Open Letter to Joshua Kim – Own up; Apologize; Try to do Better

Preamble: I make mistakes

Sometimes, I make mistakes. Often, those mistakes emerge from my privilege – straight, white, tenured, able-bodied, neurotypical, married, etc. I say something or do something that is exclusionary, hurtful, or simply wrong.

If I’m lucky, someone calls me on it.

If I’m very lucky, after I apologize and try to make it right, I get re-admitted into the community I betrayed. For example, I made an OCD comment to a man whose son is greatly struggling with OCD. I apologized. He accepted. I will not do that again. I drew three lessons from this experience.

Lesson 1: When you screw up, and you will screw up, own it. Apologize. Try not to do it again.
Lesson 2: No one is entitled to have their apology accepted.
Lesson 3: On the other hand, one mistake (rather than a pattern of repeated bad behavior) can become an opportunity for dialogue and strengthening community, rather than sundering it.

In that post, of course, I wasn’t talking about my slip at the Thanksgiving table, but about Daniel Handler, Barilla, Matt Taylor, and all the other privileged people who have recently made mistakes, apologized, and tried to do better. They’ve been let back into their communities. This is in opposition to those who either don’t apologize, or apologize because the less-privileged party was offended, putting the blame on the less-privileged party for being so thin skinned.

Context: The End of College

There’s a new book out by Kevin Carey on The End of College. It’s been criticized by lots of people, men and women alike, for many different reasons. It’s been praised by lots of people, men and women like, for other reasons. I am not, in this post, going to engage with the book in any detail.

Instead, I want to talk about Joshua Kim, blogger for Inside Higher Ed and director of online learning at Dartmouth. He wrote a comment on book called “Dear Kevin,” in which he spoke in a chummy, man-to-man, peer-to-peer, sort of way to Carey. According to his picture, Kim is a white man. He works for a very wealthy institution in a highly desirable field. I bet he makes a lot more money than almost everyone I know in academia. He is, in short, privileged in important ways.

Then, later in the day, Kim went after two of Carey’s detractors. Audrey Watters and Sara Goldrick-Rab are two high-profile, respected, higher-education writers. They attacked Carey’s book in their review, also for Inside Higher Ed, called – Techno Fantasies, It is a devastating review, undermining Carey’s evidentiary basis and assumptions in ways that I find effective. I have read only excerpts of Carey’s book and some of his interviews, so I cannot fully judge. Still, Rab and Watters have certainly pushed back hard against Carey’s intentional polemic.

Kim seems to have decided to defend “Dear Kevin,” not on substance, but on tone. He chastises Rab and Watters for attacking. He asks why it’s relevant to bring up Carey’s race (white)? He expresses a wish that Rab and Watters had been “more constructive.” In other words, he tone polices them. He does not engage with the substance of the critique, but merely wishes they had been nicer.
This is typical a typical sexist pattern of behavior. I am NOT saying Kim is sexist. I’m saying his decision to tone-police two prominent female academics, engaging their abrasive language and not the substance of their ideas, falls into a sexist tradition of demanding women stay demure and kind. Moreover, given that there has been other severe critiques of The End of College, including this essay by a fellow white male on Inside Higher Ed itself, his decision to attack the tone of Rab and Watters suggests the presence of unconscious bias.
And that’s the thing about unconscious bias – it’s there without us intending for it to be there. And when it rears up, and we get called on it, there are only a few things we can do. See lessons 1, 2, and 3 above.
Unasked For Advice

I tweeted my thoughts about the column. I know Kim has read them. First, he was online long enough to tweet out his link to his piece on Twitter this morning, but he hasn’t otherwise engaged the criticism (not in the comments either, to my knowledge). Second, I got this message this morning.
So if you’re listening, Joshua, here’s some unasked for advice from a fellow privileged sinner. Man-to-man (not really peer-to-peer).
1. Race, class, gender, institutional affiliation, and so forth always matter. Carey is being accused of ignoring the issues for non-elite students. Non-elite students generally correlate to students of color and students who are lower class, and then race and class intersect, students are especially vulnerable. That’s why they bring up Carey’s race – his argument serves his own privileged position. But here’s the real kicker – as a white guy, you don’t get to ask non-white-guys why they bring up race. Just take that question out of your lexicon. 
2. There have been other critiques of Carey that are equally aggressive, and you have not to my knowledge called them out for being shrill and abrasive. They were, of course, written by men. I’m sure you didn’t intend to be sexist, but that’s not relevant. Your actions, your writing, falls into paternalistic and sexist patterns of discourse. You messed up.
3. The only path out of out of this is to apologize. To say – I should not have engaged with Rab and Watters by questioning their tone, but only by engaging with their content. In short, you should do exactly what you want Rab and Watters to do with Dear Kevin’s book.
4. Then you wait and see if your apology is accepted. If it is, you try to re-enter community by thinking hard about the response to your piece, thinking hard about why you wrote the way you did, and then trying to do better in the future. Because people will be watching.
In my life, I have been called out for being ableist, sexist, and classist, I have surely displayed other forms of prejudice in actions or speech in my life. I thank the people who call me out. I try to do better. I hope they accept my apologies. I do not demand that they accept my apologies. 
It sucks when we mess up. But if we’re lucky, we rejoin community a better person than when we left it.
Good luck.

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