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.