Where to draw the line: a guide for professors

On whether an Alberta art teacher went too far

Lately there has been, it seems, a rash of incidents where professors have been accused of crossing the line of decent instruction, with ensuing finger pointing and outrage. The most recent, and perhaps most bizarre, is the firing of instructor Gord Ferguson following an incident in which a student slaughtered a chicken in the cafeteria of the Alberta College of Art and Design.

But there have been plenty of other dust-ups in the not-too-distant past, including the brouhaha over Tom Flanagan’s comments about child pornography. This kind of anger is always fuelled, in part, by the fact that the person in question is a professor. Professors, highly paid and usually well-regarded, are supposed to be beyond such outrageous word and deed.

But outrage is a tricky thing. Many ordinary aspects of modern university life—the admission of women for instance—were once unthinkable, while other things that seem ridiculous to us now—it is not that long since professors smoked in the classroom—were at one time thought of as normal.

Even today what is outrageous to one may be unremarkable to another; your perceived abuse of a position may be just good teaching to me. Indeed, isn’t one of the jobs of a professor to challenge people, to expand their ways of thinking, perhaps, even, in some cases, to outrage them? Once in a while I leave a classroom wondering if I’m going to get a call asking if I really said this or that.

And yet, we must acknowledge that not everything can be justified under the heading of innovative teaching. Where is the line? No one has ever spelled it out to me in my years as a professor. So, in my tireless journey to better higher education, allow me to propose a set of guidelines that, refined and reasonably applied, would allow professors to be challenging and innovative and yet not abuse their positions of authority and respect.

Stick to the course’s subject matter. Of course, disciplinary lines are not always easily identified, but if a course is to be offered in say, the area of Chemistry, it ought to be a course in Chemistry. At my own university, there has been controversy over whether a writing course was genuinely a writing course or whether it had become too much a class in contemporary politics—as you can imagine, this is a difficult and subjective matter. Former University of Ottawa professor Denis Rancourt got into trouble partly for this reason when a course he taught—Rancourt is a physicist—focused mainly on social activism and became know as “the activism course.” As to whether the approach of that course was valid (opinions differed dramatically) it still remains a solid principal that the course should be taught, more or less as it has been approved for offer by the university.

Keep it in your classroom. Or the lab, or other relevant teaching venues. This is where our art teacher, ran, ahem, afoul of what his university seemed to think was good academic sense. While the precise details of the case are still sketchy, as a matter of principle, student projects, particularly when they are likely to shock and offend, should not be foisted upon strangers who are not prepared for them and did not choose to participate in them. Here again my own university once provided an example when a professor sent her students into other ongoing classes, unexpected and unannounced, to read a politically-charged statement about feminism. While pushing the boundaries is laudable, you can’t push them right into someone else’s lecture. By the same token, people have the right to enjoy lunch without fear of getting raw chicken blood sprayed on them.

Advance radical positions in good faith. University of Rochester professor Stephen Landsburg recently ended up in hot water after putting forward a thought experiment in which he suggested that if a man raped an unconscious woman and the woman was not physically harmed, and never found out about it, was it really a crime? In the broad sense, raising questions, even radical ones, about sensitive topics like rape is entirely justified, if potentially distressing. But this particular question was so easily refuted—because violating the integrity of another person’s body is itself a harm, among other reasons—one suspects that the professor may have been advancing a position merely to be seen as or controversial. This case is complicated further by the fact that the ideas were proposed on his personal blog, not in class, but the basic point remains the same: professors should be able to advance controversial claims and questions provided that they genuinely believe, and can demonstrate, that such claims and questions have value to the intellectual debate at hand.

A little to my surprise, no administrator has ever called me on anything controversial I’ve said or written. Perhaps that is to the credit of my institution. Perhaps its to my own credit for knowing where the lines are. It sure as heck never occurred to me to let a student kill a chicken in the university.

Todd Pettigrew is an Associate Professor of English at Cape Breton University.

Sign in to comment.