Wednesday, May 09, 2012

An Oh, Riley job*

The laziest, and (thus) most popular, conservative critique of higher education involves listing a few course, discipline, paper, or lecture titles, remarking, to an audience of the converted, on how silly they are. There shall, of course, be no analysis of the content or rigor of the work itself. As the world's foremost expert in Conservative Criticisms of Academia Studies (no less than one of the Phi Beta Cons provided my credentials), I feel obliged to weigh in on the latest installment: Naomi Schaefer Riley's anti-Black-Studies ramblings in, and subsequent firing from, the Chronicle of Higher Ed.

It is telling, or unfortunate, or something, that the title of Riley's article was "The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations."** Given that no one reads dissertations, in Black Studies or any other field, except your committee, it would be one heck of a stretch to believe that a contrarian blogger sat down with a big stack of 'em and confronted each with an open mind before reading the thing cover to cover. What Riley did - and indeed all she herself claims she did - was read a sidebar summarizing recent dissertations in that field. But if she's allowed to comment on the quality of dissertations she has only read about, it seems a touch unfair for her to come down hard on readers who imagined - no doubt from the title of the piece, which she maybe didn't write - that she ought to have read them.

The circular argument, outlined in her Chronicle self-defense, is that her very point about these dissertations, her very critique of academia, is... let's let the woman speak:
[T]there are not enough hours in the day or money in the world to get me to read a dissertation on historical black midwifery. In fact, I’d venture to say that fewer than 20 people in the whole world will read it. And the same holds true for the others that are mentioned in the piece.

Such is the state of academic research these days. The disciplines multiply. The publication topics become more and more irrelevant and partisan. No one reads them. And the people whom we expect to offer undergraduates a broad liberal-arts education (in return for billions of dollars from parents and taxpayers) never get trained to do so. Instead the ivory tower pushes them further and further into obscurity.
In other words, she knows these dissertations are obscure and unreadable because no one, herself included, reads them.

While lacking a PhD doesn't disqualify Riley from commenting on academia, it might help to explain why she appears not to know what getting one entails. Much - most! - of my program thus far has been about keeping me away from my good friends the nineteenth-century French Jews and their frenemies, nineteenth-century French non-Jews who wrote about Jews. Why? Because, teaching. Through coursework and exams, as well as the teaching we do while in grad school, we get prepped for the wide world of people who could not care less about our research topics. 

So thus far I haven't addressed the elephants in the room: was the post/is Riley racist, and was it right for the Chronicle to fire her? 

As to the first, the post was racist in the same way that anti-Israel critiques that fail to acknowledge equal or worse wrongs in other countries are anti-Semitic. While Riley herself may simply be a CCOA, one who'd be equally annoyed at Women's Studies, and no doubt some of her best friends are women, a free-standing piece about the pointlessness of Black Studies will of course come across as racist. Riley's self-defense here is basically a don't-you-know-who-I-am-and-everything-else-I've-ever-written-or-thought-on-this-and-related-topics. She must have understood that bashing just this one incarnation of Studies would lend itself to less-than-generous interpretations. 

As to the second, Hamilton Nolan of Gawker may have said it best: "Riley may have been a victim of a mob. But the mob had a point." As Nolan points out - and I will only add that I see echoes of Walt-Mearsheimer-gate - the issue here is largely bad writing. Riley did not bravely take a controversial position on Black Studies departments. She took the CCOA shortcut of calling work she hasn't bothered to look into unworthy.

*Apologies to "Fawlty Towers."

** I see David Schraub got there first. Read his post as well. In her tepid defense, on this and this only, she perhaps didn't write the post title. But she ought to have read the post title, and thus understood where readers might have gotten the idea that her job was to read the dissertations she was declaring worthless.


Jacob T. Levy said...

Since apparently Brainstorm works by normal group-blogging rules-- the bloggers post their own content without an editor seeing it first-- I find it hard to believe that she didn't write the title herself. You would think that she'd have come up with that excuse by now, if it were so.

"Given that no one reads dissertations, in Black Studies or any other field, except your committee"

This is, for what it's worth, not entirely true. There are, for example, a lot of dissertation prizes, which mean a lot of dissertation prize committees. Now, the average dissertation doesn't get nominated. But there are a lot of nominations nonetheless that end up getting read by other people.

And sometimes, when you're in the running for an academic job, you'll be asked to submit your whole dissertation at a partway-through stage of the process.

Between these, I've read more dissertations by people who weren't my students than by people who were, probably by about a 2:1 ratio or a bit more.

One of the things I like about sitting on dissertation prize committees is that it provides precisely the vantage point that Riley would have needed in order to reach her judgments: a good comprehensive view of what new research is being produced in a field.

Phoebe said...


OK, if this really was a blog-blog situation, and she wrote the post title, eep. I mean, no one would have expected her to have read a handful of dissertations cover to cover as prep for a blog post. It was that the post title implied that she had done just that.

Re: dissertations, I was being a bit hyperbolic. I've read dissertations in my field, and am aware of some of the various other circumstances under which a dissertation might be read, cover to cover, by more than 3-5 people. My point was that the goal of the dissertation isn't to reach a popular audience (although those of us with crossover-ish topics can dream...), nor, more to the point, is it to write a general survey of everything you'd be capable of teaching a class on. Which was, in effect, one of Riley's main problems with these dissertation topics.

PG said...

I suspect many people's negative reaction also came from just plain disagreeing with Riley and wondering why someone like her is writing about the social sciences. Those topics sound pretty interesting! If her intellectual curiosity is too limited to extend to them, maybe she isn't the appropriate person to weigh on whether the dissertations (or Black Studies in general) are any good.

You'd have to pay me a lot to read dissertations on how Leviticus *proves* that same-sex marriage shouldn't be recognized, but that doesn't mean those dissertations aren't useful in some way. (And I strongly suspect that Riley, who has written an entire book on the awesomeness of religious colleges, would call me an anti-religious bigot if I suggested on the basis of such a dissertation that categorically there should be no theology departments or divinity schools.)

To employ a conservative talking point about economics, however, I fear that stupid columns like Riley's tend to "crowd out" more worthwhile discussions of whether it's appropriate to turn interdisciplinary areas into full-blown departments. I basically took a major in bioethics, which was treated as an interdisciplinary area with courses in government, religious studies (!), philosophy, etc. I think it was good for the various professors to remain in traditional departments rather than being grouped together, as I believe in a field with fairly overt political applications (two of my professors served on two different presidents' bioethics councils), universities should strive to keep things from getting too intellectually/ideologically incestuous. One hears of such problems arising in, for example, American Middle Eastern studies departments becoming so intensely dominated by followers of Edward Said, that all the professors are discouraging toward students who take a different viewpoint.

Phoebe said...

PG returns!

I agree completely re: crowding out. That's my beef with the CCOAs - there are valid critiques to be made, but every time someone announces that 'Such-and-Such Studies sounds awful silly,' all critiques of academia that seem at all to come from the right lose credibility.

In terms of interdisciplinarity, though, I'm not sure it's the root of what you describe. One way to test this would be to look at whether experts in the Middle East, to stick with your example, in history or polisci departments are any less ideological. Some topics are just... controversial. French Studies doesn't get too ideological.

Things do get complicated when departments are designated as Group X Was Wronged Studies - thus the controversies surrounding Anti-Semitism Studies or similar at Yale a while back.

I'm not sure overall, though, how many Studies departments really do dismiss with discipline. The ones I'm familiar with (of the French and of Jews, of course!) at my university only exist, at the PhD level and beyond, at least, in conjunction with other departments, such that you're getting a degree in history or literature with that area-specific specialization, from profs with a degree in one of these non-Studies disciplines. These interdisciplinary departments are helpful, among other reasons, because they bring you into contact with others who specialize in your area, but who are approaching similar questions from different angles. But in terms of getting a job later, if nothing else, or in terms of changing jobs if you're already a prof, just being in a Studies field and only a Studies field can be tough, because (again, among other reasons) it doesn't necessarily translate to any department at any other university.

And... re: Riley specifically, and which dissertations she would and wouldn't deem acceptable, where she ceased to make sense was in lumping together disciplines with (in her opinion) an axe to grind with all humanities/social sciences disciplines, such that a dissertation on religion, or Shakespeare, etc., would also earn her disgust. It didn't add up.

PG said...

I have my first exam since the NY bar on Friday, so today clearly is the day to catch up on WWPD :-)

I think most folks in every department are ideological, or to use a less negatively-connoted term, "opinionated." The English professor who was my advisor and taught me seminars on American literature 1840-1880 was a hippie, complete with the thinning white ponytail, who promoted a critical view even of abolitionists like Harriet Beecher Stowe as having difficulty imagining an America with black equality. But there were other folks in the department with very different politics and interpretations.

Ditto economics, where the opinions ran more conservative but there were still professors (as perhaps signaled by their teaching courses like "Economics of Gender" and "Economics of Welfare Reform") who diverged from that. (I didn't realize how successfully I'd been imbued with a conservative view on antitrust until I was exposed at length to British/European thinking, which on certain subjects like predatory pricing seems like heresy. Where's the recoupment?)

Anyway. My point is that I'm not concerned that individual professors in history or polisci departments who focus on the Middle East are ideological/opinionated; I'm concerned that a department as a whole ends up with a single ideology/opinion.

To the extent that there's substance to conservative whining about their underrepresentation in academia, I'd detect it possibly here: do some departments, like Middle Eastern studies (coming to mind because Bernard Lewis was recently on NPR claiming such systemic pro-Said bias), effectively require grad school or teaching candidates to subscribe to a specific viewpoint?

I'd see reason for Riley to beef with Black Studies departments if they, for example, systemically expect candidates to ignore or underplay Africans' role in facilitating the slave trade. (I have no reason to think this actually happens, given that folks like Henry Louis Gates Jr. write NYT op-eds about the importance of recognizing that role -- just putting forward something I'd find problematic for those departments to do.)

But yeah, missed opportunities. If Black Studies departments engage in racial, political or ideological discrimination and Riley could actually find someone who did work she thought was great but had been turned down for Black Studies grad programs for having the wrong beliefs, that would have done much to make her case for torching it as a department and re-allotting its slots among traditional fields. (The dissertations she describes sounded like they'd fit pretty neatly into history/sociology, history/public policy, and political science.)

I'm afraid that she either doesn't have clear ideas on this subject, or doesn't know how to express them clearly. Which is a very good reason to stop paying someone to write for the Chronicle of Higher Education, or really anywhere besides the WSJ editorial page.

And given Riley's martyred attitude as displayed on the WSJ ed page, I doubt that she considers all axe-grinding equal. A dissertation on how Clarence Thomas has been mistreated by the dismissal of him as an "Uncle Tom" or "black Scalia," for example, probably would be something she'd see as a super-valuable contribution to legal studies. She praises John McWhorter, who lectures in the interdisciplinary field of American Studies at Columbia, because he criticizes the curricula of African-American Studies departments for single-minded focus on racism and disadvantage. (Though I would have thought a dissertation on how black women historically managed childbirth would be more accurately characterized as focusing on empowerment and self-help.)

Phoebe said...


Well good to have you back!

"My point is that I'm not concerned that individual professors in history or polisci departments who focus on the Middle East are ideological/opinionated; I'm concerned that a department as a whole ends up with a single ideology/opinion."

Right. I suppose my point in response was (or should have been?) that I'm not sure things go differently in traditional departments. So, to make this clear: If, for example, you're of a certain right-wing bent and you think that colonialism did wonders, that Sarkozy ought to have been reelected (or Le Pen elected!), and that headscarf bans are a fine idea, you'd be out of place in a Postcolonial Studies department, but also in a history department, a French department, etc.

The difference is that in a department like history or polisci, you'll get specialists in enough areas that even if, to give an extreme example, everyone is on an identical spot on the right-left spectrum, what that means is different in different areas, and the issues at stake are so different that you won't have everyone mobilized around the same narrow issue, whatever it might be. But it depends less on interdisciplinarity in particular, and more on how departments are organized. If everyone studying one area is mostly together, if coursework is mostly in one area, etc.

That Riley highlighted the childbirth dissertation suggests she really was just being a CCOA about it. As in: 'A dissertation about women who are also of color! What could be more PC!' But, you know, without digging deeper.