April 6, 2009
Stanley Fish weighs in on the verdict for the New York Times. It is, by far, the most reasoned account of Ward Churchill’s so-called academic misconduct to appear in the mainstream media. (Christ, wouldn’t it be fun to have a real newspaper in out fair cowtown?)
Last Thursday, a jury in Denver ruled that the termination of activist-teacher Ward Churchill by the University of Colorado had been wrongful (a term of art) even though a committee of his faculty peers had found him guilty of a variety of sins.
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.
At least two reviewers of my 2001 book “How Milton Works” declared that my reading of “Paradise Lost” rests on an unproven assumption that Milton repeatedly and designedly punned on the homonyms “raised” (elevated), “razed” (destroyed) and “rased” (erased). I was accused of having fabricated these puns out of thin air and of building on the fabrication an interpretive house of cards that fell apart at the slightest touch of rationality and evidence.
I use the criticism of my own work as an example because to talk about the many others who have been accused of incompetence, ignorance, falsification, plagiarism and worse would be bad form. And it wouldn’t prove anything much except that when academics assess one another they routinely say things like, “Professor A obviously has not read the primary sources”; “Professor B draws conclusions the evidence does not support”; “Professor C engages in fanciful speculations and then pretends to build a solid case; he’s just making it up”; “Professor D does not acknowledge that he stole his argument from Professor E who was his teacher (or his student).”