Ph.D. Octopus

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In Praise of Objective Scholarship

with 13 comments

by Weiner

Taking a little study break yesterday, I leafed through a discarded edition of the New York Post, sifting through stories about The Jersey Shore castmembers going “back” to Italy and Donald Trump potentially buying Tavern on the Green when I stumbled upon this headline: “‘Anti-Israel’ prof canned.” The editors should probably have put quotation marks around the word “prof” as well, since, as the story notes, the teacher in question, Kristofer Petersen-Overton (pictured here), is not a professor but a doctoral student at CUNY Graduate Center. He was fired from a course he was teaching at Brooklyn College on Middle East politics.

Exactly who made the decision to fire him, or why he was fired, remains unclear. CUNY spokesman Jeremy Thompson says it’s because Peterson-Overton was not “sufficiently qualified” as he still has a long way to go in his PhD program. That may be true. But Peterson-Overton claims the motivation was political, and points to the involvelement of Democratic assemblyman Dov Hikind, who apparently contacted Brooklyn College president, Dr. Karen Gold, and complained of Peterson-Overton’s anti-Israel bias in the classroom. This may also be true.

Frankly, with the limited information I’ve looked through on the case, I can’t really form an opinion. The examples Hikind cites in his letter do not seem particularly egregious, and are par for the course among academic critics of Israel. Explaining suicide bombing is the task of the academic. Whether one condones it or not is irrelevant. Hikind seems incredibly hyperbolic, and Petersen-Overton’s work seems uncontroversial. Here’s Hikind:

Of great concern to me is one of Mr. Petersen-Overton’s papers entitled Inventing the Martyr: Martyrdom as Palestinian National Signifier, which endeavors to justify and condone Palestinian suicide bombings as a means of “struggle and sacrifice” (p. 3) against “Israeli occupation” (p. 2). Mr. Peterson-Overton writes, “Although the martyr has come to define not only innocent non-participants killed in the crossfire, but also those who die voluntarily [emphasis his] for the nation as a human bomb, both are equally honored by virtue of their death alone-a phenomenon that speaks volumes about the symbolic importance of martyrdom in Palestine” (p. 19).

He further states, “I believe the act of martyrdom has become an incredibly powerful national signifier. . . .I argue in this final section that martyrdom in Palestine is viewed as yet another conscious and unequivocal form of sacrifice for the nation” (p. 19). In short, Mr. Peterson-Overton romanticizes the notion of suicide bombings and the bombers themselves, and undermines the only democracy in the Middle East.

Putting quotation marks around “occupation” is just silly, and it doesn’t seem like Peterson-Overton “romanticizes” anything, at least not in the examples displayed here. Of course, I haven’t read the whole work and can’t speak to its quality. Still, Hikind may be crying wolf here.

Nonetheless, this story underscores the importance of the much-maligned notion of objective scholarship. It’s something I still proudly believe in. And, coincidentally, there’s no better example of this than Benny Morris, scholar of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (I recognize people think Morris is biased; I think they’re wrong).

File:Benny morris.jpgMorris (pictured right), an Israeli national and IDF veteran, was a leader of the New Historians who uncovered the records of Israeli atrocities committed upon Palestinians in the 1948 War of Independence. He did this on the 1980s, where he placed himself squarely on the political Left. Since 2000 and the collapse of the Camp David talks, however, he has moved to the right, and made extremely politically incorrect (to put it mildly) statements about the desirability of Palestinian expulsion back in 1948.

And yet, his history works are still used, frequently, by anti-Zionist scholars and activists to undermine and criticize the Israeli state. His scholarship is well-regarded (though not without its detractors, Left and Right) precisely because it does not conform to his political views.

Indeed, if you read the late Tony Judt‘s scholarship, especially his magisterial Postwar, you’ll be struck at how moderate he sounds, especially compared to his more polemical and explicitly political articles in the New York Review of Books.

And that’s how teaching and scholarship at the university level should be. I remember reading Leslie J. Reagan’s When Abortion Was a Crime, an excellent book until the last section, when Reagan outlined her reason for why legalized abortion is a good thing.

Which it is. Of course I agree with her political views on abortion. But those views are not relevant to the history of abortion law in the United States. My ideal history book on any topic is one in which the author’s views remain a mystery. When making decisions about policy, we should be informed by history. But that history should be as unbiased, as objective as possible. In the same vein, the best teacher on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one whose political views on the topic remain unknown.

I had such a professor as an undergraduate. Political scientist Eva Bellin taught a lecture course I took on “Comparative Politics of the Middle East” and a seminar I took on “The Struggle for Israel/Palestine.” Interestingly, she’s now a professor at Hunter College, which of course is part of the CUNY system. I wonder what she thinks about Brookyln College’s recent controversy.

All this led me to think about the recently deceased Daniel Bell, a child of Jewish immigrants and Trotskyite at City College and one of the leading “New York Intellectuals.” In the New York Times obituary for Bell (pictured below), the author quoted from his famous work, The End of Ideology, and his distinction between “scholars” and “intellectuals.”

As both a public intellectual and an academic, Mr. Bell saw a distinction between those breeds. In one of his typical yeasty digressions in “The End of Ideology,” he wrote: “The scholar has a bounded field of knowledge, a tradition, and seeks to find his place in it, adding to the accumulated, tested knowledge of the past as to a mosaic. The scholar, qua scholar, is less involved with his ‘self.’

“The intellectual,” he went on, “begins with his experience, his individual perceptions of the world, his privileges and deprivations, and judges the world by these sensibilities.”

In some measure Mr. Bell may well have been referring to himself in that passage — his intellectual persona self-consciously winking at its detached scholarly twin with whom it conspired in a lifetime of work and experience.

As many have noted, the term “public intellectual” is redundant. By definition, intellectuals are supposed to engage the public, emerge from the Ivory Tower and comment on the issues of the day. When Emile Zola and other popularized the term intellectuel in France surrounding the Dreyfus Affair, it was supposed to imply a detached figure, unencumbered by official ties to government, military, or church, dedicated only to Truth and Justice and other lofty universal (French) ideals.

As Bell would have it, and I think rightly, it is in fact the scholar who is supposed to be “detached,” his only loyalty to the university’s mission of objective scholarship. The intellectual is a political figure, staking out a moral decision. The scholar only presents data and evidence, and lets intellectuals and policy makers decide what to do with it.

Like Bell, and Tony Judt, we can wear different hats. As Weiner, the blogger, I take political and moral positions all the time. As a doctoral candidate attempting to produce scholarship, and as teaching assistant attempting to instruct students, I try to be unbiased and objective, at least in my presentation. To both aspects of my personality inform each other? Sure. But I still try to keep them distinct as much as I can.

Of course, some people believe “objective” scholarship is illusory. Peter Novick wrote an entire book, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession, dedicated to showing that objectivity in academia is like “nailing jelly to the wall”, at best a fanciful dream, and perhaps not even a noble one.

Well gosh darn it I still believe in that noble dream. Is absolute, unbiased objectivity impossible? Probably. We all have our biases and it’s hard to put them aside completely. But we should still strive for that goal, like the concept of the limit in calculus (which as a humanities person, I admittedly don’t understand all too well), endlessly approaching our destination without getting to it. Maybe the project is Sisyphean, but I’m gonna give that boulder a few more runs up the hill.


Written by David Weinfeld

January 28, 2011 at 10:19

13 Responses

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  1. hear hear. (or is it here here)?

    the passages you cite from the assemblyman’s letter seem like a pretty clear example of confusing an explanation of the views of palestinians with an apology for them. but i guess this just reveals the deeply anti-intellectual content of: to understand is to forgive.


    January 28, 2011 at 10:59

  2. Like Petersen-Overton, I am an adjunct professor at Brooklyn College (in the English Dept.) and a doctoral student at the Graduate Center. It is 100% par for the course to have doctoral students from the Graduate Center teach courses at the CUNY colleges as early as their first semester in graduate school. In fact, we teach the majority of lower-level courses (composition, intro to ___, etc.), so Thompson’s reasoning for the firing is baseless.

    Melissa Phruksachart

    January 28, 2011 at 11:38

    • Hi Melissa,

      Thanks for the comment.

      The question is not whether assigning graduate students to instruct undergrads at CUNY colleges is the policy or not, the question whether it is a good policy or not. My suspicion, and please correct me if I’m wrong, is that CUNY does this largely out of necessity, both to use cheap grad student labour and to help fund their graduate students.

      Frankly, I’m not sure whether I can evaluate if it is a good policy or not. I’m sure that right now, all over the country, graduate students are serving as teaching assistants and as instructors for courses which they are not qualified to teach. Sometimes they learn on the job. Sometimes they don’t. More often than not they receive little to no teacher training.

      Of course some in fact many graduate students are in fact qualified to teach the courses they teach, and do wonderful jobs.

      Since I don’t know Petersen-Overton, had not read any of his work, have not seen him teach and have not seen his syllabus, I have no way of knowing which category he falls into.

      But simply because this is CUNY policy does not mean that in this particular instance, the instructor was qualified or unqualified. We still don’t really know much at all about the merits of this case. Or at least I don’t. You may have more information than I do, in which case you should feel free to share it.

      The thrust of this post, however, is not about the specific instance, but about the issue of objective scholarship in general. Again, since I have not seen the syllabus nor have I seen Petersen-Overton teach, I have no idea whether he was being objective, or even if he was trying to be objective. My suspicion, based on the little that I know, is that he probably should not have been fired. But again, I know too little to say anything definitive.

      All I do know is that, in my opinion, teachers like Petersen-Overton SHOULD strive to be objective, especially in courses with controversial subject matter like Middle East politics.



      January 28, 2011 at 13:28

      • The Salon article on this had a link to his syllabus that didn’t seem horribly unbalanced to me (as a non-specialist in this field).

        I am curious what you make of the academic freedom argument that Petersen-Overton colleagues make over his getting fired. Can Brooklyn College, as a public institution, dictate the curriculum in this way?


        January 29, 2011 at 15:32

      • Whether a graduate student is “qualified” to teach is an issue separate from why I replied to your post (although I see that it is the very reason you wrote this post). I wrote because you said you had limited information, and I wanted to let you know about the CUNY protocol. Whether you condone it or not, grad students are routinely hired to teach undergraduate and even graduate courses in the CUNY system. Since this precedent has been established, I think the administration’s given reason for the firing (P-O was not qualified because he did not have his PhD) is unfounded and arbitrary. If they had specifically owned up to being skeptical about his “objectivity” — ie., given him due process as a professional — then we would be having a different discussion. Instead, though, they’re covering this up with smoke and mirrors and undermining their own actions. You have no reason to be “suspicious” that grad students are being exploited at CUNY — it is quite routine and out in the open.

        Melissa P.

        January 29, 2011 at 17:29

  3. Weiner,
    As someone who dabbles in several academic disciplines but usually calls history home, I encourage you to more deeply consider your dream of objective history.

    You write:
    “My ideal history book on any topic is one in which the author’s views remain a mystery. When making decisions about policy, we should be informed by history. But that history should be as unbiased, as objective as possible.”

    I wonder if the topic of Middle East politics is one where “objectivity” is so deeply desired because of both the relatively clear political lines of the conflict (at least in the US) as well as its intractability. Would you say the same about National Socialism, or another “settled” narrative where the moral decisions are as of now, pretty cut and dried?

    The dream of “objective” scholarship also ignores that it’s always a human being, or a group of humans, who are writing these stories, making thousands of decisions about what evidence to include and what to ignore, and at every turn, applying meaning and interpretation to their craft. I think that there are clear examples of advocacy in history (Zinn for example), that can sometimes get in the way of verifiable fact, but they also challenge dominant narratives in ways that “objective history” rarely can.

    Given my short tenure as a historian, I can’t speak to how other historians talk about these issues, but most of my experience suggests that few are ready to talk about how they make their work ‘objective’ or what positioning oneself as an author and as someone who is “political” (in the neutral sense of the word) might mean for their work. This is difficult terrain, but please don’t give in so early in your career to the dream of objectivity.

    On a final note, there’s very little to suggest that policymakers consider research or history in their work as policymakers; most listen to trusted advisers or rely on ideological frames to guide their decision-making. Wouldn’t it be nice if more politicians read difficult history, and not just the mythmakers?


    January 29, 2011 at 11:30

  4. Thanks all of the comments. I’ll address them all as best I can.

    SwampProf, first let me say that you’re right that I’m engaging in some wishful thinking, wishing that policymakers consulted historians. It would be nice, provided they consulted good historians!

    I agree with you about more political history books being useful to push boundaries, though I think you’re also right to point that Zinn is not well-regarded as a historian, and I think that can be a real danger for advocate-scholars. I believe that Truth, or truths, or how about just truth, should come first.

    I’m not exactly sure what you mean when you bring up National Socialism. I think in studying things like the Holocaust, for example, or slavery, one can still be very objective. I don’t need the historian to tell me that the Holocaust was bad, or that slavery was bad (I always cross out the word “unfortunately” in my students’ papers). I need the historian to provide new information about these phenomena, to explain why and how they happened. Passing moral judgment on them is easy but also irrelevant.

    I’ll add that historians can and should pass judgment on things. We should judge things by their own standards, i.e. did the Russian Revolution meet it’s own objectives. We can judge things comparatively, across time and space (country X in the 1700s treated Jews less harshly than country why in the 1920s) and so on. I just don’t think it’s our place as scholars and academics to take explicitly political stances, especially on the issues of the day.

    So, I don’t see aiming for objectivity as “giving in,” I actually think it takes a lot of effort, perhaps more than simply acquiescing to objectivity’s impossibility.

    Melissa, I agree with you about the smoke and mirrors. Clearly, based on CUNY’s own policy, P-O should not have been fired. In fact, I don’t think he should have been fired at all, for the sake of “objectivity” or anything else. But I will say that I think having graduate students teach other graduate students is a bad policy. I recognize it is one borne of necessity, and that there are undoubtedly many instances where the grad students are qualified to do so. But I would probably be pretty pissed as an MA student to be taught be a fellow grad student. Part of what has made graduate student so wonderful for me is the exposure to the professors, something that was sorely lacking in my undergraduate experience.

    jl, thanks for the link to the Salon piece, which led me to the syllabus. First, I’ll say that I don’t think Brooklyn College should be able to fire him. P-O should be given the benefit of the doubt for the sake of academic freedom.

    I’m also a non-specialist, though I’ve taken undergrad courses on Middle Eastern history, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Comparative Politics in the Middle East and Ancient Israelite History. At the grad level, I’ve studied Israel and Zionism a bit, American Jewish history extensively, especially American Zionism, eastern European history and eastern European Jewish history, and nationalism more generally. I’ve also TA’d on nationalism, in a course with units on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Zionism and Palestinian nationalism, Arab nationalism, Algerian nationalism, and the Holocaust. In college I also participated in and later moderated an Arab-Jewish student dialogue about Israel-Palestine, and have written on the topic for student publications and on this blog. So I have some knowledge in the area, though again, I’m not a specialist.

    All that said, I thought P-O syllabus was ok but not great. The course I took with Eva Bellin was much better. She still apparently teaches the course at Hunter. He should have just asked her for her syllabus.

    I have no problem with Edward Said, Rashid Khalidi, Benny Morris, Noam Chomsky, Ilan Pappe, Sara Roy, Joseph Massad, and all the rest. In general, I think scholarship that is more critical of Israel, what we might call the left, is on surer footing than that of the right.

    That being said, why not expose your students to at least some scholarship more critical of the Palestinian side and less critical of Israel? Something by Efraim Karsh for example. He could even, God-forbid, have had them read excerpts from Tom Friedman’s “From Beirut to Jerusalem,” still his best book, one that covers multiple countries in the Middle East and has an especially interesting chapter on Syria (“Hama Rules,” which Bellin assigned to my class) which is also remarkably insightful about the role and character of Ariel Sharon.

    He chose some Sari Nusseibeh, but why not Nusseibeh’s book, “No Trumpets, No Drums,” which he co-authored wit Mark Heller in an attempt to offer a balanced proposal for a two-state solution? That was another reading Eva Bellin assigned.

    It doesn’t seem like O-P is having them read any primary sources. Why not assign texts from the Israel-Arab reader, which has tons of great ones?

    How about some Palestinian fiction? Something by Mahmoud Darwish? Or Ghassan Kanafani? When I TA’d on nationalism, the prof assigned Kanafani’s excellent short story “Men in the Sun.” O-P probably could have improved the course by cutting some Pappe or Said and including that.

    Last, I think it would have been very easy to assign texts from at least one, if not all three, of Israel’s prominent left-wing Zionist authors: Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, and David Grossman. He could easily have had them read Grossman’s superb speech:

    So no, I don’t think they should have fired P-O. But don’t think his syllabus was outstanding either.


    January 29, 2011 at 21:02

  5. […] it. Which is my, much as I think pragmatism is a silly philosophy with which to pursue scholarship (I believe in objectivity, but not Objectivism), I think it’s useful, or dare I say, pragmatic, when it comes to […]

  6. […] try to be objective in my work, as I believe objectivity is often undervalued or downright ignored in today’s academic […]

  7. […] Indeed, as reported in these pages, a graduate instructor at CUNY’s Brooklyn College was almost fired a few months ago because of external accusations of anti-Israel bias. His job was only protected […]

  8. […] reason to deny the Jewish argument for statehood.  As an aspiring historian who, like Weiner, strives to achieve some level of objectivity (like Sisyphus, I believe historians must push the boulder of objectivity up the hill even though […]

  9. […] will do my darndest to keep the secular Jewish faith alive (though not in my academic career, where I strive for objectivity). In any case, read Phoebe’s piece. It’s […]

  10. […] more), I heard a talk at NYU by Benny Morris, the controversial Israeli historian. I generally appreciate Morris’ commitment to objective scholarship, but his political views can rankle. And on the […]

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