Thursday, April 30, 2015

Your white guns, Your white sham, and Your senseless violence

Your white guns targeted
at the black, brown, colored
seas of protest will someday
be held accountable in a court
of justice, asked to recount the
number of dead, recount the
stories of violence that make
up your White ideas of liberty
and freedom and democracy.

Your white guns  and your sham
of democracy, civility, and citizenship,
will be judged in a court
of brown, black, colored peoples.
You will have to do the recounting
You will have to recite the names
Standing there, you will be asked
to do the explaining for the
black lives lost to your senseless violence.

Your white ideas of justice
Will be turned upside down for
their hypocrisies and farcical performances
You will be asked to describe
the violence that runs through your being
Through your police, through your military
The fundamentalism you inspire, to account for
The guns you make, and the armies
you send around the globe masked as democracy.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The fantasy of "objective" distance and White privilege

This is an often repeated scenario: A White male professor asks a graduate student from China "Aren't you biased, given that you are doing this study on Chinese netizens?" "Tell me why should this be generalizable."

This stance is reflective of the power of Whiteness to erase its own location and specificity as a universal, while simultaneously turning the "other" as the subject of investigation. Objective distance is therefore something that needs to be performed when studying the exotic "other" located elsewhere.

The fact is that most of our journals are inundated with White American scholars making a large number of grandiose claims about human behavior on the basis of studies conducted on White subjects in the classroom. In the sense of these claim made by the White man then, almost all of communication scholarship is fundamentally flawed (or at least large parts are).

The scripted retort voiced by the Chinese student to the White powerful male professor in my world of fantasy is this "Prof., my study of Chinese netizens is nearly not as biased as your entire body of work on public deliberation based on American populations of college students from the mostly White Midwest. Moreover, you build your entire body of work from other similar White scholars running other similar studies on other White convenient samples. So no Prof, at least I am beginning with a more diverse framework by attempting to work with theories developed in the White context and applying in the context of China. I have exposure to other ways of knowing and thinking, which you in your hubris and arrogance, don't. So actually no, I am much less biased than you are."

Yet, the power of Whiteness lies in precisely erasing the locational specificity of these studies and the inherent biases that come with White scholars making claims about human behavior from studying White subjects. The power of Whiteness lies in turning articulations grounded in White American realities into articulations about human behavior.

The power of Whiteness lies in the sheer power of colonial knowledge production processes that leave the sites of power unquestioned. In most instances, scholars from India, China, or Singapore are all too eager to please these White scholars and play by their standards.

This is perhaps one of the most prevalent scams of communication research.

As our discipline becomes more global in scope, let's have the foresight and the courage for calling out on this scam. This is essential to equalizing spaces of knowledge production.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The fantasy of an apolitical social science as instrument of neoliberal hegemony



In a recent piece documenting the experiences of migrant labor amid market reforms in China, I was reminded by one of the reviewers that social scientific work should stay away from "politics."

In another conversation with a graduate student conducting an ethnographic study of cellphone penetration in an indigenous context, I was reminded of a note from a reviewer who urged her to stay away from advocacy because she referred to her data from the field that challenged the hegemony of transnational corporations in the mobile phone sector. As an aside, the reviewer who made this comment often did work for mobile phone companies as a consultant or as a collaborator.

In each of these instances, critique directed at the broader corporatized context of neoliberal governance and its local manifestations is seen by these traditional social scientists as being overtly political, polemical, and/or advocacy. Thus "politics" stands in as a referent to critique of the hegemonic structures that constitute academic aspirations and the accepted processes of knowledge production in the mainstream. The supposed apolitical position of the social sciences in the traditional framework is contrasted with the seemingly political nature of critical work, thus delineating the realms of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable in the arena of claims making.

The role of the social sciences in this traditional worldview is to stay away from critique, working through data and theory to make specific articulations, albeit situated within the configurations of the dominant structures. So it would be just fine with me reporting from ethnographic work on meanings of health with migrant construction workers; but when this ethnography is tied to a critique of the broader structures of neoliberal organizing that constitute global migration patterns, it becomes non-academic.

What is particularly salient about this worldview is its taken-for-granted assumption about the natural state of things that appear as data and as objects of theorizing within the social science. Such a position remains oblivious to the politics of its own position, thus seemingly producing de-contextualized (read neutral/objective) knowledge that is universal, supposedly being free from the power of political and economic structures.  The power of this position of the social sciences in maintaining an objective distance is shaped by the broader power of the structures of knowledge production.

The study of cellphones in an indigenous community is almost always political, and to ignore this political frame is itself a political position, a polemic, a stance of advocacy. The power however in such stances of advocacy within the dominant structures of social science is in erasing the very nature of advocacy embodied in a study of say, cell phones. For a social scientist who is on the payroll of cellphone companies to study cellphone penetration is not only a political position, but a position that is rife with all forms of conflicts of interest. Yet, the social sciences have been so re-organized that it is the critique of such a position that is framed as polemic, thus leaving unchallenged the political economy of the social sciences as sites of knowledge production serving power structures.

Similarly, to suggest that discussions of neoliberal reforms in examining migrant work is political is itself a political position. To assume that the natural state of occurrence of migration and migratory exploitation as normalized features of structures is a political position. Such a political position retains its power by denying the oppressive nature of social structures. In such a political position, the facade of neutrality forecloses possibilities for interrogating the organizing of global structures that produce oppressive forms of migration.

Any social scientific argument, whether it is theoretically derived based on abstractions, or is empirically guided based on data, is fundamentally intertwined with the politics of knowledge production. To deny this politics is a discursive move that retains power in the hands of the status quo and frames the social sciences as instruments of control in the hands of the power elite.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Theory and practice: What academia offers the world of practice

In one of my recent posts, I discussed the overarching framework of Whiteness that shapes communication practice and the ways in which Whiteness lies at the heart of the prevalent norms of communication, civility, politeness, and interaction.

My post was misread as being racist by a senior industry practitioner who took my reference to Whiteness as a marker of racism, as an indicator that I was somehow racially marginalizing members of the White community. He cited his commitment to racial harmony to chastise me.

In such instances of disagreement, engaging in dialogue offers an opportunity for working through arguments, finding spaces of common grand and articulating spaces of departure.  In these instances of disagreements with practitioners who often have the economic power of the well-heeled purse-string or the enticement of the coveted industry partnerships, it is vital to revisit theorizing as the everyday practice of academia. Moreover, it is vital to look at such disagreements as creative points of conversation between theory and practice rather than simply caving in to the economic power of the practitioner.

The moments of departure between theory and practice hold much creative possibilities. However, to sustain such possibilities calls for active commitment of academics to understanding the nature of the academic mission, grasping the relationship between theory and practice, and committing to protecting the academic value of free speech.

I have usually found such instances to be incredibly powerful as they point toward the limits of conversation, suggesting the scope of dialogic possibilities and impossibilities. These disagreements are also the creative entry points for imagination.

I have also felt that such difference between theoretical frameworks and practices of communication are representative of broader gaps between the worlds of theory and practice. That an analysis of "Whiteness" might be seen as racism by a senior communication practitioner suggests the need for vital dialogue between theory and practice, especially because issues of race, gender, class and erasure lie at the heart of communication practice. These gaps also suggest that academic work remains incomplete in reaching out to the world of practice, in touching those spaces where such conversations are very much needed. Also, such gaps suggest the continued need of informing theory through practice, and guiding practice through theory.

The exchange presented above reminded me of the need for communication scholars to critically interrogate practice, but more importantly to work hard at finding avenues for sharing this work with practitioners with the goal of generating vital dialogue.

Our critical insights, without the connection to practice, do very little in impacting the nature of the world. The critical theorist, often hidden behind claims made in obscure journals, does little in impacting the world of practice. That the idea of "Whiteness" has little resonance with a practitioner means that the work of educating practice has to be taken seriously.

Unless as an academic I find entry points to have these conversations with practitioners, especially the tough conversations that work through disagreements, I am not really doing my job well. This means that one has to work hard to find those spaces for conversations and mutual education. Just as I expect to learn about the shifting nature of practice, as an academic, I need to learn to hold my ground so I can hold practitioners accountable to read academic work and to think through the value of this work. The commitment in other words has to be mutual.

Through a series of posts, I sought to engage the practitioner, working through descriptions of Whiteness, the meaning of Whiteness, and the ways in which White privilege plays out structurally in terms of shaping global norms, ideals, and aspirations.

I argued that rather than being an attack on an individual on the basis of race, Whiteness studies seek to document the ways in which taken-for-granted assumptions regarding what is normal and what is left out shape the normative structures of communication. The conversation was difficult but one we needed to have. Our job then as academics is to find the language through which we can open up spaces for such conversations.

Practitioners too have a great deal of responsibility to foster such spaces of dialogue.

In instances when the work of the academe pointing to racial, class-based, gender-based injustices percolates into the world of practice, making our practitioner colleagues uncomfortable, there are multiple opportunities for making an impact by creating the platforms for communication.

Now, practitioners, who often because of their success with economic resources, have the power over university decision-making processes to respond to these difficult conversations by wanting to silence them. These conversations can be difficult and therefore can easily be confused as being uncivil in tone, accompanied by the gut response among practitioners of wanting to censor such inconvenient conversations. This act of silencing is particularly the case for disenfranchised voices which have to break from the existing framework of communication in order to be heard. You have stories of donors and trustees, who after having been angered by a public comment of a faculty member at a University, have threatened to withdraw support from the university unless the faculty member is fired.

Such pressures exerted by practitioners who are in valuable positions in universities as trustees, donors, advisory board members etc. reflect a fundamental lack of understanding of academic culture with an openness for multiple competing discourses and arguments. Much like my earlier note about Whiteness, the conflation between Whiteness as a concept and the notion of my supposed racism emerges out of a lack of understanding of the academic idea of Whiteness.

In such instances, to cower to the pressures exerted by practitioners often on the basis of incomplete information and theoretically-uninformed gut responses is to sacrifice the very fundamentals of academe as spaces of critique and analysis. When university leaders bow to such pressures, they demonstrate their failure at leadership. Such acts of bowing down to donor pressure and trustee opinions demonstrate the lack of leadership, the lack of courage, and the lack of academic integrity.

As is demonstrated by communication research in the critical tradition, academe can indeed provide a valuable position of entry for practice. To enable the leadership role of academe in this conversation means that university leaders need to put their commitments behind notions of academic freedom. To enable these conversations, spaces need to be fostered actively.

These are also the precise moments of intervention for us as scholars of communication.

Pointing out the instances of communication manipulation, communicative inversions, and communicative erasure can offer points of engaging practice, suggesting pathways for imagining new forms of practice that creatively foster opportunities for working toward other worlds.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The hypocrisy of the New York Times Editorial "Modi's Dangerous Silence:" The limits of White liberalism

The limits of White liberalism are embodied in the hypocrisies and double standards in White articulations of liberty and freedom.

The rhetoric of this version of liberalism is emboldened in its double standards.

As the father of liberalism, John Stuart Mill, was eschewing the virtues of liberty, he was justifying the English occupation of India.

The recent New York Times Editorial on "Modi's Dangerous Silence" is another reflection of this double standard.

As I have noted elsewhere, the ascendance of the Hindu Right in India needs to be critiqued with vigor and full force to secure the space of multifaith syncretism that forms an integral part of an Indian articulation of nationhood.

However, for the New York Times  to criticize the Hindu Right's efforts of mass conversion as dangerous reflects the kind of double standard that is integral to White liberalism.

Mass conversions after all are the mantra of the White-Western way of life.

From the Christian crusades to the more contemporary crusades carried out under the facades of democracy promotion and development, mass conversions have played key roles in the assertion of hegemony of the Western way of life as a global universal. For the New York Times to refer to conversions as violent, there also needs to be a deeper engagement with the contemporary practices of conversion that are integral to Christian and Islamic missions. Critique needs to be directed toward the many missionary activities that are supported by the US state in its assertion of US hegemony. 

The New York Times article criticizes "the mass conversion to Hinduism of Christians and Muslims who have been coerced or promised money," observing that "Mr. Modi’s continued silence before such troubling intolerance increasingly gives the impression that he either cannot or does not wish to control the fringe elements of the Hindu nationalist right."

The problem with the position of the New York Times is embodied in its uncritical stance toward the violence of conversion, often through coercion and other times through the promise of money and services, that has been and continues to be carried out by Christian missionaries in indigenous communities in India and by Islamic efforts of conversion across marginalized spaces in rural and urban India. If the New York Times considers the act of conversion through coercion or through the promise of money to be fundamentally violent, it needs to take a critical stance toward many of the Catholic missions that lie at the heart of missionary services across underserved communities in India. If the New York Times considers conversion with some implicit promise of benefits as troubling, it needs to complicate its understanding of Mother Teresa and "Missionaries of Charity," whose fundamental mission of "uplifting the burden of the soul" is carried out through acts of conversion.

To target the under-served  and marginalized with the carrot of conversion is fundamentally an act of violence.

Many of the indigenous communities I have worked with in rural India are targets of such violence not just by the outfits of the Hindu Right, but also by the various missionary groups that masquerade the violence of conversion in the language of altruism. The act of violence is carried out through a facade of altruism offered by organized religion.

The Times article goes on to note: "In January, up to 100 Christians in West Bengal “reconverted” to Hinduism. Hard-line Hindu nationalist groups, like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), make no secret of their support for a “homecoming” campaign designed to “return” non-Hindus to the fold."

Indeed such criticism of the VHP and RSS-orchestrated "homecoming" campaigns needs to be situated amid criticisms of Islamic conversions and Christian missionary activities that carry out violence through various forms of service delivery. The poverty of the disenfranchised becomes a golden opportunity for carrying out the violence of conversion.

I invite the New York Times to join its call to Narendra Modi for breaking his silence with a similar commitment to speaking vocally about the violence of conversion that is carried out by the US state through the missionary activities it supports across the globe.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Continuing evidence of incivility of the Illinois administration: Chancellor Wise and the CAFT Report

The President of the University of Illinois Campus Faculty Association President Professor Bruce Rosenstock shared today his email exchange with Chancellor Phyllis Wise, requesting the Chancellor to respect the recommendations offered by the CAFT report prepared by the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure (CAFT) at the University of Illinois.

The email exchange, carried out between the dates of January 29, 2015 and February 5, 2015, once again is a reminder of the large gap between the rhetoric of civility performed by the Illinois administration as a justification for the decision of the University to de-hire Professor Salaita and the actual practices of incivility reflected in the behaviors of the University administration.

The exchange read in full also depicts the paradoxically closed nature of the University administration and its decision-making processes, scripted in cryptic messages from the Chancellor that stand in stark contrast to the performance of her avowed commitment to protecting openness and diversity on the Illinois campus.

The exchange instead reflects a sense of arrogance and lack of accountability to the broader University-wide faculty on behalf of the administration, revealing the workings of top-down authoritarian power that foreclose opportunities for conversation and dialogue.

To make my argument that the behavior of Chancellor Wise continues to characterize incivility, I will draw upon the definition of incivility in the Merriam Webster dictionary as "a rude or impolite act."

To be rude or impolite is to render conversation impossible through a variety of strategies such as avoidance, silence, non-response, deflection, etc., to shut down possibilities of dialogue, and to limit the possibilities of further discourse. This is especially the case within the context of disagreements on difficult-to-discuss subjects.

More broadly within the context of a University, to close off opportunities for conversation with representatives of an elected campus faculty association by University administration is rude and impolite because it fundamentally undermines the spirit of faculty governance that lies at the heart of Universities. Moreover, beyond the norms of rudeness, to foreclose opportunities for conversation with an elected representative of the academic senate is a threat to the fundamental being of a University as it undermines the very notions of academic freedom and faculty governance that lie at the heart of Universities.

The CAFT report is a carefully considered deliberation on the University decision-making processes in the de-hiring of Professor Salaita, concluding with the recommendation to the University to re-instate Professor Salaita, to withdraw the earlier statements made by the Chancellor and the Board of Trustees on civility as a standard of conduct, and to take responsibility for the financial consequences to Dr. Salaita. The Board of Trustees responded earlier to the CAFT report by reiterating its decision not to hire Professor Salaita.

Professor Rosenstock's email to Chancellor Wise invites her to a meeting in his role as president of the Campus Faculty Association with the objective of sharing with her a petition signed by campus faculty members urging the Chancellor to reconsider her decision of not allowing the formation of a faculty expert committee to evaluate the professional fitness of Professor Salaita. The email also points to the manipulative framing of the CAFT report in an earlier University press release on the lawsuit filed by Professor Salaita against the University on charges of undue donor influence and urges Chancellor Wise to the retract the part of the news release falsifying the CAFT report.

Chancellor Wise responds to Professor Rosenstock's email by stating the following: "I don’t think it is worthwhile for us to meet. The Board of Trustees has spoken clearly that they will not re-consider their decision. They have the final authority in this matter. Therefore, I do not believe that it is worth your time or mine to revisit the possibility to remand the consideration of hiring Dr. Salaita to a committee in LAS."

The invitation to conversation is closed by a response that reiterates the Board of Trustees decision. The possibility of constituting an expert committee is foreclosed by privileging the authority of the board of trustees. The same top-down form of decision-making is reflected in the Chancellor's response that she had earlier observed as a mistake she had committed in earlier processes of decision-making. Also worth noting is the strategy of avoidance in response to the charge of falsification of the CAFT report that is brought by one of the key authors of the report.

In a subsequent email, Professor Rosenstock asks Chancellor Wise to elaborate the basis of her decision-making, asking her to explain the decision-making process and whether faculty members were consulted in deciding the University response to the CAFT report. Professor Rosenstock eloquently notes the very same flawed decision-making being repeated by Chancellor Wise that she had earlier been accused of following and had later owned up to. He notes:

"You have said that your decision-making process in the case of Salaita was flawed because you failed to consult with faculty before taking the step you did on August 1. The reason you offered for making the decision you did on August 1 related solely to the future action of the Board of Trustees in his case. In the ensuing months you came under considerable criticism for the decision you took on August 1 and you have claimed that you would act differently  (even if the decision might be the same) in the future. Looking at your decision to reject the CAFT recommendation concerning the remand of Salaita’s candidacy to an LAS committee, someone might say that you repeated the same decision-making process that led to your August 1 decision."

Chancellor Wise once again responds to this email with a cryptic message that she looks forward to reading the petition and to working together as a campus community to address the challenges and opportunities ahead. The Chancellor's response is typical crisis PR-speak. Keep the message short and offer some rhetorical promise of working together looking toward the future. Her actions however, including her inability to address the questions raised by the CAFT, point to the absence of commitment to working together. Rather, a top-down decision has made with deference to the power of the Trustees, and the power of the Trustees as decision-makers is invoked to not engage with the recommendations made by a faculty committee.

Professor Rosenstock once again invites the Chancellor to a dialogue, stating the following:

"In the email chain below you will also find four questions that I once again respectfully would ask you to respond to on behalf of these faculty and also many others who are members of the Campus Faculty Association. You said nothing in response to these questions earlier, so I would like to give you one more opportunity before I make public the petition, the signatures, and the questions. Thank you for taking the time to consider the petition and our request for clarification regarding your decision in regard to the CAFT report."

Chancellor Wise responds with empty PR-speak of looking forward to working together:

"Thank you for sending this email and the attached signatures. As I have said in a previous email to you I look forward to working with you to address the challenges and opportunities that we face."

The email exchange presented above depicts the absence of a space for deliberation and debate. As Professor makes multiple requests for clarifications, reasons, and transparency for decisions taken by the administration, the Chancellor draws upon her own power and the power of the trustees to foreclose discussion, followed up by an empty promise of working together. As a response strategy, the speech act performed by Chancellor Wise is not only rude in avoiding conversation on the key issues but is also deceptive in couching this avoidance within the language of wanting to work together. As I have argued elsewhere, these communicative inversions, the inversions of symbolic representations to refer to the opposite of what is being practiced, are fundamental forms of incivility as they shut down possibilities of authentic conversation.

Chancellor Wise depicts the incivility that has come to form the cornerstone of the Illinois administration.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The race to measurement: The "meat and potatoes" of critical thinking

As universities globally are being pushed to offer valid and reliable accounts of their work and performance, there is a global frenzy across university campuses for measurement and evaluation. University administrators, all set to capture university productivity in some raw number, are driven by the quest for simplified metrics, algorithms, and statistics.

The controversial Purdue president Mitch Daniels, who during his time as Indiana governor had come under fire for introducing school-wide performance-driven reforms that many academics argue fundamentally broke the backbone of K-12 education in Indiana, is now all set to introduce metrics for measuring critical thinking.

Faced with a faculty that is uncertain about the meaningfulness and effectiveness of a research design that would capture critical thinking, Daniels notes " "How about we get going on the meat and potatoes of critical learning and not put that off another 12 months? … There could be a little learn-by-doing involved, too."

For Daniels, a little learn-by-doing is the solution to the fundamental uncertainty about the meaningfulness of measuring critical thinking. The problem with the Mitch Daniels line of thought lies in the understanding of critical thinking as "meat and potatoes" that can somehow be weighed by a simplistic weighing device and then matched up to a dollar amount. In this worldview, we can have an ROI (return-on-investment) for critical thinking.

This race to measurement is of course not unique to Purdue but is an increasingly global phenomenon.

Long lines of administrators, with the increasing ranks of Associate Deans, Vice Deans, Assistant Deans, and sub-Assistant Deans need to justify their existence, their own lack of productivity, and their mediocre-caliber performance by inventing new sets of metrics that would create new domains of busywork for them. Presidents and Provosts, with their exorbitant salaries need to demonstrate that they are doing something to be accountable.

You see, the problem in all of this lies in the very intent and objectives behind these exercises. At the rate at which these metrics come and go, it becomes evident that for every administrator, there has to be some new campus-wide exercise to define her or his mark on the university. The concern for the administrator then is in showing that some busywork is taking place, some new paradigm of managing universities is being invented.

It does not matter how good the work is, how good the design is, and whether the design is informed by good science.

The race to measurement then also means that this a race to new initiatives, new processes, and new campus-wide exercises, often detracting from the fundamental commitments to research, teaching and meaningful engagement that ought to define the life of a professor. Let's not forget the amount of resources and money that go into these new measurement and accountability exercises. Where's the data to demonstrate that these new processes of measurement and new initiatives actually worked?

We as faculty are often made to grudgingly fill out another round of papers, evaluative tools, and performance metrics in order to satisfy the fanciful obsession of a new administrator with the "meat and potatoes" of some new entity.

We find our days being filled out with filing paperwork, completing some new e-process, writing up some new sets of objectives, and then randomly coming up with new sets of metrics to evaluate against these objectives. I say randomly because more often than not there simply isn't a robust set of systematic indicators to shape these kinds of processes.

Increasingly, the long hours on the computer filling out forms also mean less and less hours with our students, less and less time in understanding them, in guiding them, and in nurturing them. The busyness of the paperwork and e-forms take up so much of our time and energy that we start forgetting the fundamental mission of why we are here: to serve our students.

All these efforts would perhaps make sense if we knew that the measures and measurement processes were accountable, if we only knew in transparent ways the science behind the metrics, evaluative exercises, and new processes, and that these decisions were grounded in robust research. But all of this would mean that universities be redone in how decisions are made. The opaque decisions made by trustees and the short-sighted decisions made by administrators must be rendered visible to the faculty, for the faculty to debate on and decide on as a collective based on deliberation. For new initiatives to take place, they must be ratified by elected faculty senate or some such decision-making body grounded in faculty participation and faculty evaluation of data.

Critical thinking, President Daniels, can not be reduced to "meat and potatoes;" We can not run "fly by the seat of our pants" operation to measure critical thought. There exist fundamental philosophical differences on measurement and the meaning of measurement. I suggest you begin by reading this literature that would point you toward the key philosophical, theoretical, and empirical debates in this literature. Once you do so, you will perhaps have a greater sense of the uncertainty that faculty feel about such measurement operations, questions of research design, face validity, construct validity, reliability etc.