Sunday, April 29, 2007

What a tangled web we weave: The Don Heinrich Tolzmann affair

This weekend, I attended the 31st annual meeting of the Society for German-American Studies, at the University of Kansas. It’s a small field, and a troubled one. The society aims to be a scholarly one, with some limited success, but there’s a thread of ‘heritage society’ running through the deal. (I specifically do not mean outreach to a public interested in learning about immigration history, language, and such, but people proud of having German ancestry.) Sometimes that’s pretty innocent, but it also has an obvious dark side. The former parts are known by some as “Schnitzelbank stuff”, after the old German drinking song (the word means 'shaving horse'), often represented by a poster with pictures like on that link; I’ll get to the latter in a second. I went to this conference a couple of times as a student and early in my career but hadn’t gone in years because I was uncomfortable with both of these groups.

In a story that has unfolded in that special academic slow-mo, Don Heinrich Tolzmann — the president of the Society, who had served since 1981 — was accused in a review of one of his books of plagiarism back in 2003 (here, and here) and will probably soon lose his job at the University of Cincinnati over it. [NOTE: As laid out in the comments on this post below, the review did not specifically use the word 'plagiarism'] Tolzmann didn’t represent the Schnitzelbank crew, but rather the other not-so-scholarly part of the society: To quote Robert Frizzell from the review that started the whole plagiarism affair, Don Heinrich Tolzmann has led German-American efforts to join the “contemporary American culture of competitive victimization”. Crucially, Frizzell continues, in a understatement that deserves an official award all its own:
Most scholars who study German-Americans recognize that Germans in America are not strong players at this game.
The charges against Tolzmann led him to resign as president, under considerable pressure as I understand it. At the same time, a whole set of officers declined to stand for re-election, triggering a big sea change in leadership, with some solid people nominated to come in. So I submitted an abstract, hoping that the SGAS is about to become a normal scholarly group, freer from their earlier baggage. A lot of others seem to have made the same call — a number of prominent immigration and American historians, literary scholars, and other people were there. I saw some good papers, had some good discussions, and so on. Then came the banquet.

The annual dinner is specifically an awards banquet, featuring this year the presentation of an “Outstanding Achievement Award”. It only struck me when I got there that somebody would get this, and it darted across my mind that Tolzmann’s name was surely floated. Well, that thought should have stuck instead of darting out my ear: Tolzmann was given the prize, in absentia of course. Stunned silence, then scattered applause, and then arms reaching for the bottles of wine on every table. Frizzell, of the key book review, was sitting where I could see him, and did a remarkable job of looking stoic. Half the audience looked more like they had food poisoning. When the dust settled, to the extent it did, came the after dinner presentation:
Ei, du schöne Schnitzelbank: A never-ending story
Ooops, rubber-chicken (and breaded eggplant) buffet dinner instantly becomes drug trip gone bad. Again, you could see hands reaching for wine bottles on tables. Now, the actual talk was remarkably informative, and filled with pretty amazing images. Like most people, for example, I had no idea the song went back to at least the 1830s in Europe. (It has been thought by many to be an American song, and it’s certainly not well known today in Europe.) And I didn’t know that Groucho Marx had done the song as part of his early Hans Pumpernickel routine. And the speaker drew attention to the use of anti-Semitic stereotypes in some old Schnitzelbank posters, even pointing to possibly parallel racial stereotyping in some American versions. So there was some real substance involved, even if it wasn't central to the story of how "the Schnitzelbank brings us all together". The evening ended with singing the song, of course.

Wow, precisely as the Society rids itself of a dark side, the Schnitzelbank side rises to the fore, and with an audience containing a lot of serious scholars. I spent the rest of the evening trying to fit those pieces together. I have now seen beyond the initial shock: The speaker meant well, surely, probably trying to lighten things up after what he knew would be a hard moment in the Society's history. However that plays out over time, the society is moving in a better direction, but it's got a ways to go.

Image from here.


Anonymous said...

Wow, if you add a iced-tea glass filled with Wild Turkey, it sounds like something Hunter S. Thompson would report on...

Joe said...

A big glass of Wild Turkey might have helped. But as somebody else pointed out today, a lot of fields have their troubles and oddities ... this was just an overly large helping all at once. In the long run, the changes in leadership will be a real boon to the society, but the transition is proving to have some bumps!

Anonymous said...

Jerry Glenn said...

Only a couple of days ago did this blog come to my attention. It contains some factual errors I would like to correct. I’ll leave an evaluation of the tone up to the individual reader.
I presume that the first “here” in the blog was supposed to be a link to Frizzell’s review. I was not able to access it. I had seen it previously, and will quote from it in material adopted from a document I wrote last year, primarily in order to give a detailed response to queries I got from friends and colleagues who knew I was a colleague and friend of Don Heinrich Tolzmann. There is one innuendo I would like to comment on as well: Tolzmann received the Society’s award “in absentia, of course,” the implication, of course, being that he pointedly avoided attending the award ceremony. The truth is that before he learned of the award he had made plans and plane reservations to travel to Switzerland last April for the purpose of visiting one of his children who lives there.
First issue in the blog: Tolzmann did not and will not lose his job. In an agreement reached in November, 2006, after an exhaustive investigation on the part of the University of Cincinnati, the assertions involving plagiarism were dropped and expunged from his record.
And a factual error: the Society did not remove him as president. He resigned the office after 25 years of service.
Another error: the plagiarism charge did not originate with Frizzell’s review.
Here, then, in very slightly modified form, is some of what I wrote in 2006:

In 2000 Tolzmann published a 466-page book entitled The German-American Experience In December 2003 it was the subject of a very negative (but also, in my opinion, thoroughly professional) review by Robert W. Fizzell on the website of the History News Network. Frizzell’s principal objection, and the one that is the source of the continuing criticism of Tolzmann, is summarized in the following sentence: “About half of both the substance and the wording of the first 180 pages of this book duplicate Theodore Huebener’s The Germans in America (1962).”
Frizzell adds, “To be sure, Tolzmann acknowledges Huebener. In the preface, he says, ‘I leaned heavily on Huebener, especially for the period from the American Revolution through the Civil War,’” and continues directly “But this is an entirely inadequate and quite misleading description of what was done in the production of the book
The review was (apparently) picked up by Thomas Spencer (whom I did not attempt to identify and of whom I know nothing) on a different web site sometime in 2006, a blog that is no longer available, and which I was therefore not able to consult. Reference to this blog is made by Daniel Sauerwein (an undergraduate student), in a blog on the History News Network of 8 May 2006 (currently [2006] available online), entitled “Whatever Happened to the Plagiarism Charges Leveled against Don Heinrich Tolzmann?” Sauerwein quotes Spencer as specifically characterizing Tolzmann as a “plagiarizer,” after beginning his blog: “In late 2003 Don Heinrich Tolzmann was accused of plagiarism.” This is not accurate: Frizzell, in late 2003, did not mention plagiarism; it seems that Spencer was the first to use the term, apparently early in 2006.
At some point, prior to May, 2006, this issue was brought to the attention of officials at the University of Cincinnati, and an investigation of the allegations was begun. Word of this leaked out and the case was reported in the press. For its story the AP contacted Frizzell, who is quoted as saying, on the record, “I did not use the term plagiarism. I think it has implications that I just didn’t want to deal with” (Columbus Dispatch, online, May 11, 2006; presumably also reported elsewhere). Frizzell does add, “But I do stand by the review I wrote.”
--- And my final note, returning to July, 2007, Frizzell’s review did impress me, as I said above, as very negative, but thoroughly professional. On the other hand, the negative blogs that have followed have not only reflected an unprofessional tone, but have contained factual inaccuracies, and need to be rectified, as noted above
Jerry Glenn

Joe said...

Thanks for raising these points. I'll respond to the claims of substance point by point:

--As I understand it, Tolzmann lost his appointment in German but kept his appointment in the library. Is that incorrect? At the time of that post, the Chronicle article was the latest information available on that, and what stands in the post certainly reflects the situation.

--It's true, Tolzmann 'resigned' but it was under tremendous pressure as I understand it. That was imprecisely worded and I'll fix it. (I don't remember offhand exactly what I knew at that time and it may be that I learned the details later.)

--Whether Frizzell used the term 'plagiarism' or not seems pretty trivial here, and he had good reason to avoid the term. The substance of the reivew makes clear what Tolzmann did, and that's what has been, reasonably as far as I can see, been picked up on by many since. A 'settlement' dropping charges hardly changes that. I'll add a reference to your comment.

Anonymous said...

My god, 'unprofessional tone'? 'Factual inaccuracies'? I've seen the email Tolzmann sent around. At most, the original post here contained a little snarkiness and an imprecise formulation or two, whereas Tolzmann talks about 'hate blogs' and 'lies'.

Besides, from what I've seen, Tolzmann got off easy.

Mr. Verb said...

All the links here work, actually.

Gert Niers said...

Let's roll the whole thing back for a minute. Since the Middle Ages and earlier, polemics, provocation, controversy have been part of academic life. They actually indicate to what degree a faculty is alive. Such forms of intellectual sparring are healthy exercises. However, to any observer who has some distance from the Tolzmann hoopla, it becomes obvious that an agenda is in place, an agenda that has nothing to do anymore with academic discourse or even discussion. The critic becomes the assassin, it is not enough anymore to prove the author wrong -- the author has to be annihilated, and every mean to do so is welcome. Does this approach sound familiar?

Wishful thinking preempted developments that never came about. Despite the gleeful pre-celebrations, Tolzmann was NOT fired from the University of Cincinnati. He was NOT forced to resign as president of the SGAS either. The administration offered him a comfortable buy-out, and there was no entry into his personnel file. Tolzmann is now laughing all the way to the bank. Great job, guys & gals!

Anonymous said...

As author of the HNN article in question, I must correct Jerry Glenn's post regarding my article. He notes how the blog by Thomas Spencer is no longer available, which is incorrect, as the link to the posting from my article still brings the post that I sourced up, and the blog is still available.

That said, while it may be true that Frizzell may not have used the term plagiarism in his review, his description of what Tolzmann may have done does fit. Since it was a professional review, I understand him not using the word, as it carries great weight.

Anonymous said...

Commenting on Niers, Tolzmann was indeed FORCED to retire - just a more polite way of being fired. After calling the university, found out his "comfortable" buyout was nothing different than the buyout offered to all faculty who were retiring, circumstances that arose due to the university's financial re-alignments. The university said Tolzmann hasn't worked at UC since December 06

Anonymous said...

I heard too that regarding his plagiarism and settlement, there was to be no final finding of plagiarism placed in his file, but nothing about eliminating the fact that his retirement resulted from the fact that plagiarism issues were raised.

Kevin Grace said...

I missed this year's meeting, so I appreciate your very perceptive take on the "schnitzelbank" aspect of German-Americana, showing that we can still look with a scholarly eye at pop culture, kitsch, and the whole ersatz German aspect of American life.

Joe said...

Thanks so much. I think that the dinner talk at SGAS did bring a scholarly perspective literally to the Schnitzelbank, but in such an understated way that it would not have been clear to actual schnitzelbankers. (That was probably intentional.)

If you're interested in this topic more generally, keep an eye out for work by John Chaimov of Coe College ... he's working in a kind of 'cultural studies' tradition that's pretty foriegn to me, but he's directly tackling these kinds of issues.

Anonymous said...

Interview with Tolzmann in the current issue of "Das Fenster" (formerly: Die Hausfrau)

Frage: "Weniger positiv war eine Reaktion im Internet im vergangenen Jahr. Dort wurden Sie auf einer Seite hinsichtlich einer Ihrer Publikationen des geistigen Diebstahl bezichtigt ..."
Antwort: "Das war eine schmutzige Hetzkampagne gegen mich. Im Internet kann ja leider jeder veröffentlichen, was er moechte. Die Unversitaet von Cincinnati, bei der ich als Direktor fuer deutsch-amerikanische Studien und Kurator der deutschen Bibliothek angestellt bin, hat diese Angelegenheit jedoch ueberprueft und aus meinen Akten geloescht, nachdem die ganzen Vorwuerfe fuer nicht gerechtfertigt erklaert wurden. Ich fand den ganzen Vorfall sehr aergerlich und kann mir nicht erklaeren, warum jemand Interesse an solch einer Beschuldigung hat. Moeglicherweise war es Neid. Ich habe in meiner Arbeit so viel bewegt und erreicht, was mitunter auch Preise und Auszeichnungen nach sich zog. Da ist es schon moeglich, dass mir jemand den Erfolg nicht goennt. Ich habe die Angriffe mit der betreffenden Person jedoch nie besprochen, also kann ich nur mutmassen."

Joe said...

Oh my, isn't THAT something. Those links are certainly worth following, not just for the texture they will lend to people's views of Tolzmann, but also for what they say about the perspective the Das Fenster. (For readers not familiar with it: Die Hausfrau was one of the longest running German periodicals in the US.)

Gert Niers said...

There is a sinister form of Schadenfreude in this whole harangue about Tolzmann. It was obviously not enough to give the author a bad review, it was (and is) important to this species of scholars to see the man professionally ruined. Of course this Hetzjagd is mostly performed anonymously -- not publicly in a printed journal: the typical whorehouse back-stabbing routine and denunciation tactics used by the Nazis. I have no idea how and why someone was able to attract so much hatred.

Mr. Verb said...

Well, I think it's safe to say that plagiarism — as it surely appears this was — is a crime that gets a visceral reaction from lots of scholars. I for one do not want people to walk away from such deeds free and clear.

But I don't see much of a witch hunt. The real action that mattered came in published reviews (H-NET is as good as most journals) and by committees at his university.

Certainly there has been some negative commentary appended to posts here, but those will be read by a fraction of the people who see the Fenster interview, and I suspect that almost everybody reading blogs understands how this medium works.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Mr. Verb said...

Just to be clear: The above comment was deleted because it was blog spam -- had nothing to do with the topic.