Sunday, April 29, 2012

Jammie Price and the Offensiveness of [the] Porn [Industry]

Sometimes the best thing that can happen to you is that you don’t get what you want. I applied for a job at Appalachian State University a few years ago. I didn’t get as much as an acknowledgment letter. In retrospect, that’s looking more and more like a good thing.

According to articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education and elsewhere, tenured full professor Jammie Price of ASU’s Sociology Department was “placed on administrative leave following complaints last month from four students about her ‘inappropriate speech and conduct in the classroom,’ including showing a movie about pornography.”

As is the case with many such incidents, it’s difficult to determine what the university’s real motives are. Are they really all that concerned with three students who didn’t think they were sufficiently warned about the fact that the film “The Price of Pleasure,” a scathing critique of the pornography industry which Dr. Price showed in class, has some pretty explicit scenes in it? I’m betting not, although the concept of the idiot administrator would hardly be novel.

More likely, Dr. Price is a pain in the university’s collective ass for other reasons—she’s also charged with saying disparaging things about athletes and telling students she doesn’t like working at App State. Professor Price told the Chronicle’s Robin Wilson that:
the administration is punishing her because she has spoken out about things on the campus, including what she describes as a male-only poker club that includes administrators and faculty members. “Men in the poker club gain more power, privileges, and income than others on the campus, and protection from student charges,” she said. “Since I started speaking out about this poker club, I have been bullied and harassed.”
But whether the showing of the film was the real problem or simply an excuse for administrators to exact vengeance on Dr. Price, it appears that showing the film was somewhere on the spectrum from cause to catalyst to last straw.

“The Price of Pleasure” (IMDB page here; film website here) is a 2008 documentary by Chyng Sun and Miguel Picker. It is sufficiently well-known in the academic community that I, who am not a social scientist, know of it. (I’ve never seen it, but I’ve seen other, earlier, variations on the theme.) It is, apparently, not infrequently used in classes similar to Dr. Price’s: in “hundreds of classes across the country,” according to one source. For her class, Price showed the copy owned by the university library.

I am ill-equipped to determine whether or not the film is a useful teaching tool. Critic Stuart Henderson calls the documentary’s approach “brainless”; a more scholarly review in the journal Gender and Education [note: sorry if the link doesn’t work: I needed a password to access the article; you might, too] describes the reactions of seven academics: “we were concerned both with the film’s failure to sustain an argument and the amount of time devoted to replaying pornographic images. We connected these to the lack of research presented in the film.”

On the other hand, one of the essential tenets of academic freedom is that faculty, especially tenured faculty, get to choose what works and what doesn’t. Other sociologists use the film in their classrooms, and one described disciplining Price as “ludicrous.” More to the point, Dr. Price’s credentials as a sociologist and as a teacher thereof (she’s a full professor, after all) far outstrip mine, so I’m not going to criticize the choice of material, especially since it appears to be widely used.

The furor, of course, seems not to be centered so much on the choice of film, but on the lack of warning to students that what was going to be shown includes graphic content and could be considered objectionable. This is the tack taken by John DeLameter, a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin, who uses the film in his own classes. Mitch Smith of Inside Higher Ed writes that DeLameter argues that “professors have a duty to inform students ahead of time when a movie is graphic and to allow those students to leave without any repercussions.” Gail Dines of Wheelock College agrees. Apparently Price issued no warning but said students could have excused themselves without negative repercussions.

Hmmm… I don’t know. Really, I’m not sure whether this is even an appropriate standard. The impact of explicit scenes—however we define “explicit”—is inevitably going to be diminished, or at least altered, if we know they’re coming. It always makes me crazy to fill out the “content advisory” form for shows I’m directing. Yes, I get it, some people will be offended if we say this or do that, and (generally) we don’t want that to happen. But the vast majority of the prospective audience won’t be offended, and we just told them something that will quite likely give away a plot point or have the spectators waiting to hear that word or watch that moment instead of engaging with the rest of the play.

More to the point, there will be those who remain in the class who will be made uneasy by the film’s content: that’s the point, after all. If the film is worth seeing, worth showing in class, it’s worth making everyone watch it whether their delicate sensibilities are offended or not. I don’t care if those sensibilities are cultural, political, aesthetic, or whatever: what we’re doing in class today is watching the film, and you’re either going to watch it or you get an unexcused absence. Next.

Still, a little courtesy is appropriate, and unless the documentary really does rely on surprise as part of its effectiveness, it’s a good idea to tell students that they’re about to get uncomfortable. Moreover, if the statements that the film advances a particular philosophical/political stance are accurate, and I suspect that they are, then it becomes incumbent on Dr. Price to contextualize, to critique, to keep the class from becoming a platform rather than a dialectic. She may well not have done that. That’s a criticism of her teaching. It is not grounds to suspend a full professor.

That, really is the central issue here. Dr. Price may have made a mistake in judgment, but here’s the evidence for her alleged misconduct: three students complained. How many does leave who didn’t? (There are 60 students just in that section.) She’s been teaching at Appalachian for a decade, has been tenured for at least half of that time, and is quite likely to have used the same or similar classroom materials repeatedly in the past. That he suspended a senior faculty member for this tells me one thing above all else about Vice Provost Anthony Gene Carey (the actual Provost couldn’t be bothered to write the letter?): I’m glad he’s not my boss.

Robin Wilson writes, also, that:
The American Association of University Professors wrote a letter to the university's chancellor this month, saying that, in Ms. Price's case, the consequences of the paid leave were the same as a suspension. It also said AAUP guidelines say professors should be suspended “only if immediate harm to the faculty member or others is threatened”—something it said wasn't evident in Ms. Price's case.
Not only that, but Professor Price was denied a hearing by the administration, barred from campus, forced to turn in her keys, and (get this!) forbidden to discuss the case with colleagues or students.

Not surprisingly, not just the AAUP, but also FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) got involved. Mitch Smith writes:
Adam Kissel, a vice president at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, criticized Appalachian State for instructing Price to not discuss her situation with students or fellow faculty members while the case is pending. While colleges have the right to investigate faculty members in some cases, Kissel said telling them to cut off communication with those on campus can prevent them from contacting potential witnesses for their defense.
Curiously, however, with the exception of a link to Smith’s article in Inside Higher Ed, FIRE’s website is strangely devoid of content on this case. It isn’t even included on the “All FIRE’s Cases” page. I'm not sure what’s up with that, although FIRE tends to lean a little to the right and to support students against faculty: this might account for their procedural but not substantive objections.

Anyway, here’s what we come down to: Dr. Price’s actions may have reached to the level of inappropriate, although I’m not willing to go even that far without considerable trepidation. To say that they merited suspension, or administrative leave, or whatever euphemistic term the administration chooses to apply, is laughable: or, rather, it would be if the stakes weren’t so high. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, there is no reasonable conclusion other than that the administration are, collectively, at least one of the following: sexist, stupid, craven, pompous, anti-intellectual, vindictive, or just plain incompetent. Come to think of it, probably at least three or four off that list…

This one, whatever we think of Dr. Price’s classroom tactics, is an easy call. She she be restored to full faculty status and issued a public apology. The administration? Well, they’re Curmie contenders. That will have to be their consolation.

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