Sh!tstorm @ Brainstorm

Since Monday, my Twitter feed has been blowing up with (brief) commentaries about Naomi Schaefer Riley’s recent post, “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations.” on the Chronicle of Higher Ed‘s group blog, Brainstorm. Riley attacked the discipline as a whole based on the brief profiles of five Northwestern University doctoral students that ran alongside a longer article on the changing nature of black studies as a new generation of African American scholars comes up through ranks amid reaching budget cuts, broadside attacks on the humanities, and the so-called “post-racial” moment of Obama’s presidency. She called their dissertation topics “so irrelevant no one will ever look at them,” and singled out (by name) specific students for engaging in “sheer political partisanship and liberal hackery,” all because they’re investigating topics like the racial dimensions of the subprime lending crisis and the history of black conservatives in the post-Civil Rights era. To the contrary, Riley pointed out, the president is black*, lots of white people lost their homes when the housing bubble burst, and “there are some fundamental problems in black culture that cannot be blamed on white people,” ergo racism isn’t really a big problem in the country today.

The original post predictably touched off a whole lot of negative response, including a call by some Twitter users (e.g. @tjowens) for the popular CHE group blog ProfHacker to issue a statement disavowing Riley’s original post. Riley herself responded to critics, specifically addressing the charges (among others) that she is racist, and has no business attacking graduate students since she does not have a Ph.D. and has not read their dissertations. On the point of racism, I would like to direct you to the quote at the end of the above paragraph–’nuf said. On the other points, she says:

there are not enough hours in the day or money in the world to get me to read a dissertation on historical black midwifery. 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.

Just off the top of my head, at Temple we have the wonderful Susan Klepp, who built her career on writing about women healers in early America, and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwive’s Tale was the kind of cross-over history book that academics of all disciplinary stripes yearn to write, so I wouldn’t go counting out a dissertation on black midwifery. I would also guess that more than twenty people would be interested in reading about the deep roots (racial or otherwise) of the economic crisis that led us into a seemingly intractable recession, but don’t quote me on that. (Okay, do.)

I don’t doubt, however, that Riley herself would never read them. That would take the kind of intellectual curiosity that pursuing a career in the academy requires, a trait that she herself clearly lacks. That does not however, justify a sweeping attack on an entire field. Although she interprets her critics as responding from a place of personal injury, I would argue that many are equally, if not moreso, offended by the way she deploys pernicious arguments that are often trotted out to discredit the humanities in general. Thus, the problem is not just personal–it’s professional as well. Our job is not to produce work that appeals to everyone, although many of us do think about ways to present our research to audiences beyond the ivory tower, an endeavor greatly aided by people doing excellent work in the fields of public history and digital humanities. Our job is to create new knowledge, and yes, that does mean producing monographs that can seem hopelessly narrow and specific. However, good scholarship always tacks a focused narrative to broader historical trends and can illuminate connections among seemingly disparate phenomena. Not only does the field move forward, but new research (including our own research) pushes us to reformulate the ways we teach our students about the past, providing the kind of “broad liberal-arts education” that Riley thinks we “never get trained to do.”

Riley certainly wouldn’t be interested in reading my dissertation in progress, which deals with African American AIDS activists as they connected the disease to the multiple political, social, and economic problems facing their communities. No doubt, she would see this as more “left-wing victimization claptrap,” evidence that the academic disciplines are becoming too specialized and too liberal in their political outlook. Hell, I’ll be the first to admit that my work is political. I write about politically active people to whom I am admittedly sympathetic, although I try very hard not to let that get in the way of my analysis. But for Riley to pretend that her seemingly intended provocation was not political would be either disingenuous or totally self-unaware, and I’m not sure which would be worse. In any case, maybe she’s right (far right, hyuk) about the academy being very left-wing, because I can’t think of a better way for a publication like the Chronicle to discredit conservatism than to elevate such an anti-intellectual hack as that movement’s mouthpiece. Incidentally, I have a similar theory about Ross Douthat and the New York Times.

*One might forgive Riley for trotting out the Obama presidency as evidence that racism is no longer a big problem in America if she had fallen into a coma on November 4, 2008 and reawoke five minutes ago, but this does not seem to be the case.

UPDATE: ProfHacker has indeed put up a long post commenting on the Riley piece, and it’s definitely worth a read.


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