Quote of the day--they go around recruiting people, you know, edition

>> Thursday, March 15, 2012

It's a familiar conservative refrain, and a familiar origin story, because nothing propels you toward the modern GOP's welcoming counterfactual bosom like finding your mediocrity disdained by institutions relying on historicity, evidence and peer review. Conservatives know why conservatives test badly: The tests are rigged commie bullshit. Conservatives know how conservatives are smart: They agree with other conservatives. There's even a publishing structure for this.
-mobutu & Gen. Ze'evi,
"Andrew Breitbart: Big Deal, Big Coronary, Big Corpse",
Gawker, March 6th, 2012

No, I'm not going back to kick Andrew Breitbart's body a few more times; I had enough of that last week. Rather, it's that I finally got around to reading Gawker's Breitbart obituary (I don't normally read Gawker, but I do follow their speculative fiction sister, io9, and sometimes a headline at the bottom of a page will lead me over to one of the other relations), and that line leapt out at me. It's something I've been thinking about a bit lately, perhaps because of Rick Santorum's recent upwelling of anti-intellectual blather.

It's not an uncommon conversion narrative or whine, you know: "In college I came into contact with the liberal academic establishment of liberal, left-wing college professors unwilling to accept any challenge of their fringe orthodoxy, and I immediately knew something was wrong with the so-called 'intellectual elite'." Seems like you hear this coming from somebody on the right all the time, and I have to admit it always spins me around a little.

Two reasons for that, actually. The first is that while I'd certainly grant there's a liberal bias in academic institutions for a whole variety of reasons, few of which have anything to do with "orthodoxy", the majority of professors I dealt with in my undergraduate work and in law school were more than happy to have their views challenged in classrooms or assigned work. If nothing else, challenges allowed them to show off a little, though I think the majority of professors also simply enjoyed the intellectual give-and-take--that was the kind of thing that got them interested in academe in the first place, and was most likely the kind of thing they fantasized about when they thought about getting into a teaching career: heady intellectual discourses and exchanges of ideas, not the drudgery of grading papers or suffering through faculty politics. What these professors had much less patience for were stupid challenges. Ill-informed objections, recitations of long-debunked claims and arguments, demonstrations of unfamiliarity with or incomprehension of assigned reading, regurgitation of old canards and talking points--these kinds of things got as much time as they deserved. Stand up and make a reasoned and informed critique of the prof's pet theory, on the other hand, and you frequently became something of a favorite (especially if you appeared to be one of the few students in the class actively giving a fuck about the subject).

Of course, academics are a varied bunch, and there are assholes and idiots in faculty lounges as much as anywhere else, and now and again you'd come across some dickhead who didn't like being confronted regardless. But here we get to the second reason I don't get the usual conservative plaint jeered at in the Gawker quote: it was usually pretty easy to game those profs until you finished the semester (assuming it was too late to drop the class or switch to an audit), and then do your best to avoid them unless you just had to take them again for your prereqs or degree or whatever. Grind your teeth, don't say anything, cram the materials and get a perfunctorily satisfactory grade on the midterm and final; toss the ball and take an easy, lazy swing with your bat. Sure, you were wasting your time and money, which might be irritating, but there's an old adage that comes to mind: "Suck it up." I mean, seriously, you have a shit teacher in a course, do what you have to do to pass it and get a couple of books about the subject from the library or something.

The real point in all of that was that, contrary to what some conservatives think, the university (and post-graduate) experience--at least at a liberal arts institution--is never really about telling you what to think. Good professors want you to push back. Lousy professors can't be helped, but it isn't like you can't regurgitate whatever a crap professor wants to hear so you can take your B and get out of Dodge, is it? I guess some people possessing a foolish and self-spiting sense of pride might be too good to fake their way through a course, but I don't see it as being particularly different from not telling your bosses what you really think of them, seeing as how preferring honesty may go hand-in-hand with a preference for living on a park bench and washing your hair in a public restroom sink, y'know?

It's not like they're going to crawl into your brain and say, "Waitaminnit, you haven't adopted neo-Marxian-critical-postmodern-classical-transdeconstruction!" and then point their fingers and scream at you like podpeople in the 1978 Invasion Of The Body Snatchers remake or anything.

And, jeez, people, I dunno: maybe understanding neo-Marxian-critical-postmodern-classical-transdeconstruction or whatever the academic fad of the day is wouldn't be a bad thing even if you think it's a steaming pile of shit. Because, (a) even steaming piles of shit have their uses and (b) even if that's not the case, you'll nevertheless be a far more capable opponent of neo-Marxian-critical-postmodern-classical-transdeconstruction if you can explain why neo-Marxian-critical-postmodern-classical-transdeconstruction is a steaming pile of shit. (Specifically, it's because no neo-Marxian-critical-postmodern-classical-transdeconstructist has ever adequately rebutted Heigelsteinowitz's critique of Hoffennormerhoff's Fallacy. In case you were wondering.)

All of this has also been on my mind ever since--heaven help me, we're back to Breitbart, dammit--that Obama college video Breitbart's people unveiled last week, the one Breitbart had been promising was explosive and controversial and eye-opening and other hyperbole; you know, the one that turned out to show Obama, a Harvard law student at the time, introducing an African-American professor, Derrick Bell, at a quiet but seemingly well-attended rally during Bell's attempt to get Harvard to hire more minority professors. This being no big deal to anyone who'd wonder why the African-American editor of the law review (a pretty big status position in a law school student body) wouldn't be on hand to ask students to listen to a speech by an African-American law professor and esteemed civil rights litigator known for mentoring African-American students; and even less of a big deal considering that Obama's speech consisted of (a) a flattering joke about Bell of the sort you might hear at an annual awards dinner followed by (b) a request that those assembled "open your hearts" to the professor, i.e. listen with an open mind, followed by (c) a hug, which I guess Rick Santorum or someone like that might object to two dudes hugging on the off-chance it leads to marriage and next thing you know the White House is being repainted to look fahb-yu-lusss and America's armed forces are forced to wear assless chaps into battle again for the first time since 1843. No, but really: it wasn't like Barack Obama was wearing a beret and goading a crowd of screaming radicals to burn down the ROTC building; it honestly would have been more shocking if Breitbart's scandalous college video had shown the future President shotgunning Jäger during pledge week.

Anyway, everybody was bored by the whole thing except, perhaps, for the Usual Suspects who were already incensed by the President's Mohamedeanism and ongoing attempt to force everybody onto sovkhozes by forcing everybody to have private-sector health insurance (I know it's a head-scratcher as to how mandatory health insurance leads to everybody living on agrarian collectives, but trust me, the scheme is an utter doozy in its maximum cleverosity). But then some stooge of Breitbart's--don't ask me who, and I don't really care enough to go find the YouTube video that would provide his name; let's call him "Mr. Stooge"--Mr. Stooge was on the television telling someone that all this was a big honking deal, why, did you know, as a law professor, Obama had one of Derick Bell's books on critical race theory on the required reading list for his class!

The horror.

So, first of all: I had a lot of professors put things on reading lists that they loathed. I'm not saying that's what Obama was doing; I'm just saying that a reading list can be a piss-poor indicator of a professor's opinions, especially in law school, where the traditional teaching mode is a Harvard-Law-invented version of the Socratic Method; you might call it "The Socratic Method For Assholes"--the professor asks the student to say something, the student replies, the professor tells the student he's wrong and asks the student to clarify, the student flounders around a bit, the professor tells the student he's wrong and asks if there was a lot of lead paint in his childhood home, the student burbles a bit, and so on back-and-forth like that. It's about as much fun as it sounds, but the real point is to get students to "think like a lawyer", by which we attorneys mean, "pedantically pick holes in any assertion, no matter how incontrovertible it might appear to be."

To which I should add: I'm not saying the President was a dick as a law professor, or that he was more of a dick than any other law professor. The point is that law professors--good professors at any level, really--are all about challenging the students, exposing students to different kinds of ideas, including ideas the professor might not be endorsing.

Of course--and this will get us to the second thing--it's possible that the President was enamored with Professor Bell's favorite mode of critique, Critical Race Theory (CRT) in the 1990s (or maybe he still is). That would have been him and a few hundred million other legal academics, not just law professors but also PoliSci, probably a bunch of History profs, etc. (And yes, I'm exaggerating the number. A little.) CRT was a Big Fucking Deal in the day (could be it still is), and so the second thing is: it doesn't actually matter how Obama felt about CRT; he was practically obligated to offer students some kind of exposure to it, seeing as how it was one of the most important frameworks anybody in academe was using to analyze legal matters. Put another way: law students needed to learn it even if 90% of them forgot about it the day after graduation, because it was going to come up, and if 90% of the remaining 10% thought it was bollocks, they nevertheless needed to know it so they could deal with CRT arguments being made in whatever classrooms, editorial rooms, Supreme Court clerks' offices, or wherever it was they'd see CRT critiques popping up. There was a point, I'd say, where someone trying to be any kind of legal scholar without being acquainted with CRT would be a lot like someone trying to be an expert on German literature without being able to read any German; sure, you could kind of do it, resorting to translations and synopses or whatever, but, really, who would you be kidding? You'd be hamstrung and limping right there at the gate.

One of the things Breitbart's pet idiot reminded me of was an experience I had in law school in a ConLaw class being taught by Professor Jack Boger. Good man, they made him the dean a while back. Anyway, one of the cases in the textbook we were using was a United States Supreme Court case called McClesky v. Kemp, in which a defendant who had been tried for murder and sentenced to death appealed his sentencing on the basis of extensive research that tended to show a black defendant accused of murdering a white victim was far more likely to be sentenced to death than any other kind of criminal defendant accused of murder. SCOTUS heard the case, and decided that didn't offend the Constitution's guarantees against cruel and unusual punishment or guarantees of Equal Protection. Well, when we got to McClesky, Professor Boger stood up in front of the class and argued the Supreme Court got it right, that the statistics weren't persuasive, and so what if they were, and he took on any and all comers in the class who wanted to say different. I don't know that the Supreme Court defended their decision in McClesky half as well as Professor Boger defended it.

Well, we'd all wondered how he was going to handle it: everybody already knew he was the guy who'd represented McClesky on his appeal to the Supreme Court.

If you know any decent professors, it shouldn't surprise you that when some of us talked to Professor Boger outside class, his attitudes remained very different, he was as passionate about the unfairness of sentencing disparities as he'd been when he was trying to save Warren McCleskey's life. If Professor Boger had done anything wrong in class, you could argue that he may have laid it on a little thick in bending over backwards to argue the opposing side's case, that maybe he was overcompensating a little to be fair. But this is what professors do, see? They're up there to challenge students to think differently, to challenge themselves to think differently. And if Professor Boger could argue both sides of a case, the side he agreed with and that of his opponents, it isn't hypocrisy, it's having a supple mind.

I know there are people who don't get that. Some of them go to religious schools where, as far as I can tell and from the sense I get of them, a disagreeable thought is never laid across their trail to teach them cunning and the use of trailblazing equipment. Others end up at better schools but may not get anything worthwhile out of them except a piece of sheepskin, or that's the impression one gets from all the bitching they do about, basically, hearing things they don't want to hear. It's really pretty sad. They don't say anything in class, or they say something insipid and instead of learning how to put up a better fight, they figure the professor's just a tool. "I'm a great pugilist even though I just stand there and throw wild punches at the air; I keep getting my ass handed to me because the Marquess Of Queensberry is a punk. I know it's not me and my five best pals, so it must be everyone else."

I tell you, it's just sad.


Phiala Thursday, March 15, 2012 at 5:27:00 PM EDT  

Everything I know about law school came from watching The Paper Chase.

More relevantly, I used to teach intro biology for non-majors at New Mexico State, in a heavily conservative Christian region.

I taught evolution, of course. I was very clear, and repeated frequently, that I didn't care what my students believed. Regardless of what they thought of evolution, they had to learn the material to pass the class. They didn't have to believe it, but they had to comprehend what scientists thought about evolution.

It even mostly worked. I'd hate to be doing it now, though: the debate on so many things has become more dogma-driven.

vince Thursday, March 15, 2012 at 5:44:00 PM EDT  

Thinking is a liberal gay atheistic communistic socialist plot. Fox News and my pastor said so. So there.

Eric Thursday, March 15, 2012 at 5:51:00 PM EDT  

Phiala, my first day of Contracts, the Professor starts by saying law school was nothing like The Paper Chase.

He then immediately launched a discussion of Hawkins v. McGee, the "burned, hairy hand" case that's the first thing Kingsfield covers on the first day of law school in the movie version of The Paper Chase.

As far as I know, nobody refused to share an outline on grounds another student was a pimp, but other than that, the first semester exam prep scenes in TPC were pretty damn accurate, too. Mass panic, utter panic.

More importantly: what you told your students, exactly--there are things you have to learn, but you don't have to believe them. Maybe you ought to (e.g. evolution), but that really isn't the point of learning them; the point of learning them is so you can have an intelligent and worthwhile opinion whichever way it goes.

David Thursday, March 15, 2012 at 7:05:00 PM EDT  

Stand up and make a reasoned and informed critique of the prof's pet theory, on the other hand, and you frequently became something of a favorite (especially if you appeared to be one of the few students in the class actively giving a fuck about the subject).


Some of my favorite students were the ones who disagreed with me but could back up their disagreement with clear arguments in a historically appropriate manner. My best student last semester actually left class on a regular basis when he would get fed up with my interpretations of history - he'd walk the halls for five minutes and then come back and challenge me with questions, and I learned just to let him walk because I knew where it came from.

He cared. He thought. He figured out that I really didn't care WHAT he thought so much as THAT he thought. I tell all my classes that on Day 1, and he did me the courtesy of believing me.

This sort of thing has gotten much harder now, as Phiala implies - for one thing, the political atmosphere is so much more toxic now than it was even five years ago. Also, between the echo chamber of the internet and a startling rise of homeschooled students, I am finding that my students are less capable of dealing with differences than they used to be. They're simply not exposed to them as much, and it first boggles and then offends them that anyone would think differently than they do. They're bright enough, certainly, but completely floored by difference.

John the Scientist Thursday, March 15, 2012 at 8:25:00 PM EDT  

I don't think there is anyone farther to the right in the UCF than I am, and I spent significant chunks of my undergradute career reading Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky in the original. Seriously, if you took a class from Robert Conquest (the guy who wanted to name his post-Perestroika review of KGB archives "I Fucking Told You So"), would you not expect to encounter some Marxists on the reading list? If you took a class from Robert Spence, would you not expect to cover some Mao? (I've read the Little Red Book, too, but not in the original).

I'm fucking done with the Republicans. It's time for a Fourth Party System.

Phiala Friday, March 16, 2012 at 12:14:00 PM EDT  

Eric, thanks for the law school anecdote. And you nailed it: there are things you have to learn, even if you don't believe them or agree with them, because they are the foundation of modern [science/society/etc].

David, I'm saddened to learn that my suspicions were correct. I haven't taught regularly for ten years, but hear disturbing things from colleagues.

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