It seems that whenever a university administration issues a statement undermining academic freedom it begins by reaffirming its undying commitment to exactly the principle it is about to damage. While such doublespeak, as Orwell famously demonstrated, is common to bureaucracies, that does not much help the cause of higher education when our own administrations once again prove his point. The administrative conundrum — how to appease angry stakeholders with contempt for academic freedom, while covering yourself with a ritual incantation supporting that very principle — was very much in evidence in Florida Atlantic University’s public statements about its "Step on Jesus" controversy. Unfortunately, the ultimate effect of the kind of disingenuous rhetoric the university used is to disable a principle by turning it into a hollow piety.
The context, for those who may not have read earlier stories, is that an FAU student was about to be investigated for allegedly threatening a faculty member who followed a textbook exercise to teach the power of symbols. A class was asked to write "Jesus" on a sheet of paper, then step on it. When students hesitated, they were given the opportunity to explain why, and the instructor pointed out that a symbol — the word "Jesus" — can be so identified with the idea of Jesus that stepping on it is offensive. In a viral frenzy, bloggers and press stories echoed the student’s inflammatory change of diction from "step" to "stomp," and petitions calling for faculty member Deandre Poole to be fired began to circulate. Florida’s Republican governor chimed in with calls for a state investigation of the incident and with a demand that the classroom exercise never be repeated.
Here, then, is FAU’s effort to eat its cake and have it too: "Florida Atlantic University is deeply sorry for any hurt that this incident may have caused the community and beyond. As an institution of higher learning, we embrace open discourse in our classrooms. Based upon the emotions brought about by this exercise it will not be used in the future and no students will be disciplined in any way related to the exercise, either inside or
outside the classroom. The university supports its faculty members in their efforts to develop [a] curriculum that will bring about learning and enhance students’ experience at FAU."
It’s hard to see how FAU could have waffled more often in a few sentences. Its leaders support academic freedom but apologize for its exercise. Academic freedom will not be permitted to be exercised in this way again. Anything that arouses strong emotions may be barred from classrooms. And, of course, if people protest your assignments — even assignments taken from a popular published textbook — FAU will not get your back. And finally, as subsequent events have shown, if fanatics phone in death threats, you will be removed from campus to protect your own safety and that of others. That most recent step is eerily reminiscent of the University of South Florida’s 2001 decision to exile engineering professor Sami Al-Arian from campus after death threats were received. Some of us wondered at the time whether phone-in threats would prove a popular way to remove faculty from campus.
FAU went still further in undermining academic freedom and the First Amendment by subjecting Poole to a gag order, making it impossible for him to defend himself. The student meanwhile was free to claim his religious beliefs had been "desecrated," and the conservative blogosphere could promote the story as part of a long-running project of discrediting godless universities.
The United Faculty of Florida did a very good job of coming to Poole’s defense, but a faculty member identified as an appropriate commentator by the National Communication Association did not do much better than the university, affirming that "a momentary feeling of discomfort or hurt by a student could contribute to a positive learning experience through discussion.” If ideas offend a student, be sure to relieve the discomfort immediately. Extended intellectual distress apparently has no place in higher education.
Devout students who cannot tolerate fundamental and continuing challenges to their beliefs may well find a campus devoted to open discussion and debate to be a hostile environment. That is one of the reasons religiously affiliated colleges and universities exist — to provide a more comfortable place to study for those preferring a more constrained speech environment. Secular universities exist in part to challenge received beliefs. That includes confronting the rather less than sympathetic statements various religions have historically made against one another. That includes confronting scientific evidence that calls religious beliefs into question or effectively demolishes them.
Indeed, religious conviction cannot be separated from all the other beliefs a university education may challenge. That is one reason why any general resolution or law passed by the Florida legislature on this incident is likely to do broader damage than politicians may realize in the opportunistic heat of the moment. We cannot confront the brutal facts of 20th-century history — from enforced mass starvation to total war to genocide --
without doubting that human nature is any better, more consistent, or reliable, than cultural pressures make it. We cannot study the history of science without learning to tolerate and understand the variable interplay between doubt and certainty in science. Students may not all enjoy discovering that their assumptions about human nature are unfounded. They may not like learning that scientific certainty is not always unshakeable.
And they may not like realizing that religious faith is not grounded in anything more than faith itself, but these are some of the challenges to pre-existing values a university must entertain. And instructors need the freedom to invent classroom assignments that test the limits of student beliefs and put them under sustained --- not just temporary — pressure. However expedient it may appear to be, universities risk doing themselves long-term damage if they cave into fear and appease those on the left or the right would limit academic freedom. We are better off standing politically and culturally where we must if we are to remain institutions devoted to open debate and free inquiry. That is where our responsibilities to a democracy lie. However the facts about the Poole case may be revised in time — and they may well be — the assignment he reports giving was well within his academic freedom rights, and the FAU administration should not have weaseled its way out of giving it an unqualified defense.
Cary Nelson served as national president of the American Association of University Professors from 2006 to 2012. He teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Faculty and student leaders at Pasadena City College are angry over the college's decision to put Warren Swil, a journalism professor and adviser to the student newspaper, on paid leave, The Pasadena Sun reported. The university says it cannot comment on why Swil was placed on leave. But faculty and student groups have been highly critical of late of President Mark Rocha, and faculty leaders said that they believed Swil was being punished for the extensive coverage of the campus disputes in The Courier, the student newspaper.
Rochester professor questions whether rape is problematic if victim is passed out. Hopkins professor equates homosexuality with bestiality. And Princeton women are urged to marry Princeton men -- pronto.
Teaching with PowerPoint has been an exercise in frustration for me. I find that my course preparation takes twice as long as it should, and the results are more often than not unsatisfying. It also makes me feel muffled and absent from the classroom. Maybe this is a function of my poor PowerPoint form, of being a latecomer to a technology that younger faculty use with more ease and panache. In a way, it’s not surprising that I would struggle with it. Although I’m young and pretty tech-savvy at 43, I can’t associate PowerPoint with my lived experiences as a learner. I spent my whole life as a student, from kindergarten through graduate school, plucking words out of the air to put them in my notebook, or following along as my teachers scribbled on the blackboard. The most technology-forward moments involved the occasional projection of transparencies in science classes.
Last semester I decided to conduct an experiment. For years, even before becoming a PowerPoint user, my chalkboard form had suffered from a lack of discipline and focus. What if I really rededicated myself to it? I decided to make writing on the chalkboard my primary method and PowerPoint my secondary tool. The outcome of the exercise was fantastic. I felt like I was waking up from being half-asleep as a teacher.
One of the things I liked the most about the experience was how using the chalkboard freed me to be more responsive to the needs of my students. Although I always came to class with an outline of notes to write on the board, I knew that it was changeable and schematic, subject to revision by student comments and questions. If you compared my paper notes with what actually went on the chalkboard you’d discover all kinds of emendations and additions. The chalkboard encouraged me to be more attentive to classroom conversations, to be more confident about changing my script.
Using the chalkboard also encouraged me to package or process information for my students in more versatile ways. I could come to class and write bullet points on the board as a starting point, then while interacting with my students, proceed to annotate with symbols (asterisks, arrows, underlining). If they still didn’t get it, I could erase and diagram, or erase and do a flow chart. The chalkboard is dynamic, changeable, sensitive, immediate, and completely in the classroom moment. It models note taking and underlines the value of trial and error thinking and brainstorming, skills that are vital to analytical thinking.
I also appreciated the chalkboard because it is an embodied kind of learning. It synchs the bodies of the students to the movement of the body of the instructor. The fact that there is no PowerPoint file to download or pass out, and that the eraser is eventually coming around, means that the class gets in a rhythm of following the movements of the instructor. There is a ritual of collective focus and activity. The instructor has to be much more physically present because writing on the chalkboard requires choreography, gesture and tempo. This is of practical value but there’s also something deeper. In an existence increasingly defined by the virtual, it is important to reassert physical presence.
At the end of class, I sometimes looked at the board before erasing it. So this is what had happened in class in the last hour! I could see the vague outlines of my original plan overlaid with symbols of emphasis and additions that had emerged through classroom conversations. Here it was: the exciting record of a collaborative enterprise between teacher and students. The board recorded an event that could never be repeated in precisely the same way, even if I used the same notes to try to do so.
All of this may seem ridiculous if you teach in a pedagogical ecosystem where chalkboards are still prominent. On my campus, it seems like everyone uses PowerPoint. The situation is so pervasive that once I noticed that student pens only went up when the PowerPoint was projected on screen. If I wrote a series of items on the board, not very many students wrote them down. In their minds, PowerPoint was the chalkboard and the chalkboard was just a piece of furniture. All my colleagues, in talking about course preparation, use the word PowerPoint: I was up late preparing my PowerPoints … I left my PowerPoint at home … I couldn’t finish my PowerPoint today in class.
In my circles you can’t use the word "blackboard" as a synonym for chalkboard because everyone will assume you’re referring to our learning management system. This last detail is probably the most symbolically telling: in spite of hundreds of years of use, and its iconic stature as a symbol of the classroom, the word "blackboard" has been hollowed out by a corporation.
The problem with educational technology when it becomes institutionalized and naturalized is that it easily becomes a crutch rather than an instrument to enhance community and interaction between human being. What is brilliant about José Bowen’s well known "Teaching Naked" concept is that it affirms technology as a tool for enhancing a humanistic classroom interaction. Interest in PechaKucha and Prezi, screen projection formats and templates that discard the stale formulas of conventional PowerPoint, underscores that instructors and presenters everywhere recognize that we need to allow for creativity and responsiveness in our use of educational technology. We are at our best as teachers when we question the tools we are given and reinvent them. This happens everyday in thousands of classrooms when innovative teachers bend PowerPoint to their will, instead of the opposite. The real software behind any instructional technology is the instructor; don’t underestimate her ability to elevate a rudimentary tool or ruin a promising and sophisticate one.
I’m not arguing against PowerPoint tout court. Heck, I plan on continuing to use it as one tool among others. I am just suggesting that the old chalkboard still has something to teach us. If you haven’t tried it recently, you should. It’s the latest thing and you don’t have to plug it into an outlet or find a network to use it.
Christopher Conway is associate professor of modern languages at the University of Texas at Arlington, where he teaches courses in modern Latin American literature and culture.
Journal publishers and others are investigating Benjamin A. Neil, a professor in the accounting department, for what some are calling plagiarism, The Baltimore Sun reported. A librarian who is a plagiarism watchdog notified Towson officials and others of what he saw as plagiarism, and the Sun did its own review, which it said "shows passages with identical language and others with close similarities to scholarly journals, news publications, congressional testimony, blogs and websites. In many cases, there was no attribution." Neil denied wrongdoing, saying "I don't think I've done anything wrong. The issue seems to be that I didn't put things in quotes. But I've given attribution to people."
Newly hired in a tenure-track position, you receive an e-mail from the university provost that reads, "You are appointed to the new Giant Ground Sloth Task Force."
You wonder what a group named for a prehistoric beast might do. Could the task force preserve a carcass found miraculously intact? Might the task force replicate sloth DNA to create a test-tube embryo? Could there be a living giant ground sloth somewhere, plodding along merrily because it doesn’t know it’s extinct?
You dash into the first meeting and see on the conference table a large plate of glazed doughnuts unlike anything you’ve encountered at a faculty gathering. You take a doughnut, glance around, and realize you are the only instructor in the room.
The person in charge announces, "I am your Special Outside Consultant. We’re here to discuss the pros and cons of replacing your university’s traditional mascot, Polly Polyp, with a new creation, Sleepy the Giant Ground Sloth."
You ask, "Why change the mascot?"
"Polyps are immobile blobs,” explains another member of the task force, the Associate Director of Sporting Events. "At games, Polly Polyp doesn’t run around or jump up and down, but stands perfectly still."
"The task force must decide whether a more mobile mascot would attract more students," says a third person, the Co-Director of In-State Recruiting.
You take a bite from your glazed doughnut and feel inspired by the glucose rush. "I have an idea for recruiting," you declare. "Our university’s mission statement says that we promote global awareness, doesn’t it?"
You hear furious clicking as everyone calls up the mission statement.
"Yes, it does," exclaims the Chief Adviser to the Associate Chancellor.
You say, "All universities make that claim, but let’s require our undergrads to take two years of one language other than English and one year of another language. We could stipulate at least one of the two must be from outside the Indo-European language family. If we did that, we could advertise that we prepare people to participate in international affairs."
"I don’t feel that we could market that concept," says the Coordinator of Full-Pay Student Recruiting. "Our new campaign is called Fun for You at the U."
You take another bite of the glazed doughnut and ask, "Doesn’t our university’s mission statement claim that we turn students into better citizens?"
Again you hear furious clicking. The Assistant to the Assistant Vice Provost declares, "Indeed it does!"
You say, "If fun is the recruiting theme, how about a required first-year course called Fun With Public Issues in which students enjoy hunting for fallacies in discourse? They could go on to Fun With National Issues, Fun With International Issues and Fun With Special Topics Issues. Each year every level could have a contest to see who could find the most ridiculous statement made by a public official."
"We already have the majority of our classes taught by part-timers," says the Assistant Dean of Intermittently Employed Professionals. "We couldn’t hire a hundred more adjuncts to teach that many sections every semester."
You polish off your treat and feel the courage that only inexperience and a glazed doughnut can bring. You say, "Our mission statement claims we value excellence of instruction, true?"
Once more furious clicking fills the room.
"True," announces the Co-Director of Large Gift Acceptance.
You say, "In the next decade we’re supposed to produce thousands more college graduates than ever before. To do that, the university plans to dump more work on part-timers, true?"
"Perhaps," says the Interim Coordinator of External Public Relations.
You say, "All universities will face this problem, but let’s get ahead of the others. Let’s transform those part-time positions into tenure-track slots."
"Impossible! We don’t have enough offices for that many additional full-time instructors," says the Associate Vice President of Space Allocation.
You try another glazed doughnut and ask a new question. "Why replace Polly, an immobile mascot, with a giant ground sloth named Sleepy?"
"We don’t want to offend alumni who identify with an immobile mascot, so we thought we might introduce one that moves, but only a little bit, and very slowly," says the Assistant to the Full Director of Alumni Satisfaction. "If Sleepy goes over, in 10 or 15 years we’ll try something more active."
Brent Chesley is a professor of English at Aquinas College, in Michigan.