Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Potatoes big and small

The academia story of the moment is about the professor who may or may not have been fired for giving an actor and known academic Renaissance Man a D for a class that the student-actor-writer-"Freaks-and-Geeks"-heartthrob may or may not have skipped for most of the semester. Let it be known, before I go any further, that I've never had JF in any of my classes, never so much as glimpsed him on the street, nor, to my knowledge, did he ever take a course in my department, or even in my school. I would estimate that maybe five of NYC's eight-plus million are in some way affiliated with the university in question, so it's not so surprising that our paths never crossed.

When I first read the story, in the Daily Mail of all places, I figured missed class is missed class, students who miss too much get bad grades, often according to departmental policy and independent of an individual instructor's feelings on the matter, and it seemed like there was more to the story that we weren't hearing. Again, I know as little about how the school in question operates as anyone, but... yes, it seemed like there's more going on, things of a small-potatoes-except-for-those-involved academic-politics nature, and the star's name has brought it all into the public eye. I couldn't begin to guess what's going on behind the scenes, let alone who's in the right.

The angle of this that interests me is that now another former professor of the actor in question is weighing in on Slate, in a way that kind of makes me lose faith in the entire enterprise. But, but, the second professor interjects, JF is so a good student! Now, as anyone who's ever been a student knows, sometimes you do well in one class but not another. Maybe some classes you find more engaging than others, for whatever reason, and in the others you're relatively zoned out. Maybe one class's requirements you find much simpler to meet than another's. Maybe you've been unfairly maligned by one instructor and unfairly lauded by another, who knows. The end result is that one instructor would say about you isn't what another would, which is why, come letter-of-recommendation time, you ask the instructors you impressed. It's not that individual students become radically different people in different classes, but it's also not as if there's this constant Student X, with identical performance across all courses. It would seem, then, that one instructor couldn't say much about how a student comes across in another instructor's class, in a different department, at a different institution. Yet that's precisely what Slate has published.

Isn't there supposed to be something like student-instructor confidentiality? Or is it totally OK to use a big-name student to garner sympathy for yourself, whether casting yourself as the adjunct crushed by the star-struck big-city university (when, if there is a larger story, there's no way that too will be brought to light), or the serious (if also pre-tenure) professor so devoted to his students that he dares take a stand and defend an especially famous one, and if this ends with his own name in a big mainstream publication, that's the price he must pay?


Miss Self-Important said...

"He was also reported to have been spotted asleep in the school library." Let's hope that staying awake in the library isn't a standard for legitimate scholarliness that's going to be universal. Everyone knows that the library doubles as a bedroom.

But the Yale English prof sounds like a totally self-promoting tool. Look at my reading lists! Look at them! We read Adorno! It's serious stuff up here in movie star academia!

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Yes and yes.

Neither prof comes across as terribly sympathetic. But the issue, I think, is less academia in general and more the subset of it made up of can't-do-but-teach wannabe movie stars or, more generously, people whose lives ended up going one way (some variant of Film Studies), but who at one point aspired for something far more glamorous. This isn't such an issue in, oh, any other field, and I'm sure isn't true of even most academic-types in those areas. (I never aspired to be Alfred Dreyfus.) But some? Probably.

In the case of the first prof, it could well be that he resented JF for his successes and - in an extreme version of the Stuyvesant gym teachers who enjoyed failing seniors and showing that if they wanted, they could stop anyone from getting a diploma and thus matriculating that fall at an elite college - wanted to show that he at least had power over JF in one arena. Meanwhile, the second prof... what you said.

Flavia said...

This story has blown up my Facebook feed, with any number of angry opinions being expressed--but the one I find most compelling is the argument that revealing anything about JF's career as a student, regardless of whether it's positive or negative, is a violation of FERPA.

And the consensus on that particular comments thread was that there should be an extra-special level of privacy granted to JF, above and beyond FERPA, so that no one anywhere ever has to hear anything about him again.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


FERPA came up on the Slate thread as well. There, people were claiming that if JF consented to the Yale prof's article, then there was no violation. Given that the Slate piece made JF out to be a saint, why wouldn't he have consented?

But I do like that consensus. I used to enjoy following the JF story when he was just the "Freaks and Geeks" bad boy turned academic, because that was an amusing turn of events. But once it became all these profs giving their personal impressions of him, no thanks.

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