Friday, May 4, 2012

Anti-intellectualism, déjà vu.

I don't really want to dwell further on the madness that is the Church of Higher Efficiency's* response to Naomi Schaefer Riley's anti-intellectual blog post dismissing all of Black Studies basically on the grounds that Schaefer Riley does not understand the titles of some dissertations. [background]

But I do want to note Amy Alexander's suggestion that cuts at UC and CSU should be the real target of outrage, as if there couldn't ever at any one time be more than one issue deserving of outrage.

As Gautam Premnath rightly pointed out, it's not as though the two issues are unrelated. "The crisis of public higher ed," Gautam observes, "has its roots in the contempt for scholarship you condone."

Schaefer Riley's MO—"check out these titles; aren't they obviously ridiculous? This entire discipline is clearly worthless!" is a very familiar one. Various mainstream publications trot out the ritual mocking of the MLA program every winter, as if a journalist's inability to understand the titles of talks in a specialized field proved something. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick describes how such tactics were taken up against (the title of a talk from) her work in her 1993 essay "Queer and Now." Anyone who knows scholarship knows that Sedgwick was a true thinker—careful, erudite, inventive, insightful. But you don't have to know anything to mock a title.

We're used to seeing such unrigorous hit jobs in the mainstream press, because the mainstream press is anti-intellectual. Amy Alexander has been defending the Church of Higher Efficiency's dubious decision to give NSR a blog (and, as Brian Leiter points out, this has been dubious for a very long time) on the basis that "CHE is a NewsOrg, not part of Academe." True enough. But if a paper purports to be the Chronicle of Higher Education, shouldn't it have a specialized knowledge of higher ed, or at least not be actively hostile to higher ed? Shouldn't ye olde MLA-season title-snarking be plain out of bounds for any higher-ed-related publication?

My sense is that a lot of academics feel ambivalent about the Church of Higher Efficiency—"it's a dreadful rag, but it's our dreadful rag." CHE is quite adamantly saying, "no, no, we're not your dreadful rag at all; we have no obligations to higher ed whatsoever." The Church of Higher Efficiency is thus taking the stance on scholarship that Amazon takes on books: you read it; it's a major part of your intellectual and personal life; it contains ideas? Great; whatever; to us it's a widget that we ship out of a warehouse in Tacoma. We are happy to ship you a coffeemaker as well; makes no difference to us. Pageviews, plz.

That's unfortunate, although I can't exactly weep over the Church of Higher Efficiency getting explicit about just how little it cares about higher ed per se. I mean, it's a dreadful rag (exception: the excellent Jen Howard). Rather, I want us all to make the connection that Gautam made, between these routine pot-shots at scholarship by journalists who proudly announce that they are not in a position to know what they are talking about and the kinds of sweeping policy changes that are currently leading to the effective dismantling of public higher ed in California and elsewhere. "Is college WORTH IT?" they ask. Not if you can make a career of announcing your lack of education and taking pot-shots at the educated, under the auspices of a periodical allegedly meant to serve the higher ed community, no less.

More public scholarship. Less Church of Higher Efficiency.


UPDATE 5/7: The Church of Higher Efficiency has apologized for its editorial oversights and dismissed NSR. Tressie McMillen Cottom deserves the internet equivalent of a standing ovation.

*"Church of Higher Efficiency": h/t Mark Sample.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. "Queer and Now." Tendencies. Durham: Duke UP, 1993. Print.


Sarah Werner said...

Great piece, Natalia, and spot-on in all sorts of ways. I do think, however, that there are good reporters at Chronicle in addition to Jennifer Howard (who, yes, is marvelous). Their problem is that they've turned to subsidizing their reporting with the drek that is their opinion sections--the Review and Brainstorm. In choosing to drive traffic by anti-intellectual pandering, instead of their solid reporting, Chronicle has betrayed not only their academic readers, but their reporters.

Natalia said...

You're right, Sarah, on both counts. I've been reacting to CHE links much in the same way as I would react to a Tom Friedman link for quite a while now (as in, "oh, no; it's CHE! Do not click!). It's not the fault of the actual reporters; it's due to the high percentage of writing under the global CHE masthead that is, in fact, pure trolling. I probably miss some great stuff because of this, but it's a necessary sanity-keeping measure.

Anonymous said...

One of the problems seems to be that Riley, a journalist who covers higher education, has cast herself in the role of academic peer to the scholars she attacks. Riley is clearly not this.

The real problem is that the CHE put their imprimatur on Riley's piece. I am certainly entitled to stand in front of a Jackson Pollock painting and call it "stupid" and complain about how dumb and annoying it is to me that people take these paintings seriously. I doubt, however, that "Art In America" would publish my writing to that effect.

Kendall said...

The other aspect is that people like Coburn in the Senate routinely employ exactly this kind of faux analysis to judge the merits of NSF-funded research (i.e., it's not just humanities under assault) because they can't be bothered to read, much less understand the work in question.

Ryan Shaw said...

So how much are our cash-strapped universities spending on campuswide site licenses for this journalistic publication that has no obligations to higher ed? Surely that's money better spent elsewhere.

JHoward said...

Hi Natalia,

I appreciate the frankness (and the shout-out). I want to put in a word for my CHE colleagues; there are a lot of excellent writers and editors here who take scholarship very seriously. I'd hate to see all that work get overshadowed by what's happened.

mlmcgill said...

Thanks, Natalia -- this is right on the mark. I too regularly look forward to Jen Howard's columns, and don't want to damn the entire publication. . . But. . . .

What's surprising to me is how far Riley has gone with such slender qualifications. I don't think that all higher ed journalists need to have PhDs, but they ought to have some close-up experience with higher ed in all of its complex workings - administration, residential life/ student services, foundation, legal, non-trad students, online learning, librarianship, IT. Riley seems to be an idealogue, a pundit -- the kind of breezy commentator we're familiar with from partisan TV. I don't think her happily uninformed opinion should have a place in the CHE -- there are plenty of folks from all kinds of backgrounds who actually know things about the enterprise of higher ed -- why not hear from them on the blog?

If we're bothering to read the CHE, we're looking for substance. Riley's commentary makes me think, why bother? (I'm responsible for ordering a subscription for my Center, and you can believe I'll think hard about it at the time of renewal. They seem to pile up on the shelf, unread. . . . )

Rosemary Feal said...

Your comparison of the Brainstorm post to the MLA title mocking that has gone on in the press is spot on. It has calmed down in recent years, but I always get reporter calls about it. "Nope," I say. "I'm not responding to that. You can't take a title and make assumptions about the paper's or the field's worth. Just because it sounds weird to you doesn't say anything about the work itself." Then I say, "sheesh, go pick on the Chemists if you want to play the 'omg look at this title' game." And I give them titles like "Molecular Mechanics of Kink Formation in Lipid Monolayers." Maybe we should have that at the next MLA convention. Natalia can write "Automatons, S/M Sexuality, and Superficial Fatties."

Jay said...

I'm not familiar with the situation at your university, but at mine shortfalls would be much better addressed by reining in facilities expansions and trimming management. I'd be surprised if your situation is different.

Having said that, it's a tough economy and there are few indications it will get better soon. I think anyone who teaches at the collegiate level should consider a few questions, namely:

1) What marketable skills are developed in my department?
2) Is there a market for students with these skills? Are last year's graduates living in their mothers' basements?
3) If no marketable skills are developed in the department, then a degree in this field is an expensive luxury. Will the students be able to afford it without hardship?

If the answers aren't favorable, then there's a strong case for rolling back departmental offerings to a few electives. Poor and middle-class students would be far more empowered by a degree that leads to a good job.

The Mathmos said...

Thanks for the condescension Jay. Good to know that we underclass should concentrate on marketing our marketable skills to some market or other rather than learning things above our station.

Great impersonation of a neoliberal spambot, by the way.