Monday, December 13, 2010

Academic scandal and "political agendas": the controversy at U Toronto's SESE

My partner, Victoria, is a PhD candidate in the department of Sociology and Equity Studies in Education (SESE) at the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. (It's a mouthful, yes.) Recently, it's gotten a lot of press here in Canada, most of it very angry.

The gist of it is this: a Master's student - Jenny Peto - wrote a thesis (one of those 150 or so page long essays that we don't expect anyone outside of our immediate family and committee will ever read) which - very basically - alleges that two "Holocaust education projects" instrumentalize the Holocaust in such a way as to "promote the interests of the Israeli nation-state." And someone blogged about it, which caught the attention of the National Post and Toronto Star, who promptly labeled her a self-loathing Jewish anti-Semite.

I don't want to talk about the thesis itself because I've only read the abstract. (That is, I don't know whether it is good or bad, though a friend of mine who has read it calls it "quite abysmal". And I'm saying that that's beside the point, anyway, for the purposes of what I want to cover here.) Hilariously, it's not clear that many of the commentators who have contributed to the discussion have actually given it a good look, much less read the whole thing themselves. Nor is it clear that they have any clear idea of the expectations that are attached to a Master's thesis - the demands for more interviews, research, etc. would turn this into the sort of massive, years-long project that no supervisor would approve and no MA student could complete.

The newest addition to this ongoing saga is a list of SESE's MA theses* that have been compiled by Werner Cohn, an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia. The list has been reprinted in the National Post, where Cohn claims that they are "so marred by political jargon and political preconceptions that they should never have been accepted." The theses, it seems, are "politicized" (whatever that means - what, in the study of sociology and equity, isn't politicized?), claims Cohn, and "consist of hate propaganda, possibly in violation of the Criminal Code of Canada."

(It behooves me, here, to point out Cohn's own possible biases and investment in the subject matter. If his personal website - which includes a lot of anti-Chomsky stuff, writings on Zionism, and writings on "Jews who hate Israel" - is any indication, he's probably one of the people who is politically implicated by Peto's thesis. This is an auspicious a key detail and its absence from his text in the National Post article is auspicious.)

Cohn claims that the abstracts he lists (because he didn't read 16 of the 18 theses - like i said, no one does) are "propound political agendas rather than detached scholarship" and "the politics of all eighteen are of one sort and one sort only: radical leftism", and that they "are so politicized that – again on a prima facie basis – I would not accept them as scholarly contributions". (To his credit, I suppose, he admits that it's possible - if unlikely - that he would change his mind if he actually read the things.)

Having read the list myself, I have a few observations to share, too:

If, on the basis of the abstract alone, this stuff constitutes "political agendas" and "radical leftism", then Cohn has either never read anything in the fields of equity and identity politics or else thinks that the fields themselves are not worthy of his attention. Some of the abstracts are pretty innocuous, except for the appearance of terms like "anti-racist", "Canadian colonialism", and the "white" Canadian nation-state. And regardless, this is not somehow a unique cross-section - this is typical of the work being done right now in sociology, race, and/or gender studies. My sense is that his problem is with the discipline, from which he appears to be professionally and philosophically detached. (And not "detached" in the somewhat problematic sense that one can ever be politically detached from necessarily politicized work, but "detached" in the sense of "he just doesn't know.") The National Post might as well have asked a mathematician to weigh-in.

Cohn uses the term "Neo-Marxist" dismissively on another blog, and I think it's a telling insult. Based on that article and the one in the globe - where he hides his own politics under the guise of "objectivity in scholarship" and "scholarly merit" (which he doesn't define - presumably, it is obvious to people like himself, who are ostensibly, if disingenuously, without politics) - my guess is that what Cohn is actually lamenting is his own obsolescence. At the risk of sounding too dismissive myself, Cohn's first published article is now 60 years old - presumably, he is made anxious by MA theses employing post-colonial and anti-racist frameworks that critique and reject what was once canon. That canon being the pro-Western, pro-white, masculinist, heterosexist sociological corpus that Cohn was trained with and - again, presumably - has contributed to. It doesn't matter what they were actually, specifically saying - he was probably ready to dismiss them simply for committing this sin.

Cohn also criticizes OISE for the "political uniformity" of its theses, adding that "no thesis that, for instance, urged a conservative viewpoint, or a Christian one, or, Heaven forbid, Zionism". But this is a red herring if I've ever seen one - those "viewpoints" aren't there simply because they're not up to the task. Imagine a classically liberal - ie. conservative, in popular parlance - analysis of gendered microinequities in the workplace. Could it even admit the possibility? How would it go about collecting data in any meaningful way? What kind of horribly reductive and limited vocabulary would it be forced to draw on? Could it even account for the possibility of systemic discrimination? Just what the hell would that look like? (You might counter with the suggestion that a conservative thesis would challenge the whole idea of microinequities. In which case, frankly, it shows its uselessness that much faster.)

[* Victoria's MA thesis isn't among them, though the temporal scope of his selections aren't clear, and so it's possible that she just fell outside his time-frame.]


Werner Cohn said...

Thanks, Neil, for using such moderate language about me. Sorry for being so old, sorry for the fact that my first published article is also old. Is it really 60 years now ? Time does fly. Anyway, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

But there is one thing I don't quite get in your piece. What do you mean by "auspicious detail made even more auspicious ..." ? Just what does "auspicious" mean in this context ? Maybe you mean "suspicious" ? Anyway you suggest that I have had some sort of personal involvement in this thing. So good of you to suggest that. I love insinuation as a form of argument. Anyway, no, the answer is no, no personal involvement in this now or ever.

As to your arguments about the research agenda at SESE, I have answered this sort of thing here:

neilshyminsky said...

Hi Werner - I was wondering whether you'd get a track-back notice, or anything. I didn't expect you to respond within hours of my writing it, though!

And no, I don't mean "suspicious". I don't think you're hiding anything. (And if you are, you do a terrible job of it.) But I do think, in the text printed by the National Post, that you're trying to affect the appearance of objectivity and disinterested distance. And it's an affect that the readers of a newspaper associate with The Truth, and an affect that would be hard to produce if you admitted that SESE's research and politics are in direct conflict with your own research and politics, especially with respect to your positions on Israel. So "auspicious" in the sense that this absence benefits the truthiness effect of your allegations.

And I think that should address the point about "personal involvement". I don't mean to suggest that you have any direct, personal interest in SESE. (If it seems to be implied by my language, that wasn't my intent.) But I do mean to say that you have a political interest that informs your position - an interest that doesn't appear in the piece in the Post - and that your objection to SESE goes deeper than whether they're following conventional sociological protocol. (And even if that were your claim, there's a politics underlying the decision to apply normative labels like conventional and, as you term it on your own blog, the "new dogma".)

On another note entirely, I was being too cute by half when I made the "60 years" crack. It implies what I meant for it to imply, certainly, but it was lazy writing - even for a blog.

neilshyminsky said...

Oh, and I noticed this line in your post about SESE, which I think sums up the disconnect between the two of us: "On the surface, 'gender' appears to be neutral; it could mean an entirely scholarly interest in sex differences in learning, or whatnot. But in the current context I found that an interest in 'gender' is short-hand for a desire to engage in advocacy on behalf of a grievance-based political action."

What, exactly, does an "entirely scholarly interest in sex differences" look like? Because if I'm understanding you correctly and the suggestion is that an ideal study of gender should be apolitical, then, as a gender studies scholar myself, I'd like to know how you think that's possible.

Nathan Kalman-Lamb said...

I would be interested to see Professor Cohn respond to any of your actual arguments. Of course, by choosing to nit-pick your language ("auspicious") and dwell on your (admittedly unnecessary) comments about his age, he has demonstrated what he has to say by way of rebuttal: nothing of substance. It's a pity he didn't come to that realization sooner.

Nathan Kalman-Lamb said...

I should add, after reading the blog entry Professor Cohn linked to above, that I would love to hear him elaborate his concerns about "anti-racism...and...anti-colonial thought."

neilshyminsky said...

Re: "auspicious" - I re-read the sentence in my original post, and I think the problem is that I'm doubling-up on it. The second use of auspicious creates the effect I was going for; the first one is just wrong. (It should really just be "important" or "key".) Just some poor editing on my part - whoops!