Recent criticisms of certain University classes within the national media have been met with surprise and skepticism by professors on campus. In fact, many faculty members usually seemed surprised that their classes would garner national attention at all.
“It was, to be honest, funny to see my class mentioned in a paper like The Wall Street Journal — who knew I was so important?,” wrote Visiting Assistant Professor of English Démian Pritchard via email, whose course, “Chicana Lesbian Literature: Speaking in Tongues,” was singled out for criticism in a recent book review in the paper. “And, initially my irritation was based solely on the fact that the author misspelled the title of the course (he wrote ’Chicina’ for ’Chicana’).”
The media attention began on Oct. 4, when The Wall Street Journal published a review of “Education’s End” by Anthony Kronman, a professor of law at Yale University. In his review, Robert Messenger, a senior editor at the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard, seemed to largely agree with Kronman’s assessment of the modern liberal arts education as marred by identity politics that stifle true freedom of expression within the classroom. In particular, Messenger cites the University course catalog as proof that students and professor now approach many courses as representatives of a group instead of as individuals.
“Anyone who has perused the course catalog of a liberal arts college — Wesleyan’s English department, for instance, offers ’Chicina [sic] Lesbian Literature: Speaking in Tongues’ and ’Law, Race, and Literature: An Introduction to Critical Race Theory’ — will recognize what Mr. Kronman is talking about,” Messenger wrote in the article.
Exactly two weeks later, Gawker, the Manhattan-based gossip and media news blog, electronically published a post regarding “Feet to the Fire: The Art and Science of Climate Change” a course to be offered next spring. The frosh-only class will combine choreographic and scientific approaches to the issue of climate change. Cross-listed on WesMaps in both the Dance and Earth & Environmental Sciences departments, it will be taught by Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences Barry Chernoff.
The post, by Editor Emily Gould, took aim at both the unorthodox interdisciplinary nature of the course and a comment made by Interim Dean of the College Mike Whaley regarding Gawker’s previous coverage of the University.
“You know, it’s not a ’stereotype’ based on ’ignorance’ if it’s an ’observation’ based on ’research,’ Mike,” Gould wrote in the post. “I learned that in my Ethics Of Journalism/ Contemporary Mud Sculpture class at Eugene Lang.”
When contacted by the Argus to further explain her comments, Gould clarified her intent but remained unapologetic in her criticism.
“I wouldn’t characterize my response as ’negative’ so much as ’amused,’” Gould wrote via e-mail. “You have to admit, a class that can pretty accurately be characterized as ’dancing about global warming’ is inherently ridiculous.”
Wesleyan is certainly no stranger to outside criticism from the media. Gould’s post was the latest in a string of satirical posts written by Gawker since deeming Wesleyan the “Most Annoying Liberal Arts College” in America. Amongst others, they poked fun at the participation of Wesleyan freshman in The New York Times Magazine “College Issue” photo shoot, in a post entitled “Wesleyan Students Are All Models!”
The University also came under fire from columnist John Leo P ’05 in January 2005. In a column published in U.S. News & World Report, Leo, whose daughter had recently graduated the University, excoriated Wesleyan for a lack of ideological diversity that encourages students to “shun the complexity of arguments and simply spout the party line.”
Professors almost uniformly questioned the intentions of their media critics, implying that their comments stem from a differing sense of what constitutes legitimate academic study.
Chernoff said that he did not know enough about Gawker’s definition of “annoying” to comment upon Gould’s criticism. However, he hopes that the class’ mixture of arts and natural sciences will attract a multitude of people by engaging the complex issue from many perspectives.
“We need many, many ways to communicate, and art expression is one of the most important ways that our society sees and responds to important issues,” Chernoff said. “And that’s why it’s there. Whether that’s annoying or not, that’s for others to determine.”
Pritchard similarly criticized Messenger’s decision to mention her class without either contacting her to discuss the course or even reading the online course description. She added that the presumptions implicit within Messenger’s review enforce claims that the undergraduate studies of gender, ethnicity, and sexuality studies place personal experiences over academic inquiry, claims that Pritchard says fail to reflect the reality of her class.
“It seems that Mr. Messenger and Mr. Kronman would have us believe that classes such as mine undercut a project of education by leading people away from critical inquiry into textual argument and using classroom space as, well, as therapy, in a way,” Pritchard wrote. “However, it is a central goal of my Chicana Lesbian Literature class — as with all my classes — to place texts at the center of our study (not ourselves), and to collectively participate in the interpretive project of revealing the arguments offered by the authors. Perhaps students have transformative personal experiences as a result of doing this work — but I believe that to be the case with the study of most things.”
Ironically, when contacted by The Argus, Messenger admitted that his choice of University classes did not constitute a specific attack on Wesleyan, but rather became a vehicle for larger criticism.
“My comments were somewhat random and based on a simple internet search that produced some recent classes at a good liberal arts university,” Messenger wrote in an email. “I could have as easily chosen any number of sibling institutions. My critique was of a wider debasement of the study of the humanities and not directed at Wesleyan specifically.”
This use of Wesleyan as a stand-in for more general criticism of modern liberal arts education struck Chair of the English Department Ann duCille as not reflective of current trends in mainstream academia.
“In reality, race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality are at the forefront of literary study across the country and around the world,” duCille wrote via email. “Mr. Messenger should peruse the course catalogs of Harvard, Yale, Williams, Amherst, etc. ’Law, Race, and Literature’ and ’Chicana Lesbian Literature’ are both courses the Wesleyan English Department is proud to have as part of its curriculum.”
For Gould, though, the University’s choice of classes remains a clear indication of Wesleyan’s “self serious earnestness.”
“Like, the kind of earnestness it takes to write an article about how the college is perceived by the readers of some New York gossip website,” Gould wrote.
She added that she would be willing to venture further into University course selections, provided that they spark enough interest with her readers.
“If you know of any, would you tell me about them?” Gould wrote. “I could use the page views.”