The journalism side of the Chronicle of Higher Education published two pieces exploring the Northwestern Black Studies first cohort of Ph.D. students who are in the midst of writing their dissertations. In response, a few weeks later, Naomi Schaeffer Riley lambasted the piece in the CHE blogosphere, and called for Black Studies to be eliminated based on the descriptions of the dissertations being written at Northwestern. She didn’t read the dissertations, because they aren’t available yet, but simply assumed they were esoteric and not of interest to “normal” people based on the CHE article. The graduate students who were attacked responded here. Marybeth Gasman, a University of Pennsylvania professor who specializes in HBCUs and Minority Serving Institutions (and also a blogger at CHE) responded here. At first the CHE advocated discussion, but then decided that Riley had been out of line and fired her as a blogger.
I don’t know about you, but my facebook feed blew up over it. Several thousand people complained to CHE about the quality of the piece, especially given the fact that Riley hadn’t read the dissertations (particularly ironic, given that her title was “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations.”)
The argument reminded me of when I showed Precious Knowledge to my class the last week of the semester. It is a film about the ethnic studies debate in Arizona. I was surprised that my students divided pretty much evenly for and against ethnic studies. For the most part, those against thought the lawmakers were offensive in their language, but were upset by the posters of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara on the walls. They also thought that the taxpayers shouldn’t pay for people to be taught about their heritage. One student wrote that ethnic studies represented adherance to an old, unequal identity and would prevent equality. Another very intelligent student agreed that the classes were indoctrinating students.
The students in favor of ethnic studies in Arizona noted the huge increase in retention rates and graduation rates among Latino/as who took the courses. But even the supporters qualified their answers–they didn’t want to see radicalism advocated. Another agreed that cultural diversity in the classroom was a way to understanding.
I was so surprised by the answers in part because we’ve spent much of the semester learning about race and studying African American intellectuals. No one objected to that, despite the fact that I could have taught the course (US Intellectual History) as a whites only course. Indeed, I asked on the final exam about this very question: I wrote, “at the beginning of the semester most of you argued that intellectuals were dead white males. Do you still agree that that is the case? Give some examples of intellectuals and what makes them such.” Most of the students wrote that they had indeed thought all intellectuals were dead white guys and that they had experienced a transformation in their thinking to recognizing that intellectuals could come in all shapes, sizes, genders, ages and colors. And yet, in the last week of classes when we discussed ethnic studies in Arizona, half argued that information about Hispanics should not be taught in public schools because it was “heritage” not history.
In other relevant news, my undergraduate advisor, Matthew Whitaker, was called up in front of a university committee for plagiarism. The Arizona Republic made it front page news. Dr. Whitaker was quoted as saying that he was being attacked on account of his race and his success. I know him to be very judicious in his opinions. I can’t imagine him making such a statement without substantial evidence. Indeed, he confided in me some of the difficulties in his department and I trust his perception of what was going on. He has been cleared by the university committee and the charges declared unfounded. I do not envy his position in the ASU history department, though, where so many of his colleagues mistrust him to such an extent.
I am glad that thousands of people complained to CHE about the Riley post. However, I am feeling dispirited this week, because I wouldn’t be surprised if many, many people outside of academia agree with her. My goal is to engage, without indoctrination!, a wide range of students. I think that part of the reason students felt so able to present a wide range of opinions was the safe atmosphere I’d created in my classroom for a diversity of opinions (indeed, I had asked this question of my intelligent conservative students who liked to stay after class and they said that they felt very free to express their opinion and that I was not at all a type to indoctrinate). But there is safety and there is rigor and challenge (for all students!). I hope to find a balance between them.