The case of John Bonnell
The case of John Bonnell has raised, at Critical Mass and elsewhere, numerous questions about academic freedom, faculty rights, classroom propriety, pedagogical responsibility, sexual harassment, and speech codes. Something else the case speaks to: the power individual students have to destroy the careers--and even the lives--of teachers they don't like. On campuses today, the accuser is always right--even when he or she is blatantly in the wrong.
A reader writes with a case that illustrates this point:
A short story of an alternative case, one that I know too well. Sometimes these stories don't turn out quite as badly as Bonnell's has. Sometimes they (University Administrators) do the right thing.
Reading Bonnell's words reminds me of what my mother, now a retired professor, said in response to an incident that happened to her several years ago.
Near the end of career she took on a graduate student who proved to be problematic. She put a lot of energy into helping him, getting him funding (tuition, stipend), defending him against other detractors and giving him chance after chance to make deadlines. He did not work out, had no output to speak of, and eventually failed his oral/qualifying exam (in which the advisor does not participate). He then proceeded to file grievance after grievance against my mother, including accusations of academic dishonesty and disability harassment. He wrote to her funding agency, and made numerous claims about stealing money, ideas, harassment, all of which were shown (by the agency's investigations) to be false.
The University had multiple hearings, and in the end supported her, and dismissed him from the program. He proceeded to file a civil suit against her. At this point, most Universities cave in, but hers didn't. They hired an outside law firm, indemnified her (so if it did go against her, he could not take her life savings, he was asking for fiscal damage well beyond her means).
The most interesting part, from our perspective is when his lawyers came with an offer to settle for a small amount of money (far less than a law suit would cost) and a Ph.D degree. The University said, "no, we won't settle, we care about money, but the principle is more important". The trial was unpleasant and exhausting. The local news portrayed her as an cold manipulative academic, and him as a poor, unrecognized genius who was caught in the gears of the ugly, uncaring University machine. Despite such publicity, the University stuck by its guns. Ultimately, the court found for my mother, and in fact awarded her a small amount of money for character defamation.
She wasn't being censored, as is Bonnell, but the ultimate impact is similar. Academic jobs aren't particularly flexible (I know doctors who have moved from hospital to hospital). Neither Bonnell nor my mother could just move to another University, even if one is next door. As far as any grievance goes, what really happened can almost never be shown, and a tinge of ugly controversy follows you for the rest of your career. Administrators too often take the position of maintaining the image of the University, as opposed to looking at the facts, and in this case, surprisingly they didn't.
In the end, people don't consider the ultimate cost of these cases. The principles spend huge amounts of energy and time on administrative procedures, hearings, and defense. People like my mother and Bonnell have to let go of working on what they love, and what they do well. In the end, even if you are vindicated, you look at back at years of time and think: what a waste. There are fundamental principles worth fighting for, despite a simple cost/benefit analysis suggesting that the cost of these grievances far outweighs any benefit to the University, or even the person bringing the greivance. The people like Bonnell and my mother will, in the end, carry these costs.
As this example shows, even when a university administration does not completely yield to the demands of a self-appointed accuser, the accused pays very dearly indeed. The career effectively ends, and peace of mind is effectively destroyed. At the end of the day, even if you are technically vindicated, you are never the same. You are permanently soiled by the fact of the accusations themselves (not least because your colleagues much prefer to spread a scandal than to know the truth), and you are thoroughly derailed, professionally, personally, psychologically. You are sunk human cost, a casualty of the so-called kinder, gentler campus where sensitivities reign supreme and where those who offend them--or are simply said to offend them--must be sacrificed in the name of the greater communal good. The student in the above anecdote understood this, and used it. He may not have gotten his Ph.D., but he definitely got his revenge.
Thanks for writing.
Bonnell on banned words
John Bonnell, the Macomb Community College English professor who has been suspended several times for his use of profanity in the classroom, writes with some trenchant thoughts on my post about how speech codes teach us to revile words at the expense of comprehending context:
Your entry for November 22 is accurate, to say the least. Conniption fits over utterances of the word "nigger" indeed tell "a disturbing story of collective incomprehension in which the desire to root out and punish racist speech has reached such a hysterical pitch that reason and context have fallen by the wayside." An article in today's Detroit Free Press's "Entertainment" section by Terry Lawson is similarly on point. Mr. Lawson writes:
The Source charges ['that Eminem was, or is, a racist'] remind me of nothing more than what a friend calls the Two Detroits. The old Detroit looks for every signal of racism and seizes on examples and slanders, and waves around the bloody shirt of past injustices. The new Detroit looks at this sadly, like an abandoned building that we can't get torn down.
Just a few days ago. A friend was telling me his daughter had informed him that she didn't spend one minute a day thinking about race and that, as a black man who had spent his formative years preoccupied with prejudice, he didn't know whether to be concerned or happy. [Ed. note: Eminem has recently been accused of racism for using the word "nigger" in a rap song he recorded a decade ago]
Try "happy," if we are ever to exit the valley of darkness. In the meantime, Julian Bond style race-prospectors continue to do enormous damage not only to hopes for reconciliation but also to the nation's fundamental freedoms. An absurd ruling in the Sixth Circuit, DAMBROT v CENTRAL MICHIGAN (1995), let stand the firing of a basketball coach for using the word "nigger" with his players, black and white. The coach had first requested the players' permission, stating that his usage was on analogy with those who utter "my niggah" as a term of endearment. The players found the usage curious, but harmless. All but one indignantly defended the coach's prerogative. Not so the University and "black" federal judge Damon Keith, who ruled that the word was no part of any "public concern" and therefore perfectly punishable by any censorious official. In making this call, the judge also did incalculable damage to the "academic freedom" of all professors, claiming that the desire to motivate students is also no part of "public concern." (The partisan plasticity called "public concern" and "political correctness" are both PC variants.) Never mind how this undercuts the "how" teachers teach, the only aspect of traditional academic freedom once said to belong inviolably to the teacher's discretion. Hell, teachers who care about their profession are constantly talking about, and tinkering with, ways to motivate their charges! ("Hell," all by its singular heft, is one of the words I have been warned can terminate my career.)
This same benighted ruling was used against me by the same court in 2001, despite its wholesale irrelevancy. Another "black" judge, a protÈgÈ of Judge Keith, wrote that my diction was proscriptive because the university wishes it so. He conveniently forgot that his mentor tried to isolate coaches from classroom instructors, however ill advised such a prejudice may be. As with DAMBROT, considerable weight was placed upon another bit of judicial foolishness called MARTIN v PARRISH (1986) wherein a college teacher was punished based upon Supreme Court suppression of a high schooler's speech (BETHEL SCHOOL DISTRICT v FRASER, 1986). One vicious act of censorship inspires another, and another, and another. Like PLESSY v FERGUSON revisited, "dark" words and "light" words are not allowed to ride the same train of discourse.
With considerable trepidation, I teach a story on occasion (last week, for instance) that has met with de facto suppression: Flannery O'Connor's "Artificial Nigger." I doubt that there is an anthology in print anywhere in America that still offers this superb work of art, despite the fact that it is one of the most penetrating studies of the psychology of racism ever penned. The loss of its sense, of its beauty, is precisely a reflection of the hypocrisy and opportunism that now plagues a confused nation. I claim a right to teach this story as an American and as a lifelong CaulkedAsian, my sobriquet for myself. My students, most of them, clearly appreciate an opportunity to talk and write frankly about a subject so taboo that the correlative tension guarantees that "nigger" will enjoy a vigorous, if underground, survival for generations to come.
At Emory and UVa, it looks at though the word "nigger" is banned no matter what the context of its usage. On the face of it, that may seem reasonable and right. But deeper down, that sort of logic leads to cases like this one, in which two black high school students have begun counseling to cope with the trauma they experienced when a teacher who was reading an award-winning novel to the class read a racial slur that was uttered by a character in the novel (no matter that the book is an award-winning account of rural southern life, or that it was a black character who uttered the slur). Or this one, in which an Indiana high school cancelled its production of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird because it contains the word "nigger" (no matter that Lee's story is highly critical of racism), or this one, in which Oregon teachers who wish to teach Huckleberry Finn have to undergo sensitivity training first (no matter that, once again, Twain's novel is highly critical of racism).
We are becoming a nation of linguistic prudes, so uptight about the mere mention of certain words that we cannot distinguish the how and the why of their usage. Along the way, we lose not only our sense of language and our understanding of art, but also our minds: we seem to think that we can ban racism by banning words, that punishing people for saying the word "nigger"--no matter what the context--will somehow purge our culture of racial injustice. In reality, as the case of the traumatized high school students reveals, we are just increasing our problems by consecrating the related notions that words can wound, that the mere aural experience of certain terms can be traumatic, and that those who are most vulnerable to such trauma (and who are, by extension, least capable of living in the real world), are women and people of non-white descent. Nobody gains from such condescension.
Note: Flannery O'Connor's "The Artificial Nigger" may have been silently pushed out of anthologies. But it's still in print, and it's also available online. If you have not read it--or other work by this remarkable writer--you should. I recommend The Complete Stories, which I was assigned in college. We discussed "The Artificial Nigger" at length in class. No one thought it was racist. Everyone understood that the story is a powerful analysis of where racism comes from and how it works.
November 22, 2003
Of hate, hysteria, and hoaxes
While the people at Emory University continue to debate what it means that a biological anthropologist on its faculty described herself as "the nigger in the woodpile" of cultural anthropology, the University of Virginia is officially appalled because a medical center employee expressed her distaste for the Washington Redskins football team by saying that the name is as "derogatory to Indians as having a team called Niggers would be to blacks." University President John T. Casteen, III has issued a statement calling the comment "offensive" and "insulting," while UVa history professor and national chair of the NAACP, Julian Bond, has called for a public apology and sensitivity training for the employee who uttered the epithet. "My first impulse is that this should be a dismissible infraction," Bond wrote to a black faculty email list; "but free speech protections I hold dear tell me that shouldn't be so." Bond stated that the UVa administration "ought to disavow such language."
UVa's and Emory's handling of two cases in which individuals have been publicly pilloried for uttering the word "nigger" on campus tells a disturbing story of collective incomprehension in which the desire to root out and punish racist speech has reached such a hysterical pitch that reason and context have fallen by the wayside. In each instance, the word "nigger" was enough to ignite accusations of racism and calls for the speaker to be disciplined with both formal sanctions and forced sensitivity training, even though, in each instance, the offending commenters were actually using the problem term critically, to attempt to articulate their concerns about patterns of professional ostracism (in Worthman's case) and to criticize racist speech itself, in the UVa case. There is a displaced puritanism to all of this--as Captain Yips has noticed, racism has become the new original sin, the horrible cultural failure we must all attempt ritually to purge. There is also a mercenary quality to it. The rewards for discovering proof of campus racism are large.
Consider the recent rash of "hate crimes" at Northwestern. Two were faked by a freshman zealot who believed staging his own near-knifing would facilitate positive change; the rest consist of several instances of offensive graffiti--swastikas, racial and sexual slurs--that have appeared on campus since last February. There are no suspects in these incidents, and police believe at least one was also faked. But students have been up in arms for months, protesting, holding anti-hate rallies, and demanding that the university administration respond. They are getting their wish. As Eric Zorn rather cynically notes in the Chicago Tribune,
If isolated, alienated racists or heartless pranksters are behind the unsolved incidents, they've been rewarded richly with what all such idiots crave--attention.
And if provocateurs seeking to move the cause of tolerance and diversity to the top of the campus agenda are behind the vandalism, they too have been rewarded with what they crave--dramatic demonstrations of solidarity, a formal student-government reprimand of the university for failing to aggressively counter the incidents, the addition to the student handbook of a policy stressing mutual respect and a program for new-student week about the value of diversity.
Either way, "positive things are coming out of this," said Mishkin. "It's galvanized students to think about how to be more proactive in their activities and their friendships to make sure all students on campus feel comfortable here."
For a crisis that's basically insignificant and built in part if not in whole on lies, that's not bad at all.
Looking at the Northwestern case against the situations at UVa and Emory, one can see that it's not necessary for a "hate crime" to be real for it to be leveraged in the service of diversity. Nor is it necessary for speech to be truly hateful for it to be classified as hate speech by students, faculty, and administrators who seek to use their school's speech codes not only to punish expression they deem offensive, but to banish certain words altogether.
Many would argue that there is nothing wrong with banishing the word nigger, and that it's simply perverse to argue that it has any redeeming value except as a reminder of the history of racism. But many would also, I suspect, have a big problem with where the logic of hate speech took the people at Gonzaga University recently. There, the word "hate" was itself declared to be an example of "hate speech," and censored accordingly: when a conservative student group advertised an upcoming talk by Dan Flynn, author of Why the Left Hates America, the group's flyers were torn down and the group was reprimanded because some felt that "the Left hates" was "discriminatory." If censoring the word "nigger" looks like a no-brainer, censoring the word "hate" looks like a non-starter. But at the bottom of hate speech's slippery slope lies the absurd tautology that is Gonzaga's concept of civility.
Atlantic Blog has more on Northwestern; John Rosenberg has more on UVa, including some pointed comments about how the current eagerness to display racial sensitivity there has much to do with an unsolved and, to the minds of some, quite suspicious hate crime that took place at UVa last year.
November 21, 2003
Teacher training in English, contd.
In response to my post citing the blog of a conservative grad student in English, a reader writes:
As a fellow conservative--well, really quite moderate, but conservative in the eyes of the academy--graduate student, I thought I'd share this experience. I was a TA for a British lit survey class, in which we were discussing Milton. Of course, the only important thing about Milton was what a sexist he was, and we spent some three days of lecture looking at his negative depiction of Eve. For the most part, this consisted of looking at select passages and simply noting how sexist he was.
Many students began asking questions about Milton's theology. The response of the professor was--I kid you not--that she was a post-Christian, and that she didn't think a discussion of Christianity was important to an understanding of Milton.
Students were shocked. Not surprisingly, most of the other TAs were not. I suspect most were relieved that they wouldn't have to talk about something they knew absolutely nothing about in their discussion sections.
Like I said yesterday, you don't have to be a conservative to be appalled by either the ideologically-driven non-teaching described here or the blatant anti-intellectualism that accompanies it. The two often go hand in hand, and I am convinced that a major reason why there is so much add-water-and-stir, race-class-gender "theorizing" in literature courses is because teachers who don't really know their stuff think it offers them protective cover (it doesn't, as the reactions of the students who couldn't get straight answers about Milton clearly show). Nevertheless, there are a lot of teachers out there who use "political" pedagogy in order to coast in the classroom. And there are plenty of future teachers who, instead of learning about literature, are learning the ways of teacherly bad faith in courses like the one described above.
November 20, 2003
Teacher training in English
Some outtakes from a new blog written by a conservative graduate student in English:
Wednesday, Nov, 19:
I recall when I started my PhD program that the professor I was "TA"ing for at the time, got all the TAs together and told us how to deal with "right wing assholes' who will try to steal the discussion and push their narrow views on the class.
I made a comment about how, yeah, extreme views on either side of the spectrum are bad when taken overboard - what is needed is real discussion considering all the sides of the issue.
I was given an odd look and told that liberals are never wrong and their views are appropriate for class, since liberals are open-minded and tolerant and that's what higher education is about: liberalizing the students.
Silly me, I thought it was about clear and honest discussion of all sides of an issue.
Friday, November 14:
The professor I work as a TA for (in a general education class designed for the General student body) admitted he chooses works of literature that are anti-religious because he wants to show the students how idiotic it is to be religious. This is a general education class designed to teach literature to students who otherwise will never take a literature class.
Instead of teaching literature, he is using literature as a way to force his atheistic beliefs on the students. I wouldn't mind so much if there was some balancing going on - such as using literature that is fairly pro-religious, or a discussion of how the books can be read as anti-hypocrisy instead of anti-religion. No such luck, though.
He knows I am religious, but he hopes I'll get over it.
Monday, November 10:
...we read our teaching philosophies and one student actually said his teaching philosophy is to make his students realize that George W. Bush is a bad, evil man on the level with Hitler. Critical thinking apparently requires hating conservatives and buying the liberal party line without question.
What bugs me is the lack of critical thinking among English majors. Overall, they just mouth idiotic liberal phrases like "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" and act as if the debate is over. (Because to argue is to show yourself as an evil western colonialist with views that resemble Nazis. You may think I'm exaggerating - I'm not. The other day, in the graduate student lounge, several students complained loudly that Paul Wolfowitz hadn't been killed in Iraq yet).
It's not necessary to be conservative to be disturbed and even offended by the attitudes and behaviors the author of these posts is describing. The blog is anonymous, and is written, I am guessing, by someone in his second year of doctoral study (that's usually when grad students in English move into the classroom, and so is also when they often take a pedagogy course of some kind that involves activities such as writing up one's "teaching philosophy"). There is no way to check the accuracy of what he has written. But at the same time, what he has written rings true to me and should ring true to others.
One anecdote among the many I could tell: When I was in teacher training at Michigan in 1991, we had a discussion much like the one described above. The issue was: What do you do when a student turns in a paper with politics you abhor? I assumed, in my 22-year-old naivete, that the proper way to handle such a paper would be to address it on its own merits, and that the proper role of the teacher-grader in such an instance would be to help the author of the paper see where his argument was strong, where it was weak, and what he could do to make his case as convincingly as possible. I assumed, in other words, that as a writing teacher, I had no business imposing my politics on students and that I had an ethical obligation not to allow my personal beliefs to affect how I treated students or graded them. I was wrong. We were told--by a group of resident composition specialists no less--that there are some political positions that by definition cannot be well-argued. You can, of course, guess what those positions were.
Emory and the OED
The folks at Emory may have ruled that Carol Worthman's use of the phrase "n---r in the woodpile" is racist, and may have put various sanctions and disciplinary procedures in motion to punish her and her colleagues for it. But that doesn't mean they had any idea what the phrase actually means, or what the context was for Worthman's usage. Today's Emory Wheel details the Emory community's continuing struggle to figure out what Worthman's wording actually meant. In the process, it conveys the unspoken but powerful truth about the administration of supposedly racist speech on campus: it's not necessary to comprehend a comment in order to call it racist. Racism, in the logic of enforced communal sensitivity, is created by the accusation of racism; it is whatever the accuser wants it to be.
The controversy at Emory is not about what Carol Worthman meant, or even, in a way, about what she said. It's about what people thought she must have meant, and what that led people to assume she must be like deep down inside. The Emory case is about more than academic freedom, and what is at stake here is more than just a person's freedom of speech. In events at Emory, we can watch an entire university community in the act of violating a person's private conscience. Carol Worthman has been punished, and continues to be punished, for what, in all bad faith, it is possible to believe her word choice says about who she is.
Thanks to Maurice Black for the link.
November 19, 2003
Urging compassion at Emory
Melvin Konner, an anthropologist at Emory, has written a passionate defense of his colleague Carol Worthman, whose use of the "n" word at a scholarly panel last September has drawn formal complaints, disciplinary proceedings, and a great deal of public censure. Konner acknowledges having heard Worthman say her professional subspecialty--biological anthropology--is the disciplinary equivalent of the proverbial "n----r in the woodpile," and reflects on why he did not speak up at the time:
I was trying to imagine what it may have been like to be an African-American hearing the news that an Emory professor had used the "n" word in an expression at a department meeting. I know I would have been very disturbed.
I was present at that meeting, and I was not disturbed enough. I did not speak up, and I regret that very much. I did not take any action afterward either. When our department met with the representatives of the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs, I apologized clearly and publicly for that mistake. I also apologized in writing to the person who filed the complaint and asked that person to forgive me.
Why did I make that mistake? For one thing, it was not meant as a racial remark, and I knew that at the time. It was a horrible mistake, and I had trouble understanding it, but I knew it was not intended to hurt anyone. Race was not the subject of the discussion. The professor who made the remark was talking about the prejudices within anthropology toward her subfield, and she foolishly referred to it as "the 'n' in the woodpile." (The remark was not, as widely reported, "six 'n's' in the woodpile.")
There was another reason. I have known this professor, Carol Worthman, for 30 years. Not only is she not a racist, but I don't know another white person less deserving of that name. She was horrified by her own remark as soon as it left her lips but, like Jackson, did not admit her mistake immediately. When she realized that someone had been hurt, she apologized in person and in writing again and again.
She has been a vital part of our department's decade-long effort to recruit African-American students, faculty and staff and to create an atmosphere in which they would be treated like everyone else. We have succeeded in that as well as any department at Emory. And Emory itself has made this a top priority; the last administration was especially good at nurturing diversity, and the new president clearly wants to continue that tradition.
Konner's account of the comment is interesting for its well-meaning doublethink. On the one hand, he says he did not react to Worthman's comment because he knew it was not racist and he knows Worthman is not a racist. On the other hand, he condemns himself for not reacting to the statement as if it were racist and condemns Worthman for making a comment that could be construed as racist. In between the lines, one can read a troubling message: for Konner, Worthman's error was not racism, but making it possible for someone to convincingly accuse her of racism; his own error was not to condone racism, but to fail to condemn a comment that could, if taken out of context, be construed as racist by a would-be accuser. As a white witness to Worthman's comment, Konner accepts full responsibility for anticipating and protecting the sensibilities of the one black woman in the room; his mistake, as far as he is concerned, lies not in his understanding of Worthman's comment as essentially not racist, but in his failure to apprehend in the moment that of course a black person would see the comment in this way, and that of course, as a consequence, he ought to have spoken out in defense of black people's sensibilities. It's a strange and disturbing logic, part chivalric self-flagellation, part racial condescension. It's no less disturbing for being precisely the sort of logic that sensitivity training seeks to inculcate in its subjects.
Not surprisingly, then, Konner goes on to describe, with remarkable patience, the sensitivity training he and his colleagues have undergone as part of the departmental punishment for Worthman's comment: "They urged us to look into ourselves and every aspect of our department's life, and we are doing that." He concludes by urging that those who would condemn Worthman, the Emory anthropology department, and Emory University itself try to find within themselves a little bit of the compassionate sensitivity they claim is missing at Emory. All reservations about Konner's mode of modelling racial sensitivity aside, he's right about that.
Thanks to Ralph Luker for the link.
Speech codes and the case of John Bonnell
Readers of Critical Mass will already be familiar with the concept of the "free speech zone" that many colleges and universities use to restrict student expression on campus. At public schools, where the whole campus is required by law to be a free speech zone, these restrictive zones are unconstitutional--and yet many, many schools have them, and some will even defend their right to maintain them in court. Texas Tech's festive yet absurdly small "free speech gazebo" (pictured here) is currently the subject of a lawsuit: last summer, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education paired with the Alliance Defense Fund to sue the school for restricting expression in ways that are legally and morally incompatible with its mission as a public institution.
Yesterday's Detroit News featured an op-ed by Greg Lukianoff, director of legal and public advocacy at FIRE. Lukianoff opens with an account of the Texas Tech case (and also supplies the alluring photograph of the free speech gazebo linked above). He moves from that case to a broader consideration of how schools across the country are using designated zones and harassment policies to limit when and where faculty and students can speak and to place clear boundaries on what they can say. He names schools that have zones (Western Illinois University, West Virginia University, University of Nebraska at Omaha, University of Houston and University of Alabama) and he names schools that have within the past year arrested students for exercising their free speech rights outside their school's zones (Florida State, Citrus College).
Lukianoff also names schools that have punished students and faculty for putatively offensive or insensitive expression. At the University of California San Diego, Stetson University, and Tufts University, students have been brought up on charges for committing the crime of satire. Over the past year, at Harvard Business School, Shaw University, Hampton University and SUNY Suffolk, students have been punished for criticizing the school's administration. He notes how, at Central Michigan University, students were forced to take down signs supporting the war on terrorism because some found the signs offensive. For every example Lukianoff gives, he leaves unnamed, for sheer lack of space, dozens of similar ones.
But despite space restrictions, Lukianoff does find room to mention the case of John Bonnell, the Macomb Community College English professor who has been repeatedly suspended for his use of profanity in the classroom. "Students in Michigan may know of Professor John Bonnell, who has been repeatedly disciplined for using graphic language in his literature class at Macomb County Community College in Warren," he writes, mentioning Bonnell's situation, which has been made possible by a speech code that is arguably unconstitutional, just before he mentions how two other Michigan universities, Central Michigan and UM itself, both had unconstitutional speech codes struck down by the courts during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Lukianoff does not make explicit the connection between MCC's speech code and the one at UM that banned expression that "stigmatizes or victimizes" other students on the basis of "ancestry," "creed" and other categories. He also does not connect the dots between MCC's code and the one at CMU that forbade "demeaning or slurring individuals." But the connections are there to be made by observant readers.
Macomb Community College has been prosecuting John Bonnell for sexually harassing classroom speech for some time now. Last spring, the school expanded a policy that was already arguably overbroad. Under the guise of its newly expanded unlawful harassment policy, Macomb Community College bans "unwelcome verbal or physical acts that are based on sex, have no professionally appropriate relationship to the subject matter of a course, and are so severe and pervasive that they objectively either (i) have the effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's work or academic performance, or (ii) create an intimidating, hostile or offensive learning or working environment" and "verbal or physical acts based on race, color, national origin, religion, disability, age, marital status, pregnancy, height or weight that have no professionally appropriate relationship to the subject matter of a course and are so severe and pervasive that they objectively either (i) unreasonably interfere with an individual's work or academic performance, or (ii) create an intimidating, hostile or offensive learning or working environment." In other words, MCC bans just about everything anyone might find offensive. The policy states that usually there must be a pattern of behavior to prove harassment--but that sometimes one incident can be enough to warrant disciplinary action.
The policy addresses classroom speech specifically, stating that "regular use of profane, vulgar, or obscene language in the classroom that is not germane to course content (and thus educational purpose) as measured by professional standards is prohibited by College policy and may lead to imposition of discipline." Translation: we understand that classroom discussion must be able to move freely from subject to subject and that words that might be inappropriate elsewhere may become appropriate within the context of intellectual discussion; however, we reserve the right to punish anyone who, in our opinion, according to our vaguely worded policy, does not teach in a manner that we personally condone.
The full policy is available here. It has elaborate instructions for how complaints of harassment can be made, and for how the school shall investigate such complaints--but makes no provision for the accused to confront his accuser. It gives examples of the kinds of behavior that will be considered harassment--but each one is taken from a workplace harassment lawsuit, with no acknowledgement of the fact that a college is not, for faculty and students, the same thing as a corporate workplace, that the law for the one is not automatically and easily transferrable to the other, or that the mission of education requires, as a matter of principle, tolerance of potentially offensive expression.
Unconstitutional? It would be nice to see the courts make this call.
November 17, 2003
Lang on Bonnell
Frederick Lang, the Brooklyn College English professor who has been banned from the classroom for refusing to inflate his grades, writes with some comments about the case of John Bonnell, the Macomb Community College English professor who has been repeatedly suspended for his alleged use of off-topic profanity in class. Bonnell's most recent suspension took place last summer, after a woman student complained about his explication of a passage from James Joyce's story, "The Boarding House." Lang writes:
I've been following John Bonnell's story with keen interest, partly because I identify with his plight. As you know, I have also been the victim of complaints from students to whom I was teaching Joyce.
Joyce's fiction has been complained about before, even prior to its publication. Indeed, Bonnell's experience as a teacher of Joyce recalls Joyce's own experience when he was trying to have "The Boarding House" published, along with the other Dubliners stories. In both cases, the issue was language. Grant Richards, who was to publish the book, objected to the word "bloody." Eager to have his book published, Joyce was willing to make a concession. On June 23, 1906, he wrote to Richards, "I shall delete the word 'bloodyÇ' wherever it occurs except in one passage in The Boarding House."
Richards still refused to publish Dubliners. Joyce eventually found someone who said he would, George Roberts of Maunsel and Co. But he, too, wanted Joyce to omit material, including passages from "The Boarding House." Perhaps one such passage was that containing the word "screw." Bonnell's student complained because he had said that "screw" was a reference to sexual intercourse. However, according to the OED, "screw" didn't acquire that meaning until later in the century. However, to Irish readers, "good screw" would have had a double meaning. It was slang for a high salary and also for "prostitute."
I've always regarded Polly as a "good screw" as a successful prostitute, selling sexual favors for the lifetime security of marriage. (For Bob Doran, as we learn in Ulysses--banned in America till 1933 for being "obscene"--the marriage, not surprisingly, will turn out to be miserable.)
I don't think that Bonnell's student would have been any happier with my interpretation than she was with his. She reminds me of the publishers Joyce encountered who were horrified by his use of slightly vulgar language and double entendres. Actually she is even less enlightened than they were, for she, hard as it is to believe, apparently wasn't aware until Bonnell told her that "screw" could refer to sex.
She reacted hostilely to a fact because she was offended by it; Bonnell, like a Greek messenger, was blamed for the information he gave. Whenever a complaint like hers is taken seriously by a college administration, the greater the danger that the relatively recent liberation of both mind and body Joyce helped achieve will be brought to an end.
You can read more about John Bonnell's situation here (keep scrolling; there are lots of entries), and you can read about Lang's situation here. If you are interested in learning more about Joyce's ongoing struggles with publishers, Richard Ellmann's biography, James Joyce, is an excellent resource.
November 16, 2003
What you can't say at Emory, revisited
It took awhile, but some members of the Emory faculty are finally standing up in defense of Carol Worthman's academic freedom. At a panel last month, Worthman was overheard describing her field--biological anthropology--in racialized terms: as far as cultural anthropologists at other institutions are concerned, she said, Emory's biological anthropolists are like "six n-----s in the woodpile." Tracy Rone, an assistant professor of linguistic anthropology who is also black, filed a complaint with Emory's Equal Opportunity Programs Office. An investigation was conducted, and the upshot was that Worthman was sanctioned and required to apologize verbally and in writing, so was the chair of anthropology (though he did not hear, and so did not implicitly condone, the remark), and the entire anthroppology department was sentenced to mandatory sensitivity training.
But, as happens so often when schools try to adjudicate questions of sensitivity, no one is satisfied. The Black Student Alliance says the school is doing too little. It wants the investigation reopened, and in a letter to the Emory administration it demanded that Emory institute a mandatory diversity course requirement, that Emory increase funding for diversity programs, and that the University "publish statistics on acts of intolerance." The letter also specified a date by which Emory should have met these demands. Jesse Jackson and the NAACP have been in touch with the BSA, and want to know if it plans to stage any demonstrations.
Meanwhile, some faculty say Emory has already gone too far. In a letter to Emory's president James Wagner, four Emory professors argue that in punishing Worthman for her speech, the university has committed ìa violation of academic freedom and of the rights of individuals.î The Emory Wheel reports some telling reactions to the letter on the part of Emory admins:
Wagner has not officially responded to the letter, but said he has seen ìthe text of the letter and will be considering [the position described in the letter].î He added that there are two issues that need to be discussed: how to deal with Worthmanís comment and what it means for the broader community.
He also said that a balance is needed between freedom of speech and possible insensitive expression of opinion.
ìI think itís a helpful discussion to have,î Wagner said.
Worthman could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
[Philosophy professor Ann Hartle, the author of the letter] defined academic freedom as the freedom to inquire and communicate about oneís discipline and the ability to teach unconstrained by political or social considerations.
ìWeíre talking about the freedom to exchange ideas without external constraints,î she said. ìI think most of what goes on in a university would go under that umbrella of academic freedom.î
But Robert Ethridge, vice president of Office of Equal Opportunity Programs, said Worthmanís comment was not permissible.
ìThe statement did not seem to fit into an academic context,î he said. ìUsually there is kind of an introduction to elements that might lead up to a statement that is controversial, and then there might be a possible discussion or explanation of it. That certainly did not occur. The statement was just put out there with no apparent context, and thatís what caused it to generate the excitement that it did.î
Associate Professor of Political Science Juan del Aguila, who cosigned the letter, disagreed with the investigationís findings.
ìThere is no question it was protected speech and that it was done in an academic context and in an open forum and ... in a metaphorical, if not allegorical, way,î he said. ìThat is how I understand that phrase was articulated. There is a wide altitude in which scholars and people on campus have to express themselves without fear of reprisal or retribution.î
As long as individuals like Wagner and Ethridge continue to think that it is possible to strike a "balance" between "freedom of speech and possible insensitive expression of opinion," and as long as they think they are the people to do it, Emory will have a big problem.
The Wheel article also notes that the speech code that was used to punish Worthman was created without the knowledge or advice of the Emory faculty. ìWhere did this policy come from?î Hartle asked the reporter. ìI have been here since 1984, [and] for the best of my recollection the faculty did not vote on this policy. If I remember correctly ó and if anyone can show me that Iím wrong, Iíll be happy to hear about it ó this policy came from the administration and it was simply decreed. Itís just a very serious matter because anything having to do with teaching and research and service to the college comes under faculty governance. ... So what I would like to see happen is the faculty to review this policy, to discuss it and to vote on it.î Emory has no plans to review its policy.
Thanks to Maurice Black for the tip.
UPDATE: Hartle is wrong about Emory's code being decreed from above without debate. In February of 1994, the Faculty Senate heard Mike Berry, president of the Student Government Association, argue for the repeal of the policy:
Mike Berry, President of the Student Government Association, reported that the SGA voted at its February meeting to call for a complete repeal of the University's policy on discriminatory harassment. Mr. Berry said that the action by the SGA was based on the belief that the policy has the potential for hindering the free exchange of ideas. Among the issues raised in the discussion which followed were: how has the policy been used, do Federal and state laws and other University policies adequately protect against harassment without the policy, does a policy like this impose more restrictions on Emory than would be legally allowed at public institutions, is the concern about freedom of expression created by the climate of the times and the weight of public opinion rather than the policy, do the words in this policy really mean what they say or do some words like sex and race have special meanings, would eliminating the references to oral and written expression make the policy better, would doing away with the policy hurt our efforts to build diversity on campus.
At the March 1994 meeting, the Faculty Senate debated the policy at length. Here is a partial summary, taken from the official minutes:
Jeffrey Bartos, sponsor of the Student Government Association resolution calling for a repeal of the policy, was called upon first to explain why he felt that the resolution was necessary. Mr. Bartos said that codes similar to Emory's had been creating turmoil across the country, and that he was concerned about what might happen at Emory when new leadership is appointed to replace President Laney. David Simanoff, out-going editor of the Wheel, mentioned a well-publicized incident at the University of Pennsylvania to illustrate how policies could be misused and argued that the student community should be responsible for censoring itself.
Dr. Lechner then recognized some faculty and administrators who had participated in a recent Alumni Assembly discussion on this issue. Political Science Professor Harvey Klehr noted that the policy gave outside speakers more freedom of speech on the campus than Emory faculty and students, and expressed concern that, without a list of offending phrases, individuals might offend without realizing it. Robert Ethridge, Director of Equal Opportunity Programs, mentioned that there has never really been complete freedom of speech because of libel laws, restrictions during war times, and similar legal restraints. The Department of Education's Civil Rights Office restricts racial harassment, and Emory's policy follows the guidelines from that office. Abuses have come at other schools, not from a policy which follows the guidelines, but from the way that the policies have been enforced. University General Counsel Joseph Crooks raised several questions about policies such as Emory's including who decides the standards, who enforces the policy, how can speech be restricted while still maintaining openness, does the policy make the academy more open to new groups, would the absence of the policy minimize the level of civility on campus. Claude Sitton, Emory alumnus and adjunct professor in the History Department, argued that the policy teaches students that censorship is okay and that placing limits on what one can say leads to limits on what will be learned. He mentioned that the codes have failed court tests. Referring to Justice Hugo Black, he argued that freedom of speech is indivisible.
Contrary to Hartle's claim, there was ample opportunity for Emory students and faculty to make their views of the speech code known, and there were some eloquent individuals who made excellent use of that opportunity. They did so to no avail, but they did do so. Later, in 2000, a columnist for the Emory Wheel made a compelling argument for getting rid of the speech code. It also appears to have gone unnoticed by the faculty who now profess to be shocked by Emory's chilling policy. The Worthman case may be the catalyst Emory's free speech advocates have been waiting for. Perhaps it's time for Emory to revisit its speech code. It sounds like both the faculty and students are not only ready to debate the issue, but ready to pay attention to the fact that the issue is being debated.
Thanks, again, to Maurice Black for the links.
November 14, 2003
Another John Bonnell moment
In response to my post, "A John Bonnell moment," another reader writes with the harrowing tale of how he found himself accused of sexual harassment after leaving an annoyed message on his company's help hotline:
Here's another silly story, this one from outside academia: I was working as a software tester at a very large software company. When we found critical bugs we were supposed to call a hotline and leave voicemail to get special attention. I had an important bug that I'd been calling in every day for a week, with no response. Finally, I called the hotline and asked who I had to sleep with to get somebody to call me back about this bug.
As it turns out, an (anonymous) female was monitoring the voicemail. Next thing I know, my job is being threatened, and, I am, of course, denied the right to know who my accuser was or to confront her about being such an idiot. At least I knew what I said that was so offensive, unlike your previous reader.
Fine, it was unprofessional for me to say that. But keep in mind, this is in a software company in the early '90's, almost entirely male-geek, and what I said wasn't culture shocking. It didn't even occur to me that it would offend anyone. I thought they'd get a laugh and it would make them more likely to triage my bug.
At first, I didn't take it seriously. I told HR I'd apologize for offending her delicate sensibilities if they'd get her to do her damn job. I thought it was Catch-22 absurd that I could be accused of sexually harassing someone I didn't know and had never seen. My attitude didn't go over very well. The Victim wanted a written apology for sexually harassing her, not just for offending her, and then she might let the matter drop. This put me in a moral dilemma. I didn't want to lose a sweet gig, but I was not about to assume the position.
So I lifted a bunch of stuff from some ridiculous essay by Catherine Mckinnon, and gave them the mother of all written apologies. It had footnotes. It was more than a dozen pages. I ramped the rhetoric up from McKinnon-nuts to Dworkin-nuts, proclaiming that I realized that all of Western civilization was at risk if baboons like me didn't knock it off with thinking they could offer sexual favors in exchange for code fixes. The powers that be were very impressed by the depth and scholarship of my contrition, and that was the end of it. I hope at least some of them knew I was making fun of the whole situation and were as amused as I was.
So, that's the end of the storyÖexcept forÖ.I'm very aware now of how much power a neurotic woman has in the workplace. And I act accordingly. I discriminate against women. Not in a big way. Not in a way that I even have moral qualms about. I've hired women, I work with women every day. I have several close female friends at work. I'm not paranoid, but I'm careful.
I avoid personal interaction with any woman who gives me the slightest hint that she's got a free-floating resentment problem with men, or who has crackpot feminist notions, or who is even a little strange. Men can be half a french fry short of a happy meal, and I make allowances. But not for women.
Iím not rude. I don't freeze such women out. I don't dislike them. I know that I'm jumping to conclusions and literally not giving them half a chance. I won't try to hurt their careers, even by acts of omission. But I'm all business with them: customer-service level courtesy, but not warmth or personal interest. I won't have a personal conversation. I won't even ask, How was your weekend? None of these women will be included in my personal network. None of them can call on me for favors, and I would never ask them for a favor.
I know this attitude of mine, to some extent, makes the "glass ceiling" thicker. It's not fair to the majority of women who would never stoop to such tactics. That's unfortunate. I didn't set up these rules.
This is an excellent example of how policies designed to prevent discrimination can forcibly produce it. I'm betting I am not alone in wishing I could see the MacKinnonite apology.
Thanks for writing.
A reader writes to explain the measures he takes to avoid being falsely accused of insensitive or harassing classroom speech:
Upon reading these various stories of teacher essentially persecuted for classroom speech that is either non-existent, or largely removed from context, I have committed to a technological solution to the "he said/she said" problem. The basis of most of these type of complaints usually comes down to a student or someone else with an agenda claiming something, and the teacher in question trying to defend themselves by saying that such a thing was never said.
What, of course, is missing for the teacher to defend him/herself is an unbiased observer that could faithfully reproduce the entire stream of speech in question. To this end, I am digitally recording each and every one of my lectures, though not only for this reason. The main reason is that both students and myself are able to go over any given lecture. I use this to be able to see if I have conveyed the material to my satisfaction, and the students understanding. The students use it to review subjects that remain unclear, and to catch up on any lectures they may have missed.
But, if ever faced with this kind of accusation, I will be able to produce an exact transcript of the event, and let my words stand for themselves. If, indeed, I am a racist, or abusive, or a poor teacher, I fully expect to be reprimanded and punished for it. I, obviously, do not believe I am any of those things, and am perfectly willing to bet my career on it. I find it a sad commentary on the current state of academia that I am forced into this role of preemption, but until the "witch hunt" mentality ebbs from the university status quo, I prefer the inconvenience of wearing a microphone to having to suspiciously watch every word that I say in lecture.
By the way, the technology to do this is not particularly expensive or difficult to use. I use a wireless (bluetooth) headset and USB dongle (about $150 together) and a program called "Camtasia" (academic licence about $130) to capture my voice (there are other programs that do this as well, I'm capturing more that just my voice). Each lecture winds up being about 100 MB/hour but that includes video of the screen. I'm sure that the voice alone could be compressed far below that. I figure that an $80 hard drive holds about one year of archived lectures, and that is extraordinarily cheap insurance against false accusation.
The advantage that I have in all of this is that I am in engineering, and this kind of thing really shouldn't come up. If it does, for whatever reason, I will at least have recourse to an unbiased recording of my side of the conversation. It is sad, but in my opinion, it will greatly reduce the probability that someone will make this kind of accusation falsely. Again, if the accusation is true, then let me hang by my own record.
Recording class will certainly prevent the he said/she said deadlocks that seem to characterize these scenarios. But it will do nothing to ensure that students have reasonable reactions to reasonable comments. In the example I cited yesterday, there was no disagreement about what was said ("Nice outfit, Mitzi"). But there was a whole lot of disagreement about whether it was reasonable to interpret that remark as harassing. That part remains entirely subjective, and wholly abusable.
Thanks for writing.
November 13, 2003
A John Bonnell moment
A reader writes to recount his brush with the campus sensitivity police:
I just wanted to write to tell you about my own little version of the Bonnell case. It's been a good while ago -- I was a graduate student at [large southern university], and teaching a course at the [local community college]. My students (and I, for that matter) were accustomed to wearing sloppy jeans, sweatshirts, etc. One day one of my students (female) came into class very dressed up: pretty white/aqua/silver sweater, neatly pressed denim skirt, white hose. I said (having been trained by my ex-wife that you're supposed to *notice* these things), "Nice outfit, Mitzi."
The next day, I was Summoned to the Dean's office and told (a) that someone had taken offense at (b) *something* I'd said, but that (c) I couldn't know who had complained or (d) what exactly I'd said that was offensive, because if I knew either one I might take some retributive action. I said I certainly hadn't meant to offend anyone, and would be happy to apologize to whomever was offended, but if she couldn't tell who was offended or what I'd said, I didn't know what to do. She replied that it didn't matter, but I'd better think of something if I didn't want to be terminated.
I eventually made the strangest apology ever, saying to the class that I understood that I'd said something that offended someone, that I didn't know who or how I'd offended, that I hadn't meant to offend, that if someone felt offendded and wanted totalk to me about it I promised there'd be no retribution, and so on.
This was apparently enough: I wasn't terminated. At the end of the term, another student came to me and said he'd heard the business about "nice outfit" was the issue, that it wasn't "Mitzi" who'd been offended, and that the person complaining was also a person who continually complained I was making the tests too hard. (She was the bottom of the curve, no question; the top of the curve had an 95+ percent average, and there was a fairly clean normal distribution.)
The issue was sort of moot. At that point: I had no intention of doing another term at [the college] (which was pretty horrible in a number of ways) and it didn't eventually cost me anything but a lot of humiliation -- and, hell, I was a graduate student, humiliation was my life. But it sure is hard, even today, not to think, first off, that the student who *did* complain was trying to use the complaint as a way out of a failing grade; second, that if I'd have been tenure track or a postdoc it could easily have been the end of my career; and third, that the notion of threatening termination under those conditions made it pretty clear that such a complaint could be made with no fear of consequences for the complainer (after all, there *was* no attempt at an investigation -- it went from complaint to threat of termination in less than 24 hours).
Which was, finally, one of a number of camel-breaking straws that caused me to give up an academic career.
I wonder how many other people had the same experience?
John Bonnell may have become the poster boy for insensitive classroom speech, but there are many, many people out there with stories similar to his. What this one shows is how entirely frivolous and malicious charges against a teacher's classroom speech can be, how entirely unaccountable the student who makes the accusation is, how entirely subjective the definition of "offensive" is in such instances, how entirely absent due process for the accused often is, and how thoroughly destructive it is, personally and professionally, to be on the wrong end of such accusations. It goes without saying that this is a highly gendered scenario: the accuser is almost always a woman, the accused is almost always male; the woman capitalizes on her status as victim of patriarchy to hide behind anonymous and even malicious accusations while the man has no rights because it is understood that of course he is a predator, and of course he does not deserve to be treated as if he is not.
Thanks for writing.
UPDATE: The author of the above letter writes to add the following:
The thing that really pisses me off about these things, though, is that I *know* there's real harassment going on, from unwanted touching to graduate advisors who want sex for that Big Signature. I don't have any problem with doing something about this, and in fact one of the reasons I really resent having been put in this position is that I am -- still! -- immensely insulted by being put in the same category.
But, dammit, if "no tolerance" policies mean that "nice outfit" is punished as harshly, or nearly as harshly, as groping a student, we're not just elevating "nice outfit" to be an assault, we're reducing assault to be nothing worse than an unwanted compliment. We end up in this situation where everyone "knows" that a harrassment complaint is probably "just some chick with a grudge."
November 12, 2003
A reader writes in response to my post about Emory's handling of an anthropology professor's use of the "n" word at a scholarly panel:
Nice piece on the Emory flap, Erin, especially your wondering why the assistant professor didn't try to handle the matter immediately or privately. When you turn at the end of the blog to the remark itself, "More to the point, by describing herself as the anthropological equivalent of a "n----r in a woodpile," she is criticizing the very concept of marginalization, and expressing her disgust not with black people, but with the logic of categorical demonization and exclusion that creates, among other things, racism. Her remark was not, in this respect, gratuitous or non-germane. It also was, quite arguably, not racist", I find myself resisting this.
It is quite clear to me that she was in no way "criticizing the very concept of marginalization"; she was rather resenting her marginalized, indeed victimized, status within the wider field of cultural anthropology. I take your point, in the blog's critique of the excessive, institutionalized response, but let's not grant this nimwit the critical edge she has clearly abandoned in a moment of petulant self-indulgence. There is no critique of racism here, only the politics of professional resentment shellacked in a particularly ugly veneer. And it is entirely, hideously, gratuitous for a tenured (white) professor of anthropology to compare her professional identity to a meddlesome enslaved African. (And you know, that phrase's meaning is not self-evident: while it has come, apparently, to mean a troublesome, unpredictable factor or person, it has also been associated with escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad. The etymology of the phrase, in other words, comes from the perspective of the white slaveholder's regard of missing property as troublesome. How "germane" can that be??)
As for your suggestion that her remark "was, quite arguably, not racist," I would say at this point that a great deal of argument would have to be made to convince me of this. "N------r at the woodpile," in the southern US, in earshot of an African-American junior professor, is an utterance which, while virtually incomprehensible to you and me, is utterly comprehensible to a whole lot of folk, which is why Carol Worthman has wholly earned the rebuke she has received. And I do think it's worth questioning the integrity of somebody who could use such a phrase, in such a context, at such a time.
Unfortunately, university bureaucracies, as you and I know too well, aren't the best places to wonder about these things. But can we really expect a junior professor to confront, even with--especially with!-- a mediating department chair, a senior colleague over something like this? Puhleeze! We can hardly expect them to use the photocopier when the tenured faculty (or their research assistants) are waiting.
Given this, and given the problems of the institutional approach you so ably outline, how _else_ do we go about confronting ugly, arguably racist gestures in the academy?
All great points, all well taken. As I wrote in my original post, I find Worthman's decision to use the phrase "six n-----s in a woodpile" both morally and linguistically incomprehensible. That's not a word I use, ever, and I have a hard time imagining any white person ever using the term in good faith (though of course, as John Lennon has shown, it can be done). At the same time, I think that an argument can be made for the remark being less horrifyingly callous than it initially seems. I sketched that argument out, for the sake of argument, in my post. My aim was to play devil's advocate in the hope of demonstrating two things.
The first is that it's better to talk about comments like Worthman's than to simply condemn them out of hand. Labelling things racist does not do much to end racism because it is an inherently anti-intellectual act. Trying to analyze where a comment gets its racial connotations and how it may be said to use--and abuse--those connotations brings us closer to an understanding of what it is about certain words or phrases that offends us. Incivility is not an obvious or self-evident phenomenon. It cannot be fought through condemnation alone.
This leads to the second thing I was trying to do with my suggestion that one may argue that Worthman's comment was not, strictly speaking, racist, which was to point out the enormous problem we face when we attempt to adjudicate through punitive means the moral status of someone else's speech. We can debate Worthman's comment all day. We can condemn her for making it, loudly, vociferously, publicly, and, hopefully, thoughtfully. But we cannot know what she actually said, or how she meant what she said, or what the precise context was, or how other people besides Rone heard her. Emory's attempt to mete out punishment on this basis, not just for Worthman, but for her entire department, is frighteningly authoritarian, and a worse violation, to my mind, of decency and dignity than Worthman's original comment.
All of this is to say that the short answer to this reader's question about how to respond to perceived instances of racist speech on campus is to meet reprehensible speech with more, and much better, speech. I'd welcome additional reader comments.
UPDATE: Ralph Luker has more, including an interesting history of the offending phrase.
UPDATE UPDATE: Eugene Volokh agrees with my suggestion that Worthman's remark need not be understood as racist. An irony here: Worthman's accuser is a linguist. Her sense of language's nuances seems, in this instance at least, to have failed her.
November 11, 2003
What you can't say at Emory
On September 15, Emory University's anthropology department held a panel discussion to celebrate its 25th anniversary. Afterward, Emory anthropology professor Carol Worthman was overheard describing how marginalized sociobiologists like herself are within a discipline that is reluctant to consider the possibility that there are biological explanations for human differences between sexes and across races. Emory's biological anthropologists are regarded by cultural anthropologists outside of Emory as "six n-----s in the woodpile," Worthman said. Her comment was heard by Tracy Rone, an assistant professor of anthropology at Emory who also happened to be the only black person at the panel. Rone filed a complaint with Emory's Equal Opportunity Programs office, which concluded that the event was an isolated one and was not indicative of a hostile environment (Rone disagrees, and wrote in an October 24 memo, penned with another black anthropology professor, that the Emory anthropology department is a place where "institutionalized .Ý.Ý. racism ... ranges from marginalization to intimidation"). The office nonetheless recommended that Worthman apologize verbally and in writing to Rone; that the anthropology department chair--who did not hear the remark--also apologize verbally and in writing to Rone; that he address his department, verbally and in writing, reiterating Emory's Policy Statement on Discriminatory Harassment; and that Worthman be punished with a to-be-determined sanction ranging somewhere from written reprimand to suspension.
If you are wondering how the office would have responded if it had considered Worthman's comment to be indicative of a hostile environment, you have only to consider the recommendations of Johnnetta Cole, former Emory professor and current president of Bennett College. Cole wrote the Emory anthropology chair (who had gone on record as saying, in response to the EOP recommendation, "Action will be taken"). An experienced administrator, Cole believes that a remark like Worthman's can and should be leveraged. That is what she did with her letter, which urged the anthropology department's apologetic chair to come up with a plan "for substantially increasing the number of graduate students and faculty of color." The assumptions behind her missive were these: that Worthman's comment indicates pervasive racism in the department; that pervasive racism of the sort indicated by the comment is the result of the department's lack of racial diversity; that increasing the number of non-white members of the department will either reduce that racism (implicitly, by reducing the numbers of racist whites, by sensitizing the remaining whites, and by policing, through sheer force of presence, those whites who remain insensitive); that moments like this are ideal for shaming academic institutions into making a hefty public commitment to the project of academic social engineering commonly known as "diversity." Cole's call was echoed by Emory's associate undergraduate dean, who pronounced the climate at Emory "not good" and who wants to see mandatory diversity training for everyone on campus.
Recommendations like these have taken root in recent days, and while the University continues to declare that this was an isolated incident, it has mandated the apologies recommended by EOP and has also mandated diversity training for the entire anthropology department. You can read Emory's statement here. Worthman has acknowledged making the comment, and has said in a public statement, "I am distressed that I offended unintentionally."
I do not condone Worthman's comment. It is almost incomprehensible to me that someone would use such a phrase, in this day and age, in any descriptive capacity. At the same time, I am at least as disturbed by Rone's method of responding to Worthman's comment and by Emory's response to Rone's complaint. What would have been wrong with Rone simply speaking up in the moment, and saying, "Excuse me, Professor Worthman, but I object to your language"? Or, if momentary shock kept Rone from speaking up, why couldn't she have taken the matter up privately with Worthman, either in person or over email, later? Or, if Rone, as a newly hired assistant professor, did not feel she could speak so bluntly to a senior colleague, why couldn't she have approached her chairman about the matter, and asked him to mediate? Why was a formal complaint of discriminatory harassment the first line of action here? A great deal of energy has been spent thinking about what Worthman's comment says about her, and about what her comfort in making the comment says about the atmosphere in which she works. But it would also be worth thinking about what Rone's complaint says about her and about Emory, about what it means that she was so ready to bring charges against a colleague--someone who is not a stranger, someone she works with, someone she knows--for making an offensive comment, and about what it means that Emory was so willing to respond to that complaint not only by punishing a professor for her speech, but by declaring an entire department to be racist by proxy. It strikes me that Emory may be creating hostile racial stand-offs in the moment of trying to avoid and prevent them.
Emory is a private institution and so is not obligated to uphold the First Amendment. And Emory does have a speech code that forbids "objectionable epithets" and "demeaning depictions." But the university states, in the same policy, that "The scholarly, educational, or artistic content of any written, oral, or other presentation or inquiry shall not be limited by this Policy.Ý It is the intent of this paragraph that academic freedom be allowed to all members of the academic community." Worthman used the epithet in a self-referential way, as part of an attempt to characterize her own minority, marginal status within her profession. More to the point, by describing herself as the anthropological equivalent of a "n----r in a woodpile," she is criticizing the very concept of marginalization, and expressing her disgust not with black people, but with the logic of categorical demonization and exclusion that creates, among other things, racism. Her remark was not, in this respect, gratuitous or non-germane. It also was, quite arguably, not racist. As such, it sits in the impossible no man's land created by campus speech codes, that zone where one person's reasoned--if tasteless--remark comes into conflict with another person's emotional reaction. Emory has decided that emotional reaction trumps reasoned remark. In so doing, the university believes it is fostering tolerance. In reality, it is betraying the principle of the university itself.
November 9, 2003
From a reader who gets it
A reader who is currently commencing an assistant professorship in political science has this to say about the John Bonnell case:
The ongoing fight of John Bonnell is very frightening to me. I am a newly hired tenure-track poli sci professor; for the first time in my teaching career I am extremely, even hyper-aware of everything I say and do inside and outside the classroom. I have not heard any such horror stories at my school (either recounted with fear from faculty or glee from administration) but that does not mean that these cases don't exist on a less inflamatory level.
This case reminds me of several child-molestation cases that occurred in the mid- to late-1980s. The McMartin preschool case in LA, the case against the church pastor in Washington state, and other cases in Florida (through which Janet Reno made her name as a prosecutor). Parents became convinced that their children were attending heretofore unknown Satanic sex cults masquerading as day care centers. "Innocent until proven guilty" went out the window if somebody could convince a small child to tell a story that the adults wanted to hear. All of these extremely sensational, highly emotionally charged cases proved to be without merit.
In many ways the politically correct indoctrination our students receive from the time they are in high school and earlier primes them to make these types of accusations even if unfounded; as you've discussed many times, they feel that they have a right to go through life without ever being offended, without ever having to justify or defend a position, or without ever having their beliefs challenged. They find some class material uncomfortable and immediately decide that it violates their right to a warm, fuzzy, nonconfrontational life. In addition, having learned how to work the system, students can use such accusations against a professor as a form of revenge when the student feels s/he didn't receive the "proper" grade for a given class.
To those students in their cocoons and the adults who encourage such behavior, I ask "what color is the sky in your world?" I just hope that, like the child molestation cases, as cases like John Bonnell's are proven to be empty, administrators shown to be vindictive, self-interested witch hunters, and the media spotlight shines more brightly on such extreme miscarriages of justice and authority, the system will repair itself. But it may be that the sky in my world is a different color (how do you color overly optimistic?)
I'm glad you and others are persisting in your publicizing of such cases. The more people that know about these issues, the better. And to those who are so quick to judge with only one side of the story, remember the line about living in glass houses. In the current climate, anybody can become the accused.
John Bonnell's case has had me thinking of the 80's-era child molestation cases as well. Dorothy Rabinowitz profiles these in chilling detail in her recent book, No Crueler Tyrannies (for a Wall Street Journal column that gives the flavor of her work on the subject, see her 1999 piece, "Only in Massachusetts"). Rabinowitz explicitly describes the rash of trumped-up, totally incredible molestation cases that characterized that period as witch hunts. Her work is terrifying, not simply for the stories of irreparable injustice it recounts, but for the way it reminds us how ready we are to believe the impossible (especially when it's prurient), how quick we are to persecute the accused (especially when the accusation is morally and sexually repugnant), how damaging the whole cycle of punitive scapegoating is for everyone involved (accusers as well as accused), and how vulnerable we all are to false and malicious accusation. It's worth a look, and it's worth contemplating how readily the closed, moralistic space of the speech-coded campus can become a crucible for the sort of irrational puritanical fascism Rabinowitz describes. It's not possible to appreciate or understand the ramifications of the Bonnell case without doing so.
November 8, 2003
She said, she said
Last spring, a woman student filed a complaint against John Bonnell for teaching Joyce's "The Boarding House" in a manner she found offensive. We do not know the woman's name, or the precise nature of her allegations. But we do know that Bonnell was suspended without pay last summer because of it (he lost $8,000 in income), and we also know that this complaint was taken by the Macomb Community College administration as the last straw in its ongoing attempt to break its most outspoken English professor. Bonnell was "counseled" last August that he needed sensitivity training (MCC generously offered to pay for it) and warned that if another such complaint comes in, he'll be fired.
Last spring, a woman named Katie Brown also took Bonnell's course. At the close of the term, she was telephoned by an MCC-appointed lawyer and questioned closely about Bonnell's conduct in the class. She was unaware that a complaint had been filed; the questions came out of the blue. Her account of the Q&A--which she wrote up for Bonnell and consented to have published--is fascinating. Brown was basically being coached to incriminate Bonnell--but the coaching failed because she could recall not a single instance when Bonnell did any of the things that, she later learned, he had been accused of doing. She does not consider Bonnell to be a harasser. But she does consider herself to have been harassed by the MCC administration.
Here's Brown's cover letter to Bonnell:
July 31, 2003
Dear Mr. Bonnell:
I hope these letters [recounting telephone experiences with College and Union "investigators"] will help your cause. I took your request for detail literally. I hope you are not offended by the letters. I apologize that I didn't get them to you sooner; they were not easy letters to write.
An obvious prejudice and injustice has taken place against you. I wish I could do more to help.
I did also speak to that man [Jamie Cook] from The Macomb Daily. I did not see the article. I don't trust the press, so I hope that he didn't twist my words.
Take care and best of luck to you. Feel free to contact me if you need anything more regarding this issue.
And here is Brown's account of the phone inquisition to which she was subjected last spring:
July 31, 2003
To Whom It May Concern:
During the spring semester of 2003 I was enrolled in and attended English 122, led by Mr. John Bonnell. As a result of attending this class I received a phone call by a lawyer, Mr. Len Niehoff. I found this call to be very offensive and upsetting.
Initially, Mr. Niehoff asked if I was enrolled in English 122 spring semester of 2003 with Professor John Bonnell. I stated that that information was correct. Mr. Niehoff then asked on a very general level if Mr. Bonnell had offended me personally in anyway during the course of the semester. I replied that he did not offend me. Mr. Niehoff then asked me if I was offended by any of the material we studied in class. Again I said no. He then asked if during the class discussions, did Mr. Bonnell say or do anything that offended me or that I considered inappropriate. Again I said no. At this point I asked Mr. Niehoff what this call was about. I asked if the college made it routine to interview students at the conclusion of the term as a way of checking up on Mr. Bonnell. He said no, the college does not check up on Mr. Bonnell; however, a complaint was filed against him from one of his classes that semester. He explained that the procedure then in this instance would be to interview several students to see if the complaint could be considered valid.
At this point, Mr. Niehoff asked me if he could ask a series of specific questions pertaining to Mr. Bonnell's behavior during the course of the semester. I said that he could ask me the questions. Mr. Niehoff began by asking if Mr. Bonnell said any of the following words during class: shit, bitch, damn, hell, ass or assholes, or fuck. I stated that I did not recall him saying any of those words. He asked if Mr. Bonnell ever referred to the female genitalia, or females in general, as cunts or pussies. I replied no, I did not recall him ever using those terms. He asked if Mr. Bonnell ever grabbed his genitalia during class or made any thrusting motions to illustrate class material. I said no, I did not recall such actions. Mr. Niehoff asked if Mr. Bonnell used the term beaver to represent genitalia. I said no.
At this point, feeling frustrated and offended at such questions, I asked Mr. Niehoff which class the complaint came from. He said that he could not give out that information. I asked what the complaint was. He said he could not give out that information either. I then explained to Mr. Niehoff that I felt that the questions that he was asking me were way out of line and ridiculous, and that I couldn't imagine anyone filing a complaint because Mr. Bonnell never did anything that I would consider offensive or inappropriate. I explained that I felt he actually went out of his way not to offend anyone or act in a manner that later could be considered inappropriate. Mr. Bonnell discussed with the class, on a few brief occasions when it was appropriate and related to the material were we discussing, the censorship laws and restrictions that college Professors are teaching with today. In one of the brief discussions, it was said that Professors have to treat the adult college students as though they are fourteen-year-old students. I explained to Mr. Niehoff that I was personally offended about that law. I explained that I do not appreciate a board of education deciding that I should be treated like a fourteen year-old. I explained to Mr. Niehoff that I was
angry and offended by this phone call. I reiterated that Mr. Bonnell did not say or do anything offensive at all, but rather was a very good teacher, very patient and went out of his way to see his students succeed in his class. I explained that I personally learned a lot of beneficial skills for reading from his class that I would not have learned from another Professor. To that note, I explained that I felt the college should focus on the teachers who start semesters expecting their students to fail and who do not encourage their students to excel.
To conclude the phone call, Mr. Niehoff asked if he could produce a letter of summary regarding our conversation. He explained that he would then mail it to me and I could read it over and then sign it if I felt the summary was accurate. I told him that he could send me the letter of summary and that I would read it but that I probably would not sign it because I didn't want the document going to court and my words being twisted to make Mr. Bonnell or myself look bad. Mr. Niehoff did not send me a letter to review.
Katie M. Brown
Two women, one classroom, two realities. One will put her name to her account of what's true, one hides behind anonymous, unspecified accusations. I'd love to hear from more students who took that English 122 course, if you are out there. I sincerely doubt that Niehoff only phoned Katie Brown.
Mr. Niehoff is a civil liberties lawyer specializing in higher education issues. He has taught law school courses on the First Amendment.
Refuting Bonnell's accusers
I continue to get mail telling me that I've missed the point about John Bonnell, and that he is a pervert who does not belong in the classroom. None of the mail is from his former students; it is all from people who have read the accusations against him and have allowed their imaginations to linger credulously over the absurd caricature the Macomb Community College administration presented as fact. Likewise, commenters at Invisible Adjunct continue to pronounce Bonnell guilty, despite the lack of evidence to support the accusations against him.
The thought process, I think, is that anyone who is the subject of such hideous accusations must be doing something to bring them on; moreover, anyone who gets suspended without pay because of such accusations, and who does so multiple times, must not only be doing something to bring them on, but must be stupid to boot. These sentiments--and they are sentiments, not reasoned positions--seem to me to be the convenient conclusions of well-intentioned bystanders who are not familiar with the phenomenon of the academic witch hunt, and who have never personally seen or experienced just how unrelentingly sick university administrators on a moral mission can be. Readers who are thinking this way are making understandable mistakes--but they are not making innocent ones; they are colluding with the MCC administration by crediting the outrageous claims against Bonnell because they are outrageous, and in the process they are sacrificing a man for the sake of their own moral comfort. It's easier to believe Bonnell is an uncontrolled pervert using his classroom to get rhetorically off on a captive audience of students less than half his age than it is to accept that sometimes people really do get badly, repeatedly, relentlessly screwed, with no recourse, and no prospect of justice or reparation.
Julie Sergel, who took three courses from Bonnell while at MCC and whose statement to the MCC Board of Trustees defending Bonnell I reprinted Thursday, has posted a comment on Invisible Adjunct that speaks directly to the point I make above:
I cannot help but comment and agree with those of you who recognize that the "personal anecdotes" attributed to Bonnell are out of bounds. Some of them sickened me to read, but probably not for the same reasons that they disgusted you. I am nauseated by the fact that so many otherwise intelligent people take these allegations as fact, and that a man such as Bonnell is being so defamed. Between 1996 and 1998 I took three classes with Bonnell - unfortunately he only taught three classes - had he been employed to teach more I probably would have listed my major as "Bonnell." No one disputes that Bonnell was akin to use the whole language, including many of the words cited when called for. But the stories, these horrific stories, fall somewhere between totally distorted and overblown accounts BASED on comments actually made, and bald-faced lies. One post cited that even his numerous student supporters have not attended ALL of his classes. This is true, but after years of classes, you begin to recognize the boundaries set by a professor - both those which he does and does not cross. Furthermore, since his latest suspension, I have had the privilege of getting to know this man - I may say as a fellow educator, although I must admit that I still look upon him with an air of admiration and humility - and having become acquainted with him on a personal level, I am even more aware of his level of integrity and propriety. Does he stretch the boundaries? Yes. Better and more effectively than anyone I know. Is there anyone out there who doubts that this is the best - if not the only - way to learn and to grow? Is he an offensive, perverted, prurient exhibitionist? The only way I can express the extent to which I disagree with this opinion is to say "HELL NO!" I patiently await a challenge by someone who claims otherwise, but let me qualify this because I'm sure there are many out there just waiting to dismiss or refute my claims. Let me hear from someone who knows firsthand that Bonnell is guilty as accused, who felt harassed by him, AND who is justified enough in their claims that they aren't afraid to sign their names and have their claims scrutinized by the public, as have been the accusations against John Bonnell.
November 7, 2003
From the trenches
Last week, I wrote to John Bonnell to ask what his life is like these days, now that he is teaching with the awareness that his career will end the moment one of his students decides he or she objects to his language and complains. This is his reply:
You ask whether my uneasiness continues, the disease prominent at the beginning of the semester. It does. Every day I appear at the college ready to teach, occasionally still eager to teach--but wondering, after 37 years, if it will be my very last day. This is no exaggeration; I have been suspended abruptly, without notice, before. I have been evicted from the classroom and barred from my office in media res before. The College does not always institute investigations and punishment after a stretch of circumspection. It reserves the right to devastate first, then review what it did and meant later. History lesson: not only was I summarily suspended in February, 1999, I was banished from campus, unless I had "union" or other necessary business to pursue, such as to appear at inquisitions. On those occasions, I was ordered to report to the campus Public Safety headquarters and, depending upon the number of available officers, have at least one and sometimes two assigned as my escorts. If none were ready at the moment, I had to wait until one was. These officers, of course, were in uniform and armed. Imagine the absurdity, the insult, of such a guard waiting for me outside the door of a chamber of inquisition, ready to collect me when I emerged. Imagine the scope of this public humiliation before my students and colleagues. Imagine one student, a young woman, excitedly approaching me to apologize for being absent, beginning a plea that I accept her late paper. She had not seen, or had not understood the significance of, the guard hard by my side. When I did not move to receive her offered homework; when she saw the shake of my head and my slightly averted gaze; she then saw the escort, and muttered, "Oh, shit!" She flung the paper onto a table, and fled. This period of nearly a month was a species of brutality I never imagined could happen to an American professor merely suspected of speech and thought crimes. The demonstration was effective; I will never be able to forget.
And this time, as you know, I am threatened with termination, per the Memorandum from Provost Noreen Thomas, dated August 8, 2003: "I must inform you that the College will not tolerate any further violation of its policy against sex harassment or its policy against the use of profane, obscene or vulgar language that is not germane to course content as measured by professional standards .Ö Nor will the College tolerate any future digressions into sexual topics that are offensive to a reasonable person and unjustifiable as measured by professional standards. A future transgression of any of these standards will result in a recommendation that your employment be terminated."
But, unlike other circumstances where each day might be one's last, there is no enhancement of quotidian activity, no deepened appreciation of the thing that cannot last, the thing that may soon be lost. (I hesitate to say how much teaching has enchanted me, how much I have reason to believe I have charmed, have illuminated, others. Ms. Grundy says, "No pain, no gain!" I prefer my own formula: No pleasure, no treasure. But, if I say how much it means, what delight I have found therein, I may merely compound the ineluctable grief. I do not discount the federal judges, who rather harshly agreed among themselves that I have no "right" to such employ. I just wish they understood no one else has the right to deny me, particularly for such vicious and transient reasons. At least, for the nation's sake, I hope the reasons are transient, and that, to preserve the people's freedom, the viciousness is exposed and disowned.) Instead of delight in drinking academic life to the lees, there is mostly dread. The flow of my speech is often self-interrupted, as I stumble to monitor, to modify, or to justify what I am saying or may have recently said. Since students occasionally have no better grasp of what "germane" means than the College has, I often have to explain my explanations or, like Bottom, remind them that I am not your very lion. That is, the view in some message just presented may not necessarily be that of the messenger (when presenting, say, the racism of a character created by Flannery O'Connor, or the sexism of another found in Hemingway). And diction, of course, is akin to oral cancer. It may seem benign until, too late, it's dispersed in common air. I have been warned that "hell" and "damn" are punishable; I can get no assurances whether "heck" and "darn" are sufficiently cleansed or are just as "gratuitous" or "vulgar." We must wait the event, to see who is offended. The index of forbidden lingo expands with each new complaint. A euphemism one student tolerates may constitute an outrage to another, one who is doubtless more reasonable. There is no way to anticipate. And I have been unwilling to profit from the College's assurances that I can find "safety and comfort" as long as I restrict myself to a reading of the text. The words and ideas of professors are problematic, but not those in print. My torment is compounded by the fact that I present the literature I teach in a dramatic fashion, offering it, as one insightful student observed, as a "performance art." When talking about "A Good Man is Hard to Find," I don't just analyze the Misfit, I become him. I essay to give voice to his pain, to the horror he has seen. But, if I had contented myself with being a drone, a creature like the blue parrot on Bailey's yellow shirt, I wouldn't be like I am now. I wouldn't be a frightened, stuttering performer whose script is askew.
A further difficulty is posed by my laissez-faire style of classroom management. I do not require attendance or insist that students be assembled when I arrive, or wait for general dismissal to leave. I have always done it this way, relying on the adults I meet to reciprocate the respect, to keep disruptions to a minimum. Most do. Now, though, when anyone leaves early, I experience a rush of fear, wondering whether the fugitive was "offended," or might even be looking for an authority with which to lodge a complaint. Sometimes the surprise, the arrest, is written on my face. "She had to go to the bathroom." Oh. "His father is in the hospital, and he has to leave." Yes. I remember now that he had told me. Last week, I think it was. . . . A few days ago, a student left abruptly when I was describing James Joyce's attitude toward the Roman Catholic Church, how he was apt to lampoon aspects thereof or persons he deemed ludicrous or hypocritical. The student was flushed, visibly upset. Minutes before bolting he had blurted out: "That was BEFORE Vatican Two!" His indignation was intense. Will he complain? Even now, the inquisitor may be preparing the next inquest (reminding me that I am entitled to "union representation," a thing I can never get). Will my career thus be ended? The disturbance was not over the chronically dangerous topic of sexuality. But the new Harassment Code, its eleven regions of "Do Not Enter" liberally mined with threats of discipline, includes religion.
I have not changed the authors I teach, nor the prickly portions they may have penned. But, despite my best intentions, I find the self-censor often seizing my tongue. Also this week (it seems something happens every day, if not every class), a bright student spoke briefly with me after class. He wondered why I had brushed quickly past the masturbation sequence in Joyce Carol Oates' "Where are you Going? Where have you Been?" I admitted I had done so, and I apologized. It was the very first time I had ever so done. I pointed out that I was nervous enough explicating the "secret code, 33, 19, 17," which comes to a sum the dreaming and virginal character Connie "didn't think much of." I said that she, like any of us when young, had some recognition but no experience of the dangerous digits. I then, more hastily than usual, recounted how, at age ten, I had been assigned to a barracks named "The Fighting Sixty-Ninth" at a summer camp conducted by the Catholic Youth Organization. I told how I and all my age mates giggled and giggled at our good fortune to be so situate. And that remained true despite the official explanation around the campfire that our barracks was named after the valorous Irish regiment which honored holy purity as much as their duty to the nation. The sixth and ninth commandments were their insignia and their calling. Giggle, giggle. (The fourth item on an evaluation instrument all teachers are required to give to every class has this intelligence: "Examples and anecdotes were used to help clarify the subject." And the College highly endorses such behavior, unless the subject is sex. Then it reserves the right to punish without stint, should any student object.) Though I have yet to be indicted for teaching this rich work (unlike Oates' far less incendiary, sexually speaking, story "In the Region of Ice"), that is simply due to blind luck. I assign it often, but apparently just beyond the in-class or out-of-class censors' grasp.
After the apology, I went on to tell this student that I apprehend there may be a censor or two installed, by self-appointment or recruitment, in that very class. I did not, of course, say who I thought it was, or what behavior had been exhibited to induce my suspicion and my caution. I further explained that I hope I am mistaken. Yet the very possibility of such a mistake, the very fear that makes such paranoia probable, is one measure of the terrible burden under which I try to function. Many days, in fact, that is all that I can manage--to be functional. The joy, the flourishing, that used to typify my teaching knows occasional revival; but mostly it survives only in memory, in nostalgic recall.
John Bonnell is technically still teaching at Macomb Community College, and as the letter I posted yesterday attests, he continues to inspire and excite the students he teaches. But Macomb administrators have, without actually firing Bonnell, effectively ended his career. In his own eyes, he is a shadow of his former professorial self; he cannot commit his entire mind to teaching because he must worry at every moment whether he is saying something that will cost him the job he loves. John Bonnell's conscience is clear--he has not allowed the local thought police to shame and humiliate him into bland, conforming silence. But he is nonetheless suffering the effects of a violated conscience--he has his integrity, but he also has the full, distracting awareness of what his integrity has and will continue to cost. Truly dedicated, tireless teachers are so rare; teachers who can create the sort of open, joyfully inquisitive classroom atmosphere Bonnell's student supporters say he creates are rarer still; teachers who can still do this, and still want to do this, after thirty-seven years are on the order of unicorns. The case of John Bonnell is not simply the case of a job about to be lost, but of a gift that can no longer be safely and freely given. The people who are losing the most at Macomb Community College are the students. John Bonnell knows this, and as the letter above makes palpably clear, he mourns for his students far more than he mourns for himself.
UPDATE: Another of Bonnell's students weighs in at Invisible Adjunct.
I scoff at the ridiculous allegations. C'mon now, he didn't say that stuff. That's just a bunch of over-hyped nonsense. Grow up.
I'm currently enrolled in one of Professor Bonnell's classes, fall of 2003. This is the first English course I've attended in a long time that's actually made me excited to go to class. His class has opened my eyes to recognize different sides and hidden meanings in every aspect of life and his mind is simply fascinating to watch operate. The man truly is a genius.
"Do the accusations against Bonnell represent trumped-up charges made on the basis of a handful of complaints by hypersensitive or hostile students?"
As far as I can tell from my current semester, absolutely. Yes, he does branch off and talk about his personal life and some of it might be a little more risky than your typical noun-verb-adjective english prof, but I feel it's very relevant to the particularly difficult subject matter he's addressing and it really helps clarify some of the points he's beating on. The average age of students at Macomb Community College is 26 for christ sakes. Grow up, people. We're all adults and it's all part of our language. He doesn't over-use any foul language and, as long as I have known him, is very tastfully selecting what to say and what not to say. I haven't heard the word "pussy" or "blow-job" nor "corpse-fucker" or "anal-rapist". This is just amazing to me how blown up this crap has gotten.
Was I around in 1998 when some of the previous fires were lit? No, unfortunately I was not. But I will stick up for my Professor at this time and say that, while he might be a little controversial, I feel he's doing a hell of a job teaching a very difficult subject matter and I hope I get to take another of his courses in the future. If my path doesn't let us cross again, you're damn sure I'll take him out for a drink and thank him for the knowledge seed he's planted in my head.
ALSO, what the hell's with this imposed gag order? There must be something else going on. I'd really like to get to the bottom of it, but I fear I only have a little over a month left in the semester. Sigh. Damn the administration.
Feel free to email me with any questions. I'd be glad to talk with any of you. My instant messanger name is saksafon and my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Radical concept: the free and open exchange of information. Would that the Macomb administration were as willing to answer questions--and encourage informed opinions--as this guy is. But, then, it just may be that Macomb's case against Bonnell cannot stand up to scrutiny. Secrecy is funny that way: it usually means you have something to hide.
From a reader
I have to admit that one of the reasons this case hasn't gotten my ire is that the accusations against Professor Bonnell, if true, represent a shocking abuse of his position. As you point out, though, the accusations themselves don't seem all that credible and are doubtful enough that I really ought to have given the man the benefit of the doubt--which is the requisite approach of a free society to anyone accused of anything.
It occurs to me that this administration may be "crying rape"ÝinÝa way. What I mean by that perhaps regrettable analogy is that some accusations are so awful that it is difficult to simply suspend judgment. We want to believe the accuser. This is because the only way justice will be served is if A) the accused is guilty, and B) they have been caught and punished. Any deviation from this scenario represents a travesty of justice (for example, if the person is punished but not guilty, guilty but not punished, etc. By making extreme allegations, the administration automatically diminishes the Professor's chance for meaningful inside or outside support.
Also, I noticed that one of your letter-writers made the remark that what our schools are actually producing is a legion of intolerant, half-educated ideologues. A great example is what happened to me yesterday.
I have a couple of bumper-stickers on my car. One reads "Have You Made a Hippie Cry Today?" and the other has a picture of the Earth with the words "Visualize Me Ignoring You." Provocative, perhaps, but nothing exceptional.
Well, one of the university's enlightened footsoldiers left a note on my car yester day, asking me to "Visualize" him breaking my jaw, and further advising me that I was "asking for it" with my "blatent [sic] public display of hate." I hardly knew how to react. Obviously, the irony isn't worth lingering on, since this was not a rational response to an objectionable bumper sticker. I found it endlessly fascinating, though, and I've hung it on my office wall.
This could only happen on a college campus, and that's the part that's so chilling.
Thanks for writing.
November 6, 2003
From two of John Bonnell's students
Before posting John Bonnell's extended response to my question about what it is like to be teaching under the burden of imminent potential firing for any remark that may offend any student in his classes, I want to post statements from two of his students. The first is an email I got today from a woman student currently taking a world literature course from Bonnell:
I am an older student, 39 yrs of age and I have had 20 yrs experience in business. I find John Bonnell to be a fabulous teacher, always pushing the envelope to create an environment where the "norm" is not necessarily the healthiest vision. How can we read the works of Euripides and not discuss sex and the views of the Euripedes time in comparison to today? I am thankful for an honest, probing professor, that speaks of words not to offend but to enlighten. Why do we believe the way we believe? Many young adults are being brought up in a "politically correct" culture and to our discredit as a society, we are raising "intolerant" adults, not the hopeful "tolerant" adults. Many people get so ruffled by the slightest sexual conotation or jest....
I love John Bonnell's teaching style and look forward to the possibilities that evolve with each class....
thank you for your work and your defense of free speech.
The second statement was delivered last August to the Macomb Community College Board of Trustees. It addresses both Bonnell's teaching style and the new speech code MCC created last spring in response to its ongoing problems with Bonnell's teaching style:
My name is Julie Sergel, and I am here today to address the Board regarding the new ìUnlawful Harrassmentî policy and the suspension of John Bonnell.
There is very little to say that hasn't been said to you before, so I will tell you of my personal experiences, with Professor Bonnell and with Education in general. I spent 2 years at MCC before transferring to Wayne State and graduating Magna Cum Laude with a degree in English and Education. My first B in a long line of A's for English was earned in my first class with Prof. Bonnell. It was a great challenge to change my way of thinking from high school to college level. It did not happen overnight but I credit it happening at all to Professor Bonnell. As a student in his later classes, as my intellectual confidence rose, also much to his credit, Prof. Bonnell and I had more than one disagreement on literary interpretation. Yet every disagreement was met with open ears, an open mind, and most of all, respect - respect for the fact that different people have different opinions and should be free to express them without fear of scorn, dismissal or penalty. This man who is being kept from the classroom, whose language and attitudes have been attacked as being dangerous and derisive, has apparently maintained a higher integrity than the administration of this college, which has taken every opportunity to attempt to discredit, admonish, and vilify Prof. Bonnell while ignoring the barrage of students and members of the community who have stepped up to defend this teacher and have made appeal after appeal to keep Bonnell in the classroom where he belongs.
As much as my words are meant to support Prof. Bonnell, my primary purpose here is to speak in defense of myself and future MCC students. The recent passing of the speech code in March, in direct and utter conflict with that passed in 1995, has left me shocked and appalled. Having worked in public schools for 3 years, I have abided by the rampant censorship currently overtaking public education, under the guise that underage students must be protected from speech and ideas. I have waited patiently and hopefully for the day that I could complete graduate school and move on to higher education, a place where academic freedom reigned and words and ideas were not suppressed and feared. My dream is dying with every day that adult students are being oppressed under a ludicrous policy that forbids them to speak or hear a word, phrase or idea that someone may deem offensive, regardless of the context, situation, intention, or purpose. I am an adult and a woman, a voter and a taxpayer, a teacher and a lifelong student, and, above all, an American. As all of these things, I am deeply offended by the assertion that I must be protected from so-called ìoffensive languageî. This is not high school. I am not a child, nor is anyone who attends this college. Voltaire said, "I may disagree with what you have to say, but I shall defend to the death your right to say it." Hundreds of thousands of Americans have fought and died to assure that our freedoms are maintained. Thousands of students have been fortunate enough to have Prof. Bonnell as their teacher. Scores of students have come to you or the administration, written and even protested, urging you to support Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech. TWO students have filed complaints. Bonnell does not offend, he educates and enlightens. However, to the students who do take offense at his teaching style I say: I welcome every opportunity to speak my mind. I value the freedom to learn and read and speak and hear anything. Therefore, I welcome the chance that I may be offended. One moment, one hour, one semester of discomfort - is insignificant when compared to a lifetime of oppression, intolerance, and ignorance. Thank you.
One reason John Bonnell has had such a hard time is that even hard core free speech advocates run up against a moral barrier when they hear what he is accused of saying. They run up against such a powerful--and powerfully unexamined--moral barrier that they often unquestioningly credit the accusations, even though they are, quite literally, incredible, even though Bonnell denies their accuracy, and even though many students have come forward, like those quoted above, to declare both the falseness of the accusations against Bonnell and their absolute support not just of his academic freedom, but of his particular manner of inhabiting his academic freedom.
I haven't taken Bonnell's classes. But, with one exception, neither have the people weighing in on this case over at Invisible Adjunct's comments section. I have, however, seen false and distorted accusation at work, and I have personally witnessed--not to mention experienced--the way students can use vicious rumor and disingenuous misreporting of fact to damage the reputations of professors they have decided they want to harm. It's a hazard of teaching, where no one but students themselves knows what happens in a teacher's classroom (this makes a teacher's colleagues both unable and unwilling to defend him against false accusations). And it's a phenomenon that has only grown worse--indeed, been institutionally ratified--by just the sorts of harassment policies Bonnell's complainants have found so strategically useful.
The commenters at Invisible Adjunct who note that academic freedom is not a license to do or say anything and everything in the classroom are right. But it is worth noting that Bonnell's staunchest defenders are his students, that many of them are women, and that their defense of him is not that of blind adherence to an abstract pedagogical principle, but of principled appreciation for the way Bonnell creates and maintains a classroom atmosphere that they have found uniquely inspiring, educational, and intellectually sustaining. I find such testimonials extraordinarily credible, particularly because they come at a time when Bonnell-bashing has become a kind of institutional sport at Macomb Community College. If accusations of the sort that have been levelled at Bonnell are rare, statements like Julie Sergel's are more so. They should not be taken less seriously than the accusations simply because they are less sensational.
November 5, 2003
The trials of John Bonnell
Last summer, I devoted considerable space to the case of John Bonnell, the Macomb Community College English professor whose occasional use of profanity in the classroom has made him the target of a sustained administrative witch hunt at his school (read the entries and related links in order here, here, here, here, and here). Bonnell has been suspended without pay from teaching several times since 1998, when a fragile woman student filed a complaint against him for using profane language in class. Over the years, as Bonnell refused to alter his pedagogy, eloquently defended his rights, and publicly protested the school administration's treatment of him, Macomb Community College has decided that Bonnell is a serial sexual harasser whose classroom constitutes the proverbial "hostile environment." Since 1998, they have disciplined him and counseled him, suspended him and threatened him, tracked his speech and punished him for it, despite the fact that the school is a public institution obligated to uphold the First Amendment. They have also forbidden him to discuss the details of his situation, warning him that if he attempts to defend himself publicly, they will consider him to be in violation of the complainants' confidentiality. In the dim and distorted vision of the MCC administration, John Bonnell's right to speak up on his own behalf is trumped by the rights of his accusers never to be challenged; even if he conceals their identities, they claim, Bonnell will be guilty of "retaliating" against them if he makes the basic facts of their accusations known.
All the while, the MCC faculty union has looked on, unwilling to defend one of their ranks despite the chilling and abusive nature of the MCC administration's pursuit of Bonnell. By its silence, the union upholds the school's spurious and overbroad rule that says professors can be disciplined for speech that is not germane to class content. How "germanity" is to be defined, and how Bonnell's allegedly harassing speech could be found to be "not germane" when no adminstrators saw his class for themselves, when many students testify that Bonnell's speech was always germane, and when only a few, anonymous complaints form the basis for their determination, are not questions that trouble a faculty union that appears to be more interested in accruing moral capital than it does in defending a man who is being punished for saying "fuck" in class.
Bonnell's most recent suspension without pay came last summer. It was occasioned by a complaint filed last spring by a woman student taking one of his courses. It seems Bonnell wounded this delicate feminine flower when he explained to his class how sexual innuendo works in a Joyce story. She was shocked; she was appalled; she could not see what this pornographic content was doing in the chaste and upright atmosphere of a college English course; she decided to join the small and bitter ranks of former students who claim to have been "degraded," "humiliated," "sexually violated," stalked (via nightmares--as if we can control what we do in other people's dreams), and "verbally raped" by Bonnell. She filed a complaint; Bonnell was duly punished with the usual combination of public humiliation and economic deprivation. No matter that in casting Bonnell as a predator and pursuing his reputation and livelihood as aggressively as she did, this student's frivolous and narcissistic attack might itself be described as harassment (not to mention defamation). It was Bonnell who bears and the responsibility for being falsely accused, and it is Bonnell who is now living out the legacy of this most recent chapter in his hellish history as Macomb Community College's favorite dirty old scapegoat.
Last August, Bonnell received a memo advising him that his return to the classroom this fall could well be his last. He was warned against offending students (as if any teacher who pushes students to think and who gives honest feedback can avoid that), he was forbidden to use language that the school does not consider to be germane to his course content (though he was not advised how the school defined "germane"), and he was informed that at any point, without notice, his classroom might be visited and evaluated by an administrator (though he was not told whether visiting evaluating administrators would make themselves known when and if they did appear). "In view of your recent public declarations that you will not change your behavior, the College will monitor your classroom performance via periodic administrative visitations and interviewing of students
beginning with your return to teaching in the Fall 2003 term," the document said. The memo also extends an "offer" to "train" Bonnell--at the college's expense--"in the subjects of sex harassment and/or diversity." The thrust of the memo--if I may use such a loaded, potentially wounding, hostile environment-inducing term--was that Bonnell's job is on the line. Bonnell will be fired if one more student takes offense--real or imagined, legitimate or not--and his thirty-seven year career teaching English at Macomb will be over. I quote from the memo's final lines:
In view of the progressive disciplinary actions taken against you and the unsuccessful attempts to counsel you, I must inform you that the College will not tolerate any further violation of its policy against sex harassment or its policy against the use of profane, obscene or vulgar language that is not germane to course content as measured by professional standards (both of these policies were incorporated into the College policy prohibiting unlawful harassment in March, 2003). Nor will the College tolerate any future digressions into sexual topics that are offensive to a reasonable person and unjustifiable as measured by professional standards. A future transgression of any of these standards will result in a recommendation that your employment be terminated.
John Bonnell is back in the classroom this semester--but he is there provisionally, and he wears a noose around his neck that is made from his own words and that tightens at the interpretive will of confused students and the punitive administrators who use them.
How do you function under conditions such as these? How can a teacher teach when he cannot--must not--let himself become totally absorbed by class discussion, but must instead monitor and second-guess himself, watch his every word, think before he speaks of every possible way that every student sitting in the room might, if he or she were inclined, misconstrue, misunderstand, or twist the professor's words? I asked Professor Bonnell, and he responded at eloquent length. I'll post his response in installments, starting tomorrow.
November 3, 2003
Speech codes 101
The latest chapter in the ugly, dirty history of campus speech codes is the best one. Students are beginning to figure out what their rights are, and are beginning to fight back when campus administrators try to punish them for holding certain views, or try to suppress their views, or even try to impose views upon them. And--this is important--the media loves it. Today's USA Today is loving it in the form of a long cover story on campus speech. Readers of Critical Mass will know the main issues, will recognize the major players (FIRE, NoIndoctrination.org), and will already be familiar with the cases the article describes (among them censorship of the conservative student paper at Roger Williams University, a lawsuit against Shippensburg University for unconstitutional speech codes, and a lawsuit against Cal Poly San Luis Obispo for punishing a student's protected speech). Read it anyway: it's great to see this stuff making headlines. There are a lot of administrators and professors out there who still don't get it (some are quoted in the article). But the major news organizations do, and with pieces like today's they are helping make sure that parents, students, and the general public do, too.
Blogocratizing the media
Brian Anderson has written a definitive and sweepingly comprehensive piece on how recent media trends are contributing to a broadening of public discourse. The specific claim is that there are a growing number of conservative and libertarian voices in media and publishing, and that those voices--ranging from the irreverent, socially liberal "South Park conservatism" described by Andrew Sullivan to the rapidfire "no-spin" conservatism of Fox's Bill O'Reilly to the sober, intellectually searching libertarianism of Virginia Postrel--are both meeting a huge public demand and forcing the mainstream media to rethink the ease with which it assumes and projects a broadly left-wing slant. Anderson pays particular attention to the role the internet--especially the blogosphere--has played in effecting this shift, and offers one of the better assessments we have of blogging as a social and political phenomenon. The piece is well worth reading. You can find it online at either City Journal, which Anderson edits, or this morning's Opinion Journal.