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Monday, April 24, 2006
By Steven L. Taylor

I noticed via James Joyner that the WSJ editorial board isn’t too happy (see Cole Fire) with the fact that Yale may be hiring Juan Cole (known to the Blogosphere as the author of Informed Comment) for a faculty position.

The basics were in the Yale Daily news earlier this month:

Controversial University of Michigan history professor Juan Cole is a top candidate for a senior faculty position in modern Middle East studies, two members of the search committee said Monday.


Search committee chair Julia Adams and Rosenbluth both confirmed that Cole is a leading candidate in the search process, but Rosenbluth said he is not the only person being considered for the job. The committee was attracted to Cole because of the caliber of his scholarship, she said.

The WSJ comes at Cole in the following ways.

First, they make a general attack based on his scholarship:

his scholarship is largely on the 19th-century Middle East, not on contemporary issues.

As far as critiques go, this strikes me as looking for a reason to say something negative, rather than a substantive critique.

For one thing, the search committee knows full well of Cole’s background. From the Yale Daily piece:

“He’s a historian who’s written very subtle and insightful history of the Middle East,” Rosenbluth said.

And, no doubt, the search committee has a better idea of the exact qualfications of Cole versus what the editorialist may know.

Further, given the development of the Middle East, it isn’t as if issue of relevance in the 19th century don’t still have saliency today. If one peruses Cole’s publications, it isn’t hard to see their continued significance in the present day politics of the region.

Second, the blogging business:

“He has since abandoned scholarship in favor of blog commentary,” says Michael Rubin, a Yale graduate and editor of the Middle East Quarterly. Mr. Cole’s postings at his blog, Informed Comment, appear to be a far cry from scholarship. They feature highly polemical writing and dubious conspiracy theories.

This strikes me as a canard, and ultimately a generic attack on blogging professor than a specific valid critique of Cole. As James Joyner noted in his post (linked above), there are a sufficient number of recent serious publications on Cole’s c.v. to counter the argument that he has somehow abandoned scholarship. And, moreover, I think that there is value, as I have noted before, in a person who is expert in a given information area to share that knowledge in public via the tool of blogging. One may not like Cole’s opinions on a number of issues, but it is difficult to argue that he doesn’t do a thorough job of covering Middle Eastern events-often looking to sources that other ignore, not to mention utilizing his Arab language skills.

That he is highly critical of Israel is indisputable, but in my experience that is hardly unusual for Middle East specialists. I don’t think it is fair to characterize his views as anti-Semitic, although I will allow that he is frequently far more strident and partisan on that topic that I think warranted if he is attempting to be scholarly about the subject material.

It is fair to say that Cole is highly critical of Israel and US policy towards Israel, is a stringent critic of the Buish administration generically, and the Iraq policy specifically, but none of that strikes me as disqualifying for employment by any stretch of the imagination.

Certainly the equation of a potential Cole hire by Yale to their admission of Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi (the former Taliban spokesman) as a student, as is done in the WSJ piece is an unfair one. Hashemi was the spokesman for a regime that not only was brutal to its own citizens, but that also harbored al Qaeda during the period that the 911 attacks were being planned. Admitting someone with that background to any US univesity, let alone one of our premiere schools, is an 0dd choice (to put it mildly). Cole, on the other hand, is wholly qualified for the position that he is being considered for-even if there are a lot of people who don’t like his views.

And in terms of the blogging/job-in-academia nexus evident here, I agree with James Joyner:

Further, as we have seen with Supreme Court appointments, we will reward those who avoid creating a paper trail. While I disagree with the lion’s share of Cole’s conclusions, providing informed comment for public discussion is undeniably a worthwhile endeavor for subject matter experts. We don’t want to create a chilling effect whereby academics avoid blogging for fear hiring committees — let alone editorial boards and bloggers — will start combing through the archives for the most outrageous things typed in hasty reaction to a breaking news story.

Indeed, if one looks at the WSJ piece or the anti-Cole piece at, there is no doubt that what has happened is that the authors have picked inflammatory statements from Cole’s blog without necessarily looking at the overall work. As James notes, this really isn’t something that we should want to encourage, lest it chill the Blogosphere-something we should all wish to avoid.

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11 Responses to “On Juan Cole and Yale”

  1. Outside The Beltway | OTB Says:

    Juan Cole and Yale

    There has been a minor kerfuffle over the last few days over Yale’s hiring of Michigan historian Juan Cole, best known these days as the author of the controversial Informed Comment blog, for a prestigious contemporary Middle East studies chair.

  2. alsj Says:

    “Further, given the development of the Middle East, it isn’t as if issue of relevance in the 19th century don’t still have saliency today.”

    The position is for the study of the modern middle east. Most educated people understand “modernity” as being the period of time roughly from the 15th century onward.

    In fact the 19th century was probably the zenith of modernity.

    I am wondering if the WSJ is going to ask Laura Englestein, Robert Harms, Gilbert Joseph, Mridu Rai, or Mimi Yiengpruksawan to quit?

    All of those folks have 19th century research specialties and are faculty in the Center for International and Area Studies.

    Once again, the WSJ editorial page shows its ignorance.

  3. Dr. Steven Taylor Says:

    You are correct, and I almost dealt with the modernity issue, but became over-focused on the usage of the word “contemporary” in one of the pieces.

  4. alsj Says:

    Steven, Just to clarify, My snarkiness was not meant to be aimed at you-rather the WSJ.

  5. Matthew Says:

    If Yale were not to hire Cole, or even short-list him, because of his blogging, then I would be worried about a chilling effect on the blogoshpere (or, rather, its academic part).

    But I am reasonably confident that the WSJ editorial board has no influence on Yale faculty hiring. So, I am not too concerned that the fuss created by the WSJ will chill the academic blogosphere. Only the academy itself could do that, and Cole’s short-listing at Yale is a data point for the “no chill effect” hypothesis.

  6. Dr. Steven Taylor Says:


    I figured as much, but thought I would further clarify.



  7. Yehudit Says:

    You are being too kind to Cole - he has been fisked soundly and repeatedly by experts in contemporary Middle East history, and the accusations in his blog are not examples of reputable scholarship to say the least. Cole isn’t a responsible academic.

    Lots of links including links to Martin Kramer and Tony Badran, who fisk Cole’s Middle East expertise.

  8. Yehudit Says:

    “the authors have picked inflammatory statements from Cole’s blog without necessarily looking at the overall work.”

    The problem is that Cole makes unsupported inflammatory attacks over and over - that IS the overall work of his blog. When you look at the accumulated data, you don’t find a competent academic. Kramer and Badran focus on Cole’s lack of academic rigor.

  9. Chris Lawrence Says:

    Robert KC Johnson has an interesting post up at Cliopatria on this topic; if I weren’t in “all lax, all the time” mode, I’d link it.

  10. Matthew Shugart/Fruits & Votes Says:

    Yehudit, don’t judge the “responsibility” of an academic as an academic by his blog.

    It is one thing to “publish” a blog post, and quite another to publish a peer-reviewed article or a book with a university press. Cole has done quite a lot of both of these latter activities, and if his field is anything like mine, there is a spirited debate within the academy about his work and its conclusions. As there should be. But the blog is, by definition, a privately owned public forum, and not an academic enterprise.

    An academic blog is still a blog. In fact, the concept, academic blog, is something of an oxymoron.

  11. PoliBlog: A Rough Draft of my Thoughts » Hitchens and Cole Says:

    [...] dnesday, May 3, 2006

    Hitchens and Cole
    By Dr. Steven Taylor @ 9:03 pm

    I recently defended Juan Cole (whom I have never met, btw) against an attack by John Fund of the WSJ regarding [...]

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