Professor reflects on recent news story, nature of teaching profession

Sanjay Paul September 17, 2014 0

Homer read the headline “Idaho Professor Shoots Himself in the Foot” and was baffled. Professors have been known to make mistakes now and then. After all, thought Homer piously as he bit into a scone at the Blue Bean, to err was human. So why would a news website use an idiom to refer to some regrettable action by an academic?

What was this Idaho professor’s error that merited national attention? Had he, in a moment of madness, chosen to write with his own hands on a whiteboard instead of using the textbook publisher’s videos and Power Points in his class? Perhaps the forgetful academic had omitted to run his students’ papers through and had thus become complicit in their plagiarism? Or was he an instructor who had neglected to adequately stress the insufficiency of honesty in his first-year seminar?

In his own first-year seminar, Homer had asked his students to read an article on the difference between honesty and integrity. Stephen Carter, the author, used examples to argue that you could be honest and yet hold perfectly ghastly beliefs or engage in morally repugnant behavior. Honesty, in other words, might not be the best policy. It needed to be supplemented by a willingness to jettison discredited beliefs and to make deliberate choices to enhance others’ happiness rather than your own. Integrity, which was more than honesty, called for reflective thinking and an ability to subject one’s views to the harsh light of evidence.

Carter noted in his article that he had presented these arguments in a university graduation address. He was gratified, he wrote, by the reaction of his audience when he told them he was going to talk about integrity. They had apparently applauded his choice of topic, and he took the applause to mean that the students had been deprived of any discussion of integrity during their college years, and he would, at long last, be the gentle rain that quenched their thirst for such a discourse.

Homer was impressed. To garner the applause of college graduates during commencement is no mean feat. In his own experience, commencement speakers tended to elicit applause but twice: first, a somewhat perfunctory clapping when the speaker was introduced, and the next, a rather more enthusiastic outburst when the speaker sat down. Of course there were exceptions, such as Will Ferrell’s commencement speech at Harvard which touched upon the employment prospects of the graduates in the entertainment industry and drew great applause from the students and a muted one from the parents in attendance. But even Ferrell, gifted orator that he is, would have been hard-pressed to get the students to cheer a discussion about integrity on their graduation day. If  Carter was indeed able to achieve this feat, Homer thought, he should be on the short list for commencement speakers at any college.

Homer was still unclear about the reason for the news headline about the errant Idaho academic. What exactly had he done?

Turns out he had shot himself in the foot, quite literally. Idaho had recently allowed its citizens to bring concealed weapons on college campuses, and this particular worthy had, while making his sartorial decisions earlier in the day, decided to add a handgun to his ensemble.

He was in a classroom with some 20 students when, according to the local police department, the gun went off, and he shot himself in the foot. Fortunately, nobody else in the room was hurt. The professor himself escaped with a relatively minor injury, although, wondered Homer, how many of his colleagues would now be willing to sit near him at the next faculty meeting? Or even more significantly, how many would be willing to cross him in debate? Life at Idaho State University is not likely to be the same.

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