The poet Kenneth Fields has been teaching at Stanford University since 1967, but he won’t be teaching “American Indian Mythology, Legend, and Lore” anymore. According to Colleen Flaherty’s story in InsideHigherEd, Fields says he “voluntarily stepped down” from teaching that course.
It was a petition crafted by a first-year student that undid Fields, and the petition’s main argument is disconcerting.
Fields is charged, among other things, with vulgarity. For example, “during a lecture about Black Elk Speaks, he relayed his friend’s dying words, ‘At least now I won’t have to worry about how big my dick is.’” The problem is not merely that Fields frequently refers “to sex and sexualized body parts” in the classroom. That crudity certainly isn’t my style. A story in the Stanford Daily quotes students who claim that Fields was constantly bringing sex into his lectures.
He is also charged, more broadly, with neglecting his subject. If the students quoted by the Stanford Daily are telling the truth, Fields has a digressive habit that raises questions about his competence. In one class, says the student who authored the petition, “he talked about cookies—just baking cookies; another class, he talked about making pickles—the whole class.” I love both cookies and pickles, but students have cause to complain if Fields is really spending a lot of classroom time on them.
But cookies and pickles don’t make it into the petition, and its central concern is neither sex talk nor digressions. The core issue is reverence. For example, Black Elk Speaks is “a compelling and beautifully translated story about the Oglala Lakota, Nicholas Black Elk” that “depicts his spiritual visions and experiences during a time when his tribe was undergoing colonization and confusion.” As an “extremely respected and renowned work of literature; it should be given more dignifying attention during lecture.” But Fields said “dick.”
Fields was also accused of displaying a lack of due veneration for “Night Chant,” a “Diné [Navajo] sacred chant.” According to the petition, “Native American stories are not made for analytical exploration and interpretation.” In fact, “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.” A few students, according to the Stanford Daily story, “were concerned that the Night Chant ritual was being discussed inappropriately and could bring misfortune.”
In fairness to the petition’s author and signatories, they did not demand that Fields be fired, nor did they demand that Fields not discuss sacred chants. Instead, the petition says that Fields should have discussed “the differences between” what the myths, legends, and lore have meant and mean for those who tell and hear them and “western ideas of analyzing literature.” But the petition certainly does suggest that “Night Chant” shouldn’t be taught at all. And, in circulating a petition questioning Fields’s competence and attitude toward Native American cultures, the petitioners in effect are saying that Fields would have to be a different man with different experience or training to teach the course credibly.
Interpreting stories in terms that would be foreign or even troubling to the original tellers is not a particularly Western idea. But setting that aside, the argument of the petition is that irreverence disqualifies one from teaching texts considered sacred to someone. I doubt Fields would have stepped down if he had been teaching the Bible, and evangelicals had lodged a complaint against him. And before someone says that evangelicals are “privileged” and Native Americans aren’t, bear in mind that evangelicals, whatever their relative standing in the United States, can find themselves disregarded and disdained at American universities.
Professors typically, and properly, consider it their job to inquire into things. It’s legitimate to consider that inquiry disturbing or even sinful, but most colleges and universities, some religious institutions excepted, can’t cede ground to that position without betraying their missions.
There’s nothing wrong with treating texts and practices with a certain respect, out of consideration for those who consider them sacred. If it’s true, as the petition’s author tells the Stanford Daily, that Fields ridiculed a student who brought up her concerns about “Night Chant,” that’s a legitimate cause for complaint. I hold no brief for people who get a charge out of figuratively urinating on what others revere, though I don’t get the impression that this sums up Fields, whose love for Native American literature no one denies.
The author of the petition is also no doubt right that differences between the perspectives of insiders and outside analysts are worth discussing. But, having positively demanded that their texts and cultures be an object of study at colleges and universities, Native American Studies activists do themselves no favors by proposing that the approaches used to study the Amish and the French and the Bible and the Bhagavadgita are an affront when they are applied to the study Native American cultures and texts.
If everything in this petition against Fields is true, there is no cause to lament his decision to step away from the course. It is nevertheless troubling that the same argument that led the Athenians to condemn Socrates may find new adherents today in modern academia.