Blogs > Cliopatria > How Many Ward Churchills? Has Churchill Been Singled Out? & Why Tim Burke Doesn't Re-Assure Me

Jun 15, 2006 3:17 am

How Many Ward Churchills? Has Churchill Been Singled Out? & Why Tim Burke Doesn't Re-Assure Me

As due process grinds toward some resolution at the University of Colorado, the two questions being most commonly asked are: How many Ward Churchills? and Is Churchill being singled out?

Both questions, it seems to me, have been asked rhetorically and can be and have been raised in good and bad faith. The difference, I think, lies in what the questioner assumes Ward Churchill represents. The title for ACTA's report of dubious course descriptions at premier American colleges and universities seems to assume that Churchill embodies dubious pedagogy. Yet, really, nowhere in the charges against him at the University of Colorado is there serious implication of that. Although they are decidedly polarized, some student evaluations of his teaching seem to suggest that Churchill may be an outstanding teacher. Or, he may be a fraud in the classroom, as his claim to be a native American is seriously contested. We know of historians who have made false claims in the classroom about themselves and who have been punished for the fraud. Rightly or wrongly, the charges against Ward Churchill do not go to his teaching, but to his published work. For that reason, it seems to me that the title of ACTA's report exemplifies how the first question is raised rhetorically and in bad faith. I don't believe that bad scholarship necessarily correlates with bad teaching or that fraudulent self-representation necessarily correlates with bad teaching. Michael Bellesiles had excellent teaching evaluations; and, as I've said several times here, the best teacher I ever had claimed three earned academic degrees, when in fact he had none.

So, ACTA raises the"How Many Ward Churchills?" question in bad faith, I think. Its inappropriate title simply hopes to win attention to its exercise in cherry-picking course descriptions from college catalogues. Here and there, it's found some apparent embarrassments, but even those have nothing to do with Ward Churchill and the charges against him. But the appropriate application of the question"How Many Ward Churchills?" asks"how many of us are guilty of research fraud?" In that sense, it plays into the other question,"Has Churchill been singled out?"

That question, too, has been asked rhetorically and in bad faith. At Crooked Timber and Inside Higher Ed, Churchill's defenders (Louis Proyect, Tim Shortell, and Unapologetically Tenured) have asked it with the implicit argument that, in fact, he has been. The attack on Churchill is an attack on the whole academic left and we must rally to his defense, because one or all of us will be next, if we don't. I don't buy that. If Churchill is guilty of research fraud, I'm not obliged to defend him – even if I am sympathetic to his politics. But the question"Has Churchill been singled out?" can be asked in good faith and with a mind open to multiple answers. Dave Davisson asks it that way at Revise and Dissent.

Davisson's way of asking the question is to say: Look, I know an instance of research fraud that is quite comparable to what Ward Churchill has apparently committed. Why is Churchill to be punished and the tenured SUNY faculty member whose fraud I discovered not punished? And the easy answer is that the SUNY faculty member isn't singled out because he hasn't called attention to him/herself in the way that Ward Churchill (and, before him, Michael Bellesiles) did. Unfortunately, that's the very answer we can't accept, because then Churchill (and Bellesiles) have been singled out for their intellectual offenses. Research fraud is only a convenient weapon with which to kill them.

It's a painfully difficult question to ask. The answers to it, frankly, aren't very reassuring to me. It's entirely possible that Michael Bellesiles's fraud might have gone altogether unnoticed had he not been writing about one of the hot-button issues of our time and won prizes for his fraudulent work. Despite having no graduate school preparation in his field, Ward Churchill was offered a tenured faculty position, promoted to full professor, and made chairman of his program – all without any evidence of significant peer review. I've had some experience raising questions about the quality of other historians' work. Paul Buhle promised to reply and, simply, stonewalled. His colleagues at Brown seem undisturbed by his massive errors and the OAH continues to feature him as a distinguished lecturer. Christine Heyrman first consulted a lawyer and then denied my charges. She had directed Michael Bellesiles's dissertation and the simple mathematics behind the tables in the back of her book would embarrass a tenth grader. But, when I brought the problems to the attention of her peers and publisher, Yale's Glenda Gilmore objected that I was unkind,"rude,""threatening," and had crossed the"boundaries of civility." (See"Taking Glenda Off My List", scroll down to 09-20-03, where I deliver a piece of my mind to Professor Gilmore).

That is, I think, why Tim Burke's re-assurance that most of us do conscientious work and should deal with each other respectfully offers me no comfort. I, too, believe both of those things. But the assumption that our peers are conscientious is deeply embarrassed by the Michael Bellesiles and Ward Churchills and, if I may say so, the Paul Buhles and Christine Heyrmans of our craft. That assumption left us gullible and duped. To this day, the Journal of American History has not repudiated the 1996 article that launched the Bellesile circus. The AHA will no longer conduct its own inquiries. Local institutions have responded to charges only when they are accompanied by extraordinary external pressures and, frankly, I'm angry about it.

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Ralph E. Luker - 6/15/2006

No one here is making a case in favor prosecuting mistakes that occur in the ordinary aggregation of human knowledge. Yet, when quotations get trimmed to say something that the original source did not say or to fit a thesis, when numbers are handled so carelessly or arbitrarily that they too appear to have been manipulated to fit a thesis, and when matters of fact are so commonly mistaken -- even to no particular purpose, and when you see such work rewarded with prizes and promotions, we have a serious problem of credible scholarship.

Robert KC Johnson - 6/15/2006

I would agree completely. But I'd be more reassured if, in cases of clear plagiarism, there was a more clear-cut condemnation. As Ralph noted, the comments of figures like Shortell and (Un)Apologetically Tenured suggest that some in the academy seem to think there are no standards at all.

Thomas Brown - 6/15/2006

Ralph Luker asks what we can know about Churchill's teaching, and if it can be separated from his fraudulent publications. From what I have been able to learn, Churchill assigns his own books. (And insists that the students purchase the books directly from him, thus cutting out the middlemen and increasing his profits.) This is prima facie evidence that Churchill's teaching is as flawed as his writing.

Timothy James Burke - 6/15/2006

I'm just thinking about the experience I had teaching a course where we spent a whole semester working in detail on a single much-read primary source in my field, and on the secondary sources which have cited it. The students started feeling really uncomfortable about 3/4 of the way through because many of the secondary sources didn't really seem to be quite faithful to the text as we were reading it.

But none of them were really wrong, either. They were in the grey area where what they said was arguable, or where they were glossing or summarizing the text in order to make a larger, legitimate point. Or in a few cases, they were repeated a received reading which was incorrect but not really the direct fault of the scholar, only of some earlier interpretation.

Philip Curtin, when he set out to do his census of the Atlantic slave trade, describes how the consensus number that was widely cited before he did his study had come into being. It was a chain of attributions, readings, repetitions that led back to basically an off-hand and casual guess by a non-scholar. I think there is a lot of that in scholarly work.

And to be clear, I don't think that's so bad. I think none of that kind of error, if error it is, comes about because of bad faith or active deception. Maybe sometimes some wishful thinking, sometimes stitching together disparate facts to make a pattern, sometimes reducing unmanageable complexity to a reasonably simple scheme for the sake of argument and then forgetting at a later date the simplifications that occurred.

That's the ordinary ebb and flow of knowledge-making, and I would hate to hold anybody at fault for it in some pointed or aggressive way. I think looking for serious, substantive and deliberate fraud or misrepresentation is an important thing to do, but I really have an intuition that it's the exception rather than the rule. I'm a bit afraid that we'd end up redefining ordinary error as extraordinary deception if we started out looking in a prosecutorial mindset, determined to convict for a crime that we imagine must have occurred.

Robert KC Johnson - 6/15/2006

I agree completely on the teaching issue, although I think that the ideal remains that a connection exists between good teaching and good scholarship. I recall the experience at Brooklyn, before the difficulties with my tenure case, when three members of the department (two since retired), argued that as we were a "teaching department," we need not consider candidates' scholarship in hiring decisions.

On the scholarship point, let's be blunt: for most people, there's a much better chance of your looking into the sources and methodology of someone with whom you disagree than of someone with whom you agree. So it's unsurprising that those whose scholarship touches on very contentious issues find that their scholarship receives greater scrutiny. I strongly suspect that there are others like them--not a lot, but even if we're talking about .5% of professors, that's a significant and intolerably high figure. I think Ralph's point here is very well taken: at the very least, the continued prominence of the Buhles and Heyrmans suggests that the system of peer review needs tweaking.

Ralph E. Luker - 6/15/2006

I don't think anyone misunderstands what RMP is. It is simply that it is what is publicly available.

Ralph E. Luker - 6/15/2006

I just hate the thought that I may have committed public mush. My point wasn't to mush, but to say that ACTA had done that, by taking research charges against WC and titling their report about teaching with his name. Further: 1) I take the publication of work by Bellesiles and Churchill, even Buhle and Heyrman, and rewarding it with prizes and promotions as a signal of a fairly serious breakdown in peer review -- a breakdown so serious that it comes to attention only in major public and politicized confrontations. I take the refusal of the Buhles and Heyrmans to correct very substantial mistakes in subsequent editions of their work as a flat out refusal to acknowledge how very sloppy it was in the first place. In fact, at this point, it would appear that correcting one's mistakes _is_ a mistake, maybe _because_ it is an acknowledgement of error. Bellesiles revised his book and has disappeared. Buhle, Churchill, and Heyrman stubbornly insist on their errors -- and still hold onto their jobs.
2) So far as I can tell, I have no differences with you in re the teaching issues.

Timothy James Burke - 6/15/2006

I think this mushes together some problems that are best considered independently.

1) Are there lots of scholars whose work is as sloppy or outright fradulent as someone like Bellesiles? What would we find if we really went over historical scholarship with exacting precision?

2) Are there lots of scholars who are so fundamentally committed to a narrow kind of political advocacy that they commit malpractice in their teaching and their scholarship, e.g., deliberately create mistruths or demand compliance with their privileged views?

3) Can you be a weak scholar but a great teacher, and if so, is that a problem?

I don't honestly know about 1). Both about what the occurance rate might be and what we ought to make of it. There are certainly intellectuals whose ideas are important and who have sparked a great deal of legitimate and fascinating research whose command of the facts, in retrospect, could be questioned. I wouldn't want to somehow stomp out that class of intellectuals, the people with big ideas, with a conceptual imagination. I also wouldn't want to make too much of the tendency for all of us to interpret what we read as an endorsement of our analytic preconceptions, or to ignore contradictory data. As Jonathan suggests, some of this is what about the forward progress of knowledge is all about: making interpretations, then correcting them. Being wrong is a legitimate part of being a scholar.

It's knowing, deliberate, mendacious error, the fabrication of data, that's a bigger issue. This I honestly suspect is relatively uncommon.

2) I've written about ad nauseum lately. Let's just say that we're not going to be able to say anything more about this issue until the way it's measured and accounted is changed.

3) is an interesting question. I tend to think yes, someone can be a great teacher but weak scholar. As long as that weakness isn't about active fraud or misrepresentation, I think there may be a legitimate place for great teachers in academic institutions. In fact, I'd argue that they render more service to their institutions than strong scholars who can't teach worth a damn, by and large.

Ray s Mikell - 6/15/2006

Do you really believe that all those RMP ratings came from students, even in a case this well-publicized. RMP is hardly a reliable source regardless.

Kurt Niehaus - 6/15/2006

I could be out in left (or is it right?) field here but is the following possible?
While plagiarism is bad, what is being punished is the publication (not teaching) of factual inaccuracies. That is, that the academic community doesn’t punish traditional plagiarism (copying of others’ work and passing it off as one’s own) nearly as strongly as it punishes the manufacture of facts that are incorrect. The best defenses for a professor against this punishment would then be A.) be correct (or at least main-stream) or B.) use good facts.
From what I’ve seen of both of these cases (Bellasailes [sorry about the spelling] and Churchill), traditional plagiarism isn’t an issue at all, it is the manufacture of data/results.
Do those of you who deal with plagiarism regularly (ie, grade papers) agree?

Jonathan Dresner - 6/15/2006 the chair of the SUNY department Davisson cites contacting him for his evidence. a tenure/promotion system that values quality and effectiveness over quantity. a discussion of peer review and publishing that doesn't make us look like insular careerists. more joy in the revelation of fraud: finding misconduct is only something to be ashamed of if the academy is some kind of priesthood. If we're serious, though, we should thrilled to uncover wrongdoing and expose it as evidence of our own skills. It could even become a component of professional evaluations (see tenure, above)

...economic sense. I think real attention to this matter could help alleviate the Ph.D. oversupply problem by opening up previously unavailable jobs.

p.s. I loved the line "Although they are decidedly polarized, some student evaluations of his teaching seem to suggest that Churchill may be an outstanding teacher." (emphasis added, of course) Hedging like that deserves some kind of extra credit!