I’m not invested in securing tenure at a university, yet I do feel that my time working on my Master’s in Rhetoric was worthwhile. While my job as a mid-level manager at a community college doesn’t require that level of education, expending the effort to work full time and study was a way to stay engaged and keep my brain active.
I developed a sort of discipline that sitting in front of a computer most days rewards. I read a lot; I watch documentary films and various YouTube clips a lot. And as I sort of meandered my way through understanding the larger world as presented to me via the web, I, as predicted or delivered by the algorithm on YouTube, became exposed to a broader variety of opinions (Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris, The Ruben Report, Bret Weinstein) than my online circle of poet and progressive friends held or posted about on other social media platforms. It lead me to the NYTimes piece on the Intellectual Dark Web.
From there it was a quick jump into reading articles posted on new-to-me web publications like Quillette and Medium. In fact, I stopped regularly engaging with Salon and the Daily Beast on a daily basis in search of writing that seemed to have more heft to support my increasingly nuanced world view. Yet, my progressive viewpoint is not something I was willing to disavow so, simultaneously, I was consuming the NY Times, and watching “liberal” YouTube (Peter Coffin, Contrapoints, Philosophy Tube, etc.). It all lead to a greater appreciation of the diversity of opinion and viewpoints that has flooded our media landscape.
I can’t help but wonder that if I, a diligent reader schooled in the language of Rhetoric, was having difficulty sorting through it all, how much harder must it be for others who, frankly, don’t have my kind of time? And, as the lack of discussion that seems to have followed in the wake of Trump’s election suggests, people can find other people who support their viewpoint with the click of the mouse so there’s not much incentive to talk to people you disagree with. Why bother and take on the stress? I even went so far and tried to engage a friend from high school on what troubled me about Trump’s most recent tweets, which I wrote about on my account at Medium. Despite not receiving widespread traction, my conclusion that we need to find a way to talk to each other because the other options for resolving our differences lead to places I don’t really want to go. So I’m still looking for ways to talk to people who disagree with me.
The Perils of Publish or Perish:
And it was with a curious eye that I started watching videos and reading articles regarding what is being dubbed, “The Grievance Studies Scandal.” In it, Peter Boghossian, James Lindsay, and Helen Pluckrose embarked on a crash course in various disciplines that have “infiltrated” Academia since the ’90s. Under the pejorative banner of “Grievance Studies” they are: LGTBQ Studies, Race Studies, Women’s Studies, Fat Studies, etc. Boghossian et al set out to see if they could hoax “grievance studies” journals into publishing fake articles. Over a period of a couple of years they managed to get seven papers through peer review including a 3,000 word excerpt from Mein Kampf rewritten using language from Intersectionality theory. While a lot of the articles I was reading recognize that this is not a new undertaking referencing Alan Sokal’s similar tactic in 1996, he was arguing against the spread of post-modernist language and some staggering claims obscured by that language. While his project wasn’t overtly political, Boghossian’s et al project decidedly was. As James Lindsay argues, “Grievance Studies does not continue the work of the civil rights movements it corrupts it.” So while Sokal was making fun of the language and the obfuscation it created, Boghossian et al had staked a political position and went out to prove that it was true.
Under the guise of doing work to help academia, Lindsay alleges:
“No one tolerates this sort of corruption when they find out an industry is funding biased research to make itself look a certain way. The same scrutiny should apply to research when it pushes a political agenda and we have uncovered enough evidence to suggest that this corruption is pervasive among many disciplines…”
Pushing back against these disciplines is nothing new. Ever since their creation there have been claims that these studies are driven more by ideology than scholarship. Their critique is not a new critique.
Finally as I was trying to wrap my brain around the implications and concerns, a university, specifically the Ethics Review Board at Portland State University (PSU), weighed in. Boghossian is an assistant professor at PSU. Lindsay and Pluckrose do not work in academia. Boghossian was cited for an ethics violation. This, in turn, is creating a quite a bit of chatter as well. One article on Quillette argued, “The answer is that this field [research-ethics oversight] has drastically changed since its original conception seven decades ago. It once was about preventing harm. Now, it’s about protecting ideas.” Essentially, people were arguing that sanctioning him for an ethics violation was an ideological move as well, demonstrating the “rot” at the core of academia today.
Yes, the ethics review board did find that the methods were unethical, yet the vast majority of commenters seem to come down on the side of Boghossian et al for doing us all a favor by exposing “grievance studies” as the fraud it clearly is so his methodology didn’t really matter. This was not a study; it was a sting. This was not a research project; it was a journalism project. They even recognize that there was no way they would’ve gotten approval.
I was a bit perplexed. Didn’t the readers of Quillette value the great work that many universities using these very same protections had done through the years? These protections were put in place to protect people from dishonest actors, and Boghossian et al were being deliberately dishonest. In my estimation, he should’ve indeed been punished though it certainly doesn’t rise to the level of dismissal. Likewise, if he wanted to write a more telling critique of “grievance studies” and its supposed political bias, why not actually write something that is legitimate but doesn’t adhere to the ideology? Even if they never managed to publish anything wouldn’t that make essentially the same statement?
Finally, this latest “sting” also doesn’t take into account that this (nor Sokal’s earlier work) are not the only examples of this at work. In the STEM fields as well there have been numerous examples of academic journals publishing hoaxed papers let alone examples of shoddy research practices. It’s a non-story. What makes it a story is that it highlights the ideological Right’s problems with “grievance studies” and academia. Boghossian et al (Lindsay proclaims to be a traditional liberal) walked right into their trap and proceeded to generate a subsequent furor around it. Yet, as I see it, the problem isn’t with “grievance studies,” it’s with Academia. The whole concept of “publish or perish” is flawed and leads to the conditions that make this scandal possible.
Publish or Perish:
In my spare time, I’m also a poet. And as a poet, I’ve published, organized, and performed around the Albuquerque for years. With my name out there, I was asked to serve on the board of West End Press (WEP). WEP is a press that specializes in publishing women, minorities, and other under-published populations. Despite my own desires to get my work published by an established press, being a board member eliminated WEP as a publishing home let alone the fact that I wasn’t the demographic that they are interested in. While on the board, one of the poets on the press suggested that WEP run a “First Book Contest.” As argument for it, she said something to the effect of, “Many of these newly minted MFA’s have to publish a book for the job market. It doesn’t matter where they publish as long as they can put on their Curriculum Vitae that they won such-and-such a contest and got a book published as a result. Many of them have a budget just to enter contests. So we’d be doing them a favor by running a contest and the other entrants would fund the publication of the book.” It’s publish or perish, and as long as no one looks too deeply into the details it’ll be a line on the CV and help them worm their way into tenured positions at Universities. I was a bit flabbergasted, doubly so when the contest winner was not someone who matched the demographic that WEP served, but held my nose and argued that we shouldn’t do it again.
As I came to understand it, the system is a bit sleight of hand in all of academia. Newly minted PhD students need publications and conference presentations to make them stand out. Publishers and conference organizers know that many of them will go to extreme ends to get that credit and create a market for just that. In the area of social sciences there are “open access journals” and “pay to publish” journals. Some of them are tagged as fraudulent and prey on unsuspecting scholars, and some actually publish rigorous work. How many of them are actually read? How many of these journals are actually funded by the people who publish in them?
When faced with a society where increasingly more and more people are turning to colleges and universities for ways to use their advanced degree and more and more colleges and universities are admitting students into advanced programs to make up for the lack of funding that helps keep the college afloat is it any wonder that there are journals that publish “questionable” scholarship and conferences that invite panelists presenting papers just to pad their CVs?
So the bigger story that most of the commentary on this scandal miss is that we are increasingly demanding people go to college because it will net them better employment (and statistics does support this), but it also means that the competition for college level teaching positions and tenure track positions are more intense than ever before. And in the days of interview coaching, job market prep, and trying to find and weigh the differences between all the candidates or who should get tenure or who should be up for full professorship, there may not be a lot of ways that really differentiate candidates.
Likewise, quite often, the people who are charged with making these decisions are the same ones who may have to do more research or publish another manuscript, so that they can advance as well. Is it any wonder that there is a cottage industry around academia that exists partly to make the participants (writers, peer reviewers, conference presenters, etc.) look good and qualified?
Likewise there is a lot of competition for full professorships as well and for that they may have to start their own journal or host their own symposia, which means padding their accomplishments as well. Never mind if there is no real demand for what’s being discussed, they’ve got CVs to fill and programs to builds.
This is not to say that there aren’t good, ethical, conscientious people working in academia, because there are. And this is not to say that this is commonplace either, because I suspect it’s not. Fundamentally, we are relying on systems that can be easily gamed and relying on metrics that are hard to measure. And if we single out a group of disciplines without looking at the structure they operate under we are missing the bigger discussion.
August 8th, 2019.