The uselessness of land acknowledgments

April 7, 2021 • 10:30 am

We’ve all heard classes and talks preceded by “land acknowledgments”—admissions that the land on which the speaker is standing was stolen from others, usually indigenous people like Native Americans. Several examples are given in the article below by Adam Ellwanger at Critical Discourses. (Click on the screenshot.)

Ellwanter is a professor of English here in Texas—at the University of Houston downtown, and knows whereof he speaks.

Now we’ve discussed land acknowledgments before, including their uselessness except as a way of expiating guilt, as well as the confusion involved since American land has been taken over many times by various groups and tribes, who displaced each other, before the “colonists” got it. (It would be even worse in Europe, where you’d have to begin a string of acknowledgments with, “I acknowledge that this land has been taken from “Homo erectus, and then Homo sapiens neanderthalensis. . . “, and so on.)

And of course these disclaimers accomplish absolutely nothing, as they’re the epitome of virtue signaling: a lot of words that accomplish nothing except display the “high social consciousness” of the speaker or writer.

Whenever I hear one of these, I think to myself, “Well why the hell don’t you give the land back to the original occupants, then?”  But it’s a bit more complicated than that, for, as Ellwanger says in the piece below, many Native Americans had no conception of “owning” the land. That, of course, doesn’t make it right for settlers to have displaced them, but if people were serious about land acknowledgments, they’d either allow the descendants of previous occupants to move back onto the land, or give them an amount of money equal to the present value of the land.

At best, besides signaling the virtue of the speaker, they remind people of history—except that that history is usually truncated given multiple occupancy of territory over time.

Read on:

Ellwanger begins by criticizing those people who identify their pronouns, not those who do it as a way to show that they’re different from the usual cis-gender designations, but those who do it for two other reasons:

a. “to compel compliance from those who might not be willing to cooperate with the increasingly complicated lexicon that grows out of the pronoun wars.”

and

b. “to signify one’s membership in the priestly castes of university life: those intellectuals who, by mastering a complex vocabulary that eludes the grasp of regular people, demonstrate their superior respect for human dignity and their deeper concern for the many marginalized communities in the racist, fascist, homophobic, xenophobic, misogynous hellscape some people still insist on calling “America.”

This introduction may undercut Ellwanger’s thesis a bit, as I wouldn’t want to die on Pronoun Hill, but he does it to segue into land acknowledgements, for he feels that once everybody is using pronoun specifiers—and this is pretty much true in academia—then you have to find another way to demonstrate your moral superiority and membership in The Elect. That way is to precede every talk or class you give with a land acknowledgment.

Here are two specimens of land acknowledgments given by Ellwanger: from Queens University and The Unversity of Texas.

Why are these statements multiplying? Here’s Ellwanger’s explanation:

The fact that these statements imply a moral duty to acknowledge facts that are already well-known is a primary indicator that the Land Acknowledgement Statements are performing some function beyond merely “acknowledging” land ownership. One covert purpose is to put students on notice as to which worldview and ideology will be privileged in a given course. By immediately drawing an audience’s attention to “historical injustice” in a context of, say, a chemistry class, the instructor signals to students that they are in a space where the politics of grievance will be honored and encouraged. Further, the Land Acknowledgement Statement serves to compel a certain penitential attitude that is a prerequisite for the functioning of “critical pedagogies.” By clarifying that the university is a beneficiary of a program of cultural violence, Land Acknowledgement Statements make it clear to students that they are “complicit” in this legacy of violence and exclusion merely by matriculating at the school in question.

Who can deny the truth of what he said?

But there are problems with these acknowledgements. First, as I noted above, they don’t deal with successive occupation of the land:

. . . the statement from University of Texas names no fewer than ten tribes before concluding the sentence with an embarrassed “etcetera,” which acknowledges “all the [other] American Indian and Indigenous Peoples and communities who have been or have become a part of these lands”. The truth of the matter is that any piece of land in the modern-day United States was likely held by various native tribes over the course of the Pre-Columbian era and the early American republic. In other words, we can’t even be sure who needs to be “acknowledged” for the land: much of the information is lost to history.

And, more important, Ellwanger emphasizes that many Native Americans did not share our capitalistic preoccupation with “owning” land. He gives several examples; here’s one:

Massasoit Sachem (leader of the Wampanoag confederacy) is reputed to have asked “What is this you call property? It cannot be the earth, for the land is our mother, nourishing all her children, beasts, birds, fish and all men. The woods, the streams, everything on it belongs to everybody and is for the use of all.”

And he adds this:

Thus, by “acknowledging” the native claims to a piece of land and implying that these claims supersede and negate the claim that modern local and federal governments make upon the territory, the Land Acknowledgement Statements erase the very particularities of Native American cultures that these academics purport to honor and preserve. In short, the non-Native academics speak on behalf of the people whose dignity they claim to uphold: by appropriating the right of those people to speak, they inadvertently inflict the very sort of cultural violence that they profess to abhor.

This all makes sense, but of course even if Native Americans didn’t have our concept of “property”, they were still displaced from their lands by settlers. To me that seems just as bad, especially when they were forcibly driven to desolate reservations. I don’t know the solution to this, except to say that Native Americans continually displaced each other by the same methods (war, broken treaties, and so on), and we are just part of that history.

To me, land acknowledgments are the height of performative wokeness: statements that accomplish absolutely nothing save to call attention to your heightened consciousness—and perhaps impart a history lesson, but why is that part of a talk or a syllabus?  If you’re on stolen land, then give it back instead of moaning about it. It’s as if one began a class by saying “I’m using a laser pointer I stole from Professor Jones, but I’m not going to give it back to him.”

Ellwanger ends by citing the two lessons that land acknowlegments impart:

1.) “Recall that the primary purpose of these statements is not to do justice to the victims of historical oppression but rather to signify one’s affinity for the performative rituals of academic wokeness. The first lesson, then, is that the intellectual elite who fetishize the tragic stories of marginalized groups in America are less interested in redressing those sufferings than they are using them to maintain their membership in an elite group that is far removed from the plight of the “Other” (as they might say).”

and

2.) The second lesson is a darker one; one that the progressive left would do well to learn. Enamored as they are with the postmodern tradition of critical theory which they name-check when “speaking truth to power,” they miss one of the central insights of postmodern philosophy: that one can never get outside the network of power to speak truth to it. In their enthusiasm for condemning or humbling the entities that they identify as culturally-empowered ones, they forget that any gesture like a “Land Acknowledgement Statement” is itself an exercise of power. Through their attempts to honor the culture of historically-marginalized groups to which they do not belong – trying to create a space for those cultures to speak on their own behalf – they only end up speaking for them. In this way, they reenact the same legacies of privilege and appropriation that they disdain. So much for checking one’s privilege.

Whenever I read about stuff like land acknowledgments, I remember Grania’s test for the efficacy of social-justice statements and actions: Do they really accomplish something for the group that is marginalized? Land acknowledgments don’t do this, although sometimes a pittance is given to Native Americans as a token of apology. But imagine how much the lands owned by the University of Texas are worth!

And if you’re a reader who wants to defend these acknowledgments, why aren’t you preceding every one of your comments with the statement that your house or office is sitting on land previously occupied by people driven away by settlers? Because surely it was.

Is social-media criticism by professors bullying and a violation of academic freedom?

March 28, 2021 • 1:00 pm

Here we have a back-and-forth in The Chronicle of Higher Education between two professors at Portland State University (“PSU”; a public college). The first piece is by Jennifer Ruth, a professor of film studies, and the second by Peter Boghossian, a philosopher, anti-woke writer, atheist, and one of the three people involved in the “Grievance Studies Affair“.  Ruth complains that critics of Critical Theory have been bullies by engaging in social-media pile-one (does she know how the Woke do that much more often?), and refers specifically to Boghossian and another professor, Bruce Gilley, who has argued that colonialism is good for the colonized, which of course caused a huge fracas.

As far as I can determine, what happened here is that a student (none of the principals already named) took pictures of some slides in a teacher education course which “offended” him/her because they were of the “Math is Racist” genre, and put the slides on Twitter. Boghossian and Gilley retweeted the slides. Apparently, though, some of the first names of students were on the slides, and so the dean asked Gilley and Boghossian to take down the tweets. They did so immediately. But apparently others joined in on the discussion, and that was considered bullying by Dr. Ruth.

Click on the screenshots to read.

Why was this considered “bullying”? According to Ruth:

[The professor who showed the slides] is shocked, then, to find her name and picture tied to the phrase “math is racist” — shorn of any context or any reference to the CNN article — and posted on Twitter by two of her male colleagues. It is picked up by the anti-woke warrior Chris Rufo, who tags the professional provocateur Joe Rogan and Fox’s voluble and influential Tucker Carlson. She has now become the latest exhibit in a national right-wing campaign to frame university professors as the new apparatchiks of a racially motivated totalitarianism. She shares an article with her students, and she is cast as one of Stalin’s henchmen. She is one of the “new racists.”

Anyone who has lived through one of the right-wing rage-gasms of the past decade — and they are disproportionately women and faculty of color — knows how terrifying they can be. All you have to do is say, “It’s true that the Greeks painted their statues,” or, “Hmm, it seems that the far right is appropriating a lot of medieval imagery,” and you can find yourself in the cross hairs, subject to doxxing, hate mail, physical harassment, and death threats.

Note that neither Gilley nor Boghossian engaged in this pile-on and did not encourage it; others took up the issue and (I didn’t follow this) there was a social media pile-on—one of the kind with which we’re familiar but apparently coming from the anti-woke. Nevertheless, Gilley and Boghossian suffer the consequences and take the blame for the mob. Peter, by the way, is a classical liberal, not “right-wing”.

Ruth continues:

The two men who circulated the “math is racist” meme were outsourcing the harassment of a colleague to the legions of trolls flying from Mr. Potato Head to Dr. Seuss to rapping librarians to the next faux-outrage fury-fest. Every time this happens, the targets of right-wing rage can only hope that a shiny new object will come along to distract their tormentors. But there is always the possibility — given the apocalyptic rhetoric that higher education’s attempts to reckon with systemic racism constitute a Maoist Cultural Revolution — that one of these stunts will get someone hurt.

The above scenario is not a hypothetical. It happened at my university, Portland State, and was instigated by our very own anti-woke warriors, Bruce Gilley and Peter Boghossian. Gilley and Boghossian have been working this beat for years now, on Twitter and on blogs. And they claim to be doing so in the name of academic freedom.

No, Boghossian and Gilley—and no, I don’t agree with Gilley’s thesis, but he has the right to his opinion—did not outsource harassment or encourage it. They were simply exercising the right to criticize ideas like “math is racist.” That is both free speech (PSU must adhere to the First Amendment and academic freedom). And the “math is racist” meme certainly does deserve examination, criticism, and, to my mind, a fair amount of ridicule.

As for the worry that “one of these stunts will get someone hurt”, it’s ironic that Ruth is part of the group who is always claiming that speech itself is considered harm. She’s already been hurt!

The details of this kerfuffle are described in a document by the Oregon Association of Scholars. which links to the following resolution of the PSU Faculty Senate which was the result of the two retweets (click on screenshot):

Part of the resolution:

While we all have the right to express our opinions in accordance with The First Amendment of the United States Constitution, there are limitations to free speech when it violates our laws and when it results in a true threat for an individual or a group of individuals or incites actions that will harm others. It is crucial to ensure that the members of our academic community can learn and work in an environment that is free of hate and hostility.

Whereas When faculty become active in, or even endorse or tacitly support, public campaigns calling for the intimidation of individual colleagues they disagree with, or with an entire faculty they disagree with, they are undermining academic freedom. Intimidation and explicit or implied threats to physical integrity are not accepted as academic methods.

. . . . BE IT RESOLVED

As Faculty, we must be thoughtful in our exercise of academic freedom and guard against its cynical abuse that can take the form of bullying and intimidation. This kind of abuse of academic freedom destroys academic freedom by eroding the trust that makes possible open dialogue, which is a central tenet in university intellectual life as well as in the practice of participatory democracy more broadly.

Again, this meeting was occasioned solely by the two taken-down retweets by Gilley and Boghossian who, needless to say, are not greatly beloved at PSU. And the resolution accuses them, though it doesn’t mention them by name, of intimidation, making threats, and academic bullying.

None of that was true; remember that this comes from just two social media posts taken down at the behest of the Dean. This is, pure and simple, chilling of free speech and academic freedom (which, though Ruth claims are not the same thing, are so closely related—identical in this case—that one must be careful about distinguishing them).

At any rate, Peter (full disclosure: he’s a friend of mine) wrote a response to Ruth’s piece in the Chronicle, and it’s quite good. The take-home lesson is in the title, and we should all make this a mantra:

I’ll give two quotes. Given that two retweets brought down official opprobrium of PSU on Boghossian and Gilley, Peter is quite measured in his response (the bolding is mine):

By claiming that criticism of published ideas and pedagogical models is harassment, and by creating institutional mechanisms that erect barriers to wholly appropriate critique, entire lines of scholarship become exempt from scrutiny. The academic process depends on having the freedom not only to state ideas but also to criticize other ideas. Limiting criticism in academia is tantamount to telling potters they can make all the clay pots they want so long as they never use clay. This is particularly disturbing because the claims in question — almost always about race, gender, and sexual orientation — are presented as knowledge and then used to influence public policy.

It is worth noting that criticism is framed as harassment only by academicians working in certain domains of thought that are in Critical Theory’s orbit. Civil engineers are not claiming that criticism of truss bridge design is harassment. Physicists are not claiming they’re being persecuted when their contributions to quantum theory are criticized. Philosophers are not claiming victimization when their arguments about free will are scrutinized. Claiming criticism is harassment occurs when a discipline’s North Star is not Truth, but ideology.

The internal rationale for calling criticism “harassment” is as simple as it is absurd: because these Critical Theories are believed to proceed from one’s “social position” as an occupant of some “identity category,” the person and her ideas are treated as though they overlap. They do not. Thinking they do is a dangerous mistake for anyone to make, not least institutions that are nominally devoted to Truth. The backbone of rational thought is separating people from ideas to protect the dignity of the former while being free to criticize the latter.

Boghossian defends the use of Twitter as a way of alerting people to what’s going on inside the academy, and also as a way of making arguments—not the best venue for extended discourse, though! However, scholarly journals aren’t accessible to the public. Boghossian ends like this:

There’s a dual irony in Ruth’s accusations. First, if there’s an institutionalized rule that criticism of academic work is harassment, how would Critical Theory, which is entirely predicated on criticizing existing systems, have emerged? It would not have. The ability to criticize has enabled the existence of disciplines in which my colleagues work, and from which they have framed criticism as harassment. Second, Ruth is doing to Gilley and me exactly what she claims we are doing to our colleagues — criticizing us. The only difference is, she takes aim at us, while we take aim at ideas.

Gender studies professor has freedom of speech chilled for “transphobia”

March 26, 2021 • 10:15 am

This instance of free-speech suppression has a twist, as the victim is an endowed professor of gender and women’s studies at a public university. She’s Donna M. Hughes, who holds the Eleanor M. and Oscar M. Endowed Chair of Gender and Women’s studies at the University of Rhode Island (URI).  She’s known for her work on human trafficking and sex work, but has now ventured into the minefield of transgender analysis. As Inside Higher Ed (IHE) reports, her university has, while grudgingly affirming her freedom of speech (always guaranteed at state schools), nevertheless done everything it can to demonize her and distance itself from her. Why? Because she feels—as do I—that there are some limits to the rights and privileges of transgender women considered as “women”. That makes Hughes, of course, a “transphobe”.

Click the screenshot to read the piece by Coleen Flaherty.

Hughes was somewhat out of mainstream feminist ideology when she wrote in the past that “there’s a fine line between sex work and sex trafficking and that legalizing prostitution helps only pimps and johns, not sex workers.” But that didn’t get her in nearly as much trouble as her February essay in 4W (a “fourth wave feminist” site), in which she not only called out QAnon, but made an analogy with that group and some of the proponents of the “transsexual women are fully women” view:

The political left is quick to denounce the campaign of disinformation that led to the Capitol riot on January 6. But fake news and harmful politicized beliefs leading to real harm are not solely a right-wing phenomenon. The American political left is increasingly diving headfirst into their own world of lies and fantasy and, unlike in the imaginary world of QAnon, real children are becoming actual victims.

The trans-sex fantasy, the belief that a person can change his or her sex, either from male to female or from female to male, is spreading largely unquestioned among the political left.

The trans-sex fantasy returns us to the question: “What is a woman?”. . .

. . .The trans-sex/“gender identity” ideology challenges same-sex rights, particularly those of women and girls. Interestingly, men and boys have had no attack on their rights. The biological category of sex, particularly women’s sex, is being smashed. Women and girls are expected to give up their places of privacy such as restrooms, locker rooms, and even prison cells. When biological males identify as trans-women, they can compete in women’s and girls’ sports. There are now cases of women being injured, some severely, by biologically larger and stronger biological men competing as “transwomen.” In the most well-known case in 2014, a transgender competitor broke the skull (linked video is graphic) of a female during a mixed martial arts (MMA) competition. In Fall 2020, World Rugby banned the participation of transwomen (biological males) in rugby citing the high risk of injury. Even Title IX, which granted women equal access to educational opportunities, such as those provided by sports and scholarships, are being taken away. It used to be when someone took unfair advantage, we’d call it cheating, but that is no longer recognized in this fantasy world.

The dystopian trans-sex/“gender identity” world claims that female mammalian characteristics should be redefined and disappeared from the female body to satisfy the feelings of biological males who identify as women. Basic biological words like breast and vagina are replaced by misogynistic, trans-sex/trans-gender language so that a female has a “front hole” instead of a vagina; females “chest feed” instead of breastfeed. All references to women disappear into terms such: “people who menstruate,” “people with uteruses,” “a pregnant person,” or “a birthing parent.” No such changes in terms are proposed for men’s bodies and anatomy. These redefinitions are hatred targeted at women’s bodies and their rights.

Strong stuff, but not irrational or hateful stuff. Nevertheless, that can’t be allowed to stand in a liberal university! And so, as IHE reports, the University of Rhode Island has issued the usual statement that criticizes the views of a faculty member while at the same time saying that it “honors and respects” her right of freedom of speech. That’s a form of hypocrisy. A good free-speech university, like the University of Chicago is at present, affirms that it will make no official statement supporting political, ideological, or moral views, and in response to the mob that’s descending on Hughes, would have said something like “Professor Hughes has the right to say whatever she wants, and the University supports that right.”

But URI has to flaunt its virtue, and so issued the statement below:

I find this statement weaselly to the extreme. While it’s entirely proper for the URI to have a page of resources and policies for supporting transgender students, faculty, or staff, it should not issue statements criticizing individual faculty members’ political views. (They even name Hughes!). What that does, as Hughes claims in the article, is to chill the speech of those who hold similar views, and it’s not at all “transphobic” to want a rational discussion about the extent to which transgender women (or men) are identical to biological women (or men). In other words, URI’s statement acts to squelch the speech of others—and they are many—who want a public discussion of the issue, and a discussion without being demonized as a “transphobe.”  This is why the University of Chicago enshrined in the Kalven Report the principle of not officially endorsing political/ideological/moral views. (Faculty members and others, of course, are free to issue their own personal statements on the issue.) Imagine how brave you’d have to be to risk being named as a public enemy by your own university!

It’s no wonder that Hughes takes this as an affront. It’s a blatant attempt to stifle the speech of URI members who have views different from those of extreme pro-trans-rights people.  The statement below says, in effect, that “Hughes can say what she wants, but she really shouldn’t have said this stuff”:

A faculty member’s First Amendment and academic freedom rights are not boundless, however, and should be exercised responsibly with due regard for the faculty member’s other obligations, including their obligations to the University’s students and the University community. As stated in the above referenced documents, faculty have a special obligation to show due respect for the opinions of others and to “exercise critical self-discipline and judgment” and “appropriate restraint” in transmitting their personal opinions.

In other words, her own University is calling Hughes irresponsible and disrespectful of the opinions of others, lacking “critical self-discipline and judgment” and “appropriate restraint”. If that’s not an attempt to stifle speech that’s not ideologically approved, I don’t know what is.

I could go on, but you can read the articles for yourself. Let me just add that Hughes has a lawyer, which means that a free-speech/academic freedom lawsuit may be in the offing. While the University may have had the right to publicly criticize Hughes’s views, and even name her, any respectable institution wouldn’t have done that, nor implied in the statement that there are limitations to freedom of speech and academic freedom. I have no respect for what URI has done to Hughes.

And here’s a statement she gave to IHE:

Via email, Hughes said it’s “just sad that we have reached a point in society where difficult issues cannot be freely and openly discussed without resort to personal attacks and calls for censorship.”

The marketplace of ideas, she added, “has broken down and increasingly, university faculty are terrified to speak out on a wide range of important issues for fear that — as seems to be happening here — they will draw criticism from their students and their institution will throw them under the bus.”

Bingo. No academic institution should make its members afraid to express views on political issues, nor try to enforce a political orthodoxy, no matter what it is. They can affirm that they won’t discriminate against various targeted groups (after all, that creates a climate for free discussion), but that’s as far as it should go.

h/t: William

Jodi Shaw packs it in at Smith

February 20, 2021 • 1:00 pm

I’ve written several times about the plight of Jodi Shaw (here, here, here, and here), the Smith College employee who was demonized and then investigated by her employer because she would not participate in a racial “struggle session” that involved sharing personal details and feelings that she wasn’t comfortable in divulging. As I wrote earlier on:

Shaw had a beef with the College for forcing her to undergo mandatory training in what seems like critical race theory, and in which she was humiliated by the facilitator for her “white fragility”. Kathleen McCartney, the President of Smith, then responded to Shaw’s first video with a cold-hearted letter to the entire College saying, in effect, something like, “Well, we can’t fire Shaw because of the law, but we’ll ensure that all students of color are protected from harm.”

The expected pile-on began after Shaw, single mother of two, an alumna of Smith, and a liberal, began making a series of calm yet determined videos about what she experienced at Smith. The racial divisiveness of the College apparently went far beyond that one “struggle session.” According to Shaw, that atmosphere permeates Smith, is toxic, and was originally set off by a complaint of racism that proved to be bogus. (Isn’t it ironic that policies designed to foster diversity and inclusion often wind up being non-inclusive and creating greater division?)

Shaw was then investigated by Smith, which put her on leave for making her colleagues feel “harmed”, presumably by making the videos that constitute free expression (see Shaw’s explanation here). Shaw filed a long complaint with Smith, to which she received no reply.

I predicted that Shaw wouldn’t last long at Smith, and, sure enough, as Bari Weiss recounts in a post at her own Substack site, Shaw has parted ways with Smith, rejecting a settlement.

Bari reproduces Shaw’s letter of resignation to Smith’s President, and I’ll reproduce it here, too:

Dear President McCartney:

I am writing to notify you that effective today, I am resigning from my position as Student Support Coordinator in the Department of Residence Life at Smith College. This has not been an easy decision, as I now face a deeply uncertain future. As a divorced mother of two, the economic uncertainty brought about by this resignation will impact my children as well. But I have no choice. The racially hostile environment that the college has subjected me to for the past two and a half years has left me physically and mentally debilitated. I can no longer work in this environment, nor can I remain silent about a matter so central to basic human dignity and freedom.

I graduated from Smith College in 1993. Those four years were among the best in my life. Naturally, I was over the moon when, years later, I had the opportunity to join Smith as a staff member. I loved my job and I loved being back at Smith.

But the climate — and my place at the college — changed dramatically when, in July 2018, the culture war arrived at our campus when a student accused a white staff member of calling campus security on her because of racial bias. The student, who is black, shared her account of this incident widely on social media, drawing a lot of attention to the college.

Before even investigating the facts of the incident, the college immediately issued a public apology to the student, placed the employee on leave, and announced its intention to create new initiatives, committees, workshops, trainings, and policies aimed at combating “systemic racism” on campus.

In spite of an independent investigation into the incident that found no evidence of racial bias [JAC: Smith’s own investigation showed no bias, either], the college ramped up its initiatives aimed at dismantling the supposed racism that pervades the campus. This only served to support the now prevailing narrative that the incident had been racially motivated and that Smith staff are racist.

Allowing this narrative to dominate has had a profound impact on the Smith community and on me personally. For example, in August 2018, just days before I was to present a library orientation program into which I had poured a tremendous amount of time and effort, and which had previously been approved by my supervisors, I was told that I could not proceed with the planned program. Because it was going to be done in rap form and “because you are white,” as my supervisor told me, that could be viewed as “cultural appropriation.” My supervisor made clear he did not object to a rap in general, nor to the idea of using music to convey orientation information to students. The problem was my skin color.

I was up for a full-time position in the library at that time, and I was essentially informed that my candidacy for that position was dependent upon my ability, in a matter of days, to reinvent a program to which I had devoted months of time.

Humiliated, and knowing my candidacy for the full-time position was now dead in the water, I moved into my current, lower-paying position as Student Support Coordinator in the Department of Residence Life.

As it turned out, my experience in the library was just the beginning. In my new position, I was told on multiple occasions that discussing my personal thoughts and feelings about my skin color is a requirement of my job. I endured racially hostile comments, and was expected to participate in racially prejudicial behavior as a continued condition of my employment. I endured meetings in which another staff member violently banged his fist on the table, chanting “Rich, white women! Rich, white women!” in reference to Smith alumnae. I listened to my supervisor openly name preferred racial quotas for job openings in our department. I was given supplemental literature in which the world’s population was reduced to two categories — “dominant group members” and “subordinated group members” — based solely on characteristics like race.

Every day, I watch my colleagues manage student conflict through the lens of race, projecting rigid assumptions and stereotypes on students, thereby reducing them to the color of their skin. I am asked to do the same, as well as to support a curriculum for students that teaches them to project those same stereotypes and assumptions onto themselves and others. I believe such a curriculum is dehumanizing, prevents authentic connection, and undermines the moral agency of young people who are just beginning to find their way in the world.

Although I have spoken to many staff and faculty at the college who are deeply troubled by all of this, they are too terrified to speak out about it. This illustrates the deeply hostile and fearful culture that pervades Smith College.

The last straw came in January 2020, when I attended a mandatory Residence Life staff retreat focused on racial issues. The hired facilitators asked each member of the department to respond to various personal questions about race and racial identity. When it was my turn to respond, I said “I don’t feel comfortable talking about that.” I was the only person in the room to abstain.

Later, the facilitators told everyone present that a white person’s discomfort at discussing their race is a symptom of “white fragility.” They said that the white person may seem like they are in distress, but that it is actually a “power play.” In other words, because I am white, my genuine discomfort was framed as an act of aggression. I was shamed and humiliated in front of all of my colleagues.

I filed an internal complaint about the hostile environment, but throughout that process, over the course of almost six months, I felt like my complaint was taken less seriously because of my race. I was told that the civil rights law protections were not created to help people like me. And after I filed my complaint, I started to experience retaliatory behavior, like having important aspects of my job taken away without explanation.

Under the guise of racial progress, Smith College has created a racially hostile environment in which individual acts of discrimination and hostility flourish. In this environment, people’s worth as human beings, and the degree to which they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, is determined by the color of their skin. It is an environment in which dissenting from the new critical race orthodoxy — or even failing to swear fealty to it like some kind of McCarthy-era loyalty oath — is grounds for public humiliation and professional retaliation.

I can no longer continue to work in an environment where I am constantly subjected to additional scrutiny because of my skin color. I can no longer work in an environment where I am told, publicly, that my personal feelings of discomfort under such scrutiny are not legitimate but instead are a manifestation of white supremacy. Perhaps most importantly, I can no longer work in an environment where I am expected to apply similar race-based stereotypes and assumptions to others, and where I am told — when I complain about having to engage in what I believe to be discriminatory practices — that there are “legitimate reasons for asking employees to consider race” in order to achieve the college’s “social justice objectives.”

What passes for “progressive” today at Smith and at so many other institutions is regressive. It taps into humanity’s worst instincts to break down into warring factions, and I fear this is rapidly leading us to a very twisted place. It terrifies me that others don’t seem to see that racial segregation and demonization are wrong and dangerous no matter what its victims look like. Being told that any disagreement or feelings of discomfort somehow upholds “white supremacy” is not just morally wrong. It is psychologically abusive.

Equally troubling are the many others who understand and know full well how damaging this is, but do not speak out due to fear of professional retaliation, social censure, and loss of their livelihood and reputation. I fear that by the time people see it, or those who see it manage to screw up the moral courage to speak out, it will be too late.

I wanted to change things at Smith. I hoped that by bringing an internal complaint, I could somehow get the administration to see that their capitulation to critical race orthodoxy was causing real, measurable harm. When that failed, I hoped that drawing public attention to these problems at Smith would finally awaken the administration to this reality. I have come to conclude, however, that the college is so deeply committed to this toxic ideology that the only way for me to escape the racially hostile climate is to resign. It is completely unacceptable that we are now living in a culture in which one must choose between remaining in a racially hostile, psychologically abusive environment or giving up their income.

As a proud Smith alum, I know what a critical role this institution has played in shaping my life and the lives of so many women for one hundred and fifty years. I want to see this institution be the force for good I know it can be. I will not give up fighting against the dangerous pall of orthodoxy that has descended over Smith and so many of our educational institutions.

This was an extremely difficult decision for me and comes at a deep personal cost. I make $45,000 a year; less than a year’s tuition for a Smith student. I was offered a settlement in exchange for my silence, but I turned it down. My need to tell the truth — and to be the kind of woman Smith taught me to be — makes it impossible for me to accept financial security at the expense of remaining silent about something I know is wrong. My children’s future, and indeed, our collective future as a free nation, depends on people having the courage to stand up to this dangerous and divisive ideology, no matter the cost.

Sincerely,

Jodi Shaw

Weiss ends the piece with her own take (below), which is the same as mine, and links to Shaw’s video asking that the anti-white racism she perceived at Smith be stopped.

What is happening is wrong. Any ideology that asks people to judge others based on their skin color is wrong. Any ideology that asks us to reduce ourselves and others to racial stereotypes is wrong. Any ideology that treats dissent as evidence of bigotry is wrong. Any ideology that denies our common humanity is wrong. You should say so. Just like Jodi Shaw has.

If you would like to help support Jodi with her legal fees during this time — and I hope you do — here is her GoFundMe.

“Diversity and Inclusion” initiatives—”D&I”, as they’re called—may be good at the “D”, but they’re lousy at the “I”. Not only was Shaw was not included, but she was in effect booted out, “excluded.” As far as I can see, Smith was not only never supportive of Shaw, but from the outset sought to push her out of the college. They’ve succeeded. But they have not succeeded at muzzling Shaw, and it’s telling that they offered her money if she would shut up about the College when she left. Now why would they do that?  Bad publicity, of course?

Shaw rejected the offer. I wish her luck.

A kerfuffle about diversity and inclusion at the University of Chicago

November 29, 2020 • 12:00 pm

Actually, the word “kerfuffle” may not be appropriate here, as this is a pretty serious conflict between, on the one hand, a professor who takes issue with his department’s policies about diversity and inclusion, and, on the other, students and alumni, who, outraged by the professor’s opinion, have taken steps, in a letter/petition, to get the professor severely punished for expressing his views on YouTube.

The whole issue is concisely summarized by my law-school colleague Brian Leiter on his website Leiter Reports (click on the screenshot):

The (associate) professor is Dr. Dorian Abbot in our Department of Geophysical Sciences, who posted four YouTube videos, with slides, taking issue with some initiatives about diversity and inclusion. His talks emphasized the need for a meritocracy rather than “quotas” of minority applicants, and as well as asserting that it’s not the business of universities to promote social justice. Unfortunately, although I watched the videos earlier, Abbot has taken them down, though his slides are still online (see the first sentence of Leiter’s excerpt below). Here’s one slide that was guaranteed to cause problems for him:

Here’s another of Abbot’s slides. (The “Holdomor” refers to the Soviet genocide by famine of the kulaks (rich peasants) in 1932-1933 in Ukraine.

This stuff is guaranteed to anger those who see social-justice work, at present, as one of the most pressings things a university can do in its official capacity. Further, criticizing identity politics, when they’re the predominant kinds of politics on campus, is just not on. The backlash against Abbot was strong and severe (and probably predictable), and is summarized by Leiter below.

Have a look especially at the letter to Abbot’s department from 162 people affiliated with the University of Chicago and Geophysical Sciences (their names are unfortunately blacked out, though I think signers should make their names public). The letter demands all kinds of accounting and punishments for what Abbot did.  These including giving Abbot’s graduate and undergraduate students a way to opt out of his mentorship and teaching, making a departmental statement that Abbot’s videos were “unsubstantiated, inappropriate, and harmful to department members and climate” (the exact “harm” that occurred isn’t specified), and measures like this:

[The department should] Implement accountability measures to address patterns of bigoted behaviour in both the department’s hiring/promotion/tenure process and teaching opportunities. For example, faculty who persistently engage in bigoted behaviour should be prevented from taking on teaching roles, new graduate students/post-docs/staff, and committee responsibilities.

Below is part of Leiter’s post about the issue, and I have to say that I agree with much of it. I don’t agree with everything Abbot said on his videos or in his slides (as I’ve repeatedly said, I favor some form of affirmative action in hiring professors or accepting graduate students), but neither do I agree that Abbot, for exercising his free speech as a professor, and raising issues that do deserve some discussion, should be demonized and punished in this way.

My preferred response, were I a student or faculty member who took issue with Abbot’s claims, would be counterspeech: rebutting them. The anger evinced in the letter to his department seems to me a huge overreaction, but in line with many responses to “anti-woke” stuff on college campuses. But of course the letter-writers have every right to say what they want about Abbot and demand that he be punished. I don’t think he should suffer demonization in this way, as it represents a chilling of speech: if you oppose the au courant ideology, you will be attacked big time, and who wants to undergo that?

I recommend you look at the links. From Leiter, and  note that there’s a petition supporting Abbot’s freedom of speech that you can sign:

You can see the slides that formed the basis for his presentations to his colleagues here,  herehere, and here; his own account of events is here.  I agree with some of what he has to say, and disagree with other parts.  But his views are not “hateful,” “harmful” or out of place in a university that values free discussion on important issues.

For dissenting from “diversity” orthodoxy, Professor Abbot has now been subjected to a disgraceful public denunciation by postdocs and graduate students in Geology (and other UChicago science departments (complete with fictitious claims about “aggression” and “safety”).  The public version of the letter omits the names of the benighted grad students and postdocs.  But some faculty and postdocs have gone public with their delusional responses:  for example, Assistant Professor Graham Slater’s Twitter thread is here  (do review the actual slides to see how unhinged this take is), and the reaction of a geology postdoc at Chicago, Michael Henson (also here).

There is now a petition in support of Professor Abbott here which I encourage readers to sign.

Leiter adds this:

There’s very little extramural speech that ought to have any bearing on hiring or promotion decisions in universities, but open contempt like that above for academic freedom and lawful expression–which are foundational to the academic enterprise–probably should count against someone.  (We’ve touched on this issue before.)  If people like Slater and Hanson carry on like this now, what kind of damage will they do to their departments and disciplines once they have tenure?

I don’t like anyone being punished or demonized for exercising freedom of speech, but the people who will suffer from this are not those who came out against Abbot, but Abbot himself. Perhaps he didn’t realize what a beehive he was entering with his YouTube videos, for much of the country is simply unaware of social-justice conflicts. But freedom of speech is paramount, and if people don’t like what Abbot said, they can avoid him, leave his mentorship (but not his classes, I think!), or criticize him. And that’s as far as it should go. We needn’t call for his head on a platter.

A tiny 10-cm dinosaur that ate bugs

July 29, 2020 • 9:00 am

Note: The classification of “dinosaur” above isn’t totally accurate, for the creature discussed below is an archosaur, a member of the group that gave rise to dinosaurs, pterosaurs, and crocodilians. But we might as well call it a dinosaur, as few people know what an “archosaur” is.

The ancestors of the dinosaurs could not have been big, for they evolved from amphibians, and amphibians, for a number of reasons, are limited in size.  But this new paper in PNAS shows that some of the earliest ancestors of dinos were very small—not just small, but tiny. The new species described below, which falls into a group that later diverged into pterosaurs (flying reptiles) and the dinosaurs, was only 10 cm tall, the distance between my index fingers in the photo below:

Click on screenshot to read the paper; the pdf is here, and reference at bottom of post.

The partial skeleton of this tiny creature, whose dentition suggests it ate insects, was discovered in 1998 in Southwestern Madagascar. Although the age of the specimen is a bit uncertain, a good estimate is about 237 million years.

Here are some drawings of the parts of the skeleton they recovered, including leg bones, a forearm bone, and the jaws (interpreted as coming from single individual), and a figure showing where they fit into the body (figure F). The size, estimated from the bones, which clearly put the species in the ancestral group Ornithodira (also known as Avemetatarsalia), show that the creature was only about 10 cm tall. It must have been really cute: a pet-sized reptile. Note that the length of the scale bar on the left, showing the femurs, is one centimeter (about 4/10 of an inch), while on the right the scale bar for the jaws is only about 40 mm (1.6 inches):

(from paper): Anatomy of the femur and maxilla of Kongonaphon kely gen. et sp. nov. (UA 10618). (A) Right femur in anterolateral, (B) posteromedial, and (C) proximal views. (D) Right maxilla in right lateral and (E) palatal views. (F) Preserved elements in the holotype, UA 10618, presented in a silhouette of Kongonaphon. aof, antorbital fenestra; at, anterior trochanter; fht, tip of femoral head; fp mx, facial process of maxilla; ft, fourth trochanter; mx f, maxillary foramen; pf, palatine fossa; pmt, posterior medial tubercle; t, maxillary tooth. Illustrations credit: American Museum of Natural History/Frank Ippolito.

The authors named the fossil Kongonaphon kely, meaning “tiny bug slayer”. They explain the etymology:

. . . derived from kongona (Malagasy, “bug”) and φον (variant of ancient Greek φονεύς, “slayer”), referring to the probable diet of this animal; kely (Malagasy, “small”), referring to the diminutive size of this specimen.

The teeth, as you can see in the drawing above, were simple ones: conical and without serrations. That suggests that the creature lived on insects (I used “bug” in the title as a generic word for insects, though technically, bugs are in the order Hemiptera). The estimated size of 10 cm comes from the size of the preserved femur, which is only about 1.6 inches long. The specimen wasn’t a juvenile, as the authors saw signs of arrested growth in the fossil bones. The bones also indicate strongly that K. kely was bipedal, like T. rex and the theropods.

To place this individual in the phylogeny of dinosaurs and their ancestors, the authors did a computer analysis of 422 characters derived from these bones, and K. kely fell out in group B of the phylogeny below, which includes the dinosaurs and the pterosaurs (the relative size of this tiny species is shown to the right). I’ve put a box around K. kely.

B is the base of the Ornithodira, the group that gave rise to all dinosaurs and pterosaurs, and you see that K. kely is an early (“basal”) member of this group

(from paper): Body size of early avemetatarsalian (bird line) archosaurs mapped onto a consensus supertree, based on the current phylogenetic analysis (SI Appendix) and recent analyses (22). Silhouettes are scaled to estimated femoral lengths for the labeled nodes (SI Appendix, Table S1): A, base of Avemetatarsalia (represented by Teleocrater); B, base of Ornithodira (represented by Ixalerpeton); C, base of Dracohors (Silesauridae + Dinosauria) (represented by Silesaurus); and D, base of Saurischia (represented by Herrerasaurus). Silhouettes credit: Phylopic/Scott Hartman/Mathew Wedel, which is licensed under CC BY 3.0. Silhouette of Kongonaphon to the right of the taxon label is to scale.

Here’s a reconstruction of K. kely, eyeing a beetle, from Science Alert;  (artist’s impression by Alex Boersma):

Now the diminutive size of this creature doesn’t mean that the common ancestor of all dinos and peterosaurs was this small. But it does imply that the ancestor of those groups, which falls out in a “reconstruct-the-size” analysis, was smaller than we thought. K. kely itself could have been the result of a “miniaturization event” in which a somewhat larger ancestor produced some tiny descendants. The estimated size of ancestral Ornithodiran  is estimated fo be about 13.3 cm, or about 5.3 inches tall, and the ancestral species of the Dinosauromorphs, which includes dinos and birds but not pterosaurs, is even smaller, about 6.5 cm (2.5 inches)!

What are the implications of this beyond showing that the ancestral dino and ancestral dino/pterosaur were likely a lot smaller than we thought? Well, first of all, we have no idea why these early creatures were so small. My own guess is that since insects had already evolved, there was an “open niche” to specialize in eating them, and if you want to make a living as a terrestrial reptile eating insects, you can’t be the size of a T. rex.

The authors note that the small size of this species (and probably its close relatives) accounts for the absence of ornithodirans in Early and Middle Triassic faunas, for small creatures have tiny, fragile bones that aren’t easily preserved. In fact, our best knowledge of early Ornithodirans previously came from sediments in Argentina whose nature allowed for the preservation of small animals.

Finally, the authors speculate that these small species would have a problem with heat retention, since they were ectothermic (“cold blooded”). Small creatures have a higher surface area/volume ratio than larger ones, which means more heat lost by radiation. Thus, suggest the authors, the filaments covering the bodies of some dinos and pterosaurs—which might have been homologous to feathers that eventually covered the theropods—would have been useful as insulation. This sounds good, but of course there are plenty of extant small insect-eating reptiles, like geckos and anoles, that make a fine living without feathers. But it would still be useful to look at these early, small species to see if there is any evidence for filamentous body cover.

___________________

Kammerer, C. F., S. J. Nesbitt, J. J. Flynn, L. Ranivoharimanana, and A. R. Wyss. 2020. A tiny ornithodiran archosaur from the Triassic of Madagascar and the role of miniaturization in dinosaur and pterosaur ancestry. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 117:17932-17936.

 

University of Wisconsin-Parkside professor and dean suggests, on Hezbollah t.v., that U.S. made and released coronavirus to conquer other countries, and that Hitler wasn’t so unusual in his behavior

April 2, 2020 • 9:30 am

Well, here we see a snake employed as an American professor (of sociology) as well as a dean in a respectable university. Meet an unhinged, muddled, lying, and hate-spreading academic: Seif Da’na, a Palestinian-American Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside (UWP).  He’s not only a tenured professor there, but also an associate dean and a departmental chair. And he teaches these classes listed on his website:

ETHN 206 – RACE/ETHNC RELATIONS IN US(DV)
INTS 499 – INDEPENDENT STUDY
MAPS 710 – THE GLOBAL CITY
SOCA 101 – INTRODUCTION TO SOCIOLOGY
SOCA 206 – RACE/ETHNC RELATIONS IN US(DV)
SOCA 301 – INTRO SOCIOLOGICAL THEORY
SOCA 301 – SOCIOLOGICAL THEORY
SOCA 492 – INTERNSHIP IN SOCIOLOGY
SOCA 499 – INDEPENDENT STUDY

One wonders if he passes on his palpably crazy views to his students, or instills them with hatred on completely bogus grounds.  A short video and transcript of what he said in a recent t.v. interview can be seen by clicking on the screenshot below. (I note that Da’na appears to be an anti-Zionist as well, claiming that the entire country of Israel is a “pure settlement.”)

The 1.75-minute excerpt is posted on the MEMRI site, and comes from Da’na’s interview with Manar TV, a Hezbollah operation from Lebanon. Here he says a bunch of insane things about Hitler, about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and, most of all, about the U.S. possibly making and “leaking” Covid-19 as a way to subjugate and kill people in other countries. (Too bad the scientists who might have “leaked” the virus didn’t anticipate that it would come back to the U.S.!)

Click on the screenshot below to go to the MEMRI site:

And you can see the video clip by clicking on the video at the same site.

Da’na is not far away from me: UWP happens to be where Greg teaches, but he notes that he was unaware of Da’na’s views until I brought them to his attention this morning, and adds that he doesn’t agree with the views expressed in this clip.

Here’s MEMRI’s transcript of what Da’na says, where he suggests that this might be a conspiracy, but slightly hedges his words so he doesn’t claim it outright. But you get the gist of what he’s saying:

Seif Da’na: “[Regarding the coronavirus] – more people die every year not just from diseases that you can get vaccinated for, like malaria – from which half a million people [die] in Africa – but also from the West’s economic policies – at least in the 20th century and the two decades of the 21st century. More people die every year from the consequences of these economic issues than from what is happening now.

“This is exactly like what happened with Hitler. Hitler did not do anything out of the ordinary. He did not do anything that had not been done by the Europeans before. In the colonial days, in the countries of the [global] south, they would kill hundreds of thousands and even millions of people. Hitler came to be viewed as Satan just because he did what he did in Europe.

“The question about how this virus appeared has not been settled yet. As of now, there is no ‘patient zero’ in China, and therefore, we do not talk here about a conspiracy as much as we talk about the leaking of the viruses from a laboratory at Fort Detrick in the United States.

“Perhaps this leaking was not deliberate. We are not talking here about a conspiracy, even though the U.S. annihilated two whole cities in Japan during WWII, despite this being unnecessary. They were already winning the war, but they still used the nuclear bombs.”

First, Da’na is dead wrong about there being a malaria vaccine—there isn’t one! As Greg notes, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports that there’s no malaria vaccine, that people are working on one, and that perhaps we’ll have one by 2030. One hopes!

Note that Da’na says that the Covid-19 pandemic might not be a conspiracy but adds that the viruses might have “leaked” from Fort Detrick, once the U.S. center for biological weapons but now, according to Wikipedia, it hosts “most elements of the United States biological defense program.” This casual, unevidenced mention of Fort Detrick, with the assurance that Da’na isn’t not conspiracy mongering, is, of course, classical conspiracy mongering: a virus at Fort Detrick “leaked” “non-deliberately”—to a city in central China? This, along with the false assertion that there’s a malaria vaccine, is the kind of stuff that gives sociology a bad name.

Finally, Da’na compares the “leaking” of the virus to the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, furthering the idea that the “release” of the virus was intended to destroy American enemies, just like the nuclear weapons.  Re the atomic bomb, Greg wrote me this, which I quote with his permission:

While there is debate about the necessity of the atomic bombings of Japan, I strongly believe there can only be legitimate questioning of the second (Nagasaki). The quite effective changes in defensive tactics adopted by the Japanese Army in response to prior Allied victories, which the Japanese Army used skillfully in the horrific battles on Iwo Jima and Okinawa (horrific for everyone, and even more so for the Japanese), meant that the invasion of the main islands would have been unthinkable. Japan could have been eventually blockaded, starved, and conventionally bombed into submission, but it would have been many months more, and almost certainly with more deaths and suffering.

Now I don’t think Da’na should be fired or penalized for expressing these views. It’s his First Amendment right, and falls under academic freedom as well. But what he doesn’t have the right to do is to assert them as facts (or, perhaps, even as unevidenced suggestions) to his classes. (I have no idea what he tells his students.) That would be the equivalent of a creationist teaching Biblical creationism (or any creationism) in biology class—in my view a disciplining or firing offense. You can say whatever crazy things you want when you’re off the clock, but academics don’t have the right to teach lies to their classes, and it’s a dereliction of duty to propagandize your class.

But I wonder if Da’na’s colleagues and administrators know that he even holds these crazy views. At least they could—as Lehigh University’s biology department does with Michael Behe—disavow them, especially since Da’na is a dean.

University craziness of the week: George Washington University goes Disney

February 11, 2020 • 10:30 am

This article, appearing two weeks ago at Academe Blog, an organ of the respectable American Association of University Professors, could only have been written by a professor with tenure. And so it was, by Dane Kennedy, identified as “the Elmer Louis Kayser Professor of History and International Affairs at George Washington University.”

Tenure is required to write such a piece is because it is a sharp (and well deserved) critique of what a very good university, George Washington University (GWU) is doing to its faculty, staff, and overall campus climate. The good bad officials at that school have decided to let Walt Disney corporate values run GWU. Click on the screenshot to read the short and horrifying article:

An excerpt:

The George Washington University faculty and staff ain’t got no culture. Or worse, we’ve got a negative culture. This was the verdict of the Disney Institute, which the president of our university commissioned last year to assess the culture on our campus. Fortunately, the institute, which is the “professional development and external training arm of The Walt Disney Company,” has a remediation plan. It has designed workshops to teach us the cultural “values” and “service priorities” we evidently require.

. . . Our president is rumored to have forked over three to four million dollars to the Disney Institute to improve our culture (he refuses to reveal the cost). A select group of faculty and staff, those identified as opinion leaders, are being offered all-expenses paid trips to the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando “to gain first-hand insight into Disney’s approach to culture.” For everyone else, the university is conducting culture training workshops that run up to two hours. All staff and managers are required to attend. Faculty are strongly “encouraged” to participate, and some contract faculty, who have little job security, evidently have been compelled to do so.

I attended one of these workshops. It was a surreal experience. About a hundred mostly sullen university employees—maintenance workers, administrative staff, faculty members, and more—filled a ballroom. Two workshop leaders strained to gin up the crowd’s enthusiasm with various exhortations and exercises, supplemented by several slickly produced videos. The result was a cross between a pep rally and an indoctrination camp.

We were introduced at the beginning of the workshop to the university’s brand new slogan: “Only at GW, we change the world, one life at a time.” Hold on. We change the world only at GW? And we achieve this absurd ambition how? The answer, it turns out, is pretty vacuous—by being nice. “Care,” we were told, is one of our three “Service Priorities.” We were given “Service Priorities” table-tent cards, conveniently sized for our pocketbooks and billfolds so we can whip them out whenever we needed to remind ourselves how we change the world. These cards offer a series of declarative statements—pabulum, some might say—about our “care” priorities. Here’s a sample: “I support a caring environment by greeting, welcoming, and thanking others.” To help us care for others, the university has established a “positive vibes submission” website, where we “can send a positive vibe to someone.” It was hard to detect many positive vibes in the workshop itself.

In response to the slogan, “Only at GW, we change the world, one life at a time” (a mantra cribbed from an old Jewish saying), my only response is “WTF??” Did they have Play-Doh, puppies, and balloons at this workshop?  It goes on, but you can read the rest for yourself. The peroration, which is good:

Lastly, we were introduced to “Our GW Values”—“ours” only in the sense that they were being imposed on us. One might think that our president would be interested in promoting and honoring the values that are specific to our mission as a university, such as innovative research, teaching excellence, critical inquiry, and new ideas. Think again. As crafted by the Disney Institute and its administrative acolytes, “Our GW Values” are “integrity,” “collaboration,” “courage,” “respect,” “excellence,” “diversity,” and “openness.” All worthy values, to be sure, but is it possible to offer a more generic and innocuous set of standards?

The GW culture initiative can be summed up in two words: Mickey Mouse.

This is not just the infantilization of students, but the infantilization of an entire university—lock, stock and barrel. It’s reprehensible, risible, and should be mocked. Which I’ve just done. But hey, if you’re one of the lucky ones invited to an all-expenses-paid gig at Disney World, how can you resist?

And if you want verification, here’s a 2019 article about this nonsense in the student newspaper, the GW Hatchet (click on screenshot):

h/t: Reese

Marxist prof demands an end to grading, a meritocratic ranking that props up a rotten capitalism

August 8, 2019 • 12:00 pm

At hand we have a passionate editorial in Truthout, a left-wing site, written by Richard D. Wolff, described by Wikipedia as ” an American Marxian economist, known for his work on economic methodology and class analysis. He is Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and currently a Visiting Professor in the Graduate Program in International Affairs of the New School University in New York. Wolff has also taught economics at Yale University, City University of New York, University of Utah, University of Paris I (Sorbonne), and The Brecht Forum in New York City.”

Click on the screenshot to read his lucubrations.

Now four days ago I wrote about Bret Stephens’s thesis that a lot of the student unrest on American campuses comes as a revolt against the meritocracy, which, claims Stephens, is inimical to a “radical egalitarianism” that to many is the basis for social justice. In his piece, Wolff argues that grading is not only an unwanted part of a capitalistic meritocracy, and is inimical to education itself, but is also used to buttress capitalism, keeping people ordered and in their place.

I will let you read his argument for yourself. My own take on grading is that it’s imperfect, slotting students into one of five to a dozen categories, but it’s not useless. (In my grad courses, where I wasn’t required to give grades, everyone got a “pass”—a “P”—unless they required a grade, in which case I gave them a written assignment (my grad courses were all discussion and reading courses).  As I recall, some colleges (Reed College may be one of them) don’t give grades, but provide written evaluations for each student. That would be ideal, though it seems hard for grad schools or employers to use such evaluations since there’s nothing to compare.  And that brings up the issue of what grades are for.

Wolff sees grades as of no benefit to students, but only to employers or graduate schools. He’s largely right, I think, though grades are also a way of self-evaluation, letting you know that you’re not performing up to snuff. A lot of students in elite colleges haven’t ever had to compete with a huge number of equally talented students, and a low grade may be a sign that you’re not working hard enough.

Yes, grades are imperfect evaluations, but I see no alternative to some form of evaluation. But I reject the idea that they’re deliberately used to prop up capitalism, a system that, says Wolff, is rotten to the core, and almost would collapse without grades and the attendant meritocracy they foster. For example:

The capitalist economic system has major failures. It generates extreme, socially divisive inequalities of wealth and income. It consistently fails to achieve full employment. Many of its jobs are boring, dangerous and/or mind-numbing. Every four to seven years, it suffers a mysterious downdraft in which millions of people lose jobs and incomes, businesses collapse, falling tax revenues undermine public services, and so on. If these failures were widely perceived as the inherent failures of the capitalist system, the desirability and thus sustainability of capitalism itself might vanish.

How, then, has capitalism survived? Its persistence can best be explained in terms of ideology. The system produces and disseminates interpretations of its failures that blame these problems not on capitalism itself, but on other altogether different “causes.” Institutions have developed mechanisms to anchor such interpretations widely and deeply in the popular consciousness.

One key example is the concept of “meritocracy.” Schools are a key institution that teaches and practices meritocracy via the mechanism of grading.

Presumably Wolff wants a purely socialistic state, but those have always failed, largely because there’s a lack of incentive. Mixed systems, such as those in Scandinavia and, in fact, in much of Europe, are more successful. Even the U.S., with its Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment benefits, is a bit socialistic. But Wolff doesn’t seem to favor that system.

Wolff also raises other problems with grades besides their use as a prop of a failing capitalism. They take excessive time for professors (but not as much time as written evaluations!); a low grade could be the fault of a poor teacher rather than a poor student; grading could measure memorization rather than learning; and students could have not a wrong understanding, but a different understanding. In fact, Wolff shades a bit into postmodernism when he says stuff like this:

Did the student understand the material differently from me in ways not reducible to matters of right and wrong? After all, every piece of verbal or written material is subject to perfectly reasonable multiple interpretations. Education is not well served by insisting on one answer as right and alternatives as wrong. Such insistence is more like indoctrination than education; it undermines creative, critical thinking.

Let a hundred truths blossom! Sometimes, at least in science, one answer is right, and so you can use multiple-choice questions. (I almost never used them; even in large classes I tried to give mostly short essay questions involving “thought.”

What bothers me most about Wolff’s article is that he seems completely opposed to even the idea of a meritocracy. He suggests that any ranking of people is inimical to the socialist society he wants. Yet how can you hire anybody, or achieve excellence, unless you have a way of ranking people? Granted, you can modify a pure meritocracy by adopting other goals (“diversity and inclusion” is the main one in universities), but no college will accept students without some way to rank them. What kind of society can we have if we can’t evaluate people’s skills relative to each other? Yet it seems that’s what Wolff wants:

Within the framework of meritocratic ideology, employers seek to hire the “best” employee and are willing to pay such individual workers more than they pay workers with “less” merit (ranked lower on some scale of productivity). In meritocratic logic, those offered no jobs can only blame themselves: They must assume they have too little merit. Workers learn in school to seek to accumulate merit and achieve higher rankings along the scales that count for employers. Coalitions of educators and employers have inserted the educational system into this merit system as an important place to acquire and accumulate merit that employers will recognize and reward. Better jobs and rising pay reward rising merit acquired through more education as well as “on-the-job” training.

. . . Meritocracy and the educational system’s key place within it are important because capitalism’s survival depends on them. The merit system organizes how individual employees interpret the unemployment they suffer, the job they hate, the wage or salary they find so insufficient, the creativity their job stifles, and so on. It starts as schools train individuals to accept the grades assigned to them as measures of individual academic merit. That prepares them to accept their jobs and incomes as, likewise, measures of their individual productive merit. Under this framework, unequal grades, jobs and income can all be seen as appropriate and fair: Rewards are supposedly proportional to one’s individual merit.

. . . Meritocracy redirects the blame for capitalism’s failures onto its victims. Schools teach meritocracy, and grading is the method.

But I ask the sweating professor: “What is the alternative?” Do we not rank people at all? And if you want that, what are the implications for society?

Here’s the man himself:

Richard D. Wolff