Saturday, August 25, 2012

A Tale of Two Colleges

A Tale of Two Colleges

Disruption in the Lecture Hall

Wednesday marked the third day of classes at the university for this fall term. The UCF Future, the student paper, published an article and accompanying editorial about an event which occurred in a psychology class this past spring term. During a lecture on “the validity of religion” in a cross-cultural psychology course, a student had stood up in the 400 seat auditorium and loudly advised fellow students “not to feed into the devil,” going on to say that “Christianity was the only valid religion that existed.” While the professor acknowledged the comment and allowed the ensuing discussion among students to run its course, his antagonist refused to yield the floor and the professor eventually dismissed the class early.

The professor’s response was a fairly temperate email sent to the students of the class in which he asserted that the purpose of such “courses is to struggle intellectually with some of life's most difficult topics that may not have one right answer, and try to come to some conclusion about what may be ‘the better answer.’”  He concluded by thanking the student who disrupted the class and his supporters for “demonstrating to the rest of the class what religious arrogance and bigotry looks like.”

Given that I was not present, I have no opinion one way or the other on the event that precipitated these events though in principle I largely agree with his response. I will readily say that had a student pulled a stunt like that in my class, I would have asked him to be seated and speak with me after class. Failing that, I would have asked him to leave and had he refused, I would have left and begun proceedings to have the student removed from the class. I’m a strong believer in freedom of expression but I will not accept this kind of rudeness from anyone. Life is too short to unnecessarily endure screaming meemies.

I can also say that a former student whom I know to be a fervent evangelical Protestant noted on my Facebook discussion of this event that he has personally observed the professor as prone to deride students in class when they disclose their religious faith. I have always experienced this young man as thoughtful and, above all, respectful and so I tend to take his impression fairly seriously.

Even so, it has been my experience that many students often are unable to make distinctions between critique of their ideas and attacks on their persons. Unfortunately I also observe that in such cases, students rarely take the responsibility to come to their instructors to talk about their disgruntlement which would allow for either a better understanding of the exchange or perhaps even an apology from the instructor. But when we instructors do occasionally stray across that line from critique of ideas to ad hominem, our conduct becomes worthy of criticism. The person of the student – just as that of the instructor – should never, ever be a target.

“The purpose of the university is…”

The Future did a particularly good job of reporting and editorializing on the event. It is the latest black eye for America’s second largest public university whose recent history has included being proclaimed by Newsweek as the least rigorous university in America, losing a lawsuit over the death of a football player (this in a program placed on probation by the NCAA last year) and for a massive cheating scandal in the business school which made national news last year.

The online edition of the Future provides a comment function in which anyone can leave their thoughts on the topic at hand. Wednesday’s online edition included this comment:

After much critical thinking, I have concluded the professor is a pseudointellectual malcontent and a religious bigot himself. He is also wrong in several other areas: University Purpose, Critical Thinking, Tyranny of the Majority, and Anti-Intellectualism. This isn't the forum for a detailed discussion, but I will state the purpose of the university is to increase knowledge in both general and specific areas: everyone uses critical thinking although not to undermine their beliefs but to reinforce them; tyranny exists by the minority, not the majority; and lastly, anti-intellectualism is a debunked thesis advanced primarily by the late Richard Hofstadter!

I had to smile as I read the first line. One can almost hear George Wallace’s deep Southern drawl as he derided the pointy headed pee-sue-dough-intellectuals back in the 1960s who actually dared to question the practice of racial segregation! Moreover, given what followed in the student’s comments, it’s pretty hard to imagine that much critical thinking occurred prior to making them.

But the line that caught my attention was this: “….I will state the purpose of the university…”  Really? Upon what basis? And you have been appointed by whom to do so?

Of course students have always been willing to offer unsolicited and largely unwarranted opinions about “THE purpose of…” any number of things including life itself. Some learn to use the intellectually honest preface of “I think that…” or “I believe…” but most simply cut to chase and pronounce their own take on things as the revealed absolute truth about any number of subjects. I know I did it as an undergraduate and I seem to remember I had plenty of company in those late night alcohol-sodden bull sessions at the frat house. And I was, on a good day, partly right, just like our would-be Wallace here.

It is true that an important purpose of a university is to “increase knowledge.” That is particularly true in designated research universities such as that which UCF aspires to become. But public universities have historically been designated as places where the public can become educated, where state citizens learn to think, research, solve problems and express their understandings in a number of ways to serve the people of their state.  

“[E]veryone uses critical thinking…”

As the professor noted in his email, most students do not come to the university with capacities to “struggle intellectually with some of life's most difficult topics” already well honed. Contrary to the student’s assertion that “everyone uses critical thinking…,”  the reality is that such skills must be developed over time with lots of practice. And some never learn them at all.

Becoming skilled at critical thinking requires the ability and the willingness to hear the viewpoints of one’s peers, often in the context of class and group discussions, to recognize that one’s own way of interpreting the world may not be the only possible understanding. Ironically, the student’s comment that critical thinking somehow serves to reinforce existing beliefs actually describes a dysfunction of critical thinking called the confirmation bias. Perhaps this kid should actually take the professor’s class where such detours from critical thinking are identified.

The remaining comments are not worth of a lot of comment. Contrary to the student’s assertions, the propensity for any majority to become tyrannical with its subject minorities is a perennial problem in human societies as observers from Plato and Aristotle to John Stuart Mill have noted.

Moreover, Hofstadter’s magnus opum on American anti-intellectualism has hardly been “debunked.” Indeed, these very comments – not to mention the preceding administration in the White House – well illustrate that anti-intellectualism is alive and well in America today. These comments also evidence a common confusion among undergraduates between a thoughtful, reasoned response to ideas with which one disagrees and a rather mindless dismissal of those ideas and their makers which seeks to avoid the hard work of formulating a reasoned, well-supported argument.

Were this simply the rantings of a young sophomore engaging in the expectable narcissism of adolescence, there would be little more to say about it. As I noted above, we’ve all been there. But in a day where “student perceptions of instruction” from such students are taken seriously in everything from hiring to raises to firing and where distorted, self-serving comments about instructors are readily published on public websites where truth is not a requirement and response is not an option, these kinds of comments become a lot more problematic. What continues to trouble me as I read these comments is not so much that students feel entitled to make such pronouncements – as they always have – as that the responses of universities, politicians, parents if not the general public itself have suggested to them that their notions of entitlement are indeed well-founded. 

This is a recipe for disaster.

Different College, Different Experience

I pondered these thoughts after my last class at the university Wednesday afternoon as I drove the 35 miles down the expressway to Valencia College’s Osceola Campus for the welcome event for adjunct instructors there. After playing the incredibly arbitrary game that marks the Teaching Incentive Program award at UCF and losing a second time, I decided I simply can no longer trust the university to be fair or responsible when it comes to my salary (not that I expect it to be either of those things otherwise). I realized that if I am to earn the additional income I need to finally pay off my student loan, I will have to do so with the certainty of an earned adjunct salary. It’s part of a long range strategy which will hopefully offer me a lot more freedom after this year when it comes to early retirement or finding the next stage in my career.

A humanities departmental meeting preceded the general session for all the adjuncts. The departmental meeting at Valencia was a stark contrast to the tense nuclear meltdown of budget fears and administrative pressures that marked our first departmental meeting of the year at UCF last Friday. Perhaps Valencia is still largely untouched by budget woes that have seen UCF’s state funding decline by 49% over the past six years and now lurches toward even more cuts this year. And perhaps Valencia is a bit more insulated from the pressures of a new online university and the political scalpels  in Tallahassee being taken to General Education Programs which threaten to decimate many departments at the university.

For whatever reason, the tenor of the Valencia Humanities departmental meeting was positive, congenial and focused on actual pedagogical concerns such as textbook adoptions and plans for art fairs and 911 memorials. Indeed, budgets and political pressures simply never came up.

As I stood in line at the fruit and cheese reception table between meetings, the familiarity of this place (I taught there five years until 2001) and these former colleagues came streaming back to me. What always struck me about Valencia-Osceola was how the faculty and staff interacted. They genuinely seem to like each other and they appear to enjoy working together.

That’s a key word here: together. Indeed, what most struck me during the welcome back meeting in the auditorium which followed was the constant refrain of “Let us know what we can do to help you,” an offer made by every speaker from the provost of the campus to the audio-visual and internet technology offices. As I drove home that evening I thought how different that sense of togetherness and helpfulness is from the ethos of an overcrowded, factory process mega-university which makes it very clear to all parties early on: “You’re on your own.”

An unexpected gift

This event was a healing balm at the end of a long day which began with those comments from the UCF sophomore presuming to dictate to the university what its job should be. Given that context, it’s no surprise that the remarks from the Valencia-Osceola student government president at the general session that night caught me completely off-guard.

The young Latino student was the first speaker up. Dressed up in coat and a tie that appeared to be just a little tight, he began making his comments rapidly, almost inaudibly, his nervousness dancing just below the surface of his polished appearance. He began with the typical student government touting of past accomplishments and promises of events to come. But about halfway through his comments, I found myself sitting up, wide-eyed, listening intently as he said the following:

On behalf of all the students here at Osceola, I want to thank all of you who work so hard on our behalf, especially our teachers. We are very grateful for all that you do for us. Without you our dreams could not be realized.


I glanced around the auditorium to make sure I had not suddenly been transported to a different world, resisting the urge to pinch myself. It’s been a very long time since I’ve heard a student representative make those kinds of comments at a public meeting. Indeed, thank you is not a phrase I hear often from students generally. When I do it’s almost always in response to a favor afforded them. Expressed gratitude for our role in helping students realize their dreams has simply not been part of the reality of these past 11 years of teaching at the university from any of the parties involved.

Those of us in higher education have long known that it is the moral rewards of teaching which make our often demanding jobs bearable. We know that a society like our own - which Hofstadter rightly observed 50 years ago to be anti-intellectual as a general rule - reflects its relatively low valuation of education in the meager pay it offers those of us who make it possible. And we know that in an inverted Republic like our own - where the appetites of the artisans and merchants class, protected by the power of the guardians, drive our society - we would-be philosopher kings will inevitably find ourselves safely locked away in ivory towers and pilloried in public discourse.

We live in a day when students feel entitled to disrupt our classes with impunity and to dictate to us the very nature of our work. In that context, it is remarkable how powerfully rewarding something as simple as a young student government president expressing gratitude on behalf of himself and his peers can be to those of us in a vocation of ever diminishing returns.

And so I thank this young man for that unexpected, generous gesture and for his kind words that brought unbidden tears to my eyes. It was without a doubt the highlight of an incredibly trying week. And it was a welcome respite from what often feels like an ongoing assault for a very weary veteran teacher nearing the end of his days in public higher education.

 The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

 If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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