May 26, 2006

Mendacity on the academic-freedom front

ACTA president Anne D. Neal finally responded to Tim Burke's criticism of the How Many Ward Churchills? report. Whew. Now we know that, according to Neal, Burke is illogical, solipsistic, unfair, and not paying attention to the incredible importance of course descriptions. According to Neal, "ACTA’s report is as friendly to institutional self-governance and academic freedom as it is possible for a watchdog organization to be."

I'm not convinced.

Let me narrow this down to the question of whether course descriptions are important indicators of much. Neal's language:

Course descriptions are designed to stand alone — if they are all a prospective student needs to know about a class, then they are also all tuition-paying parents, taxpayers, and concerned citizens need in order to form a preliminary judgment.

This objection is part of Burke’s larger criticism of the report’s reliance on course descriptions. But his claim that these documents — the main resource students use to decide whether or not to register for a class — do not tell us anything about what happens in the classes in question is illogical at best, disingenuous at worst. If true, this charge would mean either that professors routinely engage in false advertising or that the process by which students choose courses is a charade that fools no one but students themselves.... They matter because they are professors’ own public representations of what happens in their classrooms. That so many professors describe their pedagogical aims in ideologically loaded ways raises entirely legitimate questions about accountability and balance.

I don't know if Neal ever taught a college course, but if she asked any college teacher, she'd hear evidence that students do more than rely on course descriptions when picking courses and from among multiple sections of the same course. Every semester, students ask me for syllabi during registration time (even though past syllabi are available on my website). We know they also talk to each other about courses and, usually, are concerned more with the faculty's competence than with the content of the course. Course descriptions are limited, in part because universities set word limits on them. My university's course proposal form limits course descriptions to 255 characters. Period. Someday (and in some universities today, perhaps), catalogues will have links from course listings to syllabi. But that lack of operating transparency (something Tim Burke and I both would like to see) does not mean that course descriptions are "all a prospective student needs to know about a class."

Moreover, the defense of course-description analysis is mendacity in action, on several levels. Neal neatly ignored Burke's specific criticism of their use of Duke's History 75 as an example, both their cherry-picking one course from the Duke history department and also the overinterpretation of the course description itself.

But, at another level, it is mendacious to avoid the obvious point: ACTA chose course descriptions because they're publicly available and easy to get an employee to track down, not because they're great indicators, and ACTA attacked course descriptions because criticizing them is at least slightly more substantive than criticizing course titles. All academics are keenly aware of the problems with using variables that really are not indicators of what we really need to know but are used by sloppy colleagues because they're available. It's the academic equivalent of looking for a lost key under the streetlamp because the light's better. That's essentially what ACTA has done. It's a sign of sloth, because ACTA could have simply gone to a state with a public-records law (e.g., Florida) and asked for copies of syllabi. Or they could have gone to the MIT website, where there is a whole slew of information on every course in the university, to discover more meat. But they didn't.

But let's not use a scholar's standards of care with research (since Neal explicitly eschews that in her column). When I've talked to or corresponded with journalists about their choice of information, almost universally the response has been, "Well, yes, I know it's imperfect, but it was available." They're forthright about the limits of their work. I don't think you can say the same about Neal.

And, since we're talking about the amazing refusal to acknowledge reality, IHE also published a piece by Dennis Baron, arguing as John K. Wilson did last Friday that the most important fact about the Churchill affair is the political pressure on the university. Those of us who have read the committee's report and found its conclusions on Churchill's scholarship rather impressive are fully aware of the political context but cannot ignore the real problems uncovered in Churchill's scholarship. Baron's claim, "I don’t know enough about the situation to support or challenge the panel’s unanimous findings" is just absurd. We know that Baron has read the report, since he criticizes the committee's reasoning on its framing of the work. The report is written for nonspecialists; why can't Baron decide if the committee had a point?

The problem here is that both the political context and the substantive errors in Churchill's scholarship are relevant. It's just not true, as Baron claims, that "the committee’s 125-page report signals a chilling warning to academics: If you want to stay below the radar, keep your politics and your scholarship to yourself." There are very serious concerns that the committee and others have raised about the context of the investigation, but we don't do ourselves any good by oversimplifying the threats to academic freedom. Local context is important. The leadership at the University of Colorado has done a far better of insulating the investigative process from political interference than my own university did in the case of Al-Arian, doing so even while the administration was (quite legitimately) reeling from the football-team scandal. And even here at USF, the administration has several times backed away from foolish errors. I've criticized the governor's education policies, openly and in testimony in the state capitol, and I'm still here. I co-wrote an article on the Al-Arian affair, one criticizing the university administration, and I am still here. In January 2002, one week after my tenure file went to the central administration offices, I stood up in front of the faculty senate, with the press capturing every second of the meeting, and laid out the criteria by which the administration's and board's actions would be judged, clearly implying that it would be seen as a violation of academic freedom, and I still got tenure and a promotion. As far as I'm aware, no one has tried to sick some imaginary research-misconduct police on me in retaliation for anything I've said. That doesn't vitiate the concerns we have about academic freedom, but it does mean we should be vigilant, not paranoid.

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Posted in Academic freedom on May 26, 2006 10:55 AM |