No flies on controversial Blackwell

From the archive (legacy material)

John Sutherland | The Guardian | 11 May 2005

Sue Blackwell is the scholar behind the AUT’s academic boycott of two Israeli universities. When not draping herself in the Palestinian flag she works in the little-known field of corpus studies. But is her research any good, asks John Sutherland
Fame, as Eng-Lit academics will tell you, does not go with the territory. Probably more Guardian readers can identify the drummer in Franz Ferdinand than can come up with a brace of ‘world famous’ Brit-lit-crit academics (Germaine Greer doesn’t count). Outside the LRB/TLS-reading orbit, not even name recognition can be relied on (“Christopher Ricks? Isn’t he the Oxford professor of Dylanology?”)
One of our number has, however, grabbed screaming headlines over the last weeks, to become truly (in)famous – Sue Blackwell. Ms Blackwell (she doesn’t have a PhD yet, and hasn’t attained professorial rank) has been excoriated by Melanie Phillips, Howard Jacobson, David Aaronovitch, and Julie Burchill. Weighty leaders have been written about and against her. She has been pictured in the papers (as she is pictured in her outlawed website) provocatively draped in the Palestinian flag, calling for an “academic Intifada”, with a “does my conscience look big in this?” look on her smiling face.
What did Blackwell do to get so famous? She finally – after years of trying – persuaded the delegates at the April 2005 AUT conference to vote for an academic boycott of two Israeli universities. The details are well known.
I don’t go along with the boycott (nor, manifestly, does the apparat of the AUT). But Blackwell’s campaign raises interesting issues. Primarily, what is the AUT for? When it was empowered, in the late 1950s, to act as the academic profession’s sole representative in wage negotiation with the government, the AUT did one very good thing and one very bad thing.
The very good thing was to put in place the USS pension system. The huge recruitment in the 1960s is now hitting retirement and has every reason to be grateful to the union’s farsighted wisdom all those years ago.
The very bad thing the AUT did was to agree to an institution-wide, subject-wide, grid for the whole university workforce, with ‘lecturer’ as ‘career grade’. What this did, over the decades, was to deprofessionalize the profession. The result, in 2005, is that a new appointment (in whatever subject) at Londonuniversity (whatever campus) will get less than the bus driver who carries him or her to work. Not that one has anything against bus drivers: but they rarely need three degrees and a clutch of academic publications to have an outside chance of being shortlisted for their job. Every academic under the age of 65 has reason to curse the AUT with every monthly salary cheque.
As an instrument of ideological policy, the AUT is pure pig’s bladder: full of harmless wind, and often mildly offensive. With a minority of serving academics (very few of them professors) enrolled: and with the delegate (i.e. volunteer activist) system in place at its policy-making meetings, there is no reason to think that the AUT speaks for the association of university teachers. Nor, usually, is it listened to outside the ranks of its own circulated membership.
More interesting is Ms Blackwell’s professional freedom to incite overtly political action which her university, Birmingham, wholly disowns.
Wrong and pointless as I (personally) think Blackwell’s campaign, it perversely vindicates the principle of tenured freedom of opinion. That much can be said for it. There is an interestingly parallel case currently raging in the US. Ward Churchill, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, posted a short essay on his website on 12 September 2001. Entitled Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens, it was a rousing defence of the 9/11 hijackers. Like Malcolm X, on the assassination of Kennedy, Churchill gloated at the carnage. In an expanded version of the essay, he described the 3,000 victims in the Twin Towers as “little Eichmanns” – willing members of “the technocratic corps at the very heart of America’s global financial empire”. They got what they deserved.
Why did they deserve to be burned alive? Churchill specifically cited the attack on the Twin Towers as justified in light of American support of the Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people.
Churchill has other axes to grind. Claiming Native American descent (Keetoowah Band Cherokee) his main scholarly theme is that the US is founded on the genocide of his people. Holocaust denial is as American as apple pie.
In normal circumstances, few would have noticed Prof Churchill’s obscene rant. But it was picked up by Fox News, and overnight the obscure professor from Colorado was, like Sue Blackwell, (in)famous. To their surprise, the American public discovered that, although they paid his salary through their tax-dollars, Prof Churchill could not be dismissed: even though, as the governor of the state, Bill Owens, protested, he was guilty of treason in time of war.
A couple of months ago, Churchill was, belatedly, induced to resign his headship of the ethnic studies department (it meant a paltry $20K reduction in salary and more time to research Native American genocide). There have been strenuous investigations into the process by which he got tenure. He may, it is alleged, have slipped in under the net as a minority, or affirmative action candidate. Due process may have been flouted. His right to claim American Indian descent has been questioned. Most damagingly, there have been accusations of fraud, plagiarism, and pervasive sloppiness in his scholarship. This, it is argued, should have prevented him ever getting tenure in the first place. A review of Churchill’s position is currently in progress. He is supported (albeit rather tepidly) by the AAUP and the ACLU. He may or may not survive.
But if his employers do nail him (as nail him they intend) it will be the shabby scholarship (if that’s what it is) not the obnoxiousness of his expressed opinions about 9/11 which supplies the substantive grounds for dismissal.
So: how sound is Blackwell’s scholarship? Are the cases parallel to that degree? In all the thousands of words which have been written about her in the last few weeks, virtually nothing has been said about Churchill’s work. We know that she was briefly a fundamentalist Christian, that she is married to a Dutchman and has a half-Indian daughter and an Arab landlord. But what, when she is not agitating for the rights of the Palestinian people, does Ms Blackwell do, nine-to-five?
She is routinely described in the papers as a member of the English department of Birmingham University. This will suggest to many readers that she is a theory-driven ideologue; one of the tribe of Derrida, a Marxist-feminist harpy, or a Lacanian bonkerista.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Blackwell is a language, not a literary specialist. Her work is exclusively in corpus studies. This field is little-known, but is a big British success story. What corpus study presupposes is that the best starting point for research into language is data: mind-blowingly vast amounts of data. The aim is ultimately to identify that holy grail of linguistics, ‘natural grammar’: the rules by which we really speak (and fiddlesticks to Lynne Truss and John Humphrys).
Two of the largest and most dynamic corpora are at UCL in London and Birmingham University. Both are attached, loosely, to English departments. The UCL corpus was founded by Randolph Quirk (now Lord Quirk of Bloomsbury) in the late 1950s, as the Survey of English Usage, in collaboration with the publisher Longman. The SEU has now been subsumed into ICE (the International Corpus of English). The corpus at Birmingham, sexily called The Bank of English, was founded by John Sinclair in 1980, in collaboration with the publisher HarperCollins (like Longman, a firm with a keen interest in dictionaries).
What is fascinating is that these two projects have adopted strikingly different methodologies. ICE / UCL is strenuously analytical – it has, for example, pioneered machine parsing and complicated mark-up. The Bank of English has, as I understand it, founded itself on a more descriptive, flatter approach. It specialises in collocation studies. If, for example, you feed in the two words Education and Guardian you will come up with myriad combined usages – but the concentrations of usage will lead you to a more socially and practically nuanced sense of how language is used. It depicts the shapes, not the structures of language.
One of the areas in which Blackwell is expert, forensic linguistics, explores how the mentalities of law interact with language. The Bank of English is ideal for this kind of research (among other things, the Bank consumes the daily contents of Britain’s newspapers: Blackwell does not write for the Guardian, but the Guardian writes for her).
I have no specialist expertise in language studies (although most of my professional life was passed with Quirk’s Survey of English Usage as a next-door neighbour). Colleagues who are specialists inform me that, among corpus specialists, Ms Blackwell’s reputation stands very high. I don’t have any colleagues in ethnic studies, but I suspect that most anthropologists (which is the nearest thing we have in this country) would not rate Ward Churchill’s research as internationally eminent. And, if he has, as alleged, been dishonest as a scholar he deserves the chop.
The Blackwell case is something else. Her research is evidently a credit to her and her institution. Birmingham University have – so far – played it right. They have banished her website from the university platform while (as I understand) curtailing none of their employee’s scholarly and citizen’s privileges as a member of the university. They have not subscribed to any boycott (nor, as far as I am aware, has any British university). Above all, they have kept very quiet. Would that the turbulent Ms Blackwell had done the same.