Reporting on the Senate's confirmation of Theodore Mitchell as the U.S. Department of Education's chief higher education official, Inside Higher Ed quoted a statement from Secretary of Education: “He will lead us through this important time in higher education as we continue to work toward the President’s goal to produce the best-educated, most competitive workforce in the world by 2020.” While this brief remark is hardly a major policy statement, its tone and focus are typical of the way Secretary Duncan, President Obama, and many others in politics these days talk about higher education.
This typical rhetoric, in Duncan’s statement and beyond, makes a good point, but it doesn't say enough. To explain why, I will take a leaf from Thucydides. In History of the Peloponnesian War, he explained that his apparent verbatim accounts of speeches by other figures really articulated what he thought they should have said. With due respect for Secretary Duncan and President Obama, here is what the Secretary of Education should have said, on behalf of the President's aims, on the confirmation of a new Under Secretary of Education in charge of higher education affairs:
He will lead us through this important time in higher education as we continue to work toward the president’s goals for higher education in making America a more productive economy, a more just society, a more flourishing democracy, and a richer environment for what the Founders called, in the Declaration of Independence, "the pursuit of happiness," and in the Preamble to the Constitution, "the general welfare."
A part of that economic goal is to produce the best-educated, most competitive workforce in the world by 2020. Another part is to ensure that higher education extends broadly the opportunity to develop the ingenuity and creativity that will drive American innovation in the years ahead.
That means working to ensure that higher education regains its function as an engine of socioeconomic advancement, both for the individual and for society as a whole. This means resisting the increasing stratification of curriculums and opportunities, making sure that the advantages of arts and sciences education are extended as far throughout higher education as possible. This is both prudent, to cultivate the nation's human capital, and also just, to mitigate disadvantages of less-privileged starting points.
Everyone knows that democracy depends on America's capacity to maintain a deliberative electorate, capable of making well-informed choices in a political system they understand and in which they actively participate. It is a responsibility of higher education to enhance this investment in America by helping maintain that electorate. It is a responsibility of government to promote that role.
Finally, when the Founders embraced such goals as " the pursuit of happiness," and securing "the general welfare" of the people, they acknowledged that the well-being of individuals and of society as a whole -- difficult as these concepts are to define -- are legitimate objects of government interest. Higher education has crucial responsibilities of exploration and discovery in this broad field of human well-being. It is here that the perennial American question concerning the scope and limits of government itself is to be explored, and given for inquiry to succeeding generations of Americans.
"So on the appointment of a new Under Secretary with responsibilities toward higher education, we celebrate the many contributions of higher education to American flourishing: its role in contributing to a vibrant economy, certainly; and also its role in sustaining and advancing the broad aims of justice and improvement to which the country has always been committed."
That would have been good to hear from Secretary Duncan, and would be good to hear in any of the administration's speeches about higher education. None of us who are committed to this broader vision of higher education can ever, I emphasize, lose sight of its role in propelling the economy forward. But we cannot permit the purposes of higher education in America to be narrowed solely into the goal of workforce production. More is at stake: access to opportunity, cultivation of ingenuity and innovation, and broad contributions to the future of the country. Phi Beta Kappa joins many voices in advocacy of that vision. We invite Theodore Mitchell, Secretary Duncan, and President Obama to join, as well.
John Churchill is secretary of the Phi Beta Kappa Society.
Many faculty members at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign believe that James Kilgore, an adjunct who has been told he will not have his contract renewed, is being treated unfairly. Kilgore had strong reviews, and indications that he would be renewed, but that changed when a local newspaper published an article identifying him as a former member of the Symbionese Liberation Army, who has served jail time before coming to the university (and informing superiors of his past). Amid the complaints, the university has vowed to review what happened to Kilgore.
But now faculty leaders question whether that review will be conducted fairly. That's because Christopher Kennedy, the Illinois board chair, gave an interview to The News-Gazette in which he said that the board, while respecting the review process, has strong feelings about what should happen. "The board's position is we don't want to prejudge the process," Kennedy said. "But our general position is clear. We want to be respectful of the fact that we operate on taxpayer's money and tuition ... and people paying tuition who have will have concerns about underwriting this lifestyle." Kennedy also said that because Kilgore is an adjunct, there are not academic freedom issues at stake. "We're not reacting to public pressure. If this was an issue of academic freedom, we would stand up for it. This is an hourly employee who doesn't have tenure. It's completely different," he said. And Kennedy said he has been "very clear" in sharing his views about the issue with university administrators.
Cary Nelson, a professor of English at Illinois, past president of the American Association of University professors, and one of those pushing for Kilgore to be rehired, said via email that Kennedy's statements have made it impossible for Kilgore to be reviewed fairly for renewal. Having "confessed" to sharing his views, Kennedy "is being distinctly disingenuous in declaring that the board doesn't 'want to prejudge the process,'" Nelson said. "Indeed his remark that the board may have a role at the end of the university¹s review process telegraphs a warning that the board may well choose to deny Kilgore a job even if the campus decides otherwise. That may take the campus administration off the hook from the faculty perspective, but it leaves us with academic freedom and shared governance in tatters."
Ball State University has promoted a professor accused last year of proselytizing during a course called "Boundaries of Science," The Star Press of Muncie, Ind., reported. Last year, the university investigated and said it would be working with Eric Hedin, now an associate professor of physics and astronomy, to make sure that his courses were science-based. The news came after First Amendment watchdog groups informed the university that students had reported Hedin was using "Boundaries," an honors science class, to teach Christan values.
The story, along with the university's recent hiring of another science professor known for his support of intelligent design, prompted a statement from President Jo Ann Gora affirming the university's commitment to "academic integrity" in relation to science. She said intelligent design had no place in a science course.
TheStar Press noted that Hedin's promotion followed a letter to the university from conservative state legislators, expressing concern over the “establishment of a speech code restricting faculty speech on intelligent design[.]" Legislators in the letter said Gora's statement and the university's actions toward Hedin raised "troubling" questions, such as whether a professor would be able to answer a question from a student about intelligent design. Ball State administrators met with lawmakers last month. State Sen. Dennis Kruse, chair of the Education Committee, told the newspaper that “Ball State officials were very attentive to our requests and concerns during the April 4 meeting. A majority of issues have been resolved, and I look forward to working more on these matters concerning academic freedom with the university.”
Joan Todd, a university spokeswoman, said: “It was productive meeting, a great opportunity to discuss important issues and at this time we have nothing more to add." Via email, Todd said that Ball State does not automatically award tenure to associate professors, unlike most institutions, and that Hedin, who is four years into his probationary period, is not yet tenured. Hedin did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The New York Public Library announced Wednesday that it has abandoned plans to move its stacks out of the iconic library building in midtown Manhattan. A statement from the library said that a review of the proposal identified better ways for the library to grow and expand lending libraries in the area. The plan to move the stacks infuriated scholars who view the main research collection of the library as crucial to research in many fields. Here are twocolumns outlining those concerns, and a response on Inside Higher Ed by the head of the New York Public Library.
Boston College is offering to return to the interview subjects oral history recordings that were made about "the Troubles," a period of intense protest and violence in Northern Ireland from the 1960s until the 1980s. British authorities (with backing from their U.S. counterparts) fought in U.S. federal court to obtain the recordings for use in possible prosecutions, and in the end obtained some recordings that many believe led to a recent detention for questioning. The use of oral history recordings in this way, in violation of confidentiality requirements made by researchers to the participants, has alarmed many scholars.
While Boston College was under court order to turn over some recordings, it currently is not under any such order. So the college issued this statement: "If Interviewees in the Belfast Project express their desire to have their interviews returned to them, Boston College will accommodate their request upon proper identification. Given that the litigation surrounding the subpoenas has concluded, we believe that it is the appropriate course of action to take at this time."
Chris Bray, a historian who written on the case (and criticized Boston College for not protecting the confidentiality of the recordings), said he believed the college's offer was unrealistic. Some of those recorded would be revealing their identities if they come forward to get the tapes, and the college could then be forced to reveal their identities, he said via email. "Since at least some of the interviews can't be safely returned to unidentified interviewees, and since BC can't guarantee that it will refuse to cooperate with future fishing expeditions in the collection, I think the collection should be immediately and entirely destroyed," he said.
Perhaps you’ve heard of Rule 34. It expresses one of the core imperatives of 21st-century culture: “If something exists, there is porn about it. If no porn is found at the moment, it will be made. There are no exceptions.”
Consider, for example, the subculture devoted to eroticizing the My Little Pony cartoon characters. More people are into this than you might imagine. They have conventions. It seems likely that even more specialized niches exist -- catering to tastes that “vanilla” My Little Pony fetishists regard as kinky -- although I refuse to investigate the matter.
Consider it a topic for future issues of Porn Studies, a new journal published by Routledge. “Just as there are specialist journals, conferences, book series, and collections enabling consideration of other areas of media and cultural production,” says the introductory note for the inaugural double issue, “so pornography needs a dedicated space for research and debate.” (Last year, many people disagreed: news of the journal inspired much protest, as Inside Higher Ed reported.)
The most interesting thing about that sentence from the journal's editors is that “pornography” functions in it as an active subject. Porn is figured almost as an institution or a conscious entity — one capable of desiring, even demanding, scholarly recognition. The satirical Rule 34 comes very near to claiming agency for porn. With Porn Studies, there is no such ambiguity about the sheer world-making power of pornography.
It’s not just that the journal acknowledges the porn industry as an extremely profitable and expanding sector of the economy, or as a cultural force with an influence spreading all over the map. That much is a commonplace, and Porn Studies take it as a given. But something more happens in the pages of Porn Studies: academic discourse about porn turns into one more manifestation of its power.
One recent call for papers refers to “the emerging field of porn studies” — a piece of academic-entrepreneurial boilerplate that proves significant without actually being true.
It’s now a solid 10 years since Duke University Press published a volume of some 500 pages, also called Porn Studies, edited by Linda Williams, whose Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible” (University of California Press, 1989) is by far the most-cited book in the new journal.
She wrote it amid the drawn-out and exhausting battles of the 1980s, when an uneasy alliance formed between radical feminists, rallying under the slogan “pornography is the theory, rape is the practice," and the religious right, which wanted to enforce the sexual “Thou shalt nots” by law. On the other side of the barricades were the "sex-positive” feminists and civil libertarians, who were not necessarily pro-porn so much as anti-censorship.
Hard Core went beyond the polemics, or around them. Williams approached the X-rated films of the 1970s and ‘80s with as much critical sophistication and command of the history of film as other scholars more typically brought to the cinematography of Eisenstein or Hitchcock. She didn’t deny the misogyny that appeared on screen but saw other forces at work as well -- including scenarios in which women were sexually exploratory or assertive in ways that the old phallic order couldn’t always predict or satisfy.
To anti-porn activists, whether feminist or fundamentalist, it went without saying that the market for pornography consisted of heterosexual men. Likewise, the heterosexual-male nature of the “gaze” in cinema was virtually an axiom of feminist film theory. Williams challenged both suppositions. Women became an ever more substantial share of the audience, especially after videotape made it possible to watch at home.
The status of Williams’s work as foundational suggests that porn studies began “emerging” at least a quarter century ago. Recent volumes of papers such as C'Lick Me: A Netporn Studies Reader (Institute for Network Cultures, 2007) and Hard to Swallow: Hard Core Pornography on Screen (Wallflower, distributed by Columbia University Press, 2012) take the field as growing but established.
For that matter, porn-studies scholars would have every right to claim ancestors working long before the Motion Picture Association of America invented the X rating. In The Horn Book: Studies in Erotic Folklore and Bibliography (1963), Gershon Legman surveys about two centuries’ worth of secondary literature, in several languages. The contributors launching the new journal do not cite Legman, much less any of the figures he discusses, even once. Nor does a single paper discuss any form of pornography that existed prior to the advent of video and digital forms of distribution.
The body of commentary and analysis predating Hard Core includes psycho- and sociological research, legal debate, and humanistic work in a variety of fields. It is seldom mentioned, except when dismissed as simplistic, under-theorized, or hopelessly in thrall to moralistic or ideological assumptions rendering its questions, let alone its arguments, highly suspect.
“Porn studies,” in other words, is not synonymous with scholarship about pornography, as such. It is its own demarcated zone of discussion, one that is present-minded and digital media-oriented to an extreme. (All of the double issue is available to the public here.)
An exemplary case is the paper called "Gonzo, trannys, and teens – current trends in U.S. adult content production, distribution, and consumption” by Chauntelle Anne Tibbals, who is identified as an independent scholar from Los Angeles. It is perhaps more sociological in perspective than an article from a porn-industry trade journal, and like other papers in Porn Studies it shies away from generalization even when inching in that direction:
"Some performers, producers, and others call for ‘feminist porn’ – a self-identified genre and social movement with no one articulated definition. At the same time, many producers and performers reject the attribution while creating content that seems decidedly feminist. At the center of every one of these debates are porn performers themselves, each of whom are impacted by individual choice, market concerns, and representation. ... Even if one was to focus only on the images contained in ‘pornographic’ representations, with no consideration of production processes or variations in reception, we would still be left with a vast and diverse body of work that is constantly shifting. Consequently, there is no way to say ‘pornography is this’ or ‘pornography is that’ – as I have done in this essay, all one can really do is attempt to describe and contextualize existing patterns as they currently resonate (in this case, with me).”
You cannot step into the same porno river twice. Even so, Lynn Comella’s “Studying Porn Cultures” calls for researchers to spend more time studying the performers, marketers, and fans in their native element, such as the Adult Entertainment Expo. (Other “data-rich field sites” range “from erotic film festivals to feminist porn sets to adult video stores.”)
Comella, an assistant professor of women’s studies at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, writes that she has attended the Expo “every year since 2008, as a researcher, a credentialed member of the media, and an invited participant in the Expo’s popular seminar series,” twice serving as moderator for the session devoted to women and the adult entertainment market.
The practice of “porn-studies-in-action” she advocates is “accountable to cultural plurality, specificity, and nuance,” she writes, and “rejects sweeping generalizations and foregone conclusions that rely on preconceived notions about pornography’s inherent ’truths’ and effects."
The problem with that being that nobody ever intentionally accepts “sweeping generalizations and foregone conclusions that rely on preconceived notions.” If only it were that easy. One era's critical perspective can become the next's tacit presupposition. In Hard Core, Linda Williams challenged the assumption that the pornographic film was one big homogenous set of images and messages created to stroke the egos and stoke the libidos of straight white guys. By contrast, the papers in Porn Studies all take Williams’s interpretive stance as a given: the audience, product, meanings, and the effects of porn are intrinsically heterogeneous and in flux. Any general statement beyond “More research is needed” thus becomes highly problematic..
A BBC documentary from a few years ago included a segment on one of the better-known subgenres of recent times. In it, the porn director (who is also the star) has a performer who is young, but of legal age, dress up as if she were a schoolgirl. He then brutalizes them at length with slapping, gagging, abusive penetration, and a running stream of verbal humiliation, after which he and other men urinate on her.
The documentary crew follows an actress to the set, with the camera focusing in very closely when the male performer begins chatting up the actress as the scenario begins. The expression on his face is chilling. Ted Bundy must have gotten that look in his eyes once the victim was handcuffed.
Given that his video product, too, is part of the diverse and polymorphous carnival that is the adult entertainment industry — and not the least profitable part, by any means — I would have liked to see a paper in Porn Studies that asked about damage. So many of the contributors celebrate the feminist and LGBT-positive aspect of the industry that a naive reader would think nothing else sold, and that it exists solely to increase the sum of happiness in the world. This may be doubted; indeed, it must be. At times, the journal seems not just to analyze the world of porn but to be part of it. Not in the way the performers are, by any means, but perhaps as a sort of conceptual catering service.