Sunday, 1 May 2016

This Professor Should Be Fired for Defending What I Believe In

I call it the “ad hominem dilemma.”  Just to remind you, an “ad hominem argument“ is a logical fallacy defined as trying to win an argument by attacking a person rather than the ideas that person is trying to present or represent in a debate.  The dilemma I have just coined occurs when you like an idea, but you don’t like the person presenting it, or you like a person but you don’t like the idea or argument.  In an ideal world the dilemma disappears because you always agree with the ideas of the people you like—though you might want to have your intellectual rigour checked.

So you might feel torn when you discover that Hitler liked apple pie, and you like apple pie, but you don’t want to be identified as one of those apple-pie-eating Nazis.  Like me, you might have wanted to tear out your hair when Wayne Gretsky announced he was supporting Stephen Harper in the last federal election—you remember, the election Gretsky couldn’t vote in because of Conservative policy preventing non-residents from voting.  Tells you what years in the California sun can do to an otherwise sane Canadian hockey player.  

Then there’s the Donald Trump (aka Drumpf) phenomenon.  You may have heard the claim that an infinite number of monkeys pounding on the keys of an infinite number of typewriters (i.e, keyboards without computers) would eventual type the complete works of Shakespeare.  Trump Drumpf gets so much media coverage, without ever spelling out the details of his proposals, that eventually he is bound to make some vague promise that you agree with, and there you are facing the “ad hominem dilemma.”

Many women were dismayed by the outcome of the Jiam Ghomeshi trial.  It seems pretty obvious that consensual sex does not mean you are consenting to be choked and punched in the head,  but how the obvious was represented at trial was anything but clear.  Ultimately, the acute “ad hominem dilemma” has been provoked not by Ghomeshi himself (okay, being an anus is not a provable crime, but still he has been proven an anus) or by his accusers, but by Marie Henein, Ghomeshi’s lawyer.



Marie Henein should be a feminist icon, a heroine for all womankind, a tough, skilled, astute defence lawyer at the peak of her profession.  In fact, she is all those things and has become them by defending people accused of some pretty heinous crimes, including crimes against women--because that's what defence lawyers do.  Both Michelle Hauser in the Whig ("Mansbridge hit journalistic low point") and Tabatha Southey in the Globe ("Upset about the Jian Ghomeshi verdict? Don’t get mad – get informed") have broached the dilemma which Henein has provoked

The issue of my concern will seem trivial, insignificant and certainly pedantic by comparison to the justice system's futile struggles to prosecute sexual assault.  The object of my obsession is the course plan; what is usually referred to in colleges and universities as the syllabus (the “silly bus” that carries students from the beginning to the end of the course?).  Who cares about syllabi?  Well, I guess people of my ilk who know how to pluralize "hippopotamus"--pedants (which is generally an insult even though it just means "male teachers.")

I used to really care about course plans . . . a lot.  I didn't call them course plans or syllabi, I used to call them "the contract" and I would do this really pumped-up, earnest presentation in the first class explaining that this document was a contract between me and my students, that they had the right to object and make changes if they could persuasively argue that something I was requesting was unreasonable or there were better alternatives.  If the first class and "the contract" went well, chances of the course as a whole going well were vastly improved.

Then the worst happened. University administrators began to agree with me that course plans were really important.  The Chair of our department announced a new policy. In the name of providing the best possible education to our students, in future we would all submit our course plans for review at the beginning of each semester.  My colleagues and I objected to this new policy on three grounds:  1) it was redundant; the information that might concern the department was already available in the form of course descriptions which were regularly updated, 2) the requirement to submit a more detailed description of what we would be doing with students to an administrator seemed more like surveillance than pedagogy, and 3) it would lead to bureaucratization, the uniformisation and rigidification of all course plans.  Redundancy was undeniable, but we were assured that in no way did this new policy suggest increased surveillance or bureaucratization.  The new policy was implemented.

The first time I submitted a course plan, the department Chair took me aside--at the department Christmas party--to tell me she had reviewed my course plan and determined that I hadn't scheduled enough classes for one of my courses.  I had been teaching the course for ten years and the number of classes had always been the same.  How was this not surveillance, I wondered? A year later, under a new Chair, I was notified that the same course plan contained one too many classes.  Luckily for me, as a tenured professor, I could and did blithely ignore the instructions in both cases.  

A more damaging outcome for me was the bureaucratization of the course plan.  With each passing semester I received increasingly insistent and precise instructions on the form and content of each course plan circulated through the Faculty of Education and seconded by my own faculty. The upshot was that as I presented my course plan to students I realized that what they saw before them was a replica of every other course plan that had been presented to them that week. The chances that I could credibly describe the plan as a mutual contract were nil. Even the possibility that I might convince the students there was something distinctive in the syllabus, something worthy of their concentration and interest, was minute at best.  They would view the course plan as bureaucratic red tape, imposed as much upon me as it was upon them, and they weren't wrong.  In the name of "providing the best possible education for students," I was deprived of a useful pedagogical tool.



In recent weeks, reading reports online about Roberty T. Dillen Jr., an associate professor of "genetics and evolutionary biology at the College of Charleston," who was facing suspension for refusing to change his course plan for the university's suggested course "outcomes," I thought "a messiah, a Prometheus willing to sacrifice himself to give fire to university teachers everywhere!"  I read the article in which his Dean accused him of playing "Silly, Sanctimonious Games" and described complaints against Dillen Jr., including his self-confessed, impish penchant for deliberately misinforming students and refusing to answer their questions. Then I read Dillen Jr.'s defence of his resistance: "Why I’m Sticking to My ‘Noncompliant’ Learning Outcomes."

My ad-hominem dilemma:  despite my conviction that course plans should be the purview of teachers not administrators, everything that I have read (especially his own words) leads me to the conclusion that this Robert T. Dillen Jr. is really an ass.  His only motivation seems to be that he likes being an ass and his pleasure was redoubled by the fact that he could get away with it.   As a tenured professor he can be an obfuscating, obstreperous lump of inertia who doesn't even have to logically defend himself and no-one can do anything about it, or so he thought.

Dillen Jr. has been teaching for 34 years.  He was consulted, advised, warned, and presented with alternative "outcomes" which he rejected. Still he manages to feign bewilderment, as if he were the only calm rational mind in this brouhaha rather than its provocateur, and asks rhetorically:  "How could such an apparently minor disagreement escalate so far, so fast?"

I am irked, in the first place, because Dillen Jr. could not have done a better job of undermining all university teachers in their efforts to control the presentation of their own courses.  When university administrators argue that the syllabus must be administered by the university and not left in the hands of eccentric egg heads, Dillen Jr. will be the precedent they cite.

But I am also outraged by a university professor's vain display of elitist, aloof, opinionated incoherence.  In lieu of "course outcomes," in his syllabus, Dillen Jr. inserted a quotation from a speech given by Woodrow Wilson at Princeton University in 1896.  In his apologia, Dillen Jr. offered three justifications for use of this quotation as the learning outcome of a biology course:  1) he and Woodrow Wilson were born 10 miles apart, 2) both he and Wilson "were Presbyterian professors"  and 3) that Wilson "seems to be so universally despised." 

Here is the Wilson quotation which Dillen Jr. used as his "course outcomes" and cannibalized for his rhetorical self-defence:
Explicit Learning Outcome. "It is the business of a University to impart to the rank and file of the men whom it trains the right thought of the world, the thought which it has tested and established, the principles which have stood through the seasons and become at length part of the immemorial wisdom of the race. The object of education is not merely to draw out the powers of the individual mind: it is rather its right object to draw all minds to a proper adjustment to the physical and social world in which they are to have their life and their development: to enlighten, strengthen, and make fit. The business of the world is not individual success, but its own betterment, strengthening, and growth in spiritual insight. ‘So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom’ is its right prayer and aspiration."— Woodrow Wilson, 1896
Beyond the ludicrousness of his justifications, the gross absurdity of Dillen Jr.'s using this quote as the cornerstone of his refusal to accept and adjust to authority is that the quote and the Princeton Commencement speech from which it is taken and even the Bible quote which it cites (and Dillen Jr. re-cites) are all explicit refrains of the theme that the individual must accept and submit to the direction of higher authorities, including "the social world in which they are to have their life"--exactly what Dillen Jr. is refusing to do.

No-where in his exposition does Dillen Jr. show any interest in what his students might (or might not) be gaining from his stubbornly repeated use of Wilson's quote (encouraging Princeton grads to enlist for the Spanish-American War) for his "course outcomes."  The university's decision that Associate Professor Robert T. Dillen Jr. "would be suspended without pay for the fall 2016 academic term" strikes me as a set back for all good teachers and a gift to the students of genetics and evolutionary biology at the College of Charleston.





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