Professor Thomas Doherty of Brandeis University will be in UD's Thanksgiving prayers today.
Most Americans can't stand professors -- they've got their reasons -- but Doherty is why they should reconsider.
A film scholar, much of whose work reckons with censorship, Doherty understands the temptation toward secrecy, conformity, self-righteousness, fear, and ultimately perhaps personal destruction, inherent in any bureaucracy, any political, social, or intellectual institution; he understands that his own university -- motto, truth even unto its innermost parts, and namesake, one of America's noted defenders of free speech -- has lately fallen into the most small-minded and vicious form of this temptation.
Thanks to a dim and vindictive student whose anonymous name is Jane, a student offended by her professor's use, in lectures about racism, of certain charged words, and offended equally by "his silly little anecdotes about his daughter watching MTV and listening to bad music... things that have no business in a classroom," this professor has been threatened with termination, and - a forty-year veteran of teaching and a longtime activist against racism - has had a monitor placed in his classroom so that the administration can police his speech in front of his students.
Enter Doherty, who, in a letter to the campus paper, puts the situation in perspective and offers some suggestions:
I was distressed to read that the administration is assigning human apparatchiks to monitor Brandeis classrooms to assure linguistic conformity and political orthodoxy. Surely the administration knows that the technology of authoritarian surveillance has advanced far beyond the primitive methods employed by the likes of J. Edgar Hoover and Erich Honecker.
A laptop and a webcam can do the job far more cheaply and efficiently. Just position one unit per class in the back of the room, then patch the feed into a mainframe system... This simple expedient would not only provide an accurate audio-visual record of conversational malfeasance by faculty and students, but the real-time administration would allow the administration to dispatch agents immediately into the classroom to stop the utterance of verboten words or ideas.
UD envisions this technology used in tandem with a new product called SynchronEyes. While, in the back of the room, the university monitors speech, in the front of the room, the instructor, outfitted with SynchonEyes technology, views the laptop screens of all students who bring computers to class. SynchronEyes lets professors "access thumbnails of every computer screen in the class and block websites" they don't like.
In the interest of fairness, professors should, furthermore, be equipped with the technical means to monitor the university's monitoring system; and students should be able to monitor the professor's monitoring of their computer use.
There are two interested groups still left out of this picture.
Parents are paying for all of this. There should be live feeds from the classroom to the parents' computers so they can keep track of language and computer use in the university classroom.
And the government, with its vast investment in higher education, deserves the same information.