By RUTH SHALIT
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."