Laurentian University Professor Dr. Michael Persinger has been removed from his class for confirming that students understand that profane language is used and discussed as part of his class. That would seem a basic exercise of academic freedom since Persinger was seeking to use the language as part of his introductory psychology course. Yet, the university declared him in violation of workplace policies.
Persinger is a cognitive neuroscience researcher and university professor with an extensive list of publications, particularly in experimental work in the field of neurotheology.
Persinger has students sign a “Statement of Understanding” during the first lecture that lists a sample of words that might be used during class, and includes the F-word, homophobic slurs and offensive slang for genitalia. He explains that “One of my techniques is to expose people to all types of different words. Silly words, complex words, emotional words, profane words. Because they influence how you make decisions and how you think.” The words were used to show students how such words affect the brain’s rational processes. The use of the words would seem to serve an obvious purpose of warning students and gaining their consent in dealing with material or words that could be disturbing. More importantly, the language has a clear pedagogical purpose. You can read the whole “Statement of Understanding” here.
The Statement of Understanding (which appears under a “R” rating warning) includes the following statement:
Statement of Understanding
I understand that the Professor in this course, Dr. M. A. Persinger, employs techniques intended to challenge my beliefs and to develop my skills as an independent thinker who employs data and methods rather than social consensus or verbal emotionality for decision• making. I realize that the methods are not intended to embarrass or to demean but to encourage development of strategies so I will be minimally influenced by unpleasant experiences. If I require special needs I will not approach the professor in order to maintain my anonymity but instead arrange a convenient meeting with the professor and the Special Needs Office.
I understand that the language ( examples attached) employed within this course and the examinations (examples attached) will contain frank expressions and creative metaphors that reflect everyday life. This course will focus upon the practical and most important principles of human behavior. I realize that I can ask any question in this classroom and employ creative metaphors regardless if they are or are not “politically correct”. The course professor promises to teach me the most advanced methods of problem solving so I will not be duped by social-political agendas. The professor has informed me that if the course content might be offensive to me I. can transfer to another section as early as possible.
What follows is list of words that will be referenced in the course for the purposes of full disclosure.
None of that mattered in the end. Two months into the course, Persinger was called into the office of the university provost and told he would no longer be teaching the class. This action was done without any complaint for years of his using this practice. Moreover, students were given the option of changing to a different section of the course if they didn’t like the practice.
The university issued a statement that “It was recently brought to the Dean’s attention that a Statement of Understanding issued to students by Dr. Persinger was not in compliance with Laurentian University policies. Dr. Persinger was removed from teaching this course pending an investigation.”
I fail to see how this action does not violate core academic freedom principles, which are stated clearly in the Canadian Association of University Teachers:
CAUT actively defends academic freedom as the the right to teach, learn, study and publish free of orthodoxy or threat of reprisal and discrimination. Academic freedom includes the right to criticize the university and the right to participate in its governance. Tenure provides a foundation for academic freedom by ensuring that academic staff cannot be dismissed without just cause and rigorous due process.
The faculty appears to have rallied behind Persinger as it should. It should not stop with contesting this action but look closely at who took this action in the first place. If universities are going to micromanage such courses to sanitize material or teaching techniques, there is little hope for academic freedom. What is particularly chilling is that this action is occurring at a time when free speech is under attack on college and university campuses. From the growing free speech regulations on campuses to the demands for the expansion of hate crimes, we are seeing the early signs of the taste for censorship as well as double standards. The intrusion into the classroom takes these concerns to an even greater level.