Failures in teaching, discipline

Posted on November 21, 2017 by

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A few notes before I get into the nitty gritty of this issue: I’m a graduate student at the University of Calgary, a member of the university’s Graduate Student Association (our union), and the president of the philosophy department’s affiliated Graduate Student Association chapter. Nothing I say in this post is made in those roles; rather, I’m speaking as a graduate student who works as a teaching assistant.

At this point, I suspect some folks have seen the case of Lindsay Shepherd, a graduate student at Laurier University. For those who haven’t, I’ll recap the salient details of that story.

Shepherd, in a seminar session for a class on communications, played a video of a debate involving University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson. Peterson is a staunch opponent of trans rights and the legitimacy of the gender identity of trans persons, and famously chose not to use the preferred pronouns of students in his courses, a choice that could have seen substantive disciplinary action and saw extensive criticism of Peterson.

One very recent line of criticism was published in Macleans. My analysis of Peterson’s work is far less pleasant and charitable, but I’ll only gesture at the notion that I think Peterson is as intellectually serious as Mark Regnerus, Charles Murray, and other lame academics trying to build cache through philosophically (and broadly intellectually) illiterate attempts at cultural criticism.

After showing the video, some student(s) complained about the content of the course. Faculty and/or administration chose to meet with Shepherd and “discuss” the incident. Shepherd recorded the “discussion,” a word I put in scare quotes, because it actually isn’t clear whether it is a discussion at all, or a disciplinary action. In the course of their discussion, faculty members suggest Shepherd had violated the law and university policy and take issue with the choice to screen Peterson the way that she did.

There are two issues that I want to individuate for the purpose of understanding this case.

First, was Lindsay Shepherd wrong to present the material? Did she do something wrong in her presentation of the material?

Second, was the reaction from administrators and faculty appropriate, professional, and otherwise in line with acceptable standards?

For the TL;DR crowd, my conclusions are that Shepherd acted wrongly and that the administrators and faculty were wildly unprofessional and inappropriate.

The first is a point that many in the popular press have missed, arguing that Shepherd was exercising “academic freedom” in her choices to present Peterson in the way that she did. I have commented at length on the why the major popular positions in the academic freedom discussion are ill-informed and lazy, but Shepherd is an illustrative case.

Shepherd was wrong to show Peterson in a “neutral” way. University professors are not under an obligation to be painfully neutral, especially in cases where one of the positions denigrates the humanity and identity of their students.

Set aside the comparison to nazis, racists, and other such groups. Shepherd’s two defenses in the recording are thus. A university instructor or teaching assistant has an obligation (1) to expose students to all viewpoints and (2) to present these views neutrally.

Neither of these are true. Re: (1) , exposing students to relevant viewpoints depends on the subject matter of the course. In my undergraduate, I had a Latin professor who insisted on discussing the political virtues of Nixon at length in lecture; it was a viewpoint, but it was not relevant to the course material. Was Peterson’s discussion relevant to the discussion of the course? This is totally unclear. Perhaps it was, but even if it was, that brings us to the second point.

Re: (2), one is absolutely not under any obligation to present positions with the appearance of neutrality. Often, there is good reason not to be neutral about those positions. I’ve talked in courses about the etiology of authoritarianism, fascism, anti-semitic and racist ideologies, etc. Surely no one operates under the assumption that I ought to pretend to be neutral with regard to such views. That would be silly; one can delve into the paradoxes of such a view, but hopefully that isn’t necessary here.

Personally, I’d add a third note in responding to an assumption of Shepherd’s argument, that students hadn’t heard arguments like Peterson’s. I think this is an unfounded and perhaps even absurd assumption. Students are regularly exposed to claims in social media and in interactions with their family that the identities of trans persons are illegitimate. If the thought is Peterson’s arguments are somehow special, somehow a novel way of supporting those claims, then that, too, seems to be a plainly false.

Shepherd is a teaching assistant, learning how to be a professor to someday potentially take on that responsibility; we expect that teaching assistants sometimes make mistakes in discharging their duties. At this point, she’s pre-professional (as am I) and in training where lessons are important and that’s part of the game. The faculty and administration aren’t.

The meeting about her choices in class was an ambiguous affair; it could be an exercise where her supervisor challenges the choices and tries to improve Shepherd’s practice going forward, or it could be a disciplinary exercise, where they are trying to assess whether or not there should be a punishment for those actions.

I drafted most of this post before the apologies from the University president and Shepherd’s supervisor were written, but I’ve edited in those comments.

Having listened to the recording, I can’t work out whether the purpose of the meeting is to improve Shepherd’s understanding and practice of her professional obligations, or if it is an actual disciplinary proceeding. The transcript fluctuates back and forth between suggesting (wrongly, and I’ll come back to that) that Shepherd may have broken the law, and her supervisor trying to make points about her pedagogical choice. The result is an understandable confusion from Shepherd, as the conversation seems decidedly ambiguous, in addition to severe stress from feeling as though this could be a disciplinary proceeding.

Nathan Rambukkana, the professor and supervisor (writing his apology) notes that this was the result of a hodge-podge approach to planning the meeting and not being deliberate about its purpose, as well as failing in his mentorship role. I agree.

This illustrates the basic incompetence of Rambukkana and the other two representatives of Laurier in the room. For a meeting like this, it should be reasonable to ask and expect an answer to the question, “what would count as a conclusive outcome to this meeting?” Would it be a disciplinary action, or Shepherd understanding the concern better and revising a pedagogical mistake?

It strikes me that even if we think Shepherd did something wrong and that her arguments for presenting Peterson’s discussion in a neutral way fail badly, (which I do) it is still the case that the Laurier faculty and administration failed badly, both on the level of professional responsibility and personal good judgment.

This reflects a deeper failures in the way that academics often handle these sorts of circumstances. To be so egregiously unprepared for a meeting, to be so unclear about the goals of that meeting, is unacceptable and unprofessional. Academic freedom does not give academics the right to shirk professional and pedagogical responsibilities.

An addendum in lieu of follow-up.

The Toronto Star has published some notes on the apology from both Rambukkana and the President of the University, as well as a comment from Shepherd. I wanted to work these into the article, but felt it might be better to just tack them on at the end.

Rambukkana notes in his apology, (I link to the full text of the open letter where I quote him above) “While I still think that such material needs to be handled carefully, especially so as to not infringe on the rights of any of our students or make them feel unwelcome in the learning environment, I believe you are right that making a space for controversial or opposition views is important, and even essential to a university. The trick is how to properly contextualize such material.”

The Star gives the following characterization of Shepherd’s response.

“Shepherd argued, however, that Rambukkana’s caveat about contextualizing suggests Laurier is still opposed to hearing multiple perspectives on an issue, saying telling students what to think of any given opinion ahead of time cripples their capacity to form their own opinion.

“It doesn’t matter how nicely you put it, it’s not OK to say that you can’t debate issues and you have to think a certain way,” she said.”

I believe that it is inappropriate for a faculty member or someone generally senior to Shepherd ought to do their best to handle this in a pedagogically appropriate way and help Shepherd to understand Rambukkana’s point. I, however, am not senior to Shepherd (at least, in the sense that we’re both graduate students).

Her position on this issue is somewhere between flatly wrong and embarrassingly ignorant. For reasons expressed in the initial commentary on Shepherd’s choice, she’s mistaken.

At a point in my undergraduate career, I took a course on the New Testament. So I will tell a parable to illustrate. The professor of that course, a thoughtful and engaged scholar, decided that it would be best if we held off on discussions of whether the Jews, collectively, were responsible and blameworthy for the death of Christ; it turns out, precluding students for debating the humanity, moral depravity, or status of their fellow students is generally a pretty basic pedagogical obligation.

Further, we routinely suggest that certain views aren’t credible in courses all the time. The notion that we simply ought to leave all ideas that folks hold available to students is surely laughable. If there was a theory that suggested that word order didn’t matter in the English language, and that we could just arbitrary shove nouns and verbs together, surely Shepherd would not present that to her students in the same way she presents standard syntax. (Perhaps she would, but that seems pretty silly.)

The short version is that, as a current fellow graduate student and possible future colleague of Lindsay Shepherd, this argument is bad, unethical, and unprofessional; part of my purview as a graduate student teaching ethics is making clear when a view is a genuine source of interesting debate and when it is just bad.