Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for April 24th, 2007

Political correctness and Virginia Tech

Posted by metaphorical on 24 April 2007

The other day, Digglahhh closed a comment by saying

I’d like to thank our junior high English teachers in advance for reacting to this story without sufficient expertise and ensuring that we will not produce another Edgar Allen Poe or even Charles Bukowski.

Now comes news, via Inside Higher Ed, of such an overreaction. As it happens, Digglahhh couldn’t have been more wrong in the details: it was a college, not a junior high school; it was the administration that overreacted, not a teacher; a teacher was the victim of the overreaction, not a student. Yet Digglahhh’s point is made, though it has to be said that many of the facts of the case are somewhat murky.

First let me point out that at least one regular visitor found Digglahhh’s point confusing, not without justification, so let me first say what I understand it to be saying. It’s that the first impuse for many junior high school English teachers is going to be to report to the authorities or otherwise quash any student whose writing was at all weird or different. In this way, a future Poe or Bukowski would have his or her wings clipped, one way or another, say with Prozac, public humiliation, or expulsion.

With that understanding, let’s take a look at what happened at Emmanuel College last week.

Emmanuel College last week urged all professors to talk to students about the tragic shootings at Virginia Tech. One adjunct who did so for about 10 minutes — but not in the way Emmanuel envisioned — was promptly fired and barred from the campus.

The teacher was Nicholas Winset and it was an accounting class, of all things.

Winset’s course was in financial accounting and he brought up Virginia Tech Wednesday because the Boston-based college was urging instructors to discuss the situation to reassure students. Winset, who is in a transition from a business career to one in academe, said that he tells students on the first day of class that he’s not the most formal of professors and may swear in class from time to time, and that if they aren’t comfortable with that, other sections of the course may be better. On Wednesday, he said that he started class by saying that there would be an exercise related to Virginia Tech.

Here’s the rest of Winset’s version of his story.

During a period of about 10 minutes of discussion about Virginia Tech, Winset said he picked up a marker and made a “bang bang bang” noise, and that a student made a “bang bang” noise back at him. During the discussion, Winset said he told students that “his heart goes out” to the victims’ families, but that he didn’t agree with the idea that this is a national crisis for students.

He said that students do not face a real danger of being killed by a mass murderer any more than they are in danger of being hit by lightning. He said his students were scared by the Virginia Tech killings, and that’s because people who run places like Emmanuel and the national press like to focus on tragedies like the one last week, rather than talking about issues like rape or AIDS, which pose real dangers to many college students but don’t tend to make CNN much. Further, he said that he suggested that press accounts of the victims have focused on those viewed as most photogenic and tragic (which he said has a strong correlation with being white in American society). He told his students, he said, that if all of the victims had been poor, minority individuals, press interest would have been lessened.

The risks of a Virginia Tech event probably is an appropriate topic for an accounting class, though maybe not financial accounting. It sounded a bit crazy to me, until I remembered my own days of college teaching. It’s hard not to discuss, at least briefly, the events of the day, if they’re big enough news. I remember talking about the Iranian hostage crisis in a introductory ethics class in 1980. Of course, you can discuss almost anything in an ethics class.

Anyway, here’s the important thing.

Winset said that the college never asked him what had happened in class, but that he suspects that the reports the college received about it came from a student who is failing. (A college spokeswoman said that Emmanuel tried to call him on Thursday and Winset, who was away from his home number on Thursday, said that when he arrived Friday, he had messages from late Thursday afternoon and his dismissal notice.)

The college, for its part, has this to say.

Emmanuel first released a statement saying that it responded to “an inappropriate incident” in which “an adjunct faculty member made statements regarding the shootings at Virginia Tech University which prompted students and parents to contact the administration with complaints.”

It’s astonishing that a school would dismiss a professor without any kind of hearing, or due process, or at least getting the professor’s version of the facts. I can remember serving in the Student Senate of my undergraduate school; the rules of the school, which heavily favored the faculty and the administration in administrative matters, still required a hearing before a student was expelled. Can it really be a member of the faculty —even if merely an adjunct member of the faculty—does not receive the same right, or at least courtesy?

There was more to this statement, but I want to get to two other things first. The school issued a second statement:

This statement said that Winset “was dismissed because he was reported by several witnesses to have violated the standards of conduct and civility we require of all members of the college community. According to students in his class, Mr. Winset staged a dramatization during a financial accounting class, mimicking the shootings at Virginia Tech and disparaging the victims as rich white kids combined with an obscene epithet. He did not do this as part of an open debate with his students. His insensitivity toward the students who were murdered at Virginia Tech expressed during class time, but far afield from the subject matter of his course, and his use of obscene and discriminatory language which is not tolerated from students, faculty or staff at this institution, led to his dismissal from his adjunct position.”

The school has turned the spin machine to its highest setting, if it were a blender the dial would be pointed to “Puree.” Of course there’s another side to it:

Winset’s students are angry — not about his lecture, but about his removal. Peter Muto, a sophomore business management major, said he wasn’t at all offended by the discussion, and wonders why more students weren’t asked for their views on what happened that day. “I have numerous friends in the class, and none of them took offense to this, nor were any of them scared or freaked out,” he said.

Who’s right, the administration or Muto? Who knows?—and that’s precisely the point: in a classroom situation with ambiguity—and most classrooms are rife with ambiguity, both good and bad—each side can put its best face on when describing what happened. That’s why we have quasi-judicial processes.

Emmanuel also released a statement from the head of the Faculty Senate, who, sad to say, is in the department of philosophy.

“This is not an issue of academic freedom. In my 38 years at Emmanuel College there has never been a case in which academic freedom has been violated. In fact, Emmanuel has a broader sense of academic freedom than many institutions since we encourage the discussion of controversial issues in all of our disciplines — as long as the discussion is carried out in a fair and civil manner. This was decidedly not the case in Mr. Winset’s class. Creating fear and anger in his students with outrageous and disrespectful behavior and language is clearly about power. In no work place would such behavior be tolerated.”

Winset “objected to the language in Wall’s quote,” saying

Wall’s reference to Emmanuel as a work place was telling. “They think it’s a business and if you offend the clients, you’ve done something wrong,” Winset said. “Well it’s not just a work place. It’s a university, and universities are different.”

Let’s turn back, finally, to the continuation of the very first statement by the college.

The statement went on as follows: “Emmanuel College has clear standards of classroom and campus conduct, and does not in any way condone the use of discriminatory or obscene language by any member of the college community. Emmanuel College, like other colleges in the country, cannot tolerate any behavior or action which makes light of or mimics the terrible tragedy at Virginia Tech. At Emmanuel College, the well-being of our student body is a primary concern, and the action taken, which was to dismiss the adjunct faculty member, reflects this belief.”

It’s a pretty revealing thing to say, and the heart of it is the idea that Emmanuel College, cannot tolerate any behavior or action which makes light of what happened at Virginia Tech.

If that’s true, it’s arguably a position that the school is entitled to take. But it’s also a position that others are entitled to judge the school on, making it a place that Winset is likely to never want to teaching at again. (According to the article, he’s already taken an adjunct position at another college.) It also makes it a place that students ought to think twice about attending. Students already there might be best off staying there. But high school students considering Emmanuel ought to take this into account; if they’re comfortable with this kind of—it really seems to be the right term for it—political correctness, so be it. Many, hopefully, will not be.

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