Kansas Board of Regents, Freedom of Speech, and Bad Faith

Kansas Board of RegentsWhen the Kansas Board of Regents announced its new social media policy on December 18, I thought it must have made a mistake. After all, this Board of Regents had seemed an ally of higher education in Kansas. Unlike previous Boards, this one had — for instance — been asking the Kansas Legislature to fund the state universities in Kansas. Adopting a social media policy that suspended freedom of speech and (in effect) eradicated tenure was surely because the hastily passed proposal was ill-considered. So, I thought: if we let the Board of Regents know how damaging the policy is, then they’ll realize that they’ve made a mistake, withdraw the policy, and start over.

I was wrong.

As emails and subsequent statements to the media have revealed, the Board of Regents crafted the most repressive policy that (it thought) would withstand a legal challenge. Working with State Attorney General Derek Schmidt, the Board created the policy using specific language from United States Supreme Court cases. Then, at its December meeting and over the objections of university faculty and administration present, the Board unanimously passed the new policy.

The policy is not a mistake, but a carefully executed plan to muzzle free speech. This is why the Board passed the policy as faculty and staff were grading exams and preparing to leave town (indeed, many had already left town). This is why, though the policy has been panned with near unanimity from both within and beyond Kansas, the Board is not backing down.

As further evidence, one need look no further than board members’ statements about the plan. Their words are perfect examples of the “political language” that, as George Orwell wrote in “Politics and the English Language” (1946), “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”  In response to the recent letter signed by 81 distinguished professors from KU and KSU, Fred Logan, Chair of the Board of Regents, wrote, “I very respectfully disagree with your apparent assessment that faculty and staff at Kansas universities ‘no longer have freedom of speech, academic freedom . . . , nor tenure.’  I assure you that all three of those items are alive, robust and well.”  His assertion that freedom of speech, academic freedom and tenure “are alive, robust and well” collides with a policy that says faculty and staff can be fired for saying anything “contrary to the best interest of the university” or anything that “impairs discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers” — a definition so broad and vague as to encompass any speech. Mr. Logan’s statement and the social media policy cannot both be true. Given that he is using his “freedom of speech is alive, robust and well” statement to defend a policy that rescinds freedom of speech, his words are a superb example of language designed to — in Orwell’s words — “give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Another word for this sort of speech is doublespeak.  Yet another word is lie.

Here’s another example. Mr. Logan recently asserted, “The board unanimously approved this policy and did so in good faith,” despite the fact that it approved the policy over the objections of faculty and administration present at the very meeting. As KSU Faculty Senate President Julia Keen (who was present at the meeting) noted on 21 December,

The creation of this policy was done with no input from university faculty or administrators; it was put near the end of an 84-page agenda without notification or announcement.  The Council of Faculty Senate Presidents made a statement at the KBOR meeting on Wednesday, December 18, voicing our concerns about both the content and the timing of the policy change.  We asked that the vote be delayed to a future KBOR meeting to allow for faculty input.  The KBOR chose to proceed with a unanimous vote to pass the policy language.

And yet Mr. Logan says that the Board approved the policy “in good faith.”  Either his definition of “good faith” is so rare as to have eluded the dictionary-makers, or he is again lying.  Based on the available evidence, he appears to be delivering another lie. It’s a very polite lie, but it’s a lie nonetheless.

By failing to act in good faith and dressing its policy in doublespeak, the Kansas Board of Regents no longer deserves the confidence of those it serves. Since the Board itself is not an elected body, I doubt that a vote of no confidence would be persuasive. If the Board is so convinced that its draconian policy is correct that it’s willing to lie about it, then why would it care about a vote of no confidence?

George Orwell, 1984

I hope I’m wrong. I hope the Board of Regents resumes doing its job, which (according to its mission statement) is to “advocate powerfully” for “continuous improvement in the quality and effectiveness of the public postsecondary educational system in Kansas.” Based on its responses thus far, I think it more likely that its next statement to the state universities will be more along the lines of “freedom is slavery.”  Or, given how much freedom of speech seems to frighten the Regents, perhaps it will be “ignorance is strength.”

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Kansas, the banana republic

It’s an anti-free speech manifesto that sounds like a pronouncement from the government of a banana republic.

The Board of Regents truly should back up, take a deep breath, and decide on something that meets the needs of its great universities.

This first try was ghastly, pure and simple, and should be stricken down immediately.

— “New Regents policy really bad idea,” Manhattan Mercury, 22 Dec. 2013.

Since the Mercury is subscriber-only (in its on-line version), I’ve taken the liberty of posting a photograph of the full editorial below. If the Mercury would like me to take it down, I’m glad to comply.

"New Regents policy really bad idea," Manhattan Mercury, 22 Dec. 2013

Link to piece on Manhattan Mercury website (subscribers only).

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Higher Education is Not a Reality TV Show; or, How A&E’s “Duck Dynasty” Differs from the Kansas Board of Regents

Free Speech ZoneOn Facebook, a friend recently asked me how the recent controversy over the Kansas Board of Regents’ new social media policy differs from A&E’s suspending of Phil Robertson from the Duck Dynasty reality TV show. I see why she asks: The Kansas Board of Regents has rescinded faculty and staff’s right to free speech, just as A&E has rescinded Phil Robertson’s right to free speech.

First, let me go on record as saying that I support Phil Robertson’s right to express his belief that homosexuality is immoral, and to use the language of Christianity to do so. I think that using religion to advocate bigotry dishonors the Christian faith, and I wish that he would express his ignorance in a different way. But the First Amendment grants him the right to express foolish ideas, and I support that right.

A&E, however, is a corporation. If it chooses not to grant Mr. Robertson a venue for his homophobia, he can still express it — just not on the Duck Dynasty television program.

But here’s where reality TV and academia part ways. The free and open exchange of ideas is at the core of the academic enterprise, and one venue for that exchange is social media — blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and so on. The Kansas Board of Regents’ new social media policy says that faculty and staff can be fired for impairing “discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers,” or for doing anything “contrary to the best interest of the university.” In addition to being both broad and vague, that language hampers our ability to do our jobs.

cartoon by Ann Telnaes

A university is different from a corporation. Academics who work for universities exchange ideas because it’s our job to exchange ideas. It is at the core of what the academic enterprise is all about. Thanks to this new social media policy, we now lack some of the basic tools for sharing research.

For example, the Kansas Board of Regents is appointed by Governor Sam Brownback, who believes that gay and lesbian people do not deserve human rights (such as, say, the right to marry). What if you’re doing research on human rights? Or teaching Walt Whitman, Alison Bechdel, or Oscar Wilde? Would that be “contrary to the best interest of the university”? Would it foster disharmony? If your university president is as prejudiced as your governor, talking about these ideas openly might give you pause. I am pleased to report that Kansas State University’s president supports the rights of LGBTQ people, but university presidents come and go. Policies last for a long time. And this sort of policy impedes the exchange of ideas.

In crafting this policy, the Kansas Board of Regents did not consult the faculty, staff, or administration of the Regents institutions. Had they done so, they might have avoided this debacle. Indeed, the most productive way forward would be for them to rescind the new social media edict, and instead work with elected representatives from the faculty and university administrations, to craft a sensible social media policy.

Further information:

Image credits: cartoon by the great Ann Telnaes; “Free Speech Zone” map from UpperLeft.

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Kansas Board of Regents Revokes Right to Freedom of Speech

Kansas Board of RegentsAs faculty grade their last student papers and exams before leaving town for the Christmas holidays, the Kansas Board of Regents quietly — and unanimously — voted to revoke their academic freedom and basic right to freedom of speech.  As the Lawrence Journal-World reports this evening, “The Kansas Board of Regents on Wednesday approved a policy that would allow the firing of university employees if they communicated through social media in a way that aversely [sic] affects the school.”

According to the new policy, “improper use of social media” includes any “communication through social media that”:

“ii. when made pursuant to (i.e. in furtherance of) the employee’s official duties, is contrary to the best interest of the university”

“iv. subject to the balancing analysis required by the following paragraph, impairs discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers, has a detrimental impact on close working relationships for which personal loyalty and confidence are necessary, impedes the performance of the speaker’s official duties, interferes with the regular operation of the university, or otherwise adversely affects the university’s ability to efficiently provide services.”

“In determining whether the employee’s communication constitutes an improper use of social media under paragraph (iv), the chief executive officer shall balance the interest of the university in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees against the employee’s right as a citizen to speak on matters of public concern, and may consider the employee’s position within the university and whether the employee used or publicized the university name, brands, website, official title or school/department/college or otherwise created the appearance of the communication being endorsed, approved or connected to the university in a manner that discredits the university.  The chief executive officer may also consider whether the communication was made during the employee’s working hours or the communication was transmitted utilizing university systems or equipment.  This policy on improper use of social media shall apply prospectively from its date of adoption by the Kansas Board of Regents.”

In essence, anything can be grounds for firing. And the Board of Regents has defined social media very, very broadly:

 “Social media” means any facility for online publication and commentary, including but not limited to blogs, wikis, and social networking sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube.

So, for example, if the university decides that this blog post is “improper use of social media,” it can fire me.  Posting a link to this blog post via Twitter and Facebook (which I will do as soon as I finish writing it) could, if deemed “improper use of social media,” also be grounds for firing me.  (I hope GooglePlus and Academia.Edu do not feel slighted by the Regents’ omission, but rest assured that I’ll push this link out via those means as well.)

I understand why the Kansas Board of Regents would want to encourage responsible use of social media.  However, I find it harder to understand how a body that oversees an educational system designed to foster free and open exchanges of ideas would seek to impede free and open exchanges of ideas. I also wonder how it expects to enforce a policy that violates the first Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits laws “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”  I suppose the fact that a state has far deeper pockets than any individual does will be the Board of Regents’ strongest means of enforcement.

At any rate, if you also find this decision troubling, you might let the Board of Regents know.  The telephone number is 785-296-3421.  Here is the contact information for Fred Logan (Chair of the Board of Regents), and contact information for all ten members of the Board of Regents.

Further information (updated 10 Apr. 2014, 3:40 pm, CST):

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These Senators Want to Kill Your Children

Shame on You, U.S. Senate

45 U.S. Senators think that massacres like the ones at Sandy Hook and Aurora and Tuscon are acceptable collateral damage.  They support mentally unstable people’s “rights” to have access to firearms.  In sum, if you would prefer to live in a country in which children have a better chance of growing up, in which adults have a better chance of staying alive, these 45 U.S. Senators are saying: “No. Guns have more rights than you do. We do not care. People will die. Children will be murdered. Your right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is less important than allowing criminals and the mentally ill to have access to firearms.”

If you disagree with this position, here are the Senators you will want to vote against during the next election.  Should you wish to contact them, I have also provided links to their websites.  I have not listed Harry Reid (D-Nev.) because my understanding is that he voted against it for the procedural reason that, by doing so, he can bring the measure up again.  If my reading of his vote is incorrect, then please add him to the list.

  1. Lamar Alexander (R-TN)
  2. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH)
  3. John Barrasso (R-WY)
  4. Max Baucus (D-MT)
  5. Mark Begich (D-AK)
  6. Roy Blunt (R-MO)
  7. John Boozman (R-AR)
  8. Richard Burr (R-NC)
  9. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA)
  10. Dan Coats (R-IN)
  11. Tom Coburn (R-OK)
  12. Thad Cochran (R-MS)
  13. Bob Corker (R-TN)
  14. John Cornyn (R-TX)
  15. Mike Crapo (R-ID)
  16. Ted Cruz (R-TX)
  17. Mike Enzi (R-WY)
  18. Deb Fischer (R-NE)
  19. Jeff Flake (R-AZ)
  20. Lindsey Graham (R-SC)
  21. Chuck Grassley (R-IA)
  22. Orrin Hatch (R-UT)
  23. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND)
  24. Dean Heller (R-NV)
  25. John Hoeven (R-ND)
  26. James M. Inhofe (R-OK)
  27. Johnny Isakson (R-GA)
  28. Mike Johanns (R-NE)
  29. Ron Johnson (R-WI)
  30. Mike Lee (R-UT)
  31. Mitch McConnell (R-KY)
  32. Jerry Moran (R-KS)
  33. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK)
  34. Rand Paul (R-KY)
  35. Rob Portman (R-OH)
  36. Mark Pryor (D-AR)
  37. James E. Risch (R-ID)
  38. Pat Roberts (R-KS)
  39. Marco Rubio (R-FL)
  40. Tim Scott (R-SC)
  41. Jeff Sessions (R-AL)
  42. Richard Shelby (R-AL)
  43. John Thune (R-SD)
  44. David Vitter (R-LA)
  45. Roger Wicker (R-MS)

To any gun enthusiasts who stumble upon this blog post, yes, I am familiar with the Second Amendment to the United States’ Constitution:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

Three points on the amendment that you might wish to consider:

  1. Please note that these arms are to support a “well-regulated militia”; the amendment does not imagine an entire citizenry armed to the teeth.
  2. For those who consider themselves constitutional originalists, the “arms” described here are not automatic or semi-automatic guns.  They’re muskets.  They’re guns that take a while to load and re-load.  So, if you want a strict interpretation of this amendment, then the Second Amendment Rights extend to the types of arms available in 1791.
  3. Laws can be changed to better serve the citizens.  As Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg said in Kennedy vs. Mendoza-Martinez (1963), “while the Constitution protects against invasions of individual rights, it is not a suicide pact.”

Having said that, I would be willing to argue for a more liberal interpretation of the Second Amendment, one that includes the rights to own weapons of a more recent vintage, and that expands the reason for owning arms beyond that of a “well-regulated militia.”  People may want to hunt.  They may enjoy target practice.  Though study after study shows that having a gun in the home makes you more likely to be killed by a gun, I realize that many people believe the opposite — and so I certainly would not oppose people owning (and using) a gun for self-defense.  But military-grade assault weapons?  No.  Those ought to be regulated.

A gun is not a toy.  It is designed to kill.  If we agree that (for instance) driving a car requires the driver to pass certain tests, then surely we can agree that owning a gun ought to require the owner to pass certain tests.  Universal background checks (something which 86% of Americans support!).  No loopholes for guns purchased at gun shows or via the internet.  No loopholes at all, in fact.

If you vote against sensible legislation (such as legislation that the above list of senators voted against today), then you are personally responsible for the high numbers of gun deaths in the U.S.  Please note that I say “high numbers of gun deaths.”  I realize that no law will prevent all murderous people from obtaining guns. Laws do not prevent all people from speeding, or from embezzling money, or from defrauding investors. However, the fact that laws fail to prevent all crimes does not remove the need for having these laws in the first place.

So.  To the above list of senators, I say: Those who support sensible gun laws know where you stand.  You think that killing children should be permitted rather than prevented.  Thank you for making your position clear.  It will make our choice in the next election very, very clear.

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The Edwin Mellen Effect

Edwin Mellen Press


It’s Opposites Day at The Chronicle of Higher Education. The headline reads, “Edwin Mellen Press Drops Lawsuit Against University Librarian.”

Chronicle's Misleading Headline

The article reports that Edwin Mellen Press has withdrawn the suit against McMaster University and Dale Askey, BUT Edwin Mellen Press is still suing Dale Askey.  Beyond the fact that the Chronicle should have let its readers know it was celebrating Opposites Day, this development raises several questions about the allegedly scholarly press known as Edwin Mellen Press.

  1. The news release’s internal contradictions are remarkable.  Without any irony whatsoever, Edwin Mellen Press in its press release says that “EMP remains resolute that all have the right to free speech.”  How is suing a librarian for $1 million an affirmation of that principle?  For that matter, how did suing Lingua Franca over its characterization of Edwin Mellen Press uphold “the right to free speech”?  This doesn’t make any sense.  And when you follow that claim about “right to free speech” in the very next sentence with “all have the right to take steps, including legal action, to protect their good names and reputation,” you’re reminding your audience that Edwin Mellen Press launches lawsuits at its critics in order to shut them up.  So, not a very effective piece of rhetoric.
  2. Even before Edwin Mellen Press launched this suit, it did not have a “good reputation.”  As Timothy A. Lepcyzk pointed out at EduHacker, when Edwin Mellen Press launched this suit against Askey, punching the words “Edwin Mellen Press” into Google would elicit the following suggestions: “edwin mellen press quality,” “edwin mellen press review,” “edwin mellen press reputation,” “edwin mellen press vanity,” “edwin mellen press vanity press.”  Edwin Mellen’s news release speaks of “EMP’s good reputation” and of the right to protect that reputation.  However, it didn’t have a good reputation when it filed this suit, and its reputation has only declined since then.
  3. You can’t erase the internet.  When you punch the publisher’s name into Google now, you get these automatic suggestions:  “edwin mellen press,” “edwin mellen press reputation,” “edwin mellen press review,” and “edwin mellen press vanity.”  Below that, the first hit is the press’s website, but all other hits are other websites, each of which reference the press’s litigious behavior.  There are scores of articles on the Press, and they’re not flattering.  Did it seek to cement its reputation as a litigious bully or further delegitimize its allegation that it’s a “scholarly press” (a claim made in its latest press release)?  If so, then it has succeeded.  If it had other aims, it’s failed.Google: Edwin Mellen Press Vanity
  4. If the press cannot manage its own damage control, what does that say about its publicity department?  If dropping one suit (but not the other) was an attempt to control some of the damage that Edwin Mellen Press has inflicted on itself, it has instead inspired further speculation about its incompetence.  As Rick Anderson notes in his really nice close-reading of the Mellen news release, the publisher’s behavior “is simply bizarre.”
  5. This isn’t over yet.  Sign the petition!  There are currently over 3100 names on the petition.  Let’s keep those numbers rising.
  6. Finally, the Streisand Effect should be renamed the Edwin Mellen Effect. This PR debacle that the press has chosen to inflict upon itself will, I suspect, ultimately result in its undoing.  Its attempts to silence its critics have only amplified those critics’ voices.

More information on Edwin Mellen Press & Its Attempts to Silence Its Critics:

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Vanity, Thy Name Is Lawsuit

Edwin Mellen Press

As you may have heard, the Edwin Mellen Press is suing librarian Dale Askey and his employer, McMaster University, for damages in excess of $4 million.

Why?  The suit alleges that Askey is guilty of libel for calling Edwin Mellen Press “a vanity press” and suggesting that it lacks “academic credibility.”  There are several problems with this claim.

  1. In the blog post in question (since removed, but still available via Archive.org), Askey does not call Edwin Mellen Press “a vanity press.”  He acknowledges that “they are not technically a vanity publisher” because they don’t require authors to underwrite the cost of their books.
  2. A serious academic press values academic freedom. It does not (for example) try to silence its critics with a multi-million dollar lawsuit.  A serious academic press builds its reputation on reputable titles.  If Edwin Mellen Press seeks to earn the title of “litigious bully,” filing this lawsuit will aid its cause.  However, if it seeks to improve its reputation, such legal action seems unlikely to further its aims.  As Inside Higher Ed and Academic Librarian have both reported, this is not the first time it has filed a lawsuit to defend its reputation.  The press’s last such lawsuit failed.  (A 1993 article in Lingua Franca called Edwin Mellen “a quasi-vanity press cunningly disguised as an academic publishing house.”)
  3. Making judgments about the quality of scholarship is a professional librarian’s job.  As Leslie Green notes, Askey in a 2010 blog post said “that Mellen was a poor publisher with a weak list of low-quality books, scarcely edited, cheaply produced, but at exorbitant prices.  Librarians are expert at making such judgments; that’s what universities pay them to do.  And the post made a key point about the public interest: ‘in a time when libraries cannot purchase so much of the first-class scholarship, there is simply no reason to support such ventures.’”
  4. Academics do not take threats to academic freedom lightly.  Librarians, Professors, and other academic professionals can advise their libraries not to buy books published by Edwin Mellen Press.  One way to do this would be to ask that, if a library’s vendor has Edwin Mellen Press on a list of books to be purchased automatically, then it should ask that the books of Edwin Mellen Press be removed from this “automatically purchase” arrangement. What it might do instead is, should a faculty member (or, to set the threshold a little higher, several faculty members) recommend a particular book, then the library will purchase it.  But the library will only purchase specific volumes recommended by faculty members — or by a particular number of faculty members. That way, should Edwin Mellen Press publish reputable scholarship (which it does do, on occasion), a library could purchase it.  Edwin Mellen can't spellBut Edwin Mellen could no longer rely upon automatic purchases from libraries.
  5. The Streisand effect.  As in the case of Barbra Streisand’s attempt to remove a photograph of her house from the web, the Edwin Mellen Press’s attempts to silence Dale Askey’s criticism has simply given more publicity to that criticism.  In sum, the more we blog about this and the more it gets report, the more that people will learn about the critique and the behavior of Edwin Mellen Press.  John Dupuis’s post “Publisher hits new low” has collected all of these links, and is adding new ones as Mr. Dupuis becomes aware of them.  UpdateThis point added on 11 Feb. 2013.
  6. I can think of no evidence to contradict Askey’s claim that while “they occasionally publish a worthy title,… so much of what they publish is simply second-class scholarship (and that is being kind in some cases).”  To judge from the comments I’ve seen elsewhere as well as from informal conversations with peers, this view of Edwin Mellen Press is widely held.  As William Pannapacker tweeted in response to the lawsuit against Askey and McMaster,

Heck, the website is so poorly edited that it misspells the institutional affiliation of a professor who endorses it (see image above right).  The word is Massachusetts, not Massachusettes.

What We Can Do to Help

So, for those of us who value academic freedom and feel comfortable speaking up, there are several steps we might take:

  • There is a petition asking Edwin Mellen to drop the lawsuit.  Sign it.
  • Who is paying for Dale Askey’s legal costs?  McMaster has just published a statement affirming their commitment to academic freedom, but Inside Higher Ed notes that Askey is paying for his own legal fees.  Full disclosure: I’ve met Dale Askey before and am a friend of his wife’s. (They both used to work at Kansas State.)  Earlier today, she indicated on my Facebook wall that they were indeed paying for their own legal fees.  Should that still be the case, could someone with knowledge of how these things work please set up a site where we might contribute to cover his legal fees?  Call it the “Dale Askey Legal Defense Fund,” perhaps.  And when you do this, please let me know so that I can add a link, here.  Thank you.
  • Let other concerned people know about it.  Use Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and so on.  I’ve been using the #FreeDaleAskey hashtag each time I tweet about it.  Perhaps we might adopt that?  Would be great to see this trending on Twitter.
  • Speaking of legal fees, I wonder if this is the sort of case which someone like Lawrence Lessig might take on?  I realize that Professor Lessig is a busy man, and I have never met him myself.  So, I don’t mean to suggest that he’s obligated to add to what is already a considerable workload, but perhaps he — or someone like him — might take an interest in the case?
  • Contact your professional organization and ask that they address it.  So far, there have been statements from the Canadian Library Association, the Progressive Librarians Guild, McMaster University, the York University Faculty Association, and other faculty associations. UpdateThis point added on 11 Feb. 2013.
  • Other ideas?  Please share them in the comments section.  Thank you.

Update, 11 Feb. 2013: Added point no. 5 and the “Contact your professional organization” point (above).

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Well, at least she published a sort-of correction

dunce cap by Emily KelleyAs you probably already know, Forbes‘ Susan Adams contributed to the professors-don’t-really-work myth in naming “University Professor” the “Least Stressful Job of 2013” (Forbes, 3 Jan. 2013).  After learning that this is utter nonsense, Ms. Adams did at least have the decency to publish an “addendum,” in which she acknowledges that the survey on which she was reporting “didn’t measure things like hours worked and the stresses that come from trying to get papers published in a competitive environment or writing grants to fund research.”

That’s a start. But I want to refute this “oh, professors have it easy” myth once and for all.

I realize that’s a tall order.  The myth persists in popular culture, aided — in America, at least — by a public that views knowledge with suspicion.  So, I can document how many hours I work (as I did, here and here).  Others can do this sort of thing, too.  We can also speak up when we see alleged journalists spreading this nonsense.  But how much effect are we having?  And while we cannot spend our careers putting out the flames of ignorance each time they ignite, if we don’t do this… the fire spreads.

So, for instance, I’m ostensibly “on vacation” right now (because I’m not teaching), but it took me a few days to respond to this because I was in Boston, attending the Modern Language Association convention and at Harvard gathering materials for my next book.  In the days before the Spring 2013 term begins, I need to finish assembling an American Studies Association proposal, get my syllabi together, get my course packs together, revise an essay and send it out, write an abstract for a summer conference (abstract is due Jan. 15th), send an abstract for a conference at which I’m giving a talk (this is due today), do some Routledge editing (I edit Children’s Literature and Culture series), get plane tickets for the two invited talks I’m giving in March, write at least one of two grants, start working on the Afterword and Notes for Barnaby Vol. 2, and… that’s all I can remember right now.  But I’m sure there are items I’m forgetting.

While I doubt that this brief response will have any discernable effect on the general public’s level of knowledge about what professors do, responding seemed better than letting ignorance go unchecked. If there’s a better way to educate the public about academic labor, I’m open to suggestions.

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Image source: Emily Kelley’s Dunce Cap.

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Ignorance Is Not a Virtue

Boy wearing a dunce cap sitting in front of a blackboardThe critic who touts his ignorance as a virtue should not have a job as a critic.  Any “news” publication that employs such a person in this capacity is shirking its responsibility to provide well-informed discourse.

So, then.  Why would Time magazine or the New York Times employ Joel Stein?

In his “Adults Should Read Adult Books,” Mr. Stein writes,

The only thing more embarrassing than catching a guy on the plane looking at pornography on his computer is seeing a guy on the plane reading “The Hunger Games.” Or a Twilight book. Or Harry Potter. The only time I’m O.K. with an adult holding a children’s book is if he’s moving his mouth as he reads.

Stein defends his position by admitting that he has not read the works he disparages:

I have no idea what “The Hunger Games” is like. Maybe there are complicated shades of good and evil in each character. Maybe there are Pynchonesque turns of phrase. Maybe it delves into issues of identity, self-justification and anomie that would make David Foster Wallace proud. I don’t know because it’s a book for kids. I’ll read “The Hunger Games” when I finish the previous 3,000 years of fiction written for adults.

And so readers of the Times are left to wonder: why publish the words of a man who has not done his homework?  Is merely showing up now all that’s required to get an “A”?  If I received a paper as poorly argued as this, I would give it a poor grade.  However, having read Mr. Stein’s piece, I wonder if, in future, I should instead suggest that the student submit the paper to the Times‘ “Room for Debate” section.

The New York Times‘ motto used to be “All The News That’s Fit to Print.”  Reading Mr Stein’s piece, one wonders if the paper has changed its motto to “Anything That Fits in Print.” Or perhaps it simply holds its “Room for Debate” writers to a lower standard.

It’s worth having a debate about the aesthetic merits of literary works of all genres and for all age groups. Let’s talk about Suzanne Collins, Thomas Pynchon, Dr. Seuss, J. K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, Virginia Woolf, Charles M. Schulz, Maurice Sendak, Herman Melville, Margaret Wise Brown, Art Spiegelman, Toni Morrison, M.T. Anderson, George Herriman, Shaun Tan, and Langston Hughes.  We should embrace arguments about taste and literary merit.  These are important conversations to have.  We are unlikely to arrive at a consensus on a canon of “great works,” but we can come to a better understanding of the mercurial standards of taste, and our own relationship to those standards.

However, an intelligent conversation requires that we, first, read the works under discussion. Given that Joel Stein fails to meet even so basic a standard as this, his continued employment as a professional journalist is baffling. So, New York Times and Time: surely, you can do better than this?


To give credit where it’s due, this brief post takes its inspiration from a conversation today on Jane Yolen‘s Facebook page, where Kevin Andrew Murphy wrote: “But the sin of Stein and [Ginia] Bellafante is not that they wrote scathing reviews, but that they wrote scathing reviews preening in their own ignorance and claiming it as a virtue.”

Image from “Who’s wearing the dunce cap? This girl” at LovelyGirls.

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Harry Potter, Seriously

J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (1997): coverChildren’s literature is literature. Intelligent adults already know this. However, as those of you who study or write or teach children’s literature are well aware, the world is full of alleged grown-ups who insist on spreading the myth that children’s literature is not literature, and (thus) cannot be studied as such.

A week or so back, journalist Alison Flood reported on a conference alleged to be “Billed as the world’s first conference to discuss Harry Potter strictly as a literary text.” Presumably, that’s a swipe at the fan-organized conferences, the first of which was (I believe) Nimbus 2003: The Harry Potter Symposium, held nearly 9 years ago. While fan conferences do discuss the books as literary texts, it’s also true that they cover other, less traditionally “academic” subjects.  (Full disclosure: I’ve been an invited speaker at two of the fan conferences, including Nimbus 2003.)  However, it seems a bit of a stretch to say that this was “the world’s first conference to discuss Harry Potter strictly as a literary text.” It was not.

Ms. Flood also seems unaware of the vast body of scholarship on Rowling’s series — which Cornelia Remi has for years diligently tracked on her exemplary bibliography.  While Potter scholarship does vary in quality, the ignorance of Professor John Mullan — who is quoted in the article — is truly exemplary. There’s a rare purity in his empty prejudices, shaped without knowledge or reflection. According to Flood’s article, Mullan said, “I’m not against Harry Potter, my children loved it, [but] Harry Potter is for children, not for grownups…. It’s all the fault of cultural studies: anything that is consumed with any appearance of appetite by people becomes an object of academic study.” Professor Mullan concludes that the academics attending the conference “should be reading Milton and Tristram Shandy: that’s what they’re paid to do.”  In one sense, it’s apt that a poorly informed article would be supported with a quotation from a poorly informed academic.  In another sense, one might pity Mullan and Flood for being ill-equipped to complete their tasks — in his case, intelligent commentary, and, in hers, responsible journalism. As Clementine Beauvais noted in her report on the conference, “It isn’t just careless, or uninformed, to dismiss the Harry Potter series as a serious object of analysis; it is intellectually dishonest.”

One suspects that Mullan and Flood would be surprised to learn that — in addition to the scores of books and articles about Rowling’s series — a portion of the manuscript for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Sorcerer’s Stone for American readers) is currently on display in the British Library, alongside works by Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, William Blake, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ted Hughes, and George Eliot.  Indeed, the exhibit — Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands — does not segregate children’s literature from “adult literature,” a decision which would likely distress Professor Mullan. In addition to Rowling, the British Library’s exhibit features Kenneth Graham’s Wind in the Willows, A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Arthur Ransom’s Swallowdale, Susan Cooper’s Greenwitch, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures Under Ground (the book which, in revised form, became Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland).  It also includes comics by Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore.  It’s a fascinating, well-curated exhibit.

Rowling’s manuscript pages (written in longhand) display an earlier version of Chapter 6’s first page (67, in the Bloomsbury edition).  In the published chapter, the second paragraph begins, “Harry kept to his room with his new owl for company.  He had decided to call her Hedwig, a name he had found in A History of Magic”  After another three sentences, the paragraph concludes:

Every night before he went to sleep, Harry ticked off another day on the piece of paper he had pinned to the wall, counting down to September the first.

On the last day of August, he thought he’d better speak to his aunt and uncle about getting to King’s Cross station next day, so he went down to the living-room, where they were watching a quiz show on television. He cleared his throat to let them know he was there, and Dudley screamed and ran from the room.

‘Er — Uncle Vernon?’

Uncle Vernon grunted to show he was listening.

In Rowling’s handwritten manuscript, the second paragraph begins, “Harry spent most of his time in his room with Widdicombe his owl.”  Then, there’s some crossed-out material that’s hard to read with added harder-to-read tiny new material above it, after which Rowling writes:

            He pinned a piece of paper on the wall, thinking of the days before he went to September the first marked on it, and he ticked them off every night.  On the thirty first of August he thought he’d better speak to his uncle about getting to King’s Cross next day. So he went down to the living room, where the Dursleys were watching a quiz show on television.

Harry cleared his throat to tell them he was there, and Dudley screamed and ran from the room.

“Er — Uncle Vernon?”

Uncle Vernon grunted to show he was listening.

The revisions to the above offer a glimpse into Rowling’s creative process.

Three items stand out.

  1. First, the original name for Harry’s owl was not Hedwig, but Widdicombe.  Hedwig was a medieval saint. Widecombe-in-the-Moor is a town in Devon, England.  Ann Widdecombe is a British Conservative Party politician; however, given the distance between Rowling’s views and hers, as well as the close relationship between Harry and his owl, the socially conservative former member of Parliament is likely not the inspiration for the character of Harry’s owl. The town is the most likely source because Rowling collects words she likes, including those from street signs — Snape’s surname came from an English town. The new name for Harry’s owl offers stronger thematic resonances with the character, a noble owl who endures much suffering on Harry’s behalf. The change to the original name also reminds us how carefully Rowling considers her characters’ names. As is the case with Dickens’ names, Rowling’s names often telegraph a key trait of the character.
  2. Second, based on this selection, Rowling struggles more with descriptive passages than she does with characterization. The books’ sentences — which combine vivid detail with fast-paced narrative — derive from Rowling’s diligent editing. “He pinned a piece of paper on the wall, thinking of the days before September the first marked on it, and he ticked them off every night” becomes “Every night before he went to sleep, Harry ticked off another day on the piece of paper he had pinned to the wall, counting down to September the first.” Though only two words shorter than the earlier version, the published sentence is more sharply constructed. Its opening clause establishes place and time of day, allowing us to visualize where Harry is: “Every night before he went to bed” tells us that he’s in his bedroom, formerly “Dudley’s second bedroom” (32).  It also establishes this ticking-off-days as a repeated behavior, occurring “Every night.”  Where the original version begins by directing our attention to the paper on the wall, the new version first sets the scene before bringing in the subject of the sentence (our title character) and his nightly activity:  “Harry ticked off another day.”  It does not need to tell us that he is “thinking of the days before” school begins because the nightly counting-down clearly conveys that the subject is on his mind.  The new sentence also ends with “September the first,” placing emphasis on the day Harry awaits, and providing an effective transition to the next sentence, which begins with “the last day of August.”
  3. Third, I say that characterization comes more easily to Rowling (based on this admittedly limited sample) because she makes very few changes to the descriptions of the Dursleys. In both, they are “watching a quiz show on television,” which (for Rowling) signals their shallowness.  Always rude to his nephew, “Uncle Vernon grunted to show he was listening” (in both).  Still spooked by his recent encounter with magic, “Dudley screamed and ran from the room” (in both). How apt that Rowling should have greater facility with character. Though she has a fully imagined secondary world, key to readers’ enjoyment are characters to whom they can relate. Rowling’s debt to the mystery genre helps make her books page-turners, but she has such avid fans because she’s able to make people care about Harry, Hermione, Ron, Sirius, Ginny, Dumbledore, Neville, and others.

I concede that my off-the-cuff analysis of a few textual differences could be more robust. But my larger point here is that of course Harry Potter can be — and often is — the subject of academic analysis. Indeed, for roughly a dozen years, it has attracted a great deal of attention from literary critics. If we are interested in the craft of the most popular and influential writer of her generation, then it’s worth taking J. K. Rowling’s work seriously. If we care about the adults today’s children will become, then we need to take children’s literature seriously. Stories provide children with their earliest ideas about how the world works, and about what literature is and why it matters. Professor Mullan should care about books for the young because the children who enjoy reading are the ones most likely to grow into adults willing to read Laurence Sterne and John Milton. But we all should care about children’s books not merely because they help create literate grown-ups. We should care about them, study them, hold conferences on them, and write them because they are Art.

Links of interest:

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