Thursday, May 19, 2005

'Handout Hysteria' or Insensitivity? :: Inside Higher Ed
Jonathan Bean is a popular professor at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale — even though his libertarian politics don’t always coincide with his students’ views. A historian, he was just named Teacher of the Year in the College of Liberal Arts.

But in the last two weeks, he has found himself under attack in his department — with many of his history colleagues questioning his judgment for distributing an optional handout about the “Zebra Killings,” a series of murders of white people in San Francisco in the 1970s. His dean also told his teaching assistants that they didn’t need to finish up the semester working with him, and she called off discussion sections of his course for a week so TA’s would not have to work while considering their options.

Students and professors at the university are trading harsh accusations about insensitivity and censorship, talking about possible lawsuits, and assessing the damage. Shirley Clay Scott, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, sent a memo to faculty members warning that they could “easily self-destruct if we do not exercise restraint and reason.”

Support for Bean appears strong on the campus, at least outside of his department and his dean’s office, and several national groups that defend professors who get in trouble for their views have offered to help him.

Bean, who calls the incident one of “handout hysteria,” said in an interview Thursday that he hoped life could get back to normal. “I want this resolved in a civil manner,” he said.

The controversy involves readings in Bean’s survey course on 20th century American history.
Perhaps I'm insensitive, but this does look like hysteria.

I do, however, believe professors bear a responsibility to seek to identify where our student's boundaries are. We have a responsibility to stretch students, but we also have a responsibility to do so without enflaming them. Yet it is not healthy to always err on the side of being unoffensive. It looks as if Bean erred, but it was an honest erring - although, in his position, it was not constructive to label his critics as hysterics.

It also appears that the handout incident is part of a larger dynamic that has built up because of Bean's outspoken views (on, for instance, affirmative action). Affirmative action has taken on the status of a religious belief. It's too bad that it's become one of those things you can't question without being branded an X-cist of one form or another.

If I gain more insight into this incident I'll let you know.

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