Submitted by Anonymous on January 5, 2017 - 3:00am
You might prefer not to think about this … but are your students a source of anxiety for you?
Like me, you've chosen your life's vocation largely because you care for students and their betterment; but if we're being really candid, isn't it true that you now feel somewhat wary of them on account of their power to inflict serious damage -- even sudden catastrophic injury -- to your career, with all the grim consequences that this would entail?
That you find yourself catering to them, or at least feeling tempted to do so, lest they suddenly turn against you and make your life miserable?
That you feel little confidence that the administrators at your institution will defend you zealously if you are unfairly criticized, and you think it inevitable that they will care less about guaranteeing fairness to you than about avoiding negative publicity, managing their personal images before the vocal constituencies whose ideological self-identifications and simplistic moral certitudes enable them to issue instant and unerring judgments, and otherwise successfully covering their backsides?
Have you already recognized that, in the current cultural climate, if a single disgruntled student were to issue an entirely phony accusation against you -- maybe sexually harassing words or acts in a private meeting that did or did not ever occur -- you could be effectively defenseless?
That, even for an incident that exists only in one student's fevered or diabolical imagination, you would be immediately relieved of your teaching duties and subjected to an investigation by people who might have their own axes to grind, or lack the humility to recognize the narrow compass of their knowledge, or simply not like you or your views or what they now start characterizing as your “weirdness” or “questionable judgment”?
And that, after all the massive undeserved stress that would ensue, the outcome would very likely be that your academic prerogatives and position would be seriously compromised or even terminated?
Maybe you have never have been troubled by such a seemingly far-fetched scenario, but do you find yourself squirming when you see the fervor with which some students, and the activists with whom they identify, call out and demand "justice" (i.e., harsh punishments) for what they regard as racist, sexist, cissexist and other "microaggressions"?
Do you worry that you must watch your words extremely carefully around students, and even then an entirely innocent and defensible utterance might still earn for itself, and for you, irreversible public condemnation and institutional penalties -- penalties against which you are powerless because of your already insecure adjunct or untenured status, or even against which your tenure would provide no great protection?
Are you fearful because you can't find any protective clear lines that distinguish the intellectually challenging from the culpably "offensive," that distinguish the mere reference to a bigoted claim or term from the embracing assertion or use of it, that distinguish a willingness to inquire about the strengths and weaknesses of a broadly despised position from advocacy for that position?
Have you felt pressure, when hoping to engage with students on a topic that is important to their lives or to society, simply to “not go there” in order to avoid risking an intellectual interaction that is later described as an assault, insult or “invalidation” of a student's perspective? Are you in any danger of becoming, in the words of Mill's On Liberty, one of those "timid characters, who dare not follow out any bold, vigorous, independent train of thought, lest it should land them in something which would admit of being considered irreligious or immoral"?
When you read calls for making the classroom a "safe space" for students, do you ever wonder whether it has become an unsafe space for faculty?
Do you sometimes pull your punches when giving feedback on demonstrated weaknesses in students' course work submissions, classroom performance or intellectual character, due to apprehension that frank, direct criticisms, corrections and suggestions might be characterized later as having been "unprofessionally" hostile, demeaning or disrespectful?
Or do you perhaps refrain from giving students appropriately constructive but deeply critical advice due to the more prosaic fear of receiving poor teaching evaluations, given their potential adverse consequences for your pay, promotion and freedom to teach what and as you choose? Do you suspect that unfavorable recommendations are sometimes the results of personal dislike or distaste on students' parts, and accordingly compromise your own standards for dress, humor and other aspects of personal style and presentation in order to avoid striking your students as odd or unattractive?
When you provoke an unjustified hostile comment on a student evaluation form, do you immediately think of showing it to your colleagues to share the amusing absurdity of it, only to back away from this later, as you're not quite sure you entirely trust them to react sensibly?
Do you agree that if you were to submit an essay like this for publication, you, too, would insist upon anonymity, for fear that if your students were to get wind of it, it might give some of them ideas? Does it occur to you occasionally how lucky it is that the vast majority of your students are unaware of the power they have to injure you at will -- and do you find yourself wondering just how long this tenuous situation can hold?
Have you spent any time contemplating other lines of work, or early retirement, or emergency backup plans in the event that you were to be suspended or fired?
If you have answered some of these questions in the affirmative, have you taken any steps at all to ameliorate your predicament?
Have you attempted to get your Faculty Senate to address the threats facing you and your colleagues? Have you given a careful read to your institution's regulations governing complaints and disciplinary proceedings against faculty? If you have, have you sought to have their shortcomings repaired, or even merely pointed out the flaws to the appropriate parties? Have you, at the very least, complained to colleagues about the perilous situation you all face?
Or are you afraid of your colleagues, too, and judge it likely that raising these issues will only mark you for suspicion, and maybe make you even less likely to receive a sympathetic and open-minded hearing if some student(s) should ever turn on you?
What is to be done?
Anonymous is a tenured philosophy professor on the East Coast.
All year long, I eagerly await the year-end lists of superlatives. And, throughout December, I devote whole days to crafting my list of New Year’s resolutions.
Even more than the “naughty or nice” lists of Christmas, New Year’s Day, for me, wins the prize as Holiday with the Most Lists.
This year, I nominate the Harvard University soccer team’s “scouting report” for Most Tasteless List of 2016. As a gay poet, I viewed this particular list with an outsider’s rubbernecked inquisitiveness. I saw the report as part of a degenerate literary tradition of cataloging, indexing and registering.
Likewise, back in 2012, when Mitt Romney blundered by bragging about his “binders full of women,” I recalled that many poets had produced such binders.
Among them: the late-medieval French writer Christine de Pizan, author of The Book of the City of Ladies (an archive of stories about exemplary women like the Amazons, Sappho, Dido, the Virgin Mary, etc.). De Pizan’s proto-feminist project took a cue from the 14th-century Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio, whose On Famous Women had sought to recuperate the reputation of women. And Chaucer, with The Legend of Good Women, parodied the whole genre of medieval lady lists.
To this list of binders, I might add Charles Bukowski’s sex novel, Women. And I cross-reference Women with books that painstakingly index gambling debts, hangovers and menial jobs.
Those writers all felt the influence of one of the greatest list makers: Dante. I discern in the author of The Divine Comedy the spirit of someone possessed by a scholastic frenzy for compartmentalizing, codifying and classifying. Dante’s masterpiece is like a neatly arranged filing cabinet (three drawers, nine folders, with each folder listing afterlife denizens).
Dante offers a stunning rebuke to all those who slander bureaucracy as soulless. His poetry illustrates how the apparent tedium of list making can express the raging passions of heaven or hell, or someplace in between.
Each time I must deal with a bureaucratic snafu, I pray to Dante -- patron saint of bureaucratic beauty.
Sometimes collecting a list -- or recollecting one -- can reaffirm our humanity. Dante’s lists helped to sustain Primo Levi. In Survival in Auschwitz, when Levi and a fellow prisoner recite from the Inferno, the poem provides them with a rare moment of normalcy.
Dante, by leading readers through intricate lists and toward his beloved Beatrice, suggests that the practice of list making, in and of itself, bears upon the great philosophical questions (like death and sex and power).
List making is an anthropological universal, and the desire to make lists speaks to a fundamental human need. Lists, by embodying a rational order, appeal to our nature as embodied, rational creatures (creatures who are all too prone to misusing our highest faculties, like when we make distasteful lists).
Note that some lists are frivolous. In Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, T. S. Eliot calls the roll of various cutie-pie felines.
But other lists are foundational. Perhaps American poetry begins with Leaves of Grass, an all-consuming compendium.
Emily Dickinson, too, was “inebriate” of lists, as she would have put it. Narrating her famous postmortem carriage ride, Dickinson lists the earthly phenomena that she leaves behind her:
We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess -- in the Ring --
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain --
We passed the Setting Sun --
Some other examples to add to this list of important poetic lists:
Paradise Lost flips through Milton’s rolodex of demons, devils and demigods.
The Iliad recites a who’s who of heroic warriors.
The Hebrew Bible is a profound series of lists (e.g., of the days of creation; of various domestic dysfunctions; of plagues and sins; of wars and kings and songs and laws).
Supposedly, W. H. Auden held that all poetry begins from a love of making lists.
But something sinister lurks beneath the will to compile lists. As Hannah Arendt suggested in her discussion of totalitarianism, the list maker’s art -- though apparently banal -- can grease the wheels of bloody regimes.
A list of objectionable lists might include: slave galley manifests, Nixon’s enemies list, McCarthy’s alleged list of State Department Communists and the blacklist, as well as the works of the Marquis de Sade. De Sade critiqued the Enlightenment with long, detailed lists of sexual tortures. His lists exposed the wicked potential of reason’s will to define and enumerate. Indeed, perhaps such lists impugn the form of the list itself.
In the case of the “scouting report,” this list might attest to the barbarism latent in male bonding. Perhaps this list reflects an innate, masculine impulse to dominate. Boys, after all, often obsess about baseball card collections and merit badges. And men often obsess about tallies of conquests, stock reports and sports statistics.
Someone familiar with Michel Foucault might develop an argument about how -- by translating the oral discourse of “locker-room talk” into the textual discourse of a written list -- the report actually renders male sexual aggression more susceptible to modern regimes of discipline.
But I have no expertise in such matters, and I certainly have no moral credibility. After all, a list of my privileges would have to include my gender, and a list of my sins would have to count up -- along with my prurience -- many instances of pride, avarice, greed and lechery.
But list making is my favorite vice. I seize upon any opportunity to compose lists. I love to craft to-do lists, grocery lists and Christmas present lists. I enjoy composing lesson plans, syllabi and bibliographies. I once wrote an erotic memoir, in which successive chapters chronicle each of my African-American ex-boyfriends (to be released this February as an ebook for Black History Month). And my life’s work is an ongoing project called The Book-Title List Book, in which I record titles for books that I have titled but will decline to write.
Along with these lists, I’m enchanted by list-like practices (such as exercise routines, the Rosary and grading papers). Procrastinating, I spend afternoons reading Wikipedia’s “List of lists of lists.”
I identify, therefore, with my fellow list makers. Just last semester, Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences informed me by email that they had not included my name on their short list of candidates for an open professorship. More than feeling slighted, I swooned with enthusiasm for the fact of the list itself.
And I wondered about the other lists that Harvard might have consulted while making the decision to suspend its soccer team (for example, alumni donor lists).
Even writing this now, I prefer list making to analysis and argument. Then again, list making actually implies analysis. To make a list is to impose hierarchy, organization, order.
I have fallen captive to the spell of the list. Therefore, as I compose my list of New Year’s resolutions, I vow that this year, 2017, will be the year that I fully embrace my love of the list.
A. W. Strouse is a poet who teaches medieval literature at the City University of New York.
To many people, if not most, the phrase “creative writing” marks a genre. A man writes in a garret, his pages lit by the faint glow of a lamp. Ideas are spilling madly from his cerebral cortex to the page. He probably has a cup of coffee next to him. Or a dog. And he is writing a story -- perhaps about a road trip.
I know that is the image in most people’s brains because it is the one I’ve read or heard described hundreds of times by the news media, in popular culture, by writers themselves, in books written by writers on writing, by my students and by friends. It is also the image most strangers (or distant family members) produce when I tell them my field is writing studies, a discipline dedicated to the academic study of writing of all kinds: college writing, digital writing and workplace writing, just to name a few examples.
Upon hearing that, a man I met in a hostel over breakfast asked me to listen to his poem to see if it was publishable, even though, not being a poet, I have no credentials for evaluating his text. My distant cousin, after years of asking at Thanksgiving dinners, still can’t understand why I don’t want to edit his novel. Most of us learn to laugh off the glaze that comes over people’s faces as we academics in writing studies explain what we, in fact, do write.
The problem is that one image of writing dominates the popular imagination and is weighted with value more heavily than all others: writing as “creative writing,” which is treated as if it’s interchangeable with fiction and poetry. Over the years, I’ve come to understand a few pervasive problems that stem from the view of creativity as tied to fiction and poetry, from the public’s lack of awareness of what academics and other workplace writers do, from problematic attitudes held within the so-called field of creative writing itself about what types of writing are creative, and from the ways we as writing studies/English scholars reinforce problematic ideas about creativity. Those attitudes include:
One sphere of writing is marked off as “creative” while others are devalued.
People who write everything except poetry and fiction -- those who contribute the vast majority of writing to the world, in the form of lists, essays, emails, blog posts, texts, instruction manuals and so on -- see their work as less creative and important.
This mass of unrecognized writing and labor is virtually unrepresented in popular culture, and academics and other workplace writers are not part of the cultural narrative around creativity (save for some exceptional examples, such as the way writing is represented in the TV show The West Wing, often a powerful meditation on the importance of collaboration and revision in workplace writing, and in Her, a movie that celebrates the ghostwriting of love letters, not generally a celebrated writing genre).
I first took note of the emotional weight and impact of this phenomenon when conducting interviews for my dissertation on the impact of materials of all kinds on the writing process. I interviewed four dozen people and, in countless interviews, they expressed the heartbreaking sentiment that there once was a time when they wrote creatively (i.e., they wrote poems and stories), but now they are just academics or workplace writers. Even more troubling was that when asked if they considered themselves writers, they resoundingly answered no. Even for people who write daily for their trade, writing has become synonymous with poetry and fiction writing, which has become synonymous with “creative writing.”
I began asking more people whose livelihoods depend on the written word and who write daily if they see themselves as writers. I also began asking graduate students who came to see me at various writing centers where I worked whether they considered themselves writers. And again most said no. There was something in the identity label of “writer” that people have attached to a particular kind of writing. Deborah Brandt voiced this powerfully when she pointed out that while the identity label of “reader” is available to most people -- meaning that most readers could confidently say “I’m a reader” -- the identity label of “writer” is not.
In her book, Brandt demonstrates how cultural narratives around the importance of reading enable families to understand the value of this act and to support reading as a family value and practice. This practice, of course, has a long history -- reading was not a solitary or silent activity until relatively recently. (Scholars debate exact dates, but some point to silent reading as a late-19th-century or even 20th-century phenomenon.) Writing, in contrast, has often been associated with privacy, secrecy and solitude, as Brandt asserts.
Writing is also associated not with workplace forms but with poetry and fiction. A question that comes to mind is that if a persistent narrative around writing is that the only creative writing is fiction and poetry, and if families do not see themselves as skilled in this way, how can they encourage writing in all of its forms as a family value? Brandt notes that in her hundreds of interviews with families, people rarely remembered writing around parents. For many families, being a writer is not seen as a valuable trade -- it’s the stuff of fiction.
What persists are damaging stereotypes about writing and creativity that continue to reinforce troubling dichotomies about the nature of creativity. Consider the famous joke that “those who can’t do teach,” which parodies the work of people dedicated to fostering creative thinking in others, which requires them, also, to be constantly creating. Or consider that teachers and professors are almost always depicted in popular culture as practitioners, not talent.
For instance, in the 2015 film Me, Earl and the Dying Girl, Nick Offerman plays a bumbling sociology professor whose intellectual contribution to his field is portrayed solely via his penchant for wearing “tribal” clothing from around the world. His son characterizes him as a person who basically sits around a lot. When faculty members aren’t being ridiculed in popular culture, all sorts of other problematic stereotypes are propagated, such as the effectiveness of white teachers or teacher figures inspiring at-risk or inner-city students and/or students of color to be “creative” by writing fiction or poetry. (See, for example, Dangerous Minds, Finding Forrester, Freedom Writers, Up the Down Staircase.) Try to imagine those movies teaching writing skills that would actually potentially be valuable in today’s marketplace.
In Dead Poets Society, we even see the symbolic gesture of a teacher tearing up the syllabus, perhaps imagined to be the dullest of literary genres. But as a material representation of a 16-week experience, it is, I would argue, one of the most creative and rewarding of writing forms. Indeed, if creative writing is about world creation, as many people contend it is (although that, too, is debatable), what is closer to this than the creation of a new experience?
How did the field of creative writing, and the public’s idea about this type of writing, emerge? In The Elephants Teach, D. G. Myers traces the origins of this term, the genre and the workshop that has become the standard in English departments across America. Myers presents ample evidence that the institutionalized field of creative writing barely resembles the ideals and movement that produced it in the 1920s, when it exploded in popularity largely due to the writings of educator William Hughes Mearns. Mearns developed and popularized what’s considered to be the first creative writing workshop for junior high school students. He was tired of English courses that used literature as a means of drilling students on vocabulary or grammar or as some other means to an end.
Mearns proposed the practice of writing literary texts for self-expression, so that kids would enjoy literature, and for promoting an understanding of literature by writing it. His description of his creative workshop spread quickly and was rapidly adopted across the United States, largely because he traveled throughout the country presenting the model to teachers and schools and then published student work in various texts that were also publicly devoured.
However, according to Myers, in contrast with current conceptions of writing that treat fiction and poetry as more cultured than genres such as workplace writing, emails, lists or even theses, Mearns would not have abided by a view of creative writing as somehow more cultured or valuable. Neither would the prominent progressive educator John Dewey, Mearns’s influencer.
In fact, both Dewey and Mearns were highly critical of the notion of “culture,” which seemed to be a means of discriminating against the masses for abilities that people held due to various privileges and advantages (such as speaking “proper” English). Myers demonstrates how the rise of creative writing paralleled the rise of post-World War II college enrollments due to the GI Bill, as well as the rise of federal student aid. The growth of creative writing programs also divorced creative writing from its study of literary texts, and the field emerged as one that -- rather than training future writers -- trained future teachers of fiction and poetry. He notes that “Creative writing was devised as an explicit solution to an explicit problem. It was an effort to integrate literary knowledge with literary practice,” but that “what had begun as an alternative to the schismatizing of literary study had ended as merely another schism.” Now, English departments are divided, with the study of fiction and poetry quite divorced from other parts of the program.
An effect of popular attitudes about writing is that much public, popular and workplace writing is devalued, despite its ubiquity, importance, creativity and potency. The division impacts so-called nonfiction, too (a genre defined by a lack). As Barbara Tuchman articulates, “I see no reason why the word ‘literature’ should always be confined to writers of fiction and poetry while the rest of us are lumped together under that despicable term ‘nonfiction’ -- as if we were some sort of remainder.”
Too often, binaries are leaned on in order to praise one thing and devalue another. This is the case with the phrase “creative writing” and just about every form of writing that is set apart from it. And also too often, what’s placed on the other side of the binary is work that is “critical” in nature. Consider an article by scholar and literature professor Graeme Harper, who, in championing the creative writing workshop, repeatedly utters sentences like these: “[My students] are required to write both creatively and critically.” When the critical is opposed to the creative, it’s easy to understand why public attitudes, and even those of academics and other writers who produce critical work, are so pervasively seen as uncreative.
Over the years, the students with whom I have worked, and particularly those who see me in the writing center, have reported that after I talk with them about some of these ideas, and after they begin thinking of themselves as writers, their positive feelings about writing intensify. No one wants to feel that the daily work they do is valueless, dull, uncreative. And everyone should be able to access an identity that they are proud of related to their trade.
I am concerned that narratives about what it means to be creative and a creative writer are to blame for much of what I’ve described. I’ve seen this in the various departments in which I’ve worked, where certain faculty members spurn the fields of professional writing and writing studies and reinforce the idea that teaching poetry, fiction and even literary analysis are somehow more desirable.
I would love to see English and related departments banish the use of “creative writing” in titling disciplines, tracks and departments. Instead, bring us all together under the banner of Writing Studies, Writing or Writing Arts. In my courses, I tell my students at the beginning of the term that they will not hear me use the phrase, and I tell them why. Most of my students are not going to be fiction writers and poets; they are going to be journalists, technical writers, emailers, texters, medical record writers, memo writers, proposal writers and list writers. And I want them to understand that if they enjoy this work, it is as valuable to them as fiction and poetry.
It’s time we banish the idea that certain writing forms are creative and certain aren’t. And that academic writing is dull. Let’s challenge ourselves to stop using the pernicious phrase “creative writing.” To produce more public texts that depict the creativity involved with forms besides fiction and poetry. And to expand our fundamental ideas about what it means to be creative.
Cydney Alexis is an assistant professor of English and writing center director at Kansas State University. You can find her on Twitter at @cydneyalexis. This is the first in a series of essays on Bad Ideas About Writing -- adapted from a collection of pieces edited by Cheryl E. Ball and Drew M. Loewe. The essays are being published this spring as an open-access book by the Digital Publishing Institute at West Virginia University Libraries -- in which scholars and writing instructors identify bad ideas and suggest more productive, inclusive and useful ones.
Most gender and women’s studies programs preach to the converted and lack courses that would appeal to men -- or, for that matter, women who don’t have particular political leanings, argues Hallie Lieberman.
In the immediate aftermath of a highly charged 2016 presidential election, a number of college and university presidents issued public statements expressing their concerns over the unexpected result and vowing to protect students from a national resurgence of racism, sexism, xenophobia and misogyny that they believe to be implicit in Donald Trump’s victory.
Rather than helping to reduce tensions and assuage fears, these expressions of alarm, concern and support may have done more to create campus unrest than forestall it by reinforcing the notion that the academic community must erect barricades to protect its members -- instead of exploring what happened in the election and why.
In my dealings as a university president with donors, alumni, legislators, staff members, faculty members and students, I hear views that are every class of right, left and center. To most of those with whom I speak (and to most people in general), their views appear to them to be self-evident truth.
This normal human tendency is exacerbated by what pioneering online organizer Eli Pariser calls the “filter bubble,” in which the modern proliferation of news media allows us -- and, in fact, encourages us -- to surround ourselves only with views that match our own. That phenomenon is a problem not only intellectually and politically but also ethically.
To think within such bubbles is to put the person who is outside one’s bubble into a limiting category in which we believe we understand everything we need to know about that person. As the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas taught, this subjection of the other person to one’s own categories is precisely the definition of violence. Levinas, most of whose family was wiped out in the Holocaust, goes so far as to find in this limited categorization of “the other” an important source of the Nazis’ violence against Jews.
Presidential elections regularly practice this kind of violent categorization (think “lying Hillary” and “racist Trump”), though it was more extreme than usual in this one. Such hyperbolic characterizations of another’s position are themselves examples of the violence implicit in racism and the imposition of untruth. In that sense, violence knows no party, and neither violence nor its cure can be laid at the feet of the democratic process, since any person’s vote can be a gesture of violence or peace. I would go so far as to suggest that our either/or two-party system of national elections, in addition to our post-Enlightenment prioritization of the individual over the group, tends to promote -- or, at least, in no way combat -- the violence of categorization and exclusion of the other.
How do we get out of this violent cycle? As an alumnus said to me recently, those who are upset by the election results need to ask themselves, “Why did my views lose?” Donald Trump’s victory was not a coup but a free election in a democracy. That cannot be labeled populism gone awry, because he will very likely be chosen by the very system, the Electoral College, that was established in part to counter unbridled populism, and it is now pretty clear that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. Barring any major surprises (which virtually no one anticipates) in the various recounts now occurring, he is our president-elect, because we elected him. There is no “they” to blame here -- not even Russia.
The hacking of internal Democratic National Committee and other emails during the campaign, for which the CIA blames Russia, is a serious national security concern. However, to equate it to a foreign manipulation of the election is an illogical inference, even if that was their intent, and as much as it might fit into the bubble of a Cold War narrative. Russian operatives didn’t stuff ballot boxes, coerce voters or even spread fake news. If the CIA is correct, they simply released presumably authentic emails that DNC staff did not want released. (Of all people, given Clinton’s own email woes, those staffers should have known better than to write self-incriminating emails.)
The hacking itself may be evil, but that doesn’t translate into an evil effect on the election. If people’s votes were changed, they were freely changed on the basis of new information. Our own government’s reopening of the Clinton email case probably did as much to dissuade people from voting for Clinton as any action by a foreign power.
Apocalyptic hand-wringing, especially by those of us in the business of educating the electorate, is really not helpful. (Plenty of college-educated people voted for Trump, so it’s disingenuous to pin his victory on the poorly educated.) Even President Obama, whose personal and political legacy has more to lose than most in this election, said, as noted in David Remnick’s recent New Yorker piece, “This is not the apocalypse.”
The way forward is to find common ground, oppose violence and work toward the good -- as even Senator Bernie Sanders is doing in engaging Trump on a shared concern for the plight of the working class. Trump also has a distinctive opportunity, despite his own campaign rhetoric, to separate conservatism from bigotry by disavowing the openly racist “alt-right” groups that have stepped out of the shadows (where they were arguably more dangerous) since the election.
As institutions of higher education, we need to provide a diverse and inclusive environment that challenges students both to get out of their filter bubbles and to recognize the violence implicit in living inside a bubble. That requires us to protect them when necessary, including from the violence of others who would define them by race, gender, political beliefs or national origin.
But we also need to prepare them to live and work in a messy democracy in which, following Levinas, peace is achieved not through the voter’s assertion of the priority of individual choice, but rather by acknowledging the infinity of the other person -- someone who has an existence we should respect beyond the categories we are tempted to impose. I hope that can be an important part of our focus as citizens and educators going forward.
David P. Haney is president of Centenary University.
With each new academic year come new racial incidents on campuses, watched closely by university administrators seeking to master the rules of response in order to cling to their jobs.
The fall 2015 unrest at the University of Missouri, which led to the resignation of the system president and one campus’s chancellor, and at Yale University, where protestors chastised an instructor about her comments on Halloween costumes, probably assisted Donald Trump’s improbable rise as a champion of the politically incorrect. Many Americans find it odd that privileged students express outrage at risqué Halloween costumes, not at terrorist attacks on their nation by notably intolerant jihadists.
No doubt some of the grassroots support for Trump reflects the alienation of rural white voters who, as J. D. Vance explains in Hillbilly Elegy, feel pitied and patronized by their nation’s political elites. Ironically, a similar alienation may explain why privileged college students of color at places like Yale seize any opportunity to express outrage. They feel patronized by their universities -- and for good reason. While institutions like the U.S. Army seem effective at bringing diverse young Americans together, higher education seems to spin them apart. So how did America’s most progressive institutions get race relations so very wrong?
I write as a right-leaning white man, but one with African-American friends and collaborators met while growing up in a blue-collar neighborhood and then spending 40-odd years in academe, teaching at a range of small and large, public and private institutions. In that time, I’ve read much and seen even more, including sensitive matters that few academics of any color address with clarity for fear of attacks.
Underlying the controversies at Yale, Missouri and, in a quieter way, at most of the 10 institutions of higher learning where I have taught, are real issues of privilege and alienation. When African-Americans complain that they are not taken seriously at colleges and universities, my fellow conservatives need to acknowledge the key reason why: African-Americans are not taken seriously at colleges and universities. Meanwhile, for their part, liberals need to acknowledge that diversity policies -- at least as actually practiced at most colleges and universities rather than in theory or public proclamation -- have walled off minorities from the centers of university life, making racial hierarchies all the steeper and inherently challenging situations still more challenging.
Way back in 1972, in Black Education: Myths and Tragedies, African-American economist Thomas Sowell wrote about the challenges facing African-American professors, who must teach and publish like everyone else but who also are drafted to serve as recruiters of and gurus to black students, as preventers of open racial conflict, as the authentic “black voices” on innumerable committees (a pretty awesome responsibility when you think about it), and in pervasive public relations roles as living proof that institutions of higher learning are diverse. As Stephen L. Carter pondered in Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby, the omnipresent racial consciousness in academe makes minority professors and students continually unsure of whether white-dominated institutions value their skills or their skin color. That insecurity results from white privilege in the purest sense, making HBCUs all the more appealing.
In the University but Not of It
My first knowledge of this came some 30 years back, while studying in a high-octane Ph.D. program. I was the only openly Republican student in the program, my best friend for a time was the only African-American student, and our basically decent colleagues never quite knew how to react to either of us. I was young and insecure (now middle-aged and crotchety), but then, so were my peers. Possibly, the prospect of my tattling to conservative state legislators, or worse still, my friend accusing someone of racism (the latter a real career killer), put some on their guard. Such insecurities are immeasurably more pronounced in today’s time of conservative bloggers, libertarian think tanks, politically correct trigger warnings and Orwellian microaggressions.
Of course, unlike my friend, I was never called out of class to have my picture taken for a university brochure or asked to represent “the black point of view.” My friend could not just be a doctoral student in a top 10 program -- which is hard enough. He was supposed to be the minority student, a token, not a person, someone to be handled with care. He ended up leaving academe.
I, too, experienced the feeling of being in the university but not of it. On the verge of flunking out, I was exiled off the 12th floor of the social sciences tower to the second floor to share an office with the graduate students in Africana studies, a department that apparently had extra space or insufficient clout to protest. The Africana students were bright but bitter, lamenting our status of occupying the only office in the building that did not even have a phone -- that was how much the university trusted us! Everyone knew no one from there would make dean any time soon. We were the ghetto of the university, although for me it was only temporary.
Unfortunately, some 30 years later, remarkably few presidents of colleges and universities are African-American -- only about 6 percent, according to the American Council on Education, even counting community colleges and HBCUs. I know fine scholars and teachers who might receive serious consideration for serious leadership posts at Research 1 universities -- were they white. As African-Americans, they get stuck on the black track Sowell lamented back in 1972.
Fast-forward a few decades, and I heard a chancellor casually suggesting that to support ethnic diversity, the university needed to enlarge majors like education, sociology and African-American studies -- not engineering, linguistics or Arabic. Nor did this chancellor (or any I university leader I have known) talk seriously about how to push K-12 schools to reduce the racial achievement gaps that hinder the efforts of higher education (and society generally) to desegregate.
Rather, his meaning was clear: you can’t expect those black folks to have the brains to handle regular majors, so to make the diversity numbers we would create refuges (ghettos?) within the university. This particular chancellor was a decent human being and a member of the left in good standing, someone who probably never voted Republican. (Republican chancellors may well be rarer than African-American chancellors.) Yet his views of the capabilities of minorities were indistinguishable from those of the most noxious segments of the Trump movement. Those views were on public display, but far more common are quiet references in hiring committees to the effect that you just can’t expect minorities, or rather certain minorities, to cut it in academic settings.
So while I am not a person of color, from lived experience in the academy I got it when, in the Schuette case, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor opined that “race matters because of the slights, the snickers, the silent judgments that reinforce that most crippling of thoughts: ‘I do not belong here.’”
But here is what Justice Sotomayor and many others on the left do not get. True integration in any workplace, but particularly in hypercompetitive academe, only works when people have roughly equivalent skills. Most faculty members know this, and some make largely unsupported attempts to do something about the skills gaps across groups.
But, unfortunately, that is simply not how many administrators view the issue. They practice affirmative action by admitting African-American and occasionally Hispanic students with academic skills well below those of their white and (especially) Asian peers and then exiling those students (and sometimes faculty members) to the margins of the university -- to “special” majors, programs and even dorms. In other words, they set up expectations of white and Asian privilege, and African-American disadvantage, in ways that guarantee alienation and division, however much we deny or avoid it.
What Should be Done?
As Benjamin Ginsberg argues in The Fall of the Faculty, some of our collective failure to manage diversity (and a host of other issues) reflects the fact that administrators, not professors, now dominate our universities. Higher education administrators often view diversity issues through the prisms of politics and public relations. Even though each group leans well to the left politically, approaches to diversity can divide college administrators and faculty members. In The Still Divided Academy, Stanley Rothman, April Kelly-Woessner, and Matthew Woessner offer extensive survey data showing that while college and university administrators see no downside to affirmative action, their faculty members, who actually work with students and value academics, perceive trade-offs between diversity and student success.
This is a divide between those working directly with students and those focused on “the big picture,” for whom individual students are abstractions. For most faculty members, whatever their ideology, issues of diversity offer educational challenges: How do we serve all our students, including minorities, and use diversity to enhance rather than constrict intellectual exchange? In contrast, college and university administrators by and large care little if black students (or any students) learn. For the administrators who run colleges and universities, diversity offers political challenges: How do we keep minorities quiet and have sufficient numbers of them to look good to external funders? This means that minority activists at places like Yale, the University of Missouri and wherever the next racial incident occurs in a deep sense have it right: university leaders do not care about them save as public relations objects. That’s a recipe for alienation, and rebellion.
Perhaps universities don’t have to be this way. Some of the better work on managing diversity comes out of the military, such as Charles Moskos and John Sibley Butler’s 1996 classic All That We Can Be: Black Leadership and Racial Integration the Army Way. This nuanced sociology suggests integration works best when those of different identities have roughly equal skills, face common challenges, get to know each other as individuals rather than as group representatives and cannot retreat to separate “safe spaces.” Grown-ups could structure the academic and social challenges of college in such ways. Putting more focus on academics would be a good start, unifying students around the common demands of course work. Going a step farther might mean de-emphasizing institutions of progressive privilege, like diversity programs, and even more powerful institutions of traditional privilege, like fraternities and sororities.
Unfortunately, however, the prospects for such bold, individual student foci on the part of large, bureaucratic institutions are not good. Perhaps those running colleges and universities deserve what they are getting.
Robert Maranto is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.