ACTA Report, “How Many Ward Churchills?”

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. “History and Contemporary Africa” 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 they don’t much care.

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.

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71 Responses to ACTA Report, “How Many Ward Churchills?”

  1. Timothy Burke says:

    Some interesting thoughts, but I think you want to consider how professions differ in structural terms along with this comparison. There are aspects of professional conduct and monitoring that do not carry over from profession to profession.

    For example, a good deal of hospital medicine necessarily takes place in collective contexts, so that there is a natural opportunity for professionals at different levels of hierarchy and experience to monitor one another. On the other hand, a good deal of the actual business of law takes place in privileged conversations with clients, where there is a rigorous expectation that such conversations NOT be monitored or recorded for others to see, where only the client can really initiate a complaint of malpractice. But to complicate further, another portion of legal practice takes place in courtrooms or in arbitrations where transcripts of performance are kept, and from which complaints of malpractice can arise at a later date.

    The point is that many professional instances where monitoring is an expectation arise from long-established practices of recording the work of the profession, from the profession’s role within tightly defined public capacities, or from the organization of professional business. If we’re talking about teaching, figuring out how to monitor the routine business of instruction, create transcripts which can be even-handedly reviewed, and so on is no simple business in its own right.

    What makes it more difficult is that we don’t even have an agreed-upon collective understand of what constitutes bad practice. In medicine, it’s pretty clear: “do no harm”. In law, it’s also fairly clear. In teaching, we’re a long ways away from that kind of clarity. I would simply insist that if we’re going to get to that kind of clarity, it’s a very bad idea to begin with a highly contestable, and in my view, tendentiously political, conception of pedagogical malpractice.

    I also think you’re quite wrong that academics are unwilling to be admonished or monitored in their professional practice. Indeed, that’s a huge amount of what we DO: we admonish each other in peer review. We admonish each other in scholarly critiques of each other, in publication. We monitor each other in a variety of ways, in fact. But most of us do not confuse the ordinary monitoring involved in the intellectual or political critique of the work of another scholar with an argument that the other scholar is in serious breach of professional standards. It seems to me that there is a valuable service involved in reading the structure of courses that other professors teach, and delivering intellectual or scholarly criticisms of those courses. In that respect, your questioning of Johnson’s course description, for example, strikes me as akin to writing a skeptical historiographical assessment of recent works of scholarship. But in our assessments of scholarship, most of us (properly) hesitate to cross the line into suggestion that another scholar is in fundamental breach of minimal professional standards. The severity of the suggestion demands a different set of critical standards.

    That is as true for other professions as it is for academia. A judge who admonishes a lawyer for a sloppy brief is doing something very different than what happens when a judge accuses a lawyer of serious misconduct (such as breaching client confidentiality, withholding or destroying material evidence). Any judge who confused the two statements about professionalism would rightfully be admonished themselves. A supervising doctor who corrects an intern’s diagnosis, or criticizes an intern’s paperwork, is doing something very different from a medical board that finds a doctor culpable for a major surgical error.

    I’m suggesting that the claims you’re making about Johnson’s description involve just such a confusion of proportionality. You’re entitled, indeed invited, to raise scholarly questions about the approach, just as I welcome people debating the advisability of teaching Hobsbawm in my world history course. That doesn’t entitle you to suggest that Johnson is somehow in breach of professional standards, and it wouldn’t entitle you on similar grounds to suggest anything of the sort in any other profession, regardless of the local form of monitoring or accountability in that profession.

  2. withywindle says:

    Eternally in the search of consensus … do I take it correctly that you accept 1) that academia, in principle, does and should incorporate mutual monitoring as an aspect of its professional ethics; 2) that academia could, in principle, extend this monitoring to include aspects of classroom pedagogy including encouragement of free inquiry by their students (no agit-prop) and intellectual openness (no partisan narrowness)? If you are willing to accept these two principles, then I would encourage you, as said before, *to develop yourself* an institutional system of monitoring that takes into account your worries about mutual respect and proportionality. (You, as Alan, continue to conflate “deviation from highest professional standards” with “breach of minimum professional standards.”) Let us grant there is no current standard of pedagogical malpractice; let us grant it will be difficult to develop one; do you believe it is impossible? Do you believe the profession shouldn’t even try? If your answer is negative to these two questions, then I would suggest we have a grounds for consensus here.

    A further note on monitoring: if you never inquire into a colleague’s pedagogy, how exactly are you going to find out there is a problem? On the one hand, you will only get complaints *after* a colleage has descended into pedagogical malpractice; the ethical point of medical, legal, and military monitoring and admonishment is, as professional duty, to prevent beforehand harm to those who would suffer from malpractice. The price of no monitoring is a nonzero number of students suffering from pedagogical malpractice, who might not so have suffered if their teachers had been admonished earlier–a price the profession should not forget, or casually sacrifice to the ideal of mutual professional respect. Furthermore, if the profession has no institutional mechanism of inquiry, you are almost demanding that complaints go through extraprofessional routes–the administration, the community, ACTA. If you think this will damage the profession unduly, I earnestly suggest that you set up *some ideal* of pedagogical ethics in the areas that have aroused concern beyond the academy, and *some mechanism* of monitoring and enforcement. I put it to you that this will not only be good for the profession itself, but significantly enhance the profession’s ethical credibility among the citizenry at large.

  3. Alan Jacobs says:

    For what it’s worth, I think this is an interesting and valuable conversation — thanks, Withywindle, for continuing it.

    (You, as Alan, continue to conflate “deviation from highest professional standards” with “breach of minimum professional standards.”) Can’t speak for Tim, but plead not guilty to such conflation because I have not staked out a position. (I have just dissented from yours.) I am trying to figure out whether you, W., are the conflater, which is why I keep asking you for specifics — specifics you are refusing to give, as you retreat into the covering fog of generality.

    We can agree, I assume, that someone like Ward Churchill is guilty of a “breach of minimum professional standards.” I take it that you’re saying that Kendall Johson (like Tim Burke?) is guilty of “deviation from highest professional standards.” To which I would reply, first, aren’t we all? (“Treat every man according to his desert, and who should ‘scape whipping?”) Second, following from the first point, I think that if I have a concern about the propriety of someone else’s syllabus I should immediately ask myself whether I have the competence to make a valid judgment about the material that should be covered in such a class. This is a question that the authors of the ACTA document seem never to have asked. And third, if I do have that competence, and I do have a concern, then I think “inquiry” is precisely the legitimate next step, in the sense of asking somebody why they do B rather than A or assign X rather than Z. (I’m picking up on your question, “if you never inquire into a colleague’s pedagogy, how exactly are you going to find out there is a problem?”) Your comments don’t suggest that you find it necessary to take any of these steps. You assume that you know with perfect or near-perfect clarity what professional standards are, you assume that you can identify deviations from those standards by sniffing out “tendentiousness” in syllabi — so you can tell that when a syllabus says that Thomas Jefferson “asserted” something that that usage implies dissent from the assertion —, and you assume that need go no further before seeking to shame the author of the syllabus. If you were actually doing any discernible “inquiring” I wouldn’t be complaining so insistently.

    E. B. white once wrote that none of us is perpendicular, though some of us manage to be upright. Perhaps my strongest dissent from your model is that I do not believe perpendicularity to be either possible or desirable for teachers; but I certainly want people to be upright. I’m just trying to get a sense of how you distinguish between those who veer a few degrees from the meridian — which we all do, and which can make for outstanding teaching — and those who lean to the horizontal or even below.

  4. Alan Jacobs says:

    Meant to add this, re your comment: “(The unwillingness to be admonished, I confess, strikes me as far more arrogant than any admonishment could be.)” That depends wholly on who is being admonished and who is doing the admonishing.

  5. withywindle says:

    1) I’m retreating from specifics because it doesn’t seem worth continuing that line of argument at this point in time. You and Tim–and, I suppose, whoever’s still reading this–simply don’t see some specifics as unprofessional, which I do, and I don’t think repeating my contentions will convince you at this point in time. Furthermore, even could I point out an anecdote–our Colorado Little Tree, for example–that you or Tim would take as professionally illegitimate, Tim (and you?) will say that the plural of anecdote isn’t data, and doesn’t justify a change in the profession. Therefore I am now trying to frame a more theoretical argument, which 1) allows for the possibility of a common approach to cover our rather separate positions; and 2) would *provide the data* to make this an argument about something more than anecdotes, and thus allow the possibility for us to persuade each other on anything beside our own anecdotes.

    2) I am generally coming from a position that human beings have a fundamental mental and moral capacity to criticize one another, and have a moral duty both to criticize and judge one another and to acknowledge the right of our fellow humans to criticize and judge us. I find the suspension of criticism and judgment generally to be a moral failing, and the urge to immunize oneself from criticism and judgment an even greater moral failing. (The greatest arrogance, irrespective of who criticizes and who is criticized.) I also take these principles to be not only moral, but the basis of liberal democracy. I tend generally to want the burden of proof to lie with those who suspend judgment, or ask to be immune from judgment, and to have a high estimate of the capacity of anyone to level criticism. My conception of professional ethics follows these presuppositions. Where I would practically accept the modesty, humility, caution, etc., that you call for, it is only within the context of these general principles.

  6. Colin Danby says:


    “Incidentally, this is a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” choice you’re providing. If I make a straightforward accusation, it’s just resentment. If I provide some nuanced, granular adjectives, I’m weaselly. C’mon.”

    Accusations want appropriate evidence. Your comments show a pattern: on the one hand a sweeping, prophetic rhetoric of politicized failure and laxity. One of your favorite terms is “agit-prop.” But when we get down to cases, you have only the most slender objections. Your case against Johnson’s course description boils down to saying that its tone is a mite too skeptical, and has linguistic traces suggesting its author reads critical literatures you don’t like. *This* is what supports the accusation that Jackson falls short of professional standards (though the meaning of “standards” becomes rather elastic when folks press you on it.)

    There are certainly serious questions you can ask about any class: the really key things are what are the assignments, what are the criteria for assessing the assignments, and how well are those criteria communicated to students. I only know that I’ve succeeded with a course when I get students submitting papers that that vigorously critique readings from a wide range of political and philosophical priors. As I’m sure you would agree, no amount of fine-tuning readings will help if students believe they need to reproduce a party line.

    My institution certainly takes these things seriously, using written student comments and asking how instructors actively encourage rigorously critical thought. I doubt it’s unique. But your rhetoric requires large assertions that everything has broken down. I note e.g. “Churchill’s scholarly practices went unnoticed and uninvestigated until a ruckus was raised in the outside world.” But if you look at the Churchill report you see they draw on published material, in the scholarly literature, critical of Churchill’s work. Things could have been done better, obviously, but “unnoticed” is simply wrong.

    Finally, the term “left-liberal” may have conversational utility in some settings, but it’s an obstacle to careful thinking. See e.g.
    (commented on here
    which makes “the left” responsible for silly potboilers! The term becomes a way that everything that offends a particular sensibility is gathered into a ball and given a spurious coherence. So I can’t take seriously anybody who uses it as an analytical category.

    I have a feeling I’ve said all this before. Yes, I have: (comment 129)
    when Art Eckstein tried using terms this way.

  7. Alan Jacobs says:

    I am generally coming from a position that human beings have a fundamental mental and moral capacity to criticize one another, and have a moral duty both to criticize and judge one another and to acknowledge the right of our fellow humans to criticize and judge us. I find the suspension of criticism and judgment generally to be a moral failing, and the urge to immunize oneself from criticism and judgment an even greater moral failing. At that level of generality, I completely agree — nor can I imagine many people disagreeing; but at that level of generality, agreement doesn’t mean anything. Such principles are too vague to offer guidance.

  8. withywindle says:

    “At that level of generality, I completely agree — nor can I imagine many people disagreeing; but at that level of generality, agreement doesn’t mean anything. Such principles are too vague to offer guidance.”

    I have discussed this with enough people who reject this as a first principle that I think this does mean something. It also matters that, in personal discussions, everybody who has rejected this has self-identified as left/liberal/libertarian, and nobody who self-identifies as conservative has rejected it.

    One of many patterns which makes it difficult for me to take seriously anyone who can’t perceive the coherence of the left-liberal outlook, or refuses to use it as an analytical category.

  9. Timothy Burke says:

    It’s a bit of a tangent to this discussion, for which I do thank you, but weren’t you commenting in another thread that it is a mistake to aggregate conservatives too closely or dismiss differences between varieties of conservatism?

  10. texter says:

    Honestly, I’m confused as to what “conservative” means in this discussion.

  11. eb says:

    withywindle writes: “It also matters that, in personal discussions, everybody who has rejected this has self-identified as left/liberal/libertarian, and nobody who self-identifies as conservative has rejected it.”

    If I’m not mistaken, Alan Jacobs has self-identified as conservative in this very thread, although no doubt he can speak for himself.

  12. OsoRaro says:

    This thread has been, um, intense. Will someone *please* pass the Clinique Toner? I think we need to strip some of the oils of our collective conversational face. It started out great, interesting, compelling, but went off the track for me somewhere.

    WW’s critique of the banality of academic “agit-prop” (et al) is cogent, and some of the examples ACTA digs up are indeed egregious, to which ED also speaks. But, there is something about this whole thread that is bothering me, like the tag on the back of a shirt, chaffing. And that, at the risk of sounding like a polemist, is the fact of race in the middle of the entire conversation. And not only race, per se, but fear as well, the fear of change, of different perspectives, of debate, of argument, of the delegitimation of long-accepted myths of who we are as a people. Behind all the talk of professionalism, professional ethics, and standards, are all the lurking and pressing postmodern questions which, seemingly, WW and the angry men and women of the Right dismiss out of hand as irrelevant, unprofessional, *subjective*.

    I do not think it an accident that most of this conversation has revolved around an extensive examination of the purported content of a course on the Declaration of Independence. For this is what we are truly speaking of: the meaning and promise of American identity, and the contestation of that not-dead history, the challenge to long-accepted approaches which worked hand-in-hand with the violent suppression of communities of colour in this country.

    Not to be too unreconstructed about it (and also because I am a bit tired, I taught tonight and have to attend a seminar early tomorrow, and quite frankly have been pushed a bit by this conversation and am cranky), but I think what strikes me as the true problem here is that for the last forty years, people of colour, women, lesbians and gay men (both communities and academics alike, and yes, that’s right, NOT homosexuals) have not been content to believe the myth of objectivity, especially when it comes to living in a society deeply deformed by white supremacy, patriarchy, and heteronormativity. Buzzwords? Sure, why not? So are “standards” and “professionalism,” which as far as I can tell function in this vein as a polite version of “Shut your pie hole!”

    One could read the whole rightward trend in American society as a reaction against the broad changes in American society in the last forty years, especially around WW’s bugaboos of race, gender and sexuality (or as WW put it so nicely, “*much less* … homosexuality”). And while it may indeed be laudable to attempt to understand the eighteenth century mind on its own terms, quite frankly we are living in the 21st century, and neither students nor professors leave their selves (“personhoods,” not an ugly word if you’ve just recently attained it) at the classroom door.

    I’m sorry, teaching is not an appendectomy, it’s not filing the court paperwork to enrich the already enriched, and anyone who believes that is, in my humble opinion, not only a fool but also undoubtedly a poor teacher. Such contrasts to other professions might sound good on Fox News, but anyone who actually has thought about being in the classroom should reject them easily out of hand.

    What’s funny and pathetic and sad is that as Americans act out their resentments and fears and terrors in conversations like this, this whole (and yes, arguably great) country is going to Hell in a handbasket, not at the hands of “radical” professors with their pet theories and underpaid sinecures, but rapacious plutocrats and an unimaginative and parochial Babbitry with fascist pretensions. How about a report on that?

  13. OsoRaro says:

    Correction on previous entry: “WW’s bugaboos” should read “ACTA’s bugaboos.” While indeed race, gender, and sexuality may also be bugaboos for WW, since I do not know him personally I would venture to give him the benefit of the doubt :-)

  14. Timothy Burke says:

    Thanks, OsoRaro. (Love your blog, by the way.) You put your finger on something important, on two rather separate things that really irk me. The first is that I hate the idea that good teaching should consist of a kind of purely neutral affect, as if we’re all teaching at the Vulcan Science Academy. I do think that’s where some of Withywindle’s vision would lead us, whether he wants us to go there or not: a place where all passion becomes “bias”, at least to someone in the room. And that’s the rub of the standard of malpractice that he suggests: all it will take is one offended person. Good teaching should abrade the sensibilities of students as well as soothe them.

    The second is the resurrection in a lot of the conservative complaints about academe of the myth of objectivity, which I thought Novick did a good job of reading last rites over. I do think good scholarship and good teaching should strive to be fair, but fair is not objective. I think all of us in this conversation could use with a re-reading of Garry Wills’ Nixon Agonistes on the “objective” mainstream intellectual of the late 1960s. I had to deal with someone like that in graduate school: a person convinced he was objective, everyone else had opinions or biases. I could see why he thought that, but everyone’s got a politics, everyone’s got a slant, everyone’s got an opinion. Being embarassed to have a politics is like being embarassed to have a nose on the end of your face. The moment you make a statement about why your scholarship matters, or what should be studied, you’re making a political statement. There is nothing shameful in saying so. The shame comes elsewhere: from being seriously unfair, from being flagrantly dishonest in your intellectual standards, from failing to make the classroom an exploratory space, from failing to treat the world like it still has surprises left to show us. The shame comes from being a pompous ass or an officious little bureaucrat. The shame comes from treating the joy and transcendence of knowing as if it’s the daily grind of assembling widgets on the line. When academics are tedious or unimaginative or churlish, then that’s what they are: those words are not synonyms for “being political”.

  15. withywindle says:

    Tim: it’s possible both to say that conservatism (or left-liberalism) isn’t a monolith, and also that they are coherent movements/strains of thought which can be used as analytical categories.

    I repeat the phrase “aspiration to transcendance”; also the Renaissance idea that the recognition of subjectivity is the means by which we aspire to objectivity. Failure to achieve transcendance is human, but at least may give the students shadows on the wall of the truth. Not even trying for transcendance or objectivity, mere complaisant wallowing in subjectivity–yes, that does strike me as shameful. And liable progressively (!) to curdle; unadulterated subjectivity degenerating into narcissism.

    I could teach “conservative history” on the philosophical grounds Tim is offering–and I suppose perforce I might, were I stuck in a department of Churchills, to provide some sort of balance–but I would prefer to try to teach “history.” Which also includes some honest attempt to transcend my own partisan viewpoint–you will note, for example, my suggestion elsewhere to Tim to offer an article by Inga Clendinnen in later versions of his World History course, though I find it “hairpullingly misguided.”

    (What *I* want to assign on race is George MacDonald Fraser’s novel *Black Ajax*. A flawed book in spots, but I think it’s brilliantly evocative and, yes, truthful. Worth reading.)

    I like to think that any history worth teaching can be taught with an aspiration to objectivity. If OsoRaro is unwilling to make that aspiration, then I suppose I am dubious about the content of his course. If he is willing to make that aspiration, with regards to history he considers important, well and fine. When we engage in the mutual aspiration to objectivity, we contract also to mutual scrutiny, and to mutual justification. I will endure any restriction he does; I believe that this will result in conversation, not silence.

    As to the politics of it all … I do rather think the transcendant aspiration to objectivity will result in history looking more like my own particular take on it–but I endeavor to remain capable of surprise. Indeed, I rather think that you are more likely to be surprised out of your narrower self by a commitment toward objectivity than by a luxuriance in the self.

    I am reminded at this point that the Geyl essay on Ranke (I believe) that I mentioned to Tim elsewhere talks about how Ranke semi-sublimated a love of God into a love of objective history; I would be interested to know if attitudes toward God still color attitudes toward history. E.g., “Indeed, I rather think that you are more likely to be surprised out of your narrower self by a commitment toward God than by a luxuriance in the self.” It would be interesting to trace back through this conversation and see how many such substitutions would be made by the various participants.

  16. texter says:

    Osoraro, thank you.

    My comment vis a vis the content of the Declaration course (re: “ok, I suppose this is a beginning. so, are you implying that the very focus or emphasis on marginal subjects (texts by blacks, women, etc) is in itself problematic in the course? If this is so, then there is not much room for a productive discussion”

    was an attempt to press for more transparency about the underlying terms that were said and yet left unsaid. I was beginning to feel mute.

    Thank you for an articulate reading of the discussion.

  17. eb says:

    Admittedly, I have not finished Novick’s book, but I thought Thomas Haskell made a very strong case in his review essay in History and Theory JSTOR that “Objectivity is Not Neutrality” and that Novick may have been premature in reading objectivity’s last rites.

  18. Timothy Burke says:

    As long as objectivity is seen as synonymous more with fair-mindedness and less with a kind of positivism, I can see that. But it does seem to me that “objectivity” as a demand resurges in some of these attacks on academia in the naive form of the word, or wose, in some cases (not talking about Withywindle, here) in a calculatedly dishonest manner where “liberal” views are non-objective but “conservative” ones are not.

  19. eb says:

    I have gotten that sense as well, but there’s a difference between saying that there is no objectivity anymore and saying that certain usages of the word “objectivity” are incorrect. I generally don’t think it’s a good thing for academics to back away entirely from the concept of objectivity in these discussions, not least because this can mean conceding to academia’s detractors the ability to continue to define what objectivity means.

  20. Timothy Burke says:

    Right, I agree with that.

  21. davidmann says:

    Re: evolution/atheism/politics

    I believe that science has become too political and dissent regarding the evolutionary position is muzzled by proponents of atheism. This article on atheism shows that the most prominent proponents of atheism in recently history have been atheist.

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