Thursday, May 18, 2006

Who is Really a Scholar

I've been futzing around with this post for a couple of days, trying to tie together this really interesting narrative of writing for the Tolkien Encyclopedia and the latest on That Moron Ward Churchill. It's not really working, but at this point another group of Encyclopedia entries just dropped on me and if I don't post this now, I never will. So here you go, mess and all.

In his post , Squire talks about the ups and downs of contributing to a scholarly project, the encyclopedia that has been swallowing my life for the past few years. It is very, very odd to be a character in someone else's narrative, and I can't really describe what it felt like to read: "Now it was sink or swim for poor squire, in the same meme pool as Michael Drout, Verlyn Flieger, and Tom Shippey" and even more
In a way, the entire project is Phase III of Drout’s Master Plan. Phase I was his 2000 essay/bibliography, The Current State of Tolkien Studies. Phase II was the new academic journal, Tolkien Studies, entirely dedicated to peer-reviewed, guaranteed-academic-quality, articles about Tolkien. Now he was going public: this Encyclopedia was meant for every town and gown library in the land, for researchers from high school to graduate school.

It's weird, because I don't really think of myself in the same meme pool as Tom and Verlyn (they are my friends, but way ahead of me). Even weirder, because it's a pretty good "Master Plan," but I never thought of it that way (which, now that I think of it, is pretty stupid, a better way of expressing same would be that I never articulated it as well as Squire). And it's just plain odd to have people to whom I don't give a grade at the end of the semester expressing concern about what my opinion would be about something.

But most of all there was a huge disconnect between the way Squire was describing the project and the material that I had read. Because I was just proofreading the E-entries of the encyclopedia (and can you think of anything more fun than to proofread entries in alaphabetical order?), I had just read Squire's entry on "The East." And you know what? I hadn't made one correction. Not one. Whereas I have so reddened the pages of entries done by "big names" (not, I might add, Tom and Verlyn) and well-known scholars that some of them bounced back from the publisher because too many corrections had made the page illegible.

The point is that in editing 800 pages of Tolkien Encyclopedia, I have found that I really can't distinguish the quality of the work based on the credentials of the author. I have some crap from "names" and I have some genius from people no one has heard of before. And I have a lot of very good stuff distributed among lots of other people. There is definitely a distinction that can be made between people who have a wide and a narrow view. My colleague Claire Buck, for instance, wrote an amazing entry on Tolkien and War because she really, really knows the much wider literary context and so could situate Tolkien in a matrix of other ideas, authors and books. But that's not an element of being a major "Tolkien scholar" but is instead the fruit of being widely read in a whole lot of literature. It's that latest of literary theoretical approaches, "erudition." And a lot of people have it who don't necessarily have initials after their names.

And here's the awkward Ward Churchill seque: That Moron Ward Churchill shows that having a job at a prestigious institution (though less prestigious now, thanks to him!) or having a Ph.D. doesn't stop you from being a fraud and an idiot. We in academia should be really, really conscious of this problem (and That Moron Ward Churchilll should be fired, and the people who hired him, promoted him and otherwise supported him should be punished): there are plenty of people out there who are just as smart or smarter than we are. If we're not willing to have our disciplines be disciplined, there's really no distinction: it's the collective wisdom provided by the disciplines and institutions that give academia its privileged position. We need to maintain that discipline ourselves, or others will do it for us. And if you think we are indispensible, you should note that "amateurs" can create a pretty effective peer review process and produce work that is indistinguishable from that of many "experts."

So the main point, arrived at rather precipitously due to my having to pick up children from school: Ward Churchill is not a scholar. Squire and his compatriots are. Maybe they are scholars with day jobs, but they are scholars nonetheless. And it is important that we in academia continually remind ourselves that it is the work not the credential or the institution that really matters.


John Walter said...

While I agree that having a Ph.D. and/or a professorship and being a scholar are two different things, it should be noted that Ward Churchill does not have a Ph.D. As I understand it -- having earned my undergraduate degree from CU-Boulder, I've paid much attention to all this -- Churchill become a professor after he earned his M.A.

And the fact that Churchill does not have a Ph.D. makes the Shippey-Churchill comparison that much more interesting as Shippey too never went through a Ph.D. program. Shippey's Ph.D., awarded by Cambridge in the early 1980s long after he'd become a professor, was awarded because of his publications. (Shippey's Ph.D., I shoud note, is an actual degree rather than an honorary one.)

Derek the ├ćnglican said...

What--you didn't conceive of the master plan first? Actually, it does make me think about master writing plans in general--like Aelfric's... I wonder if he had one in mind or if Clemoes et al. created one for him. What do you think?

Carole Turner said...

I have a Tolkien and Lewis related blog; I have been a student of Tolkien and Lewis for the last 5 years and I enjoy your blog. Thanks.

Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Who is really a scholar?

I am. My blog tells me so: "Gypsy Scholar."

Nobody else tells me this, but I'm listening to my blog.

Jeffery Hodges

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