Monday, December 23, 2013

Curmie Contenders: Punishing Teachers for Doing Their Jobs Edition, Part I

Curmie is way behind in his writing, and with the New Year imminent, it’s time for the traditional lumping together of prospective Curmie nominees whose stories have been on the I-wanna-write-about-this-list for a few days or a few months. This year, we start with administrations who punish teachers/professors for doing their jobs. Generally, the impetus for these sanctions is linked more to cowardice than to stupidity, although there’s plenty of the latter.

Two now, two more soon. Let’s look at them in chronological order (I’ll try to be brief):

Tim McDaniel: Not a Godless Pervert
In Dietrich, Idaho, high school science teacher Tim McDaniel was reported to the school board and ultimately investigated by the state’s Professional Standards Commission, allegedly for using the word “vagina” in a lecture on the female reproductive system. He also taught sex education in biology class (the school’s health teacher was uncomfortable doing so, so McDaniel took on that responsibility), discussed forms of birth control, and showed Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” to students and asked them to articulate a response. This last item appears to be the sole foundation for a charge that he promoted a political candidate while on school property. The facts that Mr. Gore hasn’t been a candidate for anything in nearly a over a decade, and that McDaniel asked his students to think critically about the film are, to the righteously aggrieved parents, apparently irrelevant considerations.

To be fair, there are allegations which, if true, actually do present a problem: telling inappropriate jokes (although reasonable people can disagree about what is and is not appropriate, we can all agree that some things are indeed beyond the Pale in a high school classroom) and divulging confidential material about students. Needless to say, these more substantive concerns were relegated to afterthoughts in the high dudgeon expressed by the leftie press. It seems, however, that even the handful of parents who complained about McDaniel want to concentrate on the lecture on reproduction, specifically on parental notification. Of course, maybe, just maybe, their kids wanted that information whether mommy and daddy wanted them to have it or not.

McDaniel claims to “teach straight out of the textbook, I don’t include anything that the textbook doesn’t mention.” He also gives “every student the option not attend this class when I teach on the reproductive system if they don’t feel comfortable with the material.” He’s been doing this for 17 years, without any previous complaints.

Students are overwhelming on McDaniel’s side: they started a Facebook page, “Save the Science Teacher.” “[T]here are a couple people in the community that are trying to get Mr. McDaniel fired for teaching the reproductive system, climate change, and several other science subjects,” students wrote. “All these subjects were taught from the book and in good taste. He cares for each of his students and goes the extra mile to help them all. Now is the time for us to help by supporting him!”

Superintendent Neil Hollingshead is something of a wuss, speculating at the time of the first blow-up that McDaniel probably wouldn’t be fired, but might get a letter of reprimand from the school board. The logical question here is, “why”? This whole business strays more than occasionally into heckler’s veto territory. It’s unclear whether the school board actually did anything, but finally, after an absurd nine month delay, the Professional Standards Commission has decided to let the matter drop. Everything is back to normal, except that McDaniel won’t be teaching reproduction: “It’s sad because the kids need it, but I don’t need the headaches,” he said. He’s right about both parts of that statement.

Moving on…

Hyung-Il Jung: Not a Psychopathic Killer
In April, University of Central Florida instructor Hyung-il Jung was placed on administrative leave for an obvious joke during a review session. Here’s Denise-Marie Ordway of the Orlando Sentinel:
Jung had gathered a group of about 25 students Tuesday for a review session in a hospitality-industry accounting class.
He told the Sentinel that he made a comment toward the end of the review session that was meant as a joke. The material was difficult, and he said he noticed the pained look on students’ faces.
“What I said was: ‘This question is very difficult. It looks like you guys are being slowly suffocated by these questions. Am I on a killing spree or what?’” Jung said.
“It was purely a joke, of course,” he added. “I thought all of the students laughed together with me.”
UCF spokesman Chad Binette called the comment “completely inappropriate.”
Chad Binette is a moron. So is the Dean, Abraham Pizam. So is the apparently sole student to complain. The overwhelming majority of the students who were… you know… there sent an e-mail to the administration saying that they knew Jung was joking. That’s because they aren’t morons. See how easy that is, Gentle Reader?

Again, to be fair, that particular campus at that particular time wasn’t necessarily the place to be mentioning killing sprees: a month or so earlier, a UCF student had shot himself after threatening his roommate and while in possession (in his dorm room) of 1000 rounds of ammunition, an assault rifle, a semiautomatic pistol and four homemade bombs. So Jung’s quip was ill-timed and potentially in bad taste. The correct response:
Dear Dr. Jung:
We heard about your joke, and we think it was ill-timed and in bad taste. Please try to be more careful.
The Administration
Barring him from campus, requiring a mental health exam, refusing to allow him to talk to students “for any reason” or to administer the final exam… that’s just dumb. Moreover, it hurts his students more than any offhand remark ever could: by denying him the right to communicate with students, the administration was also denying them the right to communicate with him. Having been a college professor in five different decades, I can tell you one thing that hasn’t changed: students always have questions that come up after the last review session. Who knows Professor Jung’s course material better than he does, after all? I would also note that the letter of reprimand was sent the day after the joke—surely there was no time to determine whether there was any legitimacy to the allegation, which—of course—there was not.

Again, the inmates did not completely take over the asylum. FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), wrote to the university, reminding them that what they were doing was a violation of Dr. Jung’s 1st amendment rights, that “the Supreme Court has defined ‘true threats’ as ‘those statements where the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals.’”

And Curmie just loves this paragraph:
Moreover, treating Jung’s joke as a threat ignores the plain fact that, as reported, the statement itself was not actually a threat. It is phrased in the present tense and is clearly an exaggerated metaphor. Even if it were a literally true statement (it was not; no students were suffocated, nor did Jung go on a “killing spree”) it still would not be a threat but rather a description. Legal knowledge is not required to make this determination; a grade-school understanding of grammar would suffice.
You really ought to put some salve on that burn, guys. Anyway, a couple weeks later, the demand for a mental exam was dropped. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Jung was returned to the classroom. It should never have come to that, however, and it is unclear whether that utterly irresponsible reprimand remains a part of his file.

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