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.

Back to blogging

I want to thank Michael Lopez for a great job of guest-blogging while I’ve been ogling gorges in Taiwan and eating dim sum. He’ll be back in a month to blog again.

 

Jet lag

I’m in a Hong Kong lounge waiting for the flight to Taiwan. Michael E. Lopez will be guest-blogging here for the next 10 days — if  I’ve set him up correctly to access the site. Just a little tired . . .

We’ll be touring Taiwan with our friend Edwin, who’s a native. I hope to de-blog my brain while we’re here.

Old literacy, new literacy

High school and college term papers are “old literacy,”  while blog posts are “new literacy,” writes Matt Richtel in the New York Times.

“This mechanistic writing is a real disincentive to creative but untrained writers,” says Cathy Davidson, a Duke English professor and author of Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn. Instead, her students “publish 500- to 1,500-word entries on an internal class blog about the issues and readings they are studying in class, along with essays for public consumption.”

Across the country, blog writing has become a basic requirement in everything from M.B.A. to literature courses. On its face, who could disagree with the transformation? Why not replace a staid writing exercise with a medium that gives the writer the immediacy of an audience, a feeling of relevancy, instant feedback from classmates or readers, and a practical connection to contemporary communications? Pointedly, why punish with a paper when a blog is, relatively, fun?

Because, say defenders of rigorous writing, the brief, sometimes personally expressive blog post fails sorely to teach key aspects of thinking and writing. They argue that the old format was less about how Sherman got to the sea and more about how the writer organized the points, fashioned an argument, showed grasp of substance and proof of its origin.

In 2011, 82 percent of first-year college students and a majority of seniors weren’t asked to write a single paper of 20 pages or more, according to the National Survey of Student Engagement. In 2002, 80 percent of high school students weren’t asked to write a history paper of more than 15 pages, reports Will Fitzhugh of the Concord Review.

“We’re at a crux right now of where we have to figure out as teachers what part of the old literacy is worth preserving,” says Andrea A. Lunsford, a professor of English at Stanford. “We’re trying to figure out how to preserve sustained, logical, carefully articulated arguments while engaging with the most exciting and promising new literacies.”

Students love writing for an audience, she’s concluded. Instead of spending a term writing a research paper, her sophomore students turn out a 15-page paper in the first few weeks.

Once that’s done, they use the ideas in it to build blogs, Web sites, and PowerPoint and audio and oral presentations. The students often find their ideas much more crystallized after expressing them with new media, she says, and then, most startling, they plead to revise their essays.

So, it takes time to develop ideas? Who knew?

I’m an old-literacy gal who’s been blogging for 11 years now. I started in mid-January, 2001. There’s a big difference in organization, argumentation and content between a set of PowerPoint slides, a blog post, an essay and an academic paper.