Thursday, March 03, 2011

Academic Freedom for Sex Toys

The use of a sex toy on a woman in front of a group of students after a class at Northwestern University has, understandably, aroused a lot of attention amid calls for the firing of the professor

After the institution initially issuing a strong defense of academic freedom yesterday, Northwestern President Morton Schapiro today harshly condemned Professor J. Michael Bailey for "extremely poor judgment."

Although Schapiro hasn't sought to fire Bailey, this kind of condemnation is rather extraordinary in academia. And part of Schapiro's statement raises some serious concerns about academic freedom: “I have directed that we investigate fully the specifics of this incident, and also clarify what constitutes appropriate pedagogy, both in this instance and in the future.” Any investigation of a professor for activity protected by academic freedom should alarm us. And the suggestion that an administration must “clarify” what “constitutes appropriate pedagogy” is equally alarming, since this decision should remain the province of individual faculty members guided by a larger discussion about pedagogy.

The fact that this happened in a voluntary session after class that no student was required to attend makes the defense of it even stronger. The fact is that the issue being debated by this demonstration, women's sexuality, was directly relevant to a class on human sexuality.

I can say with absolute certainty that having sex is not illegal. Having sex while people watch you is not illegal. There was nothing illegal about any of this.

Sexuality is among the most controversial issues in academia. Roger Bowen, then president of the SUNY-New Paltz and later head of the AAUP, was forced out of his job by Candace de Russy and other conservatives because he defended the freedom of a 1997 feminist conference that included instructional workshops on sex toys.

No, sex toys don't have academic freedom, nor do the people who utilize them. But professors and students do. And academic freedom includes the fact that a class on human sexuality can include a demonstration of human sexuality. Whether it is deemed necessary or good judgement is something for the professor running the event to decide.

Northwestern needs to have a broader discussion of good pedagogy and academic freedom, to help the faculty and the administration understand what is the best way to teach and why providing freedom on campus is the necessary for a free society.

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