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February 17, 2009 [feather]
"Ask God what your grade is"

Maybe you've read about this one already--but maybe not. While academic bloggers were all over the Denis Rancourt case--and all over Stanley Fish for suggesting that it was somehow indicative of a lack of self-policing among faculty members--they are strangely silent about this one.

Yes, Fish went a bit far in his lust for professorial exhibits. But that doesn't mean there aren't faculty out there who go badly astray when it comes to bringing their politics into the classroom. And surely, for consistency's sake, the folks who rounded on Fish (and opportunistically used his post to argue that self-governance is just fine, thank you very much, and that professors who abuse their classroom prerogatives are taken care of swiftly and decisively by their colleagues) should be talking about this case, and should be doing some of that self-policing stuff.

This case has everything in it: a professor verbally abusing a student for expressing his beliefs, written documentation of a professor withholding a grade to make a point about his contempt for the student's beliefs, threats, and a lawsuit--which rather suggests that the faculty did not take care of things internally, and which also means that the administrators failed in that regard, too.

Here's the summary from the Alliance Defense Fund, which is representing the student:

Jonathan Lopez is working toward an associate of arts degree at Los Angeles City College in California. One of his required classes: Public Speaking. The additional lesson in his free speech rights was not something he anticipated.

In that class, Lopez delivered one of his assignments--an informative speech. Lopez chose the topic of faith and marriage. Mid-way through, his speech professor John Matteson interrupted, calling Lopez a "fascist bastard" in front of the class for speaking about his faith, which included reading the dictionary definition of marriage and reciting two Bible verses. Instead of allowing Lopez to finish, Matteson told the other students they could leave if they were offended. When no one left, Matteson dismissed the class. Refusing to grade the assigned speech, Matteson wrote on Lopez's evaluation, "Ask God what your grade is."

"Christian students shouldn't be penalized or discriminated against for speaking about their beliefs," said ADF Senior Counsel David French. "Public institutions of higher learning cannot selectively censor Christian speech. This student was speaking well within the confines of his professor's assignment when he was censored."


But the harassment did not stop in class. One week later, after seeing Lopez talking to the college's dean of academic affairs, Matteson told Lopez that he would make sure he'd be expelled from school.

Further, Matteson's treatment of Lopez during his speech follows an earlier incident in which the speech professor told his entire class after the November election, "If you voted yes on Proposition 8, you are a fascist bastard."

"Professor Matteson clearly violated Mr. Lopez's free speech rights by engaging in viewpoint discrimination and retaliation because he disagreed with the student's religious beliefs," said French. "When students are given open-ended assignments in a public speaking class, the First Amendment protects their ability to express their views. Moreover, the district has a speech code that has created a culture of censorship on campus. America's public universities and colleges are supposed to be a 'marketplace of ideas,' not a hotbed of intolerance."

Attorneys with the Alliance Defense Fund Center for Academic Freedom have filed a lawsuit against officials of the Los Angeles Community College District in regard to this situation. You can read the complaint filed with the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California in the lawsuit Lopez v. Candaele by clicking here.

So where are all the principled academic bloggers, do you think? What's the problem? They were so righteous and principled last week when defending their honor against the insinuations of Stanley Fish. But, you know, shooting down Fish last week was a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. Now, they are nowhere to be seen. Is Jonathan Lopez beneath their notice? Is behavior like Matteson's fine with them?

Forgive my speculations. But I have to wonder what the problem is. And there are other, more toxic possibilities. I have noted in my years writing this blog that, more than once, I have been characterized as a religious zealot by critics who see me defending religious students. Now, that amuses me very much, since I wasn't raised within a religion and don't have one now. But I got the point. In academia, to stick up for the rights of religious students is to be cast as a Bible thumper yourself. Horrors!!

And so I wonder: Could it be that there is no outcry about this case because one would have to defend an evangelical student in order to stand up for the principles of fairness, free inquiry, and responsible teaching? I hope not.

Michael Berube made a great point on his blog a few weeks ago. He said that if critics of academe wish to be taken seriously, they have to take particular care to differentiate themselves from frivolous and inflammatory commentary that masquerades as serious critique. He's right. But that knife cuts both ways. If academics want the public to respect them and their professional ways--if they want to preserve academic freedom and the independence and autonomy it confers--they have to self-police with consistency and with thoroughness. That means that the commentators--the ones who write columns and blogs that touch on The State of Academe, the ones who are positioning themselves as public intellectuals and, on some level, as representatives of their profession--have a job to do in moments like this one. Just like I have one to do when Family Security Matters puts out its sorry lists of dangerous courses.

One last note: hamfisted pedagogy (if you can even call it pedagogy) is not the only kind of incompetence plaguing Professor Matteson. This is what he wrote at the bottom of Lopez' evaluation: "Prostheletyzing is innappropriate in public school." Maybe LA City College should be giving spelling tests to prospective teachers?

posted on February 17, 2009 8:07 AM

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Matteson should certainly be censured or, if previously warned about such behavior, fired.

But there's no evidence in the ADF's materials that Lopez went through any of his school's own procedures for addressing such grievances. Can we blame administrators or other faculty if they are never brought into the situation? The ADF's promotional text makes it sound like Lopez went from being denied a grade by a prof to filing a lawsuit.

So either (a) Lopez wants this to be a legal issue and didn't even bother to deal with department chairs, deans, ombudsmen, etc., or (b) the ADF doesn't know how to promote the ethos of its clients.

Finally: has anyone ever drafted up some sort of, say, contract that would make professorial rights and responsibilities quite clear? I don't know what the paperwork for an academic job looks like (I was always an adjunct).

Posted by: Luther Blissett at February 17, 2009 5:52 PM

From the LA Times: "Lopez also said the teacher threatened to have him expelled when he complained to higher-ups." Also, it looks as though the school is a) responding to Lopez' complaint only in reaction to the filing of the suit, and b) that it is confused about whether Lopez himself is a perp for offending people with his views:

"...in a letter to Alliance, the district said it deemed Lopez's complaint "extremely serious in nature' and had launched a private disciplinary process. In the letter, Dean Allison Jones also said that two students had been 'deeply offended' by Lopez's address, one of whom stated that 'this student should have to pay some price for preaching hate in the classroom.' Hacker said the district's response was inadequate. 'What they didn't do was ensure this wouldn't happen to other students,' he said. 'The dean accused Jonathan of offending other students.'"

And from CNSNews.com: "'When Mr. Lopez informed one of the deans of the college about what happened, and his desire for a grade, the professor saw him doing this, and came up to him afterward and said, ‘I’m going to get you expelled,' Hacker said."

So I think part of the issue is that the school has a speech code that helped create this mess--and that threatens to perpetuate it by disciplining Lopez.

Robust education in free speech, academic freedom, and the ways and means of dissent and debate would seem to be in order for students, teachers, and admins alike.

Posted by: Erin O'Connor at February 17, 2009 6:04 PM

Suppose we divide all recent college graduates into three categories:

Group (1) consists of those who have learned from their college experience how to develop a logical argument, how to have an open mind toward arguments presented by others, how to disagree civilly, and how to conduct a formal debate, developing the strongest arguments for both sides of an issue.

Group (2) consists of those who have learned that it's safest to keep your mouth shut until you learn what opinions are favored by those in authority, and also that it is fun and profitable to join in ad hominem attacks on those who dissent from the orthodoxy.

Group (3), for logical completeness, consists of those who haven't been influenced in either way.

I wonder what % are in each category?

Posted by: david foster at February 18, 2009 12:10 PM

Lopez wants this to be a legal issue and didn't even bother to deal with department chairs, deans, ombudsmen, etc.

If in fact Lopez and the ADF are more interested in publicizing what certainly looks to be an abuse, as opposed to getting satisfaction from LACC, I have no problem with it. For one thing, the resulting negative publicity might help keep the LACC administration on its toes in the future. For another thing, well, I remember that when I was 18 I was pretty intimidated by some of my teachers, not to mention my department chair. If I was in a fix like Jonathan's, and someone from outside the school approached me sympathetically and said "Don't worry, kid--we're on your side and we'll handle this," I'd have been more than happy to let them handle it.

Posted by: Eveningsun at February 18, 2009 1:52 PM

The Speech Department's Forensics Program has both a strong Policy Debate program and an Individual Events program. In 2006 the debate term was ranked 4th in the nation among Community College Policy Debate teams....

The 'co-director of forensics' is...John Matteson!

You can't make this stuff up.

Posted by: Art Deco at February 18, 2009 5:27 PM

David Foster,

Why stop there. In the interests of completeness, shouldn't we add:

4) Those who take offense when faculty instruction challenges their preconceptions, and attribute their own academic failings to faculty bias.

5) Those who conflate the encouragement of civility and mutual respect with censorship.


Posted by: Peter Shoemaker at February 19, 2009 9:23 AM

Point not badly taken Mr. Shoemaker. One might note that in the case the person taking offence at a challenge to his preconceptions was the instructor (and two others in the class) and the one being uncivil and disrespectful was the instructor. And said instructor is employed (among other things) to teach debate on public policy questions.

Posted by: Art Deco at February 19, 2009 10:07 AM

PeterS...it is common for professors to imagine that they are boldly challenging "preconceptions," apparently under the belief that the student's father is a small-town businessman, a rock-ribbed Republican, and a member of Rotary, the mother is a stay-at-home cookie baker, and the student himself is a regular attendee at Sunday School. Actually, Dad is probably a nonprofit executive, mom is a "public interest" lawyer, and the student has spent his entire life so immersed in the professor's worldview that he can't even imagine any alternatives.

Posted by: david foster at February 19, 2009 10:43 AM

Art Deco: If this account is indeed accurate, the instructor's behavior is certainly appalling. But it's worthwhile noting that the information here comes from a petitioner in a legal proceeding, not an objective third party. Perhaps this is at least part of the reason the "principled academic bloggers" are holding their tongues. We *know* what Fish said in the NYT. We don't know exactly what happened in the classroom in question. Or perhaps Erin is right, and the "principled academic bloggers" are uninterested in these kind of cases. There's really no way to know.

For what it's worth, I agree that speech codes just muddy the waters even further.

Posted by: Peter Shoemaker at February 19, 2009 10:54 AM

David Foster,

Without denying that some instructors act in bad faith (or in simple ignorance) when they claim to challenge preconceptions, I think that you're missing my point. I teach at a Catholic institution and have enraged students when, in the course of teaching the Reformation in a humanities survey, I have presented the theological views of Calvin and Luther and tried to explain why they might have been appealing to their contemporaries. I have heard similar reports from faculty who teach at state universities and who are confronted by evangelicals coming from the opposite side of the great Christian divide. It is important to acknowledge that the dubious "right not to be offended" is not solely a phenomenon of the left and the academia is a far more complicated and diverse world than many are willing to admit. Not everyone teaches in a secular institution where radical pedagogy is the rage.

Posted by: Peter Shoemaker at February 19, 2009 11:16 AM

PeterS...interesting case study. The preconceptions one encounters probably vary a lot from institution to institution.

A few years ago, I sat in on a philosophy class at a university attended mainly by smart (but usually not brilliant) kids from affluent families. The professor developed a pretty sophisticated analysis of cultural relativism and why it might be problematic as one's philosophy of life. Most of the students seemed to be...not *offended*, exactly, but confused, even disoriented...you could see that they had never considered any alternative to the idea the right/wrong should be entirely determined by the mores of a given society.

Posted by: david foster at February 19, 2009 11:54 AM

"PeterS...it is common for professors to imagine that they are boldly challenging 'preconceptions,'..."

Boy, I remember that in my day. I and most of my classmates were from small towns in the South and we were going to a small southern school, and I do remember getting the impression that the professors thought they were opening us up to new ideas that we might have trouble even contemplating; and how irritating that was, except that they were very nice about it. I remember them boldly talking to us about evolution, and us basically saying, "OK, and ...?"

But there were the people that Peter Shoemaker talks about, too, who get very anxious if they are exposed to anything outside their narrow worldview. One supposes that deep inside they're afraid that with any challenge their house of cards will come tumbling down; which presupposes that they see their own beliefs as houses of cards, which is very sad.

And I've had conversations not too long back with a person who appeared to put all of the onus of moral attitudes and behaviors onto "society" (as if there really is such a thing) and was puzzled as hell when I suggested that he should have a moral compass all his own. Seriously, he was baffled by the idea. Don't know how that happens.

Posted by: Laura(southernxyl) at February 19, 2009 4:38 PM

I taught philosophy classes for a couple of years in the 1990's at a state university. When I lectured on ethics and discussed some rational criticisms of ethical relativism, many students would get offended or become uncomfortable. One girl dropped by during office hours in such anxiety over the lecture she was shaking. It made me wonder what personal (almost religious?) investment they had in ethical relativism. I told her I'm not telling you that you have to change your beliefs, I'm just presenting criticisms of this position, just like others we've studied all semester long.
Anxiety over having beliefs scrutinized and examined is not exclusive to people in one camp.

Posted by: Joe Smith at February 19, 2009 7:35 PM

I'll paraphrase the words of Aristotle...

The ability to entertain an idea without accepting it is the mark of an educated mind.

Peopele on either side of ANY issue need to remember this quote at all times.

Posted by: Steve J. Moore at February 20, 2009 11:12 AM