Ph.D. Octopus

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The Harvard Crimson Daily Newspaper: The More Things Change…

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by David

The Harvard Crimson building at 14 Plympton Street

As an undergraduate at Harvard, I was proud to work for The Harvard Crimson, probably the best college daily on the planet. I witnessed some monumental changes, like the addition of colour, and have noticed similar advances since graduating, like the tremendous expansion of on-line, audiovisual, and social media content. Now, as a doctoral student in history, I find it amusing when my subjects mention The Crimson in their letters. This one letter, written by Alain LeRoy Locke ‘1907 to his mother on June 2, 1906, really captures how though some things have changed (the building, and everything mentioned above) but some things have really stayed the same.

The Crimson editors have just had a beer night and ten to one there will be no college paper tomorrow. They are outside the window (their office is in the Union) all so drunk that they wouldn’t know a paper from a printing press. Perhaps they have had sense enough to get the copy read before they started drinking. – Alain LeRoy Locke, Harvard sophomore, June 2, 1906

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Written by David Weinfeld

March 21, 2012 at 11:02

Ph.D. Octopus versus Peer Review

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by David

The Ph.D Octopus (image by Parsiri Audcharevorakul)

Today we launched the official Ph.D. Octopus Facebook page. We’re finally entering the 21st century, I guess. Heck, we haven’t even really decided how we’re spelling Ph.D. But I guess it’s fitting that I contribute this post along with that piece of news, and the above image, which we’ve been hiding for far too long, crafted by the lovely and talented Parisi Audchaevorakul.

See, over the weekend I was having a conversation with my new friend Holger Syme, a professor of English at University of Toronto. Holger also has a wonderful academic blog called Dispositio. And so we discussed our blogs. Eventually, the conversation turned to the horrendous state of the academic job market (as it does) and then to the process of acquiring those disappearing jobs, and getting tenure, and to the process of peer review.

For those who don’t know, peer review is the process by which academic work is rendered legitimate. In practical terms, it means that when we submit articles to academic journals, the article is reviewed by two of our peers, that is to say, by two other academics in our field, two similar specialists, who might be able to speak the article’s accuracy, originality, and importance, and to the author’s general competence.

The goal of the system is for our peers to operate as gatekeepers. They are the ones who decide if the article is good enough to get in, and the number and quality of articles (and books) that we write determines the fellowships and jobs that we get, and whether we get tenure.

It’s not bad in principle. But there are problems. First, it’s never entirely clear that these two readers are actually experts in your field, or that their judgments are good. If your article is rejected by one journal, of course you can take it to another. But the reality is that two people may dislike your piece but a dozen other equally qualified “peers” might have loved it, and you have no way of knowing, because the peers are anonymous and the process is rather opaque.

Second, and perhaps more important, the process is painfully slow. Even if the two reviewers like your article, it might take weeks or even months for them to actually read it, then they send it back to you with the instruction “revise and resubmit,” and then the process repeats itself. Actually getting it to print can take even longer. Sometimes it takes years before the actual discovery or innovation that your work produces ever sees the light of the day, and that being the very dim light of an academic journal, which even at their most prestigious are read by very view people indeed.

What Holger did that so fascinated me was compare this peer review process to his own blogging. Because Holger has tenure, he can write (within reason) anything that he wants on his blog. He can share his academic work there. And so he does. And when he does, he gets responses in real time. If he provides a novel piece of research, say, a new analysis of one of Shakespeare’s plays, or even digital images of marginalia from the early 17th century, he can get comments, that is to say, peer reviews, immediately. Indeed, that is precisely what happened in the above post. Holger wrote it on December 21, 2011. Professor Martin Wiggins, of the University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute, offered comments and corrections on December 22, 2011, the very next day. Then Holger edited the post, and thanked and responded to Dr. Wiggins in the comments.

Now, if Holger didn’t have tenure, and Professor Wiggins wasn’t a nice person, he could have stolen Holger’s work and done published it with more correct information, or simply published it first in a more reputable setting, and Holger’s path to tenure might have been thwarted. After all, we don’t get credit for our blog posts on the tenure clock. So for someone like me, or any of my non-tenured (or unemployed) co-bloggers, it might be academic suicide to publish our original research out here in cyberspace, rather than in a peer-reviewed journal, or in a book printed by a university press.

On the other hand, I wonder if, in the future, blogs such as these will sort of play the role that Sean Parker’s Napster did for the music industry. If we could all publish our work, safely, in real time, and have legitimate critics respond to it in  real time, and edit it in real time, wouldn’t that be a more effective way of advancing scholarship?

This is not to say that peer review should be done away with entirely. But it seems like a community of academic bloggers should at least have some effect in speeding the process up, and ideally in making it more transparent and democratic as well. For example, suppose Dr. Martin Wiggins was simply Mr. Martin Wiggins, amateur Shakespeare buff, who knew enough to provide relevant criticism to Holger’s post. Theoretically, as long as the scholarship is sound, it shouldn’t really matter where it’s coming from.

That’s precisely the point of William James’ 1903 essay, “The Ph.D. Octopus,” that we should not fetishize degrees, like the Ph.D., but instead evaluate work, and academics, on their scholarly merit. We’re not quite there yet, and I’m not quite sure where there is. But I think I’d like to get there eventually.

Written by David Weinfeld

January 30, 2012 at 20:42

An Unlikely Pair

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by apini

This week’s Economist and Weekend FT both feature articles about the newest candidate to enter the Republican nomination contest, Michele Bachmann. As papers that regularly point to the celebrity reality show nature of Sarah Palin’s past (and potential future) candidacy, the papers treat Bachmann remarkably seriously.  They refer to her polling numbers in Iowa, where she is only behind Mitt Romney by 1 percentage point in the Republican nominating contest.  They refer to her religious convictions, and although it’s clear that they are not shared by the authors of the pieces, the tone is markedly different from those aimed at Palin, or even Newt Gingrich.  ‘Authenticity’, ‘conviction’, ‘credentials’ seem to be the buzzwords surrounding Bachmann.   She is genuinely passionate about her religious convictions, the papers argue.  She’s the opposite of Romney’s transparent faux conservativeness, and therefore will appeal to real value voters, they say.  She is ideologically pure, as well, ridiculing the Republican establishment with as much vigor as she ridicules Democratic opponents.  But they also emphasize that she’s no lightweight.  Although she has a limited political track record, they are keen to highlight that unlike Palin, she’s smart.  Not just shrewd (though there’s that too: ‘And Mrs Bachmann certainly knows how to play Iowa;’ ‘She is a gifted public speaker, with a knack for rousing a crowd;’ ‘ her appetite for provocative stunts;’ etc), she is portrayed as genuinely smart, presidential material: The Economist says ‘ She replied, in a suitably dignified, presidential manner, that she deserved to be taken seriously.‘  The FT says that ‘In Republican circles she is seen as having the potential to outshine Palin by being a smarter and more disciplined candidate.’  Clearly the comparisons to Palin are easy for journalists: they are both ‘values’ candidates, they appeal to similar voters, and they are both women.

What is more intriguing about this coverage, though, is its potential for international comparisons.  A regular feature of the Economist (and its only regular Read the rest of this entry »

Written by apini

July 2, 2011 at 09:45

The “Gay Girl in Damascus” Hoax: Some Reflections

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I’m pleased to once again be able to introduce a great guest post from friend-of-PhD-Octopus, Mircea, who takes on the case of the mythical Syrian lesbian blogger, Amina, and its personal and geopolitical fallout.  –Luce

by Mircea

It’s been not 24 hours since the mystery behind detained Syrian lesbian blogger Amina Abdallah Arraf Al-Omari has been solved. What began as an international outcry over the arrest of a popular blogger giving voice to the queer side of the “Arab Spring” quickly turned into a frenzy of Internet investigations, carried out by journalists and bloggers, that has reached a sad and predictable end – there was never an Amina in the first place. The blog, and even more disturbingly, an entire online identity going back almost four years, was the creation of a 40 year-old American man from Georgia now studying in Edinburgh, Tom MacMasters, and his wife Britta. In what follows I’ll quickly recount the story, from first suspicions to this morning’s denouement, then offer a few thoughts on what this might mean in the larger context of queer politics and the Middle East.

It all began with this post detailing Amina’s capture by Syrian security forces, ostensibly put up by Amina’s cousin Rania Ismail. The response was swift, with several newspaper reports and a flurry of “Free Amina” facebook groups, like this one and this one, mobilising concerned people around the world. But within a few days, as reporters and State Department officials in Syria attempted to contact Amina’s family, doubts began to emerge. No one, it seems, had ever met or spoken to Amina, not even her girlfriend in Montreal, Sandra Bagaria (they had only communicated via e-mail). One of the first to publicly question the story was NPR’s Andy Carvin, who was sceptical yet cautious to declare that she didn’t exist. Maybe she was simply very good at concealing herself, as all activists living under repressive regimes must be. But then a Croatian woman living in London, Jelena Lecic, noticed that the photos of Amina being circulated were actually of her. There were hundreds, including all the photos on Amina’s personal facebook page, all apparently stolen from Jelena’s facebook. Troubled, she went on the BBC to prove her identity, and wonder how all this had come about. The evidence was increasingly pointing to an elaborate hoax.

I began following the controversy at Liz Henry’s blog, where commenters took to the Internet to uncover as many details about Amina as could be found. The mass of details was confusing, and involved an extensive cast of characters, some real and some fictional. Amina had stated she was born in Virginia and went to high school and college in Georgia. She had a previous blog where she declared her intention to mix fact and fiction; she had also been active in posting on alternate history Yahoo mailing lists, declaring her interest in medieval Byzantium. There were several online dating profiles, one in which she listed her language as Hebrew. Some used pictures of Jelena Lecic, some of another woman. Her cousin Rania Ismail’s facebook page turned out to be a likely fake; no one had been able to contact her either. Anything seemed possible. Was she the creation of Rania, a married Syrian woman looking for an escapist fantasy? Did Rania even exist? Was Amina a creation of Sandra Bagaria, the Canadian girlfriend? Or perhaps it was Jelena Lecic herself, whose first statement to the media was released through a suspicious P.R. agency? These theories may seem ridiculous in retrospect, but only through this kind of free-thinking exercise could all options be considered. The truth, when it came out, was perhaps stranger still.

Parallel to Liz Henry’s and Andy Carvin’s efforts, which later turned out to involve e-mail communications with someone likely to be the person behind the hoax, the website Electronic Intifada and the Washington Post were putting together a story based on two concrete leads. One came from Paula Brooks, an editor at the website LezGetReal (which was the first to introduce Amina’s blog to a wide readership). She provided two IP addresses used by Amina, both in Edinburgh. The other came from Scott Palter, a moderator on the alternate history boards, who had once gotten a mailing address from Amina in Stone Mountain, GA. This, it turned out, was Tom MacMaster’s home. Suddenly all the pieces fell into place: MacMaster was born in Virginia, had lived in Georgia, currently studies in Edinburgh, and plans to write a thesis on medieval Byzantium. He is a pro-Palestinian activist, and his wife Britta, a Quaker, was involved in organising events on Syria and Israel. Britta is a fellow at St. Andrews in the Centre for Syrian Studies, writing a thesis on the Syrian textile industry. She had posted pictures of her travels in Damascus, the same ones also used by Amina. The game was up.

MacMaster’s so-called apology on the blog, posted this morning, is a remarkable display of narcissism, self-delusion and self-righteousness. He declared, “While the narrative voice may have been fictional, the facts on this blog are true and not misleading as to the situation on the ground,” with the exception, of course, of all the key facts on the blog – that a gay woman, living in Damascus, was experiencing the revolution and had been detained by security forces. He had the gall to claim that, “I do not believe that I have harmed anyone.” Let me count the ways:

  1. Closest to home, it was Sandra, the Canadian girlfriend, who had been privately lied to for months. Reading her tweets from before the abduction story, one is struck by the sincerity and passion with which she speaks of Amina. She had to endure constant media questioning, when it became clear just how deep the deception went. Interestingly, the abduction story was posted only a few days after Sandra attempted to call Amina at home in Syria and got no answer. That day Amina wrote about security forces visiting her family and her subsequent need to go underground. It may be that this is the point at which Tom and Britta freaked out and looked for a way to take their character off the stage, at least temporarily.
  2. Everyone else who had an online relationship with Amina, and who has been affected by the investigation. The website LezGetReal, for example, was subjected to intense scrutiny because Paula Brooks and other editors, who have families working for the federal government and do not wish to be outed, write under pseudonyms; they, too, were suspected of being fake.
  3. Finally, most obviously and most importantly, this is a devastating blow to queer activism in Syria and everywhere else in the Middle East. These furious reactions from actual Syrian activists give a sense of the damage. Not only does the hoax make it more difficult for Syrian bloggers to be heard in the future without undue suspicion, but it puts LGBT activists currently in Syria under the spotlight of the authorities. In every way, MacMaster has done about as much harm to the Syrian revolution as could be imagined from a computer in Scotland.

It is, however, the following sentence that deserves the greatest outrage: “This experience has sadly only confirmed my feelings regarding the often superficial coverage of the Middle East and the pervasiveness of new forms of liberal Orientalism.” Not only is MacMaster not apologising, he is in fact blaming everyone else for the very sin he has committed. In a sense, “A Gay Girl in Damascus” was the perfect instantiation of liberal Orientalism, wherein Western audiences are enjoined to sympathise with a young, attractive, Westernised and courageous individual battling against the forces of dark, oppressive Islam. If Amina didn’t exist, one would have had to invent her. MacMaster’s twisted activist vision piled on all the desirable characteristics for what he thought the West should know of the Middle East, but didn’t bother because of the biased, Zionist media. The cruel irony is that in not finding a real Syrian who could represent some or all of these things, he confirms the very fantasies he set out to dismantle are just that, fantasies.

It is also troubling, it must be said, how those sceptical of Amina’s story from the start have slipped into the same traps of Orientalist fantasy. One of the earliest arguments for the hoax was that, “No one in Syria would ever kiss their girlfriend in public,” or speak so freely, etc. Though this may be in a very general sense accurate, it further adds to the erasure of the public presence of LGBT Syrians. Another argument from a commenter on one of the investigating blogs was that MacMaster had wished to show that being gay in Arab countries is not so bad, when in fact he had proved the opposite. There could be no one as free as Amina in Syria; but, the commenter added for good measure, there could be in Israel. It was MacMaster’s anti-Israel bias that made him paint such a rosy picture of an Arab country. Both Amina’s blog and the arguments of the sceptics are symptomatic of a wider set of highly debilitating discourses. In effect, it is becoming impossible to speak of what being queer in the Middle East is like without falling into one extreme or the other.

All of this brings to mind Jasbir Puar’s extraordinary theoretical work Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times, in which she tracks the complex ways in which queer activism in the West has become implicated with imperialist projects and mindsets. One effect is the erasure of Muslim queer sexuality, and its converse — Israel’s propaganda efforts to brand itself as the only “gay-friendly” country in a homophobic region (known as “pinkwashing”). One of her tasks is to affirm the voices of queer Muslims and queer Arabs speaking out against state violence, against religious intolerance, and against US and Israeli colonialism all at once.

This is the kind of person whom MacMaster, no doubt familiar with this literature, wished to concoct. Two of Amina’s blog posts, for example, were on the phenomenon of “pinkwashing.” What this odious, despicable individual has managed to do instead is produce the perfect mockery of queer scholarship and activism, a farce that feeds right back into the very discourses he sought to resist, feeding them to the brim and sustaining them for years to come.

Written by Kristen Loveland

June 13, 2011 at 10:17

Two Cops, DSK, and DNA: Evidence and Experience in the Courtroom

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Kenneth Moreno and Franklin Mata, the two NY cops charged with raping a woman, after their acquittal.

by Luce

For a while the alleged rape of a New York hotel maid by the now ex-managing director of the IMF dissolved not into the expected narrative of “he said, she said,” but instead into a question of what France versus the US do with their women. Such a story line reduced an act of sexual violence to a question of gender relations, flirtation, or privacy by comparing the US’s ostensibly stellar record of bringing its politicians to task (Spitzer and Clinton) versus France’s bad habit of turning a blind eye. In an Al Jazeera piece, Mayanthi Fernando and Gil Anidjar seem to have been the first to question the application of a narrative of sexual scandal to a case of sexual violence:

By continuing to cast DSK’s case as one of sex… we obscure the fact that the case at hand is not about sex (discreet or otherwise) but about power and violence. Like a number of similar cases (for there are comparisons to be made), it has to do with the behaviour of powerful men in powerful positions. It has to do, in other words, with politics as full spectral dominance.

Four months ago, the NYTimes ran this headline: “Thousands of Rape Kits Sit Untested for Decades, but Change Would Be Costly.” Soon after they dealt with this controversy, “Gang Rape Story Lacked Balance.” And this was still going on when DSK happened:  “Jury to begin deliberating in New York police rape case.” Nonetheless, the NYTimes saw fit to ask a panel of experts this question: Are French Women More Tolerant?

It’s as difficult to know where to begin telling the narrative of the narrative as it’s obviously been to narrate the case itself. But I think we could begin by asking why DSK was more readily compared with Schwarzenegger and his love child than to the contemporaneous trial of two New York cops accused of rape (one for having actually raped and the other for having assisted). After all, both story lines involved men who wielded their power to commit sexual violence against women in vulnerable positions (one inebriated after a long night celebrating a job promotion, the other reportedly an African immigrant who was working as a maid in an NYC hotel). Again, Fernando and Anidjar’s article was the first I read to draw the comparison.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn leaving the Manhattan Criminal Court.

Rather than focus on DSK as a sex scandal or media trial, we should perhaps instead ask what questions the acquittal of the NY cops raises for DSK’s case. Because the French media [not to mention BHL — were he American he’d be a shock jock] has indeed gotten one thing wrong: trial by media is not the same as trial by jury. The  public’s shocked reaction to the cops’ acquittal (including organized protests by various feminist groups) is testament to how divergent the media’s narrative was from that of the courtroom.

A few days ago the NYTimes finally did catch on that rape and sexual assault trials are notoriously difficult for the prosecution to win. Already DSK’s lawyers have indicated that they will argue that any sexual acts between him and the maid were consensual.  So let’s take a quick look back to why the jury decided not to convict in the NY cops case. Here’s what one juror said:

“I did think that they might have had sex, but that doesn’t mean that they did have sex,” he said. “There is nothing to substantiate this. There’s no DNA, there’s no proof in any way that they had sex.”

Even more revealing was a great interview with Women’s eNews given by Melinda Hernandez,  another juror who had initially voted to convict:

It all came down to the forensic evidence. There was none at all. No hair, no semen, no pubic hairs in the evidence collected from the apartment or in the rape kit collected at the hospital. There was a small red patch found on her cervix, but that could have been caused by several things. There was no solid proof from the evidence collected or the rape kit. Not even fingerprints. Not even fibers from police uniforms. Many pieces of material were taken from the apartment. But there were no fingerprints. There was nothing there.
All the evidence was collected by the NYPD internal affairs investigator and was taken to police crime lab. After it was examined there, then it was sent to the medical examiners lab.
Was there ever any question of police tampering of the evidence?

You can’t raise that kind of speculation. That’s why I think the system failed her big-time.

But why can’t you raise that kind of speculation at a trial? It’s the given duty of the jurors to judge the credibility of the plaintiff’s versus the defendant’s testimony. Why should the testimony of expert witnesses be exempt from similar considerations?

But more importantly, how does the assumption that corroborating medical evidence is necessary to convict (though–correct me if I’m wrong–I don’t think this is actually required by law) impact the prism through which other evidence is viewed and the way in which the narrative of sexual violence is itself constructed?

First it seems necessary to point out the obvious: DNA evidence does not an act of sexual violence make. Semen found on the maid’s shirt has been matched to DSK’s DNA, but “the defense is expected to pursue the issue of whether it is even physically possible for an unarmed man, who is not particularly physically imposing, to force a person to engage in oral sex,” reports the NYTimes. Which reminded me of something from Stephen Robertson’s historical article on the emergence of a medico-legal discourse in rape trials during the 19th century:

In 1823, in the first American treatise on medical jurisprudence, Theodoric Beck articulated what he identified as the general medical opinion on that issue: “I am strongly inclined to doubt the probability [that] a rape can be consummated on a grown female in good health and strength.”

In the 18th century, before doctors had established their competence to judge whether a woman had been raped, the body of the female victim was examined not by doctors but by a group of respectable, married women. As the medical profession began to develop and professionalize in the 19th century, doctors asserted their medical expertise in legal cases including rape trials. While judges throughout the 19th and 20th centuries frequently challenged the conclusions doctors drew from their medical evidence, juries — largely made up of middle-class men — increasingly placed their trust in doctors’ sworn testimony.

In Infancy and History: On the Destruction of Experience, Giorgio Agamben writes, “experience is incompatible with certainty, and once an experience has become measurable and certain, it immediately loses its authority.” Scientific verification displaces experience away from the individual onto  instruments and numbers.

In her 1997 article evaluating the role that medical evidence has come to play in rape trials in Canada (which have many parallels to the United States), Georgina Feldberg wrote, “One clear force within the history of medico-legal reform was the goal of creating expert physicians who had the experience and skill to administer and interpret medical tests that would define the scientific fact of rape.”

The problem of course, is that while evidence might prove intimate contact or intercourse, there is no medical way to definitively prove consent or lack thereof. Historically, physical signs of violence have played better to juries (note the emphasis placed on the bruising of the victim’s cervix in the NY cops trial). But of course our definitions of both consensual sex and sexual violence have expanded: consensual sex can result in bruising, while the battering of a victim is not conditional for rape.

While lack of medical evidence casts doubt on the accuser’s claims and its presence may do little to lift the fog, Feldberg points out that the use of medical evidence opens up the pandora’s box of the victim’s sexual history, despite rape shield laws intended to place a victim’s sexual past off limits. Thus in the NY cops case, forensics didn’t find any traces of the accused cop’s DNA (despite the fact that he admitted to getting into bed with the woman, cuddling with her and kissing her shoulder). But forensics findings did open up questions about the DNA of three other men found on the woman’s sheets, while questions about the mechanics of penetration revealed the woman’s familiarity with various sexual positions. Of course ideally none of this would matter and courtroom reactions would not include “cringing, laughing or blushing like a fifth grader in reproductive health class.”

At the end, we’re left with a series of paradoxes. Testimony undermined by the absence of relevant medical evidence. Medical evidence that reveals decontextualized details from the accuser’s past. Medical evidence undermined by the question of experience itself: Was it consensual, was it not?

And so we come back to the question that DSK’s lawyers will want us to focus on: Is it physically possible for an older man of middling strength to force a woman to perform oral sex? At face value this seems to be a question of experience rather than medical evidence. Did the woman experience force?

Yet see how quickly a question of experience turns into a question of mechanics, of science, of experimentation and verification. Is it “even physically possible for an unarmed man, who is not particularly physically imposing, to force a person to engage in oral sex?” Can a rape “be consummated on a grown female in good health and strength?” Questions that expect experience to be generalizable rather than individual, and thus obfuscate issues of power, coercion, confusion, and fear.

Written by Kristen Loveland

June 9, 2011 at 05:57

Is that Mr. Bin Laden to you? A question for the NYT’s public editor

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by Wotty

To the Public Editor:

On Monday’s front page, Osama Bin Laden is variously referred to as “Mr. Bin Laden” or simply, and more frequently, “Bin Laden” (not to mention “bin Laden”). The Times’ policy of preceding everyone’s name with an honorific is certainly quaint and perhaps obsolete—to echo a recent, infamous judgement of the Geneva Conventions—but, like the Conventions, if the policy is in place, it must be applied equally to all, especially in the hardest cases; otherwise it becomes worse than meaningless. On what criteria was the Bin Laden decision made? Does it establish a precedent? If so, can we anticipate similar decisions in the future for America’s enemies?

Written by (wotty)

May 2, 2011 at 11:52

Why I Stopped Reading Arts and Letters Daily

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by Nemo

Do academics have a responsibility to reach beyond the narrow confines of their disciplines? Does scholarship, specialized by its very nature, translate well into broader public discourse?  What exactly is the difference between an “academic” and an “intellectual”? How do they overlap and where exactly do they differ?

Philosopher Denis Dutton, who died last week at the age of 66, presents a telling example of a scholar who attempted to bridge the gap between academic rigor and public accessibility. In 1999, Dutton founded what would become the popular website Arts and Letters Daily. A high-brow (and infinitely more sophisticated) version of the Drudge Report, the site provided links to what Dutton and his editorial partner, economist Tran Huu Dung, considered the web’s best articles, op-eds, and book reviews.  Often eclectic, the links could treat everything from Ancient Roman historiography, developments in economic theory, to the relationship between ideology and bathroom etiquette. At the height of its influence in the early 2000s, it was probably one of the most widely read blogs among American academics. As a young college student aspiring to greater intellectual heights, I made it my homepage.

Denis Dutton at the Helm: Arts and Letters Daily

The site was popular among scholars in spite of the fact that it routinely linked to articles mocking academic pretensions (although it’s equally plausible that this helped explain its success). Dutton despised the turgid prose that he believed dominated academic writing and frequently linked to articles that lamented its dominance. As editor of the journal Philosophy and Literature, he even launched a “Bad Writing Contest” in which correspondents submitted the most egregious examples of such prose that they had found in an academic text. Since Dutton also hated critical theory’s influence on scholarship—which he considered little more than an academic fad—it was not surprising that theorists such as Homi K. Bhabha, Frederick Jameson, and Judith Butler were all awarded the bad writing prize (the difficulty of their prose, however, certainly didn’t help). Dutton rejected many of his academic colleagues focus on discourse, power, and difference, and instead used his perch at Arts and Letters to champion the human universalism implied by much work in evolutionary psychology—an entire field treated with skepticism by most scholars in the social science and the humanities. (His recent book, The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Evolution, applies insights from evolutionary psychology to aesthetic theory.)

The apparent contrarianism conveyed in the articles on Arts and Letters helped make it a formative influence on my own intellectual development.  I started reading the site at the age of 18 and it introduced me to the world of public intellectuals. I devoured essays by the likes of Christopher Hitchens, Andrew Sullivan, and Martha Nussbaum. Arts and Letters convinced me that serious public discourse required style, sophistication, and skepticism. I began reading the site as a fairly dogmatic liberal, but its frequent links to conservative intellectuals and unclassifiable political heretics helped me to constantly reassess my own positions. Perhaps most importantly, Arts and Letters introduced me to an expansive and evolving intellectual community. In fact, my exposure to the site probably played an important role in my decision to pursue American intellectual history as a graduate student.

Since it has exerted such a strong affect on my intellectual development, it’s been sad for me to gradually give up on reading the site, and it seems as though I’m not the only one. Some of this has to do with the proliferation of new sites competing for intellectually-engaged readers, but I believe there are broader reasons for its relative decline. For me, and I’m sure for many others, Arts and Letters’ linking choices during the first few years of the Iraq War damaged its credibility. While occasionally highlighting pieces by the war’s opponents, during this period, the site mostly provided a steady barrage of links to the war’s intellectual cheerleaders—whether they were neo-conservatives such as David Frum, “Burkean” conservatives such as Andrew Sullivan, left-wing apostates such as Christopher Hitchens, or “liberal hawks” such as Peter Beinart. These writers believed that Iraq contained Weapons of Mass Destruction, that America could create the foundation for a democratic Middle-East with relatively little bloodshed, and routinely questioned the motives of the war’s opponents. The vitriol such thinkers expressed for the war’s critics is difficult to remember in our current era when a majority of Americans (and an even broader portion of intellectuals) consider the war a huge failure, which did little but empower Iran and cost hundreds and thousands of lives in the process.

Truth Hates Delay...and Watered Down Coffee

At the time, I did not see these articles as the embarrassment they would later become to some of their authors, but I did feel that their enthusiasm for war and the certainty with which they defended their cause, troubling. As the years went on, and the evidence of the war’s failures became apparent, I came to believe that Arts and Letters had let its readers down. The site had constantly lauded the values of intellectual rigor and skepticism, but did much to promote the views of the war’s loudest and most misinformed supporters.

Dutton’s development of an online forum, prominently advertised on Arts and Letters, devoted to debating the reality of climate change represented the next blow to the site’s credibility. The fact that Dutton, who considered himself a vigorous proponent of the scientific method, would give equal time to the scientifically marginalized (and industry beloved) deniers of global warming, as if a serious “debate” was actually taking place marked a major turning point in my trust for the site. When I first saw the advertisement for Dutton’s climate change project on Arts and Letters, my heart sank. I felt less anger than disappointment for a website that had one exerted such an influence on my intellectual development.

Finally, I stopped reading Arts and Letters a few years ago because of my ongoing “professionalization” into the world of academe. Let me illustrate with an example: as a freshman, I once sent a link to aldaily to an art history professor that I respected: I thought she would be impressed. Instead, she told me that many of the articles were right-wing polemics and that all lacked the rigor of peer-review. At the time (and to an extent, to this day), I felt taken aback by her pronouncements: the site was not conservative, I thought, it just frequently attacked liberal pieties. Plus, I didn’t think everything needed to be peer-reviewed—the site was up to date, relevant, and lacked the dryness that I had come to associate with much academic writing. This was how public debate moved forward.

Over the years, however, I came to understand my professor’s position. Once I started to actually read writers such as Foucault, Derrida, and Butler, I realized that many of the denunciations launched against them—frequently promoted on Arts and Letters Daily—were unfair, to say the least. I still refuse to genuflect toward any intellectual authority, but such theorists have triggered debate because their ideas are often profound, complex, and troubling—they need to be treated with intellectual seriousness.  Of course, all of these figures are worthy of critique, but this is very difficult to do well in an op-ed format often better suited for polemical takedowns.

This brings me back to my original question about academics navigating the world of public discussion. Many scholars already cringe when they are forced to trim their research down to fit a 10-page conference papers; an op-ed generally cuts that material down to 2 pages.  Translating specialized academic training into the often intimate, humorous, and generalist medium of blogging represents a serious challenge, but in the past few years, many have risen to meet it. These sites generally succeed because they refuse to dumb down expert knowledge even as they make it more accessible, avoid fruitless polemics, treat claims to infallibility with skepticism, and make valuable contributions to public debate. Even though I stopped reading it, these are all points that, at its best, Arts and Letters Daily continues to encourage.

Written by Julian Nemeth

January 4, 2011 at 20:15