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On the home front

Mass media are really amazing.  You talk to a reporter in the evening, and your remarks are in the paper the very next morning!  My stars, these news-papers work almost as quickly as blogs.

Our local paper, the Centre Daily Times, has recently run a couple of terrific articles on academic freedom at Penn State (since we’ve got this HR 177 and its House Subcommittee on Academic Freedom’s hearings this year), and this morning’s article reveals that over the past five years, Penn State has dealt with thirteen—yes, thirteen—claims of “bias” in the classroom.

In the context of Penn State’s entire faculty—some 8,000 professors and instructors—the complaints represent a relatively minor problem, Vice Provost Blannie Bowen said.

OK, thirteen complaints divided by eight thousand professors and instructors, over five years, with a student body of 40,000 . . . yes, I’d have to agree that this amounts to a relatively minor problem for most students.

But in the article’s eighteenth paragraph, there’s a funny pivot:

Michael Berube, a Penn State professor who has opposed legislative oversight of academia, said it’s possible that students are underreporting professor violations of university code.

I did indeed say that, and reporter Adam Smeltz, who’s done a fine job on the Penn State beat, is quoting me accurately.  But just for the record, it’s not as if I phoned the Centre Daily Times and said, “hold on a second with that ‘bias’ story—after all, it’s always possible that students are underreporting bias.” Quite the contrary: Mr. Smeltz told me about some of the findings of this study, and then noted that people like David Horowitz are claiming that students are underreporting incidents.  “Is that possible?” he asked.

Well, of course it’s possible.  I mean, we have a couple of students who think that when they encounter an ardently liberal professor, the thing to do is to complain to the local state legislator.  And it’s entirely possible that the university’s grievance procedure is being underutilized or bypassed by students who don’t know it exists.

But—and, as Pee Wee Herman once said, this is a big but—I also pointed out to Mr. Smeltz that if our thirteen complaints are indicative of the general climate at Penn State, there’s simply no way that a greater number of “bias” allegations would break down along red/ blue, liberal/ conservative lines.  And the Centre Daily Times suggests as much in the two paragraphs that precede my appearance:

Available details about the complaints are limited. One stemmed from a journalism class in which a student said a faculty member denigrated some political views. In a separate incident, a complainant alleged that a professor was too explicit in talking about a sexual practice.

One student said that a “conflict in values” adversely affected his or her grade. A Muslim student contended that a professor was against Islam. Another student said a faculty member was offering perspectives that were too conservative.

Which is to say, yet again, that classroom realities in the reality-based world just don’t bear out Horowitz’s obsessions. 

Nonetheless, Horowitz’s obsessions can have a funny way of inspiring conservative students to think of themselves as victims of liberal professors, which is why I suggested (and Mr. Smeltz quotes me at the end of the article) that

the Horowitz movement, [Berube] said, “certainly gives some students the motivation to think that they’re encountering persecution simply by having a preponderance of liberal faculty members.”

I’ll have more on this theme tomorrow, in this talk at the Paterno/ Pattee Libraries, and I’ll reproduce my remarks on this humble blog on Friday.  Just for the record.

Posted by on 01/25 at 08:20 AM
  1. Michael, a fascinating anecdote and interesting peek into the absurdity of the claims of classroom bias.  I think, however, that the academic approach that reveals just what a joke the claims are will be thoroughly ignored by the claimants.  After all I doubt they learned much other than which professors were liberal and which weren’t while they were in college.  The important stuff, really.  I mean, why bother with rational thought when your prism is politically-based?

    Posted by  on  01/25  at  10:15 AM
  2. To continue my vicious habit of giving useless advice—in my limited experience of order of magnitude 10 occasions, I’ve found that one should never just answer questions when talking to reporters.  I think that it’s best to start off the conversation by asking if you can give them background off the record.  Then they kind of tell you about everything they are interested in, and you answer whichever of their questions are congruent with your purposes.  Then you say that you’ll get back to them with a quote.  Then you spend up to half an hour carefully coming up with 1-3 sentences (one is best) crafted to be difficult to cut and take out of context, that communicate your most important point.  Then you send them those 1-3 sentences by Email or read them over the phone.  That’s pretty much the only way for you to control what you’re quoted as saying instead of them, and I’ve never run into a reporter who objected to this procedure.

    Posted by  on  01/25  at  10:15 AM
  3. Posted by Bulworth  on  01/25  at  10:57 AM
  4. Rich, Bulworth, I really don’t think we’re dealing with any underhandedness or misprision on Adam Smeltz’s part.  I would have preferred that the article had prefaced my quote with something like, “When asked about critics’ claims that students were underreporting bias, Michael Berube said it was ‘possible’. . . .” But Mr. Smeltz covered a great deal of material in very little space, and made it clear, over the course of the article, that I wasn’t actually saying that there’s a vast silent majority of persecuted students out there.

    Adam Smeltz and I talked for about fifteen minutes, on the record and off, with plenty of background, and he got both the spirit and the letter of my remarks.  I just wanted to make it clear here that I wasn’t volunteering the opinion that bias incidents are underreported—simply accepting the possibility, as indeed any reasonable person should.

    Posted by Michael  on  01/25  at  11:30 AM
  5. As part of this “under-reporting” I wonder if it would be worth mentioning that the UCLA “Dirty Thirty” is a list of only 28. Perhaps their fearless leader is concerned about some sort of reprisals? wink

    Posted by  on  01/25  at  12:18 PM
  6. ”...the Horowitz movement, [Berube] said, “certainly gives some students the motivation to think that they’re encountering persecution simply by having a preponderance of liberal faculty members.”

    You mean being taught by someone with a differing viewpoint isn’t, by definition, persecution? Huh, I’ll have to mull that one over.

    Some have suggested that Mr. Horowitz’s true motivation is to intimidate and perhaps censor people who may not share his political bent. Question for Adam Smeltz: Is that possible?

    Posted by  on  01/25  at  01:30 PM
  7. I know that I’ll be there tomorrow.
    One question: exactly where is it in the library?

    Posted by  on  01/25  at  01:45 PM
  8. The lovely Foster Auditorium, Severn, at 3 pm.

    Posted by Michael  on  01/25  at  02:40 PM
  9. Don’t feel badly. I once researched and became friends with a group of sex workers (women who provide exotic body rubs in massage parlors).

    I was also a graduate student at the time, and prided myself on my articulateness. Along with a small group of sex workers, I attended a city council meeting one night as the city prepared to impose by-laws limiting where the parlors could be located. None of the girls who worked in these places wanted to speak to the press, yet it was clearly important to put forth their desperate side of the story.

    So I opened my big mouth and told a reporter how vital it was for many of these women for the parlors to remain open and legal so that they could continue making a living. I explained the socio-economics positions of the sex workers very carefully, and the reporter seemed extremely sympathetic. He promised me he would quote me with care and attention to detail.

    The next morning, I woke up with my REAL name splashed across the front page of the local paper, telling the good citizens of my city how I would have to go on social assistance if I lost my massage parlor job!! It was mortifying, to say the least. My profs and fellow grad students were deeply amused… smile

    Posted by  on  01/25  at  03:17 PM
  10. "I really don’t think we’re dealing with any underhandedness or misprision on Adam Smeltz’s part.”

    I wasn’t suggesting that, but nevertheless the quote does represent an advocacy failure.  It’s your job to make sure that the reporter writes about what you want them to write about.  (Well, not your job, but you know what I mean.) If you’re commenting about a public issue that you care about, it works much better if you carefully shepherd the reporter into providing the exact quote that you want provided.

    Posted by  on  01/25  at  03:41 PM
  11. It is quite possible that students are under-reporting inappropriate bias in the classroom. But, as you’re pointing out here, Michael, the *types* of bias which would get reported if more students were forthcoming are just as likely to be right-leaning as left-leaning.

    The disingenuousness and hypocrisy of people like Andrew Jones and David Horowitz is astonishing: they claim to be interested in uncovering all forms of bias, but in practice are only going after people whose views differ from their own.

    That’s no kind of “academic freedom.” It’s an ideological stance which takes cynical advantage of a political environment which declares that every opinion, no matter how flawed, is equally valid, and that nobody should either (a) have his opinions challenged or (b) have to listen to views which differ from his own.

    And, piggybacking on these ideas, Horowitzism shuts down productive civic debate in the name of a false civility which cloaks an insistence that patriotic citizens should either agree in a kind of totalitarian consensus or have the “decency” to keep their mouths shut.

    Posted by Ancrene Wiseass  on  01/25  at  06:11 PM
  12. Hey, Ancrene, do you mind if I quote you on that?

    Posted by Michael  on  01/25  at  06:52 PM
  13. This reminds me, though, of the study they did a few years back, in which about 20% of the respondents said that it was possible the Holocaust never happened.  People were very concerned about the findings, thinking that 1/5 of Americans were Holocaust deniers (or possible Holocaust deniers?); that word “possible” is awfully slippery.

    Posted by  on  01/25  at  08:30 PM
  14. Michael, I’d be intensely flattered to be quoted by you. In fact, I’m all atwitter to be asked! Thanks.

    Posted by Ancrene Wiseass  on  01/25  at  10:52 PM
  15. I just have to say this, by way of confession (and David, I hope you’re listening):  Al Lingis showed “In the Realm of the Senses” to an undergraduate ethics course, and I believe he is responsible for 16 of the 18 complaints.  I underreported my own experience of that day.  No amount of reporting can do it justice.  It happened.  It really happened.

    Posted by Penn State Alum  on  01/25  at  11:31 PM
  16. Al Lingis showed “In the Realm of the Senses” to an undergraduate ethics course

    Oh.  My.  God.  And students are complaining about a little Keynesian economics here and there?  Seriously, Alum, I’m feeling uncomfortable and threatened just sitting here reading about your viewing of that film.  In fact, I think I should sue you.

    Posted by Michael  on  01/25  at  11:41 PM
  17. I think you should sue, Michael. I should also have sued my film TA for showing “Wavelength.”

    Posted by  on  01/26  at  12:27 AM
  18. I think it is perfectly reasonable to assume that students were terrorized into not reporting liberal bias.  After all, I have seen no proof that the 13 complainers were not dismembered by a liberal, bearded, saw-wielding professor in a maroon shirt.

    Posted by  on  01/26  at  11:24 AM
  19. ...or beaten bloody by long-haired, bespectacled, hocky-playing associates of his.

    Posted by  on  01/26  at  11:26 AM
  20. Old time pedagogy, Njorl!  Toe Blake!  Eddie Shore!

    Posted by Michael  on  01/26  at  11:53 AM
  21. Liberal bias in American colleges and universities? Louis Hartz is laughing in his grave. Disagreement with Horowitz and Jones has to come from the relative left because the ideological shift they represent is so far to the intolerant brown-shirted, Christian right. Relatedly, I heard a Senator argue this morning that Sam Alito will serve as a corrective to the left-wing excesses of the Supreme Court. And, yes, he meant the left-wing excesses of the Rehnquist Court.

    Posted by  on  01/26  at  01:49 PM
  22. Chris, no doubt that senator—Cornyn? Coburn?—was referring to Socialist Workers Party v. Wal-Mart (2003), in which the Supreme Court abolished private property and established “worker’s councils” throughout the United States.  Alito will have his work cut out for him, I assure you.

    Posted by Michael  on  01/26  at  02:41 PM
  23. Nice illustration, Michael. I love teaching the SWP v. Walmart case. Majority opinion by William “Fidel” Rehnquist, with concurrences by Clarence “Che” Thomas and Antonin “the Chin like Rosa Luxemburg” Scalia. You can google this opinion from anywhere except China.

    Posted by  on  01/26  at  03:15 PM
  24. Liberal bias?? Oh damn, i thought this thread was about the under/over reporting of sexual “harrassment” on college campuses that was followup to yesterday’s long press report of release of the new study.

    http://www.news-leader.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20060126/NEWS01/601260353

    Sorry, never mind.  Isn’t liberal bias a style of cutting women’s fashions along lines that are more conservative and close to the vest, so to speak???? NO?  Wrong again eh??

    Posted by  on  01/26  at  07:24 PM
  25. This is off topic, but Michael asked this in a previous thread:

    ``Maybe there is a connection between aesthetics and politics after all.  Hey, does anyone know if Stalin liked beauty?’’

    Answer, at least some. In the 1930’s Stalin was so taken by a performance of Beethoven’s 9th in Moscow, that he ordered that the Orchestra and Chorus repeat the entire work as an encore. Aside from this, and the fact that he did not like the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtensk, and had it banned, I know naught else.

    Posted by Paul Lyon  on  01/27  at  03:32 AM
  26. Also, Rosa Luxemburg liked the songs of Hugo Wolf.

    Posted by Paul Lyon  on  01/27  at  04:02 AM
  27. So...on the second go through, did Stalin ask them to skip ahead a bit during the third movement?

    Posted by  on  01/27  at  09:42 AM
  28. Stalin liked Mozart, too. Here is a little blurb recapitulating a story Solomon Volkov tells in his Shostakovich book. P.S.: I am not taking a position, in this post, on Volkov’s accuracy/inaccuracy. Michael doesn’t need the public opinion riot.

    http://www.austinchronicle.com/issues/dispatch/2004-02-13/music_feature3.html

    Posted by david ross mcirvine  on  01/27  at  11:50 PM
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  32. I come to know Adam Smeltz of the Centre Daily Times reported earlier this week on the “coma” that State College suffers through during the Spring Break holiday

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  33. I would have preferred that the article had prefaced my quote with something like, “When asked about critics’ claims that students were underreporting bias, Michael Berube said it was ‘possible’. . . .” But Mr. Smeltz covered a great deal of material in very little space, and made it clear, over the course of the article, that I wasn’t actually saying that there’s a vast silent majority of persecuted students out there.

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