What I gleaned from the start of the semester faculty meetings.

Note that “gleaned” might suggest more in the way justified true belief than I actually acquired; at least some of these bullet points have all the tannins you’d expect from tea leaves. Also, there’s maybe a little sarcasm, but I’m trying to get most of it out of my system before my first class meeting tomorrow. You have been warned.

Anyway, in no particular order:

  • Our university president and the governor of our state are super-excited about MOOCs. They’re the wave of the higher ed future, y’all! And that excitement extends to entering a partnership wherein faculty at our university will develop MOOCs and the university will pocket a whopping 51% of the proceeds! The other 49% of the proceeds will go to a private company that will do … something to add value to what our faculty build. No reason at all for California taxpayers to worry that this amounts to converting public funds to private profits!
  • Also, no need to worry that the University of California’s bold initiatives MOOCward in UC Online have been much less successful than hoped. Because the California State University system will be able to figure it out!
  • Some faculty with an awareness of history pointed noted that, in the 1950s, precisely the same bold future of revolutionizing college education and broadening access to it was predicted, only with television as the delivery method. Remember how classroom instruction at colleges and universities had totally disappeared by the end of that decade? And this is why history departments must be phased out immediately!
  • So, our campus is phasing in its fourth “Learning Management System” (with which we develop and deliver content and interaction with students online) in 10 years. Faculty are scrambling to work out kludges to get the functionality with the new system that they had (but will be losing) with the old system. It combines all the hassle of a new prep with none of the intellectual thrill of a new prep. Bonus: Owing to the partnership with Udacity to develop and deliver MOOCs, there is absolutely no guarantee that the campus won’t end up ditching this new LMS in favor of a (proprietary) LMS that Udacity prefers (and could yank out from under us in the event that the partnership founders). This is awesome incentive for those who have never used online tools in their pedagogy to start!
  • Faculty can reach a stage where they are so battered by directives from administrative levels beyond their department that they will hear their chair’s proclamation “We will be doing [X] over my dead body” and ask “When must we implement [X]?” (I assure you, these are faculty who sincerely desire their chair’s continued health and well-being.)
  • Administrators who think that they can appease disgruntled factions of the administrative units they oversee by making sure those factions are heavily represented on key committees and then listening to their concerns sometimes discover that listening to those concerns is not sufficient to appease the disgruntled factions.
  • Indeed, sometimes the disgruntled factions will make and distribute hundreds of fliers trying to rally the support of the less-disgruntled factions of their administrative units, including agitating for what could maybe shape up to be a coup against the administrators who listened to grievances but did not acquiesce to demands.
  • Such attempts to rally support from colleagues might be more successful if they showed awareness of the real challenges those less-disgruntled factions of the administrative units face, and especially of ways giving the disgruntled faction everything it wants might impact the resources and effective functioning of the less-disgruntled factions.
  • I have what feels like a memory that at least one of the first few start-of-semester faculty meetings early in my career here saw faculty generally gruntled. It’s possible that this is baseless nostalgia, though.
  • You know what we hear that area employers are looking for in recent graduates? Good critical thinking skills. You know what core component of our General Education package the powers that be are seriously considering eliminating? Critical thinking! Of course, the proposal on the table is to fold the existing critical thinking requirement into another required course (the second semester freshman composition class), but some of us are fairly certain that student papers with solid mechanics but lacking critical thinking are going to end up being a horror show to grade.

I hope the rest of you in academia are experiencing a smooth start (or continuation, as the cas may be) to your term.

2012 in review: 12 months of Adventures in Ethics and Science.

I thought I was too late for the 2012 edition of the year-in-review meme (for which DrugMonkey has been keeping the flame alive), but Pascale, and ProflikeSubstance, and Bashir, and Dr. Becca all done did it too, so who am I to resist it?

The rules: Go to your blog’s archives. For each month of 2012, link the first post, and follow it with the first sentence of that post. (Including the title of the post is totally optional; my sense is sometimes it’s more fun to stare at the first sentence for a while to try to come up with a hypothesis about what the post was about without a title there to give it away.)

If you have a blog and haven’t done this one yet yourself, consider yourself tagged! (That will teach you to go reading meme-ish blog posts!)

January: Happy New Year! As I type this post, only 18 days remain until the official start of ScienceOnline 2012, which means soon it will be time to pack.

February: Or, maybe my mother did tell me about this particular reason to “clean up” images from deep space and I just wasn’t paying attention?

March: Apropos of the discussion here, I offer some general thoughts on pursuing partner, career, family, or other aims one deems important:

April: Do you have an ethical dilemma?

May: I have long maintained that bodies are suboptimal vehicles with which to schlep minds around.

June: Two Fridays ago, I was poised to jump into what I hoped would be a very productive summer.

July: Overheard from the backseat of the Free-Ride hoopty as we were driving the Free-Ride offspring home from a visit to the Grandparents Who Lurk But Seldom Comment:

August: The Fall semester is now upon us, in much the same way you might imagine a ton of bricks or a locomotive would be upon us.

September: At my fair university, we are in the brief window of time between “drop day” (the date by which students need to drop a course if they don’t want it to be listed on their transcript with a W, for “withdraw,” next to it) and the “late add” deadline (after which, for all intents and purposes, you can’t add a class).

October: On the Twitters, becca pointed me to this post which raises an interesting evaluative question:

November: We’re coming into the home stretch of our annual DonorsChoose Science Bloggers for Students drive:

December: It has been eleven years since I was last on the market for an academic job, and about six years (if I’m remembering correctly) since I was last on a search committee working to fill a tenure-track position in my department.

Please don’t beg me for mercy (a professorial rant).

I’m starting to twig to the fact that a small but significant portion of my students has no idea whatsoever as to what my motivations might be for going into the line of work I have gone into (i.e., being a philosophy professor at a teaching-focused public university). And indeed, it’s possible that my own motivations may not be totally transparent even to myself. (Life is, after all, full of mystery.)

But, I can state for the record, with absolute certainty, that I did not go into the professorial biz so that people could beg me for mercy.

Seriously, I didn’t.

I recognize that people learn differently. I understand that some people are good at mastering material before a midterm, while others only really understand the material after they’ve flubbed it on the midterm. You know what? As long as they can demonstrate that you understand it by the final, I’m happy (which is why I give positive weight to improvement when I assign final grades). If we could engage in this teaching-and-learning transaction without grades, it would make me happier than you can imagine — even if it meant that I had to write evaluative letters for 150 students each semester. I know that the grading pen can make me appear permanently judgmental, but the judgments I make are focused on how well my students demonstrate their understanding of the material (including how well they can identify and explain what it is they don’t quite get yet, since this seems to be an important stop on the way to getting it).

I do not look at my students and see their midterm scores. Neither do I believe that one’s grades in my class are a reliable proxy for who’s a good person.

That said, since grades are part of the landscape, there are some basic expectations about academic integrity in play.

One is that students do their own thinking and writing. Connected to that is the expectation that if they draw on the words or ideas of others, they will properly cite the source of those words and/or ideas. Moreover, if they enter into an explicit agreement that they will only use certain sources for particular assignments, I expect them to abide by that agreement — because I think it’s fair to take adults (including the adults who are my students) at their word.

And, when I discover students violating basic rules of academic integrity (and especially when they violate explicit agreements about what is in-bounds and what is out-of-bounds), they receive an F for the course and a referral to the Office of Student Conduct and Ethical Development. This is exactly the outcome promised in my syllabus, and in the explicit agreements I secure from my students about ground rules. My students should be able to take me at my word, too.

Hypothetically, if you’re caught transgressing the rules and if I deliver precisely the consequence promised for that kind of transgression, pestering me to not deliver on the promise is not a good call.

Would it be just for me to make an exception to the rule just for you when your classmates have, variously, made the decision (possibly influenced in part by the promises embodied in my academic integrity policy) to live within the rules, or have been caught transgressing the rules and delivered the promised consequences? (Especially in the context of an ethics class, I expect you to have given a question like this serious thought.)

In the case that I were to give in to your demands that I treat your cheating as something other than cheating, what kind of obligations do you suppose it would place on me with regards to other students caught doing the same thing, now or in the future? What kind of obligations do you suppose it would place on me with regard to students who do not cheat? How would you suggest I update the language in my syllabus to reflect the kind of action you would like me to take on your behalf?

I expect you to be familiar with university policies on plagiarism, cheating, and other forms of academic dishonesty, but if you run afoul of the rules and complain enough, we’ll pretend it never happened. Plagiarism or cheating will result in a failing grade in this course, and offenders may be subject to further administrative sanctions, but if you’re caught and you make a huge deal about what a bad outcome this will be for you, I will totally ignore the requirement that I report all infractions to the Office of Student Conduct and Ethical Development.

I don’t see that happening.

I guess my hypothetical cheater-who-doesn’t-want-to-accept-the-consequences has already shown significant disrespect for our teaching-and-learning transaction by opting to cheat (rather than, say, opting to do the assignments according to the rules and learning something by so doing), and significant disrespect for my intelligence (in assuming that I am unable to detect blatant cheating when it’s right in front of me).

But I’m also really bothered by the premise that I have the life and death power over the hypothetical cheater, to be cruel and crush a young life or to be merciful and let the hypothetical cheater go on to do many good things. That seems to disrespect the student’s role in our teaching-and-learning transaction. I have the power to explain expectations clearly. I don’t have the power to keep students from making bad calls, nor to go back in time and undo bad decisions for them. I don’t want that kind of power.

The power I’m interested in is power to communicate ideas clearly, to give students feedback that helps them develop their competencies in reading and writing and thinking and argumentation, to convey to students what’s interesting or important about the issues and ideas we discuss. This is a kind of power that can change lives (for the better, I hope), but whose exercise lets me interact with my students as autonomous adults rather than as petitioners begging to be excused from the consequences their own choices have wrought.

Your consequentialist argument for cheating doesn’t make what you did not-cheating.

I’m willing to accept that not every instance of cheating is necessarily clear cut — that there may be some iffy choices that have not been explicitly identified as out-of-bounds.

However, I keep running into a situation that is quite different, where an explicit rule has clearly been broken* and yet, the person who has been caught breaking it tries to persuade me not to impose the promised penalty for breaking this rule** because the imposition of that penalty will lead to other bad consequences for the person who broke the rule that this person really, really doesn’t want to deal with.

And look, I understand not wanting to live with the bad consequences of a choice. But the very fact that X will bring additional bad consequences for you does not mean that X was not cheating.

Those additional bad consequences from being caught cheating should maybe have been reason enough to try to achieve your desired ends without violating the agreed upon rules. Gambling on achieving those ends by cheating only works if you get away with the cheating. When you don’t, articulating all the reasons that being caught cheating is going to mess you up does not make what you did something other than cheating.

* For example, “Here are the resources you may consult to complete this assignment and all other resources are forbidden,” or “You must properly cite the resources you used in completing this assignment.” In practices, violations of the first rule here are always accompanied by violations of the second (since otherwise, you’d be acknowledging that you used a source you were not allowed to use).

** For example, if you violated the agreed upon rules, you fail the course. (Here, the students must explicitly affirm that they understand the rules and will abide by them at the beginning of the course.)

The mass shootings are reported, but not every near miss is.

Let me give you a little context on my reaction to the murders in Newtown, Connecticut.

This kind of shooting puts me on edge. Not just because I watched a major one unfold on TV when I was pregnant with my first child. Not just because when the big school shooting before that happened, one of my fellow grad students told me, “That’s where I’m from.” Not just because someone I’ve known since I was a kid is married to a survivor of another. Not just because I freaked out waiting to get word about whether two of my friends from grad school were safe when the university that hired them became the site of another mass killing.

Although all of that, surely, would have been enough.

No, this kind of news puts me right on the edge because of a particular day I had a few years ago.

One of the students in our department left a note on the whiteboard in our conference room that was not quite right. In fact, one of the other students conveyed concern about this note, as it kind of sounded like an expression of intent to return to the department with a gun to “solve” a lot of “problems”. The student who raised these concerns was very apologetic — almost sheepish — in doing so, but there were already concerns about this student. And there was very good reason to believe this student had access to a gun. So, our department chair called campus police to ask what we should do, and found out that the “shooter on campus” drill was scheduled for the very next day which meant they hadn’t yet figured out what the standard response to this kind of threat was going to be. So, probably it would be best for everyone in the department to pack up for the day and go home.

At my department chair’s urging, I packed up and went home. I walked to the on-site after school program where my kids were at our elementary school, signed them out and, on the walk home, asked them how their school day was. They proceeded to tell me what their teachers had done with their classes while the school was on lockdown.

While the school was on lockdown.

Because that very day, when a student in my department at my university was maybe considering coming back with a gun to shoot at us, my kids’ elementary school was locked down because someone with a gun was on its campus. As it turned out, he wasn’t there to shoot students, teachers, or staff — he was merely cutting across campus with a gun on his way to a nearby apartment complex, where he went on to murder his spouse and a neighbor.

So when experts talk about how rare mass shootings, especially mass shootings at schools, are in the grand scheme of things, I feel the need to point out that they are not nearly rare enough. It is easy enough for people with guns to get in shooting distance of me and my kids that I got to experience two near misses in the same damn day.

This suggests to me an overabundance of access to weaponry combined with a remarkable lack of imagination about other ways to deal with frustrations of various sorts. That’s a problem that we really need to fix, and soon.

(Also, read Stephanie’s post on peculiar problems with U.S. gun culture that it’s time to take on.)

Not answering the question.

Today there was another mass shooting at a school.

I am beyond tired of mass shootings at schools. Not just because I have kids in school, not just because I spent 26+ years of my own life as a student, not just because I work at a school (which is a big part of what a university really is). Schools are where people come to learn, to build skills, to find out who they are or who they want to be.

Schools are supposed to be safe.

As I was driving home from my school, I was listening to experts being asked on the radio how a school shooting like the one today could happen. Obviously, the follow-up question would be something along the lines of how, knowing what causes it, could we prevent more shootings like this one?

And the experts, down the line, said that really, this is an extremely rare event. Mostly, this kind of thing doesn’t happen.

Which is probably true, but that wasn’t the question.

Rare or not, this kind of event is utterly devastating. Do you know what caused it, or what contributed to it? Or is it an event for which you have just as little knowledge about causes, and effective prevention, as the rest of us?

The experts were also asked how parents should discuss this news with their kids. Here too, down the line, they said that parents should reassure kids that schools are very safe places.

But here again, that’s not really the question our kids are asking when we talk about people showing up at a school with guns and killing lots of people.

What they want to know is, “Can you keep me safe? Can you promise that no one will show up at my school and do something like this?”

As much as we want to tell them yes, I don’t think we can, not without lying. If there’s a way to keep this promise, I’m not sure we know enough to do it. And maybe, even if we knew all there was to know about the causes, we still couldn’t keep these shootings from happening.

That’s a bitter pill to swallow, but if that’s how the landscape looks to the people who study mass shootings, I kind of wish they’d tell us that rather than repeating how safe schools are.

Another ponderable: Are public elementary schools becoming less secular?

Way back in the last millennium, when I was in a public elementary school in northern New Jersey (approximately 1974-1980), our school had holiday-themed classroom activities and music performances that were mostly secular. Snowmen and sleigh rides and reindeer featured heavily, and for every song or activity that made explicit mention of Christmas, there would be one that made explicit mention of Hanukkah (you know, for balance). It was pretty clear to us students, though, that serious effort was being made to keep holiday-themed stuff at our elementary school as secular as possible … because that’s what was appropriate in a public school (where kids had to be there whether or not they worshipped in a particular way, or at all).

More recently (approximately 2004-present), I have been the parent of students in a public elementary school in northern California where the holiday-themed classroom activities and music performances have been decidedly less secular. There has been an overabundance of straightforward Christmas carols (complete with verses with religious content), weak attempts to recognize the existence of Hanukkah by singing that one dreidel song, and no apparent effort to recognize the existence of (let alone incorporate in activities, performances, or celebrations) the seasonal celebrations of other religious traditions (e.g., Diwali). And, this convergence of “winter holidays” towards Christmas in the public elementary school has been happening despite a significant population of kids in the classroom who are not Christian, nor Jewish, nor Muslim.

All this leaves me wondering: Were serious efforts to keep religion from encroaching on our public school activities an East Coast Thing? Were they a late 20th Century thing? How is it that the adults running things in a significantly less diverse school district some 40 years ago were better at acknowledging that their student population might not all believe the same thing or partake of the same religious or cultural traditions than are the adults running things in our wildly diverse school district here in California?

Honestly, it’s all pretty weird, and I’d like to understand the source of this receding commitment to secularism better.

Ponderable: Academic hiring and interviewing.

It has been eleven years since I was last on the market for an academic job, and about six years (if I’m remembering correctly) since I was last on a search committee working to fill a tenure-track position in my department. Among other things, this means that I can consider the recent discussion of “conference interviews” at The Philosophy Smoker with something approaching “distance”.

However, as I’m well aware, distance is not the same as objectivity, and anyway objectivity is not the kind of thing you can achieve solo, so I’m going to do a little thinking out loud on the screen in the hopes that you all may chime in.

The nub of the issue is how search committees in philosophy (and in at least some other academic disciplines) use preliminary interviews (typically 30 to 60 minutes in length) to winnow their “best” applicants for a position (as judged on the basis of writing samples, publication records, letters of recommendation, transcripts, teaching evaluations, and other written materials) down to the finalists, the number of which must be small enough that you can reasonably afford to bring them out for campus interviews.

The winnowing down is crucial. From more than a hundred applications, a search committee can usually reach some substantial agreement on maybe twenty candidates whose application materials suggest the right combination of skills (in teaching and research, and maybe also skills that will be helpful in “service” to the department, the institution, and the academic discipline) and “fit” with the needs of the department (as far as teaching, advising students, and also creating a vibrant community in which colleagues have the potential for fruitful collaborations close at hand).

But even if we could afford to fly out 15 or 20 candidates for campus interviews (which typically run a day or two, which means we’d also be paying for food and lodging for the candidates), it would literally break our semester to interview so many. These interviews, after all, include seminars in which the candidates make a research presentation, teaching demonstrations (hosted in one of our existing classes, with actual students in attendance as well as search committee members observing), meetings with individual faculty members, meetings with deans, and a long interview with the whole search committee. This is hard enough to squeeze into your semester with only five candidates.

So, the standard procedure has been to conduct preliminary interviews of shorter duration with the 20 or so candidates who make the first cut at the Eastern Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Association. For departments like mine, these interviews happen at a table in a ballroom designated for this purpose. Departments that have a bit more money will rent a suite at the conference hotel and conduct the interviews there, with a bit less background noise.

Job candidates pretty much hate this set up. The conference falls during winter holidays (December 26-30 or so), which means travel is more expensive than it might be some other time of year. Search committees sometimes don’t decide who they want to interview at the convention until quite late in the game, which means candidates may not hear that a department would like to interview them until maybe a week before the conference starts (boosting the price of those plane tickets even more, or making you gamble by buying a plane ticket in advance of having any interviews scheduled). Even at conference rates, the hotel rooms are expensive. Occasionally, winter storms create problems for candidates and search committee members try to get to, or to flee from, the conference. Flu season piles on.

Search committee members are not wild about the logistics of traveling to the convention for the interviews, either. However, they feel like the conference interviews provide vital information in working out which of the top 20 or so candidates are the most likely to “fit” what the department wants and needs.

But this impression is precisely what is in question.

It has been pointed out (e.g., by Gilbert Harman, referencing research in social psychology) that interviews of the sort philosophy search committees use to winnow down the field add noise to the decision process rather than introducing reliable information beyond what is available in other application materials. This is not to say that search committees don’t believe that their 30 or 60 minutes talking with candidates tells them something useful. But this belief, however strong, is unwarranted. The search committee might as well push itself to identify the top five candidates on the basis of the application materials alone, or, if that’s not possible, randomly pick five of the top twenty for campus interviews.*

Of course, search committees seem not to be in a great hurry to abandon conference interviews, at least in philosophy. My (brief) experience on the scientific job market didn’t include conference job interviews per se, but I did have preliminary interviews of very much the same nature and duration with some private sector companies and national labs — which is to say, I don’t think it’s just philosophers who are making hiring decisions that are at least partially grounded on a type of information we have reason to believe could be misleading.

The question, of course, is what to do about all this.

Search committees could abandon these preliminary interviews altogether. That would surely put more pressure on the written components of the applications, some of which might themselves be misleading in interesting ways. I’m guessing search committees would resist this, since they believe (although mistakenly, if the research is right) that they really are learning something important from them. It’s not obvious to me that job candidates would unanimously endorse this either (since some see the interview as a chance to make their case more vividly — but again, maybe what they’re making is pseudo-evidence for their case).

Search committees could work to structure preliminary interviews so that they provide more reliable information (as the research suggests properly structured interviews actually do).** This would require search committee members to learn how properly to conduct such interviews (and how properly to record them for later examination and evaluation). Moreover, it would require that search committee members do something like acknowledging that their instincts about how to conduct free-flowing, open-ended preliminary interviews that are also informative are probably just wrong. This is a task with a difficulty level that’s probably right around what it takes to get science faculty to acknowledge that having learned a lot about their field might not be sufficient to be able to teach it effectively, and that science education research might be a useful source of empirically grounded pedagogical insight. In other words, I think it would be really hard.

Search committees could keep conducting preliminary interviews as they always have. Inertia can be powerful, as can the feeling that you really are learning something from the interviews. However, it seems like a search committee would have to take into account the claim that, empirically, interviews are misleading when drawing conclusions on the basis of preliminary interviews. (Of course this is a normative claim — the search committees ought to take this worry into account — rather than a claim that mere exposure to a research finding would be enough to remove the search committee’s collective powers of self-delusion.)

Or … search committees could do something else?

What else could they do here? How do those of you in scientific fields handle the role of interviewing in hiring? Specifically, do you take concrete measures to ensure that interviews don’t introduce noise into hiring decisions? Or do you feel that the hiring decisions you need to make admit of sufficiently objective information that this just isn’t a problem for you?

If you prefer to comment pseudonymously for this discussion, feel free, but one pseudonym to a customer please.

* For all I know, campus interviews may introduce some of the same kinds of noise to the decision-making process as conference interviews do. However, many include teaching demonstrations with a sample from the actual student population the candidate would be asked to teach if hired, a formal presentation of the candidate’s research (including responding to questions about it), and ample opportunity for members of the hiring department to get a sense of whether the candidate is someone with whom one could interact productively or instead someone who might drive one up a wall.

** It is worth noting that some search committees, even in philosophy departments, actually do conduct structured interviews.

DonorsChoose Science Bloggers for Students 2012: Into the home stretch.

Since our drive began, the East Coast weathered a big storm (and is now coping with another). People have also been maybe a little preoccupied with elections.

Still, almost 300 generous readers of science blogs have so far raised $24,586 to fund classroom projects that will reach 12,907 public school students.

That’s pretty impressive. But we have a couple more days to do even more good.

The drive runs through midnight Friday, Hawaii time (to be fair to Christie and all) — that’s Saturday, November 10, 6 am Eastern time.

The match code SCIENCE will be active until the very end of the drive. At last check, more than $6,000 of the available $50,000 in matching funds (from the DonorsChoose Board of Directors) have been deployed, but that still leaves more than $40,000 in matching funds on the table.

We don’t want to leave that money on the table when we can use it to help pay for textbooks, microscopes, science kits, field trips, and other resources that will make learning come alive for kids in public school classrooms.

Making a donation through the drive and entering the SCIENCE match code at checkout will double each donor’s contribution up to $100.

Some of you may have blown through your whole $100 match already. (I still have $30 left on my match as I try to choose where I want to put it.) Some of you haven’t. To get the remainder of the matching funds on the table, we’d need the equivalent of 400 new donors each contributing $100.

A donation of $100 is not a small thing, especially for those of you who are students, or retirees, or unemployed or underemployed. So probably we want to get more than 400 people to step up and contribute what they can — even a buck (which, with the match, becomes two bucks). And, we need to spread the word — to family, co-workers, friends who understand how the right teacher, with the right tools, can get kids really excited about learning. If there’s a teacher who made a big difference in your life, maybe this is a good excuse to track him or her down to say thanks and point out a project that we can fund by working together.

Share your enthusiasm about specific projects on Twitter, or Facebook, or G+, or FriendFeed, or your Tumblr or LiveJournal. Encourage your online friends to band together to do a bit of tangible good for kids and teachers in the three-dimensional world.

My giving page is here, but I encourage you to check out the giving pages of other Scientopians, and of science bloggers in other parts of the blogosphere.

From the bottom of my heart, thank you.

Academic freedom, academic responsibility, Speaking of Research, and Steve Best.

The Speaking of Research blog has been following the involvement of Steve Best, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Texas at El Paso, in providing the philosophical justification for animal rights extremist groups like Negotiation is Over in their “direct action” efforts using threats of violence to discourage animal research.

Recently, they noted that his collaboration with Negotiation Is Over seems to have come to an end, given that he has sought a restraining order against Camille Marino, the most identifiable activist behind Negotiation Is Over.

Best took issue with this coverage, apparently because part of it focused on his own strong claims:

“Let every motherfucker who shoots animals be shot; Let every motherfucker who poisons animals be injected with a barrel of battery acid; Let every motherfucking vivisector be vivisected and thrown away like the shit they are,” he wrote in 2011.

and on what seemed to be evidence that Best assisted Marino in her efforts to raise money to pay college students to give Negotiation Is Over names, pictures, addresses, phone numbers, and other contact information for their classmates who were “learning to experiment on animals”. What was the relevant evidence? That donations were requested to be sent to a PayPal account linked to an email address that belongs to Steve Best.

So now, Best has emailed Speaking of Research threatening them with legal action:

you are violating my academic free speech rights with these false unproven claims, and I will take the most aggressive legal action against all of you, just as I have against Marino, who is soon to go down on federal charges for further violations of my PPO.

Specifically, Best is challenging the assertion that letting Marino use the PayPal account linked to that email address of his constitutes support of the Negotiation Is Over campaign against biomedical students.

I think that different people can look at the available evidence and draw different conclusions about the extent of Best’s support of the Negotiation Is Over campaign — and certainly that there might be some interesting discussions (perhaps grounded in moral or political philosophy) on degrees of support and corresponding degrees of responsibility. However, I think Best is overreaching in his claim that Speaking of Research is “violating [his] academic free speech rights” in blogging about his public statements and public activities.

Like free speech more generally, academic freedom is not unlimited. I reckon a tenured associate professor’s free speech would not extend to shouting “Fire!” in a crowded movie house. It would surely not extend, either, to ordering a hit on an enemy, whether that enemy was professional or personal.

And, beyond issues of identifying the point at which speech becomes action (whether that action is criminal or not), it is crucial to recognize that academic freedom, like free speech more generally, is not a right to be free from having others criticize what you have said.

Here’s what the University of Texas at El Paso Handbook of Operating Procedures says about academic freedom:

Academic freedom is an indispensable element of that larger liberty that includes the right to free expression.  Because a free society and freedom itself rest upon the continuous search for knowledge, and because institutions of higher education are primary agencies for the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge, a faculty member is entitled to full academic freedom in research, in the publication of results and conclusions, and in the classroom presentation of his or her subject.

(Bold emphasis added.)

Have the posts at Speaking of Research prevented Best from pursuing his research, or from publishing his conclusions or presenting them in the classroom? I have no evidence one way or the other on this, but it would surprise me very much if they have. It’s true that the UK Home Office barred Best from entering the UK on account of public statements that were judged to be at odds with a policy prohibiting entry of people who

foment, justify or glorify terrorist violence in furtherance of particular beliefs; seek to provoke others to terrorist acts; [or] foment other serious criminal activity or seek to provoke others to serious criminal acts.

So, Best was prevented from presenting his conclusions (in person) in the UK, but not by Speaking of Research. Moreover, academic freedom is not a guarantee that the academic claiming it will be admitted to any nation in the world.

Here’s what the University of Texas at El Paso Handbook of Operating Procedures says about academic responsibility:

Academic freedom, like any other freedom, carries with it concomitant responsibilities.  The requirements of scholarly statement and research in a field of specialization shall constitute the guidelines for these responsibilities. 

Academic freedom does not extend to the promulgation and exploitation in the classroom of material that has no relationship to the subject being taught.

Academic responsibility imposes certain professional restraints on academicians in their roles as citizens.  Because faculty are identified as members of a learned profession and as representatives of the University, they should bear in mind that the public may judge both the profession and the University on the basis of public utterances.  Hence, when acting in their roles as citizens, faculty members are expected to be accurate in their statements, to respect the opinions of others, and to make it clear that they do not speak for the University or their profession.

As employees of a State institution of higher education, faculty members should refrain from involving the University of Texas System or The University of Texas at El Paso in partisan politics.

(Bold emphasis added.)

There’s a lot we could say about exactly how academic responsibility might play out, but surely a short-list would include:

  1. You have a responsibility not to knowingly present an untruth as the truth (e.g., fabricating or falsifying experimental results, or making claims that you know are not supported by the available evidence).
  2. You have a responsibility, when presenting yourself as a scholar/knowledge-builder/thinker from a particular academic field, to make use of the recognized methods of that field in arriving at or supporting the claims you’re putting forward. A scientist making an assertion needs to be ready to point to the scientific evidence that supports it (and to answer the scientific evidence that seems to be in conflict with it). A philosopher needs to be ready to put up the argument that supports his position, and to answer the objections and counterarguments.
  3. You have a responsibility to recognize that some assertions you might make can be used to harm others — and, possibly, to do all you can to head off that harm when you make those assertions.
  4. Arguably, you have a responsibility not to threaten the academic freedom of others.

Calling for violence towards other academics who do work of which you do not approve, then, seems like a failure of academic responsibility. And, such calls for violence are arguably more of an impediment to academic freedom than is a blog post critiquing a philosopher’s rhetoric or the use to which it has been put by activist groups.

Of course, the folks at Speaking of Research are quite clear that they are not interested in infringing on Steve Best’s academic freedom:

We are not acting against his academic freedom. If anything we are merely defending the academic freedom of those of his academic colleagues at UTEP and elsewhere that Prof. Best wants “to be vivisected and thrown away like the shit they are.”  Most universities have an ethical code of conduct that make such speech unacceptable academic behavior.  One must wonder if UTEP has one or not.

Prof. Best is free to speak up his mind and support animal rights extremists and their actions, but he must understand that such freedom does not entail freedom from the consequences of such speech or acts. Here and elsewhere, we have simply explained and documented the connection between Negotiation is Over, their campaigns to harass and intimidate students, the PayPal account they used to accept donations, and its link to Prof. Best email account.

Academics — especially academic philosophers — come into their professional world expecting that there will be vigorous disagreements about the conclusions they bring to the marketplace of ideas, and about the arguments they use to support those conclusions. When one’s work has clear relevance to issues that matter beyond the ivory tower, it is to be expected that these disagreements will spill over into the broader public discourse. That’s the price of exercising your academic free speech — you may have to listen to critiques.

If Steve Best wants to avoid the critiques, his only sure bet is to drop out of the discussion. He can’t simultaneously assert his own right to speech while demanding that his critics shut up.