On April 30, Naomi Schaefer Riley published a piece, The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations, in the Brainstorm Blog at the Chronicle of Higher Ed. Her post was a vitriolic, acerbic personal attack on three young black women an the work that they are doing as PhD students and on Black Studies more generally. Let me be clear – her attack was based on the titles and short descriptions of three women’s as yet un-written dissertations. Her arguments boiled down to (and i quote):
What a collection of left-wing victimization claptrap. The best that can be said of these topics is that they’re so irrelevant no one will ever look at them.
And with a felled swoop, she chomped through the three titles and descriptions, explaining why each was, in her opinion, both indicative of an ostensibly dead field and of poor research topics. She dismisses an entire discipline based on a short article highlighting three students. Well done, Ms. Riley – in academia, we call that anecdotal evidence and non-substantive. Blog, or no, you don’t, actually, get to denounce an entire field because you’re having a bad day. Were you my student writing a reflective essay (the equivalent of a blog post, but printed and handed in), i would have spent quite some time patiently explaining to you that you do not get to make generalizations based on a few things that you haven’t even read beyond the title and a description. But, you’re not an undergraduate student. You are a supposed journalist writing in an online journal on academia. So, i’m afraid the expectations are a little bit higher and the onus is on you to actually put a little effort into it.
The three women highlighted in the article wrote an impassioned response that not only responded to the Chronicle, but to Riley directly, and to her (unsupported) claims against black studies, more generally:
Our work is not about victimization; it is about liberation. Liberating the history, culture and politics of our people from the contortions and distortions of a white supremacist framework that has historically denied our agency and subjectivity as active participants in the making of the world we live in. For the past 40 years, black studies has been instrumental in transforming higher education into a more inclusive, competitive, and rigorous intellectual enterprise. This is a fact. The contributions are irrefutable
They, i thought, were not only civil (more civil, indeed, than Ms. Riley) and responded with a maturity, both intellectual and personal, that i’m not sure i could have mustered.
The Chronicle responded, at first, with a rather watery note about how they’re not responsible for what gets published – it is, after all, “just” a blog. Ms. Riley, also, posted a response. Ungracious and filled with her sense of indignant privilege, she supposedly responded to her detractors on their four main points. It made me feel sorry for her. In a really heartbreakingly anxious way. Again, she failed to construct any real criticism of the discipline and simply wrote off most of academia as frivolous. Someone please explain to me why she is writing in an online news site for higher ed about higher ed topics?
The response, both in the Chronicle and in other newspapers have been filled with blow back. Most, like the NY Post, obviously have never read the Chronicle before, don’t know a thing about academia, certainly didn’t bother reading all of the posts and responses, and simply don’t understand the difference between a blog post in a relatively uninteresting newspaper and one in an online publication for academics. There has been a one-sided debate about academia and “gagging” and being out of touch. Ms. Riley has become a martyr – a victim of the Ivory Tower, not of her own lack of journalistic integrity. And while she has both blown off criticisms by saying her original article was “just” a blog post, she has also swung back to insist that she is a qualified journalist. Which is it, Ms. Riley? You don’t get to wear your credentials and then blow them off at will until you need them to shield you.
What is particularly interesting is that Ms. Riley was given space in the Wall Street Journal to “tell her side”, as it were. What is fascinating is the utter shift in tone. She suddenly finds room to cite (herself, mostly) and is actually *gasp* polite in her discourse. Almost.
I’m not saying that all people must be always polite in all things they write (though Mike Fossum at WebPro News had a bit to say about this). But i find it fascinating that when in search of support outside of academia, Ms. Riley finally figures out how to write like an adult. So i’m left with a sense of something else entirely – does perhaps, Ms. Riley have chip on her shoulder about higher education? Is her vitriol actually about something else, entirely? That her anger isn’t about a particular discipline but of something more deeply-seeded? In her response in the Chronicle, she closes her response by saying:
Such is the state of academic research these days. The disciplines multiply. The publication topics become more and more irrelevant and partisan. No one reads them. And the people whom we expect to offer undergraduates a broad liberal-arts education (in return for billions of dollars from parents and taxpayers) never get trained to do so. Instead the ivory tower pushes them further and further into obscurity.
I beg to differ, Ms. Riley. But that’s for another post another day.