L’Affaire Salaita

The current teapot tempest in academia these days is the unhiring of Steven Salaita, who accepted a job offer in American Indian Studies at the U of Illinois’s flagship campus in Urbana-Champaign, only to have the rug yanked out from under him when people noticed a series of anti-Israel tweets during the recent unpleasantness in Gaza. Given that Salaita had already resigned his position at Virginia Tech, this left him in an awkward spot.

Now, the whole business of whether Salaita’s comments rise to the level of so-called “hate speech” (and whether such a concept should matter at all) can and will be handled elsewhere. What interests me today is a look at Salaita’s c.v.

For a would-be professor of American Indian Studies* at a major (Big 10) university, it seems curious that he would only have three published articles that explicitly deal with Amerind issues. The vast majority of his work has concerned the Middle East, and particularly issues regarding Israel and Palestine. His vita seems to suggest that his principal interest in American Indian stuff is analogical, along the lines of Israel:Gaza::White Settlers:19th-C. Indians. The Indian stuff seems really to be more of a stalking horse.

And I would suggest that this illustrates an underlying flaw in the notion of some Identity Group studies programs. Ultimately, it seems, the Identity Group may even be fungible (How delightfully PoMo!). What matters is the claim of oppression and the will to/assertion of political power. But of course, if the Identity Group doesn’t really matter, then a question arises: Why have the alleged “academic discipline” to begin with?

* I find it an interesting coincidence that UIUC’s American Indian Studies program came to light in 2004-05, about the same time that the controversy over the University’s Native mascot hit one of its boiling points. Not that I’d suspect that someone was being thrown tenure-track bones here, but again, I think it’s a remarkable coincidence.

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About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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4 Responses to L’Affaire Salaita

  1. Kristi says:

    fwiw (maybe nothing), one of my new favorite novelists is Leanne Howe, from just down the road in Ada, OK. She’s on the NA faculty at UIUC. She also proved a good sport in this Daily Show segment a few years back regarding the mascot drama. (gave the DS correspondent “Indian burns” on his arm.)

    • profmondo says:

      Yeah, that’s why I made sure to use the qualifier some when I was talking about these programs. I think historically marginalized groups do in fact warrant scholarly consideration, but I think activities like those of Salaita, whose interests seem to lie elsewhere, undermine the credibility of other academics in these fields.

  2. Kristi says:

    Certainly. It was just a “small academic world” moment for me in reading your post. Howe’s fantastic.

  3. Fencing Bear says:

    Where are Tony Hillerman and James Doss when you need them?

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