Leading classroom discussions -- especially those about controversial ideas -- is a juggling act that can challenge even the most seasoned professors. There’s a clock to watch, student interest to gauge, and facts, opinions and personalities to navigate. Success or flop, though, most of the time those discussions end at the classroom door. But that wasn’t the case at Marquette University over the last month. Thanks to a cell phone and the internet, a graduate student instructor of philosophy there has found herself at the center of a firestorm over how she treated the topic of gay marriage during an ethics theory class.
Earlier this year, Cheryl Abbate, the teaching assistant, was leading an in-class conversation about the philosopher John Rawls’s equal liberty principle, according to which every person has a right to as many basic liberties as possible, as long as they don’t conflict with those of others. To explore the idea, Abbate asked students to name possible violations of the principle, such as laws that require seat belts and laws that prevent people from selling their own organs. When one student suggested that a ban on gay marriage violated the principle, Abbate quickly moved on to the next topic, as there were more nuanced examples to discuss before the end of class, she said in an email interview. The largest portion of the conversation centered on concealed weapons bans and various drug laws.
After the class, another student approached Abbate to tell her that he was “very disappointed” and “personally offended” that she hadn’t considered his classmate's example about gay marriage more thoroughly, according to the student’s recording of the conversation, which was obtained by Inside Higher Ed. The student said he had seen data suggesting that children of gay parents “do a lot worse in life,” and that the topic merited more conversation.
Abbate told the student that gay marriage and parenting were separate topics, since single people can have and adopt children. She also said she would “really question” data showing poor outcomes for children of gay parents, since peer-reviewed studies show the opposite (indeed, the major study showing negative outcomes for children of gay parents, by Mark Regnerus, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, has been widely discredited).
Regardless, the student said, “it’s still wrong for the teacher of a class to completely discredit one person’s opinion when they may have different opinions.” Abbate responded: “There are opinions that are not appropriate, that are harmful, such as racist opinions, sexist opinions, and quite honestly, do you know if someone in the class is homosexual? And do you not think it would be offensive to them, if you were to raise your hand and challenge this?”
The student then said it was his “right as an American citizen” to challenge the idea. Abbate told the student he didn’t, in fact, “have the right, especially [in an ethics class], to make homophobic comments or racist comments.”
His opinions weren’t homophobic, the student argued. Abbate said he could have whatever opinions he liked, but reiterated that homophobic, racist and sexist comments wouldn’t be tolerated in the class. She said the class discussion was centered on restricting the rights and liberties of individuals, but said that making arguments against gay marriage in the presence of a gay person was comparable to telling Abbate that women's professional options should be limited. She invited him to drop the course if he opposed her policy.
The student asked whether his opposition to gay marriage made him "homophobic" in Abbate's view, and she said that certain comments would "come across" as homophobic to the class. The conversation ended somewhat abruptly when Abbate asked the student if he was recording the conversation. He said “no,” but admitted he had been recording it when Abbate asked to see his cell phone.
Not much came of the conversation, at least publicly, for a few weeks. But on Nov. 9, John McAdams, an associate professor of political science at Marquette, published a post called “Marquette Philosophy Instructor: ‘Gay Rights’ Can’t Be Discussed in Class Since Any Disagreement Would Offend Gay Students” on his conservative-leaning blog, Marquette Warrior.
In the post, McAdams relays what happened between Abbate and the student, quoting from their conversation. He accuses her of limiting free speech by “using a tactic typical among liberals now."
"Opinions with which they disagree are not merely wrong, and are not to be argued against on their merits, but are deemed ‘offensive’ and need to be shut up.”
McAdams says that in the “politically correct world of academia, one is supposed to assume that all victim groups think the same way as leftist professors.” Certain groups “have the privilege of shutting up debate,” he adds. “Things thought to be ‘offensive’ to gays, blacks, women and so on must be stifled.” At the same time, academe is a “free fire zone where straight white males are concerned.”
The professor also accuses various faculty members to whom the student allegedly complained of “blowing off” the issue, and says that the student is dropping the ethics class, even though he’ll be required to take another required philosophy course to make up for it.
“This student is rather outspoken and assertive about his beliefs,” McAdams wrote. “That puts him among a small minority of Marquette students. How many students, especially in politically correct departments like philosophy, simply stifle their disagreement, or worse yet get indoctrinated into the views of the instructor, since those are the only ideas allowed, and no alternative views are aired?”
Two days later, Susan Kruth, a lawyer for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education wrote her own post about the story, based on McAdams’s report. It, too, is highly critical of Abbate’s approach.
“FIRE takes no institutional stance on the issue of same-sex marriage,” Kruth says. “But professors who truly wish to educate should encourage students to voice controversial opinions rather than proclaim from on high that some viewpoints are off-limits. Students benefit from having their beliefs challenged, being asked to articulate and defend their own views, and being exposed to differing viewpoints.”
Universities are meant to be “marketplaces of ideas,” Kruth continues, and Marquette in particular includes a commitment to free expression in its student handbook. Additionally, she says, its mission statement mentions its “support of Catholic beliefs and values.” She calls Marquette’s “hostility” toward Catholic viewpoints “just bizarre.”
Following those reports, the story was picked up by the College Fix and various other right-wing blogs. Some reader comments are on-topic, but others are personal and threatening, such as this comment posted on the iOTWreport: “This ignorant liberal bitch needs me in her class for an hour. When I’m done with her she’ll have a full understanding of the abhorrent behavior of queers, lesbos and transgender freaks.”
Abbate said that since McAdams published his blog post, she’s also received a number of emails and a letter calling her a “tyrant,” a “stupid, stupid woman,” and a “toxic example to students.”
“Naturally, these e-mails are quite upsetting to receive but I have tried to remind myself that they do not reflect the person, philosopher, or instructor that I am,” she said.
The feedback hasn’t all been critical. Abbate said she's gotten emails of support, too. John Protevi, a professor of French studies at Louisiana State University, has started an open letter of support for her on his blog, condemning McAdams's "one-sided attack." And Justin Weinberg, an associate professor of political philosophy and ethics at the University of South Carolina, wrote a blog post on his popular philosophy blog, the Daily Nous, calling the backlash against the graduate student a political "smear campaign."
“There are certainly interesting pedagogical questions about how to discuss potentially offensive topics without violating harassment policies,” Weinberg wrote. “However, the event at the center of this controversy does not appear to be one of speech being shut down because it is offensive. Rather, the [student’s] comment was off-topic and based on false claims, and the instructor needed to make a decision about how to use limited class time, especially given the topic of the lesson and the subject of the course (which is ethical theory, not applied ethics).”
Further, he says, “as any professor knows, points may be made in offensive and inoffensive ways, and particular students may be more or less skilled at putting their ideas into words that make for a constructive contribution to the lesson."
"In light of these factors, it is well within the rights and responsibilities of the instructor to manage classroom discussion in a way she judges conducive to learning.”
Weinberg wrote that it was also important to ask what Marquette “is or is not doing to protect Ms. Abbate,” both from some of the crudest online criticism and from the inaccuracies in McAdams’s report. (He also criticized FIRE’s take, leading to some back-and-forth between Weinberg and Kruth on their respective websites.)
Abbate said she had several major concerns with McAdams’s blog post, including that it failed to explain the complex context of the class discussion. “McAdams made it seem as though, in my class, we were just having a free-for-all discussion about any policy that came to mind,” she said. “Quite to the contrary, this class discussion was not meant to be an opportunity for students to express their personal beliefs about political issues.”
She also accused McAdams of erroneously attributing a quote to her: that “everyone agrees with gay rights and there is no need to discuss this.” (That is not on the student’s recording). During the class, however, Abbate said she did say “it seemed right to me” that a ban on gay marriage would not be in accordance with Rawls’s equal liberty principle.
In an interview, McAdams said that all the quotes in his post were taken directly from the student’s audio recording, except his characterization of what had happened before the recording, when the topic of gay marriage was first raised. He shared an email he sent to Abbate for her input the day he published his report, and said he published that evening, after he did not hear back.
McAdams said he’d received several nasty emails of his own, including one from a colleague. The professor said his blog post wasn't meant to be personal, and that he had never even met Abbate. But, he said: “She was assigned by Marquette to teach a class, and she had authority over those students. I don’t want to see her particularly punished in any way, but what I would like to see is if Marquette commits to opening up discussions to all students.”
Abbate, however, said she hoped Marquette would “use this event as an opportunity to create and actively enforce a policy on cyberbullying and harassment.” She added: “It is astounding to me that the university has not created some sort of policy that would prohibit this behavior which undoubtedly leads to a toxic environment for both students and faculty. I would hope that Marquette would do everything in its power to cultivate a climate where Marquette employees, especially students, are not publicly demeaned by tenured faculty.”
Brian Dorrington, university spokesman, said via email that Marquette is reviewing “both a concern raised by a student and a concern raised by a faculty member. We are taking appropriate steps to make sure that everyone involved is heard and treated fairly.”
Weinberg said in an email that there are important, unsettled issues in philosophy about moderating student comments, but that they’ve been unfairly applied to Abbate’s case. He said he suspected that sexism was at play in her being a target of such intense criticism.
“I think there is an interesting question about the extent to which the mere offensiveness of a comment in class renders it inappropriate,” he said. But in this case, “the inappropriateness of the remark came largely from it being irrelevant and based on mistaken empirical claims."
"It also happened to be a kind of comment that Abbate noted might be offensive, and might constitute harassment according to Marquette University's policies. So it seems she was being a good teacher as well as playing it safe regarding university policy. That was prudent, given her status as a graduate student instructor. The main take-away, though, is that it would have been perfectly permissible for Abbate to request the student not make the comment even if it weren't offensive.”
McAdams said there are many legitimate reasons why an instructor may choose not to discuss gay marriage in class. But making students feel potentially uncomfortable shouldn't be one of them, he said.
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