The Judith Butler Affair

Judith Butler is an American feminist and philosopher who in October 2017, unbenownst to herself, became the topic of a heated controversy at Lund University, Sweden. The issue at stake was academic freedom. Or, to be more precise, the right of university teachers to teach their own courses in their own fashion.
Saturday, October 28, 2017 16 Comments
På samhällsvetenskapliga fakulteten vid Lunds universitet finns en tumregel som säger att åtminstone 40% av författarna på en kurslista ska vara kvinnor. Böcker och artiklar skrivna av kvinnor måste kunna kvoteras in, säger förespråkarna. Men det är en katastrof för undervisningen och ett hot mot universitetet.

Låt mig ge ett exempel på hur det här kan fungera. Ta min kurs i politisk idéhistoria. Jag ville ge en kurs om hur olika högeridéer och nationalism utvecklades under tiden före första världskriget, om hur 1800-talets globalisering och öppna gränser banade vägen för den mörkblå reaktionen. Om också vi lever i en tid där gränser är öppna och fascismen är på frammarsch finns det få viktigare ämnen. Det vore roligt att tala med studenter om det här och jag har hittat en massa intressant källmaterial. Entusiastisk satte jag ihop en litteraturlista.

Problemet var bara bristen på kvinnliga författare. Min kurs nådde inte upp till de 40 procenten. Det var ju högeridéer det gällde och eftersom kursen var uppbyggd på primärkällor — författare från tiden — var det svårt att hitta många kvinnliga bidrag. Det verkar som de flesta mörkblå bakåtsträvare var män. Kvinnorna, åtminstone de som uttryckte sig i skrift, var företrädesvis liberala och progressiva. Till slut lyckades jag i alla fall hitta en kvinnlig författare som var emot kvinnlig rösträtt.

Snart hörde jag ifrån studierektorn på min institution. “Visst,” sa ha, “40% är bara en tumregel, men en kurs med så här få kvinnliga författare kommer aldrig att gå igenom.” OK, tänkte jag och fortsatte leta kvinnliga bakåtsträvare. Till slut beslöt jag mig för att töja på förutsättningarna för kursen. Om jag definierade 1800-talets anarkister som fascister kunde jag förbättra mina odds. Anarkisterna var visserligen inte fascister, men de var i all fall våldsbenägna. Och framför allt fanns det kvinnliga författare bland dem.

Kursen klarade kurslitteraturskommittén med darr på ribban. Studentkårsrepresentanten i kommittén var mycket kritisk till min “brist på fokus på genus” och flera andra kommittémedlemmar höll med. Efter en lång diskussion slank kursen igenom — så länge jag lovade att ta med Judith Butler, känd nutida poststrukturalistisk feminist, bland gardet av mörkblå 1800-talsgubbar.

Kursen började förra veckan. Men jag hade inte hunnit långt i den första föreläsningen när jag avbröts av en student: “Skulle du kunna säga mer om hur kvinnornas situation såg ut under Upplysningen?” “Just det,” fyllde en annan student i. Jag blev paff. Jag brukar inte bli paff speciellt ofta, men nu hände det. Varför avbryter studenterna mig med en fråga som gäller någonting helt annat?

Sedan hörde jag från studierektorn igen. En delegation från studenterna på min kurs hade kommit till honom för att klaga — efter bara två seminarier. Klagomålen var inte så specifika, men det verkar som om jag inte tagit studenternas kommentarer på allvar och dessutom följer kursen som jag ger den inte den officiella litteraturlistan. Naturligtvis gör den inte det. Ingen kurslitteraturskommitté i världen kan tvinga mig att undervisa på Judith Butler om jag inte vill.

Alltihopa var konstigt — studenterna som avbröt mig mitt i en mening, delegationen som gick till studierektorn innan kursen kommit igång på riktigt. Men till slut förstod jag. En av studenterna på kursen avslöjade sig som förtroendevald i studentkåren och dessutom som vän till studentrepresentanten på kurslitteraturkommittén, hon som slagit larm om bristen på genus fokus. “Som student,” sa han, “älskar jag kursen, men studentkåren har hittat en lång rad problem med den.”

Studentkåren på Lunds universitet sysslar alltså med att leta “problem” i kurser och trakasserar sedan lärare som inte har tillräckligt mycket fokus på genus och inte tillräckligt många kvinnliga författare på litteraturlistan. I denna ambition får de aktivt stöd av medlemmar av institutionens kurslitteraturkommitté och passivt stöd av majoriteten som inte vågar ta strid om principer. Eftersom jag vill ge en kurs om gamla mörkermän har jag nu fått rykte som “anti-feminist” och min kurs har blivit någonting som ska pekas ut och avslöjas.

Grundproblemet är att intellektuell verksamhet — i detta fall en kurs — görs till en fråga om demokratiska beslut. Om alla kan vara med och rösta kommer alla att rösta på sina favoriter, och studenterna kommer att lägga veto om de inte får som de vill. Demokrati har sin självklara plats, men den platsen är inte min kurs och inte min litteraturlista. Genuskvoteringen av kurslitteraturen måste genast upphöra om vi vill fortsätta att tänka, analysera och förstå istället för att bara uttrycka våra preferenser. Det är i sista hand kurslitteraturkommitténs brist på ryggrad som gjort situationen ohållbar.

Jag har efter moget övervägande beslutat att inte ge kursen igen. Jag vill inte bli mobbad av studenter och jag vill inte att märkliga rykten ska spridas om mig bland kollegor. Synd, tycker jag, eftersom fascismens framväxt är ett viktigt ämne, inte minst just nu.

Litteraturlistan finns här.

Sunday, October 29, 2017 45 Comments

In the social science faculty at Lund University there is a rule of thumb which suggests that at least 40% of the articles on the reading list of a course should be written by women. This is necessary, say the advocates of the system, in order to give female academics a more prominent voice. BS, I say. The system is a threat to the university and to academic freedom.

Let me give you an example of how it works. Take my course on the rise of right-wing ideas, and eventually fascism, at the turn of the twentieth century. What interests me is the possibility of a connection between the spread of global markets in the course of the nineteenth-century and the subsequent swing to the right. If we once again are living in a period of globalization and if fascists once again are on the march, it is difficult to conceive of a more urgent topic. Besides, it is bound to be a topic on which students have a lot to say. Excited by the idea, I submitted a proposal to the relevant course committee.

The problem was only the lack of female authors on the reading list. My course did not reach the 40% quota required. It was not even close. It was right-wing ideas I wanted to talk about and since the focus was on primary sources — authors from the turn of the twentieth-century — it was difficult to find female candidates. It seems most reactionaries of the day were men. Women, at least the ones who expressed themselves in writing, were predominantly liberal and progressive. Finally, after an extensive search, I came across one female author who was against women’s right to vote. Gratefully, I included her on the reading list.

Then the Director of Studies in my department contacted me. “Sure,” he said, “the 40% quota is only a rule of thumb, but a course with this few female authors will never be accepted.” Oh well, I thought, and continued my search for female reactionaries. In the end I decided to change the rationale of the course a bit. If I included anarchists too I would be in a much better position. Anarchists were not fascists to be sure — in fact they were, well, anti-fascist — but at least they shared the fascists’ fascination with violence. And, more importantly, there were quite a number of female authors among them.

My course passed the course committee but is was a close call. The student representative on the committee was very critical of my “lack of focus on gender issues,” and a number of other committee members agreed. After an extensive discussion, the course was approved — as long as I promised to include Judith Butler, a well-known contemporary post-structuralist feminist, among the nineteenth-century male reactionaries.

The course started last week, and already the first class was eventful. I had not gotten far into my first lecture when I was interrupted by a student: “Could you please tell us something more about the condition of women during this period?” one asked. “Yes, that’s right,” another chimed in. I was stumped. I was talking about Plato’s cave metaphor and the idea of enlightenment, a topic quite far removed from the status of women. Why are the students interrupting me with such an extraneous question?

Two days later I hear from the Director of Studies again. A delegation from the students on my course had come to him to complain — after only two seminars. The complaints were not very specific, but it seemed I had not taken their comments seriously and besides my course did not correspond to the reading list as it was officially approved. Of course it did not. There is not a course committee in the world which can force me to teach Judith Butler unless I want to.

The whole thing was strange — the students who interrupted me with extraneous questions, the delegation that went to the director of studies before the course had even properly begun. But finally I got it. One of the students, he revealed in an unguarded aside, had worked full-time for the student union, and besides he was a friend of the student rep on the course committee, the one who complained about the lack of a focus on gender. “As a student,” he said, “I love your course, but the student union has a number of issues with it.”

The student union at Lund University is thus busy finding “issues” with courses and proceed to harass teachers who have an insufficient focus on gender and too few female authors on the reading list. In these aims they are actively supported by some members of the course committee and passively supported by the majority of members who are too scared to take a principled stand. Since I wanted to give a course about old reactionaries, I now have a reputation as an “anti-feminist” and my course is something that needs to be investigated and scrutinized.

The basic problem is that an intellectual activity — in this case a course — has been subject to democratic criteria. But if everyone is allowed a vote, everyone will vote for their favorites, and students are in a position to veto what they don’t like. Democracy has its place, but it is not on my course and not on my reading list. The affirmative action system for female authors must stop. Intellectual activity is about thought, analysis and understanding and it is not just an occasion for people to express their preferences. It is the course committee’s inability to grasp this point, and their failure to stand up for the integrity of the intellectual process, that has made the situation untenable.

I have after some head-scratching decided not to give the course again. I don’t want to be bullied by students and I don’t want weird rumors to spread about me. Too bad, I think, since the growth and spread of fascism is an important and timely subject.

Monday, October 30, 2017 No comments

A journalist from the local paper, Sydsvenskan, just contacted me. Apparently he reads my blog. Well, good for him.  He wanted to talk to me on the phone, but I don’t have a phone. I asked him to put his questions online. My answers below.

Hi

Hi back.
I would have liked to talk to you in person, if possible, but this is what I’m wondering about.
Could you send me the reading list, the link doesn’t seem to work.
Strange. The link should work. Well, it’s here: http://ringmar.net/lundakurser/index.php/det-moderna-samhallet-och-dess-kritiker/ You continue by clicking on the tab called “seminarier.”
Where is the rule of thumb regarding a 40% quota for women and who decided on it?
I don’t actually know. I only know about it from what the Director of Studies of my department has told me.
Is the course still given? When did it start?
It started on October 11 and continues until November 10.
What do you generally think of the idea of quotas for male/female authors on a reading list?

I am against all interference with our teaching. Intellectual activity, such as a course, is not guided by democratic principles but by intellectual. Nothing on a reading list should be motivated by a quota but instead by intellectual criteria, that is, in term’s of the logic and goals of the course. It is the duly accredited teacher who is responsible for the logic and the goals. This is one of the fundamental aspect of academic freedom and it is taken for granted in the rest of the world, but not in Sweden. Germans call it Lernfreiheit. Unesco has taken resolutions about this, which the Swedes have signed, but obviously without understanding any of it.

I taught at one of the best universities in Great Britain for 12 years and there it was obvious that it was the teacher responsible who made decisions regarding reading lists. This is the only way to avoid interference and harassment. This is also the only way to guarantee independence and freedom of inquiry. At Lund University, academic integrity is not safeguarded, hence the problems I experienced. I had more academic freedom when I taught in China (I gave lectures on independence for Tibet and Taiwan and about those small islands in the South China Sea which probably don’t belong to China).

Tuesday, October 31, 2017 No comments

Above the entrance to the auditorium at University of Uppsala there is an inscription in golden letters: “Tänka fritt är stort men tänka rätt är större.” “Thinking freely is great, but thinking correctly is greater.” “The right thought is more important than the free thought.”

This view is still common at Swedish universities, although what is considered correct and right has changed. According to this view, you go to university in order to learn the truth, in order to learn what’s what. A course on right-wing thought, from this perspective, is an abomination. Universities should not teach that. Instead courses should be carefully balanced so as to include every viewpoint. As soon as a contested issue is under discussion, as soon as there are many truths, all perspectives must be represented.

This is dogmatism and it has nothing to do with intellectual pursuits. At proper universities, at least in the humanities, you don’t learn what’s what, you learn how to think for yourself. You do this as you are exposed to thoughts and worlds which you previously knew nothing about. You learn to think as you are challenged, learn to criticize and ask new questions. A course on right-wing thought works well for these purposes — and so do, obviously, courses on many other kinds of thought. This is why we read the ancient Greeks after all, although they were both pedophiles and slave-owners. Once you have learned how to think, that’s the idea, you go on to find your own truth.

Proper intellectual pursuits are free, not forced. Proper intellectuals are critical and subversive. Thinking correctly is what fascists do, and government servants. And, in Sweden, far too many university employees and students.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017 No comments

The problem with gender quotas on reading lists is that they have nothing whatsoever do with with intellectual pursuits. It’s pure metrics, pure tokenism. Female authors are added because they are women, not because they are smart, relevant, or even because they have a women’s perspective on anything. This stupid, brainless, system must be replaced. This has nothing to do with a university education.

Consider a better alternative. What if all teachers simply got together to discuss reading lists with the idea to help each other improve the courses? There are bound to be a lot of things that each individual teacher overlooks, literature that is not included, perspectives that need to be heard. This would include gendered views, but also all kinds of other rarely heard opinions. This would be a proper intellectual conversation. We would all learn something and our courses would be better as a result. A course can never be taught by committee to be sure, there must always be a teacher responsible, but we all have an obligation to listen to good suggestions. We must all be prepared to be convinced by good arguments.

This is what a university education is about.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017 No comments

Dear students!

The point of this course is to help you think for yourself and in new ways. I want to encourage creativity and enthusiasm. I want you to understand just how much fun it is to discover new perspectives on the world. Yet these goals don’t fit very well with the disciplinary aspects of a university teacher’s job.  As a teacher you are supposed to grade, rank and fail your students. I would much rather not do any of this. My classes are about the very opposite of discipline.

What would happen if I gave you the chance to set your own grades?  Yes, that’s right, I just said: what would happen if I gave you the chance to set you own grades?  Would you stop coming to class?  Would you stop studying?  If you are at the university in order to credentialize yourself, you probably would. Well, good for you.  But even better for the rest of us. The rest of us, once the classroom has been transformed into a discipline-free zone, would finally be able to focus on what a university education is all about.

Should we try it?

Btw, my other reading lists are here.

Thursday, November 02, 2017 2 Comments

My point about reading lists and academic freedom is really about the plurality of values that exist in every society. Isaiah Berlin has written brilliantly about this, and so has my former colleague John Gray.  There are market values, democratic values, emotional values, and so on, but there are also intellectual values.

The values of a society, say Berlin, Gray and I, are distributed according to different logics and they cover different realms. The one logic cannot be reduced to the other, although, admittedly, there are certain areas of overlap between them. To reduce everything to one logic results in tyranny — the tyranny of the market, the tyranny of the majority, the tyranny of emotionalism, and so on.

My job as a university teacher is to stand up for the integrity of intellectual values and to defend the university as an independent realm ruled by its own logic. This is why intellectual pursuits cannot be reduced to a question of majority decisions. But also why universities must be protected from market forces.  The alternative is tyranny.

Friday, November 03, 2017 No comments

One should not brag. One doesn’t do that in Sweden. But I run pretty good courses, and I have for about twenty years. Student evaluations have always ranged from “very good” to “the best course I ever took at the university.” I’m happy to see that this pattern has continued since I returned to Sweden four years ago.

One reason why my courses work so well is that they are my courses. I run them the way I want, according to my own judgment, without asking for permission from anyone. I honestly thought that was the whole point. I didn’t know I was supposed to defer to someone else’s judgment and teach the material decided on by some committee. I didn’t know I was legally required to do what they said.

I always thought of myself as a representative of the university in the same way that Edmund Burke thought of himself as a representative of the electors of Bristol. After he was elected MP in 1766 Burke turned to the very people who had voted for him and insisted that a “representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” Like Burke, I would betray the system I represent if I didn’t use my own judgment and instead deferred to the opinion of some committee.

The reason I have such outrageous self-confidence is that I’ve been trained. My teachers were some of the best people in the business — Robert Dahl, Charles Lindblom, James C. Scott, Steven Lukes, Susan Strange, Alessandro Pizzorno, Alexander Wendt. It would never have occurred to any of these guys that they could not teach their own courses in their own fashion, and it has until now never occurred to me either.

Isn’t this an elitist view? Of course it is, or rather a meritocratic view. It is meritocratic in the same way that all professions are meritocratic. We expect pilots to be able to land planes, bakers to be able to bake bread, and so on, and we don’t subject their decisions to democratic control. Many things in society should be subject to democratic control, but not the activities of professionals, not their activities in and of themselves.

Only someone who fails to understand that a course is an intellectual activity could ever come up with the idea that reading lists should be subject to gender quotas and made into legally binding documents.

Who should be teaching our courses? Teaching robots who follow a pre-set curriculum decided on by some committee or free-thinking intellectuals who use their own, Burkean, judgment? You know what, let’s ask our students!

Saturday, November 04, 2017 5 Comments

The older I get, the more I’ve come to realize that there is not one, but two universities. The two are related but still entirely different.

The first university is the formal university. It is made up of students, academics and staff, offices and administrative infrastructure, but also the entitlements associated with all this — job titles, research grants, social hierarchies. In the formal university you have a career, there is power and money to be fought over and privileges to be distributed.

The second university is the university of the spirit. This is the university in which the intellectual activity takes place. This is where you think, read, write and discuss. In the university of the spirit there is no infrastructure, no entitlements, no resources, no careers and hence nothing to fight over. This is a realm of freedom and equality. Or rather, the only thing that matters here is the better argument, the better research.

I’m strongly in favor of quotas for women in the formal university. I think titles, research grants and office space should be shared equally between women and men. Divide the power and the privileges 50/50, why not?  But I’m equally opposed to quotas being imposed on the university of the spirit. No outsiders should be able to dictate how we think, read, teach and discuss.

Ever since my cancer I’ve tried to have as little as possible to do with the formal university. I don’t want to get involved in fights over careers and job titles; I don’t want to apply for research funding and distribute patronage. These are all earthly matters and a waste of time. Time for me, for us all, is limited. All I want to do is to read and write and teach. I want to work full-time in the university of the spirit.

My grandfather, who was a vicar in the Church of Sweden, liked to quote Saint Paul: “The letter kills, but the spirit gives life.” My grandfather was a missionary of sorts in the far north of Sweden and he cared little for the official career paths of the Church. He was also a republican. There could not have been many vicars in the Church of Sweden in the 1930s who were opposed to the idea of monarchy. Perhaps he was the only one. My grandfather did not work in the formal Church he worked only in the Church of the spirit.

Sunday, November 05, 2017 No comments

Erik, you constantly refer to something you call an “intellectual activity.” What do you actually mean by that?

Dear student, I’m glad you asked me that question. Intellectual activities are what a university is — or rather, should be — about. Intellectual activities are what we should engage in instead of fighting over promotions and office space. Intellectual activities, briefly put, is the life of the mind, it is a matter of thinking.

But hasn’t post-structuralist theory once and for all proven that thinking is a phallocentric power-game which perpetuates existing injustices and confines women to a subordinate position in society?

Well, no. If you believe that you’ll believe anything. First of all, post-structuralists themselves would object to the idea that they are in the business of delivering “proofs.” That’s just not what post-structuralism does. And if you want to do something about existing injustices I suggest you leave academia and join a political party. Politics too is a noble activity. But let the rest of us go on with our intellectual activities.

But surely there are many truths? Many ways of looking at the world? How can we ever decide between them?

We are actually not talking about a search for truth. Intellectual activities are not concerned with goals. Instead they describe a process — a process of making claims which are backed up by arguments. The arguments can be of different kinds — logical but also factual — and the intellectual process is concerned with investigating the power and applicability of those arguments. You say something which I try to refute. From our disagreement a conversation arises. This conversation is the intellectual activity.

Yeah, right. But what if men dismiss women’s arguments as invalid because they are based on experiences which men cannot share?

This is why thinking, and thinking together, is a process. It never stops. Intellectual activities require freedom and they have no respect for authority. If you try to direct them by arbitrary means you are exercising power. You tell people to shut up and obey. This is why we must oppose gender quotas on reading lists and all other kinds of external interference. In what I call the “university of the spirit,” no one has more power than the power of their best argument — and nobody takes orders from anybody else.

But what if you still fundamentally disagree?

This does happen of course. After all, there are many disputes between scholars that drag on for years and years. But this “dragging on” is just the point. We go on talking, go on testing the validity of each other’s claims.

That’s a nice answer. I now understand why post-structuralism is a danger to the university and why intellectual activities must be safeguarded at all costs.

You are a good student. Unless we believe in a shared standard of argumentation we might as well start throwing pies at each other. And remember, don’t take what your teachers say as the truth. Poke the bastards in the stomach with your sharpest argument. It is your responsibility to go on questioning.

Sunday, November 05, 2017 1 Comment

There are two things I object to:

  1. The idea that women authors should be placed on a reading list according to 40/60% formula. Books and articles by women authors must be given a rationale just like any other item on the reading list. Giving rationales is an intellectual activity. The present system is brain-dead, anti-intellectual.
  2. That power is exercised over me, my course, my students and our discussions. That we are told what to think and talk about by a committee to which we don’t have access.  And that I’m being bullied by some students for failing to comply. The reading list is a “legally binding document,” they argue, and not teaching Judith Butler is thus a breach of contract.

On the second of these points: I’m not much of a lawyer, but it certainly seems to me that Lund University is in breach of Unesco’s Recommendations concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel:

Higher-education teaching personnel have the right to teach without any interference, subject to accepted professional principles including professional responsibility and intellectual rigour with regard to standards and methods of teaching. Higher-education teaching personnel should not be forced to instruct against their own best knowledge and conscience or be forced to use curricula and methods contrary to national and international human rights standards. Higher education teaching personnel should play a significant role in determining the curriculum.

It’s these bits in particular: “… Higher-education teaching personnel have the right to teach without any interference, subject to accepted professional principles including professional responsibility and intellectual rigour,” and “… should not be forced to instruct against their own best knowledge and conscience …”  If a Lund University committee puts Judith Butler on my reading list and if students bully me for not teaching it, surely Lund U is in breach of these recommendations.

What to do about this?  Sweden has signed on to the recommendations but it’s presumably not the kind of thing that would stand up in court. Any lawyers out there?

Tuesday, November 07, 2017 No comments

Dear Judith, if I may,

My name is Erik Ringmar and I teach in the Political Science Department at Lund University in Sweden. Your name has recently featured prominently in a campus war regarding the content of reading lists. See this. Lately the big Swedish newspapers have started writing about it too. Obviously I am very curious regarding what you make of it all, but I also understand why you might not want to comment on something happening so far away.

What I would like to know is:

  • How do you feel about your work being used in this fashion?
  • Are the on-campus feminists correct to try to influence my course?
  • What is your definition of academic freedom?

Stirring up controversy is good; there is always something to be learned. Thanks for helping out,

yours,

Erik

A bit more about me here.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017 6 Comments

This is an interview I did with “Studio Ett,” the flagship drive-time news-show on Swedish public radio. It aired this afternoon. If you missed it, it’s here:

No, this is not the way for me to win friends and influence people. More like, lose friends and piss people off. Oh well.

Thursday, November 09, 2017 2 Comments

Today we spend much of our time on-line, and we largely do it together with people who share our interests, thoughts and convictions. This is a public sphere, to be sure, but it is almost entirely made up of like-minded people. It is the public sphere as echo-chamber.

The old public sphere did not work this way. It was based in “mass media,” meaning media consumed by large numbers of very different kinds of people. In the old mass media, conflicting views contended with each other and the people reading, watching and listening were forced to confront ideas with which they did not agree. The task of the old-style mass media was to faithfully reflect this diversity — a notion rather quaintly referred to as “objectivity.”

The students who now are first-year undergraduates — born in 1996 and 1997 — are representatives of the first generation of people brought up on-line. Coming to the university, however, they enter one of the last bastions of the old public sphere. Universities are not echo-chambers; they reflect many views and opinions; there is conflict and controversy and no alternative facts. Not surprisingly, universities make many students feel “uncomfortable.” “We don’t feel safe,” they say all over American campuses, and now they are increasingly saying it on Swedish campuses too, for example here in Lund. “If we are the customers and you are the service providers, why do make us feel unsafe?” “Why should we accept reading lists that don’t reflect our opinions?”

Good, I say. I’m glad I make you feel “uncomfortable” and “unsafe.” Don’t you understand what is at stake here? Our ability to live peacefully together as a diverse society; the viability of our democracy.

Friday, November 10, 2017 No comments

In Sweden a successful academic career requires you to apply for research funding. If you don’t get funding, they say, it’s difficult to do research. You end up teaching too much and you have no money to buy books or to travel. The pecking order of prestige is determined by who can get what grant.  Big professors have big grants.

And yet, I’ve decided not to apply for any money.  First of all, I like teaching.  It is only once you are forced to explain something to someone else that you actually understand it. Not teaching, I would lose this opportunity.  Secondly, my research is extraordinarily cheap. All I need is a computer with an internet connection, and I have that already. I also have about a million books. The additional books I need I can get as pdfs or buy with my own money.

The fundamental problem with big grants is that they ground you in one place. You are supposed to invest the money in institutional structures — assistants, copy machines, adoring post-docs — and to develop your network of patronage.  I’ve done the opposite throughout my life — constantly broken with institutions and networks. I have no patronage to distribute. All I have is what I can take with me as I move along — my words. The words I write and the words I use when I lecture. Omnia mea mecum porto.

I treasure my freedom more than the social prestige that comes with big grants. I want to be able to write whatever I like and not be dependent on others. I want to speak out on behalf of causes I believe in — such as academic freedom — without fear of financial retribution.  If I don’t apply for money, no one can tell me what I can’t do. No, I will never be a big professor.

And frankly, I don’t think much social science research deserves funding anyway. The research just isn’t important or interesting enough. Most of it is esoteric nonsense and self-indulgent self-promotion. No one outside of the universities cares, and for good reason. I include my own research here. Give my money to cancer research!

Friday, November 10, 2017 No comments

Erik, most academics are actually quite conformist and ready to defer to authority. You seem different, somehow. Why is that?

Dear student, too much Auden, too much Auden.

from UNDER WHICH LYRE
~ by W. H. Auden

Thou shalt not do as the Dean pleases,
Thou shalt not write thy doctor’s thesis
On education,
Thou shalt not worship projects nor
Shalt thou or thine bow down before
Administration.

Thou shalt not answer questionnaires
Or quizzes upon World Affairs,
Nor with complaince
Take any test. Thou shalt not sit
With statisticians nor commit
A social science.

Thou shalt not be on friendly terms
With guys in advertising firms,
Nor speak with such
As read the Bible for its prose,
Nor, above all, make love to those
Who wash too much.

Thou shalt not live within thy means
Nor on plain water and raw greens.
If thou must choose
Between the choices, choose the odd.
Read The New Yorker, trust in God,
And take short views.

 

Monday, November 13, 2017 No comments

 

The Swedish government wants to make universities into gender neutral institutions. Employees and students should have the same rights and opportunities regardless of whether they are men or women. What could be more praiseworthy? Who could be against that? Yet the government policy is a threat to academic freedom and thus to the whole point of the university.

Reading the government’s proposal you learn nothing about the way the good intentions are translated into practice, how they work in the classrooms. For example: all around the country academic departments have adopted quotas for the literature to be used on reading lists. A commonly used rule of thumb says that at least 40% of the texts should be written by female authors. Since the reading lists are legally binding documents, teachers who fail to follow them are in breach of contract.

It is obviously important to include women’s perspectives in the university curriculum, but this is the wrong way to do it. The value of a scientific work should not be judged by the identity of the author but by the value of the content of the research results. To question the value of research just because it is produced by men reminds you of the way “Jewish science” was questioned in Germany in the 1930s. Swedish universities ought to think twice before they go down that route. Besides, it is not at all clear that texts written by female authors are written from a female perspective. After all, women, much like men, use a number of different perspectives when they write. To assign readings by means of a quota misses that obvious fact.

And the consequences can be perfectly bizarre. At the start of the fall semester this year, the board of the Department of Political Science at Lund University, where I work, decided that my course in the history of ideas should include a work by Judith Butler, a well-known contemporary feminist. Nothing wrong in that, you might say, except that my course was about romantic and conservative reactions to the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. Butler is a post-modernist, and critical of the Enlightenment Project in her own way, but none of the weeks I had prepared had space for her. Besides she is far, far too difficult for my students. In the end I simply left her out of the course. It may have been a breech of contract but at least the course as I gave it had a coherent structure.

When the Student Union gets involved these problems are aggravated. Through their representatives on the boards of academic departments they can influence the reading lists, and if the texts are not actually used in the classrooms, the teachers can be outed and the courses subject to investigations. In the end, it is the students, not the teachers, who decide on the content of their education. It reminds you of the student-led, “revolutionary,” classrooms of the 1960s. The only difference is that in today’s Sweden it is the government that has made the student take-overs possible.

Sometimes one wonders whether the boards of academic departments even understand how reading lists work. The point of a university education, as least in the humanities and social sciences, is not in fact to teach truths or even facts. Truths change quickly and facts are these days most easily found on the Internet. Rather, the point of a university education is to teach students how to think. As long as you can think you can always find the facts, and the truths, you need. Thinking is best taught by confronting the students’ preconceived notions with alternatives and to force them to argue in support of their conclusions. Here provocative texts often work well. Thus a course with a reading list full of reactionary patriarchs can as a result of the discussions it gives rise to easily turn into a course on the experiences and perspectives of women. The government, and all feminist activists, must trust the teachers. We have the requisite training. We know what we are doing.

Here we need to make an important distinction. Universities are not only places where intellectual conversations take place but also ordinary work-places. Much of what happens in a university is a matter of administration; universities, that is, are hierarchical structures that distribute power and resources. Obviously women should have the same influence over this process as men. There should be just as many women in leading positions in the universities as we want there to be in parliament or on the boards of large companies. Sweden needs more female professors!

But none of these argument apply to the intellectual conversation, to the actual research. Here exercises of power are not permitted; you cannot impose your will by force. Instead, intellectual conversations should take place between equals. Or rather, the only authority that can be accepted is the authority that comes from the better argument, the better research. University courses provide an example. It is at the university that young people for the first time come to take a part in the intellectual life of their societies. That is how it should work anyway. That committees responsible for making decisions on reading lists fail to understand this basic fact is worrying. That university teachers themselves fail to raise the alarm tells you a lot about their addiction to government funding.

In other Western countries — and in much of the rest of the world — a teacher’s right to teach according to his or her own judgment is a taken-for-granted aspect of academic freedom. University teachers have Lehrfreiheit, the freedom to teach. UNESCO has passed recommendations regarding this right — recommendations which the Swedish government has promised to follow. But no Swedish university seems to understand what they are required to do, and the government itself has obviously no respect for academic freedom.

This is not to say that reading lists should look the way they have in the past. Yet changes cannot happen by means of quotas but must instead happen by means of arguments. To use a quota is to exercise power; to provide arguments is to participate in an intellectual conversation. Instead of exercising power over teachers and students, universities need to find new ways in which the content of reading lists can be discussed. In the end it must be the teachers who decide what they want to teach, but they must at the same time be prepared to be convinced by good arguments. Good suggestions, also from students, will improve the courses. No one can be against that.

“The right thought is better than the free thought,” say the gilded letters above the entrance to the auditorium at Uppsala University, but this is a false contradiction. What is right can only be discovered by means of a research process which is free. If you already beforehand know what the results will be, there is no need to investigate anything. But you do not go to the university in order to have your preconceived notions confirmed; you go to the university in order to learn how to think for yourself. Swedish universities must become arenas where young people confront the new, the strange, the unexpected. This requires free, independent, teachers who can initiate free, inspiring, conversations with their students.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017 No comments

Det statliga programmet för “jämställdhetsintegrering” vill göra universiteten till fullt jämställda institutioner. Anställda och studenter ska ha samma rättigheter och möjligheter oavsett kön. Vad kunde vara mer lovvärt? Ingenting att bråka om. Men det statliga programmet hotar den akademiska friheten och därmed hela poängen med universiteten.

Vad man inte ser om man läser de jämställdhetspolitiska målen är hur de goda intentionerna fungerar i klassrummen, i praktiken. Runt om i landet har institutionsstyrelser antagit kvoter för den kurslitteratur som ska användas i undervisningen. En ofta använd tumregel säger att åtminstone 40% av litteraturen ska vara skriven av kvinnliga författare. Eftersom litteraturlistorna gjorts till lagligt bindande dokument kommer de som inte följer dem att begå tjänstefel.

Det är naturligtvis viktigt att inkludera kvinnliga perspektiv i undervisningen, men det här är fel sätt att göra det på. Värdet hos ett vetenskapligt verk ska inte bedömas utifrån identiteten på författaren utan istället från innehållet i forskningsresultaten. Att ifrågasätta forskningsresultat bara för att de producerats av män liknar 1930-talets tyska ifrågasättanden av ”judisk forskning.” Svenska universitet bör tänka sig för innan de börjar resonera i de termerna. Dessutom är det ju inte alls säkert att en text av en kvinnlig författare har ett kvinnoperspektiv. Kvinnor, precis som män, skriver utifrån en mängd olika perspektiv. Att kvotera enligt kön missar detta uppenbara faktum.

Och konsekvenserna kan bli fullständigt bisarra. Som när styrelsen vid statsvetenskapliga institutionen på Lund Universitet i början av höstterminen bestämde att litteraturlistan på min kurs i politisk idéhistoria skulle innehålla ett verk av Judith Butler, en känd nutida feminist. Inget fel på det kan man tycka, utom att kursen ifråga handlar om den romantiska och konservativa reaktionen på Upplysningstiden och den franska revolutionen. Butler är en post-modernist, och på sitt sätt kritisk till Upplysningens idéer, men ingen av de veckor jag förberett hade plats for henne. Dessutom är hon på tok för svår för våra studenter. Till slut bestämde jag mig för att helt sonika stryka henne. Det var kanske tjänstefel, men kursen fick i alla fall en sammanhängande struktur.

När universitetens studentkårer tar sig an de här frågorna förvärras problemen. De kan genom sina representanter i institutionsstyrelserna påverka litteraturvalet, och om texterna sedan inte används på kurserna kan lärarna pekas ut och deras undervisning bli till föremål för utredningar. Det blir till slut studenterna, inte lärarna, som bestämmer innehållet i undervisningen. Det liknar 60-talets studentledda, ”revolutionära,” klassrum. Den enda skillnaden är att i dagens Sverige är det staten som möjliggjort maktövertagandena.

Det verkar faktiskt inte som institutionsstyrelserna själva förstår hur litteraturlistor fungerar. Vitsen med en universitetsutbildning, i alla fall inom samhällsvetenskaper och humaniora, är faktiskt inte att lära ut vad som är rätt. Fakta förändras snabbt och de hittar man numera lättast på internet. Vitsen med en universitetsutbildning är istället att lära studenterna att tänka. Kan man bara tänka kan man också hitta de fakta man behöver. Tänka lär man bäst ut genom att konfrontera studenternas invanda föreställningar med alternativ och att tvinga dem att argumentera för sina slutsatser. Här fungerar provocerande texter ofta bra. En litteraturlista full av reaktionära patriarker kan under det intellektuella samtalets gång förvandlas till en kurs just om kvinnors erfarenheter och perspektiv. Men staten, och alla feministiska aktivister, måste lita på lärarna. Vi är utbildade. Vi vet vad vi gör.

Men det är viktigt att hålla isär två saker här. Universiteten är inte bara platser för intellektuella samtal utan också vanliga arbetsplatser. Mycket av det som händer på universiteten är administration; universiteten är hierarkiska strukturer som fördelar makt och resurser. Det är självklart att kvinnor ska ha lika mycket inflytande som män över den processen. De måste finnas lika många kvinnor på ledande positioner inom universiteten som det bör finnas i riksdagen eller inom ledningen för svenska företag. Sverige behöver fler kvinnliga professorer!

Men inga av de här argumenten är giltiga för det intellektuella samtalet, för själva forskningen. Här kan inga kvoter accepteras, men heller inga hierarkier, förelägganden eller maktutövning. Intellektuella samtal förs alltid mellan jämlika parter. Eller snarare, den enda auktoritet som accepteras är den auktoritet som kommer från det bättre argumentet, den bättre forskningen. En universitetskurs är också en del av det intellektuella samtalet. Det är på kurser på universitetet som unga människor för första gången blir en del av samhällets intellektuella liv. Så borde det i alla fall fungera. Att institutionsstyrelser runt om på svenska universitet inte förstår dessa grundläggande fakta är upprörande. Att universitetslärarna själva inte protesterar säger mycket om hur beroende de är av statliga finansiärer.

I övriga västländer – och i mycket av världen för övrigt – är rätten för universitetslärare att undervisa efter eget skön en viktig del av den akademiska friheten. Universitetslärare har Lehrfreiheit, undervisningsfrihet. Unesco har antagit rekommendationer om saken — rekommendationer som Sverige åtagit sig att följa. Men inget svenskt universitet verkar ha förstått vad de måste göra, och svenska regeringen fattar uppenbarligen inte vad akademisk frihet innebär.

Det här är inte ett argument för att litteraturlistorna ska se ut som de alltid har gjort, men förändringar kan inte kvoteras in. De måste istället argumenteras in. Att kvotera är att utöva makt, att argumentera är att delta i ett intellektuellt samtal. Istället för maktutövande institutionsstyrelser behöver universiteten nya forum där vi kan mötas för att diskutera kurslitteratur. Det måste alltid vara lärarna som bestämmer till slut, men de måste vara beredda att övertygas av goda argument. Bra förslag, också från studenter, gör kurserna bättre. Ingen kan ha någonting emot det.

“Att tänka fritt är stort, att tänka rätt är större,” står det i guldbokstäver över ingången till universitetsaulan I Uppsala, men motsättningen är falsk. Vad som är rätt kan man bara komma fram till om forskningsprocessen är fri. Om man redan på förhand vet vad som är rätt behövs ingen forskning, ingen eftertanke. Men man går inte på universitet för att få sina förutfattade meningar bekräftade; man går på universitet för att lära sig ifrågasätta den värld vi lever i och för att lära sig tänka själv. Svenska universitet måste bli arenor där unga människor konfronteras med det nya, det konstiga, det oväntade. Det kräver fria, självständiga, lärare som kan initiera fria, inspirerande, samtal med sina studenter.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017 No comments
Over the past weeks a discussion about academic freedom has been taking place on Academia.edu. Yesterday, Victoria posted this:

I am currently active in campaigns for defending the right to academic freedom in Turkey and Palestine, thus, this article caught my eye. It particularly puzzled me, as in the Middle East, the Swedish academy is regularly held up as a bastion of academic freedom. As you may be aware, the situation in both Turkey and Palestine is extremely dire, in both cases we have tens of jailed academics, the state or occupying state dictating the freedom of movement of researchers and students and dissemination of knowledge, plus positions and course content always under political scrutiny.

Aside from the obvious difficulties you have pointed out in your own environment, what is very worrying to me is how this impacts on our campaigns in the Middle East region. At the centre of all our campaigns is the notion of academic freedom as an ideal and in fact as a RIGHT of educators and students. As soon as this notion is watered down, and state interference (with the best intentions) becomes normalized, the very pedagogic and internationalist core of our message to free academic life from political repression everywhere becomes muddied. It worries me that actions such as this within democratic states can potentially become tools and excuses to the power wielders of repressive regimes. This is not good news for us all.

It is very easy to imagine what the Israeli authorities say: we have to limit academic freedom in the name of peace and social order. I.e., if educational institutions on the West Bank tell the truth about the history of the Israeli occupation it will stir up trouble. Truth and social order are the “higher values” in whose name academic freedom is to be sacrificed. The Israeli authorities are probably right. The truth causes more trouble than lies. So, whose side are you on?

Victoria’s point illustrates exactly what is at stake here: to limit academic freedom in one place is to limit it everywhere. This is how universal principles work. I’m in solidarity with her struggle for academic freedom in Palestine and Turkey and she is in solidarity with my struggle for academic freedom in Sweden.