Naomi Riley and Her Respondents

The most significant element in the controversy surrounding Naomi Riley’s blog posting is the disproportionate nature of the responses.  Consider the following.

The Northwestern faculty letter includes this sentence: “To write such disparaging comments about young scholars and their expressions of intellectual curiosity is cowardly, uninformed, irresponsible, repugnant, and contrary to the mission of higher education.”

Northwestern graduate students weigh in with a defense that offers these remarks : “Instead of taking her own advice given to her readers to ‘just read the dissertations,’ Riley displays breathtaking arrogance and gutless anti-intellectualism by drawing such severe conclusions about our work and African-American studies as a whole based on four or five sentence synopses of our dissertation projects. . . . One can only assume that in a bid to not be ‘out-niggered’ by her right-wing cohort, Riley found some black women graduate students to beat up on. . . . We do not welcome smug attacks by lazy bloggers, in your employment, who resort to racial caricature in a pitiful attempt to drum up controversy and interest in an otherwise underwhelming and pedestrian career.”

Laurie Essig writes in a post, “But now it is The Chronicle itself that is being called racist, specifically Brainstorm for allowing such hate speech to be published.”

The comments sections for each post contain scores of insults, and Laurie notes that a petition (5,600 names and counting) calls for Riley to be fired from Brainstorm.

On the surface, the degree of reaction doesn’t make sense—the bile, the indignation, the ferocity.  She isn’t just wrong—she is appallingly wrong.  She doesn’t just play fast and loose with her material—she does so abominably.  We shouldn’t just disprove her statements, but throw her out of the room.

One might attribute the excessive anger to Riley singling out the dissertation topics of some graduate students for censure.  But in this Riley was only echoing original article, which precisely singled them out for heady praise, for instance,

•       “A new generation of Ph.D.’s advances the discipline” (the subtitle)
•       “5 Up-and-Coming Ph.D. Candidates” (the sidebar heading)
•       “This generation is setting the model for interdisciplinary approaches in the humanities in general, and black studies continues to force traditional disciplines to address silences and to look at how race is constructed” (quotation from Fraser)
•       “These young voices are rewriting the history of race.”

The article also offered the work of the students as the primary exhibit of black studies, and so Riley, too, accepts them as representations of the field.  Moreover, because reporter Stacey Patton mentioned skepticism about black studies but didn’t collect any examples of it, Riley aimed to provide one (so I assume).

Again, if respondents believe that Riley judged research without sufficient evidence and expanded into a call to terminate black studies departments without sufficient grounds, they may argue accordingly without fury and banishment.  The disproportionate reaction, the hyper-emotional tenor, the casting of her post as “hate speech,” and so on, go well beyond refutation.  Riley has denied the intellectual viability of black studies, but the respondents haven’t replied by proving the opposite.  They have launched an attack of their own, a personal one.

The reason why, I think, lies in the nature of black studies itself.  If black studies were only another academic discipline, then a call to end it would excite a stern defense on grounds of substance, not charges such as “a stain on any respectful discourse” (comments section).

But black studies is more than an academic field, and the original story and the responses say so explicitly.  Patton writes, “Like their predecessors who worked to establish black studies as a respected academic discipline, today’s Ph.D. students are also attracted to the social mission of the field.”  If a discipline has a “social mission,” of course, then it includes in its disciplinary norms certain social aims—in other words, extra-academic criteria.  The name of the conference profiled in the article imparts that moral/social basis well: “A Beautiful Struggle: Transformative Black Studies in Shifting Political Landscapes,” a title that, says the chair of African American Studies at Northwestern, “represents perfectly what black studies is, a struggle in its relationship with the academy for legitimacy.”

We find that social/moral meaning affirmed by social and political references in the faculty letter, which observes, “We are barely one generation removed from when African-American students were completely denied entry into many colleges and universities in this country,” and in the graduate student letter, which invokes Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich.

This fraught condition makes Riley’s proposal appear to insiders much more than an academic matter.  For practitioners, the existence of black studies departments involves Jim Crow, the assassination of MLK (mentioned in the original article), Republican party politics, and several other tense historical and contemporary off-campus circumstances.  It’s a complication that entangles black-studies departments with political, social, moral, emotional, and psychological factors that render academic debate with critics impossible.  In this case, it has produced a fierce and misguided overreaction that reflects poorly on the field at large.  The bigger problem is that any academic discipline that assumes a social mission for itself is always going to have a legitimacy issue.

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