Turn Down the Dial

I agree that academic prose is sometimes both boring and frustrating because of the extent to which academics overqualify and parse every substantive claim they are making. It can lead to endless thickets of dependent clauses designed to cover all possible objections by pre-emptively conceding to them.

At the same time, scholarship needs to be something more and something better than what any random person pulled off the street might say off the top of their head. More based in specific evidence, more aware of the history of thought and expression on a given topic. I’d like to say more subtle, more nuanced, more complex, but that’s not a necessity. Sometimes the evidence and the historiography justify being very direct and intense in a scholarly argument.

It’s also a question of voice, though. One reason I didn’t know how I felt about the tenure case of Norman Finkelstein at DePaul University is that while it’s clear that his critics didn’t like the content of his arguments (which is the wrong reason to deny tenure), I’m not wild about the professional tone in which he made some of his arguments.

It’s why I’m unhappy with some of the claims that KC Johnson makes at his blog and apparently at the conclusion of his new book about the Duke lacrosse case (haven’t read the book yet, so note the apparently.) I agree that a very large number of people, including some of the Duke faculty, made some really serious ethical mistakes in their behavior in that case. I even agree that one of the reasons for that error on the part of some faculty is that there is a problematic set of arguments about the relationship between the history of race, class, and gender in America and both collective and individual “guilt” in some contemporary academic thought. I’d agree that this problematic composite argument is more widely distributed than the Group of 88. I’m just really unhappy with the leap from those legitimate targets of criticism to a much more general set of targets based on thin, impressionistic, borderline demagogic claims. If you want to talk about what academia as a whole is or does, I need more than some course titles, some misleading inferences, and a cherry-picked list of nutcases. Or more than one group of people who made a bad individual mistake.

It’s why, like Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber, my eyebrows went up at Alan Wolfe’s comment in an interesting New York Times Book Review article on the canon wars. Wolfe is quoted as saying that while everyone reads Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, “few people” have read the Yeats poem. Really? Doesn’t ring true in my experience at all.

This is the problem with all these kinds of moments for me: they take what could be a perfectly sound consensus and hold it hostage to a thoughtlessly aggressive generalization. Finklestein didn’t need the red-meat invective, Johnson doesn’t need to imitate the expansive stereotyping of the lacrosse lynch mobs, Wolfe doesn’t need to exaggerate.

It’s not the substantive claim that’s the issue, even. It’s the tone, the voice, the way a thing gets said. A lot of quick generalizations become less noxious when they’re acknowledged as such, and therefore when the speaker doesn’t try to use them as a platform for making grave claims. When they’re said with a laugh, for fun, or when they’re said with a sly wickedness. When the speaker self-deprecates by including himself or herself in the generalization. When they’re offered as a highly personal observation, or made part of an entertaining presentation by a raconteur. When the entire rhetorical style of the speaker is over-the-top and unabashedly gonzo, generalizations are par for the course.

The bad combination for me is an attempt to claim the high ground of careful, scholarly academic work for a quick, impressionistic generalization and when someone wants to make unmistakeably consequential claims and demands based on such a generalization. That’s what steps over a line.

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60 Responses to Turn Down the Dial

  1. Alan Jacobs says:

    Agreed completely, Tim, that many academics will — and all academics should — be very wary of generalizations like Wolfe’s. However, as I commented over at the Valve, my experience does tend to confirm Wolfe’s generalization about Achebe and Yeats. I’ve been teaching African literature since 1989, and — this is based on questions appended to quizzes and sometimes just shows of hands — the percentage of my students who come to college having read Things Fall Apart rose through much of the Nineties and eventually planed out at around 80%. But it is rare for me to find more than one or two students in a given class who say that they know the poem from which Achebe took his title. FWIW.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    I can imagine that it matches some people’s experience, but I guess I’d really hedge my bets both in making such a generalization about what my students know and don’t know and in guessing what it means.

  3. Alan Jacobs says:

    Yep. For one thing, I’d bet that high school students, even quite good ones, are far more ready to read and make sense of a straightforwardly written realistic novel like Things Fall Apart than a highly symbolic Modernist poem like “The Second Coming.”

  4. Prof. AME says:

    88 faculty at a prestigious university such as Duke are more than a few isolated nuts, Tim: I guess you don’t want to think they are representative of a larger problem, but it is reasonable that other people do think they are representative of a larger problem. Most of the 88 were in the Humanities. Out of 97 Duke faculty who did speak out against the lynch-mob in which the 88 played an important role, only 9 came from the Humanities. Most came from the sciences.

    You may want to say it is dangerous to generalize from a single situation, and of course one must be cautious. But this is not the only such situation, and I think it cannot be shrugged off so easily, and Johnson is in my view not wrong to suggest it is indicative of a much larger problem in the Humanities. In your original statement above, you in fact give some indication of what that problem is.

    I don’t want this to turn into a mud-wrestling match with you, so I’l let you have the last word to me on this.

  5. Ralph says:

    It’s instructive to me, at least, Tim, that no member of the Law School faculty at Duke, for example, signed the Group of 88 statement. Its signers were largely, if not exclusively, from the humanities and social sciences. We don’t know if anyone from the Law School was asked to sign the document. But that humanities and social science faculty members in such large numbers signed the statement means that there’s an aggregate of faculty members who are disposed to assume that, because an accusation had been made, something did, in fact, happen to the woman and that the accused are the perpetrators of it. You’ve conceded that much in the discussion at Acephalous. What I don’t see in your argument is any curiosity about what may have predisposed a large number of Duke’s humanities and social sciences faculty to publish a statement that you concede was a mistake. KC attempts an explanation of it in the race/class/gender prism in which they do their academic work. He goes beyond that to say that it reveals a significant flaw in Duke’s over-investment in the r/c/g prism. Do you have a different explanation for how such a large number of humanities and social science faculty could have signed on to a mistaken public statement during a campus crisis? You’ve also defended Duke’s hiring practices in having all three of its Latin American historians doing gender analysis. Doesn’t that sanction the very predispositions that led to the blunder?

  6. withywindle says:

    I confess I’m more interested in the Achebe/Yeats conversation than in the political one. I have a sense that poetry as a genre is not read as much as prose, so I’m not sure that’s a fair comparison. And then there’s the British/American canon distinction–is Yeats more central still in Britain than in America? (And is Achebe more important in America than in Britain?) Then, among British poets of Yeat’s age, where is Yeats’ standing? Where is Eliot or Pound? How have their relative standings changed recently? For that matter, is Wole Soyinka read as much as Achebe? — I have a distinct recollection, from hazy college memories, that Soyinka’s early plays impressed me far more than Achebe’s novel. Is Achebe just a convenient assignment, because a short novel, like The Great Gatsby and Hard Times? And so on …

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    The interesting thing about the Achebe is that I suspect that if the book is being assigned in high school, it’s often being assigned in history courses, because it’s actually a very unadorned kind of realist novel that lends itself to discussions of the historical situation it is set within. But I also do wonder at poetry that’s taught, both in high school and college.

    I also don’t think Soyinka is read nearly so frequently as Achebe.

    My personal guess is that if we had some magic way of tracking it across high school and college curricula, it’s more likely that students are assigned Yeats’ work than Eliot’s or especially Pound’s. I should ask my friend who teaches British modernist fiction and poetry what she thinks.


    Ralph and AME, it’s a question of what one does with that explanation. I think there’s some interesting things to be said about how a particular embedded argument about race/class/gender and collective guilt that’s fairly common within the humanities created a predisposition for faculty to join the campaign against the lacrosse players. But it’s not a crude argument, even in the case of Duke, and I just feel that KC develops it crudely. I don’t care what we’re talking about, I want to try and understand how people who come to bad conclusions got to that point from the inside out–and I want to be careful about generalizing from that using a hodgepodge of materials. “Careful” on these kinds of arguments doesn’t seem to be in KC’s vocabulary, which is odd because in his work as a diplomatic and political historian, he’s fairly meticulous.

    So I’m not opposed to considerations of a larger problem. I’m opposed to broad demagogic conclusions about that larger problem. I think it’s entirely possible to imagine that the community of a different university, faced with a similar incident, could go in very different directions, even with the same mix of specialists or disciplinary commitments. Some of the faculty I know who have very strong commitments to “identity politics” are perfectly capable of mixing those commitments with a very strong commitment to standard due process, views of individual responsibility, etc.: all it takes at any given place is one or two influential people to stop the herd instinct.

    KC and I have discussed this before: I think he and some other academic critics are quick to confuse the tempermental conversatism and conformism of academics with a specifically leftist politics. If I had a magic wand and I could change the Group of 88 into evangelical Christians who were registered Republicans, but I kept all the basic sociology of tenure, disciplinarity and so on intact, I really feel that they’d be just as likely to charge as a crowd into comparable “activist” mistakes. If you go back to the 1960s, you can find the older generation of faculty hostile to youth activist and left-wing politics displaying some of that herd instinct at certain junctures.

    A side note: the hiring practices thing is an obsession with you, Ralph. I can only repeat what I’ve said every time it’s come up, which is not a “defense”: that there is a reasonable argument that could be made for heavy specialization along narrow lines when you’re trying to build a graduate program. It isn’t the way I’d do it, which I’d think you would know by now, but neither is it self-evidently or obviously a bad idea in a country where there are a large number of doctoral programs in history. In an ideal world, if one program specializes in that fashion, there would be a another that hired three political historians of Latin America to build there program. That’s really the more important (and difficult) issue: what’s the total distribution across the discipline, across many different doctoral programs? What’s the total distribution in relation to the total supply of potential candidates out there?

  8. Kieran says:

    Is this post title the kind of thing you have in mind?

  9. Ralph says:

    To aside: I’ve mentioned it twice. I don’t see how that constitutes obsession. Obsession would manifest itself in long rants at Cliopatria, where it’s never been mentioned. Obsession is a clinical word, used here non-clinically and — if you’ll pardon my saying so — crudely.
    My point was that I’m surprised at your lack of interest in why the faculty rushed to judgment with their statement. That an evangelical, Republican faculty might behave similarly to a different kind of campus crisis says very little — if anything –about what happened at Duke. KC proposed an explanation for that. You think he’s used a sledgehammer in a situation that calls for a scalpel. But I don’t see you showing interest in picking up a scalpel, apparently because mass hysteria can happen on *any* campus. I suppose it can, but it didn’t happen in Duke’s Law School. It happened in its humanities and social sciences faculty.

  10. Timothy Burke says:

    I think KC’s explanation is reasonable enough, but only if it’s explored rather than declaimed from a soapbox. E.g., the proposition that race, class and gender form a matrix in American history and contemporary American society that has prior effects on what people do, what people think, what they’re responsible for beyond their own individual lives, and so on, seems to me true enough. So at what point do scholars and intellectuals with an interest in that potent, complicated, messy intersection become subject to its force themselves in ways that they don’t acknowledge and can’t admit to, in ways that draw them away from the narratives of guilt and responsibility for racial oppression that they’re most familiar with? KC isn’t exploring those questions, and I think that’s the proper way to go not just on this case, but virtually all cases. I can’t understand why you don’t see it similarly given your own scholarly interests.

  11. dkane says:


    It would be great to quote specific sentences/passages from KC, either his blog or the book, to illustrate your points here. Just what are you objecting to? This is an interesting topic and is worthy of another post with lots more specifics.

  12. Timothy Burke says:

    David, to some extent this post is one of those multiblog crossing conversations, where some of the discussion has happened elsewhere, in this case in about three threads at Acephalous.

    I was kind of hoping with this post to redirect some aspect of that discussion to a “rule of generalization” instead, partly because I don’t want to come off like I’m against all generalizations. It’s impossible to think or argue without them. It’s more that I want them to be more modestly declaimed in various ways, or if they’re made more wildly, to be more personal, more observational, more about rhetorical flourish, more something.

    It’s just when a generalization is made with an air of disembodied authority, as a QED, and then when it’s coupled to some extremely consequential demands or agenda, that I balk.

  13. Prof. AME says:

    Tim, you should add to the 88 the 15 prominent scholars in African American Studies who wrote a letter remonstrating with a Dean at Duke for being a white paternalist because he dared to urge one of the 88 to wait on the facts before leading a lynch mob. I’m not making that up, Tim.

    The letter of these prominent scholars in African American Studies (from NYU, Northwestern, Penn, UC Santa Cruz, Vanderbilt, Columbia) shows, prima facie, that the problem Johnson is pointing to is hardly limited to Duke. The letter group included such stars as Manning Marable and Robin D. G. Kelley. The existence of the letter group gives specific and powerful support to Johnson’s contention–which you chastise him for– that the Duke 88 exemplify a larger problem within academia, does it not?

    You can find a text of the letter on Johnson’s blog.

    In my own opinion, Tim, you also have to come up with a better explanation for why the lynch-mob mentality in the Duke Faculty didn’t rule EVERYWHERE in the Duke Faculties: NOT in the Law School, and NOT in the Sciences, but ONLY in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Why did this happen? Ralph’s question to you here is a very heavy one, and it is intensified by the fact that of the 97 Duke faculty who protested what was going on, only 9 came from the Humanities. I don’t think your answer can be that it might all be just a coincidence, and that it is crude or ileigitimate to draw larger conclusions about Humanities faculties from these facts.

  14. Western Dave says:

    I think we also need to distinguish between Nifong and the University here. Had there been no accusation of rape at the party but the party still got busted for underage drinking and having strippers would the coach have gotten fired and the team been suspended for the rest of the season? I can only hope that the answer would be yes. There was a pattern of misbehavior with the Duke team that had the coach on the hot seat prior to this specific incident. However, at the same time, I’m surprised that many of the people on the 88 list haven’t said, “Oops, sorry about that, I got that one wrong.” However, since, folks on the other side very rarely say that either, I can understand why somebody might say the equivalent of “um,… moving on now.”
    But quite frankly, there is not a lot in there to apologize for, Ralph and KC. There’s not a line in the infamous statement that says that the players are guilty. There’s not a line in the statement that says form a lynch mob and string ’em up. There is a lot of description of why people are angry about stuff that goes on on just about every college campus and elsewhere. Are you really telling me, you don’t know lots of places where African-Americans are routinely followed by the cops just because they are African American? Are you really telling me that women aren’t putting themselves at risk when they attend a kegger? As I read it, The Group of 88 were trying to use the case as a teachable moment to raise a wider set of concerns. So what’s the problem?

  15. Gavin Weaire says:

    Withywindle: it’s odd to hear Yeats called a “British poet.” It’s as if you called Pierre Trudeau an “American politician.”

    I grew up in Ireland, went to the same school as Yeats, and did my Leaving Certificate during the 50th anniversary of his death (which pretty much guaranteed us a question). I am therefore horribly poorly equipped to comment on how many people would be familiar with “The Second Coming.” (“Isn’t everyone?”)

    But… if there aren’t many people who’ve read the entire poem, I suspect that there are many who’ve encountered bits and pieces of it quoted in opinion pieces in newspapers, etc., without actually knowing where they come from. Esp. that bit, “the best lack all conviction” (etc.), and “what rough beast…”

  16. Why did this happen? Ralph’s question to you here is a very heavy one, and it is intensified by the fact that of the 97 Duke faculty who protested what was going on, only 9 came from the Humanities. I don’t think your answer can be that it might all be just a coincidence, and that it is crude or illegitimate to draw larger conclusions about Humanities faculties from these facts.

    Honestly: do you think there is a simple answer? Do historians ever come up with satisfying, comprehensive explanations for these things? I should throw in a bunch of caveats here: I’ve only been following this case desultorily, I’m a literature grad student in a program quite different from Duke in terms of culture and orientation, and I’m no kind of expert on American history. But I do think accounts of this kind of collective behavior— “lynch-mob mentality,” “mass hysteria,” to quote from the comments above— are always provisional and contentious. (Is Nazism even now fully explained, to everyone’s satisfaction?) What level of explanation do you want— one that provides legal liability, perhaps, which could lay the groundwork for regulations or state laws or institutional votes of censure? One that allows you to predict, but not change, behavior in humanities/social science faculties? One that makes an elegant paragraph? One that a set of blog commenters can agree on? I’m curious about the sort of precedent for judgment or explanation you have in mind: to keep going with this silly overheated analogy, do you want Eichmann in Jerusalem, or the Nuremberg trials, or The Rise & Fall of the Third Reich, or something else?

  17. Ralph says:

    The Group of 88’s statement explicitly refers to “what happened to the woman” at the lacrosse party. That assumes that something *did* happen to her and that the lacrosse guys were the perps. It doesn’t attempt to address social conditions that may have led her to be a stripper, who performed for pay and aroused lacrosse-ire because she walked out after having been paid $800. Nor have the 88 showed much interest in social conditions that led to her alchoholism, drug use, and casual sex partnerships.
    There ought to be *some* explanation for why the 88 a&s faculty members felt obliged to issue a public statement that assumed that the woman’s claims were true — when none of Duke’s law faculty felt so obliged.
    “Um, moving on now …” won’t quite do when the three lacrosse players faced possible sentences of 30 years, “Sixty Minutes” came into play, etc.

  18. Timothy Burke says:

    I don’t think there is a simple answer. I agree that part of a complex, composite answer is a prevalent intellectual/political position that is more common within the humanities and social sciences in contemporary academia, that is a part of the assumed “common sense” of a number of subdisciplines.

    If I had to sketch that position quickly and simplistically, I would say that it includes an assumption that racism and sexism remain widely distributed in both the everyday consciousness and social behavior of many white Americans, that in matters of criminal and civil accusations, the benefit of the doubt should usually rest with people of color, women and other oppressed populations, that there is such a thing as collective responsibility for racial discrimination (and therefore, at least potentially, collective guilt). Sometimes this assumption is fleshed out much more fully as a reasoned argument supporting a work of scholarship. Sometimes it’s held implicitly, but in fairly complex forms. Sometimes it’s a simple-minded and morally crude lens that distorts everything it perceives. Sometimes it’s a position that basically passive scholars take in order to avoid being scapegoated as racists. Sometimes, strikingly, it’s a viewpoint that some scholars on the left actively criticize or avoid (seriously “disciplined” Marxists or socialists are, in my experience, among the most likely academics to seriously confront some forms of identity politics). Sometimes it’s a perspective that professors favor only because they’re trying to support or be friendly to aggrieved student activists who are committed to strong identity politics.

    But yes, that kind of view was a factor at Duke. But other things were at play, some of them largely independent from this perspective and its alignment with wider politics. For example, an attitude towards athletics and athletes that has a wider but also more subtle and less political distribution through academia as a whole. Or the basically staid, bourgeois, mannered class identity of most academics, which puts viewing strippers and getting drunk as being offensive in the same way that watching TV and eating Cheez-Whiz is offensive, e.g., as being declasse. There’s the power relationship between administrators and faculty which varies significantly from university to university, but one in which many faculties collectively are quick to seize upon opportunities to alter that balance of power in their favor. There’s the way in which students have learned to mobilize faculty and administrators on their behalf, and faculty and administrators have learned to placate students with statements of concern until the students run out of steam and go away.

    Those are all things which could play out across academia, but also things which could be extremely situationally different in their expression or power. Some of them cross disciplinary boundaries, some of them cross political boundaries. And most of those beliefs, or those practices, have some reason to them. They’re not arbitrarily malicious, or intentionally malevolent. There are reasons to feel anxious about the relationship between higher education and athletics. Hiring strippers for a team party is a bit eyebrow-raising. The history of race, gender and sexuality in this country does have a very charged intersection with social power that hasn’t been magically abolished in the contemporary moment.

    I’m not opposed to talking about any of those things, and trying to understand why they came together in such a perfect storm of injustice and bad judgement at Duke–and I want to acknowledge that could happen elsewhere. Anybody who reads the blog knows that I’m more than willing to explore the problems of “political correctness” in the academy. It’s practically a leading theme here. But I insist that it be done intelligently, with nuance, with care.

  19. Prof. AME says:

    Tim, you are indeed someone who is willing to discuss the problem of “political correctness.”

    We are dealing with two points.

    1. I think you are conceding that the political explanation (left politics + racial politics) for the behavior of the 88 faculty who helped created “the perfect storm of injustice” at Duke, and the political explanation for their being overwhelmingly from the Humanities and Social Sciences, is most likely the main and most powerful explanaton. You do this because the faculty contribution to the perfect storm of injustice came overwhelmingly from the Humanities and Social Sciences, whereas Law and the Sciences were unaffected by the hysteria and did not participate in it. Similarly, very few faculty from the Humanities spoke out against the lynch-mob, whereas the majority of those who spoke out against the hysteria came from Science (and to a lesser extent from Law). This suggests that the faculty in Humanities and Social Sciences at Duke suffers from some profound intellectual and ethical weaknesses, weaknesses which have been exposed but which have not gone away (since no wrongdoing is admitted), weaknesses which have their origin in the political position and (racial) world-view of the Humanities and Social Science Faculty as its membership is currently constituted. (This isn’t only because of the 88 faculty who contributed to the hysteria, though obviously it is central; it’s also because so few Humanities faculty OPPOSED that hysteria.)

    2. The question you raise is whether the situation in the Humanities and Social Sciences at Duke exposed for all the world to see by the LAX case can be generalized. You accuse Johnson of generalizing too quickly. One should always be careful about generalizing, yes. But the letter to the Duke Dean from the 15 major scholars in African American Studies from all around the country, including such stars as Marable and Kelley, and which severely reprimanded this Dean for daring to suggest that Houston Baker should wait for the evidence before publicly condemning the lacrosse team as rapists–well, it seems to me that this constitutes prima facie evidence that in at least one field, Johnson is on pretty firm ground to generalize.

  20. Jerry White says:

    Would just like to echo Gavin Weaire’s surprise at seeing Yeats casually described as British. I suppose he was born a British subject, but so was Achebe, and you wouldn’t call him a “British novelist.” Yes, yes, the Act of Union applied to Ireland and not Nigeria; still, it’s quite odd (although I know that it how he is frequently discussed in North America).

    Anyway, my more substantive point is that this split does make it clear how difficult it is for many humanities professors to talk about form outside of a fairly limited group of works (modernist poetry, for instance). I could imagine a useful class on _Things Fall Apart_ that focussed on the novel’s straightforwardly realist _form_ (Alan Jacobs seems quite right about that), and that could then catapult into a broader discussion of postcolonial novelists’ use of realist _form_, using “The Second Coming” as a point of contrast. I could also imagine teaching a class on modernism’s tortured politics, using Yeats’ very odd place in Irish culture as an illustrative example and using _Things Fall Apart_’s eventual status an undisputed flagship novel of postcolonialism as a point of contrast. That conversation would need to bring in formal qualities as well, especially Yeats’ interest in Irish folklore and oral forms generally, and we could use _Things Fall Apart_’s very different engagement with oral narrative traditions as a point of contrast.

    I wouldn’t swear to it, but I would bet that not many discussions of either text mentions the other except in the mort casual way, and that not many of these discussions deal with the formal problems that such a comparison raises. Maybe that’s because you can’t rely on students having read the Yeats poem, but how difficult is it to hand out a xeroxed copy to said students?

    Someone, prove me wrong on this!

  21. Timothy Burke says:

    Well, here’s one surprising thing. I just googled “Okonkwo”. 259,000 hits. I’m going to assume that the vast majority of those are references to the character from the Achebe novel.

    Any of the most characteristic phrases of the Yeats’ poem (“the center cannot hold”, “mere anarchy loosed upon the world”, “the best lack all conviction”) at best clock in just under 100,000 hits.

    Some of that is the difference between a single word and a phrase: phrases in quotes always have fewer hits. I’m sure some of it is also study guides vs. other kinds of longer analyses, and off-web there might be far more of the latter. But still: maybe there’s something to this view that Achebe now trumps Yeats.

    But again, that’s interesting to think about: is it the practicality of novels over the difficulty of poetry? multiculturalism vs. dead white men? new things over older things? history over literary criticism? Is there a style of reading that’s now widespread wherein people don’t trace back allusions in general? (I’ve said as much about critical theory when we were all discussing Theory’s Empire: that a generation of us stopped reading the works that fed into critical theory, and just picked up those works as they were referenced within critical theory.

  22. This suggests that the faculty in Humanities and Social Sciences at Duke suffers from some profound intellectual and ethical weaknesses, weaknesses which have been exposed but which have not gone away (since no wrongdoing is admitted), weaknesses which have their origin in the political position and (racial) world-view of the Humanities and Social Science Faculty as its membership is currently constituted.

    But does this satisfy you? Why? What happens next? Do we all just sit and contemplate it? Is anyone who endorses this explanation planning to make a commitment to changing the terms and content of scholarship, or is it just an excuse to draw a line around these faculties and say, this is all deeply flawed work done by flawed people? It’s one thing to point out the problem, another to be serious about working towards practical solutions. At this point, I don’t see what good merely pointing out the problem does— since it’s apparently so far-reaching— to anyone in the humanities and social sciences, because it looks like you’re simply attacking their disciplines and their work, as well as their moral character— but only rhetorically. This is the kind of conflict that can smoulder in academia for decades without changes, because the parties to the conflict only share an interest in something intangible like the soul of intellectual inquiry or the moral fiber of the polis; their other interests are asymmetrical. If you judge that African-American Studies is an intellectually and ethically bankrupt discipline, you stand to lose nothing but an argument; people who do it for a living stand to lose their careers. Would that be warranted? I don’t know, but it’s vital at least to recognize the stakes (verbally and practically). People are a lot more willing to talk when they don’t think you’re trying to get them canned, or publicly disgraced, or humiliated in front of their whole social network— academics are no different from anyone else in this respect. And I would say, cautiously, that there are constructive ends this conflict might serve— but it could very easily fizzle into nothing but bad feelings. And, Tim, am I right in thinking that latter is an outcome you want to avoid?

    Someday… some fine day… I will quit trying to join blog arguments to advocate conflict resolution, because a) it never works and b) you, Tim, are far better at it than I am. But I’ve written this out, so I might as well post it. Now, back to Yeats and Achebe. How do you read the phrase: “things FALL aPART;” “THINGS fall aPART”; “THINGS FALL aPART”…? I’ve always read it as a rupture in the meter, between the uneasy dactyls in the first two lines and the iambs of “the centre cannot hold,” but maybe that’s off. Still, it jumps out of the verse at me, like a novel title ripe for plucking.

  23. Timothy Burke says:

    The outcome is a lot of what I’m thinking about. Over at Acephalous, one commenter says, “Look, nothing can be done, we just wait for all the bad academics to retire”. But bad practices, if such there are, reproduce themselves in institutions. That’s the nature of institutional life. So the problem is, how do you encourage “best practices” instead?

    I know how you don’t: you don’t do it by demonizing vast swaths of a profession in broad brushstrokes. First, because of a practical political limitation: people aren’t in general known for enthusiastically responding to calls for reform when they’re being painted as useless scumbags, hacks or calculating destroyers of all that is good and noble in humanity. But second, because it doesn’t do anything to demonstrate best practices.

    What kind of academy comes from scorched earth attacks on “political correctness”? A more tolerant, pluralistic academy? How do those kinds of attacks demonstrate the ability to live within or practice a wider spectrum of methodology, opinion, or thought? I struggle to imagine what kind of “good social history” KC Johnson would heartily welcome into his collegial fold. Ralph recently commented in one of these discussions that virtually all contemporary practice of cultural history and cultural studies is worthless.

    So for both practical and political reasons, it seems to me very important to constrain and focus the criticism that comes out of the Duke lacrosse case. If the argument is, “Most of the humanities is a lost cause, full of hackery and leftist junk, and Duke demonstrates that” or even “Anything even vaguely resembling ‘political correctness’ is not only transparently wrong, it doesn’t require anything more than blanket condemnation as a response”, then what you’re advocating is more or less a contemporary burning of the library of Alexandria, that there’s nothing to build on, engage, or sympathetically connect to. You certainly lose me as a partner in the conversation at that point, because I look around me and see a lot of perfectly decent, intelligent, skilled professionals doing a pretty damn good job even when I might disagree with some part of their intellectual politics.

    Yes, I also see people with whom I cannot imagine having any kind of constructive relationship because of their unprofessional practice and intellectual politics. But even there, I feel obligated to critique their scholarly work and academic practices on my terms, not theirs. Even they are owed a careful hearing.

  24. Ralph says:

    “Ralph recently commented in one of these discussions that virtually all contemporary practice of cultural history and cultural studies is worthless.” One of the ways we do best practices is to be fair to dialogical critics (which is, what I take it, you are asking KC to do). *Maybe* you can find me having said what you attribute to me here. I don’t recall it. I *do* recall having said that cultural studies does not inform my own professional work and I *do* recall having said that I’d defend your right of access to and practice of cultural studies.
    One of the things that’s simply incorrect about your narrative of the development of history as a discipline in the twentieth century is the argument that social history developed out of and in rebellion against older models and that cultural history developed out of social history. I’m quite confident that you can trace the practice of social and cultural history back into the early 20th century. It is true that a new social history flowered and flourished in the ’60’s and ’70’s. My own work was a part of that. I don’t remember the new social historians having such a difficult time winning acceptance. I do remember historians of that era being fiercely territorial *on behalf of history as a discipline.* The current willingness to write off economic history to economics departments, diplomatic and political history to political science and IR departments, constitutional and legal history to the law schools, etc, would have been alien to their whole being.

  25. Timothy Burke says:

    Your quoted opinion on cultural studies and cultural history:

    “I just have this nagging suspicion that it [cultural studies as a whole] construes a world in which it is o.k. to live in the sort of denial of responsibility that most members of the Group of 88 seem to.”

    “My generalizations do not come at a time when you are threatened with long-term jail sentences because of your doing cultural studies. Even so, my generalizations may be flawed. Cultural studies have not contributed to my work. I’ve had no indication that they are likely to. If you find cultural studies useful, I’d certainly defend your right of access and practice. I see no reason to apologize for saying that Duke University Press is a weaker academic press than, say, Chicago or Princeton. Even a weaker press often has some strong authors and outside readers. But there’s something unseemly about your using my respect for you personally as reason I must necessarily hold cultural studies or one of its foremost presses in high regard. Really, it’s a kind of bullying that I’ve never witnessed from you before.”


    Defending my right of access? Awesomely generous of you. That’s very different from saying you value the presence of cultural studies or cultural history. Which is what I think a commitment to pluralism requires. How pluralistic is it if I say, “Well, I promise not to try to deny tenure to political historians or to keep their journals from being published, but for myself, I see no use to it”? Should someone taking that position be lauded for their intellectual generosity? Saying, “I find it of no use, but if you want to go ahead and do it, knock yourself out” is a dismissal of an entire field of practice.

    My feeling is that a best practices academy is about the positive valuation of work unlike one’s own. Meaning that you don’t just grudgingly tolerate its existence, but engage it, take it seriously, read it, think about it.

    On the other point, social history as it is commonly practiced is most distinctly a post-1945 specialization. Saying that it has precedents is like saying that political history resembles work by Herodotus. Sure, yes, of course, but the definition of the term becomes hopelessly broad at that point. Social history in its post-1945 practice often looks like earlier forms of sociological work, for example, and the geneaological relation between those practices is real. Just as cultural history as it appears after the “linguistic turn” certainly draws on a longer history of cultural and literary criticism. There are older works that you can call “cultural history” or “social history” today, just as you can term Hamlet an uncommonly “modern” play. But when you call Hamlet “modern” in that sense, you’re not literally saying that modern drama and fiction began in Elizabethean times and enjoyed a continuous lineage from that point forward.

  26. Ralph says:

    So I am obliged to positively value the presence and practice of the new cultural studies by reading it and thinking about it in ways that you are not obliged to value even traditional conceptions of diplomatic, economic, political, constitutional, legal, and military history? And I’m obliged to inform my own work with insights from cultural studies even though I have no indication that there are any to be had there? Pluralism does not impose that obligation on one’s colleagues. That’s a form of intellectual imperialism you’d object to in other contexts. It *does* tolerate and positively value their cultivating their own gardens.

  27. Withywindle2 says:

    Gavin and Jerry,

    Interesting–in my corner, “British” is the euphemism that means “we haven’t forgotten the Scots and Irish exist too!” Meant to be polite. I call my course History of Modern Britain, not History of Modern England, for that reason. I would have said the proper equivalent would be to call Trudeau “North American.” I suppose my question was about canon formation–obviously Yeats is huge in Ireland, but I had thought he would also be bigger in the UK–England! Oxford!–than in America. Is that a wrongful assumption?

    I suppose I would add to this my sense that studying Yeats is inconceivable without studying the English poetic tradition–but that he does also help create a distinctive Irish poetic tradition. So, “British” was more in reference to where he came from than what he created. But surely, surely, Philip Larkin owes as much to Yeats as does Seamus Heaney?

  28. Gavin Weaire says:

    Withywindle: these things can be arcane. My father, who is from Northern Ireland, was once at a conference which offered “Great Britain” and “Republic of Ireland” among other nationalities for people to register themselves under. He ticked “None of the above.” (He wanted “United Kingdom.”)

  29. kieran says:

    (He wanted “United Kingdom.”)

    That’s because it’s the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It’s tough, really — all that loyalism, and no-one on the other island cares tuppence for it.

  30. Prof. AME says:

    Tim, my view is that in any field you can encourage the moderates to speak out by taking the extremists to task, even on a blog or even in public. Bad pedagogical practices MUST be criticized–not enshrined as AAUP policy, as is happening now, because their presence can no longer be denied. Similarly, by AVOIDING heavily and publicly criticizing the extremists, you only increase their clout. And as you say, bad practices will only REPRODUCE themselves unless they are confronted. Exactly.

    That’s the general point. Two specific points.

    1. Blanket condemnations. Yes, one should be careful. But what do you DO with a Humanities and Social Sciences Faculty of whom 88 were leaders in the “perfect storm of injustice” while only 9 protested what was occuring, and this was completely NOT the case in other faculties (Sciences and Law)? Really–there’s a very serious issue here, and condemning blanket condemnations doesn’t deal with the real problem that has been exposed.

    2. Regarding generalizations, the Letter of the 15 to the Dean at Duke gives Johnson sufficient evidence to point to the Duke 88 as NOT being isolated in their views and perspective, but rather, as being representative in their views and perspective–at least in African American Studies. And if that is the case, Tim, doesn’t this sad fact need to be confronted and the field reformed, rather than sweeping the problem under the rug and being silent, as if AAS were a crazy uncle we’d better hide in the attic?

  31. JonathanGray says:

    I must admit to not having followed the Duke case closely, but I don’t think I need to have done so to address the allegations of some form of *general* malaise or illness eating at the ranks of the humanities. Surely almost everyone in academia is aware of numerous sexual harassment issues, sexist and racist remarks or embedded sentiment, and so forth. I don’t think my experience is at all unique or exceptional in having seen and heard of multiple instances in multiple universities (and most are in humanities and social sciences, since I don’t hear much of anything about other fields). And while some of those stories end with someone getting in trouble, the vast majority don’t. Yet if humanities and social sciences depts were as filled to the brim with identity politics-conscious, sleeves rolled up, ready-to-fight-without-stopping-to-find-out-the-details profs, why are so many women and minority students and faculty members suffering silently through various forms of abuse and/or discrimination? Why do many universities’ student or faculty life surveys still often reveal (if not buried by embarrassed officials) high levels of prejudice? Certainly I’ve seen cases where the backlash is ignorant, but those are in the minority of cases I know – hence making them newsworthy. So yes there’s a culture of strident identity politics on some campuses and amongst some academics – finding 88 on one campus or 15 across the nation wouldn’t be hard – but many other campuses (or other parts of the same campuses) have a culture of “oh well,” and having heard of or seen enough of the latter, I join Tim in voicing suspicion at the generalization.

  32. Timothy Burke says:

    I am obliged to value those things, Ralph. And I do. Have you actually been reading me all this time?

  33. Prof. AME says:

    Jonathan Grey writes: “So yes there’s a culture of strident identity politics on some campuses and amongst some academics – finding 88 on one campus or 15 across the nation wouldn’t be hard….”

    That’s quite an admission of the scale of the situation, JG– to say that finding 88 strident practitioners of identity politics among the faculty of a university is not hard to do! Even I didn’t realize the problem was that bad!

    JG then goes on to say, of course, that at many other campuses in the nation or at other parts of the SAME campus the political situation is different among the faculty; but that misses the point. Yes, we all doubt that we’d find 88 ferocious and ruthless practitioners of identity politics concentrated as faculty in chemistry or entomology. But that’s because the problem is centered, precisely, IN THE HUMANITIES AND SOCIAL SCIENCES. That’s the problem we’ve been talking about.

    Now, maybe Duke is actually unique in having 88 strident identity-politics faculty in the Humanities and Social Sciences (along with there being very few faculty in the Humanities and Social Sciences willing to oppose these people even when they lead the campus in “a perfect storm of injustice”). I think that’s what Tim is arguing (or hoping, or anyway claiming that more than that cannot be proven)–that Duke is bad but unique. But (a) Duke is a very prestigious institution, so the existence of the 88 on such a campus is disturbing in itself, while (b) the Humanities Depts in OTHER prestigious institutions evidently are EAGER to get these people on board for themselves! Thus Grant Farred, one of the most extreme of the 88, is now welcomed with opened arms into the English Dept at Cornell, while Houston Baker, another totally out-of-control 88’er, the sender of vile and racist email messages, is greeted with fanfare at Vanderbilt.

    As for the Letter of the 15, this adds substance to KC Johnson’s generalization about what is going on, it seems to me. Yes, it’s only 15 faculty in the Letter of 15, and they are from all around the country, as JG says; but these 15 are all concentrated in ONE discipline, and they are MAJOR figures in that discipline. They were speaking as the voice of that discipline, in reproving the Dean at Duke for suggesting that Houston Baker actually wait for evidence before accusing these students of rape. What does this suggest about the intellectual situation in that discipline? Are JG and/or Tim really going to say: “Nothing at all”?

  34. Ralph says:

    I’ve been reading Tim Burke for 3 or 4 years. It’s about the closest I come to appreciating cultural studies. He carries a very heavy burden. But nowhere — much less in the statement quoted — have I said “virtually all contemporary practice of cultural history and cultural studies is worthless.” At the same time, I see no reason to doubt that, as practiced by persons less conscientious than Tim, it “construes a world in which it is o.k. to live in the sort of denial of responsibility that most members of the Group of 88 seem to.” I will never forget sitting across a table from Sally Deutsch long after DNA evidence had proved and the state attorney general had declared that the lacrosse team players were innocent. The most that she would grant? “The charges were dropped.” She could not bring herself to say: “There was no rape.” What does that tell you about how plastic one Duke cultural historian regards hard evidence?

  35. Prof. AME says:

    There’s more. Deutsch, having while chair of HISTORY (!!) been one of the Duke 88,–and a fine grasp of history and the use of evidence she must have, eh?–has now, AFTER the scandal of the 88 and the proving of the innocence of the lacrosse players, been elevated to Dean of the Social Sciences at Duke. As Dean, she will likely have a say in the hiring of many, many faculty in the Social Sciences, including in the Dept of History.

    Nope–no problem in the university here.

  36. withywindle says:


    Some notes. You argue against a broad-based attack on the humanities on the grounds that 1) it will not persuade academics to reform; and 2) it will not increase the pluralism of academia. I think it is worth underlining that neither of these arguments speaks to the truth of the contention that there is a deep, general, and damaging political skew to the left among humanities professors. You argue elsewhere as to that truth–but I think an explicit recognition that you are making different categories of arguments is in order.

    As to 1) it will not persuade academics to reform: I am sympathetic to this rhetorical line of argument, although it perhaps underplays the possibility that the rhetoric of denunciation can lead to a sudden conversion and change of heart. It assume that academics are reformable–that they can be persuaded out of what I believe you grant to be a blameworthy frame of mind. This cannot be assumed–the argument, after all, is that a generation of ideologues has taken over the humanities, among whose sins is that they are not open to persuasion. If that is the case, this rhetoric has to be aimed rather at the wider public, to persuade them to purge (slowly, legally, institutionally) this cancer from the education system–and for that purpose, the rhetoric of denunciation may be most fit. Now, you do not agree with this, I suppose. But may I ask you–how effective has soft persuasion been against the left ideologues in the humanities? I am not aware of any signal successes of that tactic. Perhaps that is in the nature of things–soft persuasion attracts less publicity–but I would like some proof that the tactic works. If such was attempted at Duke, it does not appear to have been successful.

    As for 2) it will not increase the pluralism of the academy–this too depends on a judgment that the status quo is rather pluralist, and capable of preserving such pluralism. This too is at issue–the contention here that radicaly anti-pluralist leftists are seeking to eliminate all political dissent, and with ever-increasing success. If so, a drastic purge is indeed necessary to preserve pluralism within the academy. You are more optimistic–but perhaps the academy is so rotten that even a purge will make the academy more pluralist than the status quo. Much depends here on one’s judgment of the present state of the academy–hence, of course, your argument that general denunciations of the academy tar too broadly. Perhaps it might be more interesting to ask what solution you would seek if you did believe the contention of a general rot in the humanities.

    I will add that methodological pluralism is not identical with a suspension of judgment as to the worth of historical different methodologies. Every hiring decision, every conference panel acceptance, every journal acceptance, is a judgment of a methodology’s worth. Cultural history must come to the bar of judgment–as must political history, economic history, etc. Not every methodology will, or should, make the cut. This realized, one should note that the progressive decline of political, military, diplomatic history and the progressive rise of cultural history do register judgments of worth, and that this linked, and pronounced, shift in emphasis registers a judgment of worth that is not identical to a commitment to methodological pluralism. You may defend the former, but you should not conflate it with the latter. And most assuredly, you should not attempt to avoid judgment of your own methodology’s value by waving the pluralist banner.

  37. Gavin Weaire says:

    Kieran: no, my father was just being snarky. He’s Protestant, but not particularly Unionist (and not remotely *loyalist* , thankfully). He lives in the South, has a Republic of Ireland passport, etc. (He’s not particularly nationalist, either – he has pretty standard southern post-nationalist views.)

  38. Timothy Burke says:

    That’s a useful summing-up, Withywindle. I think you capture pretty nicely the two-punch motion of my (fairly habitual) argument on these subjects. That 1) there isn’t “general rot”, that many critiques of the humanities academy both overstate and misattribute actual problems which exist and 2) for the problems which do exist, an overstated and misattributed critique makes them far harder to address. I’m pretty satisfied with that as my basic statement on these issues, and it’s a reply to AME as well. Yes, there are issues, some serious. But they’re not as bad as some critiques portray them, nor are they simplistically a matter of political ideology (e.g., some of them have to do with academic careerism, with the sociology of the academy, with the epistemological flexibility of the humanities, etc.)


    The last point raised by Withywindle is a really different kettle of fish. I actually don’t agree at all that a shift in the representation of methodological specialization within the humanities is a consequence of a collective judgement that cultural or social history is vastly superior to other modes of historical writing, for several reasons. This might warrant a separate main post, but let me try out an argument here first:

    1. The succession of methodologies in a discipline like history can be driven by something as simple as a perceived need for novelty and originality. E.g., as competition for positions within academia increased after 1975, some judgements of academic value came to resemble certain kinds of aesthetic judgements in literature or culture in which the individual originality of work was seen as a necessary attribute of its quality. This is a pretty distinctly modern idea about expressive work. Inasmuch as “originality” came to be perceived in academia as being not just “writing about an important topic previously unstudied” or “crafting a distinctive argument” but also “use of novel methods or strategies of research”, that could be a sufficient driver that would relentlessly push historians into new fields or methodological postures.

    2. It’s also possible that the rise of social and cultural history is a genuine reflection of a whiggish march towards greater and greater knowledge. E.g., what did we know as historians by 1970? We knew a lot of political and diplomatic history, focused on early modern and modern Europe, focused on elites. What did we not know? We didn’t know African history, we didn’t know the history of ordinary people within Europe, we didn’t know women’s history, we didn’t know the history of mentalites, we didn’t know the history of popular culture, and so on. So historians preferentially studied what we didn’t know, not because social and cultural history are “better”, but because they were the methodologies best suited to knowing what we did not know, and we’ll keep in motion in response to whatever recognitions we have of what we do not know in the future. I’m aware that this is in tension with what at least some social historians have said about their own motivations.

    3) It’s possible that people who have an overly rigid perception of the boundaries between social, cultural, political etc. history have missed the extent to which contemporary historians now practice “all of the above”, that maybe historical research strategies are passing towards a more pragmatic use of any and all tools available to a scholar depending on what the issues at hand might be. I see that in modern African history, certainly–there are folks integrating social, cultural, political and economic history (and ethnography) in very unfussy and pragmatic ways. Maybe this is also a kind of progress?

  39. Prof. AME says:

    Whiggish indeed. In my own Dept, which is located in Washington, a city where one would think diplomatic history or international-relations history or public policy history would be a mainstay (we are only a couple of miles from the State Dept), the social historians seized power in the 1970s and have been rigidly ideologically opposed to the study of power ever since. They won’t allow it; it’s “old fashioned”. They’d rather study the history of flower-arranging than the history of power, the history of Valentine’s Day than Hiroshima. I’m not making this up, and while Tim may see this as progress, I certain do not. I don’t consider the narrowing of the focus of the dept by the exclusion of an entire major field of political endeavor to be an advance.

    There will be no reform here in my lifetime because of the stranglehold of the social historians in numbers, their ideological rigidity, and their adamant desire to replicate themselves in the next geneation. This is my personal experience.

    When one sees that an unrepetentent Duke 88’er who (sigh) works on “race, class, and gender” is elevated from chair of a Dept (the prestige of which post she used to pursue a role in “the perfect storm of injustice”) to the Deanship in the Social Sciences (from which post she will have an enormous influence in HIRING)–it is, again, hard to be whiggish about the future.

    Tim doesn’t see the problem as so serious, or as so widespread. Of course he’s entitled to that opinion–but he ought to back it up with specifics. The other side of the argument certainly has specifics. Tim attacks Johnson for crude over-generalization but I’d like Tim to respond to two questions. Obviously he doesn’t have to, I’m not cross-examining him, and I know he’s very busy, but I do hope he will answer them.

    1. The issue of the Letter of the 15. It came from the most prominent people across the country in AAS and attacked a Dean as a white supremicist for daring to suggest to Houston Baker that he actually wait for the evidence before continuing to say in public that the lacrosse players were rapists. What does that say about the nature of AAS across the country? Does Tim, as I feared, answer “Nothing”? This seems implied in his answer to Withywindle, which is also his answer to me.

    2. The ease with which Duke 88’ers get prestigious and lucrative positions at OTHERr prestigious institutions. Two of the most extreme Duke 88’ers, Grant Farred and Houston Baker, have now been received with great public delight and fanfare into Departments at other prestigious universities. Farred has been welcomed with public fanfare into the Dept of English at Cornell (Farred, who on April 30, in a public lecture sponsered by the Africana Studies Program AND the Dept of English at prestigious Williams College argued that the lax-players were guilty of perjury, and that all the Duke case showed was that the racists had won), and Houston Baker at Vanderbilt (Baker, who in January 2007 wrote a vicious racist email to the mother of one of the lax-players which eventually was published in the NY Times, so it’s no secret). Does this not suggest that Johnson was correct to generalize about the rot? Or Tim, will you again say that these are isolated cases that prove nothing about a general phenomenon?

  40. Ralph says:

    Prof AME: I don’t think that hyperbole helps. The 15 are not “the most prominent people across the country in AAS”. They are, simply, “prominent people … in AAS” — promoted beyond their merits, even, perhaps — but not pre-eminent among us. Hyperbole draws attention to itself and prepares those who aren’t inclined to hear your case, in the first place, with reasons why they shouldn’t. Similarly, KC and Taylor engage in hyperbole that tends to discredit. The lacrosse case isn’t, as I’ve heard KC claim, the grossest case of prosecutorial abuse in our lifetimes. It’s gotten more attention than others, but it is by no means the foulest. Nor are the lacrosse defendants nearly so innocent as KC and Taylor are inclined to depict them. They may be no worse than others on the lacrosse team, no worse than their privileged peers at Duke or other elite institutions, but we are not talking about the martyrdom of the innocents here.

  41. JonathanGray says:

    AME, 15 people in a discipline that has more than 15 people on any given *campus*, let alone thousands across the country and world, does not a majority or a norm make. Prominent individuals, yes. But I’m sure it would be possible to find, without much difficulty, a list of 15 prominent humanities or social sci profs who have professed sexist or racist attitudes, who feel it acceptable to make lewd sexual advances on their junior colleagues, who mock gay colleagues or create an environment in which it’s hostile for them even to self-identify, who always hire white or grumble at the need to make “a diversity hire,” who only invite men and/or whites to workshops and conference panels, never thinking that it would be important to hear what a woman or a minority had to say, who teach from a wholly Eurocentric viewpoint, etc.. Could you find 88 such individuals on a large campus? I’m sure you could. Yes, in the humanities and social sciences too. Granted, you probably wouldn’t find them signing a manifesto or letter to that effect, but only because much of their behavior is so common as to not require manifestos and letters of support.

    I don’t at all advocate that the response to this is “Oh well, a bit of excess on one side, a bit on the other — in the end it all balances out.” When excess exists in any form, this is regrettable and spells the need for some recalibration within a campus culture (and here I talk in generalities, since, again, I don’t know enough about the specifics of Duke’s case). But it does mean that we can’t use 88+15 to suggest a pervasive, rampant, fullblown problem affecting the hundreds of universities and thousands of humanities or social science depts and profs in the country. That’s just simply bad math, I’m afraid, and it also pretends that harassment, sexism, and racism that is often so common as to be normalized isn’t in any way a huge presence throughout academia that speaks to personal and identity politics that posit themselves in complete opposition to the malaise that is being posed as rife in the humanities and social sciences.

  42. Timothy Burke says:

    Well, or for another way to look at what Jonathan is saying, the accusations in the Duke case were a pretty intense intersection of race, class, and gender. So that some prominent scholars in the specific (and smallish) discipline of Black Studies signed a letter that ultimately proved to be badly premature and injudicious in its judgements may say some interesting things about the philosophical and political underpinnings of Black Studies. But going from Black Studies to other disciplines might be a big leap. For example, I’m really puzzled that Ralph sees cultural studies as an interdisciplinary practice as worth singling out as prone to the mistakes made by the Group of 88. If I were going to pick specializations and disciplines that strike me as being highly intellectual proximate to those mistakes, I’d actually pick Ralph’s own fields of direct interest as way closer to ground zero (e.g., history of the American South, African-American history, etc.) Cultural studies actually seems to me to be way further away–to the point that certain kinds of leftist intellectuals within the academy habitually take potshots at cultural studies for its flighty lack of interest in left-wing commitments. At a conference on virtual worlds and computer games that I was at last year, when one professor made what I personally regard as kind of “off-the-shelf” identity-politics attacks on existing games, the studied indifference to his arguments in the room was pretty striking, and a lot of that was coming from people who identify in some respect as people doing work in cultural studies.

  43. Prof. AME says:

    You are all correct that it’s just 15 prominent professors in AAS who wrote that letter, though Manning Marable is a very prominent older figure, and Kelley is a very famous younger one. But I should’ve restrained my language.

    Tim now is willing to say: “So that some prominent scholars in the specific (and smallish) discipline of Black Studies signed a letter that ultimately proved to be badly premature and injudicious in its judgements may say some interesting things about the philosophical and political underpinnings of Black Studies.” So it sounds as if 15, and indeed these particular 15, are enough for him to generalize a bit. And this, in my view, is understandable–given that we have Marable and Kelley defending Houston Baker.

    I wonder if Tim is willing to say, similarly, given that 88 in one university is a heckuva larger number than 15 across the country, given that that the 88 overwhelmingly came from one Faculty at Duke, namely Humanities and Social Sciences at Duke, given that almost no one in Humanities or Social Sciences Faculty protested “the perfect storm of injustice” (Tim’s word) that was occurring, given that this hysteria did NOT effect the Law or Science Faculties at Duke, and finally, given that one outcome of all this a leading and still unrepentent 88’er was immediately elevanted to Dean of the Social Sciences at Duke (where she will have an enormous influence on HIRING)–whether all this says something about what has become (and will REMAIN) the philosophical and political underpinnings of this Faculty at Duke. We know what that “something” is, and Tim has explicated it well, he doesn’t have to repeat it. The real question is: how disturbing to Tim is that something. If he finds it disturbing, how much and why? If he doesn’t find it particularly disturbing, why not?

    In this respect, I wonder, again, whether people’s personal experiences are so different that what to some folks just seem regrettable but isolated instances to other folks seems a clear and upsetting pattern.

    This was Mari Matsuda’s point in a famous article, “Public Response to Racist Speech: Considering the Victim’s Story.” Michigan Law Review, 87 (1989), 2320-81.

  44. Ralph says:

    Tim, I had a similar reaction to yours, when as an Africanist, you didn’t seem to be bothered by Christine Heyrman’s systematic undercounting African Americans, ignoring African American sources, and misinterpreting primary sources about them in accounting for the rise of evangelical Christianity in the American South. Why wouldn’t an Africanist be *particularly* disturbed by that racial blind sight, I wondered. My inituition tells me that cultural studies is so fascinated by the facets of new insight to be gleaned from turning stories and information around and around and turning them inside out that they may be predisposed to ignore hard evidence. Like a diamond, perhaps, it only appears to be as its understood by the rest of us. If only we’d turn it around and inside out, we’d be instructed by its other facets. I just don’t see how evidence so telling as DNA can be so problemmatized. My reading of Cultural Studies could be be all wrong.

  45. Timothy Burke says:

    If you’ll remember, that was pretty much a similar issue to this in that I didn’t say your critique of Heyrman wasn’t legitimate and that these issues weren’t worth discussing. I said the question is, how consequential an issue, and what kinds of consequences?

  46. Prof. AME says:

    This article from National Public Radio well expresses my concerns, and now I will shut up:

    For many months not one of the more than five hundred members of the Duke arts and sciences faculty—the professors who teach Duke undergraduates — publicly criticized the district attorney or defended the lacrosse players’ rights to fair treatment. Not even after enough evidence had become publicly available to establish clearly both the falsity of the rape charge and the outrageousness of Nifong’s actions—widely seen as the worst case of prosecutorial misconduct ever to unfold in plain view.
    The majority of Duke’s arts and sciences faculty kept quiet as the activists created the impression that Duke professors en masse condemned the lacrosse players. Several months later, John Burness explained their silence: “I think people just go about their business doing what they do and were not paying attention.” But, as some admitted privately to friends, they were also afraid to cross the activists—black and female activists especially—lest they be smeared with charges of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, or right-wingism.
    That’s what would happen to a chemistry professor who—months after the team’s innocence had become clear—became the first member of the arts and sciences faculty to break ranks with the academic herd. It took less than twenty-four hours for the head of Duke’s women’s studies program to accuse him of racism in a letter to The Chronicle.
    Leading the rush-to-judgement crowd at Duke was Houston A. Baker Jr., a professor of English and of African and African-American Studies. He showed his mettle in a March 29 public letter to Duke administrators that boiled with malice against “this white male athletic team” —a team whose whiteness Baker’s fifteen-paragraph letter stressed no fewer than ten times. He demanded the “immediate dismissals” of all lacrosse players and coaches, without acknowledgingtheir protestations of innocence or the evidence. He assailed “a ‘culture of silence’ that seeks to protect white, male athletic violence.” He denounced the lacrosse players as “white, violent, drunken men . . . veritably given license to rape, maraud, deploy hate speech.” He bemoaned their alleged feeling that “they can claim innocence and sport their disgraced jerseys on campus, safe under the cover of silent whiteness.” Treating as gospel Kim Roberts’s transparently bogus 911 report of being pelted with multiple racial epithets as she drove (or walked) past the lacrosse house, he asserted that the lacrosse players’ “violence and raucous witness injured [a black woman] for life.” He stereotyped them as embodiments of “abhorrent sexual assault, verbal racial violence, and drunken white, male privilege loosed amongst us.”
    For such insights, Baker was in demand among TV hosts such as MSNBC’s Rita Cosby and CNN’s Nancy Grace. He was also quoted in newspapers local and national, including The New York Times and USA Today.
    Baker provided a window both into his soul and into the indifference of many academics to fact after a critic e-mailed him, “You will owe a big apology when the truth comes out, but I doubt you will be man enough to issue it.”
    Retorted the professor: “Who is really concerned about whether a woman was actually raped or not? Are you a perfect idiot?” Baker tossed out a litany of false charges of misbehavior by lacrosse players, such as that they had “beat up people who were gay,” before closing:
    “ALL of ‘official’ American history is a lie, Pal!! Where did YOu [sic] go to school??? . . . Good lorad [sic], all you people think you an [sic] go ‘ah hah,’ and the polar caps will not melt, or the levees will hold. You live in a white supremacist fantasy land. . . . Whew! Have you read recently? Anything? . . . And, get over yourself, buddy. Get smart before you write to a professor, OK. Read SOMETHING.”
    In a subsequent (June 10) e-mail, Baker wrote, with no basis in fact, that “46 white guys on the Lacrosse Team at Duke . . . may well have raped more than one woman.” And in still another e-mail, sent to the mother of a lacrosse player, Baker called her son and his teammates “farm animals.”
    Despite such displays of viciousness, Baker was a big deal in the academic world. A past president of the Modern Languages Association (the major academic organization of English professors), Baker was such a big name in academia that Vanderbilt would hire him away from Duke at the end of the academic year. The chair of Vanderbilt’s English Department, Jay Clayton, hailed his new hire as “one of the most wide-ranging intellectuals in America today in any field of the humanities. He is prolific and writes to an audience far broader than academic specialties.”

  47. Ralph says:

    I take it, then, that we have my reason for lacking enthusiasm for cultural studies: its indifference to and irreverence of hard data. Maybe if they turn that DNA evidence around and inside out, they’ll find the lacrosse players guilty.

  48. Timothy Burke says:

    Excuse me? You have now completely lost me. Are you saying:

    1) I’m indifferent to and irreverant about “hard data”?


    2) “Cultural studies” is?

    If the latter, holy baby Jesus, I couldn’t imagine a better demonstration of indifference to data than that. You yourself have said you haven’t read any cultural studies at all: how would you know what anyone in that broad swath of disciplinary and interdisciplinary work does with evidence? I’ve got four shelves of cultural studies work about eight feet from me right now: shall I start pulling books out at random to talk about the evidence within them? I mean, you can’t have “hard data” on the order of a Hertzsprung-Russell diagram measuring star luminosity against temperature in cultural studies: you’re dealing with the subjective interpretation of the history, meaning, circulation, reception and uses of cultural forms and practices. But it’s not like Henry Jenkins, Gil Rodman, or Patrick Brantlinger are pulling stuff out of their asses, either.

    If you just mean me, well, whatever. I don’t see myself as indifferent to or irreverant of data or evidence, and I don’t quite see how anyone could see me that way. I don’t really have any reply to that.

  49. Ralph says:

    Holy baby Jesus, yourself! I had said above: “My reading of Cultural Studies could be be all wrong.” I wasn’t pointing a finger at you, but we’ve got the evidence of Christine Heyrman making 5th grade math errors, basing her argument on them getting the highest award American historians have to offer for it, her being Michael Bellisiles’s mentor and his getting the same highest award for quantitative fraud; and we’ve got 88 cultural studies folk — give or take a few — at Duke unable to admit what DNA and the state’s attorney general says it proves. You had prior opportunity to correct my understanding of cultural studies well before your “holy baby Jesus” moment. Whether I cover the rot with a cultural studies umbrella or you cover it with a Black Studies umbrella is, relatively speaking, unimportant. What is important is that there’s a disdain for hard data in some areas of the humanities that sets us up for extraordinary blunders. It’s no wonder that the economists and the legal scholars at Duke didn’t follow them down that path.

  50. Timothy Burke says:

    Ralph, there are huge ranges of totally legitimate subjects that people study where there isn’t any “hard data” to be had. For that matter, there are books where people’s command of “hard data” is a bit weaker than their command of interpretation, but where the latter is strong enough to make the book extremely worthwhile. Or books that have “hard data” a-plenty but where there’s nothing going on in terms of analysis or argument, and therefore the whole thing just sits there like a doorstop, pointless and unneeded. And so on. Cripes, I thought we reached some kind of consensus about the Heyrman issue a bazillion years ago, and here we are back to square one in that discussion.

    Whether you “cover the rot” with a disciplinary field that has little to do with the case at hand and you have no knowledge of or experience with or with a field that’s institutionally involved with the case at hand and closely tied into the concerns involved isn’t “unimportant”. How can you possibly be talking about the importance of “hard data” and then turn around and write that this is an irrelevant distinction?

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