Middle East studies in the News
MEALAC, Why So Silent?
by Jai Katsuri
It's funny that it took a visiting graduate student from the anthropology department to write about and defend MEALAC, as Oguz Erdur did in a fine piece in Spectator last Wednesday. A friend of mine recently asked me why MEALAC graduate students have been so publicly silent when they are, after all, at the center of the campus storm. I confess I was at a loss to explain it. MEALAC grads are usually known to be feisty and if anything, a bit too vocal. Yet on this crisis, which affects them more directly than anyone else on campus, they have maintained an uncharacteristic, and perhaps strange, silence.
I've been at MEALAC for eight years as a Ph.D. student. The department as a whole has been extraordinarily good to me personally, on every level. I cannot imagine any other academic department, anywhere, where I would have had as much freedom to pursue my intellectual interests through to their logical conclusions. I've also had the great pleasure of TA-ing for very "becoming" Columbia undergrads for the last seven years. And I've worked with nearly every faculty member in the department at one time or another.
We—by which I mean those of my colleagues with whom I've spoken about this— are grateful for the unprecedented outpouring of support on campus for our beleaguered department, whether from enterprising individuals like Oguz or the various faculty-sponsored events or the circulating petitions. All around us, there have been many examples of courageous heroes and would-be martyrs defending the cause of free thought in academia. Yet, where is the MEALAC community itself?
Last week, there was in fact a brief attempt among MEALAC graduate students to decide on a statement demanding that the administration do a better job of defending the department. You would think that this would be the least we could do, and a no-brainer. The petition was sent to the MEALAC graduate students' mailing list. MEALAC has about 40 graduate students, and about 30 of them were on this mailing list. Of those 30, a prolonged debate sprang up among about five of us, and we could not, in fact, agree on the language, or even the purpose, of the petition. We could not even agree as to what the crisis was about, let alone what to do about it.
News of dissent within MEALAC itself may come as a shock to the wider Columbia community, especially those making such sacrifices for us. MEALAC opinion on the crisis is not homogenous. But for MEALACers themselves, this was not news. MEALAC has always been a department of individualists with very diverse views. The department's official mission—uniquely interdisciplinary and geographically expansive—ensures that. The claim by certain external groups that MEALAC lacks a diversity of opinion is simply laughable.
No, the real news here is the other 25 who remained silent. Put another way, that's about an 85 percent absentee rate on a discussion that everyone seems to have assumed would consume MEALAC's interest. What were these 25 thinking? Does their silence reflect assent, or dissent, or plain old apathy? I can only speculate. The fact is I don't know. No one does.
There is certainly plenty at stake for MEALACers. I can't imagine that the majority of MEALAC graduate students want to see our little academic home reduced to single-issue or manifesto-driven monomania, or have our intellectual freedom curtailed by administrative or congressional decree. For my part, I am confident that neither will ultimately happen. I do believe President Bollinger when he promises sternly (as quoted in The New York Times) to protect our institution from external interests, and that academia "is and must remain a system of self-government." We will all certainly hold him to that conviction. And I'm also quite sure that Columbia students of any stripe are relieved that he is, I think correctly, aware of the "enormous differential in power between the professor and the student." (An aside: does this mean that he will support the union?) All this would ensure that the secular academy remains an open field of free competition for everyone. But it will still have to be MEALACers who enter that space and engage with each other. And at the moment, their participation levels are rather pathetic.
The threats to MEALAC's independence are not limited to various external organizations, though these have rightly received much attention. Oguz aptly described Columbia as "occupied territory" when these external interests arrived on campus. But in a sense, MEALAC has already been occupied territory for a couple of months now, and it was not an "external group" that did the invading. Vice President Dirks has reportedly put an "external committee" in charge of MEALAC—we are in receivership. We read about this in the papers like everyone else; our own department still has not informed us about this and has given us awfully cryptic responses to our queries. And so, like everyone else, in the absence of clear information from the administration, we're not entirely sure what that means. But it likely means that MEALAC is a department no longer in control of its own fate, much like the English department was several years ago when it suffered through its own crisis. And I've been here long enough to remember when the anthro department underwent a similar crisis, about eight years ago, the very one that Dirks was called from Michigan to fix.
So here we are, "occupied" by one of our own. Why is MEALAC in receivership? I would like to suggest that the situation in MEALAC is in fact an extension of the dual English and anthro crises that preceded it, and perhaps has as much or more to do with internal Columbia politics. To put it simply, there has always been an intense and sometimes hostile competition among (and within) these departments on the question of how to teach cultural studies and literary theory at Columbia, including the difficult legacies of post-colonial theory. Related to these, and not least of all, is the question of what to do with the Saidian legacy. Both the English and anthro crises revolved around these issues. The English department, as described in the March 10 Spectator article, dealt with their stalemate in part by eliminating their most hostile players. Anthro under Dirks took the conciliatory approach of importing subalternist theory and burying questions of narrative representation under a flurry of microhistory. MEALAC however, may not get the chance to find its own solutions. From what I hear, the external committee is packed with subalternists. Perhaps in addition to the external groups, we ought to pay attention to departmental agendas closer to home.
Of course, this competition is a part of the necessary conversation about pedagogical values. These issues neither began with this crisis, nor will they end with it. Ironically, the current defense of "free speech" at MEALAC has had a chilling effect on this conversation. Oguz's "territorial" metaphor to describe Columbia as an occupied state is appropriate in a way that he perhaps didn't intend. In cultivating a Fort Columbia mentality (not to mention Fort MEALAC), we may be reinforcing a "with us or against us" metaphysic of our own. It is undeniable that already in some quarters on campus—and MEALAC—dissent has been hysterically read as disloyalty. The conversation about pedagogical values has ground to a halt, a needless crisis of our own making.
And by reducing the pedagogical conversation to "Zionist!" vs. "Anti-Semite!" we seem to have forgotten that the students involved in this crisis hardly used terms like these. In fact, their published accounts are sprinkled with statements that are surprisingly apologetic and even generous. They liked the courses, they said; they liked the professors, respected them, and certainly didn't want anyone to lose their jobs. They even liked MEALAC and learned a lot. And I don't recall any of the students saying freedom of inquiry should be curtailed. In the context of what is going on, this is rather astonishing, and little noted. What, then, were the students saying? I'm not sure, but I think they were saying something a little more nuanced, and thus much more important, than the simplistic charge of bias. Unfortunately, we have chosen to respond to the external groups rather than to the students. In the process, we deliberately lost their voices. And I can't help but wonder why we collectively allowed that. I also wonder if our deafness isn't related to the silence of those 25 graduate students in MEALAC.
At a faculty-sponsored event last Tuesday, Professor Bilgrami was quoted as saying, "A handful of students are responsible for the University's crisis." Respectfully, I disagree. MEALAC opinion is more diverse, and the threats to our freedoms are more diffuse, than the current debate on campus indicates. Bollinger is right to defend the students' voices, but it is up to us to actually listen to them. For all we know, they might be more important, and more friendly, than we thought.Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
Campus Watch contact e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org