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Hey, you! Don’t take that class!

Back when I taught at Berkeley, I once asked a Ph.D. student how he’d decided to work with me. He said that a couple of the tenured professors had advised him not to take my class, and that this advice had got him curious: What about Bayesian statistics is so dangerous that it can scare these otherwise unflappable stat professors. Overall, my senior colleagues’ advice to students to avoid my course probably decreased my enrollment, but the students who did decide to attend surely had better character than the ones who followed directions. (Or, at least I’d like to think that.)

I was reminded of that incident recently when reading a news article by Marc Tracy:

A U.S. Department of Education committee is investigating whether a Columbia University department head “steered” a Jewish student away from taking a class on the Mideast taught by Professor Joseph Massad due to the perception that she would be “uncomfortable” because of the professor’s pro-Palestinian tilt . . . “Barnard’s Middle East studies department chair” (Barnard is an all-women college at Columbia) is accused of encouraging the student, who was dressed as an Orthodox Jewish woman would be, not to take a particular class in January 2011, in violation of federal civil rights law. . . .

I looked up Barnard’s department of Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures (that was the closest I could find to “Barnard’s Middle East studies department”), and the department chair is listed as Prof. Rachel Fell McDermott.

P.S. The complaint apparently comes from Kenneth Marcus, who writes, “Jewish students should not be made to feel uncomfortable in any classroom.” I think I get what he’s saying here—you certainly don’t want students intimidated into not taking a class for ideological reasons (that’s actually what happened to me at Berkeley, if you take a broad enough interpretation of the term “ideological”), but I think he’s going a bit far by saying that any group of students “should not be made to feel uncomfortable in any classroom.” A bit of intellectual discomfort can be a good thing.

P.P.S. I came across this story via a link from a blog from Mike Munger (which in turn I happened to come across from the links on the Monkey Cage). Munger might know more of the story than I do, though; in his blog he refers to the advice-giving professor as male and Jewish, which doesn’t seem to fit the department chair who is female and describes herself as having an Episcopalian and Hindu upbringing.


  1. pete says:

    Is the supposed violation of federal civil rights law because she was steered away, or because the class would make her uncomfortable?

    Wouldn’t this create a similar problem whenever an evangelical Christian was looking to take a course in genetics or geology?

  2. Pretendous says:

    I am a Jewish student and I was made to feel very uncomfortable when I was assigned to read over two hundred pages of Williamson.

  3. Steve Sailer says:

    As a nonacademic, one of the weirder changes I note from the 1970s is the obsession these days on campus with students being “comfortable.” I guess it’s a diversity thing: every organized pressure group is on the lookout for any student they purport to represent not being wholly emotionally comfortable at all times. Comfort is a hopeless goal for what you want for a bunch of 19-year-olds so it means the pressure groups will never have to declare victory and go out of business.

  4. Elizabeth says:

    To me, the bias comes in the advice, not the class. A class that is critical of Israel is not anti-Semitic. On the other hand, a professor who assumes that Jewish students will only be comfortable taking classes that avoid criticizing Israel is at least skirting close to anti-Semitism.

  5. Rick Wicklin says:

    At a liberal arts college, students should be encouraged to explore new perspectives, examine new viewpoints, and broaden their outlook. Sometimes this is an uncomfortable experience, just like starting an exercise program can be uncomfortable until you get in shape. But being uncomfortable is not necessarily a bad thing.

    Most liberal arts professors enjoy debate and encourage the sharing of different viewpoints. If a professor is pushing a biased agenda, however, and is deragatory or predudiced in class, that’s a different matter, and one that should be discussed with the department chair or dean.