Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Scattered Musings about Critical Race Theory

Critical Race Theory is rampant in American elementary and secondary schools, according to the Right.  Or non-existent, according to the Left.  Or, according to others on the Left, necessary.  What’s key here is that no one this side of Humpty Dumpty can agree what the term means.  Are there some zealots who would think reparations ought to be paid to anyone with a sufficiently high melanin count?  Yes.  Are there similarly some people who think it “un-American” to mention the name of Sally Hemings?  Yes.  Do either of these things fall under the heading of CRT?  Uh… maybe?

Curmie takes what he’s going to call the “Competitive Diving” approach to many such matters.  That is, an athlete’s score in a diving competition is determined not by the average of all judges’ opinions (and also by degree of difficulty, but that’s irrelevant to this argument), but by that average after the high and low scores are discarded.  Maybe we should ignore the foam-flecked ideologues on both sides, in other words.

Curmie, in some ways, represents the quintessence of privilege: white, male (and born that way), heterosexual, Ivy-league educated, at least culturally Christian.  His grandparents weren’t rich, by any means: one grandfather owned a rocky New England hillside farm of about 100 acres; the other managed a neighborhood grocery store.  But Curmie grew up in a decidedly middle-class environment.  Nor has he ever been truly poor: falling further into debt because there isn’t enough in the bank account to cover the entirety of the credit card bill is different than having to choose between eating and buying needed medicine.

Curmie’s personality features an independent, libertarian streak; his personal Facebook page announces his politics as “contrarian.”  This isn’t (merely) being cute.  Rather, the more he sees of any ideology, the more the faults in that approach are highlighted.  He’s never been ultra-conservative, but he was certainly more likely to vote for Republicans when he lived in the town with the biggest Democratic caucus in the state of Iowa than he’s been more recently.  Indeed, he’s probably never been more liberal than he is now, in a time and place in which an idiot like Louie Gohmert can get re-elected without even any real opposition. 

Curmie’s politics are, of course, (currently, at least) well to the left of the national center.  He voted for Democrats against Donald Trump in the last two Presidential elections, and indeed hasn’t voted for a Republican for any Congressional or gubernatorial position since moving to Texas over two decades ago.  (Kay Bailey Hutchison would have been a real possibility, but she was defeated in the primary by the odious Ted Cruz; John Cornyn, who is probably no worse than most other party hacks on either side of the aisle, actually had a reasonable opponent last time out.  Curmie would vote for Voldemort over Greg Abbott, Ken Paxton, or Louie Gohmert.)

Having now entered semi-retirement, Curmie is no longer accepting new advisees, but is keeping the four holdovers who chose to keep him as their advisor.  Three of the four are non-binary.  Coincidence?  Probably.  But there’s no question that he’ll advocate for both their general and specific interests, as he has done for years for black and Latinx students.  Still, he recognizes that terms like “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” are not redundant, and that sometimes, for example, equity and diversity are in fact at odds.  In such cases, Curmie will always choose the former; a lot of university administrators will choose the latter, primarily because at the moment it’s the path of least resistance (they’re intellectual cowards, and having actual principles is hard!).

Contemplations of gender, sexual orientation, and especially race are therefore far more complex and nuanced than the True Believers on either side would have us believe.  So whereas Curmie feels no personal guilt nor any need to make amends with respect to what happened over a century and a half ago, hundreds of miles away from any of his forebears, acknowledging not merely that life isn’t fair, but that it’s often been more unfair to some groups of people than to others seems appropriate.

Curmie’s netpal Jack Marshall wondered this morning, “How many supposedly educated American[s] know about the significance of this date?”.  Well, that depends on how you frame the question.  If it’s about the date per se, Curmie would have struck out without getting the bat off his shoulder.  But mention that it’s the anniversary of Kristallnacht, and I’ll do a lot better.  Curmie learned about this horrific event in a world history class in high school—a class taught (perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not) by a US Army WWII veteran with a German surname.

What Curmie didn’t learn about in high school were the massacres at Wounded Knee in 1890 or Tulsa in 1921, or the fact that the original GI bill was structured to deny benefits to black veterans, or the wartime internment of US citizens who happened to be of Japanese descent.  Intentionally or otherwise, what we learned in history classes was filtered, sanitized and viewed through a very Caucasian lens.  Of course, Curmie’s hometown was overwhelming white and overwhelmingly Christian, so these omissions and commissions were both more and less insidious than would have been the case in a more integrated environment.

Noticing the “other” in an increasingly more heterogeneous society is, of course, imperative.  But what do we do with those now-foregrounded recognitions of subjectivity, which are at the core of CRT?  Treating someone differently because they’re different from you may be an admirable exercise in empathy… or it may be a toxic cocktail of virtue signaling and condescension: “we can’t expect that person to compete on a level playing field; after all, they’re [insert demographic marker here].”  This latter example is one of tolerance, the evil cousin of inclusion: “you are inferior to me because of objective factor X, but I will treat you well, ostensibly at least, because I wish to be regarded as a good person… all the while comfortable in my presumed superiority.”

Finally, of course, it’s important to differentiate between equal opportunity and equal outcomes.  Professional sports are in some ways the ultimate meritocracy: teams want to win.  (Perhaps the Colin Kaepernick case is the exception that proves the rule.)  But it would take a real fan to name even two or three American-born white players currently in the NBA.  The flip side is true in swimming, despite the presence of the likes of Cullen Jones and Simone Manuel.  Socio-economic factors and availability of training facilities and venues account for some of the discrepancy… but all of it?  Curmie can’t muster more than a “maybe” on that one.

Untangling all these strands is rather like trying to get the mats out of a long-haired pet: maybe it will work, but there are times we have to clip the tangle out rather than hoping to unravel it.  A little good will towards our fellow travelers, who are as confused and fallible as ourselves would go a long way.

Saturday, October 30, 2021

University Follies

It will come as no surprise to Curmiphiles that this blog highlights education issues a lot.  And it’s usually not terribly complimentary to those in charge.  This time around, it’s University Follies.  Apologies in advance; this is going to take a while.

Let’s start with what, frighteningly enough, is the least outrageous of the stories.

Aqsa Khan
Cal State Long Beach grad student Aqsa Khan was unsatisfied with the Psychology Department’s treatment of minority students.
  Disturbed by the response (or lack of response) from departmental administrators, she sent an e-mail to administrators and graduate students, using BeachBoard, the university’s online learning platform.  She writes that:

The program tokenizes minority students by pushing one or two to the forefront in order to appear diverse while doing little to actually help the majority of BIPOC students in any tangible manner, if not outright ignoring and denying them opportunities. In reality, the faculty this department employs and continues to employ have created an inequitable climate in this program.

Not surprisingly, the powers-that-be didn’t take kindly to this assessment; no one likes to be perceived, rightly or wrongly, in this light.  Curmie, of course, has no idea as to whether Ms. Khan’s criticisms are legitimate.  Perhaps she is highlighting actual issues of concern; perhaps she is exaggerating; perhaps her discontent is entirely misplaced.  What isn’t in question is her right to express those opinions.

Well, at least it isn’t in question in the mind of anyone who knows anything about either professional ethics or the U.S. Constitution.  Unfortunately, the list of people who qualify under either of those criteria does not include any decision-makers in the CSULB Psychology Department.

Khan was charged with the “use of computing facilities and resources to send obscene or intimidating and abusive messages” and the “use of computing facilities, campus network, or other resources to interfere with the work of another.”  Both of these charges are, to coin a phrase, bullshit.

It would be impossible for any rational being to interpret anything in Khan’s message as “obscene.”  That leaves only “intimidating” and “abusive” from that first charge.  Khan makes serious allegations against a fellow graduate student, but it would be difficult to call them abusive; anyone intimidated by Khan’s remarks lacks the backbone to perform even competently in an academic environment.

As for “interfering with the work of another,” well, all Curmie can see is that someone in a cushy corner office might have to do their damned job and respond to a student concern.  This would, of course, interfere with that bureaucrat’s conception of their (ahem) profession: playing solitaire on the office computer.

Anyway, the Star Chamber gave Khan a year of academic probation and a directive to submit a two-page “action plan” that amounts to “don’t bother us,” amidst concerns that Khan might “seek a wider audience when the investigation concludes, and she is not satisfied with the results.”  At least they got that last part right.

Curmie need hardly mention that FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) got involved very quickly to remind the university that even grad students have 1st amendment rights.  Curmie has long considered FIRE a net positive; he’s beginning to think they’re essential.

FIRE, of course, is often regarded as a right-leaning organization because many of the cases in which they intervene involve the suppression of the free speech of conservative faculty or students.  That’s why the next cases are important in demonstrating that the only ideology FIRE seeks to uphold is that the US Constitution is indeed the law of the land, irrespective of what university administrators (in particular) think about the subject.

Two separate lawsuits have been filed of late by two now former professors at Collin College, a juco in McKinney, Texas.  Historian Dr. Lora Burnett and education professor Dr. Suzanne Jones have both claimed that the college severed ties with them in retaliation for, among other things, critical comments about the school’s COVID policies.  FIRE is actively representing Burnett; it’s reasonable to assume they’ll soon be in Jones’s corner, as well.

In addition to having the audacity to having an opinion about an issue which directly concerns them but is also a matter of public concern, Burnett had some harsh words for then-VP Mike Pence on Twitter, and Jones was one of the organizers of the Texas Faculty Association, described by Inside Higher Ed as “function[ing] somewhat like a union but… not recognized, per Texas state law prohibiting collective bargaining among public employees.”

Lora Burnett

But, as they say in the late-night infomercials, wait!  That’s not all!  There’s the whole business of a text message exchange (which the college spent over $14,000 in legal fees in an unsuccessful attempt to keep from going public) between Collin president H. Neil Matkin and GOP state representative Jeff Leach in which the latter wonders portentously if Burnett is paid by state funds and Matkin promises to “deal with it.” 

There’s the fact that Jones’s most recent performance review describes her as “a dedicated professor with a deep passion for education,” and that the renewal of her contract was supported by the associate dean, dean, and provost.  There’s the fact that there are numerous other such cases that just didn’t result in lawsuits… and the fact that Collin was listed by FIRE as one of the ten worst colleges in the country for free speech. 

Suzanne Jones
And there’s an article from this April about Matkin in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  (This may be behind a paywall, Gentle Reader.  If so, my apologies… but trust me, Matkin is portrayed by everyone except the fatcats on the board and a few Republican legislators as an authoritarian, possibly racist, asshole, unconcerned with actual education.)

There’s yet more, which you can check out at the links included above should you desire to do so.  We’ll close with two thoughts.  First, there’s the fact that Collin doesn’t offer tenure to faculty; these cases demonstrate both why that is so (so idiot administrators—the usual apologies for redundancy—can pretend they’re feudal lords) and why that’s a real problem (because dissent is essential to a functioning democracy and its educational systems).

Second, here’s FIRE’s Greg H. Greubel:

A professor expressing their political views on social media is not insubordination, it’s core protected speech.  Colleges and universities are supposed to be a space for individuals to engage in fearless debate on controversial issues, not a place where criticizing your boss gets you fired. If professors like Lora Burnett cannot inform the public about their views on public issues and problems on campus, our democracy is weakened. This case shows that when colleges treat professors as disposable, academic freedom and faculty expressive rights become disposable, too.

Yeah, what he said, even though that first sentence should have a semi-colon instead of a comma. 😉

It’s hard to figure out where to put the following story in an essay that’s sort of arranged in order of increasing awfulness.  It doesn’t fit the “free speech” motif of the rest of these incidents, but it sure is about a university behaving badly.  Indeed, it’s incomprehensible that anyone capable of even semi-articulate expression would think this is a good idea.

So we move on to Michigan State University, where there is apparently a shortage of student labor in the dining halls.  OK, that’s understandable enough, given the pandemic and all.  And let’s face it, it’s not a terribly glamorous job.  So, Gentle Reader, what do you suppose the university did to rectify the problem?  Possibly raise the pay to attract more employees?  Well, they did eventually get around to that, but first they had a better idea: get faculty and staff to volunteer to sling hash.  Such was the import of an e-mail from Vennie Gore, senior vice president for residential and hospitality services and auxiliary enterprises (what a title!).

That’s right, they’re understaffed because they don’t pay enough for it to be worthwhile for college students to do the job, so the obvious solution is to not pay anybody and to de facto extort faculty into this allegedly volunteer activity.  Faculty have been under extreme pressure in recent months: administrators have used the global health crisis and the ensuing financial crunch to enact whatever harebrained schemes infect their underutilized crania. 

Faculty, librarians, and all those other personnel considered irrelevant to the enterprise, are sacrificed so we can be sure to give the president a raise equal to the annual salary of a full professor or ensure that the football team doesn’t have to enter the season with a mere 20 coaches and other full-time staff.  Priorities, after all.

Faculty have also been pushed to the limit with demands that they accommodate in-person, livestream and online students simultaneously, adapt to new technologies that are evolving at a dizzying pace, and respond to an increasingly entitled student population and administrations that manifest equal parts narcissism and paranoia.  All this extra work, of course, would be for the same or even less money than they were making in pre-COVID days.

Moreover, any faculty member who isn’t tenured is absolutely under threat of being let go in light of “budget constraints,” so the right to refuse is rather like the right to vote  for Fidel Castro’s opponent in Cuba a generation or two ago.  Had Curmie received such a request (demand?), he would have responded with a two-word message that rhymes with “duck poo.”  But Curmie was tenured until entering into semi-retirement this year.  And now, the prospect of losing a part-time gig that pays less than he’s worth, a job he accepted simply to keep his mind fresh, doesn’t really constitute a threat.  But administrations are all about “team players,” which is code for “silent acquiescence” (see above, re Collin College).

Oh-so-curiously, it appears that actually paying more dropped the staffing shortage significantly.  Who’da thunk it, right?  The university could hire a lot of student workers if they got rid of Vennie Gore and his $302,000 salary (plus perqs).  The university would be better served by leaving that job vacant rather than having it staffed by a clueless buffoon, and the fact that he still seems to be employed is a stain on the university’s reputation.

Curmie is reliably informed (by Beloved Spouse, who works in financial aid) that there are no governmental restraints on work-study job salaries.  The total amount a university is allocated is set by the government, but hourly wages are at the discretion of the employer.  So pay them what you need to, and cut some of those work study jobs for which students are de facto paid to do their homework or play games online.  Trust me, they are manifold.

And yet one more observation…  Years ago, the VP for Development at the college where Curmie then taught told a group of faculty that over time a well-managed portfolio could be expected to yield 6% over inflation.  Let’s make it easy and call it just 6%.  Michigan State’s endowment is $3.4 billion.  6% of that is $204 million.  That would fund… let’s see… 13,600 student half-time workers at $15/hour, for 50 weeks a year.  Remember that when you hear about how MSU can’t afford to do otherwise.

Finally, we move on to the There But for the Grace of God story as far as Curmie is concerned.  All Curmie knew about Coastal Carolina University prior to this episode is that they used to employ one of his former students, and that they have a good (if over-rated) football team.  But now there’s this.  And we’re back in FIRE territory.

About six weeks ago, a group of students walked into a theatre classroom at CCU to see a list of names written on a whiteboard.  Turns out, all of those names were of BIPOC students.  Any normal person might wonder why those names appeared on the board.  The more perspicacious might consider who was last in the room.  But nay.  It would be a gross understatement to suggest that students leapt to erroneous conclusions about the nature of the list; rather, they hurtled themselves into an ecstasy of victimhood. 

Overcome by a mix of raging paranoia and an apparent orgiastic fervor to be regarded as persecuted, the students entering the room presumed with literally no evidence that the names were intended to “single out” non-white students, apparently to some unspecified nefarious purpose.  Students proceeded to organize an on-campus protest a few days later rather than attend class.

Actually, the singling out part is true, but with nothing remotely similar to the intent manufactured by the wannabee victims.  Indeed, it quickly became clear that a guest artist had been working with a group of BIPOC students who wanted to get to know other non-white students in the program, so… wait for it… they brainstormed a list of other BIPOC students to possibly hang out with.  Literally no one seems to dispute that this was the purpose of the list.

Nonetheless, the visiting artist and the faculty Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee both issued apologies, the former describing her actions as “thoughtless and careless” (it’s unclear whether it was the writing of the list or the failure to erase the whiteboard that merits such self-flagellation), the latter describing itself as “deeply sorry,” saying the incident “should never have happened” (well, that part is true), and promising to “[discuss] with faculty and students the gravity of the situation.”  Of course, the only part of this incident with any gravity at all is the apparent willingness of students to substitute fantasy for reality and subsequently fail to admit they were wrong, and the abject failure of DEI committee members to observe, Ă  la Gertrude Stein, that there is no there there.

And now we’re back at the infomercials, because THAT’S NOT ALL!

Steven Earnest

Dr. Steven Earnest (who teaches pretty much the same courses Curmie has taught for many years) thought this was all a bit much, and responded (as written): “Sorry but I dont think its a big deal. Im just sad people get their feelings hurt so easily. And they are going into Theatre?”  Add a handful of apostrophes, and he’s absolutely right.  Ah, but the folks who had just been proven to have falsely accused the department of racial insensitivity decided they’d give it one more try, and therefore falsely accused Earnest of that transgression.  (Be it noted: although it is unlikely, it is not outside the realm of plausibility that Dr. Earnest does harbor racist thoughts.  This e-mail, however, offers no evidence to support that charge.)

So far, though, it’s just a bunch of post-adolescents acting like post-adolescents and members of a DEI committee feeling a mixture of self-importance and the need to justify their existence.  Curmie has seen more than a few variations on these themes for decades.

Ah, but then the idiot dean (again, apologies for redundancy) had to get in on the act.  It’s unclear exactly when Earnest sent his e-mail, but it was in response to the committee’s message, sent after 5:00 pm on a Friday.  The following Monday, Dean Claudia Bornholdt told Earnest not to come to his classes and to send her his syllabus, effectively suspending him from his teaching duties!


According to FIRE, Earnest’s lawyer says the university is now starting termination proceedings against him.  Needless to say, Curmie, who may or may not have sent an e-mail describing as “Stalinist” a draft “anti-racist” manifesto distributed to faculty in his theatre department a year or so ago, is more than a little concerned that Dr. Earnest is going through all this for the apparent crime of noticing that the emperor was… erm… dĂ©shabillĂ©.

Also, Curmie can't resist the obvious joke here, noting the absolute Importance of Being Earnest.  OK, that’s out of the system.  Moving on...

Alas, there are even more stories like these out there.  Colleges and universities are being pulled apart in a way Curmie has never seen before.  Repressive forces are stronger than ever, and they’re coming from all political and ideological angles.  It’s not too late to restore thought, the search for truth, and the necessity of differing opinions as the center-pieces of higher education.  But we’re speeding towards that cliff, and if we don’t want to be Thelma and Louise ten seconds after the movie ends, we damned sure need to hit the brakes.  Hard.  Now.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Bright Sheng and the Sorta Blackface Othello

Bright Sheng

Curmie has seen multiple stories about the case of Bright Sheng, the Chinese-born Leonard Bernstein Distinguished University Professor of Composition at the University of Michigan, currently under fire for showing the 1965 film version of Othello, the one starring Laurence Olivier, to his undergrad composition class.

Amidst the indignation from the Woke Folk and the indignation at the indignation from civil libertarians and conservatives, Curmie hereby attempts to make some sense of it all.

Sheng has impeccable credentials, including a MacArthur “genius” fellowship, a fact which may or may not complicate things.  Does this mean Sheng is inherently blameless?  Or does it make the offense more grievous, or at least more problematic, because students were afraid to come forward with legitimate complaints?  Curmie doesn’t attract a lot of idiots to his page, so he will take on faith that you, Gentle Reader, will know that the answer to both these questions is “of course not.”  Needless to say, however, this does little if anything to prevent the more foam-flecked on either side of the issue to assert otherwise.

Let’s start with the initial outcry.  The reaction of freshman Olivia Cook, quoted in The Michigan Daily (the student newspaper), may be seen as exemplary: “I was stunned.  In such a school that preaches diversity and making sure that they understand the history of POC in America, I was shocked that [Sheng] would show something like this in something that’s supposed to be a safe space.” 

If Ms. Cook believes herself to have been unsafe in any sort of physical sense because she watched a 56-year-old movie starring one of the most acclaimed actors of his century, she has some mental health issues and needs counseling, stat.  If, as is more likely, the safety in question is more mental, then she doesn’t belong at a university; having one’s ideas and perceptions challenged is, or at the very least ought to be, a major element of what higher education is about.  But she is a college freshman, and can be forgiven a lack of larger perspective.

It’s difficult to establish a precise timeline of what happened after the showing.  What is clear is that Sheng, with or without prompting, sent the class an apologetic e-mail soon afterwards, acknowledging (if that is the correct word) that the film was “was racially insensitive and outdated.” 

A second apology to students and departmental colleagues  a few days later actually exacerbated the situation.  Sheng cites his own failure to realize the “depth of racism” in past and present American culture (isn’t gaining such cognition what we’re supposed to do?), and cites his own experience of discrimination “[a]s an Asian American living in a primarily white society for the last 40 years.”  He notes, for example, that about 90% of singers of Madama Butterfly are white.  This experience, quite reasonably, makes him simultaneously more and less culpable: less because he’d “accepted it as a given,” more because he of all people ought to have empathy for others similarly excluded.

It’s also important that Sheng’s background is in opera rather than theatre.  The look of opera singers, unlike actors, is almost if not entirely irrelevant.  Curmie’s own sole experience as a performer in opera was as a narrator (literally no one wants to hear him sing) in a university production of an abridged (hence the need for a narrator) version of Offenbach’s La PĂšrichole.  To avoid putting too much strain on young voices and to provide opportunities for more students, there were two different casts: the leads on Thursday and Saturday were in the chorus on Friday, and vice versa.  I’m willing to bet the Thursday/Saturday male lead outweighed his Friday counterpart by a ratio of more than 2:1.  What they had in common: they were both really good tenors, and that is literally all the mattered to the casting director.

Although Sheng explicitly states that he is not making excuses but rather “[realizing] how it happened,” his comments were perceived as “shallow” and insufficiently cognizant of the alleged harm the incident did to students.  Particularly problematic to his critics was a section in which Sheng comments on his work with BIPOC students and artists.  A letter signed by 18 undergraduate composition students, 15 graduate composition students and nine SMTD staff and faculty members asserts that Sheng’s apology “implies that it is thanks to him that many of them have achieved success in their careers.”  Two responses: 1). it does no such thing.  2). if it did, it would be accurate, at least to some degree.

We can also understand that Sheng thought it relevant that he has consistently, throughout his career, provided opportunities for BIPOC artists.  It sort of clouds the issue, and seems to be a variation on “but some of my best friends are Jewish,” of course.  But in the world of the ultra-aggrieved, it’s worse than that: a single misstep is grounds for character assassination, and any apology short of seppuku is “inflammatory.” 

Anyway, Sheng has been removed from the course because department chair David Gier is a weenie “it was the correct thing to do” and it will “allow for a positive learning environment.” He will remain as a tenured faculty member. 

The furor isn’t over, as a group called the International Youth and Students for Social Equality at the University of Michigan, whose page on the university website calls for “a socialist transformation of society,” has posted on the World Socialist Web Site a demand that Professor Sheng be re-instated, and that officials at Michigan “apologize to Professor Sheng and publicly repudiate all slanderous attacks on Sheng for being ‘racist’ or for carrying out a ‘racist act.’”  The authors of this piece are just as fervent as Sheng’s detractors, and they’ve done more homework.

Here’s an example:

The actions taken against Professor Sheng, a world-renowned scholar, may well rank as the most shameful episode in the University’s history. It exposes the extent to which the unrelenting promotion of racialist ideologies—fraudulently legitimized with pretentious postmodernist jargon—has created a thoroughly toxic environment on university campuses.

Any serious examination of Shakespeare’s play and the career of one of the 20th century’s greatest actors demolishes the charges of racism leveled against Olivier and the 1965 production. Comparisons to the racist depictions of African Americans in blackface are ignorant. The denunciation of Olivier’s performance is particularly preposterous in that the actor was attempting to take on the timid, semi-racist approaches to the Othello character that had prevailed for a century and a half.

OK.  There’s a legitimate argument here.  In an oft-cited essay on race and film versions of Othello, Laura Reitz-Wilson argues that Olivier’s performance, directed by Stuart Burge, is “revolutionary,” in that he plays a “very black Othello” and references the character’s race “as Shakespeare intended.”  Calling attention to Othello’s race makes it impossible for an audience to forget his outsider status, which is central to the character.  Indeed, although Othello is certainly a flawed character, he does elicit empathy from the audience, and underscoring his blackness thus becomes an anti-racist act.

Reitz-Wilson notes, however, that Olivier’s depiction “does border on a stereotypical portrait of a black man,” and that absolutely matters.  Still, actor Hugh Quarshie, who is black, wrote in 1998:

I am left with a nagging doubt: if a black actor plays Othello does he not risk making racial stereotypes seem legitimate and even true.  When a black actor plays a role written for a white actor in black make-up and for a predominantly white audience, does he not encourage the white way, or rather the wrong way, of looking at black men, namely that black men, or “Moors,” are over-emotional, excitable and unstable…  Of all the parts in the canon, perhaps Othello is the one which should most definitely not be played by a black actor.

In other words, Quarshie argues that the character per se, independent of the portrayal, is by modern standards racially problematic—the same way Shylock is in terms of religion.  Therefore any actor of any ethnicity risks reinforcing racial stereotypes.  For the record, Quarshie later changed his mind and played the role in 2015.

But this brings us around to the question of “tradition.”  Even the National Review, in its predictable response to events in Ann Arbor, notes that the role “has traditionally been played by a black actor in stage productions.”  Well, that depends on what “traditionally” means. 

Curmie fancies himself a reasonably good theatre historian, and as far as he can tell, the listing of black actors playing Othello opposite a white Desdemona in a significant professional production in the first three and a quarter centuries of the play’s existence reads like this: Ira Aldridge.  That’s it.  (I presume that although James Hewlett played the role in the African Company’s short tenure in the 1820s, the Desdemona was also black.)  It was therefore a Big Damned Deal when Paul Robeson played Othello in London opposite Peggy Ashcroft in 1930, and again in New York opposite Uta Hagen in 1943.

Since the 1940s, however, virtually all productions of the play do indeed feature a black actor in the title role.  The title roles in the only two Broadway productions since then were played by Moses Gunn and James Earl Jones, both of them outstanding black actors.  Similarly, any production in the last three and a half centuries featuring a male actor as Desdemona will rightly be regarded as a gimmick, albeit the role was originally written to be performed by a male.  Times change, and the structures and strictures of society would do well to change, as well.

So where does that leave us?  For one thing, the dominant philosophical paradigm under which we operate is now in question.  In Judeo-Christian thought, intentions matter.  No one that Curmie can find believes Professor Sheng was consciously and intentionally racist in his choice of cinematic Othellos.  Even a virtue-signaling jerk like Evan Chambers, who oh-so-coincidentally gets to take over the prestigious seminar now, feels compelled to include “regardless of the professor’s intentions” in accusing Sheng of “a racist act.”

There are cultures in which pollution trumps volition: the two Curmie knows the most about are Ancient Greece and Shinto.  According to these world views, if you cause harm to another person, even if you not only intended no harm but took active steps to protect the victim, you bear responsibility.  My favorite example is from the Greek orator Antiphon, who describes an athlete practicing the javelin.  Before releasing the projectile, the young man made the spectators in the area weren’t in the line of fire, and ensured that they knew he was about to throw.  The javelin went straight down the middle of the field, but while it was already in the air, a little boy ran out into its path and was impaled.  Although he was cleared of any charges of homicide, the young athlete was nonetheless charged with the boy’s death and threatened with exile.

Our society doesn’t work like that, or at least it shouldn’t.  Acknowledging harm is appropriate (but seriously, what actual harm was done here?), but intentionality matters.  Sheng’s initial apology was both timely and apparently sincere.  Learning to do better is the stated purpose of all those insufferably smug diversity seminars the professoriate endures.  It clearly isn’t the real motive, however, as precisely such a result has generated even more grief for Professor Sheng.

Don’t get me wrong.  Curmie doesn’t believe for a moment that either Sheng or Olivier committed a racist act.  But Sheng’s showing the Olivier film without context was an instance of remarkably poor pedagogy.  Sheng may have been born in China, but he’s lived in this country for 40 years.  Presumably he reads the newspaper occasionally.  Whether or not his students are hypersensitive, he needs to meet them where they are.  This doesn’t mean they should be coddled; their parochial mindset does indeed need to be challenged.  But in this instance patience truly is a virtue.

More to the point, when the Metropolitan Opera decided several years ago to drop what NPR timorously describes as “blackface-style makeup” for… wait for it…Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello, it’s your job, Professor Sheng, to know that and react.  Agree with that choice, disagree with it, Curmie doesn’t care.  But if you’re opening a seminar on musical adaptations of Shakespeare with Otello, you’d better demonstrate comprehension of the way staging has changed in the past half-century.

So here’s what do.  You show the Laurence Fishburne or Hugh Quarshie versions, or you preface the Olivier film, thus: 

“Giuseppe Verdi lived in the 19th century, when stereotypical portrayals of black characters were the norm.  If we’re going to examine the interpretations of the text that existed in Verdi’s world, a world in which in both opera and theatre the title character was always played by a white man in blackface, we need to approximate as closely as we can those conditions. 

“The opera was written in 1887; we’re now in 2021.  Roughly halfway between those two dates was the release of what remains the best-known film adaptation of the play, that of Laurence Olivier.  Whereas he’s not in blackface per se, as his depiction was intended to be respectful, you will be seeing a white man in exaggerated makeup playing a black man.  This may be unsettling, even disturbing, to some of you.  But I think it’s important that you know the kind of production Verdi saw in his day, and this is the closest I can come.  I understand if you aren’t able to get past what you perceive as a racist production, but I hope you will try to examine the characterizations, the themes, and the language, as well.  Some of these may lead you back to your initial response.  That’s OK, but let’s see what else we can find.”

Providing context for virtually any in-class film-viewing is important.  When it’s something like this, it’s especially mandatory.  

Short version of all of the above: Sheng underwent far too much criticism for offenses he didn’t intend.  His initial apology should have been accepted.  That doesn’t mean it wasn’t necessary.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Things Currently P*ssing Curmie Off

Given the name of this blog, Gentle Reader, you might be justified in thinking the title of this entry would be a little redundant.  You might be right, but we’re going there, anyway.

Retirement Follies ICurmie is trying to negotiate the process moving into retirement, or at least enough of retirement that he’s no longer getting employer-paid insurance.  So now it’s time to figure out Medicare Part B.  I had a question… HR should be able to answer the question, but instead tells me to call Social Security.  Curmie does; is on hold for over an hour before giving up.  They’re not available for in-person (COVID is very, very, scary if you’re a US government employee, just not for the rest of us, who are pretty much required to return to something very much like “normal”).  Dear SSA: hire some more people.

Retirement Follies II: Curmie is now four phone calls into the process of actually extracting some of the funds from his retirement account.  Everyone at the financial services provider has been very pleasant, and they’ve all provided useful information… but it’s taken all four calls to find out that I can do most of this online; it’s just that the link is hidden well enough to be a secret passage in a mystery/adventure movie.  The process is not helped by the fact that two former employers (one of which I left over 20 years ago) still listed me as a current employee (and therefore ineligible to withdraw money) and another requires Beloved Spouse’s signature to allow me access to my own retirement funds.

In the World of COVID.  The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that Georgia’s Regents refuse to require masks on state university campuses, but do so in their own companies.  It’s even worse in Texas, where mask mandates are not merely not required but forbidden. 

Such is the inevitable result of having Regents or Trustees or Councilors or WhateverThey’reCalled be hypocritical political appointees, beholden to especially cretinous governors (Kemp, Abbott…)  BTW, don’t get Curmie started on Regents in general, given what has recently happened at Curmie’s university.  Only the time-honored dictum of “don’t shit where you eat” prevents a lengthy screed about their abrogation of responsibility.

More on Moron Government Agencies I: Curmie’s department has a long-standing exchange with a British conservatory.  We had two students scheduled to come last fall, but COVID intervened.  Then they were set for spring, but that got delayed, too.  So their arrival was pushed off again until this fall.  We worked out their class schedules in March, and they started the process of getting the appropriate visas in April.  We let them know when we wanted them to arrive.  Sometime in the middle of the summer, Curmie got an e-mail that there were delays getting a visa.  We finally heard from them: they couldn’t even get a visa appointment until the day after we needed them here; they finally arrived over two weeks into the semester.  These are student visas.  Curiously enough, academic calendars are a thing.  Dear State Department: do your damned job.

Moron Government Agencies II.  The students unsurprisingly looked for the best rate for their airfare; although there are direct flights, they found a better deal changing planes in Newark.  Then they got held up by the idiots of HSA (apologies for redundancy), without explanation… for just long enough to make them miss their connection.  Luckily, they were able to get a flight later that evening… to a different airport, a half-hour further away from here.  So instead of being able to move them into their apartment about 9:00 p.m., it was after 1:00 a.m.  Luckily, they’re quite lovely and patient people.

Unsurprisingly, Curmie had a flashback to another long night of waiting for HSA to take their thumb out of their ass.  You can read about that one here.

Obviously False Claims.  There’s a commercial that Curmie hears fairly often on the car radio.  It’s for an app called GetUpside.  It claims users can get “up to 25 cents off every gallon” of gas, and that you can “make up to $200-300 a month.”  How can they get away with this crap?  Let’s be conservative and say the user gets the full 25¢ a gallon and gets reimbursed “only” $200 a month.  So that’s 800 gallons of gas in a month.  At a conservative 20 mpg, that’s 16,000 miles in a month.  Let’s say someone can average an unlikely 65 mph.  That means driving over 246 hours in a month.  A full time job, Monday through Friday: a maximum of 184 hours in a month.  So… uh…

Just Stupid Ads.  There’s an ad for one of the ubiquitous foreign-language programs (Curmie can’t remember which one, having done everything possible to forget).  You know the kind, Gentle Reader.  This one talks about an upcoming vacation to Paris, so learning French becomes particularly attractive.  At the end, the “student” cheerfully proclaims that after a mere few weeks he can say “Je suis les États-Unis.” 

Everyone immediately rushes out to buy the product… except that what he says translates to “I am the United States.”  We’ve had a couple of Presidents who might think they follow in the footsteps of France’s Louis XIV, of “L’Ă©tĂąt, c’est moi” (“The state is me”) fame.  Any democratically inclined American begs to differ.  Note: the lower-case “d” in “democratically” in the previous sentence is important.

Cable Companies.  No one has anything good to say about any of them.  Ours, Suddenlink, seems particularly inept.  Talking to anyone at the local office is reminiscent of a koi pond, as know-nothing minions exhibit the latest fashion in carp-like gawping.  But at least they’re pleasant, unlike literally anyone I’ve ever talked to in their (ahem) “customer service” department.  A more rude and condescending collection of self-important jackasses has seldom been assembled… and Curmie has seen political conventions.

The internet signal is shaky: rare is the day Curmie doesn’t get a pop-up on the laptop that internet has been “restored”; streaming from PBS, BritBox, Acorn, and Netflix generally involves at least a half dozen pauses while the system buffers, and we get to watch the swirly wheel. 

“It must be raining in Tyler” (an hour or so away, where Suddenlink’s local headquarters is) is code in my family for “the internet is out again.”  This happens maybe once a month.  We’re not talking here about actual severe weather—hurricanes or the nasty cold spell this February—but simply unexplained (and probably unexplainable) outages occurring with grim regularity.

Usually, we’re talking about an hour or so, but Chez Curmie was recently without cable, internet, or wifi for well over 24 hours for no discernible reason.  But you knew that, Gentle Reader.  It’s a cable company.

Apparently Suddenlink is trying to expand into the cell phone business.  Curmie has been less than thrilled with AT&T, but Suddenlink?  In the words of several of Beloved Spouse’s colleagues: Oh. Hell. No.

Final comment: don’t ask about the formatting of this post.  It's blogspot.com being blogspot.com.

Monday, September 27, 2021

High School Follies: First Round of the Season

Curmie needs to write faster, because even if we’re talking about just high schools, it’s hard to keep up.  Anyway, here we go.  Note: a couple of more egregious cases aren’t included here; they’ll be treated separately… soon, I hope.

Not All Stupid Dress Codes Are about Girls.

The hair that signals the end of civilization.
Curmie has railed against school dress codes for years.  Most of the time, the stupid rules are aimed at girls, lest they be (gasp!) distracting to boys.  So: no visible shoulders, cleavage (or even collarbones), thighs…   Sometimes there’s a more general stupidity: no hair dye, no pro sports paraphernalia, no untucked shirts, that sort of stuff.  But there’s another option.  Years ago, the son of one of Curmie’s colleagues wanted to wear an earring.  Of course, the local school district would not countenance such an outrage; the lad wasn’t a girl, after all.  There was a battle at the school board level, and Curmie is pleased to report that the good guys won this one.

Ah, but that was long ago, even if not far away.  About three and a half hours from Curmie, there’s a place called Sanger, whose educational establishment has adopted one of the more repressive dress and grooming codes Curmie has seen.  In addition to the usual sexist injunctions against cleavage, spaghetti straps, skirts (or even shorts) shorter than fingertip length, yoga pants without a long blouse over the top, etc., for girls, there’s also all manner of paranoia directed at boys who aren’t short-haired and clean-shaven.

Curmie is pretty sure the last time he would have met all of Sanger’s criteria was when he had to shave and get a haircut for an acting role… in 1975.  Of course, Curmie would be okay at Sanger High now, even though he has a goatee and his hair is several inches too long, because it’s only students who are expected to “project a positive image for the student, school, and District.”  Staff aren’t expected to comply, presumably because they have a choice whether to be at that particular school, and would offer a monodigital salute on their way out the door if expected to comply with the silliness of the regulations.

Anyway, there’s a Change.org petition started by the mother of a boy who just likes to wear his hair long… and by “long,” I mean shorter than Curmie’s has been in several years.  I suppose it’s good news in a perverse sort of way that it’s not just girls running afoul of the defenders of 1950s styles (although Sanger has a history of punishing them, too, as evidenced by this Change.org petition from two years ago).

Of course, it’s also more than a little ironic (or hypocritical) that one strongly suspects that a good many members of the Board of Education, especially if they’re Curmie’s age or thereabouts, wore things in their high school days that they’d condemn now, and they’d have us believe that they turned out all right.  On second thought, maybe the standards really are appropriate, because those BoE folks are a taco short of the #4 special.

You’re Pledging Allegiance to WHAT?

In California (that part almost goes without saying), a teacher named Kristin Pitzen had her students pledgeallegiance to a Pride flag.  Well, sort of.

Kristin Pitzen

According to her own social media post, Pitzen took down the American flag in her classroom during COVID (as if we aren’t still “during COVID”) because “it made [her] uncomfortable,” packed it away and hasn’t found it yet.  (It’s unclear how hard she looked.)  She had already instituted a policy whereby students could stand or not, say the words to the pledge or not, etc.

But when one student in her 3rd period English (or ESL?) class questioned how they could face a flag that wasn’t there, Pitzen giggled (or at least she does in the re-telling) and pointed to a Pride flag.  In a previous post, she had mockingly stated “I pledge allegiance to the queers.”

Okay.  Three stipulations up front.

  • There is nothing wrong with celebrating Pride Month, or with efforts to symbolize inclusiveness of virtually any variety.
  • 2.  It’s easy to lose things.  Curmie has lost two very important documents somewhere in his office in the last couple of weeks.  You know: I put them somewhere “safe.”
  • 3.  The Pledge of Allegiance has always been problematic.  I don’t owe allegiance to a flag, which is at most a symbol.  I can muster respect.  Allegiance?  No.  “Under God” is a troublesome phrase for a secular country, especially if we’re expected to swear obeisance.  And, of course, reciting the pledge starts as an exercise in rote memorization: Curmie “knew” the pledge long before understanding what is meant by “allegiance,” “republic,” “for which it stands,” or “indivisible.”  
Few people think about the words they’re saying, because they’ve been trained not toAnd the idea of demanding such a declaration runs counter to all the best things about this country. 

All that said… What the Serious F*ck?  This isn’t cute or funny or whatever the hell Ms. Pitzen thinks it is.  It’s just… well, stupid.

They Played WHO???

This one starts weird and keeps getting weirder.  The last weekend in August, ESPN aired, on its main channel (!), a high school football game between IMG Academy and Bishop Sycamore. 

The score isn't the only ugly thing here.
Exactly how Bishop Sycamore, a school no one has heard of (and for good reason: see below) was deemed worthy of national coverage for a game against a sports powerhouse is unclear, although clearly officials at BS (appropriate initials) lied, and neither ESPN nor Paragon Marketing, which scheduled the event, could be bothered to do a little basic fact-checking.

Um… if there’s no school at the address listed and no curriculum listed on the website, that might be a clue.  Of course, that would take… hell… maybe 15 seconds to check.  We can’t expect people engaged in scheduling events on a major television network to do that kind of intensive research, now can we?

But the story is just getting started.  Bishop Sycamore had played another game two nights earlier, and a lot of its athletes play both offense and defense, creating a level of fatigue that was potentially dangerous, even if the two teams were otherwise evenly matched, which, of course, they weren’t.  And a number of them had apparently already suited up for junior college games.  And there is considerable debate as to whether Bishop Sycamore is actually a school at all.

And it gets weirder.  A former Assistant Director of Officiating and Sport Management at the Ohio High School Athletics Association went public with an accusation that the whole business was a “scam.”  Bishop Sycamore is not recognized by the Ohio Department of Education for the 2021-22 academic year, although they were last year as a “non-chartered, non-tax supported school.”  And the new football coach proclaimed that Bishop Sycamore is “not a school,” but rather a “post-grad football academy.”  Not a very good one, apparently.

The problem, you see, was “a mistake on paperwork.”  Catchy euphemism for shameless mendacity, don’t you think?  Oh, and they allegedly passed over $3500 in bad checks to the hotel where they stayed the weekend of the IMG game.  Indeed, there’s a laundry list of offenses linked to the former coach (the one who coached the IMG game), and a similar list of promises to prospective… erm… players which no one had either the ability or the intention to keep.  Rather, they preyed on mediocre recent grads who weren’t offered D-1 scholarships, probably for very good reason.

Of course, IMG is also pretty much a scam, too, but that’s a rant for another day.  And, of course, Paragon Marketing richly deserves to be out of business.  And ESPN owes literally every sports fan a profound apology.  (Well, they do for a lot of reasons, but this one has got to be at the top of the list.)


They cancelled WHAT?

This event never happened.

Students at Eastlake High School in Sammamish, WA, wanted to recognize the anniversary of 9/11 with a themed event with student attending the football game wearing red, white, and blue clothing.  Okay, maybe it’s a little on the faux Patriotic (capital letter fully intentional) side, coming as it does from students who weren’t even born at the time of the event being commemorated.  What it isn’t, is offensive.  Not in actuality, not in potentia.

But don’t tell that to the school’s administrators, or their “leadership teachers,” whatever the hell that term means. Actually, do tell them, because they’re individually and collectively too stupid to understand that.  What passes for a brain trust at Eastlake High decided, quoting both principal Chris Bede and assistant principal Darcie Breynaert (how convenient that they had, word for word, the same inane response to students’ and parents’ complaints), “I know tomorrow is 9/11 and understand the sacrifice and values our flag represents, but I think they just did not want to unintentionally cause offense to some who see it differently.”

Who, exactly, is likely to take offense at commemorating a significant event in recent American history?  What is even potentially offensive about wearing red, white, and blue?  Does the apparent reference to the football opponent being a majority-minority school have anything to do with the decision?  If so, are they presuming that black and Latinx students are too dim-witted to know that it’s the weekend of the 20th anniversary of 9/11?  Are they saying that black and Latinx students aren’t really Americans?  Or how, exactly, does all this work?

The saga goes on and on, with EHS officials digging themselves into deeper holes with each announcement.  What isn’t clear is why the students didn’t simply, oh-so-coincidentally, wear whatever the hell they wanted to the game.  The only plausible explanation is that the decision to abandon the “themed” wearing of red, white, and blue was presented to the students, intentionally or otherwise, as a prohibition against sporting those colors at all, and the students, knowing what morons their administration are, might have feared punishment.

Curmie, ever the theatre historian, is reminded of the “Bottle Riot” in Dublin in 1822.  The details of the case would take too long to explain here, but the judge in resulting trial set the standards for well over another century of theatre disturbances: you can boo if you want to, and you can even go to the theatre with the express intention of booing, but if you gather your friends together with the intention of booing, that’s conspiracy.  I’d think the same concepts would be at play in terms of (gasp!) wearing patriotic colors.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Community College Administrators Behave Unethically and Irresponsibly. Water Remains Wet.

When Curmie first read about this story, he sent a quick e-mail off to Jack Marshall at Ethics Alarms, suspecting (correctly, as it happens) that Jack would be both interested and more likely than Curmie to get a post up first. 

Jack, being a lawyer, is able to take a different tack than Curmie, and introduce (or at the very least better articulate) legal arguments Curmie couldn’t.  Jack also suggests that I might see nuances he doesn’t.  I’m not so sure about that, but let me see what I can make of this.  I start by mentioning that Curmie learned about the case from a post by FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), an organization that purports to be non-partisan and, at least to a very large extent, is, although it’s been branded right-wing by some on the left (just as the ACLU has been branded left-wing by some on the right).

Allow Curmie to repeat what he’s said not infrequently over the years: that although his own politics are probably to the left of 95% of the population, in the area of free speech he has more to fear from the remaining 5% than from the multitude to his right.  (You may check out a similar assertion from a decade ago here.)  I remember one incident from over 20 years ago, when I was called into the Dean’s office and reprimanded for something I’d said in class because it “made some students uncomfortable.”  Apparently, “good” was not the desired response to this admonition. 

Anyway, I described the passage I was referencing to the Dean and asked two questions: was my comment accurate, and was it relevant?  He agreed that the answer to both questions was “yes.”  I then asked if I had been accused of using inappropriate language (racial or sexist slurs, that sort of thing).  I had not.  I therefore told him the requested apology would not be forthcoming.  Occasionally making students uncomfortable, frankly, ought to be part of the job description.  (I didn’t articulate this last part.)

OK, enough of that; here’s the story: This February, Kaylyn Willis was enrolled as a nursing student at Umpqua Community College in Oregon.  She was taking a course called Chronic I, taught by Patrick Harris.  

Apparently one of the goals of the course was to get students to employ “critical imagining” to better understand the perspective of a patient suffering from a chronic disease or disorder.  A few weeks into the class, the assignment was “to reflect on the support systems of chronically ill individuals and how a person with a chronic illness might respond to the sudden and unexpected loss of a support system.”  (The quotation is from the FIRE story; it’s unclear whether this was the exact wording of the assignment.)

Ms. Willis submitted an imaginative story about an ALS sufferer who shoots and kills her husband, who was that support system.  It’s actually an intriguing take, looking at the possibility of self-inflicted damage caused as an indirect result of the affliction.  It’s inspired by a 2015 Wisconsin case in which a jury found an ALS victim not guilty of murdering his wife and sister-in-law because he suffered from a neurocognitive disorder.

Mr. Harris teaches nursing, not literature, and proceeds to prove it by, to use Jack Marshall’s phrase, “flip[ping] out.”  Without evidence, or any appearance of thought, he decided Ms. Willis’s post was a joke.  He gave it a zero.  He may be a good nursing teacher, but he is singularly unqualified in terms of both credentials and temperament to judge an assignment like this. 

He responded to an email from Willis with this: “Do you honestly think that your post on a nursing school assignment was appropriate?  Joking about killing your husband?  I’m really questioning your critical thinking if you think this was an appropriate discussion post.”  Actually: 1). Yes, it was appropriate, since it met all the criteria of the assignment.  2). It wasn’t a joke, as any sensitive reader would understand, or at the very least suspect.  3). I’m really questioning how anyone this oblivious could possibly presume to judge someone else’s “critical thinking.”

Here’s the thing.  A faculty member is ethically obligated to apply what amounts to an “innocent until proven guilty” approach to dealing with student motives.  You think a student plagiarized?  Without proof, it’s just another paper.  You think a student isn’t taking a project seriously?  What you think doesn’t matter.  What can you prove? 

Eliminate all other options before making a decision.  Sure, call that student in and ask some hard questions.  Curmie has done that dozens of times over his career, and he’s developed something of a reputation for catching and punishing cheaters.  But intent matters.  If a student didn’t know s/he was breaking the rules, it’s time for a teaching moment, but not (necessarily, at least) for penalties.  Curmie isn’t a mind-reader, and Harris is even less of one.

Harris did the exact opposite of the ethical response, scurrying off to punish Willis even further, and the student was promptly removed from the program (!).  Seriously? 

Completely apart from the 1st Amendment issues described by FIRE and on Ethics Alarms, this is some really hasty and frankly sloppy decision-making.  And let’s be real: violations of a handbook prohibition against “[a]cts which are dishonest, disrespectful, or disruptive” could be absolutely freaking anything.  Forbid the “dishonest,” absolutely.  But (insert B-movie gangster voice here) Curmie’s got your “disrespectful” and “disruptive” right heah. 

This kind of language is more common in high schools, where principals want absolute control and school boards are stupid enough to give it to them.  But the hierarchy of community colleges tends to work the same way: they believe their handbook came down from the mountaintop, and that its authors elbowed Moses and his tablets out of the way to get to the publisher first.  In fact, their little rulebook is seldom more than a thinly veiled declaration of absolutely not-to-be-questioned administrative authority.

Unsurprisingly, Ms. Willis appealed the inane decision, but the case was turned over to an anonymous (!) “grievance panel” which, shall we say, was not comprised of the brightest lights in the marquee. 

The panel highlighted a sentence in Willis’s inherently fictional response to a writing prompt as if… well, damned if Curmie can figure that part out, but it was very, very, very bad, whatever it was.  Willis, you see, in her post, “did not establish a caring relationship or create a positive environment.”  1).  Bullshit.  2).  Any such requirement for a class assignment is intrinsically flawed, and an instructor who either willfully misinterprets a students intentions or is too dim-witted to ascertain them truly has created an unhealthy environment.

She also “failed to take into account the culture of UCC by being insensitive to the October 1, 2015 event.”  1). Not her job.  2). Recreating the specific circumstances of that “event” (a student shot and killed a faculty member and eight students before killing himself) would indeed have been insensitive.  This wasn’t… or else literally any reference to any shooting anywhere under any circumstances would send the entire administration and professoriate diving under their desks like a bad parody of “duck and cover” drills.

The panel also accuses Willis of “[choosing] the wrong communication modality and technology.”  Stripped of the jargon, this means that Willis is deemed unfit as a student because she posted online, when that is what the assignment required.  Seriously, how can these people feed themselves?

Oh, and Willis also “described unethical and immoral behavior.”  Are you fucking kidding me?  First off, “described” (!).  Not “participated in” or “advocated,” mind you… “described.”  Of course, the panel seems to regard what Willis did as “unethical and immoral,” and here they are, describing it.  (Switch to Geico gecko voice now) Oh dear, oh dear.

Curmie is going to skip the rest of that incompetently thought-out document, instead merely citing Jack Marshall’s simple and direct statement that “The student didn’t have to justify her story for it to be fully protected speech.”  (Note here the parallel to the case of track star Brianna McNeal, who was similarly under no obligation to provide a reason why she missed a drug test, and to that of Courtni Webb, the high school student threatened with expulsion for writing a poem which sought to understand the motives of Newtown shooter Adam Lanza).

And then, of course, FIRE got into the act, and the college’s lawyers responded, and FIRE replied with this: “Willis may be in trouble for her fiction, but it’s UCC that can’t accept reality…. UCC is pretending that Willis’ rights don’t exist.  FIRE knows better.  We won’t close this chapter until Willis is reinstated and allowed to complete her program.”  Yeah, what they said.

FIREs goal would be a step.  But a better outcome would be for Ms. Willis to transfer to an institution a little less recto-cranially inverted, one that has some basic respect for its students and/or the US Constitution (either one would have been sufficient in this case).  Perhaps Mr. Harris doesn’t deserve to be fired, but he should certainly be reprimanded and not allowed to teach this particular course again.  Ever.  The various administrative minions who carried out this little purge should be demoted or (ahem) encouraged to resign. 

One final thought: it is quite likely that Ms. Willis is “that student,” the one who doesn’t really fit but does just enough good things and just few enough bad things to remain in the program.  Curmie has seen dozens of them over the years, and the urge to find something, anything, to legitimize a removal from the program is powerful.  But that’s not how it works, and behaving unprofessionally to enforce silly and misapplied standards of pseudo-professionalism would seem to be especially contra-indicated.