Showing their usual great sense of PR timing, the misleadingly named AMERICAN COUNCIL OF TRUSTEES AND ALUMNI released their equally misleadingly described "study" titled "HOW MANY WARD CHURCHILLS?" in the same week that the hapless Professor Churchill was returned to the nation's headlines via the negative findings of the published report on his work by an investigative panel drawn from among his University of Colorado colleagues. This Council "study" reports on the parlous state of the American academy, beset as it seems to be by a bevy of Ward Churchills -- but it turns out, when you read the "study," that it has little to do with Ward Churchill or anybody remotely like him, and it is less a study than it is a quick tour of web sites chosen not at all at random.
Inveterate readers of the complete works of the AMERICAN COUNCIL OF TRUSTEES AND ALUMNI have learned to go straight to the "scholarly" apparatus of each report. Using a tactic familiar to followers of the careers of Dinesh D'Souza and David Horowitz (others, like Shelby Steele, don't even bother with such cosmetic effects), the Council appends to their report the "research' that is supposed to support their conclusions. When the Council first attracted wide-spread media attention, it was by way of a similar "study" that "found" the American Academy guilty of removing Shakespeare from the curriculum. Were one to read the acompanying appendices, one would find that the only thing the Council looked for was the existence or non-existence of stand-alone Shakespeare courses. Thus, someone such as myself who was at that very moment teaching a great deal of Shakespeare, would not have been counted at all. Additionally, the schools surveyed were not randomly sampled, nor were they even selected with an eye to assembling a representative group of American colleges. The curriculum chosen for sampling were chosen with an eye towards producing the result the Council hoped to present to the media.
Much the same procedures were in operation in the wake of 9/11, when the Council produced a report supposedly detailing atrocities in the American classroom, documented instances of treasonous statements delivered by professors to their captive audience of students. Again, there was a scholarly apparatus. (and yes, I am finally dropping the scare quotes). Again, a reading of that apparatus revealed just how bogus the study was. Swelling the numbers of treasonous statements were things that had not been said by any professor at all. In at least one instance, the evidence consisted of a poster that was on the bulletin board in a class. The poster itself had clearly been placed on the wall prior to the events of 9/11 and had nothing to do with them whatsoever. It was a poster we all have seen countless times over the years, one that advances the seemingly unarguable thesis that war is dangerous to innocent civilians.
Now come the AMERICAN COUNCIL OF TRUSTEES AND ALUMNI to warn the body politic of the presence of the professorial fifth column in our midst: one, two, thousands of Ward Churchills on campuses all over America.
Again, a remarkably small number of campuses got surveyed, and it turns out they weren't really surveyed at all. Apparently somebody has simply visited the websites of suspect faculty and departments looking for signs of rampant disloyalty and indoctrination.
But even within that extraordinarily small selection, it turns out that the Council has not been able to find much that anybody in their right or even left mind would get much exercised about.
The Council announces:
"What we do mean to suggest is that the extremist rhetoric and tendentious opinion for
which Churchill is infamous can be found on campuses across America. In published course
descriptions and online course materials, professors are openly and unapologetically declaring
that they use their positions to push political agendas in the name of teaching students to think
What they finally produce in support of this conclusion is something else entirely, and this is where my own campus comes in to play.
I'm proud to say that Penn State does appear among the campuses documented in the Council report's appendix.
While I am disappointed to find only four courses out of the thousands taught at Penn State in the appendix (and only two of those are represented by their course descriptions -- the other two entries, both Sociology courses, are simply links to the faculty's syllabi), it is telling that half of the represented courses are in English. One is a freshman Composition course, which apparently is suspect because it is a course examining the rhetoric of discussions of our relationships to animals and ethics. It seems that the following language from the course description is intended by the Council to stand as evidence of political indoctrination:
"The arguments that have been constructed to articulate the rights of animals, critique their treatment in our communities, and espouse our moral obligations towards them are finely tuned examples of persuasive thought. By examining these rhetorical propositions as a class, we will learn to interpret, judge, and formulate persuasive arguments about ethics, social construction, and fairness. By recognizing that there is a direct correlation between the ways that we discuss our connection to animals and how we understand our relationships and obligations to each other, we will extend our analysis of the interactions between humans and animals to explorations of how human beings treat each other in modern communities as well."
That's right, gentle reader, at Penn State we harbor faculty who insist to our students that they can learn something from the way people argue about our relationships to animals that may help us comprehend the rhetoric of ethics in our culture. Not only that, but this instructor has the gall to insist that the students in a rhetoric course examine the workings of persuasive arguments. The sheer commie nerve of these people!
But it's the other course cited from our English Department of which I am most proud. While Penn State's English department has faced all the same budget problems that have afflicted the academy as a whole, we have none-the-less succeeded in hiring really exciting younger faculty in recent years, a success that has not gone unnoticed by the Council.
On the third page of their study, the council lay out their case that American universities have given themselves wholly to a "politicized liberal arts curriculum." Now I know some of you believe that there is no such thing as an unpoliticized curriculum, even in physics, but I wanted to see what the Council had in mind under this heading. It turns out that what they had in mind was the kind of thing going on in the classroom of one of my wonderful new colleagues, Professor Scott Herring. The council notes that "There are also plenty of English courses that use literature to theorize race, gender, and sexuality." One is hard pressed to understand why using literature to theorize issues that literature does in fact often theorize is something to worry about. Here's what they say about Penn State on this count:
"Penn State University offers 'American Masculinities,' which maps 'how vexed ideas about
maleness, manhood, and masculinity provided rough-riding presidents, High Modern novelists,
Provincetown playwrights, queer regionalists, star-struck inverts, surly bohemians, and others
with a means to negotiateÂand genderÂthe cultural and political turmoil that constituted
modern American life.'Â
Perhaps the Council is of the opinion that students shouldn't study "vexed ideas," but that raises the question of what they think their own study is supposed to accomplish.
In their appendix, the Council reproduce (without permission, I'm guessing) the entire description for the course. Following their example, I will again copy it here without permission (forgive me, Scott):
ENGL 403.001: LITERATURE AND CULTURE -- American Masculinities
Scott Herring -- TR 2:30p-3:45p -- 203 WILLARD -- 493645
What did it take to makeÂor unmakeÂa ÂmanÂ in modern U.S. literatures and cultures? ItÂs a
deceptively simple question that will guide our readings as we map competing representations of
ÂmasculinitiesÂ across the first third of the twentieth-century and beyond. Along the way, we will
chart how vexed ideas about maleness, manhood, and masculinity provided rough-riding
presidents, High Modern novelists, Provincetown playwrights, queer regionalists, star-struck
inverts, surly bohemians, and others with a means to negotiateÂand genderÂthe cultural and
political turmoil that constituted modern American life. In so doing, we too will use evolving
frameworks of ÂmasculinityÂ to revisit key controversies such as: Â·The rise of
hetero/homosexual identities Â·Masculinity and racialization Â·New Women vs. New Men
Â·Manliness, nativism, and primitivism Â·Sheiks, sweetbacks, and bohemian life Â·Interracial male
friendship Â·Female masculinities Â·Class instabilities Â·Postmodern carry-overs Along with a
course packet of critical readings, the class will read texts by Theodore Roosevelt, Harry
Houdini, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lothrop Stoddard, Edgar Lee Masters,
Sherwood Anderson, Willa Cather, Ralph Werther ("Jennie June"), Mae West, Robert
McAlmon, Richard Bruce Nugent, Countee Cullen, Wallace Thurman, and Mike Gold.
Please note the remarkable range of readings in this course, including both Lothrop Stoddard AND Mike Gold.
Just what is it that the Council finds so dangerous in this? How like Ward Churchill is Scott Herring? Doesn't this course description sound like it's doing just what a good college course should do? and doesn't it make you want to sign up for the course?
I wish we did have hundreds of Scott Herrings on our campus -- I'm glad that he is here working with us. I fervently hope that many will read the appendix to the Coucil's report, will see Scott's course description, and will insist that American campuses do all in their power to continue hiring faculty who will offer course materials as challenging and useful as this.