Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Indian Giver

As an alum, I have to say something about today's story in the New York Times, "Oracle Chief Withdraws a Donation to Harvard," especially since it concerns both technology and institutional politics. Apparently, the Oracle executive was so upset about the treatment of the cantankerous Summers by Harvard that he canceled the planned bequest. Of course, I've written about the oratorical bumblings of President Summers here before, and even attempted to launch the abortive campaign to have him replaced by Siva Vaidhyanathan of NYU.

Basically, my gripe with Summers is that he is a bad rhetorician, which is an unforgivable flaw in a college president, particularly since the whole job depends on performing well on epideictic occasions. It's worth noting that his resignation letter is online and available for analysis as an artifact of digital rhetoric, at least for the time being.

It's true that a university can be a tricky rhetorical environment in which it is always easy to say the wrong thing. Campuses are medieval, hierarchical institutions that value Enlightenment rabble-rousing. For example, what's the right thing to say to the esteemed professor who might have a photograph of her own vagina on the cover of her book? I certainly don't know. My collaborator and colleague Ellen Strenski described some of these problems in negotiating the clash of cultures in academia in "Disciplines and Communities, 'Armies' and 'Monasteries,' and the Teaching of Composition" (which requires a JSTOR account to view).

But comparing female scientific researchers to his own toddler twins while addressing a group of female scientists is just not showing the expected level of audience awareness. Summers' controversial speech about women in the sciences is also located on the university website, as is his mea culpa from a few days later.

In another "intentionally provocative" speech at the Graduate School of Design he shows his contempt for rhetoric quite explicitly, by equating it with covering over bad theories, although he acknowledges that he is "generalizing" about this "new rhetoric." Summers claims that "we find ourselves once again bombarded by rhetoric that sounds like a new version of that of the modernist visionaries of 75 years ago." He should realize that rhetoric can be an ally as well as a threat, and that college presidents should know that it is an essential part of the educational process.

In other digital rhetoric news in academia, it is worth pointing out how the suicide of U.C. Santa Cruz Chancellor Denice Denton is being commemorated. Ironically, although she was later tarnished by scandal, Denton first achieved fame in the national media, while a University of Washington professor, by confronting Lawrence Summers after his regrettable speech.

The In Memorium page has its own rhetorical conventions. In academia, where the deceased may have an intellectual or institutional legacy to be defended, the modes of appropriate discourse can be more complicated. For example, it is interesting to see how the page commemorating Jacques Derrida also serves as a rebuttal to a condescending obituary in the New York Times

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