Cursing in Class

A New Jersey community college investigates a professor for cursing at conservative student who argued that men are sexually harassed, too.

April 18, 2018
 
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Howard Finkelstein

Brookdale Community College is investigating a professor of sociology who cursed at a conservative student.

The incident, which was captured on video by a second student and has since been shared online, happened last week during a class on intercultural communication.

The context of the discussion is unclear from the video. But Howard Finkelstein, the professor, can be heard asking the student, “Did you really take the time to think about how that might impact [inaudible]?”

When a student asks if Finkelstein wants a real-life example of the topic, the professor says, “No, I’m asking you. Fuck your life.”

Christopher Lyle, the student, told NJ.com that he’d angered Finkelstein that class session by insisting that both men and women can be sexually harassed. Beyond last week, Lyle said, Finkelstein routinely seeks to argue with him about his stated conservative political leanings.

"I am being discriminated against at my school because of my beliefs," Lyle said. "It's a shame."

Finkelstein did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Avis McMillon, a college spokesperson, confirmed that Brookdale is investigating the matter.

“College officials are investigating the allegations made by the student so that we can understand the full context of the incident,” she said via email. “No action will be taken until the investigation is complete.”

Brookdale does not have a policy against recording professors in the classroom, McMillon said.

Lyle also told NJ.com that he was pulled out of class by an administrator the day after the recorded discussion and asked about the fact that he has guns.

McMillon defended that decision, saying that it is in the best interest “of all members of [the] community for the college to do its due diligence when a student or employee mentions firearms during the process of an investigation.” That matter has already been investigated and closed, she said.

One other student has publicly accused Finkelstein of repeatedly calling out Lyle for his political views during class.

John K. Wilson, an academic freedom expert and co-editor of the American Association of University Professors’ "Academe" blog, said that, in general, a professor “should not have his entire teaching record judged on the worst few seconds of a class taken out of context.”

Sometimes good professors "say provocative things, or even pound a table, as a teaching technique to get the attention of students," for example, he said. Saying "fuck" in the classroom “is not unprofessional or deserving of punishment,” Wilson added, and directly confronting the views of students is “not inherently unprofessional,” either.

In the Brookdale case, Wilson said, “everyone should be subject to criticism, but no one should be punished for expressing their opinions. If the full context of Finkelstein's comments in this class reveal that he behaved badly -- and taught the class badly -- then he deserves criticism for it. But we should not be so quick to jump to conclusions from 34 seconds of video taken out of context.”

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