Stanford Professor Stops Teaching Course On American Indian Mythologies After 50 Years Due To Protest

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.

40 thoughts on “Stanford Professor Stops Teaching Course On American Indian Mythologies After 50 Years Due To Protest”

  1. If a person of other-than Western / European descent uses a cell phone, votes, or drives a car, is that cultural appropriation?

  2. Consider the most probable target goal. Only A’s can teach A’s and only A’s can use or Understand the subject material there fore only A’s can attend the course. B’s though Z’s are barred.

    Extended to all subject areas A’s have nothing to study BUT will not doubt get all A’s and all graduate Magna Cum Laude or Summa Cum Laude meaning with distinction or praise but in A’s indigenes language so the real meaning again in Latin is socialis promotionem.

    B to Z will then get all the high paying jobs causing next terms flavor of the month complaints.

    which reminds me

    cur pecunias collegii woment ut libero dormirent homines equitantes usque hodie in signum in secessum emittitur

  3. “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.”

    When did the rules of tribes or ethnic subcultures trump the rules of western academic inquiry? This is absurd on its face as is most of the appropriation and microaggression nonsense. If there’s any aggression at all it is in the abuse of certain people who hold certain viewpoints of imposing their will upon others and discriminating against views they do not share. I am a hardcore left winger just to be clear, but can anyone imagine white Americans even suggesting that unless you are white you can’t make, serve or eat western food just as an example. It’s idiotic. The whole point of being an American is to break the chains of that sort of small minded, parochial and petty group differences. And like it or not, “native” students are taking courses in the United States of America not on tribal lands. Where on earth do they get this idea that the superstition and mythology of any group anywhere on earth is not fair game for legitimate academic inquiry? This kind of thing is just nonsense and the people in charge of the universities and other institutions being bullied into absurd actions like this need to quit rolling over for this stuff. The west is the west because it rejected such small mindedness and chose free inquiry and science over group loyalties and out-moded, ancient customs.

    1. The whole point of being an American is to break the chains of that sort of small minded, parochial and petty group differences.

      No, that isn’t the whole point of being an American.

    2. actually if you are asking when I would say around 1968 when the commies rioted in France, that’s when a lot of academia all around “The west” completely flaked out. To put a date on it.

  4. More hysteria and incoherence promulgated by the Feminazi Gestapo. Indians in America are actually a thing and their history must be taught alongside all other history or one has not taught history.

    “If you’re half right, you’re half wrong.

    If you’re half wrong, you’re all wrong.”

    – Anonymous

    Indians are in India and they must be Indian Indians but you don’t hear that much, do you? American-Americans are actual Americans but you don’t hear that much either, do you? American Indian is an egregiously oxymoronic contradiction in terms. There is no such thing as an American Indian. Indians violently fought Americans to the death. Ask George Armstrong Custer about the Little Big Horn. There have been, however, Indians in America since 1789 upon the adoption of the Constitution by the United States and not before. The Indians called North America the “land,” the “skies,” the “waters,” the “mountains” and “sun,” “moon” and “stars” not America. Those Indians in America, by the way, are native to Asia, being nomadic and arriving on this continent by way of the Alaskan Land Bridge millennia ago.

    1. If you’re half right, you’re half wrong.

      If you’re half wrong, you’re all wrong.”

      – Anonymous

      For every question there are three possible answers. Correct, Incorrect and compromise. Which means two are wrong. A. Rand

      Choosing any lesser of two evils only makes the chooser a supporter of evil. Usually by their own lack of moral and ethical standards . M. Aarethun

    2. What a waste of even a limited intelligence.

      Correction Time

      Indians from India are emigrants from the Indus River Valley region and thus were named in the original native language then translated to those European India people from or Indians.

      Indians referring to western hemisphere was derived from the spanish word ‘indigenes’ g silent and then English Indigenous jhu sounding ‘g’ meaning a native population meaning those who got here before us.

      the translation of most native languages for themselves is most often, if memory serves, their word for The People.’

      The use of the word at the time are forefathers wrote the Constitution was based on their understanding of their language generally or most often translated by missionary types as most of then they could read and write while others could including Kings and Commoners.

      Nothing has changed.

  5. Not sure you can blame Stanford if the professor won’t stand up for himself.

  6. There is so much blame.

    Government is putting too much money into higher education and or isn’t putting it into the right places. We need skills for those not appropriately educated in K-12. We need to improve that groups ability to ge a job and increase the productive capabilities the US has.

    We also have the brilliant students who should be studying in institutions where they have the highest standards of academia especially STEM. No problem with some diverse subjects but they are more like after school activities for those students that are most creative and will be the leaders in pushing technology forward.

    Harvard has an endowment of $37Billion enough to not require tuition.

    After government one should blame the administrators. I can’t say much except the top administrators should have been fired in the 60’s when the rioting occurred. Their job is to educate youth and not to provide a free for all. Many need to be fired.

    Students: You want college? Pay for it. You don’t like the courses? Go to another school. Education debt? Get a job. Get a loan. Go to work for 2 years and then go to school. I’m not against scholarships to students if they are provided under restricted conditions.

    By the way, I have dealt with a good number of Asian immigrants with no money. The family works as a team and buys a business. Money is saved to buy another business, expand or to educate those most likely to benefit the family from the education.

  7. This is a question that deserves some unpacking. Here are some relevant questions:

    1. Does the university otherwise have a well-rounded curriculum? How does this course fit into the curriculum? I think that there is a strong argument that this course is not essential to an otherwise solid curriculum. That said, the subject matter is currently fashionable and no doubt “sells seats.”

    2. Has the course become stale? Taking at face value the assertion that the professor has been teaching the course for 50 years, this doesn’t need more elaboration. Fact question, and a fair one.

    3. Does the university have a robust process for evaluating the curriculum and the quality of the courses in the curriculum. Embedded in robust is the notion that the process is insulated against the dictates of political fashion. This is hardly a given, and likely a loser at an elite university.

    4. Does Mr./Ms (?) Patton, the student who authored the petition, have any particular expertise relating to the subject matter? A common fallacy is to assume that membership in a group confers special expertise in matters relating to the group. If Patton has particular expertise, then s/he should share it with the professor and the class. The contribution will stand on its own merits. Sharing knowledge on a nuanced subject is challenging. That it is not “easy” to do so (as suggested by Patton in the petition) tells us something about the mindset of the speaker. Moreover, and speaking personally, I can say with certainty that I know a lot less about the world than I did when I was a 21 year old college junior. Which, of course, a 21 year-old isn’t particularly interested in hearing. I think they call this the Dunning-Kreuger effect.

    5. Is it really a requirement that a class relating to a particular group be taught by a member of the group? There is a good argument that a strong group identity blurs one’s ability to study the group objectively. Applying the rule more generally leads to some really interesting results. An otherwise qualified African American with a deep knowledge of history would need to be barred from teaching a class on, say, the formation of the German state and the development of German culture. Or that women should be barred from teaching subject matter relating to male identity and traits. Hardly makes sense to me.

    6. How is it that largely incoherent ramblings by a group of elite college students got me to write a 6 paragraph essay? This is probably the most disturbing thing of all. If this were my (elite college-educated) child I would probably listen to their gripe relating to staleness/teaching methodology but otherwise just tell them to go away and come back when they have something interesting to say.

  8. To some of these snowflakes the only perfect human being would be a monk in a cloistered monastary where no one spoke to each other.

  9. The university sells degree programs. If a student is admitted to the university, the student does so with the understanding they have a menu of courses they will be required to complete and electives to select as options. If American Indian Mythology was an elective and the student objected to the course content, then they have the option to select a different elective. If and when Professor Fields course no longer has the students to make it a cost benefit, the professor would need to review the content and make the changes that sell. If not, then the department will take it off the menu.

  10. Professor Turley presents an interesting account of student criticism of a course, “American Indian Mythology, Legend and Lore,” and the professor teaching it, lifer academic, “Professor professor Kenneth Fields” of Stanford University (since 1967). Might “professor professor” be a new ethereal academic title of anointment—perhaps higher than professor emeritus—or just a typo? Turley notes students argued the course/professor to be “insensitive and inappropriate.” He also notes Fields is “a nationally recognized academic and poet.” But he fails to wonder—to question and challenge—what that particular laudation might really imply! Clearly, it is the bona fides of an establishment cog. Clearly, a nationally-recognized poet, for example, is a poet who learned how to keep his mouth shut and ignore Ralph Waldo Emerson’s crucial thought: “I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions. Every decent and well-spoken individual affects and sways me more than is right. I ought to go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways.” Indeed, to “speak the rude truth in all ways” is a death-sentence recipe for wannabe careerists. Clearly, a nationally-recognized poet would have learned early on to build bridges at the expense of “rude truth” and climb the corrupt ladder of literary careerism. As a poet, methinks, no thanks! But poet Fields and likely Turley would probably be incapable of grasping the fundament of the critique. Careerism blinds. Careerism coops. Careerism castrates. Poet Fields manifests the cowardice characteristic of careerists: “[I was] horrified and wounded to read what was being said about the course and about me.” And how easily he folded, agreeing to cease teaching the course and thus helping to assure student fragility. Nationally-recognized hero… or careerist?
    G. Tod Slone, PhD, Founding Editor, The American Dissident, a 501c3 nonprofit, NOT on the shelves of George Washington University

  11. Student-snowflakes only exist because the administration is spineless! Cultural “appropriation” is of a piece with political “correctness.” Who decides what is “appropriate” or “correct?” Moreover, what right does Sha’teiohserí (a Mohawk) have to opine on the wishes of a tribe in the Southwest? Disgusting that supposedly intelligent academic institutions cave to this malarkey.

    1. It would help if the author understood what cultural appropriation is anymore than the silly kids he’s cited. I find when people dont understand something they find that something to be foolish or nonexistent. What a commitment– or dare I say, Monument–to ignorance we have made.

      1. There is you. There is me. There is no we. Speak for yourself, stop appropriating your presumed opinions of others.

  12. The university needs to hire a politician with Indian roots who goes by the nickname of Pocahontas. I think Trump recalls her real name. I think her first real name is Elizabeth. One must be a real Indian to teach about Indians. Same thing about Nazis or Confederates. Jim Dandy to the rescue….

  13. 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.

    The aboriginal population of the United States is less than 1% of the total and it is suffused with anomie. It’s a reasonable wager, that absent the preference schemes favored by admissions officers (and everyone else employed in academic administration and student affairs) you wouldn’t find more than a half-dozen red Indians in a typical cohort at Stanford.

  14. The man is 79 years old. Unless he’s been teaching on a part-time schedule all these years and has only a meager pension due, he should have retired about 10 years ago. The proper role for emeriti is to fill in for faculty on sabbatical.

    Fields is ‘horrified and wounded’ because he’s too other-directed, a common vice among faculty members. (NB, the criticisms of these youths ‘wound’ him. If I’d enrolled in his courses and had objected to something he taught, I’d have been told to pound sand by all parties. That’s how ‘white privilege’ works).

    1. If one stays at any job too long, that job might end on shabby terms. Better to quit on your own terms.

  15. Another frivolous course bites the dust. Now to relegate womyn’s studies, diaspora studies and every other identity study to the same trash can. No one cares about some primitive tribe’s tender sensibilities about crows excepting maybe some of the tribe’s progeny. They apparently don’t want to talk about it and with good reason.

    1. One has to wonder how much of a student’s tuition comprises supporting useless classes and the mandatory bureaucracy supporting such.

    2. It’s liberal education. It’s not ‘frivolous’ per se. It just doesn’t map to the job market. As a society, we over-invest in liberal education in secondary and tertiary schooling. However, it’s agreeable that a certain body of people st(udy those subjects which do not prepare one for employment. (The very learned Mortimer Adler thought that for the young a half-pint of philosophy was better than a pint of auto repair, something I doubt is true for aught but the most intellectually inclined share of the population).

      (My own very limited experience with reading aboriginal folklore in translation led me to wager that there isn’t a whole lot of there there. Keep in mind, though, that this is just one course).

      1. Well, it doesn’t map to the drone job market. Still, once upon a time a Stanford liberal education was framed as teaching critical thinking skills. One can no longer pretend this is even generally true.

  16. I must admit I don’t know what to make of this. In trying to put myself in the professor’s position I am conflicted with pursuing a course of either telling these precious snowflakes to pound sand or telling the university to cram it and retire, letting them deal with the loss of my expertise and ability while I enjoy a life doing whatever I please and they suffer dealing with these crybabies.

    I’m just glad that I didn’t have to put up with this type of stupidity during my careers.

  17. Is Stanford one of those “prestigious universities” Peter references as qualifying science sources?

  18. 20 years…….hmmmmm……I know what it’s like to become set in your ways and never take a second look at materials………Oleana?

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