OT: politics, social media, and the academy.

This is a blog about text mining, but from time to time I’m going to allow myself to wander off topic, briefly. At the moment, I think social media are adding a few interesting twists to an old question about the relationship between academic politics and politics-politics.

Protests outside the Wisconsin State Capitol, Feb 2011.

It’s perhaps never a good idea to confuse politics with communicative rationality. Recently, in the United States, it isn’t even clear that all parties share a minimal respect for democratic norms. One side is willing to obstruct the right to vote, to lie about scientifically ascertainable fact, and to convert US attorneys (when they’re in power) into partisan enforcers. In circumstances like this, observers of good faith don’t need to spend a lot of time “debating” politics, because the other side isn’t debating. The only thing worth debating is how to fight back. And in a fight, dispassionate self-criticism becomes less important than solidarity.

Personally, I don’t mind a good fight with clearly-drawn moral lines. But this same clarity can be a bad thing for the academy. Dispassionate debate is what our institution is designed to achieve. If contemporary political life teaches us that “debate” is usually a sham, staged to produce an illusion of equivalence between A) fact and B) bullshit — then we may start to lose faith in our own guiding principles.

This opens up a whole range of questions. But maybe the most interesting question for likely readers of this blog will involve the role of social media. I think the web has proven itself a good tool for grassroots push-back against corporate power; we’re all familiar with successful campaigns against SOPA and Susan G. Komen. But social media also work by harnessing the power of groupthink. “Click like.” “Share.” “Retweet.” This doesn’t bother me where politics itself is concerned; political life always entails a decision to “hang together or hang separately.”

But I’m uneasy about extending the same strategy to academic politics, because our main job, in the academy, is debate rather than solidarity. I hesitate to use Naomi Schaefer Riley’s recent blog post to the Chronicle as an example, because it’s not in any sense a model of the virtues of debate. It was a hastily-tossed-off, sneering attack on junior scholars that failed to engage in any depth with the texts it attacked. Still, I’m uncomfortable when I see academics harnessing the power of social media to discourage The Chronicle from publishing Riley.

There was, after all, an idea buried underneath Riley’s sneers. It could have been phrased as a question about the role of politics in the humanities. Political content has become more central to humanistic research, at the same time as actual political debate has become less likely (for reasons sketched above). The result is that a lot of dissertations do seem to be proceeding toward a predetermined conclusion. This isn’t by any means a problem only in Black Studies, and Riley’s reasons for picking on Black Studies probably won’t bear close examination.

Still, I’m not persuaded that we would improve the academy by closing publications like the Chronicle to Riley’s kind of critique. Attacks on academic institutions can raise valid questions, even when they are poorly argued, sneering, and unfair. (E.g., I wouldn’t be writing this blog post if it weren’t for the outcry over Riley.) So in the end I agree with Liz McMillen’s refusal to take down the post.

But this particular incident is not of great significance. I want to raise a more general question about the role that technologies of solidarity should play in academic politics. We’ve become understandably cynical about the ideal of “open debate” in politics and journalism. How cynical are we willing to become about its place in academia? It’s a question that may become especially salient if we move toward more public forms of review. Would we be comfortable, for instance, with a petition directed at a particular scholarly journal, urging them not to publish article(s) by a particular author?

[11 p.m. May 6th: This post was revised after initial publication, mainly for brevity. I also made the final paragraph a little more pointed.]

[Update May 7: The Chronicle has asked Schaefer Riley to leave the blog. It’s a justifiable decision, since she wrote a very poorly argued post. But it also does convince me that social media are acquiring a new power to shape the limits of academic debate. That’s a development worth watching.]

[Update May 8th: Kevin Drum at Mother Jones weighs in on the issue.]

By tedunderwood

Ted Underwood is Professor of Information Sciences and English at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. On Twitter he is @Ted_Underwood.

19 replies on “OT: politics, social media, and the academy.”

My own sense is that most of the criticism levelled at Schaefer Riley was founded on her poor handling of her “analysis” — or indeed, the lack thereof. Whatever may have motivated the critiques, I think that this was the right approach to take to her ill-informed and poorly-reasoned rant: merely having an opinion does not constitute justification for publication in a “scholarly” venue like the CoHE. I think that it is entirely legitimate — even valuable — to debate publicly the merits of, well, just about anything, including the existence and rationale of Black Studies, but Schaefer Riley’s piece wasn’t an analysis, it was a hatchet-job.

I’ll certainly agree that there is a curious social dynamic at work in social media and online fora. I’ve never looked into it with any real energy, but I’m sure much has been written on the subject by anthropologists and sociologists. Your comments reminded me of William Pannapacker’s piece “Digital Humanities Triumphant?,” which itself originally appeared in the Chronicle before being reprinted in *Debates in DH*. (I’ve been consulting it for something else I’ve been writing.) He notes — or at least claims to have detected — a kind of “group think” among DHers on Twitter, suggesting (in 2011) that “the digital humanities seem more exclusive, more cliquish, than they did even one year ago.”

Thinking about this, it occurred to me (a relatively new arrival to the Twittersphere) that the dynamic I’ve seen at play on Twitter and in some blogs is a familiar one, and reminds me in some ways very much of what one sees in forum communities. The effect is muted a great deal, because DH Tweeters are professionals and not anonymous, and because the ethos of DH is in general a very welcoming and inclusive one — but still, I see something like the same cast of characters at play, and the same kind of social dynamic. There are the “enfants terribles,” the “sage old-timers,” the “much-loved and upbeat fanbois,” etc., etc. As I say, the effect is much diminished, but still discernible — at least to someone looking in from the outside. And in the case of social dynamics and inclusion, perception, perhaps, really *is* reality.

Even if I am right, I’m not sure that there is much to be done about this: people will be people. I myself don’t find the online DH community so very exclusive, and have been personally really delighted by the response I’ve received to questions I’ve posed on Twitter.

But it is something, perhaps, that we should be thinking about. Is there a way to better communicate online the kind of openness and inclusiveness that we see at THATCamps?

Where group dynamics as such are concerned, I would agree with “not much to be done about this.” We’re primates, after all. You can teach us to stop grooming each other in public, but teaching us not to form cliques and hierarchies would be (I think) pretty hard. But a little self-conscious wariness goes a long way.

Re: the idea that CoHE is a “scholarly venue” … one reason the NSR case is so ambiguous is that it’s hard to say what kind of venue the CoHE is. I tend to think it’s journalism rather than scholarship — but that can cut both ways. If I were making a case against my own pro-Chronicle position, I would ask “Why should NSR benefit from academic commitment to open debate, when she is merely writing journalism, and doing so in a hacky way that has nothing to do with sincere debate? In the journalistic world petitions and subscriber pressure are totally appropriate.”

That’s fair enough. I’m really, deeply not interested in defending NSR, and only mildly interested in defending The Chronicle. I’m more interested in the broader problem of what happens when these new technologies of solidarity start seeping into academic discourse.

“Attacks on academic institutions can raise valid questions, even when they are poorly argued, sneering, and unfair.”

I think the evidence, which is right in front of us, does not support this. Naomi did not herself raise any valid questions outright and if there are any buried in her screed then they were buried much, much deeper when the rest of us showed up with pitchforks professing our anger at her and the CHE. Reactions like those always follow a screed like this which is proof positive that this type of argument has the net effect of rendering any “valid questions” more invisible in the end.

Regarding CHE’s role as scholarship vs. journalism I can’t remember who else pointed this out (someone on twitter I think), but it goes to the last comment above. CHE is trying to have it both ways. If this is journalism then the freedom of speech of their bloggers only extends as far as CHE is willing to support them. These bloggers have a right to say whatever they want, but they do not have a right to say it in the CHE. But the CHE has evaded taking any responsibility for NSR’s post by pretending that it’s her right to have whatever opinion she wants. Not so. Their customers are now up in arms and they will have to either deal with that fallout or get rid of NSR. If they own their role as a private media company then that’s simply a reality of life.

I agree that “freedom of speech” is irrelevant here. It’s not a legal question for me; it’s a question about academic mores.

I’m willing to agree-to-disagree about the particular example of NSR. It seems to me that thoughtful people of good will can disagree about it. But I would observe that, as a general rule, it’s risky to use outraged reactions as “proof positive” that a given statement had no constructive content. Debates about openness only occur in cases where there has already been an outraged reaction — so if we used that barometer, we would always conclude that the statement in question was without constructive value.

It’s risky to make all kinds of claims, but it’s much less risky to make those claims when the empirical evidence available supports them. In this case any valid questions are being buried under the reactions. That’s what I can observe happening. I also think you’re rather unfairly insinuating that the “outraged reactions” in this case are so emotional (and so heavily weighted towards the emotional side of things) that when the storm subsides rational dialogue can resume. There have been a number of commentators specifically pointing out that there is nowhere to even begin to have a rational discussion of anything from what NSR left us with. There have been no commentators trying to salvage any valid questions from the wreckage either. At best you have people repeating the meme that reactions have been overblown without supporting it. Maybe this is a particularly extreme example? I’ll grant that it is extreme but that doesn’t mean it isn’t also indicative of something more general — like the fact that poorly argued, sneering and unfair criticism is much more likely to suffer the consequences of losing any ability to communicate a reasonable point because of how it makes people react. Even when the pitchforks come down how likely are people to think that “valid questions” buried in a poorly argued attack are what ought to be discussed regarding such an episode? I’d say it’s unlikely. After the entire event is over more pressing questions have now been brought forth and those will remain much more salient.

Let me reiterate that I think people of good will can disagree here. And I really didn’t mean “outraged” to be dismissive. There’s such a thing as valid outrage! Over the last twelve years, I have very frequently felt outraged myself — e.g. by Arizona’s outrageous attempt to outlaw ethnic studies in the schools.

But I do have to take exception to one point above: where you say that no commentators have attempted to extract anything rational from NSR’s post. The blog post above is attempting (perhaps unwisely) to do exactly that, when I comment on the general problem of dissertations that proceed from (and to) predetermined political conclusions. So I do want to suggest that the count here should change (at least) from 0 to 1. In fact, you’re making me glad that I wrote this post. I felt I had to do it, not because I expected to convince many people, but just because I felt I had to testify that there is not in fact, a consensus here.

“There was, after all, an idea buried underneath Riley’s sneers. It could have been phrased as a question about the role of politics in the humanities. Political content has become more central to humanistic research, at the same time as actual political debate has become less likely (for reasons sketched above).”

You did say this. You’re right someone has tried to say there are valid questions in there. Apologies. However, I do not, and I think countless others also do not agree that this question, however valid, was actually buried in her screed. Might it not be more appropriate to say that reading her screed has elicited this question in your mind because it is related to the topic she bumbled? Before you answer please consider the circumstances here. NSR did not read the dissertations and you cannot deduce anything about the (a)political nature of those dissertations from their titles. Asking questions like these is productive but asking them without any valid evidence that they are pertinent questions related to actual observable problems is completely unhelpful. I’ll note that while you’re claiming that this is a valid question you’re also not providing any such evidence. My point, from the start, was that this type of discourse is a net negative and I’m not seeing any evidence to the contrary yet. If it is a net negative why should it be part of the CHE? If it is not show that it is not. Cheers.

Well, we’re on literary-critical terrain now, I think. When is an idea implicit “in” a text, and when is it merely something that a text happened to elicit in a reader’s mind? That question turns out to be really hard, but in political debate the answer may not always matter, since we’re interested in effects.

However, I’m not capable of judging whether editorial openness will produce net negative or net positive effects in this instance. The tone of that post was pretty hurtful, so it’s possible that the answer is “negative.” But I believe the principle of openness (even to potentially hurtful statements) tends to produce a net positive in the long run. Again, thoughtful people could disagree. I’m not interested in the NSR case as much as I am in the broader question. How far are we willing to take the “online petition” approach in academic debate?

It’s a fair question but it depends on context. In this context I don’t see the online petition as “an approach in academic debate.” What academic debate? Would it be a valid approach in actual academic debate? I’m not sure. I’m a social scientist so I like to see real examples in action before I answer a question like that. Are there any? What does it look like when a petition against a position within a legitimate academic debate is circulated?

I’m a humanist, so I’m willing to trade in hypotheticals. Suppose I write a thousand-word piece for Inside Higher Ed arguing that business schools should be abolished because they perform no intellectual work, just empty credentialing. I name particular student projects, and throw around phrases like “vacuous parroting of neoliberal cliché” in a fairly nasty way. Business school faculty organize an online petition arguing that my piece is a groundless attack on students at a vulnerable stage of their career, and should be taken down. Did I start a “legitimate academic debate”? Is the petition a legitimate strategy within that debate? Does it matter that I have a Ph.D? Does it matter that I have no real business experience? Does it matter whether I studied the student projects in detail, or just read summaries?

I don’t want to commit a slippery-slope fallacy here. This example doesn’t necessarily prove anything about the NSR example; the fact that boundaries are blurry doesn’t mean that they can’t be drawn. But I do think the boundaries of “legitimate academic debate” can turn out to be pretty blurry.

No you did not start a legitimate academic debate in that hypothetical example and yes it matters immensely if you engaged in the type of research expected of the discussants in a legitimate academic debate. There may be a fuzzy line but it’s not so big that we can’t readily place a lot of things on either side of it. Had you written this piece I would also sign the petition to have you removed, and not on the basis of your personal politics but because of your lack of professionalism. If there is a valid argument against business school you’re not advancing it so why should you have a spot behind the podium, and why shouldn’t the people who contribute materially to the existence of the podium have a say about your placement there?

On the other hand your comparison is not particularly balanced. Ethnic studies face a very real threat to their existence in our society while business schools do not. Ethnic studies also often focus on the experiences of the marginalized and underprivileged while business school sits at the opposite end of the power spectrum. Those two facts are also rather obviously related. Context matters here, and not only to the qualitative differences in our experiences of these types of events but also in the likelihood that they ever happen in the first place. Your hypothetical is not likely to happen and that makes it exceedingly uninteresting if we are trying to discuss real problems.

You’re right that the hypothetical is pretty hypothetical. I don’t think it’s unlikely that pieces like this will be written — actually, I know that some studies recently have been published that cast business schools in an unflattering light. But I don’t think it’s likely that those studies will have much effect, or that business faculty will care!

It does seem to me, though, that the criterion you’re advancing would make it pretty hard for anyone outside field X to criticize field X. E.g., in this case, it seems that I would have to engage in some sort of business-based research in order to justify my presence behind that podium. I can’t just do what humanists normally do and invoke words like “neoliberal.” That’s going to make it pretty hard for me to criticize business schools at all; to do so, I’d have to adopt a mode of research that I don’t really believe is valid.

Admittedly, it might be easier if I were a social scientist …

… “some studies” is not equivalent to “unfounded hit piece.” That business school professors are not likely to react to some actual studies by circulating a petition is an apple to the orange that started this debate.

What? Doing research on the functioning of business programs is not “business research.” If you are in the humanities and you’re not willing to undertake the type of education research needed to understand what goes on in a business school then of course you should stay clear of commenting on what business schools are doing in a widely read higher education periodical. You’re an English professor. Would you actually write the hypothetical piece you proposed? Do you have colleagues who would? What’s the realistic basis for this – “I can’t just do what humanists normally do and invoke words like ‘neoliberal.'” The fact that many humanities professors may hold those opinion about business school does not mean that those professors would voice them without evidence in a higher ed periodical or that such a periodical should publish them if they wanted to. I’m not sure what your personal politics are, but now you seem to throwing around straw men and caricatures of the humanities and I’m not sure to what end. Does this mark the inevitable deterioration of our discussion?

Oh, I hope not. I really am an English professor, and I don’t mean to be caricaturing myself! But quite often, humanists don’t go and get a lot of empirical evidence before holding forth on a topic like this. It’s not uncommon for humanists to feel that they can judge the intellectual value of a project just by close reading a few texts. Now, in a case like this, I personally agree that empirical evidence would be better. But that really is a bit of a departure from the humanistic norm. (I’ll note that NSR didn’t get criticized for lack of empirical evidence — but because she didn’t read the dissertations themselves. Which really is pretty lame!) But I can easily imagine a situation where a humanities prof would read some business writing and make fun of it in print. We probably wouldn’t take aim at student projects, though, because most of us aren’t that mean.

She absolutely did get criticized for a lack of empirical evidence. What do you think not reading the dissertations amounts to? Not observing the data. Empirical evidence is simply data gathered from actual observation of something. Her failure to gather such data sits at the heart of her problem. Also, you use different types of data in the humanities, but you have to observe and record it all the same. A humanities professor might make fun of business writing, and might even do so in a publication. But would that publication be a higher ed periodical? Unlikely, and that’s another vital part of all of this. Had Schaefer Riley said this on Fox news it would never have made any airwaves. People were angry because of where this was published. It had no place in the CHE, where one expects evidenced based arguments and not prejudiced screeds.

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