Tag Archives: racism

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.


Black Studies, NSR opines and the trolls flock

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.