[Scheduling note: This is the latest installation of a Friday series profiling Group of 88 members, building off earlier posts on Wahneema Lubiano, Grant Farred, Sally Deutsch, and Kathy Rudy. The posts examine the scholarship and teaching of Group members, trying to show the mindset of professors who last spring abandoned both the tenets of Duke’s Faculty Handbook and the academy’s traditional fidelity to due process. An item to keep in mind: in higher education, professors control new hires. So the people profiled in this series will craft future job descriptions for Duke professors; and then, for positions assigned to their departments, vote for new hires.]
Group of 88 signatory and “clarifying” faculty member Joseph Harris teaches English and directs the University Writing Program. He received his B.A. from Haverford and his Ph.D. (in English Education) from NYU.
Harris has published three books, each of which discuss how to teach writing. His courses have included “Framing the 2004 Election”; “Writing, Rhetoric, and Democracy”; “Writing and Social Change”; and “Writing and Social Class.”
Harris has an unusually direct impact on the average life of Duke undergraduates. All Duke students must take a first-year writing class—staffed by people that Harris, as UWP director, plays a large role in selecting.
Harris’ academic writings suggest a vision of the writing program that might not be what most Duke parents expect when they encounter the requirement in the first-year orientation packet.
Harris has explained that, as a writing program administrator, his job is to function as “an activist reformer in the university.” In a 1991 essay, he asserted that composition classes should “teach students to write as critics of their culture,” with “teaching itself as a form of cultural criticism, about classrooms that do not simply reproduce the values of our universities and cultures but that also work to resist and question them.”
It seems quite unlikely, however, that Harris wants his UWP teachers to design their courses to “resist and question” the “values of our universities” as reflected in the Group of 88’s statement. In another 1991 essay, he opposed using English classes as an opportunity to “pass down and preserve the legacy of high [W]estern culture.” Why? Because students “need to use language to question the demands their society makes upon them.”
In other words, students need to write as particular kinds of “critics of their culture.” Courses designed—say—to critique what some people would term the culture’s devaluing of life since Roe v. Wade don’t fit into Harris’ preference. Nor would he seem inclined to encourage criticism of a “culture” whose elites overwhelmingly endorse loosening the nation’s immigration laws or preserving “diversity” preferences in higher education.
[I write, in the interests of full disclosure, as a supporter of abortion rights, an opponent of a get-tough immigration policy, and a critic of the “diversity” agenda.]
“Identity,” Harris further asserted, “rises out of identification; we define who we are through who we choose to stand with and against.” When George W. Bush uses this kind of language, members of the Group of 88 have howled in protest.
In a 2002 article, Harris urged structuring writing classes so that students would “participate in the ongoing disputes and controversies of our culture.” Implementing this goal fairly, however, would seem to require a politically and ideologically balanced professoriate. Otherwise, Harris’ agenda amounts to little more than providing a rationale for an ideologically imbalanced faculty—like, say, Duke’s humanities faculty—offering students an array of courses from a one-sided political perspective.
Harris, effectively, has admitted as much. “One form of teaching in this public-ness in this adjectival sense,” he noted, “asks students to consider how their lives are connected to and shaped by social forces and events.” Writing courses could be oriented around service learning, where “students collaborate with local activists”—on a topic, of course, pre-selected by the professor. Or the classes could have students comment on current affairs—screened, again, by the teacher. Harris celebrated one Duke class where students were asked to write about campaign against sweatshops and whether the Chronicle should have rejected an ad opposing reparations for African-Americans—two issues of great concern to the academic far left.
Harris’ vision of the academy also falls well outside of the mainstream. In a 2000 article, he stated that professors “need to admit that we are indeed workers in a corporate system that we hope to reform.” (Not too many corporations give lifetime positions at six-figure salaries to people like Wahneema Lubiano, who received tenure after listing non-existent “forthcoming” books.) Too many academics, he complained, favor a meritocratic approach, concentrating on their own individual achievements rather than recognizing that they are “mid-level bureaucrats in large corporations.” Harris, for one, described himself as “from a union family and . . . troubled by my position as a manager in a system that treats so many of its teachers unfairly.”
Harris also has offered some unusual recommendations regarding grading policy. In a 2002 essay, he lamented “sense of loss that can haunt working-class youths when they find themselves newly schooled as part of the professional middle class.” Professors, he noted, need to adjust their grading policies, recognizing that they can’t “judge the work of minority and working-class students according to an abstract set of standards that fails to account for the ways the economic realities of their lives impinges on their careers as students.”
Beyond the point paternalistic assumption that all minorities are poor or working-class, it’s unclear how lowering standards helps anyone, including poor or working-class students. Indeed, we had this debate at CUNY, when disastrous policies along the lines recommended by Harris devalued a CUNY degree in the 1980s and early 1990s; the institution has revived only through the initiatives of Chancellor Matthew Goldstein, who has advocated raising standards across the board.
In April 2006, Benjamin Albers, Christina Beaule, Jessica Boa, Matt Brim, Jason Mahn, and Marcia Rego joined Harris in signing the Group of 88’s statement. Unlike Harris, none of these faculty enjoyed the protection of tenure, and therefore were vulnerable to the political whims of their superiors. Harris does not seem to have concerned himself with how a self-described “manager” signing onto a highly controversial statement might have pressured—even if unintentionally—his contingent subordinates to endorse the statement as well. By the time the “clarifying” ad appeared in January 2007, Boa had left Duke, but Albers, Brim, and Rego joined Harris and five other UWP faculty members (Erin Gayton, Erik Harms, Fred Klaits, Tamera Marko, Kristin Solli) in signing onto that anti-lacrosse statement.
What sorts of courses are taught by these Group of 88/clarifying faculty, people hired by a professor who argues that composition courses should be designed “to teach students to write as critics of their culture”? Below is a sample of classes taught by UWP faculty who signed anti-lacrosse petitions:
- “URBANcultureSPACEtimePOWER” (all one word), which explores such questions as, “Why are there no supermarkets in some neighborhoods, only liquor-stores? . . . Who gets ‘a view’ and who is put under surveillance?”
- “Why Have Wealth?”
- “Cell Phones to Designer Babies,” which examines how “cell phones to cybersex to ‘designer babies’” to other technologies are “produced, marketed and consumed in terms of [naturally] race, class, gender, sexuality, labor, family and nationality.”
- “Queer Eye Culture,” in which, “Reading key texts of queer theory, we will evaluate just how transgressive and non-normative (i.e., queer) everyday America is becoming. Core issues will include the distinction between gay/lesbian and queer, how race impacts queer identity, the commodification of queerness, and the ways in which queerness complicates the idea of homophobia.”
Harris is an associate professor; from 2000-2005, he served on the Arts and Sciences Course Committee.