Tuesday, September 9, 2014

What, and why, Māori scholars need to know about Steven Salaita.

Who is Steven Salaita, what is the drama going down at the University of Illinois, and why should we care?

Sometimes it can feel like people in the US think their issues are globally relevant by default. The baseball 'World Series' is a case in point, but many Americans assume that their political, cultural, economic and historical matters are of planetary rather than national significance. Of course, the way that media, education and the circulation of culture works results in a saturation of American things, ideas and people all around the world… so outside the US we are more likely to know the names of American celebrities, places, foods and politicians than we are to know about the same things from countries much closer to home. This isn't a new point, so I won't labour it, but it's important to be a little cynical about the idea that things happening in the US  are always and automatically relevant elsewhere.

Having said all that, some issues just matter: not because of where they are (although that's not irrelevant) but because of the questions they raise and contribution they make to how we think about the world. New Zealand, and especially Maori, politics in specific parts of the twentieth century were positively influenced by the American civil rights movement, feminism, and so on. Certainly Obama's election signified something beyond the US because it was the first time a non-white person was elected to the top position in a settler nation. The US is not always 'ahead' on matters - at least if 'ahead' is about moving us collectively more and more towards equality and away from the violence of inequality - and I would not for a minute suggest that the US does things consistently better than everyone else. One Obama does not cancel out decades of nuclear and atomic weapons testing in the Pacific.

In the US academic world, there is a system called 'tenure' which essentially means you have your job for life. After five or so years in a 'tenure track job,' you provide a whole lot of evidence that you have been doing what you're meant to be doing (in research, teaching, and service) and then your application floats up through the food chain at your university - and goes out to a few people beyond your own campus - and after several months you find out whether your university is going to keep you forever. There is a real reason for tenure; it's not just so American academics get to sit around and do nothing after their first few years on the job because they can't be fired anyway. The reason is that it means you can't be fired for having a politically controversial opinion. Or, as Americans like to put it, 'academic freedom.'

In the Māori scholarly world, I have heard some people express a bit of concern about the idea of academic freedom because there is a perception that it could inadvertently provide protection for researchers who think (in boringly colonial ways) that everything is theirs to know. If academic work has no restrictions (if it's 'free' in that way) then how do we ensure that the same old usual colonial forms of research don't keep happening? If 'freedom' means you get to do research without limits, what does this mean for understandings of knowledge in which some things are known by selected people, in particular places, perhaps with specific whakapapa, and so on? How do we cultivate and value a humble, multi-perspectival and deeply rooted approach to academic work if the concept of "freedom" is the number one thing that's protected? Why would be be interested in importing a notion of "freedom" from a country that is founded on a history of enslavement and genocide, that equates freedom with carrying guns, and that invades other countries in pursuit of freedom? These are important reasons to hesitate about the idea of academic freedom, but if we are too cynical about the idea we run the risk of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

'Academic freedom' is about ensuring the work we do as academics is not censored by the government (or other forces, like powerful corporations or high profile people) of the day.

We might argue that, although we don't have tenure as such (your employment contract with a NZ university isn't guaranteed for life), in the NZ law that sets up the university system, academics are described as having three roles: research, teaching, and being the "critic and conscience of society." This third role - "critic and conscience" - is something of an anomaly - a similar stipulation does not explicitly exist in other countries. Surely this means we are not just allowed but expected to provide critique that is accessible to a wider public? Just because the idea is enshrined in law, however, doesn't mean we have specific legal protection if someone powerful decided that what we were saying was dangerous. (What does 'dangerous' look like? I hear that when the police were searching private properties around the country during the 15 October raids, one example of 'evidence' of interest was a recently published scholarly book about Indigenous resistance.)

Why does any of this matter, and what does it have to do with the US? And, who is Steven Salaita?

Steven is a US-based Palestinian scholar who has committed himself, through his PhD studies and his academic career so far, to Native American studies and to global Indigenous Studies. He had a job at Virginia Tech, and by providing evidence of his fantastic teaching and research record, was granted tenure there. His research focuses on a lot of things, but one of the major contributions he makes is to the expansion of Indigenous Studies by actively participating in the relevant conversations in the US and drawing on Indigenous Studies scholarship in order to think more carefully about the situation in Palestine. In this way, he both contributes to and reflectively learns from the broader world of Indigenous scholarship. However, after a period of time in Virginia he applied for a job at the University of Illinois where the Native American Studies department was looking for someone who would contribute to their wide range of Indigenous scholars. He got the job, and so he and his family packed up their home and moved to the town of Urbana-Champagne which is where the main campus is located. He signed the paperwork accepting the job offer, and the paperwork went back to the university to float up through the system and get all the right rubber stamps. So far so good. It should have ended there. But it didn't.

Two weeks before he was due to start his job, he received a letter from the person at the very top of the university (the same role as a Vice Chancellor in NZ) and was advised that he no longer had a job. How is this even possible?  

Here's how it is possible: Steven has been a committed, clear, and loud critic of the recent Israeli attacks on Palestinians in Gaza. He has family in Palestine, and was outraged (as anyone would be) at the number of innocent people who were dying as a result of specific Israeli military attacks. He did what lots of us do in 2014: he took to social media as one platform for expressing his response to the situation. He's no slacktavist (I love this term - just heard it somewhere - can't remember where - it refers to people who are slack activists and think they'll change the world by sitting on the couch updating facebook statuses and composing tweets) - but he is active on social media. As are many academics. As is anyone who wants to be a part of certain conversations.

A few of these tweets are the reason his job offer was removed. He was accused of being "uncivil" which, as American Indian historian Jeani O'Brien points out, feels a lot like accusations of natives being "uncivilized." - a very familiar story. There is now emerging evidence that the head of the university was pressured by powerful people who think Steven Salaita is anti-Semitic (ie anti-Jewish) and would not be able to conduct himself in a way that has all students feeling comfortable etc. This, despite the evidence in his application details about his extremely high teaching evaluations and student comments about his commitment to critiquing anti-Semitism!

This is all terrible: sad for Steven Salaita and his whānau, stink for the Indigenous Studies scholars in Illinois, and a bad reflection on the university. It's terrible, but what does it have to do with us? Why should Māori scholars care?

Let me suggest a few reasons why we should care:

* Any scholar losing their job because of their activism and public activities around criticizing violence should make us all worried. It could make us reflect on whether we ourselves are safe (or at least whether our jobs are) if our tweets - or any other public activities - were used against us. What does 'academic freedom' mean to us as Māori? It could also prompt us to consider what manaakitanga looks like in this context: what reciprocal responsibility do we have to a scholar who is active and generous in the field of global Indigenous Studies?

* One of the undercurrents this whole issue has brought out has been a suspicion about the appropriateness of Steven's position with the department that hired him: who gets to decide what counts as Indigenous Studies? Who gets to decide what counts as Māori Studies? Are we the ones who are deciding the future direction of Māori scholarship, including diverse future directions? Would it be okay for the public to decide what kinds of disciplinary training was necessary or appropriate for working in Māori Studies? How many current Māori Studies scholars have a PhD in Māori Studies, and how do we (and should we have to) explain other pathways to working in the field?

* A number of our Māori scholarly community (yes, including me) actually work in the US system; many more have studied and/or enjoy the benefits of conferences held there. This system is directly linked to our own intellectual history: Te Rangihiroa taught at Yale and lived in Hawai'i & Connecticut, Maui Pomare did his training in Michigan, Ngapare Hopa taught in California, and so on… Māori scholarship has benefitted a great deal from the system that has done this to Steven; we should consider our complicity with the system, and wonder about how we might contribute in a meaningful way to this  very active conversation about Salaita's position. (A letter to the head of the university, as many institutions and communities have written? Sign onto the petition protesting the Uni of Illinois's actions? Some act of aroha for our colleagues in Illinois, including those who we know personally (people like Vince Diaz who has spent time at Auckland and Waikato, and people like Robert Warrior who co-founded the NAISA roopu many of us are a part of)?

* We could also gain a bit of inspiration from the work of Salaita and the Indigenous Studies scholars and students in Illinois. They have been protesting, engaging widely, talking with the media, writing up a storm, demonstrating clear links between their scholarship and the wider world. There is a committed, energetic, collaborative, political edge to their work and, well, this is a good reminder for us all to think about the politics of our own work. We passionately pursue PBRF points for our universities, specific cultural outcomes for our communities, and seats on boards and committees. We attend, and run, all kinds of conferences, and rush away on writing retreats, and these are all good things in and of themselves. But. What lines are we prepared to cross? What kinds of work are we doing to ensure our students are as engaged and line-crossing as we could be? I have been thinking about a saying we learned in Sunday School - "If someone accused you of being a Christian would there be enough evidence for a conviction? - and I've been thinking about it in regards to this kind of Indigenous scholarship. Surely it would not be a bad thing to take the time to think about the ways Steven and our colleagues are putting themselves on the line for the sake of Indigenous Studies… and to ask ourselves: if someone accused me of being a politically engaged Indigenous Studies scholar who spoke truth to power and acted as a critic and conscience of society would there be enough evidence for a conviction?

(You can find out as much as you want to about the details of this case by googling it. And, Steven's firing matters regardless of where you sit on the Israel/ Palestine issue.)