Over the years, as literary studies veered into a dozen political and identitarian versions of theory, traditionalists complained accordingly, but nothing they said altered the trend. Conservatives, libertarians, and, in some cases, liberals produced government reports (William Bennett’s National Endowment for the Humanities study "To Reclaim a Legacy"), wrote best-selling books (Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind), and spoke at legislative hearings (David Horowitz and the Academic Bill of Rights campaign), but the momentum toward political and identity themes proceeded without pause. Sexuality studies are stronger today than they were 20 years ago.
One reason, I think, is that defenders of the new managed to characterize objectors in just the right way to discredit them. Voices opposing deconstruction, postcolonialism, and the rest were cast as ignorant, retrograde, threatened, resentful, out of touch, and hidebound, traits nicely keyed to decertify them for academic recognition.
Paul Jay’s essay here is a fair example. It chides the speakers at a St. John’s College gathering for “recycl[ing] an old and faulty argument that should have been set aside years ago.” Indeed, Jay says, the whole spectacle was unworthy of academic discussion: “it’s depressing to see such a thoroughly discredited argument being made in late 2014.”
The argument he deplores is that the rise of theory has brought about the downfall of English and the humanities. Race-class-gender studies, political criticism, feminism, deconstruction, and other schools of theory have turned students away, it claims, the professors abandoning the experience of beauty and greatness, and thereby killing their own field.
Jay counters with statistics showing that English enrollments have held steady for decades after a precipitous fall in the 70s. The “plight” of the humanities is real, he acknowledges, but it stems from broader shifts on campus, particularly the adoption of corporate and vocational values. Traditionalists misconstrue the evidence because they want to “eschew critique” and “return to ‘tradition’” (note the sneerquotes).
Once again, traditionalists are backward and uninformed. We have the same set-up, one that denies them any affirming values and frames the position in terms of intellectual deficiency. It’s unfair, but it has worked.
Rather than protest this bilious characterization, then, let’s go with it and flesh it out, and emphasize a different attribute in the profile. It isn’t wrong to highlight personal factors in the traditionalist response, and in this case they certainly fueled the outcry and enmity against theory and politicization. But if we’re going to do so, let’s include a fuller range of them, not just insularity and defensiveness.
I have in mind another condition. It applies to critics of the theory/politics/identity turn who were, in fact, quite knowledgeable of the intricacies of theory, its philosophical and historical backgrounds. Their response even derived, at times, from admiration of Discipline and Punish, A Map of Misreading, “Turning the Screw of Interpretation,” and other canonical 70s and 80s texts.
I mean the feeling of embarrassment. Not embarrassment for themselves, but for their discipline. It sounds ego-based and irrelevant, but it derived from a scholarly posture, not a personal state, and it happened again and again. As they went about their professional work, teaching and speaking, reviewing manuscripts and candidates, reading new books and essays, they witnessed persistent lapses in learning, research, and evaluation, a series of poor performances that nonetheless passed muster. Enough of them piled up for traditionalists to count it a generalized condition — and they mourned. Decades of immersion in the field presented one breakdown after another, and they cared so much for the integrity of the discipline that it affected them as a humiliation.
We were embarrassed ...
When we attended lectures by professors who cited Jacques Derrida but in the follow-up Q&A couldn’t handle basic questions about Derrida’s sources.
By the cliques that formed around Derrida, Paul de Man, Foucault, and other masters, complete with sibling rivalries, fawning acknowledgements, and sectarian hostilities.
By graduate students skipping seminars in order to deliver theory-saturated conference papers, even though they needed three years of silent reading in a library carrel before stepping forward.
When departments dropped bibliography, foreign language, and philology requirements, but added a theory survey.
When Jesse Jackson & Co. pulled the “Western civ has got to go!” stunt at Stanford and English colleagues reacted with a pathetic “O.K.”
When Hilton Kramer and Roger Kimball penned their annual report on the Modern Language Association in The New Criterion, and the world guffawed.
By the Sokal Hoax, which made us a laughingstock among our science colleagues.
By the Bad Writing Award and cutesy titles stocked with parentheses, scare quotes, and diacritical marks.
When we came across reader’s reports and found them nothing more than puff pieces by cronies.
By Academically Adrift, which demonstrated how little reading and writing undergraduates do.
Yes, we stumbled from one chagrin to another. When Jay effuses about “the innovative role that theory has had in deepening, enriching, and challenging our understanding of the human,” we can only reply, “That’s not what we saw and heard with our own eyes and ears.” Jay treats it as transformative progress, but it impressed us as hack philosophizing, amateur social science, superficial learning, or just plain gamesmanship. Our first response wasn’t hostility or insecurity. It was dismay.
This is why we blamed theory, and still do. We didn’t deny the genius of eminent theorists, but we found the practices they inspired dispiriting. Not Derrida’s “Differance,” a serious ontological statement, Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain, an eccentric but hefty study, and other achievements, but their thousands of phony imitations and platitudinous implementations, and theory had to accept responsibility for those results.
First of all, theory called into question epistemological standards. “Objectivity,” “method,” the distinction of “primary” and “secondary” texts, and other disciplinary concepts fell prey to its critique.
Second, theory was unfamiliar, and so you could get by with half-baked expressions of it. If you referred in a gathering to a passage in Jacques Lacan’s “Rome Discourse,” chances are that few others in the room had the knowledge to assess your usage.
Third, theory (starting in the '80s) was aligned with political trends bearing a moral authority, encouraging people to think more about “doing good” than “doing well.” We didn’t criticize that young professor for his disorganized teaching, because he enacted a social good: introducing undergraduates to marginalized authors of color and outlining theories of their marginalization.
Finally, theory had a smaller corpus and broader application than existing historical fields. It saved younger people months and years of reading time.
It didn’t have to happen that way (who loved the archive more than Foucault?), but it did. Every profession has greater and lesser talents, of course, but it seemed to us that inferior knowledge, skills, and standards had become routine practice, and theory stood as an alibi for them.
So, when traditionalists speak up and the Establishment knocks them down, keep in mind the other attribute, not the stupidity that marks their failure to meet scholarly ideals. Consider, instead, their embarrassment over the decades, which originates precisely in their enduring devotion to those ideals.
Mark Bauerlein is professor of English at Emory University.
In today's Academic Minute, Keith Hatschek, a professor of music at the University of the Pacific, discusses the civil rights activism of jazz legend Dave Brubeck. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.
Report from teacher ed watchdog group finds education majors consistently rank among the highest G.P.A. earners, which it attributes to fact that many assignments in education courses don't adequately measure student skills.
North Carolina State University says that a professor there will apologize to his students for making "an offensive statement in jest." A statement from the university says that "the professor realizes that his statement devalued the heritage of some students and was inappropriate for the classroom or anywhere else on the university's campus." Further, the department head will meet with any concerned students.
The university did not name the professor or say what he said. But WTVD News reported that the professor was Charles Hardin and that, when he was returning exams in a biochemistry course, he had difficulty reading some names and said that students should "Americanize" their names "because this is America." Hardin did not respond to a request for comment.
The last academic year has been a difficult one for those seeking jobs in the field of religion. A joint report by the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature -- released Tuesday -- found that 452 positions were listed with the two organizations during the 2013-14 academic year, down from 548 the year before. While not all religion faculty jobs are listed with the two groups, their listings are considered a good general measure of the health of the academic job market. The latest figures are well below the 652 listings in the 2007-8 year, the last one before the economic downturn hit.
British libel law is so stringent and unforgiving -- so notorious for its tendency to find in favor of the aggrieved party -- that I am reluctant to say much more about it than that. Come to think of it, “stringent and unforgiving” seems a bit harsh. As does “notorious.” No aspersions on the British judicial system are intended; please don’t sue.
Between 2003 and 2011, the epidemiologist Ben Goldacre -- currently a research fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine -- wrote a column called “Bad Science” for The Guardian as well as a book about shady practices in the reporting of clinical-trial results called Bad Pharma (2012). “Writing about other people’s misdeeds,” he says in the introduction to his new book, I Think You’ll Find It’s a Bit More Complicated Than That, “collecting ever greater numbers of increasingly powerful enemies – and all under British libel law – is like doing pop science with a gun to your head.”
Actually, reporting honest research can have the same menacing consequences. A few of the items in More Complicated Than That – a 400-page collection of Goldacre’s smart and mordant investigative reporting and commentary over the past dozen years – discuss cases of scientists and doctors sued just for going public with an informed opinion, or even lab results. Goldacre’s default mode is a lot more aggressive than that. Examining news and debates in both professional journals and the mass media, he’s constantly exposing unsupported claims, analyzing doctored statistics, and explaining the limitations, as well as the necessity, of the peer-review system. And with a suitably scathing tone, much of the time. No doubt Goldacre’s solicitor keeps very busy
Well before this point in a column, I would normally have provided a link to the press that brought out I Think You’ll Find It’s a Bit More Complicated Than That (here it is) but it may be a while yet the book reaches stores in the United States, where the large majority of Inside Higher Ed readers live. It hit the shelves in England only a few weeks ago. Consider the lag time of Big Pharma: Faber & Faber published the U.S. edition in April, a good two years after it drove the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry into damage-control mode. (In early January, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee issued a report echoing Goldacre’s call for drug companies to increase disclosure in reporting of clinical-trial methods and findings.)
For now, American reader can order the print edition of More Complicated Than That from online bookstores. The ebook is available in England and with some pressure could probably be made available here sooner rather than later. Frankly, Goldacre deserves a much bigger following than he has in the States, where the need for continuous, accessible public tutoring in statistical literacy and logical thinking (and in how they can be suborned by the unscrupulous) remains every bit keen as in the UK, to put it mildly.
One of Goldacre’s specialties is challenging “science by press release” – cases of the media “cover[ing] a story even though the scientific paper doesn’t exist, assuming it’s around the corner” or rewriting statements “from dodgy organizations as if they were health news.” The blame can hardly be borne by “quacks and hacks” alone, since the “dodgy organizations” sometimes include academic institutions. In 2004, one British university issued a press release on a study showing the wonderful health benefits of “nature’s superdrug,” cod liver oil. It did something or other to cartilage (the details went unelaborated) by means of an enzyme, presumably to be named later.
When more than a year went by without a report to the scientific community, Goldacre contacted the university asking what happened to the paper. He got an evasive though patronizing response (“Mr. Goldacre is quite right in asserting that scientists have to be very certain of their facts before making public statements or publishing data”) from the researchers involved, but no offprint. He would have to be patient, they said.
“In 2014, after being patient for a decade as requested,” he writes in an afternote, Goldacre tried again but received only “a skeletal description [of] a brief conference presentation,” running to four paragraphs. The original press release (which cannot have been written without the cooperation of the scientists, of course) had been 17 paragraphs long. “I’ll try them again in a decade,” Goldacre concludes.
It would be more amusing if not for another essay in which he explains the significance of a study (published in Annals of Internal Medicine in 2009) of 200 press releases selected at random from a pool of “one year’s worth of press releases from twenty medical research centers” at “a mixture of the most eminent universities and the most humble, as measured by their U.S. News & World Report ranking.”
Goldacre notes that half the studies were done on human subjects. But 23 percent of the press releases in that category “didn’t bother to mention the number of participants – it’s hard to imagine anything more basic – and 34 percent failed to quantify their results.”
Forty percent of the press releases on research involving human beings concerned studies “without a control group, small samples of fewer than thirty participants, studies looking at ‘surrogate primary outcomes’ (which might measure a blood-cholesterol level, for example, rather than something concrete like a heart attack) and so on.” While the results would not be as reliable as those of a study with a stronger design – involving randomization, control groups, and more subjects – Goldacre acknowledges that they might nonetheless be of value. But an astonishing 58 percent of the press releases analyzed “lacked the relevant cautions and caveats about the methods used and the results reported.”
O.K., that was quite a lot of numbers just now, and not nearly as entertaining as the pieces in which Goldacre scrutinizes claims about caffeine intake and hallucination (“Drink Coffee, See Dead People”) or explains how make-believe expertise informs public debate (“Politicians Can Define Which Policy Works Best By Using Their Special Magic Politician Beam”) or characterizes a paper in the non-peer-reviewed Elsevier journal Medical Hypotheses (“with a respectable ‘impact factor’… of 1.299”) as “almost surreally crass.”
At his best, Goldacre writes with a combination of Martin Gardner’s knack for science exposition (and pseudoscience demolition) with Christopher Hitchens’s dedication to eviscerating fools gladly (a reliable source of schadenfreude, at least if you agreed with him on who counted as a fool). As the holiday season approaches, anyone with a bright young relative showing an interest in science or medicine – or a leaning toward serious journalism – should consider I Think You’ll Find It’s a Bit More Complicated Than That as a possible gift. Consider it an investment in public intelligence.
In today's Academic Minute, Daniel Baker, a physicist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, discusses his research on the dangerous weather patterns of outer space. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.