The Riley Firing Controversy

If you’re not aware about the little kerfluffle that erupted and then quickly went away regarding the Chronicle Of Higher Education’s firing of blogger Naomi Schaeffer Riley, go read this.  Then come back.

I’m not writing this post to take substantive sides in the controversy.  I want to respond to a very particular sort of argument that has been leveled against Riley — that of “picking on students.”  Ann Althouse is the best example of this line of argument:

This reminds me of the big Sandra Fluke controversy, which got traction because an established media professional took aim at a student. Riley made fun of dissertation titles and breezily threw out the opinion that the entire field of Black Studies was left-wing crap. Maybe it is. I don’t know. I’m not reading the dissertations. It’s tempting to riff on intuition and to speak provocatively, and that’s what bloggers do. If the Chronicle wants bloggers — readable bloggers, bloggers who spark conversation and debate — they need to get that.

But combining that blogging style with an attack on named, individual students, where you are speaking from a high platform in the established media… that’s the problem, and I don’t see Riley stepping up and acknowledging it.

Liam Goldrick at EducationOptimists says something similar:

That’s right. This dust-up isn’t much about ideas at all, or freedom of speech, as some have contended. The dispute is fundamentally about journalistic standards in the realm of social media and about the specific personal attacks lobbed by NSR through the Brainstorm blog.

But I don’t think they’re right about this, for two reasons.

First, the Chronicle of Higher Education started it.  (Subscription required.)  The Chronicle featured these dissertations as part of a feature on Black Studies.  Riley didn’t call these students names — she insulted their work, work that had been brought into the light of public view by the Chronicle itself in an attempt to say nice things about their work.

Second, and far more importantly, these “private citizens”, these “individual students”, aren’t faceless undergrads writing papers for grades.  They are graduate students who are working on their dissertations.  That is, they are preparing what is likely their first official forays into the public exchange of ideas.    That’s what scholarship is.

Just because their scholarly work is arcane, esoteric, and inconsequential — just because it is only going to be read by 15 or 20 people — does not make it any less scholarship.  And scholarship is a public act.  And when you attack someone’s scholarship — you’re not attacking them in their capacity as a private citizen, and you’re not picking on some poor, individual student.

Of course, it might help to read the stuff first.  I will be the first to admit that titles can be pretty laughable, sometimes.  And a lot of scholarship is crap, and deserves to be called crap.  The problem is that you can’t tell from the titles.

  • Lisa Delpit has a piece called The silenced dialogue: Power and pedagogy in educating other people’s children.
  • Lisa Mazzei has a piece called Desiring Silence: Gender, Race and Pedagogy in Education

One of these two pieces is profoundly better than the other (at least in my opinion).  But you’d not be able to tell from the titles, because both the titles are sort of laughably bad.

But — and this is really my point — they’re both pieces of scholarship.  They’re fair game for public comment, whether you want to say nice things or not-so-nice things.


  1. Marktropolis says:

    You may have a point. Heavy on the “may.” Part of the criticism of Riley is her use of the *titles* to demean the scholarship. And while you are correct about scholarship being in the public realm, these were works in *progress.* They’re not done. They haven’t even been reviewed by their dissertation committee. And I do think there’s something to be said for more senior, tenured, faculty coming the the defense of their junior colleagues – and their *unfinished* work.

    And to say that the Chronicle “started it” is pretty heavy-handed. The Chronicle piece was about a new PhD program, and gave some examples of what the soon-to-be-first PhD (as in not yet completed their dissertations) students were researching.

  2. GEORGE LARSON says:

    I have no training in social science research. I read long ago an important modern mathematician, Norbert Wiener, state that that a PhD thesis was not expected to demonstrate anything more than a journey man qualification at academic research so I thought that Riley might have been holding them to too high a standard.

    I did not read all of the posts, but I was surprised that I only noticed some of the graduate students cited, their advisors and ultimately the angry responders attacking Riley instead of defending the worth of the questioned PhD thesis. Did I miss any substantial refutation of Riley’s blog post?

    • I tend to disagree about the “journeyman qualification” – I would contend that the Master’s level work should be there. A PhD should qualify one for a higher level – the equivalent of a Master Craftsman – one who is qualified to train others.

  3. GEORGE LARSON says:

    Here is an attempt at refuting Riley, but it also is a personal attack.

    • Naomi,
    Why so resentful and angry? Feel excluded?
    Just a few notes for you, to down with your vodka and bitter tears:
    1. Keeanga Yamahtta Taylor is not the first academic to have written about the role of race and the subprime market. Just go to JSTOR and put in “race” and “subprime”. Economics journals, sociology journals, and the California Law Review, all have articles that cover this phenomenon.
    One working paper from Barnard College is interesting:
    And if you don’t like academic sources, you can look at HUD’s own discussion of the issue:
    There is an interconnection between race, poverty, subprime loans, and predatory lending. This is true despite the fact that many whites lost their homes in the foreclosure mess. Certainly this area of study is legitimate, even if it makes you curl your toes under, Naomi.
    2. Ruth Hayes’ work on midwifery is not an unusual as you seem to think it is. JSTOR again: look under midwifery. Ms. Hayes sees a gap in the literature and she adds what she thinks is missing. If the black female experience adds to the richness of that literature, then the dissertation topic is a good one. You, Naomi, think the whole topic of midwifery/natural birth is not worthy of academics, but somehow supporting intolerant religious ideals is, at least according to your book. Yet, I haven’t seen anyone write anything as scathing about you here as you have written about Ms. Hayes. Perhaps it is time someone did. Maybe one of your Amazon reviewers would like to come and submit a guest article.

    3. LaTaSha Levy seems to have picked a timely topic. The rightward shift of the GOP in the past 30 years is obvious. Take women’s rights: Betty Ford and Barbara Bush were advocates of abortion rights back in the 1970s. Even Nancy Reagan herself admitted to being pro-choice long after her husband had left office.
    But clearly, there was a huge shift in 1980, and the GOP has never recovered. Why shouldn’t Levy look at major black conservatives and see what their legacy to blacks has been? (She might add Ward Connerly to that mix.) She’s bound to have a different perspective than you do, being black and all. But that doesn’t mean that she shouldn’t look at what the ideological shift of the GOP means to the black community. Remember, it’s the Republican party that keeps reminding people of how it was the party of Lincoln. Kind of interesting that it now includes elderly white protestors of questionable intelligence who depict Obama as having a bone through his nose. I’d like to know how they got from point A to point of no return.
    If she does her dissertation right, Levy can publish a book and hit the interview circuit. I’ll bet she’s more photogenic than you are. Just a hunch.
    And for those commenters who insist that Black Studies “divides us”, I say that racism already did the dividing. Putting the black experience into the academic knowledge base can add to the dialog of reunion, if you’ll read it mindfully.
    Oh and Naomi, really, for the irritation that makes you spew vileness….
    I’ll pray for you.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      This is what the reaction should have been to Riley’s post: a reasoned explanation of why the dissertations are not mindless propaganda. Academics can be pretty mean to other academics that they disagree with. A PhD candidate is an academic in training and should be able to engage in rough and tumble with ideas.

      Saying, “Mean lady, you hurt their feelings” is silly.

  4. Did I miss any substantial refutation of Riley’s blog post?

    Pointing out that she was attacking dissertations in progress based entirely on their titles is a substantial refutation. Nothing more need be done.

  5. Pointing out that she was attacking dissertations in progress based entirely on their titles is a substantial refutation. Nothing more need be done.

    …because it effectively changes the subject, and allows us to ignore the 900lb elephant in the room….the fact that everyone knows that Riley’s basic point was right.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      She broke the rule that must not be spoken. She was critical of the academic ability/focus of black students. So, right thinking peole must mobb her to prove their own status as right thinking people.

      • Interesting how you misrepresented the debate… no, Ms. Riley was NOT critical of the academic ability of black students… she just though their research interests were “clap-trap.” The fact that you, in turn, translate that into academic ability certainly speaks volumes of your own bigotry…

        On noes!! Did I say that!!! On noes, I’m not aloud to call a bigot a bigot anymore, else I would be called out for playing the “race card.” No, if you don’t like being called a bigot, stop saying bigoted things. Period.

        • Richard Aubrey says:

          Duke–of lax rape hoax fame and unaccountability–had another kerfuffle. A couple of their people pointed out that a lot of black kids entering for STEM ended up in Angry Studies.
          Various speculations as to the reasons, but the response was the same; people who pointed this out were Very Bad People.
          Whatever you choose to put in other people’s mouths, the fact is that some subjects must not be addressed.

        • Stacy in NJ says:

          Right. Because /FOCUS is meaningless in that sentence. You choose to read it in a manner that reinforces your own prejudices. Racist.

  6. The really marvelous, two-fold irony of this situation is that it so neatly showcases the utter intolerance of those who relentlessly celebrate their tolerance and propels an otherwise unknown blogger into the stratosphere with an issue she’s strongly motivated to flog for the foreseeable future.

    Notoriety such as Ms. Riley received from the firing is the stuff of publicist’s dreams so unless she’s pretty dumb she’ll revisit the subject with some regularity in the future. That’s not likely to help the beleaguered black studies departments hang onto life since the hysterical reaction The Chronicle bowed too will attract and reward further critics rather then deterring them.

    Some real scholarship might be researching the rise and fall of black studies departments but I don’t think I’ll hold my breath waiting for the thesis.

  7. Richard Aubrey says:

    When I graduated, Hubert Humphrey was VP and he was the speaker. Lots of cops–1966–around, which provided some fodder for speculation during the speeches. As it happened, a number of dissertation titles were in the program. It was amusing to see how little sense they made to one not in the field, or how tiny their focus must be and thus meaningless to one not in the field, or one not desperate for a manageable topic. Or wondering about who on earth made up the protocols for dissertation titles. He has a lot to answer for. “Toward a….” needs to be retired.
    That said, the issue of the scholarly rigor of Angry Studies is legitimate. Whether Riley made a fair point by pointing to titles alone is another question.
    I suppose the Chronicle could have published a couple of the ones she mentioned so readers could see….
    Nope. This is one of those things we know without having to be told. Which is why the fuss about telling it.
    Thomas Sowell observed that dissertations are scholarship and that scholarship, by definition, is public even if nobody ever reads it. There’s no legitimate gripe in making this stuff public.

  8. I was sure someone would have mentioned Sturgeon’s Law by now.

    Though I will add that I think the per cent varies by field. A lot.