Beyond Hackery

With some trepidation, I venture a few thoughts on the controversy over residence-hall programs at the University of Delaware. Trepidation because the kind of position I take on these issues is increasingly wearisome to hold given the polarization in online discussions of academia. I wish I could write in a looser, more enjoyably idiosyncratic, more compelling way about these questions like Oso Raro, but I’ve made my rhetorical bed and I’m stuck with it.

Before I try to stick any kind of proportionality or nuance into the discussion, one thing should be clear: the program at Delaware as described in the press is just plain wrong, and that’s even if the press description is exaggerated or out of context in some respect. Even if the content of the program weren’t simple-minded and reductive (which it is), doing it as a mandatory institutional program in residence-halls is a big mistake. I’m not sure there’s anything that’s appropriate to that context beyond making sure people know how to evacuate in a fire and communicating basic institutional safety policies (such as no fire sources in rooms). The moment you mandate that all students receive safe-sex tutorials or drug and alcohol abuse prevention training, you’ve exposed the institution to in loco parentis, and where’s that going to stop? Moreover, if you’re going to ennumerate the “rights and responsibilities” of people living in university housing, you’ve got to include much more forcefully that you have the right to think whatever you want–including to question some of the precepts and approaches of diversity training. (The document does say you have the choice to “stand up for yourself and others and speak up for what you believe has value”, but in context, that seems to mean only that you are encouraged to defend an active commitment to diversity.)

But ok. How to move beyond simple sputtering outrage at the supposed dominance of political correctness, leftist academics or whatever boogeyman is the label of choice in this round of postings? The first bit of proportionality I’d interject is to look at the source of some simple-minded kinds of political and institutional misbehavior. In this case, I’m guessing that activist students are at least part of where this program is coming from, probably working with a residential administrator or dean who has a hard time thinking beyond dogma.

I’m going to be a bit condescending here, but students are students, and they make mistakes because they’re still learning, whether they’re left-wing activists or intensely single-minded premeds. That’s what they are in college to do. Residential colleges sell themselves precisely on the point that some learning takes place outside of the classroom through extracurricular activities, social life and so on. Students with strong political or philosophical views naturally turn to their own educational institution to explore how to make those views real or powerful or transformative. Americans who were in the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s couldn’t do much to directly touch South Africa, so we tried to figure out how to mobilize our own institutions to touch South Africa, however indirectly. I have to admit, looking back, that many of us understood very little about how divestment might concretely function, or about the costs and risks we were asking our institutions to incur. But partly I got a better understanding of both of those things by being involved, an understanding I don’t think I could have gotten just by studying in a classroom. I learned about a lot of the shortcomings of activism by being active.

In other cases, some of these kinds of commitments come from individual faculty or administrators that I wouldn’t hesitate to call simple-minded hacks. (That, readers of this blog might recall, was my first and primary comment on Ward Churchill: whatever else the guy was or did, he was a third-rate hack.)

The valid issue in that case is then, “Why allow such extensive access to institutional programs and policy to either inexperienced activists or hacks, then?” Yup, that’s an issue, and it’s well worth exploring a bit more.

In many such cases, it’s not that political projects coming from a group of activist students or from a few activist administrators or faculty members are deeply shared in a consensual way by a large majority of institutional actors and thus become institutional projects by general acclaim. It’s more that the autonomy and decentralization of academic life which most of us cherish creates a complicated burden when it comes to blocking somebody else’s pet obsessions or commitments.

Suppose I see a group of students campaigning to get the institution to commit to some political objective that I think is unwise or simplistic in some respect. I don’t quite want to rise to block that on the grounds that anything and everything which is “political” is wrong because that can lead to some truly silly conclusions. I’m interested in the political commitments of the Free Culture movement–but quite beyond that movement’s specific views, it seems obvious to me that intellectual property policy, open-source publishing and so on are intimately relevant to the everyday business of scholars, librarians, and teachers. I’m not wild about some of the rhetoric and unexamined premises associated with demands for universities to have sustainability policies, but it would be silly to rule all of that out of bounds because it’s “political”–environmental sustainability might turn out to lead to some good economic outcomes for an institution, like reducing energy usage, but it’s also a legitimate claim on some level about what an institution can or should do in the world. Hell, devoting a big proportion of a college curriculum to studying “the Great Books” is political in some fashion. You can’t oppose a political argument about institutional politics on the grounds that you yourself are too fastidious to ever be political, because it won’t take long before you’re hoist on the same petard.

So I’d have to take any case of activist demand as it comes. Now what? Well, if it’s students, I honestly don’t want to spend my life running around squashing any student political project I have a disagreement with. That’s not my job. In fact, it’s the opposite of my job: it’s being an anti-teacher, an authoritarian, misusing my power. If it’s a hack on the faculty or the administration? In self-interested terms, I honestly have to weigh whether it’s worth tangling with the person openly, about what kinds of hassles that person can visit upon me in retaliation.

In either case, there’s also a question of the consequence of being a crusader on every single issue where some other institutional actor has what I think is a bad idea. It’s one thing to block or criticize a proposal for institutionalization of a political project when it crosses my desk naturally: when faculty are asked by central administration for feedback, when it comes to the floor of a general meeting, when I’m sitting in a committee devoted to a particular kind of issue, when students or colleagues ask my opinion, when it’s an issue that’s known to be near and dear to my heart because of my specialized areas of knowledge. Or just when I have the time and the energy to compose a blog post, which has a very gentle impact on most issues. For example, some years back, some students here wanted an Ethnic Studies program. I thought (and still think) that was a bad idea for some very simple, non-political reasons (duplication of programs, greater demands on already over-extended faculty, no resources for new faculty lines, weakness of our institutional model for interdisciplinary programs) and some “political” reasons as well (I simply think Ethnic Studies is a bad way to organize the study of many very important and legitimate topics). This was a case where it made sense for me to be in the conversation because what I do was directly relevant to what the students wanted to do.

If you insist on being actively involved every single time someone else in your institution is doing something objectionable, you will almost certainly devolve into being a crank and an asshole. You can’t do that and not become tendentious and self-absorbed, that kind of omnipresent involvement is intrinsically narcissistic. At some point, it inevitably is going to affect how well you do the job that you’ve been hired to do, because there are only so many hours in the day. If you’re always at committee meetings, protest gatherings, scribbling furious emails, poking into dark corners with a cattle prod, then you’re not in the classroom or the library or the lab.

What some people settle for is splitting the difference: being furious at everything but not having the time to be involved with changing any outcomes through direct time-consuming involvement in deliberative process, through painstaking efforts to persuade others. When you arrive at that point, you have no hope to change any outcome whether you’re coming to meetings or not, because you’ve got no persuasive tools left to you. You started by rolling your eyes derisively in a wholly justifiable way at the excesses of others (probably in concert with the majority of your colleagues) but now you’re the one everyone rolls their eyes at. You’re not connected to anything, not sympathetic to anybody else’s projects, not discriminate in what fights you pick or when you pick them. You’ve got nothing left to help you judge when the stakes are high and when they’re low: your institutional profile is “junkyard dog”, biting and howling at everything.

So sometimes dumb ideas and fringe political visions are going to become institutional projects because the sensible middle is mutually and simultaneously trying to avoid being drawn into this kind of indiscriminate misanthropy. Sometimes hacks and sweetly well-meaning but naive activists are actually pretty savvy about this aspect of institutional life, and know how to muscle something in under the radar, how to keep from triggering a major deliberative process where they’ll get blocked.

That’s one context to keep in mind. Another is that some ideas only become wrong when they’re simplistically truncated so that they can become institutional programs and policies, but that the precursor concepts, ideas and insights are something else entirely. And also that some institutional projects may eventually take a wrong turn on some smaller point, but are basically well-meaning, serious attempts to deal with genuine issues and problems. Diversity is a real question, in many ways, and it’s worth thinking about how to institutionally work towards it.

For example, with the Delaware residential life program, there’s nothing wrong per se with asking straights when they first realized their orientation or when they came out as straights. That is, nothing wrong if that’s a sly or mischievious aside in a personal conversation about sexuality, or a subversive question directed at a public figure who is intensely anti-gay, or as a way in an intellectual discussion about the history of sexuality to illustrate what the ten-dollar word “heteronormativity” actually means. Turning the question into a set part of a pseudo-mandatory workshop (there’s some confusion at Delaware about how strongly students are encouraged to attend) takes everything valuable out of it. It turns something sly into dogma.

Or take the assertion in one of the training documents for the Delaware workshops that all white Americans are racists because they are socialized to a racial identity associated with privilege. Put it that way and it’s crude. Put it in a workshop as an assertion of empirical fact as opposed to a tendentious argument with a pile of priors a hundred miles high sitting on it and you’ve just sailed off the edge of stupid. In part precisely because accusations of racism are taken more seriously in early 21st Century American life than they were in 1960, you can’t casually scale from a general description of the consequences of a social identity to a highly personalized accusation unless you want those accused to treat the idea of racism as trivially generalized and meaningless.

But there are complex questions and debates to be explored about how historically-produced identities structure everyday psychological experience, social organization, and so on. There is an interesting scholarly literature on the history of whiteness. And so on. Part of the problem for me is that some of the people who react negatively to something like this program at Delaware act as if the deeper, more complex, more interesting scholarly debates and discussions are equally risible and discardable, but somehow we never really get around to that kind of conversation. We get stuck with the hacks and the polemicists. We talk endlessly, oh so endlessly, about Ward Churchill etcetera. We never get to the really deep literature on Native American history that might come to some vaguely similar moral conclusions as Churchill but in much more subtle and nuanced ways. We don’t get to talk about David Roediger or Noel Ignatieff on whiteness, or a huge complex well-researched literature on the history of racial identity in the United States as a whole.

When I say talk, I mean it. I don’t agree necessarily with Roediger and Ignatieff, particularly in terms of the way they read off the history of whiteness to a contemporary political praxis. I tend to come at a lot of the history of identity and the politics connected to that history the way that Anthony Appiah does in some of his recent work, as a skeptic. But Appiah’s work is a million miles away from quick dismissals of “political correctness” that are meant to encompass both superficial institutional projects and detailed monographs written in good faith and with serious craft. At some point, if we’re going to still have anything resembling scholarship left in the smoking ruins of culture war, some of the critics need to stir themselves and respond like scholars to tough, nuanced, challenging work rather than continuously dwell on how the hacks have been parasitically turning that work into slogans and screeds.

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18 Responses to Beyond Hackery

  1. JasonII says:

    “. . . sailed off the edge of stupid.” beautiful, Tim. Nice post.

  2. k8 says:

    I like that line too! When I first read about the Delaware program, I felt like banging my head against my keyboard. This is exactly the sort of thing that sets up the attacks by the Anti-Academia-ites and those who claim that higher ed institutions seek to indoctrinate helpless young students. And of course, it has led to this sort of opposition. It’s gotten quite a bit of play over at the National Review’s higher ed blog.

  3. withywindle says:

    It does substantiate our arguments, yes. And period.

    Your argument is parallel in structure to those who said (say?) “Marxism is fine, it just wasn’t tried out properly in the USSR/China/Cuba/Mozambique/etc.–and people still ought to spend time answering the powerful theoretical critiques of sophisticated, academic Marxism.” Mmm … no, if a theory shows powerful signs of being piffle, I’m not sure we’re obligated to spend any time discussing it, or to regard it as all that nuanced and challenging. Most academic theories — even the good ones, much less the bad ones — simply get ignored after a while; and their proponents retire to the nursing homes, still shrilly insisting that they’ve never been refuted.

    Your splice of a “but” is unnecessary, and functions as an unconvincing attempt to minimize what is wrong with UDelaware, and academia writ large. Theories get simplified in institutional practice? Why, yes, they do, and one judges principles in good part by how they institutionally simplify. Anyone outside of the specialized scholarship need pay precisely zero attention to it, without remorse. As for scholars–they can study what areas they like, and I don’t much see why the few conservative scholars out there have to refute every silly idea that comes down the pike–there are so many of them, and time is short. I suppose if a conservative scholar were explicitly engaged in scholarship on this area, a footnote saying “For piffle, see Ignatieff and Roediger.” would be appropriate. But if we construct a compelling argument that adequately describes the sources and reality, and completely contradicts the latest theoretical folderol, we have in point of fact already “addressed the scholarship”–though I suppose a pointed paragraph or two to drive the knife in wouldn’t hurt.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Some things which are importantly true about the world aren’t meant to be simplified into institutional dogma, or into any kind of institutionalized practice. That’s part of the issue here. You can describe some interestingly complex dimensions of human social history very well, and yet never expect that someone should want to try and concretize what you’ve described into some kind of praxis.

  5. withywindle says:

    1) I am very skeptical that the various whiteness scholars did, in point of fact, have no expectations of praxis to follow from their theory.

    2) Surely all theory involving human beings possesses implicit praxis?–as all praxis possesses implicit theory?–are they not, in Habermas and elsewhere, always a relational dyad–the one depending on the other, indeed acquiring its meaning from the other? To separate them, surely, smacks of ingenuity.

    3) Scholarship is itself institutionalized praxis; if theory and praxis are distinct, then no requirement, moral or professional, should follow to engage in the practice of scholarship merely to respond to the statement of a theory.

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    Oh, they did have such an expectation–Ignatieff is especially explicit about that. But the point is that there can be a scholarly take-away from his work that isn’t subordinate to the political conclusions that he thinks that work obligates you to follow. That take-away can be narrow (that there was a historical process by which European immigrants like the Irish or Italians who were initially “racialized” were integrated into a privileged category of being “white”). It can be conceptual: that whiteness has a history like blackness, rather than being the universal subject and all other racial categories being the only thing which change over time.

    If you take that last point, once you see whiteness as a social and cultural property that has a specific history, I think it can lead you to some political insights that go very far away from Ignatieff or Roediger. For example, I think Mechal Sobel’s book The World They Made Together is made possible in part by the thought that whiteness has a history, but the kinds of praxis around race that this book leads me to is very, very different and not particularly “left” in any conventional sense.

  7. withywindle says:

    I have no arguments with the above post. Darn you, and your soothing, eirenic tone!

  8. Western Dave says:

    Further, one of the questions I build my US History survey for 10th graders around is “What does it mean to be an American? Who gets to be one?” Now this sets me up for a very interesting discussion of Hamiltonian vs. Jeffersonian views, but it also allows me to do a quick and dirty history of whiteness, not in a hit you over the head sort of way, but in a way that allows students to come to this stuff themselves. You cannot look at cartoons from the Spanish American War and not be struck by how much the people writing the cartoons are framing their arguments for and against imperialism in terms of whiteness. At least, my tenth graders seem not to be able to, even when I am trying to get them past that on to other issues that are relevant to the war (like the importance of coaling stations in the Pacific). Whiteness happened and it did matter (try explaining the 1950s without it sometime and you’ll see what I mean) .

  9. Dorothea Salo says:

    Open ACCESS publishing, please.

    Open source refers software. Open standards are technology agreements. Open access refers to the scholarly literature.

  10. Dorothea Salo says:

    Argh. Refers TO software, of course. The law of nitpicks strikes again!

  11. jpool says:

    When I was entering undergrad, some sixteen years ago now, we had some discussions in the residence halls as extensions of orientation excercises meant to raise any number of hot-button issues that young people face living on their own with other young people for the first time. These followed up on a collectively watched play that, as a kind of hipper version of an afterschool special, tried to dramatize these issues, including substance abuse, mental health, and, most hot-buttony, sexual assault (strangely, race and sexual orientation were not directly addressed). Looking back, some interesting things came out of these conversations, even if the discussion of rape foundered on an overly didactic understanding of what it meant to obtain consent. There wasn’t an official institutional doctrine at play, though there was a relatively clear consensus among RAs on the non-trivial nature of consent, and noone was made to engage in self-criticism at the end of the evening. I think that it was actually quite valuable to have these discussions in the dorms, precisely because they were about building a sense of community and safety in a shared environment. Short version: I wouldn’t want to declare dorms as no-go zone for these sort of discussions, and if the Delaware program seems somewhat wrong-headed and overbearing, the discussions it wants to happen are still worth having, even though they’re inevitably going to make some folks uncomfortable.

    Which is exactly, in my opinion, why conservative critics aren’t engaging with the ideas and the scholarship, but are instead using hackery to tarbrush any scholarship with political or even topical sympathies to said hackery: because the subjects themselves make them uncomfortable. Honestly, anyone who dismisses Roediger’s work as piffle, I’m going to assume either hasn’t read it or is made so uncomfortable by discussions of race that they insist on doing the equivalent of sticking their fingers in their ears and shouting “Lalalalala.”

  12. Prof. AME says:

    I am late to this blog but (and no one will be surprised) I agree with Withy. This program *does substantiate* the accusations of the anti-academia crowd, and how can it not?

    Tim, you offer a hypothetical reconstruction about how this program got started–maybe some simple-minded student activists pushed it, maybe it was that plus an administrator or two who can only think in dogma. Maybe–and this would be bad enough. But we just don’t know, do we? And wherever it came from, President Hacker (can that really be his name??) signed off on this program, and thus *put the full power of the institution behind it.* THAT is the rub. The *power* and its use. You cannot minimize this.

    And that attitude of the President and his honchos, whoever it was who invented, developed and then *enforced* this program, didn’t come out of nowhere. It came out of an ideological mindse. If you read the Diversity Facilitating Program was it was taught inon August, 2007 (have they taken it down from the University website yet?), you will see that it is the mindset of the Duke 88. Only at Delaware that mindset was going to be (to repeat) *enforced.”

    If Hacker didn’t agree with it, why did he sign off on it? If he was too confused to know what this program meant, then he is an incompetent, and that raises questions too. But even so, the program itself originated with people in the university powerful enough to get this onto the President’s desk and for him to sign off on it. Didn’t anyone consult the university lawyers? If not, why not? If the lawyers were consulted, had they never heard of Barnette v. West Virginia? It is legitimate to ask all these questions about how this came about. Somewhere there was someone institutionally powerful and determined enough to get this program up and running at full blast.

    You want to make this program mostly an accidental coming together of eccentric events–or of eccentrics. Maybe. But this program does not stand alone. Look at the anonymous denunciation program established by last month by the President of William and Mary! You may say that these are simply isolated incidents, but it is very easy to see them as part of a pattern.

    But in academia, anyone who points out that such a program could *not* have emerged suddenly out of nowhere, that there is an entire culture out of which this comes–you know as well as I do that such a person will be crucified as a yahoo, or even (gasp!) a Horowitzian. ( In the face of programs such as this, enforced with great institutional power, it is hard to argue that Horowitz is following paranoid fantasies, Tim.)

    I want to emphasize that this isn’t a matter of a single one-off crazy class, Tim. This is a large-scale University-backed program. BUT… anyone who says we want to find out exactly how it came about will be accused of McCarthyism.

    Tim, I honor your eirenic impulses, you are more modulated than me. And you’re on the right side of this, as you are on the right side of many things. But… I think your instinct is to minimize this program, its scale, and its intended impact, to dismiss it as just another academic stupidity. Yet look at the scale of it: ALL RA’s had to drink the koolaid; it was part of the required RA training program. Isn’t that bad enough? But it didn’t stop with one drink: RA’s were then required to *dispense* the Koolaid. These RA’s were under such pressure to bring the freshmen for whom they were responsible into the program that (from eyewitness testimony) innocent freshmen were told in no uncertain terms by RA’s that the program was indeed mandatory if they wanted to live in the dorms.

    A final point. I urged to do a detailed story on this scandal. They have refused. Why? Can they really think this is less important than the stories they have run in the last three days , on (for instance) peer-to-peer file sharing? They thus leave the University of Delaware scandal to the bloggers. And then they complain that academia is slandered.

  13. Timothy Burke says:

    Look, on one point, the RA’s didn’t all drink the koolaid–that’s one of the things that’s coming out about why the program came under scrutiny, some of them either didn’t do the program as specified or actually complained about it. I think this is where Margaret Soltan is really right about something in her response to me: most people in academic institutions don’t like these kinds of unreasonable, exaggerated, ideological programs. The point is that we need to give most people stronger tools for piping up and objecting when the institutional reins get pulled in some direction that’s unreasonable.

  14. Prof. AME says:

    Sure–we’re agreed on the need for giving most people stronger tools to protest. What should they be? Let us discuss this. I think that would take another thread.

    The problem is: how to oppose such things in public, when to object publicly to this, say, Delaware program would have taken much courage, because your objection would almost certainly have led to immediate accusations against you, the vulnerable RA, that you were (somehow) a racist? Don’t think that wouldn’t have been pulled.

    Your solution is good in principle, Tim, but now we need ideas to implement it specifically– because the ideologues have already come up with specific ideas to implement *their* programs, have they not? The U of Delaware 1984 Program is one, the William and Mary anonymous denunciation program is another. (Do you still really think these are just scattered haphazard incidents with no broader significance?)

    As it is, we are a situation with regard to U of Delaware–we need stronger tools–which is similar to the situation we have with the new AAUP, which now decrees that a professor who “passionately” advocates one position and only one position is *not* engaging in indoctrination so long as *theoretically* an undergraduate student can do all the research to challenge the professor and *theoretically* that student can then have the courage to make the challenge in public, before the class, to a person who will be grading him. Sure. But just how do you empower that undergraduate? How do you empower the RA at Delaware to protest?

    (More importantly–*How* do you stop administrations with coming up with this sort of thing and *enforcing* it with all the power of the institution, as happened at Delaware? This is the real problem.)

    Supporting FIRE is one answer, I suppose. But FIRE puts out anti-freedom fires that have already started. I’m pointing to an entire academic culture that believes that these programs are *good*. How do you oppose *that*, when as soon as you do you’ll get called (e.g.) a yahoo, a racist, an Islamophobe, or a “Horowitz”?

    I hope Margaret Soltan is right, that most faculty are really opposed to such programs. But at the moment the best situation I myself see is something that you’ve indicated a couple of times– that lots of people are principally concerned merely with their own scholarly work (i.e., rather than being in favor or opposed). In addition, such people *fear* open opposition because of the ruthless tactics of personal attack that will be used against them if they *do* openly oppose something. Look what happened to that chem prof Baldwin at Duke when he opposed the 88–HE got called a racist, in the student newspaper, by the Chair of Women’s Studies! Would *you* want to risk this? (I wouldn’t.) This is not a good situation.

    Previously, Tim, you’ve indicated that while no, this not good, it’s not a huge problem in academia. Surely the U of Delaware case, the William and Mary Case, the new AAUP guidelines–these should make you sit up and take notice. There’s a pattern here, and it’s not a nice one.

    Again, I appreciate your calm and irenic style. This is the tone to take. But the question is: how many more incidents like this will it take before you agree that this is really quite a serious thing that’s going on?

    Remember when you jeered at the prevention of Larry Summers from speaking at UC Davis as a “head-slapper”? Good, yes–but it’s also more than an amusing ‘head-slapper”. There’s a quite real *pattern* here. Or so it seems to me.

  15. Timothy Burke says:

    Look, they just don’t fear being branded a racist or whatever. They also fear being enlisted in causes that go way beyond the narrow or particular objection to a particular program or mistake. Frankly, reading your objections, I fear that–it makes me just want to shut up because of the seeming impossibility of containing a particular discussion to a particular instance. You want to proceed to a comprehensive crusade, and you’re quick to say, “Well, if that makes me proximate to Horowitz, so be it!”, as I read you. If that becomes the choice, to be a camp follower to Horowitz or nothing, most sensible faculty are going to choose nothing. E.g., what they’re going to do is go down periscope, let the maniacs on each side rip each other new assholes, and hope there’s something left when it is all over.

    If the point is to empower sensible people to speak sensibly, then don’t you think it starts with a certain degree of modesty and pragmatism, with a fairly big-tent view of the stakes and the players, with a certain amount of professionalized mutual appreciation? If you put the hypothetical RA who wants to do right by his students in a decent enough way in a situation where he/she perceives the choice to be between “insensitive jerk who doesn’t care at all about someone on the hall who is complaining of discrimination or harassment” or “politically correct ideologue squashing free speech rights”, I think you can expect in short order that most of the people willing to be RAs will be either ideologically rigid one-note libertarians or ideologically rigid one-note identity-politics advocates. Everyone else will quite understandably bury their noses in their textbooks and stick their fingers in their ears. Same for faculty.

    So the answer to your questions in part is, “Lower the perceived stakes, dampen the temperature, choose your battles, get a sense of proportion”. Those are all tools that help a person who is feeling uncomfortable about an extreme point of view express that discomfort. I’m not being calm because I’m a calm kind of guy. I’m being that way because it’s the right thing to do in getting us to a better collective situation. There’s only so long that you can tell me that it’s the right thing to do and then turn around and tell me that it’s not the right thing to do before I ignore the former sentiment.

  16. Prof. AME says:

    “Lower the perceived stakes.” I don’t see how the stakes could be any higher than they were at the University of Delaware, Tim.

    Your problem is that this program did not come out of nowhere. Incidents such as this prove Horowitz and KC Johnson are on to something. I know this idea makes you uncomfortable, and that it takes gumption for you nevertheless to protest these incidents. I greatly respect your actions. But honestly, how can they *not* show that Horowitz and Johnson are on to something?

    Tim, you do want to confine a particular discussion to a particular instance–as if it were an unfortunate but eccentric event with little broader significance. You do find these incidents disturbing, but I think you fear that forcefully acknowledging the existence of a larger political pattern here will somehow empower Horowitz and Johnson–and/or unnecessarily deepen divisions within faculty–or else make the problem seem insuperable. But by *abandoning* addressing the larger problem, you leave that field to people you consider irresponsible (such as Horowitz and Johnson), since they are the only ones addressing it. There’s your conundrum at this point, it seems to me.

  17. Timothy Burke says:

    It’s not a fear. You just don’t get it. I think the larger pattern, such as it is, is far less consequential, sizeable, widespread and generalized than you do, or any of the other crusaders do. We simply disagree. Period. Yes, there are some institutional practices and views that annoy or worry me, but they amount to much less than you think, are advocated by fewer people than you think, and sometimes are the twisted or bowdlerized version of ideas from more substantial and legitimate sources, that you or I are then obligated as scholars to engage respectfully and collegially. Not just because substantial scholarship demands a substantial answer if you disagree with it, but because that’s how we build a better kind of academy.

    If, for example, I wrote scholarly work that in some respect strongly embraced identity politics, and my scholarship had craft and subtlety–and I was also a collegial, moderate presence in my department and institution–what incentive would I have to incorporate a colleague who had a generic, sweeping, unreasoned negative view of all work like mine into any deliberative processes if I could manage to exclude him or her? This kind of dynamic happens a lot in universities, but not in the “political” way that you’re singularly focused on. Academics constantly face choices about building dialogues or connections, and they understandably often refuse to do so when they’re confronted by a colleague who completely and sweepingly denies the legitimacy of a huge corpus of scholarly work without engaging any particular work in that field in any detail. Surely you’ve seen people who do this–the scientist who thinks the humanities are a waste of time, the humanist who regards the sciences as the hegemonic effluvia of capitalism. There are more finely drawn versions of the same in every department: the cultural anthropologist who categorically loathes physical anthropology, the economist who thinks behavioral and experimental economics is useless, and so on. If you’ve got a real, live colleague in front of you, that kind of blanket attack is no longer acceptable (I think it’s bad practice even in the abstract). You need to read that person’s work, judge that person in the context of what they do, get particular, if you want any right to strongly criticize them. If you want that criticism to be a persuasive claim about what the discipline or the academy as a whole ought to be, you’ve got to even work hard to bring the object of your criticism along.

    I keep harping on this theme, but that’s what anyone should do if they’re dealing with a problem in culture, habitus or everyday practice. That’s the only thing you can do that doesn’t destroy institutional or civic life at its best. You really need to think about this, AME: do you want to connect with colleagues (even those you disagree with or oppose) or do you just want to complain about them? Do you want to change the things that you object to?

  18. Prof. AME says:

    Tim, what I *want* is to put an end to the type of institutional atrocities that occurred at U of Delaware. But those institituional atrocities came out of an intellectual context. You are willing to protest individual institutional atrocities–good. But you do not want to examine the intellectual context out of which they come, and you criticize people who do, such as K. C. Johnson.

    You agree above in my analysis is that *one* of the reasons you don’t want to criticize the intellectual background out of which atrocities such as U of Delaware occur is that you don’t want to divide the faculty by attacking, e.g., identity politics scholars. You believe that such scholars are especially sensitive to criticism of their fields (not that such sensitivity stops their own fierce criticism of others–as you have admitted to me). But I didn’t criticize good scholarship, Tim.

    There is good work done in these fields. But as you yourself said, there’s also a lot of simplistic, third-rate hackery done in those fields. I am asserting that there is an increasingly blatant, aggressive and self-confident institutional-power linkage between that intellectual world and university administration behavior. You see it at U of Delaware. You see it at William and Mary. You see it in the new AAUP guidelines on “indoctrination” and “empassioned teaching.” You saw it at Duke. You write, that IF there is a pattern, it is not very important. Then why do these horrific incidents keep happening over and over again?

    You chastized Johnson for generalizing from the Duke 88. But the committee taking anonymous denunciations at William and Mary is made up of similar people And there are faculty at U of Delaware who created and fiercely support the *intellectual premises* of the U of Delaware 1984 indoctrination program. They are intent on *enforcing their dogma* on the university, because the see their work as not merely intellectual but political. If this authoritarianism and thirst for *enforcing the dogma* is rooted in identity studies, that needs to be said, and the field reformed. But you can only offer soft words to the ideologues, in hopes they will reform, or at least not do anything more. That’s your strategy. My point to you is that the increasingly blatant use of institutional power by such ideologues (U of Delaware, William and Mary, AAUP) suggests that this strategy doesn’t seem to be working.

    You don’t want to accept *me* on this issue. Okay– How about the noted feminist Wendy Kaminer? On Oct. 31, she wrote the following about the U of Delaware situation, but then she also *generalized* from it. I agree with what she wrote in that generalization, and I think the issue here is that you are very reluctant to do so:

    “If I characterized U.D.’s vision of citizenship as un-American, I don’t think I’d be exaggerating. This is supposed to be a free country. U.D. administrators
    obviously need a refresher course in civics, (as well as a remedial writing course for bureaucrats; try reading through this document.) The persistent disrespect for individual freedom shown by so many self-styled progressives today, especially on campus – their failure to include freedom in their notion of a virtuous society — has been a confounding political calamity. If some college students regard liberalism as authoritarian, liberals who refrain from promoting freedom (in the belief that it’s a right wing value) should not be surprised.”

    Please read the last two sentences of Kaminer. That’s the nub of my argument, my conception of the problem. If it was just Horowitz, or even Horowitz and Johnson, you’d be on more solid ground.

    Incidently, this isn’t a one-time statement of Kaminer’s. Here’s what she wrote on Nov. 4:

    “I expect that any suspected whistleblowers will be vilified as malcontents, or conservative ideologues, and I wouldn’t be surprised if university officials started an investigation to find out who “leaked” the damning documents describing the resident life program. Restoring and preserving civil liberty at U.D. requires continuing vigilance.”

    She points to the same fear of retaliation that I have mentioned, Tim–and to the kind of ideological accusations that will accompany it, which I have also mentioned to you..

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