No Boycott of Israeli Universities!

This morning the Los Angeles Times published my op-ed rejecting the American Studies Association’s resolution to boycott Israeli Universities. I am sharing it here.

Boycott of Israeli universities: A repugnant attack on academic freedom

Academic institutions should not be declared off-limits because of their national affiliation.

The American Studies Assn. recently passed a resolution that “endorses and … honor[s] the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.” The action was taken, the group explained, because “there is no effective or substantive academic freedom for Palestinian students and scholars under conditions of Israeli occupation,” and because “Israeli institutions of higher learning are a party to Israeli state policies that violate human rights and negatively impact the working conditions of Palestinian scholars and students.”

But the boycott is a repugnant attack on academic freedom, declaring academic institutions off-limits because of their national affiliation.

The ASA has not gone on record against the universities in any other country in the world: not against those that enforce laws against homosexuality, not against those that have rejected freedom of speech, not against those that systematically restrict access to higher education by race, religion or gender. No, the ASA listens to civil society only when it speaks against Israel. As its scholarly president declared, “One has to start somewhere.” Not in North Korea, not in Russia or Zimbabwe or China — one has to start with Israel. Really?

The 820-plus ASA members who voted for the resolution are sanctioning universities and their faculties because of their government’s policies. Many Israeli professors, like many other citizens, oppose the policies of the current government. But these schools have now run afoul of the ASA and are subject to boycott.

The ASA makes clear it thinks the United States enables the Israeli policies that it finds most objectionable. Did its leadership consider boycotting American universities too?

Not all those in academia agree with the ASA’s action, of course. Here’s what the American Assn. of University Professors, for example, has to say about the importance of unfettered interaction among scholars:

“Since its founding in 1915, the AAUP has been committed to preserving and advancing the free exchange of ideas among academics irrespective of governmental policies and however unpalatable those policies may be viewed. We reject proposals that curtail the freedom of teachers and researchers to engage in work with academic colleagues, and we reaffirm the paramount importance of the freest possible international movement of scholars and ideas.”

There is plenty of debate among Israeli scholars about the policies of their government, and there is plenty of debate among Israeli, Palestinian and other scholars about a reasonable path forward in the Middle East. As a citizen of the United States, I have supported efforts to develop new approaches to achieving peace in the Middle East. As a Jew, I have argued against the policies of the current Israeli government, many of which I find abhorrent.

Boycotts don’t serve these debates; they seek to cut them off by declaring certain academic institutions and their faculty off-limits. This tactic, in the words of Richard Slotkin, an emeritus professor here at Wesleyan University, “is wrong in principle, politically impotent, intellectually dishonest and morally obtuse.”

As president of Wesleyan, and as a historian, I deplore this politically retrograde resolution of the American Studies Assn. Under the guise of phony progressivism, the group has initiated an irresponsible attack on academic freedom. Others in academia should reject this call for an academic boycott.

Writing and Education

This past Sunday I published a review in the Los Angeles Times on teaching writing. I cross-posted on the Huffington Post and have been surprised by the interest it has generated.

“Professor X” is teaching at schools very different from Wesleyan, and yet there may be lessons in his book for us. The first is that our students have the benefit of working with scholar-teachers who are dedicated to providing a bold and rigorous educational experience. The second is that our faculty have the benefit of working with students who are motivated to develop their capacities for critical and creative thinking. All of us know that this joint endeavor only works well when built on a foundation of trust, hard work and care. As we move toward the end of the semester, let’s make sure that foundation is as strong as possible.


In the Basement of the Ivory Tower

Confessions of an Accidental Academic

Professor X

Viking: 288 pp., $25.95

In fall 2008, the Atlantic published an anonymous essay on the awful conditions in the basic writing courses of many colleges. “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower” told the story of Professor X, a part-time adjunct professor with a passion for literature and a dedication to upholding standards. “Professor X,” as the author called himself, penned a cri de coeur lamenting that we now encourage people to enter these courses without the preparation or ability to do college-level work. He compared contemporary inflated assumptions about the abilities of many non-traditional students to the inflated credit scores that helped fuel the housing bubble. Professor X had himself begun to teach, he tells us, because his family had taken on a mortgage they could scarcely afford, and he needed more than one job to make ends meet. He was stuck in “adjunct land” because the culture all around him refused to uphold its basic standards. The verve of his essay lay in Professor X’s refusal to give in to the hypocrisy of the system that victimized him.

One can imagine someone, seeing that the controversial essay was attracting attention online, trying to recast it as a book. Why not just inflate into chapters the points made in paragraphs, add a bit on reactions to the original essay, and presto! A book! The result is a volume with an embarrassing amount of rhetorical padding and an excruciating number of repetitions. As a writing teacher, X probably realizes this, but how could he resist morphing his successful essay into his first published book?

Teachers of a certain age often like to complain about students who just don’t get it. We all have stories of howlers committed by naive freshmen or of students who come up with lame excuses for not handing in work or who get caught plagiarizing. “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower” is chock-full of bonehead tales from the classroom. Some are amusing, but after a while they leave a bad taste in the reader’s mouth. Should a teacher be this condescending and still parade his virtuous upholding of true university standards?

Professor X was by his own account a student who loved to learn and who developed the noble ambition to be a writer. But his plans for a life devoted to what he repeatedly calls the very hard work of writing were derailed. “Meanwhile, my wife had gotten pregnant,” he tells the reader in a howler of his own, and he wants us to understand that this meant that he had to get serious. Further shocking disappointments would be coming: An agent didn’t like the book manuscript he finished. “I knew that I wouldn’t be able to start another book,” he writes. “I was on the road to forty years old.” Writing is so hard!

With debts piling up and tensions mounting with his wife, X becomes a part-time teacher. Now he can really show somebody how hard writing is! He doesn’t want to talk about race or class in his courses because these topics make him uncomfortable. He is surprised to discover that his nontraditional students are often indifferent to his pedagogical charms and that they are woefully unengaged. They don’t even seem to care about failing. X rails against a system that pulls them into college when they have no ability to work at the appropriate level. He wonders whether this is the fault of postmodernism or maybe of the increasing number of female teachers (with all that feminine compassion!).

Professor X sees a corrupt system in which community colleges succeed in attracting more and more students who will fail (but pay tuition) because more and more companies are using college certification as a job requirement. Why should nurses or computer programmers or cops have to learn about literature? he complains. He does not ask this question because he believes that literature is relevant only to those pursuing a life of writing. No, Professor X really does love literature and writing, and he believes with admirable passion that learning to read and write is enormously fulfilling whatever your job may be. X rails against the system of attracting all these students into courses they can’t pass because he despairs of their ability to learn (or his ability to teach them).

I wish we had heard more about the students who did learn from Professor X, and I bet there have been more than a few. The glimpses into his successes in the classroom don’t support his call for more restrictions on who should go to college, but it is moving to hear about those students who surprised him with their insights, honesty and desire to learn.

Professor X’s 2008 essay struck a chord because we were ashamed to be reminded that more than half of those who begin community college never finish and that the great majority of college students across the country are taught by woefully underpaid part-time instructors. We want to believe that all citizens should have the chance to develop literacy and the ability to think and write clearly. This cannot be reduced to job training. X is so frustrated by his classes because he wants his students to develop these capacities too. Despite his often cynical and pandering tone, Professor X does occasionally show that he cares about the welfare of those he is trying to teach. To his credit, he just wishes they cared more themselves.

Liberal Learning and the University of the Future

I’m just back from the annual meeting of the American Association of Colleges and Universities. The AAC&U is dedicated to “making the aims of liberal learning a vigorous and constant influence on institutional purpose and educational practice in higher education.” — That’s the mission statement, and today the organization works with a wide variety of schools to develop learning outcomes, democratic and inclusive practices, and coherent curricula consistent with the evolution of the liberal arts.

My first task there was to respond to a talk by Mark C. Taylor, whose book Crisis on Campus I’d reviewed in the Los Angeles Times. Mark is a Wesleyan graduate, who taught at Williams for decades and is now Chair of the Religion Department at Columbia University. Mark calls for the creation of a postmodern university, which for him means moving from silos to networks, abolishing departments and tenure, and organizing problems-oriented teaching teams. If we don’t act now, he foresees a deepening crisis in higher education akin to the housing bubble of recent years.

I emphasized some of the key areas about which Mark and I agree. He is right on the money in attacking the powerful, long-term trends toward specialization in university culture, trends which have a decidedly negative impact on undergraduate education. At many schools this has led to a fragmentation of intellectual life, with powerful departments defending their own interests without regard to the welfare of the institution as a whole. Who is going to articulate a holistic vision for undergraduate education when only specialized success is awarded professional prestige?

I have written elsewhere on the importance of giving our students the capacity for translation, or intellectual cross-training, that will allow them to tap into multiple networks of inquiry. Unlike Mark Taylor, I do not think that abolishing tenure will help in this regard. Most schools in America have most of their classes taught by untenured faculty (often graduate students), and the result is not more freedom and breadth. Instead, the poor job conditions for these instructors seem to encourage the replication of the status quo — little innovation, much conformity to disciplinary convention. In our current political context, one in which state, federal and foundation officials are often seized with the desire to regulate public culture, the protection of academic freedom that tenure affords is crucial.

I came away from these meetings realizing how fortunate we are here at Wesleyan to have a faculty that consistently works to improve the education we offer students even as our scholar-teachers continue to help shape the professional fields in which they work. Wes has its challenges, too, including overcoming the intellectual fragmentation that often attends specialization. But we have many professors committed to this task, and that is the most important factor for building the university of the future — a university in which faculty members make student learning the priority in ways that enhance our capacity for research.

Young Profs Making a Difference in the Public Sphere

Just a quick addendum to my last post on participation in the political sphere. This weekend two of our young professors in the social sciences weighed in on important national/international issues in the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times. In an OpEd for The Los Angeles Times, Laura Stark, who teaches sociology and is part of the Science in Society Program and the College of the Environment , explained how the current research review system in the United States remains inadequate. On the heels of a US apology for dangerous and cruel medical research in Guatemala, the US now has on opportunity to overhaul ethics rules. Stark makes specific recommendations as to how we can avoid both the steamrolling of subjects and an echo chamber of assent on ethics review panels.

As I drank my morning coffee and read the New York Times on Sunday, I saw Erika Franklin Fowler’s research with the Wesleyan Media Project cited once again. In this instance, she was discussing how China has become the scapegoat for many desperate candidates in this election cycle. Fear of China’s recent economic progress seems to have re-ignited traditional anti-Chinese racism, and many political advertisements are tapping into this cauldron of hate and anxiety.

Political scientist Elvin Lim continues to offer trenchant analysis and thoughtful opinions on his blog, Out on A Lim. Today he wondered if President Obama has been too quick to back down when challenged by a forceful opposition. He concluded his reflections on transformations in White House staffing by saying: “There can only be as much change as that which the president himself ultimately believes in.”

How much change do you believe in? Whatever you hope to see happen in the public sphere, I hope you will be inspired by our young social science faculty and get engaged!

Virtuous Circle of Teaching and Research

Over the last thirty to forty years, higher education in America has viewed contributions to research as an essential part of its mission. Professors are expected to participate in shaping their scholarly fields, and students are expected to learn not just the wisdom of the past, but how to produce knowledge in the present. At large universities, though, the research function often seems to dwarf the dedication to undergraduate education. At several of the Ivies and other schools that compete for academic prestige, senior faculty often have little to do with teaching those preparing bachelor degrees, and graduate students or other part-time instructors wind up taking on the bulk of college teaching. The tenured professors work mostly with graduate students, preparing them for careers that, too, are expected to center on research.

In recent years the folly of this system has become increasingly evident: there are few tenure-track jobs for the graduate students being trained to work in the most specialized domains, and undergraduates are often left to wonder how courses taught by these narrowly trained specialists are supposed to connect to their lives after college. As smaller institutions emulated the research universities, the publish-or-perish mentality became a core part of faculty culture, with specialized journals publishing for small groups of colleagues offering the most professional prestige.

There has recently been plenty of strong criticism of the cultivation of esoteric research in higher education. Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus have argued that universities are wasting resources and failing students, in part because of the premium put on faculty research rather than teaching. Hacker and Dreifus have been teaching in New York for decades, and they have also been prolific authors. But in their recent book,  Higher Education? they argue that schools have been distracted from their core educational mission by adding on the obligation to contribute to scholarly fields.

Mark C. Taylor, Wesleyan graduate, long time professor at Williams and now Chair of the Religion Department at Columbia University, has recently published what he calls a bold plan to respond to the contemporary crisis on campus. Noting how the focus on research has driven a wedge between faculty and student interests, he diagnoses “the identification of specialization with expertise.” Narrow specialization should be the great enemy of educators because it leads to silos of inquiry with little opportunity for surprising intellectual exchange. But specialization has gone hand in hand with professional prestige, something that schools have been chasing for decades.

Taylor’s main argument is that our overspecialized colleges and universities are increasingly divorced from the hyper-connected world defined by “webs, not walls.” Networks of interconnectivity rather than isolated expertise are defining our world, and higher education will become obsolete if it doesn’t plug into these new forms of knowledge creation. (I’ve taken my comments here from my review of the book in the LA Times.)

How are these critiques relevant to Wesleyan? To be sure, our university prizes research because we believe that it informs and enlivens pedagogy. I often talk about the “virtuous circle” of teaching and research, and many of my Wesleyan colleagues have been deeply affected in their scholarly work by what they learn from students in the classroom. Similarly, our students know that we continue to learn with them through the work we do in our fields…we are not just imparting information to them that somebody else imparted to us.

Some of Wesleyan’s best teachers are also our most serious and original researchers, and all of us remain dedicated to undergraduate education even as we produce scholarship for specialized audiences. So, even though I think Hacker, Dreifus and Taylor are right to worry about severe overspecialization (with its associated bureaucracy) in certain fields, I think they might say more about the positive feedback loop that can connect the classroom and the archive, the science lab and the lecture hall. And we should note that these contemporary critics of education are themselves also researchers, and this hasn’t seemed to undermine their professed love of teaching.

I just attended part of the Molecular Biophysics and Biological Chemistry retreat, and I saw great evidence of how well the scholar teacher model is working here at Wes. This year’s gathering honored David Beveridge, Joshua Boger University Professor of the Sciences and Mathematics. David’s pioneering work in computational biology and biophysics has had a powerful influence in the classroom and the research lab, and I saw several fine examples of Wes student research in the poster session. Sure there is specialization, but there is also an understanding of what is at stake in the experiments and an ability to describe the work for the non-expert. Showing a wonderful talent for translating their efforts to this layman, students explained to me their work on RNA, on modeling the structure of particular carbon based molecules, and on the translation of proteins. My head is still spinning!

There are plenty of things in American higher education that can be improved, but we must be careful to preserve our ability to educate students broadly and deeply by engaging faculty in projects that are both scholarly and pedagogical. Specialization without the capacity for translation (without “intellectual cross-training,” as Wes trustee Geoff Duyk calls it) does undermine effective teaching at many schools, but Wesleyan professors who remain active scholars, scientists and artists exemplify a love of learning that can be made powerfully relevant to their undergraduate students.

[tags]research, specialization, Mark Taylor, David Beveridge[/tags]

Year’s End….. Looking Ahead

As we close out 2008 I find myself still dealing with ongoing projects from the fall while putting things in place for the beginning of next semester. Almost finished with my grading of my class on photography and representation, I am spending more time finalizing my syllabus for my spring course on movies and philosophy, The Past on Film. Although I have taught this class many times over the years (and as recently as last spring), I can’t help but rethink the readings and movies one more time.

As a historian interested in how people make sense of the past, I began teaching and writing about film and photography more than 15 years ago. In December I wrote a review for the LA Times on Annie Liebovitz’s most recent book:,0,6719282.story

Working with the photography collection in our Davison Art Center was a great treat this past semester, and I am looking forward to teaching again in our state of the art film facility. But first I have to finish this syllabus!

Once faculty and students return to campus we will resume work on our budget planning and curricular initiatives. There will be more difficult trade-offs, as we chart a course to keep Wesleyan on track during this economic crisis and beyond. I will continue to share information about the planning process on this blog and the Securing the Future website.

Maintaining access to a Wesleyan education through a robust financial aid program is an important value that guides our planning. Recently the political scientist Charles Murray has argued that we are encouraging too many people to pursue a college education. Yesterday I published on the Huffington Post a response to a recent op-ed piece by Dr. Murray:

It is still very quiet here at Wesleyan, but now varsity athletes have returned for practices before next week’s tournaments. Before too long the campus will be fully back to life. Meanwhile, I send out best wishes to the extended Wesleyan family for a great 2009.

[tags] classes, The Past on Film, photography, Los Angeles Times, Annie Liebovitz, Davison Art Center, economy, Securing the Future, financial aid, Charles Murray, Huffington Post [/tags]