February 13, 2004

Fear of Litigation

I knew that I had just been fired, or, rather, I knew that my contract would not be 'renewed' the following semester. I wondered whether there might be some kind of internal appeals process. Cross-examination in the dean's office, perhaps?

I couldn't imagine what I had done. And nobody would tell me. I wouldn't sleep much that night.

-- Thomas H. Benton, "Ignoring My Inner Lawyer"

Thomas H. Benton contrasts the "professionalism" of his early teaching career with the riskier but more humane approach that he can now afford to take. As an adjunct, Benton writes, he "unconsciously regarded every student as a potential lawsuit" and acted in accordance with this fear of litigation:

I was never alone with a student. I documented every exchange, keeping a diary of conversations and making copies, at my own expense, of every paper I annotated. I adhered as strictly to my syllabus as if it were a legal contract. I never discussed issues that were outside of the advertised course content.

In class I studiously avoided using any of the potentially offensive words that have since been listed in Diane Ravitch's The Language Police. I even removed my wedding ring when teaching, as I had been warned to do, in order to avoid creating a 'hetero-coercive environment.'

In retrospect, Benton believes that he was not only "dour and humorless," but also ineffective as a teacher. And anyway, his extreme caution didn't prevent him from being fired, or not rehired, possibly on the basis of a single student's allegations concerning his conduct.

Now that he is on the tenure-track, he notes, he can

afford to take some of the risks that I believe make one a better teacher. I decreasingly feel the need to protect myself by strict adherence to inhumane regulations. I speak more informally; I venture jokes. I often talk about my personal life in class. And I let students talk to me about theirs. I don't recommend medications, but I do loan books. Sometimes I hold classes at my house. All of this over the protests of my inner lawyer.

Given some of the concerns raised in the intellectual diversity thread, I think Benton's column is a useful reminder of some of the complexities surrouding faculty-student relations. In contrasting the status of adjuncts with that of tenure-track professors, moroever, he also raises an important dimension to the debate, and one that is too frequently overlooked: namely, that in addition to the question of de jure limitations on classroom speech, there are often de facto limitations as well.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at February 13, 2004 02:17 PM

I read his Chronicle piece. He really sounded obsessively weird in his adjunct teaching days. Obviously part of the job is to counsel and advise students. And see Ms Mentor's comments on how to get good evaluations...

Posted by: moom at February 13, 2004 03:32 PM

Yeah, the guy sounds crazy. Who on earth could have warned him to remove his wedding ring to avoid creating a "hetero-coercive environment"? If anything, that likely made his problem with romantic interest from a student more severe.

Posted by: Anonymous at February 13, 2004 04:13 PM

Utter madness. Paranoia. I do all the things he was afraid to as an adjunct, and I've never had any fear about any of it. Recording every conversation with a student?! What a weirdo. Unfortunately, it's stuff like this that feed the hyperparanoia about mutant political correctness that's been almost entirely absent from my 11 years as a student and instructor in various universities.

Posted by: DJW at February 13, 2004 06:09 PM

That is to say, it's the mutant PC that's been absent. The paranoia about it is far from absent. Poor wording on my part.

Posted by: DJW at February 13, 2004 06:10 PM

I don't think THB is all that off the mark. The thing about students is that you can never really know what will or will not offend them. I once made a jok in a class at my own expense, but a student took it wrongly and thought I was aiming my joke at her. She then went to the chair of the dept., and I was put in the position of having to write a very careful letter of response in which I detailed each and every semantic component to the remark and how it was all aimed at me and no one else. And I had to do this keeping in mind the need to not inadvertantly offend her for having been slightly daft in the first place for not getting the joke. (the 28 other members of the class got it, but that didn't matter)

In another class I made the mistake of teaching Walter Benjamin's essay "Hashish in Marseilles," and to my horror I received several evaluations which accused me of promoting drug use. And yes, I had to explain that one too.

And for the record, I would never offer my shoulder to a student, even if said student were sobbing uncontrollably. In fact, it has happened that a student has broken down in tears, and I sat there stone faced and waited for the crying to subside. And when it didn't I suggested she seek counselling and then explained that our meeting would have to be cut short.

Posted by: Chris at February 13, 2004 06:38 PM

Please realize that the Benton columns are caricature (probably not always well done); they go to extremes and simplify complex issues in order to make points, stimulate discussion, and, of course, attract readers.

Benton has issues, but I hope the real me is not paranoid or deranged. Schizophrenic is another matter . . .

Posted by: THB at February 13, 2004 07:12 PM

I agree with Chris; THB might be a little hypervigilant, but he's not crazy. I know a professor who was stalked by an obsessed student, and another who's become justifiably gun-shy about permitting any kind of relationship with a student beyond discussions of classwork, especially across gender lines. I've also heard stories from friends about prof-student imbroglios that curl my toes.

Speaking strictly anecdotally, it seems to me that charismatic professors have more of a problem with students weirding out on them than other types (I'm not implying you're uninteresting if you haven't been stalked.) (On second thought, I don't see how I'm not implying that. Oh well--maybe there's an upside to being dull!)

Posted by: Rose at February 13, 2004 07:14 PM

*reminds self to be very, very dull*

I also know a couple of people who have been first letter-stalked and now cyber-stalked (going on for years). During my first year, both I and one of the female adjuncts wound up with crank callers--much worse in her case.

Posted by: Miriam at February 13, 2004 07:32 PM

I thought THB was jittery in the early years -- maybe not very relaxed, but on the other hand, that student was pressuring him in really inappropriate ways, so he probably had a right to feel nervous. On the other hand, the remarkable point in his column, I thought, was his desire to have compassion for his students. I believe we can have compassion for students while still setting appropriate boundaries. However, this is a very difficult balance for a new professor to achieve. After years and years of teaching, I can still say that I'm "vigilant" around students, but would be very reluctant to drop compassion out of my dealings with them. THB had a remarkable line in that column, which I had up as a quotation on my blog for a while. I can't remember now exactly how it went (it's under "previous quotations" in my blog header), but it was something about how extending compassion to a crying student would be so cathartic that he, himself, probably would cry. I found that line to be very impactful.

Posted by: Academy Girl at February 13, 2004 09:31 PM

Yeah, I thought you were supposed to wear a ring even if you weren't married, just to scare off the hot, sex-crazed little sluts.

I'm not in the system any more, so I say stuff like that in lieu of those of you who are. Not that any of you think that way or anything.

Posted by: zizka / emerson at February 13, 2004 11:21 PM

I had a student write on my evaluations: "He even laughed at a student once". Which was true. This guy who was a workstudy in our department office (and after he graduated we became great friends), put on a bright red stovepipe hat and came into class and sat there grinning. I told him to please take it off but I couldn't stop bending in half and laughing....

On a student crying, I wouldn't touch the student but I would talk sympathetically to them.

I had this student in her 50s when I was a grad student in my 20s who asked me to come on what seemed to be "dates" with her. I just turned her down politely. She always came to my office hours - somebody thought she was my mother!

On the whole I haven't had too many problems of this sort...

Posted by: moom at February 15, 2004 03:13 PM

Use of the "PC" spectre is a comforting strategy for avoiding the fact that you can't tell what will prompt a student to respond with a complaint or lawsuit. Some students are just brought up that way -- I recall having read that Gratz's immediate response to her rejection by U of M was "Dad, who can we sue?" Remember too the very popular professor in Northern California who was suspended after four students who failed his class sued the university for violating a clause in its own mission statement.

Posted by: Mr Ripley at February 16, 2004 02:10 AM

On the issue of student evals, I was struck by something as I listened to the radio in the car a few days ago. On NPR's "Marketplace" a pundit was arguing that the eagerly awaited quarterly reports of U.S. corporations are pretty useless when it comes to judging the longer-term arc of a company and its prospects.

It occurred to me that student evals are about as useful. I know that it took me years after my undergrad days to really understand which professors and classes had given me somthing valuable -- and often they weren't the people or classes I had superficially liked at the time (or at least not in every case). One or two of the more dry and no-fun classes stay with me, weirdly, even after 25 years.

In any case, I am curious about people's thoughts on this -- whether or not the whole dynamic of student evals is is, some profound way, screwy. Maybe the slow drip onto the rock over time is what makes the impression, and schools have fallen into believing that the spontaneous reaction has some value per se. Maybe even the hostile student with the comment about laughing will come to say to himself/herself down the line "I was such an idiot in that class . . ."

I wonder too if there hasn't been a subtle movement against evaluations and their purported significance -- I should also say that I have had both positive, neutral, and negative evals in various configurations. And there was thoughtful criticism there occasionally too (almost never the kind of insane trashing that people are afraid of). But now I find the assumption that you can ask someone to judge a complex experience with many elements in a 10 minute rush to be worrisome.

flu in san diego

Posted by: flu in san diego at February 16, 2004 04:25 AM

Like "flu," I view evaluations as a bit screwy. The enthusiasm of the evaluation generally decreases proportionally with the quality of the evaluator's work. I don't need bubble sheets to tell me that each semester. Evaluations cause students to confuse "satisfaction" with "enjoyment," which is a dangerous thing for education since it is not always inherently entertaining.

There's a part of me that doesn't want to deny the instant-gratification element of allowing students to evaluate me. They are, after all, paying my salary. But there's another part of me (much, much louder) that agrees with the idea that "the best classes take a while to sink in." Many years after college, I've found that the classes I learned the most in (and subsequently retained the most) were classes that I HATED.

So I'm a bit torn. Good evaluations can mean either 1.) the students really learned a lot, or 2.) I made the class too easy. Bad evaluations can mean 1.) the students hated the class because they were challenged, or 2.) I didn't explain the material well enough. But I simply have no way of knowing if what I read on the evaluation is something like:

"he was nice"
"it was a fun class"
"he made learning fun"
"worst class ever"

Verdict: I don't really read them.

(and the cynic in me looks at them as a collective failure to employ any of the critical skills I worked so hard to give them during the previous 15 weeks)

Posted by: JE at February 16, 2004 08:59 PM

Student Evals are notoriously subjective. The literature on student evals, esp. those that concern courses in race, ethnicity and sexuality, highlights their instability in judging a teacher's performance, rather revealing the emotional and subjective projections of the student him/herself. But the worst thing about them is their cynical use by administrators and unfriendly colleagues to undermine and/or dismiss professors, to "prove" bad teaching, when in fact it is well known that adminsitrators and others could give a hoot about what students actually really think, they just bring them in when they can't state publicly why they want to show someone the door (racism, sexism, or as they call it in my neck of the woods, "fit"). One could argue that students aren't really even in a position to judge their educational process effectively (at this stage), and that evals should ALWAYS be read critically, along with the subject of the course and the race, gender, and sexuality of the professor. It should come as no surprise that students are as much a part of the dominant paradigm as anyone else, and that they often score white, heterosexual, and male teachers higher, even when these teachers might demonstrate LESS care and professionalism in the classroom. I'm not trying to be PC, just stating what I think should be an obvious fact. I find that in the courses I teach, reactions tend to be across the spectrum, but are invariably fed by the inchoate realm of my students' desires for whatever they expect a course on 'identity' to entail, and so one risks their career to teach as themselves, and not some sort of shell. This exercise in personal freedom is not free (to borrow from the nomenclature of Washington) however, for I speak from experience. Recently my tenure-track contract was not renewed because of "problems in teaching" that has much to do with evals being used to cover what in essence was an exercise in racism and homophobia. A good resource is:http://www.mla.org/resources/documents/rep_guidelines_poc, Guidelines for Good Practice by the Committee on the Literatures of People of Color in the US and Canada. If only my Dean had read this! :-)

Posted by: Miss Eva at February 16, 2004 10:36 PM

A student with a grudge or a strangely aligned sense of reality will always find something to highlight on an evaluation or complain to a superior about; I seriously doubt any of the forms of self-protection discussed above will do much -- so why cripple yourself by trying?

It's bad enough that the occasional subjective comment from a student is questionable (my favourite criticism of those I've received: that sitting on the "teacher's" desk at the front of a classroom while lecturing was "unsanitary and unprofessional"). But what to do about those statements that are just flat-out, objectively lies? "She never allowed us to revise papers!" (Huh? I allowed revisions on every assignment that term!). What I don't understand is whether the students who write things like this are being deliberately malicious, or they just have no idea what's going on.

And these people (who are, admittedly, a small minority of those who fill out evaluations) are to determine whether I get to keep my job?

Posted by: Ruth at February 19, 2004 03:51 PM

Ripped from today's headlines . . . Naomi Wolf to accuse Harold Bloom of sexual harassing her twenty years ago.

Posted by: P at February 20, 2004 10:01 AM