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Black Studies, Part 2: A Response to Critics

I was never a big fan of the feminist mantra that the “personal is political.” But the  corollary–that any political remark must be taken personally–seems in many ways even worse. My last blog post has earned me even more opprobrium than usual among the Brainstorm commenters, and it seems that they have decided to take as a personal attack something that is clearly not. The comments regarding my post seem to boil down to the following:

I am picking on people because they are black (and I am a racist).
I am picking on people even though I don’t have a Ph.D.
I am picking on people who are too young and inexperienced to defend themselves.
I am picking on people even though I haven’t read their entire dissertations.

Let me take the first two criticisms first. My qualifications to post on this blog consist of the fact that I have been a journalist writing about higher education for close to 15 years now. My work has been published in every major newspaper in the country and I have written two books on the subject as well. The editors at those papers and those publishers and at The Chronicle have all been aware that I hold no advanced degree. Black studies is now an academic discipline at most universities, which means I get to comment on that too. If the dissertations in question were written by white people, I’d call them irrelevant and partisan as well. Moreover, I have called other disciplines (having nothing to do with race) irrelevant and partisan.

I find the idea that there is something particularly heinous in criticizing graduate students or dissertations to be laughable at best. Just because they are still called students doesn’t mean they’re not grown-ups. When someone in their 30s (me) criticizes the dissertation topic of someone in their 20s, that’s “bullying“? Boy, life as a graduate student in a trendy discipline at a prestigious university sure is tough. Unless The Chronicle features you in a piece, being a graduate student is just like being “invisible” (Ralph Ellison, please call your office).  A word to the wise: If you’re trying to convince the wider world that black people in America are oppressed, I’d skip using the experience of black graduate students as an example.

Finally, since this is a blog about academia and not journalism, I’ll forgive the commenters for not understanding that it is not my job to read entire dissertations before I write a 500-word piece about them. I read some academic publications (as they relate to other research I do), but there are not enough hours in the day or money in the world to get me to read a dissertation on historical black midwifery. In fact, I’d venture to say that fewer than 20 people in the whole world will read it. And the same holds true for the others that are mentioned in the piece.

Such is the state of academic research these days. The disciplines multiply. The publication topics become more and more irrelevant and partisan. No one reads them. And the people whom we expect to offer undergraduates a broad liberal-arts education (in return for billions of dollars from parents and taxpayers) never get trained to do so. Instead the ivory tower pushes them further and further into obscurity.

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