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: