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Michael Maiello's picture

In Defense of The Generalist Columnist

No, I'm not defending Naomi Schafer Riley as any art form, including the writing of an 800-900 word newspaper article can be practiced badly.  To not even read what you're criticizing is pretty low.  But Dr. Cleveland, Professor of Dagblog, sets a very high standard for columnists.  Paul Krugman, who sticks (usually) to his discipline, is praised while David Brooks and Ross Douthat are singled out for writing on a broader array of topics which they cannot, by definition, claim expertise.

Come to think of it, I don't want to defend Brooks and Douthat either.  They both annoy me for some of the same reasons they annoy Dr. Cleveland.  Then there's me, a former financial journalist who now makes his living in marketing but who, as a side gig, writes an Op-Ed column for a The Daily.  Though I am generally most comfortable writing in my wheelhouse (the intersection of economics, business and politics that I became familiar with during 10 years at Forbes) I do not limit myself to those topics.  While it is true that I feel more comfortable about topics like Romney and the auto bailouts, I have opinions about Obama and Libya as well.  There's no doubt that I'm less qualified on Obama and Libya.  But, I'm a citizen.  My tax dollars pay for both auto bailouts and foreign interventions.  Besides, I'm probably less likely to make a boneheaded mistake in the Libya column.  It's when I'm not worried about making a fool of myself that I most often do.

That said, even if I make an honest effort to understand Libya by reading Brookings briefings, Foreign Policy and articles from both the U.S. and international press, I'm probably not expert enough to really write about U.S. policy, which is likely driven by non-public information.  Maybe nobody should be writing about it who isn't willing to reveal state secrets.  But, by that standard, even Krugman doesn't have all of the information he needs to write about the Federal Reserve, we just have to believe that he can infer it.

Maybe I'm taking Dr. Cleveland too far, here.  But his admonition that academics not talk about what they don't know, along with his description of the academic pursuit, makes it very difficult for people to claim expertise in anything.  Maybe the Socratic Humility Dodge is in order for everyone?  Or, maybe it is that you have to spend a lifetime looking for new and novel things in your field, which gives you a familiarity that others simply will not have.  Heck, the problem isn't so much that outsiders haven't done the reading, it's that they might not even know what to read.  It's like being confused in a math class and not even knowing what question to ask the professor.

This is at odds, however, with the great middlebrow experiment in American culture.  It used to be that a New Yorker subscription and active participation in a Great Books club could give the layman the foundations they need in literature, culture, art, philosophy and science.  Nowadays, people can use the Internet to get even more information but the academic disciplines that might interest them have become more and more specialized.

This becomes a huge problem when we get into realms of public policy.  Like, for instance, the Presidential Commission for Bioethics, which is loaded with well-versed academics who mighty rightly say to an outside critic like me that I don't even know then literature they're debating.  Yet, the results of their debate could well affect what kind of medicines I get and what research programs my tax dollars go to support.

Now, if I wrote a column criticizing the Commission with no knowledge whatsoever bout what the Commission was actually saying, I'd call that a bad column.  But I do think that a layman who makes an honest effort to understand the Commissions recommendations and concerns can probably weigh in without wading into tens of thousands of pages of bioethics literature dating back more than a decade.  Heck, that columnist might even do a service to the debate by chiming in from the outside.

And that's where I think I disagree.  I don't think that Ross Douthat needs to be able to speak or read Aramaic in order to take issue with Elaine Pagels, a theologian who writes for a popular audience.  Whether or not he's right or could hold his own in a debate with her is another matter.

Similarly, given that most universities either get direct taxpayer support or indirect support through their nonprofit status, I think it's okay for outsiders to have an opinion about what topics are studied and how they're taught.  Again, they should have informed opinions, but they need not be academically informed.  The academy is part of society.  So it's fair game.

But the final thing, and I know I'm being long-winded here, is that not everyone wants to specialize.  Some people crave more general knowledge.  I have a hard time knowing when I want to read fiction, when I want to read science and when I want to read politics.  A month from now, I might be dusting off some Milton.  Or, not.  It actually seems like there's little place for so scattered a thinker in academic life, but that's often what we've expected of our public intellectuals.

It actually seems sad to me that generalism isn't more highly regarded because for a lot of us, specialization is unnatural.

Well, Destor, obviously I have a blog. Which means I also blog about things that I don't have specialist academic knowledge. Like you, I blog about Obama and Libya. I blog about the economy, without being an economist. I'm a generalist, too.

No, I don't think you need to be a specialist to talk about something, unless you want to talk about it in a specialized way. I think the bar for informed opinion is much lower than that. You can inform yourself enough to back up an argument.

But the columnists I'm talking about have often spectacularly uninformed opinions, and make all kinds of claims that they can't back up at all. Brooks routinely makes authoritative-sounding statements that are based on things he has misunderstood, half-understood, or gotten completely wrong. You don't have to be a specialist in something to know that David Brooks understands even less than you. (I haven't seen him say something outright false in his column since Monday, but then I haven't read it since Monday.)

Does Douthat need to read Aramaic to debate Elaine Pagels? It depends. If he wants to say that she's misunderstanding the early Gnostic gospels, he should probably be able to read them.  But there are other ways to engage with her. He could look for inconsistencies in her claims themselves, which would require him to engage deeply with her books. He could do a little secondary research and focus on the best arguments that have been made against her. In other words, he could do his homework and report the story he's writing.

Douthat opts for sweeping dismissal, backed up with just about nothing. And that's not in an op-ed column. That's in a book. A book that denounces America as a "nation of heretics." Really.

I'm sorry that my post led to the impression that I was defining knowledge as being a specialist. That was not my intent. Obviously, non-specialists know lots of things. And perhaps less obviously, specialists are keenly aware of how much they don't know about their own subject. The more you study something, the more you realize how much else there is to know. And when you work as an academic, what you can really be punished and embarrassed for is saying things about your own field that you can't back up.

Academics constantly have to gauge whether or not they know enough to back up a particular claim. Do I know enough to say X? How much do I know about Y? If I claim Z, how confidently can I push that claim? When we say things we can't back up, we expect to get burned. If I'm going to go negative, say by calling millions of people heretics, I had better be damn sure I know what I'm talking about. But that isn't the Brooks-and-Douthat ethos at all.

This is actually why academic writing is so full of little hedges and qualifications. "This is possibly consistent with" and "is worth investigating further" makes for unexciting prose, but avoids excitingly disastrous errors. We have to constantly ask ourselves how far to push the argument.

If I blog about Libya, I try to stay within the limits of what I know about Libya, which is not much. And I am very aware of the many things I don't know about that subject. If I blog about the economy, I blog about the economic questions I feel well informed on. And when I talk or write about my own academic field, I speak confidently about certain things, cautiously about others, and about some things not at all. Brooks and Douthat hold themselves to a much looser and more generous standard. Should the standard for the op-ed page be the same as the standard for a scholarly book? Of course not. But being able to back up what you say, on the most basic level, should be the standard everywhere.

It seems sad that people couldn't just refute Ms. Riley's arguments and leave it at that.

Would have been much stronger statement in an academic environment.

Guess next time we bring out the pepper-spray cop.

Having agreed with you on a similar argument, I do want to say that I agree with others that if her bosses aren't satisfied with the quality of her writing, they have every right to fire her. However, I don't think it should be on the basis of one article alone.

Being America, they can fire her for any old thing - writing quality, political slant, snideness, incorrectness, forgetting to praise the management, or just because they had a bad day. As long as it's not about sexism or racism.

Think how the female worker at ACORN got fired, how Van Jones got fired, I'm sure a a few other good examples (head of NPR?). Everyone's no drama these days - on the left. It's the "squat and tell me what color" form of progressivism.

Would you suggest her bosses shouldn't fire her if they consistently don't like the quality of what she writes? (Of course they can, no one is arguing about that, as far as I can tell.) Where would you draw the line?

I consistently don't like the quality of what Maureen Dowd or Gayle Collins or David Brooks write. But they're hired to be batty and feed their rabid throngs.

If it were Salon and I had a lineup of 4 headliners, I'd be concerned about quality and effect. But the Chronicle seems to have a dozen just in the Innovations and Brainstorm sections. Two of who adequately defend her honor and the general need to be able to write quick throwaway blogs without a requisite witch burning.

So I'd draw the line at someone providing valuable if contrary opinion, vs. someone who just riles people up without any actual unique points to make or someone who just passes pablum to the masses for the sake of no drama.

The fact is, Riley made several good points among a number of bad ones, as these 2 defenders illustrate, and the thin-skinned nature of the response does nothing to help the complainers' cause - and pretending this was a scholarly referenced peer-reviewed article rather than a throwaway blog doesn't make the baying wolves appear  any more sensible. Sadly, the Chronicle's management decided to do away with her, rather than accepting that conflict and resolution is the fire that universities breathe for. Pretty elementary mistake.

Then I think we're in complete agreement. Editor should fire writers for consistently poor quality writing, whatever "poor" might mean to them (and as you rightly point out, it could vary wildly). As I said, I don't think this one instance of Riley's meets that criteria (although neither of us disputes that editors can fire writers for (almost) any reason they want), so we're also in agreement there. 

Cornel West got famously booted from Harvard because he wasn't producing the type of scholarship that Larry Summers wanted. Black studies didn't prevent his ouster.

Two professors at CUNY sued the school for dismissing them. Leonard Jeffries, a black bigot, teaches that whites are inferior and that Jews funded the slave trade.. Michael Levin a Jewish bigot, teaches that blacks are inferior. Both remain on the faculty after winning lawsuits challenging their dismissal. I would wonder how much scholarship is being produced in either case. Jeffries says that he doesn't write because he is to busy making history to write about history.

You might get the same as you do from having Jeffries and Levin on the faculty as you would by just inviting the head of the KKK and the head of the New Black Panthers to a debate.

Riley wrote for a journal that caters to the desires of it's audience. If a parade of Kim Kardashian and Lady Gaga stories became the norm, protest would lead to the removal of those writers (and probably editors as well). Just because Riley has a different opinion does not mean that people cannot consider Riley's point of view full of crap. The idea that the people who are glad to see Riley gone have defend their stance by posting reasons they support black studies is also crap. Riley should have taken the time to put some thought into her posts. It would have saved her supporters from having to make her arguments for her.

A discussion about merging Black Studies departments in with English or Sociology departments is an interesting point. Somehow I don't see Professor Gates going along with the proposition.

Riley was lazy and made herself open to ridicule. Her important points had to be made for her by others. Time to move on. Others will do a better job.

Nice piece, Destor. It includes the qualities which, for me, make any column worth reading--context, circumspection, fairness, sense of humor, and the personal touch.  

Naomi Schafer Riley 'firing' from a blog (a blog for heaven sakes) has been a spectacularly successful gambit on her part, and has almost certainly enhanced her qualifications as an author, or a future highly remunerated employee in the right wing echo chamber, Fox News, WSJ or other realms of the Murdoch empire. 

She got exactly the response she desired, nothing ranks up there with being too ignorant, intolerant and dismissive of academics, science, higher education, history or liberals to gain notable qualifications as a rising right wing star.

All too true

As I noted, one of her pieces for the WSJ was a very soothing "why we have nothing to fear from the Muslim community" piece. Others were "what's changed in the 50 years since Port Huron?" and "why do promising students in cherry colleges still habitually drink themselves into oblivion instead of using it to build a career". One was a tour of huge Mormon food warehouses as an example of logistics efficiency.

She's not a wingnut, though I guess she could go that way as Greta van Susteren did for her famous career move.

Elsewhere I've provided links to well-written rebuttals on the Chronicle site. If you want to attack "ignorant, intolerant and dismissive", you might as well attack the reactions to her simple blog as well. You'd think she was running dog fights or something. Oh my, make fun of college dissertations - kinda like Proxmire's The Golden Fleece. I must faint.

So she is an excellent source for commentary on the Muslim community, food distribution, Mormonism, promising students, cherry colleges, alcohol abuse and national security, in addition to Black studies?

I think people should just write about whatever they want.  If they are ignorant about what they are saying and their writing is widely circulated, it is the job of better informed  people to enter the fray and refute it.   When prominent people say uninformed things in public it provides an opportunity for those with specialized knowledge of the subject in question to inject something into the national conversation during the brief moment when people are paying attention.



Though as we see often with refutations from the left, often those with specialized knowledge on subjects don't express themselves well. 

In Riley's piece, she made several blunders - the bit about single-family dwellings wasn't an issue, natural birth is a known subject, and unique birthing choices for African Americans and those in poverty is a serious interesting issue.

Nevertheless, the writeup she responded to was half-political ('X was born into activism'), and the main thesis she attacked was transparently "support affirmative action or you're betraying those who helped you".

Black Studies is half-political, half-academic. Deal with it. In 100 years, will we need Black Studies, or will child-bearing issues go into Health Policy, stop & search go into Law, comparison of Chisholm and Barbara Jordan into Poli Sci or History?

We can say the existence of this kind of program is a kind of Affirmative Action - something I support in some cases, but with a caveat that at some point Affirmative Action in particular settings should be phased out.

I don't understand why Black Studies is something pseudo-academic?  I just don't get it.  Why is it some kind of Affirmative Action?  The history and experience and art and music and culture of myriad African societies on both sides of the ocean is fake?

As usual, I don't understand your argument, unless it's being made for the sake of argument. 

You write: "Black Studies is half-political, half-academic.  Deal with it."   What does that even mean?  Why would we not "need" Black Studies in 100 years?  Does it become boring?   Do we just mix it in with everything else because we should or because of some kind of educational evolution where everything becomes mush over time into a single integrated discipline?

I love to debate as much as anyone, but seriously what are you talking about?   I'm flummoxed, as I so often am these days around here.

Come on, try a little, you'll get it.

Does Black Studies exist in Europe? In 100-150 years, I suspect black activism will hardly need to exist.

Compare Black Studies to Asian Studies - one if focused on a litany of liberation, legal, health & societal complaints and remedies combined with some culture & history. The other is focused on culture & history.

In terms of academia, concluding up front "affirmative action is right, so everyone who disagrees is wrong" wouldn't make it past the examination board in most other subjects.

Unlike Riley, I don't dismiss the good of Black Studies departments (then again, I'm likely more sympathetic to the politics and situation) - but I consider it akin to mixing trade school/Ralph Nader-inspired PiRGs in with official studies. Yes, it's useful, yes, it's good to be involved, but the goals and practice are a bit different than the outcomes from most degrees & academic work.


Honestly, I'm trying.  And I'm sorry to say that I'm even more confused by your response.

I was an undergraduate in the late 70s at Cornell and I understand how the Black Studies Department there came to be (politics is hardly a sufficient explanation you might recall about what happened in Ithaca back in the day).  

But, so what?  Why does it matter that there are no Black Studies programs in Europe?  Are you like the guy who wrote that Cultural Literacy book about 20 years ago or so?  Are you saying that Black Studies is incompatible with a more "universalist" and "complete" education? 

Seriously Peracles, I know we bicker, and sometimes I wish I could crack you over the head with a baseball bat (and then I chill) but I'm honestly and in good faith confused by what you're positing here. 

Help a guy who's down and out and dumb my brother!

I can create a Snowboarding & Bicycling Department. And it might be highly academic, or it might scratch my itch to have a reason to do more snowboarding & bicycling. There's nothing inherently good or bad in it - just if it's more recreational, it's less academic.

Black Studies programs are in general scratching 2 itches - one to study black issues, and one as a kind of activism, correcting perceived issues. Campaigning for Obama isn't quite an academic activity for a PoliSci major, even though there's some value in the experience - you might get a few life credits for it, but it won't make up the core curriculum.

Obama's community organizing was useful for the black community, but it wasn't an academic pursuit - it was a pragmatic field job. Writing & passing out manuals on how to get rent aid isn't an academic exercise either. 

But of course that second itch about which you speak is part and parcel of even the most traditional of disciplines, and some of that is good, and some of that is bad, but it's just the way it is.  Is there not an activism per se behind those who set curricula?  Does the the American history professor's syllabus reflect the absolute and irrefutable  givens on the subject about which he or she will teach?  

Teach me more, please, but time to make the friggin' doughnuts.



The problem with what Riley did Des was not that she is a generalist columnist, but she conducted a great troll didn't she, to bring notoriety on herself in an newszine for academics.

Her flame of course was making the claim that those particular subjects are nothing more than "left-wing victimization claptrap". Let's ponder those words, those are the classic troll of academics. Your stuff sucks, is basically what she wrote, without ever having read ONE dissertation on the subject she called left-wing Victimization clap trap. She read the titles though! Wow!

That truly is just a troll, it's inflammatory, it is designed to provoke and inflame the masses, and that is exactly what happened, she inflamed academics, they are the masses who read the Chronicle. She also is patently wrong in what she wrote. Left wing victimization clap trap not worthy of study, hmm really?

Could that possibly be true though? Aren't all subjects worthy of study? Otherwise why bother writing about them. Riley, was just "commenting" on the titles of dissertations coming out of the new PhD program in African-American studies at Northwestern.

1. "Catalysts for Change: A Comparative Study of Shirley Chisholm and Barbara Jordan"

Why wouldn't this be worthy of academic analysis and study? Seriously? Because Riley makes the claim it is just victimization clap trap? How can she claim that without reading the dissertation?  Huh? Chisholm  and Jordan the first African America woman to be elected to congress and the first African American woman to run for President. Where is the evidence that this dissertation is merely victimization claptrap?

2. "Strange Bedfellows: The Rise of the New (Black) Right in Post Civil Rights America"

For the life of me I can't figure how this fits in with Riley's thesis of victimization claptrap? It sounds like an interesting subject. But how on earth can we draw the conclusion that African American studies is filled with victimization claptrap from those titles of dissertations? We cannot.

I can only conclude that Riley was conducting a troll of the Chronicle's readers using typical right wing tactics to draw out critics and then claim she is the victim.  Don't defend that Des! It isn't honest writing, and it isn't an honest conclusion, it was just a flame and although that may be good at Fox, MSNBC and the Washington Times, is isn't okay at The Chronicle because the readers will not accept such criticism unless you can back that shit up. And she can't.

Homework assignment - circle the victimiation words:

1. Zinga A. Fraser, 35

Dissertation title: "Catalysts for Change: A Comparative Study of Shirley Chisholm and Barbara Jordan"

Ms. Fraser was born into activism. Her grandfather was a Garveyite. Her father, who was active in the Black Power movement in New York during the late 60s and early 70s, was the godfather of Marcus Garvey's children. And her mother, who grew up in North Carolina during segregation, was part of the sit-in movements. "My connection to issues of race comes out of that black intellectual radical tradition," says Ms. Fraser, who worked on a voter-registration drive for Jesse Jackson, served as a Congressional aide focused on policing issues and increasing money for schools, and was the U.S. policy coordinator for the Women's Environment & Development Organization in New York, where she focused on issues affecting women during national disasters.

Ms. Fraser's dissertation compares the political lives of the civil-rights leader Barbara Jordan and Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to the U.S. Congress and the first black presidential candidate, who confronted racism and sexism in their communities and in the chambers of power. "We need to look at the issues impacting black women: the aggressive politics of poverty and reproductive health and how the demonization of black women still operates today," she says. "Jordan and Chisholm tried to address those issues through legislation and by providing models of leadership." (Photograph by Mark Abramson for The Chronicle)

Second assignment - explain how thesis summary differs from a standard political blog complaint.

2. La TaSha B. Levy, 33

Dissertation title: "Strange Bedfellows: The Rise of the New (Black) Right in Post Civil Rights America"

During the early 2000s, Ms. Levy was working at the University of Virginia as the director of its black cultural center. When she saw students reading books by Star Parker, Shelby Steele, and John McWhorter she grew concerned that they were latching on to arguments that black culture was the only thing that held the race back, and against affirmative action. Ms. Levy is interested in examining the long tradition of black Republicanism, especially the rightward ideological shift it took in the 1980s after the election of Ronald Reagan. Ms. Levy's dissertation argues that conservatives like Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas, John McWhorter, and others have "played one of the most-significant roles in the assault on the civil-rights legacy that benefited them." Ms. Levy says that with patronage from what she calls white conservative think tanks like the Manhattan Institute and the Heritage Foundation, black conservatives are now being "used to legitimize a larger discourse around racial progress that delegitimizes civil-rights policies." (Photograph by Simone Bonde for The Chronicle)

Riley did back up these assertions. Some seemed to be wrong, right and quasi-right.

As these dissertation titles are not published, but were praised by someone else who hadn't read them, it's a bit unfair to blame Riley for slamming them without reading them. I'm sure you would have held your opinion on Liberty College dissertations about the damage of loose morals and birth control on modern society until you'd read the whole thing, right?

Trolls are typically people who traipse by a site and usually leave stink bombs, frequently anonymously. Riley was a regular writer, and didn't seem to have another controversial post.

Actually Peracles, that particular piece was introducing the scholarship coming out of the new PhD program at Northwestern, in the Black Studies dept. The title of that Chronicle piece is "A New Generation of Black-Studies PhD's", those were the candidates this year and a background of those candidates. Because each and every description under those candidate are about those candidates and how they came to their subjects.

You wrote: "circle the victimization words"?  Wait, what?

I don't think I can do that for two reasons. First I don't have access to that particular manual, the one that clues me into "victimization words". Second, I didn't attend "The Winger School for creating Perpetual Anger," where PhD's are handed out left and right to those who are creating the aforementioned manuals.

By the way, people do troll columns all the time, to attract people, to enrage them to get page hits, it isn't exclusive to commenters.  I stand by my words, she knew that what she wrote would inflame Chronicle readers, therefore it was an Obvious Troll.

Sorry, didn't know you were Whinger Challenged. Let's try "demonization of women" and "assault on the civil rights legislation that benefited them", as an easy 2. 

So by your theory, she had a job lined up at Wall Street Journal and was just making a well-enflamed leap to nutter-land? She should have written a more anti-Muslim column over there then.

(p.s. enflaming a lame, complacent academic crowd is sometimes a good thing, no? or are academic issues like bean sorting, just line 'em up on the correct side?)


there is implied understanding with the term "victimization" that it applies to people claiming to be victims when they are not actually victims, or at very least vastly over-exaggerating the extent of the damage done.   In other words, to claim those two examples you provided were examples of such would be to say that the demonization of women does not occur or that it does no real harm when it is done, that the individuals who benefited from the civil rights legislation are not actually assault that very legislation. 


I'm not defending her even a little.  Everybody should do their basic research.

My two cents on this specialist versus generalist - since you brought up Milton.

Long story short, towards the end of my college days, I had to get one more lit class and the only one available that was remotely interesting was on Milton and Paradise Lost.  I hadn't read anything of his (or much from that time period), and wasn't too enthusiastic about delving into it.  But the professor, who chosen specialty was Milton, really made it interesting.  (He also has the distinction for me as the first professor who was younger than me, which was something that was hard to adjust to).

The point being, he had spent a considerable amount of time immersed into the works and the life of the author, and as a result had some considerable insights into both.  But - and this is a big but - that doesn't mean any particular insight was inherently correct or illuminating.  But - another but, yes - because of his time delving into Milton and his works, I would be more attentive (with a critical eye) to what he had to say about them, as opposed to someone else who had just read PL for the first time.

At the same time, the students in my class, as well as myself, also had some insights into how to understand the work that were just as valuable as the professors.  Out of the mouth of babes.  My own final paper was on Milton's Satan as the first scientist, and the notion that skepticism was a virtue that can come with a price and lead one down the wrong path.  It wasn't an original idea, but not one that I had seen in the commentary before it came to me.

There is a Buddhist saying that goes something like - the farmer tilling in his field is more likely to achieve enlightenment before the monk meditating in the monastery.  The immersion and focus on something does not necessarily lead to wisdom.  Sometimes we get so mired we can't see the trees from the forest.  And so on.

There will always be a tension between the expert and layman.  The truth for many subjects and issues is that one must spend some considerable time focusing on it in order to get to a point of understanding that one can consider that understanding as being informed.  Moreover, there is for many topics a prerequisite level of knowledge that is necessary to even begin to deal with it. 

To truly discuss string theory, for instance, one needs a background in mathematics that frankly only a tiny portion of the country has.  Does this mean I or others cannot weigh in on it?  No.  But whatever we say is suspect because we lack this background knowledge.  Doesn't mean what we are saying is necessarily false or off-base.  Just as the experts in the field are not necessarily speaking truths.  A point being, I can discuss string theory, but I can't call myself an expert in the field.  And in order for someone to better assess what I have to say on the matter, I shouldn't go around saying I am because I've read some articles about the topic and watched a few videos. 

If someone's been rigorous in one field, they're more likely to be able to be rigorous in another.

Nevertheless, we also like our Hunter Thompsons and Christopher Hitchens, who tend to be nuclear detonators in their environs, without necessarily being rigorous or methodical.

So we employ different means to our ends, called variety.

Being rigorous in one's study of the work of Anne Sexton doesn't really help one too much when attempting to delve into the paintings of Jan van Eyck. One might have the mental approach that facilitates rigor in whatever intellectual, cultural or academic endeavor one takes on, but it is just an approach which implies no inherent value to the content of the outcomes from that approach.  Moreover, there are so many variables, some of which are quite personal, that the life experiences that makes one a brilliant expert on Sexton, causes one to be utterly worthless when it comes to delving into Plath - no matter how rigorous one is.

Now if one has shown a certain brilliance in one area, this sends up a flag that on an entirely different topic or matter, the person may show a similar brilliance.  If we appreciate a particular mind, we are curious what that mind has to say about other things.  If I see an interview with Wim Wenders about the 2012 elections, I will read this with great interest even though Wings of Desire makes him no expert on US politics.

The key is understanding that being really brilliant over here does not translate to being really brilliant over there, but it also does not exclude such a translation.

Thanks, Trope.  Really loved reading this.

Thanks.  I had forgotten about that particular professor.  Since I have blogged about past professors, maybe I should blog about him.  Not only was he younger than me (a consequence of dragging my feet and leaving the ivory tower), he was also pretty dang good looking.  So a whole lot of the females and some of the guys in the English Department were swooning all over him when he came sauntering on to campus. 

An amazing thing the ego.  How it can make us behave and feel in such unflattering ways.  If I was being honest, I would have to say in the beginning of the class I sat there really loathing him, wanting to find some evidence that he was just some pretty boy who didn't know a lost paradise from a mirror.  But, alas, he was quite brilliant.  And a really nice guy.  And really tried to develop assignments that had students approach the material and articulate our understanding in non-traditional ways.  Damn it.

The unasked question is whether we need those history, journalism, English, political science graduate programs in the face of a world workplace that has no need for their skills. Riley took the coward's way out by only attacking Black Studies. If we selected graduate papers from other disciplines in the Humanites and Social Sciences, we could come up with a host of "ridiculous sounding" papers.

Does anyone really have the "time" to read those other ridiculous thesis submissions? Let's just shut down those ridiculous intellectual inquiries and focus on the sciences and engineering.

We would have been spared Riley's blog.

Because, as we know, scientists are never wrong about anything.

I have to admit that I only began glancing at the show recently. I saw one episode with Parson's character, Sheldon, bragging  to Hawkins about a ground breaking paper that he (Sheldon)  had written. Sheldon fainted when Hawkins pointed out a glaring math error.

I have to get out of my cocoon more often.


You're probably kidding but whether or not the value of college is in career prep is a pretty open question.  Also, there are a lot of employers out there who like hiring English and Theater majors.  I assume I've not gotten called in for several interviews because of my Theater degree.  But every job I've been offered has been offered by somebody who thought it was neat or cool that I studied that instead of business or journalism.

Just kidding about abolishing the Humanities.  I think getting a job has more to do with college activities, class position and the interview. A college degree of any type makes it less likely that you will be unemployed compared to those with only a high school diploma.

It does seem amazing that Riley who didn't read the dissertations she ridiculed can be said to have made some interesting points. She didn't.  The more interesting points were made by those making an  effort to come to her defense or as is the case with the original post, those defending the non- specialist blogger.  Riley's post was just lazy.


It is hard to defend not reading any of the dissertations prior to writing a post about how reading the dissertations should tell one why black studies should be eliminated. I mean, if she had said, "Read the abstracts!", she would have at least been on firmer ground.

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