“Many” Is a Numbered Word and Other Miscellaneous Replies

Part II of further thoughts on teaching, politicization and the like, this time in reply to the defenders of ACTA’s report.

1) Erin O’Connor, writing at ACTA’s blog, offers a useful reconceptualization of the ACTA report’s claims. O’Connor writes that the report shouldn’t be held accountable for lacking quantitative evidence, that anecdotal or interpretative evidence is sufficient to raise concern about politicized teaching. She points to an observation by David French that even a few politicized classes in a four-year program of study should be sufficient to provoke our concerns; O’Connor suggests further that we adopt a standard that says even a single course of this sort ought to be unacceptable.

This is potentially useful, except that O’Connor largely breezes past the fact that the language of the ACTA report is suffused with quantitative claims. It’s in the title: how many Ward Churchills, to which the report answers, “Many”. Anne Neal, in her defense of the report, says that such courses are typical, a word that pops up in the report quite a lot. If the report had made the argument that O’Connor makes here, a much more studiously qualitative one, then that would be one thing. But it doesn’t. If ACTA wants to abandon the language of typicality, of “many”, then fine. But even in O’Connor’s defense, she’s not willing to give that up, insisting that ACTA was drawing from a much larger body of similar courses (if so, what’s the reluctance to give a count of them, if the work of collecting that larger body was done in the course of researching the report?) and was speaking to a linguistic pattern in course descriptions (an implicitly quantitative claim: what makes something a pattern?).

2) Let’s suppose ACTA does drop the quantitative claims and the language that comes with them. There is still a problem with the standard that French and O’Connor adopt, that even a few, or a single, case of politicization is unacceptable. I could agree with that, but not given the murky or absent sense of proportionality about the harm involved that O’Connor and French (and ACTA) are offering.

We could agree that a single bad meal in a restaurant is a bad thing, and should never happen. But in a long life of eating out, I’m likely to have a bad meal. If the bad meal involved gives me salmonella because of negligent food handling, I’m entitled to feel that a regulatory response is warranted, as well as civil claims. If it’s just incompetently prepared, then I can certainly grumble about money wasted, vent to the Zagats, tell all my friends, wonder why the chef at that restaurant has so little professionalism, and so on.

On the other hand, a single botched surgery by a doctor is something that should never happen, and which I have every right to expect that a hospital will do anything and everything to prevent. The harm is proportionally enormous.

What is the proportional harm of a poorly taught course? There isn’t a blanket answer to that, which is the problem with what French, O’Connor and ACTA are saying. An elective which has a relatively mild political bias, enough to grate modestly on a student who doesn’t share that perspective, is something different than a requirement for a major that is taught by a ragingly ideological gatekeeper who demands compliance with their own point-of-view as a requirement for a good grade in the course.

The first is regrettable, but not that big a deal. I’ve mentioned some anecdotal cases in my earlier entry, but here’s another: as an undergraduate, I took a course in epic poetry with a very intensely committed devotee of close reading, who passionately hated even the vaguest hint of historicism in literary analysis. After a while, this got kind of annoying, and I certainly could imagine a course on the same topic that was taught with more methodological pluralism from which I would have learned much more. So there’s an opportunity cost to me that this professor taught that class, but it’s a negligible cost.

The second is an urgent problem that demands an immediate remedy. No question about it. It’s bad enough when someone grades to enforce a narrow (political or disciplinary) methodology; worse by far when they’re sitting atop a gate through which a large number of students must pass in order to proceed with their studies.

One bad course in 40 at the price of current higher education is a pretty serious failure, certainly. (Note here my earlier insistence that we should be talking about poor pedagogy in general, rather than politicized pedagogy in specific.) However, another reason to talk about proportionality of harm is to talk about what the costs of ensuring against failure might be. You can design quality assessment for producing a commodity that reduces the failure rate from manufacture and shipping to almost nothing. This is not cost-free, and every reduction of the failure rate from very small numbers to even smaller ones is exponentially more expensive in manpower and organizational effort. It’s relatively cheap to design quality assessment that reduces the failure rate in manufacture from 50% of all produced units to 5% of all produced units. It’s much more expensive to go from 5% to 1%. It’s absurdly expensive to go from 1% to .25%. The nature of the failures one is guarding against have to come into play as well. A television set that explodes and shatters particles of glass into the faces of the watchers is a different matter than a television set that has a single-pixel imperfection in the upper right corner. One failure is intolerable, the other tolerable. It’s worth anything to prevent the first, but not that much to prevent the second. How expensive, in these terms, is it to utterly prevent even the mildest case of political bias from manifesting in a classroom?

The ACTA report flounders on this point because of its refusal to define its terms with any degree of precision or neutrality. “Politicization” is, as O’Connor suggests, about “linguistic patterns”, ergo the report is justified by counting up buzzwords as an indicator of politicization. That’s not good enough. Because proportionality claims can only be made with a more precise sense of what constitutes an actionable harm and why it counts as an actionable harm, by some kind of “reasonable person” test. A flip political remark made in one class session is quickly forgotten by anyone who isn’t an axe-grinding obsessive. A repeated pattern of sneering at intellectual pluralism is a different matter, and acting on that pattern in grading and assessment is yet another issue beyond that.

The failure to define terms with precision, set proportionality tests, talk about what a reasonable person might legitimately view as serious harm that derives from “politicization”, is what allows the report to claim that almost any class that so much as mentions race, class, gender, sexuality, identity and so on in its description is politicized and therefore harmful and worth our concern.

To go back to my restaurant metaphor, that isn’t even comparable to worrying about a badly cooked meal, let alone about a kitchen that causes salmonella. It’s more akin to complaining that because some new American cuisine amounts to teeny portions at high prices justified with pretentious descriptions on menus, all pretentiously described dishes in new American restaurants are a concern that should mobilize diners and lead cooks to a period of sober self-reflection.

3) Anne Neal really seems to misunderstand an important point in my original criticism, and this misunderstanding has been taken up in the comment thread that follows. I’m not going to make as much hash out of remarks made in comments threads as O’Connor and Neal seem to do, though I would say that if I were in that group of ACTA’s defenders, I wouldn’t exactly take comfort in some of the folks piping up in support of the report in those threads. In any event, Neal says that ACTA’s report isn’t an academic study, and so shouldn’t be held to academic standards. Ergo, my complaint that the report refuses to engage in real argument is unfair and misguided.

My observation on this issue was two-fold. First, that whomever wrote the report simply doesn’t understand some of the course descriptions they’re reading. O’Connor refers to “linguistic patterns”; I’d suggest that the real principle being used in some cases is less about linguistic patterns and more about Humpty-Dumpty, about making words mean whatever the report’s author wants them to mean. Hence my comments on Duke University’s course History 75, which is a relatively basic, professional course on world history, but gets read as “political” substantially because it uses the word “Eurocentrism” in summarizing a monograph by JM Blaut which is used in the course. So here I’m not demanding that the report be a work of scholarship, but I’m suggesting that it would be a good idea to be reasonably proficient with the conceptual and intellectual terrain the report means to comment upon.

If Neal thinks that’s somehow an unfair demand for scholarly rectitude, then I have to question why on earth ACTA thinks issuing “reports” is worth their time or ours. This is especially important if we’re to accept O’Connor’s defense that the report just means to sympathetically call upon professors to more rigorously self-regulate, to live up to their professionalism. I wouldn’t get a lot of respect from doctors if I set out to ask them to regulate surgical error more effectively but in doing so, demonstrated I was fundamentally confused about the difference between a death caused by preventable error and a death caused by unavoidable complications. Or if I set out to ask lawyers to self-regulate in cases of probate misconduct but then starting talking about civil rights litigation in my complaints about the legal profession.

Second, I was suggesting that in some cases, explaining why a course is ridiculous or politicized actually takes rolling up sleeves and making an argument. Not a scholarly argument with all the bells and whistles and footnotes and bibliographies. Just a reasoned argument of the kind that anyone operating in the public sphere should be prepared to offer. Let me take the example of human-animal relations, a concept which seems to inspire instinctive eye-rolling from the author of the ACTA report. There’s nothing silly about a course built around that basic concept. It’s one of the oldest concerns of the human species: what’s human? what’s animal? What are animals for? What are we to do with, for and to animals? You could teach that class as philosophy, as history, as anthropology, as literature, as science, or as a mixture of any and all of these. It hasn’t been so long since European peasants put domestic animals on trial for crimes. Just this past month, much of the world watched with grave and heartfelt concern at medical efforts to save a racing horse’s life after the horse broke a leg. The earliest human art put animals alongside humans; among our most technologically sophisticated entertainments today are computer-animated films of talking anthropomorphic animals. And so on.

Now it’s true that at least one of the courses on this topic which gets flagged in the ACTA report, a Penn State course called “Sentient Beings” is more than just a course about human-animal relations. It clearly has a point-of-view, and one that I personally find not terribly exploratory. The point is, I could describe for you what a version of this class might look like were it more exploratory, more open to multiple points-of-view, and if I were writing a report like ACTA’s, I would want to do that, through some kind of reasoned response to the ideas of Peter Singer or Charles Patterson. I’d want to precisely respond to the language and claims of the course description. Not just do a bit of eye-rolling at the language of the course and the books it uses, quote it as if it’s obvious what’s going on. The ACTA report is often reluctant to actually engage in substantive debate or analysis about what makes a book or a course or an idea “politically biased”. If the report is meant to be a qualitative, language-sensitive, anecdotal analysis of course descriptions, what would be so hard about adding that kind of substance to it? Can you explain how to credibly teach a class on the philosophical problem of the status of animals that doesn’t assign Peter Singer? Wouldn’t that be just as “political” as an exclusion as an inclusion? If there’s no drive to make quantitative claims, why not do richer close readings of what makes a course problematic? Much of the time, the ACTA report acts as if the quotes speak for themselves; much of the time, they do anything but speak for themselves. Why this point seems to elude literary scholars like Erin O’Connor or Mark Bauerlein is beyond me.

4) I’ve discussed in an earlier entry some reasons why it’s important to know what people do in the classroom, why descriptions may be a poor or insufficient guide to the questions that ACTA professes to be concerned with. It’s an interesting point that if such descriptions are a poor guide they may constitute “false advertising”, but that doesn’t seem to me to be the drift of ACTA’s concerns. They’re worried about what happens to students in those courses, not about whether students have adequate information on which to base decisions about their program of study.

But another reason to worry about the link between pedagogy and course description is that the ACTA report frequently takes the mere assignment of a book as indication of bias, as if the presence of an objectionable or political work on a syllabus is a confirmation that the course shares or endorses the views of that work. Take “Sentient Beings”, mentioned earlier. It’s entirely possible that in the actual teaching of such a course, the professor and students together would be developing a serious, sustained critical response to the discourse of Patterson, Singer and so on. There is nothing in the course description that promises an endorsement of their views, after all. I’ve observed that in my own case, I assign works with which I profoundly disagree; in some cases, spend weeks exploring a perspective or discourse that I find wrong, repellant or flawed.

If ACTA is going to go to the trouble of writing a report, and if the goal of that report is as O’Connor reports it, to open a sympathetic dialogue with academics and persuade them to move towards more aggressive self-monitoring and transparency, why not make that dialogue a feature of the report itself? If I spotted a syllabus that I thought looked a bit dubious, and I was writing a substantial report for public consumption to which an institution was devoting serious resources, one of my basic impulses would be to email the person offering the course with a list of my questions or criticisms. Just as a form of fact-checking, to see what the professor’s own explanation or conception of their choices of assigned works might be. If you spotted Afrocentric works on a few of my syllabi, and didn’t bother to find out why they’re there before blasting me as an Afrocentrist, you’d not only be wrong, you would in this case have pissed off a critic of Afrocentrism.

5) A personal note in closing. For me, the best possibilities of academic life are realized in an appreciation of nuance, complexity, subtlety, depth. What has disappointed me most about academia, a disappointment I have written about in my weblogs for three years now, are all the various ways in which a rich appreciation for the messiness and ambiguity of human life get boxed out or bracketed off in scholarly discussions and pedagogical work. If “politicized” courses, and “politicized” scholarship concern me–and they do–it’s largely because they’re part and parcel of the way that the necessary reductions of the unmanageable and incomprehensible variety of human experience turn into instrumental manglings and amputations, into grinding out scholarship and enrollments like sausage in a factory.

I’ve sometimes read Erin O’Connor and Mark Bauerlein and other critics of academia allied with them as sharing my values and concerns in this respect, as being part of the zeitgeist of the Invisible Adjunct’s much-missed weblog. After this particular online discussion, I question my sense of their views and goals.

I also live for anecdote, for stories, for particularisms, and question what wisdom is to be found in assembling massive databases. But as I hope is clear to all my readers, I’m drawn as much to cases that pose discussable and open-ended problems, that raise questions, that are uncertain, to borders and boundaries. I’m not just drawn to cases that I think are instrinsically ambiguous; I’m drawn to see ambiguity and complexity in almost any case or instance. Isn’t that what we rise to defend in academia from “politicization”? The possibility of nuance, of exploration, of arriving at some point different from the place we set out from?

What is the academia that O’Connor or Bauerlein rise to defend? What is the practice they want to free from heavy-handed politicization? What is the free culture of inquiry that David French or FIRE want to insure against the intrusions of speech codes and crude orthodoxies? Wouldn’t ACTA learn as much or more by working the complexities of a single case? I thought we did a pretty good job here in the first discussion of working through Kendall Johnson’s “Legal Fictions”, for example. In the end, I think that discussion demonstrated pretty clearly why it would be a mistake to slap that class description up on a Wanted poster; even Withywindle’s articulate complaints about the class turned on increasingly subtle points as the discussion went on, and I have so much respect for him at this point that I really hope he’d concede the unfairness of defining that course as unprofessional in some fashion based on the readings we developed in dialogue.

Where is that willingness in the larger discussion? Why is ACTA’s report, and ACTA’s defenders, so averse to ambiguity, to boundary cases, to subtlety? I think you have to write, speak and think differently than ACTA does if your goal really is to inspire discussion. I think if your goal is to inspire discussion you have to actually discuss.

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10 Responses to “Many” Is a Numbered Word and Other Miscellaneous Replies

  1. SamChevre says:

    I’ve been reading this series with considerable interest, as a spectator. I’m not an academic; I spend far more time keeping track of FASBs and ASOPs than keeping up with academia. However, my undergraduate experience is close enough to remember it fairly clearly. Your point of view seems to be well summarized in:

    For me, the best possibilities of academic life are realized in an appreciation of nuance, complexity, subtlety, depth.

    I mostly agree with you; my tastes certainly run toward liking complexity. However, sometimes it is important to look at systems and patterns, not at details. To take a fairly egregious example, look at slavery in the American South. There is lots of nuance and complexity possible; there were plenty of slaves who were well treated, loved their masters, continued to work for the same people after emancipation, etc. There were plenty of slaves who were punished brutally whose punishments were fully deserved. But to look at slavery and say, ‘Well, each case is different—you have to look at each case in context,” is not a good response. At some point, you have to say, “This system is a bad system; here are 10 egregiously bad examples.” The point is not to examine any of the 10 examples carefully; the point is to say that this system is a problem.

    To me, criticism of academia and academic responses to that criticism seem to be making the same mistake. They are arguing over details, when the question is, “Is there a systematic problem?” To that question, I’m inclined to answer yes—but I don’t know for sure.

  2. Joey Headset says:

    You should be commended for the amount of respect you are offering Anne Neal in your response. She completely mischaracterized everything you wrote in your initial ACTA piece, and did so with what appears to be deliberate malice. But that’s the Blog-O-Sphere for you. “It’s OK to lie as long as I know I’m right.”

    One of these days, you would think that these bloggers might wonder why they need to mischaracterize other people’s arguments to make their own seem superior. If they are so right and everyone else is so wrong, it should be possible to make this evident without lying quite so much.

  3. kieran says:

    This bit from the Inside Higher Ed comments thread

    Burke is a paid-up member of the Angry Left that is destroying the civility of the Internet.

    made me laugh out loud.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Yes. As a consequence of exposure to gamma radiation during a nuclear test some years ago, I sometimes turn into Mr. Angry Left and proceed to go on a rampage against civility. Like I said, if we want to play the game of “read the comments, comment on the comments”, I’m not sure Erin O’Connor is going to feel real comfortable with some of what can be dredged up out of those threads.

  5. Doug says:

    And while ACTA is presumably looking into “politicization,” will it be examining business schools for systemic pro-market or right-wing views? Would National Security Studies be grilled for pro-military stances?

    In short, are things left-of-center bias, while things right-of-center are not?

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    They don’t address that in this report. I would hold that the reason they don’t address it, one way or the other, is their complete lack of controlled definitions and conceptual work at the outset. There’s probably a way to write a report that’s at least arguably, nontionally legit that takes liberal bias as a bigger issue, but there’s a lot of foundational labor to do at the outset–all of it undone by this report.

  7. Doug says:

    Throughout this discussion, I’ve been reminded of an exchange in the fall of 2002 between Bill Galston and Ken Pollack (author of The Gathering Storm) about Iraq. “If we were going to get Ken Pollack’s war,” said Galston, “I could be persuaded to support it. But we are not going to get Ken Pollack’s war; we are going to get George Bush’s war, and that is a war I cannot support.”

    Similarly, if we were going to get Timothy Burke’s curriculum and pedagogy reforms, I could be persuaded to report it. But from the look of things, we are going to get ACTA’s or Horowitz’s or somebody similar’s, and those are reforms I cannot support. Mainly because the drive I see is to impose a new orthodoxy to replace the one that they (ACTA, etc) perceive to exist at present.

    I’m mostly an interested spectator in this discussion. Friends are academics, and I work with a reasonable number of people in the think-tank world–political scientists and international relations specialists, mostly. So elite US universities are something of a nearby neighborhood. It’s not close enough to really repay extensive involvement, but it is worth keeping half an eye on. I hope that my outsider’s perspective is occasionally useful.

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    Going back to Sam, I’d say you’re right, the real question is, “Is this a systemic problem”? Really, the thrust of my critique is to suggest that what precedes that question is, “What is the nature of the problem we’re trying to identify?” I think you have to define the problem well, and also justify why the problem is worth caring about. There are issues which are systemic which are also trivial; there are problems with might be said to be systemic, but they’re just a subset of some other problem.

  9. skyfaller says:

    I’d just like to say that your History of Consumption course is one of my favorite courses that I ever took at Swarthmore, and that I feel it had a definite message (which you can confirm or refute).

    When I signed up for the course, I expected to learn all about the evils of consumerism, but by the end of the course I found myself coming to the conclusion that consumption isn’t all bad, and when done right it can be positively good. I felt that this was the conclusion I was supposed to reach from the readings and discussion, and that was the conclusion I reached in my final paper. I don’t think it would have affected my grade if I had reached the opposite conclusion, although accepting Schorr’s arguments against consumerism wholesale might have betrayed some shortage of critical thinking.

    Ultimately I felt that the fact that I perceived the course to have a message and a direction made me more interested in and engaged with the material, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

  10. Chris Segal says:

    Funny you should mention The Social History of Consumption – just the other week when the “Global Dimming” story broke I was thinking about our discussion of Jeremiahs.

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