Tuesday, December 24, 2013

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

We continue with our tour of administrations’ punishing teachers for behavior that is at worst unproblematic and at best admirable. This post starts in Batavia, Illinois, where school officials, convinced of their moral superiority, disdainful of the idea that some things are outside their purview, and oblivious to insignificant documents like the US Constitution, decided that they’d ask their students about smoking, drug and alcohol use, and so on. Note, by the way, this key sentence from the Daily Herald: “The survey is part of measuring how students meet the social-emotional learning standards set by the state.” The only people on the planet you can count on being stupider than high school administrators are the politicians and political appointees who decide that what the world needs are “social-emotional learning standards.”

No big deal, right? This is the same kind of stupid, ineffectual, but ultimately harmless survey that every high school kid in the country has endured for years. Except for one thing: students’ names were on the forms, so the Man was not interested in aggregate information—no, authorities sought to “help” at-risk students. “We can't help them if we aren't aware of their needs,” sniveled one Jack Barshinger, the Malicious Do-Gooder Superintendent. Yeah, yeah, yeah: students could opt out, but they had to have done so before the actual administration of the questionnaire. Why? Because high school administrators don’t like to have anyone interfere with their arrogant posturing.

Apparently it never occurred to anyone in the Batavia district, or indeed to the unethical weasels at Multi-Health Systems Inc., who designed the survey, that students who answered truthfully to, say, marijuana use—the very kids the interventionist mob allegedly sought to “help”—would be admitting in writing to an illegal act and giving that information to school officials. Let’s face it—would you, Gentle Reader, trust those people not to share results with the police? They’ve already proved their untrustworthiness by the very act of distributing the survey without a warning.

John Dryden: Neither Inappropriate Nor Unprofessional
The problem, of course, is that the vast majority of Curmiphiles are adults, armed with a mature skepticism. Even some of you might feel pressured to comply with the wishes of, say, an employer, even if the questions being asked are out of line. That’s what John Dryden (no, not the Restoration critic/playwright) thought, too. He’s a social studies teacher at the school who, coincidentally, had just taught a section on the Bill of Rights when he saw the survey. When he saw students’ names on the surveys, he thought “Oh. Well. Ummm, somebody needs to remind them they have the ability not to incriminate themselves.” So he did.

Naturally, the KGB-wannabees didn’t appreciate that, and Dryden was issued a “notice to remedy.” That’s what you and I would call an official reprimand, but then, we don’t speak educationese. Dryden also served a one-day suspension without pay. In a classic example of psychological projection, the school board called Dryden’s actions “inappropriate and unprofessional,” forbade him from using “flippant” or sarcastic remarks, or providing “legal advice,” and he must not “mischaracterize” or “discredit” any district initiative. Let’s be real: these people are utterly devoid of competence or ethics. Flippancy is central to his teaching style (as it is to mine), the “legal advice” in question is simply reminding post-adolescents that they have rights, and the “mischaracterization” in question was, in fact, grimly accurate.

Quoth the Board: “As a result of your misconduct, it is unknown how many students who may be in need of emotional and social interventions will go without available assistance or interventions because they heeded your advice to refuse to answer, or provide false answers to survey questions.” Curmie replies: 1). It’s not your fucking job, and your voyeurism does not do you credit. 2). You have no idea whether students would or would not have provided authentic answers had Dryden not intervened at all. 3). The fact that your little unconstitutional fishing expedition didn’t find out dirt about your students doesn’t mean that help isn’t available to them: there are folks called parents, and doctors, and clergy—all of these people just might be of some help to adolescents in need.

Dryden himself responds: “This un-vetted survey was and is a massive invasion of privacy and students do have a Fifth Amendment right not to give to a state institution any information that might incriminate them regardless of the intentions of that institution. The administration has argued that they intended to do the right thing and that we should have simply trusted them to act responsibly with the information provided by students.”

The board, in other words, is like your Uncle Howard. You know, the one about whom your parents say, “he means well.” But you don’t want him making decisions about your life, because he’s… well… kinda dumb.

Patricia Adler: Not a Risk to the University
On to our other story: Patricia Adler is a tenured professor at the University of Colorado, known above all for her hugely popular course on Deviance in US Society. Now she claims she’s being forced out because of a lecture she’s given for decades but which is all of a sudden a huge problem.

As Scott Kaufman of Inside Higher Education describes it:
The lecture on prostitution involves mock-interviews with student volunteers posing as different kinds of prostitutes: “slave whores, crack whores, bar whores, streetwalkers, brothel workers and escort services.” The intent is to demonstrate that social stratification exists even within categories of people deemed “deviant,” like prostitutes.

During these interviews, Adler said, the undergraduate “assistant teaching assistants” are dressed up like the manner of prostitute they are playing, and answer questions like “how they got into the business, how much they charge, the services they perform, and the risks they face of violence, arrest and AIDS.”

According to Adler, the dean of College of Arts and Sciences, Steven Leigh, told her that such a lecture posed “too much risk…in a post-Penn State environment.”
SAY WHAT? “Post-Penn State”? What on God’s green earth does a role-playing exercise in a Sociology course have to do with a pedophiliac coach being protected by higher-ups in the university?

Adler says she was given a choice: accept a buyout or risk being fired (and losing retirement benefits) if any student complained in the future. This, of course, is the sort of Machiavellian sleaze that has become far too common on university campuses. Speaking as a veteran of college and university classroom, I can pretty much guarantee that there’ll be a complaint if she stays: how many of us can claim that not a single student out of 500 (yes, 500 in one semester) will dislike us? Notice that there’s no self-imposed requirement on the part of the administration to verify the legitimacy of the complaint. And, of course, now that the threat is public, some little putz will sign up for the class for the precise purpose of complaining. But this way, gutless jackasses like Provost Russell Moore can write drivel like the following:
Professor Adler has not been dismissed from the University and is not being forced to retire. Dismissal requires extensive due process proceedings, and the University does not coerce its faculty to retire. She remains a tenured faculty member in sociology at CU-Boulder.

A number of you have raised concerns about academic freedom and how it may connect to this situation. Academic freedom protects faculty who teach controversial and uncomfortable/unpopular subjects. However, academic freedom does not allow faculty members to violate the University's sexual harassment policy by creating a hostile environment for their teaching assistants, or for their students attending the class.

In this case, University administrators heard from a number of concerned students about Professor Adler's “prostitution” skit, the way it was presented, and the environment it created for both students in the class and for teaching assistants. Student assistants made it clear to administrators that they felt there would be negative consequences for anyone who refused to participate in the skit. None of them wished to be publicly identified.
I call bullshit.

She’s having her signature course taken away from her, she can’t ever have a single complaint lodged against her or she’ll be fired without review and lose her retirement benefits, but she’s not being forced out. Academic freedom doesn’t apply, because although literally no one had actually complained on their own behalf, an anonymous former TA suggested that the volunteer undergraduate participants (who surely know in advance what is going to happen in the prostitution lecture) might be uncomfortable, making this a case about sexual harassment. Oh, and the Office of Discrimination and Harassment deems the lecture a “risk to the university.” (Insert passive-aggressive eye roll here.) If three decades on college and university campuses have taught me anything, it’s that such offices exist for one reason only, and that’s to justify their own existence.

Seriously, that seems to be the entirety of the case against Adler. The words “due process” apparently have no meaning in Boulder.

Mark J. Miller, a “spokesman for the university” (whatever that means) said in an e-mail to Inside Higher Education that the case might require review from the Institutional Review Board. The IRB’s own website, of course, specifies its function as reviewing “human subject research.” Adler’s prostitution lecture/skit doesn’t qualify (students are role-playing, not revealing anything about themselves… or do I have to have somebody looking over my shoulder every time I go into rehearsal or teach an acting class?), and Miller either knows that and is being disingenuous, or he’s dumber than a box of rocks.

Oh, and then there’s this: administrators said in a news conference that the “main concern” with Adler's course was that students were being photographed or filmed without their consent during the skit. Really. Steven Leigh, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, actually said this: “We were concerned in this course that maybe there are cell phone videos being taken or other kinds of videos that would put students in a position where we didn't have consent on these issues.” Seriously? First off, Adler isn’t responsible for what students do with their cell phones. She’s a professor, not a warden. Secondly, this is apparently a new concern, never mentioned before. Convenient, yes? Thirdly, students know in advance that they’ll be filmed, and I have no reason to disbelieve Prof. Adler’s assertion that they often ask for copies as keepsakes. Again, the insistence on legalisms like consent forms is precisely what administrators trot out when they really don’t have a case.

In short, the whole thing stinks. I have no idea whether Dr. Adler’s techniques are appropriate or not, but a whole lot of current and former students think that 1). she’s great, 2). that course is especially great, and 3). that lecture is the highlight of the class. Perhaps students are made uncomfortable. So what? Perhaps some students feel pressured to participate—show me someone, anyone, who actually makes that claim publicly about himself/herself and we can talk. But it sure looks from the outside that she’s being tried and convicted not merely on hearsay, but on anonymous rumor.

At worst, Dr. Adler might deserve a reprimand. For a tenured professor to be in fear for her livelihood for something like this is unconscionable. There seem to be a lot of people at Colorado who deserve to be fired. Dr. Adler is not among them.

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