Tag Archives: publish

Regnerus and the ‘Liberal War on Science’


ongoing controversy over University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus is a
textbook example of how a legitimate scholarly dispute can turn into a
political witch-hunt. Regnerus, an associate professor of sociology at Texas’s
flagship campus in Austin, published a peer-reviewed paper in June in the
journal Social Science Research concluding that the adult children of
parents in same-sex relationships fare worse in a number of ways–alcoholism,
depression, drug use, and so forth–than the adult children of parents in
stable heterosexual marriages. Other sociologists have contested both
Regnerus’s findings and his methodology. But instead of challenging the results
of Regnerus’s research via normal scholarly channels–reviews, other scholarly
papers, or conference panels–Regnerus’s opponents have sought to delegitimize
him both personally and as a professional academic. They have attacked his
editors at Social Science Research, and they have goaded the UT-Austin
administration into investigating him for scientific misconduct. They have
fought their battle not in the journals but in the pages and web-pages of Mother
and the Huffington Post. Regnerus, a Catholic convert, has
even been aligned with the Catholic traditionalist group Opus Dei that is every
progressive’s favorite faith-based werewolf. Shades of The Da Vinci Code!

Continue reading Regnerus and the ‘Liberal War on Science’

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.

Continue reading A Modest Proposal to Promote Intellectual Diversity

What Should Kids Be Reading?

Books above a sixth-grade reading level, for sure. According to Renaissance Learning’s 2012 report on the books read by almost 400,000 students in grades 9-12 in 2010-2011, the average reading level of the top 40 books is a little above fifth grade (5.3 to be exact). While 27 of the 40 books are UG (upper grade in interest level), a fifth-grade reading level is obviously not high enough for college-level reading. Nor is it high enough for high school-level reading, either, or for informed citizenship.

Continue reading What Should Kids Be Reading?

What Yale and the Times Did to Patrick Witt

Remarks delivered at a Manhattan Institute luncheon, March 28, 2012 in New York City. Professor Johnson and attorney Harvey Silverglate, whose talk will be presented here tomorrow, spoke on “Kangaroo Courts: Yale, Duke and Student Rights.”


Silverglate and Johnson.jpgBefore the Patrick Witt case, I had some experience writing about how the New York Times handles cases of sexual assault allegations against high-profile college athletes–the Duke lacrosse case. After all that damage had been done, and after more than a hundred articles had been published in the New York Times, two Times editors, including Bill Keller, issued some half-hearted apologies for how the paper had mishandled the case, and “mishandled” is a generous word for what the Times did.

I had always worked under the assumption that when an institution
apologizes, it also takes steps to ensure that it doesn’t commit the
same kinds of mistakes again. But the Times obviously has a different
standard of apology than I do. And in the Patrick Witt case, the same
sorts of mistakes were made in coverage — a presumption of guilt when
the allegation is sexual assault, and a decision to ignore critical
procedural issue — because they don’t fit the preconceived storylines.

Continue reading What Yale and the Times Did to Patrick Witt

Why Academic Gobbledygook Makes Sense

teaching the Constitution.jpgWhen I first began teaching political science in the late
1960s I would routinely assign articles from top professional journals to
undergraduates. This is now impossible–without exception, they are
incomprehensible, overflowing with often needless statistical complexity. The
parallel is not the hard sciences where mathematics replaced philosophical
speculation. If anything, these articles reflect a trivialized research agenda.
Consider, for example, an August 2011 American Political Science Review essay
asking whether democratic electorates chose better educated leaders, a
question, it would seem, hardly requires mathematical complexity. To quote from
one key passage:

Continue reading Why Academic Gobbledygook Makes Sense

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

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?

Continue reading Academic Articles–Expensive and Mostly Unread

Do We Really Want Professors to Be Productive?

charlie-chaplin.jpgAccountability is all the rage in today’s education reform industry and at the university level, “productivity” typically means upping scholarly publishing.  The allure is simple–who can resist prodding lolling-about professors to generate more knowledge?  Unfortunately, putting the thumbscrews on idle faculty will only push universities farther to the left.  Better to pay professors for silence.

When I began my academic career at Cornell University in 1969 publications were important but production was not yet industrialized.  Quality–not volume–was overriding and it was tolerable that some senior faculty had published almost nothing for decades.  By the time I retired in 2002 from the University of Illinois-Urbana, however, scholarly publication there and elsewhere often mimicked Soviet-style manufacturing.  Every year we received detailed annual report forms with multiple categories to list every last publication, all categorized according to supposed prestige rankings, as the basis for salary increases and promotion.  Volume (“productivity”) was now deep in the academic DNA, even at schools hardly famous for original research.

Continue reading Do We Really Want Professors to Be Productive?

‘Yes, Some Teachers Do Very Little’

A huge brouhaha has erupted over the release and interpretation of data about the faculty of the University of Texas, centering on whether a relatively few individuals are doing most of the teaching at the system’s flagship institution, UT-Austin. Two reports drew most of the fire, one by my organization, the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP), the other by Rick O’Donnell, a recently fired aide to the system.

The CCAP bottom line: it seems like a relatively small portion of the over 4,000 persons teaching on the Austin campus shoulder a huge percent of teaching burden (especially in relation to the costs they incur to the University) and an even smaller group garners the bulk of the outside research funds viewed as critical to the maintenance of the research mission. This means a large group of faculty members do moderate amounts of teaching and not much funded-research.

Our report said preliminary data “strongly suggest that the state of Texas could move towards making college more affordable by moderately increasing faculty emphasis on teaching. Looking only at the UT Austin campus, if the 80 percent of the faculty with the lowest teaching loads were to teach just half as much as the 20 percent with the highest loads, and if the savings were dedicated to tuition reduction, tuition could be cut by more than half ….”

Continue reading ‘Yes, Some Teachers Do Very Little’

How Productive Do Professors Have to Be?

800px-Professors.JPGThe firing of a controversial aide to the University of Texas system has triggered a full-blown debate over the productivity of teachers and whether “star” professors who teach few classes are really worth the cost to the public. Rick O’Donnell, dismissed on April 19 after only 49 days on the job as special adviser to the public university system’s regents, had argued forcefully that public universities should devote their resources to teaching undergraduates rather than academic research. On May 5, in response to a request by the UT board of regents, the University of Texas-Austin, the flagship of the 15-campus UT system, released an 821-page spreadsheet listing the names, tenure status, total compensation, and course enrollment of each of the 4,200 people with teaching responsibilities on the UT-Austin payroll.

The university cautioned that the data were preliminary and likely contained some errors. Nonetheless, acting on the presumption that the spreadsheet was generally accurate, Richard Vedder, an economics professor at Ohio University, who heads the Washington-based Center for College Affordability and Productivity, quickly issued an analysis of the spreadsheet from which he drew some startling conclusions: measured by student credit hours taught (the credit value of courses multiplied by the number of students enrolled in them), the top 20 percent of faculty shoulder 50 percent of the teaching load, while the bottom 20 percent teach only 2 percent of student credit hours.

Continue reading How Productive Do Professors Have to Be?

YIISA’s Fate and the Corruption of the Peer-Review Process

Jamie Kirchick pens what’s likely to be the definitive account of Yale’s controversial decision to terminate the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism (YIISA). Kirchick convincingly demonstrates how a toxic combination of anti-Israel sentiments from some key faculty members combined with Yale’s desire to cultivate Middle Eastern donors (as part of the university’s self-conception as a “global” institution) to doom YIISA. The lengthy article is well worth reading in full; it’s both illuminating and thoroughly depressing.

Kirchick’s tale is also important for reasons beyond the YIISA affair. When confronted by outside criticism, defenders of the academic status quo invariably cite the peer-review process to justify conditions on campus. Specialists know best, they note, and outsiders need to defer to the superior judgment of trained experts. Yale’s termination of YIISA, for instance, came after two levels of peer review. The first was a report from outside academic evaluators. The second was feedback from an oversight committee of Yale faculty. How could anyone object to a decision with so many safeguards?

As to first level of peer review, the university has consistently refused to release the report on which it allegedly based its decision. And comments from members of the Yale faculty committee–especially Sociology professor Jeffrey Alexander–suggest that ideological bias, rather than disinterested scholarly analysis, motivated their reaction to YIISA.

Continue reading YIISA’s Fate and the Corruption of the Peer-Review Process

Please Don’t Read Any Convention Papers

Mark Bauerlein’s article on papers delivered at academic conferences (above) reminds me of the day I discovered the awful truth about such texts. Arriving in San Francisco in the summer of 1967 to cover the annual sociological convention for the New York Times, I headed for the press room and asked for a copy of every prepared talk. “Come back in 15 minutes,” I was told. When I did, the aide said “All yours,” with a bit of a smirk, and pointed to a five-foot-high stack of papers. I read them all, pulling out two that I thought might make the Times on an exceptionally dull news day. The rest were unbelievably pointless and tedious. All those Canadian trees had been put to death for nothing.

Other academic conferences yielded a story or two, but the point was that these papers did not count for credit toward tenure, so they were blown off merely to justify sending each professor for an expenses-paid week in San Francisco. Believe it or not, the most noteworthy story I got at the convention came from the speech of the departing president of the association. He suggested that if Negroes (as they were called then) were so unhappy, the U.S. might buy land in Ecuador and ship them all there. This spectacularly idiotic idea got the full attention of my editors. (“Sociologist Urges ‘a Second Israel’ in Andes for Negroes.” Available online from the Times for $3.95 plus tax. Please don’t bother.) This article arrived in the mail last week from a publisher who wants to anthologize it, possibly to demonstrate that sociology may be in terrible shape now, but look what it was in 1967.

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.

Continue reading What’s the Point of Academic Conferences?

That Smug Article in the New York Review of Books

Last year, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreyfus published Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids–And What We Can Do About It, a resounding broadside against campus policies and practices.  They berated the system for producing useless research, creating cushy working conditions, neglecting undergraduates, and reproducing elitism.

Hacker and Dreyfus sometimes swung their club wildly, it is true, but one had to appreciate their concern.  They had no conservative or liberal axe to grind, and no anti-academic or anti-intellectual attitudes in place.  They deeply believe that higher education has lost its way, its civic virtue, and they launched a polemic to correct it.

One might argue with their evidence and question their assumptions, of course.  Here, however, is how a recent reviewer in The New York Review of Books characterizes them: 

Continue reading That Smug Article in the New York Review of Books

Is College Education Too Narrow?

In trying to explain why even the best of students have sometimes received an exceedingly narrow education, former Congresswoman Heather Wilson touches on the issue of academic self interest. “Perhaps,” she writes, “faculty members are themselves more narrowly specialized because of pressure to publish original work in ever more obscure journals.” It’s a good point that has an even wider ambit than she suggests. Once upon a time, the now quaint notion of preparing students to be citizens served as a counterweight to curricular self-dealing. Preparing students to be citizens meant that you needed to provide a range of broad based courses as a foundation for participation in the adult world. You needed required courses in American history, literature and institutions. But when an interest in citizenship was increasingly supplanted by mere attitudinizing, an important constraint on the faculties was affected. Supplied with a myriad of reasons ranging from globalization to multiculturalism they could slip the harness of being forced to teach the once crucial survey courses. Instead they could put their energies into what they were really interested in, their areas of specialty, that is to say themselves. The upshot was that a humdrum course on American literature could be replaced by classes on Foucauldian readings of American literature or narratives of third-world liberation. On campus everyone could be happy. Good students could pride themselves on their ability to decipher difficult arguments while broadening their geographic horizons. And faculty could use the classes to either coast or embellish their specialized arguments.
For a long time the faculty failure of accountability was safely ensconced behind the worthy rhetoric of academic freedom. But Ms. Wilson’s Washington Post op-ed is fortunately part of a trend challenging the claim of academia to disinterested virtue.

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?

Continue reading What Else Do Professors Do? They Teach.

Who Pays the Hidden Cost of University Research?

Higher education in America is in financial crisis. In constant dollars, the average cost of tuition and fees at public colleges has risen almost 300 percent since 1980. Our best public research universities, like my own University of California (UC), are wracked with doubt: will they be able to continue their historic role as institutions with a vital public mission, or will they become “privatized,” demanding ever higher tuition and therefore inevitably serving a more elite clientele?
Let me note some pointed comments by citizens outside the campus. A letter to the editor in the San Francisco Chronicle last March 9th said: “What the public college students (and their parents) in this state must understand is that the days of the taxpayers subsidizing their higher education are over, sad as that may be. …The costs at all colleges and universities have risen dramatically over the last few years (much higher than the cost-of-living-index). … Those of us in California who are taxpayers are having a difficult enough time paying our mortgages and for the education of our own children. It simply is not sustainable to expect that there will be free or substantially below-cost education provided on the backs of the state’s increasingly dwindling number of taxpayers. …”
A similar complaint is voiced in an article published by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, July 5, 2010: “As California faces an unprecedented budget crisis, students at California colleges have been asked to pay a greater share of the total cost of their education, most of which is still borne by taxpayers. …[T]axpayers pay 60-70% of the cost of … UC students’ education, without even counting financial aid.”

Continue reading Who Pays the Hidden Cost of University Research?

Why the Professor Still Can’t Teach

In 1977 the great mathematician and teacher Morris Kline published an indictment of academe in a book aptly called Why the Professor Can’t Teach. Kline not only blamed “the overemphasis on research” as the “prime culprit” for the poor quality of undergraduate education, he also blamed professors—especially tenured professors—for ignoring their “moral obligations to students” and offering courses “that reflect their own values at the expense of student needs and interests.” Little has changed in three decades.
The open secret in the profession remains that professors are paid to publish, not to teach. Most consider teaching a distraction from their research, which is what they really care about, while administrators keep pressuring faculty to publish, even at liberal arts colleges, and increasingly at community colleges, where teaching is supposed to be the most important thing they do. Never mind that there is no evidence that professors who are doing research are better undergraduate teachers because of it, according to Burton A. Weisbrod, economics professor at Northwestern University (also see Mission and Money, 2008). Never mind that in 2006 the magazine Teen Talk noted most students choose their particular institution based on the availability or strength of their preferred major, the ability to get a good job or accepted into a good graduate school, and whether faculty are good teachers or mentors—not the numbers of books or articles they published. Of course publish or perish is not new (“publish, and the students perish,” Kline quipped), but until we stop grumbling, and actually do something about it, liberal education will continue its gradual demise.
But that’s only part of the problem. The other part is that most graduate students and new college professors are not prepared to teach. Postsecondary teaching is the only profession I know of for which no formal training is required—not even the expectation that one must be prepared. True, most institutions of higher education—even community colleges—expect their faculty to have PhDs, but that only proves the absurdity of the current situation. The PhD is a research degree whose recipients are highly trained specialists. Most colleges and universities are teaching institutions, despite what faculty and administrators like to maintain. Yet the myth persists that if a person has a PhD, he or she can teach. This is nonsense, of course. And most people know it, including the administrators of colleges and universities who fund the Centers for Teaching Excellence (or something like them). These are typically directed by tenured faculty whose job it is to promote the latest “scholarship of teaching and learning” through seminars, workshops, and discussion groups.

Continue reading Why the Professor Still Can’t Teach

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.”

Continue reading The Wolfers and Bastardizing Academic Freedom

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.

Celebrating Academics’ Irrelevance

In early October, Oklahoma senator Tom Coburn proposed prohibiting the National Science Foundation from “wasting any federal research funding on political science projects,” citing the heavy emphasis that the funded projects had placed on quantitative research projects. Such methodology is currently much in fashion among political scientists, even though the research usually yields findings so arcane to be of little use to anyone outside certain segments of political science departments.
Coburn is, perhaps, the upper chamber’s most passionate opponent of all non-defense federal spending, so in one respect his criticism of the political science funding came as little surprise. But the merits of Coburn’s criticism are also difficult to dismiss. If the goal of government funding is to produce material relevant for contemporary policy debates, why would anyone expect such insight to come from most quarters of contemporary academia?
Barack Obama is a president more attractive to professors than any chief executive since FDR. Obama’s campaign, of course, received overwhelming support (both in votes and donations) from the nation’s professoriate. As president, he has demonstrated a cerebral style that suggests openness to internal debate and dissenting ideas. Perhaps most important, Obama is of the academy himself: he spent several years teaching at the University of Chicago Law School and was a published author before entering national politics.

Continue reading Celebrating Academics’ Irrelevance

Duke Prints What Yale Won’t

Some happy news via Eugene Volokh at the Volokh Conspiracy – Duke University’s Voltair Press is not only printing a book on the Danish Mohammed cartoon controversy that features the cartoons (imagine that!) but also includes a Statement of Principle that decries Yale University’s censorship of the cartoons in their own volume on the matter. Here’s a sample:

The incident at Yale provides an opportunity to re-examine our commitment to free expression. When an academic institution of such standing asserts the need to suppress scholarly work because of a theoretical possibility of violence somewhere in the world, it grants legitimacy to censorship and casts serious doubt on their, and our, commitment to freedom of expression in general, and academic freedom in particular.
The failure to stand up for free expression emboldens those who would attack and undermine it. It is time for colleges and universities in particular to exercise moral and intellectual leadership. It is incumbent on those responsible for the education of the next generation of leaders to stand up for certain basic principles: that the free exchange of ideas is essential to liberal democracy; that each person is entitled to hold and express his or her own views without fear of bodily harm; and that the suppression of ideas is a form of repression used by authoritarian regimes around the world to control and dehumanize their citizens and squelch opposition.

The Power of Academic Blogging

I want to say how pleased I am to join Minding the Campus as a regular blogger. My first in-depth exposure to the power of the blogosphere came during my tenure battle, when I received timely and extremely effective support from bloggers Erin O’Connor and Jerry Sternstein. I quickly discovered that in commenting on technical academic matters, academics had a better sense than most members of the mainstream media.

I started my blog on the lacrosse case to perform a similar service; I thought that relatively few reporters recognized how substantially the behavior of Duke’s “activist” faculty violated professional norms. My original hope was that the blog could provide some context to the academic side of the case for the mainstream media, and to bring to light some of the more obscure writings of Duke’s campus activists. My favorite post in this regard explored the slim volume published by Grant Farred—who Cornell quickly snatched up—which preposterously claimed that Houston Rockets center Yao Ming “the most profound threat to American empire.”

Of course, as the lacrosse case proceeded, I wound up breaking a few more stories, thanks in part to the work of the New York Times. The “paper of record” displayed little interest in actually bringing facts about the case to light (since doing so would have undermined the politically correct metanarrative it eagerly promoted), and as a result produced coverage so slanted that virtually every article the Times published was ripe for fisking.

Those looking for more recent quality academic blogging that also impacted public policy developments need go no further than an extraordinary series of posts by David Bernstein on the anti-Israel bias of Human Rights Watch. Like many observers, Bernstein had wondered why HRW—an organization founded in the wake of the Helsinki Declaration, whose central purpose had been to monitor human rights abuses in authoritarian societies—had developed a “maniacally anti-Israel” perspective in recent years.

Virtually alone among American commentators, Bernstein noticed that Sarah Leah Whitson, director of HRW’s Middle East and North Africa division, had made a spring fundraising visit to Saudi Arabia, where she had solicited funds to counter “pro-Israel pressure groups in the US, the European Union and the United Nations.” That find—and the incredibly defensive reaction of HRW—led Bernstein to look more closely at HRW’s staffing patterns. It turns out that the HRW’s Middle East and North Africa division is about as balanced as the typical Middle East Studies department at an elite university. In addition to Whitson, who had worked on “Palestine activism” before joining HRW, the list included a former editorialist for a journal that had celebrated the Munich massacre and a staffer who on his free time collected World War II German military memorabilia.

Thanks to Bernstein, we now know why HRW is hopelessly compromised in its handling of Middle Eastern matters. His was a case of academic research put to excellent use.

J-Schools Struggle To Cope

Newspapers are folding right and left—the Rocky Mountain News in February, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in March, the Boston Globe any day now, it would seem—and, according to the American Journalism Review, some 15 percent of the newsroom jobs, about 5,000 of them, last year (with another 7,500 vanishing so far this year) at newspapers across the country assaulted by an Internet that has gobbled up not only their readers but their advertisers.

Still, until just recently—this year, to be exact—at many of the nation’s journalism schools you’d think it was still 1973. That was the year the Watergate reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post helped topple a sitting president. Back then every college English major in the country wanted to work for a big-city print newspaper like the Post and become a celebrity investigative reporter like Woodward and Bernstein, nemeses of Richard Nixon, who resigned in 1974 during the Watergate scandal. Now, however, even Rick Redfern, the bearded, insufferable Woodward-Bernstein clone in “Doonesbury,” has lost his job, the movie State of Play, starring Russell Crowe as yet another old-school investigative reporter doing homage to Woodward and Bernstein, tanked at the box office, and newspapers are hoping for a government bailout (so far resisted by the Obama administration) on the theory that they perform a public service that taxpayers ought to subsidize. Journalism schools, which once cultivated the mystique of the pure-of-heart reporter speaking truth to power, are hastily revamping their antiquated curricula to conform to a completely different business model—part of which seems to be recognizing for the first time that journalism is a business, not a priest-like calling.

It’s amazing how long it took for the changes to come. At the Columbia School of Journalism, the nation’s flagship J-school, Reporting and Writing 1, the entry level course required of everyone who goes through Columbia’s graduate-level program, has scarcely changed its intensively print-focused content since Columbia instituted the course in 1971, around the time that Woodward and Bernstein went to work for the Washington Post. Only this coming fall term, under Bill Grueskin, a former managing editor at WSJ.com who is new dean of academic affairs, will Columbia be completely overhauling Reporting and Writing to emphasize blogging, slideshows, and other multimedia skills. According to a New York magazine blog, Columbia underwent an “existential crisis” when the Times announced last winter that its New York City-focused blog “The Local” would be assisted primarily by journalism students from the City University of New York (which has an intensive new-media curriculum and no longer requires its students to specialize in any particular journalistic format), not the venerable Columbia.

Continue reading J-Schools Struggle To Cope

Less Writing, More Teaching?

Years ago, assigned to cover a national meeting of sociologists for a major newspaper, I asked the convention press office to get me a copy of every paper to be delivered. The press officer looked thunderstruck but complied, handing over several hundred papers in a stack more than three feet high. I read them all at warp speed, but not one seemed interesting enough to write about. The main reason is that papers prepared for an academic convention are usually dashed off quickly in a simple effort to justify travel expenses. They rarely attract attention and even more rarely are intended to.
On the other hand, papers written for academic journals, which count toward hiring, promotion and tenure, are generally treated with more respect. But not always. Back in the late 70s and early 80s, one researcher churned out 50 to 60 academic papers, using the time-saving method of copying a paper from one obscure journal and sending it to another as his own work. The success of this unique form of recycling depends on a small, inattentive readership and the realization that a lot of academic writing has more to do with personal career-building than with communicating new insights to fellow professionals.
Mark Bauerlein of Emory University, who writes frequently for this site, thinks academics in his field (literature) short-change their students by devoting far more effort to the mandate of “publish or perish” than to interaction with students. His argument is succinctly summarized in the title of his new article, “Professors on the Production Line, Students on Their Own” (from the American Enterprise Institute’s American Education Project). Not everyone will agree with his broad premise that students are disengaged because their teachers spend too much time researching and typing. A long series of books and papers on the widespread lack of student achievement and attentiveness—the most dazzling of which is Peter Sacks’s 1996 book, “Generation X Goes to College”—generally argue that today’s students are fully capable of achieving disengagement on their own..
Bauerlein agues that the enormous production of academic writing—it rose three times faster that the rapidly rising number of students and professors from 1959 to 1979—is in large part unnecessary. Once the work of Whitman and Melville’s was underanalyzed, but now those authors have been done to death and we live in a period of pointless production. He writes: “Nobody off-campus declared, ‘We don’t have enough books on Walt Whitman—we need more!'” Demand for academic books is low, he writes, and getting lower all the time. Many, perhaps most, sell only 200 or 300 copies. But most academic work is never meant to excite demand among the general public. And writing about an established author is not just piling on or working a common theme to death. Insights change as more material is found and as reputations rise and fall—the refurbishing of John Donne and the relative eclipse of Rudyard Kipling are examples. New material on Yeats and Frost has enhanced their reputations, though work on them had already been considerable.
Bauerlein wants colleges and universities to lower the demand for research productivity and encourage more time spent with students. He wants foundations to shift some grants toward teaching, and colleges to stop demanding an academic book as a price for gaining tenure. He writes, “We need honest and open public acknowledgement that the scholarly enterprise has lost its rationale, that central parts of the humanities are in real trouble, and that the surest way to restoration lies in a renewed commitment to the undergraduate student.” Most of us would agree with that, so long as scholarly writing is not seen as a primary cause of student disengagement.