So, in case you haven’t heard, the Chronicle of Higher Education has decided to give up any and all pretensions to practicing journalism, or holding a sufficient expertise in Higher Education to actually cover the field, and has instead taken to trolling for page-views by offering outrageously ignorant “opinions” as matters for “debate”. I’d say they’re trying to be the next Gawker, but really, Gawker is at least classy enough to stand by who they are and what they do. No, I shan’t link directly to the original piece by Naomi Schaefer Riley, nor to the post in which editor Liz MicMillen encourages everyone who asked that the piece be removed (and an apology perhaps issued to the students, and I emphasise: students who Schaefer Riley attacked) to instead, keep reading and commenting and fuelling the totally manufactured controversy because if a publication has just admitted that they’ll stand behind whatever crap nets them attention and drives up their web traffic, then the last thing I’m inclined to do is drive their traffic up even more for them.
And, yes, I just said crap. Because I believe in calling things what they are, and a series of statements calling for the elimination of a field of study because the author is too fantastically ignorant of the wider academic landscape to be able to discern its value is not an argument. It may be an opinion, but certainly not an informed one. It does not merit–indeed, it does not contain within itself anything which might sustain–the respect of substantive debate. It is crap, pure and simple, and should have passed without comment had it not been crap broadcast on the platform of what was previously the leading trade periodical of the Academy.
If you missed the original post, read TressieMc’s “The Inferiority of Blackness as a Subject”, which contains nearly all of the original posting as block quotes which the author then subjects to intense analysis, resulting in an essay several times longer–and infinitely more substantive–than the original. See also the storify timeline TressieMc has curated on the topic. Read Natalia Cecire’s analysis of the whole debacle. Maybe glance at this blog by ProfHacker which serendipitously showed up in my RSS feed just as I was about to unsubscribe because they’re hosted on Chronicle servers, causing me to reconsider… for now.
It is worth noting that the Schaefer Riley piece comes in the context of a wider assault on “ethnic studies”. Arizona (the state where I earned my MA) has spent the early part of this year waging a campaign against Mexican-American Studies programs; see this timeline by Debbie Reese. The reasoning at work is quite similar in both cases: the ethnicity in question is marginal, and therefore studies of it will at best produce no academic value and at worst simply serve to foster minority resentment. This reasoning is not limited simply to racial studies, by the way; it has also been applied to various permutations of gender studies (I won’t link anything, but go ahead, Google “women’s studies resentment” or “women’s studies worthless”–the first page of hits I turned up were mostly screeds that made NSR’s piece look warm and insightful by comparison). This is not a case of isolated individuals discovering that an isolated discipline is uniquely unfit to be the topic of academic enquiry. This is a wider pattern of assault on areas of study which make a point of considering the perspectives and contributions of historically marginalised groups.
Strangely, Jewish Studies is not usually the subject of such criticisms–at least, not in a wider, public sense; of course, I not infrequently have to defend the utility of the discipline in more private conversations with colleagues or university administrators, or on funding applications. This defence is hampered somewhat by the fact that Scotland’s Jewish community is small and growing smaller, and so (the argument goes) there are clearly not dozens of Jewish students beating down the door, demanding to be allowed to study their own culture–but I can still go to sleep at night with a reasonable expectation that I will not wake up in the morning to discover that my entire subject has been denounced in the Times Higher Education Supplement, with one of the more frivolous essay–or worse, book–titles I’ve produced used as evidence. (I do produce some truly horrid titles for my own writing; it’s a major area of weakness for me.) In part, this may be the benefit of working in a discipline too small to really be considered a threat to the cultural status quo; in part it is no doubt due to the efforts of the ADL and similar organisations, which are in this case a considerably less mixed blessing than they often are. I would like to think that is also because academic discourse in the UK is just a touch more civil than in the US–at least in public–but perhaps it doesn’t do to become too complacent.
Still, the relatively private conversations I have about Jewish Studies, and the rather more public denunciations of Black Studies, Hispanic Studies, Women’s Studies, Queer Studies, etc.–I’ve even had this conversation, once, about Canadian Studies in a UK context–have a very important characteristic in common: in all of them, there is an assumption that X Studies is of interest only to members of marginalised group X. From this follows assumptions about the limited range of data drawn upon by practitioners of X Studies (NSR’s assertion that a discussion of the role of race in the subprime lending crisis ignores or denies that white people lost their homes in the same crisis, or the surprise I am sometimes greeted with when I betray a working knowledge of current Church politics), which serves to reinforce the image of X Studies as detached from mainstream scholarship, useful only for investing its students and practitioners with a sense of alienation from and resentment towards the academy and the wider culture.
Now, it is true that one of the important functions of X Studies within the academy is to provide students from historically marginalised groups an increased opportunity to form a sense of belonging. I will not deny that my own turn away from Christian theology and towards Jewish Studies came from a search for voices within the academy in which I recognised my own experience. I cheerfully admit that as a young woman embarking on a scholarly career it was of profound importance to me that Women’s Studies existed as a discipline–not because I wanted to make my career in it, but because it assured me that the experiences and voices of women as women were inherently valuable and of interest, that while I might choose to play like one of the boys (and, oh, I got very, very good at being one of the boys for awhile), it was my choice, not the only path open to me. Yes, this is value which I am happy to provide to students who need it–but that is far from the only way in which X Studies contributes to the wider academy, or to society as a whole.
The most problematic aspect of the NSR piece is that her body of “evidence”–the titles and extremely brief summaries of three current dissertation projects in Black Studies–taken at face value (and, as these are all ongoing projects, there really is no other way to take them) actually sharply contradict her claim for the discipline’s irrelevance. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor and La TaSha B. Levy are both working on projects that strike me as intensely interesting, each in their own way interrogating the mechanisms by which minorities have sought to enact some sense of social belonging. Taylor is writing on the promotion of single-family homes to urban African Americans in the 1970s, and Levy on the phenomenon of Black Republicanism. Given that my own work at the moment is focused on how cultural (religious or ethnic) groups self-define in opposition to each other–and the complex role that inter-group imitation plays in such self-definition (which is to say: imitation of one group does not always undermine membership in the other) of course I find this stuff completely fascinating: what identity negotiations are going on in each of these situations? Do the individuals making the choices to buy a single-family home or be Republican see their choice in the same light as the people promoting home ownership or Republicanism to them?
Ruth Hayes’ dissertation on natural childbirth from a nonwhite perspective appears to be a project developed in close conversation with the current interdisciplinary interest in birth practices and medicalisation, and a study that considers a previously overlooked body of data stands to expand the conversation significantly. It may or may not radically alter the way that we understand discourses of the “natural” (or “authentic” or, contrariwise, “unnatural”, “artificial”, “inauthentic”), but if it does not, it will then provide scholarship in this area a considerably more stable ground upon which to rest. Scholarship which is based on the history and experience of only a limited population, no matter how large that population is, no matter whether it sets out deliberately to exclude other perspectives or simply does not make the effort to include them, can only make limited claims to accurately describe the world in which we live. X Studies provides an important service to the academy by specifically interrogating untested universalist narratives from particular viewpoints. Sometimes–many times–it is then able to provide data which helps to correct these narratives, making them more accurate and universal; sometimes it is actually able to confirm that, yes, that story that we’ve always told about Y folk is true for X folk, too. And how exciting is it when that happens? Well, actually, very.
I want to resist the defence of X Studies that says “Yes, in a perfect world, all perspectives would be equally valued and valid throughout all sectors of the academy, but in the world we have right now, there are certain historical inequalities for which we must correct by creating separate departments to ensure that minority scholars are given equal opportunity.” Yes, there are inequalities within the academy, and yes, a separate focus on X Studies can help to mitigate that, up to a certain point. But more importantly, in providing dedicated disciplinary space in which the range of human experience is examined with reference to particular, limited standpoints, thereby interrogating (and improving) universalist narratives, X Studies actually improves the academic enterprise as a whole. In this light, an attack on X Studies, for any value of X, is an attack on the academy as a whole. We’re all in this together.
And on that note… well, if I’d typed as many words into my word processor today as I’d typed into this blog, my book would be done. So I’m off to try to fix that.