following up on the future of rhetoric and composition

Last week I wrote long post on what I see as a dangerous trend in my field’s focus, away from the traditional prose instruction that institutions and policymakers still see as valuable, and towards increasingly abstruse and disconnected subjects in critical pedagogy, pop culture, theory, and digital abstraction. I find these areas to be engaging and generative, personally, but I also believe that they are far harder to defend in the current political climate of the contemporary university, and for that reason, I think they need to be matched with a strong  research focus on practical pedagogical advice and empirical research to guide that advice. I believe, in other words, in balance, and I believe that the evidence demonstrates that the field’s research wing is far out of balance. Above, I have embedded a video of the speech at the Conference on College Composition and Communication that initially inspired my post — or really, which inspired the chatter on social media that inspired my post.

I have also recently been debating these issues on a listserv for writing program administrators that includes some of the biggest names in my field. The conversation has been lively and very cathartic for me and I’m glad to have the opportunity. I am happy to be in a field where established scholars are willing to discuss these large issues with a jobless grad student, respectfully and with patience. This is not (trust me) true in many disciplines. I’m not comfortable quoting from emailed responses to a listserv, though this one’s archives are publicly available, so I am just going to copy and paste some of my own submissions myself. This  is again long and likely of interest to a small portion of my readership.

*****

Personally, my concern does not stem from an excessive attachment to the word “essay.” It stems instead from looking at the gathering forces of standardization and assessment, which are very high stakes and are coming to many contexts (as much as I hate that), and feeling that the field is producing very little work on the kind of writing that will help students perform well in that environment. I also think that more and more administrations and state legislatures are hostile to the humanities and looking to make cuts wherever they can, and from my limited vantage, I think the field focuses far too little on what those administrators and legislators think of as our purview: writing papers of one form or another. And I think that’s particularly unfortunate because even in this hostile environment, with all of the pressure on the liberal arts and our programs, the case for writing as an essential and valued skill for college students can be made, in a way that protects our disciplinary standing and our funding. But that case can only be made if stakeholders recognize our work as concerned with writing in the traditional sense.
If the problem were just the term “essay,” or the demise of the 5-paragraph essay, I would have little concern at all. But I think the situation is much deeper, which is that our most prestigious journals and conferences appear to have very little room for what most people would recognize as writing pedagogy– training others to better use words on paper (digital or physical) to achieve some rhetorical, analytic, aesthetic, or similar goal. That’s reflected in our graduate programs. How much of a given PhD student’s time in coursework is actually devoted to teaching students how to write papers, or researching writing to discover best pedagogical practices? How many dissertations are being written on those topics?

I would never say we should ONLY concern ourselves with how to write traditional papers; I love multimodal work and theory and political work. The problem is that our research, it seems to me, is dominantly about the latter and very little about the former. You’ve got to render unto Caesar sometimes. Indeed, I want us to prioritize and highlight writing pedagogy in part because that then gives us the kind of institutional protection that can allow political, theoretical, and experimental work to flourish. Instead, I look at the Cs conferences I’ve attended and find it remarkable how rarely I’ve been able to find panels that take as their subject teaching students to write prose, and I deeply worry for what that means for our ability to respond rhetorically to administrative and political demands.

Perhaps my fears are unfounded. But every piece of research I’ve done tells me that standardized testing of college learning is coming to the academy as a mass phenomenon. Further, the continued assault on the humanities and the casualization of academic labor is a threat to everyone. Look at Wisconsin. In response to a hostile governor, the UW schools are forced to close entire programs. An Anthropology program was cut at a UW school entirely. Another UW school said that it would not offer a Women & Gender Studies class for at least three years. That’s outrageous and terrible. And it’s the kind of threat faced by any discipline that doesn’t articulate its pedagogical value to hostile stakeholders. Plenty of people would love it if college writing instruction became an entirely deprofessionalized phenomenon, taught only by at-risk adjuncts. I think that can be opposed, but the field has to think and act strategically to do so. I know I’m not alone in these concerns.

Respectfully,

Fredrik deBoer

*****

I think it would be helpful if there was more clarity on what exactly the field sees as needing to be left behind. Is it the five paragraph essay, or very strict definitions of the academic paper? Some in this thread seem to think that’s all that’s being left behind. If that’s true, then I’m 100% on board. I think there are lots of ways to teach prose, and I think if done carefully, multimodal and digital work can be integrated very effectively into a class on prose. But some seem to think it’s the teaching and research of prose, the arrangement of words into sentences and paragraphs expressed to serve some rhetorical purpose, that the field needs to leave behind. And I think that’s disciplinary suicide. In the current political economy of the university, refusing to research or teach the subject that institutions pay you to research and teach is the simplest way to get mass de-professionalization of your discipline. You can lament it if you want, but stakeholders in our institutions and in the policy world believe that being able to express yourself in writing persuasively and with clarity is important and worth funding. As the carnage in literature shows, that’s not true of the liberal arts writ large.

And I can’t stress this enough: the message that is sent to doctoral students and young scholars in the field is that the teaching of prose is not valued, that research on teaching prose is not valued. People want careers, and they see what gets published and what gets talked about in conferences, and they take coursework that is about subjects that are very far from traditional prose instruction. The result is a generation of scholars who are producing scholarship that most people outside of the field would not identify as about writing at all. I’m not conservative. I think it’s great that some people are writing dissertations on agential realism and Dr. Who and 3D printing. The problem is that the field seems to produce nothing but dissertations on subjects like these, and almost none on prose instructions. As Holly says, that’s very far from the kind of work most of our graduates are actually going to do in their lives as teachers. And I find that a source of real danger for the field given current labor and political conditions.

So I just wish I knew whether people think that we need to leave behind the essay, whatever that is, or whether we need to leave behind prose instruction in general. If it’s the latter, how do we respond to hostile administrations which are already disinclined to value our work and would love excuses to replace us with contingent labor? How do we respond to powerful departments who complain that their undergraduates can’t write papers? How do we respond to state legislatures calling for standardization of college curricula? I think these are enormously important questions.

Thanks.

Fredrik deBoer

one after another

481227_887216284779_221603862_nI have two memories tonight, both from Wilbert Snow School, my childhood school, my childhood home.

In the first, it was a typical day on the blacktop, which means it could have been pretty much any grade, K-5. In those days the school was an actual campus; there was a main building with the office, the cafe, the auditorium, and the gym. Then there were a half-dozen or so satellite buildings, called units, which housed one grade apiece, plus an extra subject area room– art, music, so on. We called those specials. It was a campus, an elementary school campus. You had your classroom and across the hall was the other class in your same grade. In winter you’d load up  your gear and trudge over to the other building for your special. It was all surrounded by forest, and on one thin side of the woods, the housing project that abutted my childhood house. In the back, there was a stretch of woods that George Washington was known to have once crossed through, and Mr. Shearer, my grumpy old Republican 5th grade teacher who I loved so dearly, walked us through and told us about it. There was a birch tree and you could pull off a switch and suck the end and taste the birch. I loved it, so much. Awhile after I left they tore it all down and built a one-building version. Efficiency. Anyway.

We were on the blacktop and one of the other boys, I’m thinking Kevin Hickman but I don’t really remember, accidentally kicked a playground ball deep into the woods by the blacktop. So he ran in to get it. It seemed like he was in there for ages, and then there was this shout of glee, and he came barreling out pushing a very different ball, a far larger one, a giant earth ball. It was literally taller than he was, but otherwise looked identical to the dull red playground balls we always had, and as he emerged the look of pure joy on his face was impossible, and every other kid let out this absolutely brilliant scream to see a ball that big, and we all ran to touch it. To this day I don’t know how it could have happened that the ball could have been lost in the woods– how could you just forget about a ball that large? — or how long it might have been out there, or how it stayed perfectly inflated for however long it was. But It doesn’t really matter. To this day, the feeling of communal exultation, that pure, unexpected joy, the look on his face as he tore out from the woods, and the fact that I can remember the look on his face but not whose face it was, these things are indelible, things I will remember forever.

And then the para came over and yelled at us and took the ball away.

The second memory is just a feeling. It was the day of my 5th grade graduation, the last day at Snow School. After that I would be sent to the weird, one-grade quasi-middle school in my hometown, Keigwin, and after that, the fresh hell that was Woodrow Wilson Middle School. The memory is just being at school on that day and suddenly realizing, with Snow over, that time was passing. I mean it in just that sense, not as something deeper or more symbolic. It wasn’t that I suddenly contemplated myself aging or growing up or, even worse, my mortality. Nothing so vulgar. I just suddenly realized that time was passing in a way that I never had before, that you left school eventually, and that things would be different instead of the same. It was profound and moving and frightening.

Now it seems as if the situation is quite the opposite; I feel that I can sense myself aging but not moving, that nothing passes but time, that there is nowhere for anything to go but for my life to pass grudgingly from year to year.

Charles C. W. Cooke, labor activist

Some people will no doubt ding me for being positively quoted in this National Review piece about campus speech codes. That sort of thing never really bothers me; I said what I said on Twitter about the chilling effect of current campus speech norms and I stand by it. Guilt by association doesn’t move me.

No, the problem isn’t the quotes Charles C. W. Cooke put in, but the one he left out, because it’s the key. Here’s something else I said on Twitter:

Capture

It’s that mass contigency– the dramatic rise of at-risk academic labor like adjuncts and grad students– that creates the conditions that Cooke laments on campus. In the past, when a far higher portion of college courses were taught by tenured professors, those who taught college courses had much less reason to fear reprisals from undergraduates. They had the protection of the tenure system and often the benefit of faculty unions that could agitate on their behalf. But with so many instructors in a state of minimal institutional protection or authority, lacking long-term contracts, benefits, or collective bargaining, the risk of angered students multiplies. Adjuncts don’t even need to be fired; they can just not get any classes the next semester. Grad students don’t even need to be fired; they can just have their job applications placed on the deny pile. This is why I think the problem is actually probably much larger than the high-profile anecdotes would suggest. The greatest impediment to real pedagogical and political freedom on campus is self-censorship due to labor insecurity. Discussion of contingency is almost entirely absent in Cooke’s essay. (Also conspicuous in its absence: the names “Steven Salaita” or “Norman Finkelstein.”) He laments one aspect of a larger problem that he ignores.

(Note, too, that the rise of the service vision of college– a four-year resort vacation plus some classes where the student is the customer and the instructor the servant– is a product of a corporate capitalist vision of education.)

And this extends outside of the world of campus, too. When labor markets are bad and labor unions have been crushed, the average worker lacks power to assert rights like the right to free expression and free political association. The risks of saying the wrong thing or being in the wrong political party can be mitigated in a world of powerful labor unions, robust job markets, and social safety nets that can protect people in the event of firing. So if Cooke wants to defend the intellectual and academic freedom of college instructors and other workers, my sincere advice to him is to support unionization, government employment and stimulus, and redistributive social programs like a universal basic income. Only under those conditions can truly free political expression really flourish.

Of course, the utter demise of worker power in this country is a problem that conservatism is totally incapable of solving on its own terms. I don’t even know what a conservative effort to empower workers would look like. And it’s likely that Cooke sees little to be gained from actual pro-labor agitation; after all, in the vast majority of cases, his own political preconceptions are likely aligned with the corporate structure, not with the dissenting labor. There’s a lesson in that for campus activists, too: don’t forget how small the campus spaces you control really are, and don’t forget that after graduation you will find a world that is far more hostile to your views. College administrators, I’m sorry to say, increasingly see you as customers whose needs must be served. But what happens in the future, when you find that your job depends on other people’s approval of your political views, too?

dispatch (not) from #4c15: the cheerful slide into irrelevance

This post is very long, and on a subject of interest to few. Consider invoking your privilege to not read it. (Seriously it’s really very long so please don’t read it and then complain that it’s too long. You’ve been warned.)

For the last few years I’ve filed dispatches from the Conference on College Composition and Communication. CCCC is the biggest conference in the field of rhetoric and composition/writing studies, a giant gathering that brings together thousands of academics into hundreds of panel sessions, special interest groups, committee meetings, and myriad associated events. Satellite conferences and industry meetings spring up alongside it. There’s lots of parties and socializing that goes on. For many this probably sounds like the pits, but for a nerd like me, it can be dream.

I didn’t go this year, for a variety of reasons. First, because I’m trying to finish this  damn dissertation, and knew I would get no work done this week if I went to Tampa. Second, because I feared (it turns out correctly) that I would have my money tied up waiting for travel cost reimbursements from attending campus visits; when you go to a school  to  interview for an academic job, you get reimbursed, but the reimbursement often takes forever, and like a lot of grad students I make ~$20K a year. So I didn’t want to get into a situation where I had to travel and didn’t have any money to do it.

But I also didn’t go, if I’m being honest, because of my increasing alienation from the conference and what it says about the field. My friend and mentor Tony Silva– a total mensch, one of the most giving scholars I’ve ever met, and someone with a CV longer than your arm– once said to me, “awfully hard to find any writing at that writing conference.” And that’s not just a reflection of the conference, but of the field.

I could wax on forever about what rhet/comp is and where it comes from, and if I did I’d be in keeping with disciplinary tradition; it’s a field obsessed with its own meaning. I’d much prefer to say simply that rhetoric and composition is– or was– a field that took as its subject matter the investigation of writing and argument as issues worthy of serious research inquiry, particularly on the collegiate level. In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, some English professors were frustrated to find that their colleagues in literature refused to  take scholarship on writing and pedagogy seriously when it came to hiring and tenure review. Stories of profs who were dedicated to teaching writing more effectively being told by literature faculty to literally not include that research in tenure reviews are common. So faculty at some schools, including here at Purdue, banded together to make the study of writing process and writing pedagogy respected and valued professionally. They looked to the past for a subject matter to orient college writing around, and found that the study of rhetoric– the study of persuasion and argumentation– had a long lineage from which to draw. And given that most students will go on to write not out of an aesthetic impulse but out of the desire to get what they want, to persuade others to some purpose, rhetoric seemed a valuable and student-centered subject matter.

That’s the field that I wanted to join. As I’ve said in this space before, it’s not uncommon for people to look to my work in applied linguistics and second language studies and as why I didn’t just go to a PhD program in those fields. One answer that I’ve written at length about before is freedom. But more, as much as my quantitative leanings frequently make me feel like an outsider in the field, I fundamentally believe in the basic, core stand that the field’s progenitors took: that writing matters, that college writing matters, and that writing and the teaching of writing deserve to be a field of research inquiry because they matter. For all of the attendant headaches of being in a humanities PhD program, particularly in a world where a lot of people treat “grad student” as a sad joke, I still believe in that idea.

It’s just hard to say that the field believes in it, anymore.

*****

For decades now, lonely voices in the field have argued that rhetoric and composition has come to have little to do with college writing at all, at least as college writing is understood by the vast majority of instructors, administrators, and students who are involved in it. Brick and mortar research about actual writing pedagogy has become almost nonexistent in the field’s major journals; quantitative work, once an assumed part of the landscape of rhetoric and composition, identified as inherently reactionary and racist/sexist/homophobic; classroom practice assumed to be the work of liberating students from the need to write rather than giving them the tools they need to write when their lives require it; and writing as the study of language, words, and texts defined as a conservative viewpoint that should be replaced with an entirely abstract view of composition that is not married to any particular skillset whatsoever.

In 1996, Davida Charney wrote a piece titled “Empiricism is Not a Four-Letter Word,” in which she argued against a burgeoning movement, in the field’s biggest journals, to distance itself from empirical work entirely. Undertaken by scholars like the late Jim Berlin (himself of Purdue), Elizabeth Flynn, and Carl Herndl, this movement regarded empirical research as inherently the tool of establishment power and contrary to the liberatory work that, they argued, was the real responsibility of writing instructors. At an extreme, scholars have suggested that any systemization of the knowledge-generation process is politically illegitimate. As Charney argued, these attitudes reflected deeply naive attitudes about the actual epistemological beliefs of science and empiricism, and that we could and should undertake empirical work while recognizing traditional inequalities in access and power.

In 2005, Richard Haswell published “NCTE/CCCC’s Recent War on Scholarship,” a profoundly necessary, empiricism-driven polemic in which Haswell demonstrated the degree to which the National Council of Teachers of English and CCCC conference had abandoned empiricism. Haswell examined the publishing history of the NCTE journals, then as now the most widely-read and respected in the field (and thus most likely to result in hiring and tenure) and other associated rhet/comp journals. Eager to avoid appearing to only treat quantitative work as rigorous, Haswell instead defined the work he thought we needed to perform as RAD: Replicable, Aggregable, and Data-Driven. Rigorous qualitative work would certainly fit this bill. The point is to create knowledge that can be used in conversation with past knowledge, to have systemizable methods for developing new information that can give us, in his words, the “ability to deflect outside criticism with solid and ever-strengthening data.” Instead, he found that the NCTE had essentially abandoned publishing this work altogether, with even the field’s most traditionally empirical journal, Research in the Teaching of English, having come to publish only small-n case studies or ethnographic research when it published what  could be considered empirical research at all. As Haswell writes, this is a form of slow disciplinary suicide, as the research that rhet/comp refuses to publish is the research that most of the rest of the academy sees as essential. As Haswell says, “a method of scholarship under attack by one academic discipline in the United States but currently healthy and supported by every other academic discipline in the world does not need defending.”

In 2007, Susan Peck MacDonald published an article titled “The Erasure of Language.” In it, she lamented the field’s wholesale abandonment of language as a core area of interest. That might sound amazing to outsiders; how could the field of English, and particularly the subfield of writing studies, abandon language? And yet as MacDonald meticulously describes, that’s precisely what has happeend. The field has long ago marginalized the actual use of language, the consideration of putting words into a particular order for a particular purpose, whether stylistic or persuasive or creative. Like Haswell, MacDonald demonstrates this empirically, examining panels at the CCCC conference that is the subject of this essay, going back over half a century. She finds a consistent drop in the number of panels that take language issues as their core subject. Perhaps collapse is a more appropriate term. In the place of language, MacDonald finds that social and theoretical issues– cultural studies and liberatory pedagogy being a large part of those, we can be sure– had become  dominant, squeezing out traditional modes of inquiry in the conference and sending a clear message to young scholars about what is valued, and thus what is published, and what isn’t. The result is that an aspect of the field that stakeholders could once assume was central to our purpose, the mastery of language and how to teach it, has been sidelined into disciplinary irrelevance. And as MacDonald says, it also has resulted in generations of young writing teachers who have no ability to do the brick-and-mortar work of grammar and mechanics teaching that, whether we like it or not, the people who cut our checks believe to be important.

To the degree that we do focus on in-classroom  teaching, it tends to be about everything but actual prose. The desire to make everything digital or multimodal is overpowering in the field. Digital and multimodal composing can be great, but they are very often invoked or implemented in an entirely frivolous way. Many college writing teachers seem to feel pressure to shoehorn in “technology,” whatever that means, in a way that is totally disconnected from writing texts. So you get less writing instruction than you should followed by a half-assed unit on Photoshop or HTML. Alternatively, you get deeper and deeper into Byzantine pop culture phenomena, writing dissertations about teaching the rhetoric of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which is exactly the sort of thing outside critics of the academy love to mock. Far from being a way to demonstrate our value to the university, this risks costing us our disciplinary identity; often writing seems like a field that doesn’t want to teach its bread and butter but rather wants to play with tools from fields that are already established in their roles. Why would the average dean want to pay a writing program to teach students basic programming when she already pays the computer science program to do that much more thoroughly? You could ask the same question about graphic design or game development. I think all of these things have a clear place in a broad world of composition, but only if they are situated in a framework where writing itself is given appropriate attention and respect, and right now, that isn’t the case. Though I like Adam Weinstein generally, I thought his Gawker post mocking the panel titles at CCCC last year was cheap and unfair. But it should disturb people in this field that this kind of mockery is so abundantly easy to pull off.

The end result of all this is a field of composition that can’t create systematic research that can direct our teaching or prove our value to stakeholders, leaving us permanently vulnerable to administrative entities that question the value of our work. I’m subscribed to a listserv of writing program administrators that is full of informed, passionate voices. One of the most common ways people use that listserv is to query whether any research has been done on a topic of pedagogical or administrative need to them. Very often, the answer is to say that we just don’t know the answer to the questions. But how would we, when the field treats the generation of this kind of research as politically conservative, even bigoted? Many of the people who participate on this listserv are the self-same people who, as editors at major journals, are unlikely to publish empirical work or pedagogical work that is concerned with a topic other than critical pedagogy. In other words, what these people need as educators and as administrators cannot be served by what they privilege as scholars. Meanwhile, the erasure of language from our field means that young undergraduates who love and care for prose will seek to develop it in creative writing, literature, or increasingly, as something they do as a side gig as they dutifully pursue careers as C students in computer science or biology.

As Keith Rhodes and Monica McFawn Robinson write in an absolutely essential piece titled “Sheep in Wolves’ Clothing,”

Composition scholarship has produced little new knowledge about how writers make gains throughout the reign of social construction. Without a full philosophical shift, neither will it be likely to persuade more realist or idealist audiences that it has anything to offer to anyone outside its circle—which circle does not necessarily, or even with much likelihood, include the students who encounter composition briefly in an early stage of their college careers.

As Rhodes and McFawn Robinson point out, for all its self-aggrandizing swipes at radicalism, the field’s insistence on a vague social constructivist perspective and resistance at creating new knowledge that  can build on older knowledge actually has a conservative effect. It leaves the work of actually developing pedagogical best practices to major textbook companies and educational testing firms, corporations that most writing instructors view as somewhere ranging from a necessary evil to the devil. I share their distrust, but when we refuse to actually build a coherent base of shared knowledge, these entities will rush in to fill the gaps, and they do, to the tune of billions of dollars. “Far from having the sort of radicalizing social influence that social constructionists ironically idealize,” write Rhodes and McFawn Robinson, “social construction has mainly established a way for composition practitioners to insulate themselves from stumbling across the kinds of accumulating anomalies that, as Kuhn pointed out, become the force that drives paradigm change.”

To me, one of the most glaring of those anomalies is the distance between what the field perceives itself to be and what empirical research into its publication and conference practices reveals it to be. Today, at CCCC, the keynote address was given by Dr. Adam Banks of the University of Kentucky. Banks is a great scholar, an engaging public speaker, and did a great job as the program chair of last year’s conference. Not being in Tampa, I couldn’t take in his full speech, only observe it through social media, which is an interesting phenomenon. For this reason, I can’t really comment on Dr. Banks’s speech, but I can say that I was incredulous to see many of the people tweeting about it say that the essay is too prominent in the work of rhetoric and composition. To whatever degree Dr. Banks’s argument is truly that we need to move away from the classic essay, I simply cannot square that with the reality of the research elite of this field. I have for years now been replicating and extending the research of Haswell and Robinson, and hope in the not-too-distant future to publish my findings in a journal that will accommodate that kind of research. Speaking on a preliminary basis, I can say with confidence that far from having improved, the conditions Haswell and MacDonald identified have only deepened. So I don’t know what kind of turn away from the traditional essay can actually occur that hasn’t already occurred.

In this I recognize a constant condition of the field: at conferences, scholars in rhet/comp seem convinced that the field is full of empirical work and writing pedagogy, even as they give and attend panels that are about anything but. In his keynote preview, Dr. Banks writes that “We think intensely and attentively about what it means to prepare students to write and communicate in academic and workplace settings.” Dr. Banks is my senior in both career advancement and expertise, and I recognize that he has a knowledge of the field that I don’t. But from my perspective, from all of my experience in 6 years of graduate education in this field, I say with great respect that this largely isn’t true. As Haswell and MacDonald and related research argues, this is exactly what we don’t do, anymore.

If you doubt that, I encourage you to look at the program of the very conference I’m describing. Browse the titles of hundreds of panels and thousands of papers: how many of them actually focus on how we could better serve our students as young writers? And why is a field that has itself marginalized that work so permanently convinced of its dominance?

*****

Nothing has demonstrated the danger of this change to me more fully than my dissertation research. For the past two years, I’ve been researching the college higher education assessment movement, a national push to standardize assessment of undergraduate learning, and in particular the Collegiate Learning Assessment+, a key competitor in a very high-stakes effort to become the “college SAT.” The pressure to perform more standardized assessment of college learning grows every day, with the past two presidential administrations having come on strong in favor of this kind of assessment. Raising the stakes, the Obama administration has argued for a set of national college rankings that focus on value, and which tie access to federal aid to these rankings. There is an immense amount to say about this subject– that’s why I’m writing 200 pages about it– and a lot of it is critical. I have enormous issues with this test in particular and the project of standardized tests of collegiate critical thinking in general. But make no mistake: this push will have massive impacts on college pedagogy going forward. Yet at the average rhetoric and composition conference, you’d never know.

This has resulted in the strange condition of having a research topic that seems to me to be of vital importance to my field, and is often quite interesting to those from outside of it, but which I always struggle to get taken seriously by those within it. So, for example, at the beginning of this year I had an hour-long off-the-record conversation with a reporter at one of the biggest newspapers in the  country, as he was looking for background on the CLA+ and tests like it; but trying to discuss my research with college writing researchers is often an uphill battle. Not because they’re rude (almost everybody’s quite polite) but because it’s so outside of the core of the kinds of research that are happening right now that they have nothing to connect with it. Similarly, I was invited to talk about the CLA+ effort at Purdue by the local public radio station, and yet most people within the university concerned with writing pedagogy seem not to know that this administrative change is likely immanent. It’s frustrating not because I don’t think these people have anything interesting to add or say but precisely because I know how insightful and smart they can be, and I dearly wish this kind of direct engagement with high-stakes policy issues was far more common in our field. I’m not saying that everyone should be interested in what I’m interested in. I am saying that these issues are huge and pressing and have to be confronted.

Here’s the essential element for me. I am not, despite what many would assume, entirely opposed to the current national college learning assessment push. In a world where the difference between having a degree and not having one is still huge (despite constant skepticism from the media), and where such a degree can run people hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt, it’s vital to ask how well we’re doing. But there is a profound difference between our intent to assess and our ability to do it well, and current standardized assessments fall far short of doing so. There are theoretical and political reasons to oppose these tests, and at present, there are many within rhetoric and composition who could express those reservations well. But there are also profound empirical reasons to doubt the ability of these tests to be valid and reliable measures of college learning. That’s been one of the most consistent and important findings of my research: the challenges to these tests come from a hard-nosed social science perspective as well as from theoretical and humanistic resistance. I don’t privilege the former over the latter, but many stakeholders in the world do, and I think it is to the best interest of our field if we train young scholars to be able to do this work. Look at Haswell’s excellent methodological critique of Academically Adrift to see the power of a writing researcher who has empirical chops critiquing a bad argument. But in order to produce those young researchers, we have to create the incentives for them to be trained in this way, and we can’t do that if we don’t publish such work.

That, of course, is a self-serving argument, as I am someone who still hopes to find a niche and build a career in this field. But I truly believe that we need some– some, not all, not even many– of our researchers to become proficient in the techniques of the social sciences and basic statistics. As it stands, now, here’s the influence I can confidently say writing researchers have on the current higher education assessment push after two years of research: none. We have none. Educational testing companies have some. Text book manufacturers have some. Politicians have some. And, crucially, scholars in fields like education and business and engineering have some, which we could have too. But we’ve self-marginalized by arguing that we can’t, shouldn’t, won’t do certain kinds of research.

*****

More than anything, it is the labor conditions of today’s university that makes this all so deeply painful and potentially tragic.

For while social constructivism, cultural studies, critical pedagogy, theory, and abstract notions of the digital dominate our scholarly journals, the truth is that in most places the study of writing is the study of the research paper, the argumentative essay, the resume. This isn’t a contradiction with what I’ve said before; my argument is that writing scholars mostly research subjects that have little to do with the actual day-to-day reality of teaching students to express themselves in prose. But the teaching of writing is undertaken not by tenure-track academics who have a research responsibility but, dominantly, by adjuncts, graduate students, visiting professors, and permanent non-tenure track faculty. It’s these people that I most fear we fail, because they frequently are at permanent risk, risk that amplifies greatly if they don’t do the kind of traditional pedagogy they are expected to by their institutions. When they need guidance for how to better teach library research, or how to help students in basic writing courses use paragraphs, or what research shows about whether peer review is helpful or not, where can they turn? To a degree, not to rhetoric and composition journals, or at the very least, not to our flagship journals, which I will again say simply do not publish that sort of thing regularly anymore.

The deepening divide is clear to me if little acknowledged within the field: a small and shrinking number of tenured researchers are producing work that primarily concerns abstract theories that are remote from the classroom or critical pedagogy that assumes instructors have disciplinary authority sufficient to take resistance as their courses’ major aim. Meanwhile, the large majority of college writing classes are taught by one form of contingent or otherwise at-risk labor, workers who do not have the time to read much current research, the funds to attend conferences, or the ability to treat writing as a theoretical abstract rather than as a craft that they are required to facilitate.

The concern that the field should be facing is that more and more of the people who are trained to be writing teachers and researchers will end up working just as writing teachers, with huge class loads, low pay, no security, and paltry benefits.

That the academic job market is bad generally and bad for the humanities in particular should  come as a surprise to no one, at this point. But rhetoric and composition has, for several decades, enjoyed a significant hiring premium over literature. This hiring premium is a point of pride in the field, and one that is clung to in part because of the continuing disrespect that those at the heights of literary scholarship (to the degree that they still exist) tend to show towards writing studies. But while rhetoric and composition remains perhaps the healthiest field in English, this is like saying that Moe is the smartest of the Three Stooges. What I and others I know who are on the job market have quietly been saying to each other is that the rhet/comp market has shrunk markedly, but the field’s established leaders seem not to notice or understand. Again, I’m working on a compilation of numbers that I want to publish in peer reviewed form, but I can say without hesitation that the post-2008 market collapse has not nearly corrected itself and has in fact deepened, and in particular for us. Our advantage over literature and related fields remains, but that is a numbers game based on how tiny rhet/comp is compared to literature as a PhD-granting field. That doesn’t change the fact that, by what I take to be an honest accounting of this year’s jobs, there are perhaps 150 tenure track lines and another 25-30 jobs that are non-tenure track but still desirable in their permanence, duties, and prestige. I will further estimate that the field may graduate as many as 250 PhDs this year– a tiny number compared to lit, sure, but too many for our job market, especially given everyone who struck out on the market last year who is trying this year, and everyone in visiting prof or postdoc positions whose contracts are ending.

You can quibble with these preliminary numbers, and many will, but that there is a looming jobs crisis in rhet/comp  seems not to have occurred to many in the field’s PhD programs. In particular, there is typically a second wave of jobs that emerge in February and March, as initial searches come up empty or as people leave positions for new jobs. This second wave essentially didn’t happen this year, with a paltry number of TT lines coming up and most of those located in places like the Caribbean  or the Middle East. Disturbingly, I personally know of at least 10 or 12 searches in the field that were begun and abandoned, presumably due to funding cuts. The seeming ignorance about job market realities of many of the field’s bright lights is particularly frustrating given that they are, frequently, the very people putting out advertisements for visiting professor lines, lectureships, and adjuncts. To be abundantly clear: I don’t mistake this problem as wholly or primarily their doing. I know that they often have no choice but to hire NTT faculty and would love to hired more funded lines. But I do wish there was more of a dedication to grappling with the fact that our vaunted hiring advantage has largely eroded, and to have difficult conversations about whether we have overexpanded the number of doctoral programs we have and the number of students we take on.

I can not responsibly say that the job market would be better if we had retained our focus on teaching students to communicate in writing more effectively and researching how to do so better. (In addition to current work, not replacement.) The overall economic realities of the academy are so ugly, and the terrible assault on the humanities and liberal arts so powerful, that there’s a good chance that it just wouldn’t have mattered. But it’s also the case that a big part of the reason for our traditional advantage in the labor market is because we were able to point to the (yes) practical value of our work. I know that can be a dirty word in the academy, but it’s appropriate here. Yes, that kind of attitude risks denying the traditional principles of the humanities and moving in the direction of a mechanistic view of teaching and learning. But in a better light, it’s a matter of saying that we direct our teaching and research for the good of students and their eventual academic and professional needs.

A position like mine is easy to ignore, but the labor market realities are not. Right now, the numbers are still good enough that doctoral students who are left out in the cold just didn’t have what it takes. But  more and more, tenured professors are going to find it harder and harder to place the students they’ve been training to do most anything but teaching writing. I hope and pray the market rebounds, and it very well might, but we risk a really dark future where conferences like CCCC become a smaller little bubble that is further and further removed from the contingent work of teaching college writing. It’s a bleak vision.

*****

The rejoinders to this argument are typically that it’s a type of conservatism or prejudice. I can imagine the exact language of these criticisms, in fact: that my argument “puts women scholars/queer scholars/scholars of color under  erasure.” But this argument presumes that women scholars, queer scholars, and scholars of color are only interested in a particular kind of scholarship, and are specifically not interested in empirical or pedagogical work, and that just isn’t true. More to the point: what actually puts scholars under erasure is building a research field that has no connection to the kinds of tasks that will actually serve them in the labor market, whether academic or not. What really puts people under erasure is graduating into a life as an adjunct making $18K a year teaching six classes a semester after 7 years of graduate school. That puts people under erasure in a way the essay of a graduate student on WordPress never could.

Another argument, and one I understand, is the fear that the humanities will lose its traditional identity and just become another quantitative shop, and worse, that it will lose what distinguishes it by doing what education and quantitative communications and linguistics already does, but worse. That’s a powerful objection. To that I would simply say again that I am talking about balance, here, not dominance; I’m talking about restoration and not replacement. I firmly believe we can increase the number of writing scholars doing empirical research and brick-and-mortar pedagogical work without abandoning the liberal arts or losing what makes us distinct.

I know that this long argument will ultimately be taken as me opposing many kinds of scholarship that I actually enjoy. It will be taken as anti-cultural studies, anti-theory, anti-critical pedagogy, anti-politics. That’s not the case. I value all of these kinds of engagement, and think that all of them can be part of a healthy, functioning disciplinary landscape. I’m a defender of the humanities. Indeed, I want us to do more of the empirical and pedagogical work I’m calling for as a means to defend the humanities. We can create space for abstract theory (I love abstract theory and find it profoundly practical) and cultural studies (cultural studies can be vibrant and generative) and critical pedagogy (the academy needs critical pedagogy) if we do the work that the universities pays us to do and if we do it  well. But at present, the field is so massively tipped in one direction, and seemingly so dedicated to tipping ever-further, that I fear for the future. I would never want everyone or even most people in our humanistic field to use numbers or to be focused on practical classroom writing pedagogy. But we desperately need more people doing that work. All of the tired old mockeries of the humanities are built on deliberate misunderstanding and casual prejudice. But no one is entitled to relevance; relevance has to be built.

I still believe, fundamentally, that I made the right choice. I still have had a tremendous graduate education at both the MA and PhD levels. I’ve worked with dedicated, giving faculty who have always told me to go my own way and have supported me as I have. I’ve been blessed with many brilliant peers who challenge and support me. I’m still moved by the good research that gets done in the field. I admire and respect so many people who work in rhet/comp. And despite how often people I argue with in my second life as a political writer use my field as an insult, presuming by its name that it can’t create anything of value, I’m still proud to identify myself with it. When I do go to Cs, I always look around and say “my people!” Because despite my abundant frustrations, they are. But I fear for the future. And though I have been privileged to have developed a small but vital audience in my online writing, people in my own field are those I find hardest to reach. I have always said and will continue to say that I am the opposite of a big deal, but it is the case that I have been lucky enough to enjoy at audience that at times reaches the hundreds of thousands and to have had my work discussed in some of the biggest publications in the world. Within my own community, though, ideas like mine are marginal, and very easy to ignore. In this sphere, I lack a voice.

This is the kind of essay that, I’m sure, my faculty advisors would prefer I not write. There’s little to be gained in doing so. And I have for years thought of the most cynical ways to build a career in this field, accepting the field for what it is instead of wanting to change it and trying to just jump on a tenured life raft. I certainly recognize that this is all self-serving of me. Well, you’ll have to take my word for it that I speak out of concern for more than myself. As a socialist, I believe the world owes me a living, but not that it owes me a particular kind of living. I love to teach, and I’m good at it, and I’m a hardworking researcher, and I maintain a belief that there’s some school out there that will want to hire me to teach writing and language and maybe research methods, and to work at the intersections of writing and applied linguistics and literacy education. But if not, that’s OK, I’ll figure something else out. The field will go on without me. I just want it to go on, healthy and confident, into the future. Unlike many I know, I don’t think the academy is hopeless. I think there’s a chance for a better future. But we have to acknowledge the problems we have now, and resolve to address them, if we’re going to build it together.

fighting the tide

This Michelle Goldberg essay on the Laura Kipnis kerfuffle at Northwestern is the sort of piece that seems to push my buttons so precisely that I don’t want to write about it, if that makes sense. It also reflects the tangled issues at the heart of questions of free thought and free expression. I applaud the fact that the students involved are concerned enough members of their communities to speak out on issues that matter to them, and I celebrate their right to protest. But I think calling for formal censure of a professor for writing a piece in which she expressed concerns about a set of campus policies, while also acknowledging the problems that those policies are intended to address, is counterproductive and potentially chilling. To honor that request would cut directly and unambiguously against the principles of free inquiry and free expression that are treasured academic values– and left-wing values, still, despite everything. And this is exactly the kind of mounting pressure against free expression that so many lefties seem to refuse to think about or confront with more than a hand wave or eye rolling. I wish people would just say yes or no: do you think it’s a good idea for professors to be punished for publishing edited essays in major publications, essays which are controversial simply for expressing an unpopular point of view? And how could that not constitute the kind of erosion of free speech that I’m constantly told isn’t happening?

Some I know say things like, well, look, these students aren’t getting what they want! They don’t have the power to force the university’s hand, unlike the people who agitated for the unconscionable firing of Steven Salaita. Which, first, doesn’t mean you can avoid the responsibility to stake a claim on whether what the students want is right or wrong. But more importantly: yes, exactly. The students don’t have the power to punish Kipnis, while those who pushed for Salaita’s ouster had power to end his career. That should be a lesson to the left in general: we should oppose incursions on free speech not merely out of principle but also because the left is vulnerable and lacks power, by its very nature. Precisely because we speak for powerless constituencies, the left will very rarely control the ability to dictate which kinds of speech are permissible. We are much more likely to be censored than to effectively censor others. Only in the funhouse mirror views of campus life or online bubbles could we become so sure of our own ability to dictate who gets to say what, when. It’s for that reason that I say, for example, that the day we pass anti-hate speech legislation in this country is the day that Palestinian activism is declared hate speech, because of inequities in political power in this country. The left’s flirtations with censorship are not merely wrong on principle; they’re self-destructive. But it’s next to impossible to even discuss that because so many on the left are so immensely distrustful of the conversation that they will dismiss these concerns out of hand.

In the broader view, speaking as someone on the academic job market, I have come to fear soft censorship as much as the ordinary version. Both threaten to erase intellectual freedom as we know it from campus.

I’ve told the story, in the past, of how my paternal grandfather, a professor at the University of Illinois, was targeted for his antiwar and socialist beliefs by the infamous Broyles Bills. A proto-McCarthyite, Paul Broyles worked tirelessly to restrict the political beliefs of university professors. My grandfather was targeted by the impossibly-Orwellian Seditious Activities Investigation Commission. So was his friend and comrade, Norman Cazden, a brilliant young music professor. My grandfather was subject to brutal public condemnation and slander, causing him great social and professional harm, as well as pain which he carried with him the rest of his life. But he had tenure, so he kept his job. Cazden was not so lucky; a gifted composer and educator, he spent the next 11 years surviving by teaching piano lessons to children. That’s the difference that formal structures of intellectual freedom can make.

That’s the hard censorship, like the censorship of Salaita. But these days I think we need to also be concerned about soft censorship. Several people made the point, when the Salaita affair was first brewing, that the ultimate message to administrators was to keep voices like Salaita’s off campus in the first place. After all, Salaita and his supporters (like me) have at least been able to generate controversy and negative publicity about his firing. Much easier, and quieter, to exclude politically controversial voices from campus from the get-go. With the academic job market as brutal as it is, it’s far easier to simply throw out the applications of anyone who has publicly expressed controversial views; that way, the layer of plausible deniability prevents institutions from confronting the ways in which they are eroding academic and intellectual freedom at the behest of donors and politicians. This would amount to an even more effective means of silencing dissent on campuses than heavy-handed actions like denying tenure or firing.

You can see the effectiveness of this approach in the large genre of advice columns and essays for academic job seekers. To my sadness, reading hundreds of these pieces in the last several years has been an exercise in people saying one basic thing in a variety of different ways, often hiding the explicit point but nevertheless making it plain: don’t do anything that might ruffle any feathers, ever. That’s the thrust of a remarkable amount of the published material on the academic job market. When you boil it down and look for the basic advice that’s expressed a thousand different ways, that’s what you get– if you ever want to work in the academy, you better not have any record of saying anything remotely controversial. The long-term result of that will be a cowed and quiet professoriate, unless we work to avoid that result.

I have to believe that there is still a strong enough dedication to the principles of academic freedom within the academy to maintain a defense of the necessary controversies of intellectual life. Academic job search committees and deans can defend these principles by refusing to follow the crowd in throwing out applications that come with political baggage. Passionate undergraduates, like those who are protesting Kipnis, can help by continuing to protest without calling for the kind of heavy-handed, top-down administrative sanctions that, in the long run, are unlikely to be good for them or their values. These passionate young people are going to emerge into a world where many of the treasured political principles they learned in their universities are deeply unpopular. Perhaps then they will learn the abundant virtues of not seeking to punish views that you dislike. As it stands, I know so many young academics who, faced with the already incredible competition of the job market, live in fear of ever saying or doing anything that could be considered offensive, even unintentionally, to professors, administrators, or (especially) their students. That’s no way to build a generation of young scholars. The world is harsh enough on unpopular opinions. We should work to make protest and controversial opinion– left-wing, right-wing, tenured or contingent– a respected and defended aspect of academic life.

a proposed course on information literacy

I’ve just added to my teaching portfolio a syllabus and some course materials for a proposed class in information literacy and data journalism, embedded below. These are materials that I developed for a job that just rejected me. It’s a shame I won’t get a chance to teach this course there, but maybe I’ll get a chance to do so somewhere, someday.

The course reflects a few things I believe about higher education going forward. First, I think that the traditional college major is something of an anachronism that needs to evolve to survive. Oh, you’ll always be able to major in history or biology or other subject matters, and that’s fine. But I also think we’ll see the rise (or should) of majors that are oriented around methodologies– around ways of knowing. These majors would be about how we seek, evaluate, consume, summarize, and build on information, with different ways of approaching the world being treated as just as important as particular subject matters. This course, designed to be writing-intensive and for upperclassmen,  fits into that worldview. Second, and on a more practical level, I think that the rise of data journalism is exciting and filled with potential, but also fraught with potential problems. We need to be training stronger consumers of news and information, particularly of data-driven arguments, because those arguments can so readily go wrong. This course takes as one of its basic presumptions an idea that is very old-fashioned and yet remains, in my mind, more relevant than ever: that the purpose of higher education is to create citizens, not just workers. Anyway, check it out.

Data Journalism Syllabus

Information Literacy for the Writing-Intensive Classroom

Information Literacy for the Writing-Intensive Classroom II

self-defensive preemption

Whenever I write about controversial issues, such as intersectionality politics or Israel-Palestine or any number of things, I receive a certain kind of counsel, sometimes admonishment. Sometimes  it’s a kind of well-meaning advice from people who agree with me, sometimes a kind of scolding by those who don’t. But in each case, the argument is this: I should spend more time listing caveats and qualifications that announce what my claim isn’t before I launch into a discussion of what my claim is. So when it comes to interscetionality politics, I should more forcefully and at greater length announce that I believe that people of color and women are traditionally silenced in political debates. (I do.) And when it comes to Israel and Palestine, I should take much more time to announce that I see Jews as a group that has suffered unique historical persecution and that anti-Semitism is an immense evil. (I do, on both counts.) I should, in other words, undertake more preemptive self-defense in my writing, because the risks of being perceived to hold positions I don’t are too high. That’s  been an opinion I’ve heard today, both publicly and privately, in regards to my last post. Why don’t I do more to address the real terrors of European anti-Semitism?

Well, to begin with, I am somewhat distressed by people who seem to equate treating the issue of rising European anti-Semitism as an open, empirical question with denying anti-Semitism is real or denying its particular evil. You can believe that European anti-Semitism is a powerful evil without believing that it’s rising in prevalence or destructive effect, and I don’t think it’s healthy to equate the two. After all: if it’s offensive even to question whether that’s true, why send Jeffrey Goldberg on his fact-finding mission in the first place?

Do I think anti-Semitism is rising in Europe? I have seen some evidence to support that reading. I happen to think that Europe’s Jews still have more to fear from old-fashioned, the-Aryan-race-is-supreme-style Anglo-Germanic fascism than from Europe’s Muslims, as the former group has more establishment political power than the latter. I am also deeply skeptical of narratives that seek to establish Muslims as the root of contemporary evils, particularly in pieces like the one in question, which places blame not on corrupt governments in majority-Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia but on poor Muslim immigrants who are minorities where they live. But all in all, I am perfectly willing to consider the issue of whether anti-Semitism is rising in Europe, provided the investigation is rigorous and fair. In my estimation, Goldberg’s piece does not meet that challenge.

My piece was about the process through which Goldberg asserts what he asserts, and much less about its conclusions. My piece was about Goldberg as a figure in the media who has been paid handsomely to pump out unconvincing and irresponsible propaganda that always bends in one direction, and The Atlantic, a general-interest magazine that seems to have special interest in asserting the unique dangers of Islam, including in its past two cover stories. My piece was about the use of hearsay and speculation. My piece was about, for example, sentences like “Early last year, Yardéni and other Jews were banned from a left-wing demonstration called to protest homophobia and—of all things—anti-Semitism, because they were ruled to be Zionists.”– a sentence expressed in the passive voice, seemingly to prevent answering the essential question, banned by whom? It is perfectly fair to question whether Goldberg, a journalist with a history of failure and a clear ax to grind, is fair and rigorous in his reporting, without feeling compelled to spend time engaging on the clear history of European bigotry against Jews. I am well aware of the history of European anti-Semitism; that the greatest crimes in the history of humanity have been committed by fair-skinned, blue-eyed champions of Western supremacy could hardly have escaped my notice.

Spending half my time saying what I’m not saying is a requirement that only is ever asked of those who speak against establishment power and never for it. When it comes to the issue of Israel and Palestine, which I  write about often, the problem is particularly acute, because larding my pieces with assertions that I’m not anti-Semitic, when I’m criticizing Israeli policies or actions, would merely contribute to the tacit  expectation that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic or close to it.

The second reason I don’t tend to do this kind of preemption is subtler but more important to me: what does it mean for me to express these kinds of caveats, if the people urging me to do so express it as a form of self-defense? What is the moral value of that kind of language, if both they and I know that I would be doing it to protect myself? Think about what it means for me to, for example, spend paragraphs discussing the horrors of campus rape when I say that affirmative consent rules are unlikely to result in actual progress on this issue. If the purpose is merely to demonstrate that I am a good person who believes the right things, then I have instrumentalized an issue of exquisite sadness and sensitivity and made it all about me. There is something so profoundly vulgar about that exercise, so chauvinistic, that I just cannot stand it. If I spend 200 words distancing myself from anti-Semitism purely so that I may not be misunderstood as anti-Semitic myself, I’ve turned the denial of one of history’s great evils into a vessel for my own self-interest. I can’t stand that. I just can’t stand it. You know I can’t sleep, at night, and if I do that then it’ll just be another thought I beat myself with for hour after hour.

The fact is simple: in each case, you either take my word for it or you don’t. You either believe I criticize Goldberg’s piece out of principled media criticism or out of anti-Semitism. You either believe me when I say that intersectionality comes from a principled place but often has unhealthy and unhelpful consequences, or you don’t. You either believe I oppose campus rape and also think affirmative consent does more harm than good, or you think I just don’t care about  campus rape. That’s the condition we live in, in this life of words. You’re only as moral as you can convince people of. There’s no saving yourself from other people’s misunderstanding, and I will not put on the bulletproof vest of calling evil evil.

the basic logic of bigotry

This is a topic about which I will reliably lose my temper, so let me try to stay in control.

It’s an undeniable fact that there’s a level of casual bigotry against Muslims that is permissible in our media that would not be permissible against any other group. That’s why The Atlantic can yet again publish a piece that takes as its subject the unique violence and threat posed by Muslims, a subject it has published many pieces about already in this young year– including its immediate prior cover story. There are many, many things to dislike about Jeffrey Goldberg’s latest smear of Muslims: its classic bogus-trend-story failings, its utter reliance on hearsay and disconnected anecdotes, its uncorroborated claims, its constant use of weasel words and dishonest qualifications, its heavy reliance on the passive voice to make accusations and claims that cannot be meaningfully parsed by its audience. All of it coming from someone who has ground the same axe against the same people for his entire career and who is bent on reaching the foregone conclusion that Islam is the enemy of the civilized world. The response to this post will inevitably be more scolding that I don’t believe in European anti-Semitism or take it seriously. That isn’t true. Rather, I will simply point out: if the case is clear that European anti-Semitism is rising, then it can and should be made honestly. Goldberg, instead, relies on all of the tropes of dishonest reporting, fake trend-spotting, and misleading readers.

One point of Goldberg’s is the most absurd, the most toxic, and the most dangerous. Goldberg argues that there is a chance that Europe’s Muslims will form a coalition with Europe’s rising far-right political parties. He then explicitly analogizes that possibility to the conditions that led to Nazi party. This is utter, absurd lunacy, an idea so inherently ridiculous and straightforwardly wrong that it should totally disqualify his piece even from the many people who are bent on agreeing with it. As his own reporting makes clear, Europe’s actually-existing far-right parties hate Muslim immigrants and would never, ever form a coalition with them. The National Front, a white supremacist group, they’re going to get cozy with a bunch of poor Arabs and Persians? Really? Golden Dawn, which literally contributed to war crimes against Serbian Muslims? They strike you as a group eager to join forces with Muslims? The English Defence League, a movement that started explicitly to harass and exclude and degrade Muslim immigrants in the UK? Really? Indeed, the very rise in those far-right parties that he describes is happening because of anti-Muslim sentiment. The very idea of explicitly Aryan-supremacist, pro-white, anti-immigrant, pro-“Western civilization” parties forming a bloc with the very people they are rising up to oppose is so farcical that only a publication as motivated by intrinsic bigotry as the Atlantic could allow it to be published.

And the thinking behind it is prejudiced on its face. See:

Capture

This is merely a direct example of something that is filling Twitter right now, which echoes Goldberg’s thinking: the assertion that Europe’s Muslims, millions of largely-impoverished brown immigrants who face constant xenophobia and harassment, are in fact a unified bloc similar to a political party. The idea that disparate and unaffiliated people, coming from dozens of countries, speaking many different languages, practicing different forms of Islam,  different in culture and politics, can be analogized to the Stalinist Russian government of the 1930s is, simply and unambiguously, bigoted. To take a vast swath of humanity, one that has no shared party affiliation and no consistent allegiance, that comes from myriad backgrounds, that seek different things, that live separate lives, and to treat them as a unified group that can be fairly hated and feared is nothing other or less than the basic, corrupt logic of racism and bigotry. It can be called no other thing. And that is the logic of Jeffrey Goldberg and The Atlantic. 

Big Media Twitter is, of course, sharing this article with enthusiasm and gusto, championing Goldberg for his “courage” at telling them what they already believe. An industry full of self-described liberals rallying to the Drudge siren, waving the same flag as some of the most virulent and explicit racists of our time, so proud of their own iconoclasm and refusal to bow to “political correctness.” And all, of course, waged with the threat of accusations of anti-Semitism, as if the refusal to ignore the palpable Muslim-hatred of the article constitutes de facto hatred of Jews, as though asking Jeffrey Goldberg to conform to the most basic requirements of journalistic rigor is anti-Semitic, as though calling out the absurdity of comparing impoverished immigrants to the proto-Third Reich could stem from no other place than anti-Semitism. I have this crazy belief: that if it is in fact true that Europe’s Jews are threatened on a historical level, then journalists can prove it without every dishonest reporting tactic ever employed; that it can be proved without literally analogizing poor brown immigrants who control no governments or militaries to Hitler’s party; that it can be done by someone who wasn’t responsible for one of the greatest failures in the history of journalism. Do you take those to be entirely unfair requests?

I don’t doubt that the many, many media insiders who are pimping this narrative don’t see themselves as hating Muslims. But with Muslims, and only with Muslims, they are willing to accept and repeat the basic logic of prejudice: that a group of immensely diverse people deserve to be feared and opposed because they share a religion. To praise Goldberg’s piece is inherently and unambiguously to assert that a 12 year old boy from Azerbaijan is in some fashion the same as a 65 year old man from Yemen and a 33 year old woman from Indonesia, that in each and every case they are to be feared as members of a potential fifth column. That’s bigotry; that’s what that is. Goldberg is a bigot, someone who has made the demonization of Islam his career’s most central and most constant subject, and The Atlantic is a bigot’s magazine, with an insatiable appetite for pieces that  place the world’s ills at the feet of Islam, and the people who draw paychecks from the magazine are handmaidens to bigotry. And if telling that plain truth invites the responses I get whenever I criticize this particular magazine– aggressive emails from its employees, dark muttering about consequences, the assertion that I will be unemployable for speaking out in this way, and so on– then that’s the way it goes.

the Rich Uncle Pennybags test

For awhile now I’ve counseled leftists to apply the inverse of Gandhi’s famous dictum: think of the most privileged person you have ever seen, and ask if your next act will be of any threat to him. I call this the Rich Uncle Pennybags test, after the guy from Monopoly. The question is, does your next proposed political action hurt Rich Uncle Pennybags? Does it threaten his station at all? Could it meaningfully reduce his advantage? I’m not saying everything that you do has to pass the test. I’m not saying that there aren’t meaningful, constructive types of political engagement that fail the test. But I am saying that a left-wing movement that devotes enormous time, effort, and attention to actions that fail the test risks no longer being a left-wing movement at all. I’m saying that a left-wing that constantly fails the Rich Uncle Pennybags test is precisely the kind of left-wing movement that establishment power likes: about symbolism over substance, about the individual rather than the masses, about elevating minorities in the ranks of a corrupt system rather than changing the system, about being good rather than doing good.

So, for example: does race-based affirmative action threaten Rich Uncle Pennybags? It does. Race-based affirmative action helps to address the deep inequalities in access to college, inequalities that most often help people like Rich Uncle Pennybags and his idiot kin. It’s also a (small) step to help redress the overall socioeconomic inequality that Rich Uncle Pennybags enjoys. Done well, it helps lift the fortunes of millions rather than of a few; it’s a victory for an entire class of oppressed peoples, not a lottery. Supporting race-based affirmative action passes the test. Meanwhile, whether Iggy Azaliea gets another nasty thinkpiece written about her just makes no difference to the privileged. It’s irrelevant. So: in the last year, what have you read more of in left-wing environs? Articles about affirmative action, or articles about Iggy Azaliea?

Or consider  what I am told is the great internet political debate of the moment: whether you should only read books by authors who aren’t white men. Well, if that’s what you’d like to do, go wild. I could not care less what you read. I certainly don’t think not reading white men amounts to “reverse racism” or “political correctness gone mad,” the typical complaints of conservative commenters and Twitterers. Knock yourself out. I just don’t mistake that decision for somehow amounting to a meaningful political action. It completely fails the Rich Uncle Pennybags test: what do the privileged care if you don’t read white men? Even under the absolute best case scenario, it’s hard to see this kind of action making a meaningful dent in the inequalities that are present in book publishing, already a threatened field, and there’s no way this engagement spreads to make the economy less sexist and racist generally. It’s absolutely great if this gets more people reading a more diverse set of authors, or if some non-white, non-male authors get a bigger readership. But it’s not in any sense a meaningful, structural response to any kind of inequality. Yet judging by the enthusiastic embrace of this initiative, and the palpable pride of those who espouse it, you’d think this was our Gettysburg.

Like I said: read who you want, and if this effort gets some people diversifying their reading, great. But this isn’t happening in a vacuum. It’s happening in a left that seems to have no other interests than in these kinds of purely symbolic politics. And that’s a type of apoptosis self-destruction. [I’m told apoptosis, while having a self-destructive element, is actually a good thing. Too clever for my own good.]

critique drift

I have had the opportunity to meet a lot of engineers in my days here at an engineering school. A couple years back, a friend of mine who is also an academic was visiting from her institution. (I have gotten her permission to tell this story, with the caveat that I admit that I am a rogue and a ne’er-do-well. So admitted.) We had a conversation with a civil engineer who is a friend of a friend. A white male himself, he told us of a recent eight-month trip he had taken to western Africa, in which he had helped build a bridge. He spoke glowingly of his trip, and of the people he had seen and worked with and how gratified he was to help.

Later on in the evening, my friend complained about him and his story. She rolled her eyes at his “voluntourism,” complained of all the imperialist overtones, and compared him to white college kids who take Facebook profile pics with beaming African children. Other than to say that voluntourism seemed like the wrong critique, given that he was paid for his efforts, I let it go. Though we were and are friends, I knew that there was little benefit to disputing her critique, and high potential risk. Still, in my head, I did my own eye rolling. Yes, voluntourism is a thing, and there was more than a little wince-inducing language in the way he told his story. It’s not like I didn’t understand where this was coming from at all. But… dude built a bridge. For a community that had been trying to get it done for years. It made it easier for them to access hospitals and schools. It was a worthy project that genuinely helped a community that had asked for some and, however poorly he may have expressed himself, he deserved to feel pride and to share that feeling.

What my friend was guilty of, in my estimation, is a phenomenon I’ve seen more and more, which I call critique drift. Critique drift is the phenomenon in which a particular critical political lens that correctly identifies a problem gets generalized and used less and less specifically over time. This in turn blunts the force of the critique and ultimately fuels a backlash against it. Critique drift is a way that good political arguments go bad.

So my friend here used a term that reflects a real phenomenon (voluntourism) which has been used to good effect in the past but which has, over time, become less effective thanks to overgeneralizing it and treating it as a magic word. This general trend has become a remarkable problem for the left, particularly in online spaces, where the sheer volume of engagement threatens to produce critique drift even among those who use language carefully. Very obvious examples of critique drift include the term “mansplaining,” “tone policing,” and “gaslighting.” Each highlights real phenomena: men who explain things to women who know more than they do about the subject at hand; people using critiques of tone as a way to dismiss or avoid the substance of the argument; the tendency to try to make someone feel crazy as a way to win an argument. All of those are real. But the actual communicative, rhetorical, and analytical value of each has been severely undermined, in my view, by the way in which they are now applied to more and more situations, or to instances where the standards for meeting these simply haven’t been met. Political critique draws power from specificity, but the presumed social force of using certain terms inevitably leads to their watering down. It’s a real problem.

Or consider the trigger warning. Trigger warnings were initially endorsed specifically for the good of those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, a specific and potentially debilitating medical issue that afflicts a very small percentage of people. Triggers were not broad categories of potential offense that provoked vague feelings of discomfort but very specific situations that resulted in deeply painful experiences that stemmed from narrowly-defined traumatic episodes. Now, triggers are everywhere, lurking behind every corner, endorsed by people in all manner of situations for all manner of reasons, and subject to appropriation by those who would use them for cynical ends– such as the students at other institutions my academic friends tell me about, who use talk of triggers as an all-encompassing excuse to get out of doing work or experiencing viewpoints they don’t like. Some of the most privileged college students in the world now feel no compunction against invoking triggers at any time they find it convenient. Anyone who questions whether they actually deserve to invoke that claim, meanwhile, is regarded as inherently a bad ally and bad person. This, in turn, compels some people to think that all talk of triggers and trigger warnings is academic lefty bullshit that leaves us unable to educate, unable to ever bring students to encounter any remotely challenging or controversial opinions, and makes conservative backlash that much more likely. This is classic critique drift.

I have occasionally been surprised to meet people who think that I don’t believe, for example, that mansplaining or tone policing are real, or even worse that I don’t think privilege is real. Of course I think those things are real. They’re real and pernicious and have to be accounted for. But I find myself arguing against their particular use in so many instances because they’re often employed in a sloppy, unhelpful, or dishonest way. Worse, ever pointing out that they’ve been employed in a sloppy, unhelpful, or dishonest way is treated as absolutely anathema by a very vocal and influential part of the online left. That’s bad in and of itself and it fuels backlash. It also hampers our ability to meaningfully spread the critique. I’ve been asked point blank on many occasions how one can know when a disagreement coming from a man becomes mansplaining. On an intellectual, theoretical level, I absolutely believe there’s an important difference. In the realm of actual practice? At this point, I’m not sure there is any such definition, because the term is so often used as a meaningless intensifier or petty insult. Likewise, I absolutely believe that tone policing is a real and troubling phenomenon, and that there’s a space between doing that and doing the kind of inevitable and necessary criticism of tactics and language that any political movement needs. But in the actual scrum of online political argument, “tone policing” now seems to mean nothing but “criticism of my argument that I don’t like.” That’s critique drift.

As Douglas Williams of the South Lawn has pointed out, even the terms of social justice politics that seem to be employed in the most unhelpful ways often spring from smart, perceptive places. Privilege theory and intersectionality are the perfect example. Both contain trenchant critiques, but also a complex and careful set of limitations and guidelines that agitate against using those critiques frivolously. But only the acidity of the critique tends to be preserved, not the care or limitation. In thinkpieces about privilege, I find, people are quick to say that you can enjoy privileges and still be oppressed, or impoverished, or otherwise suffer. But those caveats tend to drain away in the actual argumentative forum. Take this piece on straight white male as being the lowest “difficulty setting” in the video game of life by John Scalzi, a sci-fi writer who has earned a lot of attention as a champion of social justice. It’s funny and effective, and the analogy strikes me as largely correct. And Scalzi includes the necessary caveat that you can choose the lowest difficulty setting and still get unlucky and still suffer and still deserve help. But when someone learns about privilege from this framing, do they then turn around and remember that key element? My experience tells me that they don’t; when people argue politics with these terms, they very rarely hold on to the qualifications and instead use only the weaponized critique. Indeed, Scalzi himself rarely seems to stop to remind people of those qualifications when he is waging political war online. And why would he? He is rewarded for being as acid in his critique as possible, not by being understanding and magnanimous. In these online spaces, viciousness trumps specificity and care.

This all largely descends from a related condition: many in the broad online left have adopted a norm where being an ally means that you never critique people who are presumed to be speaking from your side, and especially if they are seen as speaking from a position of greater oppression. I understand the need for solidarity, I understand the problem of undermining and derailing, and I recognize why people feel strongly that those who have traditionally been silenced should be given a position of privilege in our conversations. But critique drift demonstrates why a healthy, functioning political movement can’t forbid tactical criticism of those with whom you largely agree. Because critical vocabulary and political arguments are common intellectual property which gain or lose power based on their communal use, never criticizing those who misuse them ultimately disarms the left. Refusing to say “this is a real thing, but you are not being fair or helpful in making that accusation right now” alienates potential allies, contributes to the burgeoning backlash against social justice politics, and prevents us from making the most accurate, cogent critique possible.

I find myself, more and more often, in the useless position of defending particular critiques in the general while having to admit that a particular instance of it is cheap or unfair or just wrong. I also find myself constantly having to tell people that I do in fact believe in a given critique, because denying that a particular application of that critique is correct does not in any way mean that I deny its salience in general. Both of these things amount to wasted time and energy, precisely the kind of wasted time and energy that the online left appears to be drowning in right now. Like so many others, I am exhausted by the need to constantly assert the sincerity of my views because I refuse to engage in the useless signaling that is so much a part of current social justice culture. And you can imagine the immediate rejoinder to this post: just more of the same of what I’m criticizing. “You’re mansplaining politics, you’re tone policing, you’re gaslighting.” That’s exactly the problem: every critique of this type of engagement can simply be ground up in more of the same.

I am far, far from alone in thinking that the way in which we are prosecuting this immensely important set of arguments is unhealthy and unhelpful. As someone who has been making this type of argument for a long time, I attract a lot of communications from people who feel strongly about the need to pursue social justice but who feel that the social justice movement has lost its way. (A lot of people.) These people are not enemies of the fight for equality and justice; in fact, they reach out precisely because they think current tactics are impediment to the achievement of actual equality and justice.  Many of them are afraid to be public with those feelings, because they fear reprisals from those who enforce a very narrow, cliquey vision of progressive politics. Well: we have been talking about privilege for 30 years. We’ve been talking about intersectionality for 25. We’re still here in this unjust world. It’s time to recognize that the injunction against criticizing those who self-identify as activists for social justice is a dead-end for our movement. While the work of counseling others to be more specific, fair, and self-critical in their engagement is uncomfortable, fraught work, it is also profoundly necessary, and I see no possible alternative if the left is to wage a campaign against injustice that can actually win.