Tuesday, May 22, 2012

One More Update: Special “Oddyshoe” Edition

When I was an undergrad, I was the producer for an Intramural Play Competition, in which dorms and frats (and maybe a sorority… I don’t remember) competed in theatrical presentation. One entrant was a fraternity that collectively wrote their own piece, called The Oddyshoe, a comic take-off on The Odyssey in which our intrepid heroes go on a quest to figure out why there are shoes and boots raining from the heavens.

Throughout the play, there were references to a place called Vana (or perhaps Vahna). And, as they approach this place at which they hope to achieve enlightenment, one of the band says “this is near Vana.” (Get it? Enlightenment? Nirvana?) It’s hardly the cleverest joke in history, but it’s not unfunny, and it was probably hilarious when first uttered at the frat house, probably at 2:00 a.m. with chemical enhancements. Trouble is, the writers set up all the scaffolding about going to Vana and then… they forgot to include the joke itself.

Why I am reminded of this anecdote some 35+ years after the fact is that I just sort of did the same thing. In this morning’s update and sequel post, I managed to leave out the section on the one story I most wanted to talk about: the tale of Jammie Price and Appalachian State University. (At least I get to spend a little more time and space on it this way.)
It turns out that there was new information made available literally the day after I wrote my piece, which was entitled “Jammie Price and the Offensiveness of [the] Porn [Industry]” and was dated April 29, 2012. It concerned a sociology professor at Appalachian State University who was suspended (they called it something else), apparently for showing an explicit anti-porn documentary in her class.

The next day, Dr. Price posted the text of her letter of reprimand from the university to a Facebook page entitled “Academic Freedom and Due Process at Appstate.” It’s quite a read.

Remember, this is a faculty member who has tenure, has been on the job for several years, and who was promoted by the university. This is not the time to question teaching methods unless they are completely beyond the pale. Even if the worst possible spin were to be put on the allegations, and even if they were all true, this isn’t enough to suspend a tenured full professor. Not to grant tenure under these circumstances would be reasonable… that’s not to say whether it would be a good or bad decision, merely that consideration of pedagogical approaches would be relevant. In Dr. Price’s case, the university has already place its imprimatur on her teaching strategies.

In any case, Dr. Price was asked—to use the euphemistic term—to submit to a “professional development plan” that would be insulting to a first-year Assistant Professor: there are more “peer reviews” required of this senior faculty member in a two-year period than I have ever had of me in the 30+ years I’ve been in the classroom (yes, combined), including when I was a teaching assistant and when I was just starting out as a junior faculty member.

Also of particular note is point B:
Inclusion of best practices for teaching lower division courses, which should include at a minimum:
1. Attendance policy that requires attendance and specifies the method to take attendance during class.
2. Multiple assignments that provide students some form of graded feedback prior to the midterm period.
3. Individual class objectives which allow for framing conversations that deal with sensitive topics.
OK, what the hell does an attendance policy have to do with the allegations? “Graded feedback prior to the midterm period” is generally a good idea, especially in a lower-division course, but telling a full professor how to structure her course is unspeakably arrogant. I should also note that my Director (the equivalent of a department chair) will have had ample opportunity to review my syllabi over a number of years and to make comments or suggestions. I don’t imagine that App State is radically different in that regard. In other words, if there’s a problem in course structure, it should have been addressed long ago. And don’t get me started on the pseudo-educational jargon factory that produces such claptrap as “individual class objectives.”

One thing I’ve learned in 30+ years in the education business: if an administrator says “this requirement is not a ban on use of sensitive materials,” it means “this is a ban on use of sensitive materials.” As I said last time, I remain to be convinced that there is anything inherently wrong with allowing students to be shocked, appalled and horrified. Sometimes that’s the way the world is. Would I have done what Dr. Price did? No. Does that mean that what she did is censurable? No.

Anyway, I’m particularly pleased by the misplaced modifier in the closing paragraph: “Once developed collaboratively, you will be expected to comply with the conditions of the professional development plan.” Nothing says “we believe in education” quite as well as a sentence any high school kid should know is ungrammatical.

That same day, April 30, the Winston-Salem Journal published an article by Monte Mitchell about the fracas. In it, there’s a reference to a March 16 letter to Dr. Price. Let’s take the charges enumerated in the March 16 letter, as described by Mitchell, one by one. For the sake of argument, let’s say that everything alleged against Professor Price is true.

So… she “called ASU a racist, predominantly white institution.” “Racist” is in the eye of the beholder; “predominantly white” is a statement of fact. She “said student-athletes get special privileges.” Well, duh. She “spent most of a class talking about a student-led protest about sexual assault allegations against two football players.” As well she should, in a sociology class. She “showed a documentary on pornography without introducing it or telling members of the class it contained images that could be objectionable to some of them.” Yeah. And? I don’t see a there, there, completely apart from Price’s denial that she called the school racist or said football players get special privileges.

Appalachian State history professor Shelia Phipps puts it well: “I started to list all of the things about history that I teach that are disturbing. History is about human behavior and a lot of it has to do with bad things humans do to each other. I don't warn students about difficult topics, which is one of the things the faculty member was accused of.” I concur. Events are sometimes shocking. Maybe post-adolescents ought to know that.

I did suggest last month that there’s likely more here than meets the eye. Price herself blames the trouble on the “poker club” that she says really runs things at ASU. Conversely, Mike Adams, a self-styled “not politically correct” professor of criminology at UNC-Wilmington suggests that:
Price arguably should have been suspended by UNCW back in March of 2003 when she cancelled all of her classes for an entire week in order to protest the Iraq War. Her unprofessionalism was compounded when she offered extra credit – but only to those who would join her in protesting the war. Predictably, a student complained and Price was reprimanded.
Adams provides further details of Price’s professional life which, if true, are problematic. That said, all that stuff is ancient history. The statute of limitations on those crimes officially expired with the granting of tenure.

In any case, Price emerged from her meeting with administration officials with this to say:
The university finds that I create a hostile teaching environment in my classroom and that, subsequently, I need to go through lessons and [“on”?] how to teach better. I will be provided a teaching mentor and I will be watched closely from here on out—basically put on teaching probation. I have not accepted these terms.
Good for her. If nothing else, this case appears to be a due process nightmare. And remember how I said I thought it interesting that FIRE wasn’t more involved? They’re baaaaaack. Here’s a lengthy and lawyerly take-down of the university’s position. It was met with a predictably non-responsive response: yet another “we can’t talk about private personnel matters” dodge which, though probably true, doesn’t help anyone’s cause or allay anyone’s fears.

Just yesterday, the Appalachian State Faculty Senate unanimously passed two resolutions: making it clear that “administrative leave” differs from suspension only in terminology, and that due process really ought to happen, even in Boone, NC. Plus, the case has gone from barely on FIRE’s radar to top billing on their “Top Cases” page.

I wrote a few weeks ago that:
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…
I might add “terminally constipated” to the list, but otherwise I stand by my earlier comments. All told, it’s a good day not to be at Appalachian State University.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yes, Definitely 3 or 4 on that list. Do you know that it isn't possible to get into your site without having to click on a warning message? Thought I'd let you know, since you said nothing remotely requiring a warning.