Inside Higher Ed: He won’t censor himself

By Scott Jaschik, for Inside Higher Ed

December 20, 2010

Shit happens.

That’s reality, according to Daniel Petersen, who has taught philosophy for 21 years at Hawaii Community College and the University of Hawaii at Hilo. And it’s a reality he shared – in those words – with his students. Now he says he is sharing that reality in the collapse of his teaching career, which he attributes to the aftermath of a complaint from the father of a student over a few instances of profanity in his class at the community college.

Over the past year, Petersen has been fighting with administrators over the complaint and his response to it – and he recently quit to protest what he considered unreasonable limits on his free speech.

Why share with students that “shit happens”? Petersen said that in the beginning of his introductory philosophy courses, he likes to challenge students, and get them out of easy ways of thinking.

“People think they are in control, but they walk outside and an aeroplane engine falls on their heads,” he said in an interview. That’s what he’s trying to get across – that you can’t determine your fate.

Another point he tries to make as the course begins is that extremists are determined to impose their will not only on individuals but on entire belief systems. And he talks about that idea by saying that Osama bin Laden says, in effect: “If you don’t believe in me and my way, I will kill you and your goddamn god.”

A third point he makes at the beginning of the course is that he’s well aware that his style isn’t for everybody. So he says: “If you don’t like the way I teach, the way I smell, or the way I look, there is the door – you don’t have to take my class.”

Petersen said that he is intentionally provocative – and that this grabs students and gets them thinking, which is what he considers to be his job.

But last year, one student in his introductory logic course wasn’t happy with the remarks, and shared them with her father, Timothy Jahraus, who wrote to the college to complain. In a letter, Jahraus wrote that his daughter dropped the course and that the college should be concerned about Petersen.

“Instructors, people in an authority position, with influence and power over their students, have no right to use profanity in the classroom,” he wrote. “It demonstrates a paucity of verbal ability and total lack of respect for the students he instructs. This instructor’s action is an abuse of the authority position he holds and a betrayal of whatever confidence the students may have had in his ability to deal fairly with them.”

Jahraus added: “Our institutions of higher learning need to take the high ground intellectually and in general deportment rather than devolving to the lowest vernacular.”

Petersen said that he was called to meet with administrators to discuss the letter and was urged to stop swearing in class. Not only did he refuse to do so, but he then used Jahraus’ letter for a class discussion and – at the request of students – posted the letter on a class website. (The university has since removed it.)

A series of exchanges between Petersen and college officials followed, including demands that he stop swearing or using the letter, a suspension and debates over his teaching style. He said that the demands reached a point where he was being given ultimatums that would affect his teaching, so he quit. While a local newspaper reported that he has threatened not to finish grading his students this semester, he said that was incorrect. Petersen said that he will grade the papers, and turn them over to his lawyer (who is preparing a lawsuit) – and that if the college wants the grades, it will have to see his lawyer.

The University of Hawaii System, of which Hawaii Community College is a part, issued the following statement from Linda Johnsrud, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost: “We do not comment on personnel matters, but the University of Hawaii holds faculty responsible for fulfilling their obligations to students. We do not want students to be victims in a personnel dispute.”

Jahraus, the father who wrote the letter of complaint, did not respond to a request for comment.

Students have been speaking out on Petersen’s behalf. Ke Kalahea, the student newspaper of Hawaii-Hilo and Hawaii Community College, ran an editorial called "Save Dan". The editorial called Petersen “one of the most engaging lecturers the community college has”. Of the complaint, the editorial said: “When Timothy Jahraus complained, the community college should not have ducked, turned tail, and run – they should have stood their ground and supported veteran lecturer Daniel Petersen.”

Some on the campus have speculated that Petersen was punished more for sharing the letter than for swearing. Petersen said that he does not believe Jahraus’ daughter ever registered for the course, and that she was definitely not a student in the course when he shared the letter. So, he said, he shared a letter of complaint about himself, not anything private about one of his students.

Petersen said that he considers what happened to him a violation of his academic freedom, and he noted that his teaching style on the day Jahraus’ daughter was in class wasn’t any different from his approach over the years. “How could it have been right for 21 years and then it’s wrong?”

It’s important to note, Petersen said, that he swore to make a point and “I have never sworn at a student.” He also said that the words he used in that class are the extent of the expletives he uses in teaching. “If people can’t handle that, they don’t belong in a college classroom,” he said.

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