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Among School Children: A Review of Steven Salaita’s Uncivil Rites
By Aaron Barlow

From dead infants in Gaza to Israeli students killed on the West Bank, from fragile undergraduates to childish administrators and trustees, from his own early years to the those of his son, Steven Salaita, in Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015), touches on the devastation of armed conflict, American academic infantilism and his own ongoing, sometimes uneven attempt to maintain maturity of thought and action. It makes for an unsettling book; it should.

As I read it, I felt a familiar dissonance, one bringing to mind the last line of W. B. Yeats’s “Among School Children”: “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” Salaita and his topic are so intertwined that they meld into one—though this is not really a memoir nor an autobiography. Instead, they fit squarely into a pattern I have long applauded, one of affirming the connection between academic and personal activity—a pattern that also led to Salaita’s troubles in the first place and that is, today, leading to an important reassessment of the limits of academic freedom.

This is not to say that I always agree with Salaita. I do not. His defense of the American Studies Association boycott of Israeli academic institutions, for example, is relatively unconvincing, as is his list of factors contributing to his firing from a tenured position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) even before he had taught his first class.

I think the reasons are far simpler, though no less pernicious. As Salaita himself writes later in the book, “It would be a great mistake to conceptualize my termination as having much to do with me beyond the unpredictability of chance. I and UIUC are merely antagonists is a broader contest about how universities will function in the future” (105-106).

No, the firing was not about Salaita personally, nor did it involve Cary Nelson, a UIUC professor and former president of the American Association of University Professors. Nor did it involve failed Israeli propaganda. It was done simply because administrators and trustees felt they could. Trustee Christopher Kennedy, using an understandable (but misplaced and, frankly, childish) resentment toward Palestinians stemming from the assassination of his father Robert, had already established a pattern of successful meddling in faculty concerns. Chancellor Phyllis Wise, aware of this, used it as an opportunity to extend administrative control further into the faculty-hiring process. Salaita was only a pawn in their game.

But he was a pawn who soon reached the other end of the board. Today, he is a knight who has toppled a queen (Wise resigned earlier this year). The game is not yet over, but the forces behind administrative overreach have suffered a significant loss.

The rest of the pawns, however, have yet to start their march. Through this book, Salaita is trying to parlay his new-found celebrity status into something that shows the way to the other side to the rest of us on the faculty, the rest of the pawns.

Though it is not that simple.
He’s also trying to justify his actions and ideas—his tweets, a Salon article, his academic books, his views on colonialism connecting Palestine to Native American Studies, his vision of academe and more—and to make it all make sense. He does it well, setting an example for future works mixing scholarship, politics and personal lives, a genre deserving its own designation and a vigorous presence in the humanities and beyond. It’s more than academic autobiography or a foray from the ivory tower into the public sphere. It details the process of scholarship from the personal to the public and back, even to the point of gainsaying the idea of objective research. As it gains momentum and academic acceptance, this kind of scholarship could fundamentally change the way we in academia view the records of our work—and even the limits of academic freedom. It can make moot the distinction posited by Nelson and quoted by Salaita, “I believe this [the Salaita firing] was an academic, not a political decision” (126).

This is also a book about the means that American intellectual culture uses to stifle dissent, from the actual firing of a dissident (Salaita) to calls for “collegiality” or, today, “civility.” These, of course, can be smokescreens—and often are. As Salaita writes, “Administrators love the word [civility]: it means anything they want it to mean and implies something sinister without its user having to justify or explain. The term encapsulates the sheer force of panic that pervades the elite when they need to find an effortless way to hamper debate, which is usually inimical to their interests” (54). He sweeps it away: “You tell me which is worse: cussing in condemnation of the murder of children or using impeccable manners to justify their murder” (44). Furthermore, “Civility exists in the lexicon of conquest…. It is the discourse of educated racism. It is the sanctimony of the authoritarian. It is the pretext of the oppressor” (105).

On “collegiality,” he writes:
Collegiality largely performs two functions: it can be used as a pretext to punish somebody whose work is stellar but who doesn’t connect with colleagues {here the problems of race, class, gender, sexuality, and culture should be obvious); and it can name unconventional scholarship as inferior because it doesn’t recycle established ideas and methodologies. Collegiality is the etiquette of submission. It’s impossible to be collegial when challenging the common sense of corporate dominion, no matter how politely you state the criticism. (61)

This is a book about refusal to submit. Naturally enough, given what happened to him, Salaita also takes on the corporatization of academia: “People from the business or political world take charge of governing boards and pretend that campus is a Fortune 500 company, with no regard for the customs and practices of academe. They intervene in matters in which they have no experience, relying on the protocols of the private sector” (58). Taking as their model the way businesses more and more frequently view their employees, “Upper administrators aren’t swelling the ranks of contingent faculty just to save money, they desire a workforce that can be expendable and easily punished if that’s what the political winds demand” (106). Though corporatization has been something of concern to academics ever since the end of World War II, it sometimes seems as though we are close to reaching a point of no return, beyond which there will be no distinct academic institutional culture, certainly nothing like the one that made American higher education the best in the world throughout the 20th century.

All of this, and what may seem a disjointed structure of the book itself (as reflected in its subtitle), combines to form a cohesive discussion and a demonstration of what the limits of academic freedom are and what they should be. By melding professional and political discourse, Salaita makes us consider that, today, we should no longer even try to separate the two, either for evaluation of professional competence or for plumbing the depths of academic freedom. By doing so, he shows the weaknesses of academic freedom as it is most frequently envisioned. He writes, “we shouldn’t trust ‘academic freedom.’ We do better to apply to the term the same scrutiny we direct to the phenomena we study, a process academic freedom supposedly insulates from recrimination. Only when academic freedom is sufficiently anatomized can it perform its inherent promise” (91).

“I walk through the long schoolroom questioning,” writes Yeats at the start of “Among School Children.” Later in the stanza: “In the best modern way—the children’s eyes/In momentary wonder stare upon/A… smiling public man.” We need more of such questioning and such stares.