Are you interested in defending academic standards?
Let me tell you what I consider to be a few important academic standards. These apply across the disciplines. 1. Careful collection of evidence. 2. Constraining claims or arguments to the evidence available. 3. Proportionality of argument or analysis, especially in making demands for action or changes in practice. 4. Careful definition of key terms, concepts and methodologies used in scholarly analysis. 5. Respect for expertise and caution about making claims when you are well outside your areas of specialized knowledge.
Is ACTA interested in defending academic standards? Not judging from their lamely titled report, “How Many Ward Churchills?”.
What’s the method of the report? It’s just as bad as I feared: a casual, lazy, cherrypicking survey of whatever materials the author(s) were able to access on the web. There’s almost nothing beyond that in terms of evidence, except for citing other reports by people who are already well inside the echo chamber of the preordained argument, some of which offer exactly the same kind of “let’s take a quick run through the online catalog” evidence for their claims.
What kind of definitions of politicized content does it offer? Well, to some extent, all you have to do is be teaching about “race, class, gender, sexuality, ‘the social construction of identity’, globalization, capitalism, and US hegemony” (p. 7) to qualify as possessing “remarkable uniformity of political stance and pedagogical approach”. A syllabus that includes work that critiques or interrogates the status quo qualifies you for potential inclusion on the list of “politicized” faculty, as evidence of “remarkable homogeneity”. Having a course which has a point-of-view or argument may do so (as long as it fits ACTA’s ideological predefinition of politicization.)
There’s so much wrong here that it’s hard to know where to begin.
1) Define politicization or any of the cognate terms that the report uses. Why isn’t an economics course that supports mainstream neoclassical argument “political”? It has political implications, it excludes legitimate voices who make economic arguments. Why isn’t a class on the Declaration of Independence that supports or takes for granted the value of the Declaration “political”? Isn’t that a political position? Is a course on military history that doesn’t talk about antiwar protest on the homefront political? Is a course in legal history that doesn’t include critical race theory political? What is a non-political course? What, as I’ve asked here before, is the underlying theory of professional comportment or teaching that the ACTA report relies on? You won’t find a hell of a lot to help you answer those questions here, certainly nothing approaching a definition of terms and concepts at the outset.
2) Would it be professional to teach a subject and exclude major arguments, scholarship, or perspectives which are dominant in that field? I teach African history: how could I possibly ignore Afrocentrist, pan-Africanist, nationalist, or Marxist scholarship or documents in teaching that field? To exclude such materials would be the height of professional irresponsibility: that is what the field is, and what has shaped the subject matter. Yet if my syllabi got a quick and careless read-through, I might end up confirming the sense that I’m part of the “remarkable homogeneity” that ACTA perceives. If I’m teaching the history of the US South, should I not teach Eugene Genovese? If I’m teaching the history of modern Italian politics, should I not teach Antonio Gramsci? Isn’t that part of what we’re supposed to do as professional scholars, teach to or about the scholarship that actually exists? The evidence that exists? The bodies of literature and primary materials that exist? If I’m teaching early modern English literature, should I stick to my Shakespeare and skip “Goblin Market” for fear that I’ll be lambasted as a trendy feminist who is “politicized”?
3) There is zero attention or even curiosity in the report about the issue of what faculty actually do in the classroom with these syllabi. You know a little about my classes from my syllabi, but you’ve really got to see what I do with them day-in and day-out to know whether I’m biased or politicized. A neutral-looking syllabus could turn into a polemic in the classroom; a “biased” looking syllabus might turn out to just be a stimulus to wide-ranging, open-minded and skeptical discussion.
4) Words like “typical” and “representative” are thrown around casually throughout the report, without any sense of how such conclusions were made. So I’m going to be a real bore about this. Bear with me, this is going to be a bit long. Here’s what the report says about Duke University’s Department of History:
“Professors frequently set out to teach students to abandon their ‘Eurocentric’–and implicitly oppressive–perspective. Duke University’s ‘Third World/West’ course ‘calls into question the dominant Eurocentric diffusionist model–what James Blaut calls ‘the colonizer’s model of the world’–by showing how ‘Europe built on powerful older civilizations, at least as advanced as and probably more so than Europe at that time’. ‘In questioning notions of a European miracle,’ explains the course description, ‘this course will also give those older Eurasian and original American cultures their place in an alternative conception of the world, and bring to the fore the amnesia that has informed mainstream views of world history’. Assigned texts include Ward Churchill’s A Little Matter of Genocide–a book whose claims about the US Army’s treatment of Native Americans are implicated in the University of Colorado’s investigation of whether Churchill has committed academic fraud.”
I’m going to come back to this quote a bit later in the context of the report’s author(s) literally having no idea what they’re talking about and no ability to respond to scholarly work in scholarly terms. But let’s stick with the problem of representativeness first.
Ad arguendo, let’s concede that History 75 fits the bill of particulars the report is setting out. How typical is it of the offerings of the Duke University Department of History for Fall 2006? Let’s suppose we take the dumbest possible interpretation of the criteria the ACTA report is using, and any course focusing on race or class, or any non-Western society, qualifies as “politicized”. I count 68 listings; a few of these are multiple listings, such as their first-year seminar, of which there are four for fall 2006, and Lectures in Special Topics, of which there are another eight, so it’s more like 80 or so, on a quick count. What might count under the maximally stupid definition of “homogenously politicized”? Mapping Relations in Colonial India, Readings in Racial Formations, History and Modern Africa, Modern South Asia, Ancient and Early Modern Japan, African-American History, The Modern Middle East, Freedom Stories History of Globalization in the 20th Century, Introduction to Contemporary Latin American History, Islamic Civilization, maybe American Dreams/American Realities, Duke in China, Duke in Andes. There’s a course on slavery and freedom, another on gender and sexuality and another on Latin America under the heading of Lectures in Special Topics. 17 out of 80, again a quick count. About 21%, maybe? Let’s be generous, call it 25%, I like things like “a quarter”. Is “a quarter” typical? representative? Not by my reckoning, but heck, I’m not a quantitative historian.
Let’s try a non-stupid, qualitatively sensitive definition of politicization. Let’s look at the synopses for the courses I just named, where available. Remember that these aren’t even full syllabi. Duke in China and Duke in Andes are just study abroad courses.
History 101G, Islamic Civilization. ” Synopsis of course content
This course is the first of a two-part survey of Islamic civilization and culture from the sixth century to the present (the second part is Reli 147). This part focuses on the first eight centuries of the Islamic era (up to roughly 1500 C.E.), and includes the complex sources of Islamic civilization; the formation of several major empires; and the relation between religion, politics, and culture in different regions. Using historical studies and fictional interpretation of different features of Islamic civilization; through primary sources (religious and literary texts, film, art, music) that illustrate some of the ways in which Muslims and the non-Muslims with whom they interacted established the structures of their societies the exploration will begin.”
History 103 Lectures in Special Topics, Section 3, Gender and Sexuality “This course studies the history of 20th century and early 21st century political movements in which sexuality has played a key role. Starting with the feminist movements of the 20th century, and progressing through the gay rights movement, the lesbian rights movement, and the transgender rights movement, we will study how sexuality has been used to construct the concept of political rights in the modern West. Through studying these political movements, we will learn how broader legal and economic rights in the modern West have been influenced by sexuality. Some examples include access to joining the military, abortion rights, and marriage.”
History 115B History and Modern Africa “In this course, we will directly confront the sad and unjust fact that most Americans hear about Africa through news media depicting various kinds of crises. Because of the nature of journalism, Americans receive very little information about the complexities and historical backgrounds of these crises. In addition, the popular media far too often present Africans as either pathetically helpless victims or unintelligibly evil predators. â€œHistory and Contemporary Africaâ€ seeks primarily to rectify that first gap in our knowledge by exploring the historical dynamics that have led to three crises in contemporary Africa: war in Darfur; despotism in Zimbabwe; environment degradation in the Niger Delta. In the process, we will see how Africans have often acted with courage, creativity, strength, and moral purpose. What will students gain from this course (aside from fulfilling University and/or Departmental requirements)? First, understanding these crises in Africa, and the people who live with them, enables us to be better world citizens. Second, an awareness of the history of Africa gives us a fuller comprehension of the varieties of historical experiences and historical sources.”
History 126D American Dreams, American Realities. “This course examines the role of such myths as “rags to riches,” “beacon to the world,” the “frontier” and the “foreign devil” in defining the American character and determining the hopes, fears, dreams and actions throughout American History. Attention will be given to the surface consistency of these myths as accepted by each immigrant group versus the shifting content of the myths as they change to reflect the hopes and values of each of these groups.”
History 139B Modern South Asia. “This course is a survey of South Asian history from the Rebellion of 1857 to independence and partition in 1947. While following the chronology of political events during this crucially important period in South Asian history the course-will seek to introduce students to important and often contentious issues in South Asian history and also to major historiographic traditions. Topics for in-depth examination will include: the impact of coloru’al rule on the economy, politics and social formation of the subcontinent; the rise of nationalism; religion and politics; the position of women. Readings will comprise historical texts, biographical and creative works that illustrate features of the culture and experiences of contemporaries who lived during this period. In addition, films and documentaries of the subcontinent will be used as an integral part of the course.”
History 150ES Freedom Stories (doesn’t have a full synopsis): “Documentary writing course focusing on race and storytelling in the South, using fiction, autobiography, and traditional history books. Producing narratives using documentary research, interviews, and personal memories. Focus on twentieth-century racial politics.”
History 152 The Modern Middle East: “This course surveys the historical development of the modern Middle East. Attention is focussed on the transformation of the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century and the emergence of nation-states in the Middle East after World War I. Among the topics covered are the following: traditional and modern structures of political authority; historical relations between outside powers and the region; social and economic patterns of communal development; the role of religion; the rise of nationalism; the development of state systems in the twentieth century; the degree to which the Arab world forms a system and how regional relations have developed since World War II. In conclusion, current pressures in the region will be discussed.”
Do I need to continue? Read these descriptions. Then go on and read the other 75% or so of the synopses, for crazy and politicized classes like Ancient Greece, Tudor/Stuart Britain, Civil War and Reconstruction, Western Warfare Since 1789, Introduction to Oral History, American Constitutional Development I, and Classics in Western Civilization: German Tradition. Knock yourself out. You’ll see a few classes (including some you wouldn’t necessarily pick out) that have arguably “politicized” language in their synopses, but a lot that are utterly, even boringly, professional and detached. Including those I’ve reprinted here. How could anyone argue that the synopses for Modern South Asia, Modern Middle East, Islamic Civilization, etcetera, are “political” or “biased”, unless it is automatically political to merely study such topics. If so, go right back to my first objection: by that definition, “Classics in Western Civilization” is equally political and suspect. So is everything that everyone in the humanities and social sciences teaches.
5) Much as I suspected, there is a huge amount of evidence that the report’s author(s) frankly don’t have the faintest idea what they’re talking about when they engage some of these classes, that all they’re looking for are some buzzwords that they attach preordained, fixed meanings to. Let’s take History 75, the Duke course, once again. The smoking gun here is that the course assigns one of Ward Churchill’s books. Ok, granted, that seems a dumb idea to me, though without knowing how it’s used or taught, I can’t say for sure. I assign Molefi Kete Asante’s work in a few of my classes, both because I think it’s responsible to do so (my lamentable commitment to intellectual pluralism trips me up again) and because I’m kind of hoping that the students will see that a lot of his work is really weak or problematic. (Confession! I do have opinions!) Somebody who came along and said, “Jeezus, here’s a course where someone assigns Molefi Asante, it must be Afrocentric indoctrination”, couldn’t be more wrong.
But ok. What’s the rest of the problem with History 75, according to the report? Well, the synopsis and at least one of the texts in the course uses the word “Eurocentric”, and promises to challenge the “dominant Eurocentric diffusionist model” of world history. The report’s authors obviously think “Eurocentric” is one of those buzzwords that means somebody who uses it is a doubleplus nogoodnik. I’ll let them in on a little secret: it can also be just a plain-old technical term for historiographical models that argue that modern world history has primarily been determined by factors that are endogamous to Europe itself. E.g., if I argue that the expansion of the West is primarily a consequence of economic or political institutions within European societies, or some kind of distinctive cultural outlook or belief within Europe, that’s Eurocentric. That the term is also used as a fairly dumb epithet by nitwitted activists doesn’t erase this other use of the term. And as I read the synopsis for History 75, it’s clearly the technical use that’s important. The course is clearly working around Jim Blaut’s The Colonizer’s Model of the World, which argues strongly that European expansion after 1550 was determined by exogenous factors (geography, the structural development of the world economy between 1200 and 1500, the impact of silver from the New World on the Chinese economy, and so on.) This is an interesting argument, to be sure. When I have taught on world history, I tend to be a little more noncommital about these debates, a little less wedded to any single view. But that’s just a mild pedagogical difference. The big point is, you get the sense that the ACTA author(s) don’t know about Blaut, about the debates involved, about the issues the course is concerned with, and
That pervades the report. It isn’t just that they see what they want to see, and ignore context or specificity, but also that they want to avoid REAL argument of the kind that scholars routinely engage in.
Let’s look at a course close to home that the report discusses, a first-year seminar taught by Kendall Johnson in the Department of English at Swarthmore, called “Legal Fictions in America”.
Here’s the synopsis from the catalog: “In 1776, Thomas Jefferson asserted the self-evident truth that ‘all men are created equal.’ But, in a country committed to ideals of property, what does this maxim mean? Beginning with the ‘Declaration of Independence,’ the recognition of full personhood in the United States has depended on privileges related to race, class and gender. In this course we will read autobiographies, novels, slave narratives, plays, and poems written by people who found their humanity challenged by federal law. Through their stories we will examine how these authors used words to resist the historical circumstances in which they had to fight for legal and even social identity. We will also consider the particular logics that enable different kinds of writing — legal, scientific, and autobiographical non-fiction as well as drama, film, novels, and poems — to persuade their audience in establishing what the Declaration called ‘truths.'”
Now here’s what the ACTA report says by way of describing the course: it “takes as its point of analytic departure the putative bad faith of the Declaration of Independence”. Excuse me? Is that a good faith summarizing of that course description? The course readings include that notorious hater of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin. But more importantly, the course’s argument (and all courses have them, and ought to) seems to me to address a real, genuine, question or problem. Is the report arguing that from the perspective of Frederick Douglass the Declaration of Independence didn’t seem like an oddly contradictory document? Isn’t it legit to observe the “self-evident” truths the Declaration proclaims were a little less than self-evident at various moments in American history to slaves, to Native Americans, to European immigrants, to Chinese railroad workers, to women? The course sets out to study those tensions and ask what they produce in written and literary works, especially autobiographies or accounts of the self. It doesn’t say, “We’re going to read a bunch of people crapping all over the Declaration of Independence and cheer them on!!!” In fact, a lot of the texts he uses are all about ambivalence, about the desire to claim the ennobling language of the Declaration for oneself even when one has been excluded in practice or statute from its promises.
The report’s author(s) don’t want to roll up their sleeves and get into the guts of any of these issues, because then they’d have to actually slug it out on the scholarly specifics, have to make real arguments.
I would say well over half the critical remarks in the report about specific courses (there I go with the quantities again: one number pulled from nowhere deserves another) basically are responses to buzzwords of the report’s own imaginings, as if they’re complaining about signs at a leftwing protest on the Mall rather than bodies of scholarly thought. They treat subjects like an interest in the philosophical and historical problem of human-animal relations as if they’re self-evidently risible and partisan, without bothering to make the argument.
The report treats someone who defines themselves as a “scholar-activist” as if that definition is self-evidently, independent of conduct or practice, a violation of professionalism. Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t, but laying out why it is is going to take a serious, sustained argument about what academic professionalism ought to be and why it ought to be, not just a couple of pages of drive-by shootings. I mean, hell, take the example of Robert Jensen at the University of Texas, which the report dwells on. I myself don’t care at all for the kind of pedagogy attributed to him, and I think I could say why in both personal and professional terms. But even within the terms of the ACTA report, you could make a pretty good argument that he actually is training students who disagree with or oppose him to be better and smarter in their disagreements: the president of UT is quoted as observing that Jensen’s students should use him as an opportunity to learn to effectively dismiss what people like Jensen say. I know that at least one of the flakiest activists at Wesleyan when I was an undergraduate was actually helpful in the same way for me, in giving me a clear picture of something I was not and didn’t want to be. If the report is for pluralism, shouldn’t a pluralistic academy actually include such scholar-activists? Don’t they actually serve a useful function? Doesn’t a good ecosystem include a pretty wide variety of temperments, pedagogical philosophies, and so on? I know, I know, the report says that such scholar-activists are “all too common”, or omnipresent, but I’ve already kicked those kinds of claims in the nuts sufficiently, I hope.
6) Worse, when it gets down to recommendations, the report either talks about issues it has literally no basis, even by its own lights, speaking to, or offers medicine that would flat-out kill the patient on the operating table. The report talks about the need to guarantee that students have unrestrained rights to the free exchange of ideas in the classroom. Seriously, unless you bother to get off your ass and stop reading catalogues online, you have no idea what happens in classrooms. Some of the most domineering, unfree courses I’ve ever sat in as a student (or observed as a faculty member) would appear unremarkable in terms of the blinders that ACTA is wearing. Some of the courses that might appear to take a position exalt skepticism and the maximization of free exchange when it gets down into the classroom. The report even acknowledges this, that it has no basis for speculating on this point except for some course descriptions (often not even full syllabi) that it has carelessly and superficially read off the Web, but that doesn’t stop the report from sounding strident alarms about a plague of Ward Churchills under every rock and stone.
There’s also an implied solution in the critiques of various courses. Take Kendall Johnson’s course above. What would be the “solution” to it as a course? 50% writings from authors struggling to make sense of why the Declaration’s language doesn’t seem to apply to their personal historical situation and 50% writers who write uncomplicated or unambivalent encomiums to the Declaration? Balanced, sure. Is that a good course, or just a kind of dog’s breakfast designed to make everyone happy and thus pleasing no one? This is the same stupid kind of “politically correct” sense of “balance” that has so thoroughly crippled mainstream popular culture, where every possible aggrieved constituency has to feel like there’s something celebrating their own point of view. Not only does Johnson’s class open up a conversation in which it is perfectly possible to say, “The only reason that Frederick Douglass can write what he writes is the underlying conceptual framework of Enlightenment reason and human rights that suffuses the Declaration”, I feel utterly confident in telling you all that Kendall Johnson would be delighted by a smart student who took that position, that his course is intended to open up a space of discussion where that is a possible response. One of the defining features of good pedagogy is an intelligent principle for the selection of texts, especially in a humanities class. You want to look for texts that are related to one another historically and thematically, that rub up against each other in complimentary and contradictory ways. You don’t want to be saddled with a kind of Orwellian checklist of obligatory points-of-view that need their own special week to shine in the sun.
7) Yes, there are some genuinely dumb classes out there, and ACTA found some of them. Yes, some of them are genuinely dumb because of their political content or bias. Yes, some are horrible courses because they clearly suppress rather than open up honest, free-thinking inquiry. Though frankly a few of the ones they highlight are dumb because, well, they’re dumb. E.g., I’m not so much worried about the bias in a few of the described classes as I am worried by the apparent stupidity of the person who put the course together. But that’s not what ACTA is writing about in this report: it’s not an attempt to think about the problem of superficial or simple-minded professors, because if it were, they’d have to include a lot of people with no perceptible political bias, or even (gasp) right-wing political bias.
And yes, there is a problem with smug insularity and groupthink in academia. But as I’ve said many, many times, it’s not easily correlated to the kinds of superficial indices of “politicization” or “bias” that the ACTA report employs. Often that insularity isn’t about politics at all. There are courses that I think of as being quite apolitical or even conservative that have the same kind of self-confirming, closed-loop character in the knowledge they offer and the knowledge they exalt. Politics is part of that insularity, but a lot of academics can be just as self-congratulating or inward-turning if they’re talking about the television shows they like, about what constitutes good disciplinary methodology, or about college budgetary policy.
To be honest, the ACTA report strikes me as being more part of that problem than providing an honest look at it. It has the same self-confirming, self-congratulating avoidance of open debate, the same fixed or loaded reliance on a way of reading the world so that it always ends up being just as it was suspected of being, the same aversion to ambiguity and contradiction.
I’m sure that its authors and defenders will just reply that I’m replying at length because the report really struck home, or that the gentleman doth protest too much. That’s the same bogus stunt that Freudians and Marxists of various flavors honed to perfection in the last century: a critic must be repressing the truth to react so strongly. No, not at all. I react strongly and at length because in fact I agree with some of the criticisms of the academy that resemble the ones ACTA is trying to write about here. Because I do want to see the academy substantially reformed, because I do want to see academics learn to break up their insularity, because I do hate classes that have fixed or polemical answers to complex problems. I react strongly because I’d love to read a really smart, interesting, thoroughly researched, wholly responsible report that made the case for reform. I’m pissed by this document because I think those of us who are trying to push and pull for change need real help, not this kind of weakly argued, weakly substantiated begging for applause from the right-wing peanut galleries.