Tag Archives: journal

A Modest Proposal to Promote Intellectual Diversity

Weissberg essay.jpegAs one who has spent
nearly four decades in the academy, let me confirm what outsiders often
suspect: the left has almost a complete headlock on the publication of serious
(peer reviewed) research in journals and scholarly books. It is not that
heretical ideas are forever buried. They can be expressed in popular magazines,
op-eds and, think tank publications and especially, on blogs. Nevertheless, and
this is critical, these off-campus writings do not count for tenure or
promotion. A successful academic career at a top school requires publishing in
disciplinary outlets and with scant exception these outlets filter out those
who reject the PC orthodoxies.

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Academic Articles–Expensive and Mostly Unread

At research universities and many liberal arts colleges,
too, it is universally assumed that research is an unadulterated good. 
Research keeps professors fresh in their fields, makes them better teachers,
and raises intellectual standards for departments.  Who would
disagree?

In conversations about research in my world of the humanities,
though, one doesn’t often hear about one particular aspect of research: its
financial cost.  Yes, we hear about the costs to undergraduates when their
research professors are too busy doing research to hold regular office hours,
and we note the human cost of hiring adjuncts to teach freshman courses (the
costs of morale and exploitation), but I have never seen anybody try to
attach a dollar figure to the books and articles humanities professors produce
every year.

So how much does a research article cost to produce?

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What’s the Point of Academic Conferences?

At research universities in the United States, most departments in the humanities have a travel budget that supports professional activities for their faculty members.  Most of it goes to help professors attend academic conferences and deliver a paper to colleagues and attend sessions as an audience member as well.  For a department of 30 people, the amount may run to $50,000 or more, enough to fund at least one trip by every individual who requests support.

From what I’ve seen of the conferences, though, the amount of genuine research inquiry that is shared and remembered is negligible.  Yes, some papers are strong, but more of them are thin, half-hearted, or hastily-composed.  Those that are strong are often too dense to follow, especially when they have to share time with three other papers at the panel.  This is not to mention, moreover, those sessions that are attended by less than ten people. 

No, the main purpose of the meetings, it seems to me, is to provide academics scattered around the country but in the same general field the chance to gather and re-connect.  The actual research preparation they put in before the meeting and the research effort they expend during it are minimal. They have enough general knowledge of the panel topic to be able to listen with some understanding to the deliveries and formulate a question.  Their own papers may be part of a larger project, and the activity of composing and presenting a conference version of that part is, though helpful, often a last-minute composition to fill 12 minutes at the podium.

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What Else Do Professors Do? They Teach.

Teaching periodically reaches the public’s attention, as in a recent statement by a group of scientists about the failure of research universities to train their students to be good teachers. The New York Times ran a report on a study published in Science that led its lead researcher to contend: “I think that learning is all about retrieving, all about reconstructing our knowledge,” said the lead author, Jeffrey Karpicke, an assistant professor of psychology at Purdue University. “I think that we’re tapping into something fundamental about how the mind works when we talk about retrieval.” This undoubtedly prompts teachers to feel more pressed to teach “to the brain.” Is learning finally “all about retrieving”? And the veiled acknowledgment that students might fare better by being tested more regularly, a staple of language learning, for example, can now be imagined as one more panacea for our cultural ADD. I do not think Professor Karpicke and his associates are off-base, I think they are tinkerers at the base of a vast cultural inheritance of teaching and learning that deserves its own acknowledgment.
When my graduate advisor, Philip Rieff wrote Fellow Teachers, which began as a lecture/conversation he conducted at Skidmore College in the early 1970s, few were prepared to read about the vocation of teaching—not about how to teach. The latter has become the ball and chain wrapped around the ankles of so many teachers. No reputable institution of higher education today is without a teaching and learning center. (Curiously at my own institution, it is called the Learning and Teaching Center, suggesting that many carts (i.e. students) are entitled to go before the horse in keeping with a consumer-driven logic that drives up the cost of everything.) Fellow Teachers marked an important point of departure in the culture wars that spread throughout many institutions, first in the American university. It had been preceded a year or so by Robert Nisbet’s equally important The Degradation of the Academic Dogma. Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind upped the ante considerably, by then, already fifteen years later, but also by then, the arguments had assumed a life of their own far beyond the university as they do today.
I do not mean to disparage the craft of teaching. The Socratic Method, for example, is intended to engage students effectively in a public setting, insisting that they learn how to think on their feet. A film illustration of this made Orson Welles’s early collaborator, John Houseman, the cultural icon of teaching as Professor Kingsfield in The Paper Chase. The film celebrated the autocratic, distant figure in authority who could drill and humiliate while teaching the law. The film’s final scene marked, however inadvertently, the end of that kind of figure. Kingsfield’s best student folds his final grade report into a paper airplane and sends it into the sea without opening it. For him the encounter with such an inspiring teacher counted more than the final grade. What more needs to be said today about how much has changed?

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The Big, Bad, “Right Wing”

Each fall, the NEA comes out with Thought & Action, the union’s higher education journal. (The 2010 edition is not yet online.) The publication functions as a clearinghouse for defenders of the academic status quo; safe from their position of dominance within the academy, they rail against their imagined oppressors. This year’s edition includes defenses of such trendy matters as “learning communities” and Arizona’s ethnic studies curriculum, along with an entry on “liberation bibliography.”
In this light comes a piece from an AAUP stalwart, Yeshiva University professor Ellen Schrecker, who purports to uncover the “roots of the rightwing attack on higher education.” Her thesis? The malicious and deceptive activities of the “right wing”—not the activities of the academic majority—have convinced most Americans to view the academic majority as “radical, elitist, and somehow alien to most ordinary citizens.” This argument serves two complementary purposes: it fits into Schrecker’s predisposition to see the “right” as latter-day McCarthyites; and it absolves Schrecker and like-minded colleagues of any responsibility in creating a contemporary academy characterized more by ideological groupthink than by a commitment to free inquiry.
Schrecker’s essay begins by pointing out, accurately, that a backlash developed against the excesses of the late 1960s—perhaps most notably, the decision of Cornell’s administration to cave in and create a black studies program in 1969—and that politicians (most but not all Republican) exploited this backlash. But, Schrecker also notes, some professors—whom she intemperately refers to as “hysterical,” “Cassandras,” and characterized by “more than a whiff of elitism”—also worried about the academy substituting its traditional pursuit of the truth in favor of embracing a commitment to pursue “social justice.” (Schrecker also complains that these “conservative” professors tended to oppose faculty unionization.)
Yet somehow, the arguments of these faculty members continued to resonate. Could the intellectual quality of the “conservative” critique explain its staying power? Of course not, in Schrecker’s world. Instead, the professors who yearned for the “golden age when intellectually serious (white male) undergraduates eschewed politics and lounged appreciatively at the feet of their professors to soak up the truths purveyed by Plato, Shakespeare, and the other Greats” only remained relevant because these professors prostituted themselves to “a highly self-conscious and well-financed campaign to destroy the influence of the academic left.”

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Let’s Pretend This Is Research

The “Cry Wolf” project, launched by a group of academics, plans to pay for research papers useful for liberal causes. That sounds harmless, but as KC Johnson argued in his posts here on the project, it boils down to commissioning scholarly work meant to reach a pre-determined result. Before any evidence is gathered, both the sponsors and the paid researchers know how these efforts are going to come out.
Advocacy lightly disguised as scholarship is a continuing problem on campus and at academic meetings. Robert Holland, a senior fellow at the Heartland Institute, has a fascinating letter on the subject in the current issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education. He writes about the American Education Research Association. AERA is supposed to be politically neutral but predictably comes down on the left side of contested political issues, strongly opposing, for example, Arizona’s anti-illegal-immigration law. (It says, cryptically, that Arizona’s “policy, on the face of it, does not take into consideration sustained sound bodies of science.”) In clearer English, it has no plans for objective research on the effects of the measure, but instead promises to “disseminate research on the negative effects of the law.”
Holland’s letter points out the politicized nature of AERA’s annual meeting: it had 136 sessions on “social justice,” 96 on “diversity,” 52 on “critical race theory,” and 28 on “feminist theory.” This list pretty much exhausts the political obsessions of the cultural left. But it hasn’t much to do with real educational research.

The Wolfers and Bastardizing Academic Freedom

Academic freedom carries with it rights as well as responsibilities. The concept derives from the belief that academics, because of specialized training in their subject matter, have earned the right to teach their areas of expertise and to follow their research questions as the evidence dictates—free from political pressure from the government. Indeed, only through a guarantee of such freedom can academics engage in a search for truth.

A corresponding responsibility, of course, is that academics will actually seek to pursue the truth. If professors’ research methods imitate the likes of James Carville or Karl Rove, then what purpose exists to safeguard the academy from the government? Indeed, at public universities, if the professoriate functions as partisan hacks, selectively plucking items to advance a political agenda, what’s to stop legislative demands that the faculty mirror the partisan breakdown of the state, to ensure proportionate representation to all political viewpoints?

A newly announced project called “Crying Wolf,” organized out of the Center on Policy Initiatives, seems blithely unconcerned with any requirements associated with academic freedom. As John has noted, project coordinators Peter Dreier (a distinguished professor of politics at Occidental College), Nelson Lichtenstein (a historian of 20th century U.S. history at UC Santa Barbara who directs the university’s Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy), and Donald Cohen, CPI executive director, are recruiting professors and graduate students (in “history, sociology, economics, political science, planning, public health, and public policy”) to perform “paid academic research” that can “serve in the battle with conservative ideas.”

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Another Dubious Academic Project?

The indispensable Erin O’Connor, writing this morning on her web site, Critical Mass, discusses an astonishing memo from Peter Dreier of Occidental College and two other progressives seeking “paid academic research” that can “serve in the battle with conservative ideas.” The project, sponsored by the Center on Policy Initiatives in San Diego, will pay fifty cents a word to professors and graduate students in history, sociology, economics, political science, planning, public health, and public policy. The “Cry Wolf Project,” as it is called, lists as its coordinators, Dreier; Nelson Lichtenstein, a historian at UC Santa Barbara and Donald Cohen, executive director of the Center on Policy Initiatives. The title of the project reflects the belief that conservatives control political narratives by predicting disaster if progressive policies are pursued. The briefs are supposed to be scrupulously accurate, but obviously prepared to pursue a pre-determined agenda to be spread through the mainstream media.
O’Connor writes: “Grad students can now make fifty cents a word to scramble the difference between disinterested scholarship and agenda-driven advocacy work.” She argues that the project “explicitly supports the arguments of those who would say that large swaths of academia are little more than publicly funded mechanisms for disseminating and producing an ideologically-driven world view.”
We will investigate this ethically dubious project in coming days.