>Some of you with elephant memories and too much time on your hands may recall that I’m teaching a first year graduate course on research methods in literary studies, or, as I like to call it, “How to be a Graduate Student.” I kind of wimped out on making it really tough and rigorous — mainly because I needed to test the waters and see what one of our typical first year groups could and couldn’t do, what they did and didn’t need — and while I have really useful, practical assignments (which I might talk about in another post), most of the class after the first 3 weeks has consisted of visits from my colleagues who introduce their fields, current work in it, and the most important resources for research in it. (I have to say, this is so much fun for me. It’s like I get to be a student, too! Weeeeeee!)
Anyway, yesterday one of our Native American lit. scholars came to visit and, among other things, did a hilarious riff of the character Billy in Predator. But also got serious and talked about the shape of the field and current trends, etc. He also talked about major scholars in the field. And then he got to vexed issues of identity and authenticity among authors and critics, and talked about various fraud cases. And, of course, Ward Churchill came up.
As my colleague brought up his name, he looked a little sheepish, as if he regretted even having to invoke the man. But then he noticed the blank faces of my students. And so he asked, “How many of you have heard of Ward Churchill?”
Not a hand went up. Not a head nodded. Not a look of recognition so much as flitted across a student’s face. Out of a class of 18 students in a master’s program in English literature, not a one had heard of Ward Churchill.
I’m not sure if that’s a good thing (he doesn’t deserve to be known) or a bad thing (they’re unaware of controversies in their chosen profession) but it’s not a surprising thing. A year ago they were undergraduates (well, most of them); or else they’ve been busy public high school English teachers. Undergraduates are busy trying to keep Jane Austen and Jane Eyre straight and my brilliant high school teachers (and they always are some of the smartest ones in the bunch — they rock) are busy trying to get their struggling students to write an intelligible paragraph or two. I’m not saying they should remain ignorant of such controversies; I’m just saying I’m not surprised they are.
As for my colleague, as soon as he realized they hadn’t heard of Churchill, he looked relieved. I’m sure that everyone he encounters who has heard of WC wants to know what his opinion is. And many of them probably ask in that most annoying way: “How do you feel about Ward Churchill…you know, as a Native American yourself.” I think he was thrilled not to have to do the distancing dance for once.
Maybe there’s something more to be said here — about the insularity of our controversies, perhaps? — but maybe I’ll leave it for the comments. All I know is, like my colleague I’m happy to let Ward Churchill slip into oblivion.