Dankprofessor’s Weblog

A weblog examining sexual politics in higher education and beyond.

Professor John Bonnell on the sanctity of grading

I am pleased to post this guest commentary by Professor John Bonnell on the grading issue.

“One of the more significant hypocrisies in academe is this notion of the sanctity of grades.  In the humanities, to be sure, subjectivity reigns supreme—and that is exactly how it must be.  Any idea of introducing and enforcing standards of judgment, unanimity of value, and reliably measured “outcomes” is fanciful in the extreme.  Perhaps this can be accomplished in the teaching of mathematics and the natural sciences.  (I doubt it, of course.)  Perhaps a “C” in a Gary, Indiana high school means the same thing as a “C” in an Ivy League college.  More likely, that is a pious wish leading to equally sanctimonious lies. 

About thirty-five years ago, I and three dozen of my colleagues engaged in “grading” the same “student” essay.  These English teachers produced a nice bell curve, with results ranging from A to F, with a preponderance of C’s.  The rationales, the “standards,” the arguments were all over the range of possibility.  My department discreetly shelved this embarrassing experiment, never to try it again.  And since the “student” whose work was being graded remained anonymous, all the numerous other factors besides grammar, spelling, coherence, unity, and rhetorical emphases—factors such as gender, looks, race, age, ethnicity, et cetera, et cetera—did not enter into the grading “outcome.”  Yet, these factors always introduce, or threaten to introduce, strains and biases into the psyches of even the most objective professionals.  And this is exactly what one must expect from highly variegated human beings whose only certifiably common denominators are their titles and the letters scripted after their names.  If anything, there is significant danger that a professor who finds a student attractive, or even has a romantic relationship with him, will be inclined to be more harsh in her assessments, her grades, to prove to herself that her objectivity remains intact.  Sort of like the coach who is more demanding of her daughter playing on the team than she is of other athletes, lest anyone accuse her of bias, of favoritism.  This, of course, is “unfair”—an unfairness only exceeded by barring the daughter from the team.

I have never assumed that the grades I have assigned are comparable to any other teacher’s.  They are an act of communication between me and any given student, an act of communication that has varying degrees of impact and appreciation.  That others in academe or industry believe, or pretend to believe, that a grade assigned by me has implications they can base their own presumptions upon is a fiction that most of us prefer to live by.  And the fiction is harmless enough, except when, as in the present issue of romantic alliances, it is used to infantilize adults in a milieu where it should be most unwelcome.”

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October 6, 2007 Posted by | ethics, grading, higher education, John Bonnell, sexual politics | Leave a comment

Guest commentary by John Bonnell

I am honored that Professor John Bonnell has sent us this post sharing his perspective on sexual harassment in contemporary academe.  I particularly welcome guest commentaries during this time when I am traveling and  have a minimal amount of time to be on on the computer.

Jon Bonnell writes-

     A few reflections upon Brian McFillen’s assumption, in the blogpost for
September 7, that “Things seem to have improved since I entered college in
the late 90s, as universities have gotten a grip on what constitutes sexual
harassment and what does not.”  If my own experience is representative,
McFillen’s view must be modified with the understanding that colleges may
have improved their grip, but what they wield with that grip is a cudgel. 
That is to say, they unscrupulously and, one must say, eagerly flail
targeted instructors and professors with charges of “sexual harassment,” no
matter how farfetched or simply false these charges may be.

     I have been subjected to four kangaroo-court like “investigations,”
beginning in 1998.  In every instance, some student disliked my diction or
my anecdotes, and claimed as a consequence that I had no right to be
teaching college English.  None of the objectionable terminology was ever
directed to or against a specific student.  (For example, in 2003 I was
suspended from teaching without pay for examining James Joyce’s story “The
Boarding House” in a fashion I have used for over three decades.  I used the
word “bitch” to imaginatively fill in an unspecified “free allusion” made by
a party-attending character with regard to a nineteen year old sister of
another party-person.  A female student complained.  The college accused me
of “sexual harassment” and conducted an “investigation.”  Note that the
student did not accuse me of “sexual harassment;” Macomb Community College
did!  I was found “guilty” of employing language that was inherently
demeaning to and harassing of any woman.  No woman should ever have to hear
what I might say in Anglo-Saxon, the college pontificated.  Especially the
word “bitch.”  The faculty union wholly supported the college’s charge and
punishment.)  The College has learned that its blatant disregard for law and
for the meaning of the phrase “sexual harassment” will be supported not only
by the majority of faculty but by the federal judiciary, and all inferior
tribunals.  And, as I have learned, simply to be accused of “sexual
harassment” is already sufficient proof of guilt.  The College has learned
this, too, and does not hesitate to foster such deception.

     Perhaps Brian McFillen’s erroneous assumption is promoted by another
aspect of these curious developments.  The College (as do other
institutions?) suppresses all public discussion of such complaints,
“investigations,” charges, and punishments.  It does this because to be a
“victim” of “sexual harassment” is comparable to being a victim of rape, and
all such victims are entitled to strictest confidence and anonymity.  When I
was suspended in 2004 for utilizing a personal anecdote to illustrate panic,
my own panic, an illustration that the College deemed was sufficiently
“sexual” to constitute “harassment,” the College successfully prevailed upon
the American Association of Arbitrators to NOT publish the arbitrator’s
finding, even though the “victim’s” name did not appear in the decision. 
(By the bye, the College had punished me a few years earlier, in part, for
using the same anecdote, but the objection then was my employment of the
Anglo-Saxon “balls” instead of the proper Latin, “testicles.”  In 2004, the
College decided the anecdote itself was “harassing,” regardless of the
diction.  A dramatic illustration, incidentally, of Justice Harlan’s correct
assertion in 1971 [see COHEN v. CALIFORNIA, U.S.. SUP. CRT., the famous
“Fuck the Draft” case] that a government which stooped to banning words will
soon be banishing ideas.  Exactly my experience.  A further curiosity in
this assault on my “academic freedom” was the fact that the complaining
“victim” placed this anecdote THIRD in her list of objections, holding
accounts of a policeman who killed himself with his own revolver while
“playing” Russian roulette and of a rooster beheaded in 1947 in Colorado-a
fowl who subsequently refused to die-as more disturbing.  But the College
could construe no sex in her first disaffections.  To the College’s credit,
it did not do in 2004 what it did in 2003.  It did not telephone dozens of
my students to discern whether I simulated coital thrusts against my desk;
whether I “flipped off” all the students in my class; whether I labeled the
women in the class as “cunts.”  Finding no support for these conjectures
evidently chilled the College’s enthusiasm in subsequent “investigations.”)

     Maybe the “disinfectant of sunshine” is not so successfully thwarted on
other campuses as it is on mine.  (When I wrote, in 2005, to Attorney
General Micael Cox, asking him to point out to the College its perversion of
F.E.R.P.A. and other federal regulations on privacy, he wrote back to say
the State of Michigan has no interest in my “private” dispute with the
College.)  Maybe McFillens’ sanguine conclusion is justified elsewhere in
the nation.  But I’d bet the other way.  One of the attorneys active in the
2003 investigations of my treatment of Joyce has since been named a Dean at
the third largest university in Michigan.  In 1998, when Macomb College
began its witch hunt of my person, it retained only one attorney, part time,
to look after its interests.  Now it has an entire Office of the General
Counsel, with at least a half dozen full time attorneys diligently
“defending” the College.  The proliferation of lawyers in the lucrative
halls of academe promises more bad news for believers in authentic
individual rights and freedoms.  Civil libertarian counsel Harvey
Silverglate has described college campuses as the most unfree places in
America.  I can find no reason to disagree.

John Bonnell
Professor of English, when not debarred by bogus charges of “sexual

September 11, 2007 Posted by | academic freedom, higher education, John Bonnell, sexual harassment, sexual politics | 3 Comments


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