—An Open Letter to the English-Department Faculty of the University of Massachusetts—
But the same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and periodicals, as well as in plays, films and radio. At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trouser in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.
—George Orwell, “The Freedom of the Press”
Originally, this essay was sent as an open letter to roughly 60 English-department faculty of the University of Massachusetts, as an experiment to test the waters of democracy in academe and otherwise determine how many of those professors contacted agree de facto with the 1972 Supreme Court ruling in Healy v. James (408 U.S. 169, 180) that the university "is peculiarly the ‘marketplace of ideas'”. I’d been performing such experiments for over a decade. A week later, I put it up on the Internet as a blog entry (see wwwtheamericandissidentorg.blogspot.com) and informed those professors in a second missive.
The original essay was embellished with the responses received (only three of the 60 professors and none of the four student editors contacted), as well as with the new thoughts those responses provoked. Two self-protecting established-order taboos were transgressed: 1. naming names and 2. overtly defining and criticizing the academic culture. Regarding especially the first taboo, a retired professor and editor of a journal devoted to ethics and not part of the University of Massachusetts responded to the piece as a submission for publication consideration: “The essay is too pointed for general dissemination, so I am sorry but I cannot use it.”
His curt reply actually implied much, so I provoked him to respond in greater length by suggesting the essay probably implicated him personally. His response was the following:
I cannot use it because it is much too specific, geared to the problems, as you see them, at a particular set of institutions, and a small group of their professors who have displeased you or who do not like you. It would be of little interest to general JIE readers. It is also something of a vitriolic jeremiad, a way of getting back at those folks, a catharis [sic] and vindication for you (but not for us); it lacks credibility: Your experience has not been that of others, mine for example. Additionally, your perspective on freedom, truth, intellectual freedom, and especially democracy do not tell the whole story. Democracy, for eaxpmple [sic], can be horrific, as I am sure you know. All of this was contained, sub rosa, in my previous note, the one that indicated that I cannot use it. I hope this helps. (I too am a dissident.)
The topic of academic culture was perhaps a lot hotter than I’d initially suspected—downright taboo in the Orwellian sense. Needless to say, I addressed the points made, noting first that my goal was not at all to upset him, for after all, he’d previously published me. His lack of interest in the core fundament of the essay, that is, the need to radically alter the academic culture for the sake of democracy surprised me. Clearly, that culture was fundamentally corrupt, one that rewarded those who never questioned or challenged it and banished those who did in precisely the same manner as the Wall Street financial culture which had managed to cripple the country today. How, I wondered, could he be blind to it? Perhaps those who are well fed by it tended to perceive it with rose-colored glasses in the same manner as those in the financial community immediately prior to the egregious debacle. Greenspan hadn’t even seen it coming, he’d said.
Furthermore, the academic culture which I decried was not simply restricted to a “particular set of institutions” (i.e., the University of Massachusetts). It was widespread like a carcinoma in the belly of democracy. One had to begin somewhere. Also, since I did not know any of the professors contacted personally, they did not particularly displease me, at least not any more than professors elsewhere. And those professors did not know me, so did not necessarily dislike me. Granted, I had written a negative review of a book written by one of those professors. But certainly that did not give me cause to dislike 60 of his colleagues. The reason I targeted the University of Massachusetts was simply because I live and publish in the state. Also, I’m quite familiar with William Bulger, former president of that university, who received a controversial one-million dollar public pension and banned Ralph Nader from entering the campus building where a presidential debate was being held back in 2000. Where, I wondered, were the English professors then? Thus to imply I wrote the essay simply to get back at professors who I didn’t like and who didn’t like me was a paltry excuse to avoid dealing with its essence and akin to ad hominem.
Why, I asked the editor, would readers interested in ethics not be interested in ethical issues regarding academe? And why did the essay necessarily lack “credibility”? Where precisely was it lacking? Was it not credible that if a professor spoke out against a corrupt college president or dean, he would likely be punished, right or wrong? When teaching, I always insist students back their statements with precise examples to illustrate them. Unfortunately, the editor didn’t respond to any of the points I made. Well, he did respond that he had responded, but:
Perhaps ypu [sic] misunderstood what I said, which was that I did reply at some length but the computer deleted it and I refused to rewrite it. But even if you did not, you overreact. I said I could not use this essay which is merely a jeremiad. Thousands of editors continually reject millions of submissions, for hundreds of different and legitimate reasons. I did not say that I would not publisher others that you tender. This type of aggressive action toward another human being is why many of your "correspondents" ignore or hassle you. And it is extremely presumptious [sic] of you to indicate that all of these many folks do not stand up for what they believe. Many do; many suffer; some die. Indeed, my own father died because he stood up for high standards at his college and was hurt, became depressed, and died!
Yes, maybe his father had stood up, but what about him? More ad hominem! To denigrate efforts to attract attention to a serious problem—after all, academe represents the intellectual core of the nation—by labeling them “overreact,” “jeremiad,” “extremely presumptuous,” and “aggressive” is not surprising, because uncomfortable truths will likely always be labeled thusly. One must, however, wonder why so many grown adults have such thin skins. Clearly, the educationist focus on self-esteem building in the nation’s schools and even colleges will end up making them even thinner. Anything apt to implicate them will likely be perceived as “aggressive” and serve to explain their resultant silence or ad hominem. And doesn’t the use of ad hominem reflect anger? And doesn’t anger reflect a target hit square in the bull’s-eye? Another thing I ask students to do, especially writing students, is to contemplate their taboos. Perhaps professors ought to do that also. Most know precisely what they dare not speak openly about. In fact, any writer likely knows damn well what he should not write about, if he wishes to eat. The same goes for a professor. Perhaps good writers and good professors are not only aware of their taboos, but actually dare transgress them from time to time.
Over the past couple of decades, I’ve had ample experience questioning and challenging many academics, which has enabled me to draw certain conclusions, including most “do not stand up” and/or simply do not possess strong principles. Clearly, the culture attracts such people. What most end up believing in is turf domination, job security, and money. Those are not strong principles. Because the culture acts as a cocoon (the ivory tower!), assuring a life as a protected species of sorts, many professors ineluctably knee-jerk react when somebody like me suddenly appears. Only several weeks prior to this experiment, I’d sent a critique of The Kenyon Review $1,000 per person literary gala to some 23 English-department members of Kenyon College. Only the professor-editor responded, though he essentially ignored the points made. What about the other 22 other professors? How had they become so adverse to debate, so adverse to the university’s essential role as "the ‘marketplace of ideas'”?
Even if my “perspective on freedom, truth, intellectual freedom, and especially democracy do not tell the whole story,” why should that constitute a reason to truncate debate? Where is the logic in that? “Sub rosa”? And if one is a dissident, why quietly put that fact in parentheses? Dissidents do not hide out in democracies! They hide out in autocracies, where free expression can result in execution or incarceration! Dissidents consciously think of those areas deemed taboo by their superegos, those areas that could affect their “success.” Dissidents consciously transgress those areas periodically. That’s what makes them dissidents. A key taboo for a professor inevitably includes the institution feeding him and his immediate colleagues. It is odd, to say the least, that even the tenured dare not transgress that key taboo. They—not all, but certainly most—have become conditioned like Pavlovian dogs or rather cows and sheep vis-à-vis electrical fences. As an example, one of those electrical fences where I taught several years ago at a public HBCU was the prayer held at each faculty meeting. Consciously, I thus dared touch that fence and openly criticized the prayer in an article published in the student newspaper. Unsurprisingly, at least to me, not one colleague responded. A student, however, stated: “Dr. Slone, man, you’ve got balls!” No, I’m not patting myself on the back at all, just presenting the facts. Besides, what that student said confirmed that even he was well aware that the academic culture dictated that professors should not be critical of the institutions employing them, requisite behavior at antipodes to the needs of democracy.
Due to that editor’s criticism (“too pointed”), I decided to rewrite the essay in an effort not to transgress the first taboo, naming names, though likely that wouldn’t help get it published, especially not by professor-editors, for how can professors possibly accept an essay that might actually implicate them as, amongst other things, indifferent to the needs of democracy? What the nation could use today is a citizen general akin to the surgeon general. Such a citizen general would likely issue a warning that the current academic culture may indeed be harmful to the health of the spirit of democracy.
The academic culture has bred a professorate largely indifferent to the needs of democracy. Likely, most professors today would be as content under a dictatorship, as long as that system fed them well and offered life-time job security. Theirs is the same academic culture that responded with deafening silence during the Nazi regime in Germany and McCarthyism in America (the AAUP kept its mouth shut!). So what if other citizens are not well fed, do not have jobs, and do not have health benefits and pensions! So what if professors cannot openly criticize certain things! So what if they have to turn a blind eye now and then, especially regarding colleagues and the institution! Theirs is and has been a largely selfish outlook on society and civilization. They are being paid for their silence. Theirs and the very tenure process have become shameful Faustian pacts.
In the spirit of democracy, openness to other points of view, desire to debate with those holding opposing ideas, encouragement of criticism, a certain equality amongst citizens—as opposed to autocratic president-dean-chair hierarchy—, and unabashed truth telling ought to be held in high regard. Yet most professors are either indifferent or downright hostile to those things. In academe, truth telling has largely been replaced by herd-like multiculturalist groupthink and other politically-correct orthodoxy, not to mention the panoply of copycat, educationist diversionary fads of the day, including learning centers, portfolios, assessment, technology in the classroom, and leadership academies. Clearly uncomfortable truth telling has no business at all in the business of higher education.
The academic culture has indeed become selfish and exclusionary and is based on sycophancy, fear (e.g., professors and administrators, more and more frequently, sign articles with pseudonyms in the Chronicle of Higher Education), cowardice, careerism, networking and resultant cronyism, rampant self-censorship, speech codes, self-congratulating, image distortion, and indifference to the needs of democracy (i.e., courageous truth telling and vigorous debate). As for the latter, the curt response from one professor illustrates the point: “I specialize in English literature between l485 and l650 and will be happy to read anything connected with that.”
In other words, the health of democracy and the nation is not that professor’s concern at all. Yet if we do not somehow change the ostrich-head-in-the-sand academic culture he illustrates, how can we expect our democracy to be a healthy one? The academic culture also seems to favor the denigration of anyone apt to offer opinions not of the herd. Indeed, another professor wrote: “do [sic] you really think that insulting and reviling the faculty is the way to persuade us to read your publication? You don't kmow [sic] anything about sany [sic] of us and your e-mail suggersts [sic] that you don't know aything [sic] about politics either.”
Yet if trying to instigate vigorous debate, cornerstone of democracy, is to be deemed “insulting” and “reviling,” how indeed can we expect our democracy to be a thriving one? The third professor to respond wrote even more curtly: “Quit spamming us, you loser.” Evidently, for that professor, a loser is a man who questions and challenges what others dare not. It’s also a man who has different opinions than his and who dares ponder the health of democracy. If a man questions and challenges a university and its professors, when he doesn’t belong to that community, that man is easily dismissed as “spamming.” Yet the 60 professors contacted were all teaching at a public institution funded by taxpayers. Shouldn’t non-connected citizens be curious and even attempt to involve themselves in it? Following that professor’s logic, citizens should keep their noses out of the banking industry currently wreaking havoc on the nation because, well, they’re not part of that community. Clearly, that professor somehow felt implicated by my less-than laudatory description of the academic culture he evidently embraces. Needless to say, I brought those thoughts to his attention. His reply was again base ad hominem: “You're a dullard who imposes himself unwanted on strangers. Cut it out.”
Well, how not to add that remark to my webpage on ad hominem, which explains the phenomenon and illustrates it with the numerous epithets hurled at me over the years by angered intellectuals (see theamericandissident.org/AdHominem.htm). Because I’ve been the brunt of ad hominem so often, I’ve become quite conscious of it and make a determined effort to avoid it. I informed that professor he was now part of that webpage, but he never again responded.
Having had ample contact with college professors over the past several decades, as a publisher and professor, I’ve sadly discovered the large majority of those professors to be entirely indifferent to the spirit of democracy and lacking the courage to speak openly critical of their particular institutions and colleagues, no matter how nefarious. Now and then, as editor of The American Dissident, a journal devoted to literature, democracy and dissidence, I receive poetry submissions from English professors. Always those submissions avoid dealing with particular institutions and colleagues. Always I write back to those professors requesting poems that risk criticizing the immediate, as opposed to the distant and safe, as in the Iraq war or the president, and always I receive no further response.
The lack of hardcore criticism of institutions of higher education by employees of those institutions must be decried, which is precisely what I’ve attempted to do here. “Let your life be a counterfriction to stop the machine,” had advised Thoreau. Why is there not one English-department member at the University of Massachusetts who has the courage to heed those words? Look at what that machine—and not just the academic component—has become today! “Go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways,” had written Emerson. Why is there not one member who actually has the audacity to do that and even risk, just a little, his or her precious career? Is it the burning desire to achieve the final carrot of Emeritus designation? But what does that designation, more often than not, really imply today, if not did not make waves and buck the system?
Why is there not one English-department member at that university open to the ideas expounded in The American Dissident? Note a handful of other universities and colleges are subscribers, including Harvard University, Buffalo University, Brown University, University of Michigan, University of Wisconsin, Endicott College, and Catawba Valley Community College. Why is there not one English department member at that university who would at least introduce his or her students to the journal’s website (theamericandissident.org)? After all, the journal is quite unique in the agora of literary journals, for it actually dares counter the academic/literary established-order. Likely, the libraries at that university possess nothing like it in their collections. Yet the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights stipulates, in particular: “II. Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.”
Shouldn't professors be encouraging students to consider "all points of view"? Indeed, if they cannot brook criticism, let alone encourage it, what kind of role models have they become for students? Have the English departments of that university become so business-oriented that the model they seek to project and inculcate is nothing more than the faithful academic apparatchik? Not long ago and not as a result of this particular experiment, another English department member of the University of Massachusetts responded to a simple criticism I’d lodged regarding a rather vacuous statement he’d made on poetry (see theamericandissident.org/Reviews-Rattle.htm).
Dear Mr. Bone [sic]: I am always inyterested [sic] when one of my many students bring to my attention any remarks regarding all my many publications. The follwoing [sic] was recently brought to my attention: “Jack Conway writes: ‘I teach my students at both Bristol Community College and the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth that the genre of poetry is a ‘big tent’ with room beneath it for many different forms and styles. I also teach them that there are many people with measuring tapes out there in the world of poetry today trying to measure American Poetry for a coffin and to beware of them.’ Perhaps Conway also needs to inform his students that poetry is, or at least should be, much more than “form and style.” It is, or at least should be, also substance. He needs to inform them which “substances” constitute taboos; for example, criticism of the University of Massachusetts and its creative writing professors. Conway needs to challenge his students to break those taboos. Moreover, he might inform them that that coffin is being measured perhaps because of the nation’s poetry professors, including Conway himself.” I presume it apperad [sic] in your blog or something. I am not sure. I find it hard to believe that you migth [sic] write something like this with so little information, including what I teach. Well, the Internet has been good for one thing: It has allowed people like yourself who woud [sic] not be published otherwise to try and feel some limited success. Good for you. As for me, I guess I'll get back to real publishing. Thanks for the comments. I's [sic] too bad you have it all wrong but I'm pretty sure your readers expect that. I kknow [sic] the student who brought this to my attention did. They said, "Look at this trite shit.." I had to laugh. When I sked [sic] who wrote it she said, "Some undereducated pig." Yikes. So there ya go. I guess the good news is that those of us who teach in colleges and universities reach far more people than stuff like this. In fact, I recently read a wonderful statement saying that blogs and self-publishing sites like I presume yours is, are now looked upon by t he current generation as vanity presses without the paper. Well, goodluck [sic] in whatever it is you do and I am sincerely glad that even without much of an education you can feel some limited success publ;ishing [sic] even if it is seen as pedestrian.
The pattern illustrated by the responding professors is frightening, to say the least, especially if one considers that some of them, like the one who wrote the above email, might actually be encouraging students to engage in similar ad hominem rhetoric. Also, one must wonder why not one of the 60 professors contacted would entertain the thought of introducing his or her students to alternative ideas and invite me to speak in front of one or several of his or her classes on literature, democracy, and dissidence? Like those professors, well, perhaps not all of them, I too have a doctoral degree. To date, only one English professor has invited me to speak. Indeed, he invited me several more times after that and even uses The American Dissident in his creative-writing courses. He was not a friend or even an acquaintance and teaches at a private college in Massachusetts. He was, however, unusually open to alternative points of view and unusually curious. He should be praised, though I fear the opposite might result… and probably behind his back. He risks disfavor of his colleagues and department chair by inviting someone like me. By no means do I belittle that risk. I praise him for taking it.
Finally, the current academic culture seems to work to soften professors, rather than strengthen them, and not only physically but also mentally. Thought is often better provoked when one is standing on the edge of society, as opposed to sitting in an armchair in a wainscoted office well inserted into society. Certainly, if I’d been accepted by academe, that would have happened to me. Instead, I’ve continually been rejected by it, which not only has continually reinforced my critical edge and eye, but also enabled me to have experiences I wouldn’t have had if I’d succeeded at the tenure game, including teaching gigs at two HBCUs (North Carolina and Louisiana) and on two Navy battle ships. Moreover, I wouldn’t have created The American Dissident and wouldn’t have written hundreds of pages of critical essays, poems, and creative nonfiction. Instead, I would have written tedious scholarship in the field of geolinguistics. In any case, the academic culture must be radically altered if our democracy is to survive. The university must reconsider its hiring and promotional practices and begin rewarding those who actually dare "go upright and vital" and value the importance of “the marketplace of ideas,” while eliminating those who do not, even if well published. Professors need to stop being so corporate-like in their demeanor and attitude. Given the exposed corrupt tie-and-jacket mob on Wall Street today, one would think intelligent, honest individuals with PhDs would reject that attire and demeanor.
What do those 60 professors contacted intend to do to help alter the nefarious academic culture briefly described here? Remain in denial and tighten up the old muzzle and apply for a sabbatical, extra courses, grant monies, or early retirement, business as usual, or rather, literature as usual? I was really looking forward to their responses and really hoped a free and open debate on the concerns expressed here might actually be engaged. Unfortunately, professorial anger and/or apathy were all I’d obtained from the English-department members of the University of Massachusetts. Over the years, however, I’ve grown used to such disappointments. After all, my entire generation—the Sixties—sold out… to the Academy and elsewhere! Nevertheless, I will continue until the day I die hacking away in certain futility at the immense brick wall, of which those professors choose to form part.
Sent to UMass--Amherst: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, mailto:email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
Sent to UMass--Lowell: Melissa_Pennell@uml.edu, Diana_Archibald@uml.edu, Todd_Avery@uml.edu, Laura_Barefield@uml.edu, William_Coughlin@uml.edu, Andre_Dubus@uml.edu, William_Hersey@uml.edu, Hilary_Holladay@uml.edu, Jeannie_Judge@uml.edu, Susan_Kirtley@uml.edu, Mary_Kramer@uml.edu, Bridget_Marshall@uml.edu, Marlowe_Miller@uml.edu, Michael_Millner@uml.edu, Keith_Mitchell@uml.edu, Julie_Nash@uml.edu, William_Roberts@uml.edu, Jonathan_Silverman@uml.edu, Anthony_Szczesiul@uml.edu, Joseph_Zaitchik@uml.edu, email@example.com
Sent to UMass--Boston:
firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com,
Sent to UMass--Dartmouth
firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com