At the top of the hierarchy of prestige, of course, is that ontological and reputational Leviathan of academia, Oxford University Press.
The Wikipedia entry on OUP gives us the basics:
Oxford University Press (OUP) is a highly-respected publishing house and a department of the University of Oxford in England. As a department of a charity it enjoys tax-exempt status. It transfers 30% of its annual surplus to the rest of the University, with a commitment to a minimum transfer of £12 million per annum. OUP is the largest university press in the world. It was chartered as one of the two privileged presses in 1634. OUP publishes many reference, professional, and academic works including the Oxford English Dictionary, the Concise Oxford Dictionary, the Oxford World's Classics and the Dictionary of National Biography.Four keywords (or phrases) stand out here as definitory of the institution:"highly-respected,""tax-exempt,""privileged," and"largest."
OUP grew into the world's largest press after it received the rights to publish the King James Version of the Bible and it expanded beyond academic and learned printing. Today it publishes more than 4,500 new books a year and employs some 4,000 people worldwide and has presence in over 50 countries. Of late it has been acquiring specialty publishers such as Oceana Publications.
It has lent its name to the Oxford comma.
For all that, I want to say that Oxford University Press is, in my humble estimation, one of the most overrated businesses on planet Earth—a sinkhole of incompetence and overpriced and overrated merchandise bolstered by nothing more than a centuries-old reputation for"prestige."
One of my run-ins with OUP has been duly recorded here at HNN (and reprinted at Campus Watch); I encourage you to read or re-read it. Pay close attention to the fact that in this dismal episode, John Esposito, the reigning doyen of Islamic studies in America (though decidedly not its doyenne), conceals his own scholarly incompetence (as well as his lack of intellectual and moral integrity) by appealing to the incompetence of his editors at Oxford University Press. Thus does one hand wash the other. Or tries to.
But consider a more mundane episode, exemplified by the following correspondence I had with a sales representative at OUP. I've omitted the rep's name for present purposes, but actually had to wonder a bit about whether I was obliged to.
Backstory: I ordered 120 copies of Louis Pojman's Introduction to Philosophy: Classical and Contemporary Readings from OUP last fall, and sent a request for a desk copy sometime in December. On Friday, February 24, several weeks into the semester, I got this email from OUP:
Your request has been processed and should arrive within 7-10 business days. Thank you for choosing Oxford University Press for your course needs. If you have any questions please contact [name].I did have a question, and I phrased it with a bit of exasperation:
I do have a question: why has it taken so long to process this request? I made all of my desk copy requests at the same time, but OUP--as usual--is ages behind schedule. I can't count the number of times this has happened with OUP, and no one over there seems able to give me a straight answer as to why. For the colossal prices you charge, it seems to me that you could stand to improve the quality of your service. I think I'm getting to the end of my patience with OUP, and am seriously thinking of taking my business elsewhere in the future. Pojman's textbook used to be published by Wadsworth, and I only started ordering with OUP because I liked that particular book. But not only is the Oxford edition of the textbook pedagogically inferior to the Wadsworth edition, OUP's service is markedly worse, too.I am pleased to say that I got a very quick response back. Within the hour, this email had reached my inbox, which I reproduce without alteration:
Hello Professor Khawaha,I leave it to the reader to assess the plausibility of the"it was sent to the wrong office" excuse. (It wasn't.) In any case, ask yourself: does this letter represent the standards of literacy you associate with the sales department of the world's largest and most prestigious publisher of higher education textbooks?
I am truly sorry that this order has fallen by the waist side. This order was sent to another department in New York office. Than it was sent to me, which this is the correct department that the order should had come in the first place. I am located in [place name]. I promise if you send me your request, they will be order in a timely manner. I would love to continue to do business with you in the future. And as you stated Pojman's text is a great text and I would hate for you not to continue with this text. I have added all my information down from this email so that you will have all my contact information. I like emails rather than phone due to the fact I am on the phones a lot and might miss your calls. I hope that you will give me a chance to help you in the future with your text books orders.
The author begins somewhat inauspiciously by misspelling a name in front of his face on a computer screen. He goes on to misspell the word"wayside" in a way that suggests he'd never seen the word in print. The second sentence misses a definite article before"New York." The third sentence is a grammatical crime against humanity. So is the fifth. The seventh sentence evades the fact that I had said that Pojman's text was no longer a"great text," but that OUP had messed it up. There is one grammatical error in every remaining sentence in the email. Is that really supposed to inspire confidence in OUP's ability to help me in my future"text books orders"? Can people incapable of writing intelligible English run the sales division of the largest and most respected academic publishing house on Earth?
The answer is"no" (in case you were wondering), and that brings me to my larger point. For all of the criticism of globalization and corporatization I've heard in academia over the last decade, I've heard precious little about the increasing power of academic publishing houses, and even less about their standards of competence. We tolerate these institutions because we have no choice but to depend on them. Since our careers depend on the"prestige factor," prestige becomes a vicious cycle: the most prestigious publishing houses ride on the laurels of their prestige because they know that they have an abjectly acquiescent clientele out there. And that clientele, they know, wants the prestige of an Oxford imprimatur on the book they're getting published, or else needs a book bearing that imprimatur to teach a class.
Some dealings with the OUPs of the world are unavoidable. But the time has come, I think, to start talking back to these behemoths. In my view, it's authors who have to take the lead. When authors begin to send manuscripts to publishing houses on the basis of merit rather than prestige, changes will take place. But that requires a general change in attitude in academia, one that I don't expect to see anytime soon: an orientation toward objective standards of merit, definable independently of consensus and prestige.
The more the attacks on free speech continue, the more Danish butter cookies, Havarti cheese, and sexy lingerie I'll be forced to purchase. Let this be a warning to the enemies of free speech.
I've devoted considerable space to several of the manifesto signatories here at T&P and elsewhere; here's a post on Ibn Warraq, one on Hirsi Ali, one on Rushdie, one on Irshad Manji, and one on Bernard-Henry Levy.
Hat-tip to Judith Apter Klinghoffer for the JP link.
It’s an underappreciated fact that the current terrorist episode is most fundamentally a civil war, a war of Muslim against Muslim over the soul of Islam, which for a variety of reasons has spilled out of the Muslim world and into the rest of it. Wars of this sort lead inevitably to euphemism, reticence, and rationalization intended to paper over the reality of the conflict: brothers find it hard to admit that they really are making war against each other.The destruction of the Golden Mosque in Samarra provides a dramatic, if sickening, illustration of this fact. Much will be made about the relation between the destruction of the mosque and the sectarian violence that has (and will) follow it, about who exactly is to blame for its destruction, and the like. But important as these political issues may be, there is a moral and philosophical point worth making over and above them.
The destruction of this mosque is the last tenuous pretense of the Islamists' claim to be fighting imperialism in the name of Islamic jihad. This is, I realize, a statement easily susceptible of misinterpretation, so let me stipulate that in asserting it, I don't mean to be denying the connection between Islamism and Islamic jihad, much less to be praising either thing.
What I mean is that for about a decade now, Islamists have justified their atrocities against non-Muslims by citing the depredations of non-Muslims against Islam. Muslims killed in that struggle were considered collateral damages. But contemporary Islamism has by now reached a level of incoherence so pervasive, and a form of nihilism so intense, that it cannot even manage to abide by the murderous norms of an anti-Western jihad against"imperialism." It has become an explicit jihad of Muslim against Muslim unconstrained by norms of any kind. When Muslims begin to target mosques in the name of jihad, I think we've reached a reductio ad absurdum of Islamism beyond which it is simply impossible to go.
Having once been an orthodox, believing Muslim I find myself almost at the limits of my imaginative capacities in trying to grasp the mentality of a Muslim capable of such a thing. A Muslim capable of flying a 757 into the World Trade Center or Pentagon is perfectly imaginable to me. A Muslim capable of blowing up the Golden Mosque is not.
But maybe one needn't strain so much. We shouldn't forget that the principle behind the macabre absurdity of the destruction of the Golden Mosque is endorsed in the Qur'an itself."What is this life," asks Surah An'am,"but play and amusement? But best is the Home in the Hereafter, for those who are righteous. Will ye not then understand?" (6:32).
The thing to"understand" is that if this life is merely an instrumental means to the next, so is everything and everyone in it. The implication is that if someone or something stands in the way of what you take to be your salvation, your job is to sweep it out of the way and let God deal with it later. If the thing is a building, it may well have to be destroyed; if it's a person, it may well have to be killed. If it is a person in a building, both things may have to be annihilated in one fell swoop.
But what if the thing is a mosque and the people in question are Muslims? In that case, one simply has to deny those very facts: the Muslims must be turned into infidels, and the mosque must be regarded as a den of iniquity. Nor will the beauty of the mosque count for anything: beauty is merely temporal, and infidel beauty is merely seduction and temptation.
Once you get that far, you'll be capable of blowing up the Askariya Mosque without any qualms for what would have been utterly obvious to anyone in their right mind: that you've just blown up one of the most beautiful mosques on Earth in the name of Islam.
One might complain that there's too much pretending required here to make my Muslim mosque-bomber's thoughts intelligible. Who can ignore so much of reality and yet function as a human being? Answer: a person of faith. Never forget that pretending is the very heart of all religious faith--Jewish, Christian or Muslim. Faith is the suspension of reason, and every suspension of reason is, quite literally, a form of make-believe.
The form of make-believe that posits a perfect hereafter is in fact the perfect recipe for the abdication of scruples about this world, or regret or guilt about their violation:"for verily the hereafter will be better for thee than the present," or so we are told in Surah ad-Dhuha (93:4), which means, ironically enough,"glorious morning light." Anyone who has seen pictures of the Golden Mosque in the glorious light of this world may want to make some mental comparisons to the glorious if ghostly light of the promised hereafter.
I'm reminded of the repeated use of metaphors of light and color in Wallace Stevens's"Esthetique du Mal," but especially these lines:
The greatest poverty is not to live
In a physical world, to feel that one's desire
Is too difficult to tell from despair. Perhaps
After death, the non-physical people, in paradise
Itself non-physical, may by chance observe
The green corn gleaming and experience
The minor of what we feel.
Chances are they won't. And chances are they will neither observe the golden dome of the Askariya mosque gleaming, nor experience the minor of what some of us felt when it stood.
People have sometimes wondered whether terrorism is inspired by poverty and despair. It is, but not quite in the sense to which its apologists and excuse-makers allude. The poverty in question is the one that arises from eminently physical people whose incapacity to distinguish desire from despair gives them the ardent wish to become non-physical people—to become disembodied spirits in a confabulated realm beyond the one we all actually inhabit. The problem is that they can't seem to keep their fantasy to themselves. They have an inveterate habit--derived from the very nature of the fantasy--to inflict it on everyone.
And here I'm reminded of some lines from Nietzsche's Zarathustra, to whom I give the last word on this subject:
There are preachers of death: and the earth is full of those to whom departure from life must be preached.
The earth is full of the superfluous, life has been corrupted by the many-too-many. Let them be lured by 'eternal life' out of this life.
Yellow men or black men: that is what the preachers of death are called. But I want to show them to you in other colors.
There are the dreadful creatures who carry a beast of prey around within them, and have no choice except lusts or self-mortification. And even their lusts are self-mortification.
They have not yet even become men, these dreadful creatures. Let them preach departure from life and depart themselves! …
They would like to be dead, and we should approve their wish! Let us guard against awakening these dead men and damaging these living coffins…
But they want to escape from life: what is it to them that, with their chains and gifts, they bind others still more firmly to it? …
Everywhere resound the voices of those who preach death: and the earth is full of those to whom death must be preached.
Or 'eternal life': it is all the same to me—provided they pass away quickly!
Thus spoke Zarathustra.
Consider this example: A few weeks ago, I submitted a paper to a conference that I've presented several times before at other peer-reviewed conferences. The paper had previously gotten a very favorable reaction at the places where I'd presented it; it had also previously been rejected once. A few days ago, I got a letter of rejection from the most recent conference to which I submitted it. What is interesting is not the rejection per se but the alleged reasons given for the rejection.
The letter of rejection opens by thanking me for submitting the paper. It then says that roughly 170 papers were submitted to the conference, but only a fraction of them could be accepted for the conference."All of the papers," the letter continues,"were of the highest quality," including mine. Unfortunately, mine wasn't selected for inclusion in the conference, not because it lacked merit but because the organizers put a high premium on" coherence" in the conference panels. Evidently, my paper just didn't"fit" any panel. Neither did about 100+ other papers of the 170 submitted. The vast majority of papers, in other words, were highly meritorious outliers, and were thus rejected because, despite their merit, they didn't fit the minority of papers that cohered with one another in subject-matter, approach, or style.
Stop for a minute to marvel at the sheer nonsensicality of this letter, which is both a commonplace in our profession (who hasn't received one, or two, or ten?) and a"transparent" insult to the intelligence of any semi-perspicacious reader. There really are only two interpretive possibilities here, neither of them all that edifying. Either the conference organizers are lying, or they are telling the truth. Consider each possibility in turn.
Suppose they're lying. It is entirely possible that the letter is a way of assuaging the hurt feelings of the rejected author in advance. What the letter really means to say is,"Your paper sucked." What it actually says is something to the effect of:"Your paper was great, but not for us." The inference to draw in this case is that dishonesty is an integral part of the peer-review process, and it plays that role because honesty would either be too much of a bother, or because the referees have no idea how to explain their criteria or selections. None of this seems to me to be a point in favor of"transparency in academia." Nor does any of it put the vaunted peer-review process in a favorable light.
Notice incidentally that the assumption that drives the peer-review process in this case is that academics are one and all incapable of dealing with reality as it is. When they think a paper sucks, they'll lie; likewise, authors need to be shielded from the hurt feelings that arise from rejection, hence can't be told the truth. If this is peer-review, peer review has really become a species of infantilization.
Suppose they're telling the truth. In this case, what the organizers are telling us is that they are not interested in merit so much as conformity. Obviously, papers have to meet certain minimal threshold conditions for merit. But once they do, the issue is not which paper is best but which paper connects with the other papers.
There is of course some truth to the idea that panels work better when everyone on the panel is operating from common assumptions. But there is also truth to the idea that a peer-review process that favors" coherence" favors the assumptions that"everyone" (or some important majority or minority) already accepts. Peer-review so conceived is designed, whether wittingly or not, with a bias against uncommon views regardless of their merit. In other words, if you're saying something that no one else is saying, and conference organizers prize coherence, you'll never be heard. When you complain about that, of course, the inference will be that you're just a whiner who can't hack it. Why? Well, because if you were any good, you'd get past...peer review, which (as any fool knows) selects for merit.
A bit of reflection should suggest that the mechanism just described explains the grain of truth in the David Horowitzian thesis that academia is controlled by a cabal of think-alike leftists who block career-opportunities to those who don't share their views. The common response to the Horowitzians is that academia is transparent, and run by such wonderful things as peer-review, hence there can be no such cabals. But this response is a form of naivete that borders on disingenuousness. Even if we restrict ourselves to academic conferences in the humanities run in the way I've just described, we are talking about lots of conferences, lots of papers, and lots of important decisions--hence lots at stake in the way of exposure, reputation, opportunities for publication, and for career success generally.
I don't profess to have a detailed solution to this problem. But then, you don't need a detailed solution merely to identify a problem to a profession that refuses to acknowledge the existence of one. The best start toward a solution would be such an acknowledgement. I'd be curious to see whether academics would be willing or able to make the start.
Basic Philosophical Issues, The College of New Jersey
“Many traditions come from the Bible, such as Christmas and Easter. They are both highly predominant holidays. If there wasn’t a belief in God, these holidays would not exist.”
“I am an Episcopalian, which is a form of Christianity that stems from Catholicism.”
Introduction to Philosophy, Montclair State University
“I mean I really think that Hitler was a cruel person. But maybe his moral principles were based on his own self and we can’t judge him.”
“Since the beginning of time, mankind has been punished.” [opening line of a paper on the theory of punishment]
Philosophical Issues in Science, The College of New Jersey
“Theists say that the Holy Bible proves everything from God’s existence to how we came on this earth and why there is evil in a universe created by a God. My problem with that is the accuracy of the Book. This book had stories and messages that go back to near the beginning of the universe, which was a crazy long time ago.”
Contemporary Moral Issues, The College of New Jersey
“This class also helped me to learn about other religions, mainly Islam. Growing up without any religion of any kind has made me very open to the many religions that there are. However, I didn’t know them all apart until I came to your class. While some still confuse me, the three main ones (Catholicism, Judaism, and Islamic) are no longer blurry around the edges.”
“[Before this class], I did not know…that we had bombed Palestine [Sudan] and killed many innocent people [one person] who did nothing to deserve to die…I did not think we would be learning history in your class and if I had known that we would be learning the history of Palestine I might have been swayed not to take your class.” [The student was referring to Clinton's 1998 bombing of the Al Shifa Pharmaceutical Plant in Khartoum.]
"In 1973, during the Fourth Arab-Israeli War, Egypt recovered the Cyanide Peninsula.”
“September 11, 2001 started off as a regular, ordinary day…It was 8:48 am when the first plane, carrying 92 people on board, flew into the north tower of the World Trade Center….At 9:24 am…President Bush addressed the nation and called the crashes ‘an apparent terrorist attack on our country’….Seventeen minutes later we would get to experience bravery at it’s best, with the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93, discovering that their plane will also be used as a ‘flying bomb’…There have been speculations as to where the terrorists would have used this plane, and many believe that it would have been The White House. Over 3,000 people died that day, a day that our nation will surely never forget. You may ask, ‘Who would do such a thing?’ The answer is terrorists.”
“Unfortunately, war is an extremely deadly battle where many individuals, including innocent people, lose their lives.”
“In order to make an effort to explain why these terrorists believe that this attack was justified I will lay out the historical events dating back to 1290. [One sentence later, the student continues.] A true explanation of terrorism today would date back to 1922 and the fall of the Ottoman Empire (non-Arab Muslims).”
“I truly feel that the religion of Islam has some serious issues, especially at the present time.”
“The United States sided with Israel, essentially, because they had more in common. We fought on the same sides in both World Wars…”
“Wax Weber says that you should do the act, recognize that it is bad, and then your hands will be clean again….” [Discussion of Michael Walzer's paper,"The Problem of Dirty Hands"]
“Here Waltzer is clinging to a fence, but there is no middle ground. Why write this essay if you’re not going to explain what side you’re on Mike?” [Discussion of Michael Walzer’s paper, “World War II: Why Was this War Different?”]
“However, after hearing the argument’s of the Bush administration, with whom I rarely agree and identify with, I can see how they have no leg to stand on in this matter.” [On the Pledge of Allegiance controversy regarding the phrase"under God"]
“Personally my knowledge of non Christian ‘dogma’ is not very well versed so the following argument spawns mainly from the beliefs taught to me through my own theistic experiences…This makes [God] by nature kind and good yet prone to frustration and anger when we act out inappropriately…While such can sound cruel an example to this support is the Book of Jobe. This is a story of how Satin argued that if a man fell to a life of destruction then too would fall his faith.”
War and Peace (POL 382), Princeton University
Student 1: So are there any examples of successful assassinations that were clearly orchestrated by governments?
Khawaja: Well, the assassination of Trotsky is perhaps the best example.
Student 1: Ah, right.
Khawaja, to class: So…any further questions on this material?
Student 2: I’m sorry, I didn’t quite get the answer to that last question.
Khawaja: Well, he asked whether there were any successful state-sponsored assassinations, and I said that the most obvious example was the assassination of Trotsky.
Student 2: Right, I got that. But…who was Trotsky?
****************************So what does all this prove? The answer, I think, was succintly stated by a student of mine in Contemporary Moral Issues at The College of New Jersey:
“More history should be known to our youths. Also, the reasons, why we should be defending our country for War.”Exactly.
Well, here, from the bowels of New Jersey Higher Ed, is another"ought to be national news" scandal--this time at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ). This article from the Newark Star-Ledger describes the state of play in the UMDNJ controversy as of yesterday. The charges, to be sure, are complex, and in many cases are no more than that--charges. But this passage from the article goes beyond mere charges to discuss what is actually known:
The U.S. Attorney's Office would not talk about the investigation. However, nearly a year after Christie began his investigation of UMDNJ -- amid revelations of widespread financial waste and abuse, contracts to those with connections, and jobs to insiders -- the U.S. attorney observed political influence has long been part of UMDNJ's portfolio."One of the things that we, along with the monitor, have discovered even at the earliest stages of our investigation is that politics has played a poisonous role in the ability of UMDNJ to independently and correctly govern itself," Christie remarked in an interview last week.Anyone still want to plump for the "transparency-in-academia" thesis?
I've previously discussed UMDNJ here, apropos of the Kerner Commission's discussion of UMDNJ's contribution (of sorts) to the 1967 Newark race riots.