Some Reflections on an Auspicious Occasion

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McGill Cap

I’ve been promoted to full “Professor.” I am no longer “Associate Professor M.G. Piety.” I am now, or will be as of 1 September, “Professor M.G. Piety.” According to my colleague Jacques Catudal, I am the first person to make full “Professor” in philosophy at Drexel in more than 18 years.

It has been a long journey, as they say. I decided to study philosophy when I was an undergraduate at Earlham College, a small Quaker college in Richmond, Indiana. I became hooked on philosophy as a result of taking a course on rationalism and empiricism with Len Clark. I didn’t particularly enjoy reading philosophy, and I hated writing philosophy papers. I loved talking about it, though. Talking about it was endlessly fascinating to me, so I switched my major from English to philosophy. I became hooked on Kierkegaard after taking a Kierkegaard seminar with Bob Horn. “Bob,” my friends at Earlham explained, “was God.” He was preternaturally wise and kind and a brilliant teacher who could draw the best out of his students while hardly seeming to do anything himself. I don’t actually remember Bob ever talking in any of the seminars I took with him, and yet he must have talked, of course.

I spent nearly every afternoon of my senior year at Earlham in Bob’s office talking to him about ideas. I worried sometimes that perhaps I should not be taking up so much of his time. He always seemed glad to see me, though, and never became impatient, even as the light began to fade and late afternoon gave way to early evening. I don’t remember him encouraging me to go to graduate school in philosophy (my guess is that he would have considered that unethical, given the state of the job market in philosophy). I do remember, however, that he was pleased when I announced that I had decided to do that.

Graduate school was enormously stimulating, but also exhausting and, for a woman, occasionally demoralizing. There has been much in the news in the last few years about how sexist is the academic discipline of philosophy. Well, it was at least as bad back then when I entered graduate school as it is now, and possibly even worse. Still, I persevered. I began publishing while still a student and was very fortunate to gain the support and mentorship of some important people in the area of Kierkegaard scholarship, including C. Stephen Evans, Robert Perkins and Sylvia Walsh Perkins, and Bruce H. Kirmmse, who was one of my references for a Fulbright scholarship I was awarded in 1990 to complete the work on my dissertation on Kierkegaard’s epistemology.

I lived in Denmark from 1990 until 1998. I received my Ph.D. from McGill University in 1995 but remained in Denmark to teach in Denmark’s International Study Program, then a division of the University of Copenhagen. I wasn’t even able to go back for my graduation, so I learned only a couple of years ago, when my husband bought me my own regalia as a gift, how gorgeous the McGill regalia are (see photo below).

I came to Drexel from Denmark in 1998 as a visiting professor. I liked Drexel. It was overshadowed by its neighbor, the University of Pennsylvania, but that seemed to me almost an advantage back then. That is, Drexel had carved out a unique niche for itself as a technical university, somewhat like MIT but smaller, that provided a first-class education in somewhat smaller range of degree programs than were offered by larger, more traditional institutions. The College of Arts and Sciences seemed to me, at that time, and to a certain extent, still today, as a real jewel, as Drexel’s “secret weapon,” so to speak, because while most large universities had class sizes ranging anywhere from 40 to several hundred students, most of the courses in the humanities at Drexel were capped at 25 students. Drexel also boasted some first-class scholars who were as committed to teaching as to scholarship. Drexel was providing its students with what was effectively the same quality of education in the humanities as is provided at small liberal-arts colleges, while at the same time giving them invaluable hands-on work experience through its co-op programs that few liberal-arts colleges could provide.

Drexel asked me to stay on for a second and then a third year, despite the fact that my beginning was less than auspicious in that at the end of that first fall term, I had mistakenly conflated the times of what should have been two separate exams and hence left my students sitting in a room waiting patiently for almost an hour for me to materialize and administer the exam. It was too late, of course, to do anything by the time I learned, via a phone call from one of the secretaries in the department, of the mistake. I was relieved when not only was the then chair of the department, Ray Brebach, not only not angry with me, but eager to see if I would be willing to stay on for another year. Ray has been one of my favorite colleagues ever since.

I received my tenure-track appointment in the spring of 2001. I liked my department. It was originally the Department of Humanities and Communications and included the disciplines of English, philosophy and communications. It was enormously stimulating to be in such a cross-disciplinary department. There were poets and novelists, as well as traditional literary scholars. I particularly liked being around the communications people, however, because many were engaged in politically significant media studies and that sort of work was reminiscent of the dinner-table discussions I remembered from childhood when my father was an editorial writer for one of the two newspapers in the town where I grew up. My association with the communications people led to the publication of an article I wrote together with my husband on the behavior of the mainstream media in the U.S. leading up to the second Iraq war.

Eventually, however, the communications people left our department and formed a new department together with the anthropologists and sociologists called the Department of Culture and Communications. So then we became the Department of English and Philosophy. I was sad to see the communications people go, but there were still plenty of creative writing people in the department who helped to make it a more stimulating environment than it would have been had it been comprised exclusively of traditional scholars. These people, including Miriam Kotzin and Don Riggs, both brilliantly talented poets, are some of my closest friends. Miriam has encouraged me to write for her outstanding online journal Per Contra, and Don, a talented caricaturist as well as poet, drew the picture of me that I occasionally use for my other blog.

It was an ordeal, however, to go up for tenure. Our department has a tradition of requiring monstrously comprehensive tenure and promotion binders into which must go almost everything one has done on the road to tenure or promotion. I think each one of my tenure binders was around 500 pages in length. It took me the entire summer of 2006 to put them together, a summer when I could have been writing material for publication. To add possible injury to the insult of having to devote so much time to the compilation of these binders was my fear that some of the reports of my “external reviewers” might not be so positive as they would haven been had I not become involved in a scandal in Denmark surrounding a controversial Danish biography of Kierkegaard. I lost several friends, including the aforementioned Bruce Kirmmse, as a result of my role in that controversy, friends whom I feared might well have been recruited to serve as external reviewers.

To this day I don’t know who all the reviewers were. Two were selected from a list I had provided my tenure committee, but the rest were selected by the committee itself. Whatever the reviewers said, however, it was not so negative as to override what subsequently became apparent was the high esteem in which my colleagues held me and my work. I was granted tenure in the spring of 2007 and I have fond memories to this day of the little reception provided by the dean for all faculty who where granted tenure that year. There was champagne and there were toasts and I was very, very happy.

I’d always been happy at Drexel, so I was surprised by the change that took place in me upon my becoming tenured. I felt, suddenly, that I had a home. I felt that people both liked and respected me. More even than that, however, I felt that I had found a community of high-minded people. People committed to principles of justice and fairness. I felt I had found a small community of the sort that Alasdair MacIntyre argues in After Virtue we must find if we are to live happy and fulfilling lives, the kind of community that is increasingly rare in contemporary society.

That all seems long ago now. Drexel has grown and changed. I am still fortunate, however, to have many brilliant, talented, and fair-minded colleagues. Thanks must go to my colleague Abioseh Porter, who chaired the department for most of the time I have been at Drexel and who was a staunch supporter of my development as “public intellectual” long before “public philosophy” enjoyed the vogue it does today. Thanks must also go to the members of my promotion committee, but especially to my colleague Richard Astro, who chaired the committee. I know from merely serving on tenure-review committees that no matter how uncontroversial the final decision is anticipated to be, there is an enormous amount of work required of the committee members, simply because of the level of detail required in the final report.

Thanks must also go to everyone who has supported me throughout my career. I set out, actually, to list each person individually, but then I realized that there are many, many more people than I would ever be able to list. I have been very fortunate.

Thank you everyone. Thank you for everything.

Cap and Gown

 

 

Correction!

This is embarrassing. I had written in the last post that Pia Søltoft was the director of the Søren Kierkegaard Research Center at the University of Copenhagen. Sylvia Walsh Perkins corrected me, however, in a recent email exchange. Niels Jørgen Cappelørn is the director of the center, she said. He had told her so himself. That makes sense given the penchant the Danish press had for referring to Cappelørn as the director of the center, even after everyone in the U.S. (and one can presume the rest of the world outside Denmark) had been notified that Pia Søltoft was the director of the center. What gave me pause, however, was the fact that Pia had told me herself that she was the director of the center. Or more correctly, she had answered my question as to whether she was the director of the center with an affirmative “yes.” I’d asked her that precisely because there’s been lingering ambiguity about who is the center director (see my inaugural post to this blog). Pia explained that she was, in fact, the director for now, but that she would not be the director for much longer because now that the center had been incorporated into the theology faculty of the University of Copenhagen, the head of the theology faculty would be the director of the center.

I thought I’d do a web search to see what the website for the center said and was surprised to discover that there were actually two websites for the center, the old one, when the center was not affiliated with the university and one that reflects its new affiliation. Neither lists Pia Søltoft as the director though, so I’m not sure what her role is re the center and why she did not explain the situation. Maybe even she does not understand it. Also, I was surprised to learn that the Theology Faculty bio for Pia to which I had included a link in the earlier post no longer works. It worked when I wrote the piece last week, but it doesn’t work now, so I included an older link above.

Bruce Kirmmse’s Shame

Bruce Kirmmse was a key player in the controversy over Joakim Garff’s book SAK (Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography). Kirmmse did the English translation, which inexplicably included many of the errors that Peter Tudvad had already exposed in the original and indeed appeared calculated to cover up some of the apparent plagiarism in the original.  (See previous blog post, as well as, “Rot in the Ivory Tower.”)

Kirmmse also played attack dog, authoring some articles defending the book in the Danish media.  One of them was a scurrilous, defamatory hit piece against me, “M.G. Piety’s Shame,” published in the September 23-29, 2005 Weekendavisen.  I don’t use those labels lightly; when I saw the article, I consulted with a well-known defamation attorney in Philadelphia, who concluded that the article was defamatory. I didn’t pursue litigation because of a lack of funds (the lawyer didn’t want to take the case on a contingency fee, because he didn’t foresee big damages).

The article has never appeared in English.  I present it below.

I’ve decided to republish the piece here because Kirmmse was recently selected as the keynote speaker at the Seventh International Kierkegaard Conference, sponsored by the Hong Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf’s College this coming June. I believe Kirmmse’s scurrilous role in the controversy over Garff’s book makes him unfit to be honored in this way.

Two preliminary points: (1) An astonishing aspect of Kirmmse’s piece is that Kirmmse never reveals anywhere in it that I entered the controversy as a result of the fact that the errors and plagiarisms Tudvad had exposed in the Danish edition of Garff’s book appeared uncorrected in his English translation that was published a year later.  Instead, he accuses me of ”resurrecting” Tudvad’s attack, as if out of thin air and out of spite.  That’s deliberately misleading. I knew about the controversy from the beginning but chose to write about it only after it became relevant to people who were forced to rely on Kirmmse’s translation.

(2) Kirmmse also never revealed in the piece his own self-interest. Not only did he do the translation of SAK, he was being considered to head up the new translation of Kierkegaard’s journals, a project that had been conceived by Niels Jørgen Cappelørn, one of Garff’s staunchest defenders, and over which he, Cappelørn, had control in that he could restrict access to the new Danish editions of the journals on which the translation would be based.  Many Weekendavisen readers were likely deceived into thinking that Kirmmse was a disinterested American scholar commenting on the controversy.  Instead, Kirmmse was most likely seeking to deflect attention from Tudvad’s well-documented criticisms of Garff’s book – that is, to deceive and deflect attention from his own complicity and duplicity in his translation of SAK. (See the details in “Rot in the Ivory Tower”) as well as to curry favor with Cappelørn, who had come under heavy criticism for his own role in the SAK controversy.

I realize that I could be accused of not being disinterested in how I’ve translated Kirmmse’s article. So I asked Kirmmse via an email dated 8/22/2012 for the English version of his piece (he didn’t write the article in Danish originally – it was translated by someone else for Weekendavisen).  Kirmmse never replied to my email.  So I emailed him again on 8/29/2012. This time I sent him my version and asked if he had any issues as to its accuracy. Again, he failed to reply. So on September 4, I tried to call him. The only number I had for him was the general number for the History Department at Connecticut College, where he is now emeritus.  The secretary there said she didn’t have a number for him, not even his home number.  She informed me that because he traveled a lot, email was the best way to contact him and reassured me that the email address I had for him was correct and that he was good about responding to email.   Apparently, he doesn’t want to respond.  In any event, I’m confident that I’ve translated this piece accurately.  

M.G. Piety’s Shame

by Bruce Kirmmse

Peter Tudvad expresses surprise, in an article entitled, “SAK Redux” that I, despite my generally positive review of his Kierkegaards København (Books, 2 September 2005) have also been critical of his work. I won’t repeat my review here, but merely point out that anyone who read my article in this paper as well as my longer review in Kierkegaardina 23 (Copenhagen, 2004), will quickly see that in both cases I expressed both genuine praise and serious criticism.

My praise concerns Tudvad’s industry and rigor with respect to uncovering some concrete details that were unknown to earlier scholars. My criticisms were directed at his methodology. His belief in 19th century positivism causes him to believe that one can “discover” the historical truth, and that this exists eternally uninfluenced by “interpretation.” As an historical scholar, I find Tudvad’s methodological assumptions untenable and unsuited to both historical scholarship in general as well as to its sub discipline of biography in particular. Tudvad’s unreflective positivism has, to put it bluntly, caused him to make a category mistake, with the result that he misunderstands the character of biography and it was on the basis of this misconception of the work of biographical authors that he initiated his attack on Garff’s biography of Kierkegaard.

A result of this category mistake was that Tudvad was not entirely clear about what he was doing when he initiated his attack on Garff’s biography. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said about Marilyn Piety, who decided over the course of the summer to resurrect Tudvad’s year-old attack. Piety knows exactly what she’s doing. She’s an assistant professor of philosophy at a technically oriented educational institution in Philadelphia, has a good knowledge of Danish and had published some articles on Kierkegaard. Her real specialty, however, is the writing of polemical exposés of what she believes is “nepotism” and “corruption” in the academic world, in particular in connection with Danish universities.

It’s clear from her article in The Philosophers’ Magazine (nr. 31, 2005) as well as from her subsequent pieces in the Danish press and her contributions to the public debate on the internet, that she doesn’t have anything new to say. It’s clear that when she ventures out on thin moral ice with, for example, her repetition of Tudvad’s claim of academic misconduct or plagiarism, she attempts to protect herself by asserting that the accusation of academic misconduct “was not my accusation,” that she is “only repeating” Tudvad’s accusations. This morally questionable mode of attack makes it possible for her to do damage while at the same time distancing herself from it. It is worth noting that she earlier conducted herself in precisely the same manner.

In the beginning of the 1990s, when Marilyn Piety lived in Copenhagen and was working on her dissertation at the University of Copenhagen, the rector of the university, the neurologist Kjeld Møllgård, was accused of scientific misconduct in connection with a twenty-year old study. The charge was taken seriously and brought before the Board of Ethics (etisk råd) the body that has jurisdiction over such cases in the Danish academic world. They transferred the case to the Committee on Scientific Misconduct [Udvalget Vedrørende Videnskabelig Uredelighed] who thoroughly investigated it and concluded that all charges against Møllgård proved “groundless.”

Even though Piety lived in Copenhagen in 1994 and thus must have been aware of all the facts surrounding the case–i.e., both the charges against Møllgård and the fact that Denmark’s highest authority for academic ethics had found all the charges “groundless”–she nevertheless publicized them in a full-page article in 1997 (15 August 1997) entitled “Nordic nadir for nepotism” in the Times Higher Education Supplement. She mentioned the charges against Møllgård to support her own charge of pervasive corruption in the Danish academic world, but failed to mention that he had earlier been cleared of all charges. She formulated, in fact, her presentation of the case in such a way that the reader got the impression that the question of Møllgård’s guilt was still an open one. Piety’s behavior in this case was so extreme that the Committee on Scientific Misconduct wrote to the  Times and demanded they print a retraction which was then printed in the paper on the 17th of October 1997.

So far as anyone knows, Piety has never herself issued a retraction or made any public apology for having spread false accusations of scientific misconduct on the part of Rector Møllgård, even though she knew he had been cleared of these charges three years earlier. And even though the charges of academic misconduct that have been advanced against Garff have never reached the stage of a formal investigation (there was no reason for such an investigation), two prominent Danish academics, Thomas Bredsdorff and the director of the Center for Søren Kierkegaard Research, Niels Jørgen Cappelørn, investigated Garff’s work in the ligt of Tudvad’s charges and declared publicly that the charges were groundless.

Garff has, in addition, publicly reacted to some of Tudvad’s criticisms, refuted some and promised to take others into account, particularly those concerning concrete historical facts, when the book appears in a new edition. Piety must have known about Garff’s public reaction (both his disagreement with elements of Tudvad’s critique and his willingness to correct some of the errors in a new edition of the work), and she undoubtedly was aware of Professor Bredsdorff’s and Centerleader Cappelørn’s public refutation of Tudvad’s complaint [of academic misconduct]–just as she knew when she wrote her article in 1997 that Møllgård had been cleared of all charges in 1994.

But just as she failed to issue either a public retraction or an apology for her backstabbing of Møllgård in 1997, so is it unlikely that she will do so in connection with her backstabbing of Garff in 2005. As she puts it herself “they are not my accusations,” “I’m merely restating” what others have said. This is a clear pattern in Piety’s behavior. Her method of backstabbing others through insinuation is morally condemnable and should not be taken seriously. Has she no shame at all?

After having unapologetically smeared Møllgård eight years ago by simply “repeating” charges made against him by others, she is now attempting to do the same thing to Garff in an effort to support her claim that there is “something rotten in Denmark” especially in the Danish academic world. Danes have long been sensitive to these words of Shakespeare’s and this is perhaps the reason that the Danish media were willing to publicize Piety’s views without checking her sources. The best way to react to such behavior is perhaps to answer with another quotation from Shakespeare: “Oh shame, where is thy blush” [Hamlet, III iv].

Some additional points:

–At the end of his article, Kirmmse argues that the entire Danish media somehow failed to spot my alleged errors. They didn’t spot them, I submit, because there weren’t any as the Danish media well knew because they had been covering the controversy over the biography for approximately a year by the time my first piece on it appeared.

–Kirmmse never disputes the correctness of any of the points I made in the material I published on Garff’s biography of Kierkegaard. It’s curious as well, that he attempted to discredit my efforts to inform readers of the problems with the English translation of the  book by charging that my points were not “new.” As I explained above, I decided to “resurrect Tudvad’s year-old attack” when the English translation of Garff’s book came out a year after the original Danish edition and I discovered that the problems Tudvad had identified in that edition were in the English edition as well. Kirmmse’s charge that my claims were not “new” was simply an attempt to deflect attention from that fact by invoking a well-known and widely discredited rhetorical technique frequently invoked by the public relations industry and discussed, for example, in Rampton and Stauber’s excellent Trust Us, We’re Experts (pp. 68-69). It is never an indictment of a claim, or argument, to point out that it is not “new.” Many excellent arguments (e.g., those in favor of freedom of expression and equal protection under the law) are not new, but they are excellent arguments nonetheless and bear repeating despite their lack of novelty.

–Kirmmse criticizes me for my pointing out that the charges against Garff’s book were Tudvad’s, not mine. It would have been inaccurate, however, if I had said they were mine. In fact, it would have been plagiarism if I’d repeated Tudvad’s points in print claiming that they were my own. Far from being “morally questionable,” as Kirmmse charges, my identification of the points as having come from Tudvad was morally obligatory. Tudvad was the one who deserved credit for identifying the problems with Garff’s book and I endeavored to be conscientious in making that clear.

–Kirmmse is correct when he claims that I never issued “either a public retraction or an apology” for my purported “backstabbing” of Møllgård in my 1997 article. The Times pressured me repeatedly to do this, but I stood my ground. I wasn’t mistaken in my presentation of the Møllgård case and I wasn’t sorry I had presented it.

–As for checking facts, neither Kirmmse nor Weekendavisen can have checked the facts in the Møllgård case, because if they had, they’d have discovered that the charges of scientific misconduct had been brought against Møllgård, not twenty years after the fact as Kirmmse suggests, but while Møllgård was working as a post doc at the University of California at Berkeley. The investigation had been inconclusive.

–Yes, the Danish Committee on Scientific Misconduct “cleared” Møllgård of all charges relating to the case. I didn’t know about this, however, because it was not widely publicized. Had it been, someone might well have pointed out that a Danish committee did not have the authority to clear someone of charges that had been brought by a U.S. committee.

–It’s unlikely Kirmmse even read my article “Nordic nadir for nepotism.” If he’d had he’d have seen that it was not an attack on Møllgård. Møllgård receives only passing mention in the piece. The subject of the article was, as the title indicates, nepotism in higher education in Denmark, and the point of the mention of Møllgård was that it would be difficult for him to do anything about this problem because an unresolved case of purported scientific misconduct in his past would make him vulnerable to blackmail. In fact, the reason I was aware of the case, which was twenty years old, as Kirmmse rightly pointed out, by the time it made the Danish newspapers, is that someone had apparently dredged it up in an effort to sabotage Møllgård’s candidacy for the position of rector of Copenhagen University. Hence my speculation that the scientific misconduct case would make it difficult for Møllgård to take a hard line on corruption within the university, was well supported.

–Compare the tone of my article “Nordic nadir for nepotism” to the tone of Kirmmse’s “M.G. Piety’s Shame” and ask yourselves which article is more properly described as a piece of character assassination. Kirmmse so misrepresented the content of my article that either he condemned me for writing an article that he had not in fact read and in this way violated academic and scholarly ethics, or he had read the article but deliberately misrepresented its content and in this way violated pretty much every code of ethics.

So anyway, there you have it. Not Kirmmse’s most distinguished work, but perhaps more relevant than some of his other pieces to the issue of whether he’s an appropriate keynote speaker for an international conference on the centennial of Kierkegaard’s birth. It’s a shame the library didn’t pick someone more appropriate, someone such Edward Mooney, the current president of the Søren Kierkegaard Society, or Robert Perkins or Sylvia Walsh Perkins, both of whom have devoted their lives to Kierkegaard scholarship and produced outstanding work, or C. Stephen Evans who’s work on Kierkegaard is unsurpassed, or Alastair Hannay whose Kierkegaard translations for Penguin are some of the best that have ever been done, or, finally, Peter Tudvad, who in a very Kierkegaardian way, has endured a great deal of personal abuse and repeated ad hominem attacks in the service of the truth.