What A Long Strange Trip It’s Been…

When I pulled off the highway during rush hour traffic to type out a response to Schaefer Riley’s attack on my iPad* I was being self-serving. I was serving MY indignation, my anger, my disappointment.

I hit publish and within an hour it became clear that I was not the only one indignant, angry, or disappointed.

Despite charges from a Chronicle editor, I had no thoughts of grandeur. If I had I would not have posted my response on a blog that, before last week, had an all-time visitor count high of 382. The HuffPo this blog ain’t. But I do believe that if you can’t speak truth to power because you don’t have the code to the gate you can, at least, speak into the void. And that was all I was trying to do.

And over 6,000 of you did not let me do it alone.

I am exceedingly grateful for that.

This morning, powered by that gratitude and the manic exhaustion that only the end of the semester can produce, I presented our petition to the editors of The Chronicle of Higher Education. I included a little note, speaking only for myself:

Mr. Semas,

I do not doubt that you know why I am writing so I will dispense with a summary of events. Instead I would like to tell you a brief story about how I came to be here, engaged with your publication, at this moment in time.

I read the Chronicle probably more regularly than the average graduate student not yet on the job market. A great deal of the data for my doctoral research is culled from your archives. I am familiar with the scope, depth, and breadth of your coverage. I have not always agreed with the editorial tone of everything you publish but I have always trusted that there was an editorial decision.

So, perhaps you can understand why I, somewhat naively, assumed that Naomi Schaefer Riley’s attack on black studies by way of personal attacks on Ruth Hayes, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, and La TaSha B. Levy was merely an editorial oversight. I thought that pointing out to you the extent of Schaefer Riley’s unprofessional, unproductive, and unprovoked personal attacks would warrant positive editorial action. I am rather ashamed that I was wrong.

I study institutions, Mr. Semas. I am well aware of the functional division between news production and editorial content, just as I’m sure you are aware that such a division is not practically relevant. The CHE masthead confers legitimacy whether the content be online or in print. It is an authoritative stamp that signals to readers – both lay and academic – that the content presented represents the acceptable form of academic discourse. To my knowledge, personal attacks and uninformed conjecture are not acceptable in such discourse. How, then, are they acceptable in the pages of a publication that bills itself as the “No. 1 source of news, information, and jobs for (emphasis mine) college and university faculty members and administrators”?

One of your editors stated that yours is a news organization and not an academic journal. The insinuation was that you are not beholden to academic norms. I never suggested you were the latter. But I do suggest that if you are the former and you are in service to the academic community, the ethical standards of that community should matter to you. They should matter if only because they matter to those who lend credibility to the Chronicle by reading, subscribing, and contributing.

I am such a person, Mr. Semas. So, I hope my opinion matters.

However, I’m taking a clue from Schaefer Riley’s disparagement of graduate students and your subsequent decision to defend her right to do so. I will not assume, as a graduate student myself, that my opinion alone matters much. Thus, I have attached a petition with 6,116 signatures. The petition calls for Schaefer Riley’s dismissal not because she is a conservative but because she is not in keeping with the ethics of the profession you serve.

You will forgive me for indulging in some cursory analysis of those signatures. Of the 6,116 cases 1,419 wrote qualitative responses. Of those 1,419 cases:

  • 382 identified themselves as professors, administrators, and/or university affiliated.
  • 58 noted that, at minimum, an apology is warranted.
  • 282 used some iteration of the word shame.

I hope you will consider our collective request. Should, however, you decide that Schaefer Riley’s discourse is in keeping with the culture of your publication I ask only that you are transparent so those of us who care may act accordingly.


Tressie McMillan Cottom

This debacle has incited more than rage, however. It has sparked discussions about professional ethics, media models, student organizing, and publishing alternatives (Also see great commentary here, here, and here). It has forced some corners of the profession to make explicit the implicit assumptions we have about decorum, responsibility, and professionalism. Those are all great, necessary things.
Here’s what I hope. I hope Schafer Riley finds herself a new platform more in keeping with her penchant for ideology over rigor (and, writing talent <– the only snark, I promise!). I hope The Chronicle does the right thing before it’s too late. I hope that if it is too late all of us who have cared about the fractures this event exposed are courageous enough to form new spaces, new avenues for the kind of debate we think is befitting our commitment to academe and society. And, most of all, I hope that we never have to do this again.
Wishful thinking, I know. But, at heart, I’m nothing if I’m not an optimist.
It’s gotten me this far so I’m going to ride it out. See where it takes me.
*Yes, I really did. But, it’s not that impressive if you know that I talk aloud to myself while driving.

6 thoughts on “What A Long Strange Trip It’s Been…

  1. “I hope Schafer Riley finds herself a new platform more in keeping with her penchant for ideology over rigor and writing talent”

    As a great man once said, IT’S FUNNY CUZ IT’S TRUE

  2. Tressie, just read through not only this, but your tweeting with Amy Alexander. Thanks for taking action, and for taking all that crap. And thank god for semi-professional “hell raisers” such as you. Be strong.

  3. You say you were being self-serving when you stopped to write about your disappointment with CHE. But by responding with intelligence, tenacity and integrity, to an institution which had abandoned its own principles, you honored your anger in the best way imaginable.

  4. I am so glad that you picked this up and saw it through with your elegant writing and logical analysis.

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