Humanities

Essay on what Salaita controversy says about faculty hiring processes

If the long-term implications of the Salaita affair should be discussed when the case can be recollected in tranquility, then we certainly are nowhere near there yet. Passions remain high, even though the practical actions that can be taken by either side outside the courtroom, save for Salaita’s supporters maintaining the boycott of the university, are for now largely exhausted. Whatever can be said about the roads taken or not taken by both parties, we cannot guess what shall be said “somewhere ages and ages hence.”

University of Illinois officials have said they approached Salaita to make a settlement offer a few months ago. But whatever outreach the university made was rejected on Salaita’s behalf by his attorneys.

The case is in the courts, where the outcome is of course uncertain, though the courts have traditionally been more inclined to award financial compensation than a tenured position, since they are reluctant to override university decision-making about faculty appointments. Remember that Ward Churchill received but $1 when he said he did not want money; he would only accept his job back, and the court refused to force his reappointment. And that was a case decided in Churchill’s favor. Whether the courts will find Salaita’s tweeting behavior befitting a faculty member, or whether they will be willing to consider his conditional offer the equivalent of an unconditional contract remains to be seen. Should he lose his case, the university would have less to gain by offering a settlement, especially since the value of a standard non-disparagement clause would seem minimal. Salaita has been denouncing the university’s actions far and wide, and he has written a book about his case.

But there are nonetheless some lessons to be learned, even if they are mostly based on contested evidence. The foremost of these, I believe, is that the whole academic hiring process disintegrates when a program or department attempts to initiate a faculty hire outside its areas of competence.

The one constant throughout Salaita’s career has been his opposition to the Jewish state and his support for Palestinian rights to all the land between the Mediterranean sea and the Jordan river. Salaita was to be hired by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s American Indian Studies Program. But his first (of six) books is the only one dealing with Native American texts and issues, and even that book is focused on a claim that American Indians and Palestinians are comparable indigenous peoples who were subjected to similar colonialist oppressions.

His main job at Illinois would have been to teach “comparative indigeneity.” Native Americans and Palestinians — the first group objectively indigenous, the second only polemically and politically so — were the indigenous examples he was scheduled to teach. Salaita’s two books on Arab American fiction were neither within the department’s area of expertise nor part of its mission. And his highly polemical Israel’s Dead Soul also served goals outside the program’s mission, even if all but one of the program faculty embraced its argument.

Not only the local but also the credible national support for Salaita is founded on the conviction that a properly constituted academic search committee’s hiring recommendation should be honored. There is of course a not-so-credible local and national component to Salaita advocacy: hostility to Israel and support for the boycott movement’s efforts to discredit and eliminate the Jewish state. Salaita himself asserts that “donors” (read “Jewish donors”) bullied the university and the Board of Trustees not to proceed with a final offer. And others, including members of the American Association of University Professors’s national staff and its Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure share that conviction, despite the lack of clear evidence. Still others, including a group of historians, were willing to state that Salaita’s tweets only said what we all knew to be true about Israel. But the principled basis for outrage is really only the assumption that a faculty search committee is a sacred entity. The AAUP has traditionally agreed with that position, and so would I when a search is properly conducted. The AAUP maintains that search committee recommendations should be honored except in exceptional cases. Some of us believe Salaita’s case is exactly that, exceptional.

That said, college and university review committees examining departmental appointment papers do not typically confront doubts about whether either the position being searched for or the candidate being proposed is illegitimate. They can question whether the candidate’s credentials match the job description, whether he or she meets the institution’s standards, whether the outside letters offer only qualified support, what the candidate’s future research prospects are, and so forth. In this case, “comparative indigeneity” was one of the search goals, and there was no serious effort to ask whether the candidate’s obsessive focus on Israel and the Palestinians matched a responsible effort to include comparative indigeneity within the department’s mission or whether experts in Middle East history and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict played an appropriate role in the decision-making process. Nor had the implications of the American Indian Studies Program’s decision to embrace comparative indigeneity received sufficiently critical review.

At a spring 2015 meeting of the campus’s Faculty Senate, a local law professor, Matthew Finkin, rose to say an authority in anti-Semitism should have reviewed Salaita’s publications. If any members of the university review committees harbored such concerns, they either did not voice them or did not press them hard enough. Perhaps there was an understandable inclination not to challenge the American Indian Studies Program. In any case, the program was not well served by its own evolving standards or by the subsequent review process.

Rather than stay within its academic mission and the academic standards appropriate to that mission, the program acted out of political solidarity and proposed an appointment that was more political than academic. That made the situation still worse and is a warning to those humanities and soft social science departments that have become increasingly politicized over the last generation.

There are still more lessons, challenges, and questions built into this case: What kinds of criteria are appropriate to a search process, as opposed to a tenure decision? What role might a major presence on social media within a candidate’s research and teaching areas play in evaluating a job candidate? How does academic freedom bear on evaluating either a job candidate’s publications or public statements about his or her areas of research? What role should political solidarity play in seeking outside reviewers for a faculty appointment? What questions should college and university reviews pose for problematic proposed hires? Does a Board of Trustees have any meaningful role in the awarding of tenure? In the light of the standard warning that bad cases make bad law, I am not hopeful about the general principles that might be derived from the passions still surrounding the Salaita affair.

 

Cary Nelson served as national president of the American Association of University Professors from 2006 to 2012. He teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

 

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A new funding program at the NEH hopes to bring more humanities research to the general public

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New grants from National Endowment for the Humanities aim to encourage books based on humanities research that are accessible to nonscholars.

Essay on being a junior professor at a campus where sexist traditions are a form of harassment

I have a picture saved in a folder on my laptop. It is a picture of me, and it was provided to me somewhat reluctantly. It’s a photograph of my face, taken from my faculty profile page at the religious college where I used to work, placed onto the body of a scantily clad lingerie model. This Photoshopped image was part of an annual tradition, one that used such manufactured images of many of the faculty and staff members at the institution as part of a presentation designed to “skewer” faculty and staff for humorous effect. Sometimes it was a suggestion that a religion professor who was also a Baptist minister actually wanted to be the pope. Sometimes it was a joke that one of our very tall business professors was secretly an Olympic beach volleyball player. The year that I was on the docket, I was a Vegas showgirl, and thus my head was superimposed upon the body of a midriff-baring, garter stockings-clad lingerie model in a semitransparent bra.

This performance was done during a convocation for students, but it was popular among faculty members and administrators, who made a tradition of attending the annual “roast.” Aside from the general fact that mocking faculty members in front of a group of students already skeptical of us is pedagogically questionable, the sexually suggestive Photoshopped picture of me -- and similar photos of some of my female colleagues -- was a clear case of sexual harassment.

But this had been done for years. It was simply “tradition” and we were supposed to be part of a family -- and what family doesn’t pick on one another just a little bit?

I like to think of myself as a strong woman, one who won’t put up with abusive comments or disrespect. I’ve learned to ignore street harassment; I’ve spent a lot of my life figuring out which battles are the ones to fight, and complaining about the minimal harassment I’ve experienced in the workplace really wasn’t worth the disruption to my life, though I would like to think that if it represented a pattern of behavior -- and others were being harassed as well -- that I would step forward and tell my own story.

But this I was afraid to complain about. I wasn’t present at this convocation, but all the same, it was humiliating -- so humiliating that some of my colleagues who were at the convocation wouldn’t tell me about it and refused to make eye contact when I asked them directly about what had happened. It was several days before someone involved with the program finally acquiesced when I said I wanted to see the image myself and sent me a copy of it. The experience undercut my authority in the classroom, as many of my students were already inclined to believe that women should not have positions of authority over men.

Nevertheless, I was afraid to complain.

I was afraid to complain about it, because the person who did the presentation every year was an administrator, one who, when we had our first mandatory sexual harassment training session for the campus employees, started with a joke: “If these rules had been around when I met my wife, I wouldn’t be happily married today.”

What was I going to do? This was a prominent member of our small-town community. I had seen administrators retaliate against faculty members for asking what I thought were reasonable questions or making reasonable complaints about their treatment, and I was untenured in a work-at-will state. Did I really have any choice? I had the evidence. It was a clear case. Quite likely, it would have simply resulted in administrators apologizing and being embarrassed, but it also like would have resulted in having to hear multiple times that “he’s a part of an earlier generation” for whom such things were different. More importantly, I feared I also risked losing my job, but without any proof that it was retaliation. I’d seen other people at that institution fired (or, more euphemistically, told that their tenure-track contracts were “not being renewed”) under mysterious circumstances. Because there was no record of any discussion -- and the fact that work-at-will means that employers don’t have to give you a reason to let you go -- those people could not prove any discrimination had taken place.

While this is certainly anecdotal and only my own experience, it does color the way that I think about claims of sexual harassment, both by faculty members and by students. When we think about harassment and our approach to it at universities and colleges, we need to remember that they are workplaces, despite all the talk about being members of a family or part of a community, with real disregard for equity. It’s difficult in many environments to come forward with complaints of harassment -- particularly when young scholars are being discouraged from doing so, either through well-meaning but ultimately wrongheaded advice like Alice Huang’s a few weeks ago, or through the outright attack on those who bring complaints about the harassment. It’s also difficult when so many of our institutions have steeped themselves in decades-long traditions that blur the boundary between work and personal lives, particularly when we forget that colleges and universities are not always the bastions of progressivism that the public sometimes thinks we are.

We need to think about these places and their traditions, and consider how an unexamined status quo can contribute to a larger environment that allows sexual harassment to go unchecked for years and that preserves and promotes a culture that thinks of women in positions of authority as merely objects to make fun of, not as leaders of institutions. Academe is part of a larger culture that promotes such objectification constantly, and I think it’s important to hear the voices of women who claim to have been marginalized or discriminated against, when those women are brave enough to come forward, and think about the legitimacy of those complaints. What seems like acceptable “good fun” to some people may seem unacceptable and hurtful to others, and their opinions and insights need to be considered.

Is there potential for abuse of Title IX or sexual harassment statutes as they currently exist? Of course. The potential for abuse of the system exists in any system. But even as we discuss the merits of Title IX complaints, we cannot forget the continuing problems that exist, those continuing problems that gave rise to the need for Title IX and sexual harassment laws in the first place.

These things are still happening, and we do ourselves and our students a grave disservice by cloaking them in the name of tradition and “good fun.”

The author, an assistant professor of English, no longer works at the institution described in this piece.

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Essay on when a new tenure-track professor should agree to a request

New tenure-track professors receive lots of advice about turning down requests, but there are times they may benefit from saying yes, writes Melissa Dennihy.

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Point Park recognizes faculty union, in possible sign NLRB has weakened 'Yeshiva' decision

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Point Park U recognizes a faculty union -- after 12 years and many battles. Could this be sign that NLRB has eroded power of a Supreme Court ruling that limited collective bargaining at private colleges?

Essay calls for a new strategy to protect faculty rights

It’s a widely noted fact that colleges and universities are under new pressure to justify their value and function. The same is true of tenure-track faculty members, who are at the heart of the higher education system whose benefits much of society now claims to find mysterious, and whose job security is increasingly criticized.

While colleges face criticism for converting most of their teaching posts to non-tenure-track status, they also face criticism for offering tenure to the rest. The final decision by the Wisconsin Legislature to weaken tenure and shared governance in the University of Wisconsin System teaches a lesson that should resonate beyond Wisconsin: the standard defense of tenure and shared governance isn’t good enough to address widespread skepticism about their public benefits.

Faculty members have gone as far as they can by pleading an academic exemption from the financial control and autocratic management that typify the U.S. workplace, crystallized in the power of summary dismissal. Faculty members now need to explain the value not only of their own job security but also of job security in the workforce as a whole. We will need to be much clearer about why tenure and shared governance enable core functions of the university and also of any productive, creative workplace.

I am aware of the dangers of this kind of escalation and expansion of what we’ve been taught are unpopular job protections. And yet academics can no longer defend tenure and shared governance as minority exemptions. We need to explain their principles and benefits for an overall workforce that has suffered from their absence -- and is now unmoved by our special pleading.

In the important case of Wisconsin, the state Legislature and governor have now passed and signed major qualifications of UW System tenure and governance, including student governance over the expenditures of their fees. One section introduces language legalizing layoffs of tenured faculty “due to budget or program decision,” and then offers a long, ornate set of procedures for dismissing tenured faculty as a result of pretty much any programmatic change. Another section eliminates statutory language that gives faculty members direct managerial authority in the university by vesting them “with responsibility for the immediate governance of [their] institution” while expecting them to “actively participate in institutional policy development." Though tenured faculty members aren’t yet living in the at-will employment utopia of the American right, where one can be fired without cause or due process, the plan makes them vulnerable to restructuring strategies that a range of commentators equate with making universities more efficient.

Since these proposals will now change UW significantly, and perhaps model changes in other states, what should faculty members do next?

The Typical Faculty Response

Let’s start with what faculty members usually do. The current state of the art was on display at a multicampus academic senate meeting in Madison where faculty members had gathered to discuss the situation. One much-admired intervention was delivered by Professor David J. Vanness, who argued that the weakening of tenure and of faculty governance threatened core academic activity:

"This is not an issue of Democrats versus Republicans. This is an issue of academic freedom. Freedom to discover and to teach new knowledge, regardless of whether it offends (or enriches) a specific business interest or political party …. If we allow ourselves to be led down this path laid out before us … there will be nobody left to 'follow the indications of truth wherever they may lead.' We will sift where it is safe to sift. We will winnow where we are told to winnow. Our pace of discovery will slow and our reputation will falter."

I heartily agree. But I am already inside the academic consensus that the pursuit of truth requires intellectual freedom and professional self-governance. Since most people don’t enjoy either of these in their working or even their personal lives, they wouldn’t immediately see why empowering chancellors will hurt teaching or slow the pace of discovery.

Rather than revealing the inner workings and effects of tenure and shared governance, faculty members generally do three other things. We cast tenure and shared governance as constitutional principles beyond the legitimate reach of politics. We instrumentalize these practices in the name of competitive excellence. We put our defense in the hands of our university’s senior managers. Each of these three moves made sense at various times in the past, but they are now serious mistakes.

First, what happens when faculty present academic freedom as transcending politics? The question was brought home to me again by a good op-ed called “What is driving Scott Walker's war on Wisconsin universities?” The author, Saul Newton, an Army veteran studying at UW-Waukesha, discusses the conservative Bradley Foundation’s role in intellectualizing reasons to bring education to heel. He cites a 1994 article by the foundation’s president that, in Newton’s phrase, justified “demolishing public institutions, specifically public education.”

I followed Newton’s advice and read the Bradley Foundation article, whose ideas about K-12 governance are now being applied to public universities. I was struck by two features. First, the piece advanced a quasi-Foucauldian vision of society in which any group’s principles lie within society’s structures of power rather than outside them. “Educational policy is always and everywhere a profoundly political matter,” wrote foundation president Michael S. Joyce. Second, it defined its attack on an “exhausted” progressivism as a movement for democratic accountability: “If educational policy is finally and irrevocably political, then surely, in a self-governing polity, the people themselves are the source of educational policy -- not a distant bureaucracy.”

When Joyce moved on to demonize teachers for wielding the “political hegemony of the ‘helping and caring’ professionals and bureaucrats,” he did so in the name of restoring democracy. It doesn’t matter whether this framework is right or wrong (it’s wrong). Once it has been established, and faculty then defend tenure as a privilege of their intellectual status, they don’t rebut the right’s democratic critique but validate it. The democracy frame makes academic freedom look like a license to ignore public concerns rather than to engage them in dialogue from an independent position.

On the second error: university administrators and faculty alike predict that quality decline will follow any weakening of tenure. A group of distinguished chaired professors at UW-Madison stated that qualifying tenure would make the university “suffer significant competitive disadvantages.” Competitiveness is often measured in rankings shorthand: UW-Madison is 47th in U.S. News and World Report’s rankings this year, is among the top 15 among public universities, and has a large number of top-20 departments, all of which may fall in the rankings as they come to lose every contest for top candidates to peers with stronger tenure protections.

But how much would lowered rankings reduce faculty quality and public benefit? Top rankings mostly concern the Madison campus, and so involve only a minority of the students and faculty in the UW System. Politicians also know that hundreds of qualified people apply for every good tenure-track position, and thus assume that the UW system will still enjoy a surplus of excellent candidates. Wisconsin departments may have a harder time landing their top one or two picks who have offers from other major universities, but politicians may reasonably doubt that their third or fourth candidates will offer a noticeably lesser student experience.

More fundamentally, departmental or university stature is an inaccurate proxy for the competitiveness most people care about, which is the economic kind that raises the standard of living. Universities have constantly asserted their direct economic impact, and conservatives are taking this rhetoric literally. Thus an alleged blueprint for the Walker changes, a report called “Beyond the Ivory Tower” that was published by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute and authored by the longtime chancellor of UW-Stout, justifies its call for more flexible tenure and governance on the grounds that this will “help the UW System better fulfill its mission to help produce economic development.” University administrators agree that this is their mission, and STEM fields have benefited for decades from the emphasis on technological outputs, often at the expense of funding broad liberal arts-based capabilities. So faculty members’ talk of staying competitive encourages conservatives to ask UW to show them the money. In the U.S. business system, making money normally involves giving management a free hand over employees, thus hoisting professors on their own petard.

We arrive at the third faculty habit, in which a faculty assembly calls on senior managers for protection for tenure and shared governance. There are two issues here. One is the academic freedom to produce research even when its evidence contradicts the beliefs of politicians or business leaders, who then may seek to discredit the study, as recently happened in Wisconsin, by calling it “partisan, garbage research,” and/or by defunding an entire program, as happened in North Carolina. Senior managers often hang tough on this point, and defend the research autonomy of their faculty and their institution.

The other issue is direct faculty control over university policy that goes beyond offering nonbinding advice. I noted that the now-deleted Wisconsin statute expects faculty to be directly involved in “the immediate governance of [their] institution.” Governor Walker does not want this strong version of shared governance. But do System President Ray Cross or UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank? Careful Wisconsin faculty observers like Nicholas Fleisher, Richard Grusin and Chuck Rybak think not, and I can’t call to mind a senior manager who does want full co-governance with faculty.

In addition, UW’s senior managers have some history of efforts to increase their own authority. As Lenora Hanson and Elsa Noteman argue, former Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin’s “New Badger Partnership” sought to delete much state oversight over the university’s budgeting and human resources policies. The current UW administration continued the campaign under another name, even at the cost of accepting state funding cuts. Chancellor Blank told local television that the university could make up for cuts with more freedom from the state, if they just had more time. In other words, senior university managers de facto agreed with the core tenets of movement conservatism that state oversight lowers efficiency while executive authority increases it. Since so much of the conservative business position matched the university’s official position, the voting public could be forgiven for not seeing why the statute changes would affect faculty much.

General Public Benefits, Not Special Privileges

So what would motivate the wider public to fight for academic tenure and shared governance? To present them as general public benefits rather than as our special privileges.

To do this, we will need to undo each of the three mistakes I’ve described. First, rather than casting tenure and shared governance as necessary exceptions to normal workplace politics, we should define them as necessary to workplaces in general. Tenure is a simple idea: protection from the at-will employment practice of firing any employee without cause or due process. Tenure places an obligation on the employer not only to identify specific reasons for termination but to convince others of their validity.

Tenure doesn’t just protect academic freedom; it protects all employees’ investments in their skills, relationships, know-how, and commitment to their organization. I have always thought that tenure should appeal to conservatives, since it defends liberty by protecting one party against another’s arbitrary exercise of authority. Tea Partiers who accuse Barack Obama of being a dictator should logically favor limits on the lawful tyranny of the private sector supervisor. At the same time, Democrats should like generalized tenure for enabling a limited type of workplace democracy. A hundred years ago, the American Association of University Professors constructed academic freedom as the great exception to the autocratic managerialism of American business life. Faculty members will now need to promote workplace freedom from at-will dismissal as right for employees everywhere.

On the second mistake, of touting their competitiveness, faculty members should reject competition as a main driver of high-quality work. We enjoy top rankings and status as much as managers do, and yet in the long run they depend on research and teaching achievements that come from persistence, security, obtuseness, heretical thinking and collaboration. It’s not just that competition encourages wasteful duplication and intellectual imitation, but also that intellectual progress depends profoundly on complicated forms of cooperation among all kinds of people and expertise. Universities teach people to address massively complicated problems that require both individual originality and collaboration. The U.S. doesn’t have a competitiveness disadvantage: it has a collaborative disadvantage, and universities are needed more than ever to develop new kinds of collaborative capabilities. In addition, public universities help their regions, states and nations not by being better than other universities but by doing transformative work in the place they are and with the students they have. Faculty should help the American workplace move in the same direction.

The third mistake: instead of looking to senior management for defense, faculty members should look to employees in other workplaces in advocating democratic rather than autocratic organization. Until our current neo-Taylorist management revival, the efficiency of peer-to-peer self-management was widely understood. The uber-mainstream features the historian David Montgomery chronicling the contributions of indigenous and immigrant craft skill to 19th-century American industrialization, the management gurus Tom Peters and Robert Waterman advocating employee empowerment in their 1980s blockbuster In Search of Excellence, the sociologist Richard Sennett analyzing the centrality of mutually developed craft practices to effective work, and, in a backhanded way, the neoclassical economists now warning about the “skills gap,” since if top-down management were so great companies could simply boss their hirelings to competence.

Such research has established academic analogs, starting with peer review. Wisconsin faculty have pointed out that tenured faculty members must meet their own colleagues’ rigorous performance standards to get tenure and must then continue to satisfy them to progress. Another common academic practice is the combination of outcomes evaluation with freedom to organize everyday work. Although professionals have had an easier time claiming this right to direct their own work, to whom does this principle not apply? Everyone needs training and ongoing feedback, and everyone needs latitude to shape their own efforts.

The faculty’s central political problem is that their assertion of their tenure and governance rights is read as their tacit denial to everyone else. The problem starts with the “new faculty majority” of non-tenure-track professors on campus and spreads out from there. This sense of tenure as a special privilege (error one) is the cornerstone of the politically powerful stereotype of the elitist professors who proclaim their superiority to other people (error two) and can’t deal with regular people directly (error three). In making these mistakes, we have played into our opponents’ hands.

Rather than claiming academic freedom, tenure and fair governance as a special perk of our unique standing, we should hold them out as the general economic and social justice virtues that they are. Faculty have models of collaborative self-governance that we now rarely bother to develop, that we have allowed to serve an ever-smaller share of our colleagues, that are not taken seriously by many administrations, but that are designed to allow both intellectual originality and decent, honorable workplaces. Faculty must now model how shared governance, if spread to other workplaces, would improve society as a whole. And we are going to have to do it soon.

Christopher Newfield is professor of English at the University of California at Santa Barbara, author of Unmaking the Public University (Harvard University Press) and co-editor of the blog Remaking the University.

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Essay calls for new metaphor -- clogged pipeline -- on academic workforce

It's time to switch metaphors and focus on multiple work-life balance issues, write Jennifer Lundquist and Joya Misra.

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A look at how European nations create incentives for universities to promote good teaching

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The incentives for universities vary by country.

Review of Adam Mack, "Sensing Chicago: Noisemakers, Strikebreakers and Muckrakers"

The most distracting thing about costume dramas set in any period before roughly the turn of the 20th century -- in my experience, anyway -- is the thought that everything and everyone on screen must have smelled really bad. The most refined lords and gentry on Wolf Hall did not bathe on anything we would regard today as a regular basis.

No doubt there were exceptions. But until fairly recently in human history, even the most fastidious city dweller must have grown accustomed to the sight of human waste products from chamber pots that had been emptied in the street. (And not just the sight of it, of course.) Once in a while a movie or television program will evince something of a previous era’s ordinary grunge, as in The Return of Martin Guerre or Deadwood, where almost everything looks soiled, fetid and vividly uncomfortable. But that, too, is exceptional. The audience for costume drama is often looking for charm, nostalgia or escapism, and so the past usually wears a deodorant.

The wider public may not have heard of it, but a “sensory turn” among American historians has made itself felt in recent years -- an attention, that is, to the smells, tastes, textures and sounds of earlier periods. I refer to just four senses, because the importance of sight was taken for granted well before the turn. In their more polemical moments, sensory historians have even referred to “the tyranny of the visual” within their discipline.

That seems a little melodramatic, but point taken: historians have tended to scrutinize the past using documents, images, maps and other artifacts that chiefly address the eye. Coming in second as the organ of perception most likely to play a role in historical research would undoubtedly be the ear, thanks to the advent of recorded sound. The remaining senses tie for last place simply because they leave so few traces -- which, in any case, are not systematically preserved the way audiovisual materials are. We have no olfactory or haptic archives; it is difficult to imagine a library of flavors.

Calls to overcome these obstacles -- to analyze whatever evidence could be found about how everyday life once sounded, smelled, felt, etc. -- came from American historians in the early 1990s, with a few pioneers at work in Europe even before that. But the field of sensory history really came into its own over the past decade or so, with Mark M. Smith’s How Race is Made: Slavery, Segregation and the Senses (University of North Carolina Press, 2006) and Sensing the Past: Seeing, Hearing, Smelling, Tasting and Touching in History (University of California Press, 2007) being among the landmarks. Smith, a professor of history at the University of South Carolina, also convened a roundtable on the sensory turn published in the September 2008 issue of The Journal of American History. A number of the contributors are on the editorial board of the Studies in Sensory History series published by the University Illinois Press, which launched in 2011.

The series’ fifth and most recent title is Sensing Chicago: Noisemakers, Strikebreakers and Muckrakers by Adam Mack, an assistant professor of history at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Beyond the monographic focus -- it covers about fifty years of the city’s history -- the book demonstrates how much of the sensory field of an earlier era can be reconstructed, and why doing so can be of interest.

Overemphasis on the visual dimension of an urban landscape “mirrors a set of modern cultural values that valorize the eye as the barometer of truth and reason,” we read in the introduction, “and tend to devalue the proximate, ‘lower’ senses as crude and less rational.” Having thus recapitulated one of sensory history’s founding premises, the author wastes no time before heading to one site that must have forced its way deep into the memory of anyone who got near it in the 19th century: the Chicago River.

“A bed of filth,” one contemporary observer called it, where manure, blood, swill and unusable chunks of carcass from the slaughterhouses ended up, along with human sewage and dead animals -- all of it (an editorialist wrote) “rotting in the sun, boiling and bubbling like the lake of brimstone, and emitting the most villainous fumes,” not to mention drawing clouds of flies. A letter writer from 1862 mentions that the water drawn from his kitchen hydrant contained “half a pint or more of rotten fish.” Many people concluded that it was safest just to drink beer instead.

Laws against dumping were passed and commissions appointed to investigate the problem, for all the good it did. The poorest people had to live closest to the river, so disgust at the stench combined in various ways with middle- and upper-class attitudes towards them, as well as with nativist prejudices.

The horrific odor undermined efforts to construct a modern, rationally organized city. Imposing a grid of streets on the landscape might please the eye, but smell didn’t respect geometry. The same principle applied to the Great Fire of 1871, the subject of Mack’s next chapter. The heat and sheer sensory overload were overwhelming, and the disaster threw people from all walks of life together in the streets in a way that made social status irrelevant, at least for a while. The interplay between social hierarchy and sensory experience (exemplified in references to “the roar of the mob”) is the thread running through the rest of the book. Thinking of the “‘lower’ senses as crude and less rational” -- to quote the author’s phrase again -- went along with assumptions about refinement or coarseness as markers of class background.

The sources consulted by the author are much the same as any other historian might use: newspapers, civic records, private or otherwise unpublished writings by long-forgotten people, such as the recollections of the Great Fire by witnesses, on file at the Chicago History Museum. The contrast is at the level of detail -- that is, the kinds of detail the historian looks for and interprets. Perhaps the next step would be for historians to enhance their work with direct sensory documentation.

A prototype might be found in the work of John Waters, who released one of his movies in Odorama. Audience members received cards with numbered scratch-and-sniff patches, which they consulted when prompted by a message on the screen.

On second thought, it was difficult enough to read Mack’s account of the Chicago River in the 19th century without tickling the gag reflex. Olfactory realism might push historical accuracy farther than anyone really wants it to go.

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Essay on how to move ahead on writing in what's left of the summer

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Kerry Ann Rockquemore answers readers who realize it's already mid-July and they haven't made a dent in their big writing projects.

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