A student in Abbate’s ethics class objected to her allegedly stating that “everybody agrees” on the issue of gay rights, so “there is no need to discuss it.” After class, he approached her and recorded a conversation with her in which she defended the exclusion of particular viewpoints from the classroom because they might “offend” students.Perhaps Ms Abbate was working under time constraints, or perhaps a student posed a difficult question, or perhaps she was being censorious. Her problem: what appears to be a sufficient track record of censoriousness that the student recorded the conversation. (Ms Abbate recently changed her web log, "Thoughts from a Vegan Feminist Philosopher," from public to by invitation -- I hope out of embarrassment, it was a perfect circus of politically correct shibboleths.)
Nancy Snow is acting head of the philosophy department at Marquette and she very publicly came to the defense of her graduate assistant.
She added “I’m so mad at you” and added “your student is lying.”And now the whole world is watching. Inside Higher Ed offer what strikes me as a balanced analysis of the controversy.
We responded “we have the audio, Nancy.” She repeated “your student is lying.” She further claimed the student should not have recorded the conversation. Suspecting that he was going to be called a liar, he was smart to do so.
We do indeed have the audio, and the quotes we attributed to the instructor are exactly what she said.
As for “picking on a graduate student:” when a department puts a graduate student (or anybody else) in the classroom, in charge of a class, they are responsible for the person acting in a professional manner. Put somebody in a position of power and responsibility and you are responsible when they abuse that power and responsibility.
Excluding certain opinions because they might offend some special interest group, or labeling a student’s views as “homophobic” is unprofessional. Indeed, it’s intolerant.
There’s a clock to watch, student interest to gauge, and facts, opinions and personalities to navigate. Success or flop, though, most of the time those discussions end at the classroom door. But that wasn’t the case at Marquette University over the last month. Thanks to a cell phone and the internet, a graduate student instructor of philosophy there has found herself at the center of a firestorm over how she treated the topic of gay marriage during an ethics theory class.In my experience, the intellectually curious students are precisely the ones most likely to continue the discussion after class (I used to refer to these as "cup of coffee" or "pitcher of beer" questions); the current controversy, however, might represent a bad choice of a hill to die on, on both sides.
Earlier this year, Cheryl Abbate, the teaching assistant, was leading an in-class conversation about the philosopher John Rawls’s equal liberty principle, according to which every person has a right to as many basic liberties as possible, as long as they don’t conflict with those of others. To explore the idea, Abbate asked students to name possible violations of the principle, such as laws that require seat belts and laws that prevent people from selling their own organs. When one student suggested that a ban on gay marriage violated the principle, Abbate quickly moved on to the next topic, as there were more nuanced examples to discuss before the end of class, she said in an email interview. The largest portion of the conversation centered on concealed weapons bans and various drug laws.
The student then said it was his “right as an American citizen” to challenge the idea. Abbate told the student he didn’t, in fact, “have the right, especially [in an ethics class], to make homophobic comments or racist comments.”If you can't play around with difficult ideas in a college classroom, for Odin's sake, where can you? In a bar?
His opinions weren’t homophobic, the student argued. Abbate said he could have whatever opinions he liked, but reiterated that homophobic, racist and sexist comments wouldn’t be tolerated in the class. She said the class discussion was centered on restricting the rights and liberties of individuals, but said that making arguments against gay marriage in the presence of a gay person was comparable to telling Abbate that women's professional options should be limited. She invited him to drop the course if he opposed her policy.
The student asked whether his opposition to gay marriage made him "homophobic" in Abbate's view, and she said that certain comments would "come across" as homophobic to the class.
Inside Higher Ed reports that some of the followup has become angry. At The Daily Nous, we read allegations of a smear campaign. We also see a trenchant observation about the difficulties of teaching the controversies.
There are certainly interesting pedagogical questions about how to discuss potentially offensive topics without violating harassment policies (and I encourage such questions be taken up in the comments). However, the event at the center of this controversy does not appear to be one of speech being shut down because it is offensive. Rather, the comment was off-topic and based on false claims, and the instructor needed to make a decision about how to use limited class time, especially given the topic of the lesson and the subject of the course (which is ethical theory, not applied ethics). Further, as any professor knows, points may be made in offensive and inoffensive ways, and particular students may be more or less skilled at putting their ideas into words that make for a constructive contribution to the lesson. In light of these factors, it is well within the rights and responsibilities of the instructor to manage classroom discussion in a way she judges conducive to learning.I contend, though, that "harassment policies" are useless. Encouraging students to be mannerly, though, is work, and it's a learned skill.
On the other hand, the Daily Nous linked indictment of John McAdams surely has that grassy knoll mentality.
I'm not sure how carefully I will watch this story play out. There's more at Marquette Warrior, just keep scrolling.