Monday, August 25, 2014

Eggshells

I've been semi-following that controversy over a professor denied a job over some euphemistic anti-Zionism on Twitter. (WWPD is for that which is not yet fully thought through, so that you, my dear commenters, can tell me why I'm wrong.) The internet's various reasonables (including a WWPD reader or two) pointed out that you can very well be opposed to the retraction of an academic job offer over tweets and strongly disagree with the content of the tweets themselves. Which I agreed with - 'liked' even - at the time, because I tend to go along with defend-your-right-to-say-it arguments.

And I do still fundamentally agree. But I was reading Moebius Stripper's tweets on the subject, and got to thinking: Academic freedom sounds noble - like a self-evident subset of free speech that all right-thinking people would not only support in the nodding-along abstract but storm the barricades to defend. But - as Moebius points out - this freedom a) is a bit of a stretch when it applies to speech outside the speaker's academic area, and b) does not carry over to those outside academia, whose offensive ramblings may also not impede their job performance, but who may be fired for relatively uncontroversial behavior all the same. Moebius Stripper... makes a good point.

My inclination is still to support more free speech for all. Including the right to tweet iffy anti-Zionist ramblings and still keep one's job as a professor or - to stick with Moebius's example - a bus driver. (With, one should hope, equivalent job security for those who call out said ramblings as the anti-Semitism that they are.) But what doesn't sit right, for me, is the intense, righteous passion on this issue, at a time when the employment situation of so many college instructors is so precarious, even if they manage not to infuse their social-media accounts with blood-libel accusations.

Part of this seems to be the quasi-hazing professors must go through to even get to that point in their careers. To get into grad school, you need to have played by the rules, likely at an elite college you got into by playing by the rules in high school. In grad school, it might be something like, how could you even think of citing that author, when surely you knew that in 1981, your professor had a really famous feud with him! Don't let the professors know you have a life of any kind outside your work! (Esp. if you are a woman, and that life includes a partner!) It's not even about it being self-sabotage to have this or that view on a controversial topic - you're not meant to even have the time to be informed enough on current affairs to have formed an opinion about anything that isn't obscure and pertinent to your dissertation. Goes the thinking.

Much of this anxiety exists among grad students, separate from what professors themselves actually care about. (I have no reason to think - for example - that I was ever penalized for failing to stay up on professor-gossip from before I was born, or for writing non-academic things containing opinions, on WWPD and elsewhere.) But some of it is structural. You spend many years being reminded of just how low you are in the hierarchy, repeating the mantra, 'they pay me to read books!', even while the pay is barely enough to live on, with no such thing as a raise, and continues - if they don't cut you off - for over five years. Sometimes quite a bit over. Things may improve (or the reverse, if you're an adjunct for a pittance and no benefits) during post-graduation assignments, but the much-awaited Academic Freedom takes its time to arrive.

And then, if all goes according to plan, as you approach 35, by which I mean 40, you switch from an unusual amount of precariousness to the extreme in the other direction. Walking on eggshells switches over - as I understand it - to being the one with the authority to plant those eggshells. (Even if - see above - many such eggshells reside in the active imaginations of anxious grad students.) This... makes tenure and the freedom of speech that comes with it feel sacred, in a way, even to those within academia who don't have it and likely won't ever experience it. The sacredness, then, isn't - or isn't just - about protecting the quest for Truth. It's also about preserving the fantasy (and it is, at this point, largely that, given the number of jobs) of there being a light at the end of the academic tunnel. Of all that's been bottled up all those years having its chance to gush forth into the public sphere. What makes the risk-taking of tenured professors feel so special is that they were so severely forbidden from doing so earlier on in their careers.

8 comments:

David Schraub said...

I find it interesting that folks have gone opposite directions on how public comments inside and outside an academic's area of scholarly expertise should be differentiated.

On the one hand, there is the argument that academic freedom protects only academic pursuits, so if you're tweeted in an area you have no particular academic expertise in there's no reason it should be afforded special solicitude.

On the other hand, there is the argument that, where a tweet is in an area of someone's expertise such that it can be seen as an extension or adjunct of their scholarship, then it should be judged on its merits as scholarship (and perhaps found wanting). By contrast, opining on random external areas has no bearing on one's merit as an academic and therefore disciplining someone on that basis is purely political and presumptively invalid.

My line is that academics are hiring to express thoughts and I'm uncomfortable drawing a line differentiating between what's in and out of their "area" (maybe they want to develop a new area?). This, to me, means the "hire/fire" line is the alpha and omega -- there's no other way to judge a prospective faculty member but based on their public writings, all of which are fair game; but once they're hired they have an absolute right to say or write whatever it is they feel like saying.

In Salaita's case, my view is that functionally he had already been hired and therefore he should have been protected. Illinois made its bed and now it has to lie in it. But if the American Indian studies department had, at the hiring level, decided that Salaita wasn't the sort of person the wanted on their faculty, that would have been entirely appropriate.

Miss Self-Important said...

Yes, I also find this case and its reactions odd. There seem to be clear procedural grounds for defending Salaita's job - the ones that David Schraub outlines above, and the ones you make about everyone's right to a private life of fulminating outrage and even various politically incorrect hatreds, even if that life unfolds on social media. But these are not the main defenses I've come across. Instead, there are all these bizarre defenses of the substance of Salaita's remarks (like this gem, which alleges that the writer was "awakened to thinking" by these very thoughtful Tweets) or of the right - nay, the duty - of academics not to be "civil" or "respectful." Ok, maybe. But if Salaita's Twitter outrage were directed in similarly crass terms at women or blacks ("By eagerly conflating womanhood and feminism, feminists are partly responsible when people say misogynistic shit in response to women's actions"), would the same professors now defending him would be saying that he simply "suffers from too much empathy" and we ought to empathize with him in turn, or that concern for how his potential female or black students would feel about having him teach their classes are irrelevant for university hiring decisions? If the principles these defenses are outlining would in fact never be used to defend people who take positions they personally find offensive (and it is clear that Salaita's positions do not reach that threshold), then what's their value?

Also, note how quickly the "it's a Jewish money conspiracy" argument has emerged to explain UIUC's decision.

Miss Self-Important said...

Oops, link fail: http://coreyrobin.com/2014/08/24/a-letter-from-bonnie-honig-to-phyllis-wise/

Phoebe said...

David,

I think I see what you're getting at - that it's a different issue if a prof is fired for off-topic ramblings, or for on-topic ones that cast doubt on their abilities to teach/publish on that topic. What I'm looking at, though, are a different two-separate-issues, namely a) whether UIUC was correct, and b) what to make of the tremendous outrage from academics who don't agree with the content of the tweets. It seems like there's a consensus that the firing was, technically speaking, against the rules. My question is more why there's been such tremendous support for the rules themselves.

Phoebe said...

MSI,

Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes to all of that. I've been thinking more about this (chose a dull podcast for the last poodle-walk), and I tend to think part of the tremendous 'I support his right to say it' - at least that which has come from Jews (and I include myself) - has been about trying to assert that there *isn't* a Jewish conspiracy out to silence all dissent.

But yes, re: the defenses you're talking about, it does come down to the impossibility of calling out anti-Semitism without seeming hysterical. Or, rather, to people's ignorance of the fact that anti-Semitism with a pretext is still anti-Semitism - indeed, that anti-Semitism is always given a justification. So people see that these tweets were in some sense pro-Palestinian, and then, by some twisted logic, they can't possibly be anti-Semitic, and if you read them as such, the only possible explanation is that you're one of those hypersensitive Jews who can't take even the slightest criticism of Israel.

(I guess part of what I find so odd in all of this is... in which part of humanities academia, exactly, is being a rah-rah supporter of Israel the default position, and are critics of Israeli military policy - or even the idea of Israel-as-a-Jewish-state - silenced? That was never my experience - least of all in Jewish Studies. It's not that I'd be in a position to say this has never happened, but just... where?)

Miss Self-Important said...

But would you otherwise accept the 'students have a right not to have sexist/racist/etc. professors' line of reasoning, if that side's exponents were honest about the anti-semitism behind this kind of euphemistic anti-zionism and included a right not to have anti-semitic profs? B/c even if all these chest-thumping defenders of Salaita admitted that they're only defending him so zealously b/c they're afraid of looking like hypersensitive Jews, I think I'd still take the other side, that haters can still be perfectly good professors.

Phoebe said...

Yes, I'd also be equal-opportunity about this. It's about a variety of motivations converging.

abrahamandsarah said...

It seems perfectly reasonable to rescind a job offer to a professor if, during the hiring process, you learn that he likes to publicly endorse the kidnapping and murder of teenagers... the very population it will be his job to teach.