Moving the Cheese

Many years ago, when I was still working in educational outreach, I consulted with the state of Texas on a curriculum project. The project was poorly managed, and run in the most baffling manner imaginable, neither of which is relevant to the story here.

For some time, after the new product was rolled out, we would occasionally be asked to respond to questions from the field — that is, to say, the teachers who actually used the curriculum in their classroom. And some of the questions were, quite frankly, hostile.

When I commented on this to our contact, she laughed and said, “Oh, don’t take it personally. You moved the cheese, is all.” She then went on to explain that teachers have their favorite subjects–now with several years in a classroom under my belt, I understand this–and, with standards- and test-driven education, sometimes when the lessons are changed or removed from the curriculum, people get upset. Ultimately, she said, it was a bit like what happens when you’re training a mouse to run through a maze, and then you move the cheese.

Inasmuch as I recognize that comparing teachers scrambling to address ever changing standards to mice in a maze is both inappropriate and weirdly apt, the phrase “you moved the cheese” has stuck with me.

I’ve tried to keep it in mind as I have observed some of the goings on in higher academia, much of which I’ve witnessed in the format of reviews. As I advised students preparing to write their own first book reviews, a good reviewer needs to approach the text on its own terms, not on the basis of “I wouldn’t have written this.” This may be true, but you also didn’t write it. Someone else did who isn’t you, and it’s not fair to punish them for the crime of not being you.

My very first peer reviewed article (still forthcoming, a year after acceptance) was a lesson in reminding myself not to take things personally. And this was hard. My proverbial Reviewer 2 sent a three-page single-spaced critique of my article (which, confusingly, had been accepted with revisions).

The major problem, as I realized, was that in editing it for the submission I had cut the literature review out to move it earlier in the piece, and had forgotten to paste it back in. Reviewer 2 started off by pointing out that I did not engage with the literature. Fair point. Of course, I actually had, but he (for the tone makes his gender clear) didn’t know that.

Reviewer 2 then proceeded to inform me which books I should look at. It was clear that Reviewer 2 was not in my subfield and had done a very quick library catalog search, for the titles were temporally or geographically irrelevant to the topic of the article (or both).

Reviewer 2 then went on to excoriate me for the lack of Arabic sources (which I had addressed in the text), and, by way of insinuating what a lazy, sloppy researcher I must be, informed myself and the editor that “these things are all available online now.”

Having spent most of the process of writing my dissertation attempting to psychically will such online resources into existence, this was news to me (it was also incorrect). Now on a roll, Reviewer 2 then proceeded to list three issues of a journal which were online and that I had looked at as further evidence of my laxness.

By this point, of course, I was nearly breathing into a paper bag. Eventually, when I examined said online journal, I realized that I had been correct–the articles cited by Reviewer 2 did not say what he claimed they had, and were of only marginal use–mainly to address the major bugbear about not the article not having enough sources in Arabic.

Further correspondence with the editor revealed that he, also, didn’t find Reviewer 2’s comments particularly helpful (hence the acceptance with revisions). It was also clear that, despite his insistence that I had not engaged with the literature on the topic, Reviewer 2 was not in a place to provide any qualitative guidance on that front, either. Within a month, I had restored the the literature review to its rightful place, made a few other tweaks, got my final acceptance, and the article moved on to the land of the never-ending production queue.

I don’t know which block of cheese I moved to earn Reviewer 2’s ire, but I found the episode instructive, if not particularly useful. First, being courteous is always a plus. Reviewer 1 managed that, with equally deep but constructive criticism that I employed quickly and without much fuss.

It also made me more aware of what happens when the cheese gets moved.


Recently, a Twitter-friend, Sarah Pearce (NYU), published a review essay that focused on Geraldine Heng’s much-lauded The Invention of Race in the Middle Ages. I admire Pearce’s work — she is nothing if not thorough and thinks about things in a way that I can only dream of (perhaps not pleasant dreams, as I have never been one to think about how people think about things, but that’s what makes academia interesting).

Pearce knew going into this that she was fighting an uphill battle. Heng is a medievalist; medieval studies has been plagued with problems relating to race, racialism, and racism, with no less than the likes of Milo FakeGreekAlopoulos “weighing in” on the matter (because if our middle ages weren’t lily white, then what do we have? I guess?).

The review essay is quite detailed, and it’s worth reading — I was fortunate to be able to read it in draft form. Some of the language is, admittedly, a little harsher than I might adopt on my own, but I’m also both conflict-averse and don’t have a permanent job.

Pearce’s argument boils down to this: Heng’s work is a notable first attempt at trying to rethink race and race-stand-ins in a medieval context, but when it came to the way she represents Jews in her book, she does not successfully decolonize her own approach — in short, medieval studies is a field that peers out at the rest of the world from English Christendom, and the book’s framing of English Jews is, in Pearce’s opinion, unable to escape this Christian-centered framework.

To continue with my analogy: Pearce recognizes that Heng has correctly identified the need to move the cheese, but argues that the framework Heng proposes wasn’t entirely successful.

When Pearce put the essay out on Twitter, reaction was fairly swift and rather polarized, as one might expect. Heng, herself, is a bit of a polarizing figure. A number of other colleagues have described her as wonderfully supportive, especially of junior colleagues. A number of other colleagues have also described her as difficult to work with and impervious to criticism.

The Invention of Race arrived at a critical moment in the field, and was able to provide a focus for much of the conversation; Pearce argues that the book’s timing and lauded effort shouldn’t overshadow critical review of certain structural arguments in the book.

At no point does Heng’s ethnicity or gender enter the context of the review (nor should it have done). The review is meticulous about engaging with the text. However, much of the early criticism–I shan’t name names–revolved around the idea that Pearce was arguing for the silencing or erasure of a colleague of color (Heng is from Singapore).

One particularly adamant critic suggested that Pearce was only able to publish such a lengthy review because she is white, and went on–whether this was deliberate or thrown out in the heat of the moment, I cannot say–to imply, if not state outright, that white scholars should not be allowed to critique scholars of color. Fortunately, most of the critical commentary was less hostile than this, but the conversation was lengthy and lively.

The question of race–ironic, given that it was brought up regarding a review of a book about race–is, obviously touchy. What struck me about the adamant tone of this particular critic is the degree with which they self-identified with Heng’s work, and needed the way that Heng had moved the cheese to be perfect.

And it is the need for perfection–and the absolute unwillingness to consider the possibility that there might be imperfection or further adjustments necessary–that I found perplexing. Because, of course, once again, the issue isn’t about what’s on the page, it’s about emotional reactions to challenging those ideas.


This whole episode resonated with me because so many of the foundational works–the cheese movers, if you will–in my field have been problematic. Books need not be perfect in order to be important. Sometimes the most important books are flawed–sometimes even on purpose–in order to generate conversations about opening new lines of scholarship or taking a different approach to a long standing core narrative.

Edward Said’s Orientalism, for example, was almost universally panned when it was first published (and not just by people named in it). Said, a professor of Comparative Literature, took on nearly every subfield in the humanities and social sciences, and was roundly scolded for not having stayed in his lane. The book, quite frankly, also isn’t that readable: I’ve pretty much made it through the introduction and I paraphrase the argument for students because I can’t bear to assign a text I’m fairly certain no one will read.

Still, some people absolutely adore the book, and the message contained within. At a plenary session at the 1998 Middle East Studies Association’s (MESA) annual conference, which coincided with the 20th anniversary of the publication of Orientalism, Said–after slyly pointing out that he’d had MESA in mind when he wrote the book (cue laughter from “woke” audience)–sheepishly admitted that he had intended the book to be a conversation starter, and had been a bit surprised that so many people adopted it as a functional paradigm for the field.

Indeed, some of his critics who were in the room that evening (most of whom split off to form a second association shortly thereafter) delivered thunderous denunciations from the floor, until Homi Bhabha clapped back … it really was a once in a lifetime event for so many reasons. It even inspired me to try to re-read Orientalism, which I quickly gave up on, because the book really is one dense puppy.

Similarly, Patricia Crone and Michael Cook’s Hagarism was also hugely influential in the field of early Islamic studies, even if most of the people who wrote negative reviews took it seriously. In this case, it was kind of a shoddy book on purpose, intended to demonstrate that the narrative of Islam’s origins could be substantially altered if one applied the same level of source criticism to the narrative that, as Crone stated in the introduction to Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam are applied to nearly every other historical subfield. The book was resoundly trashed by the same scholars across whose bow it was intended to fire, most of whom excoriated the two young upstarts for daring to suggest that the cheese even needed moving, let alone how to move it.

Four decades later, however, the challenge has been taken up. Very few people read Hagarism anymore — I tried once and gave up on page 3 — it achieved its purpose in throwing down the gauntlet to scholars in a field that wasn’t moving in the right direction. The reason people don’t read it anymore is that it’s been supplanted by actual scholarship that proves, disproves, and leaves open to question parts of the traditional narrative, which was the intent all along.


Some of you may remember that I originally posted this, and then it vanished for a bit. In this section, I discussed the controversy that has since become known as Selimgate, which now has its own Wikipedia entry. I have withdrawn my comments, under duress, after having been contacted by one of the parties involved. I will refrain from further editorial comment.

And I emphasize that this goes against every single instinct I have, because this is a story that I am itching to tell. But given that other colleagues have been thrown under the bus by their institutions for exercising their rights of free speech and observation, I must bear in mind that I don’t even currently have an institution that could do so. I must protect myself … and believe me, that is the only reason I am doing so.

I will simply quote the venerable Natalie Zemon Davis here:

Reviewing always rests on assumptions about community, about what persons we define as engaged in a common task, about what books should be included in our historical exchange and with what standing, and about shared criteria or evaluation.

For quarrels to hold a community together and innovate, much depends on the frame and the language.this means recognizing and embracing the diversity of stances within the membership, …  so that we can talk as allies in the common task of Donna Haraway’s engaged criticism.

I wish I had a clearer way to wrap up this lengthy piece, one that I haven’t said before, over and over, but ultimately, I find myself back in the same place that I, and others, have been time and again. Academia is rife with pettiness and drama. Scholars hoard their research for fear of it being stolen–I, myself, have been very resistant to sharing any of my pre-press work with people I don’t know. This is the world in which we live and work, and, yes, some times I do wonder why.

At the same time, however, our fields have methodologies and established means of “doing” scholarship for a reason: these are the criteria upon which our work is judged; more to the point they are the criteria upon which we expect our work to be judged. When we stray outside of these — that is, to say, when we pile on the cheese movers and refuse to legitimate their efforts by focusing on everything but the product presented for review — we ultimately wind up making ourselves look foolish and petty.

There are too many foes out there waiting in the wings to discredit, de-legitimate, and defund. The last thing we need is to be doing it to each other.

The myth of the “Alt-ac” career

I honestly didn’t mean to turn into An Angry White Man on Twitter over the weekend.

It started, innocently enough, with me perusing my social media feeds first thing in the morning on Saturday, and noticing that the institute where I’ve spent the last year as a postdoc had posted an article highlighting what former internal postdoctoral fellows have gone on to do with their careers.

What got under my skin and eventually led to … I won’t say I had a full on meltdown, I was just rather unhappy … was that the headline triumphantly announced that “84% of our internal postdocs went on to get jobs!”

You see, as of right now I am in the other 16%–that is, among the ones who don’t have a post-postdoc job lined up.

I’m afraid that, particularly on Twitter, my initial unhappiness sounded like I was throwing myself a pity party for not having gotten an academic job this year.

I really wasn’t, or at least, that wasn’t my intention.

GIF: "I'm a grumpy old man!"

I made my peace with the poor academic job market some time ago — you see, while it’s true that I did not get a single interview or expression of interest from any of the academic jobs that I applied to (nor did I even get a formal rejection letter from 2/3 of them), the simple fact of the matter is that I applied to a grand total of six jobs.

Count with me here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

Three of them were outside my immediate subfield (world history rather than Middle East history), and one was a one-year visiting position.

One of the two that did send a rejection letter–not the one that sent the typo-laden form letter on December 23–mentioned that over 100 people had applied for the position. You can be the best candidate on Earth and have problems making the cut with those kinds of odds.

No, as I said in my tweet above, my bigger issue with the market is that it’s been this way for some time, and while there’s a lot of lip service to this reality, there is a huge amount of structural indifference to it, and this, honestly, is where my patience wears thin.

Let me explain.

The myth of alt-ac.

First, let me be clear I’m not blaming my specific department or institution, nor am I trying to single them out for specific criticism. I started down this road because I thought this release was a bit tone deaf, especially at this particular moment when everything has ground to a halt because of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, this is a systematic issue that’s bigger than one specific place, and it can only be dealt with by rethinking the entire concept of postgraduate education.

In the immediate aftermath of my initial sarcastic tweet–“Gee, it’s fun to start the morning by being reminded you’re among the 16% of postdocs who didn’t get an academic job”–a number of friends, colleagues, and followers contacted me to express empathy (or a shared series of concerns). In more than one case, many of us had side discussions that basically wound up going to the same place.

Namely, that this whole “alt-ac” or “career diversity” thing is some serious bullshit.

GIF: "This is bullshit."

For the uninitiated, “alt-ac” and “career diversity” are buzzwords that essentially mean the same thing: those of us in graduate programs, especially doctoral programs, are statistically unlikely to land what used to be considered the gold standard for those with that particular academic credential, specifically the tenure-track (TT) job at a four year institution of higher learning.

I don’t mean that “alt-ac” as an idea is bullshit. Of course we should be looking at career options beyond the tenure track.

My husband reminds me constantly that my original plans had nothing to do with being an academic, at least not until I discovered I actually liked research and teaching.

(Why my plans changed is a different post in and of itself. I originally had textbook consulting in mind when I started down this road, but I don’t know if I can deal with the futility of working with anti-intellectual organizations in positions of power–ones like the Texas State Board of Education.)

The issue–the bullshit, if you will–is that most academic professional associations seem to think that repeating the phrase “alt-ac” or “career diversity” enough times does … I don’t know what.

It’s become shorthand for “jobs we don’t have to train you for and can’t–or won’t–help you find.”

This is where the disconnect comes in.

GIF: "That's not my problem."

Case in point. The American Historical Association recently released a database of everywhere that people who got Ph.D.s in history between 2003 and 2014 are working. They’ve been publicizing the hell out of it, and it is somewhat of an impressive piece of work.

That said … as a recent Ph.D, myself, I am utterly mystified as to what I am supposed to do with it.

Should I use it to find someone whose job seems neat and follow them around until they seem like they’re ready to retire? Is that it?

Practically speaking, what does this exercise in data management prove, exactly? Yes, historians are working everywhere. Good for them. How did they get there? What additional training did they need?

For example, there’s much discussion of how history Ph.D.s work in archives and museums. I have neither archival nor curatorial training. How did those people make that leap?

The other thing, in case you were wondering, is that the job board on their website almost exclusively lists academic jobs.

They give lip service to alt-ac careers, encourage their student members to consider pursuing them, they even fund graduate students to be “career diversity fellows,” which involves funding a student for two years to hold brown bag lunches and brainstorming sessions.

For the last year, these sessions were held at a seminar table outside my office where, every few weeks, students would meet and come up with perfectly excellent ideas about what they needed in order to start pursuing the alt-ac angle of their degrees.

All ideas that will never be implemented because, and I know this from my 20 years on the admin side of things, there’s not a single person in the department –staff or faculty–with the time or resources to do any of them.

But when it comes to actually helping history Ph.D.’s find any of these alt-ac jobs …

GIF: empty scene, labeled "... crickets chirping"

For the record, I point to AHA because it happens to be one of the professional organizations that I am a member of. I don’t mean to single them out as though they’re doing a worse job than anyone else, as I am not aware that any of the professional associations for any other fields–English, Anthropology, Sociology, etc.,–are doing productive things toward helping their membership adjust to the new reality in which “Ph.D. does not equal TT job.”

The problem is systemic and deep rooted in higher education itself.

More than anything else, what I’m frustrated by is the visible (audible?) disconnect between the following two things that doctoral students in the liberal arts now know to be true:

  1. We must all consider “alt-ac” our mostly likely employment option; and
  2. Your doctoral program will prepare you for a TT position, which you won’t get.

In order to fully realize an alt-ac career, we need to be trained to do things other than teach (and, in a moment of praise, I will say that one of the things that my specific program and department does do is mandate a pedagogical training seminar for graduate students).

But, where is the investment in a practicum to help us get some of the skills we need to make the alt-ac leap?

GIF: women taps microphone and asks "Is this thing on?"

See, Colleges of Arts and Sciences, or the Liberal Arts, or Humanities, or whatever they’re called … they could work collectively with professional schools to deliver such training for their graduate students.

My university has a huge Information Sciences program. An art history program. A business school. We have people on our campus who give the kind of training graduates need to purse this so called “alt-ac” career track.

This would, of course, work best if all of the departments in the liberal arts came together to offer this sort of training to their students collectively. But right now, departments compete for funding, faculty lines, and limited resources within their colleges. They don’t collaborate.

Or, rather, if they do, it’s the exception more than the rule.

Then, of course, colleges compete with each other for the attention of the provost. And so on down the line. Students only get “counted” once, in the college of their particular major. Why, then, would they waste time and (here’s the kicker) money training students from a different college?

The issue is that this problem would only be solved by rethinking postgraduate education entirely, and changing how universities operate. And that …

GIF: man sitting by the side of his road, looks at his watch, and sighs.

That, ultimately, is the basis of my unhappiness.

It’s not that I didn’t get an interview for any of the jobs I applied to that each had hundreds of applicants.

It’s not that I will be unemployed come August 31.

It’s that no one has guidance on how to do anything else.

Minding Your Manners

This installment in the Grad School Survival Guide is brought to you by the letters P and Q (and if you’re old enough to get that joke…)

It’s actually inspired by two things that happened recently: first, a friend asked me to look over a draft dissertation proposal; and, second, I got a nastygram (which had nothing to do with that post that I’m tired of talking about now).

Both of them have to do with how we treat each other in academia. I know I’m not the only person to bring this up, but I’m going to say what I have to say about it anyway.

Don’t Bash the Historiography

When I was early in my dissertation writing process, my advisor and I were having a meeting by Skype, and he made an observation that resonated with me. I don’t know why this was some sort of Transmitted From Yoda Secret that needed to be broadcast from On High; in fact, ever since he pointed it out it’s become something I’ve noticed a lot.

What he said was this: “You’re at that point we all find ourselves at while writing: the documentation isn’t giving you what you want, and you’re trying to figure out how to move forward. One of the things people do when they’re in that situation is that they start beating up the historiography; don’t do that. It tells everyone you’re not that confident in your own argument.”

There it is.

[Oh, for the record, if you find yourself in that situation, sit back, look at the documentation, and see what it’s telling you. Make it tell you where to go rather than trying to tell it where you want it to go. This may involve taking some time away from it.]

But since this conversation … I see it a lot. Cover letters. Proposals. Abstracts.

“I am the first…”

“I am the only…”

“Other scholars have failed to notice…”

“The scholarship has ignored…”

They’re all variants of the same thing: I did something no one else did.

Congratulations! That’s what academia is all about.

However, scholars of the new generation (every new generation) tend toward the enthusiastic, and want to trumpet their accomplishment, and they run afoul of the classic mistake of announcing that everyone has done it wrong, and that they have done it right.

Critiquing someone else’s scholarship for failing to come to the conclusions you have reached, or for not identifying an issue at the same level of importance that you’ve ascribed it, basically comes down to this: you’re criticizing them for not being you. They’re not you. They’re them.

Put yourself into the conversation

You can’t ignore the existing historiography, or wave it all away by wishing it had been done differently. This goes back to the issue of intellectual genealogy that I discussed in my post about reading and taking notes for qualifying examinations.

Let me use myself as an example here.

The history of the 20th century Eastern Mediterranean tends to use the nation-state as its unit of analysis. In some cases, it uses nations that didn’t yet exist as the unit of analysis–for example, you can find histories of Israel that cover the first half of the 20th century even though it only existed for the last 18 months of the first half of the 20th century.

The reason that these histories are written this way is that scholars began grappling with the national histories that were constructed from the 1920s onward, and wanted to evaluate them (the most famous example of this is the “New Historians” movement in Israel, but each country in the eastern Mediterranean from Egypt all the way around to Turkey has their own such intellectual genealogy).

So, it’s easy for me to come in three intellectual generations later and say, “but no one has done the transnational”–that is to say, work that crosses borders to look at movements, connections, and cross-currents–but the fact is that I can do the transnational now because of what those who came before me have already done.

Their work makes mine possible, because they’ve gotten the national histories to the point where we can say, “Okay, we understand what’s going on inside these nations, now let’s look outside them.”

So, as you develop a prospectus, or a cover letter, or an abstract, pay attention to how the historiographical trends have developed, and the big questions that have been asked and sought to answer. Your intervention–your work–is part of this lineage whether you want it to be or not. You’ll get much further by explaining how what you’re doing is going to add further to the conversation than by suggesting that everyone else has been having the wrong conversation.

As I was warned during my oral qualifiers… after I did exactly that… “Don’t go after them. They know more than you.”

Or as I put it more crudely: make them want to read more. Not to read you aloud at the departmental holiday party to peals of laughter.

It works both ways

Moving on to the second half of this, I got a nastygram on my academia.edu profile from a retired Ivy League professor who read a historiographical essay I wrote years ago and apparently didn’t like the way I mentioned him in a footnote (I guess?). I’m not going to name him.

The message was probably supposed to be some sort of Maggie Smith-in-Downton Abbey-type burn but it really just confused me and I had to show it to several people before we collectively decided I was being chided.

The gist of the chide, near as I can tell, is that he felt that I, a scholar who hadn’t published as many books or had as many years of experience as he did, and therefore had no right to something something I don’t even know what. I will never entirely understand the impetus of a retired scholar to spend his free time trolling the internet looking for papers that mention himself and send nasty messages to people if he doesn’t like them.

So, in all fairness, I will acknowledge that my suggestion that the new generation should not be dismissive of the previous extends in both directions. I have seen too much of this. I once had a LinkedIn troll who — regardless of what this week’s episode of my podcast was about — had written about it years before and needed me to know. I finally blocked him.

But it’s also true that I see little encouragement by senior scholars of the next generation. Many of the conferences I attend have rooms full of Emerti who offer the dreaded “comment not a question” that seems basically intended to make sure everyone in the room knows they’re still alive.

This is not to say that it doesn’t happen. A few years ago, Suraiya Faroqhi, a distinguished scholar of Ottoman history whom I will name, came to a conference on Ottoman history here at Texas and made a point of offering very constructive–and kind–feedback to all of the graduate students and untenured panelists. It was so rare that I tell people about it. Suraiya Faroqhi did that. What a class act.

After all, folks, someday we’re going to be that generation … and it would be nice if people said they were conversing with us … and we should remember to converse back.

Wading into the Duke-UNC Middle East Consortium Mess

Note: This originally appeared as a really long thread on Twitter. I had originally colored edited or new text in blue, but have now edited so much that it’s kind of lost all of its meaning and just gave up.

It’s Sunday morning, I have my first cup of coffee, and I’m about to wade into the kerfuffle over the Duke-UNC Middle East Studies consortium.

So let’s get started, shall we?

First off, let me say that I worked for over 15 years for a Title VI program. I left a few years back when writing my dissertation, and there’s been a complete turnover in administration since my day–in any event, this column isn’t about my former place of employment. Nonetheless, let me clarify that what follows here is my opinion alone based on my own observances working with the Title VI grant program writ large.

Note: upon reflection, I have things to say about this opening paragraph. First, after I posted the Twitter thread, a couple of colleagues who still work for NRCs at different institutions contacted me privately to let me know they were either reluctant to speak publicly on the issue, or had been asked not to.

That was when I realized the deeper implication of me starting my own twitter thread with a disclaimer that I no longer work for an NRC and am speaking on my own behalf.

Second, while I know people who work for the Duke-UNC consortium, I am not in a position to evaluate their programming. Nor do I know anything about the Gaza conference that was held which apparently started this whole thing; I have no way to judge whether the criticism it attracted was warranted or valid.

Note: a commenter (scroll all the way down) who was on one of the panels at the Gaza has written an account of the event at her blog.

Background

Title VI, the Foreign Language and Area Studies Act is a federal program administered through the US Department of Education (US/ED) allowing universities to apply for designation as a National Resource Center (NRC) on a four year cycle (always at the same time; the last competition was in 2018; the next should be in 2022).

Despite the emphasis in coverage on the Middle East NRCs, there are NRCs on pretty much the entire world now, including Canada and Western Europe (Title VI used to be exclusively non-Western, although Latin America was included).

Various tweaks have been made along the way, and these are important to understanding what is happening with and to Duke-UNC. Under the Bush administration, a group of neoconservative advocates were able to get language inserted requiring “presentation of multiple perspectives.”

Under the Obama administration, the emphasis placed on STEM education resulted in an absolute priority being added to the competition (meaning, do this or you aren’t eligible) to increase foreign language training among STEM majors.

The same year, a mandate to work with Minority Serving Institutions and/or junior and community colleges was also added.

Title VI doesn’t provide blanket funding. Applicants have to specify what they’re going to do with the money. It cannot be used for faculty salaries, and only up to 50% of administrative salaries, for example. The focus is on developing programming and resources, and training students (a related program that can be applied for either in conjunction with NRC status, or independently of it, is the Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) funding which is used exclusively as fellowships for students pursuing advanced language study).

The Obama era additions were rather restrictive, and some institutions chose to close their programs (notably Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies) rather than accept money that was so restricted.

Title VI also requires significant investment from the institutions themselves. At one point, my institution estimated that for every dollar in Title VI funding received, they were spending three from other sources.

US/ED doesn’t seem to know its own regulations

Like any grantor of funds, US/ED absolutely has the right to request clarification to ensure that its funds are being spent appropriately–I am certainly not arguing to the contrary. That said, in my experience, in the past when US/ED has wanted such clarification, they have asked for it in private communication with grant recipients; they don’t publish public letters in the Federal Register

What is being missed in the coverage of the Duke-UNC issue is that the letter sent by Assistant Secretary King displays a startling lack of understanding of the Title VI program’s own regulations.

The media has focused on issues like the way Israel and Islam are portrayed in classes and lectures. Let’s leave those aside for a moment and start with the paragraph that suggests that the consortium has an anti-governmental bias and is discouraging students from working for the federal government.

This is a stunning allegation to be made without any sort of proof.

The letter goes on to complain that, instead of choosing to work for the government, students are going on to graduate education or working for academia.

This is an acceptable outcome according to Title VI’s own regulations.

Title VI is not just a university-to-government pipeline. It is also meant to ensure that there will be qualified instructors for the next generation.

Let’s not even discuss the fact that small programs like the Duke-UNC consortium don’t have career counselors.

It is truly shocking that the Assistant Secretary of the Department of Education would look at placement data and–based solely on this data–assume not only that students were choosing not to work for the federal government because they were being coached not to do so, but to then repeat this allegation in an open letter published in the Federal Register.

The letter also bemoans the fact that foreign languages are being taught by lecturers and not tenured faculty. As mentioned above, Title VI funds cannot be used to hire permanent faculty. It can be used (partially) to hire lecturers.

Universities cannot snap their fingers and make tenure track positions appear. Believe me, I and a number of colleagues on the job market right now wish that they could. Duke-UNC is doing the best they can with the resources they have. All universities are having this issue.

The tone of the letter also suggests that languages would be better taught by tenure track faculty. I have worked with extremely talented lecturers who are just as dedicated (if not more) than any tenure track faculty member. This letter is also a slap in the face to them.

Education is not a zero-sum game

Let us move on to the most troubling passage: the one that assumes that Islam is being presented more positively than other religions in the Middle East.

Let me tell you about the data this accusation is being pulled from.

Twice a year during the grant period, NRCs have to submit data on what they’re doing with the grant money. One of these is strictly financial, the other includes narratives and comprehensive lists of all events, lectures, workshops, conferences, etc. that were supported.

These are exhausting. They take hundreds of hours of staff time to compile. And feedback is … nonexistent. In fact, I was told once in private that no one at the Department of Education really ever looked at them.

The amount of text you get to describe a single event is fairly limited, and I can’t speak for Duke-UNC, but I will say I never put in a lot of substantive effort into writing descriptions because I had dozens more events to enter into the system–and because in 15 years of submitting these reports I never got a single question, request for additional information, or feedback from anyone, so there was an existential issue of how much I should really bother being complete and creative.

I can say definitively that there is no place in the system to upload fliers, programs, supporting documentation. If it’s a multi day conference, the names of all the speakers usually don’t fit in the text box.

I bring all of this up because Secretary King makes some interesting assumptions about the event that he refers to based on the limited data he has in front of it. He assumes Islam is being portrayed positively, based on … the title of the event?

He assumes that other religious traditions in the region are not being covered, or are being covered less … actually, let’s start with not being covered. Again, I question the basis for the assumption. Does he have the program in front of him? Copies of the materials given out?

The next bit, however, is the red flag, and this one is key, guys, and I’m sorry to have buried it so far down in the thread.

It’s the assumption that if Islam is being portrayed [too?] positively, then by definition any other religion discussed must be portrayed negatively.

This right here is absolutely key, because it has been at the center of neoconservative complaints about Title VI for the past two decades.

It assumes that education does not teach people to think critically, present nuance, and that students must adopt their professors opinions in order to pass the class.

This isn’t how it works, folks.

There is absolutely no basis for the assumption that if one speaks positively about Islam, then we must be speaking negatively of Christianity or Judaism. Education isn’t a zero-sum game. University classes aren’t about which religion is “good” and which is “bad.”

This is a conservative talking point. I know this because the exact same language popped up with the Texas State Board of Ed, who cheerfully admitted who brought their attention to “this important issue.”

Update: it was pointed out on Twitter that the letter critiques Duke-UNC for offering lectures and events focused on Islam instead of other religions, not about the manner in which they are portrayed in comparison to each other–this critique of my comments is perfectly fair.

The crux of my argument here is less about the specific criticism, but rather that the letter strongly suggests that judgement about the worth and value of programming and courses has already been made based on the scant information given in the annual NRC reports and before seeking additional clarification from Duke-UNC. My reading is reinforced by the inclusion of derisive editorial comments in the letter itself ridiculing courses based on their title, and sarcastically questioning how they could possibly be relevant to the NRC mission.

A much more neutral request for information —  for instance, “We see that funds were used to support this course which, based on the title and description, seems to be somewhat esoteric in regards to the NRC mission. We’d like to see the syllabus and have you explain how the course content helps meet program objectives,” would have been more professional (for a start) and much more assuring that the inquiry into Duke-UNC is an honest attempt at administrative oversight.

How many perspectives are multiple?

More to the point is what the media and others have correctly noted is the “chilling” impact this could have on education, if the Department of Education is going to start policing what universities can and cannot include on their syllabi.

The concerns in the letter raised about “multiple perspectives,” for instance, are based on a single event. The way my university approached this was to ensure that multiple perspectives were employed over the program year, not at each individual event.

There is a single example given in the letter from Secretary King. One. “This doesn’t appear to be a balanced event.” Okay. Did Duke-UNC hold other events that provided an alternate perspective on the issue? We don’t know. That information isn’t provided.

It isn’t feasible, possible, or even desirable to turn every academic talk into a point-counterpoint debate.

Presenting one single lecture as an example of “unbalanced programming” is a cheap card trick.

What’s next?

Now, I’ve gone on far too long about this, but to wrap up.

As I mentioned at the very beginning, there are around 120 NRCs around the US, focusing on all regions of the world. The attention in the media has focused on the Middle East ones, but there are plenty of others.

Should the East Asia centers be tweaking their language curriculum so that students learning Mandarin get instruction on how to discuss trade negotiations? Should classes on Korea be required to teach that Kim Jong Un is “a nice guy”?

Should courses on contemporary politics avoid criticism of Russia because “he’s a good guy. I believe him?”

These may seem like over-the-top examples, but … why? If US/ED gets to determine what material and approaches are and are not acceptable–based entirely on course titles and 250 word descriptions–where does it end?

One of the criticisms lobbed at Title VI is that critics feel it should be upholding American interests. This means that professors might have to change out their curriculum with every new administration—even contradicting what they said four years earlier. (Imagine, if you will, the about-face professors would have to do to incorporate Trump administration priorities after spending eight years teaching those of the Obama administration, and that after eight years of the Bush administration.)

This isn’t how education works. American interests are best served by creating a cadre of experts who understand how the rest of the world works and advising the US on what should be done as a result.

That’s what Title VI is supposed to be for.

Update

UNC has responded to the Department of Education. The letter makes numerous references to documentation the government already has in its possession that would have clarified what was happening. See it here:

Writing Your First Book Review

pile of books
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I wasn’t actually intending to write about this as part of the Grad School Survival Guide, but I sat in on a seminar yesterday to discuss a colleague’s new book and the idea came up. I hope the students don’t mind me using our conversation as a jumping off point (I won’t name them, at any rate), and for borrowing a couple of ideas that were circulated.

The issue that came up toward the end of the discussion is that these students, most in their first or second year, were feeling a bit intimidated about writing critical book reviews because they didn’t feel like they had enough grounding in the subject matter, and also they were afraid of offending senior colleagues in the same field.

I’m not going to dismiss these concerns, because they’re certainly understandable, and, when I offered my own advice to them I admitted point blank that I knew exactly where they were coming from.

Writing a book review for a seminar, a graduate student journal, or pretty much anything else is, first and foremost, going to require a lot of the skills I covered in my post on how to read for graduate school. However, as a graduate student it is also one of the easiest ways to start racking up publications credits early in your career.

The standard format of a book review in the humanities (and be sure to check the standards for your discipline, as well as the specific requirements of any venue through which you plan to publish) is that it should be between 1,000 and 1,200 words; that it begins with a paragraph describing the book, goes through chapter by chapter in subsequent paragraphs, and then wraps up with one or two concluding paragraphs.

What the students I met with yesterday were struggling with–and, again, I am familiar with this struggle because we all struggle with it–is how to transform this basic format from a summary into an actual review.

Critique vs. Criticism

One of the classic tactics that early graduate students often adopt to overcome this hurdle is to bludgeon the book to death with over the top criticism that questions the legitimacy of the author’s birth, educational credentials, choice of car, and worthiness as a human being consuming oxygen and food resources that, the review implies, could be better spent on, say, perpetrators of genocide serving out life sentences at The Hague.

The problem with this approach is that much of the substantive criticism of the book tends to revolve around the reviewer’s assertion that they wouldn’t have written a book on this topic the way that the author did. In short: the reviewer isn’t reviewing the book for what it is, they’re criticizing the text based on what they think it should be.

First and foremost, this is both unfair and somewhat unprofessional, and speaks much worse about the reviewer than it does about the material under review. Don’t be this person.

Also, resist personal attacks. At no point should an author’s credentials come into play unless the author is completely unqualified to write the book they’ve written–and even then … an academic book has made it through the proposal stage, blind peer review, and editing, so someone out there who knows this field has decided the book has some merit. If the book didn’t go through peer review, that changes the calculus, but still — personal attacks on the author are petty and weaken your argument. Stick to the text.

This is where the difference between critique and criticism comes in to place. Critique should be somewhat constructive (the author did this well, but their argument could have been strengthened with field work or more archival sources). Criticism, on the other hand, tends to be much more dismissive of the idea that the text has any merit (this book isn’t worth the paper it’s written on). Even if you happen to be of the opinion that the book isn’t worth the paper it’s written on, you’ll get much further and be taken much more seriously by engaging with the argument presented, taking it on its own terms, and outlining the issues with it.

Where To Begin

I referenced the How to Read Post above for a reason: in that post, I offered some suggestions for thinking critically about a text, and one of the easiest places to begin is to locate that section late in the introduction of the book where the author lays out their argument and their plan for the book, and evaluate how well they did.

For example, in yesterday’s seminar, one of the students observed that the author had a tendency to drop what seemed like the beginning of an interesting story that had the potential to illustrate a point … and then abandon it and move on. This is an astute observation, and would be a good point to raise in an review.

It’s also common in first books that come out of dissertations. The author has spent so much time working with the material that they start to think some of their illustrations are common knowledge and don’t need to be fully fleshed out. (This is also a sign of a cursory editing job).

When you’re writing your dissertation you’ll probably experience this once or twice. I literally had moments of despair because I ran across a book that used some of the same sources that I did–and therefore “everyone already knows this” and “I’m not doing anything new.” (They don’t, and you are.)

Here are some other things to take into account:

  • What methodology or theoretical approach is the author using? Is it presented in a way that makes sense. (A lot of historians in particular are allergic to theory and only introduce it at the end in a “I have to do this” sort of way. Does it show?)
  • How is the author contributing to the historical literature? What conversations are they contributing to? How might someone who works on a different area find the book useful?
  • Does each chapter have an argument? Is the argument fully supported? How does the chapter contribute to your understanding of the overall argument of the book?
  • Do the chapters flow from one to the other? (In a book where each chapter is a difference case study they should still fit together somehow in the end).
  • What sources does the author use? Are there sources you might have expected to see that aren’t there? Conversely, are there sources that you didn’t expect to see that are?

Critiques don’t have to be negative

It is often easier to write a review of a book you didn’t like. That said, while “critique” has something of a slightly negative connotation, it is actually a neutral term. Remember to point out things that the author does well–a mix of positive and constructive comments helps demonstrate that you have approached the book on its own terms.

When all else fails, take a look at reviews of books (one of the students in the seminar yesterday mentioned Goodreads, which I’ll admit I haven’t looked at in years). While everyone loves to circulate the fire-and-brimstone type reviews that throw lightning bolts at texts, you really want to get a feel for more nuanced reviews.

In particular, spend time reading reviews that are mostly positive–a lot of students struggle with these because they don’t want to come off as fawning or sycophantic; learning how to write a positive review takes some practice, but you also shouldn’t scour a book for something negative to say just because being fully positive is too challenging.

The more you write reviews, the better you’ll get at it!