On Ludlow, Northwestern, and the Ethics of Teaching

News:

Here are two articles from the Tribune and The Daily Northwestern discussing how Ludlow will no longer be teaching this semester, after students planned a walk-out of his class.

Also, here is a link to a Facebook event for the original walkout. It shows 500+ students “attending”, which I am guessing is a mixture of people who were planning on going and people who wanted to show support for the endeavor. You can read a statement of their protest there.

From that protest statement:

“We are upset that the University allows a professor who has been found in violation of this policy to i) continue his employment at Northwestern and ii) be in contact with undergraduate students, graduate students, and TAs.”

You can compare that to this quote from the Daily Northwestern article:

“[The administration] understood why people would be uncomfortable taking classes with Professor Ludlow,” Stephens [a student] said. “But they were also saying that’s not the view of all students. Some students want to take this particular class.”

Commentary:

Contra the viewpoint of the administration as expressed by Stephens in the quote above, this walk-out does not seem to be about individual students feeling “uncomfortable” taking a class with Ludlow.  Rather, as they put it in their protest statement, students are upset that the university’s would choose to have Ludlow retain his full teaching and mentoring duties with students even after he was found in violation of the sexual harassment policy.

With that in mind, I would venture that, as to the assessment of this walk-out, the good that comes from a large handful of students (let’s say 500) expressing that they want to feel safe with their teachers and mentors might outweigh, in the grand scheme of things, the good that comes from other students getting to take a really cool-sounding class that they are interested in.  Framing this as some students who didn’t want to take the class preventing all students from taking it, is, if not false, at least not the whole truth. The students walking out don’t need to represent the judgment of all students. They represent enough students who seriously doubt whether their university is acceptably prioritizing their safety and well-being.

I want to stress this point, because I think it can be somewhat easy to dismiss this reaction from students as them being overly sensitive or going overboard. I myself am still a student, so I can say with very fresh memory—being a student, while one of the best experiences of my life, it is also one of the most vulnerable experiences of my life. That applies to both graduate and undergraduate education, though differently in some aspects.  In both, I am putting my academic self-concept, my personal growth, and a whole lot of intellectual and interpersonal trust in my teachers and my mentors.  I am giving over parts of myself to them in the hope that I will emerge a better, wiser, and more knowledgeable person. The realization that I cannot trust a particular teacher or mentor to have my well-being in mind—to realize that they might not care whether I emerge from our interactions as a better, wiser, or more knowledgeable person—to worry whether they might use my eagerness and my trust for some end that I do not endorse—is a rather devastating experience. That has happened to me three times in my career as a student, and I can recall each incident from high school onwards with vivid clarity. (And none of them ever reached the level of fearing sexual advances.) Perhaps I was hit extra hard by these experiences because I so highly value my academic self-concept; but, I would imagine that in a university setting, I am probably not so much of an outlier.

I find it weird and worrisome that philosophy discusses the ethics of being a doctor, a businessperson, a scientist, and an engineer, but not the ethics of being a teacher. For a group of people who so highly value reflection and introspection, who are perfectly fine using “I” in our papers, we philosophers bizarrely do not seem that collectively interested in looking at ourselves as teachers and what it means to be an intellectual mentor to someone—which is sort of the backbone of our profession, yes?
*I may have to close comments later today, as I will be traveling, but I will leave them open as long as I can find the time to moderate.

 

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