previous year. By 2002, that figure had shrunk to 56.6 percent, a decline of 7 percent.
When asked about literature in particular, the change was even more marked. In 1992, 54 percent of respondents indicated they had read a literary work of some kind. That proportion fell to 46.7 percent in 2002, a decrease of almost 14 percent. Besides declining twice as fast as book reading in general, literary reading appears to have taken an especially hard hit over the past decade. From 1982 to 1992, it decreased by a mere 5 percent -- a rate that has accelerated, the report suggests, with the "cumulative presence and availability" of "an enormous array of electronic media."
The figures in the new report show considerable variation in reading habits across demographic categories. Higher income and educational levels correspond to higher percentages of literature consumption, for example. Gender made a difference, too: 55.1 percent of women reported in 2002 that they had read literature over the previous year, while only 37.6 percent of men did. And among respondents identifying themselves as white, 51.4 percent reported reading literature -- nearly twice the rate among Hispanics, at 26.5 percent. The corresponding figure for African-Americans was 37.1 percent, while those tabulated as "other" came in at 43.7 percent.
The steepest decline -- and the one that the report notes with most alarm -- has occurred among young adults. In 1982, respondents ages 18 to 34 were the group most likely to report the recreational reading of literature. Over the intervening decades, they have become the group least likely to do so (except for some segments of the population over 65).
The change has been particularly striking among those ages 18 to 24. The report says that, over the past two decades, the share of the adult population engaged in literary reading declined by 18 percent, from 56.9 percent in 1982 to 43 percent in 2002. But for the 18-to-24 cohort, the drop has been faster, sinking from 59.8 percent to 42.8 percent, a decline of 28 percent.
"Reading at Risk" states that the trends among young readers (or, perhaps, nonreaders) suggest that "unless some effective solution is found, literary culture, and literacy in general, will continue to worsen."
"Indeed, at the current rate of loss," it says, "literary reading as a leisure activity will virtually disappear in half a century."
The report quite deliberately does not propose a way to reverse America's trend toward, if not illiteracy, aliteracy. When asked why not, NEA chairman Dana Gioia responded that "the National Endowment for the Arts shouldn't try to tell the culture what to do, or not to do." Gioia is hoping that by publicizing the study across the country, a national debate about our collective commitment not only to books and reading, but to creating and sustaining a meaningful culture, will result. "We find that literary reading correlates -- not in a rough sense but almost in an identical sense -- with civic and cultural engagement, " he told McLemee. "So the decline that we see in reading has not only cultural consequences, but social and civic consequences that are very frightening for a democracy."
The full study is available from the NEA in .pdf format.
July 8, 2004
Shaming and the label
I've written a lot on this site about how the label "conservative" is used in the softer academic disciplines as a shaming and norming device. I've noted, too, how often that label is utterly unmoored from anything like an actual description of an individual's politics--you don't have to be a Republican, or deeply religious, to be labelled conservative in academe. All you have to be is different from, or skeptical of, the prevailing political, ideological, and social norms. Because of this, to be labelled "conservative" by a professor or by a colleague is often a damning and devastating event--it is an isolating move on the part of the labellers, and it tends to be used as a form of moral castigation, a way of signalling that the person so labelled is deficient in character. Needless to say, the label is thus also professionally damaging--so much so that it can even be used to explain away or even justify an individual's professional struggles. The conservative label can be used to blame as well as shame.
In response to my Tuesday post asking readers to describe their experiences of academic shaming, I received a note that demonstrates how this works:
I was on the job market ABD a few years ago in theology, applied to a school, and didn't get the job. One of my professors in my home department had worked at that school, and I asked her if she could tell me anything constructive about why I didn't get the job. She called me into her office and told me that it was because I was "too conservative." Try as I might to figure out how this awful fact would have come out over the course of the interview, I couldn't remember. The professor I spoke with, by the way, is the resident shrill feminist in the department. She had been on my comps committee and had been quite supportive, and I had prided myself on my ability to get along with her. Now I avoid her.
Worth noting: this is precisely the scenario that many academics deny exists--that "liberal bias" excludes conservatives from ivory tower--only with a twist. Who knows whether liberal bias was a factor in this particular hiring process? What we do know is that this professor wanted to make her student think there was--and, moreover, that she wanted to convey to her student that this was just fine, that she deserved the discrimination she allegedly got. Note how the term "conservative" was not defined, but was instead used as a blanket condemnation of the student. Note also the suggestion that the student's shameful secret--her conservatism--was obvious to all (but the student herself, it seems).
I have to say, that's one fine piece of shaming. It's also a fine illustration of how shameless are those who take it upon themselves--always in the name of being constructive--to shame others.
Thanks for writing. Readers remain invited to share their own stories of shaming and being shamed in the groves of academe.
July 7, 2004
What 2 read when U R 12
The Worcester, Massachusetts summer reading list for seventh and eighth graders includes John Steinbeck's The Red Pony, Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, Jack London's The Call of the Wild--and volumes of poetry by folk singer-yodeller Jewel and former gangsta rapper Tupac Shakur.
Michelle Malkin explains how Tupac made the list, and condemns the choice:
Teachers in Worcester, Massachusetts, have embraced Shakur's posthumously published book of poems as a way to get middle school students' attention. "We wanted to include books that kids would want to read," Michael O'Sullivan, a member of the summer reading list selection committee, explained to the Telegram and Gazette of Worcester last month before school let out. ''Reading counterculture in schools, and to get kids to read anything that is not completely objectionable, is the goal,'' Deputy Superintendent Stephen E. Mills echoed.
Frances Arena, manager of curriculum and professional development of the Worcester Public Schools, told me this week that Shakur's book will remain on the list for the foreseeable future because it "heightens awareness of character education" and, more importantly, because it's "popular with the kids."
If that's the standard, why not just drop the pretense of academic instruction and assign them comic books and romance novels?
A school board member in Palm Beach County, Florida, is also championing Shakur's so-called literary work. Debra Robinson lobbied to bring Shakur's book into the classroom last month because "I always think we need to capture the children's attention where they are and bring them to where they need to be."
The presumption that children óand particularly inner-city children ócan only be stimulated by the contemporary and familiar smacks of lazy elitism and latent racism. These educators, and I use that term as loosely as gangster rappers wear their pants, are clearly more interested in appearing cool than in inculcating a refined literary sense in students. Their aim is not enlightenment, but dumbed-down ghetto entertainment. So that teachers and pupils can "relate" and be "down with that." So they can "keep it real." You know what I'm sayin'?
The schoolhouse rap peddlers disingenuously argue that Shakur's puerile scribblings serve as useful tools to engage children in reading. Reading? Deciphering is more like it. Shakur's volume, ''The Rose That grew From Concrete," looks more like a collection of cell phone text messages, teenage hieroglyphics, and Backstreet Boys album titles than a collection of poems.
One poem is "Dedicated 2 Me." Another is "Dedicated 2 My Heart." There's one "4 Nelson Mandela" and another "2 Marilyn Monroe," which laments: "They could never understand what u set out 2 do instead they chose 2 ridicule u." Another Shakur opus is titled "When Ure Hero Falls." Still another muses: "What Is It That I [insert pictograph of an eyeball] Search 4."
A dictionary, perhaps?
There's quite a discussion about the reading list over at Malkin's site, Joanne Jacobs, and at Rosenblog.
But with all the debate about whether it is or is not a good idea to include Tupac on the list, whether it is or is not racist to criticize his inclusion on the list, and so on, a much more elemental question has been lost: What do you put on a summer reading list for twelve and thirteen-year-olds? That's an awkward age even for bookworms--you are getting too old for kids' literature, and you are mostly still too young to be able to relate to work that is pitched to an adult audience. I'm thinking that the Steinbeck, London, and Dickens aren't the greatest inclusions on that list, either, if the goal is to get kids reading. The Red Pony rendered me yawning when I read it for a seventh-grade English class. A Tale of Two Cities is obscure even for many college students. The London is just plain bad. It's fascinating, in a surrealistic sort of way--but it is quite poorly written and at points, with its dead serious personification of Buck, laughably conceived.
So my question for readers is this: When you were twelve, what books did you voluntarily, happily read? What amazed you, knocked your socks off, made you want to read more? What would your summer reading list be?
I'll start by naming a few titles that I remember reading with absolute absorption at that age:
Anne Frank's diary
Richard Adams' Watership Down (which miraculously escapes the pitfalls into which London so awkwardly fell)
All things Tolkien
Alex Haley, Roots (I actually read this one at nine--it's very accessible, despite the length)
Anything by Agatha Christie
Pearl Buck, The Good Earth
Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind (also at nine, also surprisingly accessible)
Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer
Readers are welcome to name their own adolescent favorites in the comments. We'll address the "what do you read at fifteen?" question in another post.
July 6, 2004
I'm collecting tales of academic shaming. There are novels about this phenomenon--Philip Roth's Human Stain, Francine Prose's Blue Angel, and J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace are the most prominent of these--and I'd welcome references to other stories, novels, or plays that I might have missed. Even better, though, are personal experiences. I'm interested in the minutiae of academic policing, the ways shaming and shunning are used within academic space to shape the limits of acceptable opinion and to suppress or dismiss views, beliefs, ideas, behaviors, and methods that are deemed, for whatever reason, heretical. The best way to get at that phenomenon is through anecdote, and so I ask for yours. Anything goes--what you describe can be drawn from your own experience as shamer or shamed, or it can be something you have observed in others. I'm interested both in the how of the shaming and the feel of it, in what was done and in what it was like to do, or to be done to.
Feel free to reply to me privately, if you would prefer not to respond in the comments.
Thanks in advance to all.
Post-traumatic Chop Syndrome?
The Sasebo school district in Nagasaki, Japan requires all sixth-graders in the city to take cooking classes as part of their spring curriculum. Classes have been suspended at one school, however, ever since a student stabbed one of her classmates to death last month (the stabbing did not take place, as far as I can tell, in cooking class). The reason for the suspension is not safety, but sensitivity: Teachers are afraid that the sight of a knife will upset students by reminding them of the stabbing. No word on whether the school is encouraging parents to replace all home cutlery with plastic spoons.
July 5, 2004
Hemingway on writing
Since the Nobel Prize for Literature was first awarded in 1901, ten American authors have won it. The first was Sinclair Lewis, who won the prize in 1930, hard on the heels of his satirical expose of religious hypocrisy, Elmer Gantry (Lewis, who had earlier refused to accept the Pulitzer Prize for Arrowsmith, intimated that Theodore Dreiser would have been a more appropriate inaugural American laureate). The others are Eugene O'Neill (1936), Pearl Buck (1938), T.S. Eliot (1948), William Faulkner (1949), Ernest Hemingway (1954), John Steinbeck (1962), Saul Bellow (1976), Isaac Bashevis Singer (1978), and Toni Morrison (1993). Over the weekend, I found myself reading their acceptance speeches, which are transcribed on the Nobel web site. Hemingway's speech, which was read by the American ambassador as he was too ill to attend the banquet held in his honor, struck me particularly:
Having no facility for speech-making and no command of oratory nor any domination of rhetoric, I wish to thank the administrators of the generosity of Alfred Nobel for this Prize.
No writer who knows the great writers who did not receive the Prize can accept it other than with humility. There is no need to list these writers. Everyone here may make his own list according to his knowledge and his conscience.
It would be impossible for me to ask the Ambassador of my country to read a speech in which a writer said all of the things which are in his heart. Things may not be immediately discernible in what a man writes, and in this sometimes he is fortunate; but eventually they are quite clear and by these and the degree of alchemy that he possesses he will endure or be forgotten.
Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer's loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.
For a true writer each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed.
How simple the writing of literature would be if it were only necessary to write in another way what has been well written. It is because we have had such great writers in the past that a writer is driven far out past where he can go, out to where no one can help him.
I have spoken too long for a writer. A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it. Again I thank you.
Words to write--and read--by.
Hemingway recorded the speech later; you can listen to him reading it here.
Summer reading lists are popping up all over, in a nicely non-partisan way (see lists at The Guardian--where the Erin O'Connor mentioned is most definitely the other Erin O'Connor--and at National Review Online). Lots of good stuff listed there.
My own recent summer reads include Truman Capote's In Cold Blood (the granddaddy of true crime fiction, a chilling account of mass murder that is also a very intriguing window into how genres emerge), David Brooks' Bobos in Paradise (too funny, too true, should be read in Starbucks for proper frisson), and Tyler Anbinder's Five Points (a highly readable, densely researched account of life in nineteenth-century Manhattan's worst slum, with truly exceptional genealogical work on where Five Points' vast numbers of Irish immigrants came from). Currently reading: Saul Bellow's first novel, Dangling Man, about a young man hovering anxiously outside of life as he awaits draft orders, and H.W. Brands' The Age of Gold, a can't-put-downer about the California gold rush.
All highly recommended.
A Victorian school. For the scholar who has everything.
July 1, 2004
Ethics and open secrets
The open secret is one of the defining features of academic culture. In the radically de-centralized world of departmental self-governance, in which an institutionally-enabled lack of accountability goes hand in hand with the kind of intensely judgemental rumor-mongering common to small communities, everyone knows everything about everyone, and yet, quite often, no one is responsible for anything. I've known liars and plagiarists and harassers and incompetents; I've also known the administrators who look the other way rather than deal with the problems the lying, plagiarizing, harassing, and incompetence pose. The academic open secret is the by-product of a system where, very often, gossip is a more powerful regulatory force than the actual rules, and where the disciplinary power of rumor and innuendo frequently serves as a morally compromised substitute for a more straightforward and honest approach to institutional ethics.
The open secret system, in which illicit knowledge (or inaccurate rumor posing as knowledge) circulates in the absence of clear policy and responsible administrative action, gives rise to questions like the one posed to Ms. Mentor, CHE's resident advice columnist, by a befuddled and anonymous assistant professor:
My colleague "Phoebe" is a fraud, and the rest of us in the department have known it for years. Her dissertation, which she claimed was original work, is actually a translation of another scholar's dissertation in an obscure language, with a few extra pieces thrown in.
But no one confronts Phoebe, because she does what we don't want to -- she runs the language lab. She also does it superbly, serving as a mentor to countless students. Still, she doesn't have an honest Ph.D., and some new colleagues believe we ought to expose her to somebody -- her grad school, our department chair, our human resources staff, our dean, the local sensationalist paper....
We suspect that the dean and other administrators already know, but don't want to be bothered. She's now coming up for contract renewal -- but if we get rid of her, we may wind up with someone who won't run the language lab so conscientiously and cheerfully. Sometimes we think we should just continue our silence, since we don't have tenure, and the only reason to speak out is for Justice and Fairness, things that we've seen don't exist anyway.
Voila the contorted institutional ethics of the open secret system, replete with rationalizing, rumor-mongering, fantasies of humiliation and denunciation, fears of reprisal, and total lack of confidence in either the value of principle or the ethical commitments of the school. Ms. Mentor's response is instructively pragmatic.
Hat tip: Ralph Luker