For 50 years, Stanford Professor Kenneth Fields has taught the course “American Indian Mythology, Legend and Lore,” Professor Fields has agreed to stop teaching the course. A nationally recognized academic and poet, Fields dropped the course after some students accused him of being “insensitive and inappropriate” and circulated a petition requesting to “improve” the course. The bases for the protest raise serious issues of academic freedom and the lack of of support for faculty in such disputes.
I have been critical of the widening charges of cultural appropriation and microaggressions on our campuses as statements and even programs are targeted with little resistance from faculty or administrators. (here and here). Indeed, there seems an ever-widening array of “microaggressions” and cultural appropriations. We discussed a basketball game where a player was attacked due to wearing braids that 20-year-old Hispanic student, Carmen Figueroa, claimed to be cultural misappropriation. Then there was the controversy at Pitzer College where white female students were warned to take off big hoop earrings as cultural appropriation. Then there were the students at Oberlin declared the serving of sushi as cultural appropriation while a white student was assaulted at San Francisco State University for wearing dreadlocks by an African American student. At the heart of some of these controversies is the claim of exclusivity in the use or enjoyment of styles, foods, art, or material originally associated with one culture.
These disputes become particularly chilling when they are used to limit or cancel academic courses. That is the issue raised by the treated of Professor Fields. The petition authored by student Sha’teiohserí:io Patton, objects that Fields should not even discussing subjects like he “Night Chant” of the Diné tribes of the Southwest. Patton told The Stanford Daily, “You’re not supposed to discuss it at all if you’re not Diné, and you’re especially not supposed to discuss it before it snows in New Mexico.”
The Petition explains in greater detail that the students object that these subjects should be only taught from a tribal perspective and not what they describe as a “Western view.” Moreover, “because there is no easy way for native students to interject this information, Prof. Fields’s discussions also lead non-native students to believe that native students approve of sensitive cultural topics being discussed in this manner.”
Some of those objections strike me as reasonable and valuable. I can only think that the course would be improved with the contribution of native students. For example, the Petition states that Fields leads discussion of the possible meaning of crows as symbols while Patton insists that the meaning is fixed in tribal lore. However, this is a broad course and it is likely that Fields uses such stories and songs to explore symbolic meaning and cultural references. Nevertheless, the point that such images are actually fixed in this culture as to meaning would be an interesting element to the discussion, if true. Of course, some classes are structured as lecture though it seems from the petition that some discussion occurs in class. It is not clear why the Native American students were prevented from voicing this view if other students were discussing the possible different meanings of images like the raven.
However, the Petition includes some objections that are more troubling. It states “in any event, many Diné students prefer that Prof. Fields refrain from discussing the Night Chant at all, as it is generally not supposed to be discussed outside of the tribe.” This is an academic course on American Indian Mythology that is described as covering “stories, songs and rituals from the 19th century.”. It is not dishonoring a site or work. Academics explore cultures around the world as part of our intellectual mission. We honor such cultures by allowing students to consider their history, traditions, and culture. There will always be some students who may, as the Petition suggests, find that the “lecture topics and discussions are often insensitive and inappropriate with regards to the discoursed native tribes.”
The Petition also objects that ‘Native American stories are not made for analytical exploration and interpretation.” That is a curious objection since higher education is based on analytical exploration and interpretation. While these stories may be taught as an orthodoxy or unquestioned truth by a specific culture or tribe, academics often analyze cultural norms for common and divergent elements. This is particularly the case in a survey or broader, cross-cultural course.
Likewise, the students object that
“Prof. Fields’s lectures are often off-topic and undermine the culturally rich material that he has assigned for reading. Though I believe Prof. Fields attempts to structure his class loosely as a means of mimicking the typical oral manner of Native cultures, students often feel lost and confused by how lectures relate to class material. This is because Professor Fields often discusses things personal to his own life rather than engaging in a meaningful discussion of the literature.”
That is an objection to teaching style. Many professors incorporate personal stories or experiences in their lectures to add real-life elements and perspectives. Part of the draw of taking courses from leading figures like Fields is to benefit from their unique experiences and perspectives. Some students may not value that and they can take another course. However, that is a part of what is protected as academic freedom.
Whatever the merit of the complaints, it was enough to compel the delisting of the course after 50 years. E.J. Miranda, a spokesman for Stanford, declared “Prof. Fields has said he will no longer teach the course and the chair of the English Department has offered to meet with students to hear their concerns, as a next step.”
That is a sad ending for this course and a troubling outcome for Fields who has been an English professor at Stanford University since 1967. Fields has said that he was “horrified and wounded to read what was being said about the course and about me.”
Once again, there may have been grounds for improvement in the course. The view of the fixed meaning of some images is a good example if true. However, at a time when so many professors feel that they are facing increasing scrutiny and protests over the content of their work, the fate of Professor Fields magnifies growing concerns over academic freedom — and the commitment of schools like Stanford to defend it.