Wednesday, February 16, 2011

It's OK to Kill Santa Claus, But Not Your Dean

A recent blurb on the Chronicle of Higher Education website links to this article about an associate professor at the Widener School of Law, a 26-year veteran teacher named Lawrence Connell, who is fighting to keep his job after he used a hypothetical story about killing his dean as a means of illustrating a point and attempting to provide a little mnemonic assistance to his students.

Wade Malcolm reports that “at least two students filed complaints with administrators, calling it violent, racist and sexist, according to Connell's attorney, Thomas Neuberger.” The dean in question, you see, is black and female. And… cue the Rorschach Test.

The story really couldn’t be more predictable. On the one side, we have a hand-wringing bureaucracy concerned about the tender sensibilities of law students. It’s not that the dean is hyper-sensitive, you see, it’s that this is an “‘ongoing pattern’ of misconduct” such as “cursing and coarse behavior,” “racist and sexist statements,” and “violent, personal scenarios that demean and threaten [his] colleagues.”

On the other side, Mr. Connell’s academic freedom is being threatened, he wouldn’t be being harassed by the administration if he weren’t a conservative, and besides, some of his best friends… Cripes, I can’t even finish the sentence, it’s so trite.

The truth? Well, I know what I believe, but I also note for the record that my belief is set firmly in Jello: it is perfectly possible that I’m backing the wrong horse in this race. It may well be, in other words, that Mr. Connell really is crossing a line. Or that the administration’s concerns are politically motivated. Or that he’s quite consciously pushing the envelope and they’re over-reacting.

What do know is this: short of actual threats against colleagues, and by this I mean statements that a reasonable observer could not construe otherwise, there are no grounds here to revoke Mr. Connell’s tenure. (I assume he’s tenured, given his rank and his length of service, although the article doesn’t explicitly say so.) The whole idea of academic freedom, and indeed of the tenure system, is to protect faculty from the political or personal agendas of those up the food chain from them. It means nothing if “controversial” is allowed to be conflated with “bad.” I’m not arguing here that sexist or racist comments aren’t problematic, but this is a freaking law school, and I confess I have difficulty mustering a considerable amount of sympathy for the fragile little flowers who can’t endure a bit of a challenge to their world-view.

More to the point, the kinds of examples noted in the article—assuming, of course, that these scenaria really are the crux of the contretemps—sound more than a little familiar to me. I don’t recall ever using my dean in such a hypothetical situation, but I very well might have. I know that in discussing Aristotle I’ve hypothesized that George W. Bush got hit by a bus (tragedy requires the protagonist be important). But, curiously enough, I never got visited by the Secret Service for that flight of fancy, because it was clear that I was making a very different point than threatening the President. And, of course, the victim of that purely theoretical bus accident is now Barack Obama.

Actually, of course, my style is more to use students in the room for my musings: this one is the playwright; that one, the producer; the one over there, the angel. On the very day I read about the Widener case, I was talking of Bertolt Brecht’s “Street Scene,” and created a story in which a driver ran over a pedestrian because he was distracted by trying to get his Egg McMuffin out of the bag. The driver and pedestrian were both students in the class—and, get this—the driver was an African-American man and the victim was a petite white woman. No rational observer, certainly not one who had seen previous classes with different students as characters in these hypothetical examples, would come to the conclusion that there was any message in my “casting” decision—it was simply these students’ turn, as it were. But someone with an agenda might see it differently.

This happens all the time, by the way. There was the student who complained to my superiors that she received the only failing grade on a speech because she was black. It clearly had nothing to do with the fact that her 6-minute-maximum speech rambled on largely incoherently for 17 minutes. There was the student who quoted me to my dean as saying “women simply aren’t very important,” oh-so-casually omitting that the context of that statement made it clear I was discussing the socio-political mores of Ancient Greece. (Did I mention that she didn’t get the role she wanted at auditions the previous week?) There are other examples, just from my own experience, but you get the idea. To be a teacher at any level is ultimately to face situations like this.

As for cursing and coarse behavior—I doubt that I often go a full week without doing something along these lines that someone might not like. It is a strategy I employ to make a point, to loosen up the classroom environment, to try to make an idea more memorable. It works for me, and, if student and administrative evaluations are to be believed, it seems to have its desired effect. I’ve taught a couple thousand students in my current position, and I recall no complaints. On the other hand, in a previous job at a not dissimilar university, I got a half-dozen negative comments in the first semester. So I changed my approach, because the tactics I had been employing were actually counter-productive in that place and time for enough students that a change of direction seemed warranted. So I adapted for the short term and reverted to my old vulgar self as soon as I left that school.

That said, while I don’t claim to know what’s really going on in Mr. Connell’s case, I’m virtually certain it has, well, not a f*cking thing to do with being a little crude. That’s a throw-in complaint, something that is at least objective: he used a certain word derived from the Anglo-Saxon or he didn’t.

But back to my earlier point: this is the kind of case where what we think is largely a reflection of who we are, rather than of the facts of the case. A glance at the comments on the article confirms this. Here’s thelawone:
Mr. Connell is no saint, he once referred to students in such a disparaging way during an in-school debate that he was barred by an earlier dean of the law school from ever participating in a debate again. His rhetoric is not provoke thought as any good professor should, it incites anger and promotes fear which no professor should. As a Widener student, his leaving, if it comes to that, is a win for Widener students ... not a loss.
By contrast, here are the comments of AmazedinDE:
How much does one wish to bet that the two complaining students are African-American? If they can't deal with hypothetical situations offered by their professor to make a point of law understandable, if not memorable, then they should quit law school and get a job at McDonald's where they won't have to think about anything but Big Macs and Chicken McNuggets.
Probably the most valuable insight is offered by ClassicFriend:
I am a Widener Law Alumni and I had professor Connell for Criminal Law and everything they said about his teaching methods are true. He killed people, he made them sell drugs, and yes he cussed. But, last I looked we are adults and can handle a cuss word. I remember he always used to go back to killing Dean Ammons as a default and quite honestly could you think of a better person that everyone in the class room is guaranteed to know? He also killed celebrities, politicians, he even killed Santa Claus. He was an equal opportunist hypothetical murderer….

I sincerely hope Widener and Dean Ammons do what they told me to do on graduation day. Show courage and do the right thing in the face of pressure. Professor Connell is a good, effective and unique professor. The students need to lighten up, I experienced what they experienced and I can tell you, they are over reacting.
My first thought is that this case sure is populated by lawyers who don’t understand grammar or punctuation. My second thought is that Mr. Connell is, quite possibly, an ass. And he is, even more probably, good at his job. Is he being persecuted because he’s a conservative? Possibly, but I doubt it. More likely he’s just a pain in some administrator’s butt. I’m not betting the mortgage payment, but I’ve got 20 bucks that says the dean (or someone) is a little thin-skinned and wants to get rid of an annoyance: not the smartest thing to do, given the fact that he’s a law professor and all…

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