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Parsing the Chronicle of Higher Education’s ‘Real Scholars’


Pundits are correct, of course, to censure the disgraceful firing of Naomi Schaefer Riley by the Chronicle of Higher Education. But perhaps it’s worthwhile to take a quick look at another blog posting on Brainstorm, the Chronicle blog from which Schaefer Riley was booted. This posting was written by Gina Barreca, one of the blog’s regular contributors and a professor of English and feminist theory at the University of Connecticut. It’s a poem in four stanzas that mocks Schaefer Riley’s original posting; among other things, it directs you, the reader, to “Turn your attention to real scholars and scribes / Who don’t spend their lives writing cheap diatribes.”

I’ll leave it to you to determine whether the poem succeeds as humor. What I can say is that, as poetry, it’s an embarrassing failure — the work of a writer who doesn’t understand the first thing about verse, comic or not. The first stanza is a badly scanning limerick. The second and third stanzas abruptly change the meter and rhyme scheme to something resembling Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark. The final stanza shifts abruptly again: It’s a quatrain with an AABB rhyme scheme and four lines of anapestic tetrameter. The one formal characteristic that unites the poem is how badly it scans throughout; I’d call your particular attention to the lines beginning “Where no one paid her” and “Poor NSR chewed off,” both of which utterly fail to be the anapestic trimeter that they’re supposed to be.

Why should we care? Well, the main scandal in Schaefer Riley’s firing, of course, is that the Chronicle has shown itself more interested in political correctness than in serious discussion. But it’s surely a subsidiary scandal that both the Chronicle and a major state university happily employ an English professor who knows so little about English verse. That fact seems to confirm what so many conservatives fear: not simply that the academy hosts a particularly intolerant brand of leftism, but that it is increasingly dominated by people who — however smugly they denounce their critics, and however confidently they proclaim themselves “real scholars” — know little about the fields they profess to teach.

— Benjamin A. Plotinsky, the managing editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, holds a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Chicago.