Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Naomi Schaefer Riley and the Rules of Academia

cross-posted from Dagblog

So, Naomi Schaefer Riley has been fired from blogging at The Chronicle of Higher Education. Since I recently called the blog post that got her fired stupid and racist, I'm not sorry about her firing. I also pointed out that the kind of "anti-reverse-racism" racism that her post traffics in has become the refuge of losers and whiners making excuses for their failure.

Cue Riley's defenders on the right-wing (Abby W. Schachter, Rod Dreher, Katherine Lopez), who immediately put on a clinic in resentment studies. I would like to thank them for making my point for me; like so many right-wingers who pretend to be defending meritocracy from "reverse racism" or "political correctness," they shamelessly play the victim card to excuse the predictable failures of a mediocrity. In their narrative, Riley was "shouted down" after offering "polite and coherent criticism." Her only substantive flaw was allegedly "not reading the entirety of the dissertations" she trashed; in fact, Riley did not read a single word of those dissertations. And her firing is called, I kid you not, "tyranny."

Apparently, it is tyrannical to require that an opinion writer know anything whatsoever about what she is writing about. And the Chronicle of Higher Education apparently owes her a regular salary for writing blog posts without doing even basic research for them. Evidently that's somewhere in Burke.

There ain't no such thing as a free lunch, except for conservative pundits. They are the main victim of tyranny in our time.

Let me explain something about the way academia works. People like to say that academics have a left-wing bias. Maybe, maybe not; I don't have space to argue that here. But the real truth is that academics have much more powerful biases that aren't part of their politics but are just part of being an academic. These include some "unwritten rules" that aren't left "unwritten" to exclude outsiders but because they seem so intuitively obvious, so much a part of what college professors do every day, that they go completely unstated. But sometimes outsiders do need things explained.

So. Here are the two most important rules in the academic world:

1. Talk about things you know.
2. Don't talk about things you don't know.

That's it. There are a bunch of other rules that naturally arise from these two, but these are the fundamental ones. Talking about things you know and not about things you don't know is the basic ethos. If you break these rules at a college or university, you are a jerk. Period.

Riley not only broke those rules, but pointed out how badly she was breaking them, and scoffed at the silly people who would ever have a silly rule like that. If you're writing that in the Chronicle of Higher Education, it's not a firing offense. It's a resignation letter.

Scholars are not necessarily smarter than other people. But they do study more. That's what makes them scholars: the intense and sustained effort they put into knowing things. There's the basic mastery of their discipline, learning whatever it takes to become an anthropologist or a physicist. And then there's laborious research to find out something new that no one but you knows yet. Knowledge is what gives scholars their academic authority. It's the basic currency of our trade. Knowledge allows us to publish. Knowledge is our qualification to teach. (Teaching people things that they already know is pointless, and teaching them things that you don't know is impossible.) No matter how smart we might or might not be personally, we stand or fall by how much we know. And almost all of us became academics in the first place because we wanted to know things. Trust me, you don't spend as much time as I do thinking about 16th-century theater history because you're looking to make a few extra bucks. I actually want to know about it.

When Riley dumped on the idea that she would read even a page, even a paragraph, of a dissertation before publishing her condemnation of it and then condemning its entire field, she was dumping on the value of knowledge itself. Why should she read something before publishing her judgment of it? Why bother to know what she's talking about? Boasting about ignorance, being proud of not knowing, to an audience of scholars is like bragging about arson to an audience of firefighters. That Riley was being deliberately inflammatory didn't help. But what really did her in was that she was trashing her audience's most basic values. Why the surprise that they don't want to read more from her?

She was also breaking academic's biggest social taboo. University faculty can, alas, find all kinds of ways, subtle or crude, to express their personal sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, or homophobia, and always have. Expressing a nasty prejudice only requires the right choice of words and of listener. But talking about stuff you don't know is a universal academic taboo and brings embarrassment to anyone who breaks it. This behavior gets policed not by liberal or conservative orthodoxy, but by the sheer fact of being around other academics. If you talk about things you don't know at a bar, the bartender politely ignores your bullshit. If you talk about things you don't know in a university, you quickly ending up talking your weak bullshit to someone who has spent an adult lifetime amassing knowledge about the very subject you're trying to bluff them on. Two guesses how that goes.

Every academic is surrounded, every work day, by dozens of people who know vast amounts about things he or she does not personally know. The workplace has anthropologists and physicists, art historians and neurologists. But no one in the workplace is more than one of those things. I happen not to be any of them. If I try to bullshit my friends in the math department about algebraic topology, it is not going to go well. And if, by chance, someone decided to run their mouth about 16th-century theater history without anything to back them up, I would notice pretty quickly. Everybody in a university runs a constant risk of embarrassing themselves through their ignorance, and in the scholarly value system ignorance is the cardinal embarrassment. Which brings us back to the rule:
don't talk about things you don't know.

When Riley broke that rule and then, after the first round of criticism, flouted it, she was indulging the very behavior that every Chronicle of Higher Education reader instinctively cringes from, something we avoid so thoroughly that it's hard even to articulate what we're avoiding or why. She was also behaving in exactly the way that marks an academic among academics as an asshole. For us, talking about what you don't know about isn't just one sign of an asshole. It is the definition of being an asshole. A guy who's spouting off in a bar about string theory, which he doesn't remotely understand, is just a jerk. Now imagine that guy spouting off about string theory to Stephen Hawking. That's approximately how big a jerk you look like if you spout off about stuff you don't understand to other academics.

Now, I understand that everybody outside the academy doesn't see this the same way. It is very obvious that many opinion writers, at least on the conservative side of the aisle, feel quite comfortable talking about things they don't know. Some of Riley's defenders seem genuinely surprised that not reading the dissertations she was trashing was held against her. Her own defense of herself has the unreflective confidence of someone who believes the norms of her profession are on her side, and feels serenely confident that reading the things she was attacking was not required. Reading the New York Times Op-Ed page makes the cultural divide all too obvious. Paul Krugman, the academic turned pundit, tends to stick closely to economics and talk about things he knows; David Brooks blithely alludes to new research in cognitive studies or some other abstruse subject about which he knows very little and, too often, understands less. Ross Douthat recently wrote a book, Bad Religion, in which he dismisses the last several decades of research on early Christianity, basically lumping in scholars like Elaine Pagels with New Age figures like Deepak Chopra. To someone like me, formed by years in academia, that seems ludicrous. Pagels, and scholars like her, have built up an impressive body of knowledge about early Christian and Gnostic writings; their conclusions might be wrong, but I work from the premise that proving them wrong would require a great deal of very specific knowledge that Douthat doesn't have. (This isn't about academic credentials. One of the great 16th-century theater historians of my generation is an independent scholar without a degree in a relevant field, but he is enormously learned. Saying that Ross Douthat doesn't have a Ph.D. is merely snobbery. Saying that Ross Douthat can't read Biblical Greek or Aramaic is merely a fact.) Douthat has strong opinions about Pagels's scholarship. But to me, that's a statement much like "Ross Douthat has strong opinions about the nature of electromagnetism." What could it matter? But clearly, talking about things he doesn't know is perfectly comfortable for Douthat. Opinion writers typically defend themselves by saying that they're not scholars, and are only expressing their opinions. But to scholars, expressing opinions about things you don't know about seems pointless and embarrassing.

This basic difference in the way academics and pundits discuss things sometimes leads right-leaning pundits to accuse academics of lefty "political correctness" when we're simply behaving according to the normal logic of our profession. The downfall of Larry Summers as President of Harvard was widely denounced as the triumph of political correctness after Summers gave a speech that was widely (and all too plausibly) perceived as sexist. Harvard was yielding to political correctness! The President of the University was not allowed to express his opinion without being accused of bias. Summers, you see, had expressed the opinion that there might be hard-wired biological differences in male and female brains that led to a greater dispersion of mathematical talent among men then among women, with more men ending up in the ultra-high or ultra-low range. To pundits, Summers was expressing a perfectly reasonable position. To academics, Summers was spouting off about things he doesn't know. He is not a neurologist, not a cognitive scientist, not a biologist. Larry Summers is, in fact, an economist, and the research he was talking about was not his own. Researching the hypothesis that there's a different distribution of mathematical talent in the male and female populations is perfectly valid. That's not sexism, but science. Talking for some mysterious reason about some research someone else is doing outside your field, research whose quality Summers could not even evaluate for himself, is just talking out your ass, and that's how it was received. Summers began that fateful speech by saying that he could talk about the things that he, as President of the University, had been doing to recruit more women faculty in the sciences (i.e. talk about things he knew), but ... naahhh. It was more fun to talk about some research he had kind of heard about. He preferred to talk about things he didn't know. And for his fans in the conservative press, any objection to that could only be a sign of political bias.

I know that the way academics do things, sticking to topics they know something about, must seem very strange to people at the National Review Online or the Wall Street Journal editorial page. I know that our way of doing things seems bizarre and decadent to them. Naomi Schaefer Riley will happily tell you about how little intellectual integrity academics have. So let me boil down the rules for them in pithier form:

Knowledge talks. Bullshit walks.

But I understand that some have different values.

UPDATE: Destor pushes back against this post, reasonably, and I do my best to clarify.

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