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May 4, 2009 [feather]
Churchill's legacies

Administrators across the nation watched the Ward Churchill case closely. And some of them seem to have extracted quite a procedural take-home lesson. In the past couple of months, we've seen two cases of professors whose research has offended colleagues and administrators--and in both cases those taking offense have used a combination of harassment and research misconduct charges to punish those professors.

First there was the Bowdoin professor who distributed information about how college athletics compromises undergraduate education. His work did not make Bowdoin look very good--and he picked a hell of a time to distribute it, passing out copies during a college recruiting event. So a dean came along and charged him with harassment (for the time, place, and manner of his scholarly dissemination) and research misconduct (for the content of the work itself). The harassment charges didn't stick and were dropped--but the research misconduct charges, trumped up at the same time with the same motive, did.

Now, there's Nick Trujillo, a communications professor at Cal State Sacramento. Professor Trujillo's work is a kind of mockumentaristic, participant observerish, performance artsy, Spinal Tap-ish exploration of how viral media works. Posing as a rock star named Gory Bateson, Trujillo posts videos of himself doing things like serenading a lady of the night in Amsterdam's red light district. Over the past year, he's put over 70 of these things on YouTube, and has also developed Bateson's "identity" with a website for the Ethnogs, his fictional band. Trujillo has acquired a following (the Ethnogs performed at last year's annual meeting of the National Communication Association, and are invited back this year), and he hopes to see his Bateson character go viral. The ultimate aim of his work, as I understand it anyway, is to study how popular sensations emerge within the new media landscape.

Along the way, Trujillo is studying how his academic critics approach his work. And as things are shaping up now, those critics are offering a fascinating window into the self-purging mechanisms of a profession that, despite its claims to inclusiveness, can get very Shirley Jacksonish very quickly when someone runs afoul of the rules. Here's how the Chronicle of Higher Ed lays it out:

The objections come in several forms. In the halls of his department at Sacramento, he drew complaints from colleagues after he taped to a wall outside his office a picture of his character serenading the prostitute (he later agreed to take it down). Another professor filed a grievance against Mr. Trujillo claiming sexual harassment because of a picture he taped in the hallway from one of his videos--a close-up of a dog licking the professor's toes. "I get a letter from HR saying they hired a lawyer to investigate," he said. "I said, 'You've got to be kidding me.' I e-mailed HR and said this is insane. My attitude is this is my research, and it's freedom of speech." The resulting investigation by the human-resources office found there was not enough evidence to warrant the charge.

He sent an e-mail message to his colleagues defending the project and noting that if the character Gory Bateson is offensive, that's part of the point. "I'm playing a burned-out rock star," he told them. "Is he sexist? Yes, hello! It's really critiquing the objectification of women."

The professor's off-campus promotional efforts have also sparked a backlash, including charges of violating research ethics. Edgar Bering, vice president of the Computer Science Club at the University of Waterloo, in Ontario, wrote a letter to top officials at Sacramento describing the e-mailed message sent to the club as inappropriate. "We feel that the method used in this 'experiment' lacks the necessary rigor to have any meaning in the study of the social implications of computing," Mr. Bering wrote. "Proper 'viral' media is spread not through e-mail spam and incentive but through word of mouth, and studying 'viral' media by attempting to create artificially 'viral' content is bound to lead to meaningless results."

The letter also said Mr. Trujillo had behaved unethically by involving human subjects (like the club members at Waterloo) without approval from the university's institutional review board.

Among the officials he forwarded the complaint to was Terry Manns, senior director of research policy at Sacramento. He told me that no formal investigation of Mr. Trujillo has been requested. That call, he said, would have to made by the professor's department, which had been copied on the letter of complaint.

Has the project broken any research rules? It's a gray area, Mr. Manns said. "I thought that's a crazy way of doing any kind of research," he said. "In technical terms, I guess I'd wonder whether you'd even call this research."

They're just throwing mud at the wall to see what will stick. It's unbelievable. And it says something about how seriously peer review is taken. Who needs it, after all, when you have mob tactics underwritten by poorly framed academic rules?

A footnote to the article's claim that "The resulting investigation by the human-resources office found there was not enough evidence to warrant the charge." After the complaints about Trujillo's postings were lodged, CSUS dean Jeffrey Mason issued a memo to Trujillo stating, "I request and require that you refrain from posting anything (images or messages) on any university bulletin boards that are not in your own office." Trujillo's right to continue to have the same posting rights as every other faculty member on campus were not restored until he filed a grievance through the union. The text of the memo comes courtesy of Trujillo, who also notes that Mason "has written extensively about censorship."

Ward Churchill won his pyrrhic one-dollar victory because an unsympathetic jury had to admit that Colorado's investigation of his scholarly integrity was triggered by the politically charged uproar surrounding his "roosting chickens" essay about 9/11. Colorado's mistake, I have long maintained, was that it ignored complaints about Churchill's research misconduct until there was a public outcry about him that the university could not ignore. The take home lesson, as I saw it, was that universities should be much more timely about investigating complaints--and should be extra careful to avoid the appearance of attaching ulterior motives to investigations into research misconduct. But the folks at Bowdoin and CSUS seem to have gotten it backward, and are using charges of research misconduct as a cudgel to punish outspoken professors whose methods and message are not felt to be desirable (to watch that backwardness in real time, read the Bowdoin dean's memos to Professor Goldstein, archived at FIRE).

Here's where I think people like Stanley Fish and Michael Berube, who evinced such sanguine suavitude in the wake of the Churchill verdict, have got it backwards themselves. They are cavalier about the problems with Churchill's work because, they argue, every academic can get shredded in much the same way if an investigative committee has a mind to do it. Such shredding, they note, belongs within the realm of peer review -- and they are right as far as it goes. But what they fail to note is 1) peer review doesn't work anymore (if it ever did); and 2) that the work of such careful review is now becoming the provenance of administrative investigators who can launch career-ending investigations with the flimsiest of pretenses, and who can attach exceptionally severe consequences to their findings. To this we can add 3): it looks like we might have the beginning of a pattern on our hands.

posted on May 4, 2009 8:02 AM

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Interesting to juxtapose this post with your "Lone Star Exemplar" one.

My daughter just graduated (!!!) from a small school in Mississippi that's known more for teaching than for research, although research is done there too. Because of its modest fees and her good scholarships, we were able to cover what remained of her room and board, tuition and fees, and books and so forth without any trouble. If I'd gone into debt for her education and found that school funds were being spent on tripe like this I would absolutely have gone ballistic. I can't believe that parents who go into debt for their kids' education know about this stuff and are willing to overlook it.

As you say, there doesn't need to be a political trigger for this stuff to be looked into. Its badness stands alone. Somebody needs to wake up.

Posted by: Laura(southernxyl) at May 11, 2009 12:17 PM