Saturday, April 29, 2006

Knowledge, Experience, and Viswanathan

As most everyone knows by now, Little, Brown has pulled Kaavya Viswanathan’s novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life from stores because of the substantial number of passages in it that are just too similar to passages in books by Megan McCafferty, Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings. The story is a sordid one—not so much because of what Viswanathan did (which is bad enough) but because of Little, Brown and the “book packager” Alloy Entertainment, Katherine Cohen of IvyWise, a private college counselor who pushed Viswanathan’s writing, and Viswanathan’s parents.

There have been many young geniuses in the arts, and Viswanathan may well be one, but she was used by all the people I mention for their own ends and backed into a situation that was beyond her ability to handle. The advance given to her by Little, Brown for two novels was in the realm of half a million dollars, putting pressure on a girl who was then only seventeen that very few could stand.

Though Viswanathan claims that she did not consciously plagiarize, she clearly turned to McCafferty’s work when she realized she could not produce what was expected of her—whether it was unconscious or not. She had to produce, and did so, finally, in the only way she could manage.

Of course, it doesn’t matter if she was conscious of what she was doing or not or who or what pushed her into the corner she couldn’t get out of otherwise. The fact remains: she plagiarized.

Looking at the situation that starkly and simply, however, doesn’t help us develop ways of avoiding similar situations in the future. Though the Viswanathan incident may be the plagiarism du jour, this sort of thing is happening all the time, though not generally on such an extravagant level.

College and high-school teachers have been pulling their hair out for a decade now, as plagiarism (always something of a problem) has grown into an epidemic. Most often, the response has been three pronged: First, explain exactly what plagiarism is, over and over again. Second, develop new methods for identifying plagiarism. And, third, set up draconian penalties for those who get caught.

None of these, unfortunately, addresses the reasons why students plagiarize. In Viswanathan’s case, the reasons are fairly clear. For many of the students who plagiarize on their papers they aren’t that far different: the students, for the most part, feel incapable of completing the assignment so turn to the easy way out. Most of them don’t feel they are deliberately cheating (I doubt Viswanathan feels she did, either), but are simply doing what is necessary to get out of a difficult situation.

Just as Viswanathan was thrown into the deep end before she had really learned to swim, so are many of our students. Just as all those people who were taking advantage of what they thought they saw in her were doing when they convinced themselves they were simply providing support, too many teachers don’t examine what they are doing when they present assignments to potential plagiarists.

There’s a great deal of learning that has to take place before anyone can start on any writing path, be it a college research paper of a novel for a major publisher. Too often, space for this is not provided: the student or author is simply told to write [I am preparing a longer piece on this for ePluribus Media that will appear in June].

Learning. Experience. Judgment. These cannot be gained through quick introductions to research methodology or even with the help of a “book packager.” It takes time and work to gain knowledge—and, for most of us, it requires guidance of a sort Viswanathan and too many of our students aren’t getting. Ability, even genius, isn’t enough.

In “A Hard Rain Is Gonna Fall,” a song he wrote when he was quite young, a song that shows clear signs of influence (of the Childe-collected ballad “Lord Randal”) but that is still strikingly original, Bob Dylan wrote:
I’m going back out before the rain starts falling,
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest,
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty,
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters,
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison,
Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden,
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten,
Where black is the color, where none is the number,
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it,
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it,
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinking,
But I’ll know my song well before I start singing.
’Know my song well.’ That’s what we are not allowing our youth to do, these days. We are expecting too much from them too quickly. Viswanathan may be, as I said, a genius writer (though she may not be), but she has not had the time to develop her talent and her knowledge of the world. The same can be said of many students: they have the potential, but have not yet developed the ability to do what is being asked of them.

Rather than focusing exclusively on punishing the wrong-doers, we teachers (and parents) should be finding ways of opening up the avenues of experience to students. The best teachers and parents do this already. The better we all do at it, the less plagiarism there will be.

And the happier and more creative the next generation will be.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Just the Facts, Ma'am

Years ago, when I was teaching Psychology at a boarding school, I had my students go out into the main circle and count the birds that flew over during a 15-minute period (it was part of a statistics and scientific-method section). They all came back, of course, with different counts, but each one felt that he or she had the “facts.” I let them argue for a while, then started asking questions. “What constituted ‘flying over’?” “How do you know you didn’t miss some because of where you were standing or where you were looking?” “Does a bird in one of the trees fluttering from one branch to another count?”

Soon, they got the picture: a fact isn’t a fact simply because of one person’s observations or discoveries. A fact is established through repeated confirmation and agreement.

This is something that a certain part of the right doesn’t get. These, generally, are people who pose as intellectuals, but who have never put in the rigorous work and thought that it takes to earn that status. David Horowitz, for example, is whining right now because the “facts” of his most recent book have been shown not to be facts at all, but individualistic (and often deliberate) misinterpretations. Horowitz doesn’t understand: the “facts” conform with his beliefs, so they must be true!

Some others don’t even know when or why “facts” are significant (let alone what they are). One Horowitz-lite, the self-proclaimed ‘independent scholar’ Daniel Flynn, complained to me about my commentary on a presentation of his, saying it was light on “facts.” As I was recording my responses to his opinions (which he seems to think are “facts,” not opinions), I didn’t need “facts” myself. What “facts” I did use all pertained directly to his performance. Certainly, it doesn’t take “facts” to answer his basic question on “Why the Left Hates America”—for the question itself is based on an assumption he never established (and one that can’t be established), that the “left” hates America.

Making claims is never the same as establishing facts. Yet Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter, David Horowitz and the many manqué mad-right stars don’t seem willing to accept this at all. If they believe if, and can contort information to seem to be in line with their belief, that’s as good as a fact to them.

Once, in this country, we did have a group of people who could be classified as “public intellectuals.” They were a diverse lot, with beliefs that countered one another’s. What distinguished them from the blathers of today (particularly those on the right) is the complete lack of care so common in contemporary commentary. The public intellectuals of the past were nothing if not careful—and honest.

I miss them.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Poor Little Horowitz

Startled by the energetic reaction to his poorly thought and weakly researched recent attack on university professors, David Horowitz has changed tactics, moving from attack (his usual mode) to plaint. He’s sounding like the title character of Lieber and Stoller’s (recorded by the Coasters) “Charlie Brown”: “Why’s everybody always pickin’ on me.” He writes:
Prior to my academic freedom campaign, I published nearly twenty books and hundreds of articles over a forty-year period and without questions being raised about the accuracy or integrity of my work. Yet within a year of launching my academic freedom campaign a rash of articles, written by leftists, appeared across the Internet calling me a liar and someone who played loose with the facts.

Let’s see now, what’s the rest of that chorus? Oh yes:
He's a clown, that Charlie Brown
He's gonna get caught
Just you wait and see
What has happened, Charlie Brown--I mean, Mr. Horowitz--is that you just weren’t important enough for academics to debunk you before (actually, we should have been doing so, your The Art of Political War” How Republicans Can Fight to Win is one incredibly subversive and anti-American tract)—now, you have attacked us where we live. So what did you expect? You finally got caught.

Horowitz continues, in the face of so much that shows that “academic freedom” isn’t his goal at all, to claim he is fighting for just that. Of course that outrages those who really are working to instill the concept of freedom of thought into their students. Until he stops calling what he is doing his “academic freedom efforts,” he is going to continue to induce outrage.

It will also continue as long as Horowitz refuses to admit to his failings, rather than continuing his pathetic defense:
Without exception the bases for these claims are either differences of opinion presented as contradictions of fact, trivial errors common to any published text, and in one case a claim repeated from a source that proved to be incorrect. The campaign has been successful enough that whenever there is a liberal in the room now, the phony issue of my credibility is brought to the fore.
As anyone who has either looked at his book, listened (or read) his various statements on his “Academic Bill of Rights,” or who has seen the demonstrations of his falsehoods knows, there is no simple difference of opinion regarding these things or only “trivial” errors. The problems are substantial and amount to an attempt at deception. Unless he recognizes this, questions of Horowitz’s credibility will continue.

Not only is Horowitz’s “Academic Bill of Rights” campaign now dying, but his attack on academics has backfired on him completely.

If you want demonstration of Horowitz playing fast and loose, go to my older posts or go to Free Exchange on Campus, the group that seems to be annoying Horowitz the most these days by debunking, professor by professor, the falsehoods of his book.

Reocognize yourself, Mr. Horowitz:
Who's always writing on the wall
Who's always goofing in the hall
Who's always throwing spit balls
Guess who (who, me) yeah, you.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Q: Why Does the Left Hate America? A: It doesn’t

Daniel Flynn, who spoke last night at Kutztown University, uses that question as the title of a book of his. But the question, of course, is dishonest, as dishonest as “When did you stop beating your wife?” Both questions assume something that has not been established.

And Flynn, most certainly, did not establish it last night.

The closest Flynn could come to proving that “the left” hates America was to claim that admiration for Fidel Castro and meeting with Saddam Hussein demonstrated it. Yet he gave no reason why someone couldn’t admire Castro and love America. And Saddam was an admirer of America who may even have felt that the US (in the person of ambassador April Glaspie) had given him permission to invade Kuwait. He may dislike the US today more from a sense of betrayal than from any ideological stance.

Overall, Flynn’s presentation was rather thin. He seems quite an affable man, but he plays fast and loose with facts and concepts. He tries to make a distinction, for example, between liberals and the left, but (after claiming that the left makes up 10% of America) then says that all such labels are subjective. Still, he tries to break down faculty political leanings by who they give to in presidential races, a nonsense exercise, given the breadth of opinion behind any American political leader. He also says that he interviewed 1000 protesters during anti-Iraq War demonstrations. Now, I conduct interviews and teach students to interview: I know what it takes to conduct a real interview. Flynn would not have had the time, even if he could have attended every possible anti-Iraq War protest, to conduct 1000 interviews. What he probably did (and this is confirmed by the clips he played) was to collect 1000 sound bites. And now, he uses these as evidence of how much “the left” hates America.

He doesn’t understand that he was “played” by his ‘interviewees.’ The hyperbole was deliberately and satirically over the top. The people he talked to don’t hate America—they simply hate what America is doing right now. But Flynn, by his own admission, isn’t a funny man. He recounts an incident of police climbing a building after a couple of protestors, some in the crowd below calling for the cops to fall—as if they really wanted or expected that to happen. He said that would never have happened elsewhere. One of the students piped up, “At a rock concert.” Case closed.

Flynn uses the demonstrations as “proof” that the left hates America under the idea that “birds of a feather flock together.” The group that got the permits for some of the bigger marches is unrepentantly leftist, but few who attended really knew anything about them, if they had heard of them at all. Most of the marchers went out of genuine concern and outrage over the path our country had started own—and rightly so. His “proof” just does not hold up.

Flynn also claims to have been attacked by a couple of “ageing flower children” at an anti-death penalty demonstration. I’m dubious, as I am about much that he said. When he listed off accomplishments of America, he included items such as the VCR, that were first produced by the Japanese (based on Ampex technology from America, it is true—but the VCR is not simply an American achievement). Flynn doesn’t seem to care about accuracy. Certainly, he could make his point and be accurate if he so desired.

But it is only a pretense of accuracy that Flynn is after. He’s one of those who thinks that the more footnotes, the more scholarly the work. His other book, Intellectual Morons, apparently has over 900 footnotes (I have never seen a real scholarly work extolled for the number of footnotes, by the way), but seems to be little more than a reworking of Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer—for Dummies.

Why does the left hate America? At one point, Flynn claims that it is “because American stands as a massive refutation” of leftist ideas. Perhaps that was Flynn’s most ‘massive’ error: not only does the left not hate America, but it sees those areas where America has not succeeded as confirmation of its ideas. The left loves America, and wants to improve it by implementation of its ideas. America, in the eyes of the left, has the possibility of being the greatest country this world will ever see—but is letting the chance slip through its fingers. And that, to the left, is extraordinarily frustrating and saddening.

Flynn is also a bit disingenuous, claiming, for example, to be ambivalent about the death penalty and to have been against the war in Iraq from the start. He provides no proof for either claim, however. I suspect this is simply a stance for deflecting claim that he is a knee-jerk rightist.

Like David Horowitz, Flynn claims that diversity on campus is only diversity of color and not of thought, and says that he speaks on campuses because he is “interested in starting up a dialogue.” Yet his real agenda was clear by his actions. When I spoke up during the question and answer period, saying I was perplexed by his characterization of the left, he moved for the first time back to the lectern and the microphone, where his voice would dominate the room. Equal dialogue is not what he is about.

He is right on one thing: there is too much similarity of thought on college campuses, and this does need to be addressed. He did not say whether or not he supports Horowitz’s “Academic Bill of Rights,” but did indicate that he would like to see a broader range of opinions on our campuses. So would I, but not if it is enforced from outside. On the other hand, he clearly believes that his own views are the right views. He “knows” the truth of history, saying his was the “correct way to view the founding” of America. Having seen my own views on the Federalist Papers and the early debates of the republic change dramatically recently (due to research of my own), I am leery of anyone willing to make such a claim—and would not want them involved in academia at all.

Through two anecdotes, Flynn says that college campuses viewed 9/11 differently than did the rest of America. Now, when 9/11 happened, I was in my first weeks of teaching in years—and was doing it just across the Brooklyn Bridge. We heard the sirens from the classroom. When we tried to see, we could see nothing (for the smoke headed towards us in Brooklyn), but were all directly affected. Later that day, someone handed me an American flag lapel pin. I took it, but did not wear it. The time, I felt, was not one for jingoism, but for understanding. Flynn, to this day, sees that desire to understand why 9/11 happened (with the desire to use that knowledge to keep such a thing from ever happening again) as a sign of “hating” America.

More than anything else, Flynn sounded like a child complaining to his parents that he was being held to a higher standard than Joey down the street: “Why do you hate me?” He could come up with no better reason, certainly, for the left hating America. He said we don’t see the good, when the truth is we just want movement towards the better. We’re idealists not satisfied with a country that smugly points to its accomplishments and doesn’t address its problems.

Now, the reason I attended last night is that the assumption that the left hates America offends me deeply. As anyone who knows me or reads my blog diaries knows, I’m (perhaps overly) proud of my America heritage. Ancestors of mine first came here nearly 400 years ago. One ancestor was wounded, fighting with Washington at the battle of Trenton. Another (the one I am named for) was a colonel in the revolutionary army—and his brother, a poet and the man responsible for the Treaty of Tripoli of 1798, was the second US diplomat to die in service (trying to deliver a treaty to Napoleon during the retreat from Russia in 1812). One of my great-grandfathers served under Phil Sheridan as he defeated Jubal Early’s forces in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864. One of my grandfathers was an artilleryman in France in World War I; the other lost his leg as the result of wounds received in Belgium a week before the Armistice. My father fought on Leyte Island in the Philippines in 1944.

When I went before my draft board to explain why I could not serve in Vietnam, my parents went with me. When asked by the board what they thought, and what my ancestors would have thought, my parents said they would be proud: they had all fought to uphold their beliefs in this country, and would understand that I was standing up for it in my own way. There was little time, so my father could not explain that he, himself, had started having doubts about war while in combat. He continued to serve, but after the war became a Quaker committed to nonviolence—and I was raised in that tradition.

Like most on the left, I love this country for reasons well beyond the wars and the service to the nation of my ancestors. In fact, because I can see its faults, I love this country more, and want to improve it.

Granted, Flynn is no intellectual. Maybe I am holding him to too high a standard. But he does come to speak on college campuses. Given that, I wish he would show more respect for me and mine (the left) than he does. He certainly does not contain in himself the same openness he asks for from professors (and that most of us provide for our students, even those who disagree with us). He has defined the left to his own satisfaction and has shut down his mind.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Lying Right to the End

What I can’t figure out about some of the most prominent people on the right is this: they lie, and know they are lying, but feel they are justified in their lying. In fact, they are downright smug about it. How you can lie in public that way about public matters is beyond my comprehension (I can understand Bill Clinton, that was a private affair and should have remained so).

What, do these rightists feel they have God’s compensation to lie? Or Leo Strauss’s (at least)? Strauss, after all, did posit that there are times when the elite must lie to the masses for the good of the masses. But these lies are so pervasive and (often) so transparent that I can make no sense of it. I mean, if you lie, wouldn’t you want to make sure you wouldn’t get caught?

Let’s take the case of my favorite whipping boy, David Horowitz. What he does is no different, really, from any of the others, be they the swiftboaters or White House spokespeople. Horowitz is a smart man (many of these people are), too smart not to know the weaknesses of the “research” he presents in his books. He went to Columbia as an undergraduate and earned a Master’s at Berkeley. He has to know something about what real research is, but is satisfied with sloppy cut-and-paste in his books. Ann Coulter graduated from a top law school, so she knows, too, just what good research is. Many of the others writing and speaking the lies, doing the half-baked research (the people at the White House who presented “proof” that Saddam had WMDs among them), are highly intelligent, well-trained people. They aren’t lying by accident.

Horowitz’s recent book, The Professors: the 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America is laughable due to its distortions and sloppiness and general pretense to a genuine intellectual stance (he claims to be using a sophisticated methodology, though one not appropriate to the situation, called “prosopography,” something historians use when data is minimal—but he doesn’t use it correctly, not at all). And now, every day, it seems, more of the errors in the work are unmasked.

What perplexes me so is that Horowitz and the rest are certainly smart enough to know that they could do a better job of lying, creating fabrications so strong that it wouldn’t be like shooting fish in a barrel to knock them down. The White House, for example, had to know that their go-to-war con would be discovered (maybe not so soon—which could be why they went after Joe Wilson with such venom). After all, people would demand proof, even if the debacle in Iraq had turned out more successfully (from their point of view). Even Horowitz has the resources (read “Scaife”) to do a better job.

The only answer that I can come up with is that these people really disdain Americans, consider us stupid, for the most part. And they must feel that the ones they can’t fool are irrelevant, anyway. Abraham Lincoln said, “"You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time." The right seems to feel that it’s OK to lie, then, if you fool enough of the people enough of the time. Knowing they can’t fool all the people all the time, they don’t bother to try.

And this has succeeded for quite a few years, at least twenty-five. Only of the best early examples is The Real Anita Hill, published 23 years ago and written by David Brock who, of course, has since seen the error of his ways, becoming one of the most relentless debunkers of just the type of lying he used to do through his Media Matters for America. Even back when he was a rightist, the lies were easily debunked—but they worked.

Just three years ago, Al Franken’s book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right appeared, with a complete debunking of Bill O’Reilly (among others). But the lies have kept coming, and O’Reilly still commands respectful attention from millions of Americans. If anything, the lies have increased—they were what allowed Bush to beat Kerry in 2004. In other words, the lies have worked.

Perhaps it is as simple as that. Perhaps the Horowitzes, Coulters, and the like don’t put in the work to lie well simply because they don’t have to. Enough people have been believing them for so long that it may seem a waste of time to do more than just lie boldly and without substantiation.

One of the other reasons for the outrageous lie is that those who could easily rebut them don’t take them seriously. Coulter writes on McCarthy: scholars glance at her work, recognizing immediately that it has no real scholastic value, and toss it aside. Horowitz claims (as he did last year) that the American left and radical Islam are allied (because, to his mind, they have the same goals)—and the same thing happens.

With his more recent book, however, Horowitz made a mistake: he attacked American academics where they live. The response, this time, has been to pick him apart. Almost every paragraph of the book has been thoroughly debunked, and many, many times. Go to Free Exchange on Campus for plenty of examples.

Maybe it’s lucky for us on the left that the right continues to lie. The Americans who once believed the lies believed them because they wanted to, because the lies allowed them to continue with the points of view they had adopted without having to examine the situations. I doubt many of the people who buy Horowitz’s books—or Coulter’s, or any other from the right—actually read more than a few pages of them. They are convinced already, and just the feel of the books in their hands re-affirms their beliefs. They look good, are substantial, have lots of footnotes: they are “true,” of course they are.

But the situation has changed; the lies have allowed things to happen that are, now, starting to hurt those very people, so they are beginning to open their eyes to them. An economy getting better—but only for the rich. Victory in a war—but it is still killing our children. Health care solutions—but only for drug company bottom lines. And that, as you know, is the least of it.

The mistake of continuing faith in the lie, I’m hoping, isn’t Horowitz’s alone. People all over America are waking up to the lies (witness George Bush’s abysmal poll ratings). Enough isn’t enough, any more. What worked for a time is falling apart. The lies aren’t enough; truth, as they say, will out.

So here’s my hope: that O’Reilly, Coulter, Horowitz, and the rest won’t figure this out until it is too late, until they have painted themselves into such a corner that they can’t get out at all. That nothing they say, nothing at all, will be believed.

And I think it is starting to happen.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Grading "Thuggery"

In his article on Michael Bérubé, “Intellectual Thuggery,” David Horowitz uses 26 footnotes. The breakdown of them is as follows:
• 10 from, one of Horowitz’s own websites;
• 4 from, Horowitz’s main publication (where this article appears);
• 4 from;
• 3 from;
• 2 from The Professors, Horowitz’s own book;
• 1 from, another of Horowitz’s website;
• 1 from, a newspaper website;
• 1 from a study on faculty political orientation.
Seventeen of the footnotes are to Horowitz’s own publications. The worm ouroubourous? Contemplating one’s own navel?

Let me go through the article, though, showing how I would respond to it, were it an undergraduate research paper:
• Paragraph 1: “Berube is in the habit of repeating falsehoods about me and the campaign that have already been refuted – many times. In fact they have been refuted on his own website,” Claiming falsehood does not constitute an argument demonstrating falsehood, neither does saying the “false” claims have been refuted. You must give at least one specific example of a falsehood with a specific refutation. Saying something is so doesn’t make it so.
• Paragraph 3: “All the statements in the above paragraph are false. They are also malicious, since they have been refuted by myself and others more than once. I am not campaigning against 'liberal bias.' In fact, I have never even employed the term 'liberal bias' except to disown the phrase itself.” Again, claiming something is false doesn’t make it so. In fact, such a sweeping statement only hurts your credibility. Be careful, also, how you respond to quotes: Berube doesn’t say you used the term “liberal bias.” He’s clearly speaking of perceptions by his colleagues.
• Paragraph 4: Again, you fall into the trap of claiming something is so because you have said it is so elsewhere. The only way to counter this claim is to show why it is important to have the “Academic Bill of Rights” enshrined in law”—something you do not do.
• Paragraph 5: Here, you subvert your argument in Paragraph 4, implying that legislative oversight is, in fact, needed. Which is it?
• Paragraph 6: A little research of my own (simply visiting Berube’s website) shows that the article in question is not the one Berube is referring to in the short line you quote. Be careful! Make sure the referent you assume is the referent in fact!
• Paragraph 7: A phrase like “significant scholarly viewpoints” can be misleading. If you are going to use a phrase like that, define it.
• Paragraphs 8-9: This is confusing. If you are going to recount an event, given the details. Plus, you seem to be changing the subject from what happened to the student to what was on the exam. In addition, your version of the event is in dispute.
• Paragraphs 10-12: Did you or did you not, while admitting your error, say calling attention to it was “nitpicking”? Here again, you deviate from your initial point. You refer, here, to arguments elsewhere, but don’t even really recap them. Your piece needs to stand on its own. Either make the argument here or don’t make it at all. To simply refer to something else makes misinterpretation possible.
• Paragraphs 13-17: These don’t add anything to the article. Consider deleting them. They simply sound petulant. You were wrong—the degree of error is irrelevant. By rehashing, you just make yourself look bad.
• Paragraphs 18-21: It’s not effective to simply call someone’s claim “false.” Instead, provide the claim and then rebut it. And stay on topic: you move to discussion of whether a professor is “qualified” or not. That is not the question. Also, your bringing in “enforcement” here obviates your earlier argument concerning the “Academic Bill of Rights.” If you are trying to persuade someone to enforce what is already in place by threatening to enforce it through another avenue, then you certainly are arguing for “hands on” legislative involvement in education. Again, which is it? Think your stand through a bit.

For a man who makes claims to being an “intellectual,” this paper is a disappointment. It might earn a B for an undergraduate, but only with a great deal of reworking—and some real research.

On another topic:

On his blog, Horowitz claims that “Terrorist Sami al-Arian has agreed to admit to conspiracy charges that he provided material support to a terrorist organization.” Apparently Horowitz didn’t even read the whole of the article he links to. The piece goes on to say, “Ahmed Bedier, Tampa spokesman for the Council on American Islamic Relations, said Moffitt was wrong about the Al-Arian plea. Al-Arian did not agree to admit to any charges associated with terrorism, Bedier said. "He stayed true to his convictions - he stayed true he wasn't going to plead to those issues," Bedier said. "There is no conspiracy to support terrorism."

Friday, April 14, 2006

Real Research Versus Horowitz "Research"

According to Adam Smeltz, writing in the Centre Daily Times regarding David Horowitz, who was on campus at Penn State yesterday:
College Democrats President Alex Smith, said Horowitz does not poll students to determine their true sentiments. "He listens to those few students who tell him what he wants to hear," Smith said.

This is a key point in understanding just what it is Horowitz does, and why it is not research. It is related to Horowitz’s ridiculous claim (backing by an anonymous “Professor X” notwithstanding) that he is using a methodology called “prosopography” in his book on college professors. In neither case can any reasonable conclusions be drawn from the “research”: not only is the sampling biased before the start (Horowitz has selected the professors to examine beforehand, based on certain political criteria, obviating any possible “prosopography” value—and only right-wing students talk to him), but no attempt is made to collect primary data to verify the original sampling.

All Horowitz does is amass secondary information and sort it for nuggets that support his initial assumption. There is no real research involved and no attempt at rigor in analysis.

Horowitz, however, does try to justify his limited exposure to students by arguing that they don’t know what’s in their best interest, anyway. According to Smeltz:

Horowitz suggested that victims of political bias may be unaware of their rights and under-reporting the bias incidents as a result.
Several times, Horowitz verbally assailed students who posed critical or repeated questions.
"You do not have the mental capacity to understand," he told one. To another, he said: "You are deaf and brain-dead."

As most students, in Horowitz’s view, don’t have the ability to understand or defend their rights, Horowitz has to do it for them. He doesn’t need to listen to them or find out anything about them—or about the professors who are “indoctrinating” them.

This is not a good attitude to have when promoting oneself as a “researcher,” as Horowitz does.

There’s an easier way to discredit the Horowitz and the research behind his recent book, however, than simply looking at his attitude and the very lack of credibility it evinces. And that is to show what a reasonable research plan might be, if one were really going to study bias in the classroom.

You could even start with Horowitz’s own hypothesis: certain professors use their college classrooms to indoctrinate students into leftwing ideological patterns of thought (creating, as Horowitz himself says at the end of his introduction to The Professors, that supposed "enormous damage that several generations of tenured radicals have inflicted on our educational system" (xlvii)). From that, you could even identify (as Horowitz does) a list of professors to be examined for verification (or falsification) of the hypothesis.

So far, no problem.

It’s at this point that a certain amount of academic rigor becomes necessary, and it is this rigor that is lacking (among other things) in what Horowitz has done. Research—real research—needs to go beyond the prima facie cases Horowitz builds from secondary data.

Design for a project of this sort is not particularly complicated, nor does it require a great deal of sophistication or training. Most of it is simply common sense.

The first thing to do is to collect data—primary data (and not hearsay). The list of professors has been assembled, mostly through anecdotal evidence coming from disgruntled students, from personal interaction, from Internet searches, and from news reports. Instead of simply assuming the accuracy and completeness of this secondary data, the researcher needs to move to a real research phase. This is the step—a necessary step in research—that Horowitz does not take.

What might the primary data be? First of all, every professor leaves a paper trail, and much of that is easily accessible. Some of the information is even available on the Internet, other from department or university offices. Other pieces might have to be collected from students enrolled in the classes. It may not be easy to get hold of every piece of relevant paper, but good researchers (and reporters) find ways.

The first items to collect are the syllabi of every class the professors under consideration have taught for the last (say) five years. If the courses were designed by these particular faculty members, they had to go through a process of approval. The paperwork for that will be available, too. If handouts can be found, those should be collected, too. Also, paperwork pertaining to other professional activities might be found, and might prove relevant to the classrooms. Once this data is organized, a great deal of information can be extracted. What are the reading lists like? Who are the publishers? Who else uses these texts? What types of assignments are expected of the students? What are the stated goals for the courses? How are they organized to meet those goals? All this and much, much more.

The next step would be to try to interview each of the professors, using the both the data that sparked their inclusion and that gained from examination of the paperwork associated with their classes. Some professors would refuse, and that would be too bad, but most would welcome the chance to expand upon their pedagogical choices. Once this was accomplished, an attempt would be made to interview colleagues, especially those who have observed the classes of the teachers under question. Again, this might not always be possible, but the attempt should be made.

Next, students in the particular classes (along with those who have taken them in the past) would need to be surveyed. The protocols for managing this might prove difficult, but it can be done.

None of this would be easy, and bureaucratic barriers would have to be breached, but most of it could be accomplished—even by David Horowitz—if the design were clear (it is important for people to recognize that the research is honest; a good design will help indicate that).

Once this primary data had been assembled, each case would have to be examined against a carefully constructed list of attributes indicating possible indoctrination in the classroom. To be viable, this list would need to be vetted by outside figures, including people from extreme political positions. In other words, it could not itself show a political bias (it could not, for example, include questions like, “Is Marx studied in the course?”). The list could be assembled, in part, through study of indoctrination techniques ranging from the “mass line leadership” programs of Maoist China to the methodologies of the Scientologists. This study should be part of the project and presented with the results.

Only then could real conclusions about “the professors” start to be reached.

Horowitz hasn’t even attempted such a process. He has simply taken data that could possibly be used as the starting point for such research and called it “conclusions.” Clearly, he never intended real “research” at all. Most likely, he is simply trying to foment distrust and antagonism towards American universities—for motives that have nothing to do with the true state of affairs on our campuses.

Again, Horowitz doesn’t do real research for a reason: he isn’t interested in the truth, but in furthering a certain political agenda. If he did do the research, and it did not come out the way he wanted, he would feel he had wasted his time.

So he doesn’t bother.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Baby in a Box

Sometimes there’s a kernel of truth in what David Horowitz claims—which is why he is so dangerous. But that truth, if examined carefully, can also turn around and bite him.

Twenty years or so ago, my brother was taking a course in philosophy at Ohio State University. The professor, for some reason, repeated the canard that B. F. Skinner had raised his daughters in a Skinner box and, as a result, one had gone crazy and the other had committed suicide (Skinner was in town to speak). My brother raised his hand and objected. His statement went something like this:

“I’m sorry, sir, but that’s not accurate. One of Skinner’s daughters is an artist living in England. The other teaches in West Virginia. In fact, I had dinner with her and her father just last night.”

The professor simply told my brother he was wrong and moved on. In disgust, Joel dropped the class. Horowitz is right: there are professors who are so sure of themselves that they will reject even the direct experience of another if it contradicts their belief (but, hey, there are people like that everywhere--Horowitz being one himself).

What my brother said was true, right down to having had dinner with Fred Skinner and Julie Skinner Vargas, an educational psychologist. Fred Skinner and our father (himself a radical behaviorist—like Skinner), had long been friends and the dinner invitation had resulted from that.

If he were alive, Skinner would certainly be a candidate for Horowitz’s book on evil professors. And he would have loved being included. After all, he told (with relish) how much he enjoyed the way I. A. Richards would introduce him each term, when Richards invited him to address his own classes: “And now, students, let me introduce… the devil!”

The recent graduate Horowitz assigned to Skinner would try to come up with salacious “details” that could be used to show just how horrible Skinner was. That person would soon come across the 1945 article Skinner published on his “air crib” in The Ladies’ Home Journal, describing the crib Skinner had constructed for his second daughter, Deborah, one that controlled temperature and humidity, and that included for the first time at least one item that has since become commonplace—a microphone connected to speakers all over the house, so that the baby’s breathing (and crying) could be monitored and responded to. This was only a crib, and Deborah was in it just as any baby is in its crib.

The title of the article was “Baby in a Box.” This caused many careless people to conflate it with Skinner’s “operant chamber,” a device used to teach students about operant conditioning through the use of rats and pigeons—just the sort of conflation Horowitz likes to use to smear people. With just as little validity. Both being associated with Skinner does not make them the same thing.

This is just the sort of “mistake” that an unskilled, hurried, or “agenda-ed” researcher might make. Does make. Especially one relying on second-hand information, never bothering to check carefully to see what the references are (Michael Bérubé points out that he is accused by a Horowitz acolyte of being, essentially, anti-Semitic through a careless attribution of the words “this article” in a comment he made to one article instead of another, the real referenced article).

To his credit as a person (but to the detriment of his reputation), Skinner never seemed to find it necessary to correct this sort of misapprehension. He wasn’t about correcting people, but challenging them. Just so, he never did respond to Noam Chomsky’s criticism of his book Verbal Behavior, feeling that Chomsky had missed the point and was attacking behaviorism in general and not the theses Skinner was putting forth in his book. Skinner didn’t feel he could argue with Chomsky, for Chomsky was arguing against an assumed stance that certainly wasn’t in the book and definitely (by 1957, when the book was published) was not Skinner’s. Skinner didn’t feel it would do any good to point that out, for Chomsky, clearly, had made up his mind even before reading the book. Nothing Skinner could say later, certainly, was going to change that. As a result, the book (quite interesting and illuminating) isn’t often read today (a pity), just as many still believe that Skinner raised his daughters in an operant chamber. (Another partial truth of Horowitz’s: Chomsky’s not perfect).

The “mistakes” of a Horowitz would amuse Skinner (as did those of Chomsky), but he wouldn’t likely bother to correct him, either. To me, that would be a failure on Skinner’s part. “Truth will out” is not something I believe in—our perceptions of history of all sorts and all fields are filled with error—so I will continue to stand against this new slander of Horowitz’s against our modern-day professors, just as my brother did, in his small way, against the slander on Skinner a generation ago.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Hofstadter on Horowitz

Of course, Richard Hofstadter has been dead for more than thirty-five years, but his book Anti-intellectualism in American Life (New York: Knopf, 1963) can still shed light on David Horowitz and his campaign against American university professors, who he posits as an army (60,000 strong) laying waste to American culture and values. Oddly enough, Horowitz may have once been a student of Hofstadter at Columbia—but we can only imagine what the ex-Communist Hofstadter would have thought of the then red firebrand Horowitz, or what he would make of him now as over-zealous convert to the right.

I am not the only one to make the connection between Horowitz and his current campaign and the subject of the Hofstadter book. Neil Gross, writing in The Boston Globe uses Hofstadter to show that Horowitz’s campaign is nothing new:

Critiques of this sort have a familiar ring. In his 1963 book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, the historian Richard Hofstadter observed that the tendency to denigrate those who spend their lives in ivory towers is a persistent feature of American culture. The phenomenon owed its strength, in his view, to the evangelical Protestantism and pro-business spirit that had helped define our nation almost from the beginning.

Gary Hess also makes the connection, as have others. Michael Berube, one of Horowitz’s main targets, is sometimes described (not surprisingly) as an intellectual heir of Hofstadter.

Certain comments of Hofstadter’s certainly do shed light on Horowitz. Because of that, for as much as possible, I am going to let them speak for themselves.

Horowitz is no dummy (see below); he plays on a long-standing American mistrust of education, plays on it for his own agenda, an attempt to bring the universities more firmly under legislative control (on the assumption that the right—or the center/right—will generally be in control of American legislative bodies). This mistrust goes back to a period when good teachers were hard to find, but Americans, not particularly rich at that point and thirsting for education, grabbed at whomever they could convince to “educate” them:

American communities had found it hard to find, train, or pay for good teachers. They settled for what they could get, and what they got was a high proportion of misfits and incompetents. They tended to conclude that teaching was a trade which attracted rascals, and, having so concluded, they were reluctant to pay the rascals more than they were worth. (316)

This attitude resonates today, not only in the relatively poor pay for educators, but in feelings toward the profession generally, making it all that much more easy for Horowitz to convince people that there is, indeed, something horribly wrong in our universities. His scare tactics also play on one of the central facts about teachers:

At any level,[…] from the primary grades to the university, the teacher is not merely an instructor but a potential personal model for his (or her) pupils and a living clue to the attitudes that prevail in the adult world. From teachers children derive much of their sense of the way in which the mind is cultivated; from observing how their teachers are esteemed and rewarded they quickly sense how society looks upon the teacher’s role. (310)

As all Americans have had exposure to our educational systems, we all know the truth of this, and the power that educators can have. Horowitz plays on that, scaring people by claiming that this vast group of leftist professors is trying to indoctrinate impressionable youth.

Bright and manipulative, Horowitz recognizes the weaknesses in American assumptions, and plays on them:

The American mind seems extremely vulnerable to the belief that any alleged knowledge which can be expressed in figures is in fact as final and exact as the figures in which it is expressed. (339)

Horowitz knows this, and likes to throw numbers and dates into his work, as though they settle arguments. What Horowitz doesn’t get at all is the basis for the American model of education, one that stems directly from the vision and work of John Dewey. Hofstadter describes the ideal result:

And what would be the characteristics of the democratic school community? The teacher, of course, would no longer be a harsh authority imposing external goals through rigid methods. He would be alert to the spontaneous and natural impulses of the children and would take hold of those that led toward constructive ends, giving gentle direction when necessary. The pupils themselves would take an active part in formulating the purposes of their education and in planning its execution. Learning would not be individual or passive, but collective and active; and in the course of their work the students would learn to share ideas and experiences, would develop mutual consideration and respect, and would acquire a capacity for co-operation. (380)

To a mind like Horowitz’s, schooled in an authoritative, Stalinist tradition and now adherent to a right-wing model no less hierarchical, this model of Dewey’s makes no sense at all. It is unbelievable to him that people could operate honestly to bring about such a learning experience; there must be a hidden agenda, an attempt to indoctrinate, involved.

Speaking of Horowitz’s mind, there’s a passage at the beginning of the Hofstadter book that seems to have described it perfectly:

Although the difference between the qualities of intelligence and intellect is more often assumed than defined, the context of popular usage makes it possible to extract the nub of the distinction, which seems to be almost universally understood: intelligence is an excellence of mind that is employed within a fairly narrow, immediate, and predictable range; it is a manipulative, adjustive, unfailingly practical quality—one of the most eminent and endearing of the animal virtues. Intelligence works within the framework of limited but clearly stated goals, and may be quick to shear away questions of thought that do not seem to help in reaching them. Finally, it is of such universal use that it can daily be seen at work and admired alike by simple or complex minds.

Intellect, on the other hand, is the critical, creative, and contemplative side of mind. Whereas intelligence seeks to grasp, manipulate, re-order, adjust, intellect examines, ponders, wonders, theorizes, criticizes, imagines. Intelligence will seize the immediate meaning in a situation and evaluate it. Intellect evaluates evaluations, and looks for the meanings of situations as a whole. Intelligence can be praised as a quality in animals; intellect, being a unique manifestation of human dignity, is both praised and assailed as a quality in men. When the difference is so defined, it becomes easier to understand why we sometimes say that a mind of admittedly penetrating intelligence is relatively unintellectual; and why, by the same token, we see among minds that are unmistakably intellectual a considerable range of intelligence. (24-25)

Part of the reason Horowitz hates the universities so much is that, though teeming with intelligence, he has small intellect.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Are Databases Killing Research?

Outside of the sciences, the answer may well be “Yes.” But it doesn’t have to be.

The shift away from library research, from actual examination of books and journals—or of microfilm that shows the whole of a particular periodical—has caught my profession (“teacher, higher education”) unaware, at least in regards to the ways we expect our students to perform on research projects. Without thinking much about it, we have accepted database searches as replacements for the activities we earlier expected as part of student research. Many of us, not conversant in the latest database tools, even relegate instruction in these new research methods to others, to librarians or technical experts with a grasp of how to use them but without, too often, an understanding of the needs of the particular course—of what the professors are trying to do through them.

Because our students are able to produce results that look like the results of the past, but without acquiring the knowledge once gained through a hands-on research process, these students, more than ever before, are graduating without the ability to do even the most basic research—beyond, that is, a keyword search through a database. In fact, few of them, today, seem able to recognize research at all. They mistake simple “data mining” for research and have developed almost no ability at all to judge its value. They rarely can, among other things, rate the relative importance of publications or recognize that one should judge the whole of a work instead of simply relying on a part.

This is showing up today in an inability on the part of readers to evaluate data presented—as well as in a great deal of scandalously poor research presented as “scholarly” by more than a few American publishers. Sometimes it even seems that the simple use of footnotes—required for most undergraduate research papers but meaningless in itself—has come to signify “research” to most people, allowing readers to abandon their own duties to verify for themselves. The footnotes wouldn’t be there, many assume, unless the data had been carefully vetted.

Some of the most egregious misuses of research today may come from Regnery Publishing, presenter of works by the likes of Ann Coulter and David Horowitz, the later being perhaps the most famous user of faulty “research” in the country right now. Horowitz will take a snippet from something someone else has written and build what looks like a careful “research” apparatus around it, completely twisting what that person was trying to do in the first place so that it fits the point Horowitz is trying to make. For example, in his Book The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, Horowitz identifies Priya Parmar of Brooklyn College as teaching that “proper English is the language of white ‘oppressors’" (296). The truth of the matter, according to Free Exchange on Campus, is that the comment in Parmar’s class was in regard to something someone else (bell hooks) had written concerning a poem by a third person (Adrienne Rich). Technically, Horowitz may be right that Parmar has taught that some people may see “proper” English as the language of oppressors, but that gives no accurate indication of just what Parmar was trying to teach.

Not only is this sort of misleading “research” increasingly common, but the populace is less and less able to spot it, for the training in research that should be leading them to the necessary knowledge just isn’t there when student research, done in exactly the same way with exactly the same myopic concentration on detail at the expense of the larger picture, is as poorly executed as it is today.

Bad research isn’t new, of course. One of the weaknesses of too many college research projects was always an over-reliance on libraries, on secondary data. When students take five classes over a fifteen-week semester (many of them working, to boot), they haven’t the time to do a lot of “original” research. The interview, as a part of undergraduate research, had all but disappeared even forty years ago (if it ever had been stressed, which I doubt). Few students have ever been taught to construct their own surveys, conduct them, and evaluate the results. Even more infrequently have students been asked to collect documents and artifacts that might not show up in a library or database—letters, photographs, check stubs (whatever might be pertinent). The library was always a poor substitute (though it certainly did and does have its own value as repository of secondary, and even primary, information—but it should not be seen as the sole repository of information any more than should the Internet), but students were able to learn something of the “philosophy” of research through use of its possibilities.

One of the most important points to be learned from real research is that one will always find things one does not expect, things one may not even have known existed, by following the trails that research opens up. There’s no point in the researcher knowing beforehand what he or she wants to find—for the research will change that through the very process. The same is not true for data mining—at least, not nearly so often (though the experienced researcher, one who already understands the meaning of the term, can use data mining in this way). There, the initial assumption, all too often, changes quickly into a conclusion, and the search becomes simply one for bits of information that seem (at least) to support that conclusion. When this happens, the process of learning and discovery disappears.

What can be done?

First of all, teachers might consider abandoning the traditional research paper completely. After all, judgment of it is based on results, not on process—and it is the process of research that needs to be emphasized. In place of it, a series of assignments, each centering on development of a specific research skill, could be put in place. One might be an annotated bibliography. Through this, the students may learn to consider the whole of an article or book they are “mining” rather than just picking out quotes. Another might be an interview. Through this, students might learn to test the statements that people make by having to look into the assertions of the interviewee (a necessary part of the assignment) and verifying them. A third could be development of a small survey, along with after-the-fact analysis of both design and results. A fourth might require examination of certain historical documents or items alone, followed by a look at later commentary once the initial examination had been written up and preliminary conclusions drawn. These, together (or others like them), would certainly provide students a better understanding of just what research is—and of how to do it—than the traditional research paper does in the age of Internet databases.