Sacred Cows

…and other reductive conclusions.

Now that the better part of a week has passed since the Chronicle of Higher Education made the decision to discontinue Naomi Schaefer Riley’s blog pieces, I decided to do a quick web survey to see what was being generated surrounding the issue. Several key terms have appeared in conjunction with the brouhaha.

I have several personal favorites:

  • Witch hunt
  • Mob
  • Sacred Cow

The general gist of the criticism is that the editorial staff of the CHE capitulated to a bunch of incensed scholars who cried foul and pointed the clichéd finger of racism accusations because we disagreed with Ms. Riley.  Before moving on, I think it is important to first tentatively affirm that indeed – we screamed loudly and demanded that her time at the Chronicle come to an end. Yet, what I find most common is the misrepresentation of the reason we so vociferously demanded that her column  be guillotined.

The readership was angered by multiple things. Chief among the grievances, I think, is her manner of making her point: her opinion is largely uninformed. I have noticed that the vast majority of NSR’s work (I could not avoid reading her work and listening to her interviews) is actually comprised of hasty conclusions based in imprecise and elusive information gathering. (For an example see this  interview on CSPAN in which she discusses one of her books and the “problems” with the higher education system). I have noticed that like the great temptation, she couches her more biased attacks in legitimate criticism. Many of the points she makes about the problems within higher education are indeed largely recognized by the masses – yet, Riley derails when she begins to draw her conclusions for reform. Her main claim to argumentative probity? My father is a professor.  I will admit, I am personally split on the issue of research and tenure. In the humanities, I know I do not stand alone when I assert that we often have researched ourselves into obscure, often unpublishable, corners. Tenure becomes more rare; book publications harder to achieve. Do we need to rethink the model? Absolutely. Do we need to drop tenure? I’d be hard pressed to agree here. Should we stop researching highly specialized things? Absolutely not.

The point she seems to return to is that our research is “obscurantist.”  (A poor choice of words – what are we hiding? in the Derrida-Foucault bickering, Foucault accuses Derrida of this as a means of saying that the argument is so obscure so as to hide its failings, allowing the author to call the opponent an idiot for not understanding) Yet, how is this a problem? I think we can all agree that our research is to further the conversation, to challenge and push how and what we think, to promote further examination and analysis. This has nothing and everything to do with undergraduate education. The extreme focus of our doctoral education and research is a proving ground for original scholarship. Do we write for our peers and not our students? Yes. Yet, in deepening our knowledge, the goal, as I practice it, is to reduce these topics down to broad swaths (some more specific than others) for our undergraduates. We stay current in the field, its advances and its setbacks. The more we continuously learn, the more we continuously can bring to the classroom.

Several bloggers, academics, and “news” sources falling on the other side of the equation have accused the readership of the Chronicle of over reacting when one of its “sacred cows” was attacked (I highly encourage all readers to google NSRs name with “fired” after it). The majority of negative criticism has proven to be as reductive as Riley’s own reasoning. This reader did not protest because she attacked Black Studies. As far as I am concerned, the entirety of the academy is open to criticism (our own system of checks and balances, no?) It was the blatantly offensive manner in which she chose to make her argument. She is a hostile blogger in a sea of those she wishes to provoke. For my paltry subscription fee as a graduate student, I demand that what I read is of a certain standard, that when an argument is presented it is informed. What Riley offered was not up to the standards of the audience she writes for. If there is a sacred cow being defended here, it is not an area study. Rather, it is the practice and method we keep.

I invite you, if you have not yet done so, to read her eye-witness response in the Wall Street Journal, in which she defends herself against accusations of being uninformed:

I have been a journalist writing about higher education for close to 15 years now, having visited dozens of colleges and universities and interviewed hundreds of faculty, students and administrators. My work has been published in every major newspaper in the country, most often this one, and I have written two widely reviewed books on higher education as well.

Though it should be self-evident, none of this means that Riley is 1) actually a scholar, 2) conversant in the field of Black Studies 3) well-researched. She leaves out the telling information! Two widely reviewed books..by whom?  I’ve already started reading them – they don’t pass muster.

The most amusing part of the fallout is the demonstrations of ad hominem attacks the commentators resort to: “flowery academics,” “whining scholars,” “witch hunting on behalf of our sacred cows,” among others. I’d invite any readers to submit all of the fallacious attacks they find.

For now, I’m going to print out what I find, including her articles, as teaching tools for my students on how not to make a point.

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About ChrisB

Sinner is a humanities doctoral student in a large, overbearing city who should be writing his dissertation, or grading 90 papers, or grading 90 essays, or meeting with students, or reading productively, or reflecting diligently on productive reading. He finds the world complex yet in no way mysterious. He wishes people learned what came before so what comes now would be less baffling and more apparent. He is disgruntled, tired, enthusiastic, dedicated. In a word: he's an academic puppy. View all posts by ChrisB

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