“Reeducation Campus”

Interesting article in City Journal about the political tendentiousness and intellectual poverty of most first-year seminar courses. Excerpt:

The programs often start with a “common read,” a book sent to everyone the summer before school starts, and proceed with lectures, discussion groups, seminars, courses, exercises, field trips, art projects, local activism, and whatever else the schools will fund. The programs are typically run not by professors but by “cocurricular professionals”—administrators lacking scholarly credentials who operate outside the regular curriculum. They don’t need to master an academic discipline or impart an established body of knowledge. They create a cocurriculum of what they want students to learn, which usually involves a great deal of talk about “diversity” and “inclusion.”…

Which authors should every college freshman read? If this choice were left up to serious scholars, you can imagine the candidates they’d suggest: Homer, Plato, Dante, Shakespeare, Austen, de Tocqueville, Dostoyevsky, Du Bois, Faulkner. And that’s why professors usually don’t get to make the choice. They don’t understand these authors’ limitation. Sure, Plato and the rest did fine work in their day, but they all suffer from a fatal flaw: none is available to speak on campus.

You need a live author with a rousing speech to appeal to today’s freshmen, or at least to the administrators of first-year programs who choose each year’s book. That’s why, when they convened in San Antonio, they were feted at lunches and dinners by publishers eagerly promoting not timeless wisdom but the fall catalog. Getting chosen as the common read means big sales—5,000 copies at a big school—and the publishers trot out their authors to perform 15-minute auditions during the meals.

Read the whole thing.

DK Responds

Apparently “both-sides-ism” is now a thing – a bad thing, because in a battle between truth and falsehood, there can be no neutrality or even critical distance. But to my mind, it goes without saying that the other side might have something to say, and that you might not be 100% correct. Even someone as firmly convicted as Oliver Cromwell enjoined his supporters to “think it possible you may be mistaken.” So, in the interests of giving equal time to “both sides” of the Fulton-Kim feud, here is a link to a recent article on Inside Higher Ed by the latter of those parties. I present this excerpt without comment.

One way to measure a field’s commitment to safeguarding BIWOC (black, indigenous, women of color) scholars is to look toward its conferences. This last year has shown that organizers of prominent Medieval studies conferences are often not prepared to keep their participants safe. At various events, Fulton Brown deployed another tactic from the alt-right playbook: intimidation at speaking events, such as the Medieval Academy of America in Atlanta in April and the International Congress for Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Mich., in May. Her actions can be interpreted as harassment and a bid to create a hostile environment for medievalists of color discussing diversity and inclusion.

At Kalamazoo, I requested security for the Whiteness in Medieval Studies 2.0 workshop that I was scheduled to lead. According to Seeta Chaganti, a professor of English at the University of California, Davis, and the session organizer, ICMS leadership cited “academic and intellectual freedom” to explain why they would not ask Rachel Fulton Brown not to attend the session. Chaganti wrote in a subsequent post how “academic freedom,” like “free speech,” has been weaponized for white supremacy.

UPDATE: And Milo responds to that.

UPDATE: Peter Wood weighs in.

Open Letter for Rachel Brown

The National Association of Scholars has organized an open letter in support of Rachel Fulton Brown of the University of Chicago. If you would like to sign, click the link. Paul Halsall said it well:

I disagree with many of Prof. Brown’s political views (which are a mix of conservative, libertarian, and some classical liberalism) but after on and off electronic conversations with her since the 1990s I am convinced that she is neither a fascist nor a white supremacist. The series of attacks on her by Dorothy Kim (formerly of Vassar, now of Brandeis) are fallacious. I find the support given to Kim by some other academics very ill-founded.

The National Association of Scholars, a fairly conservative but still respectable (?) group has now organised an online petition in support of Rachel Brown. I’m not really in favour of this sort of petition, but in light of a continued barrage of attacks by Kim and a petition signed against Brown, I think some gesture of support is necessary.

I therefore urge other historians to sign this petition, especially those among us on the political left who believe that we can continue scholarly and social discussion without resorting to the the “us” and “them” binaries that seem so appealing on social media.

I support Prof. Brown without agreeing with her. I suggest you do the same.

More on the Matter

Mark Bauerlein weighs in:

One reason, perhaps, why identity politics seems to be having difficulties in Medieval Studies that it hasn’t had in other fields has to do with the nature of the field. My area, American Literature, easily absorbed multiculturalism decades ago. But Medieval Europe is so mono-religious and mono-racial that efforts to “de-Eurocentrize” and de-Christianize the study of it have been frustrated. The field also puts a heavy burden of linguistic and historical knowledge on its practitioners. (You can’t do Middle English if all you know is American English.) Those elements exasperate the multiculturalist impulse, making Medieval Studies a challenge to all those younger academics who’ve been trained to undo white privilege.

More at the link.

More on Medievalism

Some followup to an issue referenced in Milo’s article.

1. Rachel Fulton Brown summarizes Eileen Joy’s problems with the International Medieval Congress at Western Michigan University, and the subsequent resignation of Larry Swain, administrator of a Facebook group devoted to the Congress, over the appearance of the expression “growed like Topsy” in the description of this group.

2. Richard Utz of Georgia Tech refuses to sign a letter of support of Joy’s BABEL working group.

The organizers of the world’s largest annual meeting of medievalists, the International Congress on Medieval Studies, or ICMS, at Western Michigan University, stand accused of “a bias against” or “lack of interest in” sessions dealing with “decoloniality, globalization and anti-racism”– allegations that made their way into Inside Higher Ed, the Chronicle of Higher EducationForbes and CampusReform and were summarized in a “letter of concern” medievalists were asked to support. Members of the steering committee of the BABEL Working Group, an innovative scholarly (para-institutional) collective of colleagues in premodern studies, are the authors of the letter. This letter was preceded by a Facebook post too undignified to be quoted here.

Normally, I would sign such a letter without hesitation. It promotes goals such as diversity, inclusion and metacritical scholarship for which I have advocated throughout my academic career, as an individual and together with the adherents of the International Society for the Study of Medievalism. But I did not sign because I know more than most observers about this specific congress: I attended for the first time as a student in 1986 and, with few interruptions, as a participant since 1990; I also served as chair of the English department at Western Michigan and was an affiliate faculty of the Medieval Institute between 2007 and 2012.

I know the Western Michigan medievalists and reject the dotted line the letter of concern insinuates between the faculty of the Medieval Institute, on the one hand, and the racist neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Va., on the other. That line was even more than dotted in some of the simultaneous social media posts about the issue.

3. Josh Eyler, new administrator of the Facebook group, responds at his blog.

First, [Utz’s article] positions the debate as the BABEL Group versus the world, and this is simply untrue. Yes, it was the BABEL steering committee that authored the letter, but the hundreds of additional signatures indicate that the concerns raised in the letter are shared by many. Second, the article suggests that the issue of inclusivity is limited to an inclusion of areas of study and/or viewpoints on the field. This is certainly one dynamic, and I want to address it before moving on.

To demonstrate that the ICMS really is inclusive of different fields, Utz first cites the many (and diverse) types of traditional sessions that the ICMS has offered in the past, which have been sponsored by groups like the Pearl Poet Society and Cistercian Studies. He then suggests that the ICMS has embraced more recent areas of study by saying, “The 2018 program, for example, features the term ‘race’ nine times, ‘disability’ nine times and ‘gender’ and ‘feminism’ 48 times.”…

The bigger issue, though, with respect to inclusion is one that the article barely even addresses, which is the degree to which scholars from traditionally underrepresented groups have felt included in both the ICMS and Medieval Studies. The call for ICMS to include more sessions about the state of the field is directly related to this larger point about inclusivity. It isn’t just a push for “progressivism” for its own sake but is a response to structures that have pushed people to the margins.

4. And Tom MacMaster responds to that (on the new Facebook group, Medieval Studies – State of the Field):

Hmm, I think he’s continuing to deliberately miss the point of much of the pushback to the Babylonians’ demands but accepting the frame that this is largely a dispute between, on one side, “inclusivists” who want to discuss a broader Middle Ages and white supremacists who want to preserve an all white (cisgendered, heterosexual, and male) scholarly community studying a exclusively all white Europe only Middle Ages. Unfortunately, while that might be comforting, I notice instead that the “two camps” seem to be largely made up of:

1) a group that doesn’t study the actual past but, instead, is centered in English Literature departments. And does largely reception studies of what happened in the southern part of one island (basically Beowulf, Chaucer, and friends) and is engaged in performative wokeness (well-off white liberals acting out what they envision as scenes of radical anti-racism to gain approval from other well-off white liberals and feel superior to the hoi polloi). They wish to force their activities on everyone else and demand that everyone else grant them status for being so woke online and in K’zoo sessions

and 2) a group full of people who are heavily from History and related disciplines who actually study actual medieval subjects and have been looking at these sorts of “big picture” issues for… their entire careers. Often, these are the people who read languages beyond English and its immediate forerunners and so, when told to “decolonize medieval studies” “look beyond England!” don’t apologize profusely for not having done so but return to their study of, say, medieval Iraqi texts, Mongolian expansionism, or the trans-Saharan slave trade. When they (we) are then shouted at for being wicked evil racist neo-Nazis for not thinking 100 sessions on “Medievalisms & transgendered POCs in WoW online” are the cat’s meow, a “camp” emerges.

The complaints that academic conferences covering the study of the Middle Ages are not spending enough time and energy on the study of the 20th and 21st century is the key complaint. Yes, many fantasy and historical fictions are set in the Middle Ages but no, they aren’t medieval; they are modern. And yes, some on the far right (as well as in the far left, center and everywhere else) use emblems in the middle ages.

But, among the Anglophone far right (and in these discussions, they are the only ones who count), the medieval is far less interesting than, say, the Second World War, the American Civil War, or the European Age of Imperialism and far less likely to be referenced. There are, of course, medievalist academics and others keenly interested in dressing up in costumes and carrying out violence in the name of early medieval ideals – that group of cosplayers led by an academic specializing in early medieval literature that took over Raqqa and Mosul comes to mind or the medieval references that litter the rhetoric of all sides in conflicts in the Levant (not to mention giant statues of medieval kings under construction by a party that has been accused of genocide); but none of those are of interest to this discourse. And why would they be?

The self-styled “progressives” and “anti-racists” in this discussion are only interested in Anglocentric and insular topics and seem to care little and know less about other fields.

It is all performance and it is frankly insulting to academics and anyone who isn’t an upper class white North American. It insults everyone outside the US by prioritizing the trivial and passing whims of American culture; it insults all non-whites by assuming that they need the patronizing protection of the benevolent and paternalistic (maternalistic?) woke white liberals and must be coddled and told comforting lies; it insults African-Americans by putting upper class Asians forward as the spokespeople of anti-racism and silences black voices; it insults all those concerned with truth, honesty and free and open debate by pushing a narrative devoid of evidence as the only true path.

The Latest

Milo Yiannopoulos weighs in on the recent kerfuffles on medieval studies. I like this paragraph [smiley face]:

The scholars causing trouble teach English; their targets tend to be historians. Medievalist researchers from English departments are more interested in literary criticism and tend to be in conversation with English professors working on other periods, preoccupied with postmodernism and post-structuralism; historians have to learn how to talk to other historians. Though literature-based medievalists do have language skills (most understand Old English, for example), the historians usually possess the more powerful and wide-ranging scholarly toolkits — and intellects.

“Book Breaking and Book Mending”

From Slate (via Paul Halsall):

Most academic books aren’t written to be read—they’re written to be “broken.” That should change.

In January, Karin Wulf, a history professor at William and Mary, wrote an installment for her blog, Vast Early America, that promised to teach “How to Gut a (Scholarly) Book in 5 Almost-easy Steps.” The blog post, which described a process for getting the gist of a book without having to read it cover to cover, tossed a lifeline to doctoral students everywhere struggling with the overwhelming impossibility of keeping pace with their weekly reading requirements. “I don’t always read this way,” Wulf cautioned. “For work that’s in my research area, and when I’m reading for the joy of reading history (which I try to do regularly), I read more deeply and thoroughly. But thinking historiographically, getting a sense of how evidence and argument are related within a book (or essay), and how those relate to other scholarship, I find pretty well served by this approach.”

….

There is an insidious feedback loop where academic writing is concerned. Academic works in the humanities are written by authors who survived their doctoral studies by book breaking. When successful doctoral candidates then publish, they’re inclined to write in a way that makes book breaking possible, especially if they hope to see that book on a course reading list. After all, it’s not just students who need to be able to get the gist of a new book quickly—professors must do so as well. When the target audience has no time, need, or inclination to read books in their entirety, then books at a basic level are written not to be read in a conventional sense. It’s a short bus ride from that reality to academic books that are not particularly readable. By “not particularly readable” I do not mean that ideas are not presented clearly, or that the prose is necessarily stilted or burdened by jargon. What I mean is that the books are written without regard to elements and narrative techniques that are fundamental to nonfiction in a trade setting—that academic writing is often hostile to storytelling as a way of conveying important truths.

Read the whole thing.

Grading

When I first came to the United States as an undergraduate in the fall of 1990, I discovered that course grades, given as letters from A through D (with F for failure) had numerical equivalents.* That is, an A was worth 4, a B worth 3, a C worth 2, and a D worth 1 (with an F, of course, counting for nothing). Over the course of your undergraduate career, you built up something called a “Grade Point Average” – your performance in each class was averaged over the total number of classes you had taken, producing a number out of 4. Very rarely did anyone graduate with a GPA of 4.0, although our valedictorian managed to. I myself finished with a 3.75, which was enough for the Latin honors “magna cum laude” (top 15% of the class) and membership in Phi Beta Kappa (roughly top 10%). Yay me! Although I missed out on “summa cum laude” (top 5% of the class) and would probably not have been admitted to Yale Law School should I have applied there.

But I should qualify this. At Dartmouth, plusses and minuses came into the equation. That is, grades were fine tuned – you could get an A, but if your performance wasn’t quite as stellar as the professor was hoping, your A was lowered to an A-. Similarly, if your work was in the B range, but still quite good compared to other grades in the B range, you got a B+ (if it was pretty bad compared with other grades in the B range, you got a B-, and if it was just average, then you got a straight B, with no plus or minus). And so on down the line. There was no grade of A+, and as far as I can remember no grade of D- either. This fine tuning was reflected in the numerical values accorded to each grade: an A- was worth 3.67 (one third down from an A), while a B+ was worth 3.33 (one third up from a B), and so on.

When I started my Ph.D. program at the University of Minnesota, grades were given as straight A, B, C, D, and F. By the time I finished they had adopted the fine-tuning of grades with plusses and minuses, with the same numerical values that I had remembered from Dartmouth. Not that I paid much attention to grades by this point; I was just looking to get my dissertation done and get out.

So I thought that this is simply how it was – you could give straight, undifferentiated grades, with values equating to integers between 1 and 4, or allow fine tuning with plusses and minuses, with values subdivided by thirds.

But lately I have discovered (on page 82) that LaGrange College of LaGrange, Georgia doesn’t quite measure things this way. That is, in their system, a B is still worth 3, but a B+ is worth 3.25, and a B- is worth 2.75. So you’re not as rewarded for a plus, or as punished for a minus, as you would have been had you gotten such grades at Dartmouth or the University of Minnesota. Note, however, that even in this system, you can go up as well as down, and by the same amount.

So I must say that I was shocked and dismayed to discover that Mercer University of Macon, Georgia does things rather… eccentrically. That is, they allow plusses, but have simply eliminated the possibility of getting a minus! Here is the whole sordid mess from their catalogue:

Grade
Interpretation
Quality Points
Per Credit Hour
A
Excellent
4.0
B+
Good
3.5
B
Good
3.0
C+
Average
2.5
C
Average
2.0
D
Poor
1.0

You’ll note that in addition to eliminating minuses, they reward a plus with a full half-point, greater than a plus would be worth at a real university.

This is awful. Who came up with this, and how did it get approved? Why hasn’t SACS said anything? This is truly an example of the Lake Wobegon idea that “everyone is above average” (or worse, every snowflake deserves a participation trophy). You can’t have plusses without minuses! The possibility of getting your grade raised has to be offset by the possibility of getting it lowered. Otherwise, it is just an example of officially sanctioned grade inflation, presumably for the sake of maintaining students’ athletic eligibility or for protecting their precious self-esteem.

I swear that if such a system is ever adopted at Reinhardt, I will never award a plus grade. For the sake of academic honesty and integrity, I will simply operate under the assumption that our current system, a straight A, B, C, and D system, still prevails.

* In Canada, in high school at least, you got a grade out of 100, which was converted into a letter if need be, which was slightly different from the American system: in the US, an A is in the 90s, a B in the 80s, a C in the 70s, and a D in the 60s, while in Canada, an A was any grade between 80 and 100, a B in the 70s, a C in the 60s, and D in the 50s. My freshman-year roommate laughed at this, suggesting that Canada was soft, but it just seemed to me that teachers in Canada could grade more honestly. (Not that anyone paid much attention to the letter grades; it was the number out of 100 that counted.)

Ed. Schools

From the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Years ago, at the college where I teach, some graffiti on a restroom wall caught my eye. Inked into the tile grout was a swastika the size of a baby aspirin, and just above it, in a different hand, someone had written in large letters: “This says a lot about our community.” An arrow pointed to the offending sign.

I’d seen lots of responses to the odd swastika over the years — obscene remarks about the author’s anatomy, say, or humiliating additions to his family tree. But a claim that this itsy-bitsy spider of a swastika signaled a web of hatred permeating one of the most left-leaning colleges in the nation? That was a new one.

More evidence for this web was adduced a few months later when some racially charged fliers were posted anonymously around campus. Because the fliers offended people who failed to notice that they were meant as anti-racist satire, administrators punished the undergraduate who had put them up, even after it was discovered that he was a minority student with left-wing political leanings. Both the dean and the associate dean of students at the time gave voice to what has since become a mantra on college campuses — that the “impact” mattered more than the “intent.” But what if the “impact” is the result of flat-footed perceptions, or has been amplified by the administrators themselves? The case seemed so ill-conceived that faculty members from across the political spectrum worked for months to clear the student’s record. After all, the distinction between the letter and the spirit is hardly dispensable. Satire, irony, parody — these are things we teach. None exists without respect for intention.

Though I didn’t realize it at the time, those were my first encounters with an alternate curriculum that was being promoted on many campuses, a curriculum whose guiding principles seemed to be: 1) anything that could be construed as bigotry and hatred should be construed as bigotry and hatred; and 2) any such instance of bigotry and hatred should be considered part of an epidemic. These principles were being advanced primarily, though not exclusively, by college administrators, whose ranks had grown so remarkably since the early 1990s.

Everyone knows about the kudzu-like growth of the administrative bureaucracy in higher education over the past three decades. What most don’t know is that at many colleges, the majority of administrators directly involved in the lives of students — in dorms, conduct hearings, bias-response teams, freshmen “orientation” programs, and the like — got their graduate degrees from education schools.

Read the whole thing.

“Whitesplaining”

From the Chronicle of Higher Education:

The Whitesplaining of History Is Over

When the academy was the exclusive playground of white men, it produced the theories of race, gender, and Western cultural superiority that underwrote imperialism abroad and inequality at home. In recent decades, women and people of color have been critical to producing new knowledge breaking down those long-dominant narratives. Sociological research confirms that greater diversity improves scholarship.

Yet the struggle to diversify the academy remains an uphill battle; institutional biases are deeply ingrained, and change evokes nostalgia for times past. Both of these obstacles were fully in evidence at a recent Applied History conference at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Although history is a discipline with a growing number of nonwhite faculty members, and a healthy percentage of female scholars — indeed, women constitute more than a third of the faculty in Stanford’s own history department, across the bike lane from the Hoover Institution — the Hoover conference was made up of 30 white men (and one woman, who chaired a panel).

Etc.

This sort of critique is becoming all the more common in my profession (the article above was approvingly linked by two friends on Facebook), and I hate it. I hate the jargon (“whitesplaining”) and glibness (“exclusive playground”) – but most of all I hate the Jacobinism of it, how anything produced by “white males” in the olden days is necessarily tainted, while anything “diverse” is necessarily better (the link goes to a book entitled The Diversity Bonus: How Great Teams Pay Off in the Knowledge Economy which, as anyone who has spent time in the world of work can attest, is no more true than its opposite*). Before we learned to care about the identity of the author in order to prompt us how we should respond to his ideas, it was possible for an idea to be considered largely on its merits, and I sure wish we could return to that dispensation. To suggest that all those bad old white males produced scholarship to justify Western imperialism, etc., is contradicted by the author’s own examples of Edward Thompson and E.P. Thompson, white males both who said things that she apparently agrees with (one can think of any number of others, like Charles Beard or Marc Bloch). But more importantly, how dare Priya Satia dismiss the work of (almost) everyone who came before her because they weren’t diverse enough for her tastes? Presumably they were men of integrity, who investigated the past to the best of their ability and who opened up new vistas in human understanding. Just because their race and gender are distasteful to her is no reason to preemptively dismiss their entire body of work.

But if present trends continue, this essentially adolescent pose will be with us for some time to come.

* As I wrote once: “You definitely need something in common – intelligence and a sense of modesty come to mind. Furthermore, it all depends on the purpose of your organization. Sometimes when everyone’s on the same page, sharing the same background assumptions, then you can achieve your goals much more efficiently. The notion that different people with different opinions really have something special to offer could have value, but what is the nature of those opinions? So often “diversity” just boils down to “skin color,” “configuration of genitals,” or “direction of erotic desire,” with any “opinions” that derive from these things being completely irrelevant to the vast majority of problems to be solved or tasks to be completed in the wonderful world of work; worse, there is a very real possibility that the people concerned can be indifferently competent but have massive chips on their shoulders about how allegedly oppressed they are, and will interpret every difficulty as proceeding from some amorphous but entrenched prejudice arrayed against them. This is not conducive to getting anything done.”

UPDATE: Turns out the Hoover Institution conference was organized by the great Niall Ferguson, who responds:

“Masculinity, not ideology, drives extremist groups,” was another recent headline that caught my eye, this time in The Washington Post.

Got it.

I have had to listen to a variation on this theme rather too much in recent weeks. Last month I organized a small conference of historians who I knew shared my interest in trying to apply historical knowledge to contemporary policy problems. Five of the people I invited to give papers were women, but none was able to attend. I should have tried harder to find other female speakers, no doubt. But my failure to do so elicited a disproportionately vitriolic response.

Under a headline that included the words “Too white and too male,” The New York Times published photographs of all the speakers, as if to shame them for having participated. Around a dozen academics — male as well as female — took to social media to call the conference a “StanfordSausageFest.”

So outraged were Stanford historians Allyson Hobbs and Priya Satia that they demanded “greater university oversight” of the Hoover Institution, where I work, as it was “an ivory tower in the most literal sense.”

The most literal sense?

Now let’s be clear. I was raised to believe in the equal rights of all people, regardless of sex, race, creed, or any other difference. That the human past was characterized by discrimination of many kinds is not news to me. But does it really constitute progress if the proponents of diversity resort to the behavior that was previously the preserve of sexists and racists?

Publishing the names and mugshots of conference speakers is the kind of thing anti-Semites once did to condemn the “over-representation” of Jewish people in academia. Terms such as “SausageFest” belong not in civil academic discourse but on urinal walls.

What we see here is the sexism of the anti-sexists; the racism of the anti-racists. In this “Through the Looking Glass” world, diversity means ideological homogeneity. “The whitesplaining of history is over,” declared another heated article by Satia last week. Hideous Newspeak terms such as “whitesplaining” and “mansplaining” are symptoms of the degeneration of the humanities in the modern university. Never mind the facts and reason, so the argument runs, all we need to know — if we don’t like what we hear — are the sex and race of the author.

The process of indoctrination starts early. My six-year-old son stunned his parents the other day when we asked what he had been studying at school. He replied that they had been finding out about the life of Martin Luther King Jr. “What did you learn?” I asked. “That most white people are bad,” he replied.

This is America in 2018.