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In Lieu of Weekend Reading: SMH Edition

Sign from Occupy Ann Arbor

Ordinarily, ProfHacker doesn’t spend a lot of time chasing down nonsense on blogs, even on other blogs published at the Chronicle. As xkcd documented so long ago, that way madness lies. And especially at this time of year, who has time for it, anyway?

But sometimes, there are errors in judgment that are so massive, that so dramatically misunderstand and reinforce a self-created problem, that they have to be identified and repudiated. One of those problems happened this week at Brainstorm.

We are not primarily talking about the posts about Black Studies dissertations by Naomi Schaefer Riley, which we’re not going to bother to link to, and thus feed the traffic trolls. (If you’re somehow unfamiliar with the issue, check out TressieMc’s awesome post, “The Inferiority of Blackness as a Subject” or Natalia Cecire’s post, “Anti-Intellectualism, Déjà Vu.”) The Brainstorm posts are so parodically bad that they almost defy refutation. (If you are persuaded by a post titled in part, “just read the dissertations,” but which proudly flaunts the fact that the author only read the titles, sometimes of work-in-progress, then you might well be beyond the reach of reason.)

The problem is with Liz McMillen’s “Editor’s Note,” which responds to widespread calls to take down the posts with a bizarre invitation:

I urge readers instead to view this posting as an opportunity—to debate Riley’s views, challenge her, set things straight as you see fit.

Look. We are a free-speech-loving group. (Heck, Jason is the president of an AAUP union chapter, and part of the elected national leadership of that organization.) We understand, and don’t need to be lectured, about the value of combatting ideas in the open.

But the posts in question are not “views,” or “ideas,” they are mean-spirited attacks on young people without jobs, tenure, or any other protection–attacks that will be part of their online history for every future job search. Riley doesn’t take on their advisors; she assaults the students, from the Chronicle.com domain, with undisguised contempt and bizarrely boastful ignorance of their work. Again–she literally boasts about judging the work from the titles.

McMillen notes that the bloggers at Brainstorm are “not staff members of the Chronicle nor do they represent the views of the staff or of the newspaper.” And that’s true! (That’s also true at ProfHacker!) But the fact that that’s technically true, doesn’t mean that readers, even academic readers, get it. We get multiple pitches a day from people who believe that if we run a post on ProfHacker, they have been “published by the Chronicle.” We’ve each been introduced at panels and other presentations as “the author of the ProfHacker column in the Chronicle,” which is . . . not right.

There’s a further problem with defending “Brainstorm” as “a blog for opinion, sometimes strong opinions, not news reporting by the staff.” This manages to be both condescending to bloggers, many of whom work pretty hard to make sure their posts are grounded in reality and analysis, and to all of those academics who see the Chronicle as representing their world. After all, an academic reader would expect those strong opinions to be grounded in something other than, “because I said so.”

In giving a voice, and amplification through the Chronicle’s distribution network, to someone with Riley’s approach to argument, you are not simply airing multiple sides of a genuine debate. You are giving authority and voice to the worst aspects of our journalistic culture. Treating that decision lightly is one of the reasons we rarely read Brainstorm.

In inviting readers to debate with her about the self-evident nonsense she posted, Brainstorm asks readers to engage seriously with someone who 1) doesn’t value intellectual culture, 2) has opened the “conversation” by demonstrating her contempt for those on the other side, and 3) who enjoys the superficial thrills of tabloid-style approaches to complex topics.

In our view, inviting readers to engage in a debate with Riley ends up–no doubt, inadvertently–further lending credibility and authority to her posts, because it implies that the post is somehow equivalent, in any sense whatsoever, to the work of the people she viciously and thoughtlessly and deplorably attacks.

One of the problems the Chronicle sometimes faces is that its editorial decisions–including the editorial decisions about who to allow on a blog–seem to be driven by perspectives that are wholly alien to faculty, staff, and students in higher ed. Rather, they often seem to be driven by foundations, journalists, presidents, and others–many of whom are radically disconnected from the daily work of higher education. (This is one aspect that Natalia’s post captures well.) The analogy that is sometimes made is that the Chronicle is like the Wall Street Journal of higher education. But if you follow through that analogy to its conclusion, you’re left with something pretty uncomfortable: an excellent reporting/hard news section, with an Op/Ed section that is rabidly partisan and often at odds with the facts as presented by the reporters! Consider the very different portrait of Black Studies in Stacey Patton’s article, a work of critical journalism now intertwined with the “opinionated” blog post in the minds of some readers.

The motivation, compensation, and rhetorical conventions of print journalism and online blogging are very different. As the Chronicle and other news publications have begun to publish blogs as part of their online edition, such tensions become very apparent. Here at ProfHacker our commitment is to uphold the norms and expectations of civility and credibility nurtured in the academic blogosphere from which our site originated. Blogging is something other than “here are some thoughts that aren’t long enough to go somewhere else and are too long for Twitter.”) The ProfHacker writers, together with some others, are drafting a post toward articulating some of those norms and expectations. If you’re interested in participating, please get in touch.

–Jason B. Jones and George H. Williams, editors of ProfHacker (with the help of many writers)

Photo cropped from “If something is wrong” by Flickr user Sasha Y. Kimel / Creative Commons licensed BY-2.0

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