The objet de controversy: Franklin Foer’s assessment, “Henry Louis Gates Jr.: The Academic as Entrepreneur.”
During the Soviet era, a series of jokes circulated in the Armenian Republic reflecting upon the accuracy of the local radio authority. “Is it true, as reported, that Belemjian won 2 million drams from a municipal lottery?” a caller asks his local station. “Absolutely true,” the radio announcer replies. “Except it wasn’t a lottery but a poker game. And it wasn’t 2 million drams but two drams. And he didn’t win it, he lost it.” Franklin Foer’s “Henry Louis Gates Jr.: The Academic as Entrepreneur” is nice about my own work, but it gets so many things wrong that it makes me feel for poor Belemjian. A few highlights:
My vitae lists the advisory committees and editorial boards I’ve participated in since 1976. I didn’t serve on 29 journal boards and 82 advisory committees over the course of one year, as Slate suggests, but over the course of some 22 years. (For that matter, the Black Periodical Literature Project concluded in 1996; the African-American Women Writers, 1910-1940 series concluded in 1995.)
I’m said to be the only academic with his own “chief of staff.” This turns out to refer to the assistant director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute. (I’m its director.) Does Slate think I’m the only administrator with an administrative deputy or associate?
Then I’m said to have one assistant to edit my writing and another whose job it is to conduct journalistic research. Who are these people? And why haven’t they ever reported to work? In fact, I have one research assistant, who is working on the African documentary. Sadly, the life of Reilly Slate evokes is no life of mine.
Ihad a hard time recognizing the encyclopedia project from Slate’s account. For example, it says that I’d discovered that a third of the early entries written by staff researchers had ripped off other reference works. Needless to say, one such entry would be unacceptable, and we’ve adopted strict safeguards to prevent any such problems. But even in that early batch, the proportion of tainted entries wasn’t a third; it was 2.5 percent. (All were immediately corrected or jettisoned.) In any case, offering an assessment of an encyclopedia without having read it is like assessing an issue of Slate that hasn’t been posted.
An encyclopedia–like a magazine and unlike a novel–is a collaborative venture, and it depends upon the skills and competencies of a community of learning. Global Culture represented the combined efforts of many people, and they are all acknowledged by name in the book. (By contrast, Slate’s assessment relies entirely upon sources who are not identified by name.) I can be justly reproached for any careless errors that made it into print, but not for the collaborative nature of the enterprise. Slate is similarly displeased that I invited fellow scholars to write individual introductions for each volume of the Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century African-American Women Writers–a series that I conceived and for which I served as general editor. Their names appear on the title pages. Slate’s general implication is that I capitalize on the uncredited labors of others. I’m confused. Who are these uncredited laborers?
Slate’s most damning exhibit is the Norton Anthology of African-American Literature, a project to which I’ve devoted a great deal of time and energy over a decade. Ten section editors helped put the anthology together. But, Slate protests, “it was [Gates’] byline that appeared on the cover.” Yes, my name appears on the cover. So does that of my fellow general editor, Nelly MacKay. And so do those of 10 ten section editors. Is there a problem here?
–Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Cambridge, Mass. Back
To take Professor Gates’ objections one at a time:
His vitae lists many advisory boards and committees. Some include termination dates; most do not. Professor Gates may not have intended to give the impression that he still serves on boards in the second category, but that is hardly an unreasonable conclusion to have reached. Obviously, when his vitae says he no longer serves on a board, I didn’t include it in my tally.
Peter Glenshaw may have as his official title “assistant director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute.” But Glenshaw refers to himself as “Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s chief of staff.” I know of no other academic whose assistant assumes this title.
Gates denies the existence of assistants. I hope it will refresh his memory if I remind him of Michael Vazquez and the Du Bois Institute work-study student. Granted they do not work full time on the projects I described in my article, but I don’t think Gates will deny they perform these tasks.
For the article, Gates asked not to be quoted about the Encyclopedia because of a nondisclosure agreement with Microsoft. In our conversation, he said he didn’t have a precise figure on the percentage of plagiarized entries. (I wish he had provided this 2.5 percent figure to me.) But he conceded that the number of entries plagiarized had been “substantial.” Three others I spoke with who were intimately involved in producing the first batch of entries confirmed the percentage I cited.
Gates says that he credits others’ labor on many projects. Clearly, he is right. But because of his celebrity and organizational acumen, he is the one who always seems to get top billing–or one of the top billings–touting his involvement in these collaborative efforts. This is merely an observation, not an accusation.
Finally, I would like to make clear that, in two hourlong conversations, I gave Gates the opportunity to confirm or deny nearly every matter of fact in this article. Back
Skip Gates has admirably resisted getting sucked into the fuss over the headline Boston Magazine put on its current profile of him (“Head Negro in Charge”). Yet he is overwrought about our piece in Slate. If you gather from his letter that the Slate assessment was a hatchet job, check it out. Not only was it admiring in many ways, but many of the specific points to which he responds don’t even amount to criticism. Nevertheless, we want to get things right and be as fair as possible. So here (after a phone conversation) are some further comments and clarifications:
1. The CV on which Gates says no one could possibly suppose he was trying to imply he is currently on those boards: We accept that he was not trying to imply this, but you wouldn’t be insane to infer it–especially given that some boards do list a leaving date.
2. The “chief of staff”: Not only did Glenshaw identify himself to Franklin Foer as the chief of staff, but others confirmed Glenshaw often refers to himself that way. Gates objects that the article describes him as “an academic” with a chief of staff, but it is not “as an academic” that he is assisted by Glenshaw. We are happy to note that distinction, which readers may weigh for themselves.
3. The assistants: Gates says no assistant edits his work. Someone who works with Gates claims to regularly “tweak” his writings. Whether “tweaking” equals “editing” is, once again, up to you. Gates denies using any work-study students for research help. Foer says three people with reason to know said otherwise. Foer concedes he didn’t confirm this with Gates himself but notes it seemed utterly uncontroversial. And indeed, the piece did not suggest there was anything unusual or wrong with using editors, tweakers, or graduate students. Which there isn’t.
4. Gates’ denial that he ever uses others to dig up quotes for his articles: Someone says that he has served Gates in this way. The editor of Slate has often asked others to track down a quote, sees nothing wrong with it (as long as you ask politely), and doesn’t believe the article suggested there was anything wrong with it.
5The Encyclopedia: Foer did not say Gates had said a third of the early entries were plagiarized. He said others had said so. Naturally these others insisted on not being identified, but there are three of them–all in a position to know. Gates denies it. Someone is fibbing. Do three anonymous sources with unknown biases outweigh one obviously interested but named party? This is the classic news consumer’s dilemma, and we leave you to it.
6. The Norton Anthology: The article implies that only Gates’ name appears on the cover. Gates asserts all 11 editors’ names are on the cover. Gates’ name and one other appear on the front cover. All 11 appear on the spine. The author checked the cover on Amazon.com, which only reproduces the front cover. That’s not an excuse–just an explanation. Anyway, we apologize wholeheartedly for implying that Gates’ co-general editor is not on the front cover and halfheartedly for implying that all 11 aren’t on the spine.
7The general issue of crediting the work of others: Gates objects most strongly to the assertion that “there is something dishonest about marketing under Gates’ signature work that is produced mainly by his assistants.” Whether that is a fair conclusion to draw from the evidence is something the reader, once again, can decide. We merely note that a) the article does present evidence, not just the naked assertion quoted here; b) the piece also has many positive things to say, not just about Skip Gates and his scholarship in general but specifically about his mass-production technique; c) in context, the complaint is about general academic practice, with Gates as a prime example, as much as it is a specific criticism of Gates himself.
8. Finally, Gates’ complaint that Foer did not give him a chance to answer various points made in the piece: Foer notes that he discussed these general issues with Gates for two hours. If there are specific points in the piece he failed to give Gates the opportunity to challenge, he should have, and he and Slate apologize. We are happy to have given him that opportunity now. Back