Academic rigor, journalistic ethics, and “partisan hackery”
[UPDATE: I’ve made a lot of changes below. Most are typos. Some are in response to critics of my own integrity. I’ve tried to deal with all of them . Let me know if there are other errors or changes that need to be made.]
It’s been a while since I allowed myself to get righteously indignant enough about someone wrong on the Internet to write a 708-word Facebook comment, and that was just the longest one. And now a whole blog post! But Naomi Schaefer Riley, who is a blogger for The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s website, wrote two blog posts — “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations” and its follow-up “Black Studies, Part 2: A Response to Critics — that are, yes, such egregious displays of arrogance and incompetence that they deserve a good screed in response. However, more importantly (and more professionally, since this new blog is meant to be less screedy than the old one), they can serve as a teaching moment.
This morning, replying to a Facebook request for comments on one issue I want to address below, a friend of mine wrote, “I wonder if people should just stop reading and responding to her crappy little ‘brainstorms.”” (Riley’s blog is part of the Chronicle‘s “Ideas and Culture” collection called “Brainstorm.”) And I thought about it. And I wrote that I’m of two minds about writing a lengthy response. Ignoring it is tempting, since she’s a rather, ahem, irrelevant critic of academia. From what I can tell, no one outside of right-wing think tanks actually takes her seriously. But then there’s the fact that the Chronicle has given her a soapbox, and the Chronicle has a great deal of power. So, I think we should keep the pressure on.
And again: This is a great teaching moment.
What do I want to teach? My current job is teaching undergraduates how to do academic research. I’ve been doing it for five years. Before that, I taught feature journalism and creative nonfiction. And before that, I was a journalist and editor. Throughout all of this, I’ve been a critic, mostly of film, but also of books and music. So I want to teach my readers, whoever you are, what is so wrong about Riley’s argument.
Keeping all of that in mind, I’m going to Fisk Riley’s blog posts.
The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations.
April 30, 2012, 10:24 pm
I’m not sure if Riley writes her own headlines, but since it is a blog and it was posted at 10:24pm, it’s safe to make the assumption that she does. So, it’s worth pointing out that this headline doesn’t really make sense. Answering the question “What is the most persuasive case for eliminating black studies?” with “Just read the dissertations” is bit off, isn’t it? The more sensible answer would be, “The dissertations are bad” or, in the case of the Riley’s evidence, “The dissertation topics are bad.” Because Riley didn’t read the dissertations. So, her headline sets up a bait and switch. Headlines are advertisement, and this is false advertising. Writing a misleading headline is not the worst crime in the world, but it’s a bad way to start.
By Naomi Schaefer Riley
When I’m teaching my students how to evaluate a source, I tell them to investigate the author. Usually, when it comes to academic research, the answer is something along the lines of “Sally Smith is a professor of sociology at State University and has published numerous peer-reviewed articles about the effects of the Drug War on the social organization of Mexican border towns.” (The theme of my research class is legal and illegal drugs.) With Riley, the response is a bit more complicated. While she is writing about and for academia, she is not an academic; she does not have an advanced degree beyond her Harvard AB, and none of her work has ever been peer-reviewed. Her bio on the Chronicle‘s site reads “Naomi Schaefer Riley is the author of The Faculty Lounges and God on the Quad.” But then on her own site, she gets more specific. She is an affiliate “scholar” at the Institute for American Values, a conservative think tank that is run by David Blankenhorn, who most recently became famous for his embarrassingly fact-free testimony at the Prop 8 trial. Riley has also won fellowships for two other conservative think tanks, Intercollegiate Studies Institute (whose supporters include Justice Scalia and the Scaife Foundation) and the Phillips Foundation (which has awards named after Bob Novak and Ronald Reagan). She was also a deputy editor of the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, everyone’s favorite repository of global warming denial, Scooter Libby fandom, and campaigns to drive liberals to suicide.
Oh, and in college, Riley was the editor the Harvard Salient, the campus conservative rag. I was searching for some of her writing from back then, but the Salient doesn’t have back issues available online. I did, however, find a reference to her work there. While in college, she wrote an article attacking National Coming Out Day, telling gay students to stay in the closet because no one cared about their homosexuality (except, I guess, for her and the writers of the other two articles in the same issue, one about Candace Gingrich’s lesbianism and the other supporting employment discrimination against gays and lesbians). Diana Adair, with whom I was friends while I was at Harvard, wrote an editorial in the Crimson criticizing that issue of the Salient, and recounting how fear of homophobia had made her lie about being gay in a scholarship interview. If she’d told the truth, Adair wrote, “Had my interviewer been Schaefer [Riley’s maiden name] … I might not have gotten the scholarship.” How did Riley respond? She wrote an enraged letter, feigning offense about Diana’s implication that Riley was a bigot: “As an English concentrator, Adair should understand when I write that she fails to use the techniques of close reading when constructing her slanderous arguments.” Unfortunately, Riley, who was also an English concentrator, didn’t know the meaning of the word “slander.” Slander is spoken, and libel is written. And in the United States, both have pretty high bars; Diana would have had to known for a fact that Riley was not homophobic and then had claimed specifically that she knew for a fact that Riley was homophobic. Since Riley wrote an article telling gays and lesbians not to talk about their homosexuality and edited another that encouraged discrimination against gays and lesbians, it would be difficult to imagine how one wouldn’t assume Riley was homophobic.
Why did I bother to criticize Riley for her work she did as a college student? I’ll get to that.
But suffice it say that if one of my students were to use something by Riley as a source, I would expect the entry in his or her annotated bibliography to point out the Riley’s work is ideologically driven. She is a conservative before she’s a journalist. And, well, I wouldn’t expect this in a formal annotated bibliography, but Riley also has got a history of being hostile to minority rights, discrimination claims, and to criticism.
You’ll have to forgive the lateness but I just got around to reading The Chronicle’s recent piece on the young guns of black studies. If ever there were a case for eliminating the discipline, the sidebar explaining some of the dissertations being offered by the best and the brightest of black-studies graduate students has made it. What a collection of left-wing victimization claptrap. The best that can be said of these topics is that they’re so irrelevant no one will ever look at them.
Here’s the sidebar in question. (The non-sidebar piece on Black Studies is here.) And, wow. Both the hostility and the hyperbole here are shocking to me. This is the Chronicle of Higher Education, not FreeRepublic.com or the comments section of Michelle Malkin’s blog. I expect decorum at the least, but I’d also hope that someone writing for the Chronicle would be more careful about encouraging the elimination of an entire discipline based on blurbs describing five dissertations. The reference to “left-wing victimization claptrap” is perhaps more damning, because it makes it clear to the reader that Riley’s critique is ideological: The conservative critique of victimization is based, at its best, on the idea that minorities shouldn’t be helped by social programs created to make-up for historical or structural discrimination. At its worst, the critique is a method for denying that racism, sexism, and homophobia continue to exist, since admitting these things exist threatens the power and privilege of white, heterosexual men. Of course, conservatives are quite obsessed with being victims themselves, as the claims of conservative Christians who claim to be victimized by hate crime legislation, same-sex marriage, and secularism make quite clear. (Ex: The recent faux outrage about Dan Savage. Or, well, Riley’s own “Don’t call me a bigot!” letter she wrote in college. Or most ridiculously, the nearly fact-free piece in the WeeklyStandard.com about Riley’s sad plight.) Finally, Riley makes the rather daring claim that these topics are “irrelevant.” What is this claim based on? As it turns out, it’s not based on any evidence, just on Riley’s imagination. Again, Riley didn’t read the dissertations.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I have not always been a paragon of ethics when it comes to my public writing. Over the last year, I have written “DVR This” and “DVD of the Week” sidebars to my weekly movie review. Several times, I have suggested recording or renting movies or TV shows that I haven’t seen. Most of these involved TV broadcasts of original programming occurring in the future — such as the season premiere of Mad Men — and there was no way I could have seen the show. However, last week, I suggested renting both The Vow and Haywire because I thought many of my readers would find it fun to look at Channing Tatum. I can imagine a reader might believe I’d seen those two movies, though I have not. And several months ago, I suggested recording Kiss of the Spiderwoman and A Taste of Honey. I recommended them based on the reviews I’d read, on their reputations, and my own desire to see the movies. While I didn’t claim to have seen these films in the few sentences I used to describe and recommend them, I think a reader could easily assume that I had. I have been told that this lapse in my integrity makes my criticisms of Riley’s integrity hypocritical, and if I am to take integrity as seriously as I urge everyone else should, I must agree. I will let my readers decide whether this then means my critique of Riley is less valid.
That’s what I would say about Ruth Hayes’ dissertation, “‘So I Could Be Easeful’: Black Women’s Authoritative Knowledge on Childbirth.” It began because she “noticed that nonwhite women’s experiences were largely absent from natural-birth literature, which led me to look into historical black midwifery.” How could we overlook the nonwhite experience in “natural birth literature,” whatever the heck that is? It’s scandalous and clearly a sign that racism is alive and well in America, not to mention academia.
The clause “whatever the heck that is?” is damning. Riley didn’t even bother to google the “natural birth literature,” let alone dig through Google Scholar, JSTOR, or PubMed. If she had, she would have discovered that natural birth is a rich field of study in medicine, sociology, anthropology, gender studies, and so on and so forth. But how Riley then took this and jumped to the snide statement that “It’s scandalous and clearly a sign that racism is alive and well in America, not to mention academia” is confusing to me. From the blurb, it’s not at all clear that Hayes was making a claim of racism; it’s a rather large stretch to find an accusation of racism in claiming the “nonwhite women’s experiences were largely absent” from the literature. Oh, and as a medical anthropologist, I am well aware that white and nonwhite experiences with medicine are different, important, and worthy of study. You don’t need to be a medical anthropologist to know this, of course, just vaguely aware of how race operates within structures of power.
Then there is Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, author of “Race for Profit: Black Housing and the Urban Crisis of the 1970s.” Ms. Taylor believes there was apparently some kind of conspiracy in the federal government’s promotion of single family homes in black neighborhoods after the unrest of the 1960s. Single family homes! The audacity! But Ms. Taylor sees that her issue is still relevant today.
Again, Riley goes much further with her analysis than the text allows. (Wasn’t she an English major?) The sentence in question is this: “Her dissertation looks at the federal government’s role in promoting single-family homeownership in low-income black communities after the unrest of the 1960s, and how the government collaborated with real-estate agencies to craft those programs.” This is not Taylor’s sentence, by the way, but the blurb’s author, Stacey Patton. Still, there’s no claim of conspiracy here. Stating “the government collaborated with real estate agencies” is not stating that the government and real estate agencies conspired to do something evil.
(Not much of a surprise since the entirety of black studies today seems to rest on the premise that nothing much has changed in this country in the past half century when it comes to race. Shhhh. Don’t tell them about the black president!)
Riley’s claim that the “entirety of black studies rests of the premise” that the race, culture, and the world is the same now as it was in 1962 is made without any evidence. And it’s not true, as anyone who has even a passing knowledge of the work of Henry Louis Gates, Cornel West, Anthony Appiah, and so on would know. And the “black president” quip is, well, galling. Obama’s election was a big deal for race relations in the United States, but if you don’t believe race is a deep, abiding problem in the United States, you should look at not just the rise of the Tea Party and people like Jan Brewer, but the discursive responses to the arrest of Henry Louis Gates’s arrest, Trayvon Martin’s murder, or — heck, why not — the casting of black actors in The Hunger Games.
She explains that “The subprime lending crisis, if it did nothing else, highlighted the profitability of racism in the housing market.” The subprime lending crisis was about the profitability of racism? Those millions of white people who went into foreclosure were just collateral damage, I guess.
Oh, my. This is the sort of thing I’d expect in the comments section of a local paper in, I dunno, Idaho. But, again, this is The Chronicle of Higher Education. Riley should have googled “race and housing market.” I didn’t need to, because I read the newspapers. But here’s what Riley should have found: Bank of America paid “$355 million to settle a federal lawsuit allegations that its Countrywide Financial unit discriminated against black and Hispanic borrowers during the housing boom.” The issue of racism and the housing market is a big deal, in academia, public policy, and politics — and, well, just in general. [As one of my readers pointed out, Taylor knows this firsthand, since, as it is explained in the sidebar, she “worked as an advocate for a tenant’s rights association in Chicago where she fought foreclosures, blocked evictions, and helped the homeless find housing. Her interest in learning more about the history of race and housing in Chicago stemmed from her close contact with low-income black people who endured material inequalities that were due to racism.”] But for Riley, this sort of stuff is “irrelevant.”
But topping the list in terms of sheer political partisanship and liberal hackery is La TaSha B. Levy.
With a statement like this, you’d expect some evidence of partisanship and hackery. Since, remember, Riley is all about “close reading.” Partisanship would mean that Levy would only use evidence that supported her political views, or maybe even fabricate evidence that supported her political view, and hackery means that Levy would be lazy or incompetent, prone to writing something without thinking or doing any research.
According to the Chronicle, “Ms. Levy is interested in examining the long tradition of black Republicanism, especially the rightward ideological shift it took in the 1980s after the election of Ronald Reagan. Ms. Levy’s dissertation argues that conservatives like Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas, John McWhorter, and others have ‘played one of the most-significant roles in the assault on the civil-rights legacy that benefited them.’” The assault on civil rights? Because they don’t favor affirmative action they are assaulting civil rights? Because they believe there are some fundamental problems in black culture that cannot be blamed on white people they are assaulting civil rights?
Riley’s rhetorical questions imply that Levy believes these things, and the blurb certainly doesn’t indicate that she does believe these things. However, even if Levy believes that not favoring affirmative action is an assault of civil rights, is that “political partisanship and liberal hackery”? If she makes the argument in a lengthy dissertation and bases the argument on the kind of rigorous scholarship that would be expected of a PhD student at Northwestern, is that partisan hackery? If so, wouldn’t all of Riley’s work over the last several years, much of which has been funded by partisan think tanks and an editorial page known for partisan hackery, be even more suspect?
And then there’s the phrase “fundamental problems in black culture.” This is where I think people who have accused Riley of racism have gotten their biggest ammunition. I don’t believe these posts reach the level of racism, let alone hate speech (and this puts me in disagreement with some of her more vocal critics), but “fundamental problems in black culture” is the sort of language that, if made without any explanation or evidence, taints her argument even worse than her refusal to any research. By the way, her husband is black. I’m not sure what to do with that information, beyond it possibly explaining why she was so annoyed with a dissertation that criticizes black conservatives.
Seriously, folks, there are legitimate debates about the problems that plague the black community from high incarceration rates to low graduation rates to high out-of-wedlock birth rates. But it’s clear that they’re not happening in black-studies departments.
And this is based on what evidence? The blurbs of five dissertations from one department make it “clear” that the topics she thinks are important aren’t being addressed? Really? Really? It should be noted that one of the dissertations described in the article that she didn’t mention was about racial profiling by the New York Police Department. I guess she doesn’t seem to understand that one of the reasons that there’s a high incarceration rate for African-Americans is racial profiling. She should also perhaps read up on labeling theory, and how labeling people as deviants results in deviant behavior. And so on and so forth. Riley’s ideological blinders seem to ensure that she will ignore, or at least refuse to seek, evidence contrary to her to her preconceived opinions.
If these young scholars are the future of the discipline, I think they can just as well leave their calendars at 1963 and let some legitimate scholars find solutions to the problems of blacks in America. Solutions that don’t begin and end with blame the white man.
None of the dissertations she described “blame the white man,” though structural racism is probably central to Taylor’s work. There’s a big difference between blaming the white man and examining how structural racism was involved in the housing market. That Riley refuses to engage with that is lazy at best, and callous partisan hackery at worst. Riley’s “analysis” is based on the premise that blacks are largely to blame for their own problems, that they are victimizing themselves, that racism isn’t much of a problem anymore. These are problematic notions, to say the least, and they need to be supported with something other than snark to be used as central warrants in an any argument — even a blog post.
And then there’s the “legitimate scholars” phrase. I find it rather amazing that Riley — who, again, does not have an advanced degree, has never done any academic research, and has never been peer-reviewed; who refuses to do any amount of research about a topic before making grand statements about a topic; who would trash three graduate dissertations that she did not read — would be so arrogant to claim to know what topics of study are legitimate.
Needless to say, Riley’s blog post caused an uproar. There are 402 comments on the post as of this writing, several good blog posts, and probably more tweets and Facebook posts that you could shake a stick at. There’s a petition asking to have Riley fired. (It was started by the woman who wrote the first, best blog response.) I signed it, because the Chronicle should not be giving a blog or a column to someone who takes their job so unseriously. (The Chronicle has demurred. [UPDATE: They fired her. And then apologized!]) There are a lot of interesting arguments to be made about the problems inherent in all area studies, from Latin American Studies to African-American Studies to Gender Studies. But Riley isn’t concerned with curriculum science and education theory; she’s concerned with furthering her political ideology.
But wait. It gets worse.
When Riley responded to the response, she sounded rather like the 1997 version of herself who was shocked, just shocked by the criticism.
Black Studies, Part 2: A Response to Critics
May 3, 2012, 3:02 pm
By Naomi Schaefer Riley
I was never a big fan of the feminist mantra that the “personal is political.” But the corollary–that any political remark must be taken personally–seems in many ways even worse. My last blog post has earned me even more opprobrium than usual among the Brainstorm commenters, and it seems that they have decided to take as a personal attack something that is clearly not.
This seems to be setting up an argument that the people who disagree with her previous post are taking it too personally, that they’re being too emotional, that they just can’t hack criticism. This is a weak argument, since much of the criticism of her post was neither personal nor emotional. It pointed out that her argument was terrible. But to pretend that her vicious attack on Black Studies would not get people emotional is disingenuous. I guess she doesn’t quite understand how identity politics work.
The comments regarding my post seem to boil down to the following:
I am picking on people because they are black (and I am a racist).
I am picking on people even though I don’t have a Ph.D.
I am picking on people who are too young and inexperienced to defend themselves.
I am picking on people even though I haven’t read their entire dissertations.
Don’t you love how she mocks and minimizes the criticisms by using the term “picking on”?
Let me take the first two criticisms first. My qualifications to post on this blog consist of the fact that I have been a journalist writing about higher education for close to 15 years now.
That doesn’t indicate competence. Judith Miller. Robert Novak. Everyone on the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial board. They all have “experience.” But they’ve all gotten things horribly, horribly wrong.
My work has been published in every major newspaper in the country and I have written two books on the subject as well.
This is not an excuse for how the blog post was written — without any research, without any knowledge of the topics, with every part of argument filtered through ideology.
The editors at those papers and those publishers and at The Chronicle have all been aware that I hold no advanced degree. Black studies is now an academic discipline at most universities, which means I get to comment on that too.
This is on the Chronicle. They should never have hired Riley, and they certainly should never have published the post as it was written.
If the dissertations in question were written by white people, I’d call them irrelevant and partisan as well.
This is a lie. Or at least astonishingly disingenuous. If Taylor was in political science department and wrote the same dissertation, Riley wouldn’t have blinked. Of this, I am 100% convinced.
Moreover, I have called other disciplines (having nothing to do with race) irrelevant and partisan.
I’m sure this is true. It is also true that these attacks on other disciplines were based on political ideology and not on whether or not the scholarship was well done, whether the curriculum was sound. Read through some of her book The Faculty Lounges, which is clearly a partisan attack on academia. Here’s her Q&A on the book with Inside Higher Ed.
I find the idea that there is something particularly heinous in criticizing graduate students or dissertations to be laughable at best. Just because they are still called students doesn’t mean they’re not grown-ups. When someone in their 30s (me) criticizes the dissertation topic of someone in their 20s, that’s “bullying“? Boy, life as a graduate student in a trendy discipline at a prestigious university sure is tough. Unless The Chronicle features you in a piece, being a graduate student is just like being “invisible” (Ralph Ellison, please call your office). A word to the wise: If you’re trying to convince the wider world that black people in America are oppressed, I’d skip using the experience of black graduate students as an example.
Let’s look past her defensive condescension and look what she’s actually saying: Everyone is fair game for public criticism. Okay, then, that’s why I took us back to her days as an undergraduate at Harvard. She was an adult. She should have known better. However, her inexperience in academia is pretty glaring here. Graduate students focus on topics for numerous reasons, and often the reasons have to do with who their advisers are, what data is available, and so on. Their arguments are developed in similarly fraught environments. Using her bully pulpit to trash unfinished dissertations without any knowledge of their arguments, methods, or conclusions may not be “bullying” but it does show a distinct lack of respect and a weirdly gleeful cruelty. And the bizarre claim that black graduate students are somehow free from oppression is amazing. How can she claim to be an expert on higher education and not know about racism on university campuses? She should google “UCSD and racism” and see what happens.
Finally, since this is a blog about academia and not journalism, I’ll forgive the commenters for not understanding that it is not my job to read entire dissertations before I write a 500-word piece about them.
My jaw literally dropped when I read this. There is simply no excuse for writing an attack piece on three dissertations without reading them. It’s lazy. It’s dishonest. It’s incompetent. It’s contemptible. More than anything else she has written, this is the statement that should get her fired. I have been told I should be fired from my column for recommending my readers record Kiss of the Spiderwoman without having seen it myself. If you would like to petition my editor to have me fired because you believe my sin is as great as Riley’s, I urge you to do so.
I read some academic publications (as they relate to other research I do), but there are not enough hours in the day or money in the world to get me to read a dissertation on historical black midwifery.
If you refuse to do the research about a topic, you should refuse to write about a topic. And you certainly shouldn’t be paid to write about how you can’t be bothered to do research on what you are paid to write about. I asked some of my friends in journalism their opinion of such excuses. Some responses:
That is incredibly lame. #totalfail
That’s pretty weak.
I think those excuses are bullshit!
As an author, journalist and NBCC member in good standing, I can say unequivocally that if you’re going to pan it–especially if you’re going to pan it–you have to read every word or watch every frame. I’ve suffered through the sloppy middle of too many crappy books and dreadful CDs to put up with lame excuses like that. If you can’t find the time to read the crap, you don’t earned the right to open your yap. And yes, you may quote me on that.
yes, writer should have read book or seen movie. absolutely!
Back to Riley:
In fact, I’d venture to say that fewer than 20 people in the whole world will read it. And the same holds true for the others that are mentioned in the piece.
Does Riley not know what a dissertation is? Probably less than 1% of dissertations are read by more than 20 people. These are not books, nor are they meant to be. They are exercises, long analyses of data used to prove that the student is are worthy of a degree. Some dissertations become books; most do not. Riley should understand this if she is an actual expert in higher education.
Such is the state of academic research these days. The disciplines multiply. The publication topics become more and more irrelevant and partisan.
Again, how is she called an expert in higher education? If she were to look at the dissertation topics of graduate students 75 year ago, 50 years ago, 25 years ago, she would see that all of them are narrow, specific, weird, and probably a lot less “relevant” than one about how racism was involved in the housing market. She would know this if she did academic research; you find out all sorts of things when you are a graduate student. It seems like “partisan” is the word she likes to use whenever someone is doing research about a topic that the right-wing doesn’t want to think about: basically anything to do with inequality.
No one reads them. And the people whom we expect to offer undergraduates a broad liberal-arts education (in return for billions of dollars from parents and taxpayers) never get trained to do so. Instead the ivory tower pushes them further and further into obscurity.
Writing a dissertation on a narrow topic has absolutely nothing to do with whether you can teach a broad topic to undergraduates. It’s an absurd, indefensible claim. The low quality of teaching in American universities is about the lack of training of graduate students in teaching. If she were an expert in higher education, this would be abundantly clear.
I’m sort of upset with myself that I spent my Saturday writing this. I should have been working on my dissertation, which I’m sure Riley would think is irrelevant and partisan. But I couldn’t stop myself. Rarely does an opportunity come along that is so perfect to turn into a teaching moment. Also, she really pissed me off.
NOTE: If there are typos or factual inaccuracies, please let me know. I’m capable of admitting to mistakes.