my letter to Phyllis Wise, Chancellor at UIUC

Dear Dr. Wise,

I am writing to ask that you please reconsider the decision made by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to rescind an offer of employment to Dr. Steve Salaita. As an academic and a public writer, I am deeply disturbed by the consequences for intellectual and academic freedom when scholars are judged not by the quality of their work but by the popularity of their political opinions. Israel’s conduct in the Palestinian territories is a matter of great and legitimate public controversy, one which has inspired passionate reactions from both sides of the argument. Every day, the conflict is discussed with emotion and conviction by a multitude of voices, from a diverse and complex array of actors. To punish Dr. Salaita because he happens to hold positions considered extreme by those in a position of particular power and institutional authority cuts directly against the spirit of free inquiry that is the lifeblood of the research university. Some have questioned Salaita’s tone, but to police tone is to police speech. There is no clear dividing line where legitimate expression ends and illegitimate tone begins.

My grandfather was John James deBoer, who served for decades as a professor of Education at your university. It’s a connection to UIUC that I have long cherished. During his time there, he and several other colleagues were the subject of a vicious campaign of McCarthyism, thanks to their socialist and pacifist beliefs. He and his colleague Norman Cazden were specific targets of the notorious Broyles Bills, a set of Illinois state bills that were expressly designed to punish political dissidents. In many ways, this campaign deeply damaged my grandfather’s life. But he had the benefit of tenure, and so was able to serve out the rest of his career at UIUC. His colleague, Dr. Cazden, was pre-tenure, and his career was destroyed. Now, we can only look back and regret the terrible legacy of the anti-Communist panics of last century.

To deny Dr. Salaita a job for which he was already approved, on the basis of his controversial political beliefs, is to draw from the same poisoned well. I urge you and others within the administration at UIUC to consider whether this action is something that the university will ever look back on with pride. Please stand for academic freedom by reinstating your offer of employment to Dr. Salaita.

sincerely yours,

Fredrik deBoer
Doctoral Candidate in Rhetoric & Composition
Purdue University

sometimes they’ll just show you the strings

Here’s The New Republic‘s Hillary Kelly, ostensibly talking about how you shouldn’t say you’re from the city when you’re really from the suburbs, and really about how Hillary Kelly is a cool and interesting person, and therefore also about how Hillary Kelly feels like she has to sell everybody on the idea that she’s a cool and interesting person, and therefore probably doesn’t really feel like a cool and interesting person. Oh, it’s also about how Hillary Kelly’s Cool Story Bro boyfriend tells a Cool Story Bro story sometimes. I’m really entirely unclear on why I’m reading about Hillary Kelly’s boyfriend’s inane geographical musings, but then I guess that’s the internet.

Do you think she’s aware that there are many large cities in the world, such as Mexico City and Tokyo, where there simply is no clear dividing line between the city and the suburbs? That, in fact, the notion of such a clear boundary is foreign to many cultures and governments? I mean, that would be an important point to make, in an argument about how the suburbs aren’t the cities! It’s the sort of knowledge that, if you’re being paid real money to write something for a professional magazine like The New Republic, you might bother researching. But oh well!

Perhaps next time save that one for the Tumblr. Or just say the hell with it and literally write “everybody be envious of my interesting life!” You know, for economy of expression’s sake.

the very real difficulty of identifying patch writing

While putting the finishing touches on a draft chapter of my dissertation recently, I happened to go digging around in the research archives one more time. I felt that one section, about the earliest advocates of large-scale assessment of higher education, was missing that killer quote. I happened to find an unpublished dissertation that considered some of the same themes as my own, but which used a very different methodology and which comes from a different programmatic background than mine. I found a good source to look up there, which leads as always to the dilemma: am I obligated to cite the place where I found another citation? Does the obscurity of that source matter? Certainly, if what I had found through that dissertation was some obscure manuscript, I would have cited the dissertation as well, but in fact the source was just another scholarly journal article. As is often the case, I would have found it myself if I had just slightly altered search terms. (I often think of Law & Order episodes where there is some controversy about an illegal search, and the prosecutors argue inevitable discovery.)

Reading further, I was somewhat surprised to find how many other sources we shared. Looking back, I shouldn’t have been. The topics I’m researching include very obscure avenues of education assessment, psychometrics, and the history of higher education policy. But it was worrisome to see a half dozen or so shared citations, even while I knew that there were far more references that we did not share. Most disturbingly, we had even quoted some of the same passages and sentences, although where we chose to truncate those sentences was different. At that point, I had a mini-panic attack; was I guilty of plagiarism? Of course not. I had written this stuff down weeks before I had found this other dissertation. But the implications were disturbing: if my advisor or another reader compared my work to this other researcher’s, it might cause them to question the originality of my work. I ended up quoting and citing the dissertation as a way to touch that base. That sort of self-defensive approach to plagiarism or the appearance of same comes from my years-long experience in academic writing.

I tell you this story because of the accusation of plagiarism that has been leveled against Rick Perlstein, the historian of contemporary conservatism. Craig Shirley, himself a biographer of Ronald Reagan, has accused Perlstein of copying and pasting some of his work, of patchwriting, and of insufficiently sourcing his research. I can’t really adjudicate the fairness of these accusations at present, as Shirley has not yet presented his full claims or evidence. I doubt very much that Perlstein intentionally plagiarized Shirley, but I am unable to say that this attitude is a matter of addressing the accusation rather than the accused. I admire Perlstein’s work very much, and there’s some significant overlap in our politics, so it’s hard for me to doubt his integrity. (In a remarkable lapse of ethics of his own, Fred Barnes fails to disclose in that Weekly Standard piece that he himself wrote the forward to Shirley’s book.)

Patchwriting is a very sticky issue. In the Poynter piece I linked to above, it is discussed as a type of dishonest practice in which “rather than copying a statement word for word, the writer is rearranging phrases and changing tenses, but is relying too heavily on the vocabulary and syntax of the source material. It’s a form of intellectual dishonesty that indicates that the writer is not actually thinking for herself.” In other words, this is not strict copy-and-paste plagiarism, but rather plagiarism wherein the writer changes some minor syntactic and stylistic features but preserves the information and content of the original. I certainly agree that this practice is bad business, one which prevents students from learning the necessary moves for writing well, and one which amounts to stealing from the original author. But I also think that it can be hard to say where appropriate paraphrasing ends and patchwriting begins, and it’s even harder to tell the difference between someone drawing from the same sources and someone copying.

As I said before, when boring down into great detail about very specific subjects, it becomes common to find that only a handful of other people have written about your subjects. And without getting into an epistemelogical debate, facts are facts, more or less, and we can expect for different people to come to the same conclusions quite frequently. This is a particular issue when the topic is history; two different historians investigating the same time periods and people will inevitably dig up some of the same stories. Facts, famously, cannot be copyrighted. During the Benny Johnson dust up, I was quite convinced that Johnson was a serial plagiarist, and I think there’s tons of evidence that he had lifted text word-for-word from other sources without attribution. I think firing him was appropriate. But there were also accusations that seemed less clear to me, places where he had paraphrased historical or factual information that, while too close to other people’s materials, seemed more a matter of clumsy paraphrasing and bad judgement. More, I’m not sure that if you put several similar paraphrases or discussions of the same material against each other, I could safely say which was a matter of intellectual theft and which was coincidence.

Again, I don’t say any of this to exonerate Johnson. I think Buzzfeed dismissing him was an appropriate step. But I do think that we have a tendency to slide very quickly from the obvious, identifiable problems of copy-and-pasting plagiarism to the harder to define, harder to defend accusation of patchwriting. The current structure of the “content” business just makes this more difficult. With the constant claims of joke stealing in stand up comedy, I’ve often thought that, with so many people trying to make it in that industry, different comics legitimately coming up with the same material seems inevitable. Likewise, in an era of so many people writing online, and writing about the same small handful of subjects thanks to the economics of the industry, some overlap is inevitable. So how do you adjudicate that? I don’t know.

In Purdue’s introductory composition classes, there’s a mandatory, weekly conferencing session for all students where they work with their instructor individually or in small groups. It’s a major investment of resources, and there are always administrators asking why we bother. But when I was teaching freshman comp, I found these sessions immensely useful. I actually felt that I got more real teaching done in these small groups than in any other part of the class. Beyond the pedagogical value, conferencing was the only way I felt confident that I was minimizing (not eliminating) plagiarism in my class. With the internet making plagiarism a constant temptation, the only way I truly felt that I could substantially curtail the problem was by seeing student writing through from beginning, to middle, to end. Usually, the students just weren’t savvy enough to plagiarize without my noticing. They’d go from having nothing to having a totally polished, impressive draft, or they’d have a piece that was sketchy and unfinished and suddenly several clean paragraphs that didn’t really connect. And Google helped, as well. But I know that there were likely some smart plagiarists who, with enough effort and smarts, could put one over on me. The fear with plagiarism is that what you can really punish isn’t so much plagiarizing as failing to do it well.

That’s my  fear with plagiarism outside of the classroom, too. But I’m also afraid of accusing those who didn’t plagiarize, in part because I know how easy it can be to appear to have done so, and because the accusation is rightly very serious and potentially damaging. It’s a sticky, sticky set of problems.

contemporary culture is the opposite of solipsistic

In a piece about the concept of “relatability,” inspired in part by Ira Glass’s dopey complaints about Shakespeare, Rebecca Mead writes:

to demand that a work be “relatable” expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.

Relatability is indeed a somewhat troublesome lens through which to look at art, and given that Glass’s take on Shakespeare was the hottest of hot takes, I’m happy to read some criticism of both. But this is odd. Selfies are the opposite of solipsism; they are the creation of a perspective that is entirely alien to the person taking them. None of us can naturally see our own face. We build mirrors precisely to get outside of our own perspective. We use the camera to put ourselves in the position of other people. Call that what you’d like, but it isn’t solipsistic.

Complaints that we’re all self-obsessed are evergreen, but I think that they badly miss the point in our current technological moment. Rather than being obsessed with our own point of view, I think we are instead in an era in which we are obsessed with the gaze of others. Yes, we are watching others watch us, and so there’s a second order sense in which we are still the subject of our own drama. But rather than being uninterested in the point of view of others, I think we have constructed an immense digital apparatus to focus on little else. There’s the obvious culprit of social media and blogs (like this one), where the opinions of others are fed to us in an endless stream. But there’s also Most Emailed lists, Netflix and Amazon recommendations (based on “people like us,” whoever that might be), algorithms that measure popularity or “virality,” online reviews, crowdsourcing…. All of this, I think, has consequences for what it means to be a person, and I am afraid not that we’re too much ourselves but that we’ve forgotten how to be, without instantaneous information about how other people are.

In a piece on the internet phenomenon that is performatively hating Zach Braff, Noel Murray writes:

I think the phenomenon Fritz is describing is just an unfortunate byproduct of how the cultural discourse has developed in the Internet age. Even though we live in an era of fragmentation, where people can more easily seek out and enjoy their own niche entertainments or opinions, the conversation online often seems to presume—or to push for—a monoculture. It’s almost as though we’re all anxious for some certainty: a point of view shared so widely that dissenters are singled out as freaks or morons. Often that means that movies most people don’t feel strongly enough about either to defend or dispute get defined by a passionate few, who want to make sure that the default position on a film like Garden State is that it’s an abomination.

Of all of my many petty complaints about online culture, this is the one that bums me out the most: that a set of technologies that enable limitless diversity in tastes seem to push towards numbing consensus. Take, for example, the phenomenon of the perfect “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and the people who punish critics for spoiling one. I find this totally bizarre: critical unanimity on any piece of art means that criticism has failed, because a critical establishment that does not represent a diversity of opinion must be one that has systematically excluded a particular point of view. And any artwork that everybody likes must be, in a certain deep sense, toothless and unthreatening. More and more, I find that the middlebrow projects that receive the most unified, unbroken praise are fine but boring, crafted to be critic-proof, beautiful but safe.

Undoubtedly, human beings paying attention to what other human beings think is a good thing. Perhaps this type of chronic obsession with the hive mind is a necessary precondition of a new era of empathy and consideration. If so, I’ll gladly make the trade. But I worry about what it means to exist as a thinking individual when the subtle conditioning of other people’s opinions is a constant. And I’m worry about these passionate young writers who seem deeply uncomfortable with being disliked, when being disliked is a natural consequence of writing things worth reading. What I think is possible, and worth fighting for, is a culture where we strive to understand one another, but can achieve that understanding, recognize disagreement, and live comfortably with the mutual rejection of someone else’s opinion.

exactly what I’m talking about, re: journalist tenure

So in our recent Bloggingheads, Conor Friedersdorf and I talked about my claim that journalists and pundits, once they reach a particular career rung, seem to enjoy life-long tenure that makes them totally unaccountable for mistakes. Conor was singularly unimpressed with this line of reasoning. Well, look at his colleague at the Atlantic, David Frum, and his heartless, destructive, and absurd allegations of photo fraud against the New York Times and a decorated  photo journalist. He slandered the photographer, heaped disrespect on the grief stricken, traumatized Palestinians in the photos, and then issued a classic weaselly non-apology. All while occupying a professional role that is supposed to place a premium on journalistic  responsibility and care in public pronouncements.

So: will there be professional consequences for Frum? If not, why not? What would it take for an imperial messenger like Frum to face formal, professional censure from his employer?

Dear Americans: every exploding building is not 9/11

I’ve made this point before, but it bears repeating.

9/11 was a crime and a tragedy. It was one crime and tragedy in a long history of humanity’s capacity for evil. I don’t diminish the loss of life; nothing could. But I insist that people acknowledge that similar or worse has been meted out again and again in history, and often by people Americans see as “the good guys.” You can acknowledge the enormity of the pain and anger that 9/11 caused without acting like 9/11 was a wholly unique historical crime, or as if the loss of those lives was somehow worse than the loss of countless other lives from intentional human destruction.

Here is a poster for the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie.

Here’s a taste of the public reaction. (And here and here, etc.) This is supposed to be inherently tasteless and shocking, I suppose, because it’s got a building blowing up and the release date is September 11th. The building that’s blowing up does not resemble the World Trade Center or the Pentagon in the least. It’s just a blowing up building. Buildings blowing up is, I’m sorry to say, a perfectly common feature of contemporary big-budget movies. If you find that stupid and vacuous, I agree. But as I said last year, the insistence that any shot of urban devastation is inherently a reference to 9/11 is exactly the kind of self-obsession that drives much of the rest of the world nuts about America. It’s an thoughtless, reflexive kind of American chauvinism, the unexamined assumption that what happens here is more important than what happens anywhere else, and that American lives are worth more than others. Buildings were blown up in other countries before 9/11, and they have been blown up after 9/11, and they are blowing up right now. If you think that buildings blowing up is necessarily a matter of sensitivity only to Americans, I suggest you spend a little time in Gaza.

By the way: the poster is for Australia.

Campbell’s Law in action

My friend Isaac Butler of Parabasis clued me in to a nice little illustration of Campbell’s Law, which states “The more any quantitative social indicator (or even some qualitative indicator) is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” Try doing a Google search for any prominent figure, organization, or event in US history, and start typing in “APUSH” after. For most things you’ll see the term pop up along with a bunch of related terms like quiz, timeline, notes, questions, etc. APUSH stands for “AP US History.” The Google suggestions come from students trying to get information for the test.

Now you can certainly make the case that there’s nothing wrong with using the internet to fortify your learning and your research. I’m guessing that a lot of kids are doing this to skip out on reading their textbooks, which their teachers probably wouldn’t be thrilled about, but I’m somewhat sympathetic to that viewpoint. But the bigger issue is this: I doubt there’s very much difference in the thinking of students who go out of their way to legitimately get more information and students who go out of their way to cheat the system. In fact I think experience tells most teachers that, when it comes to tests like the AP US History exam, the distinction is illusory. This students are interested in achieving a particular score on a test that they see as having immediate incentives for them. The challenge of learning US history is merely an impediment to that goal, so they will subvert that challenge if they can and acquiesce to that challenge if they must. By instrumentalizing knowledge of our country’s history, we have placed the priority of scoring highly on a test that contributes to a student’s college applications above the priority of actually understanding history in terms of content and as a methodology.

All of this is eminently predictable, and was in fact predicted by critics. Perhaps the elevation of the test above the material will have the beneficial consequence of more students learning about history, I don’t know. I do know that the inevitable consequence of rampant standardized testing is generations of students whose interest in the tests far exceeds their interest in the material. That’s a rational response to the world they’re living in. The question is whether the policy makers will ask if it’s rational on their end as well.

two recommendations and a note

I’d like to take a minute to make a couple of reading recommendations and to offer an explanation. First, I can’t recommend this Jacobin piece by Allie Gross highly enough. It’s an exhaustively researched piece of investigative journalism, and totally damning of Detroit’s charter school and the profiteers who have created them.

Second, I’d like to recommend this Gabriel Rossman piece on the incredible aggravations of peer review, and where they come from. My recommendation, I assure you, has nothing to do with recent events in my day-to-day life as an academic, trying to build a career like anyone else, buffeted by the whims of a system that is set up to make accountability and transparency impossible. Nothing at all!

Finally: please forgive me for what an awful correspondent I can be. I’m temperamentally bad at responding to correspondence, because a) I find it incredibly difficult to face up to praise and support, and b) because I think to myself “I need to reply to this email” and then put it into the filing cabinet of my mind and then push that filing cabinet into the sea. It’s not intentional. I just think “I’m gonna answer that email!” and then it’s three months later and it’s weird for me to just write back.

But I’m also just crazy busy right now. I’m not complaining; I know you’re busy, too. But just to give you a flavor of where I’m at right now:

  • I’m dissertating. So far this summer I’ve written two draft chapters (which will need extensive revision, of course) and am just sitting down to start a third.
  • I’m collecting research and interviews for my dissertation.
  • I’m rating exams for Purdue’s Oral English Proficiency Test.
  • I’m trying to send out an article in the next couple weeks, as the incredibly slow turnaround times of academic publishing means that if I want to get any credit  for a new article on the job market in a few months, I need to send stuff out yesterday.
  • I’m prepping for an oral English skills “boot camp” for the computer science program coming up in a couple weeks.
  • I’m doing editing for a project out of the Education department.
  • I’m taking a class in advanced qualitative research methods just for fun, to the confusion of pretty much all of my peers and professors.
  • I’m prepping for a major assessment project for our introductory composition program this fall.
  • I’m trying to see if I can learn enough to create a database website for a not-for-profit, academic resource I would like to start.
  • I’m writing a review for an online journal.
  • I’m getting ready for an exciting writing opportunity I’ll share with you all soon.

So those are my excuses. Which, you know. Everybody’s got one. Just please know that if you’ve written to me I intend to write you back. It just might take some time.