Voltaire Wasn't Cut Out to Be an Iowa State TA

At the best of all possible universities, teaching assistants feel appreciated by their superiors and cherish all of their students, and everyone works in harmony. Not, apparently, at Iowa State University.

April 29, 2008

At the best of all possible universities, teaching assistants feel appreciated by their superiors and cherish all of their students, and everyone works in harmony. Not, apparently, at Iowa State University.

There, the English department has been debating two satirical videos by teaching assistants -- posted on YouTube and now removed, but available on Facebook -- that portray TA duties teaching composition. (The videos may be found here and here.) In a series of faux interviews, TA's talk about their working conditions, their students and the curriculum. Some of the talk is crude and mocking, although in the era of Harold and Kumar, the videos hardly push the envelope in that category.

What has set off more debate is that the chair of the English department called the director of the videos to a meeting with other senior faculty members and asked for the videos to be removed from YouTube. While the chair stresses that this action was voluntary, others believe that for a graduate student to be asked in a private meeting facing a who's who of the department leadership to take down a video is tantamount to an order -- and tantamount to censorship.

The videos feature real Iowa State TA's -- all in good academic standing -- in a pseudo-interview format answering various questions. The answers are frequently silly. Asked if "attendance has been a problem," one TA answers, "I've had a really hard time showing up."

A general theme is that the TA's have so many students that they hope some students will drop out, that TA's must devote minimal time to grading papers because they have too many to evaluate (one TA says he spends 30-45 seconds on a paper, another describes an apparently random system for grading). Asked about his greatest challenges as a TA, one answers that it is "trying not to headbutt or maim" his students. For contrast, one of the TA's mouths platitudes, turning most questions into an opportunity to talk about her worries about students' feelings, about the need to grade in ways that won't discourage students, and about how her biggest disappointment is having so many students that she can't take them all to dinner. (She compensates by trying to learn students' food likes and dislikes, especially their "cake preferences.")

Iowa State's required writing curriculum also takes some hits. Asked about WOVE -- an acronym for the university's emphasis on "written, oral, visual and electronic" communication -- the students joke about what the letters really stand for. One TA describes WOVE as a spiritual experience. Another says: "If we couldn't weave, what would we wear?"

In a few clips, the grad students pass the bounds of what some would consider good taste, with one scene showing a TA lifting an old typewriter as if to smash it down on a student, or another in which a TA says that his goal when evaluating a paper is to ask: "What can I write that will drive this kid to suicide?"

Many who have seen a grad student review at a departmental holiday party have probably seen the equivalent of what was in the videos, but when they appeared on YouTube, Iowa State officials took notice. The arts and sciences dean said he was alerted by a marketing official, and that he in turn alerted the department chair.

Over the last week, the videos were removed at least twice -- once by the grad student who posted them -- and that's where things get controversial.

Charles Kostelnick, the chair, acknowledged in an interview Monday that he asked to have the videos removed, but said that this was not censorship and did not reflect any lack of appreciation for satire.

"The video denigrated students who the TA's are entrusted to teach," he said. "These attempts at satire are not funny or instructive," he said, adding that they were "offensive" and "undermine the credibility of instruction."

Further, he added that the references to violence were cause for concern. "In a post-Virginia Tech world, in my minds that's very disturbing." He also noted the line about suicide.

Asked if -- regardless of taste -- he didn't think people would recognize the videos as satire, Kostelnick said that "it doesn't make much difference what you think. Why don't you talk to people in Iowa?" He said that "a parent or student from Sioux City might not find it amusing," especially "without any context whatsoever."

Kostelnick said that some students and teaching assistants were upset by the videos, but he repeatedly said that urging their removal wasn't censorship because the graduate student involved wasn't ordered to do anything. He also stressed that he didn't intervene because of the criticism of the university, only out of concern for students. "If they satirize the administration of the program, that's fair game," he said, but by criticizing students "they crossed the line."

Andrew Judge, the graduate student identified as director of the videos, did not respond to requests for an interview. But one of his professors -- Neal Bowers -- offered an impassioned defense of the grad students, and said that the university had seriously erred in asking students to remove them. Bowers, a distinguished professor of English at Iowa State, also posted the e-mail exchanges about the controversy on Facebook.

First Bowers said that it was inaccurate and unfair for the university to say that it had just requested that Judge remove the videos. He said that when a department chair, accompanied by other senior members of the department, asks a grad student to do something, "it's more than a hint" that the grad student would be well advised to comply. "It's a very loaded situation," he said.

As to the university wanting the videos down, Bowers said that Iowa State is reacting not out of concern for students, but because the TA's pointed to flaws in the department -- namely that graduate students are overworked to the point that they can't devote enough time to the undergraduates. By making jokes, Bowers said, the graduate students who made the videos were simply poking the university and trying to get the department to notice.

University leaders need a sense of humor, Bowers said. He said that when he first received a link, he showed it to his wife and they both found it funny and joked about what life was like when they were teaching assistants. "I laughed," he said. "I really enjoyed them."

As for concerns that the videos might somehow be too violent or offensive to students in the wake of Virginia Tech, Bowers said this argument amounts to "bringing the Patriot Act mentality to Iowa State" and he joked -- noting that he was engaged in satire -- that the university probably wanted to ship the offending graduate students to Guantanamo.

On a more serious note, he said that Iowa State was sending a terrible message. Whether university officials like a video (or article) or not, or find it funny or not, it's not the role of a public university to try to keep people from seeing a satire, he said. Bowers is currently teaching a course on postmodern American poetry, including Allen Ginsberg's work -- which had to survive obscenity challenges to be read.

"That this is happening among faculty who are responsible for overseeing students to teach the communicative arts ... is going to have a long-term damaging effect on our graduate students, who are going to be afraid to speak up," said Bowers. "I'm teaching poets who were pretty out there and I'm saying that they have the right to do the things that they do, and my dean and department chair have contradicted me by saying my own students don't have free speech."

To judge from student reactions on the Web site of the Iowa State Daily, the student newspaper that broke the story Monday, there wasn't much evidence of students being seriously offended or taking the videos literally. Even those defending the university for wanting the video down suggested that they believed that Iowa State was doing so to avoid embarrassment.

Wrote one student, in the minority in defending the university: "ISU is not seeking the suppression of free speech, they are seeking the suppression of material that paints their organization in an unflattering light. If you worked for private sector company and joked about your job youtube in the way these TA's did you would probably get fired. Suck it up and deal with it. Speaking out against one's employer, especially in a public forum, is generally frowned upon. Welcome to the real world..."

More typical was this response: "I actually saw the video when one of my teachers told me about it. It's hysterical but clearly a joke. I think the administration needs to give the students more credit. We can tell the difference between a joke and something serious and I'd like to think that parents of prospective students can as well. It is an issue of free speech and the video should never have been taken down." Another comment said: "Of all the people and organizations seeking to suppress free speech, I never figured on an English professor."

As of Monday night, the videos were alive and well on Facebook (and Iowa State students were passing around the links, apparently not taking the videos personally). Of course there's no telling what might have happened had the TA's suggested dealing with overcrowded classrooms by having tenured professors eat some of the students.


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