Professorial candid camera.

19 11 2010

I’ve been following with horror the spate of stories lately about professors who find themselves stars on YouTube for something they said or did while teaching class. I’m certain that some of them deserve our condemnation. I’m also pretty sure that some of them don’t. Like this guy, for instance:

A Louisiana State University professor, accused in a video circulating on the Internet of “mocking” conservative students during his class, says the video tells only half the story: He was actually challenging all of his students, both liberal and conservative, he says, and not chastising any of them for their beliefs. An unedited version of the video gives some support to his claims, though it still troubles his department chair….

“I was very intentionally going off and challenging all sides. That’s my job,” he said. “If they wanted to, the Young Democrats of Louisiana could have edited it to make me look conservative.”

The lesson here is, obviously, that context is key. The notion of anyone taking some line out of your lecture to make you look stupid doesn’t give the whole picture of what you want students to know. It kind of reminds me of those trackers who follow candidates around now who try to record the gaffes they make. The similarity is that these kinds of comments play to prevailing stereotypes: liberal academics or heartless Republicans. The difference is that the vast majority of us professors aren’t running for anything.

The other kind of context that should temper this kind of hysteria is the professor’s entire institutional record. I remember when I first started out how scared I was that I’d say something off-the-cuff during class that would horribly offend someone. I’ve grown much less-so over time not so much because of tenure (I just know if the firestorm was big enough that certainly wouldn’t save me), but because of my experience. Ten plus years of successful teaching at a single institution ought to mean something compared to whatever anyone can possibly say during a single lecture.

And while we’re talking about the comparative oppression of contingent faculty, this stands as another pretty good example of why their position will always be worse than mine. Most people who don’t work full time don’t have the opportunity to stay in one place long enough to build up the kind of record that would protect them if they were ever on the receiving end of something like this. Indeed, academic freedom for contingent faculty is practically a contradiction in terms when they can lose next semester’s teaching contract at any time without cause. I don’t think the geniuses who came up with the idea for the casualization of academic labor had that in mind when they began the process oh so many years ago (they were thinking about the money instead), but there’s no way to argue that the denial of academic freedom to a huge chunk of the professoriate has been one of its most important side effects.


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