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Saturday, March 12, 2005
Susan Ackerman, Deconstruction, and the Trustee Election [Warning: Long]

As I noted previously, a fair number of those who oppose the petition candidates have resorted to accusing them of wanting to drag Dartmouth backwards. The latest to do so is religion professor Susan Ackerman '80, who has managed to come up with this humdinger (thanks to the new Voices in the Wilderness blog for the Valley News link):
Both petition candidates, in short, seem to me to long nostalgically for some 'Dear Old Dartmouth' of the past, without admitting the idealized past they crave represents a Dartmouth that was often hard on women, gays and lesbians, and minorities; monolithic in terms of its social life; and fostered an anti-intellectual environment.
The statement above comes from a longer mass blitz that Ackerman sent to friends from her era and other like-minded alumni (well, if they share your views, then why do you need to tell them how to vote?). According to the Valley News, Ackerman has, in that same email, attacked Robinson and Zywicki for advocating "the same sorts of reactionary ideologies as were represented in last year's elections by Rodgers."

I'll tell you what fosters an anti-intellectual environment: ad hominem attacks like these. Ackerman once said, defending the secularity of her department, that "the world of the academy is a world that depends on data, depends on evidence and depends on analysis of data and evidence" Well, show us some frickin' evidence for these claims (I'm going to presuppose that the rest of her blitz doesn't -- if this is wrong, please let me know), so that you can say with confidence, as Hamlet did, "Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not 'seems.'" Argue why the positions Robinson and Zywicki are reactionary. Point us to an article in the Review or an episode of Uncommon Knowledge in which Robinson has called for the return of the Indian symbol. Show me where and when on The Volokh Conspiracy Zywicki has extolled the virtues of single-sex education. It's not enough to "reason" as follows: Robinson's a conservative who worked for that nasty Ronald Reagan; all conservatives are evil; therefore, when Robinson speaks about undergraduates needing to "learn about the plight of American Indians by studying the displacement of the Cherokee Nation and the 'Trail of Tears'," he must surely be lying. He must surely want the opposite.

This is what I mean by "postmodern logic": I was referencing Derrida and Deconstruction (I'll explain "at its worst" in the next paragraph), and from now on will use Deconstruction so as to avoid any confusion. According to The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, Deconstruction allows a text to be read as "saying something quite different from what it appears to be saying, and that it may be read as carrying a plurality of significance or as saying many different things which are fundamentally at variance with, contradictory to and subversive of what may a single, stable 'meaning.'" This is done, writes Barbara Johnson in Critical Terms for Literary Study, by finding "signifying force in the gaps, margins, figures, echoes, digressions, discontinuities, contradictions, and ambiguities of a text."

I actually doubt that Susan Ackerman has performed a thorough deconstructive reading of Robinson's and Zywicki's statements, because deconstruction, for all its flaws, actually requires that you perform what literary critics call a "close reading" of the text in question. That is to say, evidence is required. Also, Deconstruction doesn't allow the reader to find in the text any one stable meaning, and yet Ackerman appears to have imbued the trustee candidates' positions with exactly that. Why? I suspect that this is because she's read so much deconstructive theory that it's become part of her critical apparatus, especially when dealing with people she doesn't like. But Deconstruction, as far as I know, is meant to be applied without fear or favor, without taking into account political positions or the people who've written the text. After all, as Derrida's famous saying goes, "Il n'y a rien hors du texte." So when Ackerman presumes that Robinson and Zywicki actually want the College to go backwards, despite the evidence to the contrary and despite the requirements and axioms of the Deconstructive method (which of course is insulated from its own claims!), she is doing injustice to Robinson and Zywicki as well as to Deconstruction.

All this is predicated on reading the petition candidates' statements as progressive. Tim believes that "it is perfectly plausible to say that the candidates want to go in a more conservative direction," and that "though it is not 'value-neutral' to use the words 'backwards' to describe conservative changes, someone can honestly believe such changes make the college more backwards." Well, sure. If it can be demonstrated that what the candidates say is explicitly reactionary, then there's no need for Ackerman to employ Deconstruction at all.

Here's where a little comparative analysis comes in handy. Robinson and Zywicki both talk about the importance of Dartmouth as an undergraduate college. Well, so too do all the other trustee candidates. No sane candidate would dare echo James Wright's words that Dartmouth is a "research university in all but name." What about freedom of speech? Well, Gregg Engles believes that Dartmouth "must also include a faculty with diverse points of view, prepared to join in vigorous debate on important issues, and free from the intellectual orthodoxy that exists on many U.S. campuses today." Richard Lewis says, "I believe free speech, open dialogue and debate are important to the development of the most prepared Dartmouth students." Athletics? Sheila Cheston believes that "Part of what is special about Dartmouth is the inviting college environment, the embrace of athletics and outdoor activities, and the attention paid to developing the whole individual." Hmm, that last part sounds a lot like Zywicki's belief that "Dartmouth should recommit itself to the education of well-rounded students and leaders." See what I'm getting at here? The petition candidates' vision of the ideal Dartmouth that people are calling reactionary is not radically different from that of the other candidates.

Where they do differ is in their appraisal of Dartmouth at the present moment. And here's a good reason for voting for them: because, while everyone might more or less agree about how Dartmouth should be like, there exists considerable disagreement as to the current state of the College on the Hill. Is it in good shape or bad shape or mediocre shape? I don't know. I wasn't involved in student government. I had a great time there, and perhaps complained about political correctness a little too much back when I was younger. Even The Review these days acknowledges that "Students are getting along fine at our small College; the campus culture remains genial and gregarious; most of the faculty tend to do a professional job, many professors are excellent, and some, very occasionally, can be inspirations." But it seems to me important that people sit down and talk about the present state of Dartmouth, and I think that Zywicki and Robinson and T. J. Rodgers will help facilitate this dialogue. Because it may very well be that things at Dartmouth aren't going swimmingly, and that serious change is needed.

This goes back to the question of ideological diversity, which in the case of the Dartmouth Board of Trustees will most likely express itself as disagreement over means rather than ends. So yes, at the end of this long post, I am modifying what I said earlier about ideological diversity. It's still my primary reason for voting for Zywicki and Robinson, but I'm now thinking more in terms of what it means in context rather than as an abstract good. (There's still the possibility, of course, that at some point in the future, the trustees will disagree over ends.)