Student Protestors II
Bill Long 11/18/06
One of the ironies of the appearance of undergraduate student protestors on Thursday 11/16 in my graduate law class was that Thursday was the only day of the term in which we met in the classroom taken over by the protestors. My Jurisprudence seminar has 15 students, but since all the other classrooms were taken at 8:30 a.m. on T-Th, the registrar originally assigned me to the lecture hall (seats about 180). When I learned that was our classroom, I quickly made arrangements for us to meet in the Business/Management School nearby, where we have had a vigorous seminar-type round-table discussion every day. However, a few of my students wanted to move back to the lecture hall on the 16th because they were giving presentations on their term papers, and they wanted to do PowerPoint presentations--which the lecture hall was set up to allow.
Thus, the fact that we returned to the lecture hall was both ironic for us and probably a disappointment for the protestors. I am sure it was a disappointment to the protestors because ours was the first classroom that they "hit." It was the big lecture hall, and I am sure they thought they would be disrupting a teeming class of hundreds, taking over the mike from a professor who held 1/3 of the law school students in his/her thrall. What the protestors discovered, however, is that there were only 15 of us, quietly spread out and listening to a calm presentation of the utilitarian philosophy of John Stuart Mill.
Here is a copy of the email I sent to the President of the University and the Dean of the Law School explaining the incident.
"Dear Lee and Symeon,
On Thursday, November 16, during my Jurisprudence course, which was meeting in the Paulus lecture hall that morning (8:30-10:00 a.m.), our class was interrupted by a group of about 15 Willamette University undergraduates.
They burst into the hall, and one of the young men began speaking in a very loud voice. One of the unfortunate things about the event was that the class session had been given over by me to 3rd year student paper presentations. Thus, one of my students, Robert Dengel, was in the middle of giving a presentation on how John Stuart Mill adopted and adapted the Utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham in connection with the realities he was facing in the 1830s and 1840s. The irony of this, of course, is that Mill would probably have been sympathetic in general to the protestors' aims, but the undergraduates not only didn't have any interest in respecting Rob's rights, but they were going to say what they wanted to say regardless of the situation.
I interrupted the young man, asked them to leave my classroom, and they refused. I then said I would take a vote to see how many of my students wanted the undergraduates to continue saying what they were saying. The vote was 13-2 to have the students desist. I told them again to leave, that they were not wanted, and that they were interrupting important work of their fellow students.
Disregarding this, the young man continued to speak in loud terms until he had read through a one-page list of demands/observations which, in fact, several students in my class had already seen posted in their residence
Finally, after about a five minute interruption, the students left. Though the interruption was only for about five minutes, the toll on the class lasted much longer. I opened up for a discussion in my class concerning their reactions were to the interruption. Several said they wanted to "break their heads," or other things like that. I tried to use the interruption as a teaching moment. Eventually we were able to get on track, but their interruption made it very difficult for Rob Dengel to continue, though he did a great job under the circumstances.
I am wondering what, if any, disciplinary action is being considered by the university. I think that some kind of apology from some of the students to my class, and especially to Rob Dengel, would be appropriate.
Thank you for your concern."
Questions and Conclusion
As I reflect on the incident, it seems to me that I had a number of chances to make decisions, I made several decisions, and then the issue passed. I don't know if I did the right thing, but upon reflection I don't think I did the wrong thing. Here are the decisions I made. (1) When my class was interrupted, I instinctively confronted the ones who were interrupting the class. I didn't do so from a sitting position; I rather went right to the person who demanded our time and asked him for an explanation, eye to eye. He wouldn't give me one. Would you have done that? (2) I knew some of my students were becoming angry immediately, and one or two wanted to confront the students with a show of force. I wouldn't have permitted that. Indeed, as I thought about it, I would have restrained a student of mine if he/she would have attacked a protestor. Rude and violative of our class as the protestors were, I don't believe it would have been right for us to escalate the confrontation. (3) I don't know if my "asking for a vote" was right. I think it was quick thinking on my feet, a sort of "taking the moral high ground," so to speak, in the moment. The protestors ignored this vote, probably thinking that their mission at the moment was to speak and they would not be deterred from speaking. (4) When I saw that was going to be the case, I asked if they could say what they wanted to say in 30 seconds. Actually, the guy sped up his presentation of the demands (he was reading from a prepared page), and they finished within a minute or so. Then they left.
Perhaps I should just have let the undergraduates do what they wanted without interruption. But as I reflect on my conduct I am satisfied that I did a good thing. I "stood up for" my students and our process, to which I am very committed; I tried to inject a "democratic" element into what we did; I tried to get the undergraduates at least to recognize some feeble moral claims on them.
I want to thank my students for handling themselves well, and for talking about the incident with me after it happened. I especially want to thank Rob Dengel, whose presentation was interrupted, for his coolness of mind to be able to return to his presentation after we resumed.
Another lesson in life's endless parade...
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