Class Leadership

So I saw this story about a student banned from class for challenging the commonplace '1 in 5' sexual assault statistic. This is hardly a rogue position, as challenges have appeared in very mainstream publications such as the Washington Post and TIME.

Nevertheless, I assume the teacher was responding less to the challenge and more to the mode of challenge. That's a matter of taste, to some degree: academia is supposed to be able to sustain robust but civil disagreements, but what constitutes the boundaries of "civil" are very much under contest. The excerpts from the professor's letter suggest that other students were highly uncomfortable, and that he had issued multiple warnings before the ban. Online student-reported feedback suggests that he's a good professor: he rates near the top in all categories except "easiness," where he rates at the bottom. This is exactly as it should be. I'm inclined to trust his sense of his environment.

Besides, it sounds as if the professor's claim that there were sexual assault survivors in the classroom is extremely plausible:
Despite its small size, Reed’s students reported the most sex crimes of all colleges and universities in the state of Oregon during 2010–2012 and ranked third in the number of reported assaults per 1,000 students in the country in 2012.
Sounds like part of the reason the student's mouth was such an issue is a complete failure of the college to uphold other standards. That's neither the student's nor the professor's fault, but it can't help but be a factor here. Reed as an institution bears the real shame in this story.


Cass said...

There's a really good article in Reason that raises more than a reasonable doubt that this kid was actually banned from the forum for merely expressing an opinion:

Read this story yesterday, but thought to myself that something about it sounded a bit fishy. Excerpt:

Savery declined comment to BuzzFeed, but I was able to reach him via email. He confirmed that he was a "strong believer in the First Amendment," and maintained that the student's views were not the issue.

"He was not banned because of what he said but because of a series of disruptive behaviors," Savery told Reason.

I also reached True via email, and asked him whether he had been rowdy or disruptive in class. He responded by making a bizarre request. This was his email back to me:

Before I interview with you, you must agree to make "nigger" be the first word in your article.

I declined this ultimatum, and he declined to answer my questions. Needless to say, I've grown a lot more skeptical of True's side of the story. If I find out anything more that backs up either person's assertions about what happened, I'll update this story.

Cass said...

A semi-snarky aside: I'm also a little uncomfortable with treating BuzzFeed as a credible news source. Though that has also been true of the NY Times and other mainstream news sources :p

I wouldn't automatically disbelieve anything on BuzzFeed, but I do think more than a bit of caution (and hopefully, a bit of additional research) is indicated.

Full marks to Reason for not just uncritically accepting BuzzFeed's version of the story. This is something we've all complained about (Rolling Stone rape article???), and yet the Daily Caller doesn't appear to have tried terribly hard to get the other side of the story.

Evenly applied standards, again.


Grim said...

I looked up the professor's student ratings and his interview in Reed's magazine before writing this up. He looks like a good teacher. I find his manner too touchy-feely for my tastes (in his interview by the college he invites students to drop by any time to talk about anything at all, promising to have a full box of tissues on hand). Still, that's not completely unusual for a left-leaning professor.

It's interesting to me that this came up in a Classics course, but apparently the spark was the Rape of Lucretia.

Cass said...

FWIW, Grim, I noticed that you linked his ratings and wasn't insinuating your post was unbalanced or unfair.

Reason is a digital/print magazine. I've never been quite sure what the Daily Caller is, so I looked it up. They have reporters, whom I assume are paid professionals.

So in my view their duty of care is considerably higher than that of an unpaid blogger :p

They've pushed a number of extremely poorly reported "news stories" that seemed to be mostly rumors and opinion, thinly disguised as reporting. So I was glad to see that Reason made more of an attempt at that balance/objectivity we all keep saying is a hallmark of responsible journalism... sometimes :p

jaed said...


A Reed Hum conference has between 7 and 12 students, typically. Since this is a freshman class, the idea that there were probably "several" sexual assault victims in this class because Reed has a high reporting rate is...

...dubious. I might also point out that Reed's high reporting rate appears to be an artifact of aggressively seeking out such incidents to report, rather than some supposed propensity of male Reed students to commit rape against their classmates. But in any case, the idea that there will be "several" in a group of maybe 4-6 women who have been sexually assaulted by age eighteen is very, very unlikely. The claim that "part of the reason the student's mouth was such an issue is a complete failure of the college to uphold other standards" is not supportable.

And someone needs to tell the "uncomfortable" students that when someone challenges your assumptions and deepest values, you are supposed to be uncomfortable. If you get through a liberal-arts education with so little intellectual challenge that you have no sleepless nights, no intrusive thoughts, and no moments of reluctance to engage a classmate, you haven't gotten the education you were there for.

Grim said...

Is that right? Class sizes in colleges I've been too have been much larger in intro courses.

jaed said...

Yes. The course itself enrolls the whole freshman class, so the 2x/week lectures have hundreds of students. But since discussion is an integral part of the course, the 3x/week conference sessions are necessarily much smaller. (This also gives some time flexibility to students and a lot of choices of professor, since there are dozens of conference sessions.)

But this has me wondering why the professor didn't suggest a switch to a different conference session, which is done sometimes when there's a personality clash. (He did mention it in the posted email, but only to dismiss it as "too late in the semester", which doesn't make sense to me because all the conference sessions discuss the same material at the same time.)

Tom said...

Maybe it was too late for administrative reasons?

Cass said...

...this has me wondering why the professor didn't suggest a switch to a different conference session, which is done sometimes when there's a personality clash.

Maybe it's just me, but when a black student will only agree to be interviewed if the reporter agrees to put "nigger" in the first sentence of his article, I'm thinking any "personality clash" here is pretty much one sided :p

jaed said...

That could well be, Cassandra. I don't exactly get the impression that this student is an intellectual peacemaker, and I do get the impression that he enjoys causing upset.

On the other hand, a professor leading a conference session really ought to be able to handle either a personality clash or an overbearing student without it coming to this point.

Tom, there might be an administrative problem with switching sessions, but this whole situation is unprecedented and an exception could be made (much easier at a small college). The humanities class is in some ways the center of a Reed education, and the conference is most of the value of the class (this is one reason I'm angry about the professor hijacking a class session to discuss people's reactions to their problem classmate). Kicking someone out of a conference for almost half a semester, with no opportunity to join another section, is no small thing.

Cass said...

On the other hand, a professor leading a conference session really ought to be able to handle either a personality clash or an overbearing student without it coming to this point.

You mean the way police ought to be able to handle people who insist on breaking the law without ever arresting or fining them?

Or the way parents ought to be able to handle a strong willed child without ever spanking or punishing him or her in any way? :p

We have only the story to go on, but it sounds to me as though this student was determined to ratchet things up. If that's the case, I think the prof was well within his rights to ban him from the discussion. He won't fail the class.

This is the kind of thing that wouldn't have caused anyone to bat an eyelash when I was in school back in the Cenozoic Era. It's only now that everyone's so precious that they can't bear even the mildest form of discipline. If this is the worst thing that ever happens to this kid, I think he can consider himself quite fortunate.

Actions have consequences, and I'm just old fashioned enough that I continue to believe the world doesn't and shouldn't revolve around individuals, even though I really detest all the touchy-feely language this otherwise unremarkable decision is cloaked in.

I routinely challenged the prevailing wisdom in school (especially in my mandatory 'feminism and oppressed minorities' class). There's a way to do that without being personally offensive, and that's a priceless skill that will serve anyone well in life.

If he really got banned for having the wrong opinions, I'll gladly disapprove of Reed. But if he was banned for consistently acting like a jerk and hijacking the conference, good! As a returning adult student, I was pretty consistently appalled by profs bending over backwards to placate students who weren't trying or who just plain needed someone to let them know they weren't the bright hot center of the universe.

Something in this story smacks very much of the latter world view, at least based on what I've read so far.

jaed said...

There's a way to do that without being personally offensive

Is there, these days? Is it possible to dispute someone else's statement of "1 in 5" without mortally offending that person? I question this.

And yes, the professor is at fault. If the student is as impossible as you suggest, he should have figured this out last September sometime. Not in the middle of March. (If the student has been that impossible all along, the other students have also been seriously harmed.) Asking him to find another conference session at the start of the year (or even the semester), and finding a professor who could handle him, would have solved the problem without harm to any concerned.

The fact that the professor (mis)used a class session to ask others to discuss their feelings about this classmate also indicates a failure to handle the student properly. We've all known people who take over a class or who insist on airing their pet issues regardless of the topic, but there are ways to put a stop to this.

But you can't use those ways if the student's fault is speaking Things That May Not Be Spoken and thus Making Your Classmates Uncomfortable.

Cass said...

I suspect you and I are not going to come to an agreement on this. I don't have a problem with a student being banned from a forum if he's genuinely disrupting it, and I don't believe the solution is palming him off on another group.

In fact, I don't believe the prof's primary duty is to individual students: it's to the class as a whole.

But I've enjoyed the back and forth, even if we're not ever going to agree on this :)

Grim said...

I think it's fair to say both that the class as a whole benefits from having false ideas challenged, and also that it benefits from some level of comity being enforced by the professor. It's also easy to forget how dangerous this is for the professor these days.

Apparently Reed has unusual institutions, though, which are its right. Exactly how to handle these problems in this particular course perhaps is best left to its community, even if we can see that in general these two goods do need to be balanced.

Tom said...

On the other hand, a professor leading a conference session really ought to be able to handle either a personality clash or an overbearing student without it coming to this point.

I have to agree with Cass, here. It's quite possible the student's behavior changed from the start of the course, so the professor reacted to new behavior that wasn't displayed earlier.

Now, I am all too happy to criticize schools and professors for doing stupid things, but when there's reason to believe they're being reasonable, I give them the benefit of the doubt. In the end, the professor has the responsibility, and responsibility is rightfully paired with authority. It was his call.

jaed said...

Well, in the end you're (Tom & Cass) right, of course. We don't know what happened in the class, and the professor is (or should be) the final authority here.

I have a couple of reasons for tending to think the way I do. One is the professor's email to the student explaining the expulsion, which referenced troubling things he'd said in class - denying "rape culture" and questioning the one-in-five statistic, among other things - along with the emotional impact this had on other students. That original email did not mention disruptive behavior, threats, or the kinds of things we'd agree merit expulsion; only when the college's PR officials got involved was that idea mentioned.

(HIs behavior since then hasn't exactly tended to make the idea seem implausible. But the failure to initially mention any cause - other than the content of the student's comments - still troubles me.)

Another reason is that I've been reading comments of current students and recent alumni on this whole matter. Many of them are, to put it bluntly, appalling in their disrespect for intellectual engagement and for reasoned disagreement. They include everything from agreement with the expulsion(they are pleased - indeed, smug - that someone was expelled from a class for Questioning Rape Culture), to the assertion that in the Real World, opinionated people will be fired, so students don't need to learn to deal with that sort of challenge. It indicates a decline in fundamental standards that came as a shock to me - even having known about these trends in academia generally. Whether he was actually disruptive doesn't seem important to these students; they believe he was removed for the matter of his opinions, and applaud this.

And a third reason is that I went to Reed myself, and I greatly value the education I got there. The Humanities conference is not just another class; it's central to that education, and being expelled from it with no ability to seek out another conference puts a major hole in one's education. So I suppose I am imagining myself in the young man's situation.

jaed said...

(I didn't mean to imply in my first paragraph that Grim isn't right as well, of course. ;-) I think we are all in agreement on principles, if not their application in this case.)

Cass said...


Thanks for the explanation - everything you say sounds very reasonable to me. I was very troubled by the initial report too, and if this student was truly banned from the discussion for voicing inconvenient opinions, I'm 100% in violent, thumping agreement with you.

I went back to school as an adult, and my last semester was required (!) to take a class on sexual/racial discrimination. Nearly 100% of the readings and the prof's lectures rubbed me the wrong way, and I argued with the prof for the entire semester before writing my final paper (70% of my grade) on all the flaws in the readings and the central ideas we covered in the class.

This was kind of a big deal to me because I had a 4.0 average and wanted to keep my grades up to increase my chances of going to grad school. But I just couldn't stomach the dogma we were force fed in class. All my classmates told me I would fail.

But I didn't - I got an A on my final paper. The prof, much to my surprise, didn't agree with me but said my arguments were well supported even if she didn't like my conclusions. Now obviously this isn't always the case, but I have to say that she didn't try to silence me in class either, even when I was clearly annoying her by refusing to back down.

Part of the credit goes to the prof, and part (I think) is due to my not being needlessly strident (I am a VERY forceful debater, but strive for politeness and do try to concede valid points/arguments for the other side). But pretty much every time we got out of class, at least one person would come up to me and say, "I can't BELIEVE you said that to her face!".

The Reason article did raise doubts in my mind about this student's motives and manner of arguing. That's really all the point I wanted to make: that the Daily Caller article was very one-sided, and didn't make any real attempt to get the other side of the story.

I'll admit that I am more suspicious of items in the DC because they have previously flogged stories that were poorly sourced and misleading (like the "Obama's purging the officer corps" string of stories. And it may well be that if I knew the other side, I'd end up in your camp.