Churchill trial a political grandstand for academic activism

All-star academic Stanley Fish yesterday gave his opinion of the Ward Churchill not-guilty verdict, saying for the record what a lot of academics have no doubt been saying over glasses of Chardonnay since Churchill was fired nearly two years ago.

Those who have paid for the pleasure of studying scholarly journals — and especially those journals that concern the liberal arts — know that accusations of shoddy research methods are stock-in-trade. It doesn’t matter who you are, what title you hold or what you’ve written, someone somewhere will find an erroneous quote or a mistranslation of the 11th-century French baptismal records you depended upon and suggest your work be reconsidered or abandoned as a result — because that’s what they’re paid to do.

The back-and-forth that flows as a result of these reviews — puffed-up hard-copy comment threads, basically, that move at a glacier pace — is a turf battle. You have to be sure to discover, for example, where your professors stand on these things before you decide on the makeup of your dissertation committee. Really. It’s the most important research project you’ll undertake in graduate school!

These are battles to win prestige and followers and, in the best cases, to advance research. But nothing more.

As Fish explains:

The verdict did not surprise me because I had read the committee’s report and found it less an indictment of Churchill than an example of a perfectly ordinary squabble about research methods and the handling of evidence. The accusations that fill its pages are the kind scholars regularly hurl at their polemical opponents. It’s part of the game. But in most cases, after you’ve trashed the guy’s work in a book or a review, you don’t get to fire him. Which is good, because if the standards for dismissal adopted by the Churchill committee were generally in force, hardly any of us professors would have jobs.

The most difficult part comes when you’re forced to explain how it works to outsiders, especially once the likes of Bill O’Reilly gets hold of it.

Check it out. Fish writes elegantly, honestly and at length. He lays it out for the uninitiated. As a matter of public record, he writes, the University of Colorado committee appointed to review Churchill’s work found a predictable variety of “methods” problems but agreed that the legitimacy of his research and conclusions and prolific publishing was not in doubt.

But peruse the comment thread that follows his piece, which was written for the NYTimes.com, and half the readers don’t get it.

A few favorites from the first 10 of 240-some comments.

On Churchill’s use of Indian oral histories where few written documents exist:

Ward Churchill claimed, but could not supply references or evidence that the army supplied blankets with smallpox to the Indians. I find [Prof. Fish’s] claim, “I am not competent to judge Churchill’s writings and I express no view of them.”, remarkable since any decent scholar can see Churchill’s error…

On the First Amendment and academic freedom:

As John Adams said, “Facts are stubborn things.” The fact is that Ward Churchill was on the wrong side of the 9/11 tragedy and probably still is, Dr. Fish. I hate to say it, but he should’ve kept his mouth shut.

Sorry, professor. Even after all of your words, Ward Churchill is still a despicable individual.

It’s a credit to the jury members in the Churchill trial that they sat, listened and apparently learned how what Fish calls “the game” of academic publishing and politics works.

In the end, Churchill survived a “review process” few professionals in any field would look forward to and that many would not expect to withstand.

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About the Author

John Tomasic

Writer, editor, teacher, web wrangler. He has worked for art, business, culture, politics publications, five universities and a UN war crimes commission. @johntomasic
jtomasic@coloradoindependent.com | 720-432-2128 |

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