Saturday, April 11, 2009

State of the Ward

Academic life provides an almost bottomless reservoir of shenanigans of the sort that keep novelists from Vladimir Nabokov to David Lodge employed. Usually this stuff is interesting only to academics - for a while there was even a journal devoted to academic gossip, the short-lived, much-missed Lingua Franca. Occasionally, however, one of these stories breaks through to the national news. And this past week the Strange Career of Ward Churchill became such a case.

For those who have better things to do than follow the tawdry details of this episode, a quick recap: Ward Churchill, a professor of "ethnic studies" at the University of Colorado, was fired from his tenured position by a committee of faculty and administrators after they determined the he had engaged in a variety of academic frauds - plagiarism and dishonest scholarship among them, though there were also questions about the legitimacy of his academic degrees as well.

Churchill had labored in academic obscurity, publishing largely in the field of Native American studies, until he published an essay in which he called the victims of September 11 "little Eichmanns," asserting that they, and America generally, essentially got what what we all deserved.

That essay was merely stupid, and alas "dumb" is not necessarily a disqualifier in academia. But the essay was incendiary and circulated widely on the web. At that point the University of Colorado began to examine Prof. Churchill's record. What they found, as I mentioned, got him fired.

Churchill, in turn, sued the university in civil court claiming that he had been fired for that essay, and thus for exercising his first amendment rights. This week a jury agreed. And didn't. They found in favor of Churchill, but then awarded him damages of exactly $1.

Churchill, for his part, offered a remarkable defense: the university only discovered the academic fraud, he has basically insisted, because of that Sept 11 essay. No one would have noticed otherwise. Thus, he was being fired for having written it.

And the sad part is: he is largely right. Churchill apparently got tenure at Colorado without serious vetting - no one there seems to have paid much attention at all to this scholarly snake-oil salesman until some of his embarrassing writing briefly escaped the hot-house world of academia and appeared to a larger public.

There are only two conclusions I can draw from this silly bit of business from Boulder, neither of them good. Either the system for evaluating scholarship at the University of Colorado was so badly broken that faculty were too negligent to examine Churchill's publications with a critical eye. Or we have gotten to a point in humanities scholarship where claims to authority and truth can be made without any real rigor at all. Assertion substitutes for evidence; passion and feeling substitute for reason and argument.

If this latter is the case - an academic version of "I'm ok, you're ok" - then what the case of Ward Churchill reveals is a practice of the humanities that has lost any self-confidence. Believing that nothing can be known with any certainty, many in the humanities have decided that therefore all assertions must be equally valid and they need not be defended in any systematic way, because after all, that system is part of the problem in the first place. In such a world, Churchill's fabrications are no different than any other scholarship, which relies on real evidence and proper citation. Liberation through increased ignorance!

Scientists, of course, laugh at the humanities for this and other reasons. But our collective lack of self-confidence also explains why those of us in the humanities have had so little impact on the debates that have really mattered over the last 30 years. Playing post-structuralist parlor games, those in the humanities have largely ignored our responsibility to speak with authority and truth to the pressing questions of the day. We've been afraid to do so.

Ironically, the jury in Colorado deliberated just as the great historian John Hope Franklin passed away. It's a wonderful compare/contrast exercise: On the one hand, Franklin, a scholar of impeccible standards who devoted his life to the humanities in the fullest and richest sense, a man who repeatedly put his scholarship in the service of a political goal, but who always insisted on the difference between scholarship and politicis. On the other, Churchill demanding his job back because he was fired for being a fraud, and calling this a brave political act.


Anonymous said...

I apologize for the intemperate tone of this comment in advance, but I'm a bit angry. I find it difficult to reconcile the lament that that "those in the humanities have largely ignored our responsibility to speak with authority and truth to the pressing questions of the day" with the tone of this entire post. How closely have *you* followed the case? If Churchill is simply a "scholarly snake oil salesman," then the case against him turned out to be mighty, mighty weak. I'm not saying his work is something everyone should aspire to emulate, but fifty percent of scholars in this world are below average, and the allegations of academic misconduct failed because there was simply nothing there. And so I'm struck by how casually you go on to assert that Churchill's work was "without any real rigor at all," which is the sort of dramatic and polemic over-exaggeration that people who have never read it are prone to making, and which makes me wonder whether you've effectively just parroted what you've heard other people say. Which is ironic in this context.

For example, you say that his roosting chickens essay asserting that [911 victims] "and America generally, essentially got what what we all deserved." But he didn't actually say that, unless your standards for rigor are extremely low and you think "essentially" means "vaguely similar to." He actually said (albeit with the intention to provoke) that unlawful murderous actions abroad will result in unlawful murderous actions at home, something I'm not sure anyone really disagrees with; it's called blowback, and while you can get upset when terrorists target civilians for reasons they think are justified, Churchill's crime was simply to point out that when the US targets civilians for reasons we think are justified -- which we certainly do -- the two facts are related. I'm not saying this was greatest piece of engaged scholarship anywhere, but he simply didn't say what you so casually paraphrased him as saying. I would be prepared to dispute a variety of his points with him; they are debatable and a some of his arguments are weak. But yours, in this very post, are weaker. You have chosen, instead of debating him, to misrepresent him. It's ironic.

I'm also struck that it doesn't seem to bother you at all that his University let their entire hiring process get hijacked by Fox News. Is letting go of academic standards not worth getting upset about when it results in the firing of a professor whose views you disagree with?

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