Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Leftist Courses Targeted by Conservatives?

By Professor Doom

     College employees are particularly vulnerable to e-mail scams. Our e-mail addresses are readily available, and regular hacks of the system mean the entire mailing list is at the disposal of your typical e-scammer.

      Our particular weakness (at the risk of exposing it) are phishing scams sent, falsely, from the Poo Bah. We know better than to click on links and download files, but when it comes from the Poo Bah, there’s a problem: we can use common sense and ignore it, but then there’s a real risk of angering the Poo Bah by not downloading or supporting whatever he asks whenever he asks it. It’s a tough choice, but many faculty decide to fall for the scammer rather than risk the kind of rage documented often enough in this blog.

     A few universities, more accurately professors of certain courses at those universities, received suspicious e-mails recently:

Duke warns professors about emails from someone claiming to be a student, seeking information about their courses -- many in fields criticized by some on the right. Some Michigan and Denver faculty members have received similar emails but from different source.

     These e-mails weren’t really all that scammy; all that was requested was the reading list or syllabus from the courses involved. The scammy part is the request (probably) didn’t come from a student, with a conject that someone “on the right” is doing it. The courses are those with titles that might well be Left-oriented, or at least titles where it’s unclear what books might be in the course:

“…on courses called "Money, Sex and Power," "Energy and Environmental Justice" and "Religion and Mass Incarceration." The email messages, which did not come from a Duke email account, were very similar in asking for a reading list so the alleged student "could get a better idea of if the class is right for me."

     Now, I get a few of these every semester as well, from students wanting some advance idea of what will be in the course. Most math courses give a pretty clear indication of what’s in them from the title (eg, “Statistics”), but others are vague enough that it’s quite fair for a student to have no idea what would be in them (eg, “Mathematical Methods”). I think nothing of giving out my syllabus to any who might ask, or telling them what book I’m using…I’ve no shame in what I discuss in class. The professors for these particular courses, on the other hand, feel they have something to fear:

“…didn't want to inadvertently help someone trying to attack either higher education generally or certain fields of study. “

     This is an interesting thing to fear: someone might not agree with what you’re doing in the course. Many faculty refused to respond to the syllabus request because they didn’t think it came from a student. Why should only students know even roughly what’s discussed in a course? In a classroom environment, students are often (quite understandably) intimidated…is the material being discussed so fragile that it can’t withstand exposure to an audience not afraid to question it?

     We’re in an era where student debt is skyrocketing, tuition is perpetually rising, and our graduates are all too often no better off in any measurable way after 4 to 6 years of study, even when they get a degree. I think it’s very fair in these circumstances to ask some questions about what, exactly, is going on in our classrooms.

     And I also think it’s a little suspicious that we have some professors wary of exposure of what they’re doing in their classes. 

     I know, “you must be guilty if you don’t expose all your secrets” is the cry of the oppressor but…most campuses, most courses, already post their syllabi and reading lists online. Why are courses called “Environmental Justice” getting special treatment in this regard?

     As is so often the case, the comments are far more interesting to me than the actual “news item.” A few are worthy of counter-comment:

Gender Studies has always been a Right Wing target, so we're primed for scrutiny, critique, and insult.

    I suppose the above is correct, but maybe the time really has come to start asking yourselves why you’re such a target? Certain fields, not just Gender Studies, but African Studies and most especially Education do seem to consistently be the butt of jokes and the target of scrutiny by “the outside world.” I suspect it’s the endless scandals and hypocrisy that are factors here, but that’s just my opinion. The fact is still these guys never seem to look in the mirror for answers. (Allow me to gratuitously add, many of these are the same people that think Trump only won because America is filled with deplorables and Russia hacked the election, whatever that accusation means.)

My courses are in Information Sciences and Technology, so not controversial at all. My syllabi and assignments are on publicly accessible web sites and linked to my home page to allow not just students, but also potential students, employers, parents and anyone interested in the course to see the specifics.

     I include the above to demonstrate mathematics is hardly alone in thinking that, yeah, we shouldn’t be ashamed of what we teach in class. Why do certain other fields feel this way?

Well this is most interesting. Since when did the content of a class being openly taught at a University become a secret? I certainly do not think people should lie about their identity. But if say a WSJ reporter requested this information, would the request be rejected? If so why? As a society do we not have the right to inquire about what our sons or daughters are being taught at these ever more expensive bastions of knowledge? Fear of someone disagreeing with you does not seem like a rational response to a request for information.

      These all seem pretty valid questions, although I doubt a WSJ reporter would ask them…seems more of a Breitbart thing to me. Isn’t it odd that we no longer expect mainstream news to do investigation but instead turn to alternative news for that sort of thing?

I agree. MIT has spent millions of dollars putting EVERYTHING FROM EVERY COURSE online for anyone, anywhere in the world, to use. https://ocw.mit.edu/index.htm

      It’s the modern world. It’s time our institutions of higher education focus on prestige and integrity (MIT has both), over growth.

     All the above said, there’s still the issue of the culture of fear in higher education today, where saying a word out of line can get you terminated  instantly. While the professors’ fears above may well indicate something shady going on in the classroom, I concede it could simply be due to being in an environment where you must always be afraid.

      And that still means we should question what we’re doing in higher education.