Discipline and puzzle

by Michael Bérubé on March 29, 2007

Late last year, I had lunch with David Horowitz on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s dime, and this world-historical event was noted on this very blog. Alas, not everyone understood what I was trying to do in that little encounter. Moreover, those who did understand my approach, including various CTers, disagreed as to whether I did the right thing. Harry thought I pretty much blew it, whereas Henry thought I took exactly the right tack. Which is fine, really, because as you’ve already gathered, I seem thoroughly incapable of winning universal assent to stuff I say. I’m tempted to blame this on the very structure of language itself, but much of the time it’s my fault; my tactics misfire, I misgauge the occasion. And sometimes people just disagree with me.

But here’s what I was thinking at the time: OK, I’ve agreed to meet David Horowitz. In this context—the Chronicle, as opposed to Hannity & Colmes—this grants Horowitz, and his complaints about academe, a certain legitimacy. My job, therefore, is to contest that legitimacy, and to model a way of dealing with Horowitz that does not give him what he wants: namely, (1) important concessions or (2) outrage. He feeds on (2), of course, and uses it to power the David Horowitz Freedom Center and Massive Persecution Complex he runs out of Los Angeles; and most of the time, we give it to him by the truckload. Liberal and left academics need to try (3), mockery and dismissal, and thereby demonstrate, as I put it on my blog, that when someone tries to blame tuition increases on Cornel West’s speaking fees, that person needs to be ridiculed and given a double minor for unsportsmanlike bullshit.


So when I sat down, I decided to signal my attitude toward the event by taking note of the recent election and saying, “Madam Speaker—this is good. But we’re waiting for Madam President. That’s when the shadow party takes over.” Horowitz missed it completely, replying, “Probably will happen. You’ll notice I’m not depressed. That’s because I’m not depending on legislatures.” Since Horowitz had spent much of the previous three years crowing about his victories in state legislatures and his influence on former House majority leader John Boehner, this was a bit disingenuous. But that’s not the point. The point was that I tried to remark offhandedly—and Chronicle reporter Tom Bartlett got it—that I was sitting down to an “intellectual” debate with someone who had just published, with Richard Poe, The Shadow Party: How George Soros, Hillary Clinton, and Sixties Radicals Seized Control of the Democratic Party. (As Bartlett notes, the book claims that the Shadow Party plans to rewrite the U.S. Constitution.) Now, since Hillary is not in fact a sixties radical, and since the leadership of the Democratic Party has conducted itself as a party of the center-right for at least the past 25 years, I look upon claims that Hillary and Soros are going to rewrite the Constitution the way I look upon claims that Queen Elizabeth and Pope Benedict XVI are conspiring to control the world’s supply of tungsten.

Now you know. So the next time someone says, “Bérubé doesn’t seem to take Horowitz seriously enough,” I’m simply going to reply, “this is about the tungsten, isn’t it?” and I hope my meaning will be clear. Though I don’t suppose that’ll compel universal assent, either. I blame the structure of language. Ah, why must meaning be context-bound, and context be boundless?

And yet, and yet. In Horowitz’s many shell games, one can find—if one has more patience than I do—a couple of interesting questions. For instance: although Horowitz claims to abide by the American Association of University Professors’ definition of “academic freedom,” he is campaigning, as I have often argued, for a definition of “academic freedom” that extends the concept to students, thereby rendering it either incoherent or indistinguishable from some nebulous concept of “intellectual freedom” or “freedom from professorial haranguing.” The AAUP definition, by contrast, is tied to the idea of disciplinary expertise: professors who have spent their adult lives studying a subject should have, in the words of the AAUP Statement, “full freedom in research and in the publication of the results.” And it’s not really the case that Horowitz defers to the idea of scholarly expertise, anyway; he’s always complaining that professor X doesn’t have the credentials to teach course Y, as if he is the Arbiter of All Scholarly Knowledge, and some of his beliefs on that score—like his complaint about someone teaching Peace Studies at a Quaker university, for instance, or his conviction (which he conveyed to me at lunch) that film is not an appropriate subject for academic study—are just beyond bizarre, and should be ridiculed at every opportunity.

In his recent debate with Horowitz, which took place at the tail end of the delightful and instructive 2007 CPAC Conference, AAUP President Cary Nelson (my friend and former colleague when I taught at the University of Illinois) decided to press Horowitz on the question of scholarly expertise, but not by noting (as I have) that Horowitz doesn’t have any. Starting by noting that “students don’t quite possess academic freedom because that implies a disciplinary expertise that they don’t yet really have,” Cary went on to argue that scholarly expertise is not simply a matter of one’s doctoral work (the transcript is up on FrontPage, but I caution you: this is David Horowitz’s website, and it features a very nasty color scheme that will hurt your eyes):

I’ve published five books about the Spanish Civil War. I’ve published five books about higher education. I wasn’t trained in my doctoral training about either subject. I educated myself about them by reading books, by talking to people, by conducting hundreds and hundreds of interviews. I eventually became expert in those subjects, published widely about them and am certainly recognized world-wide for having some authority to speak in those areas, not just in my original area of modern poetry.

So if you look at academic careers, they include a certain amount of development and change. People’s interests vary and they become expert in a variety of new areas as their lives move on. So you can’t judge expertise of a faculty member just by what he or she studied as a student. Expertise changes over time.

This is a basic point; but the moment Cary made it, I was struck by how rarely anyone brings it up. I was also struck by the fact that I’ve never tried to make the point myself. Because when I watched the Horowitz-Nelson debate on C-Span a few weeks ago, I immediately thought of the moment of blind panic I’d had the night before I was supposed to appear at a plenary session of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities. (This was back in October 2002.) The plenary concerned advance directives and the rights of the “conscious incompetent” patient, and my co-panelists were law professor Rebecca Dressler (who’d served on the President’s Council on Bioethics during its controversial discussions of stem-cell research, and whose 1994 Rutgers Law Review essay, “Missing Persons: Legal Perceptions of Incompetent Patients,” I’d read a few months earlier) and Lawrence Nelson, who’d just argued the case In re Wendland to the California Supreme Court—and lost (28 P.3d 151 (Cal. 2001), for those of you who are interested in this kind of thing). In my moment of panic, I’d decided that I had no business appearing on a panel with these people, and no business talking about bioethics in the first place. I left my hotel room and began to wander around aimlessly . . . whereupon, as luck would have it, I ran into some of the conference organizers in the lobby. They were happy to see that I’d arrived in good time, and suggested that we all go have a drink. “OK,” I replied. “But I have to admit, I’m having severe pre-plenary anxiety about being up there with a member of the President’s Council and the guy who represented Rose Wendland. Exactly who am I supposed to be?” They were mildly amused at this, and someone said, “well, we were hoping that you’d be the Michael Bérubé who wrote Life As We Know It, actually.” “Oh, right,” I sighed. “I forgot about that. OK, can I talk about disability and autonomy?” “I think that would be appropriate,” they said. And so I did.

Now, Life As We Know It was a trade book, and much of it consists of a narrative of my then-young son’s life; but it also contains a discussion of the ethics of prenatal screening, and every once in a while I get a call from places like the Boston Globe or the Toronto Globe and Mail, asking me for an essay on this disability issue or that. (Those essays, especially, have symbiotic relations to my bloggy work: the Boston Globe piece grew out of this March 2005 post, and I discuss the Globe and Mail essay, which is no longer available free of charge, in this recent post.) So it’s not as if I’ve embarked on a second scholarly career in this area. Still, I do work in disability studies, and I do co-direct a Disability Studies Program; tonight through Saturday, in fact, we’re hosting a conference on Alzheimer’s Disease. Nothing in my doctoral training prepared me for any of this, but since the birth of my son Jamie, I’ve tried to educate myself about a wide range of disability issues. I don’t know why it’s never occurred to me to make Cary’s simple but crucial point: if you look at academic careers, they include a certain amount of development and change. People’s interests vary and they become expert in a variety of new areas as their lives move on.

The point is all the more critical, I think, when you consider the profusion of “interdisciplinary” work over the last two or three decades—and particularly if you admit, as I think most people would, that interdisciplinary work is sometimes done badly, by people insufficiently familiar with the history of the disciplines they’re inter-ing. Actually, if memory serves, there once was a time when cultural studies wanted to consider itself “anti-disciplinary”; I’ve often argued that when people say “anti-disciplinary” or “post-disciplinary” they actually mean “anti-departmental” or “post-departmental,” since the term “discipline” is, on my reading, roughly equivalent to “intellectual tradition,” and it really doesn’t make much sense to position yourself as “anti-intellectual tradition” or “post-intellectual tradition.” Nevertheless, the question remains, and I think it runs parallel to Henry’s question about “scholarly activism”: how can we best understand academic freedom and scholarly expertise over the full course of a scholarly career, when so many scholarly careers now involve interdisciplinary work?

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1

Walt 03.29.07 at 5:43 pm

I disagree. You acheive universal assent with every post.

2

Michael Bérubé 03.29.07 at 5:49 pm

Conundrums in comments hurt the Internets and make the baby Jesus cry, Walt.

3

Dale 03.29.07 at 6:19 pm

I think if you Google either “anti-intellectual tradition” or “post-intellectual tradition.” you find a copy of my college transcripts.

4

abb1 03.29.07 at 6:24 pm

Is anti-credentialism really such a controversial stance in need of passionate defense?

5

Luther Blissett 03.29.07 at 6:49 pm

I’m in no way a Horowitz defender, but I think the question of credentials comes up when humanities professors apply, in the classroom, a very narrow understanding of another discipline to their own, without informing students that other perspectives are possible.

This is most often the case with economics and Marxism, but a case can be made that many women’s studies professors are not terribly “up” on the latest research from the hard sciences on biological differences between the sexes. The new literature department fashion — sovereignty studies — again draws on a very narrow range of sources (Agamben, Schmitt) with no attention to the sheer range of poli sci traditions.

At the same time, Horowitz and Anne Neal don’t have solid evidence of a professor’s expertise from course descriptions and syllabi.

6

Bob N. 03.29.07 at 7:04 pm

Something I recall hearing in grad school: A master’s degree qualifies you to teach any course you’ve taken. A PhD qualifies you to teach courses you haven’t taken.

7

Michael Bérubé 03.29.07 at 7:09 pm

Is anti-credentialism really such a controversial stance in need of passionate defense?

Well, that would depend on how closely the principle of academic freedom is tied to the idea of disciplinary expertise.

8

fred lapides 03.29.07 at 7:09 pm

There are just too many fine scholarly minds without academic credentials to be so dismissive of the guy (Edmund Wilson and Francis Ferguson spring to mind). There are other good reasons to be dismissive.

people pay to get Cornel West to talk and people listen to him? That is funny or sad.

9

Scott Eric Kaufman 03.29.07 at 7:20 pm

if you look at academic careers, they include a certain amount of development and change. People’s interests vary and they become expert in a variety of new areas as their lives move on.

But isn’t the real problem — at least in our discipline — that most people hired as a Victorianists/medievalists/modernists end up 20th/21st century Americanists?

10

Adrian 03.29.07 at 7:35 pm

Conundrums in comments hurt the Internets and make the baby Jesus cry, Walt.

And don’t forget that the Internet is hurt quite easily lately… Just don’t!

11

Adam Kotsko 03.29.07 at 7:39 pm

I always make sure that before I begin speaking, I thoroughly saturate the context. That way, misunderstanding and disagreement become impossible.

12

rea 03.29.07 at 7:42 pm

“most people hired as a Victorianists/medievalists/modernists end up 20th/21st century Americanists?”

Forgive an uncredentialed outsider for this comment, but aren’t most contemmprary Americans necessarily 20th/21st century Americanists, at least in part, as their lives move on? How could it be otherwise?

13

aaron 03.29.07 at 7:46 pm

i just got off the phone with lizzy 2 and ben 16, and we’ve decided that you are too dangeral to our tungsten take-over just to be considered an amusing sideshow any more. if i were you, i’d start unscrewing your light bulbs.

14

Michael Bérubé 03.29.07 at 7:56 pm

I always make sure that before I begin speaking, I thoroughly saturate the context.

Ohhhh, now I get it. You saturate before speaking. I’ve always thought that just saying a lot of stuff would work. That was infelicitous of me, I suppose.

15

Keith M Ellis 03.29.07 at 9:01 pm

“Is anti-credentialism really such a controversial stance in need of passionate defense?”

Apparently. I can only comprehend this argument in the context of the humanities/sciences academic schism; from the sciences side, the anti-credentialist position seems (in my opinion) to be absurd.

My relationship to this issue is complex. Although my education eventually came to be primarily classical liberal arts, my cultural affiliations and temperment are with the sciences. Yes, at St. John’s College, my alma mater, the faculty is expected to eventually teach throughout the curriculum. On the other hand, with the pedagogy being extremely Socratic and student-dominated, the expertise of the teachers in the subject matter is not even remotely as essential as in the professorial pedagogical mode.

I hate to agree with Horowitz in any way major or minor, but I must agree that therein lies the problem. Conventional higher education is professorial and lecture dominated, true expertise is assumed and essential. Anti-credentialism in the strictest sense is reasonable when it otherwise requires a procedural evaluation of expertise. But is this usually the case? From the sciences side of academic culture, I can attest that there is a strong awareness and ethos that sufficient comprehension beyond credentialed expertise is difficult and claims of such are implicitly suspect. All people routinely greatly overestimate their grasp of given subjects. There must be a mechanism for independent evaluation of such claims, very particularly in the context of professorial pedagogy. Merely being interested and moderately read in a subject is insufficient.

Lecturers don’t necessarily need professional credentials, but there must be some objective metric to evaluate expertise. Scholarly publication should suffice. Some will argue that this is too high a standard because it is difficult to be published outside one’s credentialed area. But that is as it should be. And if one truly is competent, then it shouldn’t be difficult to collaborate with a credentialed expert on a topic and thus attain published status.

Intellectuals and especially academics of all kinds notoriously overestimate their facility across all domains of knowledge. Mere self-claims of competency as a basis for teaching a course outside one’s credentialed expertise is rightly mocked as a trend undermining academic integrity.

16

Rich Puchalsky 03.29.07 at 9:07 pm

As an uncredentialled crank, I think that the rule of thumb is that it’s fine for uncredentialled cranks to do whatever they want to do, as long as they don’t tell academics what they’re supposed to be doing. (Well, they can opine, but when that turns into developing political power is when it gets dicey.) Horowitz’ entire project is based around that, of course.

Of course that leaves a more difficult situation around academics working in other fields. You might want to look into anthropogenic global climate change scepticism one of these days (start with RealClimate and Tim Lambert, I’d say). It’s now a cottage industry of people in engineering or something, using their academic status to tell the public that people who actually work in climate science are all wrong — often based on such wonderful new discoveries as (paraphrased) “there’s no such thing as temperature”. At least with literary studies, there’s really nothing that important at stake.

17

Shelby 03.29.07 at 9:27 pm

I always make sure that before I begin speaking, I thoroughly saturate the context. That way, misunderstanding and disagreement become impossible.

aka delineating the territory — marking it, as it were. Hello Urinetown!

18

Scott Eric Kaufman 03.29.07 at 9:33 pm

Forgive an uncredentialed outsider for this comment, but aren’t most contemprary Americans necessarily 20th/21st century Americanists, at least in part, as their lives move on? How could it be otherwise?

Well, that’s kind of my point. The thing is, most ain’t trained to be, so they don’t understand the context of post-’50s literature. They rely instead on what they’ve read and what they know. All the people trained in the period, well, there are no jobs for them because people trained in other fields have appropriated theirs. So you have brilliant folks like Luther Blissett unable to find a decent job, because some former Victorianist/medievalist/&c. has decided, after however many odd years of teaching, that he or she is now going to write about/teach classes in contemporary American literature.

This may sound like raucous venting, but I’m not a contemporary Americanist — in fact, I’ve been moving back in time for well-nigh five years now. I’m complaining on the behalf of others, really. And I didn’t mean for this turn into some larger complaint about English. I was just needling Michael, really…because, you know, he likes it when I do that. (I think.)

19

C. L. Ball 03.29.07 at 9:56 pm

The AAUP statement makes no reference to expertise as a basis for academic freedom; instead, it is a necessary to perform as an ‘officer’ of a university. Moreover, the AAUP statement specifically excludes “controversial matter which has no relation to their subject” from academic coverage. In other words, a hypothetical math instructor who says “I saw the news and, boy, Pelosi sure is dumb” cannot defend his conduct by claim to academic freedom unless he was addressing her budget calculations.

I don’t agree that academic freedom applies only to professors. The AAUP is, of course, concerned about professors, but the principle of being able to inquiry freely should hold for students too. In cases like the MSU case that Stanley Fish opined on last week , a student who has paid or received a fellowship has the right to study freely. Requiring students to do book reports (I don’t) and then rejecting a book they select on the grounds that you don’t like that author or his ideas would seem to me to violate the student’s academic freedom (e.g., a Lakoff devotee rejects anything by Pinker in his linguistics course).

It seems that the expertise restriction for academic freedom is not a reasonable or necessary one.

20

JR 03.29.07 at 10:52 pm

C.I. Ball- the point of academic freedom is that being a professor is a job. You can get fired from it. Professors have academic freedom so that they can do what they are paid for, which is to to produce and disseminate knowledge, without worrying about whose ox they might gore. Academic freedom is not a personal perk for those lucky-duck profs. It’s a self-imposed restraint on the power of the university as employer to fire its employees, in order to permit those employees to do their jobs for the benefit of those institutions and society at large.

So academic freedom is limited to people who have been adjudged, by hiring committees composed of credentialed academics, to be likely to be knowledge-producers and disseminators who will do work that is beneficial for the rest of us. It’s not a right that extends to the general populace, and it certainly doesn’t extend to students. Students should have the privilege of free inquiry, but they certainly have no right to avoid bad grades for espousing stupid ideas.

This whole arrangement is somewhat off-putting to most Americans because it seems elitist. And of course, it is elitist. Universities are supposed to be meritocratic institutions. The people who teach and do research there are supposed to know more than the rest of us. They have special rights at work that the rest of us don’t have in order to help them do their work. If you want to have those rights, be an academic. Get a Ph.D., get a job, get tenured, and then you can say what you want. You’ll get paid a third of what people with the same level of education are paid in the business world, but hey, that’s the trade-off.

21

San 03.29.07 at 10:55 pm

It’s a good thing that Berube is a professor of literature, and not history, because his knowledge of the history of US intervention, as demonstrated in his critique of Chomsky… is less than impressive

http://redredbecca.blogspot.com/2007/03/polemicists-parry-cockburn-berube.html

22

Sebastian Holsclaw 03.29.07 at 11:00 pm

“Universities are supposed to be meritocratic institutions. The people who teach and do research there are supposed to know more than the rest of us.”

The problem is when it is revealed that they don’t seem to know more than the rest of us. The cases may be rare (say Ward Churchill)–but when brought to the public eye they end up appearing really ugly.

Maybe there is nothing to be done about it.

23

JR 03.29.07 at 11:06 pm

And as for requiring students to read some books but not others: this goes on all the time. If you take undergrad economics, you cannot do a report on I.I. Rubin’s “Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value.” If you do you will fail. Your report might be brilliant and it might be about economics but it’s not what is being taught in the class. If you are taking a seminar in modernist poetry, and every day you keep talking about how only poetry with rhyme and meter is truly expressive and how Eliot, Pound and Stevens were charlatans, you will fail. Your papers might be brilliant and incisive but you are showing no grasp of the subject matter and you are disrupting the clas.

Life is just too short. Not every class can do everything. There is a certain amount of material, and students have to master it, and one or two of them just cannot keep derailing the course in the name of free inquiry. Students have free inquiry in their lives outside of class, but in class there is a curriculum.

24

W. Kiernan 03.29.07 at 11:14 pm

this is David Horowitz’s website, and it features a very nasty color scheme that will hurt your eyes

In Firefox if you go to the “View” pull-down menu, click on “Page Style,” and click on “No Style,” then the only thing that will hurt your eyes is Horonutz’s godawful prose.

I love “No Style,” it makes every web page there is look just like Daniel Davies’s old weblog.

25

JR 03.29.07 at 11:22 pm

Sebastian H- actually I think there are plenty of academics who don’t deserve academic freedom – dead wood, lazy or bitter or conformist or just old and tired – but if you don’t have academic freedom how are you going to get your Michael Berube’s? And Ward Churchill is ugly, all right, but he’s no uglier than say, Albert Butz, the Holocaust denier at Northwestern. We know about Churchill because he’s a terrific stick to beat the liberal professoriat with – never mind that he’s not remotely a liberal and that he hates liberals with a venomous passion.

26

Donald Johnson 03.29.07 at 11:33 pm

I just googled benedict, elizabeth and tungsten. 14000 entries. Nice try at misdirection by pointing directly at the conspiracy like it’s all a big joke but we in the “tungsten wants to be free” party are onto your little tricks.

http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&ie=ISO-8859-1&q=benedict+elizabeth+tungsten

27

Jim Harrison 03.29.07 at 11:42 pm

Just so somebody makes the point…

The folks that attack Ward Churcill’s academic freedom routinely claim that he is unqualified or commits plagiarism or whatever, anything but what they are really unhappy about, his ideas. Meanwhile, those who make a more general complaint against academic freedom itself point to the dead wood that can be found in almost every department across the country as if what they really cared about was removing burntout profs in state colleges and not enforcing ideological uniformity. Yeah, right.

28

jre 03.30.07 at 1:17 am

With your permission, I will roll around on this thread in hopes of absorbing some of the stupid-repellant into my fur.
GODAMIGHTY, it’s good to have Bérubé back again!

29

RBH 03.30.07 at 1:49 am

I worked for some years in an aerospace & defense industry research center. We hired a fair number of Ph.D.s, and beyond assuring ourselves that they knew some math, we didn’t much give a damn about their particular specialization in disciplines ranging from physics to physiology. We weren’t hiring specialists, we were hiring the demonstrated (by the Ph.D.) ability to go into a field and master it. When I was interviewing, one question that was asked was “How long would it take you to be an authority on X?”, where X was a subdiscipline in which I’d never had a course.

30

ballin mundson 03.30.07 at 2:30 am

You hate Horowitz. And he hates you. That’s very apparent. But hate can be a very exciting emotion. Very exciting. Haven’t you noticed that?

31

Michael Bérubé 03.30.07 at 2:44 am

we in the “tungsten wants to be free” party are onto your little tricks.

Oh, Donald’s been onto my tricks for years now. About Churchill, just one quick word and a plea that he not derail the rest of the thread: saying that the WTC dead were “little Eichmanns” is very clearly protected speech, even though it’s what got the whole circus started. Now, if in fact he’s guilty of research fraud and plagiarism, that’s quite another matter — but then it raises the question of just where he falls on the research fraud / plagiarism scale. As bad as Michael Bellesiles? Or merely as bad as Doris Kearns Goodwin, who, last I checked, still had a job?

That’s a rhetorical question, not a real one (just tryin’ to saturate the context here), because the real question — or at least the one I want to ask, because I’m still thinking about it — is whether, as scholarly careers develop and scholars’ areas of expertise change, we need to do any substantial rethinking of the relation between academic freedom and disciplinary expertise.

32

CattyinQueens 03.30.07 at 3:08 am

You know, I learned a lot from Ward Churchill, and I’m not afraid to say so.

Really, though, I post not to praise Churchill or to bury him, but to say HIP HIP BERUBE! Oh how I’ve missed you!

33

Rich Puchalsky 03.30.07 at 3:47 am

“as scholarly careers develop and scholars’ areas of expertise change, we need to do any substantial rethinking of the relation between academic freedom and disciplinary expertise.”

Well, no, since setting up any enforcement mechanism to limit academic freedom to within-discipline subjects would open the door to political abuses. In practise, once you have tenure, you (should) have a license to work on whatever you want to work on, and only your reputation will suffer if you chose to work on something that you don’t know anything about.

I do think that perhaps there’s something wrong with any discipline in which a large number of the practitioners do cross-disciplinary work, though. It seems like a sign that the disciplinary boundaries may have been poorly set up in the first place, or that they are a holdover from a previous era.

34

rm 03.30.07 at 5:39 am

In the cause of providing better-quality troll comments, I must say how proud I am to have caught both of Berube’s mistakes. (How do you type the accent-acute again?) The first, many years ago, was when he misidentified the first-person-plural as the third person. Now, he has misnamed The Globe and Mail the Toronto G&M, as if it’s some kind of semi-tabloid rag.

Ha! This disproves that his knowledge of academic credentialism, as demonstrated in his foreign-newspaper-naming habits, is . . . less than impressive!

Okay, I’m trying out troll logic, but it’s not working. Sincerely, I’m glad to read you in this medium again, Michael. And I probably am a little too happy to have caught you in your second (entirely inconsequential) mistake.

35

Thomas 03.30.07 at 7:04 am

I think part of the issue is that, once you have an advanced degree, you should be more or less free to expound on any topic in which you can become versed.

Much of the academic tradition, particularly PhD work is proving that you can become a bona fide expert in something. After that, crossing disciplinary lines should be encouraged.

36

Ralph Luker 03.30.07 at 7:47 am

Michael, I think your information is simply incorrect. If I’m not mistaken, Doris Kearns Goodwin is a successful freelancer — so, not “still employed” in the sense you intend it. She’s never had the employment protection of tenure. It is, thanks to tenure, Churchill who is “still employed.” And, yes, from my reading of the evidence, his offenses against acceptable practice are closer to Bellesilesian than Goodwinian.

37

Doug 03.30.07 at 11:52 am

18: “I’ve been moving back in time for well-nigh five years now.”

Funny, I find that it always goes the other direction for me. If you haven’t gotten further back than the early 1980s, could you pick up some Microsoft stock? And if you’re progressing more quickly, what did happen to the Roanoke colony?

38

Michael Bérubé 03.30.07 at 11:58 am

Ah, then I stand corrected on Goodwin, Ralph. Thanks. And Rich (31), that’s pretty much what I think too — but lately I’ve been hearing from people who worry or surmise or suggest otherwise, so I’ve gotten curious about this “other minds” problem. I read Cary as arguing for a more rather than a less generous understanding of “expertise,” myself.

And so you see, rm, I make mistakes all the time. Why, my old blog had over a dozen typos! Some of them very embarrassing! Not to mention that first-person slip. The funny thing is, though, that I know a good deal about the history of US interventions; I just happen to believe that US interventions are Good Things that bring Happy Fun Times to everyone. And I stand ready with my laptop to defend whatever Madame President has in store for Iran.

39

John Emerson 03.30.07 at 12:28 pm

Maybe the disciplinary boundaries were originally drawn rather haphazardly and are intrinsically problematic. Even in the hard sciences they have needed to define fields like physical chemistry, biochemistry, and biophysics which straddle the original borders, and the further you move into the social sciences and humanities, the less inevitable the divisions become.

I think that the best analogy to disciplinary organization is the precapitalist guild system, which enforced monopolies and guarantees jobs, or tried to, to its restricted membership. The poaching that Rick and Scott have mentioned is thus a battle between guilds, with the Americanist guild struggling to establish itself versus other, already existing guilds, such as historians or Englishists. Berube’s Cultural Studies guild likewise is battling with the English guild.

If the boundaries are at all arbitrary, it’s trivially true that the most interesting new stuff will be found in the neglected hedgerows between fields, rather in the neat, intensively cultivated row crops. The guild dynamic of professionalism moves in the other direction, though, toward the definition of subspecialties rather than toward the crossing of boundaries.

40

bloix 03.30.07 at 12:52 pm

Is Prof Althouse protected by academic freedom? Spend 30 seconds with this and see what you think-

http://tbogg.blogspot.com/2007/03/witness-death-of-vlogging.html

41

A Cretan 03.30.07 at 1:13 pm

Mmm – on a pedantic note, was Walt’s initial comment a conundrum or a paradox?

42

Walt 03.30.07 at 2:10 pm

It’s a good think Berube is a professor of literature, not theology, as demonstrated by his commets on baby Jesus theology.

43

Walt 03.30.07 at 2:13 pm

It’s a good thing I’m not a professor of literature, as demonstrated by my inability to spell “comments”.

44

C. L. Ball 03.30.07 at 2:14 pm

Academic freedom for students or faculty does not provide immunity from expulsion or dismissal, respectively, for legitimate reasons, and academic freedom does not hinge on tenured or untenured status. It is a violation of academic freedom to fire a prof. for speaking at a political rally whether he is tenured or untenured. I don’t see why we should accept a university’s expulsion of students for the same reasons on the grounds that students don’t have academic freedom.

The expertise issue becomes more dicey if you consider “disciplinary trespass” as a grounds for dismissal or sanctions. For example, an untenured prof. who chooses to study the biological origins of identity when he was hired to teach and research on formal methods and comparative political economy is unlikely to find much sympathy if his contract is not renewed. Similarly a tenured associate prof. who begins to do the same would probably not get promotion to full prof. or much in the way of salary increases or dept.’s discretionary research funds unless he can get his line transfered to the psychology dept. or an inter-disciplinary center. But isn’t the hypothetical prof’s freedom to study being restricted? If the bio-identity work was being published in peer-reviewd journals and academic presses, would it be wrong for the university to sanction the prof on grounds of not doing the job the university hired him to do? In JR’s post, academic freedom is a means to further the production and dissemination of knowledge, but that potentially gives the university discretion to decide what kinds and quality of knowledge it will support and thereby restrict freedom of inquiry.

Students do not have the same breadth of freedom to study within a class. A student in an economics class who is asked to explain Keynes theory of unemployment cannot instead write about Marx’s theories and expect a passing grade. But a modern poetry student who can put forth a valid aesthetic theory for why Pound and Eliot are charlatans should not be failed for disagreeing with the teacher’s sensibilities.

If we define academic freedom as immunity from firing to do their job, on what principle are we going to bar teachers from flunking students who wear ‘vote for X’ t-shirts when the teacher votes Y or administrators from expelling them? Public universities would be prohibited on Constitutional free speech grounds, but private universities would not.

45

Barry 03.30.07 at 2:48 pm

Another: “Universities are supposed to be meritocratic institutions. The people who teach and do research there are supposed to know more than the rest of us.”

Posted by Sebastian Holsclaw: “The problem is when it is revealed that they don’t seem to know more than the rest of us. The cases may be rare (say Ward Churchill)—but when brought to the public eye they end up appearing really ugly.

Maybe there is nothing to be done about it.”

Sebastian, compared to the GOP leadership, academia is doing an excellent job of policing both competancy and morality. Compared to the ‘think tanks’ of the right, academia comes out at least 100 times better at both.

46

Rich Puchalsky 03.30.07 at 3:29 pm

“A student in an economics class who is asked to explain Keynes theory of unemployment cannot instead write about Marx’s theories and expect a passing grade. But a modern poetry student who can put forth a valid aesthetic theory for why Pound and Eliot are charlatans should not be failed for disagreeing with the teacher’s sensibilities.”

I know that this is a side-path, but I don’t see any difference between these two cases. If you take a poetry course that focusses on Pound and Eliot, you can’t say they’re charlatans, any more than you can keep from regurgitating Keynes in a Keynes course. For that matter, you can’t take a biology course and hand in papers that rely on creationism. Part of being a student is that you have to give a certain level of elementary respect to the material you’re studying, or decide to take different courses.

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Rich Puchalsky 03.30.07 at 3:59 pm

“I read Cary as arguing for a more rather than a less generous understanding of “expertise,” myself.”

In an ideal world, one in which political misconstrual of every argument by the radical right did not exist, then I’d say that expertise is irrelevant to the purpose of academic freedom. Academic freedom, like most of the negative freedoms in the Enlightenment tradition, is predicated on the idea that anything that can be abused politically will be. For instance, we don’t have free speech only for expert speakers — we have free speech because the power to regulate speech would inevitably be abused. For academics, the tenuring process is assumed to involve evaluation of expertise by peers. But if that is incorrect, or later becomes incorrect, you can’t regulate the academic freedom for those people to work on whatever they want to work on, because that would also be abused.

Of course the radical right would take this position as “Liberals say that professors can teach anything they want because truth doesn’t exist!” So people think that they need to defend a broader vision of expertise, for public relations purposes. But the radical right can be counted on to misconstrue anything, so I don’t see why we shouldn’t talk about the actual reasons in the freedom of a comment box.

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Ben Alpers 03.30.07 at 5:26 pm

On a side note, whoever is moderating this thread is obviously unfamiliar with the movie Gilda (and its relevance to Michael’s post), as evidenced by the fact that an earlier (admittedly pseudonymous) post has been awaiting moderation for about fifteen hours.

Behold the dangers of not giving film a prominent place in the university curriculum!

49

Colin Danby 03.30.07 at 6:11 pm

I’d be delighted to have a student submit a paper saying someone we’d studied was a charlatan, as long as there was a real argument. Regurgitation is *not* what we aim for, most of us.

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c.l. ball 03.30.07 at 6:28 pm

Re #45, my initial analogy between the poetry and economics course was flawed. I think it depends on the assignment. If the question is: “Explain the aesthetic value of Pound, etc. according to critics X.” You cannot write about Pounds flawed aesthetic according to critic Y and expect a passing grade. But if it is discussion-driven seminar, only a hack would downgrade a student who made a reasoned case against Pound et al’s aesthetic. Saying “I hate Pound” with out a reason makes the student a dolt. Saying “I hate Pound because he lacks the x attribute of Romanticism” is a different matter entirely. I agree on creationism in a biology class, but should a student pushing Gould’s line on natural selection and evolutionary ‘progress’ be down-graded by a Dawkins’ devotee. I think not.

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Luther Blissett 03.30.07 at 7:23 pm

Horowitz is a dolt. But until American humanities departments begin to reform themselves, they will continue to feed his flame, to “enable” him, as we say in drug language.

An example: I studied race in American literature for four years of graduate school, in an Ivy League university’s well-respected Africana Studies program. My dissertation proposal was easily approved. And it wasn’t until I met Sean McCann and Scott Kaufman via The Valve that anyone told me I might challenge my assumptions about race and culture by reading Walter Benn Michaels.

So it’s not only “conservative” work that is ignored in the academy. It’s any work that potentially could challenge a professor’s assumptions. (Not all professors, of course, but the more “politicized” the academic, the more tunnel vision one encounters.) For example, Scott has done a great job showing the total ignorance among Lacanians of scientific research that challenges the Lacanian view of mind/brain function.

Ultimately, I think Horowitz’s critique could be circumvented best by addressing the educational methods of today’s academy. Beyond basic introductory lecture courses, I think all humanities courses should be structured around inquiry-based instruction. A professor might posit a period of study, a genre, an author or set of authors — but beyond those basic limitations, the class should follow the research interests of the students. Students should be forced to undertake weekly research and reading projects and report back on their findings. They might decide to collectively research a given topic each week, but this shouldn’t be enforced by a syllabus. A professor might design the evaluations and the rubric for assigning values to those evaluations (something too rarrely done in classes where professors just say, “Write an essay on *The Scarlet Letter*,” without defining what exactly they mean by an essay, what aspects of the essay they’ll evaluate, and how they will evaluate those aspects.)

“Discovery learning” and inquiry-based instruction don’t work for basic skills and low-level knowledge, but for learning high-level skills and knowledge, they are probably the best methods. In such a classroom, the professor cannot be held responsible for “indoctrinating” the students, nor could a professor indoctrinate a student in such a classroom. (Of course, this would mean that college professors-to-be might have to study pedagogy in graduate school, because few of us have ever experienced a truly discovery-based classroom.)

A decent college English curriculum might then mean big lecture courses on the basics: Shakespeare, English Lit I and II, American Lit I and II. After that, students should be learning through individual and group research projects. That would shut ACTA up too.

(On a separate note, I should add to Scott’s comment about me above that I only went on the job market once, and I wasn’t yet finished with my diss — without degree in hand, one shouldn’t expect too many interviews or job offers these days. It was my experiences teaching junior high and high school students that made me decide to get my secondary teaching certification and teach high school. If had to do it over again, I’d write a dissertation on English/composition pedagogy — but I’d still want to teach high school.)

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John Protevi 03.30.07 at 7:51 pm

#5: a case can be made that many women’s studies professors are not terribly “up” on the latest research from the hard sciences on biological differences between the sexes.

Luther, I don’t know how you can claim to know that about “many women’s studies professors,” but here at LSU, your comment is way off base. For one thing, a good number of my WGS colleagues are in the life sciences. Secondly, your comment doesn’t even hold for our students, as we regularly offer a WGS course on the biology of sex. Here’s the course description:

WGS 1001
Evolution of Sex and Gender

An interdisciplinary course covering the biological and cultural aspects of sexual difference, including such topics as
reproduction-related evolutionary change, diversification of the mammals, genetics of sex, sexual dimorphism, reproductive strategies, anatomy and physiology of human reproductive
systems, and sex and gender in culture. There will be four roughly equal sections, each taught by a different faculty member, a paleontologist, two zoologists, and an anthropologist.

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Steve T. 03.30.07 at 11:26 pm

C.L. Ball (43) I don’t know if it would be a violation of academic freedom for a guy to get fired for speaking at a rally. But it would certainly be a violation of his political right of free speech as a citizen, and he could sue on those grounds.

If he claimed to be speaking officially as a representative of his school, speaking on its behalf when he had no authority to do so, that might be different.

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am 03.31.07 at 12:34 am

Those who think that Berube retains any credibility on matters Horowitz should read

http://www.frontpagemag.com/Articles/ReadArticle.asp?ID=25020

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Michael Bérubé 03.31.07 at 1:27 am

Those who think that Berube retains any credibility on matters Horowitz. . . .

Credibility? We don’t need no steenking credibility. We’ve got the whole Discover the Horowitz Database on our old blog!

But hate can be a very exciting emotion. Very exciting. Haven’t you noticed that?

No, actually, Ballin Ben, I haven’t. I don’t hate Horowitz; I just think he is a Bad and Rather Ludicrous Man, and I ridicule him. Besides, I never thought much of the whole “thin line” argument in the first place.

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JP Stormcrow 03.31.07 at 1:46 am

Those who think that Berube Horowitz retains any credibility on matters Horowitz should read

http://www.frontpagemag.com/AboutHorowitz/index.asp.

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Ben Alpers 03.31.07 at 2:00 am

No, actually, Ballin Ben, I haven’t…..

I just figured there must be some reason you wanted us asking about tungsten….

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Luther Blissett 03.31.07 at 2:28 am

John, in my experience, that’s a rare course. I wonder how many professors teach Judith Butler along with scientific research that would challenge a purely performative theory of gender. (This isn’t to say that I agree with biological theories of gender — the evidence isn’t conclusive.)

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rm 03.31.07 at 2:58 am

Luther, I’m sorry that your grad school experience included no guidance in pedagogy. Mine was all about pedagogy. It was narrow in other ways, but there’s a sense in which any education is necessarily narrow. It should equip you to peer over the walls and to continue to learn, though.

I would say that most of the activities in the classes I teach are “inquiry based” or “project based,” but of course the inquiry can’t last more than 16 weeks and the projects have to be manageable inside of 3 credits. That’s an unfortunate concession to the corporate model of the university. I don’t blame that situation on humanities scholars or “the Left,” but on the relentless corporatization and privatization that the right wing has foisted upon us.

I’m noticing that sweeping judgments of what “academia” or “the humanities” are doing, as expressed in this comment thread, don’t hold up, but instead the judgment depends on the particulars. (Down with grand meta-narratives!) C. L. Ball is right on. Whether one is crushing the student’s academic freedom or rightly insisting that the student study the actual subject at hand depends on the details. If I assign a critical article and get a narrative, that’s bad, but there may be other classes where I assign a narrative.

As it happens, when I was a junior in college I did, in fact, write a paper where my entire aim was to justify saying “Ezra Pound is full of shit” within the bounds of valid critical commentary, and I think I succeeded, by way of the “hell Canto” (I don’t have the resources at hand to find what the number is, but it’s the Canto that has stalactites of shit hanging over London and — my favorite Pound line — “Profiteers drinking blood sweetened with shit,” which is the motto of the current Texan ruling class). I got an A, anyway. The point was that Pound sees his contemporaries as very literally full of shit in that poem, but he falls prey to the same sins, so he’s full of the same metaphorical shit. That’s what you get when you try to hijack Dante.

And Luther, if I had it to do over again I think I would have taught high school too, at least at first, to make more money.

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Michael Bérubé 03.31.07 at 3:29 am

I just figured there must be some reason you wanted us asking about tungsten. . . .

Why yes, Ben-Byron, there is, now that you ask. Get your mind off that lithesome Ms. Hayworth, and turn if you will to the tale of “Byron the Bulb” in Gravity’s Rainbow. Pay special attention to the second half of the second paragraph:

Through his years of survival, all these various rescues of Byron happen as if by accident. Whenever he can, he tries to instruct any bulbs nearby in the evil nature of Phoebus, and in the need for solidarity against the cartel. He has come to see how Bulb must move beyond its role as conveyor of light-energy alone. Phoebus has restricted Bulb to this one identity. “But there are other frequencies, above and below the visible band. Bulb can give heat. Bulb can provide energy for plants to grow, illegal plants, inside closets, for example. Bulb can penetrate the sleeping eye, and operate amonst the dreams of men.” Some bulbs listened attentively – others thought of ways to fink to Phoebus. Some of the older anti-Byronists were able to fool with their parameters in systematic ways that would show up on the ebonite meters under the Swiss mountain: there were even a few self-immolations, hoping to draw the hit men down.

Any talk of Bulb’s transcendence, of course, was clear subversion. Phoebus based everything on bulb efficiency – the ratio of the usable power coming out, to the power put in. The Grid demanded that this ratio stay as small as possible. That way they got to sell more juice. On the other hand, low efficiency meant longer burning hours, and that cut into bulb sales for Phoebus. In the beginning Phoebus tried increasing filament resistance, reducing the hours of life on the sly and gradually – till the Grid noticed a fall-off in revenues, and started screaming. The two parties by and by reached an accord on a compromise bulb-life figure that would bring in enough money for both of them, and to go fifty-fifty on the costs of the antibulbsnatching campaign. Along with a more subtle attack against those criminal souls who forswear bulbs entirely and use candles. Phoebus’s long-standing arrangement with the Meat Cartel was to restrict the amount of tallow in circulation by keeping more fat in meat to be sold regardless of the cardiac problems that might arise, and redirectly most of what was trimmed off into soap production. Soap in those days was a booming concern. Among the consumers, the Bland Institute had discovered deep feelings about shit. Even at that, meat and soap were minor interlocks to Phoebus. More important were items like tungsten. Another reason why Phoebus couldn’t cut down bulb life too far. Too many tungsten filaments would eat into available stockpiles of the metal – China being the major world source, this also brought in very delicate questions of Eastern policy – and disturb the arrangement between General Electric and Krupp about how much tungsten carbide would be produced, where and when and what the prices would be. The guidelines settled on were $37-$90 a pound in Germany, $200-$400 a pound in the U.S. This directly governed the production of machine tools, and thus all areas of light and heavy industry. When the War came, some people thought it unpatriotic of GE to have given Germany an edge like that. But nobody with any power. Don’t worry.

Here endeth the lesson.

The point was that Pound sees his contemporaries as very literally full of shit in that poem, but he falls prey to the same sins, so he’s full of the same metaphorical shit.

Which reminds me that the 1948 Bollingen Prize should have been awarded to William Carlos Williams.

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Luther Blissett 03.31.07 at 11:24 am

Come now, Michael, we all know the ’48 Bollingen should have gone to Billy Collins. A ’48 Bollingen, when chilled, is always great with fish.

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Ben Alpers 03.31.07 at 2:15 pm

….and turn if you will to the tale of “Byron the Bulb” in Gravity’s Rainbow

A book? And a big one, too!

I find it easier to watch movies! ;-)

j/k

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Ryan Lanham 03.31.07 at 3:46 pm

OK, Horowitz is a monster, and I’ve said so before in print. But that doesn’t mean academia doesn’t need serious reform. I feel like professors are taking a very Republican line defending an ontology of discipline that is clearly broken.

You can’t have it both ways. Either there is expertise or there isn’t. If there is, then a whole lot of current social science is worse than hooey…if there isn’t, then we can’t play the ivory tower game. Therein lies the sting that this guy elicits.

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c.l. ball 03.31.07 at 4:32 pm

C.L. Ball (43) I don’t know if it would be a violation of academic freedom for a guy to get fired for speaking at a rally. But it would certainly be a violation of his political right of free speech as a citizen, and he could sue on those grounds.

Sadly, while it certainly constrains the exercise of guy’s rights, it is not a violation of his 1st Amend. rights to fire him for off-job political expression unless his employer is the government.

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fardels bear 03.31.07 at 9:17 pm

Luther, Why do you assume that scientific research on gender is immune from social critique of gender? In other words, if scientific research is itself performative how can it be used to “challenge a purely performative theory of gender?”

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Luther Blissett 04.01.07 at 1:13 am

Fardels Bear: Scientific research isn’t performative. It often accomplishes things, like medicines and giant bombs that kill people. Scientists clone sheep, make man-sheep hybrids (‘ello, Dr. Moreau!), and make hybrid cars.

Of course, some scientific research might be guided by ideological demands, but at that point, it ceases to be science. (‘Tho the motives for researching something scientifically do not immediately call into question the validity of the research.)

Let humanities folk keep a careful eye on scientists. And let scientists keep a careful eye on humanities folk. But if you teach a subject with scientific ramifications — 9/11 conspiracy theories, sex/gender, psychology — you had better address the science.

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JR 04.01.07 at 1:37 am

“Regurgitation is not what we aim for, most of us.”

Well, yes in-deedy-do it is what you aim for- at least, if you are doing your job, it is. Being a professor means teaching your students to manipulate complex abstract concepts within a framework of given methods of analysis. It is your job to have mastery of your field of study and to convey that mastery to your students. If they cannot master the field for whatever reason – perhaps because they have pre-conceived ideas that conflict with what you are teaching – well then, they fail.

Now that does not mean that your students cannot disagree with you or that they can’t have opinions on areas of controversy. Within the limits of the field, it’s a good thing for them to be learn to conduct argument, but only within those limits.

What is it about some professors that makes them denigrate their own fields? A civil engineering professor wouldn’t say that a student who learned the parameters of suspension bridge design had learned to “regurgitate.” A classics professor wouldn’t say that a student who could translate Virgil into supple and expressive English had learned to “regurgitate.” But some professors seem to have a horror that a student will actually learn something that has some content to it. Why is that?

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rm 04.01.07 at 2:19 am

Luther, while you are right, you are also wrong. Science should not be guided by a pre-set ideological agenda, but it can’t help being a human institution. Not all scientific disciplines can be done in a lab, where methods are replicable, which is what I take to be the guard against human error in science. Some have to be done among human cultures, or in natural environments where conditions are always changing. Ideological constraints are often (by some definitions, always) unconscious. You are right that there is a real, meaningful difference between science and humanities, but sometimes the very questions scientists think of pursuing are ideologically constrained. Or, maybe, always are. Like asking why there are gender differences in society and looking for only biological answers, when no biological answer can be disentangled from prior questions of power, culture, and ideology. When scientists pretend that it’s possible to disregard such questions, then science is open to critique by fuzzy-headed humanities types. You see, if you teach a subject that has social ramifications, you had better address ideology.

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JP Stormcrow 04.01.07 at 3:19 am

Here endeth the lesson.

Fair enough. But I still don’t understand how they can buy eggs in Malta for seven cents apiece and sell them at a profit in Pianosa for five cents.

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c.l. ball 04.02.07 at 2:39 pm

But I still don’t understand how they can buy eggs in Malta for seven cents apiece and sell them at a profit in Pianosa for five cents.

They make it up on volume.

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Jeff Younger 04.02.07 at 3:28 pm

although Horowitz claims to abide by the American Association of University Professors’ definition of “academic freedom,” he is campaigning, as I have often argued, for a definition of “academic freedom” that extends the concept to students, thereby rendering it either incoherent or indistinguishable from some nebulous concept of “intellectual freedom” or “freedom from professorial haranguing.”

But this is wrong. If a student of discipline A presents material in accord with the prevailing academic standards of A, then the student’s work ought to be just as protected under academic freedom as any professor of A. Horowitz argues for using the same definition for students. Moreover, since the standards for students would be identical to standards for professors your claimed conflation of academic freedom with “ intellectual freedom’ or ‘ freedom from professorial haranguing’ ” is shown to be incorrect. Horowitz isn’t arguing for a change in the definition of academic freedom, but an extention of the same defintion to other people, namely students.

he’s always complaining that professor X doesn’t have the credentials to teach course Y, as if he is the Arbiter of All Scholarly Knowledge, and some of his beliefs on that score

This also is false, and it’s easy to see why. Consider this recent op-ed by an Economics professor. Horowitz doesn’t set himself up as an arbiter of scholarly standards; instead, he demonstrates that professors routinely violate the 1970 “interpretive comments” section of the AAUP statement on academic freedom, specifically citation 2.

The intent of this statement is not to discourage what is “controversial.” Controversy is at the heart of the free academic inquiry which the entire statement is designed to foster. The passage serves to underscore the need for teachers to avoid persistently intruding material which has no relation to their subject.

The persistent and routine violation of AAUP standards shows that professors are not adequately enforcing their own standards. Academic credentials are not necessary to notice and then to demonstrate this fact.

You seem to be impressed with Mr. Cary’s point about evolving expertise. I am not. I agree that lack of coursework does not disqualify someone from teaching in a discipline, and I would even go farther by claiming that even existing course work doesn’t qualify someone to teach in a discipline. To qualify as an authority one must show a reasonably adequate record of satisfying peer review in a discipline. That is the only way to determine if a professor’s work accords with the prevailing academic standards in his discipline. So, the purported problem of evolving expertise and interdisciplinary studies was solved by scholars long ago. It’s surprising to discover that professors are unaware of it.

It seems that your basic claims have fallen.

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Michael Bérubé 04.02.07 at 7:03 pm

Well, Jeff, I’m not terribly impressed by that op-ed. And I actually don’t think that professors in the liberal arts are violating AAUP standards when they say that capitalism exploits people. (They may be reductive, but they aren’t committing firing offenses, either.) And if you were more familiar with Horowitz, you would know that he most certainly does challenge professors’ credentials. Last but not least:

To qualify as an authority one must show a reasonably adequate record of satisfying peer review in a discipline. That is the only way to determine if a professor’s work accords with the prevailing academic standards in his discipline. So, the purported problem of evolving expertise and interdisciplinary studies was solved by scholars long ago. It’s surprising to discover that professors are unaware of it.

It’s surprising that someone who speaks with such remarkable self-assurance would be unaware of instances in which interdisciplinary work was ill-served by peer review (either because the people involved in the review were too blinkered and territorial to recognize legitimate challenges to their disciplines, or because the people involved were insufficiently well-read in those disciplines). In the course of my career thus far, I’ve come upon historians who refused to believe that the history of abortion rights or day care policy was “real” history, and political scientists who want nothing to do with the political theorists in their own department, and anthropology departments torn between cultural and physical anthropologists. In each case, the conflict of the faculties had to do with disagreements over what kind of peer review was necessary and appropriate; sometimes, these took the form of disagreements about external reviewers, and sometimes, they took the form of departments tearing themselves apart.

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Ray Davis 04.03.07 at 2:23 am

“Why, this is history, nor am I out of it.” Historicism rocks best both ways, so for me Luther’s and Fardels’s points cohere intellectually and pedagogically. Contextualizing the successes of Freud and Lacan (and, on the “hard science” side, lobotomies and [as Luther kind of mentions] atomic energy scientists and so on) can help clarify the workings of popular science in our own day. For example, how statistically unjustifiable attention to genetic and sexual correlations leads to an exaggerated (and profitable) belief in biological determinism, much as inordinate attention to violent crimes leads to exaggerated (and profitable) popular fears. Similarly, Walter Benn Michaels fits into a long American tradition of using racism and economic class differences as catspaws which stabilize each other: he’s found a way to extend that tradition while protesting it.

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Jeff Younger 04.03.07 at 1:01 pm

I’m not terribly impressed by that op-ed. And I actually don’t think that professors in the liberal arts are violating AAUP standards when they say that capitalism exploits people.

Insofar as professors in the liberal arts “persistently intruding material which has no relation to their subject” it must be a violation. The plain meaning of the AAUP standard is easy to grasp. Can you tell me what general standards professors must follow under your interpretation of the AAUP guidelines?

Are we to believe that professors are competent to make claims on any subject whatsoever? Of course not. Liberal arts professors are obligated to follow the prevailing standards of the disciplines they teach. If liberal arts professors teach about economics, why is it so outlandish to expect them to conform to the standards established by economists? Surely, if an economics professor teaches about classical Greek literature, we would fully expect him to apply the scholarly standards of Classics scholarship, and not the scholarly standards of economics.

What’s controversial about expecting liberal arts professors to do the same for their presentations of economics?

the conflict of the faculties had to do with disagreements over what kind of peer review was necessary and appropriate; sometimes, these took the form of disagreements about external reviewers, and sometimes, they took the form of departments tearing themselves apart.

And here we notice the usual skeptical move. At essence, this is a Pyrrhonian argument (of Sextus’ second and tenth modes) against belief in any standards. There are two problems with this position. First, the AAUP statement of academic freedom assumes conflicts of the type you mention, yet it assumes also the existence of standards. Second, if there is no general agreement on academic standards, say in history, then why is history still a distinct discipline at all. Once you undermine the possibility of standards, what’s left? Not much.

On the other hand, if standards do exist, then professors must take extraordinary care when making claims using terms and concepts from different disciplines. That’s why interdisciplinary competence implies competence in the disciplines. That’s also why liberal arts professors without special study in economics ought not make authoritative economic claims.

I admit the existence of conflicts among the disciplines, but most of these are conflicts of value not of standards. For example, the conflict between economists and social scientists often revolves around notions of equality. They may disagree on what warrants a claim of exploitation, but the logical, theoretical and empirical standards of the two disciplines are remarkably similar.

And this is Horowitz’s point. Students shouldn’t be graded on standards of value any more than are professors. I still can’t see what’s controversial about that. To me, it seems that professors cannot tolerate oversight under their own standards.

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rm 04.03.07 at 2:03 pm

Oh, no. We have one of those “plain meaning . . . is easy to grasp” people. One minute it’s “plain meaning” on the surface, the next it’s “at essence” deep in the subtext.

Jeff, if Horowitz had any evidence for his claims, he would be listened to. You are asking for a cartoonishly rigid version of “standards” when you attack the liberal professor, but not applying any kind of standards at all to your reading of Horowitz. When two sides take up a debate, there is a basic contract in place that both sides are arguing in good faith. H. demonstrably argues in bad faith on the teevee screen. Then he pretends to make demands of teachers who are mostly doing their jobs fairly and professionally. They should ignore such a dishonest critic. That’s the point.

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rm 04.03.07 at 2:08 pm

And I think the other point is that there might be valid questions about disciplinary expertise, but since Horowitz isn’t able to ask them, professors will have to be their own honest critics and be careful and critical in what they do. Which we do anyway, because that’s our job and our training. And since you and I are the only people left in the thread, Jeff, I’m going to get back to grading.

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Jeff Younger 04.03.07 at 2:56 pm

April, the two phrases of mine that you cite don’t reference the same object.

They should ignore such a dishonest critic. That’s the point.

Not really. If we are to ignore dishonest people, we’ll ignore half the Western cannon in almost every discipline. The issue is not over the quality of the people, but rather over the quality of what they say. I’m not defending Horowitz as a person, but I think his claim that academics don’t follow their own standards, or worse they can’t articulate any standards, is generally true.

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Jeff Younger 04.03.07 at 3:11 pm

but since Horowitz isn’t able to ask them, professors will have to be their own honest critics and be careful and critical in what they do. Which we do anyway, because that’s our job and our training.

Just because someone is trained to do a thing doesn’t mean they actually do it. Moreover, there are many occupations that endure oversight from outsiders. Should law enforcement be exempt from public oversight because most people don’t anything about law enforcement? Should a builder be exempt from oversight just because city officials don’t anything about building?

I keep asking professors, what are the standards? Well, what are they, April?

No one is trying to set standards for professors, we’d just like them to tell us the standards, so we can conduct the normal, casual oversight every other profession endures. I’m getting the feeling that professors don’t want to articulate standards because they don’t want any oversight.

If true, it would be tantamount to an a priori rejection of outside criticism, and such rejection is wholly illegitimate.

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Colin Danby 04.03.07 at 4:02 pm

Ah, that “Western cannon” reappears (78), and as ever, in the posts of people who really do want a cannon to aim at their enemies.

Though Jeff Younger’s posts are extreme, they’re a fine example of the way “discipline” is used uncritically, as a way to claim that discipline X has arrived at the truth and anyone in discipline not-X who disputes that truth is wrong, though this is the first time I’ve heard the accusation that disputing such alleged truths violates the AAUP’s academic freedom standards. But if it hinges on the “no relation” wording that’s pretty easy to deal with: I’m reading Adam Smith right now with a class, and we *have* to move between psychology, philosophy, political theory, history of science, and so forth to get a fix on what Smith was doing. Any rich text and just about any real-world situation is going to take you in transdisciplinary directions.

Standards are rigor, clarity, careful use of evidence, and learning the appropriate literatures; and the key remains peer-reviewed scholarship — this of course a very conservative statement of standards. Producing good interdisciplinary work requires that journals assemble interdisciplinary teams of referees, and I’m very grateful to the journals that have done that in my case.

It’s interesting to see Economics used in the disciplining way of the oped cited in 72. I’m trained in econ and am also, for what it’s worth, broadly sympathetic with commerce and letting folks do what they want, but I blanch at the first sentence of the oped, “As an economics professor for 30 years, I have emphasized free-market capitalism as the surest way to raise living standards for the masses.” I think I would like to let students come to this sort of conclusion on their own, and I would surely, in a course, want to open out questions rather than collapsing everything into capitalism versus communism as Happel’s oped does, which is the level of analysis I remember being taught in the sixth grade.

I do agree that there’s sometimes a tendency among folks who are not trained in econ to revert too easily to simplistic splits of their own, mapping econ|nonecon onto selfishness|caring, but Stephen Happel’s crudely ideological oped is unlikely to open up the kind of dialogue we need.

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rm 04.03.07 at 4:34 pm

Dude, my name isn’t April, unless your name is Jeff Y. April. April is the month we are in. It’s the fourth month of the year 2007.

Professors are public figures who “endure” (sometimes endure, sometimes welcome) outside criticism of many kinds. It’s set by peer review. It’s determined in merit pay decisions and tenure & promotion decisions. Administrators are always holding us accountable and asking us to do more with less money, same as in any industry. The big new movement in academia is to devise more “measurable” ways of assessing the success of our programs. I put “measurable” in scare quotes because it’s hard for us in humanities to translate all of our “student learning outcomes” into numbers. (Congratulations, you achieved a 58% increase in average student comprehension of the themes of Romanticism!). But we do it, because that’s the only way our work can be compared to other programs around the nation. And accreditation reviews absorb a gigantic amount of our bureaucratic energy, which hopefully produces good effects because we have to document what we do and how well it succeeds. And we invite student evaluation of courses and teachers, and if we don’t respond productively to student criticism we face the wrath of the promotion/tenure committee. And AAUP censures departments or programs that do not meet standards. And the professional boards of each discipline set standards. If you wanted to measure “professors” by using evidence instead of anecdote (I dunno about you, but that’s how H. operates), you would do serious research into the kinds of documents I’ve just mentioned. And we are public figures whose classrooms are open to visitors, whose work is subject to public comment in the press and places like Rate My Professor or those admissions chat boards.

There are many yardsticks, each measuring different things, and every institution and discipline has a different mix of yardsticks.

My problem with your argument is that you are asking for one, simple, mythical Procrustean yardstick. Go to your databases and reasearch keywords like “higher education administration,” “accreditation,” “assessment,” “professional standards,” “merit review,” “promotion,” “tenure,” “course evaluation” and grasp what a complex thing evaluation is, and get some experience in evaluation, and come back in a few years and say that all professors are unaccountable, that we have no oversight, and that we reject outside criticism.

I’ll repeat: self-criticism is what we do, and if we didn’t do it we would lose accreditation, lose our share of the budget, lose our tenure or promotion bids, lose the respect of our students, lose our standing in our disciplines, and lose job candidates to better-run programs.

It’s hard to think of a profession that “endures” more outside scrutiny.

Incidentally, I wish you would lose the debate-club style and simply write in your own voice, from your own experience, with no more certainty in your tone than you actually feel in your heart. As an accredited rhetorician, I can assure you that you will get a better response from your audience if you do.

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rm 04.03.07 at 5:08 pm

And stop calling me Shirley.

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Michael Bérubé 04.03.07 at 5:12 pm

Well, my name is April. I am the son of April, who was in turn the son of April. That is why I sign myself “april 3rd.”

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rm 04.03.07 at 5:33 pm

Shirley, you jest.

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April IV 04.03.07 at 8:23 pm

Daddy!

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rm 04.03.07 at 8:38 pm

It’s the fourth month of the year 2007.

I didn’t mean to imply that the fourth months of other years have not also been called “April,” or that the future fourth months won’t be “April” too. It’s really very confusing.

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Michael Bérubé 04.03.07 at 9:35 pm

Well, rm, I’ve always preferred to call the fourth month “Nivôse.” But since joining Crooked Timber I’ve agreed to abide by this counterrevolutionary calendar, just for the sake of convenience.

And April, my son! It’s so good to find you at last. Perhaps tomorrow we can unhook you from that iv.

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C. L. Ball 04.03.07 at 9:39 pm

I put “measurable” in scare quotes because it’s hard for us in humanities to translate all of our “student learning outcomes” into numbers. (Congratulations, you achieved a 58% increase in average student comprehension of the themes of Romanticism!).

If you grade student’s work, you translate comprehension into numbers all the time.

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rm 04.03.07 at 10:01 pm

c. l. ball, you are right. But I guess it seems more problematic to me to grade numerically when I am measuring the progress of a writer than when I am giving quantitative exams on math. So, we use various mediating devices, like grading rubrics, to translate qualitative judgments into letter grades. I don’t use 100-point scales because they are too finely calibrated and it seems absurd to distinguish what separates an “82” paper from a “79.” But I can tell the student what separates a B from a C.

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Jeff Younger 04.03.07 at 10:52 pm

Dude, my name isn’t April

Ouch. That was dumb. Sorry. ;-)

Incidentally, I wish you would lose the debate-club style and simply write in your own voice, from your own experience, with no more certainty in your tone than you actually feel in your heart. As an accredited rhetorician, I can assure you that you will get a better response from your audience if you do.

No offense, but I don’t think you are in a position to advise me on collegial rhetoric until you adopt it also. You’ve gone out of your way to poison the well. I write in the rhetorical style of my discipline, mathematics. I’ll just do my best to gather meaning from your style, and I do hope you’ll do the same for me. Since, I’m not an “accredited rhetorician” you may have to make allowances. That’s what collegial discussions are like.

On a more positive note, I do appreciate your direct engagement on my argument.

There are many yardsticks, each measuring different things, and every institution and discipline has a different mix of yardsticks…get some experience in evaluation, and come back in a few years and say that all professors are unaccountable

Yes, I agree with you that professors are measured on educational outcomes. I’ve participated in accreditation reviews myself at a large public university and at a small liberal arts college. I have never claimed that “all professors are unacountable.” I have written that it seems that professors cannot articulate standards, by which I mean classroom and grading standards of the type Horowitz concerns himself with. Even then, I’ve qualified the certainty of my views with rhetorical markers like “it seems” and “I get the feeling” and “If true.” But of course you know that. You’re an “accredited rhetorician.”

A while back, I examined several requirements and standards documents from several accrediting bodies — none addressed the concerns that Horowitz raises. You could positively force me to conceed by producing a a few counter-examples. Why don’t you?

With all those years you’ve spent “in evaluation” surely you can address the concerns I’m raising. You see, I’m unmoved when professors wrap themselves in the mantle of intellectual superiority. If they are superior it will show in their arguments, not in attempts to shun critics by telling them to “come back in a few years.” LOL

As an aside, I work with both professors and commercial types. I’ve seen this same kind of rhetorical intemperance, really arrogance, produce humilitating results for professors, many times.

self-criticism is what we do, and if we didn’t do it we would lose accreditation, lose our share of the budget, lose our tenure or promotion bids, lose the respect of our students, lose our standing in our disciplines, and lose job candidates to better-run programs.

This is a good point. I conceed professors endure scrutiny; however, they are also granted a professional freedom and security from managment oversight unknown in any other occupation.

Will you conceed that that self-criticism may not be enough? That students are legitimate stakeholders with legitimate concerns about grading, harassment and unsupproted claims of fact in the classroom? That these issues ought to be formally studied to determine actionable facts?

I get the feeling that y’all don’t really want to discuss this issue, but rather shun the opposition. That’s OK with me. I’m not a troll. If you really think the issue is settled, we can stop the conversation. I’m not here to anger people.

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april 04.04.07 at 2:55 am

april 3rd said: Perhaps tomorrow we can unhook you from that iv.

Go ahead and try, grandson, make my day.

Further, in another letter, Miss Manners makes it clear that when the eldest member of the family with the same name dies, everyone gets promoted:

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rm 04.04.07 at 4:08 am

Jeff, it’s one of the perils of computer-mediated communication that tone often comes across wrong. What I meant to be humor, you took for arrogance — for instance, in my professional world calling oneself “an accredited rhetorician” is self-evidently ironic, a false pompousness that conveys self-deprecating humor, and it functions in the argument as a signal that none of us should take ourselves too seriously. That’s also why I referenced the film _Airplane_ in the next breath. I never tried to poison the well, I tried to sugar-coat the pill.

Maybe the aggressively simplistic, pushy tone I read in your writing was intended by you as patient, simple reasoning. You seem to feel that you have made an obvious point that everyone is ignoring. That feeling is the hallmark of a troll, as is your closing statement that the locals just won’t discuss the issue (after 70-some comments discussing the issue). However, your comments have too much substance to make me think you aren’t really looking for answers. If you feel it sincerely, I guess you aren’t a troll.

The one bit of arrogance I will confess is the phrase “come back in a few years.” Your rhetorical style led me to believe you were some young Horowitz devotee who had never done the job you criticize. Sorry. If you’ve done the job, you are aware of the multiple ways professors are held accountable.

Which leaves me mystified. What more would you want? You’ve helped me by clarifying that it’s standards of classroom decorum and grading you are concerned about. But the kinds of concerns Horowitz raises are along the lines of patient concerns that their doctors will kill them and sell their organs, or consumer concerns that Proctor & Gamble worships the devil. That is, H. promotes urban legends that never turn out to be true. Search his name at the Chronicle of Higher Ed., or search Berube’s blog archives. H. promotes anecdotes of classroom bias that, when examined, turn out never to have happened. One can’t provide counter-examples to a myth.

If you want me to argue by anecdote, I can say that I have never observed a teacher introduce material unrelated to the subject. I’ve observed bad teachers who didn’t explain things too clearly, or teachers who emphasized a part of the subject I don’t, or teachers whose subject-related material was uncomfortable or controversial and need to be handled carefully. I have only seen one teacher, ever, who harangued students with political stuff, and that guy lost his job. But even he could explain its relation to the class, and even he gave good grades to well-constructed conservative arguments. But he lost his job. So, anecdotally, I think there is enforcement of standards of classroom fairness. (This account excludes all the right-wing tirades I was subjected to by various K-12 teachers as a kid; I am only talking here of what I’ve seen in grad school or professional work).

I think your difficulty might be an extremely narrow idea of what is “related” to the course topic. Colin answered that at length in post 80. The op-ed you linked to doesn’t prove the case you think it does.

I think this thread has gone like this:
— Berube mentioned some ways that Horowitz brings up valid points, even if H. himself argues in bad faith
— A cast of commenters addressed those points by arguing several sides, and raised interesting questions
— You asked “but what are the standards?”
— Several people told you
— You don’t consider their answers to be adequate. You insist that H. brings up some valid points, even if H. himself argues in bad faith, and insist that people address that.
— And that’s when my drinking problem started. (Honestly, dude, “Airplane” is, like, totally a classic).
-

It’s not that folks are ignoring your question, it’s that your premises are wrong. AAUP standards prohibit unrelated material and bias. But what you see as unrelated is usually related, and bias is usually corrected or punished. Professors are not granted a ridiculous freedom from oversight. (I certainly suspect that there are a lot of industries with less oversight than ours — pharmaceutical sales? corporate executives? — but I haven’t done their jobs so I won’t pretend to be sure). Professors do, in fact, constantly take student feedback into account, and administrators routinely follow up seriously on student grievances. (The scandal is the way harassment, assault, and rape on campus are not always taken seriously, not student complaints about professors). Please look for those actionable facts. I bet everyone agrees that students are legitimate stakeholders with legitimate concerns. But the evidence for any generalized problem just has not surfaced. Your op-ed is not it. If you think it is, we’ve reached the point where we acknowledge incommensurable mental worlds, and abandon the dialogue.

In any case, I have enough grading to do, and it’s late, so I am done. Good luck.

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