1. Bauerlein can’t even bring himself to say, “Hey, it’s not cool to attack dissertations you haven’t read in a field that you preemptively deem uninteresting about subjects that you aggressively maintain could never be of any interest whatsoever”. But hey, it’s not like Bauerlein has argued for preserving the serious close reading of canonical literature in a dedicated way. Or argued for knowing the context of texts so well that he’s requiring students to accurately summarize content. Because it would be crazy to believe in those things and yet be utterly indifferent to someone who condemns texts based on a prideful ignorance of their actual content or any domain of knowledge connected to them. This isn’t even good concern trolling, let alone remotely worthy of someone who claims to be interested in preserving academia’s sacred values.
2. Sorry, not clear on why literary study doesn’t have a social mission, indeed, several of them. Recalling in specific that Mark Bauerlein believes that literary study has to…reclaim its social mission to preserve national and civilizational traditions that bring us all together as people. Or was that several think-tank funding cycles ago? I have such a short memory.
3. Wait, also: I’m sorry, what kind of teacher are you if you don’t understand why someone writing in an influential industry publication attacking your students or colleagues from an aggressively ignorant position is seriously not cool? A good teacher is a mentor, a protector, a guide. You don’t ignore it when people you have nurtured, guided, valued, are attacked simply to score points with the peanut gallery. If you do, you’re not a good teacher. So this is a moment that divides the teachers from the self-interested intellectuals: what side are you on? A good teacher rallies to the side of fellow good teachers, despite any principled disagreements they have with the work that’s being defended. If you’re sure the work isn’t worth defending and the testimony of fellow teachers is therefore worthless, be goddamn sure you’re right on the merits of your criticism.
This is a poor response, and not up the quality of your “Pity Party” post. You are criticizing Bauerlein for something that neither he nor you can perform. Because right now, most of us can only do what Riley, and Bauerlein, and presumably you and I did: read the article in the Chronicle praising the dissertations. That article includes brief comments about the dissertations, not a full abstract, but in the circumstances, it’s what we have. Different readers drew different conclusions. Your conclusion differs from Bauerlein’s and Rileys. Fair enough. But your criticism in this post basically boils down to you agree with the CHE article, and they do not. It is not an academically convincing argument.
I’m going to disagree strongly, Orson. Here’s why.
1) If you read an upbeat profile piece about some up-and-coming scholars or about some allegedly exciting work in an existing academic field, and you disagree in specific with the profile, a specific critical response should have one of two attributes, preferably both. You should either know something specific about the scholars in question or the field, or if you don’t know very much but are wary about the profile, you should surround your response with some degree of modesty and reserve, perhaps even a touch of kindness.
Let’s say I read a positive profile in Discover Magazine of some evolutionary psychologists whose work I’m very skeptical about. I could write a blog post in response because: a) I’ve somewhat familiar with the work in question based on direct reading; b) I’ve read some scholarly criticisms of that work; c) I’m familiar with some of the alternative scholarly frameworks for dealing with the same issues and ideas.
If none of those things were true–say, I was just suspicious because the profile seemed improbably positive and I hear some bad things from people I trust about the field of evolutionary psychology–the only thing that would be appropriate to focus on would be the article itself. E.g., that I prefer a more balanced approach even in profiles, that there must surely be some critics somewhere worth including.
That Bauerlein doesn’t enter this conversation with a roughly similar view is bad because these strike me as baseline expectations not just for academics but for journalists, essayists, opinion writers. The seriousness and intensity of an attack imposes a proportionally more and more heavy weight for knowing your shit. The more flip or lightweight your understanding of something you’re attacking is, the less entitled you are to massive amounts of sound and fury. We all sneer at things we think we don’t like, sometimes in blogs or other writing–but saying, “This should be abolished, these young scholars are worthless, this work is so horrible that not only will I not read it, it should never be read by anyone”? That’s serious business, and should be especially serious business for a scholar who rarely misses an opportunity to complain about how his students and colleagues have no commitment to rigor and know nothing of the actual content of texts. If Bauerlein were Pierre Bayard, he might have a principled case to make that not reading things is ok. He’s not.
2) This is also serious business for anyone who is a teacher. I don’t care if you’re a stern teacher or a permissive one, a taskmaster or a gentle friend: public cruelty, brag and abuse directed at students who are doing hard work within an established tradition of inquiry is never acceptable, particularly not for scoring some cheap points while mugging to the peanut gallery. Yes, it’s going to happen somewhere out there in that great big bubbling stew we call the Internet, but it shouldn’t happen anywhere that we value, care about or participate in. A teacher who is indifferent to that kind of behavior is like a doctor indifferent to an unlicensed back-alley quack performing unhygienic surgery.