Thursday, April 26, 2007

Academic Freedom, Please

I hate to admit this, but sometimes liberals do seem to be a parody of themselves. Emmanual College recently fired Nicholas Winset, an adjunct professor of financial accounting, for holding a class discussion concerning the Virginia Tech shootings. Apparently the key problem was that Winset dramatized his pro-gun position by walking through the class and "shooting" five or six of the students with a dry-erase marker, at which point, by prearrangement, a student "shot" Winset with a marker of his own. The point was that, if Virginia Tech hadn't banned weapons on campus, maybe an armed student or professor could have stopped the Virginia Tech shooter before he killed so many people.

Emmanuel College released a statement saying that the school prohibits "any behavior or action which makes light of or mimics the terrible tragedy at Virginia Tech." and that "Emmanuel College has clear standards of classroom and campus conduct, and does not in any way condone the use of discriminatory or obscene language." Winset was fired and ordered to stay away from the campus even though there are a couple of weeks left in the semester. It's not clear what will happen to his class.

Now, really. I guess Winset did "mimic" the VT shootings, but I can't see that he "made light of" them. And what exactly was discriminatory or obscene about the pro-gun position? I have a colleague here at GW who takes exactly the same position. Following the VT shootings, he was, predictably, in the faculty lounge wishing that students and professors could bear arms and so prevent an incident like this one. I don't agree with him, but his position is, if anything, more mainstream than mine in America as a whole.

Also, Winset's choice to use dramatization to make his point seems pedagogically acceptable. Part of a professor's job is to challenge students and inspire critical thinking. Professors use all kinds of techniques to achieve this end. Apparently most students in the class did not find the demonstration offensive.

Of course, it seems that Winset was supposed to be teaching financial accounting, and gun control presumably wasn't on the syllabus. But it's not beyond the pale to take a small amount of class time to discuss a major incident that captures the attention of the whole country. Certainly I think that Christopher Stephens, another adjunct professor, was being absurd when he said in response to Winset, "The whole point of being an adjunct professor is to write your syllabus, do your job, and move on. There's no room for grandstanding, and I think that's what he did in his act." Adjunct professors are professors too, and they should get to share in the great glory of the academic enterprise, which very much includes a bit of grandstanding in the service of getting students to think about issues.

I find it hard to believe that Winset would have been fired if he'd led a brief discussion of the shootings that culminated in the message "these shootings are terrible and we really need to use them as a catalyst to get some serious gun control legislation passed." I'm guessing it's his pro-gun position that did him in.

As always, one should be hesitant to form a full judgment based solely on media accounts. The school hasn't fully commented (because it's a personnel issue), so we haven't really heard both sides of the story. And it seems that Winset also made some remarks about "the public's celebration of victimhood" in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings, which might have caused offense (although Christopher Hitchens really went to town with the same position in a recent Slate essay, and others have too, so even that is not such an outre point of view). So maybe there's more to the story than meets the media eye.

But from the outside, it seems like an excessive reaction sparked by a stereotypically liberal silencing response to conservative speech. I hate it when liberals give liberals a bad name.

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