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Debate over panel at MLA raises issue of when balance matters

Should Panels Be Balanced?
January 3, 2014

On a scholarly panel, does balance of views matter?

This is the question being debated by some members of the Modern Language Association after several pro-Israel groups on Thursday criticized the MLA for the make-up of a panel at the association's annual meeting that will be discussing academic boycotts of Israel. According to critics, the panel is inappropriate because its members are all in favor of the boycott movement. Hillel International and the Israel on Campus Coalition recently asked for a chance to present "a balanced and open discussion" on the subject, and were turned down. The MLA did not cite the substance of the proposed session, but deadlines for reserving rooms, which passed many months ago.

While Hillel and Israel on Campus are questioning that decision, a number of prominent MLA members are involved in preparing just such a panel, to be held at a Chicago hotel immediately after the MLA panel ends. (The MLA's annual meeting starts next week in Chicago.)

The dispute -- the latest fallout from the vote by the American Studies Association to boycott Israeli universities -- has led to a debate over whether and how balance matters at scholarly gatherings. The MLA gives a great deal of deference to panel organizers, many of whom do not see their role as assuring balance. And several of those on the MLA panel said that aiming for balance not only wasn't their aim, but would be wrong.

And among MLA members frustrated by the ideas missing from the panel, some are quite content to just organize their own session, while others see a problem with taking an issue as contentious as the Israel boycott and inviting only like-minded people (of any view) to participate in a discussion.

The news release issued Thursday by Hillel and Israel on Campus said that all panelists favor a boycott of Israel. "We believe the members of the MLA deserve to hear a far more diverse set of perspectives on the issue of academic freedom in Israel and nearby countries. The MLA members, as academics, certainly can appreciate the value of multiple perspectives on what is a very controversial issue," said a statement from Jacob Baime, executive director of Israel on Campus.

Plenty of meetings involving academe go with pro-con formats for some sessions, or at least seek out a range of views. And this reporter has attended MLA sessions in recent years where speakers on topics such as distance education, or assessment, or the future of the dissertation disagreed on various ideas. In 2008, the MLA invited David Horowitz, the conservative author who loves to criticize literature professors, to speak on a panel with professors representing a range of views. So the association has gone out of its way sometimes to assure balance (though not all MLA members were happy Horowitz was invited).

But more typical MLA sessions feature three scholars presenting work on such themes (from this year's program) as "Diplomacy in 17th Century French Culture," "Geospatial Literary Studies" and "Emotion, Embodiment and Reading in Poe and Dickinson." At such sessions, scholars challenge one another, but they rarely break down into a pro-con type of discussion. Many of the non-scholarly sessions, meanwhile, focus on topics on which there is widespread agreement in the association (that adjuncts are mistreated, or that states are abandoning public higher education), or on teaching issues, where there are disagreements to be sure, but not along political divides.

Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the MLA, said that when the program committee reviews proposals for sessions that go beyond a disciplinary topic, the goal is not balance. The committee "often accepts sessions that present a particular viewpoint. In fact, proposals often argue that a particular perspective is important. We expect proposals to argue the point, to say what the issues are and how the panel will treat them," Feal said via email. "This proposal successfully argued that the issue of academic boycotts and the BDS [boycott, divestment, sanctions] movement was of interest to MLA members. The proposer noted that the audience would be given at least 30 minutes to discuss....  In short, the Program Committee assesses the overall rationale of the proposal, the evidence that this is of interest to a group of members, and the qualifications of the panelists to address the topic as the topic is defined."

Inside Higher Ed could not reach all the panelists on the boycott session. One -- Richard Ohmann, a professor of English emeritus at Wesleyan University -- declined to give his views on the Israel boycott until the session. (Critics of the session have noted that he backed a movement to have TIAA-CREF sell investments in companies that Palestinian supporters believe help Israel's government.)

Others on the panel did not focus on their own views (some of which are public in favor of the boycott), but questioned why a panel should seek out a critic of the boycott, and whether a double standard was being used by raising the question.

David C. Lloyd, a professor of English at the University of California at Riverside, said via email that "for several decades, I have been in post-colonial and Irish studies, and been involved in various social movements, from Central American solidarity work to South Africa divestment in the 1980s, the East Timor action network, and, of course, various Irish-related public events. In none of these contexts has the question of balance arisen. No one ever asked us to host a representative of the Indonesian point of view when we hosted Benedict Anderson on East Timor at Berkeley; no one has ever asked us whether the British point of view on the Irish Famine or on Northern Ireland should be represented on our academic panels, no matter how critical of Britain’s colonial legacy we might have been."

He said that "only in the context of Palestine does such a question arise. And it has arisen innumerable times in the past, even before the growing boycott movement began to attract widespread public attention.  It used, indeed, to be a regular condition of hosting an event on Palestine on many campuses that it should take the form of a debate or dialogue, spurious as dialogue must be under such asymmetrical conditions of power and violence."

He also noted that Hillel has faced criticism from some of its own members -- most notably at Swarthmore College -- for banning anti-Israel speakers. "Perhaps Hillel would do better to listen to its students at Swarthmore who have had to petition for a little balance in its notoriously one-sided programming," Lloyd said.

Barbara Harlow, a professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin, agreed that balance was the wrong issue. "A more appropriate question than 'fairness' or 'balance' might well address instead those criteria as exhibited by the presentations at the session itself, not to mention the conflict’s past and present, both in the U.S. academy and in the international arena. Like David, I have been involved with issues of international studies, in the broader sense of their cultural politics, from Palestine, South Africa, Northern Ireland and Central America in the 1980s to Guantánamo Bay in the last decade, and regularly teach courses on these and related topics at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. I would thus add ... Guantánamo, in which, even in that case, the putative requisite of an 'opposing point of view' would seem to be immaterial and inapposite. More to the point might be to investigate the relevance of the session’s topic to our shared academic commitments to human rights and social justice, and the intellectual responsibilities that these mutual commitments entail."

UPDATE IN NEXT TWO PARAGRAPHS (response received Friday morning after first version of article was published): Samer Ali, associate professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas at Austin, who is the convener of the session and will be the respondent, said via e-mail that he is "agnostic about academic boycotts in general. I have not found any convincing arguments yet one way or the other and find it bizarre to boycott Israeli universities, when so many of our colleagues there eloquently and bravely criticize Israel's occupation." Further, he said he wondered about an academic focus for protesting Israel. "Here's my problem with boycotting Israeli universities: Israel is committing outrageous human rights violations every day that crush the lives of Palestinians, and promotes a supremacist ideology that justifies it, in denial of the lessons of the Holocaust. But most Americans seem to not care a whit. So, now all of a sudden we're outraged that Palestinian students and teachers can't get to school or lack books?"

He also said that there is not a problem having speakers who share views on a panel. "As for the absence of critics, I don't think it's a flaw," he said. "It's actually a healthy norm at the convention: All MLA sessions are organized by small groups of members, who typically share and explore a particular approach to an academic question, especially new approaches and schools of thought."

One of the longtime MLA members who is organizing the counter-session agrees with those organizing the boycott panel that they have every right to decide not to include opposing views. Cary Nelson, former president of the American Association of University Professors, said via e-mail: "The AAUP¹s position on academic events is that they do not have to incorporate opposing points of view. I agree. It is the job of those who disagree with speakers to organize their own events to promote the positions they support. Of course an organization or its members can decide to organize a debate, but academic freedom means it is their choice." Nelson added that he expected the pro-boycott panelists "to make flawed arguments ... but that is their right. Just as it is my right to point out their errors."

Another professor planning to participate in the counter-session is Russell Berman, a past MLA president who is director of German studies and professor of comparative literature at Stanford University. He said that MLA tradition is that "panels are generally organized by members," so he does not take the views on any panel to reflect those of MLA leaders or the association as a whole. But Berman said he was concerned that "the panel organizers are evidently comfortable with such a narrow range of opinion."

He said that this "speaks volumes about their flawed understanding of academic freedom and open debate. This is similar to the willingness of the [American Studies Association] to endanger academic freedom through its boycott call, which has been roundly rejected by leaders throughout the academic community."

Gabriel Noah Brahm, associate professor of English at Northern Michigan University, said he wanted to join the alternate panel because of his frustrations over the pro-boycott session. "As a dues-paying member of the MLA, I am committed to supporting our association's central mission of promoting humanistic inquiry while modeling scholarly integrity for a world sorely in need of compassionate understanding of complex issues -- such as the longstanding dispute between Israel and her detractors in the region and elsewhere," he said. "That implicit promise we make as academic researchers -- to seek truth no matter how inconvenient -- is something precious that has got to include respect for diversity and empathy for different sides in a conflict."

 

 

 

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