William S. Penn of Michigan State University Teaches Important Lessons To College Students
It's September, and that means young "adults" across the nation have returned to college, ready to learn about whatever they want and take advantage of amazingly broad and deep resources and sleep in and loaf and have indiscriminate sex and set couches on fire. The little shits.
College students will learn, and in many cases fail to learn, an amazing array of lessons. Some lessons might not be what their professors intended. Take the lesson taught by William S. Penn, a Professor of Creative Writing at Michigan State University.
Professor Penn became infamous amongst conservative sites yesterday when one of his students leaked a video of a political harangue to his class to the site Campus Reform. The longer video is here. On the video, Professor Penn ridicules Mitt Romney and Ann Romney, criticizes Republicans (whom he describes as dead white people or dying white people), argues that voter ID laws constitute voter suppression aimed at minorities, and becomes upset with a student he says is "frowning."
The video plays perfectly into modern conservative narratives — "liberal professor is an unbalanced ideologue!" — and so you'll hear a lot about it from the right over the next weeks and months.
But I think students should see this as a learning experience.
When I view the video, I see a professor who is quite accomplished in his field acting like an ass. His discourse isn't embarrassing because it is "liberal" or "anti-Republican." It's embarrassing because it demonstrates the level of discourse you'd expect from YouTUbe comments. There are important discussions to be had about voter ID laws and the motives behind them and their impact on the balance of political power. There are criticisms to be offered of the policies of the Republican party. One could easily disagree with some things Ann Romney did or said. It's easy to imagine how a professor could create a lesson on these subjects that teaches something of value to college students, that challenges them, that informs them. This isn't such a lesson. It's trivial and banal, the self-indulgent stream-of-consciousness sniping of someone with a captive audience and a position of power. This is a sad old man masturbating in public.
Do you think I am wrong? I invite you to watch the video and tell me why the level of discourse Professor Penn offered is worth the time of the assembled students. Explain to me what students learn from a professor theatrically dwelling on the possibility Ann Romney could have been First Lady ten months after her husband lost the election. No: this is crap, and it's easy to imagine it being tweaked a bit to be crap directed the other way (observe the frothing hatred of Michelle Obama from some on the right and imagine it being substituted, for instance).
You could find a dozen websites offering more trenchant progressive political analysis in five minutes.
Yet Professor Penn's lesson has value to his students. They can learn the following important things:
1. In the course of your life, people with power will act badly with impunity.
2. People with power over you will use that power to indulge themselves in droning, whether or not their droning offers any value.
3. People can be tremendously talented and knowledgeable about Subject X and be useless louts about Subject Y. Often they'll want to talk about Subject Y.
4. People think others want to hear their opinions about politics, and think their opinions about politics are insightful.
5. A significant part of developing as an adult is deciding how you will deal with points 1 – 4.
6. Huge amounts of government money pay for absolute shit.
7. People who nominally favor freedom of expression will drop it like a hot coal when their political biases are aroused. Case in point: many angry conservative people saying that Professor Penn should be fired for a banal political rant, even though he's a professor at a state university enjoying First Amendment protections that are rather broad. Check the comments on the sites complaining about Professor Penn if you don't believe me.
I submit those are all valuable lessons.
I think that it's pathetic that these students are paying to hear Professor Penn indulge himself like that even for ten minutes. I think his calling out a student in class for seeming to disagree displays low character and an excellent reason to avoid his class. But I don't see anything that merits firing from his position at a public institution, and I am not enthused about a system in which public universities will be policed for insipid partisanship by other partisans.
But how enthusiastic do you suppose Professor Penn's students are about faculty free speech rights after sitting through that?
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