Thursday, September 30, 2004

Patrick Wormald, RIP

It is a sad day for Anglo-Saxon studies. Patrick Wormald, an Oxford professor and one of the truly great twentieth-century historians of Anglo-Saxon passed away at his home. Patrick was also one of the nicest people in Anglo-Saxon studies. I first met him at ISAS 97 in Palermo, where he took the time to have a long, detailed discussion about some of my ideas about the Benedictine Reform. Thereafter we chatted at various conferences and he gave me a great many good ideas for my work, directing me to sources and correcting errors. He had no particular reason to help me out other than being a genuinely kind and generous person.

Patrick was probably the greatest historian of Anglo-Saxon law since Felix Liebermann in the 19th century. His work was always beautifully written as well as brilliantly argued. I think his essay in the Barbara Yorke's Bishop Athelwold collection, "AEthelwold and his Continental Counterparts," helped me as much as any other single piece of scholarship in writing How Tradition Works.

In the past few years Anglo-Saxon studies has lost three scholars who were both academic titans and great people: Ted Irving, Phil Pulsiano, and Patrick Wormald. It's a great credit to the profession that so many people like this are in it, but it's crushingly sad to lose them.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

How To Fix Journalism

Maybe because I was a terrible journalist, I have all kinds of good ideas how to fix things. Not "The Profession of Journalism" as such. I don't see a solution for the perpetual J-school vs. experience argument. I don't know how to reduce the political biases of the people who choose to go into journalism. I don't really see how, beyond general cultural shifts, the profession can force journalists to be more interested in and educated about science, math, history and languages.

But I have some very practical solutions that editors could use to improve their stories and squeeze out bias even when it's not the kind of bias that they notice (i.e., left-leaning editors often don't notice left-leaning bias; the same is true, of course, for the few right-leaning editors).

STEP 1 DO NOT TELL ME THINGS THAT HAVE NOT HAPPENED. Today there was a headline on Reuters (which only give three top stories) 'Debates Provide Contrast' or something mealy like that. This is not true. The debate happens on Thursday night. Stop telling me what is going to happen and tell me what has happened.
I first really noticed this trend during the Gulf War, when it seemed as if 75% of the story was explaining what the reporter thought would happen next. On the first day of the air war, all the talk was of how the ground was was going to start. It was even worse in the Iraq war. There were all kinds of things actually happening: battles, advances, setbacks. But if you go and re-read the front-page coverage, you'd get much more speculation about the next step (speculation, I might add, that was usually wrong). Predictions are not facts, and so it's very, very easy for them to become 'spun' and biased. Eliminate them.

STEP 2: FOR GOD'S SAKE, CHECK YOUR NUMBERS YOURSELF. Today there was an article in the Wall Street Journal catalogue critic section that said that an average baby wears 4000 diapers. Let's run some numbers, shall we. A baby will live approximate 800 days until toilet trained (just to use nice, round numbers). The baby will not average only five diapers through that whole time. Even at the very end, just before little precious is ready to train, you are talking about one in the morning upon wakeup, one after morning meal, one mid-day or post-lunch, one afternoon, one dinnertime, one before bed. Doctors say that the child should be making water six times a day, so unless you get a double-up with other materials, that pushes the number to seven, which means not 4000, but 5600. But it gets worse, because most infants are much closer to 15-20 diapers per day ( my champion son has gone through 27 once -- there goes his college fund). So if you make the average for the first 300 days 15, you're up to 8600, and when you figure in little tricks like peeing after a diaper is only partially on after a change, and the lovely visit of Mister Rotavirus that we all get, well. Only a fool would count on less than 10,000 diapers. See, this did not require higher math. Just some common sense -- and I did it all in my head. [and yes, this week my wife goes back to work and I become Mr Mom for our six-month-old son and four-year-old daughter, so I'm thinking a lot about diapers.]

STEP 3DELETE LEADING AND TENDENTIOUS MODIFIERS. It would be easy to write a Word macro that deleted every instance of the modifiers "ultra," "arch," "extreme". These are useless cliches. You would probably have to do the "controversial" or "much-criticised" by hand, since there conceivably could be one or two instances in which these were useful, but I suggest automating.

STEP 4NO PASSIVE VOICE, NO UNSPECIFIC PARAPHRASE FAUX-QUOTES FROM 'EXPERTS' or "OFFICIALS'. News is about saying what has happened. Active voice, so that you can't get away from who did what to whom. Also, don't be a weasel and quote anonymous 'experts.' Weak. We all know it's a group of other reporters making crap up.

STEP 5PARTY AFFILIATION OF ALL ELECTED OFFICIALS AND RETIRED ELECTED OFFICIALS must be given even in seemingly unrelated stories. Regardless of what the story is about: officials run their campaigns on their images and their 'characters.' Therefore, when Congressman Snopes is caught tipping the cow, as it were, we need to know which party.

STEP 6 . NO PHYSICAL DESCRIPTIONS OF PEOPLE UNLESS THEY ARE FLEEING THE LAW OR IT IS RELEVANT TO THE STORY. Thus if Michael Moore were to catch and eat the Great White Shark now circling Cape Cod in its quest for Teddy Kennedy, you could describe Mr Moore's girth. But not in a story about one of his one-trick-pony films.

Ok, those are six rules. Since Journalists in my experience tend to be acquainted with twelve-step programs, I'll invite suggestion and contributions.

Monday, September 27, 2004

Well, I'm back. Continuing discussion with Rose Nunez

Back from a hurricane-dodging vacation (where I finally caught some snook after eight years of on-and-off trying) and now having dug out from the accumulated email detritus, I can respond to this post by Rose Nunez. You can scroll down to find the links to the continued discussion.

I had said that Rose's treatment by some particular professors was "academic malpractice." Rose replies that
Malpractice implies an isolated violation or couple of violations of professional principles, committed by a small number of incompetent or arrogant members of the profession. Instead, I see the problem as being much more widespread, even a direct outgrowth of professional principles that are bad to begin with.

She continues by pointing out that if someone treated her with medieval medicine during the Middle Ages, this wouldn't necesarily be malpractice.

I get the point, and I don't think I expressed myself as well as I'd have liked. My point was not so much that being a predictable leftist was academic malpractice (because if that's the case, then Rose's analogy holds), but that the treatment of a student by professors that she describes--placing ideology above objective truth, especially when it comes to dealing with students--is in fact malpractice. And my evidence is exactly that Rose was discouraged enough by academia not to continue her studies in medieval literature. Obvious loss to the profession.

Look, I understand that everyone has their ideological committments. But responsible academics can be professional enough to teach students with whom they disagree. If they can't, then they don't belong in the profession.

Rose also writes: "But as long as philology and classicism were part of the mission, literary academics had to respect some minimum standard of empirical verifiability." Well, yes. I think one of the biggest problems facing not just English, but a whole host of other professions (journalism, law, history) is that at some point in the 1970's we turned a very wrong corner. Whether it is famous professors like Edward Said, journalists like Dan Rather and Jayson Blair, or Massachusetts SJC judges, we've come to a time where, apparently, it is ok JUST TO MAKE CRAP UP. This is, as I've said in other posts, a very bad thing, because the information culture we live in requires good information.

The 'solution' if there is one, is blowback: people reacting, like one of my correspondents did to the Dan Rather forgeries, by withdrawing respect and support from journalists, professors, lawyers, and comparing them unfavorably to engineers, doctors, and others who have to get things right. That's not a recipe for fast change, but academics are quite vain about their social respect, and when it starts to go, they'll notice.

Maybe it's because I'm a medievalist, but I just don't see the avoidance of concrete facts that Rose laments. This could very well be true in modernism, and I have said before that I simply can't read PMLA anymore, but, particularly in Anglo-Saxon, you can't get away with making stuff up.

Rose's point that professors don't hear other professors as much as students do is true at most places, but probably not here at Wheaton, where we visit each others classes with some frequency and where there are regular faculty lunch talks as well as our simply eating together every day in the faculty dining room. But Wheaton is almost certainly not representative. The biggest problem in the profession as a whole is the disconnect between teaching individual students and all the other stuff faculty members do. When the feedback loop is broken, bad things happen. As we're seeing at Harvard right now.

You should have feedback loops from your students, your colleagues, your non-academic neighbors, and the interested readers who read your blog. Seriously. But, particularly for famous, cocooned academics at big name universities who live in faculty ghettos like Cambridge or Palo Alto, you lose those feedback loops. Then, I think, your work becomes lousy and you end up having graduate students do your semi-original thinking for you. And the profession is set up so that we get stuck for decades with people who've done nothing of any great use since having one excellent idea in 1973 (Mr. Bloom, I'm looking at you).

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Off to see the Lizard...
I have tons of things that I want to write about, but I'll be offline for about two weeks. In the meanwhile, read my friend and fellow Anglo-Saxonist Scott Kleinman's excellent blog, maybe starting with this follow-up to one of my posts.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Continuing the Discussion
Rose Nunez continues the discussion begun here and continued here, here and here.

Rose writes:
The excuse that over-reaching professors really just have society's best interests at heart doesn't cut any ice with me. And that's because--this is humiliating to say on a public blog--I'm really just a disillusioned teenager inside. I expected better of academics. I expected them to care about facts, to care about truth with both a big and a little "t," to not wave the white flag of intellectual surrender, the one that says "reality is ideology." I expected them to analyze their own ideologies, and to place objectivity above ideological allegiances, and to go for long hard archaeological expeditions beyond their social and political comfort zones. I expected them to be more than human, which was wrong and immature of me, and what's worse, I still expect that of them.

I think Rose (and everyone else) should expect more from academics. The academic position is a privileged one, and with the privilege should come the responsibility to make sure that when a professor opens his or her mouth in an official capacity, that professor tries to be certain that what comes out is true. And in my experience, most (not all, certainly) professors really do try to promote the truth. The problem is, what they believe to be the truth bears little resemblance to what most other people think is the truth. But professors are so cocooned that they don't often get their ideologies questioned. I consider myself extremely lucky to have gone to an engineering undergraduate school (Carnegie Mellon), lived in a fraternity full of engineers, been married to an engineering Ph.D. for 10 years, lived next door to a Chicago Transit Authority cop and a master mason and a retired nurse and two wheelchair using, self-described "Good Old Boys" from the Missouri bootheel, managed a pet store in Columbia Missouri, ... you get the point. My wife and I don't do the typical academic thing. We've never tried to live in a college town or an academic community (when she was at Northewestern, we lived in Rogers Park, not Evanston). I'm not saying this as some kind of moral superiorty: we're just comfortable in different situations than my colleagues are. But those colleagues are in a cocoon. They rarely meet people who disagree with them, and so their ideas get wackier and wackier. I still think that my colleages have good hearts: they genuinely believe most of what they say they believe, or at least give the strong impression that they do.

Rose continues:
In my last two years at the university, it became clear to me that most of my professors didn't really think hard about what might be best for society; or, more to the point, their notion of society was something abstract, removed from the world of people and jobs and striving and suffering. I heard a professor lament the end of feudalism because it cleared the way for the rise of democracy and capitalism (for readers who haven't been English majors: I'm not kidding. In class.) I heard a professor say not that the Soviet threat during the Cold War was exaggerated, not that America overreacted, but that the Soviet Union in fact did not expand--its expansion was a figment of the macho American imagination. I had a professor who was upset because a Vietnamese woman's memoirs that said unsavory things about the Vietcong might encourage readers to invest in the American myth.

Rose is, I think, the victim of academic malpractice here. And I use that term advisedly and with the intentional parallel to medicine. Medicine is an art as well as a science (like the humanities), and if a doctor get the 'art' wrong, he or she can be sued for malpractice. I don't see why humanities professors shouldn't be similarly responsible for their actions. And I'll note that the malpractice arises, at least in the last instance, is a perfect example of what I was talking about in my earlier posts: academics who don't trust the audience to handle the truth and so skew their research, their teaching and their presentations so as to manipulate the audience to the conclusions that they (the professors) genuinely believe are correct. I think that professors should categorically never do this. It is, in my opinion, source of the rot in academia.

Rose continues:
What kind of concern for society is it that refuses to look at actual people and their actual lives, but instead uses some philosophical dilettante's fractured and unfactual musings as a map? What kind of good intentions continually exalt the superior vision of the "intenders" while discounting the "false" consciousness of the objects of their ministrations? And, for God's sake, what kind of intellectual integrity is it that weaves webs of obfuscation and deceit around demonstrable, repeatable, embarrassingly pedestrian truths?

There are two indictments here. The first is of out of touch academics. I don't have a programmatic solution, but I do wish my colleagues got out more and interacted with different people. There should be empirical testing of ideas in the world, not just theorizing. In that way I am unapologetically from the Anglo-American empiricist tradition and opposed to the French rationalist tradition. But many fields, with their deference to continental modes of inquiry, don't test their hypotheses against the real world with enough regularity and rigor.

The second indictment is, I think, just another example of what happens when you cross the old bright line that used to separate academics from everyone else: the pursuit of truth no matter where it takes you. I think that the pursuit of truth is more important than being sure that the truth you find is used the way you think it should be used, and I've tried to justify my position. But it is certainly true that there are a great many people who would argue that not recognizing what the general public (or anyone, for that matter) will do with your truth is the height of irresponsibility. In some future posts I hope to answer that charge.

Another Reason Why I Critique the Leftists But Can't Join the Conservatives

Some readers of this blog take me to task for being an apologist for academia. Others criticize me for challenging the leftist bias (as I see it) of the academy. Another group gives me a hard time for 'trying to have it both ways.'

Here's an example, from National Review Online's The Corner, of why I won't join up with the conservatives even though I'm sick to death of the dominant approaches to culture in the academy:

When the week before last I asked for explanations of the horns on Michelangelo's Moses one reader of this happy Corner made an especially good suggestion: Ask Roger Kimball. Roger is an editor of The New Criterion and author of the marvelous new book, The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art. Here's Roger's reply:

I have not pondered the question much, but I am skeptical of the 'cornu' interpretation: I suspect that the horns represent not Michelangelo's interpretation of a passage from Exodus but rather his effort to provide a visual and emotional correlative for the kind of severe religious sublimity that Moses embodied. A quality that is often discerned in Michelangelo's work is terribilit?: a term that is hard to define but that embraces the sublime. What we see in Moses here--Moses the law-giver, Moses the chap who has just had an awful (in the old sense) encounter with God--is the results of an artist's effort to represent visually something that exceeds the boundaries of the representable: the horns are a sort of objective correlative of that overwhelming moral awesomeness: forbidding, grotesque, yet commanding. That, anyhow, is how it appears to me at first blush. (The proper question here, I suspect, is not 'What does it mean?' but 'How does it feel?' That is, the issue is less one of symbols and semantics than one of aesthetic force and religious passion.)
Herewith, at last, a completely satisfying explanation of what Michelangelo was attempting. The convention of portraying Moses with horns may very well have arisen because of a mistranslation of one or two terms of Hebrew into Latin. But Michelangelo uses it not out of confusion or ignorance but for the high purposes of his art.

In a single paragraph, an entire course in art appreciation. With thanks to Roger--and to the reader who suggested I ask him."

In a single paragraph, a crapload of mystification and fuzzy-wuzzy hot air when five minutes of research would have given an answer.

As Ruth Mellinkoff shows in her book The Horned Moses in Medieval Art and Thought, the image of Moses with horns was ubiquitous in the Middle Ages due to the mistranslation of the Hebrew. Even after the scholastics had figured out the mistranslation, the image persisted for centuries because the artists were not reading the scholastic treatises, but working from a visual tradition in which everybody knew that Moses had horns because that's what he looked like. If an artist had made a hornless Moses, it wouldn't have looked right.

The reviews I've read of Kimball's The Rape of the Masters make me think I'd agree with the critique of amateur psychologizing and tedious political analysis of the artworks of the masters. But if the proposed solution is to return, as he does in the above paragraph, to the kind of gooey, unsupported assertions of greatness and sublimity, then I know that I and a lot of other scholars, who, like me, are bored with and unconvinced by deconstruction, political analysis, etc., won't be taking this path.
"The horns are a sort of objective correlative of that overwhelming moral awesomeness: forbidding, grotesque, yet commanding" -- that does not explain 'Why horns?'
"The proper question here, I suspect, is not 'What does it mean?' but 'How does it feel?'" -- well, that's convenient, since there's no arguing with how something feels. It's exactly as solipsistic as the kind of analysis that conservatives rightly deride: 'Chaucer makes me feel oppressed, so he must be oppressive.'

Look, it's great to appreciate art, and art should make you feel something. But the job of the critic is to attempt to explain what the art does and why it works that way.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Follow Up: Rose Nunez' Critique of My Posts on Journalists and Academics

I really appreciate Rose Nunez' response at her No Credentials blog to my attempt to explain why I think academics and journalists do what they do, viz. slanting, manipulating and mis-representing news/facts.

You should go read Rose's critique for yourself, but here are the key paragraphs:
But it seems to me that many reporters--and I know firsthand that many English professors--assume they have license far beyond their fiefdoms. A deep acquaintance with Foucault's History of Sexuality and a propensity for seeing a Panopticon in every self-service supermarket checkout doesn't mean you understand the actual effects of rent control any better than my mother does. Twenty years of performing materialist analyses of novels by mentally ill writers does not etch within you a superior understanding of the DSM IV, and it most certainly does not give you a loftier pulpit from which to preach about pharmaceuticals and brain disorders.

My bookshelves sag with 1980s tomes by leftist journalists whose nuanced ideas about socialism led them to predict a long life for the Soviet Union and a short one for western capitalism. And in the go-go nineties, journalists competed to see who could produce the most hair-raising scare stories about the dire effects of welfare reform, when in fact it turned out to be one of Bill Clinton's best ideas--I know from direct experience, having been a grant writer for a county social services agency during the Clinton administration.

In short, the list of wrong-headed and unsupported conclusions reached by well-meaning intellectuals could wrap around the planet thrice--never touching the ground, of course--duck through an asteroid belt of inconvenient results, weave a macrame of knotty intangibles with the moons of Jupiter, and come back with enough left over to pat itself on the back for being such a smarty.

Readers of this blog will not be surprised to find that I am very much in agreement with her critique. Over-reaching academics drive me crazy. There are way too many people who comment on things they know nothing about. One of my earliest posts took Toni Morrison to task for ignorant comments about Beowulf. And Rose is right that being an expert in one field does not make one and expert in another. I think this is particularly true when someone is attempting to comment in areas that are politically contentious: it's very, very easy to think that because you are smart (and all academic think they are smart) and because you possess some analytical tools, you are going to be correct about anything you turn your attention to. This is mistake.

And yet. [You knew there would be an 'and yet,']. There's a sentiment lurking in the blogosphere (for example in occasional comments on Roger L. Simon's blog) that professors--at least in the humanities--are on the whole mendacious and manipulative and should not be trusted to comment on issues of current concern. I don't agree, because, as an unabashed partisan of the humanities, I believe in the immense value of the things that humanists study and in the value they add to this enterprise. If you follow Rose's (and my) critique to its logical extreme, you end up with people all inside little, specialist boxes, unable to criticize anything outside their own particular (to use Rose's word) fiefs.

This is one of those very tangled questions. Noam Chomsky, for example, claims that his political work has nothing to do with his linguistics work, but that is completely bogus and disingenuous, because no one would pay any more attention to Chomsky than to any other citizen except for his fame from his linguistics. (True, now he may be equally or more well known for the politics, but he would never have gotten that soapbox if not for the unrelated language work).

Are all academics similarly manipulative and dishonest when they comment beyond their fields of expertise? I don't think so. And because I think that the deep study of literature and culture contributes to a better understanding of humanity and the world, it is at least possible that people who have deeply studied literature and culture might have useful things to say about the questions of the day.

I do have a possible solution, though it's more in the realm of ideals than in reality: I'd like to repeal what appears to be the 'public commentary exemption' for academics. Right now, academics can say any Tom-fool thing they like on an Op-Ed or other type of public commentary, and it is always a net plus for the career and the institution. If Paul Ehrlich makes one of his idiotic population growth predictions, his colleagues and institution will say "but he's been hired as an entomologist, so who cares if he was wrong on this other major issue?" So there is no real feedback loop: the academic can trade on his legitimate expertise, but when he's wrong, nothing much happens. I'd like to see public pronouncements kept track of (maybe the web and the blogosphere can make this easier) and the quality and accuracy of these statements balanced with the technical and professional contributions of academics. That way, being a complete dolt about public issues would count negatively even if someone was a profoudly good researcher on butterflies. I think the positive consequences of such an approach would lead academics to be more thoughtful and less tendentious in their public pronouncements, and would encourage them to become as informed on areas outside of their fields as they are in their specialities.

Of course this doesn't address the problems of bias, of 'stars' who can say absolutely idiotic things with no consequences (see Harold Bloom on Harry Potter, Salman Rushdie on Tolkien, for examples), or the lack of real consquences for people whose ideas end up leading to bad consequences in the real world. But it would be a start.