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Just another firestorm in the ivory tower...
May 8, 2012 1:40 PM   Subscribe

A recent post by conservative Naomi Schaefer Riley on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Brainstorm blog -- "The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations" -- has caused quite a furor in the academic blogosphere.

The proliferation of impassioned rebuttals, including a petition (with over 6,000 signatures to date) condemning Riley's position, as well as responses (hosted by the Chronicle) from the faculty and the graduate students of the maligned department at Northwestern, prompted Riley to write a response, which her critics deemed woefully insufficient.

After a brief silence, the Chronicle's blog editor responded by dismissing Riley from her position. (The Wall Street Journal, to which Riley contributes, breaks down the timeline.)

Cue a new firestorm of complaints about political mobs and the silencing of conservative opinion in academic media.
posted by artemisia (137 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
Of course, one of the interesting things about this is that it isn't about the silencing of conservative opinion at all (although that's certainly how it will be spun by some, and the fact that Riley is presenting a particularly cartoonish form of conservatism fueled much of the reaction). It's about the rejection of a certain type of journalism, one that thinks it's ok to do only the most surface examination of an issue and to explicitly reject the idea that a journalist is required to, you know, find something out about what she's talking about. (Although her title encourages you to "just read the dissertations" to dismiss the work, she didn't read the dissertations (which are still in progress) and outright rejected the notion that she would ever read any dissertation, even if you paid her, because she's a journalist and so she doesn't have to.
posted by Casuistry at 1:46 PM on May 8, 2012 [52 favorites]


Wow, that's... going to end well.
posted by Naberius at 1:46 PM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Long thread on this on Crooked Timber.

It was an awful, awful article, but I'm not sure why the author took the full heat and not, say, her editors.
posted by feckless at 1:48 PM on May 8, 2012



It was an awful, awful article, but I'm not sure why the author took the full heat and not, say, her editors.


Because it was posted to a blog where there was little editorial oversight - the idea being that the freedom would be encouraging.

Of course, the problem with freedom is morons.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 1:50 PM on May 8, 2012 [90 favorites]


Writer recommends judging book by cover
posted by 2bucksplus at 1:50 PM on May 8, 2012 [17 favorites]



Because everything is obvious based on the title.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:50 PM on May 8, 2012


I agree, Casuistry. This isn't really about Black Studies at all. It's about this bit from Ms Riley's response:

“Finally, since this is a blog about academia and not journalism, I’ll forgive the commenters for not understanding that it is not my job to read entire dissertations before I write a 500-word piece about them.”

I thank Ms Riley for exposing me to the most hilariously honest explanation of the Chronicle's mission. No, we are not supposed to read the stuff we're talking about. This isn't journalism. This is academia. Where would you get the idea that academics are supposed to read the stuff they're talking about? How preposterous.
posted by koeselitz at 1:50 PM on May 8, 2012 [75 favorites]


tl;dr:

1) Conservative author reads the abstracts of a few dissertations, mocks them without actually reading the dissertations themselves, calls into question the existence of an entire field of inquiry.
2) Uproar over the conservative author's marginalization of African-American studies (who's luminaries are no strangers to marginalization by society)
3) Conservative author gets fired, inevitable conservative victimization (Blacks are the REAL oppressors! LAWL!)
4) Metafilter post
posted by Avenger at 1:50 PM on May 8, 2012 [11 favorites]


To be fair, I don't think she was fired for being racist or having an unpopular opinion. She was fired for making glib, dismissive statements with a general tone of anti-intellectualism, and little evidence to back them, in a manner that just happened to be racist and unpopular.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 1:52 PM on May 8, 2012 [23 favorites]


Who's read the disserts ? TFA links to the sidebar, but I get a Chron paywall.

And, I mean, are the dissertations any sillier than those coming out of a number of other fields ?
posted by k5.user at 1:53 PM on May 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


And, I mean, are the dissertations any sillier than those coming out of a number of other fields ?
posted by k5.user at 1:53 PM on May 8 [+] [!]


No, but they're written by black folks about black folks and therefore inherently silly and useless.
posted by Avenger at 1:54 PM on May 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


It went downhill after the "Sshh! Don't tell them about the Black President!"
posted by Renoroc at 1:57 PM on May 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


man i thought they were never going to fire that a-hole
posted by facetious at 1:57 PM on May 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


If the totality of your support for your position is "I read some blurbs/abstracts about those books/dissertations and they sounded stupid to me," you have no business writing about academia. If this is the bloom of conservative deep thought about higher education that garden needs desperately to be weeded.
posted by Joey Michaels at 2:00 PM on May 8, 2012 [36 favorites]


OK, I'm only a couple paragraphs into the blog post, but I've already reached this precious gem:
How could we overlook the nonwhite experience in “natural birth literature,” whatever the heck that is?
If only she had some research tool which she could use to look this sort of thing up before her publish deadline!
posted by muddgirl at 2:01 PM on May 8, 2012 [41 favorites]


We have been all in a tizzy about this over at the Chronicle of Higher Ed forums. Avenger's summary is right on. All I would add is that not only did the author not read the dissertations, the dissertations are not even available because the abstracts she read are for dissertations in progress. Christ what an asshole.
posted by LarryC at 2:02 PM on May 8, 2012 [6 favorites]


I can't believe the Chronicle of Higher Education would let someone write for them that wouldn't meet the basic standards in higher education.
posted by fuq at 2:04 PM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Shit, I'm a musician with a journalism degree, and I personally know at least two people who study natural birth literature. And I'm interested, so that's probably more people than some dissertations ever get.

This is as bad as me trying to explain MCA's life and death and my dad saying, "I don't like hip hop. I heard enough of it in Nicaragua." In 1994.
posted by Madamina at 2:04 PM on May 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


I understand they hired her for a blog with little oversight. The fireable offense here should be hiring someone capable of writing such vapid, condescending twaddle and giving her a blog with little oversight.

I'm OK with firing the writer too (because vapid/condescending/twaddle) but it's the editors who really need to go.
posted by feckless at 2:05 PM on May 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


I think conservatives should be as eager as anybody else to silence idiotic viewpoints from people who claim to represent them. Naomi Schaefer Riley's piece was idiotic, and everybody should be glad to have idiocy out of the discussions, and conservatives should be especially glad, as one would imagine they don't wish to be seen as idiots.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 2:06 PM on May 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


"She will forgive the commenters who do not understand that she can invoke evidence she has not seen to criticize arguments that haven't been made and advocate the elimination of academic programs she knows nothing about."
posted by eustacescrubb at 2:08 PM on May 8, 2012 [14 favorites]


I'm not surprised that people who identify as conservatives would a) not understand what was racist and insulting about the original post and b) think that someone was being unreasonably taken to task.

A significant contingent of conservatives are fundamentally opposed to higher education itself (outside of STEM), especially the social sciences and humanities, since those disciplines are spaces in which critical consideration of culture flourishes. They can't abide that:

As it happens, I agree with Schaefer Riley's large point that academic disciplines are multiplying and that many, if not most, academics (at least in the humanities and social sciences) are becoming more and more partisan and obscurantist.

This statement, like all of Schaefer Riley's assertions and questions, is completely devoid of facts, but it betrays the oft-observed conservative fear and loathing of investigating and critiquing hegemonic culture.
posted by clockzero at 2:09 PM on May 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


Why does the Chronicle of Higher Education even have journalists blogging?

Journalists have a soapbox in every other form of media. The Chronicle should be a place where the people who are actually involved in higher education can read and write about it. There are some wonderful exceptions (Quirks and Quarks, In Our Time), but journalists do enough mangling of academic issues in the mainstream media, we don't need them mucking up the academic media as well.
posted by jb at 2:10 PM on May 8, 2012 [8 favorites]


Naomi Schaefer Riley doesn't even have a graduate degree yet somehow she feels qualified to critique a PhD thesis based on its title? Once again, haters gonna hate.
posted by nubianinthedesert at 2:10 PM on May 8, 2012 [6 favorites]


Trolling - it's the new, er, black.
posted by cromagnon at 2:10 PM on May 8, 2012


This article is like a bad youtube comment.
posted by iamck at 2:11 PM on May 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


She was fired for making glib, dismissive statements with a general tone of anti-intellectualism, and little evidence to back them, in a manner that just happened to be racist and unpopular.


Same difference.

Project Implicit.
posted by polymodus at 2:12 PM on May 8, 2012


Not the best time for one of my favourite blogs, Edge of the West, to have made the jump to the CHE...
posted by MartinWisse at 2:13 PM on May 8, 2012


To be fair, I don't think she was fired for being racist or having an unpopular opinion. She was fired for making glib, dismissive statements with a general tone of anti-intellectualism, and little evidence to back them, in a manner that just happened to be racist and unpopular.

I doubt it. The whole point of a print news organization hosting blogs on their website is that they can pay random people next to nothing to churn out content to boost their web traffic. The quality of that content doesn't really matter, it's just click-bait to go along with the print content that they actually care about and spend their real money and effort on. They screwed up by hiring someone who would write an extremely unpopular post that would outweigh the marginal benefits of hosting their blog posts in the first place. That's why it was so easy for them to just fire the blogger and move on.
posted by burnmp3s at 2:14 PM on May 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


Aside from being racist and incredibly rude, she seems to think that scholarship on obscure topics is stupid. I don't get how someone like that gets a job blogging about higher education. It's like the food network hiring a blogger who thinks that cooking is just a waste of time.
posted by crackingdes at 2:14 PM on May 8, 2012 [21 favorites]


Schafer-Riley just set herself up for a nice pundit job on Fox News.
posted by jnnla at 2:16 PM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


The original article is pretty much the definition of White Privilege.
posted by LarryC at 2:18 PM on May 8, 2012 [12 favorites]


It's more than just the failure of the writer; haters gonna hate, but whoever hired her and is overviewing these blogs need to fall on their sword as well, for all the damage they did to the CHE's reputation.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:18 PM on May 8, 2012


the problem with freedom is morons.

This is the closest in my life I have ever come to going out and getting a tattoo.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 2:18 PM on May 8, 2012 [53 favorites]


Oh wow, did you all read the comments (to the original essay) on the Chronicle page?

That is some radical right buffoonery right there.
posted by oddman at 2:18 PM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Complete supposition on my part, but, I figure she's just playing the long game. She got herself hired as a token "conservative" voice, and then proceeded to show that she was incompetent for the position. In a few day she will turn this into a general indictment of affirmative action in hiring.
posted by benito.strauss at 2:18 PM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


I am not particularly impressed with anyone in this dispute. It seems to me that when responding to dismissive condescension, the optimal strategy is probably not a desperate attempt to prove you are a Very Serious Person.
posted by charlie don't surf at 2:20 PM on May 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


Like all higher-level Murdoch employees, she is allergic to facts and research of any kind.
posted by jamjam at 2:20 PM on May 8, 2012


Same difference.

No, no, the racism was like some horrible gravy on top of the specious reasoning and aggressive ignorance. Had she made similar arguments about current graduate research in Anodyne Studies or Qualitative Mundanities, she would have be just as deserving of our derision, but in this instance we also get to see her inadvertently expose the privilege and racism that must inform so much of her worldview.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 2:24 PM on May 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


What a collection of left-wing victimization claptrap.


Yes, this is clearly a sterling critique, right here, though I suppose it could be easily reversed for the ridiculous and sleazy attempts to vindicate her in the comments.

Seriously, folks, there are legitimate debates about the problems that plague the black community from high incarceration rates to low graduation rates to high out-of-wedlock birth rates. But it’s clear that they’re not happening in black-studies departments.

Yes, definitely these five random dissertations-to-be that she's picked are clearly a sign that no serious scholarship on contemporary issues has been produced by the professors, graduates, and alums of the department. Black Studies Departments should only be focused on the "problems that plague the black community" [though I mean I'm pretty sure there are white communities that suffer similar problems, it's almost like this is an intersection of class and race and culture, which maybe should be examined in an interdisciplinary context] and definitely not at all on the historical context of events. History! Humbug! It already happened, so what is it good for!
posted by jetlagaddict at 2:24 PM on May 8, 2012 [6 favorites]


XKCD on the issue. On-topic and a billion times more insightful.
posted by oddman at 2:25 PM on May 8, 2012 [14 favorites]


the optimal strategy is probably not a desperate attempt to prove you are a Very Serious Person.

I don't think you are familiar with the target readership of the CoHE.
posted by muddgirl at 2:29 PM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


The best part is that she didn't present an argument against any of the ideas she was refuting. Her rhetorical style boils down to:
"X? Are we seriously supposed to believe X? Ridiculous! Give me a break!"
...and then on to Y for more of the same.
The fact that she's considered a writer with any kind of authority on higher education is comical.
posted by rocket88 at 2:30 PM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've been reading about this story and wondering -- where did we go wrong? At what point did this shoddy level of journalism become acceptable? Has it always been? It's an opinion piece, in a blog, yes, but the author unabashedly admits she hasn't read the work she's trashing.

What is is that made her qualified to be hired by the Chronicle, exactly?

What is it about "opinion" that makes people think that the facts are irrelevant?

She is like a little mini-encapsulation of all that's wrong with contemporary punditry, only she actually got fired. People are predicting this sets her up for a career as a wingnut hack, but in a sane world, being fired for writing a piece where you not only don't check the facts but refuse to should be a point against you, regardless of your political affiliation.

I guess I'm just boggled that stuff like this gets a platform, when I can easily name a dozen people who could fart out a better article if you gave them an egg salad sandwich beforehand. It starts with a respect for the truth.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 2:31 PM on May 8, 2012 [16 favorites]


Seriously, folks, there are legitimate debates about the problems that plague the black community from high incarceration rates to low graduation rates to high out-of-wedlock birth rates. But it’s clear that they’re not happening in black-studies departments.

It's of course the slightest bit racist to think that it's the job of Black studies departments to study/solve the problems of the Black community, that that is the only legitimate role you can see for such a department.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:33 PM on May 8, 2012 [12 favorites]


To be fair, I don't think she was fired for being racist or having an unpopular opinion. She was fired for making glib, dismissive statements with a general tone of anti-intellectualism, and little evidence to back them, in a manner that just happened to be racist and unpopular.

Racism and glib anti-intellectualism; like a shit cake with poop sprinkles.
posted by emjaybee at 2:33 PM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Halfway through reading the original article that caused all the furor I had an overwhelming urge to wince, make a face, and immediately attempt to reach a minimum safe distance from the blast radius.
posted by mrbill at 2:35 PM on May 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


Do there exist today, writing in the public sphere, any conservative thinkers who don't devolve into this kind of behavior? (it's for my conservative-studies dissertation)
posted by Doleful Creature at 2:36 PM on May 8, 2012 [11 favorites]


Don't miss the minor eddy in this firestorm about the Chronicle's "Editorial Promotions Manager”" Amy Lynn Alexander, who went totes bonkers on Twitter responding in the most hilariously offhand and sarcastic way, with sneering hashtags like #medialiteracy, #pr101 and #closereading. The Chronicle notes in its mea culpa that "our response on Twitter did not accurately convey The Chronicle’s message" but the details of Alexander's over-reaction (remember, she's paid to make the Chronicle look good) are classic tone-deaf social media stupidity.
posted by mediareport at 2:36 PM on May 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


clockzero:A significant contingent of conservatives are fundamentally opposed to higher education itself (outside of STEM), especially the social sciences and humanities, since those disciplines are spaces in which critical consideration of culture flourishes. They can't abide that

While I am more in sympathy with liberal views than not you can't dispute that by and large the humanities and some of the social sciences are not very friendly places to conservatives. You can't expect conservatives to love the social sciences and humanities if the social sciences and humanities don't love them back. Liberal bias of reality or not a dissertation arguing "that conservatives like Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas, John McWhorter, and others have ‘played one of the most-significant roles in the assault on the civil-rights legacy that benefited them.”" is understandably not going to endear itself to conservatives. I also choke a bit on 'spaces in which critical consideration of culture flourishes.' Criticizing conservatives for demonizing identity studies is basically criticizing them for being conservatives. It's their nature, much like it's in the nature of the liberal academic community to revile conservatives.

It should go without saying that picking solely on Black Studies for something endemic is a bit racist and picking on graduate students' dissertation titles without reading them is reprehensible.
posted by pseudonick at 2:36 PM on May 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


1) Conservative author reads the abstracts of a few dissertations, mocks them without actually reading the dissertations themselves, calls into question the existence of an entire field of inquiry.
2) Uproar over the conservative author's marginalization of African-American studies (who's luminaries are no strangers to marginalization by society)
3) Conservative author gets fired, inevitable conservative victimization (Blacks are the REAL oppressors! LAWL!)
4) Metafilter post


Are you saying there's no way to PROFIT! from this ???
posted by chavenet at 2:37 PM on May 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


Aside from being racist and incredibly rude, she seems to think that scholarship on obscure topics is stupid. I don't get how someone like that gets a job blogging about higher education. It's like the food network hiring a blogger who thinks that cooking is just a waste of time.

As far as I can tell, her entire oeuvre in the field of commentary on higher education seems to consist of advocating for tenure to be abolished, and the piece of evidence she most often brings up in support of tenure being terrible is that professors can teach small niche courses rather than big general courses. She seems to think that any kind of specialized study is obviously unimportant and wasteful.
posted by burnmp3s at 2:38 PM on May 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


Are you saying there's no way to PROFIT! from this ???

Of course not. This is academia. We get paid in thought dollars.
posted by Joey Michaels at 2:39 PM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


No, we are not supposed to read the stuff we're talking about. This isn't journalism. This is academia. Where would you get the idea that academics are supposed to read the stuff they're talking about? How preposterous."

To be fair, this is how I passed every English class I ever took...
posted by bpm140 at 2:42 PM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's an opinion piece, in a blog, yes, but the author unabashedly admits she hasn't read the work she's trashing.

As far as I can tell, this is standard M.O. for shock blog posts when discussing: libraries, humanities publications, science papers, and anything feminist. It's really sad, and I did expect better of the CHE.
posted by jetlagaddict at 2:43 PM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


I sincerely apologize for the distress these incidents have caused our readers

Distress. Word on a screen. Distress.

I don't even. You mean? It's just that. I can't.

Apparently, we're officially out of problems.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:44 PM on May 8, 2012


What is is that made her qualified to be hired by the Chronicle, exactly?

Let me introduce you to something that makes Soylent Green look like one of the better-case scenarios: the Overton Window.
posted by Halloween Jack at 2:45 PM on May 8, 2012


Conservatives generally dislike Black studies programs; now they dislike the firing.
Fact: most studies programs are silly
Fact: dissertations in study programs and in many other programs are vapid or worthless.
Fact: you can easily pick and choose to show how any program promotes worthlessness.
I was told a very long time ago by a provost that Black studies ok as a minor but hardly a degree that would get decent professional career unless one became an academic and taught in a Black Studies program.
Are Feminist or Gay studies program any better? I doubt it.
posted by Postroad at 2:48 PM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


You can't expect conservatives to love the social sciences and humanities if the social sciences and humanities don't love them back.

It is not the job of members of any academic discipline to kiss up to anyone, strictly speaking. Of course, many members of any given academic discipline do kiss up for money or power, but that is not their stated mission, and shouldn't be.

If conservatives will attack anyone who doesn't pick kissing conservative asses over actually studying and contributing to their field, then conservatives are the ones at fault. Who cares about the political leanings of Professor X or University Y? Are they adding to the knowledge of their field and teaching the students? Then they're doing their jobs.
posted by emjaybee at 2:49 PM on May 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


What's really funny is that she thinks she's attacking black studies programs, but actually she's attacking the idea of scholarship itself. Read the article and try, just try, to claim otherwise.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 2:52 PM on May 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


Surely the very best part of this is the title of her article?

"The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations. [Which I Myself Didn't Bother To Do.]"

It's that "Just" that is the most deliciously ironic.
posted by straight at 2:53 PM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Distress. Word on a screen. Distress.

God forbid anyone should feel distress at evidence of racism and anti-intellectualism.
posted by asterix at 2:55 PM on May 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


I was told a very long time ago by a provost that Black studies ok as a minor but hardly a degree that would get decent professional career unless one became an academic and taught in a Black Studies program.

Or, worst case scenario, you'd end up as a provost.
posted by Joey Michaels at 2:57 PM on May 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


I am also uninterested in reading a dissertation on, among other topics, historical Black midwifery. This says nothing about the merit of the topic in general or this dissertation in particular, just the intersections of my general interest and my interest in reading academic scholarship in a field I don't know anything about. But apparently for other people, the fact that they would not want to read a dissertation is proof positive that it is useless.

Also, I gather she didn't even read abstracts, she read blurbs.

I am curious if the person who wrote dismissive and insulting twitter replies as a representative of the CHE has been given better directives on online interactions.
posted by jeather at 2:58 PM on May 8, 2012


I think the icing on the cake, at least for me, was the closing of the article where the writer essentially said they were all for black studies as long as they didn't try to blame white people for the problems of black people.

Sounds like telling a carpenter to put all those nails in, just don't use a hammer.
posted by Ghidorah at 3:02 PM on May 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


That is not journalism, that is a polemic.
posted by danl at 3:06 PM on May 8, 2012


Even worse - in most cases it seems like "Put all those nails in, but you better not use that screwdriver!"
posted by muddgirl at 3:06 PM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Didn't even read the dissertations before writing about it. What laziness. If you don't have time to read the dissertation, you don't get to say something about it period. Good grief, this is like Golden Rule stuff.
posted by scunning at 3:07 PM on May 8, 2012


I'd love to see a similar perspective on the dissertations written at evangelical "universities."
posted by spitbull at 3:10 PM on May 8, 2012 [9 favorites]


Among other things it has to be said that these are unusually relevant topics for a dissertation. What could be more relevant to contemporary American life than 1970s urban policy? 1970s housing policy is why every city and town in the US looks the way it looks.
posted by gerryblog at 3:12 PM on May 8, 2012 [13 favorites]


Metafilter: The problem with Freedom is mornons.
posted by Bummus at 3:14 PM on May 8, 2012 [14 favorites]


Doh!

Metafilter: The problem with Freedom is morons.
posted by Bummus at 3:15 PM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't think you are familiar with the target readership of the CoHE.

Unfortunately, I am all too familiar with them. My city probably has a higher per capita subscription rate than any place in the world.
posted by charlie don't surf at 3:24 PM on May 8, 2012


The fact that she chose dissertations-in-progress as her evidence makes her entire argument moot right out of the gate. If the dissertations-to-be are as terrible as she seems to think, the PhD candidates writing them will not be awarded PhDs as a result.
posted by asnider at 3:24 PM on May 8, 2012


emjaybee: It is not the job of members of any academic discipline to kiss up to anyone, strictly speaking. Of course, many members of any given academic discipline do kiss up for money or power, but that is not their stated mission, and shouldn't be.

Well, in theory maybe. But in practice someone known as a Republican voting conservative thinker stands as much chance of tenure in Black Studies as a Nuclear Engineering professor who refuses to take any funding or apply for grants from the military industrial complex.
posted by pseudonick at 3:25 PM on May 8, 2012


I was told a very long time ago by a provost that Black studies ok as a minor but hardly a degree that would get decent professional career unless one became an academic and taught in a Black Studies program.

So?

Shafer-Riley's attack (I can't grace it with the title 'argument') isn't about how Black Studies students don't get jobs; it's about how Black Studies isn't a worthy academic subject. Two very different issues that we shouldn't conflate, despite the growing trend for politicians and university presidents with MBAs to do so.

We make fun of English majors who work at Starbucks, but that's different than making fun of English majors because literature is trivial and unimportant. Hell, I did linguistics in undergrad, which is just about as useful outside of academia as Black Studies, but I've never had my field of study attacked for being trivial, despite the fact that I've read at least dozens of dissertations with topics far more obscure and irrelevant to everyday life than the ones named in Schafer-Riley's article.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 3:26 PM on May 8, 2012 [13 favorites]


Conservatives generally dislike Black studies programs; now they dislike the firing.
Fact: most studies programs are silly
Fact: dissertations in study programs and in many other programs are vapid or worthless.
Fact: you can easily pick and choose to show how any program promotes worthlessness.
I was told a very long time ago by a provost that Black studies ok as a minor but hardly a degree that would get decent professional career unless one became an academic and taught in a Black Studies program.
Are Feminist or Gay studies program any better? I doubt it.


That may or may not be the case, but she has not provided evidence, or even logical structure sufficient enough to support her argument.

(for that matter, neither have you)


Or, worst case scenario, you'd end up as a provost.

*gasp* NOT THAT! *crosses self, throws salt over shoulder*
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 3:27 PM on May 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


Yeeahhh who needs provosts anyway! Smash the state!
posted by Doleful Creature at 3:39 PM on May 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


I have not read the dissertations (obviously), but find her mockery of the subject abusive and racist.
posted by zoo at 3:41 PM on May 8, 2012


I was told a very long time ago by a provost that Black studies ok as a minor but hardly a degree that would get decent professional career unless one became an academic and taught in a Black Studies program.

I'm presuming that most PhD candidates in Black Studies are in fact looking for a career in exactly that.

I don't know what to say that hasn't already been said. Slamming an entire field of study for the titles of some dissertations appearing to be esoteric displays a woeful lack of understanding on what dissertations are to begin with, and clearly has no place in a Journal of Higher Education. Questions ALL studies for this? Sure, maybe. I'd probably disagree, but I could picture an argument that when scholars are writing up their articles purely for other scholars, we've gotten into an echo-chamber of limited practical effect. But again, that describes ALL PhD programs.

But Black Studies is an important field precisely because it is so young and the topics so unheard-of. One of the many effects of slavery which is still felt today is the way it erased so much of the history of a culture and it's individual members. (Just look at basic geneology, which is probably pretty narcissistic for the most part, but still. Most white folks will be able to tell you which European countries and in some cases which Native American tribes their ancestors come from. Most African-Americans I've met cannot, because of how much more ridiculous effort that simple knowledge which I take for granted would require. But this is a tangent. Anyway...)

The point is that giving the benefit of the doubt, I would imagine a dissertation on historical Black midwifery to be valuable, and perhaps interesting. Global childbirth practices throughout history is interesting and valuable enough, and birth playing kind of a large role in any culture, well, this seems like a solid topic.

But her response to it, "How could we overlook the nonwhite experience in 'natural birth literature,' whatever the heck that is?" is not only privileged but vehemently, willfully ignorant. Indeed, how could the European practices of midwifery not be sufficient knowledge? Surely all of the different cultures in Africa, Asia and the Middle East did the same things, right? Surely it was the same in the slave quarters as it was in the mansion. Jesus Christ.

The other two she attacks are for reasons purely political, so it makes sense that she doesn't need to read them. Housing policies thirty years ago make for a stupid topic, because come on, thirty years ago. Ancient history! And they have nothing to do with today's housing crisis, which I know without reading because whites were hit too! Hitting poor black communities particularly hard with predatory lending, causing the system as a whole to collapse, bringing in a shitload of whites in the mix as well, well, that's a question that I would never even think of, because why would I?

As for Black Republicanism? I'm absolutely certain that's nothing but a screed against a bunch of Uncle Toms even though we've got a Black President now and everything is solved. It couldn't be a description of a bifurcation within Black America between the recent Haves and the Have-Nots as opposing ideologies emerged.

But here, here is the money quote, to me the most racist thing in the article: "Seriously, folks, there are legitimate debates about the problems that plague the black community from high incarceration rates to low graduation rates to high out-of-wedlock birth rates."

The first two times I read through it my eyes glazed over everything past "legitimate debates" because I didn't give a shit about her equivocations. But the third time through, it rang horrible bells for me, bringing me back to this.

•Incarceration rates
•Graduation rates
•Out-of-wedlock pregnancy rates

This is the trifecta. The holy trinity that white conservative academics point to in order to say that blacks are inherently inferior. Because all of these things, in the conservative worldview, are the fault of a lack of personal responsibility.

And now I feel sick.
posted by Navelgazer at 3:43 PM on May 8, 2012 [30 favorites]


Koeselitz already pointed this out, but it deserves emphasis.

This is Riley on April 30: "The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations."

And this is Riley on May 3rd: "It is not my job to read entire dissertations."

She advocated the elimination of an entire discipline on the basis of the contents of dissertations -- contents about which she knows almost or exactly nothing. If she had written the same thing about any other discipline, I mean literally any other discipline from agriculture to zoology, there would be zero debate about whether this person has any business whatsoever writing for a blog about academia. Her entire argument distills down to a simple message of "I do not care about the things in these titles, refuse to learn about them, and other people should not study them."

Her firing is not reverse racism. It is forward anti-stupidism.
posted by compartment at 4:02 PM on May 8, 2012 [20 favorites]


So-called conservatives don't hold the monopoly on anti-intellectualism, although they have made anti-intellectualism into a component of their persona. Liberals can be plenty anti-intellectual, too, although it's frequently hidden behind a veneer of pseudo-intellectualism.

In America, intellectualism is only valued insofar as it advances one's social status. To the Right, that means whatever makes you the most money, so STEM education and "useful degrees" are OK, humanities aren't OK. To the (wealthy) Left, social status can also come from academic prominence or writing a bestselling book. Your kid's got to get straight A's so he/she can get into The Right School. And once there, it's OK if he/she studies International Musical Folkways, because who knows? Maybe someday they'll run a nonprofit and be interviewed on The Daily Show.

But try being an intellectual only for its own sake -- because you love a subject and you're fascinated with it-- conservatives might jeer at you, but many self-professed liberals will pretty much just blink and say "Oh, how interesting for you." There's very little in the way of genuine intellectual curiosity in American culture which isn't just a proxy for showing off how sophisticated you are.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 4:06 PM on May 8, 2012 [8 favorites]


pseudonick:

While I am more in sympathy with liberal views than not you can't dispute that by and large the humanities and some of the social sciences are not very friendly places to conservatives.

I think you're using "conservative" as a synonym for "Republican", which I would argue is an inaccurate and obsolete way to describe such people. I don't think those fields are unfriendly to conservatives, though I would proudly say that they're not very friendly to ultra-nationalist, sexually anxious, patriarchal, xenophobic, anti-intellectual boot-lickers for international corporations.

You can't expect conservatives to love the social sciences and humanities if the social sciences and humanities don't love them back.

Again, I think real conservatives have little in the way of ideological problems in those fields.

Liberal bias of reality or not a dissertation arguing "that conservatives like Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas, John McWhorter, and others have ‘played one of the most-significant roles in the assault on the civil-rights legacy that benefited them.”" is understandably not going to endear itself to conservatives.

The purpose of a dissertation is not to endear its argument to people of a particular ideological bent. It either demonstrates empirically what the author intends to, or doesn't.

I also choke a bit on 'spaces in which critical consideration of culture flourishes.'

Sounds like you should see a doctor for that.

Criticizing conservatives for demonizing identity studies is basically criticizing them for being conservatives.

That is a false equivalence.

It's their nature, much like it's in the nature of the liberal academic community to revile conservatives.

I guess there's nothing to talk about, then.
posted by clockzero at 4:07 PM on May 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


But Black Studies is an important field precisely because it is so young and the topics so unheard-of.

Can someone who knows about these things in detail please make some FPPs about them? Each of those dissertation topics sound not only important, but also fascinating.
posted by talitha_kumi at 4:17 PM on May 8, 2012 [7 favorites]


It's not like the CHE blogs have ever been short on reflexive, hard-core right-wingers — the complaints about "silencing" and "political correctness" are especially funny here, because CHE clearly practices affirmative action for the right when it goes looking for bloggers. Between present and past CHE bloggers they've given a podium to hundreds of similarly conservative screeds from the likes of Peter Wood and Mark Bauerlein; closer to the publication's actual mission, they feature management theory from Kevin Carey and disgraced former university presidents like Graham Spanier. The only real leftist who's ever blogged there is Marc Bousquet; apart from that they have a few token humanities-liberal types who spend most of their time trying to be funny. The large majority of the explicitly political content on the CHE blogs is and has always been right-wing, and it's clearly by design — whether that's for ideological reasons or as click-bait (I suspect both play a role).
posted by RogerB at 4:23 PM on May 8, 2012


The only real leftist who's ever blogged there is Marc Bousquet; apart from that they have a few token humanities-liberal types who spend most of their time trying to be funny.

I think that comment is a bit too dismissive. CHE bloggers like "Tenured Radical" offer serious perspectives on issues from a very leftist point of view. Her writing style does sometimes evoke humor but that doesn't mean she is not serious. She is very serious. I know because I have gotten into a few scraps with her from time to time.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 4:33 PM on May 8, 2012


"Natural birth," lol! What will they think of next, black scholars?
posted by mek at 4:37 PM on May 8, 2012


CHE bloggers like "Tenured Radical"

I'm talking about "Brainstorm" specifically, which is the blog the CHE editors feature on the front page of chronicle.com. Didn't mean to include their "blog network" in the condemnation; sorry about the unintentional overreach. (The Buildings & Grounds blog is nice, too!)
posted by RogerB at 4:40 PM on May 8, 2012


Maybe I'm just a pessimist, but from the first tinklings I heard of this on the interwebs, I immediately assumed that this was an entirely cynical move by the CHE to bring in clicks through outrage-baiting. It's a trick that newspapers-in-peril have been using for quite some time to relatively good effect (good in the sense of traffic/attention, not in the sense of quality journalism). I really hope that the CHE burns their fingers enough on this one to avoid repeating this, but I wonder what they think when they look at their traffic numbers…
posted by LMGM at 4:59 PM on May 8, 2012


•Incarceration rates
•Graduation rates
•Out-of-wedlock pregnancy rates

This is the trifecta. The holy trinity that white conservative academics point to in order to say that blacks are inherently inferior. Because all of these things, in the conservative worldview, are the fault of a lack of personal responsibility.


First, I don't know a single white conservative academic who points to this trifecta to say that blacks are inherently inferior. But I do know conservative academics (both white and black) who point to these issues and argue for different underlying causes than those on the left. I hope you don't mean to suggest that opposition to the left in this way defines one as racist. Shelby Steele is a good example of a black intellectual that comes to mind. And yes, he offers a different take on problems within the black community and the white response to those problems that is indeed more grounded in the importance of the individual. Steele is obviously no fan of critical race theory. And that should be OK. Black Studies will be a healthy and legitimate discipline as long as this kind of tension between opposing views is allowed.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 5:06 PM on May 8, 2012


Having opinions about dissertations you haven't read is really the domain of thesis examiners.
posted by srboisvert at 5:10 PM on May 8, 2012 [15 favorites]


If we are going to broaden the discussion to the CHE Brainstorm blog, the thing to remember about it is this: It is unrelentingly terrible.
posted by LarryC at 5:26 PM on May 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


Finally, since this is a blog about academia and not journalism, I’ll forgive the commenters for not understanding that it is not my job to read entire dissertations before I write a 500-word piece about them.

I thank Ms Riley for exposing me to the most hilariously honest explanation of the Chronicle's mission. No, we are not supposed to read the stuff we're talking about. This isn't journalism. This is academia. Where would you get the idea that academics are supposed to read the stuff they're talking about? How preposterous.

@koeselitz I think you're misreading that. Ms Riley is saying that she is a journalist, not an academic like most of the Chronicle's readers are, thus she can't be expected to read a dissertation.
posted by PueExMachina at 5:28 PM on May 8, 2012


I'm pretty sure writing "whatever the heck that is" in a non-facetious manner is an automatic forfeit.
posted by threeants at 5:38 PM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


But I do know conservative academics (both white and black) who point to these issues and argue for different underlying causes than those on the left.

The underlying causes are, pardon the term, academic. The problem is that claims about those causes are trotted out in political and policy discussions to excuse the status quo, or worse, endorse ongoing forms of institutional racism (such as the enormous gulf in sentencing between white and black men in America). From the point of view of policy analysis, the underlying cause is only interesting insofar as it affects the necessary course of action: a crude example is, it's really irrelevant to the architect as to why some individuals find themselves in need of a wheelchair to be mobile, it's just important to know how many there are and what access they require to where to ensure their quality of life.

One reason I am so skeptical of appeals to "personal responsibility" and the loss of "individual accountability," is that they dismiss the historical context of the subject and appeal to the subject's presumed (and undemonstrated) freedom of choice. We know this intuitively when discussing the paraplegic individual: even if their condition is the result of reckless endangerment, we cannot ignore the massive inequality which both exists and is presently fixed; their ongoing suffering demands additional action by the able-bodied (I hope we all agree). Similarly, calls for a racially-blind society are calls to ignore ongoing racism. If inequality persists despite this ideological move, we then ignore those inequalities, in hopes that by not looking at them, they will disappear. It's effectively a bootstrap argument: by lending an oppressed group (poor, racial minority, woman, homosexual, transgender, etc) an ideological notion of equality (it says so right here in The Law) the oppressed group is now responsible for improving their own lot. Of course this is absurd. Advantages accrue to the advantaged, as the disadvantaged are forced to compete on a level (or in the case of criminal justice, rigged) playing field. One need only look at gender pay inequality to know that despite formal recognition of equality, oppression goes on for a long, long time.

This isn't an argument for affirmative action as it is currently practiced, it is only an argument against the notion of the "post-racial society" which enjoys so much traction after 2008. In the theme of academia I'll quote Adorno: "The need to lend a voice to suffering is a condition of all truth. For suffering is objectivity that weighs upon the subject." Those who, in speaking, demand we ignore voices of suffering ("What racism?" "What oppression?" "What war on women?") are the oppressors.
posted by mek at 5:45 PM on May 8, 2012 [7 favorites]


"There's very little in the way of genuine intellectual curiosity in American culture which isn't just a proxy for showing off how sophisticated you are."
posted by overeducated_alligator

eponysterical ?
posted by k5.user at 6:30 PM on May 8, 2012


"The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Journalists? Just Read the Articles."
posted by jacalata at 6:31 PM on May 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


I agree with the apparent-consensus that this article is horrible, anti-intellectual drivel, but I do want to dispute one point that has been raised here. There has been a dangerous suggestion that modern conservatives support only STEM disciplines. This is untrue; the routine attacks on science and science funding is unequivocal proof that the anti-intellectualism of our current conservatives knows no bounds.
posted by JMOZ at 7:26 PM on May 8, 2012 [6 favorites]


"Natural birth," lol! What will they think of next, black scholars?

This reminds me of one of my favourite stupid jokes of the moment:
Q: What do you call a black man flying an aeroplane?

A: The pilot, you fucking racist!
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 7:31 PM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


First, I don't know a single white conservative academic who points to this trifecta to say that blacks are inherently inferior.

Bully for you. I do. Check the link in my comment above for a story about modern conservative "thought" on such matters.

But I do know conservative academics (both white and black) who point to these issues and argue for different underlying causes than those on the left. I hope you don't mean to suggest that opposition to the left in this way defines one as racist.

I know these types of conservatives as well, both black and white, and I'm not aiming at them with this accusation. I know conservatives who I consider to be good and reasonable people. The three things I mentioned above are all issues that deeply impact the black community, obviously. They are all issues which may be debated as to how to solve them. What separates them from the other issues is that they are statistically convenient for the racists in the conservative wing, of which there are many many many. These are people not interested in policy, because they don't see these issues as problems to be addressed but rather as reasons not to care at all.

To put this more clearly: There are assholes on all ends of the American political spectrum, but the conservative ideology is based entirely on finding logic by which one may be self-righteous about being an asshole.

You may not have seen these points come up in these discussions. I have. They need to be discussed and addressed, but this writer has given me no reason to believe she actually wants that. Instead, she looked at dissertation subjects in Black Studies, claimed that they all smacked of "victomhood," and said that Black Studies should be abolished unless it's about high incarceration rates, low gfraduation rates, and out-of-wedlock pregnancies.

SHE is a fucking racist, and she is not alone.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:01 PM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


you can't dispute that by and large the humanities and some of the social sciences are not very friendly places to conservatives

I'd dispute that for political science, my own discipline.

The basic truth is that nobody really gives a shit what your politics are. The things people care about are (1) be productive, (2) contribute to the department, and (3) don't be such an obnoxious boor that people prefer to stay home rather than come into the department and have to see you. And #3 there cuts across all political and other divides. Someone who is an obnoxious boor about lefty politics wouldn't receive any warmer welcome than someone who was an obnoxious boor about righty politics, or someone who was an obnoxious boor about film or Star Trek or anything else.

...and of course if you're productive enough, people even stop caring about whether you're an obnoxious boor.

The strongest statement I could agree with would be "most political science faculty are liberal." But the mere presence of liberals does not make an environment hostile to conservatives.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:24 PM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


The underlying causes are, pardon the term, academic.

Yes. Exactly. That is what I am talking about. An academic discipline. What are you talking about?

From the point of view of policy analysis, the underlying cause is only interesting insofar as it affects the necessary course of action:

But if your underlying cause is wrong how can you move forward with a meaningful course of action?

I hear you. You are making a substantive claim about the underlying cause of disparities in the black community. I am not critiquing your claim or proposing an alternative. I am just pointing out what a healthy academic discipline does with claims. It dissects them. It pushes back against them. It thoughtfully considers other arguments. And through that process claims become stronger or they are abandoned for new ones. But that can only happen in an academic discipline if it is allowed to happen. So the real danger for any discipline, but particularly for Black Studies (because it is perhaps more easily politicized than others) is what happens if this kind of discourse becomes off limits. When that happens a discipline looses legitimacy.

SHE is a fucking racist, and she is not alone.

I don't know if she is a fucking racist. But if she is I do agree that she is not alone. All I do know for sure is that she published an opinion about Black Studies that was an intellectual train wreck. That doesn't necessarily make her a racist. But it does make her stupid.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 9:45 PM on May 8, 2012


That doesn't necessarily make her a racist. But it does make her stupid.

The point is that the systemic racism in the present culture is different from traditional, explicit racism. Moreover, no racist has ever believed they were being racist.
posted by polymodus at 9:50 PM on May 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


"But the mere presence of liberals does not make an environment hostile to conservatives."

Not to hear the more self-victimizing conservatives tell it. Alas.
posted by aurelian at 10:40 PM on May 8, 2012


"(N)o racist has ever believed they were being racist."

Meet Francis Galton.
posted by aurelian at 10:48 PM on May 8, 2012


Am I really so out of touch with the right that this: "the author of a dissertation on the history of black midwifery began her research, she told the Chronicle, because she "noticed that nonwhite women's experiences were largely absent from natural-birth literature." doesn't seem like a finished example, just the beginning of one?

I mean, I read that and I think - huh: most of the midwifery stuff I've read *has* been about/by white people. Interesting! Now, if there's some obvious reason why that's silly, great - I'd love to hear it. But after quoting the title, she's done.

*why* is that so silly?
posted by freebird at 11:12 PM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Moreover, no racist has ever believed they were being racist.

I disagree. I think many racists know they are being racist. They just think that their racism is justified.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 11:28 PM on May 8, 2012


Let's be clear, these dissertations do sound pretty dumb. But it's easy to cherry pick dumb dissertations in any field. So yeah, dumb reviews of dumb dissertations equals dumb.
posted by quadog at 12:37 AM on May 9, 2012


The Most Persuasive Case for Sacking Naomi Schaefer Riley? Just Read the Articles.
posted by flabdablet at 12:45 AM on May 9, 2012


I disagree. I think many racists know they are being racist. They just think that their racism is justified.

The Stormfront kind of racists do admit to it, but you get nowhere in American politics if you don't at least play lip service to the idea of fundamental equality of races, so the less obvious racist will make sure those who share his creed knows what he's talking about, while those who would be put off with it hear only normal politics. Lee Atwater said it best:

"Atwater: You start out in 1954 by saying, "N*gger, n*gger, n*gger." By 1968 you can't say "n*gger" — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "N*gger, n*gger."
posted by MartinWisse at 12:47 AM on May 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


She might not be personally racist (I don't know, I don't now her) but she is exhibiting and enacting a lot of systemic, societal racism.
posted by Dysk at 2:11 AM on May 9, 2012


Let's be clear, these dissertations do sound pretty dumb.

What's dumb about them?
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 3:15 AM on May 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


Riley wrote an editorial on her firing in the Wall Street Journal. (I apologize if this was already linked upthread.)

I know I really should avoid newspaper comment threads, but I think the reader complaint that education these days is a "long slog through the Trail of Tears" does a great job of speaking for itself.
posted by compartment at 5:51 AM on May 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


The initial article was poorly researched. I still hate the shrill buzzing of the racism gestapo, who came down like infuriated locusts, trying to bodily suffocate her for daring to write about race (especially on the hallowed pages of the Chronicle!) with any view other than the orthodox.
posted by shivohum at 7:37 AM on May 9, 2012


Timothy Burke: Some suggestions for the person who is genuinely seeking well-considered, ambitious criticisms [of Black Studies etc.]
posted by stebulus at 8:25 AM on May 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


Thanks for that info stebulus. There is also this post from todays Inside Higher Ed.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 8:59 AM on May 9, 2012


I am also uninterested in reading a dissertation on, among other topics, historical Black midwifery.

Really? That was where I first realized the whole article was an utter troll, b/c it sounds fascinating to me.

The fairly conservative Smithsonian Institution agrees.

"Lessons from African-American Midwife Traditions" from NPR, 2005.

"The profession of midwifery in the African American community has a rich history dating back to the days of slavery. Four centuries later, black nurse-midwives continue to play an important role in improving health outcomes for at-risk women and newborns."

- African American Nurse-Midwives: Continuing the Legacy
posted by mrgrimm at 9:08 AM on May 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


This is a toss-off blog post that someone seems to have cobbled together in 15 minutes for the sake of link baiting, imho.
posted by Theta States at 9:17 AM on May 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


This isn’t a critique that somehow just now needs to get started: it’s a long-running, ongoing conversation.

That's actually the most offensive part of the whole thing. This woman apparently thinks she's saying something new? And people are responding?

Ugly.

I had a white-as-my-ass Irish friend who was a Black Studies major. He wrote his thesis on Olaudah Equiano. I fail to see how any attack on Black Studies is anything but an overt attack on the value of black culture, politics, or more generally, black people as a subject worthy of academic investigation.

Very, very ugly.

I didn't have much respect for the WSJ anyway, but that op-ed is really beyond the pale.
posted by mrgrimm at 9:17 AM on May 9, 2012


..and it would be much easier to ignore if conservatives haven't been successful in remove cultural studies from academic curriculums...
posted by Theta States at 9:18 AM on May 9, 2012


This is a toss-off blog post that someone seems to have cobbled together in 15 minutes for the sake of link baiting, imho.

... and then propelled her to be published in the Wall Street Journal (I assume it's just online as part of WSJ's new blogs for part-time racists platform?) ... oh wait, she's a former WSJ editor. Ugh.

The initial article was poorly researched. I still hate the shrill buzzing of the racism gestapo, who came down like infuriated locusts, trying to bodily suffocate her for daring to write about race

Good god! Do you think the criticism arose because she "dared to write about race" - what the bloody fuck? Check out stebulus' links. People make "unorthodox arguments" about race ALL THE TIME.

Fwiw, "racism gestapo" sounds like a dog whistle for the "take America back" crowd.
posted by mrgrimm at 9:25 AM on May 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


Really? That was where I first realized the whole article was an utter troll, b/c it sounds fascinating to me.

It sounds somewhat interesting, but not enough to read an entire dissertation about it. I'd read an article about it, especially if it weren't an academic one. But that's not the point: whether these particular dissertations are things I would read (no, though very few dissertations are) has nothing to do with whether I have any interest in the topic (some) and neither of those are related to whether I think the topics have any merit (yes).

Of course, I also wouldn't write an article about those dissertations that I haven't read.

I still hate the shrill buzzing of the racism gestapo

Us poor white people, being herded into ghettos and exterminated by Black graduate students and people who think that racism is bad. Woe.
posted by jeather at 10:23 AM on May 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


The dissertation on black midwifery seems like it could be especially interesting to conservative people. It begs a question, which I'll phrase with tongue planted firmly in cheek: Why would this presumably liberal and ostensibly all-inclusive clique of granola-crunching, natural-birth-having, hippies-turned-limousine-liberals have neglected to include a nonwhite narrative in their precious natural birth literature (whatever the heck that is!), and doesn't it prove that they are more racist, more insular, and less inclusive than the supposed phallocracy they criticize?

There's a legitimate question buried under all those layers of condescension. But god forbid we answer it. Because if we answered the question, we might learn that it's not because liberals are bad people. It might be because alternative childbirth is not part of today's dominant black narrative or culture. Because many forms of alternative culture are a luxury unavailable to those who face systemic economic and social hardships that fall largely along race-based lines.

Don't bother to answer serious questions about race. Instead, call the questions dumb, accuse the questioner of playing victim, and then insist that you yourself are the real victim because you offended the customers and your market-conscious employer let you go.

Honestly: Who among us would not be out on our ass if we offended as many customers as severely as she says she did? Does she really have the temerity to suggest that the market was wrong?
posted by compartment at 12:03 PM on May 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


I still hate the shrill buzzing of the racism gestapo

I don't think that comment reflects what you really mean.

I was in the middle of writing an angry, sarcastic response when I though it might be better to ask you to clarify.

Because, to me, it sounds like you are annoyed by people identifying and complaining about an instance of endemic, pervasive, thoughtless racism, rather than just sucking it up.

So, could you please clarify what you mean by the 'shrill buzzing of the racism gestapo'?
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 7:05 PM on May 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


SHE is a fucking racist, and she is not alone.

And yet, ironically, she's married to a black man. Which you have to admit is a better comeback than "some of my best friends are black".

Does she really have the temerity to suggest that the market was wrong?

I would have hoped that the CHE would aspire to something higher minded than "the market".

Not much of a writer, granted, but how many bloggers are? Mostly I'm a little concerned that I'm not seeing much in the way of "I disagree with what you say but defend to the death your right to say it".
posted by IndigoJones at 5:11 AM on May 10, 2012


She's allowed to say whatever stupid stuff she wants. Doesn't mean that the CHE is obliged to give her a platform and pay her for saying it, or that no one else is allowed to say she's wrong.
posted by jeather at 7:40 AM on May 10, 2012


Mostly I'm a little concerned that I'm not seeing much in the way of "I disagree with what you say but defend to the death your right to say it".

I don't think the kind of free speech absolutism indicated by that slogan makes sense in this context.

For an extreme example, if I say something to you which pisses you off and you stop talking to me, it doesn't make sense for me to appeal to my freedom of speech. I can say what I want, sure, but I don't have any right to your attention, your conversation, or your friendship; you are fully within your rights to deny me those things, even for mere acts of speech.

In the case at hand, Riley is being ostracized at most from academia, for violating its norms of discourse.* But academia is only a small part of our society. Riley has lots of other options. It's not like she's being exiled from society at large, or like she's been declared outlaw and no one will do business with her, or like she's being imprisoned.

The slogan also fails to fit this case because the objection to Riley's column (well, my objection at least) has nothing to do with agreement or disagreement, but with failing to participate in the conversation in accordance with the most basic values of academia* (and other realms where people give a shit about the truth and try to structure their habits and social conventions in ways that help find it).

* The details of the norms of academia that Riley violated are well articulated by Timothy Burke (who I linked above), especially in this comment on an earlier post of his on the subject.
posted by stebulus at 8:49 AM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Two quick points to put this in a broader context. First, while her position may seem to be obviously racist, it's actually the default position of many left-wing intellectuals and academics. This positions assumes that ethnic studies are irrelevant and unserious, at best, or actually corrosive and anti-democratic, at worst. This is a point of view that has been put forth by Harold Bloom, Tony Judt, Richard Rorty, and Walter Benn Michaels, whose screeds on academic diversity is indistinguishable from right-wing pundits like Charles "Bell Curve" Murray and have been reviewed favorably in the London Review and N+1.

Second, this isn't just a relic left over from the culture war. Consider how the right has attacked the ethnic studies departments in Tucson, making it against the law for students to learn about Mexican American history and actually banning and censoring books from curriculum, as part of the concerted racially motivated war on immigrants that brought us SB1070. Here are some essays from the ethnic studies organizers and the activists involved (sort of self link).
posted by johnasdf at 8:57 AM on May 10, 2012


it's actually the default position of many left-wing intellectuals and academics. This positions assumes that ethnic studies are irrelevant and unserious, at best, or actually corrosive and anti-democratic, at worst. This is a point of view that has been put forth by Harold Bloom, Tony Judt, Richard Rorty, and Walter Benn Michaels

I think, in light of the examples you raise in the third sentence, you might consider modifying the "many" part of your first sentence. "Many aging white intellectuals and academics" is perhaps a more elucidating description. For example, Harold Bloom's thoughts on slam poetry: "It is the death of art." Yes, ladies and gentlemen, populist poetry has killed art once and for all.
posted by muddgirl at 9:04 AM on May 10, 2012


while her position may seem to be obviously racist, it's actually the default position of many left-wing intellectuals and academics [...] Walter Benn Michaels, whose screeds on academic diversity is indistinguishable from right-wing pundits like Charles "Bell Curve" Murray

You seem to be having trouble distinguishing between things that are obviously extremely different. If Naomi Schafer Riley seriously reminds you of Richard Rorty, or Walter Benn Michaels genuinely seems just like Charles Murray to you, that means that it's time to work on your distinguishing skills, not to start tossing around the word "indistinguishable."
posted by RogerB at 9:36 AM on May 10, 2012


Unsurprisingly, I disagree with both of these comments!

First of all, I'm wary about believing that racism is just the prerogative of "aging white" populations. The point of ethnic studies's structural critique is that racism is not just something old bigots do. We're all involved in it. I think most people oppose ethnic studies (or are at least highly skeptical about it), but these departments have already been so so gutted that they're not really around enough for anyone to be object to. The burgeoning youth culture around occupy is very informed by Marxist and anarchist roots but has very little relationship to, say, organizing in immigrant communities. (And Walter Benn Michaels has been published anti-diversity essays in N+1 and the LARB--it's hard to think of other publications that more strongly define the zeitgeist of youth intellectual culture.)

Regarding WBM and Rorty, I appreciate your condescension, but I was serious. I'm a big fan of Rorty: I've read probably four of his books and Contingency, Irony and Solidarity was pretty life-changing for me, but his politics on race are not fantastic: he's an American nationalist, so he's going to be against projects based on critiques of American imperialist projects. He was pretty famously against ethnic studies departments and even adopted Harold Bloom's exact language ("school of resentment," etc.) in Achieving Our Country. He's been pretty vocal about ethnic studies inculcating self-victimization and corroding the kind of American solidarity he wanted. Regarding WBM, his new work essentially argues that we should abandon civil rights in favor of class-based initiatives (as though the two are mutually exclusive). This is the very similar to the argument in Charles Murray's new book. I'm pretty surprised at your shock about WBM, who's essentially created a new stage in his career by being a troll on race (e.g., defending Orson Scott Card, calling Olivia Butler a racist).
posted by johnasdf at 12:19 PM on May 10, 2012


I can tell you're serious, but you're still making ridiculous claims. You seem to be intentionally ignoring every difference of opinion and argument except the only one you're interested in, which is whether a person has ever said something critical of ethnic-studies programs.  You're of course welcome to play Ethnic Studies: With Us or Against Us? all you like if that's how your politics roll, but you shouldn't expect other people to agree when you claim all the political positions you namedrop are "indistinguishable" (when they range from democratic-socialist to hard neocon), or that they're all somehow equivalent to Naomi Schaefer Riley's pure unadulterated idiocy, because they all go in the "against" column in your head. This is really a total derail in the first place, because no one but you thinks Riley's moronic failure to RTFD automatically equates with every serious book-length critique of ethnic studies that anyone has ever written.
posted by RogerB at 1:00 PM on May 10, 2012


First of all, I'm wary about believing that racism is just the prerogative of "aging white" populations.

Of course not. I didn't say it was. Your contention was
First, while her position may seem to be obviously racist, it's actually the default position of many left-wing intellectuals and academics. This positions assumes that ethnic studies are irrelevant and unserious
My contention was that (a) that's not proven (you cited 4, out of how many left-wing intellectuals and academics?), and (b) there is another characteristic that binds the ritics of ethnic studies that you mentioned.
posted by muddgirl at 1:02 PM on May 10, 2012


So, could you please clarify what you mean by the 'shrill buzzing of the racism gestapo'?

I mean that claims of racism are often used to bludgeon disagreeable viewpoints into submission, independent of whether those views are true or not. If someone points out something the orthodoxy doesn't like -- say, that academics who study race relations see their subject through a lens of victimization and helplessness -- it is immediately decried as racist as a tool to smother the debate. Whether and to what extent is true is thereby backgrounded.

And I think is what is happening -- in part -- here. Yes, her article was poorly argued and was justly criticized for that reason, but, independent of that fact, it said something heretical about race (calling Black Studies effectively a branch of victimization studies) and that's a large part of the reason it drew the vehement, beestung reaction it did (a 6500 signature petition to fire her). Perhaps her article had more than a grain of truth in it, too, which is why the defense had to be all the more strident.
posted by shivohum at 7:15 PM on May 10, 2012


shivolhum, thank you for that. I now understand your point, although I disagree that this is an instance of that phenomenon.

Albeit that she was unprofessional enough and incompetent to write about dissertations she had not read and did not understand, Riley essentially flat out denies that ethnicity or the experience of black people as a group could possibly have any effect on or relevance to anything at all.

For example:
That’s what I would say about Ruth Hayes’ dissertation, “‘So I Could Be Easeful’: Black Women’s Authoritative Knowledge on Childbirth.” It began because she “noticed that nonwhite women’s experiences were largely absent from natural-birth literature, which led me to look into historical black midwifery.” How could we overlook the nonwhite experience in “natural birth literature,” whatever the heck that is?

That is a denial that nonwhite people could have anything relevant or useful to say about natural birth. It is, IMO, pretty offensive.

So I personally think that article is pretty racist, because it relies on the premise that the non-white perspective is unimportant. I think that's why it drew the reaction it did.

Should she have been fired? Well, I'm not sure. I personally would have fired her because she is a hack that doesn't do necessary research, and writes about things that she doesn't understand or even try to understand. I don't see her firing as a silencing of conservative opinion. I see it as a silencing of baseless opinion. And in that respect, it is entirely justified, especially for an academic publication.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 7:53 PM on May 10, 2012


say, that academics who study race relations see their subject through a lens of victimization and helplessness

You're welcome to say that, but some citations would be useful. Something published in the last 20 years, of course.
posted by mek at 10:11 PM on May 10, 2012


I would have hoped that the CHE would aspire to something higher minded than "the market".

Indigo, I hope so too. My point was maybe laced with a bit too much sarcasm. It wasn't about CHE treating market forces as a barometer of justice, but rather conservatives in general and (I assumed) Riley specifically. I guess my point was: Free-market idealists shouldn't complain that someone is the victim of a witch-hunt if the claimed victimization was due to basic market forces, like failing to supply political correctness to a customer base that demands it.
posted by compartment at 10:30 PM on May 10, 2012


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