Wait, Can They Still Study Shakespeare?

From The Chronicle of Higher Education:

When news broke that the University of Chicago’s English department would only admit graduate students next year who are “interested in working in and with” Black studies, it was greeted with both applause and raised eyebrows. Leaders of English and African American-studies departments at other institutions called it “an impressive commitment” and a “bold, edge-cutting” position. But the move also attracted derision, including from some sources who don’t typically weigh in on graduate-school admissions policy decisions.

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas tweeted that studying authors like Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Austen was “presumably not acceptable” under Chicago’s arrangement, and others criticized the move as “racist” and “anti-intellectual.” Thomas Chatterton Williams, a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine and a columnist at Harper’s Magazine, tweeted: “I am obviously interested in black literature. But being strong armed into studying it??” Faculty members at Chicago said on Twitter that the department had received hate mail.

The decision carries extra resonance coming from an English department that is among the most high-profile in the country and at a university that has traditionally declined to take institutional positions on questions of social justice or politics. That stance dates back to a 1967 report, commissioned by the university to stake out the university’s “role in political and social action” in the wake of protests against the Vietnam War, and critics say Chicago’s decision represents a deviation from that policy as well as an abandonment of academic principles.

The statement Chicago’s English faculty released in July begins with a statement that Black lives matter. “As literary scholars, we attend to the histories, atmospheres, and scenes of anti-Black racism and racial violence in the United States and across the world. We are committed to the struggle of Black and Indigenous people, and all racialized and dispossessed people, against inequality and brutality,” the statement posted on the English department home page reads.

The second paragraph on the home page read in part, “For the 2020-2021 graduate admissions cycle, the University of Chicago English Department is accepting only applicants interested in working in and with Black Studies. We understand Black Studies to be a capacious intellectual project that spans a variety of methodological approaches, fields, geographical areas, languages, and time periods.” That language has since been removed from the home page, but is still present on the department’s Black studies and admissions pages. Jeremy Manier, a university spokesman, confirmed to The Chronicle on Friday that the department would admit only those interested in Black studies for the 2020-21 admissions cycle.
The scholars also wrote that English “has a long history of providing aesthetic rationalizations for colonization, exploitation, extraction, and anti-Blackness. Our discipline is responsible for developing hierarchies of cultural production that have contributed directly to social and systemic determinations of whose lives matter and why.” Given that context, they continued, “we believe that undoing persistent, recalcitrant anti-Blackness in our discipline and in our institutions must be the collective responsibility of all faculty, here and elsewhere.”

. . . .

The number of students admitted to Chicago’s English department will be lower than usual for the 2020-21 admissions cycle because of the pandemic and a lackluster job market, the university said in a statement. (A number of other programs have chosen to suspend admissions for fall 2021 entirely in order to allocate more funding to already-enrolled students.) The department will admit only five students this year, though it expected to receive about 750 applications, Maud Ellmann, the interim department chair, said in a statement, noting that the department sees higher application rates in “times of crisis.” “The reduced number of spaces persuaded us to focus on specific areas so as to give careful consideration to all the applications we receive,” Ellmann said, noting that Black studies has become a significant part of the program thanks to the hiring of several new scholars focused on Black studies. The faculty, she said, “wanted graduate students interested in Black studies to know that they would receive the highest standard of mentorship in our program.”

. . . .

The five students who begin at Chicago in fall 2021 won’t be working exclusively in Black studies (the department currently has 77 students). Instead, a statement on the admissions page read, they “will be encouraged to take advantage of the wide variety of courses, not restricted to Black Studies, offered by the Department and the Division.” Manier, the university spokesman, said they’ll be able to select from “dozens of courses in English” and “across the humanities, in modern languages, for example, or philosophy, classics, divinity, etc.”

So it’s not true — as Cruz and others have suggested — that this class of graduate students will be unable to study Shakespeare. In fact, the doctoral curriculum includes a course called “Black Shakespeare,” taught by Noémie Ndiaye, which “explores the role played by the Shakespearean canon in the shaping of Western ideas about blackness, in processes of racial formation, and racial struggle from the early modern period to the present” and examines Black characters in plays such as Othello and The Tempest.

. . . .

Mark Bauerlein, a professor emeritus of English at Emory University, who criticized the decision on Twitter, said the department may have been better served by being less public about its plan. “I’ve been on admissions committees — you don’t have to say all this out loud. Just say, ‘Hey, look, let’s try to emphasize Black studies in this year’s entering class. We don’t have to make some big announcement out of it. We don’t need to talk the talk, we’ll just walk the walk,’” Bauerlein said. “I think that the intellectual reputation of the University of Chicago’s English department has suffered greatly because of this move.”

Link to the rest at The Chronicle of Higher Education

During the past several months, all but those living on isolated islands in the middle of large oceans with no ability to receive communications from the larger world have seen vivid video and read endless news stories about Black Lives Matter activists who have, in many American cities, been associated with or otherwise attracted a meaningful number of individuals of various races who appear to have been primarily focused on creating violent protests involving burning and looting. On more than one occasion, the structures burned and looted are retail stores that have been relied upon by the local African-American and other minority groups for basic needs such as food and medications. In some cases, these business establishments have also been owned by people who are African-American or other racial or ethnic minorities.

Apparently, some Black Lives Matter more than others do.

Prior to the latest round of destruction, business insurance for buildings and their contents in such areas was difficult to obtain and, if obtained, cost more than insurance in other parts of town. PG hasn’t seen any analyses of what percentage of buildings damaged have been insured and what percentage have not been insured. In the short run, it’s cheaper to run a business in a low-income area without fire insurance and you might even be able to lower your retail prices a bit which attracts a few more customers and leaves those customers with a bit more money to spend on something else or save for a rainy day.

Rules governing what risks must be covered by business insurance policies vary from state to state, but, the last time PG knew anything about the subject, damages from riots and civil unrest were not covered under a great many business insurance policies.

Commercial insurance companies can with reasonable accuracy predict the likelihood of various types of losses across a broad area based upon the age, types of commercial structures and the businesses operating within those structures. Given a group of 100 restaurants and 100 automatic car washes, the likelihood of fire loss claims from restaurants is significantly higher than the likelihood of a fire erupting in a car wash.

However, given the historical fire loss experience the insurance company has experienced with insured restaurants combined with data about restaurant fire losses experienced by a wide range of other insurance companies, information which is likely compiled and shared by state insurance officials and/or one or more commercial data services that collect, organize and analyze the claims experiences of a variety of insurance companies) an insurance company is able to set premium prices at an appropriate level to allow it to cover and pay for the damage caused by nearly-inevitable occurrence of fire losses in some restaurants during any given year and still be able to afford to continue in business.

While the number of individual restaurant fires resulting from careless employees, failure to clean grease from kitchen exhaust fans, etc., etc., during a given period of time together with the amount of money required to repair the damage done by such fires can be projected with reasonable accuracy given adequate information on historic frequencies of restaurant fires, etc., the likelihood that a particular city or a particular neighborhood in the city will be attacked by rioters and the cost to repair the damage caused by those rioters is something that can’t be projected with the accuracy necessary to properly price insurance policies and operate an insurance company that won’t go broke, leaving all of its other policyholders without any coverage at all. It’s easier to predict damage caused by lightning strikes than damage caused by riots.

One consequence PG can forecast for the future is that business insurance costs for structures and the contents of those structures in areas likely to be touched by Black Lives Matter protests and violence that is not certain to occur, but certainly has occurred in accompaniment with more than one Black Lives Matter protest this year will be much, much higher in the future than it was in the past. Insurance companies may be required under anti-discrimination legislation not to discriminate on the basis of the racial or ethnic identity of business owners, but insurance businesses are not required to have agents or sales offices located in every geographical location in a city or state. It makes good business sense to focus sales efforts on potential customers that are likely to provide profitable business.

Combine poor neighborhoods that didn’t have an excess of businesses of any sort in the first place combined with significantly higher costs of doing business for small businesses operating in those areas and you end up with far fewer merchants, less competition to help keep prices reasonable and a population that has to spend a much larger portion of its meager income for basic living expenses, including travel costs to go to places where they can buy what they need, than before the city was taught that Black Lives Matter.

So, back to the OP. If a few years from now, a college or university has two applicants for a position in its English Department, one applicant schooled in the Black Lives Matter curriculum of the University of Chicago and another who has been schooled in a high quality English Department of another respectable university, which applicant will have an advantage when the head of the English Department, an individual who already has enough stress in her/his professional life, likely to choose?

If Northwestern University, the other nationally-ranked university in the Chicago area (no offense intended toward other Chicago-area academic institutions) has decided to accept graduate students in its English Department without an express or implied requirement that they focus on Black Studies, which group of future PhD’s will seem like the safer bet for the head of an English Department who would like a relatively quiet life focused on academic excellence for her/himself and the remainder of the faculty and staff?

8 thoughts on “Wait, Can They Still Study Shakespeare?”

    • Well, it let them posture as defenders of BLM and associates.
      That’s *something*.
      It serves as a supplement to their riot insurance ( “We’re on your side!” ) and that is, as PG said, getting very expensive. If available at all.
      After all the first two weeks of the months-long riots were, in the words of CBS NEWS, “mostly peaceful” but resulted in $2B in damages:

      https://fntalk.com/real-estate/cbs-news-norah-odonnell-says-mostly-peaceful-protests-caused-1b-to-2b-in-damage-from-looting-and-arson/

      A bit of posturing, hate mail, and lost respect is cheap compared to the cost of being “peacefully protested” 2020-style.

      • A bit of posturing, hate mail, and lost respect is cheap compared to the cost of being “peacefully protested” 2020-style.

        Let’s not be too hasty to assume that people in English departments are doing any kind of cost-benefit analysis. They may have vaguely heard that such things are done over in the benighted precincts of the MBA program, but they are often intensely proud of their own innumeracy and would not be caught dead with useful quantitative information about anything.

        They posture because they believe, and they believe because their particular ivory tower is impermeable to facts. There are still tenured denizens of English departments who believe in Marxist economics and Freudian psychology, which even the diehards among economists and psychologists abandoned half a century ago. Their usual rebuttal to the charge of being postmodernists is to laugh and sneer at the ignorant plebs who mistake their particular twentieth-century French critical ism for capital-P Postmodernism. In fact, the distinction between these pseudo-critical sects is too fine to be detectable as a difference by anyone except the professional sectarians themselves.

  1. I applaud the English department’s move. It will accelerate the general loss of undergraduate market share by English departments.

        • ‘Welcome, grad students, to this year’s special symposium: Fighting Toxic Whiteness in Corporate Publishing by Turning All the Light Switches to “Off” ’.

          Five big publishers to shut down, five students… makes sense.

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