Wednesday, May 09, 2012

"[A]ctual fields of knowledge"

Between Obama's announcement (sometimes I'm incredibly sappy and un-cynical, and today was one of those times - no doubt there were political machinations, but I couldn't possibly know what they were, and I choose just to be thrilled) and what's discussed below, I might as well sign up officially for The Left. Quick, conservative/libertarian readers, find me something equally egregious from the progressive end of things, so that I can return to my center-left comfort zone. I'm begging you. 


The Phi Beta Cons are, unsurprisingly, declaring this L'Affaire Riley, in a misuse of the Dreyfus concept exceeded only (in recent memory) by Polanski's (via). George Leef, who at least seems to have read an article about the Riley controversy, which is effectively the same as having read several dissertations in Black Studies, has this to say:
Some of the comments there (and elsewhere) contend that she committed a terrible sin by offering a critical opinion about black studies based on just three dissertation titles. But blog posts are places for offering up opinions, not full-scale analyses. The dissertations sure look like the kind of extremely narrow and highly tendentious research that is common in many academic fields. I hope that someone picks up the gauntlet lying on the ground and reads, then writes a thorough critique of one or more of the dissertations. Are they scholarship that advances knowledge? Maybe so. Or are they in whole or part merely extended rants?
OK, first off, and as I'm not the first to point out (see the post below, and comments), the title of the original blog post - "The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations" - implied that Riley had "read the dissertations." Which, if she titled her own post, means she oopsed a bit, no? As for what Leef thinks these dissertations "sure look like," fine, he's making the point that a blog post is intended for weighing in on that which one knows nothing about, and is driving that home.

But what's truly amazing is his call to someone (why not Leef? isn't his job writing conservative critiques of education?) to read and tear apart these dissertations. "Are they scholarship that advances knowledge? Maybe so. Or are they in whole or part merely extended rants?" Nice way to dismiss the work, as it's not terribly ambiguous what Leef already knows - having read something about something about something about these dissertations. Nice pretense of an open mind.


Via PBC, there's a Minding the Campus post by John S. Rosenberg, which begins by noting that the Chronicle of Higher Education "used to be the pre-eminent publication covering higher education [.]" And what, pray tell, has replaced it? Archie Bunker's thoughts on the Meathead's studies? Rosenberg completely misses why the accusation of racism came up (which is to say, he thinks it's because Riley criticized Black Studies, when it's more because her criticism was, in effect, to say that Black Studies sure sounds like a load of bunk), then defends her by pointing out that Riley's husband is black, and that Riley herself did not bring this up. OK, points to Riley for not bringing that up in this context, but Simon Doonan has a Jewish husband, and, you know... Some-of-my-best-friends is certainly worse when employed by the person defending himself from a charge of racism, but, used on someone else's behalf, it doesn't magically clear the charges. If I've learned anything in the course of writing a dissertation on Jewish intermarriage in French history, it's that joyfully coupling off with someone from Group X and having unfavorable views towards Group X are not mutually exclusive.


Jonathan V. Last, of the Weekly Standard, offers something that might properly be viewed less as a disclaimer or disclosure and more as a reason not to take seriously anything that follows: "Naomi is a good friend of mine, a sometimes contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, and a fine writer." And - science! - this means she must have been wronged.

Last excerpts part of Riley's post, adding by way of paraphrasing, "Naomi then went on to dissect two other incredibly silly 'Black Studies' dissertations." What what what? Riley didn't "dissect" any of these dissertations, what with having not read any of them, by her own admission. So on what basis might Last, who merely read Riley's interpretation of blurbs about these dissertations, deem them not only "silly" but "incredibly" so?

Last's conclusion is awfully rich, given that writing for a neoconservative (is it still? or just conservative these days?) magazine is participating in the hard sciences.
The great irony, of course, is that the whining and gnashing of teeth from the “Black Studies” crowd only reinforces Naomi’s point about the “discipline.” You’d never see chemists or physicists or mathematicians worked into a hysterical mob by a critical blog post. Because they study actual fields of knowledge—and don't simply tend the garden of their own feelings.
Where oh where oh where to begin. While I'm well aware that conservatives aren't thrilled with the current state of traditional disciplines such as English and history, what Last is effectively saying, in singling out chemistry, physics, and math, is that the humanities and social sciences are inherently nonsensical. Even studying the Great Books. Even doing so with a beard, armchair, pipe, and sycophant female grad student on the knee. 

Well, using my humanities skills, I noticed two key words - "hysterical" and "feelings" - which, along with an earlier remark in the piece about how the Chronicle's readers "generally reacted as though they were suffering from a case of the vapors," made it abundantly clear that this passage of Last calls for a bit of - get this - intersectionality. Which, in layman's terms, means that Last is calling those who rose up in defense of the-humanities-in-its-current-incarnation a bunch of women. Which, well, we the humanists of today pretty much are. This at any rate supports my longstanding theory, that much of the CCOA fervor comes less from any actual changes that the humanities have undergone, and more from the fact that the fields are now associated with/at some levels numerically dominated by women.


Seriously. Park Slope Food Co-op? Anything happening there these days?


Withywindle said...

I have a post on the subject here

Phoebe said...

Indeed. I'll confess that when I saw you'd commented, I hoped you might have something outrageous from the left for me to get annoyed at!