As a composition teacher, I spend time trying to get my students to understand just what research is in the humanities. The task has become rather difficult, these past years, as the Internet has put new spins on access to information. Traditional library tools start to seem antiquated and citation needs change in unexpected ways.
Part of the problem is that an Internet parallel (in terms of results) to old library research is just too easy. That is, the process of an Internet search teaches a lot less than does taking the steps to the same result in the library. So the students who can now come up with so many citations so easily through the Internet are not learning as much by doing so as they would through a process including browsing card catalogues and library stacks, paging through bound indexes, skimming tables of content, and scanning microfilm.
It’s not just a loss of serendipity, but a loss of the judgment gained from weighing one volume against another or seeing, over and over, certain imprints and names associated with the particular topic — all things that can be learned through the Internet, but that will not as likely be learned, for the process is so much faster. When one has to walk to the stacks to look at a particular book, for example, one is more likely to stay there for a moment and examine the titles surrounding that one.
But we can’t demand that any longer. Already, the card catalogues are online, as are the indexes and many of the periodicals once seen only on microfilm. Even the books are beginning to be available in electronic form. In all of these cases, the “holdings” online are (or soon will be) much more extensive than at all the best university libraries. As a result, almost all research in the humanities will soon have a large online component — and we have to teach with that in mind.
However, though students may be producing comparable results in their “research” papers, they generally aren’t learning as much about research as they once did. And even those of us who have encouraged students to take advantage of the tremendous Internet possibilities that seem to keep growing exponentially have yet to find many new ways of taking advantage of these new tools for learning, not just results. So, lacking the processes they used in the libraries, our students aren’t learning all they need to know to be competent researchers.
Let me explain the importance of this through a quick analogy: B. F. Skinner, when he developed the operant chamber (known popularly as the “Skinner box”) cared nothing for the learning of rats and pigeons that took place within. It’s possible to teach rats to do extraordinary things through operant conditioning — but it was other learning that Skinner aimed to abet, learning on the parts of the students, the operators of the chambers. Skinner wanted students to come away with hands-on understanding of operant conditioning, of how stimulus and response actually works. Training a rat or a pigeon was only a means to that end.
Just so, I’m not very concerned with what a student may learn about a topic by researching it for my class (that’s a side benefit, at best). What I want my students to learn is what research actually means and how they can use it in other situations in their lives. Just throwing words into a Google search isn’t going to give them that — even though the resulting paper might be just as spectacular in its citations as a rat who can raise a flag on a pole and then salute it. And, unfortunately, it is not useful to use the library simply as a teaching tool. It no longer serves as an effective Skinner box, for the traditional library alone cannot teach the technological skills now necessary for useful research.
Because so many of us who teach still assume that the research paper implies as much learning as it used to, we have been (unconsciously) denigrating the very idea of research in the eyes of our students. They no longer see the purpose. Too often, they find it a chore, not a challenge, simply a cut-and-paste to satisfy the professor’s demands. And they are right: If the intent of the research paper is to give students an understanding of what it really means to do research, then the paper is no longer fulfilling its function and has, in fact, become nothing more than a bit of make-work.
One result of this is that too many of today’s students and recent college graduates understand research only as looking something up: find a few relevant references and you are done. They have no skill in evaluating the relative merit of material they find and little understanding of the hierarchy of value (or trustworthiness) of information stemming from original documents, transcriptions, quotations, etc. They also feel that the information they discover can be manipulated easily to make their point, for they have not even been trained to respect the original or to examine the milieu of composition — again, part of the old library method and a side effect of the ease with which electronic media can be manipulated.
Too many of today’s students and recent college graduates understand research only as looking something up.Also, this is why so much that passes for research today gets by without question. In his new book Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism (New York: PublicAffairs, 2006) Eric Burns transcribes part of a 1731 article by Benjamin Franklin entitled “Apology for Printers” (which first appeared in The Pennsylvania Gazette, June 10, 1731), claiming it was meant as a means “to explain the problems of journalism to his readers” (94). Burns elides several of Franklin’s ten points and, by doing so, makes Franklin’s piece look as though it is just what Burns claims. A look at the missing pieces as well as a quick exploration of the context of publication, however, tells a different story: For one thing, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the very word “journalism” did not come into use until a century after Franklin was writing (there was no such distinct profession in 1731). For a second, Franklin was responding to criticism of a handbill, not a newspaper. For a third, he was defending the printing of what others paid to have done (quite specifically), not what he or any of his employees had composed themselves. Clearly, though Franklin’s piece appeared in a newspaper, it was not meant to explain anything at all about newspapers (or journalism) to anyone. Burns is wrong in his characterization of the whole article.
Why Burns chose to alter Franklin’s article to suit his purpose is anyone’s guess (he didn’t really need to do this to bolster the point of his book), but it’s likely that another writer, next year or the year after, will pick up Burns’ comment and pass it on — and Franklin’s piece may come to be considered an early commentary on journalism simply through repetition and continued poor research.
Of course, the means of presenting the results of research differ depending on the intended audience. Burns probably did not envision himself writing for future college students, but for a general audience with no real interest in research and writing on its own. In that case, what Burns did is relatively benign. It does show one other thing about his book, however: He is not writing to a scholarly or informed audience. For this, he would certainly have been a bit more careful.
When we teachers ask simply for a number of references in a research paper, assuming that the type of research necessary for production of those references is the same as it once was, we are making it likely that examples such as this will proliferate. Research, when it is too easy, gets sloppy — and we are encouraging sloppiness by not retooling our requirements for research papers. Perhaps that is what happened with Burns.
Beyond that, we are also encouraging students in the bad habit of selecting a hypothesis then simply finding two or three “sources” to list as references — and feeling that they have proven their point. As much of what passes for “hypothesis” these days is simply opinion, this is a particularly bad habit — and an easy one to fall in to, when there are so many “references” available on the web.
One of the most well known writers exhibiting this bad habit of taking opinion, finding a few examples, and then claiming “fact” is David Horowitz, whose latest book, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, has just been published by Regnery Publishing, one of the political right’s most prolific presses. Last year, Regnery published another Horowitz volume, Unholy Alliance: Radical Islam and the American Left, characterized by Noah Feldman in The New York Times (I give the full passage so that I cannot be accused to quoting out of context):
Horowitz's book would be little more than a tiresome exercise in quote-gathering and guilt by association were it not for the fact, noted by [Olivier] Roy, that the Islamic extremists have indeed drunk from the well of old-fashioned Marxist anti-Americanism. Militant Islamists do in fact share some common themes and language with homegrown radicals, especially in their condemnations of American imperialism. What is interesting about this is not that it demonstrates some alliance between the old (once the new) left and Islamic terror, but that it shows how ideas lose their provenance as they travel across time.
Horowitz, of course, does see an alliance between the two (just look at his title), a conclusion not warranted by the fact that both do condemn American imperialism or by Horowitz’s “research.”
“Tiresome exercise in quote-gathering.” That, in fact, is what we ask of our students all too often. As a result, unfortunately, as Horowitz’s growing body of work (not to mention that of Ann Coulter) shows, that’s what is being accepted as “research” way too often today. We teachers of composition need to find ways of getting our students to do more than simply mine the Internet for citations that seem to back up prior assumptions. Otherwise our students are never going to be able to read the works of people like Horowitz and recognize the weakness of their research and their arguments.
Before I go on, I should make a couple of things clear: First, I have been writing about Horowitz on blogs for a year now — and little I have had to say is flattering. Any good researcher, in attempting to use this piece as a part of any further article, should be aware of that — just as my students should be aware of the background of anyone they cite. Second, ePluribus Media Journal is published by a group dedicated to research and substantiation, but from a populist and progressive slant. Neither the fact that I dislike most everything Horowitz promotes nor the particular stance of the Journal, however, means that anything I am saying is incorrect — merely that it needs to be judged in light of that greater knowledge. I say this here simply because it is something my students do not understand. They either accept things wholesale or completely reject them, rarely understanding (until I take them through the steps myself) how to carefully evaluate what they are reading.
The Professors claims that:
far from being eccentric or peripheral figures the professors in this volume are integral to the intellectual life of the institutions they inhabit and to the course of higher education in America. (373-374)
At the end of his introduction, Horowitz even goes so far as to claim that:
My most difficult task in writing this book was living daily with the knowledge it provides of the enormous damage that several generations of tenured radicals have inflicted on our educational system; and of being cognizant of the unrelenting malice that so many of them hold in their hearts for a country that has given them the greatest privileges and freedoms they enjoy as a birthright. (xlviii)
But does the book back them up?
Let me examine the second passage first, for it is easy to cast aside: If this “enormous damage” by “several generations” of radical professors exists, where are the signs? Where is the damage? To whom? If Horowitz is right, then our universities should be producing leftist automatons who go out and work to bring down the United States. Where are they? As far as I can tell, our young college graduates are not that different in their opinions from their elders — and few of either generation are particularly “radical” (just look at who they vote into office). Horowitz, certainly, presents no examples of damage done, merely asserting that it is done. And where is the malice? Very few (if any) of the professors Horowitz lists likely hate America. What he shows, instead, is that they do abhor many of the policies this country institutes — but theirs is most often a case of hating the sin while loving the sinner. At least, nowhere does Horowitz show otherwise. His claim is based on the conceit that the “right” is American and the “left” un-American, a dubious contention.
One of the most well known writers exhibiting this bad habit of taking opinion, finding a few examples, and then claiming “fact” is David Horowitz.To justify the first claim, Horowitz contends that “university and departmental elites create faculties in their own image” (372), using this as his basis. Yet he has earlier declared that in “twenty years of schooling up through the graduate level, I never heard one teacher or professor, on one occasion in one classroom ever express a political opinion” (xlvii). Though Horowitz was an undergraduate “in the 1950s” (xlvi) and a graduate student soon after, the forty-some years since he was in the classroom really isn’t that long. If what he says is true (that faculty elites create their own replacements in their own image), then it is unlikely that the current elite would be substantially different from that of Horowitz’s youth.
But Horowitz says they are, and expands from that to claim that the professors he “profiles” in his book are representative. One assertion, however, does not follow from the other — even if faculties do create their replacements in their own image, it does not follow that any particular group of faculty can be deemed “integral to the intellectual life of the institutions they inhabit” as Horowitz does for these. That green apples fall from some apple trees does not mean that green apples fall from all apple trees.
Horowitz proclaims a research method leading to his conclusions called:
“prosopography,” which was defined by one of its creators and best-known practitioners, Lawrence Stone, as “the study of biographical details of individuals in the aggregate.” The purpose of this exercise, as Stone explains is “to establish a universe to be studied,” in this case a universe of representative academics who use their positions to promote political agendas. A further purpose of prosopography is to establish patterns of conduct and patterns in careers through a study of the assembled profiles.
Yet there is a problem with this methodology as Horowitz uses it: His “aggregate” is a previously-selected group (and not in any random manner, but for specific features), making any conclusions drawn from this group inapplicable to the whole. This is important: there is no way that conclusions drawn about such a subset can be used to characterize the whole, for the subset cannot in any way be characterized as representative. Thus, no conclusions about the whole from this “study” can be entertained at all.
Prosopography, whatever one might think of the methodology, is not what Horowitz is doing, anyhow. According to the Prosography Centre website, the concept goes back to the 16th century. French historian Claude Nicolet:
defined its aim as the history of groups as elements in political and social history, achieved by isolating series of persons having certain political or social characteristics in common and then analyzing each series in terms of multiple criteria, in order both to obtain information specific to individuals and to identify the constants and the variables among the data for whole groups.
Not only does Horowitz ignore the second part of the process (“analyzing each series in terms of multiple criteria”), but his selection criteria make the whole process meaningless. For one thing, he identifies only one group, not a series, so has no basis for any comparisons. Also, his choices are not based on identifiable “political or social characteristics” aside from a vague “leftist” orientation (the hundred professors are extraordinarily different in age, politics, pedagogy, ethnic background, and class; in fact, one of the most obvious conclusions about this “group” is that it is no “group” at all), casting further suspicion on any conclusions he might draw from his “study.” One of the most important aspects of any research project is the formulation of the questions to be asked, the questions whose answers will either prove or disprove the hypothesis. They need to be as simple as possible and based on as few assumptions as possible. Here are the questions Horowitz “attempts to provide a factual basis” (xxii) through his research in order to answer:
How could the university [in this case, the University of Colorado] have hired and then raised to these heights [full professor and department chair] an individual of such questionable character and preposterous views as Ward Churchill [a controversial ‘leftist’ professor]? How many professors with similar resumes had managed to acquire tenured positions at the University of Colorado and other institutions of higher learning? How pervasive was the conflation of political interests and academic pursuits on university campuses or in college classrooms? Why were the administrations seemingly unable to assert and enforce standards of academic excellence? (xxii)
Can these possibly be the basis for any sort of useful study of American universities? Horowitz thinks they are, and that he addresses them.
I think not.
Let’s look at them one at a time: 1) Answering the question of how Ward Churchill reached his position requires a specific study of the personalities and events surrounding his career. This book does not even pretend to do that, so the question has to remain unanswered. 2) Studying a selected sample cannot provide the answer to this question at all. To do so, one would need to conduct a statistical study of all professors, not simply give a look at a select few. Furthermore, Churchill’s unique situation (including his debated background as a Cherokee) already answers the question: None. 3) Again, Horowitz faces the challenge of his selected “aggregate.” It is impossible to draw conclusions about how “pervasive” anything is from examination of a sampling that is anything but random. 4) This assumes that it can be shown that administrations are “unable to assert and enforce standards of academic excellence.” Even if it is true that Churchill does not meet such standards, again, one cannot move from an individual situation to a universal judgment. Again, unless such situations can be shown to be “pervasive” (again, an impossibility from a small, non-random sample), the question cannot be answered — for it has no foundation. At the end of the book, Horowitz tries to address this issue through a quick look at Lawrence Summers’ tenure at Harvard, but the discussion is too specific and the situation too dominated by strong personalities to be relevant to other institutions.
Beyond this, there is no real first-hand research shown in the book on any of the subject professors. As far as the book shows, no one involved has bothered to examine the syllabi of the professors considered, to visit their classrooms, or to discuss them with their colleagues. Most of the material seems to be culled from articles and books (some by the professors, some about them or merely mentioning them), many of which are likely to be distinct from anything relating to the professors’ classroom activities. Another source is newspaper articles about the political activities of the professors — again, something generally distinct from classroom activity. Like Feldman’s comment on the earlier book, what we have here is “little more than a tiresome exercise in quote-gathering and guilt by association.”
Given the way he has “researched” this book, Horowitz is clearly uninterested in a careful examination of our university faculties as a whole — otherwise he would have developed a real research strategy, one from which valid and verifiable conclusions could be drawn, instead of using one pretending to support his “conclusions” (developed before the start of the “research”) through essentially anecdotal means and a view of American universities taken from far away through a lens that has been deliberately warped and one that is focused on only a tiny part of those universities anyway.
Given his distance from academia, Horowitz certainly is not writing for a university audience. No one with any background in scholarship will be impressed with Horowitz’s methodology, and Horowitz, who is quite intelligent, has to know that. Clearly, he isn’t trying to use this book as a means for engaging the academic community in any dialogue that would lead to reform in academia — otherwise he would have used a less confrontational and more carefully grounded approach.
So what is Horowitz’s real purpose? If he wanted to help improve universities, he has the resources to actually do so. He and his “researchers” could spend time on campuses, studying the teaching as it actually happens, and could develop a sampling technique that could lead to conclusions about faculties that might have merit. So improving universities, improving education certainly isn’t his goal.
Then what is?
For the past few years, Horowitz has been promoting what he calls an “Academic Bill of Rights” and a “Student Bill of Rights.” These are being presented to state legislatures, supposedly as a means of ensuring academic freedom on public university campuses. When examined closely, however, these “bills of rights” are nothing more than a means of furthering legislative intrusion into college classrooms. In testimony before a Pennsylvania legislative committee, Horowitz ally Stephen Balch said [.pdf]:
The legislature must expect a full accounting on progress toward these goals each time the state’s universities seek new statutory authority and renewed financial support. If a good-faith effort is being made to overcome these problems, it should leave the remedial specifics to the universities’ own decision making. If a good-faith effort isn’t made, it should urge governing boards to seek new leadership as a condition of full support. Failing even in that, it might, as a last resort, consider a full-scale organizational overhaul, to design governance systems and institutional arrangements better able to meet the obligations that go with academic freedom.
In other words, the intent of the “bills of rights” is to enforce academic freedom — a bit of a contradiction.
To enforce academic freedom, classrooms would have to be policed. And that, of course, would mean that academic freedom would no longer exist. Someone, the legislature, would be deciding what is acceptable in the classroom and what is not.
That, then, is what Horowitz wants, not academic freedom, but control of our institutions of higher education by political entities. That’s why he has written this book, to scare people into thinking that, somehow, the youth of our nation are at peril — to scare them enough so that the legislatures feel emboldened enough to pass these “bills,” taking on more control of college and university classrooms than they ever have before.
Oh yes: Horowitz also talks about the composition class of the sort I teach so often. “The only academic rationale for the freshman English course was to teach incoming students the elements of style — the grammatical construction of topic sentences and paragraphs and the like” (xliii). No, that’s not even remotely correct, though Horowitz wouldn’t know that, for he studies universities only from a distance. No, the rationale for the freshman English course (now generally called “Composition” ) is to teach students to produce well-written presentations of what they have learned through the research that is used to teach them the tools they will need in other courses — and in evaluating much that they will run across in later life.
Including the “research” of David Horowitz.
About the author:
Aaron Barlow teaches English at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania and, on weekends, runs his store/gallery, Shakespeare's Sister, in Brooklyn, NY. The author of The DVD Revolution: Movies, Culture, and Technology (Praeger, 2005), he is a board member and citizen journalist for ePluribus Media.
Contributors to this article: JeninRI, Cedwyn, Standingup, Cho and Stoy
Editor’s note: The introduction to this Issues Series, as well as part I, "Orthodoxy Versus Bias," examine the trend in recent decades of relentless criticism of US educational institutions; the goal of many of these attacks being the transfer of control into hands of politicians.
Part II, "Peer Review and a Proposal for Revision" argues that the practice of academic peer review is obsolete and could be replaced by more efficient and useful Internet vetting procedures.
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