U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Attack on Black Studies in the CHE blogosphere and other related news

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.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. It’s good to see coverage of this issue here. There is probably little to add to the conversation that has not been said elsewhere on the web, but I think it might be useful to contextualize the recent attacks on Black Studies.

    I am interested in this Proxmire-esque public theater of exposing “frivolous” and “irrelevant” work. What is the history of such attacks, both in the context of the Culture Wars and in earlier moments?

    The Riley affair also illustrates the frequently underemphasized point that Black Studies scholars are continually forced to defend themselves from external assaults, however anti-intellectual, in a demoralizing and energy-sapping ritual to which, for example, right-wing economists pursuing much more ideologically extreme research would never be subjected.

    What interests me is the purposefulness of RIley’s refusal to read. I think a Freudian might have some things to say about Riley’s systematic avoidance of the object of scorn. We could situate this, perhaps, in contrast to the intense fascination with the damning detail evident, for example, in the obsession of 1980s right-wingers with pornography and homosexuality, a hyper-focus inherited by Glenn Beck and other conspiracy-minded folks. (The unpublishedness of the dissertations is hardly an excuse–I don’t know many grad students who wouldn’t email a copy of research in progress or conference papers to a friendly and open-minded writer for the CHE, and, even in the absence of finished disses, Riley could have read in the field, advisors’ work, etc.)

    I think that there is something ideologically meaningful about Riley’s “look at the titles!” approach, and “why should I read?” defense. It is part of the sadistic moral economy at the heart of the hatchet job, and speaks to a similar articulation of high-tech racist trolling, in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s words, in the “gonzo” journalism of James O’Keefe. There is an implicit affirmation of the disposability of victims, be they Black Studies grad students, or Shirley Sherrod, that is chilling, especially because it is couched within an aristocratic attitude of “isn’t politics a delightful game!”

    It is precisely this cynical disposition, of course, that allows right-wing “race hustlers” like Riley to position themselves, depending on the outcome of their interventions, as either brave mavericks or aggrieved victims.

  2. Why should a paid blogger for a news organization covering higher education actually read dissertations anyway? I don’t trust dissertations. They’re all fact, no heart. Truthiness indeed.

    I am more interested in your classroom’s reactions to the film. (I haven’t seen the film, so I am playing devil’s advocate blindly.) Do you think that the classes’ responses would be the same if the discussion was framed around the concept of white privilege? Do you think they would have examined their own biases if the discussion had been over the Texas social studies standards, or do you think that the students would have spatially triangulated like Goldilocks away from what they perceive to be “extreme’ or “radical?”

    Lastly, I am shocked, shocked to hear that allegations of plagiarism were raised against a provocative scholar. Personally, I feel every scholar should have some sort of misconduct on their CV if they wish to be appointed to serve on the National Council of Humanities.

    Keep up the good work challenging young scholar’s minds.

    • I wouldn’t be surprised if they had triangulated away from the extremes.

      Upon reflection, I really should have explained white privilege more directly. I let students do a lot of the talking in my classes, but that sometimes leaves their ideas (conservative or liberal) unchallenged, unless another classmate is brave enough to challenge them. Luckily I had a few of those brave souls in class this semester. In my end of the semester reflections, I’m trying to figure out how to continue to emphasize discussion in my classes, while also challenging unsubstantiated ideas.

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