Many professors have stories about holding their tongues when a student comment irks. A professor at St. Thomas University, in Canada, recently let his guard down and said what he was actually thinking -- with mixed results.
Shaun Narine, associate professor of political science, was at a campus lecture by a journalist who asked the students in attendance (from political science and journalism programs) why young people don't vote. One student said that it was because students don't understand the political system, and find it complicated.
Narine quickly interjected: "Read a book, for God's sake."
Press accounts say that some people in the audience applauded, but others were angry. One column in the student newspaper, The Aquinian, said that "when I heard that a STU professor actually heckled a student who had voluntarily engaged herself in the political conversation, I must admit I was madder than a wet hen." A letter to the editor from a student who was present said: "[W]hen it came to my attention that it was a professor here at STU, I was appalled. My communications class had a conversation about this immediately after the lecture, and it was agreed by most that this student should be praised for raising such a pertinent point to the audience. In no way she should have been made to feel inferior in this way."
Narine did not respond to e-mail seeking comment.
But he did tell Maclean's that while he regrets how he spoke out, he thinks the point was a legitimate one.
"I was as surprised by my outburst as anybody else. I was listening to the student speak and I became increasingly frustrated with the fact that she seemed to be saying that she did not know anything about politics. It wasn’t the arcane facts. It seemed to be the most basic things like what does it mean to vote? What is Parliament? All those sorts of things. My frustration was very great. I guess I felt that this was the sort of stuff that every responsible citizen should know," he said. "Out of that frustration I ended up doing something which I sincerely regret doing."
Narine said that he has since apologized to the student. "I sincerely believe academia is a place where we should have rational and reasonable discussion. I don’t believe in heckling people and I don’t believe in embarrassing students and I don’t believe in screaming at people in frustration and in all of those respects I certainly did not live up to my own standards or expectations," he said.
But as to the point that she should read a book, and become more informed? He said he stands behind that idea. "Very much so. What I did was wrong for a variety of reasons. On the other hand though, I think the reason for my frustration was valid. I don’t want to justify myself. I genuinely felt like an ass. But I’m not going to pretend that I don’t feel strongly that our students, and Canadians in general, need to know enough about their political system that they can participate in it in a meaningful way," he said.