May 17, 2006

How (Not) to Argue

Well, it's here in all its pixellated glory. The verdict is in on Ward Churchill, and it isn't surprising. Here's the full report.

And here's the Inside Higher Ed story. The comments, as always, are far more entertaining than the story itself, and for the most part are sane and logical. However, there are quite a few folks out there who need to take Remedial Argument 101. Read and be entertained, and notice my extreme forebearance in resisting the temptation to point out that the least literate commentary comes from those who self-identify as being in the field of ethnic studies. Oops. Okay, so maybe my forebearance isn't that extreme.

I would, however, like to point out to the unfortunate commenter crowing about Churchill's "authoritative body of work" that citing your own (plagiarised) work in support of your own (plagiarised) work does NOT, no matter how fondly you may wish it, make your work "authoritative" in any way. At least not on planet earth.

Posted by Big Arm Woman at May 17, 2006 01:57 PM

Are you referring to "ethnic studies stud"? That post was written by Churchill himself. He and his wife got drunk last night,and stayed up late posting pseudonymous defenses all over the net.

Posted by: Fred at May 17, 2006 03:09 PM

"I would, however, like to point out to the unfortunate commenter crowing about Churchill's "authoritative body of work" that citing your own (plagiarised) work in support of your own (plagiarised) work does NOT, no matter how fondly you may wish it, make your work "authoritative" in any way. "

Heh. After my foray into Russian Lit in grad school, I thought that was how all you humanities types worked... ;-)

Seriously, one of the stupidest crticisms of science I heard from the Po Mo camp in the mid-90s was that it was "self referential" - uh, yeah, because ultimately, we are referenceing Nature herself, so of course a lot of experiments are going to look the same - the words for the day are reproducibility and falsifiability, dudes. But the self-referencing in the humanities - in the absence of independent experimentation that could falsify theories - was taken as proof of veracity. All the disciplines with the word "studies" in them were useless in this regard - in fact, that's my rule of thumb for determining real scholars from posers: if the discipline's name is derived from Greek or Latin, it's probably got some core of utility, but if the name is entriely in the vernacular - watch out.

Posted by: John at May 18, 2006 08:26 AM

I would, however, like to point out to the unfortunate commenter crowing about Churchill's "authoritative body of work" that citing your own (plagiarised) work in support of your own (plagiarised) work does NOT, no matter how fondly you may wish it, make your work "authoritative" in any way.

BAW, I could find no such phrase anywhere in the comments. Was something deleted?

Posted by: Michael at May 18, 2006 09:58 PM

Michael -

That last part isn't specifically referring to one of the comments, but from the report--basically, he "ghostwrote" several of the papers that he then turned around and used as sources for his other papers.

If I'm reading that correctly, the sourcing on the ghostwritten papers was sketchy as well, thus the whole "plagiarising your own plagiarism" thing, which is just too funny for words.

Well, if by "funny" you mean "a black eye for all humanities disciplines everywhere."

Did you mean which comment was calling Churchill's work authoritative? The commenter I was referring to is the one called Ethnic Stud. And I feel dirty even typing that handle.

Posted by: BAW at May 19, 2006 02:18 PM

Actually, I couldn't find any commenter calling himself "Ethnic Stud" either. And, oh yes, yuck.

Posted by: Michael at May 19, 2006 03:10 PM

Ward's a local boy. Boulder can be a fairly nutty place, notwithstanding the Nobel Prize winners. It has been interesting to watch shifts in his support erode even here.

The investigation has made it harder for him to play the ethnic statesman card. It is harder for him to claim to be a scholar. His attorney, David Lane, makes the astonishing claim that "None of the allegations merits inquiry because, even if true, they would not constitute research misconduct." There's an endorsement!

I wonder whether his stock trades for more than pennies on the lecture circuit these days; maybe it will be delisted, altogether.

Posted by: Patricia at May 19, 2006 11:48 PM

To John:

I think the importance of a department like Native American Studies or Ethnic Studies is that it helps empower scholars working on subjects that are traditionally peripheral to the "Latin" disciplines, particularly history. I have had history courses in so-called Native American history that contained surprising amounts of factual errors--I believe part of the reason for this is that scholars focused on "traditional" disciplines are less attentive to new research in these marginal areas, and so end up capitulating the small amounts of research produced in previous decades by scholars whose "traditional" departments and journals emphasized mainstream topics. I am a scholar trained in a traditional art history program in "American" art, but my professors were not able to speak to the history of African-American arts, much less Spanish Colonial, Native American, etc. I think the "studies" departments grew out of the necessity of pooling human resources in those marginalized areas of research--which were, and largely still are in the case of Native America--absent in mainstream departments. It should not be surprising that these departments would emphasize new methods and approaches, considering the apparent inability of older scholars and their methods to come to grips with the peripheral traditions.

In short, I question the ethical and political motives of a wholescale dismissal of these "studies" departments. They are a necessary response to the narrow focuses of traditional departments. If those traditional departments would broaden their horizons, things would be better for all involved.

Posted by: Mark at May 20, 2006 03:44 PM

Mark—I think it is the ethical and political motives to the “studies” departments that many of us question.

Posted by: jim at May 20, 2006 04:30 PM

Jim's right; I also question the scholarly rigor of such disciplines.

Posted by: Michael at May 20, 2006 06:49 PM

Mark - there is one substantive argument that one could make against my statement above, and that would be to point out the fact that the humanities do not posit falisfiable experiments, by and large. My response to that is complex, and too long for a comment, but centers on the point of this post that the “Studies” departments tend to violate the more squishy, but still evidently extant (before the Po-Mo revolution) standards of the humanities – which include seeking relevance to the wider world, rather than the orgy of self-citation and self-congratulation, and shoddy scholarship that BAW was talking about in this post. Of the minority scientists I studied with, none had any use or saw any relevance to their pursuit of human knowledge of the “Studies” departments connected with their particular minority. Worst offender was Women’s Studies, which was rife with “critiques” of science and anti-scientific political stances, but the Latin American studies department was held in low regard by my South American colleagues as well.

The “Studies” departments may have been resisted by older profs who failed to see the relevance of heretofore marginal topics, but that resistance is also an artifact of tenure, which distorts market forces in the Academy. When I was an undergrad, Perestroika made Slavic and East European Studies (an area in which I was a student, BTW) the next hot thing – all through the late 80s and early 90s. If the Universities had made the decision to set up SEES departments all over the US, the collapse of the USSR and the subsequent Russian screwing of the economic pooch would have left Universities with large departments of people with nothing to do and no one to teach. However, all of the SEES departments I knew were virtual, allowing the members to go back to history, sociology, or linguistics as interest waned in the subject. The creation of the “Studies” departments circumvented this check on the market-distorting effects of tenure, and now we are left with an Academy ossified in the pattern of the late 60s, and “Studies” programs looking for political relevance and activism to keep from being marginalized and gutted by attrition. Since politics tends to undermine scholarship (which I think was part of BAWs point, here), scholarship is emphasized only so much as it furthers a political goal, and downplayed, or even, as we see here, made out of whole cloth, in order to suit political agendas. So excuse me if I think that Native American Studies groups are muddying the water (as evidenced in their activism in the Kenniwick Man controversy) as much as they are correcting mistakes.

But by ignoring the substantive hole I left in my thinking by abbreviating the comment, and going directly for the ad hominem, you proved my point that most of the “Studies” departments and their defenders are primarily political - interested in scholarship only as a political tool - better than I could have done with an entire blog post. Thanks.

Posted by: John at May 22, 2006 05:41 AM

Michael -

Just took another look at the first article - the comment I was referring to is gone. Drat. I should've cut and pasted it; it was really entertaining.

Sorry for the confusion. I didn't think you could remove your own comments from that site...

Posted by: BAW at May 22, 2006 02:32 PM

BAW, I'm glad to know I'm not halucinating. Well, wasn't halucinating. I may be now. Not sure. Handles like "Ethnic Stud" make my mind go places it would prefer not going. Ugh.

Posted by: Michael at May 22, 2006 07:27 PM