In one of the more entertaining shit-fights I’ve seen in a while in academia, Naomi Schaefer Riley took it upon herself to read the titles of several black studies dissertations and then declare the field a complete waste of time. Her blog post on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s website takes three particular grad students to task for their topic selection and then mocks them mercilessly.
In Episode V: The Interwebs Strike Back, folks almost wore out their keyboards beating the shit out of her or defending her for having the courage to take this position. As you would expect, the criticisms, which she aptly summarized in her follow-up post, fell into four distinct categories:
I am picking on people because they are black (and I am a racist).
I am picking on people even though I don’t have a Ph.D.
I am picking on people who are too young and inexperienced to defend themselves.
I am picking on people even though I haven’t read their entire dissertations.
I’m not going to touch on number one (other people have done so far more eloquently than I), but I will say that if she didn’t expect people to be pissed about this post and call her a racist, I’ve got some magic beans I can sell her on the cheap.
With number three, she’s right in her defense of her thoughts. If you make it through grad school in the shortest time possible, you’re probably between 27 and 29 when you get the Ph.D. If all that life experience and scholarship hasn’t got you ready to game up against a snide asshole, you’ve got bigger problems than dealing with the snide asshole. Like tying your shoes.
Her defense in point four is kind of bullshit. No, you don’t need to read the whole dissertation to be able to comment on the scholarship. In fact, in reviewing scholarship, I find myself focusing more on certain parts than others. I don’t sit there and challenge every citation, argue with every bit of the method section or parse the full magnitude of the conclusions. However, when you read the title and mock it, you’re just asking for an ass-kicking. Imagine if we did that with other literary works:
“The Color Purple.” (Do we need a novel explaining purple is a color? Or, if you’re Jerry Falwell’s folks, GAYS! EVERYWHERE! HIDE YOUR CHILDREN!)
“Les Miserables” (Whiny fucking French bastards)
“Paradise Lost” (Get off your dead ass and find it.)
"Paradise Found" (About fucking time...)
“Candide” (I’m not reading this shit. They spelled it wrong.)
“The Count of Monte Cristo” (A guy who likes sandwiches doesn’t need his own book. Of course, it’s written by a guy named Dum ass…)
Which brings us back to point number two: picking on people without the requisite degree to do so.
A and I spent a lot of time talking about the issue of power of position and power of person over our time at the Cardinal. We both agreed that when you had to whip out the “Well, I’M the EDITOR IN CHIEF!” stick, you basically lost the argument. Saying someone can’t pick on a Ph.D. because that person doesn’t have a Ph.D. works along that same line of bullshit. I have no problem whatsoever with intelligent conversation on any topic involving anyone of any educational level. There is not a sign outside my office door that reads: “If your degree isn’t THIS TALL, you can’t ride this intellectual rollercoaster.”
That said, she’s missing the point.
It’s not the lack of a degree that’s bugging people, but rather a lack of knowledge that is creating a problem.
For starters, not reading beyond the title of the dissertations you are criticizing is like reviewing a movie after looking at its poster. If you want to go out on a limb about a topic, fine, but let’s at least watch the movie trailer, or in this case, read the damned abstract.
A professor in my doctoral program let us all in on a little secret: The dissertation isn’t going to be, nor is it supposed to be, the best scholarship you ever do. It’s the first major bit of research you do, on your own and you learn a ton by doing it. It’s a launching point for your career and a chance to stretch into a completely foreign field.
Criticizing a dissertation like Riley has done is a lot like criticizing the Army for implementing calisthenics because who the hell gets up and starts doing jumping jacks in the middle of a firefight in Afghanistan?
It’s also not a secret that the dissertation is like a frat hazing: The academics at your institution want to see what you can withstand. That is why these take so long, run so long and are so horribly painful to write. They want to test your mettle and your desire to be good at this so that you CAN move forward from this point and add to the sum of human knowledge. Maybe it won’t be in a field that Riley thinks is worthwhile, but others might. In any case, it’s a starting point, not a complete body of work.
If Riley wants to take shots at some shitty scholarship, there are plenty of targets out there. Some studies I read have scholars comparing two variables that have nothing to do with one another and then offering the “significant differences exist” argument that they found something important. Of course, they see nothing wrong with acting like the guy from Spinal Tap as they arrogantly defend the premise that “these go to 11,” which makes their failure all the more spectacular.
And, no, I’m not going to say, “Go get a Ph.D. and then we’ll talk” because that would be fighting her weak bullshit with equally weak bullshit.
Instead, I’ll simply ask that if she’s going to write for a publication that combines my two passions (education and journalism) that she ascribe to the basic tenets of both of those fields.
Research, report, analyze and then write.