Monday, September 08, 2008

Ask the Administrator: Academic Blacklists?

A regular commenter writes:

Currently I am applying for jobs for 2009-2010. My specialization is Central Asian history, but there are few openings specifically advertising for scholars of this region. Instead I have noticed a lot of positions for history of the Islamic world. Often these spots require teaching courses in Middle Eastern History. That is the Arab states, Turkey and Iran. I am currently teaching such a course at the overseas institution where I work. But, my research and publication in the area is limited. Most of my publications deal specifically with the Soviet Union, especially Central Asia. However, I have one publication comparing Soviet nationality policies regarding the Crimean Tatars and Meskhetian Turks and Israeli policies towards the Palestinians. My personal feeling is that this piece shows my broader capabilities. That it demonstrates that I can teach and write about areas of the Islamic world outside of the former USSR. But, a friend of mine has
 repeatedly insisted that I not send it as a writing sample. He claims that it will automatically get me blacklisted at many places because it is critical of Israeli policies. My feeling is that he is being over paranoid. Besides it is listed on my CV. But, since he is so insistent I am wondering how much truth there is to his claim? In particular I am looking at state schools in the Mountain states, Midwest and South.

I'll have to start by acknowledging that my administrative and faculty experience have been exclusively at teaching-oriented institutions, as opposed to research universities, so that's all I can speak to from direct experience. Folks at research universities are especially invited to comment.

The usual meaning of 'blacklist,' as I understand it, is a list of names of people to be shunned. I've never seen such a list, nor have I ever heard of one, anyplace I've worked. It's true that some research topics get more interest/respect/funding than others, but to call that 'blacklisting' strikes me as melodramatic. 'Fashion' strikes me as closer. You may be considered out of step, but that's not the same as being blacklisted per se. (For example, it's entirely possible that prior to seeing your application, they've never heard of you.) Of course, from the perspective of an unsuccessful job applicant, that may amount to a distinction without a difference.

At the teaching institutions at which I've worked, the concern wouldn't be about whether you were pro- or anti-Israel, but about whether you were really interested in teaching the courses we'd be hiring you to teach. If we got the impression that you were really all about the Soviet Union, we would find you less appealing for a role teaching Middle Eastern History. That's not because of any particular political point of view, but because folks playing out of position tend to get crankier than do people who get to teach their first love. (I suspect that this inclination is why rhet/comp grads get jobs, and literature people struggle. If 'freshman composition' is your first love, we can be pretty sure you'll be happy here. If it's something you endure grudgingly in order to teach the occasional lit class, we can be pretty sure you'll be miserable here. That's not an absolute, by any means, but the rhet/comp folk start off with the benefit of the doubt. Similarly, people who have taught at cc's before have a leg up over folks who've never ventured far from Research U territory. That's not 'blacklisting' in any sense of the term I'd recognize, but if you're a struggling literature grad, that may not be much comfort.)

I sense the undercurrent to the question is the popular sense that higher ed is a bastion of liberal groupthink, and that positions counter to the alleged orthodoxy are inherently risky. Again, I've only worked at teaching institutions, but I can attest that this view simply doesn't describe the realities I've seen on the ground. It may at other places and may have at other times, but I haven't seen it. There are certainly blowhards to be found here and there, and some of those blowhards use politics as a battering ram to make people listen to them, but in those cases the politics are merely an excuse. (I've had awful personal experience, many years ago, of working for a blowhard who used his own much-trumpeted altruism as a way of calling attention to himself. It was horrible.) The David Horowitzes of the world rage against the bogeyman of higher education to justify their own existence; those of us in the trenches wonder what the hell they're talking about, shrug, and go about our business.

On a more basic level, I wouldn't let fears of a theoretical monolith stop you from going where your research leads you. If you do, the monolith effectively becomes real. I say, call its bluff.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – especially at research universities – what do you think?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.