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September 29, 2009 [feather]
Brave new world

The year I spent teaching in a small boarding school in the Berkshires just happened to be the year Kerry challenged Bush for the presidency. A short while before the election, classes were cancelled so that the students could all go register Democratic voters--not something they initiated, but that the faculty imposed. That fall, Paul Krugman came to speak at a nearby college. Every student in the school was required to go (I don't recall too much about the talk, except that it hinged on the "joke" of referring to Dick Cheney as "Voldemort"). The next night, as part of the college's effort to offer balance in its invited speakers, Dinesh D'Souza appeared. The boarding school, needless to say, ignored that. A colleague and I raised the issue of balance and free inquiry with the faculty. We were granted permission to personally escort any students who wished to attend the D'Souza event--which we did. A handful came, found the talk interesting, and found the contrast between the two talks more interesting still. They talked a lot about it, enjoyed trying to sort it all out and decide what they personally thought. Not a lesson the school wanted to teach--and not a move that made two new faculty members terribly popular among the old guard.

Erin O'Connor, 8:35 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

When will they ever learn?

Administrators at Saint Louis University apparently live under a rock. They tried to get away with preventing a controversial speaker from coming to campus -- and are getting the spanking they deserve from across the political spectrum:

David Horowitz is getting backing from his usual critics after Saint Louis University sought to change or block (depending on who you are talking to) a planned lecture he was scheduled to give next week on the campus.

The event -- "An Evening with David Horowitz: Islamo-Fascism Awareness and Civil Rights" -- was organized by the College Republications and Young America's Foundation, which say they were banned from hosting Horowitz. The university denies that it banned Horowitz, but acknowledges that it told the students that they should modify the event.

"University officials expressed concern that the program in its current form could be viewed as attacking another faith and seeking to cause derision on campus," said a university statement. "Believing that this was not their intent, University officials offered the students several suggestions to modify their program in a way that could achieve their aims while remaining true to the university's Catholic, Jesuit mission and values. Among the suggestions was that the students engage scholars with expertise on historical and theological aspects of Islam to help prepare their program."

The university says that it cannot be said to have banned the talk because it was still in discussions with student groups about the issue when they decided not to continue the negotiations.

Horowitz's talks about Islam and what he calls "Islamo-Fascism" have been controversial, with many saying that he distorts history in a way that denigrates all Muslims. But he is also a popular speaker with conservative groups, who regularly bring him to campuses to speak. On some campuses, his appearances prompt protests, but at other campuses he ends up largely speaking to those who agree with him.

Cary Nelson, national president of the American Association of University Professors, issued a statement on the association's Web site, denouncing the university in harsh terms.

"Now that Saint Louis University has cancelled a scheduled October speech by conservative activist David Horowitz, it joins the small group of campuses that are universities in name only," Nelson wrote.

"The free exchange of ideas is not just a comforting offshoot of higher education; it defines the fundamental nature of the enterprise. As the AAUP has long asserted, all recognized campus groups have the right to invite any speakers they wish. The College Republicans exercised that right. There should not have been a mechanism in place for the administration to review the offer to Horowitz and withdraw it. The administration’s claim to support academic freedom has been hollowed out by the practical and symbolic effects of this one public act," said Nelson. "A campus that enforces ideological conformity supports indoctrination, not education."

And so we move on to the public shaming part of this all-too familiar program. The university can still salvage this by admitting the mistake, allowing the students to invite Horowitz, and encouraging strong attendance at the event. Or it can dig itself into an even deeper hole.

Erin O'Connor, 8:06 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

September 25, 2009 [feather]
Quotations side by side

From Steven Backus, director of the College of St. Scholastica's Rose Warner Writing/Critical Thinking Center:

Devon's face flushed. His lips began to quiver. A tear formed in the corner of his right eye, and he wiped it away with the back of his hand before hastily shoving his paper into his book and standing up. "I'm leaving now," he said.

Devon, who was around 18 and a walk-in at the writing center I direct, wanted to see if what he had written for freshman composition "made sense." I was pushing him to identify rhetorical elements like the purpose and value of the newspaper article he had written about and to answer questions like: Was the article coherent and well written? Did the author develop his argument fully?

Written by Paul Theroux for The New York Times, "The Male Myth" was a shocker from the beginning. Theroux opens by saying he's always hated being a man. In between venting about machismo and shadowboxing with elite female authors, Mr. Prolific skewers athletes, pokes fun at punch-drunk writers, and debunks the Boy Scouts. The purpose? To entertain and instruct. The value? High.

Devon, however, was "offended" by the article, and that was the thrust of his paper. I flat-out told him he just couldn't say that in an academic paper. He could phone his mother and tell her about how offensive Mr. Theroux was, or he could write to the author himself with a diatribe. But critical analysis, while it may begin with an emotion, is a practice that requires keen observation, sharp reflection, cold-hearted logic, crisp reasoning, icy discernment, and cool evaluation. When I explained this to Devon, he reached for the Kleenex.

From Greg Lukianoff, president of FIRE:

Students and far too many professors and administrators make no distinction between "harassment" and "offense." Offended students will often seek punishment for jokes or even political opinions through the student judiciary and lawsuits.

Unfortunately, the legal landscape is so badly muddied by a number of overly expansive or unclear court opinions that universities believe they have to take seriously even claims that clearly implicate unquestionably protected speech. Due, in part, to the frenzy to protect themselves from these lawsuits, universities often respond to any report of "offensive" speech aggressively - and free speech is often the first casualty.

From Nat Hentoff, writing in 2008:

For years, I have reported on many cases of college and university administrators infected with "political correctness," punishing students and faculty members for allegedly prejudicial and otherwise "offensive" remarks - as if there were a constitutional right not to be offended. I have now found the most outrageous case of all.

At Brandeis University in Massachusetts, professor Donald Hindley - on the faculty for 48 years - teaches a course on Latin American politics. Last fall, he described how Mexican migrants to the United States used to be discriminatorily called "wetbacks." An anonymous student complained to the administration, accusing Hindley of using prejudicial language - the first complaint against him in 48 years.

After an investigation, during which Hindley was not told the nature of the complaint, Brandeis Provost Marty Krauss informed Hindley that "The University will not tolerate inappropriate, racial and discriminatory conduct by members of its faculty." A corollary accusation was that students suffered "significant emotional trauma" when exposed to such a term.

An administration monitor was assigned to his class. Threatened with "termination," Hindley was ordered to take a sensitivity-training class. With no charges against him, no evidence of misconduct given him and no hearing, he refused - in the spirit of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, for whom this university is named.

A passionate protector of freedom of expression in a series of seminal Supreme Court opinions, Brandeis wrote in Whitney v. California (1972): "Those who won independence believed ... that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are ... indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth."

The Brandeis Faculty Senate - joined by Brandeis's Committee on Faculty Rights and Responsibilities - objected to this assault on elementary fairness and academic freedom. So did the Massachusetts affiliate of the ACLU, and in what would have greatly pleased Justice Brandeis, so did the university's student newspaper, "The Hoot," declaring:

"The administration's instant punitive response made Hindley's guilt a foregone conclusion. ... With this kind of an approach, how will the University attract the high caliber professors who will be able to give the incoming classes of students the education they deserve? How will it draw students who want a free and open academic environment?"

Hindley tells me that despite the response of the faculty Senate and the committee on faculty rights, individual tenured members of his department, though outraged, would not stand up publicly on his behalf. One of them explained to him, "I'm about to retire." He and others fear retaliation.

Backus gives several more examples of students who melted down under his writing instruction, framing their discomfort in the visceral, anti-intellectual language of offense. He's right to see a pattern and to worry about it -- but he should recognize the broader context of his students' remarks. It's not just that they are ill-trained and immature, as he suggests. It's that they are dangerous, empowered by policies and by a campus culture that encourages them to think exactly as they do -- and to be able to inflict grievous professional harm on any professor that challenges them a bit too much. Speech codes encourage exactly the sort of thinking Backus finds in Devon and others -- and the spinelessness that animates shared governance virtually ensures that the faculty will neither defend targeted colleagues nor insist on necessary policy change. Meanwhile, students' ability to learn is sorely compromised.

Erin O'Connor, 7:48 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

September 24, 2009 [feather]
Brave new world

Our tax dollars at work on New Jersey school kids.

Erin O'Connor, 11:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack (0)

September 22, 2009 [feather]
Keeping it real in Georgia

FIRE reports on one of those cases that you just could not make up:

ATLANTA, September 15, 2009--The abuse of campus sexual harassment policies to punish dissenting professors has hit a new low at East Georgia College (EGC) in Swainsboro. Professor Thomas Thibeault made the mistake of pointing out--at a sexual harassment training seminar--that the school's sexual harassment policy contained no protection for the falsely accused. Two days later, in a Kafkaesque irony, Thibeault was fired by the college president for sexual harassment without notice, without knowing his accuser or the charges against him, and without a hearing. Thibeault turned to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.

"If you were to write a novel about the abuse of sexual harassment regulations to get rid of a dissenter, you couldn't do better than the real-life story of Thomas Thibeault," FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. "Anyone with a modicum of respect for freedom of speech or simple fairness should be aghast at this blatant abuse of power by East Georgia College."

Thibeault's ordeal started shortly after August 5, 2009 when, during a faculty training session regarding the college's sexual harassment policy, he presented a scenario regarding a different professor and asked, "what provision is there in the Sexual Harassment policy to protect the accused against complaints which are malicious or, in this case, ridiculous?" Vice President for Legal Affairs Mary Smith, who was conducting the session, replied that there was no such provision to protect the accused, so Thibeault responded that "the policy itself is flawed."

Two days later, Thibeault was summoned to EGC President John Bryant Black's office. According to Thibeault's written account of the meeting, which was sent to Black and which Black has not disputed, Thibeault met with Black and Smith. Black told Thibeault that he "was a divisive force in the college at a time when the college needed unity" and that Thibeault must resign by 11:30 a.m. or be fired and have his "long history of sexual harassment ... made public." This unsubstantiated allegation took Thibeault by surprise. Black added that Thibeault would be escorted off campus by Police Chief Drew Durden and that Black had notified the local police that he was prepared to have Thibeault arrested for trespassing if he returned to campus. At no point was Thibeault presented with the charges against him or given any chance to present a defense. Refusing to resign, Thibeault understood that he was fired.

FIRE wrote to the chancellor of the Georgia university system about this in August--and he has not replied. "It is hard to imagine a worse failure of due process in this case," FIRE's Adam Kissel said. "Nobody knows what the actual allegations are because they are being kept secret, even from Thibeault himself. In the stunning absence of any charges, evidence, or hearings, it is clear that EGC has punished Professor Thibeault for speaking out against a flawed harassment policy." Meanwhile, EGC president John Black has actually issued warnings to the media not to cover the story.

FIRE has been fighting campus speech codes for over a decade. And all the while, campuses have gotten more and more clever about where they put their codes and how they frame them. A favorite place: harassment policies. It's a pretty good place to put them--it can fool some awfully smart people. I once had quite an exchange with Swarthmore professor Timothy Burke about his college's harassment policy. I argued it was a speech code; he said it wasn't. I believed I was right then, and I still think so. So does FIRE--which still gives Swarthmore a red light rating for its speech policies.

But that really doesn't matter much. What matters is faculty members who refuse to recognize--who are complicit with, or who even defend--clearly repressive policies in place at their institutions. That's going on at campuses across the nation; it's why FIRE can exist, why it has work to do. And it points to a major, system-wide failure of professional academic ethics that is rooted in a collective ignorance about the historical and conceptual parameters of academic freedom, free inquiry, due process, and self-governance. As such, it speaks, ultimately, to a kind of ostrich-like behavior that does damage to professors' ability to argue that they deserve academic freedom and the tenure system.

Where, you might ask, are Thibeault's faculty colleagues? Why haven't they risen up in his defense? Some might be fearful of retaliation. Some might agree that Thibeault was out of line and deserved what he got. Some may be clueless, blinkered, checked-out when it matters to be checked-in. Some have served on the "committee" (kangaroo court) charged with investigating him for criticizing the policy. Bottom line: Abdication of responsibility every whichaway.

Where does it all go? The explicit institutionalization of ideological conformity as a condition of continued employment. See, for example, FIRE's latest on how Virginia Tech has built ideological litmus tests into its tenure and promotion policies.

Erin O'Connor, 8:32 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

September 21, 2009 [feather]
Don't know much about civics

One of the biggest stories right now is that the MSM habitually fails to report on really big stories. That's why James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles' ACORN videos are so striking--they reveal a pattern of systemic bias, incompetence, and reportorial failure on the part of the journalists and news organizations that we trust to tell us what's happening in the world. Inconvenient stories are swept under the rug, or, if they can't be completely ignored, they are warped and distorted by bad faith reporting. That's why the Van Jones scandal didn't get reported until he had resigned. That's why the media never did vet Barack Obama while it hunted Sarah Palin as though she were the anti-Christ. And it tells us a lot about why the very real, nonpartisan grassroots movement that sprung up this summer--the one where people from all walks of life and all political bents oppose government expansion, excessive spending, and mammoth entitlement programs that will no doubt be run as badly and wastefully as existing mammoth entitlement programs--has been reported dismissively, as a staged, hysterical, right-wing fringe thing that should be ignored or even suppressed. That's way wrong -- but you can't get your news from mainstream sources and know that. The game is just about up, though. Just ask Jon Stewart.

One reason the MSM can get away with so much is that too many Americans are walking around dazed and confused about what it means to be American. They wouldn't know a civics lesson if it smacked them in the face. They can't name the branches of government, or tell you who is on the Supreme Court, or even name the first president. It's nice to see CNN's Lou Dobbs point that out. Change we can believe in can't happen without informed citizens.

Erin O'Connor, 7:31 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

September 16, 2009 [feather]
Yale: Exemplary intolerance

From the Chronicle of Higher Ed:

Criticism continues to rain down on Yale University and Yale University Press for their decision to remove all images of the Prophet Muhammad from a forthcoming scholarly book, The Cartoons That Shook the World, by Jytte Klausen.

Now the National Coalition Against Censorship and a group of academic and free-speech organizations have sent a letter of protest to Yale's president, Richard C. Levin, and the Yale Corporation. "This misguided action established a dangerous precedent that threatens academic and intellectual freedom around the world," the coalition wrote. It said that the university's action "compromises the principle and practice of academic freedom, undermines the independence of the press, damages the university's credibility, and diminishes its reputation for scholarship."

Yale has said it pulled the images because of fears they would trigger violence.

The letter was signed by Joan E. Bertin, the coalition's executive director, on behalf of 11 other groups. They include the American Association of University Professors, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom, the College Art Association, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and the Middle East Studies Association.

That's a start. May Yale continue to squirm.

Erin O'Connor, 12:33 PM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

What he says

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
The Audacity of Hos
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealthcare Protests

Erin O'Connor, 11:08 AM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

For the record

Mark Bauerlein wonders where the academics are when the media distorts the historical record as a means of dismissing dissent:

Anybody who believes that last month's town-hall meetings marked an unprecedented eruption of anti-democratic thuggery hasn't read much U.S. history. A glance at a gubernatorial debate in Columbus, Georgia, 1906, or at any one of 10,000 other political other political moments from 1796 forward would convince you that this summer's occasions were child's play. Only the gigantic and delicate egos of members of Congress plus the nervousness of journalists who saw ordinary citizens leaping ahead of their coverage raised the town halls to dark and fearsome populist status.

How it plays out now that legislators have returned to D.C. remains to be seen. But the historical ignorance of journalists should continue as an abiding concern of academics, and they should speak out with stern correctives. Two cases occurred last week.

Here is David Sirota on the Van Jones affair, claiming him as a victim of a "right-wing lynch mob."

Now, one ought to rise up at that remark and school Sirota in the reality of lynch mobs. Lynch mobs don't pressure presidents to fire political appointments. They don't rely on media figures to rile them up. They congregate outside a jail, grab someone accused of a crime (often by pointing a pistol at the sheriff's temple), get a witness to identify the accused, then take him out and, depending on the crime, torture him, mutilate him, hang him, riddle him with bullets, and/or burn him. For Sirota to turn a political power surge into a lynching isn't to recognize the racist villainy of elements on the Right. It is to trivailize the suffering of actual lynching victims. Sirota should turn off his overheated imagination and take a look at Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America.

The other one appeared in The New York Times, Maureen Dowd's column on Obama and Southern racism. In the middle of it appears an astonishing paragraph about the figure of the president:

"Now he’s at the center of a period of racial turbulence sparked by his ascension. Even if he and the coterie of white male advisers around him don’t choose to openly acknowledge it, this president is the ultimate civil-rights figure -- a black man whose legitimacy is constantly challenged by a loco fringe."

Racial turbulence? Where? Reading that line, one would think Watts was burning, or that it was the month of April 1968, or that Rodney King's arresters just got off. But none of that is happening except in Dowd's feverish Manhattan eye.

The last phrase is worse. The dash is presented as the start of a definition, as if "a black man whose legitimacy is constantly challenged by a loco fringe" is, indeed, the description of "the ultimate civil-rights figure."

Wrong. When the civil-rights movement began in the late-1940s, leaders didn't oppose fringe groups. They opposed state and local governments and law enforcers, elite and mainstream opinion. They understood that the real enemy was the governor, the sheriff, and the banker, not the Klan and the Birchers. They put their livelihoods and lives on the line, got pummeled and incarcerated.

What to say, except that we have another journalist coming off as a half-wit historian, and academics should call her on it.

It's not just historical fact that academics ought to be insisting on. It's logic, not to mention the core value of free intellectual exchange. For example, when people like Jimmy Carter go on television and assert that those who criticize Obama's policies are racist--there should be an outcry from intellectuals and educators everywhere. That sort of claim is not only grossly untrue and manipulative and chilling--it's also a terrible insult to critical thought and constructive debate. In other words, it ought to hit academics where they live, and they ought to be speaking out as a matter of principle.

For the record, I attended a tea party in my small town on April 15. It was peaceful and orderly. People carried homemade signs expressing their wish to work, their dislike for higher taxes, and their preference for self-reliance over government-engineered dependence. The same was true of the townhall meeting I went to in August (but could not get into, along with hundreds of others, because the small auditorium had been pre-packed with imported pro-single-payer-care advocates wearing union shirts and brandishing fancy professionally printed signs).

I live in a working class rural community where unemployment is high. The people here are hard-working, generous, and fiercely independent. They are not racists, they are not a mob, and they are not brainless right-wing zombies. They have legitimate reasons for being immensely concerned about what government is doing--and are, like millions of other Americans, suffering from a sinking feeling that the end result of our unprecedented governmental spending spree is that we are all going to wind up substantially less free. I think they are right.

Erin O'Connor, 7:15 AM | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack (0)

September 14, 2009 [feather]
Shakespeare in the hood

Coming in the mail: Rafe Esquith's new book, Lighting their Fires: Raising Extraordinary Children in a Mixed-Up, Muddled-Up, Shook-Up World. (Extra points for conjuring the inimitable E.L. Konigsberg with the title.)

If Esquith's name is new to you, then this is your lucky day. He is a revelation. Check out the clip above--and rent the film about his Hobart Shakespeareans from Netflix.

Erin O'Connor, 12:45 PM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

Quotations side by side

Camille Paglia, writing at Salon last week:

Why has the Democratic Party become so arrogantly detached from ordinary Americans? Though they claim to speak for the poor and dispossessed, Democrats have increasingly become the party of an upper-middle-class professional elite, top-heavy with journalists, academics and lawyers (one reason for the hypocritical absence of tort reform in the healthcare bills). Weirdly, given their worship of highly individualistic, secularized self-actualization, such professionals are as a whole amazingly credulous these days about big-government solutions to every social problem. They see no danger in expanding government authority and intrusive, wasteful bureaucracy. This is, I submit, a stunning turn away from the anti-authority and anti-establishment principles of authentic 1960s leftism.

How has "liberty" become the inspirational code word of conservatives rather than liberals? (A prominent example is radio host Mark Levin's book "Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto," which was No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list for nearly three months without receiving major reviews, including in the Times.) I always thought that the Democratic Party is the freedom party -- but I must be living in the nostalgic past. Remember Bob Dylan's 1964 song "Chimes of Freedom," made famous by the Byrds? And here's Richie Havens electrifying the audience at Woodstock with "Freedom! Freedom!" Even Linda Ronstadt, in the 1967 song "A Different Drum," with the Stone Ponys, provided a soaring motto for that decade: "All I'm saying is I'm not ready/ For any person, place or thing/ To try and pull the reins in on me."

But affluent middle-class Democrats now seem to be complacently servile toward authority and automatically believe everything party leaders tell them. Why? Is it because the new professional class is a glossy product of generically institutionalized learning? Independent thought and logical analysis of argument are no longer taught. Elite education in the U.S. has become a frenetic assembly line of competitive college application to schools where ideological brainwashing is so pandemic that it's invisible. The top schools, from the Ivy League on down, promote "critical thinking," which sounds good but is in fact just a style of rote regurgitation of hackneyed approved terms ("racism, sexism, homophobia") when confronted with any social issue. The Democratic brain has been marinating so long in those cliches that it's positively pickled.

Columbia University professor Mark Lilla, in this week's Chronicle of Higher Education:

American academics have until recently shown little curiosity about conservative ideas, even though those ideas have utterly transformed American (and British) politics over the past 30 years. A look at the online catalogs of our major universities confirms this: plenty of courses on identity politics and postcolonialism, nary a one on conservative political thought. Professors are expected to understand the subtle differences among gay, lesbian, and transgender studies, but I would wager that few can distinguish between the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Cato Institute, three think tanks that have a greater impact on Washington politics than the entire Ivy League.

Why is that? The former left-wing firebrand David Horowitz, whom the professors do know, has a simple answer: There is a concerted effort to keep conservative Ph.D.'s out of jobs, to deny tenure to those who get through, and to ignore conservative books and ideas. It is an old answer, dating back to the 1970s, when neoconservatives began writing about the "adversary culture" of intellectuals. Horowitz is an annoying man, and what's most annoying about him is that ... he has a point. Though we are no longer in the politically correct sauna of the 1980s and 1990s, and experiences vary from college to college, the picture he paints of the faculty and curriculum in American universities remains embarrassingly accurate, and it is foolish to deny what we all see before us.

NAS president Peter Wood on Paglia:

Independent thought and critical analysis of argument just cannot live in the same company with a curriculum in which the central premise is that all of cultural and social life can be reduced to the privileged oppressing the weak. When the terms of analysis are reduced to the race-gender-class triad, real analysis must stop. Independent ideas are instantly categorized as "bias" of one sort or another, while conformity to the stale "theory" is routinely praised as "independent thinking." In contemporary elite education, all the intellectual exits have been blocked.

The "invisibility" that Paglia mentions is ensured by a curriculum that simply ignores what cannot be conveniently comprehended under the current ideological terms. Moreover, this has been going on for decades. Colleges can now pretty safely assume that candidates for faculty appointment who have attended American graduate schools have never seriously studied anything outside the charmed circle of ideological conformity. They need not be intentionally biased. They simply have no concept that dissent from the prevailing academic orthodoxies can arise from anything other than deep-rooted antipathy to manifestly wholesome ideas.


In the current academic regime, all sorts of terms turn out to have false bottoms. "Diversity" sounds good until you realize that it means "enforced conformity"--conformity to the roles assigned to individuals as members of identity groups, and conformity to the underlying view of America as an enduringly unjust society. "Sustainability" sounds good until you realize it means "giving up individual liberty so an unelected elite can decide how best to distribute resources." The university today spins out these terms by the dozens. "Inclusive excellence" means "there is no such thing as excellence, just different preferences among diverse groups."

The term that Paglia spots--"critical thinking"--is the granddaddy of all this mischief. Critical thinking in a philosophically accurate sense ought to be part of any college education, but if it were rightly understood, such critical thinking would be inseparable from other intellectual gains. We also need substantive knowledge of important matters; we need the capacity to develop and think through analogies; we need to command inductive and deductive logic; we need to be able to follow and to use chains of association; and we need well-developed recall and well-furnished memories; we need to know how to respond thoughtfully to ambiguities (which can be constructive and not always good targets for critical dismantling); we need the capacity to zoom into microcosms and zoom out to the big picture; and we need the capacity to synthesize. "Critical thinking" as it is typically taught hones none of these skills. It is a one-size fits all hammer for smashing culture into the pieces that can be jammed together under what Paglia calls the "hackneyed approved terms" of contemporary cultural analysis.

One last one, from University of Pennsylvania professor Robert Zemsky, at today's Inside Higher Ed: "It's not something the academy is comfortable talking about and certainly not something it is acting upon -- but learning really does belong at the top of any higher education reform agenda for a variety of reasons." I think the meat of that sentence lies in what looks to be expendable rhetorical fat: "a variety of reasons."

Erin O'Connor, 8:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

September 13, 2009 [feather]
Reading, watching, cooking

Loved: Julie & Julia. Funny, smart, inspiring, edible. I've dusted off Mastering the Art of French Cooking and am contemplating where to begin (not with the recipes for brains). Normally I steer away from overly creamy and buttery recipes--I do a lot of Italian and Asian-style cooking with minimal fat (cooking oils excepted). But this film is a reminder that now and again, exceptions must be made. I shall be starting some brioche dough tonight in honor of that sentiment.

Reading: Lorrie Moore's Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?. Just finished rereading Hamlet for the hell of it. Somehow the one seemed to follow from the other. Also reading: Hattie Ellis' Sweetness and Light: The Mysterious History of the Honeybee.

Watching: Seeing Meryl Streep crow and swoop as the gigantic and joyous Julia Child is the high point of Julie and Julia--but Amy Adams is lovely as well. They don't ever have a scene together in this film--but have plenty in the remarkable Doubt. Then there is Adams' Sunshine Cleaning, a stealth libertarian film that somehow manages to be thoroughly morbid and heartwarming at once. It uncovers the liberating effects of free enterprise and self-reliance, blasts bureaucracy and soul-killing public schools, and has Emily Blunt and Alan Arkin.

All good.

Erin O'Connor, 8:51 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

September 11, 2009 [feather]

Sometimes, it's the Week from Hell. And when that happens, it's necessary to spend much time with my flute. This is one of the pieces I'm learning now. The coolness never gets old.

Erin O'Connor, 1:44 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

September 9, 2009 [feather]
On writing

At the Chronicle of Higher Education, Mount Holyoke professor Gail Hornstein reflects on the off-putting--and self-defeating--conventions of academic style:

Do you ever read your prose aloud, either quietly to yourself or at a public reading of your work? Too many academics would answer no to that question. We have a kind of reverse aestheticism--if our writing is dense and unwieldy, filled with technical terms and convoluted sentences, we wear its lack of accessibility as a badge of honor.

A friend in mainstream trade publishing, who'd like nothing better than to buy books written by smart people on important topics, cringes when she spies an academic heading toward her at a party. For D and her editorial colleagues, "academic" is shorthand for "lifeless prose, cumbersome to read, filled with unnecessary complication, often disdainful and stridently obscure in style and tone." If by chance they do wind up wanting to acquire a manuscript by a faculty member, the first thing they say at the editorial meeting is: "But he doesn't write like an academic!"

I'm fascinated by the fact that we don't take this as an insult. Academics are not embarrassed by writing that's impenetrable. We're taught to feel like doctors castigated for poor penmanship. Producing turgid prose is part of how we define ourselves as professionals.

But why is that? ... Why do academics so often have contempt for writing that appeals to a broader public?

... whether we admit it or not, every writer wants to have someone say about his or her work, "I couldn't stop reading; it was riveting." But producing writing like that first requires being able to imagine really drawing people in, making them feel compelled to think about what we've said.

That would require a very different way of relating to our audience. We'd have to start caring about their interests, learning what they know and what they don't. Popular writing, by definition, invites lots of different kinds of people to invest their time and money in your ideas, and your expression of them.

The contempt that academics have toward that kind of writing is, in essence, contempt for the ordinary reading public. We assume they're unable to grasp the subtlety of our thought. We think that writing for a broad audience requires "dumbing down" our arguments. But that's wrong. Popular audiences are tougher critics than fellow academics are. You have to be saying something of import or interest; otherwise, people will just ignore you and read something else, or play video games, or watch television.

Academic writing derives its authority from certain conventions, some of them bordering on arrogance. When you're a young professor, it can make you feel powerful to sound as if you know so much. And you can get away with that kind of writing because your audience--other academics--will read your work even if it's impenetrable. But eventually, it can get lonely to have so few people to talk to. What you want to say might actually be of interest to an audience wider than those in your specialty.

"Contempt for the reading public" is a subset of a broader, more general contempt for the public--which is a real shame, and which has a great deal to do with academia's often confrontational, defensive stance toward public calls for accountability, transparency, and so on. Once upon a time, American academics understood that their work was only justifiable if it was done in the service of the public good; in the AAUP's founding documents, there is very clear language about how professors' professional autonomy is a privilege granted so that they can make good on academia's public compact. That understanding has been lost--and academia has become cloistered and self-referential, at once unwilling and seemingly unable to address or interact with a broader public.

Figuring out how to undo that isn't easy--because the involuted arrogant thing is an embedded aspect of academic culture. It's part of the rarified air academics breathe--an affect they acquire during the socializing years of grad school, and cultivate through years of jumping through involuted snobbish hoops on their way to tenure. Back in the day, it was drummed into me that if you wrote for the general public above and beyond doing your scholarly writing, that writing would not only not help you get a job or get tenure, but would quite possibly hurt you. Similar things were said about winning teaching awards, for related reasons. At every point, the message was that the scholarship was what mattered, and that it was for only a tiny group of like-minded scholars. Students were secondary, and the public was beyond the pale. You could change your priorities after tenure, of course -- but at that point, for many people, the investment in inaccessibility was too deep, too personal, and too habitual to change.

Erin O'Connor, 7:18 AM | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack (0)

September 8, 2009 [feather]
Right on school

I'm really angry about a lot of things the Obama administration is doing. Not happy at all in more ways than I can count. But even so--I have to say Obama's speech to school kids is right on. Some bits:

I'm here because I want to talk with you about your education and what's expected of all of you in this new school year.

Now I've given a lot of speeches about education. And I've talked a lot about responsibility.

I've talked about your teachers' responsibility for inspiring you, and pushing you to learn.

I've talked about your parents' responsibility for making sure you stay on track, and get your homework done, and don't spend every waking hour in front of the TV or with that Xbox.

I've talked a lot about your government's responsibility for setting high standards, supporting teachers and principals, and turning around schools that aren't working where students aren’t getting the opportunities they deserve.

But at the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world – and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities. Unless you show up to those schools; pay attention to those teachers; listen to your parents, grandparents and other adults; and put in the hard work it takes to succeed.

And that's what I want to focus on today: the responsibility each of you has for your education. I want to start with the responsibility you have to yourself.


... no matter what you want to do with your life – I guarantee that you'll need an education to do it. You want to be a doctor, or a teacher, or a police officer? You want to be a nurse or an architect, a lawyer or a member of our military? You're going to need a good education for every single one of those careers. You can't drop out of school and just drop into a good job. You've got to work for it and train for it and learn for it.

And this isn't just important for your own life and your own future. What you make of your education will decide nothing less than the future of this country. What you're learning in school today will determine whether we as a nation can meet our greatest challenges in the future.

You'll need the knowledge and problem-solving skills you learn in science and math to cure diseases like cancer and AIDS, and to develop new energy technologies and protect our environment. You'll need the insights and critical thinking skills you gain in history and social studies to fight poverty and homelessness, crime and discrimination, and make our nation more fair and more free. You'll need the creativity and ingenuity you develop in all your classes to build new companies that will create new jobs and boost our economy.

We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills and intellect so you can help solve our most difficult problems. If you don't do that – if you quit on school – you're not just quitting on yourself, you're quitting on your country.

Now I know it's not always easy to do well in school. I know a lot of you have challenges in your lives right now that can make it hard to focus on your schoolwork.


Maybe you don't have adults in your life who give you the support that you need. Maybe someone in your family has lost their job, and there's not enough money to go around. Maybe you live in a neighborhood where you don't feel safe, or have friends who are pressuring you to do things you know aren’t right.

But at the end of the day, the circumstances of your life – what you look like, where you come from, how much money you have, what you've got going on at home – that's no excuse for neglecting your homework or having a bad attitude. That's no excuse for talking back to your teacher, or cutting class, or dropping out of school. That's no excuse for not trying.

Where you are right now doesn't have to determine where you'll end up. No one's written your destiny for you. Here in America, you write your own destiny. You make your own future.


Some of the most successful people in the world are the ones who've had the most failures. JK Rowling's first Harry Potter book was rejected twelve times before it was finally published. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team, and he lost hundreds of games and missed thousands of shots during his career. But he once said, "I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."

These people succeeded because they understand that you can't let your failures define you – you have to let them teach you. You have to let them show you what to do differently next time. If you get in trouble, that doesn’t mean you're a troublemaker, it means you need to try harder to behave. If you get a bad grade, that doesn't mean you're stupid, it just means you need to spend more time studying.
No one's born being good at things, you become good at things through hard work. You're not a varsity athlete the first time you play a new sport. You don't hit every note the first time you sing a song. You've got to practice. It's the same with your schoolwork. You might have to do a math problem a few times before you get it right, or read something a few times before you understand it, or do a few drafts of a paper before it's good enough to hand in.

Don't be afraid to ask questions. Don't be afraid to ask for help when you need it. I do that every day. Asking for help isn't a sign of weakness, it's a sign of strength. It shows you have the courage to admit when you don't know something, and to learn something new. So find an adult you trust – a parent, grandparent or teacher; a coach or counselor – and ask them to help you stay on track to meet your goals.

And even when you're struggling, even when you're discouraged, and you feel like other people have given up on you – don't ever give up on yourself. Because when you give up on yourself, you give up on your country.

The story of America isn't about people who quit when things got tough. It's about people who kept going, who tried harder, who loved their country too much to do anything less than their best.

As a culture, we've veered so far away from essential values such as self-reliance, hard work, responsibility, and a willingness to learn from mistakes. The poisonous self-esteem movement that has become such a central part of K-12 pedagogy has much to do with this; studies now show that feeling good about yourself in a way that is divorced from basic cause and effect doesn't enable you to achieve... it distorts your perceptions of your importance and your prospects, creating terrible issues with entitlement, arrogance, complacency, and narcissism. We urgently need to return to the fundamentals of character development--and this speech is a blunt and welcome effort to help do just that.

Erin O'Connor, 8:21 AM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

September 2, 2009 [feather]
Professionalism and viewpoint discrimination

Brooklyn College history professor KC Johnson got acquainted with viewpoint discrimination the old-fashioned way: when he was up for tenure, he lived it. And--unlike many academics who find themselves on the wrong side of the ambient groupthink--he was able to document it, and his career survived. He has since become an outspoken advocate of academic freedom (the real kind, the kind that includes being a responsible, ethical professional, and that also includes an awareness that the most vibrant campus environment is one where a wide range of viewpoints and beliefs can be aired, explored, debated, and contested). And, insofar as he's an eloquent advocate of real academic freedom, KC's a bit of a thorn in the side for those who use the concept as a Trojan horse for a decidedly illiberal and intolerant agenda. (There I go with the mixed metaphors again; they happen to me before the caffeine settles in. Just enjoy the image of a wooden horse wounded by an exceptionally sharp thorn ... or of the horse's handlers staggering Christlike in collective thorny injury ... or both.)

Back to KC as thorn. AAUP president and University of Illinois English professor Cary Nelson is finding out about that, having lately framed some highly creative--and disturbing--concepts of when and where it is acceptable for academics to engage in viewpoint discrimination. Here's what KC has to say:

In two recent, high-profile controversies, the self-described "tenured radical" has seemed intent on transforming the AAUP from an organization devoted to promoting academic freedom into a battering ram to perpetuate the groupthink that dominates so many quarters of the contemporary academy.

The first episode occurred in July, after NYU extended a visiting professorship in human rights law to Thio Li-ann, a professor at the National University of Singapore. The appointment generated understandable controversy after revelations that Li-ann, while a member of the Singapore parliament (a body not known for its commitment to human rights in any event), had wanted to continue criminalizing gay sex acts, on the grounds that "diversity is not license for perversity." Li-ann eventually decided not to come to NYU, using as an excuse the poor enrollment of her courses.

As the controversy brewed, Inside Higher Ed's Scott Jaschik drew from Nelson a highly unusual conception of academic freedom:

Nelson also said that in a tenure decision, he would judge a candidate---however offensive his or her views on unrelated subjects---only on a question of whether the person's scholarship and teaching in his or her discipline met appropriate standards. But in a hiring decision (whether for a visiting or permanent position), he said, it is appropriate to consider other factors, and . . . professors can appropriately ask prior to appointments, [Nelson] said, whether hiring someone whose views on certain subjects are "poisonous" could limit "the department's ability to do its business."

In other words, for the president of the AAUP, academic freedom is a limited right, enjoyed by two groups of faculty members: (1) professors whose views align with the majority on political or pedagogical issues, and therefore needn't worry about being attacked for their "poisonous" perspectives; or (2) tenure-track and tenured professors who are certain that they will never want to work someplace else at any point during their career.

In Nelson's academy, any professor, anywhere in the country, who might want to move onto another institution---and therefore would be subject to a "hiring decision" at a future date in his or her career---needs to be careful about what he or she says, because any remarks, on any issue, could be used to deny them a new position. Volokh Conspiracy's David Bernstein appropriately eviscerated this argument.

Nelson's statement about "poisonous" views as grounds for non-hiring also seemed to contradict the AAUP's caution against using "collegiality" in the personnel process, since "a distinct criterion of collegiality also holds the potential of chilling faculty debate and discussion." Nelson's remark didn't make clear what differentiated an "uncollegial" from a "poisonous" viewpoint, but the principle remains the same---surely a distinct criterion of refusing to hire someone on the grounds of allegedly "poisonous" views would hold the potential of chilling faculty debate and discussion.

Nelson's assault on academic freedom continued last month, when the New York Times discussed demands from some Berkeley "activists" that the University of California's Law School fire John Yoo, because of the dubious (at best) arguments presented by Yoo as a member of the Bush administration. (Yoo had received tenure at Berkeley before Bush was elected, and was on leave during his time on Washington.)

The law school's dean, Christopher Edley (himself hardly a conservative) understood the threat to academic freedom posed by the protests against Yoo. In a thoughtful e-mail sent to the campus, Edley noted, "Assuming one believes as I do that Professor Yoo offered bad ideas and even worse advice during his government service, that judgment alone would not warrant dismissal or even a potentially chilling inquiry." Even Brian Leiter, normally a vociferous defender of the majority viewpoint in the academy, conceded, "If 'research misconduct' or 'intellectual dishonesty' were interpreted to cover what he has done then there would be nothing left of academic freedom, since every disagreement on the merits of a position, especially a minority position in the scholarly community, could be turned into a 'research misconduct' charge that would lead to disciplinary proceedings and possible termination."

The issue, however, was far from settled to Nelson. Indeed, the AAUP head appeared to demand the very inquiry that Dean Edley warned would be "potentially chilling." Upon seeing protesters calling for Yoo's dismissal, Nelson said that he introduced himself "as president of the American Association of University Professors and explained to them that Mr. Yoo had to receive due process, that the dean could not act unilaterally. They were happy to adjust their demands and argue instead that appropriate hearings commence immediately." Incredibly, Nelson positioned his behavior as a defense of academic freedom.

Even more troublingly, Nelson used his anti-Yoo remarks to engage in a broader assault on the concept of academic freedom. The president of the AAUP asserted that "moral and political" considerations "are clearly fair when deciding whether or not to hire a faculty member in the first place. You have a right not to hire someone whose views you consider reprehensible."

Johnson goes on to historicize Nelson's remark, noting that back in the day, Cold War-era faculty would, by Nelson's standards, have been justified in refusing to hire left-wing academics ... like Nelson. His point is that what goes around comes around--and that any approach to academic freedom that seeks to make "poisonous" views a criterion in hiring is not an approach to academic freedom that is going to preserve the principle, the practice, or the profession for long.

I can't read Johnson's mind. But I am guessing he finds Li-Ann's viewpoint morally repugnant (I do). He clearly also finds Yoo's analysis of what constitutes torture morally and analytically questionable. But his point is that real academic freedom simply must be viewpoint neutral. If it's not, it's not a protection, but a cudgel that can be used against whoever happens not to embrace the proper politics of the moment.

If you care about the integrity of the academy--and about the future of tenure--you can't go around making hiring decisions on the basis of a job candidate's politics. You also can't go around investigating scholars for publishing their views--even if those views are repugnant to the majority. This is not news. The AAUP has been making these points for many years.

Decisions about discipline have to be based on behavior, not opinion. Decisions about hiring have to be made on the basis of the scholarship, the teaching, the qualifications. And while political stance and scholarly outlook are often closely connected--despite the claims of academics who argue that the strong leftward tilt of the academy is meaningless, and tells us nothing about the kinds of scholarship and teaching that do and do not go on--they are not the same. It's a difficult distinction to make in the era of politicized scholarship, but it's a vital one. Nelson should be leading the way in drawing this distinction--and modeling how to apply this distinction to tough situations like the cases mentioned above. Instead, he's driven another nail in the coffin of the public's growing mistrust of academia's ability to police itself. (Another metaphor; apologies.)

As a junior faculty member, I once sat on the department's executive committee. That meant that I was part of discussions about hiring, and that I had a vote in those decisions. Once, when the committee was struggling to decide who should be offered a particular tenure-track job, another member of the committee offered up a killer point. "Do we really want another white South African on our faculty?" she asked. That settled things--because, of course, who would want that? People might think you were pro-apartheid or something. And a department's political cred is far more important than its integrity.

The question made it possible to cross one job finalist off the list, and so helped narrow the considerations. I don't remember who got that job, or even what the job was for. But I remember that question vividly--and also recall that not one person in the room spoke up to challenge the logic involved. I was too unformed and too green to be in a position to do that myself. It felt wrong to me, but I could not then have said why. Instead, I followed the lead of my betters. But I've always remembered that moment. Nelson's attempts to rationalize analogous kinds of choices bring it back vividly.

Erin O'Connor, 8:11 AM | Permalink | Comments (18) | TrackBack (0)

September 1, 2009 [feather]
Glass houses

Writing at the Chronicle of Higher Education, English profession Mary Werner (a pseudonym) complains about Students Today. The occasion: their inability to housesit for her in a manner that meets her standards:

First thing you notice about your temporary tenants: Not a one of them can cook. I don't mean that they cook badly. I mean they can't cook at all. They don't trust themselves to do anything other than boil water for pasta and heat up some Ragu. I've watched them cook for themselves in my kitchen over many summers, and I have never seen one use a fresh vegetable. They appear to be unacquainted with knives as food-preparation devices. Spoons and can openers. That's all they know how to use.

It's not that I'm concerned about their eating. They'll figure that out eventually. It's that I wonder about their ability to extrapolate. They can cook mac and cheese by following the directions on a box, but they seem unable to understand that they can follow any other cooking directions, such as those that appear in, say, cookbooks. It makes me wonder about other areas in their lives: Can they drive only to places to which they've already driven? Read only books they've already read? What makes them afraid to strike out by following a recipe? How can they consider themselves adults if they feel incapable of cooking a meal?

Once, a cheery recent graduate offered to cook my daughter and I a meal after eating many dinners with us while living at our house one summer. The student had eaten this dinner, she reported, while she was studying abroad in England and had come home with the recipe. We looked forward to the meal that had impressed her so much but that was, she said, so easy to fix. Indeed, it proved easy to fix: It was spaghetti with a jar of barbecue sauce.

Werner goes on in this vein, describing the variegated incompetencies of the long list of students she has enlisted to provide domestic services for her and her family. We learn of one student housesitter who failed to take out the recycling, and another who failed to notice an abscess on the cat. We learn of a student nanny who could not entertain her child appropriately because she could not read a map. While Werner does admit that she's hired a few students who seem to be able to function capably as domestics, she does not seem able to recognize how she herself comes across, using students as servants and then complaining about them volubly in the pages of a prominent professional journal. Perhaps she can't extrapolate?

Werner concludes by wondering whether there is a way to build into her course syllabi lessons in life skills that her students clearly need. "We do a great job producing critical thinkers, excellent writers, and even good workers," she writes. "But there's something lacking in their sense of personal and, ultimately, social responsibility. They need to learn to cook and take out their own recyclables. Voter turnouts depend on it."

These things may be true. But Werner might want to focus on issues closer to home. She could begin by ensuring that, as an English professor, she models things like correct usage. As the phrase "a cheery recent graduate offered to cook my daughter and I a meal" indicates, Werner is a bit shaky on her grammar. Students aren't going to learn what they need to know unless their teachers make sure that they impart the skills and knowledge they are specially charged with imparting. It's not just students who need to go back to basics. It's the professors, too.

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Erin O'Connor, 8:14 AM | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack (0)