It's Tough Being Moderate

Via Bradley, I read this article in Inside Higher Ed yesterday about a bit of a clash between the teaching assistants and the faculty in the English Department of Iowa State. Here's the short version--grad students make a video mocking, satirically, the amount of work they have to do as grad students, along with the quality of their students' work. Nothing particularly original in the concept, and as the article points out, probably the sort of thing that pops up in a grad student review at a faculty holiday party. (Do those sorts of things still go on? I finished grad school 5 years ago and we didn't have one of them.)

But as with seemingly everything else these days, this was done on video and wound up on YouTube, and thus the controversy, because a marketing official noticed, and s/he alerted the Arts and Sciences Dean's office who notified the Chair of the department. Here's where being moderate starts to get challenging.

The Department Chair, along with some of the senior faculty, called in the director of the film and "asked" him to take it down. Why do I use the scare quotes? Because there's no question that this was more than a simple request. There's no way it could be less than a demand. The power differential is too great.

When you're a TA, whether at the Masters or the PhD level, you have to do what your professors want you to do, short of sexual harassment. That's the nature of the relationship. You need them to sign off on theses or dissertations. You need them to write letters of recommendation for jobs, or for other programs if you're planning on continuing your work. You may need them to agree to do independent study with you. In short, it is nearly impossible to defy the people who hold your future in their hands, and while in a perfect world, senior faculty would all be eminently reasonable, fair-minded, liberal people, the sad truth is that they're pretty much a cross-section of humanity, which means there's some petty, jealous, power-hungry types in there as well. Which is not to pass judgment on the faculty at Iowa State--I don't know them, and all I have to go on is this article--but let's not pretend that this request was anything less than a demand.

However, I think that the demand was a reasonable one. I didn't, and then I talked to Amy about this story, which is always a wise thing to do before I blog, and she pointed out that, fair or not, the public reaction to the idea that universities use graduate students as teachers is a negative one. Parents have, in the past, raised holy hell about the money they spend or the debt they incur going to programs where their students are not taught by regular faculty, and they might not grasp the satire in moments like this:

In a few clips, the grad students pass the bounds of what some would consider good taste, with one scene showing a TA lifting an old typewriter as if to smash it down on a student, or another in which a TA says that his goal when evaluating a paper is to ask: “What can I write that will drive this kid to suicide?”
It's no great surprise to me that the initial complaint came from the marketing department of the university--it's their job to make the school seem as positive as possible, and their senses of humor don't tend toward the edgy, in my experience. And I think the Department Chair recognized the public relations mess this could be and felt impelled to act.

And so here we are--a Chair brings inordinate power to bear on a grad student, and there's a backlash. The student who made the video wouldn't be interviewed for the piece--I don't blame him. He probably figures he's already jeopardized his future by making the video in the first place. Would it have been better for the Chair to handle it one-on-one, explaining the public relations issues? I think so, but I have no way of knowing how that student would react--maybe the Chair felt the show of force was required to get the point across.

However, I do know this--the Chair tried a little too hard to justify his actions:
“The video denigrated students who the TA’s are entrusted to teach,” he said. “These attempts at satire are not funny or instructive,” he said, adding that they were “offensive” and “undermine the credibility of instruction.”

Further, he added that the references to violence were cause for concern. “In a post-Virginia Tech world, in my minds that’s very disturbing.” He also noted the line about suicide.
The first point, I might be convinced about--it's a stretch, but I might buy it. But the second? Invoking Virginia Tech? No--that's offensive. That's the same sort of argument used by Republicans who, in 2002, morphed Max Cleland into Osama Bin Laden in ads for Saxby Chambliss in Georgia. That's fear-mongering, plain and simple. One of the other members of the faculty used a different example:
As for concerns that the videos might somehow be too violent or offensive to students in the wake of Virginia Tech, [Neal] Bowers said this argument amounts to “bringing the Patriot Act mentality to Iowa State” and he joked — noting that he was engaged in satire — that the university probably wanted to ship the offending graduate students to Guantanamo.

On a more serious note, he said that Iowa State was sending a terrible message. Whether university officials like a video (or article) or not, or find it funny or not, it’s not the role of a public university to try to keep people from seeing a satire, he said.
And that's true. There should always be a tension between the administration of a university, who wants to sell the university and make everything as positive as possible, and the faculty, who should be pushing their students to explore and challenge and debate conventional wisdom, and Department Chairs are often caught in the middle of that tension. I don't envy them their jobs.

But I think there is room for a middle course here. It's easy to forget, when you're in a position of power, what it means to be powerless, so practice some empathy. In this case, maybe the one-on-one with the student would have allowed both sides to see into the mind of the other, and then if that hadn't worked, the Chair could have stepped up the pressure a bit. As it stands, the Chair comes off as a closed-minded censor who's toadying up to the administration, and the student as someone who caved rather than fighting for his right to free speech. And Iowa State looks like a humorless institution for complaining in the first place. No winners.

Newer Post Older Post Home