Via Corey Robin, I read this execrable blog post in the Chronicle of Higher Education. In it, Naomi Schafer Riley looks at synopses– not abstracts, proposals, or chapters– of three in-progress dissertations from the field of Black Studies and concludes that the field should be eliminated.
Now, let me just lay out some basic principles here. First, if you want to judge a publication as long and complex as a dissertation, you might want to read something from the actual document, not a brief synopsis. Second, you could recognize that works in progress are in progress and you shouldn’t make broad conclusions about them before they’re finished. Third, dissertations are definitionally produced by scholars early in their careers and thus shouldn’t be used to judge entire fields. Fourth, sample size of three? Not the most convincing. Fifth, it’s cruel, unnecessary, and unhelpful to call out individual students by name in a national publication.
And, you know, you might try actually making an argument instead of simply asserting what’s credible or interesting. I confess that I don’t find “Black Housing and the Urban Crisis of the 1970s” an irrelevant topic. In fact, I find it both interesting and of obvious consequence for contemporary controversies. But what other argument is being advanced here, other than the idea that the irrelevance of these topics is self-evident? I know it’s cliched to say that you’d fail a piece of writing if you got it from one of your freshmen… but I’d fail this if I got it from one of my freshmen. Not because of its conclusions, but because when adults make claims those claims must be defended with responsibly generated evidence. There’s no argument here; there’s showy incredulity that’s founded on the offensive premise that issues of concern for the black community aren’t of broader interest or importance.
I don’t engage in hyperbole when I say: this is shameful. I doubt that the Chronicle edited or vetted this piece before it was posted, but it’s under their masthead and so they’re responsible for it. If you’re a regular reader, or even more a subscriber, you might join me in emailing firstname.lastname@example.org to share your displeasure.