Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Pandering and Bigotry

Now that I've got your attention, read this article. It's not long; I'll wait until you're done.

Now there are a lot of questions that remained unanswered. Why did the professor leave a tenured position at Houston? What exactly was the understanding between him and the administration concerning his "one-year probationary period"? And so on. But the heart of the story is troubling. He was denied tenure after complaints from students that the courses he taught were "too rigorous" and that "he did not know how to teach because he was blind". I don't know which I find more offensive: the overt bigotry or the pandering to underachievers.

When I was an undergraduate, I took several linguistics courses because I thought I would like the subject, and I was right. I went through the usual core courses: Phonology, Morphology, Syntax (did a couple of those), and so on. But I didn't really get fired up about the subject until I took Phonological Theory from S,[1] a graduate assistant who was finishing her Ph.D. It was technically not her course; it was a graduate course (but open to advanced undergrads), so on the books it had to be taught by a regular faculty member. But no one on the faculty at the time was able to teach the subject, so S taught it. It was an eye-opening experience. Linguistic theory is rather esoteric at the best of times, and phonology is no exception. My brain got wrinkled almost daily. I had never worked so hard in a linguistics course before, and I loved it. It was challenging, rigorous (there's that word again), and S clearly knew her stuff and what she was doing.

She also happened to be blind.

I am forever grateful to S for not pulling her punches in presenting course material, or in her evaluation of our performance on homework, exams and our final paper. That course decided my professional trajectory; it is because of it--and her--that I am a phonologist today. (I later got a job reading for her--dozens of articles from linguistics journals. That by itself was an education.)

So for all of you UVU whiners who got this guy fired: You should be ashamed of yourselves. Sack up and get to work. We are in the middle of one of the worst economic crap storms that has ever hit our country. We desparately need people who know their stuff and who aren't afraid of a challenge. If you're not up to it, don't blame the blind guy who's making you work hard in class. Get out of the way and make room for those who can handle it.

And for the UVU administration (at least the bean-counters who denied tenure) and the lawyers in the Attorney General's office: Just because it's legal doesn't mean it's right. Your legal asses may be covered, but you have done your students a disservice. You may think that your students are your customers, but you're wrong. The future employers of your students are your customers. If you deliver an inferior product, you'll soon be irrelevant, and employers will look to other schools for new hires. You're a young school; don't start off this way.

[1] I'll use just an initial to protect her privacy; all of this praise would probably embarrass her.


  1. When I started college, I was a Math major. I switched to Classical Languages because my Ancient Greek class kicked my trash. I wasn't used to school being hard and for the first time in years I felt motivated because it DIDN'T come easily for me. When professors don't expect much of me, I don't do much for them. I prefer to be pushed. How else can I expect to get better, stronger, or smarter? I hate classes I can cruise through. They are a waste of my time and money.
    When I was a TA for an undergrad class which shall remain unnamed, I was shocked that my students EXPECTED me to walk them through every question on the review sheet. They expect to be completely spoon fed!

  2. I'm going to second Kalliope. After taking the GRE, I asked my sister why I wasn't in Math or Science since my scores on the Quantitative section are always higher than my Verbal scores. Answer: Math is too easy. Science is too easy.

    Syntax kicked my butt. Editing kicked my butt. What am I doing? Editing. Why? Because sentence structure and editing aren't easy for me. My teacher demanded more of me in the Syntax/editing courses than my other courses. And I did it.

    Also, like K, I TAed undergrad courses where students demanded to be spoon fed and gave low evaluations if we were "unfair" in our grading. I'm sorry, grow up. Become an adult, and do the work.