Shooting the Questioner · 08 September 2004

September 8, 2004

(Below is a letter written by an anonymous university instructor who was fired for questioning a one-sided assignment -- The Editors)

I'm a PhD looking for a full time teaching job in a very difficult market. When I could not find a full-time job for fall, I began looking for adjunct positions.

I got a call from a prestigious university. I was excited.

I was interviewed by Prof. X, the head of the writing program. As I said in subsequent emails to him and to his associate, I was deeply and positively impressed with Prof. X's apparent dedication to teaching, which he combined with a fine mind.

I had applied at several other schools. I turned down a part-time position that would have paid much more. I did this because I wanted to work with Prof. X. In the end, I turned down several other offers.

I had a lengthy commute -- two hours, one way, by bus and train. But, to me, this job at this school with this staff was worth it.

I attended the first day of orientation for first-time fall instructors with pride. I sat in the first row, took notes, and laughed or nodded in agreement frequently.

During the lunch break, one of Prof. X's underlings said that since I had had such positive things to say about Prof. X in my phone conversations and emails, he put me in Prof. X's small break-out group. This man also commented on the fine things said about me in a letter of recommendation from one of my references, who happens to be a world-famous scholar.

During the afternoon sessions, we trainees were given "sample assignments." Prof. X told us to discuss the assignments, talking about what we liked and did not like about them.

The sample assignments we were given struck me as directive, as forcing students to accept, as fact, theories. Further, these theories, combined with the articles -- one about people celebrating all over the world after seeing film footage of planes crashing into the World Trade Center on 9-11, one about the "threat" of McDonald's restaurants opening up worldwide, and one that commented on America's efforts to combat terrorism, seen as not being good efforts -- created an anti-American slant.

For example, one sample assignment asked students to compare eating at McDonald's to genocide.

There was no "out" in this sample assignment. A student who did not regard eating at McDonald's as comparable to genocide would not have been able to answer the question, and would have failed. That student's grade depended on his or her ideological agreement with the professor who had prepared the assignment.

I was told that my homework assignment was to create assignments like those I had been shown in class.

I struggled with this assignment. I finally composed a note to Prof. X outlining my difficulty with the assignment. In brief, what I said was that:

1.) The three assigned essays, considered together, did add up to an anti- American slant, and that that was worth addressing. I did not suggest the assigning of other essays. I did not say that the essays were bad essays.

2.) Where the articles did not state facts, but presented hypotheses, the assignments treated the articles as if they were stating facts. This deprived students of an "out" to express disagreement with the articles. I also pointed out that in some cases, the articles presented falsehoods as facts, or slanted facts.

3.) I wanted to know how to handle these realities, how to address what appeared to me to be direction on the part of these sample assignments to students in a freshman composition class, to accept an anti-American slant in order to achieve success in the classroom.

This was especially pertinent in light of the sample student papers we had been asked to read. The sample student papers did not show mastery of the material offered. One student, for example, even by the end of the semester, had not mastered use of the past participle, a very rudimentary English language skill.

How could someone whose grasp of English was so basic juggle questions comparing McDonald's and genocide?

Again: at no point did I say that I would not teach these articles.

At no point did I say that these were bad articles.

At no point did I say that these articles presented an insurmountable obstacle to me.

At no point did I make any comment at all about Prof. X's own ideological position, which is unknown to me, and, in this context, unimportant to me.

I asked for guidance with the problems I was having in order to carry out my assigned duties, duties I was looking forward to fulfilling.

On the second day of the orientation, I arrived, early, and, again, sat up front, ready to absorb what wisdom Prof. X had to offer.

Prof. X entered the room, ignored the other trainees present, approached me, and asked me to accompany him outside. Prof. X didn't just walk me into the hall, he escorted me outside the building.

Once we were outside, Prof. X. said to me, immediately, "I wonder if this is going to work. This is like a marriage. You have objections to what we do. Give your social security number to our secretary, and we will pay you for coming for the orientation."

I could only stare, aghast.

Then he said, "You have an agenda. I have an agenda, too. College campuses tend to be leftist places."

If Prof. X treats trainees in such a manner, how has he treated students who have asked questions that he does not want to hear?

Again, I am a relatively recent PhD seeking employment in a very tight market. I have several strikes against me. I come from a working class, immigrant background, and entered grad school late. Further, I had to deal with a catastrophic illness while a grad student. I'm not a shiny, young, ethnically mainstream PhD who has all the time in the world to find the right job. This job may have been my last chance, or something close to it. If nothing else, I really needed the money. I'm living in Section 8 housing.

This all occurred the week before school was to start. I had made clear, in phone calls and emails, that I had turned down other jobs for this job.

Is it consistent with leftist values to take a job away from someone who needs one so badly, at a time when that person's ability to find other work is in doubt?

The other terrific irony in all this is that I am not a right-winger. For example, I have not just marched against every military action undertaken by the US in my lifetime (except Afghanistan), I have organized and spoken at actions against every US military action in my lifetime. I'm a radical feminist, radically and actively pro-gay rights; I don't just preach environmental ideals; I live environmental ideals. I could continue listing my bona fides as a certified Pinko for several pages. I come by this point of view from my family, which includes not a few Communists. My work has been published in a national publication that was reviewed by Publishers' Weekly as "leftist."

Rather, the problem was this, as I made clear in my communication to Prof. X: If a first year freshman, taking a class required by all students, feels that he or she must assume a given ideological pose -- *any* given ideological pose -- left or right -- to pass a class, that is a violation of intellectual freedom and integrity. I asked, how do I get around this to create the kind of assignments he wanted me to create?

And no one has addressed that question. Prof. X quarantined me by pulling me outside and telling me to go home rather than address that question.

One might argue that I was wrong, that I misread the sample assignment that I was told to imitate, that the assignment was not coercive.

I mentioned in so many words that the assignment that asked students to compare eating at McDonald's to genocide was coercive, that it offered students who did not see eating at McDonald's and genocide as comparable had no "out" and could not fulfill their assignment. They would receive a failing grade not because of their ability to write English prose, but because they did not share the same ideological worldview as their professor.

Given how specific I was in talking about this sample assignment, and my objections to it, Prof. X, had I been missing the point of that assignment, could have pointed that out. He could have said, "No, see, this assignment is not ideologically coercive, and here is how it is not."

But Prof. X did not do that. Rather than addressing my question, after reviewing my CV, my cover letter, and my letters of recommendation from his own colleagues in academia, after interviewing me, and after promising me employment, he eliminated me, simply because I asked a question.