On April 30, Naomi Schaefer Riley, a blogger for The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Brainstorm digital platform, wrote the disrespectful and snarky/offensive post “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations.”
It was disrespectful, snarky and offensive because Riley used the post to go after Northwestern University graduate students who had literally just finished their doctoral theses. Not to mention the fact that Riley hadn’t actually read the dissertations she discussed in her post. For example, Riley called Ruth Hayes and her dissertation “‘So I Could Be Easeful’: Black Women’s Authoritative Knowledge on Childbirth” on the carpet. All because Hayes wrote that she “noticed that nonwhite women’s experiences were largely absent from natural-birth literature, which led me to look into historical black midwifery” in her abstract. “How could we overlook the nonwhite experience in ‘natural birth literature,’ whatever the heck that is?,” was Riley’s disrespectful and idiotic response. Riley based her response on a title and one sentence from a dissertation.
Riley wrote about two other dissertations, one about the origins of the subprime lending crisis for Blacks — going back to policies enacted by the federal government in the 1960s — the other about the history of Black Republicanism. She not only concluded based solely on the titles and a couple of statements that this was “a collection of left-wing victimization claptrap.” Riley also decided the fate of Black Studies as a discipline, saying that these three doctoral thesis made the “case for eliminating the discipline,” at least in her snarky and offended mind.
If this was Riley’s one and only post, I’d simply accuse her of being an ill-informed ex-Wall Street Journal journalist who obviously has a limited understanding of the history of research in the humanities and social sciences fields of academia. One of marginalization and exclusion of the experiences of all Americans who aren’t White, male, rich and powerful. One in which remains the automatic assumption in many circles that any research done by Blacks on race, women on sexism, and gays and lesbians on homophobia is less valuable or unscholarly. I’ve known more than my share of colleagues who have experienced disdain, even occasional ostracism, because of their work, in the so-called liberal environment that is academia.
Riley, however, has posted multiple times about Blacks in academia blaming all of their ills on the “white man,” as she would put it. She’s complained about the validity of women’s studies and about the usefulness of so-called liberal research in her posts as well. It proves that Riley has as much understanding about research and academia as I do about embroidery. And I’ve at least had a couple of embroidery classes.
But Riley, for all of her snarky arrogance and willful ignorance — the very thing that defines her posts — isn’t the most significant culprit on this. The Chronicle of Higher Education is ultimately to blame. After years of writing the same turgid stories over and over again about the “two-body problem,” faculty compensation and university endowments, The Chronicle in the past year or so has attempted a turn toward the provocative. Instead of real attempts to reach out to educators, education reformers and other practitioners who aren’t tenured/tenure-track faculty and graduate students aspiring to such, they have settled on bringing in a group of bloggers whose sole job is to stir the pot.
There are big issues in higher education begging for coverage. The issue of the effectiveness of online higher education. The corruption that runs rampant at for-profit institutions and the public institutions that adopt for-profit practices. The over-reliance on data sets to determine higher education (as well as K-12) policies. The dominance of private foundations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in determining how twenty-first century education reform will look — to the detriment of perhaps millions of children and college students.
No, these articles and discussions are rare in the world of The Chronicle. Instead, they had the wonderful idea of letting tenured faculty and inane journalists blog on issues that could possibly cause controversy, stir up discussions, even lead to an uptick in viewers of the Chronicle.com website. But The Chronicle isn’t Charlie Sheen or Kim Kardashian, where any publicity is good publicity. Especially when a journalist in the case of Riley didn’t do their due diligence before foaming at the mouth.
The most offensive thing about all of this is that The Chronicle, as the arrogant institution they are, will continue to allow the likes of Riley a platform, under the cloak of journalistic freedom. That is a shame, and a pitiful one at that.