Humor, initiative, knowledge, confidence, and creativity are strong correlates of a professor’s capacity to engage the cognitions and imaginations of students in the university classroom and the laboratory. Unless one can resonate with the thinking and concepts of modern university students the maintenance of the message of the particular lecture and the obligation to challenge the audience to think differently and independently cannot be easily achieved. This is particularly evident in classrooms that are bombarded by the continuous moan of background air systems, poor temperature control, electronic buzzes from elaborate equipment, and the diminished capacity of large groups of students to sit quietly.
The requirement for students to sit for 60 or more minutes and listen (primarily) to a single stimulus ignores the normal human propensity to habituate. I have found that affective and intermittent diversity of expression to the class, so there is always mild anticipation of something arousing, will maintain attention and increase inquiries. Occasional profanity, innuendo, and clever use of language that is commensurate with the linguistic mode of the audience add to the realism of the information and emphasize the personal relevance of the classroom experience. When I teach Introduction to Psychology, the first lecture focuses upon the conditioning principles of how words become “offensive” and how implicit chains of learning make every student in the class a victim of their own language and culture. I encourage my students to break free of the constraints of what should be said and not said, thought or not thought, and to realize that labels, taboo words, and arbitrary patterns of speech inhibit their development as unique individuals.
From this context, assuming that the 30 June, 2015 news story by Robby Soave is correct, LSU Professor Teresa Buchanan’s style of lecturing was appropriate. In a normal distribution there is almost always a handful of students, usually after they fail an exam or do not receive special exceptions because of their “situation”, who manipulate the social system of feeling “offended”, “uncomfortable” or whatever verbal sequence will potentially access the attention of administration. Occasional “insensitive” humor maintains classroom attention and arousal so that information can be acquired. It really depends upon the preferred style of the professor. In the balance of probabilities there were variables other than her lecture style that stimulated her dismissal by the administration. The fact that a harmless word such as “pussy” during an off campus conversation with another professor was cited against her reveals that her lecture style was not the only variable.
In my experience there are no “bad” professors or “bad” administrators. The ones I know are usually convinced they are “protecting the public” or “helping professors or students for their own good”. One of the costs of self-appointed moral superiority is pervasive and vindictive repression of professors who are perceived to be “not controllable”, that is, who prefer to employ their own reasoning rather than knee-jerk consensus. In my experience over the last 50 years in Academia those professors who were the most creative, assertive, and productive thinkers preferred data and reasoning to social sycophancy. Often administrators engage in
diffusion of responsibility. They must “control the faculty” because not following some vague and contrived government policy could lead to withdrawal of financial support to the institution. Guidelines are almost invariably interpreted as inflexible rules.
The first casualty of lecturing in an environment of aversive anticipation and anxiety about what one might say is creativity and the confidence of the professor. Confidence is coupled with easier access to memory, verbal fluidity, and entertainment value. The political obsession with exaggerated effects from “the wrong words” has minimal empirical bases. As I stated in my testimony some years ago to the Human Rights Commission regarding Section 13, there is no clear causal evidence that “insulting” words affect a person’s self esteem unless social consensus rewards it. Assertions that the “same portion of the brain that is involved with pain is involved with derogatory words” reflects a confused understanding of complex brain functions.
How does the original thinking and talking professor, like Teresa Buchanan, survive in a climate that promotes pusillanimous behaviours in its faculty and puerile pouting from its students? It’s not easy. I know this personally. Two university administrations have attempted to discipline or fire me. In one instance the College of Psychologists was encouraged to discipline me because of my language in the classroom. I soon discerned that the “colorful” language was only a pretense because I challenged the legitimacy and validity of the assumptions of Clinical Psychology and the College. In the second case a few years later I was denied courses and referred for discipline because students complained that I told two of my male students to stop being pussies, enroll in a thesis course, and pay their tuition. Then there were multiple accusations, removed from context and exaggerated by one administrator who rewarded rumor and libel from students and faculty. Like Professor Buchanan I found that the optimal response is to expose repressive administrative behaviours to the public light. I was fortunate to have perspicacious people like Clive Seligman, from the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship, a quintessential lawyer like P. Berk Keaney, and a powerful Chief Steward like Linda St. Pierre, from the university faculty association, to support me. I think this is a condition for being an exceptional professor and lecturer in the contemporary “university”.