A professor's probing teaching methods put his career in jeopardy (and his school in court)


THREE YEARS AGO ON CHRISTMAS DAY, Adam Weisberger, a young professor at Maine's Colby College, settled into an overstuffed armchair and began to make his way through a batch of student papers for Sociology 215. The course, a review of the classical works of social theory, was Weisberger's pride and joy. Students were encouraged to engage in "critical self-reflection"to use the abstract theories of Hegel, Marx, Durkheim, and Weber to reflect on problems in their own families. As Weisberger saw it, the approach had been a great success. In a sixth-semester review of his performance at Colby, colleagues had singled out the class as especially powerful and illuminating: "Students found he did an excellent job of making the material relevant to their lives." But this time, as he worked his way through the student assignments, Weisberger became aware that the course was far from universally admired.

Instead of writing about their family troubles, three female students had penned angry indictments of Weisberger's own teaching methods. Adam had pressed them too hard, they wrote, forcing them to disclose more than they wished. "How does it do me any good to recognize how external social forces are operating in my family's dilemma with my brother?" wondered one student. "This class is not the appropriate place for psychoanalysis." Wrote another: "Not everyone is ready or able to get deep into some of their family stuff.... How do you grade something like that? No one can assess the value of my pain."

In theory, the student backlash was an unobjectionable, even desirable, development. At the professor's urging, no aspect of SO 215 was exempt from scrutiny, least of all Weisberger himself. At the same time, Weisberger was troubled by these papers; he detected a tone of belligerence and personal hostility. "I really didn't mind students' getting angry with me or challenging me," he says. "But there was something qualitatively different about this. Just instinctively, I thought: There might be an issue here," he says. "I had a vague premonition that this did not bode well for me."

At the time, however, even Weisberger couldn't have predicted just how ugly things would getfor him, for Colby, and for the growing cadre of female students who would come to define his pedagogical tactics as a violation of privacy and an abuse of power requiring action at the highest levels of the administration. In the months following the first stirrings of discontent, the charges would spread like a cancer, as three, then seven, and finally seventeen female students came forward to register their objections to Weisberger's teaching style. The gravity of the charges varied. Some branded his approach merely intrusive. Others went further, arguing that, because Weisberger's assignments made them feel upset and uncomfortable, his classroom represented the kind of "hostile environment" that can constitute sexual harassment under the law. And one student, Jamie Geier, went further still, alleging that Weisberger had used her private travails not only as a source of prurient fascination but as an instrument of romantic pursuit. According to Geier, Weisberger not only pressured her to write papers on the nonparental sexual abuse she had suffered as a child but exploited her vulnerability by calling her up and asking her out on dates. Such transgressions, Geier and her mother later stressed to a Colby dean, were far from isolated incidents; they were "just an extreme form of what [Weisberger] has been doing...to other women [students] in the sociology department."

The charges of impropriety, all of which Weisberger has apoplectically denied, would have large and cascading effects, culminating in the denial of his 1996 bid for tenure and the end of his career as a sociology professor. The case would become a legal soap opera and an academic cautionary tale, a parable of gender politics, faculty intrigue, and a campus response lacking in the rudiments of due process. It would expose the perilous byways of a fashionable new teaching style that relies on a considerable degree of personal disclosure from students. And it would cast a harsh spotlight on the methods of a brash thirty-seven-year-old professor who is now suing Colby to get his job back.

FROM THE time Weisberger arrived on campus in the fall of 1989, students say, he established himself as a vivid presence. His office was a haven for those stressed out about schoolwork, mad at their roommates, or just looking to shoot the breeze. When distressed coeds showed up with weepy tales of personal tribulation, he'd close the door, hand them a tissue, and try to lift their spirits. Weisberger befriended individual students, cheerfully inviting them to go running with him, baby-sit his two young daughters, or join him for lunch at a local coffeehouse.

Even as he broke down barriers outside the classroom, Weisberger pursued a strategy inside the classroom that was bolder still. For SO 215, there were no assigned paper topics. In the course's syllabus, Weisberger described his approach:

What I am aiming for in the assignments is for you to reflect on the class readings and discussion by means of analyzing an important part of your livesnamely, your family. I am willing to entertain other ideas as written work, but you must make a persuasive case. You may be as personal or impersonal as you wish.... The outward form of the papers is less important than your using the ideas to investigate the relationships in your family.

Weisberger insists his approach was warranted precisely because the texts on his syllabus were so torturous. "Hegel's language is so highly compressed and abstract," he says. "But these books are there to serve human purposes. They help us to understand inequality in everyday social relationships.... And when you know how to tease out some of the implications, you see just how relevant they are." After the students submitted their assignments, Weisberger would meet with them to discuss their work and to suggest possible topics for subsequent papers. Though many of the students chose to write about sad or traumatic aspects of their personal lifedepression, childhood sexual abuse, or rapeWeisberger, in these conferences, did not offer them the kind of sympathetic understanding one would naturally extend to victims of such misfortunes. Unlike many devotees of experiential teaching, he had no desire to "reinforce the validity" of their personal narratives. "I didn't want any of this boohoo, I'm-a-victim stuff," he says. "That's bullshit. I've heard it a million times."

And so, when students presented to him what he considered a shopworn account of their personal travails, he bombarded them with countervailing interpretations. "Why should I, as a teacher, simply accept formulaic kinds of self-insight, whether it comes from male or female, left or right?" he asks. The encounters occasionally took on a needling, discomforting quality. "There would sometimes be anger from students," he says, "because I didn't give them the obligatory empathic response. But again, why should I?"
Weisberger cites one student's paper about her father; it focused on "how he would sabotage himself in his desire to achieve status and success," he says. Although the student had intended her paper to be a candid examination of the impact of social class on her family life, Weisberger found her analysis somewhat oversimplified. "She wanted to criticize her father to the exclusion of her mother," he recalls. Weisberger urged the student to think of her family as a system rather than as isolated individuals acting autonomously. "I asked her, `What role does your mother play in this miniature drama?'" he recalls. When he suggested writing a paper on the topic, she agreed but without enthusiasm. "Here was a student," he concluded, "who was ideologically inclined to find fault with maleness."

How could he be so sure that the young woman was interpreting her own experience in a false or inauthentic fashion? In his zeal to discourage students from fitting their lives into a preordained script, hadn't he imposed an equally formulaic script of his own? He shakes his head impatiently. "I wanted students to see that that which we believe to be most personal is where the categorical lives most deeply. I was striving against pat formulas. Maybe I didn't do it successfully. But I tried."

WHATEVER THE pitfalls of this teaching method, it was initially well received by students and faculty at Colby. In 1992 the authors of his sixth-semester review reported that Weisberger was "doing an exceptional job teaching" and that "he would be a very strong candidate for tenure if he continues to perform in the manner he has to date."

But by 1994, when Weisberger's troubles started, several important things had changed. Weisberger had gotten divorced and moved on campus. "As a faculty resident," he says, "I felt my responsibility was to bridge the gap between the classroom experience and outside-the-class experience. And so I made a policy of eating with students from my dorm or students who were in my classes." Colby's handbook for faculty residents encourages this sort of interaction: The guidelines mandate "substantial contact with students who reside in your hall or Commons," "dining with the students in your Commons," and "providing opportunities for faculty-student contact within your residence hall."
Yet it's not hard to see how Weisberger's ubiquity in the residence halls, taken in combination with his bold, probing teaching method, contributed to a mounting sense of unease in a predominantly female department. All of a sudden, the same instructor to whom students were confiding their darkest family secrets was also hanging out in their dorms, throwing birthday parties for them, sitting across from them at dinner. And he wasn't wearing a wedding ring.

INDEED, it was in this climate of moist overfamiliarity that the charges against Weisberger would take root and flourish. One evening shortly after Thanksgiving in 1994, a student named Pam Herd buttonholed her classmate Adrienne Clay in the dining hall. "I introduced myself," she says, "and I said, `I was just wondering what you thought about SO 215, and about Adam in particular.' At the time, I really felt like no one else in the course seemed to have a problem. I thought: Is it just me?" As Herd outlined her concernsWeisberger was pushing too hard and violating boundariesClay's mouth dropped open. "She said that she couldn't believe it, that another student had approached her about that very thing just the day before."

Adrienne Clay was deeply affected by her conversations with Herd and with another classmate, Amy Brown (a pseudonym for a student who asked that her name not be revealed). Clay began thinking, she says, about Hegel's master-slave dialectica topic of discussion in the class. She asked herself "about what happens when one slave starts talking to other slaves about what they've experienced collectively. All of a sudden, they stand back and see their situation whole. They see that this is a shared role that they're in. And they say, `Wait a minute. This sucks.'" Within a few weeks, Clay, Herd, and Brown had each independently decided to compose term papers that sharply challenged Weisberger's conduct as a teacher.

How did the students come to choose such a course of action? Adrienne Clay says she liked Weisberger initially. "He was trying to relate sociology to a personal level," she says. "I thought it was a great idea. I would have lunch with him. Take walks with him. He really likes that." Clay's problems began after she wrote a paper about her father, a gynecologist, interpreting his strong protectiveness of her "as resulting, in part, from some of the terrible things he saw happening to some of his young female patients." Weisberger, intrigued, suggested she read a book called Bonds of Love, about Oedipal relationships between fathers and daughters. Clay was horrified. "I realized that his picture of what I meant when I said that my father thinks of me while seeing patients was literally one of a doctor examining a woman in stirrups."

In hindsight, says Clay, she is "disgusted" by the papers she wrote in Weisberger's course. "They were awful and wrong," she says. "I was exploiting my family members for a grade. I didn't realize that until about two thirds of the way through the course. All of a sudden, it was like, `Oh, yuck. What am I doing?'"

Weisberger loved to act the analyst, recalls Pam Herd. She says she expected her first conference with him to focus on the way she had tried to bring sociological theory into her paper. "This was a theory course," she says. "I thought he was going to say, `Well, gee, Durkheim wouldn't necessarily have put it quite that way.'" Herd says that, far from representing the apotheosis of "high theory," as Weisberger now claims, the conferences devolved into painful discussions about problems in her family. "He was asking me all sorts of questions about my mother," she says. "I was responding...but with some discomfort. I'm a relatively open person, but this wasn't the right place."

Herd, who is now planning to attend graduate school in sociology, is a devoted reader of the playwright Ntozake Shange. "I've read a fair number of interviews with her," she says. "Anything that's inside you, she refers to as `stuff.' The only way I can describe what happened with Adam is that I have this...stuff. And I'm careful with it." She sighs.

"Adam," she says, "wanted my stuff."

Unlike Herd and Clay, Amy Brown disliked the course, and Weisberger, from the very start. "Right away," she says, "there was an initial gut feeling that made me uncomfortable." After talking to friends, Brown came to the conclusion that Weisberger was probing into topics that were better left unplumbed. "A lot of women in the class were writing about powerful personal issues," she says. "I knew that some of the women were writing about things like child molestation and rape.... He wasn't equipped to deal with that." Worse, she had the sense that he was motivated less by intellectual curiosity than by a kind of voyeuristic titillation. "He wanted students to floodgate all this vulnerable stuff into his lap, so that he could feel good," she says. "It seemed important to him to develop dependent relationships with women.... I think it was a kind of power trip for him."


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