Parsing Boer’s Concept of Religious Studies

Roland Boer, “The implicit imperialism of the ‘critical religion’ approach?” Stalin’s Moustache blog (6/5/2015) [LINK]

After co-authoring a editorial on how “approaches to religion” can be “more critical” in the most recent issue of the journal Critical Research on Religion (for the editorial, see here) Roland Boer, an academic theologian at the University of Newcastle in Australia (see here), published on his blog Stalin’s Moustache some of his reactions to the controversy that was stirred by the editorial on social media sites like facebook.

As he makes clear here and elsewhere in his blog, Boer, who is sometimes described as both a communist and a Calvinist, is overtly hostile to that approach to religious studies that he labels ‘critical religion,’ a diverse group that includes, inter alia, scholars such as Russell McCutcheon, Aaron Hughes, etc. Boer thinks ‘critical religion’ is bankrupt and counter-revolutionary. But for me, this raises a question. How exactly does he conceptualize religious studies?

Clues that point towards an answer to this question are readily available in the above cited blog post.

In the post, Boer rehearses a generalized history of how, in the 20th century, what he prefers to call the “nomothetic disciplines” (the allegedly more rigorous and “scientific” social sciences, ranging from history and sociology to anthropology, political science, and economics) “divest[ed] themselves of ethical concerns, values and political agenda,” with the result being that these disciplines ended up serving the imperial technocracy of the liberal nation-states. Alleging that the disciplines desired “not to be involved in any project that that might improve the world even a little,” Boer suggests that their flight from value led them to abandon their homes among the humanities or human sciences in order to appear more truly “scientific;” what happened next was that the disciplines came to “provide policy directions for the status quo under liberal democracies,” allowing the critic the opportunity to reasonably describe them as supporting “a new kind of imperialism.”

Boer classifies (without explaining why) the “critical religion” approach (a code for McCutcheon, et al) among these imperialistic nomothetic disciplines. In truth, he makes no effort here to show why this classification “works.” I would suggest that he ignores the actual methods and practices of the scholars he classifies so quickly. But that’s besides the point here. Boer’s posts are short, and he clearly doesn’t have time for the details of the analysis. We are forced to take his word for it.

What I am actually interested in here is how Boer’s final paragraph contains a series of phrases including the terms “religion” and “religious” that are, initially, somewhat difficult to parse. But when they are parsed, I would argue, they reveal a somewhat different conception of the idea of “religious studies” than one ordinarily finds among practitioners of the discipline. This different understanding may explain why Boer is so hostile to ‘critical religion’ as he calls it. I think, therefore, it is worth parsing his phraseology and thinking with Boer, for a minute, about what “religious studies” is or should be.

Let’s examine those the phrases and their context. Boer begins the last paragraph by calling himself “somewhat bemused” that the so-called “nomothetic” approach of ‘critical religion’ now “seeks to remove religious concerns from the analysis of history, society, politics and economics — precisely when those disciplines have become acutely aware of the importance of religion.” He goes on to claim that “practitioners in those areas are actively exploring religious questions and seeking the assistance of of specialists in religion.” He states that historians, sociologists, political scientists and economists “divested their own approaches of [sic] religion some time ago, but now realize it was a mistake,” because, Boer claims they “do not have the requisite skills to deal with [religion].” Turning to scholars of religion for help, Boer implies, they don’t get the help they seek, but instead find scholars of religion actually are engaged in an anachronistic or outdated attempt to follow the nomothetic disciplines; instead of finding what they need, they find ‘critical religion’ “trying to do to the study of religion what these disciplines did to themselves some decades ago.”

First phrase: “seeks to remove religious concerns from the analysis.” In context, this phrase apparently refers to the idea that scholars of religion (or at least those in the ‘critical religion’ camp) would like to conduct their inquiries and analysis of religion without involving human “concerns” that are “religious” in nature. Since such scholars are manifestly focused on what they (or you) might call “religion,” the phrase cannot mean that they hope to study religion without studying the “religious concerns” of the people, institutions, practices, etc., that are being studied. What it must mean is that the scholars themselves seek to employ critical and analytical methodologies, explanatory theories, and metaphysical or philosophical assumptions that are not themselves “religious.” In other words, they seek to conduct research into religion as disinterested outsiders instead of as interested insiders. Boer clearly evaluates this stance negatively, so it is fair to say that Boer hopes that “religious studies” will, in the future, abandon this methodological commitment to agnosticism or atheism and will become more openly “religious.” He doesn’t want religious studies to attempt to adopt the stance of the outsider (the so-called etic stance) but to allow itself to operate from the stance of the insider (the so-called emic stance). Because he is a theologian, and theology is typically classified within the larger umbrella of religious studies as a discipline (but not without tension and controversy), it makes sense that he adopts this position. Here is a philosopher who recognizes, rightly, that ‘critical religion’ wants to make him the object of study, not to consider him a colleague.

It is worth saying that Boer doesn’t, in this article, specify anything about what “religious concerns” he thinks ought to be part of the scholar of religion’s toolbox. However, in his account of the ‘flight from value’ among the nomothetic disciplines, he did specify that they sought to “divest themselves of ethical concerns, values, and political agenda.” On my reading of Boer’s meaning here, what is implied is that the term “religious concerns” can be seen as a gloss for this trinity of human interests (ethics, values, politics), and that his main meaning is that scholars of religion should be motivated by and operate out of explicit codes or systems of such ethics, values, and politics. In this conviction he has some company, but in the main, I would say that he is out of step with the typical norms of the discipline, which has for decades (ever since Tillich, perhaps) insisted that our task is to study these kinds of systems of concerns (the “religious” dimension of human being), more so than it is to explicitly operate out of them.

Second phrase: “have become acutely aware of the importance of religion.” There is a subtle shift in Boer’s terminology here. According to Boer, historians, sociologists, political scientists and economists have, in recent decades, “become acutely aware of the importance of religion.” This appears to be a reference to the widely referred to concept of a “turn to religion” among the disciplines (just google it). The ordinary understanding of this interdisciplinary phenomenon, at least among the scholars of religion that I know, is that the so-called social or human sciences have lately come around to our position, in recognizing that human society, culture, identity, etc., is deeply shaped and influenced by discourse related to “religion,” and that what Boer might call the “religious concerns” of human beings are important to understand if one is to do one’s job as a social scientist.

In that case, Boer’s comment appears to be factual and uncontroversial on the surface. But I see his interpretation of this phenomenon as skewed. Because, coming as it does immediately after the first phrase, in which he implicitly argues that scholars of religion should embrace what he terms their “religious concerns,” what is implied here is that disciplinary practitioners in the nomothetic disciplines have not turned to religion as an object of study, but have turned to religion as a method of study, or perhaps more accurately, to religious concerns as a motive of study. But if I am right that this is Boer’s implicit claim, he is surely mistaken. He doesn’t cite examples of such nomothetic disciplinarians who have openly sought to involve the “religious” in their critical work; perhaps there are some. But ordinarily, the “turn to religion” is not a matter of the conversion of the scholars to religious points of view and methodological/analytical commitments, but rather a turn to a subject matter.

This brings us to the third phrase: “actively exploring religious questions.”. The presence of this ambiguous phrase “religious questions” tends to confirm my reading of Boer’s interpretation of the “turn to religion.” He claims that the nomothetic disciplines are lately “exploring religious questions.”

But what makes a question religious? Is a “religious question” just a “question about religion,” or it is a question asked in a way that is “religious”? In other words, is it a question like “how many people in Syria consider themselves devout Muslims?” or is it a question like, “how can I be a better Christian while doing my work as an historian?” Is it a question like “how does Christian faith impact the scholarship of academics?” or a question like “what is the best way to pursue Jihad in the environment of late capitalism?” There is an important distinction to be made between “questions about” and “questions of.”

In mainstream scholarship on religion (sometimes problematically and ambiguously called “religious studies”) we prefer to ask questions about religion; what gets classified as “religious”? who talks about “religion”? what social, political, cultural, and other forms of discourse and practice are linked to religion, and why, and with what effects? etc. Questions of religion, on the other hand, are rightly seen as matters of internal adjudication and dispute among adherents, i.e. if we are doing our jobs as scholars of religion we will be asking “questions about” the “questions of” religion. If indeed the mainstream practitioners of disciplines outside of “religious studies” are asking “religious questions” that are actually “religious” (‘questions of’ rather than ‘questions about’), we have every right to be interested in such practitioners of the disciplines as if they were in fact the subjects of our study.

Fourth phrase: “seeking the assistance of specialists in religion.” In fact, I don’t think that mainstream historians, economists, etc., have begun to abandon their methodological naturalism and empirical scientific methodologies in order to embrace religious motives in their work. And so I don’t think that they have, as Boer implies, turned to the religious studies people for guidance in such matters, but rather, they sometimes seek out theoretically and methodologically rigorous scholarship on religion to assist them in their studies. Like scholars of religion, they rightly interested in those social and cultural phenomena that people tend to label as “religion” or “religious,” and they figure, correctly, that the discipline of “religious studies” offers rigorous approaches to religion.

But what Boer implies is that they are disappointed by what they find, as if, in seeking out “specialists in religion,” what they were hoping for were people who could help them ask “religious questions” “religiously,” i.e. in Boer’s terms, to incorporate “ethics, values, and political agendas” back into their work. That this is an unlikely scenario hardly needs explication. What it does tell us, however, is that Boer conceives of religious studies as being a place where “specialists in religion” tell other specialists in other areas how to be better at being religious in their work and lives. We have a name for such professionals; we call them priests and ministers, rabbis and imams, clergy, the Sangha, and theologians, etc., etc., etc.

While many such professionals do work as professional scholars of religion, it is far from clear that they act, qua scholars of religion, in their professional capacity as scholarly religious practitioners. The difference is subtle, but important. A scientist may of course be “religious,” but he doesn’t thereby pursue “religious science.” And just because a scholar of religion is religious, doesn’t make that person’s scholarship religious. That’s a decision that is determined by questions asked and methods followed, theories applied, etc.

The main problem I have with Boer’s account of what religious studies ought to be or is better off being is that he seems to exclude the non-religious, or the non-religiously-motivated scholar of religion from religious studies precisely on that basis. But like any public discipline adhering to public norms and practices, our first commitment is to argument based on reason and evidence. As Margaret Mitchell, dean of the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, told an incoming class of students in 2013, “[t]he purpose of the academic study of religion is to teach people to think and talk reasonably about religion in public, to realize that all claims made are subject to proof, and to give them some tools for adjudicating claims. That is our work.” (See page 17 of the Spring 2015 issue of Criterion, available here).

Final phrase: approaches of religion.” As of my reading of Boer’s piece, this phrase appears just so, “approaches of religion.” I don’t know whether this is a deliberately chosen phrase or a typo. If it appeared in a student paper, I would mark it as suspect or awkward, but if it is intentional, then, fine, let it be so and let us criticize it as it appears. An “approach to religion” would be a way of addressing and studying whatever it is we call by that term, “religion.” The methods and aims of such approaches are, as Boer’s piece shows, contested. But an “approach of religion” would be, again, an approach by religion as if by a person (subjective genitive) or an approach that is constituted by religion (genitive of substance) or an approach that is from a position located in religion (partitive genitive, or genitive of source or origin). Is it the case that,as Boer argues or implies, the nomothetic disciplines have come to regret abandoning their “approaches of religion,” and are disappointed to find the ‘critical religion’ folks urging exactly that divestment?

I have yet to see any evidence of that at all.

Religious Studies as Environmental Studies

Todd LeVasseur, “‘The Earth Is sui generis‘: Destabilizing the Climate of Our Field,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 83:2 (2015) 300–319.

Humbly and without any agenda beyond that evident in their tone, in the paragraphs below I present my notes on the above mentioned article. The notes appear here virtually unedited, straight out of my annotated bibliography. I’d be interested in further discussion of LeVasseur’s programmatic call for the transformation of religious studies in the comments, if anyone cares to engage this subject further.

Todd LeVasseur is the convening editor who put together the “Roundtable on Climate Destabilization and the Study of Religion” — a virtual panel consisting of nine papers gathered in Vol 83 issue 2 of the JAAR. LeVasseur teaches both Religious Studies and Environmental studies at the College of Charleston (Charleston, SC). The above cited paper is the first paper in the roundtable.

The first few pages of the article offer a bleak survey of the state of modern climate science and the consensus on global climate change (300-307). For the purpose of moving on to examine his recommendations regarding the future of religious studies, let’s go ahead and stipulate that LeVasseur has presented the science fairly and accurately.

Turning to the situation of Religious Studies in the Anthropocene, LeVasseur writes that the discipline has emerged, as did Darwin, Sociology, etc., within a modern industrialized colonialist civilizational context, mainly as a result of the “slack afforded by cheap carbon” (308). Our work, at present, is also sustained by that “slack.” [Presumably, LeVasseur does not intend to allude to the concept of “slack” as deployed by the Church of the SubGenius.] Critically appraising this legacy, he suggests that “[w]e might want to pause and ask what happens to our field when the slack afforded by cheap carbon is removed” (308).

LeVasseur thinks we need to do more to account for “nature and the natural world” as “variables” (308) impacting “the construction of religions” and “religious production.” For the record, I do not know what Todd LeVasseur means by “religious production” (p. 308, and 309 n. 17). He faults leading theoretical accounts of religion and the critical categories of religious studies for assuming “that the natural world has no agency in our affairs” (308) and “that the natural world has no influence on religions” (309) — though he immediately lists three important titles, two existing journals, and several AAR working groups that would seem to belie his claim (309). Lamenting the general “neglect” of “religion-nature interactions” in the field, and of the very category “nature” as a theoretical tool, he suggests there are but few programs offering doctoral level work in of the kind he is imagining (mentioning, however, programs at University of Florida, University of Toronto, University of British Columbia, and Drew University). Having admitted the existence of these several programs, LeVasseur also observes morosely that job prospects are limited for scholars coming out of them (310). This is due, of course, to the lack of a focus on these areas of inquiry in religious studies. To LeVasseur, that is precisely the problem.

On pp. 310-311 LeVasseur appears to call for scholars of religion to take up a variety of projects that might emphasize either critical appraisals of religion as an enabler of the human destruction of nature, or might show the ways ways that religion fosters human stewardship of nature. This critical constructive project is to be hampered only by his caveats that make it sound like he understands how complex it might be to make such theoretical-ethical appraisals of our subject matter, since it is often very hard to predict future environmental consequences of present practice and ideology, or to trace the line of cause and effect from cultural configurations to the natural environment.

Furthermore, pointing not only to the literal loss of “research sites” due to environmental devastation and its political ramifications (311), he also brings up the potential collapse of the context of the University in general as a site for research and teaching (311-313). Both types of losses will take place through the same dynamic: climate change and its economic and political consequences. [In this section, an offhand and unsourced reference to the Peak Oil concept (see p. 312, and fn. 20) shows that LeVasseur may not always be committed to a historicizing and genealogical scholarly investigation of every idea that informs his understanding of global economics and environmental science.] The collapse of the university context (as presently constituted) will happen due to the changing economic and political climate that attends a changing environmental situation. LeVasseur appears to imagine his own College of Charleston being swallowed up by the sea, as he asks, plaintively, “How much deeper will the water be in another twenty years?” (312).

Ultimately LeVasseur suggests that this threat to our constructed slack-enabled context that comes from agent nature requires us to become “engaged voices” shaping University policies, championing “sustainability programs” and “environmental humanities courses” and embedding “courses on religion and nature” into our curricula, listing a variety of course topics that should be offered by religious studies departments (313). Presumably, such courses would facilitate combating climate change by educating publics? He does not elaborate on this evident assumption. He goes on, offering further suggestions for engaged activism by faculty, ranging from encouraging divestment to shaping food service policies (giving a nod to the AAR Task Force for Sustainability).

Finally, he shows that his intent is to impose an ethical duty on the field as a whole. Invoking and paraphrasing environmental philosopher Aldo Leopold, he writes that

“higher education—whether it is content taught, research undertaken, or the structure of our institutions and the daily operations of our campuses—is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. Given the tipping points and earth-system shifts underway, and the guiding auspices of the precautionary principle, then it is wrong when it tends otherwise.” (314)

Right and wrong. Such are the stark ethical choices that face the field.

In the conclusion of the article, which stridently calls on the field to take up these concerns, LeVasseur refers us to a study by David Loy, “Religion and the Market” [JAAR 65:2 (1995) 275–290] which argues that global capitalism is religious in nature, with “extreme social and environmental costs… that are anathema to the religion’s promised eschatology of endless consumption and economic growth… the sole criteria of happiness” (315).

The final paragraph renews the urgency of the call, invoking an apocalyptic counter-eschatology, the spectre of human extinction (315). And of course he urges the reader to go on to read the remaining eight papers in the roundtable.

I looked through the whole article and although the title includes quotation marks around the phrase “The Earth is sui generis” I could not locate a reference to this phrase in the article itself or in a citation to a source of the quote. Apparently, LeVasseur imagines someone else saying this, someone other than himself. Or perhaps he imagines that the quote marks represent some kind of public statement. Perhaps the title is presented ironically, and the quote marks signal his awareness of the irony? It might be intended as irony since the justification of the study of religion was, historically, offered on the basis of a (now discredited) claim that “religion” is a “thing” existing in the world sui generis. Literally the phrase “sui generis” means “of its own kind,” but in theoretical discussions of religion it is sometimes glossed as “existing of itself” or even as self-caused. In the latter sense the phrase is plainly meaningless when applied to the concept of “the Earth,” but in the literal sense, yes, the Earth is functionally, for us human beings, one of a kind. It’s our only accessible environment. Our biosphere. It remains unclear why LeVasseur does not return to or explain his title in the piece; he could at least have brought it in at the end to form an inclusio but I guess his meaning is intended to be self-evident and self-justifying. Like the recommendations he makes in the article.

A Short Note on Critical Studies

“I know, you investigated. Maybe you need to apply some of your investigative skills to yourself.” — Teddy, in Memento (Nolan, 1999)

It’s not as hard to be critical as some people seem to want to make it.

If you asked me (and you didn’t but I’m still going to butt in here): the main thing is, you need to know what question you are working on, you need to know why you are working on it, you need to have assembled the right tools to go about trying to answer it, and you need to have some idea about who might care to hear about your work and why.

Relevance is like a dirty word in some academic circles. So let me claim this isn’t about ‘being relevant.’ I’m not talking about making 19 year-olds care about your brilliant lectures. I’m not even talking about making you care about 19 year-olds (but maybe you should). I’m talking about being clear about why it is that what you do matters, while caring as well somewhat about who else will care.

Furthermore, if you want to claim from my lips the descriptor “critical,” then, you’ll meet the following criteria. The empiricist in me will insist that you have some tangible data and that you are not just making stuff up or speculating. The pragmatist in me will insist that the words and concepts you use work or have some demonstrable use in finding and relating to actual things in the world. Don’t get all caught up in abstractions. Don’t make the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. Your categories and ideas are tools. (Thank you John Dewey.) Finally, the human in me will insist that you not be villainous as you go about your work. Don’t be evil.

Indeed, you don’t have the burden of saving the world—just work on what you work on. But at least you should be working on solving some actual problem that someone cares about, even if it is only you, that is, your own problem. What’s your problem?

Call me naive. Call me an insouciant. But I think that, before you spend a lot of time wondering whether the mainstream is being critical enough, maybe you should spend some more time wondering what it is exactly, that you think we are doing here. There are many kinds of writings and other media presenting academic work. Not all are of equal value. Some are good, some bad; some are heroic, others are evil. All, however, are in the business of trying to make the world. We academics are just folks in the business of making interventions, of offering competing constructions of our little parts of the world. And so we contribute to larger matrices.

Now, everyone comes out of the womb knowing nothing but the intangible impulses of sense, structure and instinct. And then we all quite gradually have our worlds and identities formed in language and body through contact with the worlds proposed and imposed by others. That’s interpellation if you want me to use a fancy term for it. We critics are just small parts of that unfolding of being, embedded in our various places and times, tweeting like birds. If you want to be critical, know your branch. If you want to be an investigator, investigate yourself.

Bauerlein says, ‘Let them be mentors’

Mark Bauerlein, “What’s the Point of a Professor?” New York Times [Sunday Review] (5/10/2015) [Link]

Tonight I’m adding another name to my “Marie Antoinette list,” a growing catalogue of scholars who teach at elite American institutions, have access to the megaphone of the most powerful media outlets, and imagine that their experiences with service, teaching and research are typical of contemporary academia. From the ivy-clad heights of their virtual Versailleses these dainty opinion-leaders launch their diagnostic manifestos like so many white-paper airplanes, hoping either to solve all the problems with academia at one blow, or if not, then to console us in the midst of the apocalyptic catastrophe that is American Higher Education.

This time the honor falls on Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory whose Sunday Review essay in today’s New York Times manages once again to exemplify the myopia and elitism that characterize these types of flotsam.

Initially, I was definitely drawn to Bauerlein’s piece. The subtitle—or web-card teaser-line—that I saw on Facebook led me immediately to read the article, and subsequently to re-post it myself:

“We used to be mentors and moral authorities. Now we just hand out A’s.”

If ever anything was, that line is click-bait for professors teaching in today’s academy. Isn’t it true that grade-inflation rules the day now? Isn’t it true that this reality reflects a professional and economic landscape that has changed academia for the worse? Professors used to be authorities; now we’re employees, service providers even. Students used to be eager young minds, or disciples; now they are customers. Colleges and universities used to be institutions dedicated to the search for the truth, but now they are corporate-style businesses competitively selling credit hours, preferably with A’s attached to them.

Yes, students want those easy A’s. We’ve all fielded the emails from students who fumble through most of the semester, skipping classes and assignments, and spacing out when they show up, only to inform us at the 13th hour that they “really need an A in this course.” We’ve also dealt with honors students who can’t abide earning a mere A- in your class, and complain when you are just being honest and holding them to high standards. Having just been through another semester (a particularly rough one indeed, for me), these kinds of concerns were foremost on my mind as I contemplated Bauerlein’s essay.

Within the first two paragraphs, Bauerlein substantiates his claim about giving out A’s with a chilling statistic: “In 1960, only 15 percent of grades were in the ‘A’ range, but now the rate is 43 percent, making ‘A’ the most common grade by far.” A bit later he shares another startling statistic. In the 1960’s, the vast majority of college students said they were there to ‘develop a meaningful philosophy of life,’ whereas today the vast majority are hoping to improve their finances. These statistics support the general perception that what college really is has shifted in our time. It has moved away from where it was formerly, a meritocratic pursuit of wisdom, truth, and excellence, to a new mission of vending credentials and easy-peasy affirmations of participation.

So, with such things in mind, I shared the piece immediately, expressing only one misgiving. “Personally I’m not sure about the value of having ‘developing a meaningful philosophy of life’ as a goal for higher education, though,” I wrote.

Later on, I was helped by others to see what I hadn’t noticed at first.

Bauerlein’s essay is a classic example of an elitist blaming vast systemic trends on the individual moral failings of contemporary professors and students. The basic thrust of Bauerlein’s piece is not at all about the problem of the leveling out of standards, or the structural forces that have put such great pressure on students and teachers to flatten out the grade curves and push them towards the A’s.


It’s an essay that blames the students themselves for not seeking out their professors as moral and philosophical authorities and models. And it portions some of the blame to professors too, since they allegedly no longer make themselves available to students in this role. What we should be doing, Bauerlein argues, is forcibly asserting the right of PhDs to act as arbiters of meaningful philosophies of life.

And you know what, all these ideas are frankly ridiculous.

First, my friend Pat pointed out that Bauerlein is the author of the unpleasantly titled The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don ‘t Trust Anyone Under 30), in which, back in 2009, Bauerlein vented at book-length about the shortcomings of his allegedly dumb students. Ugh.

Next my friend Rob (and later Pat too) passed on a virally transmitted blog-rant by one Kevin Gannon, a professor of History at Grand View University in Iowa, entitled simply: “I will not be lectured to. I’m too busy teaching.” In it, Gannon destroys Bauerlein.

This essay must simply be read. He says everything critical that should be said about this pathetic essay.


Feeling chastened and sheepish, I realized a bit belatedly that in Mark Bauerlein I had yet another Jacques Berlinerblau, a member of the Marie Antoinette set.

“Let them be mentors,” Bauerlein says, supposing that all the thousands of professors he cannot see have lost their way. We are no longer modeling intellectual and academic excellence for our students, he supposes, or forming lasting relationships with them, or sharing with them the struggle to forge something meaningful out of all this chaos. What a load of crap.

In retrospect, I wish I had seen past the compelling statistics about grade inflation, to notice the blatant student- and professor-shaming in this piece. Oh well, lessons learned. This is what friends are for.

When you get right down to it, Gannon is absolutely correct about this and many other points:

This is academic classism, pure and simple. In its shallow portrait of student attitudes and naive calls for professors to be moral authorities and fearsome minds, Bauerlein ignores what is happening outside the walls of his tiny elite cloister, perched amongst the ivy and resting comfortably on scads of tuition dollars and a jumbo-sized endowment.

Later, defending my choice to repost the article, I mentioned I also appreciate that Bauerlein advocates using individual conferences with students to help restablish his lost paradise when faculty mentorship mattered. As a pedagogical tool, that’s something I’ve been coming to as well. But when it comes right down to it, that’s all Bauerlein’s got.

His advice to professors is only this: that since students aren’t battering down our doors to receive our wisdom outside of class, we should make them come talk to us about their papers.

This is the right solution to the wrong problem. (It is a good solution to the problem of how to communicate clearly to students what professional expectations there are for their written work. It will do nothing to foster the creation of disciples who respect professorial moral authority. As if that was really a good thing.)

Hey, professors gripe. We gripe about students, administration, and the world at large. We do make our observations about the so-called “entitlement mentality” of undergraduates (but I think we should stop doing that), and we complain about the corporitization of the universities (maybe we should do more of that), and about the sidelining of the humanities and the liberal arts in the great quest for “relevance.” Please excuse us, forgive us, for these unpleasant habits. Grading papers is hard work.

Be that as it is, no matter what, we should always remember this: we are here for the students, and they are here for us. We work together, and we work from where we are. The vast majority of us are working our tails off. We’re not failing to do our best. We’re not missing out on opportunities to be more. That romantic bullshit? You dreamt that up in your library carrell while I was prepping for my 4-4 load, dude.

Now I probably am not Gannon, knocking on the door of a student who hasn’t been to class in a few days. But that’s only because I’m too busy teaching the ones who bother to show up, and they don’t pay me enough to chase after every lost sheep. But I do spend many hours each term in face to face mentoring with students, in office hours and in the halls, and via new technologies, and of course, in class. This is what we do. This whole thing is a process. It’s something organic and unfolding. And, yes, for the love of Pete, we matter “or whatevs” (to paraphrase Gannon).

A Short Note on Carrier’s “Minimal Historicism”

Richard Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2014).[worldcat]

In chapter two of Richard Carrier’s monumental volume On the Historicity of Jesus, the independent scholar and advocate of “Jesus mythicism” explains why he permits only three claims to characterize the position he calls a “minimal theory of historicity” (see pages 31-34). Much of his book aims to put this minimal theory of historicity to the test. The three claims Carrier proposes as characterizing “minimal historicism” with respect to Jesus are (i) that Jesus was “an actual man” with “followers in life who continued as an identifiable movement after his death” and (ii) he “was claimed by his followers to have been executed by the Jewish or Roman authorities,” and (iii) his “followers soon began worshipping [him] as a … god” (all page 34).

Carrier’s limitation of the “minimal theory” to these three allegedly most essential facts of the so-called “historicist” position may seem, at first, to be sufficient. Perhaps they would be sufficient, if all his book set out to do (as its title implies) were to test the question of Jesus’ bare existence.

However, in forming this trio of claims to be tested, Carrier also makes a point to reject the standard minimalist lists of facts about the Jesus of history that are typically found among Biblical scholars. I feel no need to rehash such lists here (see Carrier, pp. 32-33 and nn. 18-19 for the lists he specifically rejects) since they are a commonplace, a well-known outcome of the approach to historical Jesus studies that has characterized scholarship after E. P. Sander’s 1985 study Jesus and Judaism.

Now, ostensibly, there are two reasons why these longer lists of minimal facts about Jesus are not sufficiently minimalist for Carrier’s purposes. First, he notes, they present a number of claims that, were some of them falsified, an “historicist” account of Jesus (i.e. the claim that Jesus of Nazareth was a “real” person in the past) would not necessarily be eliminated. But secondly, he states quite clearly, the elements found in such lists have already been falsified.

Note well: what I am saying is that Carrier’s particular account of so-called “minimal historicism” is more than just a logical starting point. It is an overdetermined bit of theater. It has been shaped by a prior analysis of the data that is normally used in the creation of any minimal account of who Jesus was in history. These Sanders-style lists of minimal facts about Jesus are necessarily dependent on early Christian accounts of Jesus (specifically, the Gospels). Well in advance of the publication of On the Historicity of Jesus, Carrier has already reviewed all of these alleged facts about Jesus, and he has already rejected them as insufficiently grounded in “history” (see his 2012 book Proving History).

This game is more than somewhat suspect: it is rigged from the start. The question of Jesus’ historicity has already been decided. By design, Carrier’s statement of the minimal form of the theory of Jesus’ historicity dooms it to failure, since it has been formulated in light of a prior assumption that is deadly to its premises: the only available sources available for investigation of the life of Jesus are so absolutely unreliable that no statements about Jesus based solely on them can be admitted at all. His conclusions also entail a prior rejection of widely shared assumptions about the best scholarly methods for reading these sources, i.e., how to extract reliable historical data from the conflicting narratives of the Gospels. Essentially, on Carrier’s account, every prior historian who has decided to rely on Christian sources for knowing about Jesus has been a dupe, a stooge or tool who has mistaken fiction for fact.

For these reasons, calling his three claim account a minimalist statement of historicist theory is actually a form of begging the question. He has already rejected the historicist position precisely by insisting that it be formulated in this way and under these limitations. He has already revealed that he does not regard as reliable any aspect of any testimony about the past found in early Christian sources — unless, that is, such testimonies can be read in a way that supports his alternate theory of Christian origins.

For these reasons, the title of Carrier’s book is really misleading. This work doesn’t merely seek to answer the question “did a human Jesus exist in the past, yes or no?” This is not actually a book on the bare question of the historicity of Jesus, or on reasons for doubting claims that he existed as a person in history. It is, instead, a treatise on “Christian Origins.” The real question being asked by Carrier is not about the “historicity” of Jesus per se, but rather about the historical origins of the Christian movement.

The purpose of setting up a “minimal historicist theory” is to contrast it with its alleged partner and converse, a “minimal mythicist theory.” Carrier hopes that we will accept this either/or alternative. If one proves less probable, then the other becomes more probable.

The statement of alternatives being proposed in Carrier’s book is as follows.

Either it is

(A) more probable that early Christianity originated in a movement of people who had been followers of an earthly man named Jesus whom they subsequently came to worship as a god

or it is

(B) more probable that early Christianity originated in a movement of people who believed in and worshiped a mythical celestial being named Jesus—a divine being who was believed to have descended, suffered, ‘died,’ and been raised again entirely within a supernatural, heavenly realm— which mythical being Jesus was later portrayed by the movement as a real human being who lived on earth; while of course he must also subsequently have continued to be worshiped as a divine being, though now through a newly applied layer of mythicized historicized myth.

The fact is that through the past several centuries of historical inquiry, from H. S. Reimarus down to E. P. Sanders, position (A) has usually been seen as the most probable. Now, it is true that for a long time, a small minority of scholars have argued that we lack sufficient evidence to know if the man Jesus really existed in the past. However, such scholars have not maintained the position (B) found in Carrier’s proposed alternative. These scholars have instead limited themselves to a more truly minimalist mythicist claim: that the early Christians invented the story of the man Jesus; the stories of the gospels are thus themselves the myths. The first main representative of this school of mythicism includes most infamously Bruno Bauer (whose works on Jesus span 1840–1877).

In point of fact position (B), as Carrier articulates it, was never proposed as such until it found expression in the 1999 book of Earl Doherty, The Jesus Puzzle.

Carrier’s book is thus somewhat misleadingly presented. It is not a treatise on the historicity of Jesus so much as it is an attempt to defend Doherty’s thesis. But it doesn’t seek to defend that thesis merely on the merits. Instead, Carrier attempts to defend it by packaging it as if it were, tout simple, the logical alternative to minimal historicism (construed in a way that it must necessarily fail).

If this book were a mere treatise on the question of historicity, it would begin by examining carefully the arguments against historicity that have really been advanced (in the history of scholarship). It would also examine and demonstrate the inadequacy of objections to those arguments. It might advance new arguments against historicity and anticipate and answer in advance possible objections to those arguments. And it could accomplish its stated objective while leaving aside the question of an alternate explanation of Christian origins entirely. But if it wanted to be more satisfying, alternately, it could advance another theory — Doherty’s view or some other view of Christian origins — treating such a theory as a separate question. But this is certainly not what the book does.

Instead, Carrier wants the reader to believe that the defeat of minimal historicism entails the success of what he tendentiously describes as “the Minimal Jesus Myth Theory” (see his pages 52–53, where he lists five allegedly “minimal” aspects of the “mythicist” position). But defeating minimal historicism does not entail any part of his minimal mythicism. The entire book is predicated on a form of begging the question.

So, should we just ignore this rather tedious, overly self-referential, pseudo-logical, pseudo-mathematical book? Should we criticize it in detail? Should we complain about the dismissive and cavalier attitude which Carrier takes up towards over two centuries of prior historical scholarship on Christian origins? Should we take up a separate examination of Doherty’s Christ-Myth theory, putting it to the test in detail? Or should we all quit our jobs and spend our twilight years getting drunk, because we see clearly now that the present age has brought about such a morass of footnoted mythologizing by “scholars”? The jury is still out, however, I do suspect there are yet other alternatives that I haven’t considered.

What’s Belief Got to Do with It?

Angela Bonavoglia, “Why Go To Church if You Don’t Believe Anymore?” Religion Dispatches (4/6/2015)

This week, just after Easter, Religion Dispatches published a rather moving personal essay by Angela Bonavoglia, a writer and journalist whose work focuses on Catholicism and women’s issues (see her webpage).

The essay describes the author’s Easter habit of doing the stations of the cross at the (Episcopal) Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. The question asked by the title of the essay, “Why Go to Church if you Don’t Believe Anymore?” receives no explicit answer. But by standing at the top of the post, it does serve to help shape how the reader might understand Bonavoglia’s own self-proclaimed identity as “a Catholic lapsed and lost, an unaffiliated spiritual seeker,” a person who once did but no longer attends church, except “every year at this time.”

Bonavoglia’s reflections on the brutal death of Jesus as depicted by the “Stations of the Cross” are poetic and moving. The Stations is a ritualized narrative tour of the Cathedral space (the church classifies the event as “liturgy-worship”) existing apart from ordinary Sunday services. At each “station” the walkers hear texts read aloud by volunteers; as she describes them they are texts “about love and loss, sin and goodness.” Placing herself among the walkers, Bonavoglia says they pray: “we pray for the sick and healers, the powerful and the powerless, the good and the evil, for ourselves.”

She lights a remembrance candle for her mother, and places it in the “American Poets Corner,” beneath the words of Walt Whitman, “I stop somewhere waiting for you.” Having done this, Bonavoglia says that she cries, and closing the essay, claims the following series of actions: “I pray to my mom. I thank her. I ask for forgiveness. I tell her I love her. Then I head for home, to await the resurrection.”

The article’s title turns out to be disingenuous, an editor’s click-bait. Bonavoglia doesn’t use words like “believe” or “belief.” Not once. If we, the readers who happen to study “religion,” wanted to hypothesize about what she “believes” (everybody has beliefs as I understand the term), I suppose we could indulge that impulse. But doing so would involve speculating about the contents of another person’s psyche. One could argue that active participation in the institutional Catholic “religion” can fall by the wayside, while atavistic practices and habits continue to be articulated in the life of “a Catholic lapsed,” but that grants too much power to a construction of—to a set of assumptions about—normative versus abnormative “Catholic” practice. And in any case we cannot neglect the fact that she’s written up the piece at all, to be published in Religion Dispatches, and that the author is a writer concerned with “all things Catholic” (to quote her personal website).

I’m trained not just to accept the author’s self-representation at face value, as a window into her soul. Essays like this function much more so as self-positioning speech in a social matrix rather than as perspicuous self-disclosure. The title of the article turns on the idea that “belief” is an essential component of religion. But the essay, implicitly, and correctly, I believe, suggests that belief is beside the point. Her reflections force us to allow for a more complex and nuanced understanding of what religion is and how it functions. The fact is that the student of religion will never really know what other people believe, but can only see what they do, and hear what they say. Even then we normally see and hear only what people want us to observe, as they construct their own selves before our gaze (and in turn participate in the complex interpellation of our own selves).

Tweet Jesus

Bruce Lincoln described religion as “that discourse whose defining characteristic is its desire to speak of things eternal and transcendent with an authority equally transcendent and eternal,” but I think it needs to be added that for Lincoln discourse, together with its partner force, effects the construction of society and perhaps even subjectivity itself.

As an example of how this works “on the ground,” consider this tweet:

Floating out there on a few thousand twitter feeds (twitter user @blackamazon has about 15k followers at the moment), this short text offers a portrayal of Jesus, invoking assumed narratives of his miraculous powers, and relying on a prediction that appeals to his example will have the status of appeals to a figure of “divine” (or eternal and transcendent) value and authority. Such an appeal to Jesus is made with purpose: it serves to sanction a particular critique or construction of normative social practices or expectations. It is argumentative, an interest arguing for your interest. “Feed the poor. Like Jesus would.”

With respect to putatively historical questions, for the student of religion it doesn’t actually matter if any particular idea of Jesus is “accurate” to some accepted academic standard or criterion. From the standpoint of the history of religions, there can be no normative Jesus.

There is an invitation on offer here. A tweet like this offers an invitation to affiliate and identify with a particular “system of mediations” (a system involving ideas of Jesus constructed by plausible appeals to prior traditions and ideas). In response, one could take up and bear this particular construction of Jesus. Mere assent to the idea expressed here—let alone marking it as a favorite with a star, or retweeting it—aggregates forces, forges links of identification, in part by actively criticizing and satirizing those presumed disaffiliated others who for some reason would deny this idea of Jesus. The person who actually does reject the idea of Jesus found here thus actively disaffiliates, presumably through a counter-aggregation or identification. And so discourse organizes and identifies people along lines drawn through concepts of Jesus.

What is interesting to me about any given Tweet Jesus is not whether its vision is true to some hypothetically perfect idea of ‘Jesus,’ but rather how such discourse about Jesus appeals to the leverage or force of divine power in pursuit of social and political ends; the invocation of Jesus’ example in a stream of texts brings into a larger discourse a topic, an ethical dilemma, a positive standard for mimesis, and behind it all, the implied threat of a transcendent rule of judgment applied to individual and collective behaviors. In other words: the transcendent and eternal authority invoked by religious discourse is hoped to be an effective sublimation of force in pursuit of particular and historically contextual human (social) interests. The answer to the question “What would Jesus do?” is always, “what we want other people to do.”


Bruce Lincoln, “Theses on Method.” The University of Alabama Department of Religious Studies keeps a copy of this text online.

Berlinerblau Puts Foot in Mouth

Cover of Berlinerblau, How to Be SecularA few weeks back, Jacques Berlinerblau, a professor at Georgetown and scholar of religion and secularism, tried to write a sweeping diagnostic piece about the problems facing academia today.  His angle? There has been a decline in enthusiasm for teaching among professors.

The article “Teach or Perish,” published in the Chronicle of Higher Education (1/19/2015), caused Berlinerblau to get his name inscribed onto my ever expanding list of highly privileged but myopic academics who woodenly assume that they can criticize the profession based on universalizing their own experience at elite institutions.  I refer to my copy of it as the Marie Antoinette list.  What do you think?

Berlinerblau’s column immediately provoked a strong negative reaction on social media and from bloggers. For example,  Jonathan Rees, in his More or Less Bunk blog, called it “the worst example of academic victim-blaming that I’ve ever seen” (“Teach AND Perish,” 1/19/2015).  In a subsequent issue, the Chronicle published a rather scathing letter to the editor from one Kathryn D. Blanchard of Alma College (“You Publish, We Perish,” 3/2/2015) in which she responded to Berlinerblau’s “basic claim” that professors have been forgetting that our work is all about teaching by asking:

In what universe is a Georgetown professor, currently teaching only one course, capable of speaking for “us,” the vast and diverse collection of people that is the American professoriate, most of whom are swimming in students?

I have written on this general subject before.  Just over a year ago my critical reaction to a similar rant from Wharton School professor Adam Grant (“On the Concept of Research and Teaching as Two Tracks,” 2/08/2015) became, for a short time, one of the most popular posts on this admittedly not very popular blog.

So I admit I’m not surprised to find the same myopia expressed again by Berlinerblau.  In fact, it’s almost delightful and cute, the way these privileged professors mistake their access to the media megaphone for actual or relevant insight.

A few days ago, Blanchard’s rebuke of Berlinerblau went viral, and after nodding my way through her cogent lament, I found myself, of course, going back to read the original piece.  It was both sobering and depressing, on multiple levels.  After investing my precious time in reading over it, I felt compelled to add my own notes on the piece to the record.

Berlinerblau is a charming writer who speaks eloquently to the despair of academics who have noticed (it’s hard not to notice) that we professors are not exactly sitting atop of social, financial or professional pillars anymore.  Rather, it feels like we are toiling in the fields, surrounded by evidence that the humanities and universities are collapsing around us.  Declining funding.  A tight job market.  MOOCs.  For-profit schools.  Online education.  And a lack of disciples who wish to become professors like us.

Berlinerblau writes:

We humanists are at an inflection point, careering down the steep gradient like terrified campers on a mammoth water slide. We accelerate into the bottomless future, arms flailing, mouths wide open, eyes closed, gowns streaming behind us. Where’d our caps go? How did it come to this? How did such an august body find itself in this undignified position?

Referring thus to the “collapse of… the professoriate” he offers a diagnosis of the “multitude of factors” that brought about this moment.

Besides the political and economic usual suspects, Berlinerblau hits the habits of professors themselves.  It is “bad decisions” on our part; “we erred … in politicizing inquiry;” “it was ill-advised to bring so much theory—and almost always the same dense and ideologically tinctured brand of it” into our studies.  Doesn’t it seem a stretch to blame so much on “politicization” and “theory”?  Seems like blaming the waves on the foam at the edge of the sea to me.

And then, inexplicably, improbably, myopically, hysterically, Berlinerblau claims that a larger issue is visible: “[s]omewhere along the way, we spiritually and emotionally disengaged from teaching and mentoring students.”

He goes on—I think I know what he means though I have no experience with it myself—arguing that what gets called “success” in academia is one’s ability to avoid teaching undergraduates.

So, on these terms, according to Berlinerblau, those of us who do teach, who do live this drudgery—it means that we are not successful.  Think on that! That is, of course, the substance of what galled Blanchard and led to her eloquent rebuttal to Berlinerblau.

Looking at Berlinerblau’s positioning of his own comments, he offers a micro CV, a brief history of his teaching responsibilities. He alleges that he understands the plight of those who are hired just to teach, as he himself went from days of adjuncting a 6-6 load, to later appointments at the university level with a 3-3, and ultimately, to the coveted 2-1; wishing to appear less elitist than he is, he defensively adds, “I have never been so garlanded in my field as to receive the 0-1 or the vaunted ‘double zero’—the mark of exemplary scholarly achievement.” And, one might presume, a disqualifying garland if you wish to speak to the profession of teaching.

We know what he means by “success.”  Yet, most of us American professors in tenured positions or on the tenure track, actually have a 4-4 load, as I do.  Most of us teaching in the hundreds or thousands of small private colleges of this country have basically noticed that we don’t get paid at all or tangibly rewarded much for our research.  And we receive little to no support in terms of time or money for it.  We get paid to teach and grade, and if we’re unlucky, we also face a pressure from administration and colleagues to continue a program of research, in spite of the lack of real support for it.  We, the ordinary professors who make up the vast majority of those engaged in our profession, and who teach between 25–40% of all courses in American colleges (the rest being taught mainly by the even worse off adjuncts and term instructors), we haven’t actually disengaged from teaching at all. Maybe we would if we could.  Who wouldn’t appreciate a slow-down in this hectic pace?  Teaching can be extremely difficult and depressing at times.

J.B. has his eyes on the elites, you could say.  His criticism is for them.  He almost satirizes them.  It’s almost funny. But actually, no.  He doesn’t know his readers. He claims to have been one of us, but he doesn’t know what it’s like to be in your forties, and facing 30 more years of the constant pressure of teaching a full load. He’s got a semester in which he teaches one course, writes myopic editorials for the Chronicle, and churns out liberal books on “secular studies” that specialize in theory-bashing, while we get out our red pens every morning.

Where Berlinerblau really goes wrong, it seems to me, is when he says things like: “we obviously went down that road as a guild—we just can’t remember when or how. Now we’re here. It may be too late to turn back.”

No.  We didn’t go down it as a guild.  What happened was that the guild, like society at large, got noticeably more divided into winners and losers.

Also like society, and apparently difficult for J.B. to grasp, it seems that this division isn’t a 50-50 split.  Rather, it mirrors the famous 1% / 99% split of our economy.  While those who have come to have more and more, those who have not are having even that taken from them… day after day.  Harvard’s endowment, ranked at #1 in 2014, exceeds 35 billion.  Georgetown’s endowment, ranked at 66, exceeds 1.4 billion.  Little Mars Hill University where I teach has about a 40 million dollar endowment; Sweet Briar College, with over $90 million in endowment, announced this week that it is closing its doors for good at the end of the semester.  How d’ya like them apples?  According to statistics calculated based on 2014 endowments of the top 853 institutions in the US and Canada, the average endowment was about 450 million, with the median at $90 million—over half the schools in America have endowments less than 0.25% the size of Harvard’s, or about 6% the size of Georgetown’s (source:  We’ve replicated America’s “winner take all” economy in our system of higher education.

Having thus articulated these tone-deaf and myopic thoughts on the state of our commitment to teaching, Berlinerblau gets back on track, I think, when he analyzes the (largely ‘conservative’) attack on the funding of public higher education, with McCrory’s awful defunding of UNC system schools at the heart of his critique. He correctly notices the looming threat of a corporatized tech-driven employment-outcomes focused takeover of higher education.  He strikes the target here, making his earlier missteps regrettable. This is a time of crisis and change in higher education; we all feel it. But the Titanic won’t stop sinking just because the first class passengers claim to be willing to change out of their spats and white ties.

One commentator on Berlinerblau’s piece (there were over 120 comments at the time of my reading) one self-styled “tsylvain,” mades some striking remarks about the shortcomings of this piece, and I will share them here by way of a finale.

  I guess I should feel flattered by this piece, which seems to value what I’m doing so much of the day. But I have to admit that Berlinerblau’s argument reminds me of a glowing tribute to rural life written by a city dweller. I realize that he once taught many classes per semester to undergrads, but he’s escaped all that now. He can teach one course on Philip Roth and forget the aspects of teaching required courses that drag one down and make one consider changing careers entirely (anything that doesn’t involve all those papers to grade, emails to answer, disinterested students to face for yet another class that they haven’t prepared for). For me, research in my area and the occasional rewards that come from that are aspects of my job that make the teaching grind (and it IS often a grind) worthwhile. He also forgets to mention how crucial staying engaged in research is to teaching at the college level. What kinds of courses does he envision a teaching-focused professoriate delivering?

Well said and asked.  I certainly find myself asking the same questions.  If my teaching load was lessened, I would certainly have more time for research, but also, for richer, fuller, more substantive teaching. Maybe the solution to the problems of higher education lies in a kind of more equitable distribution of the most precious resources available to professors: time for research, and time for instruction.  But, I fear, maybe not.

Does the First Amendment Protect Student Papers?

The following rant is in response to a report by Eugene Volokh from this past Friday’s Washington Post: Court allows First Amendment claim based on alleged professor retaliation for paper ‘harshly critical of … lesbianism’.

In brief, the facts of the case are this: a professor assigns a paper reviewing a film on the theme of lesbianism (Desert Hearts, by Donna Deitch, 1985); the student writes an apparently offensive paper expressing opinions about the film and lesbianism (n.b. I have not seen the paper); the professor refuses to grade the paper, and instead advises the student to drop the class; the student does so, but then sues, alleging a violation of her first amendment rights. The District Court of New Mexico agrees to hear the case.

A screen shot of the court’s
opinion allowing the case to proceed.

At this point in the case, the court has stated blatantly: “The Court concludes that the allegations of Plaintiff’s FAC are sufficient to make out a plausible case that Defendants violated Plaintiff’s First Amendment rights by subjecting Plaintiff to restrictions on speech that were not reasonably related to legitimate pedagogic concerns.”

I owe notice of this interesting article to the facebook feed of Craig Martin, a professor of Religious Studies at St. Thomas Aquinas College.

Basically, Martin’s views are similar to my own: he states that he typically doesn’t “invite student opinions” but rather asks “them to think like … the scholars [he assigns].” I do the same. Perhaps we hope that this distinction will protect us from having to deal with noxious opinions that are uninformed by scholarly practices. But I’m not sure it’s entirely adequate, since sometimes our work requires us to confront students who fail to meet standards precisely by expressing opinions (that we may not have asked for) in an unscholarly (or even obnoxiously expressed) manner; and sometimes students don’t like what we do in helping them learn to think like scholars.

So we may still have to deal with students who feel that their first amendment rights are being squashed, even if we just ask them to think like the scholars we assign.

Except that we, Craig and I, actually don’t have to worry about First Amendment issues. We don’t need to worry because we are at private schools and aren’t considered government employees. State University professors, however, they are on the hook here. Do they have special responsibilities to their students that private professors do not?

In spite of the fact that this court case will never affect my own practice, because I work at a private university, I personally find the situation troubling on multiple levels. I believe it’s worth raising questions about and commenting on the problems posed by the case. Maybe it can help us think more clearly about “free speech” in the college classroom.

In the excerpt of the ruling printed by Volokh (I recommend you read it), the court makes the following assumptions or claims:

  1. A state university professor’s classroom is considered a semi-public space.
  2. A state university professor’s actions can be considered actions taken by the government.
  3. A student’s opinions expressed in a paper can be considered protected public speech.
  4. Student speech in the classroom setting or in papers can only be limited by this government representative if there are “legitimate pedagogic concerns.”
  5. Otherise, a student should be free to express any views they choose in a classroom, and is indeed entitled to that privilege regardless of a professor’s views.

I find much to complain about here.

  • First, is the professor really just a stand in for the government? I think not. This is too simplistic. The professor is not hired directly by the government and doesn’t directly represent the government, but rather represents an academic field of study as a disciplinary expert. She or he is a contract employee of the government who has a specific task to accomplish vis a vis the students in his or her class with respect to providing instruction and training in that discipline. This is different than being “the government.”
  • Is the classroom a semi-public space? First, I want to reject the notion of “semi-public” as being a confused concept. But in any case, the answer is no. The classroom is a space of relationship between a disciplinary master or doctor and a limited number of novices who have been granted access to that space. Their access to the relationship is based on certain qualifications, such as admission to a school or program. Student novices are welcome in a class so long as they respect the relationship they have entered into. Their presence in a course is largely voluntary. The relationship between a particular student and a particular professor in a particular classroom is entered into on a voluntary basis; even in a required class the relationship is technically voluntary, since admission to the school and program and particular course of study were all sought voluntarily. When you decide to enter college or go to university, you are volunteering to play that game of being the novice in a master’s workshop. This is apprenticeship and the partners are not equal.
  • Should student self-expression in a college level course be thought of as a form of public, and thus protected speech? Again, I think not. The role of the novice is to engage in the work and practice assigned by the master. All activities related to the course are pedagogic in nature, including all student discussions and forms of self-expression in class. Everything the student says or does is subject to evaluation according to disciplinary standards. The bottom line is that, although a class may even be a training ground for citizenship and self-expression, ultimately, the classroom is not a “forum.” On campuses, we actually do have public “fora,” (the plural of forum is fora) on various topics, and we usually term them as such. As in, “come to tomorrow’s forum on the middle east peace process.” If there is a “forum” on an issue, we ask for people to gather, discuss, and share opinions. But in the classroom the standard is a bit different. We don’t put “psychology” or “biology” up for a forum style discussion. In any case, each professor will have to decide for her or himself concerning what format of student engagement and participation in class works best for training students in whatever disciplinary conventions are being taught. The students won’t decide. The professor will. There’s a power differential there and that difference matters.
  • Furthermore, we must observe that in the context of the college-level course student papers are usually the furthest thing from “public” speech. In point of fact, under law, student papers are considered to be PRIVATE speech. Papers are private academic records which are governed by FERPA, the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Only a student can make a paper public; submitting a paper to a professor does not turn it into public speech. FERPA protects the privacy of papers (and, for that matter, classroom discussion).
  • The “legal” analysis I offered in the last bullet point also applies to a more common sense or pragmatic assessment of what a paper is. Papers simply aren’t public as we commonly understand that term. Typically (although “legitimate pedagogic concerns” can alter this practice considerably), the only people who ever see a student paper are the student and the professor. If a professor receives a privately written and communicated paper, reads it privately, reaches a private conclusion about the paper’s merits, and then expresses those conclusions to the student privately, how is this in any way a case of public speech? It is private speech.
  • Not only is the paper private rather than public—as a speech-act whatever is written in a paper has not been prevented or restricted. The paper is the paper. Now, after the student’s act of speech is completed, it’s the professor’s turn to speak. And so, the paper the student writes will be evaluated. In this particular case, the paper was evaluated verbally, not with a letter grade. Let’s look schematically at the speech event, the facts of what happened. An assignment was issued. Standards of assessment were communicated (we hope; they always should be). Then the student wrote; i.e. the student expressed herself or himself. The student’s speech was unimpeded; there was no restriction on their act of “speech;” no physical or psychological constraint was imposed. Only, one hopes, the student would limit herself according the disciplinary standards she should have been learning. She would accept that there are consequences for the manner in which one expresses oneself, and that those consequences are context dependent. Once the paper has been written and submitted, the professor then reacts to the paper from a position of authority and greater power. Now, how the professor reacts matters. It is an enormous responsibility. Indeed, it is possible that in the case referred to by Pompeo vs. University of New Mexico, the professor may not have handled her responsibility well; but that is another matter. When a paper is evaluated, the student may not like how the professor reacts, but, if you are told that your paper is wrong, or bad, or out of line, or offensive or unacceptable in some way, it does not mean that your first amendment rights have been violated.
  • Therefore, in this case, logically, the only possible way we could speak about the student having had their first amendment rights denied would be the fact that the student was asked to drop the class. Does the student possess a general “right” to express her opinions in that class? If so, they were abridged. But this is pure foolishness. First of all, being a registered student in a college level class is a privilege, not a right. Second, a student’s speech in that class is not public, as I stated above, or as it would be in a true forum. Third, speech in a class is never free in the sense of being free of conventions, limitations, evaluation or standards of decorum. These vary widely depending on the discipline and the professor. They aren’t to be set in a courtroom. Students just have to adapt to what they find in the classrooms they enter. Finally, she dropped the class voluntarily. She could have stayed in the class, and accepted the evaluations as they were offered. How is voluntary withdrawal from a course at the professor’s suggestion a violation of a right to free speech? It makes no sense.

Finally, there is a word that needs to be said here. Somebody has to say it and it might as well be me. That word is entitlement. In some ways, by accepting this lawsuit, the court appears to endorse the “entitlement mentality” that so many professors claim today’s college students exhibit. We see students all the time who apparently think they are entitled to be in our classrooms. Students seem to think they are entitled to receive good grades. They seem to feel entitled to take tests and quizzes whenever it is convenient for them. They want to be able to email their professors about anything at any time, and they expect immediate replies. They feel entitled to their opinions, and ways of expressing themselves, and don’t want to be questioned. They feel entitled to be themselves regardless of whatever standards the professors and society demands of them. This is their time. They are entitled to study any subject in any way they want. They are paying customers. They paid their tuition, and are essentially buying credit hours towards a degree.

Well, I obviously reject all of that. All that it seems necessary to say about the “entitlement mentality” is that students may indeed be customers or clients, but many of them may have misunderstood what they are paying for. Strictly speaking, what the university student is paying for is an opportunity to work. They pay to work with experts who will practice critical engagement with their efforts at learning mastery of disciplinary subjects. They are paying for critical feedback (grades and evaluation, including evaluation of their opinions, or at least, the manner in which their opinions are expressed and argued for). The rest, all the work, is up to them. They pay, but are not entitled to anything other than what they earn within the agonistic context of classroom instruction and disciplined personal study.

Houston Sermon Subpoenas: Timeline and Links

Houston Mayor Annise Parker

Houston Mayor Annise Parker

Timeline and Facts

• Wednesday, May 28th, 2014 — Houston City Council passes HERO, the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance.

• Tuesday, Aug 4th, 2014 — Opponents of HERO submit petition for a ballot initiative to repeal HERO in November election; City Rejects Petition.

• Tuesday, Aug. 5th, 2014 — Opponents of HERO sued the city of Houston for rejecting petition; ask judge to verify it.

• August–October: Lawsuit ongoing? news reports are slim.

• Tuesday, Oct. 14th — news surfaces (reported in Houston Chronicle) that city attorneys had subpoenaed five local pastors who are considered as “tied to the conservative Christian activists who have sued the city.” The subpoenas, which ask for “all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to [the equal rights ordinance], the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession” are widely criticized with immediate reactions from the left and right.

• Wednesday, Oct 15th, 2014, about 00:12 AM, Houston Mayor A. Parker tweets “if the 5 pastors used pulpits for politics, their sermons are fair game.”

• Wednesday, Oct. 15th, 2014, in the afternoon: Houston Mayor A. Parker issues a statement stating that she was “surprised” by the subpoenas, withdrawing them, and stating that the city will seek a narrower scope of discovery during a hearing yet to be scheduled.


Bailey, S. P. “Houston subpoenas pastor’s sermons in gay rights ordinance,” Religious News Service (10/14/2014)

Driessen, L. “City subpoenas sermons in equal rights case,” Houston Chronicle (10/14/2014)

Gershman, J. “Houston Mayor Says City’s Sermon Subpoenas Came as a Surprise,” Wall Street Journal (10/15/2014)

Morris and Driessen, “Equal Rights Ordinance Opponents Sue City: Group asks judge to verify petition for a referendum,” Houston Chronicle (08/05/2014)

Parker, Tweet of 10/15/2014

Posner, S. “Houston’s Pastor Subpoenas: A Meme Made For Fox News” Religion Dispatches (10/15/2014)

City of Houston Webstie, “Equal Rights Ordinance,”

%d bloggers like this: