Tuesday, December 17, 2013


Changing Threats

The story of Patricia Adler, the sociology professor allegedly pushed out of UC-Boulder for a lecture on prostitution (in the context of a course on deviant behavior), felt like a throwback to an earlier time.  Assuming the popular accounts are correct, it looks like a textbook case of a dean clamping down on a non-conformist professor, just to avoid potential conflict.

It’s almost comforting.  It’s a case of the sort I expected to encounter when I went into this profession.  It’s old-school.  Side with the professor, rally around academic freedom, and call it good.  We know the drill.

Threats don’t usually come in such unambiguous and well-worn shapes anymore.  The major threats now are different than they were, and we’re only starting to catch up.

I’m old enough to remember when “emergency preparedness” on campus referred to fire drills.  Now, my children do “lockdown” drills at school, because school shootings have become common enough that “best practices” exist.  I hope that never stops striking us as wrong.

Anyone remember the threat of Soviet hegemony?  The communist bloc?  

At one time, the great threat to popular culture was the few gatekeepers at the major corporations that controlled distribution of music, television, movies, and books.  Now, the great threat to popular culture is that there’s such an oversupply of product relative to demand that almost nobody can get paid anymore.

(Speaking of, I’d like to put a bug in the ear of the “genius grant” people to take a good look at Kristin Hersh.  Read “Rat Girl,” listen to “Purgatory/Paradise” and “Sunny Border Blue,” and check out her self-generated distribution model.  If that’s not genius…)

For that matter, remember the “great wave of retirements” that was going to lead to a catastrophic shortage of college faculty?  That threat has been thoroughly inverted, too.

At one time, the great threat that college students represented was rebellion.  Things got so heated that an urban myth developed to the effect that brutalist architecture was somehow designed to thwart public demonstrations.  The rebellion is gone, and the flat roofs that are the legacy of the brutalist era mostly thwart efforts at keeping carpets dry.

Now, college students themselves are threatened by economics.  They don’t have the leisure for rebellion.  They routinely work thirty or more hours a week for pay while attending class full-time, and often while also shouldering family responsibilities.  As with musicians, students now aren’t so much censored as they are drowned out.  At this point, colleges are less concerned about students walking out than they are about students walking away.  

When the rules change so quickly and fundamentally, the occasional throwback comes as a sort of relief.  It’s a sign that not everything has been upended, that some old truisms still hold.  

I’d like to think that cases like Adler’s would be no-brainers by now.  They aren’t, apparently, and that’s a useful reminder of work still to be done.  

But the new threats are so different from the old ones that we’ll need an entirely new playbook to deal with them.  When venues were scarce and rewards high, the issue at hand was putting parameters on how the gatekeepers operated.  (That’s still true at the very most selective colleges, which is why they’re still fighting battles around affirmative action.)  When venues have become plentiful and rewards scarce, though, the threats change.  I can’t help but wonder if part of the reason that the Adler case attracted as much attention as it did is that it’s one of the rare cases in which most of us feel like we understand which side to take.

I do agree that threats change and have changed and will continue to change. My quibble is that what is now an "old school" threat the answer to which is easy (assuming certain assumptions about academic freedom, etc.) was once a new, or at least more current and more widespread, threat, the answer to which was not quite as easy in the prior context. Or at least maybe. And although I know almost nothing about the Adler story (I just know your summary of it), I strongly suspect there's much more to the story than what is alleged from the accounts you relate.

What I'm getting at is, perhaps 20 years from now people will look back at our current "new threats" and realize the correct answers are obvious, while we are now struggling with them.

By the way and as an aside, I agree that a situation where there are "best practices" to how to deal with a school shooting is not a good situation. At the same time, I'm skeptical of claims that the increase in the number of such shootings is all that greater than similar acts of violence in years past....so maybe "best practices" is a good idea here. Maybe this threat has always been around (or has been around longer than we suppose), and it's better to have a plan for it

Even the Adler case is only partly an Old Threat. She is apparently being sanctioned not because of an idea that she propounds, but because the way she chose to present her content (re-enactments performed by undergraduate TA's) made the university administration feel that it was at risk for complaints of sexual harassment -- which is a very New Threat.
When I saw the subject today, I was hoping that you would provide a Dean's Eye View of the concept of "my course" as described by the professor in this article. Perhaps you could do that in the comments or, preferably, in tomorrow's blog on both websites.

Ditto for the conditions that would lead to an immediate dismissal from a tenured position (at your college compared and contrasted to the published policy at Boulder) with loss of retirement benefits (i.e. where the prof could not retire immediately instead of being fired after the school acts on the charges that have been made). At my CC, without a collective bargaining agreement, this case does not rise to that level even if it was held that prof violated a direct order that put student safety at risk. Actual criminal activity of a certain type has to proven in court before vested retirement benefits are affected (under state law).

Ditto-squared for the question of whether every class that has a student or TA participation element, including acting out roles, must be approved in advance by some college committee (such as the wholly inappropriate IRB claimed by the Dean in this story). There is no such policy at my college. The prof would have to be given and ignore a direct "cease and desist" order (like in this case) and could appeal that order to the Provost and President before it took effect on the grounds that the Dean did not review what was actually being done in class or interview all TAs involved.
Interesting point raised by Pierre 4:30AM. How much is a real increase on a per-capita basis and how much is a result of national media coverage? And how much of the change results from national media coverage, an even more interesting question.

The biggest problem at my college is that I have to go outside into the hall to "lockdown" my classroom. I have no idea what it would cost the college to fix this obvious flaw.
Lockdowns are used pretty frequently in the urban area I live in - not so much due to school shootings (we've had none), but due to criminal activity near the school. I.e., if a bank is robbed within a few blocks of the school and the robber gets away and is being sought by police, the school will go into lockdown until the robber is caught or the area around the school is found to be clear. Disturbing, yes, but I think a good plan to have in general.

We had tornado drills and fire drills when I was in school, but I suspect that there have been more school shootings in the past 20 years than there have been schools hit by tornadoes while occupied by students.

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