Earlier this week, Naomi Schaefer Riley was fired from The Chronicle of Higher Education in surrender to an online campaign to get rid of her for daring to question the academic seriousness of black-studies dissertations mentioned in a Chronicle article. Riley, a former intern at National Review, since a long-time writer on higher education (including the author of two books on the academy), takes some questions on the incident:
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What prompted you to write: “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations”?
NAOMI SCHAEFER RILEY: I wrote it in response to a front-page article in the Chronicle, which touted the exciting new scholarship coming out of the discipline. There were no skeptics of the ideas quoted in the piece, so I thought I’d offer some.
LOPEZ: Did you stop to think it might be controversial?
RILEY: Not really. No more so than plenty of the other posts I wrote for the blog over the course of the previous year.
LOPEZ: You wrote, “there are legitimate debates about the problems that plague the black community from high incarceration rates to low graduation rates to high out-of-wedlock birth rates. But it’s clear that they’re not happening in black-studies departments.” How can you be so sure?
RILEY: Because I have spent a lot of time perusing the course offerings and mission statements of black studies departments (in addition to reading about the writings of black studies scholars in the Chronicle and InsideHigherEd) and they all begin with the premise that institutional racism is to blame for these problems. There is rarely any inquiry that does not begin with that notion.
LOPEZ: Why make fun of people’s dissertations?
RILEY: Because a reporter was writing about them so breathlessly to begin with. But the topics of dissertations have other implications. First, of course, these students are spending years trying to find a topic and then many more years researching and writing. Second, once they do finish their doctorates, they will go on (in most cases) to teach undergraduates. Which will have two results. First, our system of higher education is so focused on research that these students will often not be taught how to teach. But in the case of these most obscure dissertation topics, it means that these grad students will then go to a university and want to add a course on, say, the history of black midwifery. Even if you could argue that this is a good idea for a dissertation, are you really going to suggest that it’s a good idea for an entire class? Remember, undergraduates take a limited number of these and I, for one, would like them to be in broader subjects.
LOPEZ: Did the petition against your blog post come as a surprise? What was most surprising?
RILEY: Well, maybe the sheer number of people who signed. But plenty of the things I have written for the Chronicle have received scores of nasty and personal comments.
LOPEZ: If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything?
LOPEZ: What reasons were you given for the firing?
RILEY: That my post did not meet the Chronicle’s standards for bloggers or reporters. That I should have done more research in order to develop a more informed opinion.
LOPEZ: This will obviously keep you from writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education in the future. Will it keep you from writing about issues involving race?
RILEY: I plan to continue writing about higher education, and if race comes up too, I’m happy to write about that as well.
LOPEZ: Is it possible there was latent racism in your post you haven’t fully considered?
LOPEZ: Can any good come of this incident?
RILEY: I guess it could make people more aware of the problems with the discipline of black studies and the insularity of the academy. I don’t think that the latter anyway will come as a surprise but it is a useful reminder.