the Chronicle should be ashamed

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 editor@chronicle.com to share your displeasure.

65 replies
  1. 1
    Walker says:

    I confess that I don’t find “Black Housing and the Urban Crisis of the 1970s” an irrelevant topic.

    I am a STEM academic and even I recognize the importance of a dissertation on that topic.

    EDIT: I now read the blog post. Naomi is completely ignorant of predatory lending. Wow. Why does the Chronicle allow this idiot to post there?

  2. 2
    dr. bloor says:

    I guess every publication needs its own Meghan McGastritis.

    Good thing no one blogged about my dissertation. I could have single-handedly wiped out a century’s worth of credibility in psychology.

  3. 3
    JimPharo says:

    Yes, smears and innuendo are generally indicators of the absence of meritorious arguments.

  4. 4
    El Cid says:

    Good lord — I thought there would be reference solely to some odd topic like black ice cream flavor preferences linked with local jazz imagery or some such.

    Black Housing and the Urban Crisis? That’s central to the politics and development of the largest cities around the country, up to and including impacts on federal elections. That was the subject, for example, of Frances Fox Pivens’ helping local African Americans and other poor groups organize around applying for the actual welfare for which they were qualified — which the power structures generally opposed because (a) nobody apparently expected the people who needed and deserved government aid to do so in their great numbers, and (b) the local governments didn’t have the budgets and receive enough supplementary federal aid to do it.

    Gosh, without that topic, how could Fox News / Glenn Beck have promoted national hysteria about Frances Fox Piven?

  5. 5
    28 Percent says:

    If the new criteria for whether or not an entire field of study is worthwhile is whether or not a dissertation from that field could be serialized in Time or Newsweek, then we should probably just shut down higher education altogether.

  6. 6
    c u n d gulag says:

    It would appear that in most of our print mediums, due to their decreasing readership, and declining budgets, the first thing to have been eliminated, was Editors.

    And, after that, the good writers.

    Leaving behind, a pool of morons and hacks.

  7. 7
    doxastic says:

    That’s pretty shockingly disingenuous, and seems to presume that the Chronicle audience doesn’t understand a) analysis and b) dissertations. I was just talking to a colleague yesterday about how hilariously useless our dissertations are to us after they’re finished. Save for rare exceptions, dissertations are more academic proof of concept than end product. They show you can do individual long form research well enough to get accredited, with promise that as you mature intellectually, the quality of your research will improve. Thinking of your dissertation as a magnum opus is actually a common MISTAKE of those of us who get stuck in the order of the perpetually dissertating.

    And to use their real names? Unbelievable.

  8. 8
    Merp says:

    I like this culture of “call journalists/publications out on their bullshit” you’re trying to cultivate. Keep it up.

  9. 9
    Scott S. says:

    None of the dissertations she singled out looked like they were unworthy of study. They might not be something I’d be interested in reading, but it’s not like reading research papers is something I enjoy spending time doing anyway. But I can see why all those topics would be important research anyway.

    For some reason, Riley didn’t go to the trouble of sneering at research about how plant cells communicate with each other, or about James Whitcomb Riley’s formative years, or about ontology applications in public health. None of those sound interesting to anyone but the researchers, right?

    Honestly, as far as I can tell, Naomi Schafer Riley is a racist, and maybe the Chronicle of Higher Education is racist, too.

  10. 10
    Steve says:

    This reads like a parody. “Natural birth literature, whatever that is” is the closest it comes to making an actual argument. This is typical inside-the-bubble right-wing bullshit, where everything that sounds liberal is obviously stupid so there’s no need for an explanation.

  11. 11
    doxastic says:

    HA. I just checked out Ms. Riley’s CV or (in tone of supreme cattiness) the lack thereof. Yeah Naomi, blind us with the academic brilliance attested to by your BA from Harvard and “affiliated scholar” position at the Institute for American Values.

    Of course she doesn’t know how to evaluate a dissertation. She hasn’t come within a country mile of writing one. I don’t blame her for not knowing better, I blame the Chronicle for not caring that she doesn’t know better. If there was ever a case for eliminating think tank pseudo-academia, NSR’s regular posts provide it in spades.

  12. 12
    Sir Nose'D says:

    I have it on good authority that some BJ reader has a forthcoming paper entitled:

    Distribution, population size and structure of Himalayan grey goral Naemorhedus goral bedfordi (Certiodactyla: Bovidae) in Pakistan. What does that even mean?

    Ergo, we should get rid of university biology departments. Worthless freedom haters, all of ’em.

  13. 13
    Scott S. says:

    @doxastic: Christing fuck, so she doesn’t even have a Masters, and she’s whining about people going for their doctorates? That’s absolutely douchetastic.

  14. 14
    Emily says:

    I was a worker bee for many years in the Graduate School of a large university. I saw lots of dissertation titles. Since I didn’t know anything about most of the diciplines, they mostly sounded goofy to me. But I realized that this was my problem, not a problem with the specific field of study or even graduate study in general.

    That Riley doesn’t know this shows how ignorent she is.

  15. 15
    ColleenMary says:

    Thanks for pointing this out, Freddie. I read the Chronicle regularly, and had completely missed Riley’s bizarre screed. Just finished an indignant letter to the Chronicle, and copied it to one of the students Riley dissed. “Natural birth literature–whatever that is”??? Of course there’s scholarly literature on childbirth and midwifery!! And well there should be–giving birth is kind of a central fact of human existence, and how a particular culture handles it/talks about it tells us all sorts of fascinating things about everything from health and medicine to religion to gender roles to economics to—AURGH! Riley’s rant was embarrassing, and certainly didn’t belong in the Chronicle. Glad to hear she’s not actually an academic herself (thanks, doxastic)–it’s embarrassing enough that she has a BA and so was at least exposed at some point to academic thinking. Grr.

  16. 16
    Marc says:

    She’s just another unqualified conservative given a public forum in the name of balance. Having hacks like this complain about affirmative action should be put in the dictionary as a definition of irony.

  17. 17
    dr. bloor says:

    @Emily: If it will make you feel any better, most of them probably were pretty goofy. Scott S. above has it right–the number of dissertations that make any impact on their fields is miniscule. For the rest of us, they’re a demonstration that we’re capable of exploring and expounding on an issue with the sophistication and rigor of an entry-level professional.

    In my case, the benefit of completing the thesis was almost entirely pragmatic–negotiating the internecine politics of the graduate department was invaluable training for working in a hospital setting.

  18. 18
    Raven says:

    @dr. bloor:Bet my $20 bill is still in there!

  19. 19
    TG Chicago says:

    To be fair, the title of her post is “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations.”

    So now we know that the most persuasive case for eliminating black studies is not at all persuasive. I think this is helpful. ;-)

  20. 20
    butler says:

    “Natural birth literature—whatever that is”

    This woman graduated from Harvard? Its not that hard to make a decent guess at what NBL is based on context, even if you have never heard of it before. And google would provide your answer in about .008 seconds.

    Speaking of google, it brings up an article from this author about in the WAPO concern trolling about “interfaith marriage” and how its doomed to failure. Except that its not. Or something. She didn’t really present a thesis or conclusion.

  21. 21
    butler says:

    @TG Chicago: Great point.

  22. 22
    Flying Fox says:

    African American Studies (what schools with the programs typically call it) has a bad reputation right now. But those dissertation topics all sound very interesting important to me. Going only by titles and description Riley gives. Especially the one about the black housing crisis of the 1970s. I’ve heard some whisperings about that era (urban growth and changes is one of my pet subjects, it came from living in Tokyo and Philadelphia). Never studied the events in depth, but I’m glad somebody is. And what the Hell is with Riley’s remarks on single family homes? Isn’t the extended family home a time honored technique for defraying costs, when space allows?

  23. 23
    kth says:

    @Marc: Yes, soon Jim Hoft (who is really not much dumber or less qualified than this woman) will have a Chronicle blog, for balance.

  24. 24

    I have an immediate distrust of anyone who lobbies for the elimination of a field of study, any field of study. What are they afraid of?

  25. 25
    Brian R. says:

    I look forward to her next post: “Magnets? How Do They Fucking Work?”

  26. 26
    DLew On Roids says:

    Freddie is killing it here.

  27. 27
    Mark S. says:

    I’m surprised how many wingnuts comment at the Chronicle of Higher Ed. You wouldn’t think that would be a place they would hang out.

    And Naomi writes like a low rent version of Debbie Schlussel, who’s about as low rent as one can get.

  28. 28
    dr. bloor says:

    @butler: Wow. So she’s a renaissance idiot.

  29. 29
    Mark S. says:

    Why would black women have any expertise in the field of midwifery? There were always plenty of doctors and hospitals serving than particular community.

  30. 30
    aimai says:

    Jesus Christ. The contempt she shows for every possible field in that essay is astounding. The dissertation on African American women and childbirth sounds fascinating–any woman, any historian, any midwife, any doctor, anyone interested in differential health outcomes for ethnic groups, anyone interested in the modern “natural childbirth” movement, anyone interested in urban hospitals and birthing centers would be fucking FASCINATED by that dissertation. Far from signaling something “ghettoized” or arcane or historically irrelevant it would be crucial to all those people and all those subfields from the historical to the medical. Christ on a horny toad but the Chronicle of Higher Education should be considering eliminating the field of “essays written by jaundiced bitches about stuff they don’t know anything about.”

    aimai

  31. 31
    chopper says:

    for some reason people don’t realize that a great deal of dissertations are done on subjects most all of us would call mundane.

  32. 32
    Mark S. says:

    @aimai:

    Judging by that post, she seems to think the entire field of history is a waste of time.

  33. 33
    chopper says:

    @Scott S.:

    i’m willing to bet good money that riley does not have a phD, and has no relevant experience in the area of writing and defending a dissertation and its associated research and analysis.

  34. 34
    Joel says:

    I could pick out three theses to argue that Biochemistry should be eliminated, too.

  35. 35
    Bob2 says:

    What Freddie doesn’t outright say is that her whole piece is a racist dogwhistle. Why did she target black studies? Probably page hits in the McArdle style, but also because she’s racist or feeding her racist audience.
    You know how to stop people from calling you a racist asshole? You stop being a racist asshole.

    It also assumes that universities are only job institutes (She’s a Harvard grad? really?) and not for learning.

    The comments underneath in the Chronicle are not showing off their readers well either. It’s just filled with stupidity.

  36. 36
    celticdragonchick says:

    Naomi (whoever she is) is utterly hacktacular.

    @Joel:

    Same thing with geology (I get my degree on Saturday). Hell, according to Bobby Jindal, monitoring volcanos is a waste of money anyways…

  37. 37
    celticdragonchick says:

    Naomi (whoever she is) is utterly hacktacular.

    @Joel:

    Same thing with geology (I get my degree on Saturday). Hell, according to Bobby Jindal, monitoring volcanos is a waste of money anyways…

  38. 38
    (the other) Marc says:

    @doxastic: “And to use their real names? Unbelievable.”

    I’m pretty sure Riley dropped their names as part of her argument. And I’m not talking about “Ruth Hayes.”

    Shameful stuff, Freddie. Thanks for calling it to our attention.

  39. 39
    celticdragonchick says:

    @Mark S.:

    I’m surprised how many wingnuts comment at the Chronicle of Higher Ed. You wouldn’t think that would be a place they would hang out.

    The same reason wingnuts keep going to school board meetings, run to get elected to the school board and also try to get on the textbook selection committees.

  40. 40
    Mark S. says:

    @celticdragonchick:

    It is a waste of time. If a volcano blows, you just run like hell.

  41. 41
    Walker says:

    @Flying Fox:

    And what the Hell is with Riley’s remarks on single family homes? Isn’t the extended family home a time honored technique for defraying costs, when space allows?

    She is saying that the dissertation’s claim of “racism” is that black people were encouraged to move to single family homes. And that this cannot possibly racism, ha ha.

    She is ignorant of the real problem: predatory lending that masqueraded getting people into single family homes. And that is why she is unqualified to comment about this topic at all.

  42. 42
    Walker says:

    @Bob2:

    The comments underneath in the Chronicle are not showing off their readers well either. It’s just filled with stupidity.

    The Chronicle forums have long been a cesspool. Want to feel bad about your job in academia? Read the Chronicle forums.

  43. 43
    Nutella says:

    The article reminded me of a recent comment on a completely unrelated post: “It is time to stop this non-existant anti sexism thing and start caring about real problems.”

    The attitude is the same: Anything that is not important to me personally is unworthy of ANYONE’s attention because my personal interests are the proper measure for all human effort.

    The ignorance is the same, too. It’s sad to see something called Chronicle of Higher Education pushing for ignorance.

  44. 44
    Mike P says:

    @Brian R.: Slow clap. Well done.

  45. 45
    jl says:

    Since the commie minority loving CRA of the 70s was blamed by corporate captains of finance and their wingnut allies as a cause of the financial crisis, I think any information on minority housing policy in the 1970s would be interesting and relevant and important for current policy debates.

    So, simply reading the synopsis, and asserting that the subject is lame, is a lame move.

  46. 46
    Roger Moore says:

    @jl:

    Since the commie minority loving CRA of the 70s was blamed by corporate captains of finance and their wingnut allies as a cause of the financial crisis, I think any information on minority housing policy in the 1970s would be interesting and relevant and important for current policy debates.

    Absolutely not. If somebody actually studies this kind of thing, we’ll be weighed down with facts and numbers and statistics and stuff, and people might stand up and say that the part about the CRA forcing the banks to make bad loans is a bunch of crap. Nothing, most especially not inconvenient facts, must be allowed to stand in the way of The Narrative. The most effective way of ensuring that is to prevent the collection and dissemination of inconvenient facts. Justification for ending academic programs that stand in the way of Conservative arguments is left as an exercise for the reader.

  47. 47
    Interrobang says:

    To quote the Imgurians, I’d read the shit out of that housing crisis dissertation. I’m not an academic (although I apparently have better academic credentials — and a better education — than the allegedly Harvard-educated Chronicle writer), but I’m interested in urban policy, mass transit, social movements between 1920-1980, defensive space analysis, housing project failures in the US, and various things like that. I bet that the information in that diss, combined with what I already know, would make an interesting paper all on its own.

    I can remember when the Chronicle used to be really good. That they’d publish this crap is really sad.

  48. 48
    xaneroxane says:

    Displeasure has been shared with the Chronicle editors. Bleh…

  49. 49
    Joe Bohemouth says:

    Harvard Salient alumna, Ms. Riley is. That’s like Dartmouth Review without the jokes.

    Pretty sure she was there around the time of Harvey Mansfield ‘s “blacks are causing grade inflation” minstrel show.

  50. 50
    ciotog says:

    I’m going to guess that this hacktacular blogger is so ignorant of academia that she doesn’t realize that “literature” means all the peer-reviewed writing on a given topic. She probably thinks “natural birth literature” doesn’t make sense because to her literature=fiction. Why the Chronicle would hire someone so ignorant of higher education is a mystery.

  51. 51
    Joe Bohemouth says:

    The Salient is the same rag that turned out Ross Douthat btw, and its faculty sponsor, the aforementioned race baiter Harvey Mansfield, was also Andy Sullivan’s doctoral advisor.

    There’s a lot of winger welfare devoted to cranking out bright young race baiters like Naomi Schafer Riley.

  52. 52
    rmgosselin says:

    Boy, am I ever glad to see this written up here! I got home slightly drunk the other night, read the column in The Chronicle, saw a handful of friendly comments underneath it (First commenter said, only, “Thank you for writing this”) and went off on the whole thing. I’ve been slamming myself ever since for even trying, but now I know that I’m not alone. *Deep sigh.*

  53. 53
    Sly says:

    Seriously, folks, there are legitimate debates about the problems that plague the black community from high incarceration rates to low graduation rates to high out-of-wedlock birth rates. But it’s clear that they’re not happening in black-studies departments. If these young scholars are the future of the discipline, I think they can just as well leave their calendars at 1963 and let some legitimate scholars find solutions to the problems of blacks in America. Solutions that don’t begin and end with blame the white man.

    I always like how the “debates about the problems that plague the black community” needs helpful white gatekeeper to make sure that black people have no voice in said debate unless, of course, those black people are there to reaffirm the prejudices and pathological urges of white supremacists.

  54. 54
    Nazgul35 says:

    The comment sections is a hoot.

    And clearly Ms. Schaefer Riley has the expertise to speak on the subject, just look at her academic bona fides!

    “Naomi Schaefer Riley is an affiliate scholar at the Institute for American Values. Her book on tenure in higher education will be published by Ivan R. Dee in the spring of 2011. Ms. Riley was, until recently, the deputy Taste editor of the Wall Street Journal, where she covered religion, higher education and philanthropy for the editorial page. Her book, “God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation Are Changing America,” was published by St. Martin’s in 2005. Prior to joining the Journal, she founded In Character, a magazine published by the John M. Templeton Foundation. Her writing has also been published in the Boston Globe the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Chronicle of Higher Education among other publications. She has been the recipient of the Phillips Foundation Journalism Fellowship and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute Journalism Fellowship. She is the winner of the 2006 American Academy of Religion’s Newswriting Contest for Opinion Writing. Ms. Riley graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University. She lives in the suburbs of New York with her husband, Jason, and two children.”

    Fear her expertise!

  55. 55
    Another Halocene Human says:

    @ Freddie, if you are still checking up on the thread that you started :) back in the days of the Infidel Web we got that kind of attitude from creationist posters all the time. We called it “the arrogance of ignorance” and “the argument from personal incredulity“. It boils down to “I know nothing about this, and I’m going to demonstrate how ignorant I am by laughing in the face of facts, evidence, and logic.” (Then I’m going to do a Gish Gallup and change the topic repeatedly while showing myself to be impervious to any critique of my arguments.)

    Actually, the argument from personal incredulity (subtly different from the famous “argument from ignorance” which starts out with the claim “we can’t know” and ends with “so my theory is correct”) probably works very well as rhetoric with an audience as stupid* as or stupider than the shill. The shill can then makes lots of money from the now-identified rubes by telling them what they want to hear and painting a picture of their enemies at the gate, if only some donations would come our way to fight them?

    Nice living, if you can hack it.

    *ignorant or incurious work just as well

  56. 56
    Joe Bohemouth says:

    “Nice living, if you can hack it.”

    In fairness, this basically exact article – names changed – launched the careers of a thousand Very Serious People. Bill Bennett and Lynne Cheney come to mind. I think Bill Kristol’s dad wrote a few of them himself.

  57. 57
    Citizen_X says:

    So, is this what we have to look forward to if the right succeeds in its “affirmative action for wingnuts in academia” project? “Hur hur hur, ‘Haitian Social Response to the Port-au-Prince Earthquake!’ Everybody knows that Haiti is fuxxxored, unless you’re a stupit LIEbrul! I can haz tenure nao?”

  58. 58
    Another Halocene Human says:

    @Walker:

    EDIT: I now read the blog post. Naomi is completely ignorant of predatory lending. Wow. Why does the Chronicle allow this idiot to post there?

    It’s a common ignorance. It’s certainly not taught in school–you’d have to have been there or have been looking for it. My father taught me about the discriminatory lending practices against the African-American community in Chicago. He knew about the history because his family worked to oppose and end racial discrimination, three generations of them. I wonder if it’s not more common for white parents to leave lessons like a classmate of mine once expressed, “Well, we had to hire one of those people because of affirmative action, and they were totally incompetent.” And voila, you have entered Megan McArdle land.

  59. 59
    Another Halocene Human says:

    @c u n d gulag:

    It would appear that in most of our print mediums, due to their decreasing readership, and declining budgets, the first thing to have been eliminated, was Editors.

    With all due respect, you have that wrong. The editors were cut in the early 1990s, when the greedheads decided that publishing ought to make 20% margins too.

    WaLLSTr33tDIDit.

  60. 60

    […] original post here: Balloon Juice » Blog Archive » the Chronicle should be ashamed ← Education Scenario in India by Ritu Kohli 5 – the Challenges Facing the […]

  61. 61
    Aaron Baker says:

    Yeah Naomi, blind us with the academic brilliance attested to by your BA from Harvard and “affiliated scholar” position at the Institute for American Values.

    Oh God, another asshole with a Harvard BA. Isn’t Ross Douthat enough? It’s still a great school–but really now, it’s time for some quality control.

  62. 62

    […] here, here, here, and here. The scholars respond here. Why the Chronicle is publishing this witless sub-Roger […]

  63. 63

    Batten Board Shutters…

    […]Balloon Juice » Blog Archive » the Chronicle should be ashamed[…]…

  64. 64
    Elfinn says:

    Naomi’s firing has hit the NY POST:

    http://www.nypost.com/p/blogs/.....QRFxQcNgMI

    The post is perpetuating the lie that Naomi actually read the dissertations:

    ” Riley wrote about the failure of black studies at American universities, citing PhD dissertations as evidence of the weakness of the discipline .”

    And they are trashing the petition:

    “But personal attacks and false accusations of prejudice are the only things academics can offer in the face of legitimate criticism, it seems. Perhaps Riley should take it as a compliment that not a single one of her critics has managed to defend black studies or the dissertations the field produces on their own merits. That 6,000 lost souls (who’ve signed the online petition) should support the effort to separate her from her job and on the basis of a racism charge with no foundation in reality, is nothing short of a tragedy.”

  65. 65

    […] the African American Studies department at Northwestern played the race card, left-wing bloggers denounced Riley’s posting as “cruel” and “offensive,” and a hurricane of tweets […]

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