Inappropriate 5/8/20

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

The pandemic has wreaked havoc. There’s just no two ways about that. While people are struggling with being unable to work, teaching children at home, loss income and insurance the hardships have rippled throughout or society. Higher education is not without its challenges as well.

While faculty have been able to keep their jobs and income, most universities and colleges across the nation have closed their campuses and transitioned to online courses for the remainder of the spring semester (which is nearing completion now). It’s unclear when campuses will physically open; I know that my college has offered me a contract for the summer, starting mid-June, that was originally scheduled to be on campus (in three-hour lecture blocks) but is now online only.

Speaking with a friend of mine, she was telling me how surprised she was to discover how much more difficult it is to teach online. Conceptually one might think it would be the other way around; at home you can be more comfortable, have the cat on your lap and just talk, but the reality is that there is a myriad of problems that can arise when teaching online that you just don’t face when providing in-person lectures. One professor in Florida learned this the hard way.

Here is the story as I understand it. Apparently, a non-tenured professor was teaching his course from home via videoconferencing. Using the software, he shared his screen to show the students a website and had a browser tab to a pornographic site open in a background page on the browser. The pornographic site was not any form of illegal pornography based on the title on the tab but was a legal fetish site. Let’s be clear about this; you could read enough of the page title to deduce that it was a porn site, but he did not show the page and never shared pornographic material with the class. Apparently unaware of the gaffe he went on with the lecture as per usual. A student noticed the name on the browser tab, and took a photo of it, sharing it on their social media site as a humorous oversight from the professor. This student later told reporters that the intention was never to get the professor in trouble, and in fact expressed remorse at the repercussions that resulted.

Word of the incident reached the ear of the administration of the institution who responded by firing the professor without even giving him the opportunity to finish out the year. The institution of course cannot legally discuss the details of the dismissal but no doubt they would say it was for violation of community standards, but today there is a debate as to whether or not this is appropriate or an overreaction by the institution.

The first thought might be that using university equipment to view pornography, of which there is little argument of the university action, however, this was most likely not a university computer. Every college I’ve worked for provide computers to faculty, but always desktops. I’ve never known of a campus that provides laptops or tablets to faculty (including the campus I worked at for a decade that had an initiative to get tablets in the hands of every student). Because this professor was teaching from home, it’s highly likely that the computer was personal equipment the professor had purchased on his own that he was using to teach their course.

So, what we have is a professor with a living situation of which we know nothing that had a very common practice of viewing legal pornography who made a mistake in a new and uncomfortable teaching format. This is not the place to argue for or against the ethics of pornography, but I think everybody would agree that it is pervasive throughout our society. But there is one more caveat I’ve intentionally left out until now. The “fetish” part of the site is that it, apparently, had the focus of female college students.

This came as a surprise and make some of the female students uncomfortable, wondering if, in fact, he thought about them in this way. If I were to place a bet on how the administration got word of the incident, it would be through this particular avenue. I understand this; students should not be made to feel uncomfortable based on their gender or looks, but on the flip side of this coin, these students were all rather surprised to discover that this was his fetish. This to me says that he had, until this error, kept his feelings to himself in his interactions with students.

The reality is that we are, most of us, human. We often find others attractive, and probably more often than not in circumstances that warrant keeping such feelings to ourselves. Many years after graduating from college I was told that apparently, I had caught the eye of one of my male professors, a professor I didn’t even realize was homosexual. I also know that periodically, in my youth, as professor I would become the object of attraction for some of my students. I was always impressed with students who had the courage to speak with me of their attraction for me, and was always careful to point out that it would be inappropriate for me to comment, one way or the other, if the feelings were reciprocated. Then it became incumbent, not just upon me but also the student, to continue on in a professional manner. In a remarkably short period of time, these attractions would simply become background noise and would no longer affect our working relationship.

So, the question becomes if this professor deserved to be let go because students came to recognize that he might be hiding attraction for them because of a mistake in a teaching manner in which he is unfamiliar because of the pandemic. I would have thought that a formal apology from the faculty to the students would have sufficed. I’m sure that the university is hoping to avoid exposure to the media, but sadly their actions have sparked far more discussion than I think they would have liked. The students for the last week or two of classes now have to adjust to a new professor which is highly stressful as well, so now the entire class is under a new stress as a result.

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