Via Inside Higher Ed comes one of the weirder stories about college I've read in a while.
For years, Michael Persinger has taught an introductory psychology class at Canada's Laurentian University. Before his first lecture, he has students sign a waiver that they won't freak out over the ribald and offensive language he uses.
"One of my techniques is to expose people to all types of different words," Persinger told CBC News. "Silly words, complex words, emotional words, profane words. Because they influence how you make decisions and how you think."
By using words in lectures that cause emotion, Persinger said he can teach students about how that affects the brain's rational processes.
In December, a couple of months into last fall's semester, he was told by top university brass that he'd no longer be teaching the course because his pedagogy runs counter to the school's "respectful workplace" policies.
He says that his academic freedom has been shredded and his school's faculty union is backing him on that score.
Additionally, Persinger told CBC News that his antics generated positive buzz among students:
"It's also a tremendous recruitment tool. Students enjoy the fact that it says 'restricted' on the top. What they like about the class is they can ask any question they want, no matter how politically incorrect," he said.
"And we will discuss it in a rational way, using data more than emotional argument, more than political correctness and more that just social agendas."
So what kind of language are we talking about here? Go here for Persinger's full "Statement of Understanding" he has the kiddos sign before the the first class. Here are some examples:
You can get some sense of what kind of joker Persinger is from the list above. Unless you had a really bad experience with a mortician or a FEMA trailer, it's hard to see too many students getting bent out of shape over Formaldehyde. Even Canadians, famous for their politeness, aren't going to be bothered by Shitface or Pussy, though offense taken at Fag, the non-Ted-Nugent-approved spelling of Puntang, and some of the others would likely depend on the context. Which the professor helpfully lays out for his students in examples such as the following:
I've never been a big fan of showy college profs, the type what tries to infuse his (almost always a he in my experience) lectures with drama, comedy, and, more typically, a narcissism more commonly found among actors in dinner-theater productions. But nobody is forced to sit through Prof. Persinger's lectures, disquisitions, and juvenile-to-me antics, now are they? Even if it's a required class, I assume there's more than one section of Intro Psych. At least according to Persinger, his higher-ups wouldn't say exactly why they were pulling the plug on him. Did students object? Other faculty? It's not clear.
This story raises any number of questions, first and foremost among them: Should colleges be able to tell their faculty how and what to teach?
For god's sake, what a nightmare it would be if every goddamn class plan for every meeting had to be OK'ed by "the administration," right?
Well, no, really. As consumers, we expect or even demand some kind of quality control for every burger we buy or car we drive off the lot. You can cry "academic freedom" all you want when it comes to what gets taught in undergrad classes, but the original conceptions of that term covered research topics and non-school-based political commitments. That is, academic freedom covered profs whose research and writings ran afoul of censorious attitudes of administrators, elected officials, and other do-gooders. Over time, academic freedom has become a fetishized concept that can be used to defend anything and everything, from bad teaching to lousy research to you name it. It has never been particularly well defended because it has never been particularly well defined.
In an American context, the First Amendment covers publicly funded universities and thus provides a (hypothetically) strong case of maximal freedom of speech on campuses, whether by students, faculty, or visiting lecturers. Canada offers nothing close to the First Amendment to its citizens, of course, and even still it's not fully clear to me that this case is really about meaningful repression of campus speech.
Regardless of philosophical axioms, it seems to me that any business or organization is always going to be negotiating among its customers, best employees, and the general public. You don't want to annoy your best producers (and Persinger is well-regarded in his field and teaches at a school that seems pretty meh among Canadian universities). Even in industries where labor markets are tight (such as academia generally), employers hassle their standouts at their own peril, especially without clear evidence that the employee is offending anybody or hurting the literal or figurative bottom line. At the same time, why shouldn't a school be able to say, "You know what, this sort of thing just isn't what we're about, so we're shutting it down"?
The reputations of universities and other firms encode a lot of information in them. In a higher ed context, that will include the scholarly and teaching reputations of faculty and whether students are excited or weirded out by their experience in and out of the classroom. I suspect that I wouldn't want to take Persinger's intro psych class even as I'd probably want to attend a college that featured faculty with reputations for being off-beat.
And what about you, gentle readers? Share true stories of oddball faculty in the comments.