As the tenure committee prepared to meet, McArthur sent summaries of the
student letters to Weisberger, adding that the young professor was being
offered an "unprecedented opportunity to have these summaries prior
to your department tenure committee's deliberations." Attempting to
rebut the students' charges, Weisberger did the best he could. "I categorically
deny the allegation that I pressured students to reveal details about their
personal lives, as well as the insinuations of voyeurism and lurid fascination,"
he wrote to members of the committee. "At no time during my years at
Colby have I ever abused my position as a professor."
To be sure, none of this is to exonerate Weisbergerto see him, as he appears to see himself, as a blameless victim of this shrill campus melodrama. After all, he should have known that in today's charged climate, entangling himself with the personal secrets of female students was a volatileand potentially foolhardything to do as a teacher. Even so, Colby's actions seem excessively punitive. Colby officials could have undertaken an investigation into Geier's sexual-harassment charge, as required by the faculty handbook. They could have attempted to mediate informally the more tentative complaints about teaching methods. Such measures, of course, presume a modicum of good faith toward an embattled faculty member, something that seems to have been missing in this case.
COLBY'S CRUDE response to Weisberger's alleged transgressions seems particularly unfortunate, considering that the sort of complaints he generated are far from uncommon on college campuses. In a recent article in the journal Teaching Sociology titled "When the Personal Becomes Problematic," Purdue University sociologist Elizabeth Grauerholz and her student Stacey Capenhaver explore the ethics of using teaching methods that "rely on students' own life experiences and often involve a high degree of self-disclosure." Such methods, Grauerholz and Capenhaver write, are not only crucial to the formation of what C. Wright Mills calls "the sociological imagination" but can have therapeutic benefits as well, reinforcing "the validity of personal experience" and enabling some students to "deal with personal victimization which they had denied."
But there's a hitch. "If we encourage students to think about the connections between their personal lives and the world around thema major goal of sociological teachingwe are putting some students at risk," write the authors. "We may be doing untold damage to our students by requiring or encouraging them to reveal difficult, perhaps traumatic, details of their lives in class assignments or classroom projects." In the article, Grauerholz offers up her own experience as an object lesson. During a seminar she taught titled "Gender Violence," she required Capenhaver and other students to write an autobiographical journal in which they explored the impact of violence on their lives. The goal "was to empower...students, as they gained knowledge of themselves and the social forces affecting their lives." But things didn't quite work out as planned.
Grauerholz "didn't learn that any students had problems with the assignment until after she collected the autobiographies," at which point "three students felt comfortable enough to write notes to me." One student wrote, "I felt somewhat exploited and exposed by this paper." Another ventured that "assigning a grade to a person's feelings and life experiences is difficult at best." Grauerholz was surprised by the response. "I suppose I thought, naively, that if anyone had a problem with any assignment, they would be able to talk about it with me and that we would work out a mutually agreeable solution." She realizes now, she writes, that such an assumption was "unrealistic in a relationship in which the power difference is as great as that between professor and student."
In a final comment, Capenhaver adds a note of special caution for male instructors, urging them to consider how other variables, "such as gender," might "affect the power relation between student and professor." When a female student is required by a male instructor to write anything about her personal life, Capenhaver writes, she "is surrendering even more control to someone who already has emotional and social power over her.... Instructors could use knowledge about a student's past to identify the most vulnerable female students, or possibly could use such information to blackmail or sexually harass a student."
In the aftermath of the Weisberger case, Grauerholz and Capenhaver's cautionary tale has particular resonance for Colby faculty. "When students start talking about their personal lives, they're talking about issues that you're not prepared or trained to handle," says one male professor. "You should stay the hell away from it. You'd have to be a fool after what happened to Adam." This professor, a teacher of foreign language, says he recently asked students in his intro class to compose a letter in the foreign language. One student chose to write a letter to her mother. "In terms of technique and sentence structure, the letter was well written," says the professor. "In my conference with her, my only criticism was: `This doesn't read like a letter from a daughter to her mother. This is like a letter you would write to your accountant.'" The student began to weep. "That is my relationship to my mother," she told him.
It was then, says the professor, that he realized, "I'm out of my depth. I don't know what I'm doing here. And that's when I said, forget it. I'm not prepared to play with this." From that point on, he says, when students suggest that they write something involving their personal life, "I say no."
Other professors, particularly women, are still willing to experimentif they forgo the kind of abrasive approach that was Weisberger's stock-in-trade. Phyllis Mannocchi, a fifty-two-year-old English professor, teaches a popular course called "Passionate Expression," focusing primarily on sexuality. "I've developed a kind of writing assignment that is both personal and analytical," Mannocchi says. "I call them `Reflections.' Students do things like describe what is erotic.... I don't think you can do that in the context of a formal essay." Mannocchi's teaching presumes an impressive level of student trust. A few years ago, one of Mannocchi's students chose to perform a scene from Tony Kushner's play, Angels in America. "It was a nude scene," she saysthough underwear was worn. "Now, I mean, I didn't broadcast that all over campus. But that happened. I told students they didn't have to come to class if they didn't want to. But why am I allowed to do that?" Mannocchi laughs nervously. "I don't know," she says.
Told of Weisberger's inclination to "challenge" or criticize student papers, Mannocchi recoils in horror. "I always use the voice of my shrink," she says. "She never would have said, Well, what about your mother? It's all about nudging along responses rather than directing them." Indeed, far from seeking to unsettle or discomfit students, Mannocchi soothes them. "Because I came through the women's movement, and really through a lot of consciousness raising, I'm very careful about the comments I make," she says. "I help students to see their own experience. I don't judge the way they've expressed it. My comments are always as an equal."
Of course, Mannocchi is not quite her students' equal; after she comments on students' papers, she presumably goes on to grade them. But there, too, Mannocchi is not out to rock the boat. "I judge students holistically, on all their work in the semester," she says. "Somehow, we come to an agreement about grades. Students write or talk to me about what they feel they deserve." Mannocchi leans forward in her chair and smiles. "Usually," she says, "I'm very generous."
Adam Weisberger, of course, thought he was being generous as well. Within the precincts of his classroom, students were urged to view Hegel's master-slave dialectic not only as an object of scholarly examination but as a central trope of their interactions. "One of the things you can do with the master-slave relationship," Weisberger says, "is to see how it might be played out in the context of student and professor. Hegel writes that the slave has repressed knowledge about the nature of inequality, by virtue of having to act in service to the master.... There are some things a student knows which the teacher is himself unconscious of." For this reason, Weisberger admits, "the students who rose up against me were acting out some of the very things I wanted them to understand."
But while applauding their cheekiness, Weisberger stops well short of endorsing the students' uprising. "I used to say in the course that there were two destructive tendencies a student could bring into it: blind obedience and blind rebellion," Weisberger says. "Sometimes the reaction against the way you were conditioned to respond to authority can be just as blind as the original conditioning." The first-year law student sighs. "Especially," he adds, "when you have people reinforcing you."
In the end, Weisberger's chief regret is not that his students learned the material all too well but that they didn't learn it well enough: "They were using Hegel...to fight something oppressive. But that's not who I am! It was a great delusion, a massive displacement." What the students failed to understand, Weisberger says, is that there were two categories of masters at Colby. "Untenured professors are the lower masters," he says. "The upper masters are tenured faculty and administration."
Weisberger grows agitated. "Don't you see?" he asks. "The upper masters instrumentalized the discontent of the student slaves to impose social control on a recalcitrant member of the lower category of master. That's what happened here. The students thought they were freeing themselves. They weren't freeing themselves. They were running into the arms of their masters! You think the administrators of Colby College are more likely to want to see you liberate yourself?"
In any case, no one associated with the Weisberger affair is likely to find liberation any time soon. "Colby wanted to get rid of a problem in the least costly way," Weisberger explains. "They miscalculated. Now it's going to cost them. It's going to cost them a lot of money. It's going to cost them faculty morale. It's going to tarnish their reputation."
For the first time all day, Adam Weisberger smiles.
Ruth Shalit is an associate editor at The New Republic.