Sunday, July 11, 2010

an academic mess

kenneth howell, an adjunct professor at the university of illinois, was recently dismissed from his post. the news-gazette published the contents of two emails: an email written by a student who complained, and an email written by professor howell to the class.

on one hand, the professor's letter fails at a few points. for one, it gets really condescending at one point. he states that: "All I ask as your teacher is that you approach these questions as a thinking adult. That implies questioning what you have heard around you. Unless you have done extensive research into homosexuality and are cognizant of the history of moral thought, you are not ready to make judgments about moral truth in this matter. All I encourage is to make informed decisions." this is really patronising. i don't think it's a teacher's place to talk down to students, and this rings heavily of "maybe you think you disagree with me, but it's only because you're a greenie and i've been around the block a few times. when in doubt, trust me." i'm not sure what the test question was--whether it was to discuss how Catholics would critique utilitarianism, or if it required students to come down themselves on whether Catholic natural moral law or utilitarianism provided a better moral framework through which to organise our reality, but either way this part of the letter came off patronising.

secondly, his choice of an example may have been unnecessarily inflammatory. i sort of question his motives when a student question (or a perceived omission of a certain connection in a lecture) led to such a graphic screed against homosexuality. he knows it's a hot button issue, and he knows people are likely to get offended if such an example was used. on one hand, simply because something has the chance of offending people doesn't make it verboten as an academic topic--such an outlook would stifle academic freedom. but, on the other hand, i don't think the goal of proving some clarity about what utilitaritanism is and how it differs from Catholic natural moral law necessarily warrants using an example so likely to polarize the class.

finally, his implication that same-sex couples strive for a "man"-"woman" pairing is ridiculous. (note: i'm not discounting the existence of more-than-two-person relationships; i'm just rebutting an argument he made about two-person relationships.) sure, there are plenty of same-sex couples that have someone more classically feminine paired with someone who is more classically masculine. but, there are plenty of couples where both are more "butch" or more "femme"...and plenty of queers who blend so many aspects of masculinity and femininity that it's impossible to discern or even want to care which may "outweigh" the other. a woman doesn't date a butch lesbian because she should be dating a guy; she's dating a butch lesbian because that butch lesbian turns her crank. furthermore, what would this guy say about straight men who are more feminine than average, or straight women who are more masculine than average? his argument breaks down completely in that case. is a guy who dates masculine-seeming women dating them because he really would rather be with a guy? i'd say no...i'd say it's because he wants to date that woman.

on the other hand, one of the things the student said in his complaint email really, really got my goat. he stated that "Teaching a student about the tenets of a religion is one thing. Declaring that homosexual acts violate the natural laws of man is another. The courses at this institution should be geared to contribute to the public discourse and promote independent thought; not limit one's worldview and ostracize people of a certain sexual orientation." where does this student get to say that the "natural laws of man" are one unified thing that everyone agrees on, and say that this professor should be canned because his conception of natural law is something different from someone else's? the Catholic Church has a long history of defining what is or isn't "natural", and has been couching things in the terms of "natural moral law" for centuries.

do i agree that the Catholic conception of "natural moral law" is necessarily natural, moral, or the law? no. but, am i going to freak out when some professor is trying to tell me that something i find to be perfectly okay violates "natural moral law"? no. i'll divorce my analysis of what i personally think is acceptable behaviour from my analysis of what i think Catholic doctrine sees as acceptable behaviour. if the question asks me to flesh out what i think of the Catholic doctrine, i'll go to town on the many reasons why i think there's nothing wrong with same-sex activity, or same-sex marriage. if the question asks me to flesh out what the Catholic doctrine on same-sex marriage is or should be based on church teachings, i'll focus on that. that second case reminds me of the paper i wrote in college about Boy Scouts v. which i concluded through analysis of American legal doctrine and documents that the Boy Scouts could prohibit gay scouts because they were a private organization, despite the fact that i was personally disgusted that they would do such a thing.

so, how do i come down on this? i really don't know. i'm disturbed, and deeply curious as to why professor howell had to explain his alleged example of the failures of utilitarianism in the way that he did. it makes me think that the possibility is open that he was a little too much of a preacher, and not enough of a teacher. but...these emails aren't enough evidence, and all the media coverage i can find of the case is slanted so much toward one side or the other that i can't get any trustworthy information about how his classes were actually run. i still don't know the one sort of thing i'd really like to know before passing judgment on whether this guy should keep his job or not: did he actually discriminate based on students' worldviews? did he mark people down for criticizing Catholic doctrine when that criticism was relevant to the questions and ideas discussed in class?

i'd be okay with him continuing to teach if he graded on how well people knew the relevant Catholic doctrine when that was the question at hand in a test or essay, and then graded on the quality and support of arguments for or against that doctrine when that was the question in a test or essay. however, if he graded students' arguments for or against principles based on how closely it mirrored the Catholic doctrine when the test or essay question asked the students to formulate and justify their own philosophical points, then firing him would be appropriate.

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