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July 30, 2003 [feather]
The art of discrimination

Joseph Scott Goldsmith has been an adjunct art professor at South Carolina's North Greenville College for six years (here's a sample of his work). He expected to return this fall for a seventh year at the school, and had an oral agreement with college administrators confirming that they expected him back. But that was before Goldsmith's colleagues learned that he is a member of the League of the South, a secessionist group that, according to the group's web site, aims to "advance the cultural, social, economic, and political well-being and independence of the Southern People by all honorable means." The group has been labelled a neo-Confederate hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. That's wrong, says founding member and University of South Carolina history professor Clyde Wilson. As Wilson told the Greenville News, "The League has repudiated violence and racism and all of its activities have been peaceful and open to public scrutiny. ... However, any positive position on things Southern and any critical disposition toward the federal government makes people angry." There are about twenty-five college professors among the League's members (you can see a list of "affiliated scholars and artists" here).

Goldsmith's colleagues discovered his membership in the League after he attended a faculty gathering to discuss the film "Gods and Generals." When some people made comments that Goldsmith perceived as bashing the South, he spoke up in the South's defense (we have no transcript of what was said, but it's reasonable to assume that Goldsmith's comments might have gone something like this or this or this). In the words of Goldsmith's lawyer, "He expressed some opinions that apparently alerted some folks that he held some very strong views as it relates to Southern Heritage." Those "folks" then got online to see what they could dig up on Goldsmith. Shortly after, Goldsmith was informed by the art department chairman that his teaching career at North Greenville College was over. According to Goldsmith, the chairman did not mince words. He stated flat out that the reason Goldsmith was no longer welcome at the school was because because he belonged to the League of the South.

Goldsmith has filed a lawsuit against the school. North Greenville College is a small, private, Christian liberal arts school--so Goldsmith does not technically have the First Amendment on his side. But what he does have is a South Carolina law that forbids employers from firing employees because of their political beliefs. That should do the trick.

Erin O'Connor, 9:53 AM | Permalink

July 29, 2003 [feather]
And now for something completely cynical

There are those who argue that diversity on campus should be achieved not by recruiting students and faculty from a variety of non-white racial and ethnic backgrounds, but by fostering an intellectually and culturally diverse atmosphere in which a variety of viewpoints, perspectives, and life experiences are represented. Some schools are doing just that -- though not as willingly or as wittingly as they might wish.

For example, Penn State administrators just discovered that Paul Krueger, a professor of education with a reputation for being a "model faculty member", is also a triple murderer. In 1965, when Krueger was a teenager, he unloaded over 40 bullets into three fishermen he and a friend encountered during a road trip. Krueger has never revealed his reasons for killing the men. He was sentenced to life in prison, but was released on parole in 1979.

It's uncertain whether Krueger will be returning to Penn State now that his past has come back to publicly haunt him. He hasn't resigned, and is scheduled to teach four courses in the fall. PSU, which does not do criminal background checks on prospective faculty, has no plans to fire him, though it seems he has accepted a teaching position at National University in California. Krueger may have hoped to distance himself from the publicity, but his story has followed him to his new home.

At Bates College, tenured music professor Linda Williams lent her own special slant to the field by moonlighting as a drug dealer. When she wasn't teaching ethnomusicology, she was cooking crack on her stove. She recently pled guilty to charges of conspiracy with intent to distribute cocaine. Bates has placed Williams on paid leave.

A University of Southern Indiana business professor has been indicted for trying to set fire to his wife. A biology professor at Loyola Marymount University has been indicted for possessing and copying child pornography, as has the (now former) Vice Provost and Director of Libraries at the University of Pennsylvania. Penn has been especially strong on the faculty diversity front of late: it has not only been home to a bibliophilic pedophile, but to a neurosurgeon who is awaiting trial for allegedly raping a patient in his office after getting high with her.

Diversity is alive and well on our campuses. It's just not the kind of diversity that inspires confidence.

UPDATE: Reader Dan M. sends this link with much more information about Williams' trafficking career, while reader Joe K. observes that a diverse faculty deserves a similarly diverse administration.

UPDATE 7/31/03: National University has rescinded its offer to Paul Krueger, stating that "While the university recognizes Dr. Krueger's efforts to rehabilitate himself in the years since his conviction, his employment as a faculty member would be inconsistent with National University's institutional values and the best interests of its students, alumni, faculty, and staff."

Erin O'Connor, 10:59 AM | Permalink

July 28, 2003 [feather]
Mirror, mirror

It's official: college teaching is a popularity contest:

It seems the most beautiful university instructors get the highest rankings on student evaluations, according to a study conducted by Daniel Hamermesh, an economics professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

He asked a group of students to rate the photos of 94 UT professors on a beauty scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest. When he compared those ratings with the average student evaluation scores of the same professors, the results were striking: Teachers considered better-looking also had consistently superior evaluations, and the difference between the comeliest and the homeliest professor was a full point on a five-point evaluation scale.

Because most universities consider student evaluations when giving raises and promotions, the study shows that professors' looks could affect their salaries, said Hamermesh, who has written papers on the correlation between physical beauty and earnings.

Sound unfair? In a strictly economic sense, it might not be. If students pay more attention to good-looking instructors and thus learn more from them, then professorial beauty could have a "productivity effect," Hamermesh said.

The unsurprising news that good-looking teachers are rated by students as better teachers gives new meaning to the age-old question, "Who's the fairest of them all?"

Thanks to reader Fred R. for the link.

UPDATE: King Banaian has more on Hamermesh's study.

Erin O'Connor, 11:01 AM | Permalink

Free to offend at UCSD

In the past, University of California at San Diego administrators have gotten into trouble for censoring offensive--but clearly protected--student expression. In 1999, the school was sued by the ACLU after punishing a student who refused to take his "Fuck Netanyahu and Pinochet" sign out of his dorm window; in more recent years, the university's attempts to silence the conservative student magazine, The Koala, have earned it the worst sort of national publicity. Now, however, it looks as though UCSD administrators may have finally learned their lesson. The Koala has again come under fire for its insensitive and offensive expression, but this time the admins are defending the publication against would-be campus censors.

From the San Diego Union-Tribune:

A UC San Diego investigation into the distribution and publication of a magazine ridiculing Islam has concluded that the students involved will not be disciplined because the content is protected speech.

While images and articles in the magazine portraying Muslim women as sexual objects were highly offensive, university officials said, they were satirical and therefore not defamatory.

"The campus understands that there are going to be publications that contain very offensive and objectionable content," said Nick Aguilar, UCSD's director of student policies and judicial affairs. "But the First Amendment is of higher order of importance for us in making sure we do not discourage or interfere with the rights of our students."

Considering the entirely scurrilous content of the publication (which was entitled "Jizzlam: An Entertainment Magazine for the Islamic Man," and which contained sexually explicit drawings of Muslim men and women) and considering the outrage it caused ("Words can't even begin to describe the pain, the violation, the humiliation, of being degraded publicly in such a malicious way," said Muslema Purmul, a religious studies major at UCSD), this was a brave but correct call on the part of UCSD administrators.

Unfortunately, the Koala didn't observe Associated Media Rules that require it to name the publisher and print a disclaimer stating that the views expressed in the paper are not those of the Associated Students at UCSD. So the publication may still face censure, and may still see its funding legitimately yanked. Students who want to see the Koala silenced are going to push hard for that. "Ideally, I wanted the university to say this was not protected speech," said Purmul. "Common sense tells you this should not be printed on a college campus." Purmul seems prepared to interpret a punishment for failure to follow required procedure as a punishment for failure to comply with her limited concept of free speech. If her views are representative, UCSD admins will want to be very careful about whether--and how--they sanction the Koala.

Erin O'Connor, 10:47 AM | Permalink

July 25, 2003 [feather]
You can't make this stuff up

There are times when events in academia are so incredible--so outrageous, so stupid, so petty, so cliched, so perfectly twisted--that they seem more closely related to fiction than to real life. This morning is one of those times.

From the Memphis Flyer, which also notes how this particular truth sounds like it stepped out of a softcore novel, I bring you the tale of Carey Walsh, an ex-assistant professor of religion at Rhodes College who has filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against the school after being denied tenure. The suit alleges that a senior woman colleague repeatedly harassed Walsh, and states that Walsh's refusal to yield to unwanted sexual pressure adversely affected her tenure case:

In a lawsuit that reads like a steamy sex novel, a former professor of religion at Rhodes College says she was denied tenure partly because she rebuffed repeated aggressive lesbian overtures from a department colleague.

Carey Walsh, who taught religion at Rhodes from 1996-2002, filed suit in federal court against Rhodes. Although she is not named as a defendant, the colleague is mentioned by name throughout the 22-page lawsuit and alleged to have made numerous sexual overtures to Walsh and to have "outed" her without her consent.


"During her review year, (the colleague) physically molested Professor Walsh frequently, by summoning her for private meetings in which she would touch, kiss, and rub various parts of Professor Walsh's body, such as her neck, lower back, knees, shins, and inner thighs," the suit says. "(the colleague) called Professor Walsh pet names, such as 'deary' and 'missy' and make (sic) lewd comments about fondling breasts, oral sex, and her students."

In a sort of X-rated update of William Buckley's 1951 conservative classic God and Man at Yale, Walsh says the religion department at Rhodes, which has historic ties to the Presbyterian church, is a hotbed of liberalism, atheism, and feminism with a dash of lesbianism for good measure.


Walsh, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Allegheny College, Yale Divinity School, and the University of Chicago, was up for her tenure review during is sixth year of teaching in 2002. She is the author of two books, Exquisite Desire: Religion, the Erotic, and the Song of Songs and The Fruit of the Vine: Viticulture in Ancient Israel.

The lawsuit says Walsh was a popular and ffective teacher who got good erformance reviews. "She generated excitement, and caught any students wanting a mentor," the suit says.


Walsh apparently agonized over her decision to sue. A little over a month ago, she wrote an email to colleagues. A copy was sent anonymously to The Flyer, which did not publicize it. It asks her "esteemed Rhodians" to comment about her plight but omits most of the details that are in the lawsuit. Walsh laments that "the Disappeared from Rhodes never get a voice, they're just told to clean out their office and not take anything."

In the lawsuit, she claims the heavy sexual innuendo, touching, and aggressive overtures went on for several months, sometimes in front of other faculty members. She said she notified other department members and "they debated whether it was sexual harassment" and suggested Walsh keep a log in case it continued.

She said the colleague also made lewd comments about students. And she says other colleagues in her department sided with her tormentor, calling her "C.U.N.T." for "See You Next Time."

Walsh alleges that when she asked them to stop, her tormentors replied that it was "fun" to get a reaction out of her and one of them said, "besides, I've been sexually harassing you for years now and nothing's happened." The suit says she is now under the care of a psychiatrist.

The lawsuit says Rhodes is "vicariously liable" for the acts of Walsh's colleague and discriminated against Walsh in violation of federal and state laws.

The Flyer piece doesn't name Walsh's harasser--but this story notes that the person in question was the chair of Walsh's department. The Rhodes website is down as of this writing, but according to Google's cache, the chair of religious studies at Rhodes College is one Ellen Armour. Armour's scholarly interests are listed as "feminist and womanist theology, liberation theology, ecological theology, and Christianity and the body."

This one has Movie of the Week written all over it.

Erin O'Connor, 10:03 AM | Permalink

July 24, 2003 [feather]
The new conservatives

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports on the growing numbers of conservative college students. While the stereotype--as propagated by campus liberals--is that conservative college students are overwhelmingly white, wealthy, and male, the reality is far different, far more complex, and far more interesting. Some numbers:

While College Democrats of America has disappeared altogether from 20 states, its chapters dwindling from 500 in 1992 to fewer than 300 now, the College Republican National Committee has 1,148 campus chapters, and its membership has tripled since 1999.

And an interesting fact: the students who are drawn to conservative groups are increasingly more likely to be interested in escaping the strangulating atmosphere of liberal campus orthodoxy than they are in embracing conservative orthodoxy. For lots of students, it's not about preferring conservative dogma over liberal dogma, but about rejecting dogma altogether. Some quotes from students who recently attended the National Conservative Student Conference in Washington:

[Lisa] Stewart, from Bentley College, said she's "against government control, but mixed on ethical issues like gun control and abortion. I'm usually a Republican, but would change if I liked someone better."

"I don't affiliate with either party," said Rob Maury, 26, a senior at Barton College in North Carolina, who plans to start his own business. He came to the conference, he said, as an antidote to the "rampant anti-intellectualism in popular culture" and "people who get their politics from MTV."

Daniella Alves, 21, said she agrees with the Republican party on "almost all issues" - except its failure to embrace environmentalism and animal rights. She'd like to help change that, said the sophomore social science major from Miami-Dade Community College.

"The only thing that makes a difference is people who view things through the lens of possibility," Alves said earnestly, sounding more New Age than Newt.

And some interesting demographics:

Studies have shown that campus conservatives are increasingly female and middle class. They admire Ronald Reagan and are more patriotic since 9/11.

They oppose speech codes, set-aside student government seats for racial minorities, and lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender groups, and what they see as political correctness.

Increasingly, they are for school prayer and the public funding of church groups and against abortion, a recent study by University of California Berkeley and University of Alabama professors found.

More of them are hawks than doves, the Harvard University Institute of Politics reported in May, noting that support for the war in Iraq outpaces opposition 66 percent to 30 percent. The Harvard study also found that 61 percent of college students like the way President Bush is doing his job.

They aren't into casual sex, according to the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute, which has been surveying incoming freshmen since 1966. Only 42 percent of freshman approve of it, down from 51 percent in 1987.

Among other things, these numbers indicate a generation of young women who have consciously chosen to reject the ideology of radical feminism. They are moving in a conservative direction not because they have no idea what they might be taught in a women's studies course--but because they do. And the irony here is that, despite the conventional campus wisdom that casts conservatives as retrograde, self-serving, and intolerant, these students are the "radical" ones, the ones who are consciously flouting the authority of those who teach them, the ones who are fighting for a more open and tolerant campus.

Catherine Carre, 19, a junior at Pennsylvania State University, recalled how she got an F on an English essay when she wrote an argument against affirmative action in college admissions.

The Masterman High School graduate said she was able to raise her grade by persuading her professor to let her rewrite the paper. This time, she incorporated his pro-affirmative action views as well.

The lesson she learned, Carre said, was "to keep my mouth shut unless I know what the professor likes."

I would lay money on how this went: the professor sees himself not as an ideologue, but as one whose job it is to help students learn to see beyond their prejudices and unexamined assumptions. He does not see himself as particularly political, but rather as one whose clear thinking on questions of power, discourse, oppression, and opportunity has led him to the one right conclusion on the affirmative action issue. Thus, when students like Catherine Carre write essays defending positions he finds abhorrent, he can fail them not for having bad politics (he would never do that), but for being unable to think logically and write clearly. This is how invidiously the politically one-sided academy works. In the absence of balance, professors come to view their opinions as truth, they begin to feel free to penalize students who think differently than they, and they are able to fool themselves into believing that what they are doing is teaching those students to think, when what they are really doing is teaching them that in order to get an A, they must think--or appear to think--like the person who is giving the grade.

The professoriate thinks it is enlightening America's youth, opening vistas of awareness and understanding. But when individual profs behave like this--and a great many do--they tend to turn students of all political persuasions off. It makes you wonder: If the American professoriate wanted to produce a generation of diehard conservatives, what would it do differently?

Erin O'Connor, 11:01 AM | Permalink

July 22, 2003 [feather]
Dingell's idea of diversity

In words that chillingly echo those of Southern segregationists, Michigan Congressman John Dingell has told Ward Connerly, a black University of California Regent and anti-affirmative action activist, that he--and presumably his kind--is not welcome in his home state. Here's the full text of the letter:

Congress of the United States
House of Representatives
Washington, D.C. 20515-2215
July 9, 2003

Mr. Ward Connerly
American Civil Rights Coalition
P.O. Box 188350
Sacramento, CA 95818

Mr. Connerly:

The people of Michigan have a simple message to you: go home and stay there. We do not need you stirring up trouble where none exists.

Michiganders do not take kindly to your ignorant meddling in our affairs. We have no need for itinerant publicity seekers, non-resident troublemakers or self-aggrandizing out-of-state agitators. You have created enough mischief in your own state to last a lifetime.

We reject your black vs. white politics that were long ago discarded to the ash heap of history. Your brand of divisive racial politics has no place in Michigan, or in our society. So Mr. Connerly, take your message of hate and fear, division and destruction and leave. Go home and stay there, youre not welcome here.

With every good wish,

Sincerely yours,


John D. Dingell
Member of Congress

The letter is so rude, so crude, and so potentially professionally suicidal that one would be tempted to write it off as a hoax. Dingell has removed that temptation, however, by posting the letter proudly, punctuation problems and all, on his website (download the .pdf to see how Dingell's snarling screed looks on official governmental letterhead). Dingell has also posted his triumphant comments on the Supreme Court's recent ambiguous rulings on the University of Michigan's use of affirmative action in admissions decisions. Dingell calls the rulings "a historic victory for all Americans."

Connerly has replied to Dingell with magisterial condescension. He notes that despite Dingell's racially tinged warning to the contrary, he is, as a citizen of the United States, welcome to exercise his rights in all states. He notes further that those rights include the right to participate in local affairs and to express his views. Though Connerly invited Dingell to post the letter on his website, Dingell has not done so.

Dingell wants to keep Connerly out of Michigan because he is worried that Connerly may do in his state what he has successfully managed to do in California and Washington: introduce a ballot initiative that would eliminate the use of racial prefences in hiring and admissions at all public colleges and universities in the state. Connerly, who chairs the American Civil Rights Coalition, calls the initiative the Michigan Civil Rights Act. He wants to see it on the Michigan ballot in November 2004. Such an initiative, if successful, would amount to an end-run around the Supreme Court ruling. If the people of Michigan decide that they do not want to support racial preferences, they are free to vote them down.

When Connerly announced his intentions on the UM campus a couple of weeks ago, there was plenty of unruly protesting. But an informal poll conducted by the Michigan Student Assembly last winter suggests that Michiganders--or at least UM students--are nowhere near as uniformly united in favor of racial preferences as Dingell would have Connerly and the rest of the world believe. The MSA survey showed that 41.5 percent of students opposed UM's use of race in admissions, while 40.8 percent of students supported the University and 17.7 percent of students said they did not feel they knew enough about the issues to have an opinion. Granted, such surveys are hardly scientific proof of the true state of public opinion. But at the same time, the numbers are quite suggestive. At the very least, they indicate the need for an unfettered, open debate about what "diversity" is and whether hiring and admissions practices should be shaped with diversity in mind. Among other things, such a debate would expose for Michigan voters how UM's own internal studies have shown that the pursuit of diversity has, in fact, increased many of the problems it was intended to resolve. Peter Wood discusses this interesting little wrinkle in the Michigan case in Diversity: The Invention of a Concept.

What Dingell should have done: warmly welcome Connerly to the state of Michigan, and thank him for creating the opportunity for a public debate about an issue that is clearly of great concern to the citizens of the state. He might have noted that the people of the state of Michigan have not yet had a chance to formally register their opinion of the use of racial preferences in higher education, and that Connerly's initiative would give them a chance to inform themselves about the issue and to participate meaningfully in a decision-making process that has thus far excluded them. He might have added that he felt confident that the people of Michigan understood the importance of diversity and that they would certainly vote in favor of affirmative action. Such a letter would have made a statement to Connerly while at the same time remaining entirely within the bounds of decorum and decency. But if Dingell has conveyed anything by his letter, it is that he is not interested in decorum and decency--or in giving the people of Michigan the chance to make up their own minds about racial preferences.

Erin O'Connor, 9:09 AM | Permalink

July 21, 2003 [feather]
Ireland meets campus PC

Irish hurdler and Olympic hopeful David Keoghan had a run-in with campus PC when he was recently accused--falsely--of date rape by an American college student. His story was front page news in Ireland last week. Yesterday a follow-up story by me ran in Ireland's Sunday Independent.

Erin O'Connor, 8:18 AM | Permalink

July 18, 2003 [feather]
The chastened campus

After months of discussion and debate, the Regents of the University of California have voted to ban dating between faculty and their students. UC administrators have been meaning to put together some kind of dating policy since the early 1980s, but nothing was actually drafted until last fall's scandal at Berkeley's Boalt law school. When Dean John Dwyer resigned after being accused of sexual harassment by former law student Jennifer Reisch, faculty, students, and administrators throughout the UC system began agitating for a policy forbidding faculty from becoming involved with students. They got their wish. From now on, faculty are forbidden to date students for whom they have academic responsibility or for whom they may someday be responsible. Faculty who run afoul of the decree will be disciplined. Disciplinary measures could run from anything to a letter of censure to dismissal.

Never mind that Reisch was not Dwyer's student, and that the two were never involved in a relationship. Theirs was a single drunken groping encounter, one that had a lot more to do with alcohol than a permissive sexual atmosphere on campus. The ideologues who think grown men and women are too dumb to make their own sexual decisions and too immature to take responsiblity for their mistakes, who want in particular to protect vulnerable women students from the big bad predatorial men professors who want to exploit them, have got their wish. The University of California now joins Yale, the University of Michigan, and the College of William and Mary in attempting to regulate the private behavior of consenting adults.

Two thirds of UC faculty voted in favor of the policy, despite an eery clause forbidding faculty from becoming involved with any student whose academic interests are close to their own. Though this is presumably because a sexual involvement in the present will complicate any advisory relationship that might arise in the future, this clause is effectively saying that any dating between any faculty member and any student anywhere in the school could conceivably be treated as a violation of the policy. Critics of the policy agree. "It is extremely unrealistic, and some people are going to become criminal who were living perfectly responsible lives," said Judith Butler, a prominent feminist theorist who teaches rhetoric and women's studies at Berkeley. "The fact that it offers no guidelines on recusal suggests that they want to bar all such relationships." Barry Dank, a Cal State Long Beach professor who is married to a former student, agrees: "It's an abuse of power by university administration. It is a form of big brotherism," he said. "Consensual relationships are no one's business but the parties involved in it."

In general, I think it's wise for faculty not to get involved with their students. It creates a conflict of interest; it is unfair to other students, who assume that the Chosen One is getting special treatment; and such relationships are rarely undertaken on equal grounds--often, the power differential between the student and the professor shapes the relationship in ways that are far from healthy for either one. This is particularly true when the student is much younger than the professor with whom he or she is involved.

At the same time, I object strongly to policies that seek to monitor and regulate the sexual activities of grown men and women. It's not just that this is infantilizing, intrusive, and insulting (at some schools, for example, faculty members are expected to report any involvements with any students, anywhere in the university, to their local dean: as if the private, consensual activities of grown adults is the administration's business, as if profs and students have such poor erotic judgment that their private lives simply must be policed). It's also that such a policy is going to be impossible to administer. Unless UC administrators are planning on implementing a massive system of surveillance, one that extends beyond the bounds of the campus to bedrooms, cars, restaurants, and hotels, it won't be possible to determine who is violating the policy and who is, say, just having coffee with a student or just cultivating a chaste and unimpeachable friendship. The policy will not catch faculty in illicit relations with students (not those who don't want to be caught, anyhow). But what it will certainly do is create an atmosphere of paranoia, one where the already overactive rumor mill goes into overdrive and begins to produce, through gossip, innuendo, and a newly prurient outlook, the sexually charged campus environment the policy ostensibly seeks to eliminate. A proposed parallel policy governing graduate student teachers will only heighten the tension and create additional administrative problems.

Erin O'Connor, 10:27 AM | Permalink

July 17, 2003 [feather]
Bloom rules

Harold Bloom is one of the most prolific and controversial literary critics now living. A professor at Yale for over fifty years and the author of over nineteen books, what makes Bloom controversial is not the way he wields the latest methodological trends, but the way he eschews them. In academic circles, Bloom is at once the grandaddy of us all and--to cop a Rowling phrase--He Who Must Not Be Named: a truly learned scholar who truly loves and knows literature and truly despises those who pretend to expertise by slinging around meaningless jargon and unearned judgement.

Bloom's latest book, Hamlet: Poem Unlimited, occasioned a telling interview with the Atlantic Unbound. Some excerpts:

If you spend a lifetime reading and teaching and writing, I would think that the proper attitude to take toward Shakespeare, toward Dante, toward Cervantes, toward Geoffrey Chaucer, toward Tolstoy, toward Platothe great figuresis indeed awe, wonder, gratitude, deep appreciation. I can't really understand any other stance in relation to them. I mean, they have formed our minds. And Hamlet is the most special of special cases. I've been accused of "bardolotry" so much that I've made a joke out of it. As I am something of a dinosaur, I've named myself Bloom Brontosaurus Bardolator. It's not such a bad thing to be.


I left the English department twenty-six years ago. I just divorced them and became, as I like to put it, Professor of Absolutely Nothing. To a rather considerable extent, literary studies have been replaced by that incredible absurdity called cultural studies which, as far as I can tell, are neither cultural nor are they studies. But there has always been an arrogance, I think, of the semi-learned.

You know, the term "philology" originally meant indeed a love of learninga love of the word, a love of literature. I think the more profoundly people love and understand literature, the less likely they are to be supercilious, to feel that somehow they know more than the poems, stories, novels, and epics actually know.

And, of course, we have this nonsense called Theory with a capital T, mostly imported from the French and now having evilly taken root in the English-speaking world. And that, I suppose, also has encouraged absurd attitudes toward what we used to call imaginative literature.


I've so talked myself to exhaustion with a sort of rant against cant that I'm reluctant to say much about it. Throughout the English-speaking world, the wave of French theory was replaced by the terrible mlange that I increasingly have come to call the School of Resentmentthe so-called multiculturalists and feminists who tell us we are to value a literary work because of the ethnic background or the gender of the author.

Feminism as a stance calling for equal rights, equal education, equal payno rational, halfway decent human being could possibly disagree with this. But what is called feminism in the academies seems to be a very different phenomenon indeed. I have sometimes characterized these people as a Rabblement of Lemmings, dashing off the cliff and carrying their supposed subject down to destruction with them.

It's rare to see people speaking like this from inside English departments (usually it's Roger Kimball-types lobbing contemptuous grenades from beyond). It's momentous and important when you do see it. And it's a shame that pretty much the only people you will see bluntly telling the truth about a discipline that is rotting from within are those who are readying themselves to retire. Bloom is 73. I've known a number of less prominent elder academics who will, in private, say much the same thing. They are watching something they love get destroyed by a younger generation that does not respect it. They are watching a bunch of ideologues convert serious literary study into an occasion for brainless and self-satisfied political proselytizing. But they don't speak up. They mouth platitudes about the passing of the torch and they do mental backflips to avoid recognizing their own responsibility for the mess. After all, the inmates who are now running the asylum were trained--or neglected, as the case may be--by those whose wisdom, experience, and learning they did not assimilate then and do not appreciate now.

I'm a bit of an oddball, having been trained by an intermediary generation of ideologues to be a theoretical clone (genus: cultural studies; species: body critic). Academically, I was raised to belong to the Rabblement of Lemmings. For a number of years, without fully realizing it, I rabbled along lemming-like, thinking that what I was doing was scholarly. I finally figured things out, but I would never have done so alone. I was lucky. I met someone with a shit detector and no fear. He let me know that academically, I was full of shit. I crapped on him for it for years. It was easier thus. But I eventually managed to put my considerable pride in a box where it belonged and began to undergo the humbling process of realizing just what a foolish parody of a scholar I was. No matter that this was what I had been trained to be and rewarded for being: you don't feel less a fool for realizing that everyone around you is one too.

My point: most younger academic sorts aren't lucky like I was. They don't see the world they belong to clearly--they are too close to it and they entered it too young. And they don't have anyone they can trust to tell them the truth. So they live in an atmosphere of posturing and lies, copying the styles of the celebrities in their field because they are the styles of celebrities and adopting the standard approved theoretical methods of the day because they are the standard approved methods. And they become not learned, but polished; not expert, but slick; not scholars, but showpeople.

Meanwhile, in every department, an older generation of "dinosaurs" looks on, seeing it all, and saying nothing. They do this to minimize the open displays of contempt for their traditional ways that they have learned to expect as their due. But they shouldn't. There are younger wanna-be scholars out there who want to hear the truth, and who will feel rightly betrayed when they discover--if they discover--that there were people in their midst who were positioned to level with them, but did not.

Erin O'Connor, 9:52 AM | Permalink

July 15, 2003 [feather]
Gay studies and civil rights

Rick Perlstein has written a fascinating piece for the Washington Post on the role the new academic discipline of gay studies played in the Supreme Court's recent ruling striking down a Texas law that sought to regulate "homosexual conduct." "Some court watchers have called Lawrence the most momentous civil rights decision since Brown v. Board of Education outlawed school segregation in 1954," Perlstein writes. "What hasn't been explained is the basis for Kennedy's landmark ruling. What has changed since Bowers was decided in 1986? The answer: nothing less than the historical understanding of laws regarding sexual conduct."

Perlstein notes that the Lawrence decision hinged on a debunking of the historical basis for Bowers--that "Proscriptions against [homosexual] conduct have ancient roots," and that therefore efforts to argue that homosexual behavior is Constitutionally protected were "at best, facetious." The basis for such debunking? Three amicus briefs based on the writings of a new generation of academics who specialize in a discipline even liberal sorts might at first regard as a featherweight field with questionable claims to academic legitimacy: gay studies.

"At the outset," Kennedy writes, "it should be noted that there is no longstanding history in this country of laws directed at homosexual conduct as a distinct matter."

That's a stunning repudiation of what White, Burger and the rest of the majority stated so matter-of-factly in Bowers. On what did Kennedy base that statement? On the historical research outlined by George Chauncey of the University of Chicago, and nine other professors in the historians' brief.

Here is what the historians told the justices:

"In colonial America, regulation of non-procreative sexual practices -- regulation that carried harsh penalties but was rarely enforced -- stemmed from Christian religious teachings and reflected the need for procreative sex to increase the population. Colonial sexual regulation included such non-procreative acts as masturbation, and sodomy laws applied equally to male-male, male-female and human-animal sexual activity. 'Sodomy' was not the equivalent of 'homosexual conduct.' . . . The phrase 'homosexual sodomy' would have been literally incomprehensible to the Framers of the Constitution . . . ."

Kennedy's opinion adopts that history, as well as the scholars' assertion that states have only recently sought to criminalize "homosexual conduct." As Kennedy notes, ". . . according to some scholars the concept of the homosexual as a distinct category of person did not emerge until the late 19th century. See, e.g., J. Katz, The Invention of Heterosexuality . . . ."

So much for ancient roots.

The ACLU brief added, "A cramped understanding . . . of our nation's history lies at the heart of the error in Bowers v. Hardwick." Or, as Kennedy put it (politely), "In summary, the historical grounds relied upon in Bowers are more complex than the majority opinion and the concurring opinion by Chief Justice Burger indicate. Their historical premises are not without doubt and, at the very least, are overstated."

But why did states bother to ban certain kinds of sex -- applying equally to everyone, not partners of the same gender -- if they weren't concerned enough to enforce them? Kennedy explains: "A substantial number of sodomy prosecutions and convictions for which there are surviving records were for predatory acts against those who could not or did not consent. . . ."

As the historians put it in their brief: "Even in periods when enforcement increased, it was rare for people to be prosecuted for consensual sexual relations conducted in private, even when the parties were of the same sex."

Starting in the 1960s, with the passage of new and better laws to prevent sexual abuse and curb sexual predators, states began repealing their sodomy laws as embarrassing anachronisms. Simultaneously, some states passed new laws directed at homosexuality. One of them was Texas, which enacted the 1973 law that came under review in Lawrence. "When homosexual conduct is made criminal by the law of the State," Kennedy wrote, "that declaration in and of itself is an invitation to subject homosexual persons to discrimination in both the public and the private spheres." And thus, he found, the Texas law violates the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of equal protection under the law. Along with an expansion of the right to privacy, that became the basis for overturning Bowers.

The whole article is well worth reading. Politically correct campus movements are often criticized for their irresponsible historical revisionism, their lack of intellectual substance, and their illiberal tendency to disregard Constitutional rights in their efforts to mandate a kinder, gentler, multicultural world. But Perlstein has put his finger on a moment when a decidedly PC scholarly trend has helped to clarify the historical record, to compel deeper thinking on a subject many regarded as settled, and to protect individual rights rather than to take them away.

UPDATE: The debate about whether the Lawrence decision was really based on accurate history is on, and, appropriately enough, is being led by Michael Bellesiles' worst fact-checking nightmare, Clayton Cramer (keep scrolling). To read the original amicus brief, go here. Cramer has dug out some errors--or at least some elisions--on the part of the brief's authors. At the same time, he seems to be ignoring--or missing--the main point of the amicus brief, which argues that until the twentieth century, the relevant law focussed on forbidding non-procreative sexual acts rather than on "homosexuality" per se, which did not even conceptually exist until the late nineteenth century. It will be interesting to see how the authors of the brief, and how other historians in the field, respond--if they do at all.

Erin O'Connor, 8:15 AM | Permalink

White male oppressor for diversity director

UNC-Wilmington criminal justice professor and practising gadfly Mike Adams has launched his latest salvo against the administrative absurdities that characterize his school's pursuit of multicultural perfection. In a letter to a retiring university chancellor, Adams nominates himself for the office of campus Director of Diversity:

You may be wondering why I am writing you on the last day of your thirteen-year tenure as Chancellor of UNC-Wilmington. Having just read the recent Supreme Court decision upholding affirmative action in higher education, I just learned that public universities have a compelling interest in diversity that occasionally trumps rights actually written in the U.S. Constitution. Therefore, I thought I would give you a chance to leave behind a legacy of true diversity by appointing me as the new Director of the Office of Campus Diversity before you retire later this afternoon.

As a conservative, pro-life Republican and a member of the NRA, you have to admit that I am perfect for the job. Who else could bring such a fresh new perspective to an office that has focused solely on left-wing politics for the better part of a decade? In case you arent convinced, let me tell you more about myself.

My interest in diversity issues began in April of 1993 when I was applying for teaching jobs and was told by another university that I would probably not be hired unless the other candidate for the position, a black male, turned down their offer. I thought that was unfair so I withdrew my candidacy. Since taking a job at UNCW I have sat through job searches where applicants were criticized or rejected because they were too white male, too religious, or too conservative. As the new Director of Diversity, I plan to meet with all department chairs on campus to make sure that kind of thing never happens again.

There's plenty more. Adams makes a compelling case--but I doubt it's the kind that will get him the job. As everyone knows, conservative white men, particularly those of a religious turn, are not under-represented on campus, nor are they discriminated against on the basis of their race, sex, and beliefs. As everyone knows, conservative white men are over-represented on campus. And, as administrators at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo recently demonstrated, they need to be kept out and kept down. As Cal Poly's vice president for student affairs told a white Republican male student who offended a group of black students when he posted a flyer advertising the upcoming campus visit of a black conservative writer, You are a young white male member of [Cal Poly College Republicans]. To students of color, this may be a collision of experience. The chemistry has racial implications, and you are nave not to acknowledge those.

Erin O'Connor, 7:53 AM | Permalink

July 11, 2003 [feather]
Stumping for course credit

At the College of Charleston, a business professor has drawn criticism for offering course credit to students who worked on local mayoral candidate Jimmy Bailey's campaign. Students were given two extra credit points per hour for working at an after-hours phone bank affiliated with Bailey's campaign. They could earn up to ten total points for phoning local citizens and asking a series of leading questions about the current mayor's performance (the insinuation was that it is bad) and Bailey's opposing platform (the insinuation was that it is good). The survey the students were administering was written by Charleston business professor Mark Hartley, who is co-chairing Bailey's campaign and who once chaired Charleston County's chapter of the Republican Party. Over two hundred people were surveyed by twelve of Hartley's students. The Post and Courier article reporting this little academic fiasco does not say how many students were enrolled in Hartley's class, how much credit they got, and how much that credit enhanced their grades.

There is a familiar ring to events in Charleston. One thinks of Citrus College adjunct speech professor Rosalyn Kahn, who last winter gave extra credit to students who wrote letters to the President opposing the war and refused credit to students who wanted to write letters supporting the war. One thinks, too, of the Dartmouth departments of sociology and Spanish and Portuguese, who voted to use departmental funds to finance a student trip to Washington to protest the war, and of the Duke cultural anthropology department, which used departmental funds to take out an anti-war ad in the student paper.

The Duke administration immediately recognized what the Citrus College and Dartmouth adminstrators did not: that the federal tax code explicitly prohibits the school or any of its divisions from financing political campaigns. Individual members of the anthro faculty wound up paying for the ad out of pocket. The Dean of Charleston's business school also seems to recognize that Hartley has mixed academics and politics in an ethically and potentially legally troubling way. His position, according to the Post and Courier, is that while "Hartley's actions did not rise to a disciplinary offense," nonetheless "the political nature of the project was problematic." A quote: "We can question whether sound judgment was used. ... As a state institution, we take a nonpartisan point of view."

Though Hartley has acknowledged that he went too far, members of the incumbent mayor's campaign are milking this one for all it's worth. A spokesman noted that Hartley had most likely used student's paid tuition time to conduct reportable election work. "Compensating students for political work is unethical," he said. "That seems like a step beyond the bounds of a public employee." He went on to note that Hartley would probably have to declare the monetary value of the student's work as an "in-kind campaign contribution." He did not offer suggestions as to how the rest of the students in Hartley's class could be compensated for the missed opportunity to earn course credit. Clearly there are problems with giving them comparable credit for working on the incumbent's campaign. Perhaps Hartley could make up the disparity by offering his students credit for polling faculty members about the ethics of rewarding students for supporting their professors' political views. Given the rampant professorial confusion itemized above, I would think such a survey would yield very telling results.

Erin O'Connor, 10:03 AM | Permalink

July 9, 2003 [feather]
Burrowing beneath the surface

You might know Edwin G. Burrows as the co-author, with Mike Wallace, of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. Or you might know him as a member of what is arguably the most corrupt history department in the country: Burrows is Broeklundian Professor of History at Brooklyn College, scene of the recent KC Johnson scandal. More to the point, students of the KC Johnson case will remember Burrows as a key player in the school's self-serving and unethical attempt to sink Johnson's career.

As a new assistant professor in the BC history department, Johnson was initially the darling of his senior colleagues. Shortly before he came up for tenure, one of them remarked that "I can't imagine anything short of high crimes could derail KC's promotion." Philip Gallagher, the department chair, wrote in a formal review that Johnson was "exemplary," "impressive," "little short of electrifying," and that he "has helped the department to create a new definition of scholarly collegiality." That was before Johnson fell afoul of certain senior colleagues when he objected to their conduct during a hiring search. When Johnson criticized the hiring committee's discriminatory intention to hire a woman (ideally one of those rare women, in the chairman's words, "we can live with, who are not whiners from the word go or who need therapy as much as they need a job") rather than to hire the person most qualified for the job, he alienated some of his colleagues so thoroughly that they decided they did not want him around any more. Led by the department chair, they began a campaign to sink Johnson's bid for tenure and so to fire him. Since Johnson's teaching, service, and publication records were impeccable, Gallagher determined--in consultation with a college lawyer no less--to pursue Johnson for lack of collegiality, a foggy category that essentially enables a department to villify and oust people for all the wrong reasons. (Johnson has published a detailed summary of his case here.)

Burrows was a key player in the Brooklyn College history department's attempt to ruin Johnson. Once a strong supporter of Johnson, Burrows advised him in 2001 that "some of our colleagues are flat-out crazy--or so childlike in their emotional makeup as to pass for crazy. ... [one] lives on some other planet; [another] has decided that all the terrible things done to her over the years (regular promotions, a chair, awards) give her license to lie and cheat as she pleases; [another] is well meaning and earnest but a doofus; [another] has no self-censoring ability. ... [another,] as you've figured out, has no gift for dealing with people and doesn't like to commit himself. ... Even fruitcakes like [several colleagues] think that we were damn lucky to get you." But avuncular candor was replaced with stark animosity when Johnson proved not to be the parrot or the pushover he was expected to be. As Burrows wrote to Gallagher after Johnson objected to the conduct of the job search, Johnson better be prepared for the repercussions of what [he has] been up to.

Burrows turned on Johnson after the hiring debacle. He voted against Johnson, and even wrote a letter to the President of Brooklyn College attacking Johnson's ethics and questioning his sanity. Johnson's "overwrought, unrepentant response to the chair's justifiable concerns," he wrote in reference to the unfortunate job search, "showed me that his animus against Gallagher had finally swept him past the point of no return. During the search, his mocking contempt for those who disagree with him ... had sown so much anger and indignation among his colleagues that most were not even on speaking terms with him. ... There were even moments when I wondered if he had lost touch with reality." This letter was not part of Johnson's formal personnel file. It was, instead, part of a "Shadow File" created to justify firing Johnson. It was a secret letter, solicited by an unknown member of the Kimmich administration in violation of the faculty contract. The letter opened with an extended quotation from a document in Johnsons personnel filea document that Burrows neither had the right to see nor to excerpt in a private letter. Burrows, who had in the past rather uncollegially confided to Johnson that several of their colleagues were "crazy," "fruitcakes," "doofuses" who "lie and cheat" at will, was now attacking Johnson for being crazy and uncollegial.

Last spring, CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein overturned Brooklyn College's decision to deny Johnson tenure, using his discretionary power to grant Johnson the tenure he clearly deserved. The discrediting of Johnson's colleagues was total and public, as this lengthy piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education and this New York Times piece make eminently clear.

One might think that in the wake of such public exposure, Burrows, along with Gallagher and the other players in Brooklyn College's malicious and damaging little game, might face some sort of official censure for their illegal and immoral activities. One would think, at the very least, that Brooklyn College administrators would be feeling rather cool toward the faculty who brought such deserved disgrace upon the school. But one would be sorely wrong to cherish any such expectations. No such punishment appears to be forthcoming. And at least one figure in this hideous academic drama is getting rewarded for it: Burrows has just been awarded the elite and sought-after post of "Distinguished Professor." On July 2, President Kimmich announced that Burrows has been named to the prestigious post, which carries with it an annual sinecure of $25,000 on top of Burrows' regular salary. Choosing Burrows over other candidates because he is, in Kimmich's words, a scholar of great distinction, a much-prized teacher and a valued colleague," Kimmich has made a virtue of Burrows' underhanded and two-faced conduct in the KC Johnson affair and has, by implication, announced his ongoing support for Brooklyn College faculty who abuse their power.

Erin O'Connor, 11:42 AM | Permalink

July 7, 2003 [feather]
Language police

I've been devoting a lot of space lately to the case of John Bonnell, the Macomb Community College English professor who has been suspended by his school for allegedly turning his classroom into an X-rated scene of profane language, naughty anecdote, and lewd gesture. At the same time, I've been reading Diane Ravitch's wonderful new book, The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn (for more, check out this Washington Post review). Ravitch, a distinguished historian of education, details the hidden censorship at work in our textbook and testing industries, showing how publishers and testing organizations have yielded so completely to both right- and left-wing ideological demands that they have effectively turned teaching and testing materials into agents of social engineering. Ravitch doesn't go anywhere near the sort of strong language and racy subject matter that is at issue in Bonnell's case--she doesn't have to. The censorious guidelines--and there are guidelines--governing what kinds of words, ideas, and images can and cannot appear in school books and standardized tests are so thoroughgoing, so minutely particular, so picky, and so petty that they guarantee not only that textbooks and tests will be G-rated, but also that they will be exemplary models of multicultural inclusion, tolerance, and sensitivity.

Examples from a standard publisher's bias and sensitivity guidelines:

Women cannot be depicted as caregivers or doing
household chores.
Men cannot be lawyers or doctors or plumbers.
They must be nurturing helpmates.
Old people cannot be feeble or dependent; they
must jog or repair the roof.
A story that is set in the mountains discriminates
against students from flatlands.
Children cannot be shown as disobedient or in
conflict with adults.
Cake cannot appear in a story because it is not

The world envisioned by textbook publishers and testing organizations is not only a world in which the sort of controversial language and content of Bonnell's course does not exist, but one in which no potentially offensive or damaging representations of any kind exist. In such a world, the definition of what might be seen as potentially offensive or damaging is necessarily extremely broad. In such a world, too, showing the world as it is matters far less than showing the world as it ought to be (or as a crazed committee of misguided educationists think it ought to be).

Ravitch's book is full of examples of the absurd length to which the K-12 education industry will go in pursuit of its bland utopian ends. Dumbing down education in the name of counterbalancing the long history of oppression has meant, for example, that "the New York State Education Department omitted mentioning Jews in an Isaac Bashevis Singer story about prewar Poland, or blacks in Annie Dillards memoir of growing up in a racially mixed town." It has also led California to reject "a reading book because The Little Engine That Could was male." Ravitch lists over 500 words banned by publishers, among them "authoress," "actress," "geezer," "landlord," "senior citizen," "dogma," and "yacht."

But the book is just the beginning. Last week, Ravitch reported in a Wall Street Journal editorial that since the book was released she has received a flood of letters detailing ever more absurd antics by the language police. Some examples:

In Michigan, the state does not allow mention of flying saucers or extraterrestrials on its test, because those subjects might imply the forbidden topic of evolution. A text illustrator wrote to say that she was not permitted to portray a birthday party becausse Jehovah's Witnesses do not believe in celebrating birthdays. Another illustrator told me he was directed to airbrush the udder from his drawing of a cow because that body part was "too sexual."

A review of my book in the Scotsman, and Edinburgh newspaper said that a well-known local writer for children sold a story to an American textbook company, along with illustrations. The U.S. publisher, however, informed her that she could not show a little girl sitting on her grandfather's lap, as the drawing implied incest. So, the author changed the adult's face, so that the little girl was sitting on her grandmother's lap instead. A contributor to a major textbook series prepared a story comparing the great floods in 1889 in Johnstown, Pa., with those in 1993 in the Midwest, but was unable to find an acceptable photograph. The publisher insisted that everyone in the rowboats must be wearing a lifevest to demonstrate safety procedures.

The distrust of boys (who must never encounter a remotely provocative image), the typecasting of girls (as victims of dirty old men), the disrespect for history (which must be suppressed when politically incorrect) and science (whose unsettling findings are treated not as facts to be studied but as assaults on belief) are all palpable here.

Even more palpable, ironically, is the prurience produced by the overzealous attempt to sanitize content of any potentially sexual reference. How is it that an udder is supposed to make kids think of sex and not of, say, milk? How is it that a grandfather is supposed to make girls think of being raped rather than, say, of being held by a dearly loved family member? What kind of mindset must one adopt to be able to design such materials? And what sort of mindset does such material produce in kids?

Could it be that the policing prurience of the publishers and testers produces a comparable prurience in the kids who are taught and tested with this bowdlerized material? Bonnell's troubles began when a woman student decided that she could not handle--and should not have to handle--hearing certain words uttered in class. Odds are that in that moment, Bonnell was not only bumping up against an unusually sensitive young woman, but one who had been taught to be so, one who had learned well the lesson that she is first and foremost a victim of men. Perhaps her primary trauma came in the form of an insensitive textbook image or a badly designed test question. Or perhaps the trauma of encountering an unbridled Bonnell was set up by twelve years of blandified, gutted, ever-so-sensitive non-schooling. What is certain is that in an educational context that defines grandfathers as rapists and cow udders as pornographic, John Bonnell's pedagogy was a ticking time bomb.

Erin O'Connor, 10:25 AM | Permalink

July 4, 2003 [feather]
Readers on Bonnell

The case of John Bonnell, the Macomb Community College English professor whose penchant for using sexually explicit language in class has landed him on the wrong end of an administrative witch hunt, has drawn plenty of response from readers. Those responses are as varied and divergent as one might expect on an issue as controversial and cloudy as this one. Academic freedom does have limits, though we are not particularly well equipped to specify what they are or how they should be defined. Harassment claims have their limits too, particularly those based on the notion of "hostile environment." But we are not always well able to decide at what point one person's expression becomes another's harassment. Add to that the defining problem in Bonnell's case: that he is caught in a classic he said/she said situation in which the administration and a small number of unnamed students say he is not teaching English and is instead using his classroom as a forum for imposing his sexual fantasies and general prurience on a captive audience, while Bonnell and a large number of named students claim he teaches responsibly and well, and that his use of profanity is always germane to the concerns of the course. No one knows for sure what happens in John Bonnell's classroom, except those who have been there. But because the MCC administration has chosen to give unquestioning credit to the allegations of some students, there is now a pressing need to find a fair and reasonable way to judge the situation. Here are some representative reader reactions.

Kimberly Swygert, college teacher and author of the testing blog Number 2 Pencil, posted a paean to the teaching prowess of offbeat, brilliant professors, while a reader wrote to me privately, stressing how distracting offbeat and offtopic professors can sometimes be:

I'm a First Amendment freak, and almost an absolutist. However, I'm not sure this case is as cut and dried as you've made it out to be. I do object to the image of the student as captive and needing protection from scary men saying "fuck." However, I had a law professor who peppered his classes with stories about his personal sexual life. The first few times it was entertaining. The last fifty or so times all I could think was "And I'm paying $20,000 a year to hear about this schmuck's penis?" I tuned it out and tried to learn about Wills, Trusts, and Estates anyway. I never felt "harrassed." I felt cheated.

These comments seem to me to go to the heart of the Bonnell case. The issue should not be his speech. The issue should be whether he is an effective teacher. The school is attacking him for his speech, claiming that he creates a hostile environment in his classroom when he uses explicit terms and relates anecdotes from his own sexual past. This, to my mind, is profoundly wrongheaded--not just because I oppose speech codes and object to overbroad harassment policies that effectively impose speech codes, but also because the issue of professional competence must and should be kept separate from the question of idiosyncratic professional technique. Though the college has tacked on to its central charges claims that Bonnell is not a competent teacher because he is rumored to be an "easy A," there has not to my knowledge been any organized attempt on the part of the college to assess what Bonnell is teaching, how he is teaching it, and whether his students learn to be better readers and writers by the end of the term.

Some readers have written to me to say that they think I am wrong to defend Bonnell because it is obvious to them that Bonnell is not doing his job--they cite as evidence the fact that he teaches composition courses as literature courses (though this is very commonly done), and that his course appears to be very loosely structured. Here's one such note:

A complicated case, which I think boils down to this: does academic freedom give a professor the right to teach and say whatever he pleases? Does academic freedom really give him the right to walk into his class and yell F****?

What troubles me is spelled out pretty well in one of the early student letters. Here's the key passage: "To begin with, the class was English 122-a composition class. However, the class was taught like a literature course in which we read stories and interpreted them. Unlike the regular composition courses, this course had no requirements for length of papers, organization of papers, or due dates of papers . . . ."

The flap about profanity seems to be obscuring the troubling issue of what he's actually supposed to be teaching. And if you drill down through this, it is at bottom the same thing that troubled the appeals court.

The fact that some students, or a good many, respond positively is hardly surprising. Students hardly embrace comp courses, it's not very stimulating to have to submit to a system of schedules and deadlines, and we'd all rather talk about Joyce than about writing. The positive student input, while not meaningless, is largely irrelevant to the basic issues.

I don't see much difference between this guy's case and a case I inherited from my predecessor when I took over as chair and discovered we had a comp teacher who, by the end of the semester, had not yet returned any student work with a grade on it (or at all, for that matter). Was I surprised when he claimed that criticizing his teaching methods violated his academic freedom? No.

My own feeling is that one student's anecdotal accusation does not itself constitute evidence of incompetence or irresponsibility. What it does do is raise a question that the school has not, for whatever reason, chosen to pursue. I agree with this reader that academic freedom too often gets invoked to defend incompetence, but I don't see that we have evidence that Bonnell is incompetent. What I do see: evidence that the school is trying to define Bonnell as incompetent because he persists in talking in ways it deplores. Macomb Community College has described Bonnell as a harasser (though he is not one), and has leaped from that description to the judgement that he is by definition not a competent teacher (hence the grab bag of additional charges having to do with his grading practices and so on). Some readers have followed the school's lead on this one. As one reader wrote, "... even a cursory glance at Bonnells reported speech convinced me that he shouldnt be allowed to teach play-dough modelling to the deaf let alone English literature! Such a witless paucity of language surely disqualifies him." But we should not treat word choice as an absolute index of competence, and we should avoid leaping to judgments about Bonnell's qualifications when the issue--as defined by his school--is his speech.

If Bonnell really is more interested in talking about his sex life than literature and writing, then that should be ascertained by the school via a careful and fair investigation of his effectiveness as a teacher. Such assessment should not be shortchanged or evaded altogether by heavyhanded applications of an overbroad harassment policy, and such an assessment should not focus fetishistically on Bonnell's techniques, but should rather center on their results.

One additional angle: Captain Yips posted a thoughtful note observing that Bonnell appears to have been abandoned by the MCC faculty union and that he might thus have a legitimate legal gripe with the union as well as the college administration. The good captain followed up his post with a fascinating letter to me detailing the results of his perusal of the 2001 court decision in Bonnell's 1999 suit against the school:

1) Prof. Bonnell says in his 1999 affidavit that most of the instances of crudity that were the original object of complaint were in response to student questions or comments. If this is so, someone, Bonnell or his attorneys, has done a poor job of defense. Bonnell's practice, it seems, is to give credit for class participation, and to run a pretty free wheeling class. These choices are easily within the very wide limits of academic freedom outlined by the Court of Appeals. If a student, so participating, initiates a discussion of sexual matters, Bonnell can't really be damned for replying. If he chooses to respond in demotic rather than formal English, well, that is his choice. Even under MCC's speech rubric, his speech is protected if he is responding to a student's question, so long as he is in fact answering the question. I am bewildered that this defense was not employed. Maybe a Volokh could explain this choice, but I can't.
2) Bonnell mentions that the average age of his students is 26. If this is true, the case becomes hazier. If MCC serves mostly older students, the relationship between teacher and student is a little different than with 18 year olds.
3) One of the class discussions was begun because a cartoon with sexual content was on the wall of the classroom, one normally used by another department. It's very reasonable to argue that MCC is selectively enforcing its policy, making a target of Bonnell under the cover of its language policy.

On the other hand, as the Court of Appeals points out, MCC has responsibilities arising out of its obligations to maintain an unoffensive environment. I believe (and I haven't had time to look this up) that the "offensive environment" idea was in the legislation. The EEOC's regulation does nothing to define "offensive environment": it merely proscribes "such conduct (that) has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment." The EEOC also imposes upon the employer a boatload of responsibilities: "Prevention is the best tool for the elimination of sexual harassment. An employer should take all steps necessary to prevent sexual harassment from occurring, such as affirmatively raising the subject, expressing strong disapproval, developing appropriate sanctions, informing employees of their right to raise and how to raise the issue of harassment under title VII, and developing methods to sensitize all concerned." (hey, I make my living splitting bureaucratic hairs. It's useful, sometimes) An "offensive environment" can be anything at all; it takes no imagination whatsoever to come up with ludicrous (or to lampoon the misspelling of one of Bonnell's complainers, lewdicrous) examples. I think an argument might also be made that MCC's policy unnecessarily broadens the "offensive environment" notion. The prospect of a complaint of religious discrimination for teaching Superinflation or superstring theory looms. While the Supreme Court really fights off most First Amendment restrictions, the "offensive environment" rubric becomes a backdoor to voluntary censorship. A great many of The Canterbury Tales have sexual content: do we omit those? Le Morte d'Arthur revolves around adultery; no Arthurian literature at all? Hamlet: out. Romeo and Juliet: out. We'll be left with The Wind in the Willows, and I am not too sure about that. Bad law leads to bad behavior.

Without a fly-cam on the classroom wall, it's probably impossible to cleave this hair. I think that if we have a case of the free wheeling class, with participation by students greatly encouraged, where Prof. Bonnell is reacting to statements or questions by students, then his speech, demotic or formal, is protected. If Bonnell initiates off-topic sexual discussions or reminisces, then students and MCC may have reason to complain. The bulk of the evidence to date suggests the former is true, and that MCC is overzealously protecting its otherwise legitimate interests.

Fascinating stuff. I'll post more as more information becomes available.

Erin O'Connor, 2:42 PM | Permalink

July 3, 2003 [feather]
Behind the Scenes at Macomb, II

Yesterday I posted a "counseling" letter sent by Macomb Community College Provost Rosa Bellanca to John Bonnell, the English professor MCC administrators love to hate--or at least to punish. In that letter, Bellanca "counseled" Bonnell about the inappropriateness of his pedagogical ways, citing out of context words and anecdotes students allege he has uttered in class as examples of how he has used his classroom to create a hostile environment for women. Though Bellanca failed to note--or, it seems, to ascertain--the context in which Bonnell's graphic language and explicit anecdotage occurred, she argues that none of it was "germane" to course content, and that therefore Bonnell is in violation of both his contractual duties as a teacher and the school's policy on the use of profane language in the classroom. There was a certain creepy brilliance to it: asserting that the offending usages were not germane by ignoring the context that would enable their germanity, or lack thereof, to be judged, Bellanca produced on paper the effect of shocking irrelevance that she argues Bonnell created in class. The portrait of Bonnell that emerged was one of a dirty old man who is far more interested in inflicting his sexual fantasies on students than he is in teaching, one who has decided that his greatest service to his students is not to teach them to read carefully, think critically, and write clearly, but to act as their self-appointed sexual shock therapist.

I've gotten email from some readers who accept this portrait at face value, and wonder why I would ever defend someone like Bonnell (implicit in this line of questioning is the assumption that as a woman, I should be more alive to the damage words can do--as Bellanca's letter observes, an unspecified but very small number of students have claimed that Bonnell's X-rated asides made them feel "sexually violated" and "verbally raped"). But the simple fact is that I don't buy this portrait of Bonnell. I think he is a teacher, not a pervert. I think it is up to him to decide what vocabulary and what style work best for him and his students. And I think it is up to Bonnell's students to make intelligent, mature decisions about whether, and on what terms, they choose to take his courses: if they truly cannot deal with him, they can take another course; if they want to be in the course but they find Bonnell's language a bit too racy, they should take their concerns to him, not file harassment claims as a cowardly first line of protest. The vast majority of Bonnell's students appreciate his intellect and his teaching technique; some even say they feel more respected by him than by many of their other professors at MCC (you can read some testimonials here, and more at the bottom of this page). Bonnell's response to Bellanca's letter gives some indication of why that would be. In both tone and content, it is a powerful refutation of Bellanca's charges and of her picture of Bonnell as an irresponsible and unwell man who lacks judgement and who has failed miserably to do his job. I reprint it here in full:

TO: Rose B. Bellanca

FROM: John Bonnell

DATE: January 3, 2002

RE: Your "Counseling Memorandum" of Dec. 14, 2001

Once again, for the record, I must respond to your various allegations and assumptions by offering appropriate denials and assertions of actual fact.

You claim that "[s]tudents report" that I do not use "these words (you cite a list of words that you, and apparently some students, regard as "profane, vulgar or obscene;" but you do not state the basis for your belief or the students' apparent belief) in an effort to explain a concept being portrayed in an assigned text ." But this is false. All language used by me in a classroom fits the sense limned in Swank v. Smart (7th Cir. 1990): "[t]he purpose of the free-speech clause . . . is to protect the market in ideas, broadly understood as the public expression of ideas, narratives, concepts, imagery, opinions--scientific, political, aesthetic--to an audience whom the speaker seeks to inform, edify, or entertain." This ruling, as Cohen v. California (S.Ct. 1970) before it, recognizes the necessity of protecting "cultural expression" in a world where people have differing values and opinions, in a world where "one man's vulgarity may be another man's lyric." Neither the government, nor any governmental agency, should be in the business of coercing conformity to its notions of orthodoxy, no matter how exigent the squeamishness or the prudishness of some governmental agents. Moreover, the list of proscribed words which you advance grows with your every recitation. No speaker, no teacher, can guess what new entries you will devise, nor be certain of what punishments you will arrange for newly discovered or invented infractions. (I note with satisfaction that you have repented driving the word "violence" from this campus, at least as it was used by three English teachers in the title of an annual conference which they sponsored. Perhaps you will also think better of freighting other terms with subjective onus, lyrical terms you now style "profane, vulgar or obscene.")

With regard to the specific examples of "Smuckers" and "Busch," your citation is erroneous as to material fact, and wholly distorted as to the context in which these names were broached. The same applies to the absurd allegation that I yelled "fuck." The College is altogether too eager to embrace - as factual - numerous untested, unchallenged defamations of my character and my speech or conduct. At the same time, the College religiously ignores the scores of letters and testimonials offered by concerned students, students who understand that censoring a professor constitutes an assault on their rights as auditors. (I note, in passing, that the College, in its various pronouncements, briefs, and warnings, has used the words "pussy" and "cunt" far more often than I have in my entire career. Some subtle dynamic must be at work here. If these words were "regular" in my presentation, they doubtless would have been included in some actual student's complaint made to the College. Such is not the case.)

The second paragraph of page 2 is rife with innuendo and misleading characterization. I have said that the entire English language is potentially available for utilization in my classes, as I would hope it would be in any English teacher's class. When I am attempting to communicate, which is the case in all my classes when I speak or write on the chalkboard, every word that I emit is germane and fits the context, otherwise it would not occur to me to utter it. Your exceptional phrase: "regardless of the context in which the word is used" has no meaning, unless you are referring to some deliberate prevarication you imagine I stoop to. That is, if a student asked me my name and I said "I am John Luther;" or if a student asked who wrote a given text and I wrote "James Joyce" on the board when I knew it was D. H. Lawrence, I would be using words and names inappropriate to a classroom context, where the truth is presumed and I have a duty to speak it. If you have some other reservation(s) as to context, you have yet to make it (them) clear.

Your assertion further on that my "use of vulgar words is appropriate because it prevents [me] from being boring" is a wholly new attribution, as are the items which follow. I have never said that "vulgar language" reflects who I am; that "vulgar language" is acceptable for perverts in residence (if any such there could possibly be); that every student should literally have one "raunchy" English teacher (the recognition of irony is the mark of intelligence; ditto for hyperbole); or that "there are no boundaries concerning what may be discussed in class"--of course there are. Finally, the concluding sentence of this second paragraph is singularly false and slanderous. I am amazed that you printed it.

Your concluding paragraph on page 2 and all the particulars which fill page 3 are baseless or grievously distorted as to material fact; they are also baseless or grievously distorted as to relevant context. I am surprised that you would predicate a process as serious as this on "material" so untested, so dubious, as that.

The "note" attributed to me in the first paragraph on page 4 is distorted and false.

As for the second paragraph on page 4, my demeanor within and outside of class has ever evinced the values recommended by the AAUP. If there is any subversion of that venerable organization's principles at large on our campus, it must be the College's relentless attack on that professional entity's raison d'etre. That is, the AAUP's chief historical contribution has been the conception, formulation, and advancement of "academic freedom" as applied to the professoriate. Yet, this College has vigorously argued that such "freedom" is misbegotten, and ought be aborted forthwith. The organization, then, would find your appeal to their authority as either ironic or hypocritical, were they to learn of it.

Further, on page 4, paragraph 3, it is inaccurate to say that I reported that I "once traumatized a student so severely that she bit her hand hard enough to draw blood." Whatever trauma the student may have suffered cannot "reasonably" be attributed to anything I said in her presence--at least not in a society that truly believes in free speech. Your presumptions and conclusions fit nicely with other college agents who have punished professors who uttered "niggardly" (in a Chaucer class in Wisconsin) or "pusillanimous" (in a political science class in New Jersey). The propensity to take offense, or to suffer the rigors of logophobia, must defer to the ascendancy of vigorous free speech, lest we fall in step with, say, Talibandits who know how to inflict real harm in pursuit of ideal conformity.

The rest of this paragraph (# 3) clashes mightily with the tradition of "academic freedom" and with the Collective Bargaining Agreement, Article V. A. 1.--"The teacher shall be entitled to freedom of discussion within the classroom on all matters which he considers relevant to the subject matter under discussion." Your unilateral arrogation of whatever you deem qualifies as a "sensitive subject" may not meet with the same receptivity that the MCCFO leadership accorded, in 1999, your notions of "vulgarity." Moreover, as I pointed out in Virginia, Shakespeare is regarded as the greatest, the most insightful, psychologist who ever lived. According to your dangerous innovation, only trained psychologists should be deemed competent to comment on Shakespeare, on his "sensitive" and therefore "dangerous" formulations, such as: "Th'expense of spirit in a waste of shame is lust in action," or: "The strongest oaths are straw to the fire I' the blood."

Moving on to page 4's final paragraph, yo misrepresent my behavior and attitude once again when you ascribe some "exclusionary approach" to me, or state that I "force" students to drop from my classes. The traditional consideration afforded students--permitting them to drop or add courses according to their interests or desires--is one you may alter or abolish at any time, as that is properly part of the College's "academic freedom." (Students drop classes for many reasons, and among such students are the 21 out of 24 who dropped a class I was scheduled to teach this past autumn. That is more than drop out of my aggregate classes in any two year span. I have not heard that you have instituted an investigation of such wholesale disaffection, which is particularly remarkable as the class in question is sophomore level, and thus terminal for many students.) It is dishonest and defamatory to assert that I have an "exclusionary approach," that I "harm" students, that I prefer the approach "of forcing students out of" my classes. Unless you institute inquiries of every instance of any student's dropping any class,your singling me out is at once hostile and discriminatory.

The argument on page 5 is contorted and unsupportable. You claim that language you regard as "vulgar" creates a "hostile environment" for students "even if the speech is not targeted at any one person or does not directly refer to the individual's protected characteristic." You then appeal to the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Association of University Professors as support for your contention, but neither of these organizations regard mere speech--speech not clearly intended to insult, demean, berate or humiliate--as constitutive of hostility. You then cite the Sixth Circuit's ruling (Bonnell v. Lorenzo, 2001) as though it warrants your conclusion, but you miss the import of such courtly terms as "sexually harass" (at no time a credible feature of Bonnell versus MCC) or "racially or sexually derogatory epithets." (There has never been any charge against me that I used racial or sexual "epithets," or that I "abuse" students in any except the College's imaginary sense.) It is amazing, no less, that an English professor continues to be harassed by persons who do such violence to the native language.

Under the rubric "Discouragement of Complaints" (page 6), the so-called "information" that the College believes it has received, asserting that I "actively discourage students from complaining about" my classroom speech (miscalled "behavior" by the College) is distorted and false. This unsupported allegation was a slander when first proffered in 1998 and it remains so to this day. All of the accusations in the first three paragraphs of page 6, in fact, are distortions or falsehoods. The allegations of some illusionary "fuck it" attitude attributed to me are peculiarly fanciful and vicious. And, had I realized in 1990 (?) how seriously committed the College is to censorship, how vigorously it would shield and vet novice censors, I would not have shared an informal note with an associate Dean wherein I facetiously suggested that he tell inchoate censors, when all appeals to reason had failed, to "kiss" his "ass." (Of course, on analogy with the current Johnny Morton-Jay Leno contretemps, I meant "kiss" his "donkey." But I never for a moment believed Dean David Feighan would bring his "donkey" to the campus and urge some student to "kiss" it. Associate Deans do not normally take direction from faculty, as far as I know.)

As for my grading policy, I am not aware that the College denies students the flexibility of accelerating their performance, both to demonstrate proficiency and to garner an appropriate grade. The College, after all, offers two-week, six-week, and eight-week "compressions" of courses in an apparent acknowledgment that some students, indeed, can intensify their academic function. My grading practices, known by the College for over thirty years, merely incorporates this option for students who are capable. (The "report" that my grading policy is "lenient" is another bit of amorphous subjectivity. I have had "reports" that are precisely opposed. Moreover, I do not know how the College reconciles the contradictory "reports" that, on the one hand, I hope to entice students with leniency just so that I can then smash them with a "fuck it" mauling. Such schizoid behavior could scarcely flourish or go undetected for thirty weeks, much less a third of a century.)

As for earning a "passing grade without ever submitting written work"--no student in my entire career has earned a "C" grade or higher in that fashion. Possibly as many as two students (out of approximately four thousand, over the past dozen years) were granted a "D" for extraordinary performance with regard to class attendance and classroom participation. I had no compelling reason to regard these very rare anomalies as inducement to revise my highly progressive and fair grading practices. However, if the College continues to be exercised by this concern, a slight adjustment can close off even this miniscule variance.

More on this case as it unfolds.

Erin O'Connor, 8:03 AM | Permalink

July 2, 2003 [feather]
Behind the scenes at Macomb

Readers have expressed a desire to learn more about Macomb Community College English professor John Bonnell's clash with the school administration for his use of profanity in the classroom. There is a detailed online archive on the subject here, and the MCC student paper recently printed a story on Bonnell's most recent suspension.

Not posted on line, but very revealing in nature, is an exchange of letters between MCC Provost Rosa Bellanca and Bonnell regarding his classroom conduct. The letters are lengthy, but they are worth reading closely to get a feel for the nature of the college's ongoing complaint against Bonnell, as well as for the means by which the college is distorting the facts in order to pillory a professor whose pedagogy does not conform to its administrative orthodoxy. Such clear windows into the interstitial machinations of misguided and manipulative academic disciplinary procedures are hard to come by, and worth quoting in full when they do become available.

Bear in mind as you read a simple and salient point: that the issue here is not whether you, or I, or the school likes Bonnell's teaching strategies, but whether those strategies are a) legal, and b) effective. All indications are that Bonnell's teaching style falls well within his rights, in no way rises to the level of harassment the school claims it does, and works well for the majority of students.

Here's Rosa Bellanca's long but revealing letter:

Office of the Provost

TO: John Bonnell

FROM: Rose B. Bellanca, Provost

DATE: December 11, 2001

RE: Counseling Memorandum

In my August 10, 2001 memorandum to you regarding a student complaint that had been filed against you during the summer term, I indicated that the collective bargaining agreement places the college under a legal duty to attempt to rehabilitate you as an employee, and that the only means the College has for bringing about your rehabilitation is through discipline and counseling. During the past few academic years, you have been progressively disciplined for unacceptable conduct through verbal and written warnings, a three-day suspension, and you are now serving a one-semester suspension. My August communication also indicated that you would be counseled before returning to work via a comprehensive memorandum detailing the College's expectations of you. This memorandum is intended to provide that counseling, and it sets forth the minimum standards by which your future performance and conduct will be judged. Given your progressive discipline and this counseling letter, it is expected that you will not repeat the type of unacceptable practices set forth in this memorandum.

As an institution of higher education, Macomb Community College has the legal responsibility to ensure that its employees comply with a variety of laws, both State and Federal, and to uphold the provisions of the collective bargaining agreement and the policies of the College. More specifically, the College has a strong interest in assuring:

(1) that its students have the opportunity to participate in and derive educational benefit from the College's instructional program;

(2) that the College's instructional program is provided within an environment of professionalism and mutual respect, that there will be tolerance for criticism and dissent, and that those who express contrary views or file complaints will be protected from ridicule, mocking, and/or retaliation;

(3) that teachers will, in fact, teach the subject matter of the course, strive to achieve course objectives, and issue grades that adequately reflect and certify the students' level of mastery of the subject matter and course objectives; and

(4) that teachers possess the appropriate credentials for the subject they are teaching so as not to expose their students to physical or emotional harm.

Objectionable Classroom Practices

Numerous students have reported that you regularly use profane, vulgar or obscene words in class such as "bullshit," "cunt," "cock," "dick," "pussy," "tits," "balls," "asshole," "ass," "shit," "damn," "cocksucking," "hell," "buttfucking" and "blowjob." Students report that you do not use these words in an effort to explain a concept being portrayed in an assigned text, but as part of your general vocabulary regardless of whether the language relates in any meaningful way to an assigned text, even to the point of saying in class that Smuckers Jelly was given its name because "Smuckers" rhymes with "fuckers" and that the "Busch" in Busch Beer refers to a vagina. One student has complained that you repeated the word "fuck" in class over and over in succession, raising your voice as you did so, to the point where you were yelling. Other students report that you use the word "fuck" so frequently in classroom discussions that it appears that you simply like to use the word.

The College policy on vulgar, obscene or profane speech prohibits such classroom speech unless it is germane to course content as judged by professional standards. Rather than demonstrating your adherence to this policy, you have attempted to rationalize your behavior by asserting that 1) every English word is germane to an English class regardless of the context in which the word is used; 2) everything you say in class is germane to course content; 3) your use of vulgar words is appropriate because it prevents you from being boring; 4) vulgar language reflects who you are; 5) vulgar language is acceptable because you are the campus "pervert in residence;" 6) there are no boundaries concerning what may be discussed in class; and 7) every student should have at least one "raunchy" English professor. One student related that you confessed in class that your vulgar classroom approach stems not from any legitimate academic or professionally recognized interpretative approach, but from the fact that you are a "perverted" individual with a "perverted mind."

The College does not consider these rationalizations to be sufficient to satisfy its germaneness policy or its requirement that you teach class in a professionally appropriate manner. Nor do your colleagues in the Macomb Community College Faculty Organization (MCCFO) consider your conduct to be professional. As the Faculty Organization president, James Yizze, informed you in a letter dated February 12, 1999:

"The [faculty] Senate does not-agree that words are just words. MCCFO concludes that academic professionals may be expected to fit within a certain standard of conduct and deportment. Your regular use of what most people believe to be profane words is below the standard that the Union believes applicable to MCC faculty."

Beyond the use of vulgar, obscene or profane speech per se, it has been reported to the College that you routinely combine your non-germane vulgar, obscene or profane speech with non-germane sexual topics, including your own personal sexual experiences and fantasies. While there may be sexual themes in literature that warrant class discussion, students report that instead of simply explaining the sexual meaning and how it was derived, you frequently use your interpretation of a sexual meaning as an opportunity, or as an excuse, to digress into a full discussion of the sexual topic itself. These digressions often take on a life of their own, since you spend class time discussing the sexual theme in a way that bears no apparent relationship to the literature that allegedly raised the topic in the first place. They are reportedly filled with graphic examples of sexual practices and/or descriptions of your own personal sexual experiences and fantasies. Student reports, as well as statements you have made to College personnel, indicate you tend to take these sexual discussions to an extreme - pushing your stories to a point where students become so squeamish that you feel the need to digress, yet again, with some kind of joke "for comic relief."

Examples of these non-germane digressions include reports that:

* You told your students in class about how your wife once expressed a desire to perform oral sex on her infant son, whose diaper she was changing;

* You told your students in class about how, while performing volunteer work at a hospital, you developed an erection while giving an elderly man a bath and that you dealt with this situation by "mounting" the man;

* You told your class that you used to masturbate to Playboy-style magazines;

* You told your class a story about how you once threw away your Playboy-style magazines due to something a priest told you during confession and that you began using Biblical passages as your substitute masturbatory stimulus;

* You told your class a story about how you once tried to become an "urban legend" by putting Vaseline inside a toilet paper roll and attempting to masturbate by placing your "cock" in the lubricated toilet paper roll, which you tried to connect somehow to a washing machine, but that you failed to accomplish this feat because your "cock" lost interest;

* You described an incident where your wife "held your balls" as you were laying naked in bed;

* You told your class about a man in Detroit who killed his girlfriend, buried her, and then later dug up and "fucked the corpse;"

* You discussed the Clinton/Lewinski affair in class, using the phrase "blow job" while doing so;

* You retold a Sam Kinison joke about a morgue employee who sodomized corpses;

* You told your class that your "soldier wouldn't stand at attention" when you first attempted to have sexual intercourse;

* You told your class every slang term you know for the word penis;

* You told your class that before you were married, you and your wife-to-be would engage in heavy petting and then immediately go to a priest for absolution;

As a teacher, you share with the Board of Trustees the responsibility for the academic quality of College programs. The College has concluded that the conduct discussed above is devoid of academic merit, detracts from the overall educational experience and creates a barrier to learning. As evidenced by the complaints students have filed against you, such behavior has a clear tendency to distract, offend and upset students. Students who are upset, offended or distracted by offensive utterances tend to detach intellectually, avoid class, dislike their educational experience at the College and participate less often. The emotional distress caused by offensive classroom behavior can remain with the student and affect his or her ability to fully engage in other classes. Even you have noted that students tend to "go blank" when you begin using vulgar language or digress to discuss sexual issues. These consequences have an adverse impact on students' academic experience, progress and ultimate success. The College further believes that vulgarity and irrelevant sexual discussions in class harms its academic reputation, reduces the quality of the students' education, decreases student enrollment, wastes class time, materially detracts from the students' educational experience and is unprofessional.

According to the American Association of University Professors, professionalism in the collegiate setting requires you to teach in a non-offensive manner, adhere to your role as an academic guide, "demonstrate respect for students as individuals..." and exercise "critical self-discipline and judgment in using, extending, and transmitting knowledge." AAUP Statement on Professional Ethics. It has long been the position of the AAUP that professionalism also requires that you consider how the public will view your utterances, "exercise appropriate restraint ...... .. show respect for the opinions of others..." and take care not to introduce controversial matters in class which have no relation to your subject. 1940 Statement of principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure Professionalism. These principles were reaffirmed and extended in 1994, when the AAUP stated that "the intrusion into classroom instruction of sexual references or sexual jokes, even if relatively inoffensive ones ... clearly contribute to an unprofessional academic environment and are not protected by any of the standards or codes of professional responsibility governing academe." Report of Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, 1994.

A teaching method that includes non-germane vulgarity, obscenity or profanity or digresses into non-germane sexual topics is both offensive and academically unjustified. The College and the teaching community, both nationally and at Macomb, reject any teaching methods that are offensive to a reasonable person and academically unjustifiable as measured by professional standards. In addition to being offensive and academically unjustified, such methods can harm students. Some students have had extremely adverse reactions to your classroom behavior. Students have reported, for example, that your behavior in class caused them to suffer nightmares, fear for their safety, and feel "degraded," "humiliated," "sexually violated" and "verbally raped." You reportedly told one class that you once traumatized a student so severely that she bit her hand hard enough to draw blood. You have suggested that students may have difficulty with your classroom discussions because they have difficulty with their own sexuality. You are not professionally qualified to render such judgment and the College cannot permit you to take it upon yourself to teach sensitive subjects concerning which you have no professional credentials.

You have stated that the College's concerns are illusory because students can avoid your classroom vulgarity and sexual comments and discussions simply by dropping your classes. This is completely unacceptable to the College. Your exclusionary approach harms students by forcing them to drop your class and disrupt their educational timetable, or transfer late into another section and buy different books. Many of the classes you teach are required for graduation and often there are no other similar classes offered at that time. Students whose only option is to drop must postpone enrolling in advanced courses and push back their date for transfer or graduation. Your preferred approach of forcing students out of your classes is an unacceptable, self-centered and autocratic approach to teaching that disregards student needs and interests. Students should not be forced to choose between interrupting their educational plans and subjecting themselves to your vulgar, obscene or profane speech or digressions into sexual matters.

You are warned that the persistent and pervasive use of vulgar, obscene or profane language and discussion of sex and personal sexual experiences have been found, in both federal and state courts, to be sufficient to constitute sexual harassment. Your actions may form the basis of a viable sexual harassment claim that you have created a hostile learning environment and thus unlawfully discriminated against students. This holds true even if the speech is not targeted at any one person or does not directly refer to the individual's protected characteristic.

As the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals stated in your case, "Speech that rises to the level of harassment -- whether based on sex, race, ethnicity, or other invidious premise -- and which creates a hostile learning environment that ultimately thwarts the academic process, is speech that a learning institution has a strong interest i preventing." The Court of Appeals also stated that even "Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union ("ACLU") and the American Association of University Professors ("AAUP") recognize that limitations must exist on college professors' speech in order to provide a learning environment free of

You are not the judge of what does or does not constitute sexual harassment and/or the creation of a hostile learning environment, and your interest in using non-germane vulgar, obscene or profane speech or digressing into non-germane sexual topics does not outweigh the College's interest in= preventing such speech. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in your own case recognized the College's legal obligation to maintain a learning environment free of hostility and to create policies that serve that purpose:

"While a professor's rights to academic freedom and freedom of expression are paramount in the academic setting, they are not absolute to the point of compromising a student's right to learn in a hostile-free environment. To hold otherwise under these circumstances would send a message that the First Amendment may be used as a shield by teachers who choose to use their unique and superior position to sexually harass students secure in the knowledge that whatever they say or do will be protected. Such a result is one that a state college or university is legally obligated to prevent, and such a result would fail to consider the countervailing interests. See 18 Berkeley J. Emp. & Lab. L. at 320 (['The First Amendment and) [a]cademic freedom must not be used to shield the abuse of a captive audience by racially or sexually derogatory epithets.')."

The College intends to fulfill its legal duty to foster a learning environment that is neither hostile nor discriminatory. The College is also interested in protecting itself from expensive and embarrassing lawsuits filed by students who claim that they were harassed. Consequently, the College will continue to enforce its anti- discrimination and sexual harassment policies. You are further advised that due to your past conduct and outspoken refusals to comply with College policy, the College may not defend you in a sexual harassment or retaliation suit filed against you.

Discouragement of Complaints

The College has received information that you actively discourage students from complaining about your classroom behavior and that you have ridiculed and retaliated against students who have complained. One student, for example, reported that you use your position "as a platform for authority to intimidate [your] students not to complain about" you and that you "repeatedly made fun of students who had expressed offense or disgust and [you] also laughed at them." Moreover, in an effort to send a message to "any possible student who complains ..." to the College about your behavior, you drafted and publicly circulated a caustic attack on a student complainant that mocked and ridiculed the student, made baseless accusations against the student and demeaned the student for complaining about your conduct.

You have combined your public retaliation against a student complainant with statements designed to establish that complaining about your classroom conduct is futile. You have repeatedly announced in public that you will not alter your classroom style or otherwise follow the College's policy prohibiting regular use of vulgar, obscene, or profane language that is not germane to course content. Students report that you announce at the beginning of each semester that you plan to use vulgar language and discuss sex in class, state that there is nothing anybody can do about that, and tell students who dislike or disapprove of your behavior to drop the class. You respond callously when students try to protest your behavior, such as when you responded "fuck it, that's who I am; that's what I am going to do" to a student who objected to your vulgar classroom speech. You have also responded to an associate dean, who was asking you how to handle a student complaint regarding your vulgar speech, to urge the student to "seek therapy" and "kiss your ass."

These behaviors clearly dissuade students from complaining or otherwise advancing their rights. The releasing of confidential student complaints or records, mocking or laughing at students who protest or complain about your classroom behavior, telling students that you will never change your behavior in class, making accusations against students who protest or complain- about your classroom behavior, and suggesting that students who disapprove of vulgar language and non-germane talk about sex are childish or somehow not adult is not acceptable to the College. In short, this "Fuck it, that's who I am,"' and "urge him or her to seek therapy" and "tell 'em to kiss your ass" behavior will not be tolerated by the College. Students have the right to complain or otherwise advance their rights and the College wishes to foster an atmosphere where students feel free to advocate their positions and/or complain about perceived misconduct or harassment and can do so without intimidation or fear of retaliation.

Employment Of A Grading Practice That Does Not Adequately Reflect And Certify The Students' Mastery Of Course -Related Material

The College has acquired information that gives it cause to question whether you are fulfilling your contractual obligation to grade students in a manner that fairly evaluates their academic progress. One of your former students has stated that, despite receiving nothing but "C's" in high school English, she had secured an "A" in a fall semester class by October. The student said that, by the end of the semester, she had enough "A's" for three people. You gave another student a passing grade even though she stopped attending class less than half way through a semester. One student stated that you are regarded as an easy "A" and that you use your lenient grading policy as a way to entice students to tolerate your vulgar classroom behavior. Indeed, your first day handouts imply that students can earn a passing grade simply by participating frequently in classroom discussion and that students in your composition classes can receive a passing grade without ever submitting written work.

You are reminded of Article VI of the governing Collective Bargaining Agreement, which provides that "[t]he teacher shares with the Board responsibility for the academic quality of the College programs." You are also reminded of your obligation to issue grades to students in a manner that actually reflects and certifies the students' level of mastery of the subject matter and the related course objectives.

Performance Monitoring

This counseling memorandum identifies certain conduct that the college finds unacceptable. Because of your frequent public statements about refusing to change your classroom behavior, the College believes it is necessary to monitor your performance when you return to work in January. Therefore, you are hereby notified that an instructional administrator will be present in each of your classes during the first week of the Spring 2002 semester in order to verify that your performance fulfills your contractual responsibilities as a teacher, and complies with the requirements of this counseling memorandum.


Through this memorandum, the College is providing direction to guide your future teaching practices and behaviors. You are cautioned, however, that violation of any of the provisions of the collective bargaining agreement or the policies of the College or the repetition of the unacceptable practices set forth herein will subject you to further discipline up to and including discharge.

There you have it: in a nutshell, the provost of Macomb Community College has just threatened to fire a tenured English professor of thirty years' standing for swearing. You'd think she could have just made him stand in the corner, or write "I will not say bad words in class" fifty times on the blackboard. But desperate times call for desperate measures, and the letter above speaks volumes to the lengths to which some schools will go to prevent students from encountering such threatening phenomena as others' eccentricity, offensive speech, and being treated like sensible adults who can cope with strong personalities whose expressive practices may differ from or challenge their own.

Granted, it's hard to read the letter in the way I have described it, precisely because it goes to such great lengths to demonize Bonnell--to represent him as an uncontrolled pervert who has no professional standards and who cannot control his obscene outbursts. But the image of John Bonnell as a serial sexual harasser whose preferred medium of attack is his classroom is a tactical creation of a college that would rather violate his rights and ruin his career than tell the occasional complaining student (who is also a paying customer) to grow up. Students do not have the right not to be offended, and a bad word or dirty anecdote does not harassment make. But Macomb Community College would rather fire John Bonnell than further offend an offended student by telling her the truth.

Tomorrow, I'll post Bonnell's reply to Provost Bellanca's missive. Among other things, it reveals an individual of eloquence, intelligence, and large learning--one whose sound judgement and evident ability to teach comes through loud and clear.

UPDATE: Kimberly Swygert has more.

Erin O'Connor, 9:34 AM | Permalink

July 1, 2003 [feather]
Censorship at Cal Poly

Before reading further, click here to see a picture of the flier posted last fall by a student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

It's a simple advert for an upcoming campus talk to be delivered by Mason Weaver, conservative black activist and author of It's OK to Leave the Plantation. The talk itself was sponsored by the campus chapter of the College Republicans and the student government. Weaver's book argues that the American welfare system is a type of plantation system, and that dependence on the government effectively keeps blacks in a position of social and economic servitude.

According to yesterday's press release from FIRE, when College Republican Steve Hinkle tried to post these fliers in the campus Multicultural Center, all hell broke loose. Students who knew nothing of Mason Weaver saw Hinkle as a white male posting derogatory and offensive signs. They tried to stop him, going as far as calling in the campus police to report a suspicious white male passing out literature of an offensive racial nature. Though they were in the wrong to try to stop Hinkle from posting fliers on a public notice board designated for that purpose, it was Hinkle who eventually faced charges.

Turns out the students he offended with his fliers were having a Bible study meeting at the time. Though they were doing so in a public lounge area, though Hinkle had every right to come into that area and post his signs, and though the Bible study group was not formally recognized by the school, Cal Poly administrators decided to bring charges against Hinkle for "disrupting" a "campus event."

A hearing was held in February. Hinkle was not allowed to have a lawyer, but he was tried nonetheless for his crimes, and he was found guilty. At the hearing, Hinkle was informed by the vice president for student affairs that You are a young white male member of CPCR. To students of color, this may be a collision of experience. The chemistry has racial implications, and you are nave not to acknowledge those. In other words, the nature of Hinkle's "disruption" had nothing to do with content-neutral considerations of the timing and placement of his postings, and had everything to do with the fact that as a white male Republican, his physical existence was itself a form of harassment to minority students. That he chose to exacerbate his harassing personal characteristics by posting fliers advertising a conservative black author's campus visit only showed how deeply insensitive he was to others' need to be protected from his oppressive presence. Hinkle was ordered to write letters of apology to the students who had, in effect, harassed and censored him. He was advised that if he failed to do so in a manner that pleased the administration, he could face expulsion.

That was last spring. Hinkle has since taken his case to FIRE, which went public with the details yesterday after Cal Poly administrators failed to respond adequately to private attempts to resolve the issue fairly by pointing out to them their various violations of Hinkle's free speech and due process rights.

Eugene Volokh expresses provisional agreement with FIRE's claims, noting that if its representation of events is accurate, then Hinkle does indeed have himself a First Amendment case. Because FIRE's representation of events is at present the only one available on the web, the summary above is drawn from it and builds upon it. It's worth noting, though, that Cal Poly's University Counsel disputes FIRE's representation of the facts of the case--which is what one might expect.

If no new information comes to light, it would certainly seem that administrators at Cal Poly believe they are above the First Amendment and are therefore not bound to honor and uphold it. It would also seem that the students who brought the initial complaint and the administrators who pursued it are either too arrogant or ignorant to recognize the profound nature of their error: it is hardly Hinkle's fault that they did not recognize Mason Weaver's name or realize that the phrase "It's Okay to Leave the Plantation" was not Hinkle's exhortation, but Weaver's book title. In a perfect world, it would not be Hinkle who was sentenced to apologize, but the students and admins who have been hounding him who would be sentenced to attend Weaver's talk.

UPDATE 7/2/03: FIRE has published the police report detailing Hinkle's encounter with the complaining students.

Erin O'Connor, 10:16 AM | Permalink