What happens if you’re the asshole?

There ‘s a Chronicle article from last week that has been stuck in my craw ever since I read it. You may have read it when it was free for 24 hours (and since paywalled). Yes, I’m talking about the biologist from the College of Charleston who got suspended from teaching for refusing to change the Woodrow Wilson quote that he used as the learning outcomes statement on his syllabus. But the part that really got to me, was this:

[Robert T.] Dillon [Associate Professor of Biology] describes himself as a “prickly guy,” but it may be more accurate to say he is the antitenure crowd’s straw man made flesh. In his 34 years at Charleston, he has received three official letters of reprimand, along with many negative evaluations from his supervisors and his students…

Mr. Dillon’s teaching methods run to the Kafkaesque. He refuses to answer students’ questions with anything but questions. He says he sometimes purposely misleads students by making factually wrong statements in class, reasoning that students who did the reading should be able to correct him. (They rarely do, he says.) The professor is not interested in meeting students halfway; he believes it is more edifying to put them in a crucible and see if they are “critical, rational, mathematical, analytical” enough to intuit their way out.

Even though the Chronicle also published an extremely reasonable response by Professor Dillon, everyone in my Twitter feed thought this guy is a Grade-A asshole. Heck, I think this guy is an asshole, but even assholes have some uses. In this case, I think it’s the fact that Dillon’s intransigence has revealed something really interesting about assessment language. Going back to the original article:

In fact, the accreditor has no formatting requirement for learning-outcome statements. Those come in all shapes and sizes, says Belle S. Wheelan, president of the commission.

To be clear, Ms. Wheelan does not think Wilson’s century-old remarks speak eloquently to what students are supposed to learn in a genetics course. But her agency focuses on learning outcomes at the level of academic programs, she says, not individual courses. “One set of course outcomes,” says Ms. Wheelan, “is not necessarily going to negatively impact the accreditation of an institution.”

In other words, like FERPA or Title IX, learning outcomes are good things that alas can be turned into weapons against professors by feckless administrators. In this case, it has taken an asshole in order to discover that fact.

Of course, one doesn’t need to be an asshole in order to discover such things, which is precisely my point here. What happens if you’re the asshole? Any professor who challenges the seemingly benevolent bureaucratic status quo can become the asshole, whether they are actually an asshole or not. That’s why the due process protections that come with tenure are so important for faculty everywhere. They make it much easier to speak truth to power.

Of course, tenure isn’t what it used to be. While never a guaranteed job for life even at its best, academic misconduct, budget cuts or just living in a state with a crazy Republican governor can now leave tenure protections just a speed bump on a very short road. Absent those situations, however, professors at all levels of employment – even the assholes – deserve due process protections whether they are on or off the tenure track.

Applying this standard to this case as described in that article, it appears that Professor Dillon is a lousy teacher. If his treatment of students is enough to get him multiple reprimands, then his treatment of students should be enough to get him fired if that’s a solution that the faculty handbook at the University of Charleston allows. Of course, Professor Dillon should also have the opportunity to change his approach to teaching so that his firing would no longer be necessary. However, suspending (and possibly) firing someone over the learning outcomes language in their syllabus is pretty stupid because 1) That doesn’t fix the real problem and 2) The College of Charleston’s accrediting body has made it pretty clear that the exact learning outcomes language in a single course doesn’t even matter to them anyway.

You might not like Professor Dillon’s attitude or his methods, but his freedom to teach his classes his way are what guarantees my freedom to teach my classes my way and your freedom to teach your class your way too.

Posted by Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

1 comment

It is so apparent what little understanding of the situation you possess. He has told students whose parents died that God wanted them to suffer. He said students wouldn’t speak out against him, but in fact it was because he would berate them for questioning him and it would reflect in his grading. Countless advisors told even the best students to unenroll from his course because they recognized how inept of a professor he was. He wasn’t removed for not complying with syllabi objectives, he was removed because after years of bragging about only giving 9 students As in over 20 years and failing to teach constructively the college had enough of his God complex.

It’s incredibly naïve to assume that a college would be so petty as to remove a professor for such a mundane reason. The truth is he was a terrible person and an even worse professor. His arrogance cost him his career, not the college.

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