Beware the Disciplinary Blame Game

Over the late 1970s into the early 1980s, I made a practical and somewhat spontaneous decision that would shape my life and career. When transferring from junior college to a local satellite of the state university, I declared as a secondary English education major designed to provide certification to teach high school English.

I had gradated high school committed to being a physics major, but discovered I was a writer and was inspired to teach while tutoring for English courses at that junior college. As a naive junior in college, however, I was already skeptical of the practical aspects of being (as was the language of the time) a straight English major.

English education was about entering a profession.

Class after English class at the university, I was prompted to announce in front of the professor and students that I was just an English education major, typically surrounded by the more lauded straight English majors.

Once I began teaching high school English, I essentially taught myself to be a composition teacher, further eroding my disciplinary credibility (within the English discipline, composition ranks beneath literature).

As a result, I have throughout my nearly four decades as a teacher then professor identified with and been an outsider to two disciplines—English and education.

I will not detail it all here, but my insider status in both qualifies me to confess that English and education as disciplines have many flaws that routinely are not addressed—the schism between literature and composition in English and the fatal influence of certification and accreditation in education, to note some foundational problems.

So I have a particular interest in Lyell Asher’s How Ed Schools Became a Menace, a disturbingly lazy take that really should have never been published by The Chronicle.

In fact, Asher, an associate professor of English at Lewis & Clark College, I suspect from comments on Rate My Professor [1], would not accept the sort of overstatement, lack of evidence, and ideological dishonesty in his own first-year writing students (if he would stoop to such lowly course) as he demonstrates here.

Asher claims that higher education has a bloated administration problem, one that can be causally traced to schools of education because those schools have a history of being lousy but have begun to turn out candidates with degrees in higher education.

Let’s ask first why an English professor would want to shift such weighty blame on an entire field not his own. Might it deflect some attention from English as a discipline and major?

Duke Pesta’s Three Ways Declining English Departments Can Be Relevant Again argues:

A major in English was once a serious endeavor masquerading as a frivolous one. Despite the occasional “do you want fries with that?” condescension from business or science students, the study of literature—immersion in its aesthetic, historical, and philosophical contexts—conserved for posterity a reservoir of truth and paid forward for humanity a legacy of beauty that inspired business to philanthropize the arts, and science to technologize our access to the great authors.

Today, a major in English is an increasingly frivolous endeavor masquerading as a serious one.

Like Asher’s piece, this may feel compelling, especially with its clever rhetorical flair.

And English as a discipline certainly seems to be in trouble along with liberal arts broadly and the humanities:

So we may be able to understand why Asher would lash out at another discipline and the state of higher education.

But the paradox here is that, for example, the hot take by Pesta on English as a discipline and major is itself a good dose of hokum driven by some really lazy traditionalist/conservative overstatements and unfounded stereotypes—the paradox being that these flaws are at the root of why Asher’s disciplinary blame game is beneath any college professor and The Chronicle.

Let’s unpack just a few problems with Asher’s diatribe.

Point one, I think, is that Asher would have been more credible and compelling if he had taken the time to put his own house in order. See Martin Parker’s Why we should bulldoze the business school with the compelling: “Having taught in business schools for 20 years, I have come to believe that the best solution to these problems is to shut down business schools altogether.”

Asher’s sweeping condemnation of education as a field smacks of the same sort of disciplinary arrogance that has plagued education for decades.

A second point would be the absence of hyperlinks to evidence and research, compounded by, for example, the use of a 2004 study (again, many professors demand students cite recent research, typical far within a 14-year window used here): Preparing Teachers to Teach the Liberal Arts by David Steiner.

Since there was no link provided, I had to track it down, and discovered Steiner, with a PhD in political science, was trafficking in some bad methods (see how using syllabi results in much ado about nothing) and selling some conservative ideology masquerading as data analysis.

Here we have more paradox: Those most likely to shout “liberal ideology!” are themselves conservative propagandists, using Asher’s strategy of pointing and yelling over there so you don’t look here.

A third and final point to which I do not have the data or answer, I think, is quite important.

Setting aside the petty and ideological sleight of hand driving Asher’s claims, to lay significant causal outcomes for higher education’s administration glut and failed policies, we would have to confirm two things: (1) current administrators having come from colleges of education would have to constitute a vast majority (as opposed to administrators who comes from non-education disciplines, such as promoted from academic departments), and (2) that majority once proven would have to have been in influential power long enough to have caused these outcomes.

If we embrace the so-called evidential rigor we say we doing in the academy, let’s start with that data and then proceed grounded in something other than hasty generalizations and faux poses of ideological objectivity.

This Asher piece is an unintended commentary on The Chronicle, who has offered other really poor takes by people pontificating outside their area of expertise. As a prestigious publication, The Chronicle should do better.

Those of us in academia, however, should do better as well. First, let’s not just meet the expectations we have for our students, but surpass them.

Next, let us all seek ways to put our own houses in order.

Again, as someone professionally both a part of and an outsider to the disciplines of English and education, I am in no way apologizing for either; there is much that should be done to both fields for the good of the fields and for the good of those students who come to our fields.

Since my EdD and faculty appointment place me primarily in education, I must none the less end here by assuring readers of two facts: (1) critical pedagogy is in no way dominant in education as a field since the field is hostage to, mostly, bureaucracy (certification and accreditation), and (2) as a historically marginalized field, we in education absolutely in no way have the power to shift all of higher education (our majors and certifiers enter the field and immediately abandon everything we have taught them).

In this era of Trump, where white men with power are suddenly butt-hurt about everything, those of us in the academy need to double-down on being above all that and step one may be, again, each of us finding a way to put our own house in order instead of callously and carelessly pointing fingers.

Beware the disciplinary blame game—and always take a closer look at the blamer than the blamed.

[1] Since Asher’s disciplinary blame piece seems to reflect a pattern of comments that Asher is prone to calling out and embarrassing students, I direct you to see for yourself—keeping in mind that Rate My Professor comments certainly are in no way valid data. But Asher also seems not to be compelled to draw on valid data, so there you have it.