Deconstructing Ellen

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

When yet another distinguished (read, tenured) academic emerges from the Ivory Tower to defend institutions of higher learning from their, mostly, external, critics, that professor usually proves to be the latest poster child for what is wrong with American colleges and universities today.

I actually met Ellen Messer-Davidow about 15 years ago when I was an associate editor at the National Journalism Center. She came to our office to interview me and my editor—Chris Warden. Imagine my surprise when I later read of her “undercover” investigation of groups such as ours, especially since I still have the business card she gave me back then which contains her actual name and affiliation.

“Ellen Messer-Davidow, a professor of English at the University of Minnesota, has been writing the same article for years,” Jacob Laskin writes on “Its central contention, on display most recently in the radical journal Social Text (‘Why Democracy Will Be Hard to Do,’ Spring 2006), is as simple as it is divorced from reality.”

“The Left, especially the academic Left, is powerless against the tyrannical forces of the Right.” Messer-Davidow takes this conspiracy theory of hers back by two and a half decades, to be exact. Among the chief right wing conspirators she names are William Bennett, Lynn Cheney and Lamar Alexander. That’s right, Messer-Davidow is one of those rare observers who views the mild-mannered Tennessee Republican as a polarizing figure.

“If Americans were polled while watching televised commemorations of the late president Ronald Reagan during the summer of 2004, many would have agreed that the 1980 election marked a turn for the better in politics and government.” Messer-Davidow writes. “If asked why, they would have replied that his vision of “morning in America” uplifted the public, his dignity restored luster to an office tarnished by presidential disgrace and ineptitude, and his resolute posture secured the nation from dangers.”

“By viewing that era through the cult of personality ratcheted up to full speed by the orchestrators of Reaganism, the media and hence the public mistook what really occurred. Conservatives had installed not merely their beloved Gipper in the White House but also a hegemonic bloc constituted by hybridizing
their movement to our federal and state governments.”

As her use of the word “hegemonic” indicates, Messer-Davidow is a member in good standing of the Modern Language Association. Her pedagogy, in turn, centers around the type of topics that the MLA loves to hold roundtables on, such as “Sexualities—From Perversity to Diversity.”

Since various academics have criticized me for quoting from anonymous reviews on, I will do so again. Here are the first three of Messer-Davidow’s evaluations:

• “I found EMD to be very interesting, caring, and helpful. I received an A in the class—not sure if that’s because she was easy or because I wrote a great paper. If you aren’t liberal, you probably won’t like her. But if you are, you’ll agree with everything she says and believe in her abilities as an educator.”

• “I think Ellen is a very insightful and fun professor. She knows her stuff. When she asks questions, she expects you to dig really deep and find an answer. She is very thorough and fair when grading papers. You really have to work in her class. It is not a cakewalk.”

• “Um, not very friendly, very egotistical, mean to me. But I had her a few years ago. It was fun saying crazy stuff to get her mad.”

Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.