Some may not be up to date on Naomi Schaefer Reily’s incendiary Chronicle of Higher Education post, “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just read the Dissertations.”
In short, she has unleashed a firestorm of academic fury, the Chronicle being the trade paper for higher education professionals. What does this mean, precisely? Readers of the Chronicle have come to expect (though not always have delivered):
- Cogent arguments
- Informed opinions
- A degree of academic professionalism (and integrity)
I’ve been reading the CHE for years and though some articles have been debatable, they generally respect the conventions of academia. In fact, this entire firestorm comes down to this point: debatable. NSR fails to provide any type of researched opinion in what many have lampooned as a viciously racist attack on the field of Black Studies. In response to the immediate and critical reception her first article engendered, she replies:
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 read some academic publications (as they relate to other research I do), but there are not enough hours in the day or money in the world to get me to read a dissertation on historical black midwifery.
And she completely reinforces the readership’s outcry: she is irresponsible, sloppy, and a dilettante in things academic. Indeed, we should like to think that in the academy we attempt to hold criticism, and especially the scathing variety, to a more rigorous argumentative standard. The outcry is not for her questioning of an academic field of study – questioning a field is part of the process. Rather, it is for the hateful, inappropriate, and unsubstantiated way in which she strikes forth. Many have called for an end to her tenure at the CHE, myself included.
In a response, editor Liz McMillen responds to the outcry, asking for participation in the debate:
Many of you have asked The Chronicle to take down Naomi Schaefer Riley’s recent posting, “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations.” I urge readers instead to view this posting as an opportunity—to debate Riley’s views, challenge her, set things straight as you see fit.
The problem? There is nothing in NSR’s article to debate – nothing of substance that is. One writer for the CHE responds to NSR and McMillen with both parody and substantive criticism. To boil down his response: 1) NSR’s post is a product of our mediatized culture: incendiary fire starting with no substantive basis, 2) The dissertations she attacks are actually interesting pieces of scholarship (which she didn’t bother to learn) and 3) The editor’s response is shameful.
I was personally aghast to read her article and her followup. The CHE is a trade paper and Reily is not a member of the trade – nor is she qualified to opine in the fashion that she does. We are not angry, or at least this reader is not angry, that Reily wants to express a polemic opinion (whether or not it’s a popular one). The issue is that it was in no way substantive and is unabashedly racist. If you’re going to eliminate or label as irrelevant an entire field of studies, especially one as well-researched, proven, and critical as Black Studies or African American Studies, you need to actually have a valid, cogent point to make. I fear this is yet another example, as Kelman asserts, of our mediatized culture. NSR comes off no differently than some person in the check-out aisle screaming into a cell phone spectacularly. Indeed, her “articles” feel more like an episode of Jerry Springer (since he’s about as qualified as she is to express the opinions).
And now the threads have attracted the attention of the internet trolls who flock to controversy without knowing the issue in order to fan the flames. The supporters of NSR’s writing are about as logical as she is, and that’s not saying much.
In fairness, the CHE was trying to balance out articles in the publication, trying to represent conservative opinions. Their error? They critically misjudged the effect NSR would have and have grievously erred in defending the article. They may have many thousands more page hits for this, but ultimately, they will lose readership, subscriptions and credibility from among their client base.