Getting graded by God?

reportcardThere’s a story coming out of Los Angeles about a college kid who alleges his professor treated him unfairly because of his political views.

Well now. I feel like I’m an expert in this field since I went to the University of Colorado and many of my professors thought their job was to indoctrinate all students into one way of political thinking. I still remember my professor who felt the class wasn’t properly appreciative of her particular form of feminism and so required us all to write an essay defending the government censorship of pornography. I wrote a really good — but brutally satirical — essay doing just that. The teacher publicly berated me and gave me an F.

Turned out I was lucky. Check out what happened to this kid, according to the Los Angeles Times:

Student Jonathan Lopez says his professor called him a “fascist bastard” and refused to let him finish his speech against same-sex marriage during a public speaking class last November, weeks after California voters approved the ban on such unions.

When Lopez tried to find out his mark for the speech, the professor, John Matteson, allegedly told him to “ask God what your grade is,” the suit says.

Lopez also said the teacher threatened to have him expelled when he complained to higher-ups.

At least in my case the teacher had a point. The story is focused on the complaint made by Lopez in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. It’s not long but it’s balanced and seeks out some perspective from independent sources and defenses of the Los Angeles City College where the incident took place.

The Associated Press also covered the story and chose slightly different details on which to focus:

In the suit filed last week in a Los Angeles federal court, student Jonathan Lopez said that midway through his speech when he recited a dictionary definition of marriage and recited a pair of bible verses, professor John Matteson cut him off, called him a “fascist bastard” and would not allow him to finish.

The suit says Matteson told students they could leave if they were offended, and when no one left he dismissed the class.

A student evaluation form included with the lawsuit lacks a score for Lopez’s speech, and reads “ask God what your grade is.”

All I remember is that my public speaking courses in college were mind-numbingly boring. This class at least sounds interesting.

I’m sure — or at least I hope — that there will be more stories about this case and the events that led to it.

The Los Angeles Times story is much better than the Associated Press one but I wonder why they didn’t link to the actual court filing. There are other links in the story, and a link to the actual complaint would help readers who seek more information. The copy desk or online staff should try to remember to include such information. It adds value to the story without much additional work.

So on that note, the complaint is here. The complaint is fascinating. It includes a copy of the syllabus and details about the assignment in question. The professor had told students to give an informative speech of 6-8 minutes about any topic. He chose to talk about God and morality. The complaint includes a copy of the evaluation form of the speech. It shows where the teacher wrote “ask God what your grade is.” He also wrote on the form, “prostyelsyszing (sic) is inappropriate in public school.” Proselytizing may be inappropriate but that spelling is truly atrocious!

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  • Jerry

    I had to duct-tape my hands to my chair to keep from writing about what I think of the teacher rather than sticking to the journalistic aspects of the story. Now that I’ve calmed down a bit:

    When you mentioned linking to the actual court filing, you were singing my song. I actually did read quite a bit of it and, as you suggested, found it informative.

    I also hope there will be more stories about this case focusing on other situations where professors act this way.

  • Eric

    Jerry,

    Mike S. Adams frequently covers stories of where professors act this way and covered this story as well.

    http://townhall.com/columnists/MikeSAdams

  • Brian Walden

    What an ironic use of “fascist bastard.”

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Unfortunately, so-called “liberal” college campuses have become doctrinaire “No-Think” zones. You should be here in the Boston area where the educated elites’ narrow-minded, arrogant, self-righeousness infects much public discourse.

  • FW Ken

    Nearly forty years later, I still laugh about my “Utopian Literature” final, which was supposed to be an essay detailing my vision of a utopian community, with reference to the books we had read. Instead, I spent a cheery 2-3 hours detailing my reasons for not wanting to live in a utopian community, with reference to the books we had read. It was sure to be an “A” or an “F”; fortunately, the professor recognized my brilliance and originality, so he gave me an “A”. Another English professor was just as fair when she gave me a “C” (maybe a “D”)for an essay (actually a “tract”) written in the wake of an intense religious conversion. Without berating me, she pointed out that I was detailing a private experience without tying it to objective realities and expressing opinions without argument.

    All of which is to say that college ought to be teaching us to think, not which thoughts to have. In my college (a liberal Methodist school), we were supposed to be challenged in our beliefs, to make them stronger. Are today’s students tender orchids that have to be protected from forbidden thoughts?

    Well, I thought both articles were pretty good, factual without bias. But if I were a Californian, I would want to know that my public colleges expect their kids to think. As far as I can tell, the professor failed his entire class, including Jonathan Lopez. Perhaps that could be an op-ed piece, do you think?

  • http://religiousliberal.blogspot.com Dwight

    Every once in a while I’ve run into professors like this; though not to the extreme that this story indicates. But for every professor like this, you have the large majority of profs who are conscientious and try to help students think through issues on their own.

    But one of the oddest things is what gets interpreted as “liberal” sometime. Some of my students thought I was challenging their faith by introducing them to Aquinas on natural law and Kant’s categorical imperative in an ethics course. Most every author read in the course was a theist and yet theists were often the most uncomfortable with the material. Maybe because it’s different?

    But different isn’t liberal or conservative (at least not in the kind of political lines we have in today’s society). Just to be asked to think through the reasons why something is held can be seen as a “challenge” and for a field like philosophy, I’d just assume not have political groups with their own agendas use the barometer of students feelings or sensibilities always to make a political point.

    There is a narrative, after all, about the elites. Maybe not the capitalist class per se. But professors, hollywood, easy foils for the right sometimes. I hope that the professor in this story suffers the consequences of what was clearly an inappropriate, unprofessional response to disagreement (and one which turns the purpose of education on it’s head)

    But stories like these about those “liberal professors” always make me nervous. The intent behind them fuels rightist anger but I’m not sure it (or the solutions that they would impose on top of current academic practices) wouldn’t make education worse off for everyone involved.

  • http://religiousliberal.blogspot.com Dwight

    And yes I’ve had conservative teachers who used the classroom as a pulpit as well. (It all depends on what department you’re in). But let’s give our support to professors who actually do provide an open environment of learning. Instead of professors as foils, let’s have stories about professors who are making a positive difference. Um..yeah, probably won’t happen. Or if it did it’d be at a similar ration to news stories about how clergy are doing a good thing versus those who are fallen and disgraced.

  • Harris

    Much depends on whether one takes the class as an academic setting or a forum: does the speech change the nature of the class?

    The perspective in LAT is that this is a public forum issue, that is why we have the legal guns out. They’re reading it in the cultural wars battle line. (Although I don’t know how much a Community College counts as the battle line of the elite v. religionist narrative).

  • FW Ken

    Dwight,

    You sound a complaint common to many critics of journalism. Think of the 95% to 98% of Catholic priests who have never molested a child; who gets the press? Think of the hard-working government employees; who gets the press?

    You sound like you are doing what a teacher ought to do, but I have read many stories like Lopez’ over the years, if not that extreme. Now, most of those stories were personal narratives, and I only heard one side. Moreover, we all tend to see what we are looking for, so over time, my perception has probably been skewed by what are, after all, anecdotes. But one factor possible mitigates against it being merely an anecdotal issue: there seem to many colleges who give cover to professors like Matteson through policies and administrative collusion (as appears to be the situation in this case). Which is to say, a structural, or institutional bias appears to be in place that supports the suppression of the educational process.

  • Judy Harrow

    It goes both ways, and it is always wrong. The public classroom is no place for proselytizing in any direction. In the town immediately north of mine, a public high school social studies teacher was caught telling a Muslim student that she was going to Hell because she did not share his belief system. The brave agnostic kid who brought a tape recorder into class and caught this wing-nut was disciplined — and socially ostracized. The teacher got away with it.

    Two wrongs don’t make a right. Public facilities in a pluralistic society need to be religiously neutral.

  • http://linkedin.com/in/pgepps pgepps

    “religiously neutral” is impossible, and “pluralistic” is a goal shared by some, not a statement of fact. However, it is certainly the case that schools–and the more “public” the occasion and the more intentionally “open” the assignment, the more so–need to be understood as zones of deference.

    That is, I cannot (and should not) pretend to an objectivity which could only be a more or less persuasive lie; and participants in a committed dialogue can and should understand that being committed to one of several mutually exclusive points of view does actually mean wishing everyone held that view (which *can* be differentiated from wishing holders of opposing views were excluded from the dialogue).

    BUT I can, and in my teaching do, take the point of view that intelligent discussion means hearing what people actually do think, and intentionally creating environments in which we can do that–even as teachers *also* have as their goal to encourage the work of critique, the unfolding of conclusory arguments into discursive reasoning. This means hearing with a straight face even points of view we may find risible, or infuriating.

    (though it can and should also mean admitting honestly to our points of view and biases–I find the teacher’s response to the speech extremely poor, but his earlier political expression as described in the court filing, while perhaps mildly unprofessional, is within the leeway I’d consider desireable for college professors)

  • danr

    Judy, proselytizing is one thing, but the line between enforcing “religious neutrality” and stifling free speech (religious or otherwise) can get quite blurry sometimes.

    I see from the link this case is being handled by the Alliance Defense Fund, a pretty reputable firm for handling cases like these. Seems in our current climate, ADF will continue having plenty of business.

  • Dan Berger

    I can, and in my teaching do, take the point of view that intelligent discussion means hearing what people actually do think, and intentionally creating environments in which we can do that—even as teachers *also* have as their goal to encourage the work of critique, the unfolding of conclusory arguments into discursive reasoning. This means hearing with a straight face even points of view we may find risible, or infuriating.

    Even more, it involves playing Devil’s advocate. I see my role in such classes as raising objections to EVERY point of view expressed in class, and forcing students to defend their positions. In the real world there’s not enough time for that… but I have argued strenuously with student papers whose worldview I agreed with, and given high grades to others I disagreed with, when objections to the thesis were carefully considered and critiqued.

  • http://suburbanbanshee.wordpress.com Maureen

    For good or for ill, people are going to do this sort of thing in classes, and a good teacher harnesses it instead of becoming enraged. In general, teachers who are clear about defining speech types, or who are clear about saying what they want, are usually more successful. Those who don’t do a good job at this are better off handing out speech topics.

    To be honest, I think I would hand out topics for the “informative” speech, and make them purely factual matters. The point is to learn how to inform people, so narrowing the field to non-controversial topics would be a service. Like, say, “how marshmallows are made”.

  • Stoo

    I was talking to a friend of mine today, PhD student, who does TA work in religious studies. In her view students complaining about bias against their worldviews or whatever are usually just guilty of Not Answering the Damn Question.

    Ok just another anecdote, but so is “I wrote an essay that was awesome (according to me) and I got an F for it”. For the record it was New Atheists and spritual-but-not-religious types she was saying are the biggest problem in her experience.

  • Jonathan

    When I was a TA in grad school for a Human Sexuality class, the biggest problem that I had was with my fellow orthodox theists’ essays. I may have partly been worried about showing favorable bias and thus overcorrected, but I also found that they often didn’t support the thesis of their papers well, so I marked them lower. Ironically, I got a lot of complaints in my TA evaluations that I was “hostile to religion”, “didn’t like Christians”, and “was antagonistic to faith”, mostly because I didn’t let them get away with sloppy thinking.


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