The Magazine

Identity Crisis

The high costs of feeling good about yourself.

Aug 27, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 46 • By MARK BAUERLEIN
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In academia, few sins are as grave and unforgivable as criticizing the “studies” programs. Journalist/author Naomi Schaefer Riley found that out this past spring when she wrote a blog post for the Chronicle of Higher Education website describing Black Studies as “left-wing victimization claptrap.”  

The reaction was swift. The Chronicle opened its Brainstorm blog (to which I contribute) to graduate students whose dissertation topics were mentioned by Riley as prime examples of stupid scholarship. They accused Riley of “breathtaking arrogance and gutless anti-intellectualism,” then discerned a motive: “One can only assume that in a bid to not be ‘out-niggered’ by her right-wing cohort, Riley found some black women graduate students to beat up on.” 

The African American Studies faculty at Northwestern commented, too, calling Riley’s post “cowardly, uninformed, irresponsible, repugnant, and contrary to the mission of higher education.” One fellow Brainstorm contributor labeled it “hate speech,” while another wrote a poem that began,

A certain white chick—Schaefer Riley—

Decided to do something wily:

Knowing her blogs

Were going to the dogs,

She got all gnarly and smiley.

An online petition demanding that the Chronicle fire Riley collected more than 6,000 (!) signatures within a few days, and one week later, the editor of the Chronicle issued a statement heeding the “outrage and disappointment”: 

We’ve heard you, and we have taken to heart what you said. 

We now agree that Ms. Riley’s blog posting did not meet The Chronicle’s basic editorial standards for reporting and fairness in opinion articles. As a result, we have asked Ms. Riley to leave the Brainstorm blog.

All because of a 500-word post. Amidst the indignation and hurt, it should be added, one couldn’t find the obvious rejoinder to Riley’s charge: evidence of the intellectual value of Black Studies, such as research that has shaped social policy or books that have won honors.

The episode illustrates the syndromes outlined in Bruce Bawer’s book, a survey of major and minor “studies” fields, from heated beginnings to current, academic ends. Bawer has long chapters on Women’s Studies, Black Studies, Queer Studies, and Chicano Studies, plus summaries of Disability Studies, Fat Studies, Men’s Studies, and Whiteness Studies.  

The older ones he chronicles from their origins in social forces, such as the Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s, to early academic units (San Francisco State had the first Black Studies department, and the Cal State system remains a bastion of identity programs), to today’s network of centers and departments, organizations such as the National Association of African American Studies, and annual conferences at which professors and graduate students share thoughts and research. Bawer interviews celebrities (Chon Noriega) and dissenters (Shelby Steele), cites canonical texts (Women’s Ways of Knowing, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, etc.), and attends cutting-edge panels highlighting the common concern of the fields: the operations of power, violent and hegemonic, upon victims (generally, anyone who is not a straight white male).

On one level, nothing is surprising in these portraits. Bawer quotes copiously from books, lectures, and mission statements to deliver familiar samples of special pleading, anti-Americanism, anticapitalism, one-upmanship victimology (being Chicana isn’t as authoritative as being a Chicana lesbian), and jargon. When the authors of a leading Chicano Studies volume hail Fidel and Che, declaring that “the Chicana/o movement strove to emulate Cuba’s monumental gains in eliminating poverty and racism and its courageous solidarity with global liberation struggles,” laypersons might reply, “Huh?” But such audacious pronouncements have been standard campus fare for 30 years.  

On another level, however, Bawer draws out something remarkably ironic, and sometimes bizarre, in the course and condition of studies programs, and it has nothing to do with their political commitments. It surfaces every time the political outlook of identity studies takes academic form in scholarly books and presentations, course descriptions, and mission statements. There, the radical thrust of Black Power, Women’s Lib, Gay Pride, and Chicano separatism enters an idiom of abstract, predictable, formulaic verbiage. Here is a professor summarizing her Intro to Women’s Studies course on her blog: