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. Timothy Burke says:

    AME; just curious: what program is that transcript from? Is that a transcript of reporting from an NPR show, something they did? I’d assume that if they were going to do that in a report, they’d try to talk to Baker–I’d be very curious to hear what his statements about those emails might be to a journalist. Plus I’d be really surprised to hear an NPR reporter using words like “viciousness” and so on–they’re normally pretty meticulous about editorializing.

  2. Prof. AME says:

    Sorry, Tim–this was an NPR webpage that was mostly excerpts from the book itself (hence the language, which you caught), with a title, however, provided by NPR itself, the title being: DOCUMENTING THE DUKE RUSH TO JUDGMENT. That this was excerpts from the book only appeared in smallish print at the very bottom of the NPR webpage.

    The real question is not my regrettable clumsiness here, however, but whether the facts presented above are true. Is it the case that Baker behaved like this? (Has anyone denied it?) Is it the case that Chem professor Baldwin got called a racist in the Duke Chronicle by the head of Women’s Studies as soon as he issued a written protest against what was going on? (Has anyone denied it?)

    Again, granted that these events did happen, where we differ is on the weight of social significance as a phenomenon of academia we attach to them, with you granting them some significance, and Ralph and me a lot more.

  3. Prof. AME says:

    The column of Professor Steven Baldwin (Chemistry) protesting the procedures at Duke and the behavior of the faculty appeared in the Duke Chronicle on Oct. 24, 2006. Baldwin himself said that some faculty ought to be tarred and feathered because of their unjust behavior towards students–that’s pretty over the top. The main response focused on the accusation that Baldwin was using the language of racism and lynching; it appeared in a letter to the editor in the Duke Chronicle the next day (0ct. 26, 2006) by Professor Robyn Wiegman, Margaret Taylor Smith Director Women’s Studies and Professor of Women’s Studies and Literature.

    Perhaps people will interpret the two documents below differently than I do. But I would have been very uncomfortable being the target of Wiegman’s anger, her position was that Duke was a racist place and the facts of the lacrosse case didn’t matter. My own view is that the letter was aimed at ostracizing Baldwin and to keep faculty who were uncomfortable with “the perfect storm of injustice” silent. (A plea to not keep silent being the last statement in Baldwin’s column.)

    1. Here is Baldwin’s column in full:

    The administration’s mismanagement of lacrosse

    Guest column

    By: Steven Baldwin

    Posted: 10/24/06

    Last April I wrote to The Chronicle in support of Mike Pressler, former coach of men’s lacrosse at Duke. At that time I was concerned that the decision to fire him had been premature, coming only a few weeks after the fateful Buchanan Street party, and certainly long before all of the facts were known. Now, six months later, it is quite clear that my concerns were justified.

    I do not ascribe to President Brodhead’s position that someone had to fall on his sword to atone for the March 13 lacrosse party. But even if one does buy into that silly notion, why was it coach Pressler? Certainly the several reports emanating from President Brodhead’s committee’s looking into the lacrosse incident identified a number of individuals more culpable than Pressler. If the goal were to send a message, wouldn’t firing Executive Vice President Tallman Trask, Athletics Director Joe Alleva, Vice President Larry Moneta or Dean of Students Sue Wasiolek-or all of them-have been more appropriate?

    As displeased as I am with Pressler’s firing, my biggest concern has always been with Duke’s treatment of the student athletes at the center of the storm. These kids were abandoned by their university. At least one of the indicted students, perhaps all three, was trespassed from Duke property. They were denied the presumption of innocence, despite the mounting evidence that the case against them is made of smoke and mirrors and is fatally flawed procedurally. They have been pilloried by their faculty and scorned by the administration. They are pariahs.

    As a Duke faculty member I regard my students in much the same way I regard my children. When my kids do something wrong, I demand accountability. When they break the rules they pay the price, whatever that might be.

    With that accountability, however, comes support. My kids know I love them and that I will do everything I can to help them through the rough times. That is what families do. I treat my students the same way.

    Duke students should expect nothing less from their university. The day they set foot on the Duke Campus for the first time they became members of the Duke family. For most this was the beginning of a life-long relationship that generates intense loyalties and deep love. The assumption is that the relationship is reciprocal, that Duke holds all of its students in high esteem-loves them-and will support them through the rough times as well as the good. Instead, Duke has disowned its lacrosse-playing student athletes. Their treatment has been shameful.

    Over the past six to eight years, I can recall having only a single men’s lacrosse player in one of my undergraduate classes. That young man was bright, focused, respectful and engaged. He earned one of the highest grades in a large, difficult and very competitive class. He is now in medical school, well on his way to a career as an orthopedic surgeon.

    I mention this because I believe the young man would not mind my describing him in these terms. On the other hand I do not believe that a faculty member publicly describing any student in pejorative terms is ever justified. To do so is mean-spirited, petty and unprofessional, at the very least. The faculty who publicly savaged the character and reputations of specific men’s lacrosse players last spring should be ashamed of themselves.

    They should be tarred and feathered, ridden out of town on a rail and removed from the academy. Their comments were despicable. I suspect they were also slanderous, but we’ll hear more about that later.

    Finally, I urge the Duke community to take a reality check. Speak your minds. Do what you think is right. Tell the administration that you are not satisfied with the way they have handled the lacrosse affair. Demand better.

    Steven Baldwin is a professor in the Chemistry department.

    2. Here is Weigman’s letter in full:

    I read with amazement Tuesday’s Chronicle and the opinion by my colleague Steven Baldwin, who finds the faculty response to the Duke lacrosse scandal one that warrants their being “tarred and feathered, ridden out of town on a rail and removed from the academy.” In a guest column in the same issue as a story about the panel at the law school last Friday, in which many participants proclaimed the over emphasis of media reportage of race, class, gender and privilege last spring, one can only wonder what symbolic world is being culled here and denied all at once?

    Being tarred and feathered is the language of lynching, and the practice of lynching was rarely one that eventuated in a court case of any kind, let alone one in which the defendants claim 10 minutes on one of the most important television programs in the United States. My disappointment in Duke right now is that it wants to avoid the analysis of the language and history of race, instead of using this moment-in its broad social implications-to actually study it. We can all have our opinions about the court case, but the time now is for engaging, as a university, the harder project of cultivating a community of actors who value and perform studied critical thought. Journalism can aspire to that as well.

    Robyn Wiegman

    Margaret Taylor Smith Director Women’s Studies

    Professor, Women’s Studies and Literature

  4. jfruh says:

    Been following this discussion of some interest. I have to say that Wiegman’s letter strikes me as being really much more about the phrase “tarred and feathered, ridden out of town on a rail” than anyone’s right to comment on the court case. Basically, it strikes me that she’s saying that, for an event that has been compared in one way or another to an old-time lynching on both sides, to use language actually derived from lynching practice is either (a) a demonstration of profound ignorance or (b) a deliberately racist provocation. (I would add that someone who grew up in a society where lynchings didn’t happen anymore and didn’t study lynching practice in their academic work might be genuinely ignorant of the resonance of the phrases, and that wouldn’t make them a bad person.)

  5. “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.”

    Not necessarily. I did a very brief investigation, and while six of the top ten hits I got were on the Achebe’s character, only nine of the top fifty were. (Other people may get different results, since Google now personalizes its searches.) It appears that Okonkwo is a fairly common surname among Nigerians.

    Incidentally, three of those nine hits were from “term paper mill”-type sites. And did you know that you can not only download research essays from these sites, but “creative writing” and “personal essays” as well?

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    That last part was my suspicion–paper mills. But that in and of itself is a pretty good indication of where pedagogy is located. But yeah, I should have noted that Okonkwo would also include actual people, whereas pretty much anything with the phrase “mere anarchy loosed upon the world” is either a knowing or unknowing citation of the Yeats.

  7. Prof. AME says:

    JFruh writes above, concerning Professor Baldwin and Prof. Weigman’s harsh reproval of him: “to use language actually derived from lynching practice is either (a) a demonstration of profound ignorance or (b) a deliberately racist provocation”, though you add the possible forgiving element that Baldwin didn’t understand the truth here.

    Well, now: Here is a fact, JFruh. I have checked with one of the two or three greatest historians of African-American oppression in the United States, namely, Ira Berlin, about the issue of tarring and feathering and being ridden on a rail. He informs me of the following: that IN NO CASE–I repeat–IN NO CASE is tarring and feathering and being ridden on a rail associated with lynching, not the lynching of whites nor the lynching of blacks. Repeat: IN NO CASE. He says, “As far as African-Americans go, after all they wanted to kill them, not humiliate them.”

    THIS MEANS: (a) that you, JFruh, are simply wrong about Professor Baldwin’s possible insensitivity or even racism or (forgiving) his “ignorance” of the association of tarring and feathering with lynching, and (b) and that WIEGMAN the head of Women’s Studies at Duke INCORRECTLY applied the accusation that tarring and feathering was associated with black lynching either out of her own profound ignorance or cynically as a racial bludgeon to silence Baldwin, or perhaps out of both motives.

    What is most sad is that Baldwin was forced to APOLOGIZE in public.

  8. jfruh says:

    Well all right, then Prof. AME, I’m not a specialist either (or even an academic), but I assumed Prof. Wiegman was. Guess I was wrong. Thanks for SETTING ME STRAIGHT IN ALL CAPS!

  9. jpool says:

    Prof AME/Ethan:
    You and Ira Berlin are of course absolutely correct that “tarring and feathering” and “riding out on a rail” are not terms derived from lynching and that Robyn Wiegman’s, to my mind, otherwise reasonable response to Steven Baldwin was sloppy and overreaching in that respect.
    However, what “tarring and feathering” and “riding out on a rail” are the language of, is angry mob justice. Unless Baldwin’s point was that angry mob justice should be used on professors but never on students, he should indeed be given demerits for failing Irony 101 and made to apologize publically for saying something so stupid (if not overtly racially insensitive).

    Not that it applies to Baldwin, but on Jfruh’s larger point of ignorance and associations, once, when my Wisconsin in-laws came to visit us in Atlanta, we took them on a refurbished passenger train through north Georgia. The tour guide took pleasure in pointing out a site along the railway tracks where people of that particular town had tended to execute their criminals without trial, noting “And some people think this country might be in better shape if we got back to that sort of thing.” Later, when she was making the rounds, I noted that some people, myself included, might find such statements offensive. She felt that her statement had been fairly neutral and, noting that it seems like everyone has to find something to be offended by, expressed disbelief that I, or the group of African-American students that she had told this same story to during a career-day session, could be offended by this story considering that both the lynchers and lynchees were white. That this was in no way obvious from her telling of the story, that there were fairly recent histories of lyching as racial terror in the region, and that, as she volunteered, the county in which she now lived had been racially cleansed by the Klan in the 1920s, all seemed extraneous points to her. An extreme case perhaps, but…

  10. Prof. AME says:

    Jpool, to me the point remains that Baldwin was falsely and publicly accused of making a racist reference and using racist language by the head of the Dept of Women’s Studies who was one of the 88; despite the fact that she was utterly wrong in what she said, he was forced to make a public apology.

    It is Wiegman who owes Baldwin–and the Duke community–an apology, for wrenching up the racial tensions in an already tense environment, on the basis of a false accusation. Wiegman either knew what she was doing–namely, fastening on a superficial weakness in Baldwin’s letter and using it to blow away the issue he’d raised (which was the behavior of the Humanities faculty), and replacing it with the utterly false issue of Baldwin’s own “use of language associated with lynching”, or else Wiegman was a victim of the very hysteria which we have shown is associated with the Humanities and Social Sciences at Duke and no other Faculty. In either case, it is legitimate to wish to know why the 88 either felt compelled to engage in such ruthless tactics as Wiegman did, and/or why the Humanities and Social Sciences were subject to a hysteria that no other faculty was.

    In either case, Wiegman did enormous damage to Baldwin on the basis of an utterly false accusation. Baldwin was forced to apologize publilcly but in reality it is Wiegman who owes Baldwin–and the entire Duke community–an apology, for wrenching up the racial tensions in an already tense environment, on the basis of an utterly false accusation. I think we will have to wait a very long time for such an apology, however–because Wiegman knows that she is on the side of Good, and so any tactic is permitted her. This is the kind of conduct that KC Johnson is complaining about in his book, and I think his complaint is legitimate.

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