Transcript lightly edited.
Infovores: Today is March 14th, 2023, and my guest is University of Utah Dean of Humanities Hollis Robbins. Hollis writes frequently on the topic of higher education, drawing from a wealth of first-hand experience as a student, professor, and administrator that spans eight states, four academic disciplines, and a diverse range of institutions both public and private. We will focus our discussion today on the American University and the state of campus life. Hollis, thank you for joining me!
Hollis Robbins: Glad to be here. Eight states, goodness gracious! I hadn't counted them up in a while, so thank you.
Infovores: Thank you for sharing your expertise today. I'm really excited to hear what you have to say.
Let's start by talking about academic freedom. Many believe it is on the decline. As someone tasked with handling a lot of the relevant policies and disputes, how do you assess the health of academic freedom at the moment and what are the biggest challenges you face personally?
Hollis Robbins: First of all, I'm really delighted to have this conversation, and one of the distinctions I'd like to make is between academic freedom and free speech. I was fortunate to participate in that Stanford Academic Freedom Conference last November, and there were some really interesting guests there, some people who have made headlines for academic freedom disputes. Jordan Peterson was there, Amy Wax was there from Penn, Greg Lukianoff from FIRE was there.
One of my critiques of the discussion is that there hadn't been a differentiation made clear between academic freedom, which is the freedom for faculty to both pursue a subject and teach it in class. And this is an important bedrock of universities across the globe. The idea that you give researchers the freedom to pursue whatever line of inquiry they think will turn into gold, turn into innovations that will allow humanity to progress. So academic freedom has been upheld at American universities, at global universities for a very long time. Free speech is a right, a first amendment right to say what you'd like, but you can't say it everywhere, and it isn't tied to universities, and much of the disputes that we've seen bubble to the surface in terms of cancellations or violations are really free speech disputes. They are not academic freedom disputes.
And I as a dean can talk about an academic freedom dispute, which is to say, you know, I've got faculty members who want to have a textbook that costs $300. But we have policies of limiting costs, for example. That's not an academic freedom dispute. But it's more of an academic freedom dispute than a first amendment dispute. Or let's just say a faculty member might want to teach his or her own book right and accrue some profits there. And I might raise my eyebrows, but that's perfectly within the realm of academic freedom. A faculty member came to me actually this morning wanting to screen a movie that's been sort of controversial. And his right to screen this film is within his academic freedom. Now if he does this and students protest, that's their free speech to protest.
And at the Stanford Conference, there was a great deal of “deans need to step in and stop mobs.” Well, I'm not going to stop a student's right to protest something. I'm going to defend the faculty member’s right to research something or show something in class. So that's a distinction that I think should continue to be made clear.
Infovores: That's very important background to have. I know personally as someone who is not administrating this, not often getting into the nitty-gritty details, I don't always make this distinction between a general culture or kind of a feeling that people have that they are more or less free to speak or that they might not be safe bringing up certain topics and the actual letter of the law that universities are tasked with carrying out.
How much though, do you think the cultural elements that worry people might flow out of the campus environment in some way? I know that a common theory I hear is that cancel culture started on campus and then gradually kind of spread out to the rest of society. Basically there's a bit of a lag period, but any new decrease in free speech or increase in censoriousness in broader society can ultimately trace its way back to the university. Do you give any credence to that?
Hollis Robbins: Well it’s interesting, and again I think it's important to make a distinction on campus between the classroom space and everything else because if you think of the campus and if you think of schools generally as sort of this combination of educational space and social space, what does that mean? There are some spaces like the cafeteria, the dining hall, the dorm, the quad, where a certain kind of rule applies. And then there's the classroom where a different kind of rule applies. And I think one of the challenges on campuses right now, or in this kind of conversation about free speech, is that distinctions aren't made for what's allowable, or what is defendable, or what I am going to defend as dean. I'm going to defend academic freedom and the freedom to query in a classroom, but the quad is something different.
I've written about Mario Savio from the free speech movement in 1964 at Berkeley, and this free speech movement was not in the classroom at all. It was the right to pamphlet about the war, about civil rights in the plaza, right? So they were literally protesting on campus for the freedom to do political speech outside the classroom. And I think that distinction is really, really important.
Now, is there a relationship? If some young student is out in the quad and then they walk into the classroom, there isn't sort of magic dust that says you're in a different place now, but there is a difference. And part of my duty as an administrator and part of the duty of faculty members, but I also think of the larger discourse is to make that clear.
Infovores: One of the insightful points you made in your op-ed piece about the Stanford Conference was that a lot of free speech related grievances coming from professors can trace to expressions of someone else's free speech. One place this often plays out is on social media, where people have pretty broad rights under the first amendment to criticize you in a lot of different ways which could reduce your comfort speaking without violating any enforceable law. And it wouldn't even necessarily be desirable to enforce such a law.
Hollis Robbins: I think this discourse of comfort is so interesting. One of the things that I really enjoyed experiencing at the Stanford Conference is that the discourse of trauma and discomfort was being articulated by people there who are usually people that poke fun at a different groups of people articulating discomfort and trauma.
As a scholar of of black history and black literature, most of my scholarly work addresses African Americans who have felt like outsiders in classrooms and in certain spaces and have felt inability to speak up, discomfort, and certainly trauma. And you hear articulations of this from a host of individuals on the campus, right now of different gender, ethnicity or orientation, so to hear those same exact evocations of trauma and feeling suppressed from the right, was of real interest. It was interesting to me, because on the one hand people say “why should we assume belonging?” and then the next moment it's “I felt so traumatized I didn't belong”, so perhaps we can help all of us try to avoid traumatic experiences in the classroom. One of the things that I didn't have in my essay, but I spoke a lot about was was just kindness and civility to one another. And I think that goes a long way.
Infovores: I think that point is really well taken actually. Over the past several years, I think I've seen certain tables turn and you see—this happens all the time in politics actually, if you're paying attention—But you see people on the left take arguments from the right, and you see people on the right take arguments from the left, and it's all moving back and forth. In a way, it's really good for getting some clarity about the merit behind some of these these principles.
One thing I think back to is Christine Blasey Ford testifying, and a lot of people's perception of that, probably myself included to some extent, was that she didn't always come across as the most credible witness at times. And I think that you could take that immediately and say therefore there's nothing to this allegation. But another interpretation could be that perhaps she's genuinely traumatized in some way that impedes her from being her own best advocate. And that argument has kind of a left wing flavor to it, but I think it applies in all kinds of situations where I think people are inclined to dismiss, you know, right wing professors who are under siege as like “Oh, they're just a baby”, or they have no validity to what they're experiencing, and that's not true either. Like you can't just say that a priori. And when you really look into some of these cases, there are genuine things to sympathize with and understand there.
Hollis Robbins: I think it's quite clear that Jordan Peterson has been traumatized by what he has been through. One would hope that would encourage an empathy with others’ trauma, we will just see.
Infovores: Stepping back from the trauma point a little bit, I've also seen more and more publications like First Things or National Review make arguments along the lines of “well, now the culture is really being dominated by women in higher education”, for example, because they're a majority of of degree winners, or a majority of certain leadership positions.1 And you know it is interesting. It does speak to there being a validity that was overlooked in opposite side debates in the past.
On the Stanford Law Protests
Hollis Robbins: Well, it's a funny time in higher ed, and I didn't know if you were going to bring up Florida or some of what's happening…
Infovores: I will, actually I was just going to get into that.
Hollis Robbins: Well, I'll let you pose the question then because I'm interested in that.
Infovores: So to press deeper into some of these things and make it a little bit more concrete, I have basically one recent event from each side of the aisle to look at and get your thoughts.
The first one actually happened just this week with this incident at Stanford Law, where an appellate judge was invited to speak. I don't know if you saw this?
Hollis Robbins: Oh, I saw everything about it.
Infovores: Yes, basically he got shouted down. And then the law school dean apologized. And then a lot of activists showed up to the dean’s classroom while she was teaching, and basically intimidated her and the few students who didn't join the protest. What steps do you think the dean should take in these types of situations? It seems like this clearly crosses a line between the right to protest and disruption and intimidation of others’ speech. What are your thoughts there?
Hollis Robbins: It was an interesting… and I don't know if I saw all of the videos, I saw a video of Judge Duncan sort of having a rough encounter with some students who clearly had some issues with his rulings. I didn't know whether this was an actual class that they were required to be there or were there in order to protest. And again, this matters back to this question of whether something is in academic space or not, right? If somebody is giving a guest lecture right in a class where the assumption is, this is a learning space, and you're required to be there, otherwise you lose points or something, then that's one kind of space. If it is an optional guest lecture of a person being invited by the Federalist Society, I believe you know it's a kind of quasi-academic space, you're not required to be there, and so you could just not show up. So that's the first sort of analysis that I would put in.
Second of all, clearly there are strong feelings about his rulings. The second video I saw was some shouting back and forth, and then a dean of students or a diversity dean, I'm forgetting her name, came in and read a prepared statement. As an academic dean, I thought that was odd. I thought that was not… clearly there were things that were prepared, clearly she was taking sides with the students, and clearly she was not doing what an administrator should do, which is actually, let us talk about the rules of the space. Is it an academic classroom or was it an extracurricular classroom? And then I saw the apology letter signed by the law school dean, which is an academic dean and the president of the university to the judge. And that seemed to be fine, acknowledging that certain things shouldn't have happened.
But I think the central point to get back to what I was saying earlier is, what was this space? Because if this space was the kind of space that Mario Savio was fighting for, a kind of space to have political opinions or some sort of extracurricular exchange, then everybody's got a right. It's a free for all. Everybody has a right to do what they want to do. You can protest, you can counter protest, even if it's held in a classroom. But if it's an educational space where it's part of the curriculum, a different set of rules apply and I think that would have made a lot of things clearer.
Infovores: I take your response as speaking primarily to the initial speaking event that was protested, and I take your point that the protesters have a lot of rights to voice their opposition to particular viewpoints as well.
Hollis Robbins: If it's not a classroom, right? Let's define what it was. Was this like the quad or was this an actual curricular space with curricular goals in mind? And that was not clear to me.
Infovores: Yeah, that makes sense and I think I'm mostly with you there, but let me clarify. I was actually mostly thinking of the very most recent events where there was a reaction to the apology given. And so the law school dean also teaches her own constitutional law class and apparently student activists arrived in her classroom and were masked. And they were glaring at her and the other students and posting things all over the the classroom to disrupt, and then when she finished teaching basically a large percentage of the broader law class, not just that one classroom, was there and they formed a human corridor basically shepherding them from the exit of the classroom to the exit of the building, forcing them to do like a walk of shame through a lot of protesters. What would you add given that follow-up?
Hollis Robbins: I was going to say I did not see this. So protesting an actual curricular classroom, I would not stand for that. But you know, what are you going to do if you can't say look, you're breaking the rules here? People are going to break the rules. So that I would find out of line because part of attending university or law school is that it's a contract, right? And these contracts are upheld by the Department of Education if you're taking any Federal money, which means you have to teach your class. It has to be this many weeks. You have to actually deliver what the student has paid for. In an emergency, in floods and fires and things, you can't shut down a institution because you have to continue to deliver instruction somehow, because students have paid for it. So to disrupt the delivery of a service is a bad thing. You can call it a kind of theft of somebody's educational opportunity. So that's one thing.
The walk of shame, you know once you step outside the classroom, if nobody's physically hurt it's probably very annoying, but I think you know it's tough being a dean, and at some point in time things happen. There's the President of Connecticut College, I believe is under fire right now with students calling for her to step down for holding a fundraiser in a place in Florida with a segregation history. These things happen. Is she okay?
Infovores: So far as I've heard, I don’t think she was physically harmed. I'm not sure that she's had any official response to it yet.
Hollis Robbins: I'll take a look, but again I think it's really important that we make distinctions between the classroom space and the extracurricular space, because there's free speech in one, but there's a paid delivery of curriculum in the other.
On the New College Takeover
Infovores: Gotcha. So considering an incident coming from the other side of the aisle, we could talk about the New College takeover in Florida. In January, as you know, Governor Ron DeSantis replaced six of the 13 members on the school’s board of trustees in an effort to transform the institution into a “Hillsdale of the South”, which I don't think were his words but one of his representative’s words. What troubles you about this event, and what does it portend for the future?
Hollis Robbins: Well it's a complicated story. So I was asked to apply for that presidency, and I did. I wrote a letter and submitted my application materials. I didn't get an interview. That's fine, these things happen. But in my letter there was a really big paragraph about what it would mean to be the president of New College of Florida with this administration. What it would mean to be a very well respected public liberal arts college, that is paid for by taxpayers in this political climate. Because if you're a public institution, as I am right now and also my last institution in the Cal State system was a public institution, you should always be cognizant that taxpayers are paying for this, and that you are a government employee.
I happen to have seen Patricia Okker's letter, because if you apply for things then you get access to others’ letters, and she mentions nothing about the State capital, or the legislature, or the governor. She mentions nothing about how this is a taxpayer-funded college, and I'm not saying that the loss of her position was deserved. But she had an opportunity to engage, everybody saw this coming, to talk about the value of a liberal arts education, to talk about the value of being part of the public system to engage at a pretty high level. And she didn't.
Infovores: Why do you think that is? You have no inside knowledge as to why she didn't do that, but why do you think she may have declined to take that opportunity?
Hollis Robbins: Well, I think if I have one complaint about some recent coverage, like in the New Yorker piece or other pieces that are going around about the decline in the humanities, or the problem of the liberal arts, or problems with climate on campus… let's talk about the Hillsdale part, or let's talk about the creation of the University of Austin.
There's this sort of produced narrative that liberal arts is so messed up. We need a place that is going to have old-fashioned fundamental values, and enough of this sort of woke liberal humanities education. And if you look at the history of New College—I've had a number of friends who have gone there—it's obviously very left. But that doesn't mean the education isn't good. There's a creation of this sort of discourse, that being left and having a classical, fundamental education are somehow at odds. People say I'm going to get away from X, and I'm going to go back to the classics. Well frankly, there's no better place to discuss LGBTQ issues than Greek literature.
Infovores: Yeah, I can kind of see that.
Infovores: Historically, there are antecedents to some degree.
Hollis Robbins: Right. And so I'm launching a great books program here at the University of Utah, in our College of Humanities, and it's a fantastic course. We've got Kafka, we've got Baldwin, we've got some Virginia Woolf, and it's an opportunity for our students to study great works of literature. But because we're studying great works of literature, we're also dealing with the humanities questions of the day about race, gender, and belonging. These are not easy topics to tackle, and it's not an either/or situation. Obviously I dodged a bullet not being at New College of Florida. But that's what I was hoping right would be said, is that we don't have to think about this as either/or and I think some of the discourse coming out from the new board members about turning it into a Hillsdale… well, what does it actually mean What does that mean about the quality of instruction that you're delivering? What does that mean about the knowledge base of your faculty? This is not a left/right question. It's just a framing question.
Infovores: Yeah, it's interesting to see how these debates that start out ostensibly about maximizing the student experience and improving the generation of knowledge sometimes kind of dovetail into efforts that almost seem geared towards sort of taking down education.
Hollis Robbins: Well I was just going to say, James Weldon Johnson's great anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, was sung at the Super Bowl this past year, right? And you know some critiques were like why was this song played, which is sometimes called the Black National Anthem. Well, James Weldon Johnson spent a great deal of time in Florida learning Greek and Latin, this was in 1888, he learned from a shoemaker by the light of an oil lamp. There is this idea that diverse literature is somehow not classical, that fundamental humanities is not caught up in those same concerns about learning and timeless texts.
That's a matter of people not understanding, not knowing who James Weldon Johnson was, and why he wrote that particular song, and his educational background of thinking that it was going to be very important to him to find a tutor in Florida to teach Greek and Latin when he was home quarantined from some illness.
There is this idea that Peter Thiel talks about all the time from the 1980s, the sort of polluting the core curriculum, the Western Civ with multicultural texts, is frankly a ridiculous charge. When some of the texts that he was opposed to like "I, Rigoberta Menchú." It's actually a very Burkean, in some ways a very right-wing text.2 If you read it and you take it seriously, that text is about American freedom, about liberty, about equality, about striving, about having a place of one's own to farm. These ideas are not simply in Western texts. They appear everywhere.
Infovores: Yeah, I totally buy into a lot of that. I mean just fundamentally, when talking about concepts of freedom and rights, that discussion is very helpfully informed by African-American history and a lot of the things that you've written about and studied with respect to the abolition movement.
Hollis Robbins: Yes and so there are ways, especially in Florida, to say… look the anthology I put out in 2017 with Henry Louis Gates Jr., almost every one of these nineteenth century African American women writers, most of the texts these women wrote that we compiled in that book, I would consider very conservative today in terms of what they wanted. Education, family, freedom, autonomy, justice, rights. These are the same things that the nation's founders wanted.
The idea that a text that I wrote with women who are basically wanting what everybody wants could somehow be banned is crazy to me. It's absolutely crazy. And you think about Tocqueville’s great book, “Democracy in America”, he famously never spoke to a black woman. In his tour around the United States, he talked to black men, he talked to women, but no black women. And so part of what I suggest is that if you're going to teach Democracy in America, you should teach this anthology, and you'll see resonances between these two texts.
Why Conservatives Distrust the Academy
Infovores: I take a lot of what you're saying as very true and valuable. If I were to push back just a little bit, I feel like you framed it almost as a matter of directly accessing these texts and people are just ignorant of the value that can come out of these approaches. And I think there's probably something to that. The whole reason why you go to college is because there are things that you don't know, and you can learn new things of course.
But I feel like the fundamental issue for a lot of people is not so much the content the way that you're talking about it, as it is a matter of trust. Gradually over time, the people that are teaching and propounding their own viewpoints and interpreting these texts… they're not helping you to see how Burke was actually a really great thinker, and that there's merit to conservative ideas. They're approaching it in a tendentious way, and it's perceived that there's really no space for someone to explore conservative interpretations or non-woke interpretations to different things, or to challenge the orthodoxy based on the curriculum. So it's really almost more a matter of personnel. What would you say to that?
Hollis Robbins: Well, you know you raise a good point. That's a good pushback, in fact. And there's a way to say to go back to the porous boundaries between the classroom and everything else right, because at a certain point I can say all these things, and believe all these things in an academic space right? But then I can walk outside where there's yet another police shooting of a black man. Like with George Floyd, or I was in Baltimore at Johns Hopkins when Freddie Gray was murdered, and the protests that erupted thereafter because at a certain point, racism and police violence occur right? These are also facts of American life, and it puts pressure on having certain conversations in the classroom.
As much as I'm sitting here talking about distinctions between a classroom space and what happens outside, there are classroom spaces that I think easily lend themselves to the politics of what's going on outside because you're already discussing things like lynching. And it's not going to happen in a chemistry class, perhaps it's not going to happen in the history of Chinese Empire, but it will happen in an American history class or literature class, and it affects the teaching of texts such that they are politicized. And they're politicized forward to 2020, or 2021, or 2022, or 2023 right? They're not looking backwards to Burke, even though they might have been written in an evocation of Burke. They're pressed into service about today's problems, and that will happen.
And the answer to that is wishing perhaps, or wondering what can be done to address racism and violence in America.
Infovores: It makes a lot of sense what you're saying. Do you think…
Hollis Robbins: If you still want to push back though, you can still push back!
Infovores: In some ways what you're saying deepens the problem potentially of having kind of a monolithic culture, or an agenda setting power that’s not really being shared in the university. It’s perceived as being completely controlled by whatever MSNBC is talking about and not admitting other angles. And of course there have been various people in the economics profession that have challenged certain narratives about racial profiling or about police violence and that have a very hard time creating any sort of space for a discussion there, which seems like all the more important discussion to have given the controversies happening in the present as you describe.
Hollis Robbins: Well, I mean you can go back to this question of the ivory tower. It is both sort of an insult to say you're not paying attention to what's going on in the streets, but then you can also make the complaint about a university that is not ivory tower enough, where all it is doing is reacting to what's happening in the streets. And I think this has been a challenge for universities forever. When you read some Lionel Trilling for example, the great critic, and you realize the things that he's writing about were happening at the same time as when Martin Luther King was agitating you think to yourself, “were you not noticing that when you talk about American striving for freedom?” Or how is it that if you read the Atlantic Monthly from the 1890s right after Plessy v. Ferguson, after a really huge rise in lynchings, and it publishes all sorts of things about Italian freedom fighters and isn't it glorious that people are fighting for their freedom. And you think, “are you paying no attention?”
On Academic Excellence
Infovores: Well taken.
So you mentioned the University of Austin and you made various conceptual critiques of the way that they frame their approach. I wonder what you think about the broader enterprise of creating new universities to compete with the existing lot, and if you were to embark on a project like that, how would it differ from what Pano Kanelos and others are building?
Hollis Robbins: Well I guess the real question is, what is excellence? And they’re saying that something is too left or too right or too this or too that, but left out of that conversation is excellence. If I were starting a new university, which I have no interest in doing, but if I did the question Isn't who's been tossed out at previous institutions. The question is, who's really, really good? And what do we mean by really good? Who is changing the conversation? What faculty members are pushing knowledge in new directions?
That to me, even as a dean, is my primary responsibility. When I grant a faculty member a sabbatical to go finish a book, or I give a faculty member funding to go visit an archive somewhere, I want to know what are you doing to really push knowledge forward? What are you doing that nobody else is thinking of?
That’s its own sort of thing in the humanities. Certainly this makes more sense in some ways to your listeners from the sciences, but there is such a thing as new knowledge.
I don't know if you've seen Paul Reeve’s new book, “Let's Talk about Race and Priesthood”?
Hollis Robbins: Yeah, so he's the chair of the history department here, and this is Deseret Book, it's not an academic press. But he wanted to to write about it, and they asked him do you want to write about race and the LDS Church? And he said, sure but i'd like to make this speech by Brigham Young from 1852 kind of the center of the book. And I'm not telling this story completely right, but they said something like, what speech? And he’s like, well let me tell you about this page, and it had been taken down in Pitman shorthand, lots of things in the in the nineteenth century were taken down that way…
Infovores: A faster way of taking notes basically.
Hollis Robbins: Yes, exactly. Certainly better than any note taking software now. But he had turned the speech into sentences and paragraphs, and he understood that the history of race in the LDS Church if you go back to Joseph Smith—and I don't need to be telling you this—was that God doesn't see individuals or doesn't see distinctions between people. Everybody's welcome.
Hollis Robbins: Right. So when did this change happen that banned black members from the priesthood? Well it basically happened with Brigham Young, and it was put forward in this speech that changed everything until the revelations of 1978. And you know the amount of work required to do this, and patience and working with librarians, and having the trust of keepers of knowledge and writing a very emotional and compelling book about the history of basically solidifying racist views that were not in accordance with the original principles. Setting it out chapter by chapter and saying, look we've got to undo this right. And here's the history, and here's what what it shows. That takes a certain amount of training, a certain amount of understanding your larger conceptual framework of race, understanding history and book publishing. This wasn't going to be an academic press, but I bring this up to say that this is a book that will change knowledge, it may change a heck of a lot of things about this particular community going forward. What you want in a faculty are professors who are going to do that.
Infovores: I definitely see the point that merit could be more directly emphasized rather than just diversity of opinion for its own sake of course, because you could pick random people off the street, and they would have diverse opinions in some sense, but wouldn't necessarily have the the ability to forward human knowledge.
That said, I feel that there are a lot of pretty interesting and accomplished thinkers that are involved with University of Austin. Are there any that stand out to you as being people that you'd put in that category of really forwarding knowledge?
Hollis Robbins: I'm not sure I know enough to say whether they're the leading lights in their field. I have been very lucky over the last 20 years to work with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. who is the leading light of African-American studies pretty much. There are many, many wonderful scholars. but in terms of creating an academic discipline, in terms of the the number of fellowships, scholars, students, and generations that he has supported, that he has created the field, the number of books with his name on it…
So my standard of excellence is admittedly very, very high. Is anybody close to that height at UATX? I don't think so.
Maybe I can connect this to something you said earlier I found interesting. You were talking about an outsider perspective, and I think in many ways you kind of embody that outsider perspective because you are a leading scholar in the area of African American studies, and you're not African American yourself. You're a white woman, which at least in some settings I feel is sort of pushed against, or it feels like there might be an extra barrier there. How would you react to that assessment?
Hollis Robbins: Well it has been a bit of a challenge, and I had some worries early on in my career. I was in my fourth year of a 5 year program PhD program at Princeton, when I met Gates and started working with him on a narrative he found by an enslaved woman named Hannah Crafts and completely changed fields, which let me just say to any young person in a Phd program, do not change fields!
Infovores: Hard to do under any circumstances.
Hollis Robbins: Yeah no, it's just… it's no good.
But my particular expertise is in the Western literature that black writers in the nineteenth century were reading. And so to understand, how I got to know Gates is that he had found this narrative and this writer Hannah Crafts, who a scholar named Gregg Hecimovich identified in 2013, was cribbing from Charles Dickens. At one point in her discussion of her experience she was describing slave huts, the really squalid conditions in which she was living, and she borrows and sort of signifies with, changing some words of Dickens's description of the London slums from his novel, Bleak House. And part of the story of this wonderful writer is how she came to know Dickens, which she had overheard some recitations it turns out enough times because you know that's what you used to do in school, you had to recite long, long passages, and recognizing something in Dickens's telling that described her reality.
That's interesting, right. And so I started working with him on that book. But then, we did an edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin together, looking at how that very complicated novel operated and the reactions to it. We have collaborated on several books. Right now, we're working on a book about Phillis Wheatley who was an eighteenth-century poet. She quotes Dryden, Pope, and Milton so if you're not really steeped in that tradition, you can't really understand those works of writing.
And so there's not a lot of people who do this particular kind of work. So I have a little niche.
Infovores: I think that's a great example of a piece of knowledge that's valuable and interesting. I mean just recognizing that there's this very deep connection between African American tradition in literature and Charles Dickens, is a great contribution that you wouldn't have been able to make if you had been shut out from entering into that area of study. If you were starting out today, do you think that it would be possible to make that kind of transition?
Hollis Robbins: No, and I think that the thing where I am an outsider, and I'm not sure I would call myself that, is that I see myself at this pivot point between these two conversations. Because on the one hand I'm fairly old-fashioned in both my education and my training. My PhD at Princeton is very much in nineteenth century British and American literature, and you can't get more traditional than that.
But when I moved into the field of African American literature I saw how it wasn't very different. I mean there are things that are very different, but passionate fights for freedom and autonomy and bodily autonomy and rights, when you read Frederick Douglass, you realize this is one of the most American works of literature that can be imagined. And yet it is left off so many Western tradition lists. And to me that is just…
Infovores: It’s a tragedy. It’s great writing, it’s extremely historically significant…
Hollis Robbins: Right! So what’s that about? Henry Louis Gates had a piece in the New York Times recently about the effort to keep the curriculum white for a long time. and so efforts to push back against that are no different. You started out by saying that the discourse of the left and the discourse of the right begin to you know…
Infovores: Often they kind of meld and switch places.
Hollis Robbins: Yeah and so you know, one wishes that one could go back to Peter Thiel in the 1980s at Stanford and say read a little Douglass. You'd like him.
Infovores: Standing up for Thiel a little bit, he did speak to Jerry Bowyer about this topic to some extent. He was pushing back a lot against the idea that because we're in this dispute, this culture war, that therefore we're going to almost forget about important lessons from the holocaust, or we're going to forget about important lessons from African American history, or we're going to deny that racism exists, when of course racism exists, and we shouldn't deny that that's the case.4
But I think that a lot of people just feel that the education system is so at odds with their values and viewpoints that it's hard for them not to see it as the enemy. And I think that's where a lot of it's coming from.
It was interesting in your panel discussion during the free speech conference, Greg Lukianoff was in that discussion with you, and at one point— I mean a lot of the discussion was more directly to the point of what FIRE is doing, and how FIRE helps professors in certain circumstances to overcome violations of their scholarship—but at one point there is a little bit of a tangent where he started talking about education signaling theory, and the idea that education is actually not at the end of the day contributing very much of value which I thought was kind of an interesting digression because it's neither here nor there within the free speech discussion to an extent.
But I feel like you see, as time has gone on, more and more people are kind of… I don't know if it's coping to an environment where they don't feel welcome in higher education, or they don't feel like education is trying to help them specifically, and that makes them more receptive to the idea that education is just not adding a lot of value in general, or that it's not a noble enterprise. But I do think it was kind of revealing of what a lot of people are thinking at this moment.
Hollis Robbins: Well in some ways, I think about ChatGPT or GPT 4 now, we’ve got these machines that have just an incredible amount of knowledge. An incredible amount of knowledge. I don’t need to dig something up, I’ve got Wikipedia, I can ask GPT, I don't need to memorize my state capitals anymore, or what have you, right?
But what is it that higher ed is doing? What is the value added that we're having, and that we're offering, what difference are we making right now? You're in a PhD program, do you have to do a dissertation?
Hollis Robbins: And what is your dissertation going to be on, do you think?
Infovores: It's not determined yet. I have some ideas.
Hollis Robbins: It's all good right. But is the pressure on you in your field to do original work?
Infovores: Yeah, definitely.
Hollis Robbins: Right. So this question of what is actual, original work comes down to what are you doing that nobody has done before? What has nobody thought of before, or maybe you have a data set that is new. This question of newness, of actually pushing the edges of knowledge, is what you are being trained for.
And good faculty will keep doing that. I can't even imagine writing a book that does the same thing. If somebody's going to write a book on Shakespeare right now, it better darn well say something… which is really hard when you're talking about somebody like Shakespeare, because so much has been written on him.
A lot of the work that I've done with Skip Gates is on newly found text that nobody has ever done anything on. So the bar is a little lower, because we're the first people that say something about it.
I think the people that critique higher ed don’t generally have a real grasp about what originality is, and what progress is, and why it matters to always be marching to the end and beyond of what is known.
I will also say, trying to be optimistic and pleasant here, that there's a fair number of faculty members teaching in some excellent universities as we speak who are not as interested in originality as they were when they were finishing their PhD program. The job of a dean is to be like, “Hello! Can you please go back to being original?” Can you have that spark of an idea that's been sitting there because you've got a high teaching load and you're tired and you've got too much advising? Can you go there, please? Can you really think of yourself as cutting edge again? And that's what I try to do.
Infovores: How does that last point relate to discussions about tenure reform and peer review?
Hollis Robbins: Well, again, I think that the issue is, what counts as new and what counts as peer review? I do a lot of reading of applications for various fellowships, prestigious fellowships, and you know I read 10 or 15 applications every semester. I would say it's definitely a minority of people who even position themselves as doing new work. There's a lot of faculty that put themselves forward as doing important social justice work, and there's nothing wrong with that; social justice work is great! But can it be new and focused on social justice? Can we focus on the newness part of it? What are you doing that other people haven't done yet? So that's what I’m pushing. Tenure should be about newness and continued focus on that kind of excellence.
Infovores: What lessons should the academy draw from ChatGPT going forward and how can we harness it in a way that creates more new and original research in contrast to regurgitated but grammatically correct text?
Given my background and my scholarship, it said that I wrote an important piece on race and the Emperor's New Clothes and that I was talking about things like royal privilege, white privilege, and those people who don't have access to that kind of fine tapestry, and that the final scene was the young boy calling out the privilege of the king. Now I never wrote anything like that, but I could have!
Infovores: Maybe you will.
Hollis Robbins: Maybe I will now.
It was just funny to see what kinds of assumptions it makes, a kind of scholarship “Minority Report.” What will I write next? So maybe I can sort of put some of my faculty members’ previous works into ChatGPT or GPT 4, and say, “what should this person write next?” Maybe it will tell you what your dissertation topic should be.
Infovores: I'll ask it every day.
Hollis Robbins: It's really excellent. I’m so supportive, and I've been working with some of the folks at Anthropic and got access to their model called Claude a couple of months ago, and compared what the guard rails on are what it allows you to ask and where it doesn't want to go. And you know, I don't know if I've been as helpful to them as they are to me, but I have tried to articulate the position which I think I'm in a minority of humanities deans in not being worried.
Infovores: You mentioned the Emperor's New Clothes, so this might be a fun way to to wrap up. I love your Straussian reading of the Emperor’s New Clothes, I actually attended your seminar with interintellect on the subject, and I was wondering what connections or interpretations you might be able to draw from that fable with respect to free speech?
Hollis Robbins: Oh with respect to free speech, that's a good question to ask.
You know one of the reasons that one says that there isn't free speech in the classroom is that you can't get up and say anything, you can't do anything, it's got to be within the sort of bounds of polite academic inquiry. And years ago there was this story of some absent-minded physics professor, who would wipe chalk on the blackboard, and just by the end of it he would be covered in white chalk dust, and students never said anything. They would just make fun of him behind his back, but they never said anything during class like, “you know you've kind of got chalk everywhere.”
Infovores: You're a mess.
Hollis Robbins: Right. Years later, the professor said, “I did that on purpose because they're not speaking.” You get in habits of not speaking. You get in habits of listening, of deciding, you know what in another setting I might say, “Buddy, you're kind of a mess.” But now, I'm just here to learn physics.
And that self-silencing was actually good for classroom learning. Apparently he was a very successful teacher, and students remembered a heck of a lot that was going on, and I think about that deliberate non-speech, which is different from where we started. We started on sort of self-suppression and suppressing speech as a bad thing, as a testimony to how things are bad in higher ed. People don't feel like they have free speech in the classroom. Well in my reading of Emperor’s New Clothes, “time passed merrily in the land”—things were going pretty good. And if all that mattered to get transparent government to actually work was not pointing out the transparency of his clothes, that may not be such a bad thing. Speech isn't always the single most important thing.
Infovores: Hollis Robbins, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. I'd like to recommend that people go to your Twitter account. You always have interesting things to say, you keep up with all the latest discussions on topics from tech to literature to race relations, and I really appreciate you being on the show today.
Hollis Robbins: Thank you. This has been really fun.
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, check out my other writing at Infovores Newsletter or follow @ageofinfovores to keep up with me. On related topics, “A Grain of Salt for FIRE Free Speech Rankings” and “Is the Book of Mormon Straussian?” may be of particular interest.
After the conversation, Hollis made another interesting observation related to this discussion: it appears Peter Thiel will be receiving the Edmund Burke award this year.
See also: “The Ordination of Q. Walker Lewis”, a painting of one of the black men ordained to the priesthood during Joseph Smith’s lifetime.
To be clear, he was pushing back against an idea held by some on the right to varying degrees, not against Jerry Bowyer.