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.