Natalie Zemon Davis “Gets” Twitter, Supports Steven Salaita

August 29, 2014, 10:09 am


Natalie Zemon Davis being listened to.

Historian Natalie Zemon Davis has given us permission to distribute her letter to University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise. Davis asks Wise to reverse the decision not to appoint Steven Salaita to the job he was promised at UIUC, and explains why. Furthermore, in a not unexpected star turn, Davis demonstrates her complete understanding of social justice and the use of Twitter as a rhetorical tool.

It is no secret to long-term followers of Tenured Radical that I am a huge admirer of Davis. She is one of the founding mothers of women’s history, a long term member of the Princeton history department and now retired to an appointment at The University of Toronto. When I was a relatively new blogger, I wrote this post, in which I discussed how, and why, Davis had become an intellectual and professional model for me. Her 1988 response to Robert Finlay’s evisceration of her path-breaking bookThe Return of Martin Guerre, was an important teaching tool for many reasons, not the least of which is the high focus both scholars put on evidence and interpretation. The Davis-Finlay exchange is, in fact, the opposite of what often occurs during contemporary Twitter exchanges. On Twitter, Facebook, and other social media, vicious barbs typical of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? are too common among otherwise decent academics.

Back in 2008, I wrote the post to process attacks I had encountered on the web, most prominently from a historian who was the author of this blog and his followers. (You can begin here with the post that began the saga and read backwards if you do not know what I am talking about.) These attacks included public vilification of me by the blogger; threats of physical harm left in comments on the blog and on my office telephone; and letters to the president, department chair, provost and members of the board of trustees demanding that I be fired. I wrote that the Davis-Finlay exchange demonstrated:

how to argue in a civilized way. Of course, they had editors, and bloggers don’t. But Finlay avoids an error that some historians, young and old, would do well to contemplate: do not use a machine gun when a .22, carefully aimed, will do; and be respectful of other people’s achievements even when you question their findings. Similarly, Davis avoids an error by not over-arguing or becoming defensive; and by illuminating a point of genuine disagreement about scholarly method while elaborating on why she thinks she is right.

It was one of my first well-circulated posts, and even won a prize. I am told that when Davis retired from Princeton, someone mentioned it as evidence of her pervasive influence among historians in all fields.

I am reflecting back on that moment now. In part, I wonder: would I use the word “civilized” again? Permutations of the word civil have acquired a bad name because of increasingly punitive measures aimed at faculty who speak their minds on and off campus. Many of these faculty, most recently Steven Salaita, are of color, and the use of the word can underline the ways in which universities reproduce larger structures of colonization, racialization and discrimination. (As an African-American colleague once said to me, “Do you ever hear a white person refer to another white person as articulate?”)

No, I probably would not the words civil, civility or civilized in any casual way now. There are so many other good ones: decent, for example; honorable, dignified and gracious also spring to mind. Of course, these are all highly gendered wards, and are mostly associated with men, not women. When we came into intellectual life, women had to grapple with our exclusion from these categories, and we still do.

However, I do want to make the point that civility is not a bad thing in people. It’s just that it isn’t an absolute value, and it doesn’t operate independently of other moral, ethical, material, intellectual or institutional contexts. One can be perfectly civil and not very bright; perfectly civil and utterly irrelevant; perfectly civil and a bald-faced liar. We also tend not to be concerned about incivility that we do not see. There are uncivil ways that we speak to our intimates when angry that are excusable, if not acceptable, in a private context; but they are harder to excuse in a professional context. This is, for those of us who do some of our work in social media, a big part of what is at stake in the Salaita case: whether an academic’s entire life, every utterance, is to be evaluated in relation to fitness to teach and have one’s intellectual life supported by a tenured teaching appointment.

Being civil is not more important than being accountable, but one can be both. We who support Steven Salaita’s right to his own thoughts, political passions and rhetorical strategies in his work outside the university might well ask: what would Natalie Zemon Davis do? She did this.

26 August 2014
Chancellor Phyllis M. Wise
University of Illinois

Dear Chancellor Wise,

As a long-time participant in the university world, I implore you to reverse your decision in regard to Professor Steven Salaita and now to recommend the approval of his appointment to the faculty of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

I write you as an admirer of the remarkable achievements of the historians, literary scholars, and anthropologists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  I have seen the lively and creative exchange among professors and graduate students close up as an invited guest of the History Department, and cannot believe that you would want to jeopardize this learning experience by the inappropriate and misguided criterion of civility.

I write further as a Jew, growing up in Detroit during the rise of Nazism and the anti-Semitic sermons of Father Coughlin; a Jew committed to that strand in the Jewish sensibility that still places justice and universal values at its heart; committed to the uses of rabbinical and Talmudic debate, which sought truth by language not always decorous; and to the old tradition of Jewish humor, which put laughter and mockery to the service of helping the oppressed.

As a distinguished physiologist, you have surely heard “disrespectful words” among scientists as they argued the pros and cons of research.  I certainly have, as I listened to scientists go at it on grant committees, including when the important subject of gender-based biology was on the table.   If words thought “demeaning” were uttered, the speaker was not excluded, he or she was answered.

The role of vigorous expression is even more central in the humanities and social sciences, where we are examining thought systems and actions that range from the violently cruel to the heroically generous.   What, following your Principles of August 22, would we make of the writings of the great François Rabelais, who used every comic metaphor available, especially the bodily ones, to plead the cause of those who had been silenced by the Inquisition or harmed by unjust war?

You speak of your responsibility “ to ensure that. . . differing points of view be discussed in and outside the classroom in a scholarly, civil and productive manner.”  In the classroom: one of the exemplars of master teaching was the late George Mosse of the University of Wisconsin, refugee from Nazi Germany and historian of the rise of Nazism.  His lectures were celebrated for his sharp affirmations and his simultaneous invitation to the students to respond in kind—which they did – and for what one observer has called the “cross-fire” between him and a Marxist colleague.   Not surprisingly, he had good friends among both Israelis and Palestinians.

Outside the classroom?  But surely one knows that “differing points of view” are being discussed by members of your large faculty all the time, using every kind of speech, some of it uncivil and disrespectful.   How would one enforce your criteria at the University?  By “speech-police” in every classroom, college restaurant, sports arena, and living room?

Since this cannot be your intention, I come to the case of Stephen Salaita, whose scholarship, publications, and teaching were reviewed and warmly approved by colleagues, specialists, and university executive committees.  You say in your statement of Principles that the “the decision regarding Prof. Salaita was not influenced in any way by his positions on the conflict in the Middle East nor his criticism of Israel.”  If this be truly the case, then what could lead you to overturn the well-established evaluation and appointment procedures of your university and (according to the commentary by legal specialists) even hazard a possible lawsuit?

Professor Salaita’s tweets in regard to the Israeli bombing of Gaza in the last months seem to have been the trigger: as reported in information obtained by Inside Ed, they prompted some seventy emails to you, including from students who, as Jews, said they feared he would be hostile to them if they happened to take his course.  (What their majors were was not specified in the report.)

Indeed, some of Professor Salaita’s tweets were vehement and intentionally provocative: he used strong language both to criticize the deaths from Israeli bombing and to attack anti-Semitism.  The lack of “civility” in some of his tweets is linked to the genre itself: a tweet is often an answer to a tweet, and a tweet always anticipates a response.  It is a form of concise communication based on give and take, on the anticipation that the respondent may respond sharply or critically to what you have said, and that the exchange will continue.   Thus, in his public political life, Professor Salaita participates in a mode that always leaves space for an answer, thus, extending the respect to the individual respondent for which you call in your Principles.

The classroom is, of course, the critical space for assessing a professor’s educational performance, and from all reports, Professor Salaita has been a very successful teacher and much appreciated by his students.  Why not accept the careful and extended scholarly inquiry of your University of Illinois colleagues over the hasty and seemingly politicized judgment and fears of the emailers?    Further, Professor Salaita would be joining the Department of American Indian and Indigenous Studies, which on its web site commits itself to “free academic inquiry” and “the best ideals of academic freedom.”  Why not leave it to the professors in this fine department to insure that a new colleague fulfills the highest goals of teaching?   Indeed, the practices of careful listening and full speaking are very much part of the American indigenous tradition.  Professor Salaita would thus be in a setting where he could expect to do his best teaching and make the significant contribution to scholarly inquiry hoped for by the University of Illinois professors who have been seeking his presence.

I urge you, Chancellor Wise, to rethink your position and to recommend that the Board of Trustees give its approval to the appointment of Professor Salaita.   This would be an honorable course, and one that would restore the academic values which should and can prevail at a great university.

Natalie Zemon Davis,
Henry Charles Lea Professor of History emeritus, Princeton University Adjunct Professor of History, University of Toronto

Read Bonnie Honig’s guest post for Corey Robin on what Cambridge University classicist Mary Beard might do were she in Phyllis Wise’s place.

This entry was posted in academic freedom, Activist Historian, Natalie Zemon Davis. Bookmark the permalink.