Naomi Schaefer Riley and Defining Blogging Down

A journalist goes after some Northwestern grad students, their black-studies program, and the entire field… and gets fired over it, setting off a debate about the limits of what you can and can’t say about race, and where you can and can’t say it.

Last month, the Chronicle of Higher Education profiled some students in Northwestern’s new doctoral program in black studies (it’s behind the paywall). This passed my attention until it was highlighted in a post that went viral, and not in a good way, receiving 1,500-some comments and a petition to get the writer fired. That writer was a journalist and Chronicle blogger, Naomi Schaefer Riley, who took offense at the program’s existence: “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations.”

The title is already somewhat problematic, since the dissertations aren’t, you know, finished, and can’t really be read as such. But Riley saw evidence from their titles and descriptions that they shouldn’t exist in the first place: “What a collection of left-wing victimization claptrap. The best that can be said of these topics is that they’re so irrelevant no one will ever look at them.”

That’s what I would say about Ruth Hayes’ dissertation, “‘So I Could Be Easeful’: Black Women’s Authoritative Knowledge on Childbirth.” It began because she “noticed that nonwhite women’s experiences were largely absent from natural-birth literature, which led me to look into historical black midwifery.” How could we overlook the nonwhite experience in “natural birth literature,” whatever the heck that is?

I might not personally look at it, but having been assigned feminist Mormon historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Pulitzer- and Bancroft-winning The Midwife’s Tale (adapted into a PBS documentary), I wouldn’t assume offhand a lack of interest in “historical midwifery” and “natural birth literature.” Though, not having read it, I can’t guarantee there will be a movie version.

Then there is Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, author of “Race for Profit: Black Housing and the Urban Crisis of the 1970s.” Ms. Taylor believes there was apparently some kind of conspiracy in the federal government’s promotion of single family homes in black neighborhoods after the unrest of the 1960s.

While I’ll just have to assume others would take an interest in “So I Could Be Easeful,” I’m at least evidence that one person would ever look at a dissertation about race and housing in the 1970s, given that I have Making the Second Ghetto: Race & Housing in Chicago 1940-1960, Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America, and Black on the Block: The Politics of Race and Class in the City just in my little office library. Taylor’s dissertation fits right into the period those books don’t cover.

Single family homes! The audacity! But Ms. Taylor sees that her issue is still relevant today.

Given that the CHA’s Plan for Transformation is very much about the transition from high-rise housing to single-family and otherwise lower-density housing: broadly speaking, it’s still relevant. Profit and public housing? If you pay taxes, yes, still relevant.

She explains that “The subprime lending crisis, if it did nothing else, highlighted the profitability of racism in the housing market.” The subprime lending crisis was about the profitability of racism? Those millions of white people who went into foreclosure were just collateral damage, I guess.

I don’t know about “if nothing else"—the subprime lending crisis highlighted the profitability of a lot of bad things—but I can think of 335 million reasons why subprime lending and race are relevant. Take a look-see: Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor contributed a two-part series for Gapers Block, “The Housing Struggle Then and Now,” and “When Black Homeowners Fought Back.”

Anyway. Schaefer Riley snidely dismissed the dissertations out of hand without having read them. To put it bluntly, this was not well received by an academic audience, since the entire postgraduate edifice is built on research. It didn’t help when Schaefer Riley aggressively doubled down (emphasis mine):

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.

Long story short, Schaefer Riley got canned. And lots of people have leapt to her defense. Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum, standing up for Schaefer Riley, is a good representative of the consensus, and his argument is troubling:

What Riley wrote was certainly juvenile and almost certainly ignorant. You don’t judge dissertations by their titles, and you don’t judge a field by a few dissertations. And yet: it was a blog post. There should be a lot of room for ill-considered opinions in blog posts.

That I wouldn’t worry about, there’s plenty. There’s lots of room for ill-considered opinions in most media. But Schaefer Riley defined what she thinks are the limits of her job, reading the things she writes about, and the Chronicle clearly disagreed—not insensibly, given their specialization. That’s about as much room as anyone gets, academics included. But it gets worse:

[I]f Riley had written the exact same blog post about, say, Classics or Film & Media Studies, she’d still be working at the Chronicle. Classicists and film buffs would be outraged, but it would be the usual kind of outrage that blog posts and opinion columns provoke all the time.

There are excellent historical and political reasons for us to be sensitive, even oversensitive sometimes, toward broadbrush cultural criticisms with obvious racial overtones. But arguing — even badly — about the value of Black Studies shouldn’t be on the list of topics with a glass jaw.

It’s probably true that if it was about classics Schaefer Riley wouldn’t have attracted so much outrage, at least now that Allan Bloom is no longer with us. But it’s also true that Schaefer Riley has been able to write critically and pointedly about race for the CHE without drawing fire, or being derelict in her standards. The line she crossed, the one that truly made people angry, and got her bumped out of the Chronicle, was one of due diligence, not race. It’s infuriating to see it redirected towards “oversensitivity” about race rather than basic professional standards.

The best thing that can be said about it: now maybe more people will look at the dissertations.

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2 years ago
Posted by almartin

It was interesting to see how the conservative commentariat closed ranks around NSR -- eg, Checker Finn @ Fordham http://www.edexcellence.net/commentary/education-gadfly-daily/flypaper/2012/political-correctness-triumphs-again.html

The rhetoric of political correctness is interesting here - isn't this how markets are supposed to work? One man's 'mau-mau'-ing is another man's private market discipline, depending on political context, I guess.

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