Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Where To Begin? From HuffPo.

Naomi Schaefer Riley, Chronicle Of Higher Education Blogger, Fired For Calling Black Studies 'Claptrap'


The Huffington Post  |  By  Posted: 05/08/2012 3:09 pm Updated: 05/08/2012 6:20 pm
The Chronicle of Higher Education dismissed one of its bloggers after outcry over a blog post she wrote questioning the legitimacy of black studies as an academic discipline.
Naomi Schaefer Riley, a lecturer and author who wrote for the Chronicle's blog, Brainstorm, was let go after readers pushed back on an essay she published last week titled "The Most Persuasive Case For Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations." Riley's essay responded to a sidebar of a story in the Chronicle which profiled several up-and-coming black studies scholars in the process of writing dissertations. Riley looked at the titles of the dissertations -- on subjects like the role of race in housing policy and the history of black midwifery in the United States -- and called them "left-wing victimization claptrap."
Crampicle Editor Initial Comment.
Riley's Wall Street Journal Piece.
Wall Street Journal Editorial.
Riley's Own Site.


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Note from the moderators:

The mail is very busy this morning. I am asking everyone who's going to comment to remember that CM is a community, and that this is a shared space. Reckless attacks are not useful or appropriate, and as the day goes, I'll simply delete comments that are not in keeping with an open discussion of the issues.

Thanks. 

54 comments:

  1. I was following this last week, and thought about posting, but there was an element of the Crampicle setting her up to be a troll in order to get pageviews that kind of put me off. I'd be interested to hear other people's views on that. Not that I am in the least bit saying that there was any excuse for the ignorant crap she wrote, but someone must have okayed it, you know?

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    1. I don't think anyone did okay it, actually. The Brainstorm section of the Crampicle is a group blog; all of their regular bloggers were probably given posting rights (like a certain other blog we may all be reading right at this moment).

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    2. I suspect they have overlapping rights to delete a post, though, and the idea that the ignorant and controversial blog post might bring in new page views probably stayed the hand of some almost-deleters, I imagine

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  2. I can already tell we're going to go off the rails tomorrow on this. Can anyone just send me some absinthe right now so I can make it through?

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  3. Oh, it's ugly. McMillen is a pretty good editor, but there's something odd about her 2 different statements.

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    1. The scent of the weasel, perhaps? That first post about how they were hoping it would "encourage debate" is completely undermined by the second one where she is all "I am sorry if I gave the impression of legitimacy".

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  4. What on earth was Riley thinking? That Brainstorm blog is so shitty anyway, but who knew anyone read the fucking thing.

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  5. Doesn't it seem like Riley was trying to stir up something, and that the Crampicle egged it on initially? Jesus on a pony.

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    1. Yup. Definite egging, I think. And then desperate backpedalling.

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  6. I'm somewhat leery of niche fields like black studies or women's studies...but the word "claptrap" is an apt descriptor of Riley's op-ed piece. Her firing was richly deserved.

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    1. I think they are most useful in that they create an instant inter-disciplinary focus. Women's studies is a great way to combine sociology, anthropology, history, literature, and political science all in one. (not to mention the 20 other disciplines I left out)

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    2. Amen to Monkey's comment. The most useful class I took my freshman year was a Women's Studies class, not only because it helped me identify academic/scholarly interests that persist to this day, but also because it served as an introduction to a variety of disciplines, and what questions they ask about a broad subject. I heard read work by and heard lectures from really impressive thinkers in English, History, Psychology, Anthropology and Religion (and possibly another field or two that I'm forgetting). One could easily to the same with various ethnic or area studies, other areas of gender studies, etc., etc. And, of course, one can also build a similar class around an non-ethnically and/or gender-defined issue, geographical area, event, etc., etc.

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  7. I agree with Darla and WhatLadder that this was probably a lamebrained attempt to get more page views. But by publishing the work of someone who brags about not reading the things she is condemning, the Crampicle has lost whatever shred of credibility it had. So they let her take the fall, but I don't think they'll recover, reputation-wise.

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    1. Basic writing 101: if you don't read the source, you aren't qualified to comment on it. Duh!

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  8. Ed of Ginandtacos.com did a post on this on Monday, so that's how I came upon this particular story. I figured I'd see it here eventually.

    Pretty much in agreement with F&T on this.

    Here's Ed's post on the subject, for anyone interested.

    http://www.ginandtacos.com/2012/05/07/red-meat/

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  9. With the certainty that I'll have my bottom chewed...
    The blog post identifies a real problem: some disciplines , while producing very serious research, tolerate a lot of fluffy thought to be turned into writing and accepted as scholarship. I have the good luck of working a field with a very low bull tolerance threshold, where some of that scholarship receives what it has coming (you may google "Kordecki Ecofeminist Medieval Review" for an example).
    I remember that, in the first class of Women Studies I took, the professor -- a highly recognized scholar in Francophonie Women Studies -- greeted us with hur version of the central dogma of the field: "In every time and society all women have been oppressed." When one of the students, naively, asked "What about Margaret Thatcher, then?" hu curtly replied "She was not a woman."
    Schaefer Riley makes a very poor argument, but there are issues that make that argument possible.

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    1. She makes a poor argument because she didn't read the work she was belittling. I don't even think those examples were particularly "bad". It's easy enough to find an example of a thesis in any humanities discipline that sounds laughable when you don't do anything but look at the title. Shaefer Riley was taking cheap racist shots, and she deservedly got her ass kicked.
      Grad students are encouraged to make wanky sounding titles to their work. You should know it's unfair to judge a book by its cover.

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    2. I think most disciplines are pretty easy pickings for uninformed derision from people who just don't see the point. The NSR dustup reminded me of Sarah Palin's idiotic complaint that federal funding was going to "I kid you not - research on fruitflies!" The horror.

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    3. I don't know, when I'm making fun of a disertation topic privately it's usually something I have no question about it's rigor or it's difficulty. There is obscurity and there is so obscure no one including the disertation adviser understands it.

      As for titles... my top ten department has brought in publishers to talk to grad students that have explicitly said that the disertation title should be both boring and wonky. They don't want libraries to be able to easily link titles between books and disertations for fear that they wont buy two "books" by the same author on the same subject.

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    4. Every field has idiots, and the journals that publish them. I saw that in grad school, when I had the time (and a research project that required it) to scan a fair number of lower-tier journals.

      There was a lot of sloppy manure, with just enough diamonds to make me keep wading through it.

      But I will have to admit that I have very little sympathy for women's studies types who will claim that Margaret Thatcher, or Sarah Palin, is not a woman because she doesn't have the right politics.

      If women in power aren't women, what about Indira Gandhi or Golda Meir or Angela Merkel? "Ain't I a woman?"

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    5. Yeah, that professor's response is the kind of thing that makes me glad I got my feminist education on the streets rather than in school. I'm sure either way could have worked, but that kind of anecdote makes me a bit nervous.

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    6. Didn't you raise your hand and decry the ridiculous statement as a perfect example of the "No True Scotsman" fallacy? Man, I've always wanted to pull that one out of my sleeve.

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    7. "Margaret Thatcher was not a woman" strikes me as a very poor conversation ender, but a very good conversation starter if you're talking about performing gender a la Judith Butler. And it does, indeed, get even more interesting if you add Meir, Merkel, Gandhi, and Palin, not to mention other recent conservative female politician in the U.S. who rather enthusiastically perform variations on femininity in the public sphere (plus Santorum, who performs some interesting variations on traditional masculinity). Add Hilary Clinton, Madeline Albright, and Condoleeza Rice, in various past and current incarnations, throw in Michelle Obama, and you've really got something interesting going on.

      But yes, anyone who claims that any of the above are not women simply because they have power of various kinds is all wet. So, on the other hand, I would argue, is anyone who claims that gender did not play a role in both the struggles and the successes of any of the above. It's a complicated world out there, and the job of a scholar is to identify and investigate the complications, not to oversimplify them.

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  10. People People People! Read People Magazine instead of the Crampicle and you won't need to get your knickers in a knot!

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  11. Riley's blog post was simply poor journalism. If there is a good argument to be made that the quality of those dissertations is low, then she needs to make it. Explain why black women's experiences throughout history with natural child birth are not worthy of scholarly investigation or why that particular dissertation author does a poor job of investigating it. Riley did none of that and she deserves mockery.

    I don't know if she deserves to be fired or removed from the blog. One dumb post shouldn't lead to losing your job. I'm not comfortable with how CHE responded to its readers' complaints. Her post was stupid but I don't think it was racist. If she had written the same type of post about seemingly worthless chemistry dissertation topics, I doubt she would have been fired.

    Granted, it is a blog but it's a blog affiliated with a higher quality publication. CHE sets a higher standard for its blogs. That post would have been savaged here too, regardless of the field of study it tried to lampoon.

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    1. I think criticizing the thesis on black midwifery/childbirth practices seemed like a particularly bad misfire to many people because it suggested that Riley was not familiar with one much-praised and widely-popularized thread in women's history, the one started by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's A Midwife's Tale. By the time a work of scholarship wins the Pulitzer prize, makes it to PBS, and helps win its originator a MacArthur fellowship and a named chair at Harvard, you sort of expect a higher ed reporter to have some vague awareness of it, or at least be able to find it via google. Once you acknowledge the current prominence of this thread of historical scholarship, the importance of the question of whether black women's experiences are represented becomes much clearer. And if you deny the legitimacy of studying an experience that has been central to most women's (and many men's) lives over all of history -- well, you get the women's studies folks (and, I'd argue, pretty much any thinking person) mad.

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    2. I thought the black midwife one was the most interesting-sounding of the three.

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  12. I can't for the life of me figure out why it's not racist to pick on an entire discipline that studies the history and continuing impact of racial inequality. There's a reason she picked Black Studies and not, say, Ecocriticism (which has a lot of feel-good fluff), Post-Human Studies (which traffics in all kinds of jargonic gobbledygook), Physics (comprehensible to almost no one outside the field), or Sociology (which often does a lot of quantifying fancy-dancing to prove the thunderingly obvious). I respect all the fields I just named, but there is terrible work in them too. Black Studies also has some terrible work to offer -- which these dissertations did not actually seem to represent. She picked Black Studies because this country is full of people who are ready, willing, and able to believe that anything black people do is inferior.

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    1. She was responding to a CHE article about black studies, so choosing that field seems appropriate. There are potential problems with substituting any of the other fields for black studies. Sociology is too broad, physicists are considered really smart and most people have not heard of post-human studies and ecocriticism. To write anything informative in 500 words, you have to assume that the audience already knows some background on the subject. Black studies, women studies and any other [insert group name here] studies are picked on because that genre of academic fields has a reputation (probably undeserved) for prioritizing activism above scholarship.

      She may be racist but I don't see that in this particular post - it just showcases her poor reasoning skills. If her audience members hold racial biases, that does not mean that she does.

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    2. If she wrote an opinion piece whose premise, as you suggest, a racist reader is more likely to agree with, how is that not a racist piece? I agree with Frog and Toad.

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    3. Let's assume that there are valid criticisms of the field of black studies as a whole. Any such criticism would be welcomed by a racist audience. Those making the arguments would not be racists.

      There are stupid criticisms (like Riley's) that are welcomed by a racist audience. Her piece makes her look stupid but not necessarily racist.

      My point is that there are better ways to describe a viewpoint than by the type of audience which is receptive to it.

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    4. I think her choice of topic probably did stem from the recent Chronicle piece (which may be a bit lazy, but, realistically, that's how the blogosphere works). But, at the very least, choosing that article for a no-research potshot-slinging piece showed serious tonedeafness to the current political climate, in and out of academia.

      Or, as others have suggested, a pretty savvy sense of the laziest route to causing a firestorm, increasing internet traffic, and turning her into a conservative martyr with a newly-inked book deal.

      I think the main loser here may (deservedly) be the Crampicle. It gets attacked not only by scholars of Afro-Am and Women's Studies (and, really, anyone who values solid scholarship, realizes that dissertation topics in particular are necessarily narrow, and feels appropriately protective of emerging scholars and dissertations-in-progress) but also by conservatives, who now have additional proof of its "political correctness."

      The other losers, sadly, are probably academia in general and Afro-American studies in particular, which once again are decried as stifling "debate" and "free speech." Ugh.

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    5. I agree with everything you said and I would add that other losers are critics of ... Studies. Riley is apparently a big name in this niche. If a superstar like her makes such a poorly reasoned argument, then it makes all black studies critics look bad.

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    6. Fortunately, she is not at all a superstar critic, nor a scholar of black studies. She makes conservatives look like idiots.

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  13. No doubt I'll get tarred-and-feathered for this, but what the heck: I have always thought that any discipline requiring "Studies" in its name isn't a discipline.

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    1. What do you suppose "-ology" means?

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    2. What DOES "-ology" mean? I know the meaning of
      "-logy" and it doesn't mean "Studies."

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    3. If we want to get academic, -logy and -ology are actually the same thing, but -ology can be considered incorrect when the "o" properly belongs to the prefix, as in "biology." The origin of the suffix is Greek and has roots with two distinct meanings: "to study" or "to speak/write." (I knew taking that course on the nature of language would pay off someday!)

      In any case, Black studies or women's studies sounds much better than Blackology or femmeology as an academic discipline. Regardless of the construction, I still see it as a discipline which uses synthesis to create its own methodology.

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    4. @Finnfann-- actually, "studies" courses, especially intro ones, can be wonderful introductions to the disciplines and their particular perspectives. See my agreement with Monkey's comment above

      At the upper level, and on a department/program level, studies programs and scholarship are a great chance to avoid just the sort of isolation and over-narrow specialization that Riley criticizes. To take another example that she cited, how many different disciplines do you think it takes to truly understand the issue of housing and the role it plays in all kinds of other societal trends and phenomena? Whether you call it African-American Studies, [name your region] Studies, Urban Studies, or even some form of Environmental Studies, you've got a place to bring together economists, sociologists, psychologists, architects, engineers, political scientists, folklorists, ecologists, etc., etc. to understand what's going on (and perhaps even how to make it better).

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    5. I completely agree that an interdisiplinary course is a useful introductory device. That does not make it, in itself, a "discipline."
      I also agree that bringing many disciplines to bear on an issue can be enormously productive. That does not negate the fact that it is **disciplines** that we are bringing to bear on the issue. One can understand that, for example, the urban housing crisis might be well-studied by including the perspectives of economics, politics, history, and so on. How would it be studied via "African American Studies" ? Is that a discipline separate of the historical, sociological, economic (etc.) disciplines that it uses?

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    6. In my (perhaps-outdated) experience, students and professors in "Studies" programs often have home departments and/or dual majors; at the very least, they have advisors from, and teach and/or take courses in, more traditional discipline-based departments, and use the tools of those disciplines to study the questions in which they're interested.

      Historically, those with "Studies" degrees alone (and this includes such relatively noncontroversial "Studies" programs such as American Studies) often have difficulty getting jobs and/or tenure, for precisely the reasons you name. One can see that as a problem with "studies" programs, or a problem with the university's structure; I incline toward the latter view, while recognizing the value of full understanding, and making sophisticated use of, traditional disciplinary tools.

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    7. And to answer your specific question, adding an African-Americanist (or an historian, sociologist, or economist with particular expertise, and broad grounding, in the study of race) would guarantee that a study of the urban housing crisis would not ignore the role of race in the situation. It seems obvious to us, now, that such considerations should be included, but it's partly thanks to the role of scholars with expertise in African-American studies that we realize that phrases such as "ghetto eradication" or "urban renewal" or "blight" have racial overtones, and that the historic deployment of such phrases, and the on-the-ground activities they were used to justify, had disproportionately bad consequences for embodied African Americans (and, often, disproportionately positively consequences for the white and/or middle-to-upper class people whose perspectives they tended to represent. One person's blighted ghetto in need of renewal/revitalization -- which in the '60s often translated into "the perfect place to put a highway to help suburbanites commute into the city from which they fled in the wake of desegregation," and today still often involves a lot of initial destruction of affordable housing -- is somebody else's well-established multi-generational community in need of better law enforcement and other services and funds for repairing/sprucing up the existing infrastructure).

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    8. Apart from the criticism of their activism, I think some academics challenge the legitimacy of Studies courses because of the broad nature of their field, which C. Cassandra notes above. I don't completely buy into this but it is something that bothers me. A dissertation about housing takes into account sociology, economics, urban planning, history and other subjects. How serious can scholarship be if it is (necessarily) a mile wide and an inch deep?

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    9. There's a real danger there, I think. One can probably apply two disciplinary approaches at most effectively in a single, single-authored work (and even then, it helps if the scholar had significant professional experience in one field before taking on the second). For other fields, one is going to end up relying on others' scholarship (and taking the risk of not fully understanding/misrepresenting by simplifying it).

      That's for a dissertation or single-authored work, however. A "studies" conference or edited volume (or themed journal issue) can do a very nice job of bringing together scholars from a variety of fields to shed light on an issue. That's probably more what I was envisioning above, but it's not, admittedly, what Riley originally criticized.

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    10. I'm with Cassandra. The reason a huge portion of work falls under headings like "studies" is because the whole forest was invisible for so long. Like millenia. But I guess "feminology" and "raceology" will do for a start....

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  14. Hello all:

    The mail is very busy this morning. I am asking everyone who's going to comment to remember that CM is a community, and that this is a shared space. Reckless attacks are not useful or appropriate, and as the day goes, I'll simply delete comments that are not in keeping with an open discussion of the issues.

    Thanks,
    The Moderators

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    1. 45+ comments and we are all getting along. We deserve a cookie! (I like snickerdoodles, BTW).

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    2. Indeed. I'm amazed, and pleased. And I'd bake snickerdoodles for all if I weren't so busy grading (and commenting on CM).

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  15. What this tells me:

    Irish Jews - untrustworthy.














































    (Yes, that was SATIRE.)

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  16. Like others, I was thinking of writing up a post on this dust-up, but I didn't, because I was participating in other dust-ups about this matter.

    I'm conflicted about my response(s) to this whole thing. Riley's article was unimaginably lunkheaded. I can't believe that a headline containing the word "eliminate" alongside of a racial designation made it past whatever editor should have been looking at this piece before it made it to the Internet.

    However, I've grown tired of identity-based scholarship in the Humanities At Large. I understand "the personal is political" rhetoric--I'm in the Humanities myself, it should be known--and I'm not necessarily sneering at that point of view. I just feel that, more and more, Women's Studies, Queer Studies, Fat Studies, Disability Studies, etc. so obviously telegraph their arguments that there really isn't any reason to read the dissertations. Look at the synopses of the dissertations as stated in the original article. All of them, essentially, come to this conclusion: because of [X], there is evidence of racism. This is the kind of argumentation that has become standard in Cultural Studies, and it is not indicative of any theoretical rigor. Sure, it might be topical--the dissertation on childbirth sounds fascinating--but it's not necessarily inventive beyond that point, and given the miserable state of scholarly publishing and the academic job market (in the humanities), I do think that these disciplines should be called out for continuing to produce this kind of work. Sure, maybe Riley shouldn't be doing the calling out, but that doesn't mean that stuff like this is immune to criticism.

    Also, it strikes me that the whole argument that, well, no one really reads dissertations is mostly a cop-out, because it really just reaffirms the problem with the kind of scholarship that graduate students in the humanities are being encouraged/required to produce.

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    1. Despite my defense of Black/African-American Studies (and Women's Studies), and some of the specific dissertation topics mentioned, above, I agree that there is a tendency, in some of the weaker scholarship coming out of those fields, to end up with a thesis that comes perilously close to "using race/gender analysis, I can demonstrate that race/gender inequality exists in this situation I have chosen to study." I also agree that cultural studies seems particularly prone to the process by which one feeds an example into a particular theoretical model, and out the other end comes -- surprise! -- an argument which basically reiterates the foundational assumptions of the theory using the particulars of the example.

      But that's just bad scholarship, no better or worse than feeding the particulars of a complicated economic situation into a narrow theoretical model of economics and coming out with an argument that both reflects the assumptions of and reinforces the model.

      Where Black/Women's/Cultural studies get interesting, and potentially useful, is when they ask how race, gender, class, and/or other forms of identity (and/or power) play a role in a particular situation, and come up with nuanced, often in some ways self-contradictory, answers, answers which acknowledge both the larger structures that shape our lives more than we'd like to admit, and the often-small but still crucial ways in which human beings manage to maintain a sense of identity, and self-worth, and shared culture, and to support each other in doing so, even in the most soul-crushing circumstances. The best scholarship in the "identity" fields manages to hold those two realities in often-uneasy but productive tension. When it's good, it's really, really good, and speaks -- if I may indulge in a bit of rather old-fashioned universalizing for a moment -- to the human condition as a whole.

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