When people feel no shame, watch out. Any cultural or political system that depends on participants living up to minimal commitments for quality, integrity, or diligence where there are no consequences besides embarassment for outright discarding those commitments can thrive right up to the moment that someone stands up with a big shit-eating grin and blithely drops through the ground floor. As they fall, they often pull everyone with them into an abyss–because no one wants to be the last chump trying to live up to quaint standards and expectations.
The Chronicle of Higher Education has decided to be a case in point by giving Naomi Schaefer Riley a chance to pull their coverage of academic institutions and life through the event horizon of shamelessness. If you haven’t read the columns, this summary will do: in column 1, Riley deemed some dissertations and their graduate student authors in Black Studies to be worthless, ridiculous wastes of resources and effort without reading the dissertations in question or knowing anything about the topics covered. Riley judged, for example, that “black midwifery” in the 19th Century U.S. is self-evidently an absurdly overspecialized and pointless subject to study. In column 2, Riley doubled down and said that in writing a column about dissertations in a publication about higher education, it was “not her job” to read those dissertations.
I am maybe less surprised than some the Chronicle of Higher Education has so aggressively punched a hole into the sewer, though I’m hoping a bit that they can rethink it a bit before jumping in behind their columnist. I’m not so surprised because CHE has plainly struggled with digital culture, like many mainstream media publications that had a sense as late as the early 2000s that their business model was immortal and invulnerable. When you don’t have a commanding vision of your own, you’re vulnerable to the pitches of snake oil salesmen. In this case, the Chronicle fell for the idea that the only way to command attention in an online age is to hire a bunch of rodeo clowns and let them enrage the bulls, that you get your daily dose of eyeballs through handing a megaphone to the most aggressively careless person you can find and then coming along afterwards to say that you only wanted to “start a discussion”.
This isn’t the only way to build a readership: there are plenty of other models. It’s an especially unsuitable way to approach building a digital presence for a publication devoted to academia. I’m feeling somewhat vindicated about my own decision to not move this blog inside their architecture when I was invited to do so. I don’t think I’d want to move in any event as I’m proud of this blog’s continuing presence inside the information architecture of my own institution. But publications that suddenly decide to throw their considerable weight behind the next new thing often make bad mistakes as they rush to catch up. They learn the wrong lessons from consultants and advisors rather than work their way towards authenticity along the slower, harder road of home-grown practices.
I’m not particularly interested in rewarding the Chronicle for bowing to the shameless style. If they want to continue to try and get my eyeballs–or links–with this kind of writing, I’m not going to oblige. And I think that if it keeps up, I’ll be asking my colleagues to reconsider our institutional subscriptions to the print edition.