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.


Check this mess.

Due to a budget shortfall running either near or well into (depending on who you ask) the NINE figures, the Philadelphia School District faces a massive restructuring that will strengthen the role of charter schools and private corporations in the local education market. I’m not going to speak directly to that problem, and the problematic solution on offer to fix it, but I want to point out that the apparent logic behind the plan is markedly similar to that behind the attack on the tenure system currently underway at colleges and universities across the country, as well as the concomitant push toward online education. Jonathan Rees writes about this, well, just about every day, and the situation is actually not entirely unlike the mess going on just across the Delaware River, as Rutgers’ Camden campus and Rowan University are being combined into a single institution. It’s a race to the bottom, y’all!

Friday… fun?

Via Joe.My.God., here’s a… um… fun browser-based mapping application you can use to simulate the detonation of a nuclear warhead over the city of you choice.  By selecting from a drop-down menu, you can drop anything from “Davy Crockett,” the smallest nuclear warhead ever produced by the United States, to the potential* nuclear blast yield of “Tsar Bomba,” the largest hydrogen warhead ever produced by humankind.

Aside from being a morbid distraction, I’m trying to decide if this would be an appropriate teaching tool to help students visualize a) the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II or b) the damage that could have been caused by a nuclear attack during the Cold War, such that they better understand the nuclear paranoia of mid-century.  One thing that struck me when I “detonated” Little Boy and Fat Man over my house in South Philadelphia was that the destruction didn’t reach out nearly as far as I expected, so I’m concerned that students would be… underwhelmed?  And although the program will show you how large an area would be immediately consumed by a fireball versus merely leveled by the resulting shock wave, the map is a little clinical for my taste.  When I’m teaching this kind of material, I really try to get students to empathize with the bombing victims, so for teaching Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I’ll probably stick to something like this:

Or this excerpt from one of my favorite documentaries:

No joke, Fog of War makes me cry pretty much every time I watch it.  Stupid Philip Glass score.

And as long as I’m basically free-associating YouTube clips here, this whole thing reminds me of Isao Hashimoto’s wonderful piece of video art, “1945-1998”:

When I watched this for the first time, I didn’t know about the history of French nuclear weapons testing in North Africa–I’m sure there’s an interesting study to be done there, if one hasn’t been done already.

Have fun bombing the crap out of your respective neighborhoods, y’all!


*When the Soviets tested it in 1961, they did so at only half yield–a measly 50 megatons.  Here’s more video!

Ward Shelley, knowledge, and maps.

Ward Shelley has been getting a lot of attention lately (at least in my corner of the internet) for his map of the history of science fiction:

"The History of Science Fiction, ver. 1" by Ward Shelley

Among other projects, including performance art, installations, and sculptural work, Shelley specializes in large (the above measures about three feet by four feet) and graphical timelines that recall both the intricate temporal maps recently collected by Anthony Grafton and Daniel Rosenberg in their recent book, Cartographies of Time, and the scientific illustrations done by past generations of natural historians.

"Who Invented the Avant Garde, ver. 3" by Ward Shelley
"Downtown Body, ver. 1" by Ward Shelley

These often describe the histories of art movements or genres, like the Beats or science fiction (above), or broader trends in cultural and artistic production, like the changing nature of the avant-garde, or the “autonomy” of art amid shifting economic pressures:

"Autonomous Art, ver. 1" by Ward Shelley

It’s worth viewing these (and the others) on Shelley’s site because there you can zoom in on high-resolution versions of these images, and these are pieces that definitely reward close viewing.

Shelley’s works are of course visually interesting in and of themselves, especially if you consider their real-life dimensions, and moreso for the way they draw connections among bits of disparate information to make visual arguments about the complex terrain of artistic expression and experience.  The generic references to both mapping and scientific illustration seem purposeful, as Shelley’s work meditates on the power that inheres to representations of knowledge.  From the artist himself:

These paintings… are about the struggle of form to express content in the cognitive space that exists between the Subject (us) and the Object (the world). If that cognitive space is a territory, these paintings are landscapes of that territory.

Other works of his similarly explore the materiality of information, as with the collaborative (with Douglas Paulson) installation piece “Archive,” which consists of thousands of stacked, uniquely labeled boxes:

"Archive" by Ward Shelley and Douglas Paulson

We might understand the boxes to represent many things, but to me they suggest the power of the archive–expressed here through sheer volume–to shape future narratives, as well as the sometimes arbitrariness of preservation:

"Archive" by Ward Shelley and Douglas Paulson

I just began reading Carolyn Steedman’s Dust: the Archive and Cultural History, which opens with a discussion of Derrida’s notion of “archive fever,” through which he links the repository of documentary knowledge to the Greek arkhe, “a place where things begin, where power originates, its workings inextricably bound up with the authority of beginnings and starting points” (Steedman 1).  One thing I try to get across to my students is that knowledge production is always contested and freighted with political assumptions.  Some have more trouble wrapping their heads around this than others, but fortunately (for my pedagogy, anyway) American history is filled with examples of specious “knowledge” deployed to political ends:


from Races of Mankind (1854) by Josiah Nott and George Gliddon

The trick is to get them to apply that critical perspective to the world around them.  It’s not easy, but for me it’s one of the major payoffs of teaching history.

For more esoteric cartography, check out Frank Jacobs’ appropriately titled blog, Strange Maps.

Head-desking for purity.

False, the enemy is Ross Douthat.

Want to know why monogamy matters?  The New York Times’ resident arch-conservative Ross Douthat is here to tell you, pulling together a couple recent studies to argue imply that 1) today’s young people are waiting to longer to have sex, 2) this makes them happier, and 3) abstinence-only education is responsible, and we should fund more of it.  Douthat says:

“In 2002, the study reported, 22 percent of Americans aged 15 to 24 were still virgins. By 2008, that number was up to 28 percent. Other research suggests that this trend may date back decades, and that young Americans have been growing more sexually conservative since the late 1980s.”

Really?  This has been going on since the late 1980s?  I’m going to go ahead and say that ads like this one might have something to do with it:


There’s also this one:


And another updating this theme for the texting generation:


Since the 1980s, kids have grown up with a slew of public service announcements communicating the same basic message:


Even this would be an improvement (I’m getting a little video-happy here, just roll with it):


Contrast that with this slideshow of safer sex ads from Holland and Germany, where (according to Slate) rates of HIV infection and teen pregnancy are six times lower than those in the United States.  Looking at alternative, sex-positive approaches to sex education, it’s no wonder that people who deviate from the sexual activities and expressions that American culture promotes through institutions like abstinence-only education should experience greater anxiety and unease than those who stick to the script, as it were.  Monogamy doesn’t inherently make all people happier any more than does sexual libertinism–the former might satisfy some, and the latter others.  The point is that we should equip young people with the knowledge to protect themselves and their partners should they choose to be sexually active.  That’s not cynical, that’s realistic–and looking at data from across the pond, it seems to work.  After all, the study that Douthat cites about abstinence-only education, discussed in somewhat greater depth here, only showed that fewer 12 and 13-year-olds who were given a relatively brief abstinence-only education course had engaged in intercourse after two years than those who received a similarly brief safer sex course.  Not that they had lower rates of teen pregnancy or STD infection, they simply reported having sex with fewer partners.  If that’s how conservatives measure success, they’re certainly setting their horizons pretty low.  Maybe they’re the cynical ones after all.

Sir Ken Robinson sees the violence inherent in the system.

This is entertaining and at least a little thought-provoking:

I agree that standardized testing is disastrous, and I think many (if not most) people working in education would agree.  One problem I see in thinking through how this might apply to higher education is that those who end up teaching at colleges and universities (like me) are the people who were good at the system to begin with.  We’re invested in it not only materially, because it is or we hope it will be the source of our income in the future, but culturally as well, because it represents an important part of how we think of our place in the world.

Even aside from that, isn’t it worth preserving some of that emphasis we have in the arts on aesthetic experience?  I already have classrooms full of kids who can’t seem to disconnect from their smart phones and complain when I implore them to use the entire fifty minutes they have to take an exam, rather than finishing up and leaving after half an hour.  I suspect that Robinson has primary and secondary education more in mind here, where kids are expected to sit for hours at a time, and the experience is often uninspiring.  What about college, when students are still very much making the transition to adulthood and the environment is almost always less structured than the one they left behind?

I think we already try to do this in history, where a lot of us draw on the Socratic seminar model, trying to engage students in active discussion.  However, in teaching I’ve found that they’re mostly not all that interested in grappling with big concepts or critically engaging with the material.  Often, they just want you to spoon-feed them information, and only what’s going to be on the test.  It’s likely that they’re products of the anesthetizing testing culture that Robinson describes, but they’re also stretched thin by heavy courseloads, jobs, and family commitments.

This intersects with some thoughts that have been swirling in my head as a result of the Wisconsin protests.  Teacher’s unions are one of the last bastions of organized labor in the United States, and they’ve drawn a lot of fire for protecting the tenure system and generally, you know, wanting to be paid salaries that reflect their investment of time and social importance.  Some critics have called for greater teacher accountability, usually measured at least in part through standardized testing.  Rethinking Schools gives a list of reasons why this is a terrible idea, noting that it’s another step toward reforming the education system along free market principles.  Of course, it’s absolutely detrimental to developing students’ critical thinking skills and creativity.  If being able to conceive of multiple answers to the same question is a trait that we want to encourage, multiple-choice testing is obviously the wrong way to go about it.  But what I really want to know is…

…does this mean I can feel good about playing a Monty Python clip in section since we’re talking about medieval slavery?

Ken Robinson would approve.

Vim, vigor, and vacuity.

Here’s something worth re-posting: Tenured Radical has a great piece today on what’s wrong with Teach for America.  I don’t mean to denigrate what I’m sure is genuine do-gooderism among many Teach for America teachers, but I think TR (not this TR) is pretty spot-on.  I always wondered what it would be like to be a career teacher at one of these “troubled” schools and have a fresh-faced kid from Yale, Berkeley, or wherever come in with the ostensible mission of saving your troubled institution.  I can’t imagine that it makes for a pleasant work environment, either for the career teachers or for the TFA kids.  I realize that many of these schools may already have high faculty turnover rates, but even in that case the TFA model seems neutral at best, fitting into an existing trend that detracts from the overall quality of public education.  Now again, I don’t want to cast aspersions on the teachers themselves (like Jeff, a friend from Cal who teaches in Philadelphia), as I’m sure that many of them work hard to make a difference in the lives of their students.  My suspicion lies instead in the model of the program itself which, much like the Peace Corps, puts youthful exuberance above worldly experience and does more to salve our first world consciences than to actually improve the lives of the people such demonstrations of goodwill purport to help.