March 15, 2005

Ideological disagreement and the "disruptive" student.

The Daily Cardinal's reports on a problem that arose in a seminar here at the UW:
The principles of appropriate classroom behavior and intellectual diversity recently collided in Professor Scott Straus' Politics of Human Rights seminar, resulting in an angry and frustrated class, a student alleging professor incompetence and the student being forced to meet with an assistant dean of students.

Controversy arose when UW-Madison senior Joe McWilliams repeatedly questioned Straus during class.

Straus and other students in the class claim McWilliams' questioning of the professor was off-topic and combative, while McWilliams maintains his questions were not off-topic and his behavior was appropriate.

After several classes where McWilliams spoke out in what the professor and other students deemed an inappropriate manner, Professor Straus brought the issue to the Dean of Students Office, which sent McWilliams a letter requesting a meeting and mentioning possible suspension or expulsion.

"The tone he was setting was having a detrimental effect on the class. He was, in my view, interfering with my ability to teach the class," Straus said.

McWilliams feels the professor targeted him because of his outspoken nature and political views.

"To receive a disciplinary letter from the professor and the assistant dean of students-I felt that was me being singled out for having a belief system which was inconsistent with [Straus]'s conformist liberal view," he said.
It's incredibly difficult to figure out what actually occurred. How disruptive was the student? Was he treated in a manner proportional to his disruptiveness or was he treated more harshly because of his ideological disagreement with the teacher and the other students?

Perhaps it's impossible to conceive of a student who ideologically agreed with the teacher and other students but was somehow also equally disruptive. Can you disaggregate the student's disruptiveness from his being out of step with the rest of the class? Should the teacher need to actively accommodate a range of views so that a student with ideological disagreements will not seem so disruptive? Is it acceptable for a teacher -- I'm not saying Straus did this -- to establish an ideological norm that makes raising other points of view seem to be dragging the class off topic and ruining the organization to the detriment of the other students? And if a student really does have a problem understanding his role in a seminar, is it overkill to involve the Dean of Students and to mention sanctions like expulsion?

UPDATE: Note that the Daily Cardinal has expressed regret that the headline for the article was misleading. I was drawn to the article by the headline, and noticed that the material in the article didn't support the headline. I also know that letters supporting Professor Straus have been sent to the Cardinal, including a letter from students in the seminar who strongly deny that there was any repression of viewpoints.

ANOTHER UPDATE: The Cardinal publishes the letter sent by the students.

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