Saturday, December 27, 2014

A Curmie Smörgåsbord

It’s the last-minute frenzy, as Curmie does some traveling over the rest of the calendar year, and is unlikely to have the opportunity to write another post in 2014. So the last round-up of Curmie contenders will be a little rushed, and will leave out a host of potential contenders. There are still a dozen or more stories I really want to get to, and two or three times that many more that I think are worthy of comment. But enough of the scaffolding… let’s talk about as many of these as we can, even if I get to spend less time/space per entry than normal.

Adrionna Harris: thank you.
First up: From March: Middle schooler Adrionna Harris was suspended and threatened with expulsion from Bayside Middle School in Virginia because she stopped a classmate from cutting himself with a razor, took it away from him, and threw it away. You see, she didn’t just let him keep on hurting himself while she scurried away to find a teacher, who may or may not have actually done anything. Oh, and she had possession of a razor (long enough to throw it away!) and did not report it… well, except for the fact that she did, but other than that, it’s a great argument. There’s a Zero Tolerance Policy, you see, because school administrators are too busy feeling self-important to go through the work of finding out if someone actually did something wrong.

In fact, the insane punishment came about only because she mentioned the events to a guidance counselor the next day: there was no other evidence. As Jonathan Turley points out, “[Adrionna] was disciplined for not only grabbing the razor but telling the truth to school officials — quite a lesson for other students.” Here’s the thing. It’s reasonable to want adults to handle these situations. And an admonishment—“if this ever happens again, call a teacher immediately”—wouldn’t have been out of line. But if Principal Paula Johnson wanted to trade her brains for a box of sporks, she’d have to throw in some cash and a future draft choice.

Local television news outlets tend to think that they’re pretty important, so we might want to take it with a grain of salt when they declare that nobody at the school would give the girl’s parents the time of day until “”10 On Your Side” got into the act. The scary thing is, though, that I believe them.

It appears that the events in this incident played out about the same as they generally do in similar cases: 1). the school makes a profoundly stupid decision, 2). they ignore anyone who questions their divine right to be utter idiots, 3). they staunchly defend the decision despite the fact that its inanity is obvious to anyone with an IQ above room temperature, 4). news of the decision gets out anyway, and generally goes viral, 5). everyone laughs at what incompetents the school administrators are, 6). the decision is reversed—not because the principal or superintendent or whoever really understand how outrageous they’ve been (and how absurd it is that they’re still employed), but because they’re tired of being laughed at.

Oh, and Paula Johnson, the cretinous yahoo who perpetrated this stupidity… the 2013 Outstanding Secondary School Assistant Principal of the Year (could I make this up?). God spare us from whoever came in second for that award.

Paul Roof and his impressive hirsuitness
Next up: From June: Sociology professor Paul Roof was fired shortly after being promoted to Associate Professor (and, one presumes, tenured, although that’s not always the case) by Charleston Southern University because his photograph—taken at a beard competition to benefit ovarian cancer victims and their families (over $25,000 raised so far)—was used without consulting him as part of the logo on cans of Holy City Brewery’s Chucktown Follicle Brown beer (well, probably ale, but all the news reports say “beer”). By the way, there’s nothing in the university’s code of conduct that prohibits alcohol use.

Ah, but having his picture on the beer can, despite the fact that he does not own the image and didn’t authorize its use, “was not representative of a Christian environment.” Roof’s response is classic—that for him, “a Christian environment entails two things: looking out for other people and forgiveness of others who've transgressed you.” In any just universe, it would be Vice President of Academic Affairs Jackie Fish, not Professor Roof, who’d be looking for a new job. Under normal circumstances, Curmie would say that Fish needs a little more bran in his diet, but this time, I’m guessing a little beer would help a lot. Might I suggest Chucktown Follicle Brown? If nothing else, it has a great label.

Eric Lopez: not a sexual threat
Next up: From July: Alas, we’ve seen this stupidity before. In Surprise, Arizona, Eric Lopez, a kindergartner at Ashton Ranch Elementary School, pulled his pants down on the playground last spring. For this, he now has an entry in his permanent file for “sexual misconduct.” Let me repeat, kindergartner Eric Lopez did that. Not “kindergarten teacher’s aide Eric Lopez,” kindergartner Eric Lopez. As in, he’s five.

Still, after questioning the boy without his parents’ presence (school regulations say you can do that if the child doesn’t specifically ask for a parent to be there), administrators apparently got him to “sign” a confession of sorts—he can’t really write, yet—that, yes, he committed “sexual misconduct,” despite the fact that he has no idea what either of those words mean and would be incapable of any sexual act even if he wanted to commit one. Oh, and despite the fact that he seems to have been bullied into doing what he did do.

The district’s point person on this seems to be Jim Dean. He’s the assistant superintendent in Dysart USD. He’s also got the sense of an over-stimulated piranha and the brains of a doorknob. By this description, I intend no offense to the doorknobs of the world. First off, the idea that you can cross-examine a five-year-old without as much as parental notification (or telling the boy he could request his mother to be there) is obscene, and I don’t care what it says in your fucking little rulebook. Such action is as nonsensical as it is unethical, and if it isn’t illegal, it damned well ought to be.

But to call anything that any five-year-old does “sexual” is a perversion of both science and the language that even assistant superintendents (allowing for their diminished mental capacity) should be able to get away with. To compound the problem with weaselly platitudes about “consistent language” is just disgusting. Oh, and if, in fact, “The discussion with a kindergarten student is focused on the specific action, not on the label that is used for classifying the infraction,” then maybe you should not, in fact, worry about the classification of the infraction, and remove that classification from the boy’s record. A kindergartner who was bullied into dropping his pants and then bullied again into “admitting” it should not have “sexual misconduct” on his permanent record.

So STFU, Mr. Dean. Oh, and please resign. Retroactively. Return all salary received since this incident. And never take a job in education again. Ever.

Steven Salaita: should be employed
Next up: From August: Steven Salaita was recruited by the University of Illinois to fill a tenured position in their American Indian Studies program. He accepted the position, resigned from a tenured job at Virginia Tech, and proceeded to prepare his family to move to Champaign/Urbana (where, incidentally, Curmie will celebrate the New Year… and the wedding of a beloved former student).

Of course, there’s a bunch of legalese in faculty contracts, including, in this case, a disclaimer that the offer of a position was subject to the approval of the Board of Trustees. It is, as Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Education points out, “a formality.” Well, almost always.

Between the offer and the beginning of classes, Professor Salaita made some controversial tweets about Israel. To be fair, some of them could reasonably be said to cross the line into incivility. For example: “At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised? #Gaza.” But, again to be fair, it doesn’t matter. Salaita has a right, as a private citizen, to say unpopular things. Indeed, scholars have a virtual responsibility to challenge orthodoxy.

The administration at UIUC didn’t see it that way. Chancellor Phyllis Wise broke the precedent of thousands of academic hires at universities every year, and proclaimed that Salaita’s appointment would not be forwarded to the Trustees, because, apparently, that’s what happens to naughty boys. Real reason? Some fat-cat donors and some of the Trustees themselves believe in free expression only when the speaker agrees with them.

The case did find itself to the Trustees (after the semester has already started, if that gives you an idea of how truly unimportant faculty appointments are—and should be—in Trustee meetings), where, predictably, the entrenched businesspeople who don’t really understand universities but sure are worth a lot of money proclaimed their support for Chancellor Wise’s decision:
Disrespectful and demeaning speech that promotes malice is not an acceptable form of civil argument if we wish to ensure that students, faculty and staff are comfortable in a place of scholarship and education. If we educate a generation of students to believe otherwise, we will have jeopardized the very system that so many have made such great sacrifices to defend. There can be no place for that in our democracy, and therefore, there will be no place for it in our university.
Boy, that does sound pretty, doesn’t it? Trouble is, it’s nonsense. If Professor Salaita expects students to agree with him, that’s a problem. But there’s no evidence that he does. His classroom evaluations are stellar, and suggest more than anything else that he respects and values contrary views. The Jewish community at Illinois understands this, collecting over 100 signatures to a scathing denunciation of the administration’s actions. The American Indian Studies Program and the Philosophy Department issued votes of No Confidence.

The real problem isn’t that Professor Salaita would be disrespectful, but that 1). he’d be disrespectful to particular ideas, 2). we’re not really interested in the free exchange of ideas, only in the ones we like, 3). damn those faculty search committees that think they know who’s a good scholar or teacher in their discipline better than we do, and (above all), 4). we might lose that donation that someone might now withhold because we’ve caved so many times and allowed them to attach strings to their largesse so often they now think it’s their right. The function of a university, after all, is to serve its corporate masters.

The actions of Chancellor Wise and the Trustees are cowardly, unethical, arrogant, boorish, anti-intellectual, and in direct contradiction to the appropriate exercise of their authority. Alas, this is becoming Business as Usual on far too many campuses. But hey, there’s some serious Curmie consideration, so there’s something good.

Well, I think that’s all the time I have. Lots of worthy contenders still to go, but I think I got to most of the worst of the worst. Watch this space in early January for the announcement of the Curmie nominees.

And have a Happy New Year, everyone.


Thursday, December 25, 2014

Curmie Contender: Complete Disregard for Academic Integrity Edition


I’ve been putting off writing about this topic in the hope that either somebody else would say what I wanted to, or that there’d be a real accounting, so this incident would just sort of win a special Curmie and we could all move on.

Trouble is, that hasn’t happened. Well, Brian Rosenberg’s opinion piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education (which I do urge you to read in its entirety) came pretty close to articulating Curmie’s thoughts, almost fulfilling the first part of the above criteria. Unfortunately, the moving on has happened, but the accounting hasn’t. So, although the events in question happened for an extended period of time and apparently ended before calendar year 2014, the report detailing the outrage wasn’t released until this fall, so I am exercising executive fiat and declaring the situation eligible for 2014 Curmie consideration.

The topic in question is the revelation that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for a period of 18 years, routed some 3000 students—mostly African-American, roughly half of them athletes—into courses that essentially didn’t exist except for the purpose of granting good grades to under-prepared, lazy, stupid, or otherwise inadequate students. After all, keeping that tight end eligible is far more important than the academic integrity of the entire university, right?

Curmie is especially troubled by the fact that the major news media have glossed over this issue. When the Wainstein report, detailing a positively horrific tale of fraud, deception, collusion, and all-purpose duplicity was released, there was one story in the New York Times. One. And it’s shorter than Curmie’s average blog post. Follow up? Nope.

CNN has been better, but substantial evidence of far-reaching academic fraud at a highly respected university ought to generate a little more interest than simply acknowledging that former football coach Butch Davis, whom anyone with a hint of intellect would be pretty certain is up to his pompous ass in all this, is now whinging that he’s being made a scapegoat. He didn’t know. Uh huh. Believe that, Gentle Reader, and Curmie would like to hook you up with a great opportunity to make a huge amount of money in virtually no time. It involves this Nigerian prince, see, and… oh, never mind.

And that is the crux of the situation. The number of people who knew about this scandalous enterprise—or should have known about it—is absurdly high. We won’t even bother talking about the students, even the most feeble-minded of whom had to know that they weren’t really doing the work, qualitatively or quantitatively, for which they were receiving not merely credit, but A’s and B’s, as necessary. But you’ll never convince me that high-ranking administrators weren’t fully aware of pretty much everything that was going on.

The king and queen of this cesspool are Julius Nyang’oro, the former Chairman of the African and Afro-American Studies Department, and Deborah Crowder, formerly a non-academic administrator in the department. Nyang’oro became professor of record for a number of phony courses, and obviously knew exactly what was transpiring. Crowder seems to have orchestrated the scheme, even carrying on e-mail conversations with the euphemistically termed “academic counselors” of athletic teams to find out what grades a particular student needed to stay eligible, which was, of course, the only criterion to be applied: ethics be damned.

Here’s the NYT’s Sarah Lyall on one exchange:
For example, in September 2008, Jan Boxill, the academic counselor for the women’s basketball team, sent Ms. Crowder a paper to be graded. [Curmie’s note: And what the hell is a non-academic doing grading papers to begin with?] After promising in an email that “I will try to accommodate as many favors as possible,” Ms. Crowder then expressed some skepticism about the paper.

“Did you say a D will do?” she asked, according to emails released by the university. “I’m only asking because 1, no sources, 2, it has absolutely nothing to do with the assignments for that class and 3. it seems to me to be a recycled paper.”

Ms. Boxill responded, “Yes, a D will be fine; that’s all she needs.”
And that e-mail continues, “I didn’t look at the paper, but figured it was a recycled one as well, but I couldn’t figure out from where.” Yes, really.

Jane Stancill of the News Observer writes that Boxill admitted to “add[ing] some stuff for the intro and conclusion” of a student paper she… um… edited. And she admitted to collusion with Crowder on the case notes above, but claimed it was to help a student graduate, not to maintain athletic eligibility, as if that freaking matters to anyone but ESPN.

It is only fitting that such an obviously corrupt and unethical person, perfectly willing to break every rule of academic integrity to help some idiot jock stay eligible, would be (could I make this up?) the Director of the Parr Center for Ethics (!). Apparently Bernie Madoff was unavailable. Anyway, it seems that the deeply ironic nature of this particular job title finally became too embarrassing even for UNC, and there’s a new interim director. And no, the university won’t say she was removed from the position, because that would imply that they give a shit about academic honesty, and how are we going to recruit stupid athletes if that gets out?

Indeed, a story by Jane Wester in the Daily Tar Heel reports that Boxill is one of nine faculty who faced disciplinary action in the wake of the Wainstein report. “The university fired her unethical ass and sued her for the damage to their reputation” does not, alas, appear in any news story I can find. And whereas Crowder and Nyang’oro have both retired (not sure whether to put scare quotes around that term), Boxill is still listed on the university website as a “Teaching Professor.” She’s an expert in sports ethics, after all. No, really. As Casey Stengel would say, you can look it up. Gentle Reader, if you’re going to giggle uncontrollably like that, we’re just not going to get anywhere.

OK… you get the gist. The particularly troubling part of this whole brouhaha is that no one really seems to care: not the university, not the NCAA, not SACS (the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the accrediting body). Let’s take these things one at a time. The university lost even plausible deniability long ago. They knew at least the basics of the scheme essentially from the beginning, all the while pretending not to. But Davis was fired primarily for his participation in the affair (one former player claims he was forced to major in African and Afro-American Studies; another said that “everyone” in the athletic department knew of the cheating; Davis is quoted as saying “If you all came here for an education, you should have gone to Harvard.”). That was over three years ago. Side note: Davis had previously received recognition for his team’s high graduation rate. Gee, I wonder how he managed that?

And if “everyone” knew, that means Roy Williams, the head basketball coach, knew, too, and 15 men’s basketball players were identified in the investigation. Williams is still in place, making somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 million a year (not counting an estimated half million a year in endorsements). Way to enforce those high standards you talk so much about, UNC.

Crowder and Nyang’oro were allowed to retire rather than being fired long after their guilt became common knowledge, let alone known within the university. Boxill is still there.

More disturbing, perhaps, the university intends to do nothing to the literally thousands of “students” who knowingly and willingly participated in the fraud. They still have their degrees, and there will be no attempt to change that. There are, no doubt, legal and privacy issues at play here, and there may be little the university can do.

But imagine yourself for a moment as a real alumnus or alumna of Chapel Hill, especially if you majored in African and Afro-American Studies and/or were an athlete. You worked hard for that diploma: you took actual courses and wrote your own papers and took exams that tested what you know rather than whether the academic counselor could get a copy of the answer sheet in advance. What’s it worth, now? “Nothing” would actually be exaggerating its value: that degree is so tainted that the assumption will inevitably and perpetually be that you’re a cheater, too. Curmie would certainly think that were he a prospective employer. The conspiracy was simply too virulent and too widespread, and guilt by association is, well, a thing.

The NCAA? Are you kidding? They’re too worried about whether a booster bought a kid a pizza, whether a school’s mascot isn’t PC enough, or whether they can pretend to care about an issue by indignantly over-stepping any real authority to issue absurd penalties. Actually doing something useful, like protecting the integrity of the notion of the “student athlete”? Nah, not so much.

Tom McMillen knows whereof he speaks. I remember him as a really good post player for the University of Maryland’s basketball team when I was in high school. He went on to be a Rhodes Scholar, play in the NBA, and serve three terms in the U.S. Congress before re-districting cost him re-election. Now he’s secretary for the University System of Maryland Board of Regents. Here’s what he has to say: “Kids who are walking out of these schools cannot read. They are getting degrees that are worthless. I think the chink in the armor of the NCAA is that they say you're going to get an education.” David Ridpath of the University of Ohio is more direct: “The NCAA is abdicating their responsibility, and there is a clear and convincing case of academic fraud the NCAA is overlooking.”

Wait, what? The NCAA is a collection of pious frauds who make Tartuffe look like an amateur? Next you’ll tell me water is wet.

And so we move on to SACS. These are the folks who care deeply if your class in Quantum Mechanics has clearly identifiable course objectives (how about “know something about quantum mechanics”?) and whether you quantify how many hours you spend in advising (actually spending those hours is of minimal import; perception is all). But when it comes to, say, 3000 students receiving credit (and good grades) over more than a decade—you know, totally corrupting the entire academic system—SACS, predictably, does bubkes. Well, not quite. They have sent a “warning letter” to the UNC administration. Ooh… the terror!

If nothing else, response to the letter has shown the true colors of the UNC administration. Here’s Provost Jim Dean, as reported by the Raleigh ABC affiliate:
When asked about the accreditation review, UNC Provost Jim Dean told ABC11, “The entire university should not be punished for the academic fraud that went on for nearly 20 years.”

“During that period of time that the report represents, we had about 97,000 students and about 3,000 of those students were engaged at the most in this activity,” said Dean. “So as bad as it was, to say that it represents the whole university is pretty disingenuous.”
Are you freaking kidding me??? That’s what you’ve got, Skippy? Only a little more than 3% of your students received diplomas that aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on? That’s your argument? (I suppose we can take some consolation that he didn’t trot out the “everybody does it” excuse.) It might be fun to be Provost at UNC, but Curmie can’t afford the lobotomy.

Here’s where I turn things over to Brian Rosenberg, the President of Macalester College, whom I mentioned early in this piece:
I have read many responses to the report of corruption at Chapel Hill. Some argue that those at the center of the activities were simply trying to help at-risk students, to which my response is that awarding credits and grades without providing instruction is not “help” in any sense that I can accept. In the case of student athletes, I see it as closer to exploitation for the benefit of the university. Some argue that this behavior is widespread among institutions with highly visible Division I sports programs and therefore should provoke no particular surprise or outrage.

I hope that this last claim is untrue. If it is, however, the only way to alter such behavior is to respond with force and clarity when it is uncovered. Reducing the number of athletic scholarships at Chapel Hill, or vacating wins, or banning teams from postseason competition, is in each case a punishment wholly unsuitable to the crime. The crime involves fundamental academic integrity. The response, regardless of the visibility or reputation or wealth of the institution, should be to suspend accredited status until there is evidence that an appropriate level of integrity is both culturally and structurally in place.

Anything less would be dismissive of the many institutions whose transcripts actually have meaning.

There are still some chances that something might get done: a congressional inquiry into NCAA practices, an allegation that the paper courses violated Title IX because students were overwhelmingly male and Title VI because they were overwhelmingly black…. And who know, SACS might actually do their job, although they conspicuously failed to do so when the scandal first broke in early 2013. But Curmie isn’t holding his breath.

But the chances of a Curmie nomination are 100%. That’s something, I suppose.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Curmie Contenders: Censorious Asshat Edition

It just wouldn’t be Curmie season without a couple of examples of idiot administrators shutting down high school theatre productions, then lying about why they did so. As it happens, the two cases Curmie knows about both involve shows that have been done by my university’s School of Theatre in recent years. Curmie reminds you that he lives in a part of the country that routinely re-elects Loony Louie Gohmert without serious opposition, if that gives you an idea of how conservative things are around these parts.

True, we’re talking about a university instead of a high school, but as far as I know there wasn’t as much as a murmur of dissent about either of these plays. The shows in question: Spamalot, the popular musical based loosely on the movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” and in fact written by Python Eric Idle, cancelled at South Williamsport Jr/Sr High School in northern Pennsylvania, and John Cariani’s Almost, Maine, which, according to the most recent information I can find (2010), is most-produced high school play in the country cancelled in Maiden, North Carolina.

In both cases, the censorious asshats (h/t to Ken at Popehat for the term) claim they’re worried about the tender sensibilities of audiences and performers alike. But those whose productions were shut down see it differently: in both Pennsylvania and North Carolina, students and faculty are pretty certain that the real problem is that one thing the plays have in common, apart from their popularity with production companies and audiences alike, is that they explicitly acknowledge that gay people exist, and even that they sometimes fall in love.

Spamalot features a production number coming-out party for a now flamboyantly gay Lancelot, who had saved a damsel in distress who turned out not to be a damsel; the pair marry in the end, with one of the grooms singing “find your male” when everyone else in the the show’s anthem sings “find your Grail.” Almost, Maine has one scene (of nine), “They Fell,” in which two male characters literally fall (as in being unable to stand) for each other. Both scenes are comic and cute. But they do suggest that gay people are… um… people. Oh, the humanity! Think of the children!

The other thing the two shows have in common is that the rights-holders are remarkably willing to accommodate school productions. The North Carolina production had already announced their plans to cut a scene that suggested imminent (heterosexual) sex, apparently with the approval of the playwright and/or rights-holder. The company controlling production rights to Spamalot is amazingly willing to help schools produce their show. There’s even an explanatory webpage, replete with everything from alternate staging suggestions to milder expletives to what to do if you feel compelled to cut the snarkily anti-Semitic “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway.” (This latter song and the accompanying stereotyping ought to be more problematic to censors than any homosexual motif; needless to say, it’s never mentioned.) In other words, all that claptrap about “sexually-explicit overtones and multiple sexual innuendos that are not aligned with our mission and educational objectives” nonsense: window dressing.

And let’s not go down the road followed by both administrations that high school plays have to be “appropriate and educationally sound for students of all ages.” That was Maiden High’s Rob Bliss, for those of you keeping score at home, but it doesn't matter. South Williamsport Superintendent Mark Stamm read from the same script: “We want our performances to be appropriate for the student performers and audiences so that anyone participating or watching can enjoy all aspects of the show.”

To which I say, with all due respect, “horseshit.” High school plays ought to be appropriate for the performers, but directors and student actors ought to be under no obligation to pander to the least common denominator of their audiences unless a particular production is specifically intended for children. Think about the second most-produced high school play: A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Fairies, forbidden love, a whole lot of sex jokes in the mechanicals’ performance (I know this in part from having played an Egeus/Philostrate conflation; part of my job in Act V was to laugh at all the dirty stuff so the audience would be alerted to the jokes), a variation on the theme of bestiality… and why do you think Oberon was so interested in that Indian Boy, after all? Fact is, pick any show and if you look hard enough, you’ll find something to complain about.

Here’s Curmie from just under two years ago:
Carousel is one of the creepiest plays ever; Henry Higgins—our hero—is a condescending, sexist, erm… sphincter in My Fair Lady (far more so than his Shavian predecessor in Pygmalion); Godspell requires a conflation of John the Baptist and Judas; all the heroes of West Side Story are gang members; the best songs in Jesus Christ, Superstar go to Mary Magdalene and Herod; the title character in Sweet Charity never strays far from her origins as a prostitute in the Fellini film on which the musical is based; “Hernando’s Hideaway” from The Pajama Game (done right, at least) drips with sexuality; Luther Billis cross-dresses in South Pacific, and extra-marital sex is taken as a given (albeit never made explicit). Need I go on?
And that’s just the musicals. These plays were shut down because of gay subject matter and anyone with an IQ above room temperature knows it.

What the cancellations have in common is that both shows were approved by the appropriate administrators before they were axed for reasons aptly described by arts administrator and blogger Howard Sherman as “the school administration caving in to their own worst instincts and to outside pressure, even though the source of the pressure managed to remain under the radar.” [Sherman was writing specifically about Almost, Maine, but he could just as easily have been describing Spamalot.] Almost, Maine was, in fact, already in rehearsal before administrative cold feet trumped all reason.

Be it noted that the Principal in South Williamsport, one Jesse Smith, Mark Stamm, and school board President John J. Engel Jr. proclaimed that homosexual themes in Spamalot were not the real reason for the cancellation, and the show had not actually been approved before its cancellation. They were, to coin a phrase, lying. Gentle Reader, if you’ll follow this link, you’ll find several documents. Among them: a copy of an e-mail from Smith that reads in part, “I am uncomfortable with Spamalot and its homosexual theme…”, another that says “I have some concerns such as a guy sending another guy a message on girl’s underwear [when does that happen?] and a gay wedding being performed,” and a photocopy of a check for $1935 signed by Smith.

Curmie may remind you of his lay status when it comes to matters of law or science, but this one is in his wheelhouse. You don’t write a check for that amount of money if you’re just considering a script. You’ve decided. And if you subsequently claim you hadn’t, you’re lying. And you’re busted. The fact is, just like virtually every other moronic principal who caves to the slightest bit of pressure instead of standing up for free expression (not to mention your staff and your students), you just couldn’t be bothered to do your job. So you approved a show you regret approving. And you’re willing to blame anyone but yourself. You do have the advantage that your boss has no more integrity as either educator or person than you do, so you probably won’t even get your sorry ass kicked out the door for your inane and dishonest behavior. More’s the pity.

(Curmie is also a big fan of the phrase “WNEP/WBRE were contacted anomalously…” in an e-mail from Stamm to, presumably, the school board. Note to school administrators: a typo here and there might be inevitable. Malapropisms, however, make you look like an even bigger idiot than your censorious asshatitude does.)

The directors in question seem to have done everything right. If anything, they were a little too solicitous in terms of getting permission forms from parents before allowing students to audition, and so on. They made copies of the scripts available to their respective administrations prior to announcing the show. But the principals didn’t read the plays before approving them and apparently didn’t read them well before nixing them again.

There is, to be sure, an upside to all this. Almost, Maine will in fact open in a couple weeks in a nearby town, with a cast comprised of Maiden High School students and a couple of recent alums. A kickstarter campaign raised nearly twice the goal amount of $1000 in less than a day; the campaign ultimately netted some $6605 from 289 backers (including a few bucks from Curmie).

The downside is that there was apparently no replacement show chosen at Maiden High School. That would be, probably, because all the talent was committed to doing the show they’d already agreed to do. There might just be hope for this younger generation, after all.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

'Tis the Season for Curmie Contenders

Curmie contenders tend to fall into categories. There are the censorious asshats who shut down high school (usually) productions of plays and musicals that any normal person would consider utterly inoffensive; there are the buffoons who decide that a six-year-old kid who touches a classmate’ butt on the playground is guilty of a sex crime or that when a (black) basketball player flashes the signal for a 3-point shot, it’s really a gang sign; there are the teachers who condone or even perpetrate outrageously dangerous or demeaning behavior; there are the administrators who sell out any pedagogical integrity for a little filthy lucre; there are the stupid rules, stupidly enforced, so that disarming an armed and potentially violent classmate is grounds for suspension… You know the catalog as well as I do, Gentle Reader.

Alan Barron
Today’s category is a familiar one, entitled Punishing Teachers for Being Good at Their Jobs. Well, sort of. (See below.) We have two examples. Our first story, from June, comes from Michigan, where Monroe Middle School teacher Alan Barron was suspended (officially, placed on administrative leave, a distinction without a difference) for a fortnight for showing a 30-second video of a blackface performance in the context of a section on stereotyping. He was barred not only from the classroom, but also from other school events, such as an annual dinner honoring retirees (he retired at the end of the 2013-14 academic year after 36 years of service).

Or at least that’s what Mr. Barron’s lawyer says. It’s also what parents of students in the 8th-grade class say: that, in the words of Monroe News reporter Ray Kisonas, Assistant Principal Melissa Provo, who had sat in on the class, “thought the lesson plan was offensive and racist.” It wasn’t, of course, in the opinion of anyone but the Ms. Provo, who apparently doesn’t believe in teaching history the way it actually happened. Well, that’s not quite true: all the higher-ups covered for her, although it’s up for grabs whether any of them actually believed in her case.

Needless to say, when, inevitably in the light of a decision so transparently stupid, the fecal matter interfaced the whirling rotors, everyone in the administration ran for cover.
The district, through spokesman Bobb Vergiels, would not acknowledge that Mr. Barron was suspended and only stated that he is “on leave.”

“Mr. Barron has been on leave for about a week while we look into a reported situation in his classroom,” a statement read.
Subsequently, Superintendent Dr. Barry Martin, who is either a prevaricator of epic proportions or the only person in town dumber than Ms. Provo, blamed the brouhaha on “incorrect information,” disingenuously pretending that what the entire community rose up to condemn in the administrative/board action was “a perception that the district was opposed to a teacher providing students with information about the history of racial issues in this country. This simply is not true and is a misinterpretation of the concern.”

In plain terms, Martin vainly tries to shift the blame by doing exactly what he accuses students, parents, and the blogosphere of doing: misinterpreting the concern. No one that I can see ever suggested that the school was censoring discussion of racial issues; they were objecting to the unwarranted suppression of a veteran teacher’s ability to employ what he perceived to be the best available classroom strategies to cover important information.

What really happened, of course, was that an Assistant Principal who was born about the time Mr. Barron started teaching felt compelled to sit in on a class of a man who was retiring in a few weeks. Curmie would love to believe she was looking to improve her own classroom skills. Curmie, however, is not a moron, and is pretty certain she had heard what the day’s subject matter was, and was looking to strut her PC credentials and her “authority.” The board then supposedly needed two weeks to “fully consider what happened in the classroom.”

Well, I can tell you that in two seconds: an assistant principal with the mental capacity of a head of wilted lettuce decided that an obviously perfectly reasonable lesson was something sinister, and the Principal, Superintendent, and School Board all lacked the moral integrity or the intellectual courage to tell her to STFU. Both the local community and the networld responded as sane people would, and here we are.

Martin’s crocodile tears that “a highly respected and loved teacher, and one who has done much for his students and the community, has had to endure a public airing of what should have ended through a district discussion” may be the most hypocritical twaddle of the year. That highly respected and loved teacher wouldn’t have had to endure a single fucking thing if you weren’t so goddamned incompetent, you pusillanimous little shit.

Ahem.

As I was saying… eventually, someone either came to their senses or decided that this particular little escapade wasn’t worth the universal and indeed national opprobrium it was generating. But calling off the proverbial dogs came too little, too late. The chances the administration at Monroe will get a Curmie nomination: quite good.

Vuola Coyle
And so we move on to our other story, this one from July in New York State. According to Voula Coyle, a former 4th grade teacher at Rhame Avenue School in East Rockaway, she was pulled from the classroom because of how her students do on standardized tests. But here’s a switch: she says she was fired (actually, re-assigned to non-classroom duties) because her charges did too well, thereby allegedly hurting the school’s funding because students therefore showed insufficient progress in the fifth grade. According to her, teachers had been advised “not to be optimal, but to be adequate. That underlying message of mediocrity was promoted.”

Got that?

The more perspicacious among you will at this point have an eyebrow raised in skepticism, and you’re right. There’s more to this story than meets the eye. Ms. Coyle, it turns out, had been charged with helping her students on the standardized tests that reformsters and educationists (but few actual educators) so admire. (Curmie is, if anything, more cynical now than when he wrote about the topic here, here, here, and here, for example.) But, and as they say in the burlesque circuit, it’s a big but, a state-appointed arbiter found those allegations “not credible.” Curmie reminds you, Gentle Reader, that he is no lawyer, but it does seem that “not credible” really qualifies as a step more emphatic an acquittal than “insufficient evidence” or similar language. Moreover, whereas Coyle had received “highly effective” (the highest available) ratings for two consecutive years, her replacement in the classroom mustered only “developing” (translation: “terrible”). Something is clearly afoot.

Yet even after (or perhaps specifically because) Coyle was exonerated from wrong-doing, the school gave her a sort of half-clerical/half-professional job writing lesson guides. [Curmie admits that making $115K for that job doesn’t sound so bad, since he makes barely over half that as a full professor, but also acknowledges that the cost of living is probably a little higher in a posh Long Island town than in East Texas.]

A good share of this kerfuffle can be directed attributed to the fetishization of standardized testing. Certainly I have seen a precipitous and still continuing drop in real college-readiness in my undergraduate students over the 14 years I’ve been in my current job. Their test scores remain essentially the same, but their critical thinking, research, and argumentative skills have plummeted. Obviously, there are exceptions, but far too high a percentage of current students want to be told precisely what they need to regurgitate on the test, and aren’t interested in anything else. Such students have always existed, of course, but never before have they been so thick on the ground.

I had a student in my office the other day who summed it up pretty well. The topic was the fact that over a quarter of my senior-level Theatre History class had their grades withheld because of significant but pretty clearly unintentional citation errors. He said that he had never been taught what I’d learned in 7th grade: not then, not in high school, not in a pair of freshman composition courses in college. He and his peers had never learned how to write and document a paper, how to construct an argument, how to engage with existing scholarship without simply parroting it. “We’re from the No Child Left Behind generation,” he said. “We know how to take multiple-choice tests.”

Yes, we should take into account the irrational desire to quantify everything, whether such enumeration means anything or not (the best basketball team is the one with the tallest guys; the best candidate is the one who can raise the most money; the best school is the one that scores the highest on bullshit testing mechanisms). And East Rockaway schools certainly quaffed that Kool-Aid with gusto.

John Hildebrand of Newsday reports, for example, that:
The arbitrator, in her ruling, noted that fourth-graders took more than 60 practice tests from January 2012 through April 2012, virtually a daily routine. The arbitrator also noted that the elementary school's principal had endorsed the practice sessions.
Newsflash: what you learn from practice tests is how to take tests, not subject matter. Even if those practice tests are only an hour long, that’s over two full weeks of teaching and learning time spent on… well, bullshit. There’s some horrible teaching going on at that school, perpetrated by Ms. Coyle and presumably many others under the cheerleading of a principal (unnamed in the news reports I’ve seen, but presumably Erik C. Walter) more interested in funding than in education. So describing Ms. Coyle as an innocent victim is a bit of a stretch. Demanding that her students endure all that testing instead of, you know, learning something is not the quintessence of educational excellence. But she was just doing what she was told. Except that she wasn’t. Sort of.

This is the pedagogical equivalent of what Curmie’s netpal Jack Marshall calls an “ethics train wreck.” Assigning blame is difficult, but there’s plenty of it to go around. Whereas the inciting incident, if I might borrow a term from dramatic theory, was legislation in which Ms. Coyle’s allegations can even cross the line into plausibility, it’s pretty clear that the administration of the Rhame Avenue school and the entirety of the East Rockaway system value a whole lot of things more than they value their students’ educations. They are therefore in Curmie contention.

Friday, December 19, 2014

No Curmies Here... but...

Curmie hasn’t written in way too long, and with only a week or so of writing time between now and year’s end, there are LOTS of potential Curmie Award contenders to be highlighted (the actual nominations and election will happen in early January, as Curmie is travelling over New Year’s this time ‘round).

As I’ve mentioned before, I keep a file of potential stories to write up at some point in the future. At present, there’s a backlog of some 87 education-related stories that I haven’t yet done anything with. Needless to say, they’re not all going to get even a sentence or two. But in this post, I’d like to highlight some pretty egregious behavior that won’t be nominated for a Curmie.

Remember that the Curmie goes to someone who embarrasses the profession of education. A custodian or secretary who happens to be employed by a school doesn’t really affect the profession per se positively or negatively, although they certainly have an effect on the school experience for everyone involved. Similarly, doing stupid things outside the purview of one’s career doesn’t qualify. Shady “academic” journals aren’t part of the educational system per se, and whereas there is nary a state legislator in the country who doesn’t think s/he knows more about education than lifetime professionals do, the fact is that enforcing stupid decisions by legislatures doesn’t brand anyone actually involved with education with any wrongdoing.

So there will be no Curmie nomination for these folks, but boy howdy, are they deserving of a little shame:

Gregory Beck
Gregory Beck, a newly-elected school board member in the town adjoining Newtown, CT, site of the horrific school shooting two years ago, who proclaimed on his Facebook page his intention to buy his “friends who are gun enthusiasts a box of ammunition on days 1-26” of a proposed “26 Days of Kindness” initiative in memory of the 26 people who were killed. He eventually resigned his school board seat.

Abel Gonzales, a secretary at Dr. Rodriguez Elementary School in Harlingen, TX, who was fired after furor arising from a Huffington Post “caption this” Facebook post showing a little girl chasing President Obama around the Oval Office. Gonzales, from home on his personal computer, wrote “Run Nigger Run.” (If only they’d fired him for leaving out the commas…) This is where Curmie reminds you that he’s no constitutional lawyer, and doesn’t know exactly where the line is drawn between 1st amendment rights and an employer’s ability not to be embarrassed by employees’ behavior. What isn’t in question is that Mr. Gonzales is an asshole.

The Commonwealth of Kentucky, for spending an estimated $18 million over a six-year period to bus students to and from parochial schools, in apparently direct contravention of both the state and federal constitutions.

The Gilbert, AZ school board, who voted in October to remove pages from a textbook being used in an honors biology class because they didn’t conform to a quintessentially anti-intellectual, dishonest, and otherwise inane state law that “no school district or charter school in this state may allow any presentation during instructional time or furnish any materials to pupils as part of any instruction that does not give preference, encouragement and support to childbirth and adoption as preferred options to elective abortion.”

Yes, the board looked ridiculous. But although the Arizona Department of Education agreed that the passages headed “Contraception can prevent unwanted pregnancy” did not violate the censorious mandate, they also passed the buck to the district, who obligingly exercised prior restraint lest the Stalinists conservative parents of the area get their collective skivvies in a twist. The claim that “By redacting, we are not censoring,” apparently uttered with a straight face by one Julie Smith, a Gilbert school board member, has got to be one of the most patently stupid things ever spoken by anyone not named Palin or Bachmann, but the real fault still lies with the idiots in Phoenix, not those in Gilbert.

The school bus driver in East Baton Rouge who prevented a student from exiting her bus in order to spew homophobic drivel at him because she had decided he was gay. [A Curmie nomination may still be in the works for idiot Principal Shalonda Simoneaux, who advised the students to “call transportation because I’m not her boss,” but that’s another matter.

The impressively-titled and utterly bogus journal, the International Journal of Advanced Computer Technology for accepting for publication an essay entitled “Get Me Off Your Fucking Mailing List,” which consists of those same seven words be repeated, with no other text, a few thousand times throughout the ten-page, two-column, article. Actually, that’s not quite true: there were also a couple of charts (including the one at left), also with the same text. Curmiphiles will be pleased to know that the peer reviewer declared the submission excellent… and it will be published as soon as the author sends in a check for $150. I suspect there may be a longish wait.

• Finally, there’s this, which I include in this post because no one really believes that anyone at Bob Jones University is really engaged in anything that could reasonably be called education. Still, that institution’s four-decade-long history of blaming sexual assault victims for their plight (“Did your body respond favorably? If it did, then you need to repent.”) is reprehensible even compared to the conventionally hypocritical pseudo-Christian standards they employ in other arenas. Maybe, just maybe, they’re beginning to figure out that emerging from the 19th century might just be necessary to their long-term survival. Curmie wishes he could believe that their new-found interest in “the love of Jesus Christ” were in fact motivated by religious, ethical, or moral concerns.

So there’s the list of education-related stories that would be Curmie contenders if the perpetrators were actually educators.

Real Curmie contenders will be featured in future posts.