Rant or Remark? Invective or Discussion?

Doesn’t this just make your blood boil?

Writing Instructor Loses Job for Discussing Iraq War in Class
WINSTON-SALEM, NC–Forsyth Technical Community College (FTCC) writing instructor Elizabeth Ito has been dismissed for taking a brief part of her class to discuss the war in Iraq. Ito criticized the Iraq war in a writing class on March 28, 2003, while the ground invasion was still underway. Her remarks, which later served as the basis for a writing assignment, lasted only ten minutes, but as a result administrators at the college decided not to renew her contract.

If it doesn’t make your blood boil, then it’s not doing its job. The dateline at the beginning makes it look like a news article, but it’s actually a press release from the “Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.” Sounds like a noble organization with a respectable mission… but I can’t help feeling annoyed by the clumsy attempts to “spin” the facts in Ito’s favor. How many rules of basic journalism does the headline alone violate? A journalist needs an open mind, but has to stick to facts. Consider the AP version of the story:

College teacher believes views on Iraq cost her a job
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – A former English teacher at Forsyth Technical Community College is appealing the school’s decision not to renew her contract, which she claims is the result of her political views about the war in Iraq. | Elizabeth Ito accepts criticism of her professional demeanor for railing against the war during a business-writing class one day last spring. | But she says the firing was a punishment for her political views.

While FIRE puts in the lead that Ito “has been dismissed for taking a brief part of her class to discuss the war in Iraq,” the AP story more accurately identifies that as a claim — one that the school contests. Whereas the press release says Ito was “dismissed,” the news article gives the wordier but more neutral “the school’s decision not to renew her contract.”

While the press release uses the word “discuss” to describe Ito’s handling of the political material, the AP story says “Ito accepts criticism of her professional demeanor for railing against the war” and describes the incident as follows:

Ito walked into her business-writing class, closed the door and said, “I guess we’re going to liberate the Iraqis even if it means killing every damned one of them.”

“You could call it a rant, you could call it in an invective,” Ito acknowledges. “I admitted I didn’t do a good job. That’s not a point of contention.”

Two students walked out of class that day and complained to Susan Keener, the chairman of the humanities and communication department. At least one said that Ito had shouted down any student with a viewpoint different from her own.

The press release refers to “remarks, which later served as the basis for a writing assignment,” but the idea for the assignment came only after Ito realized she “may not have given the subject a balanced hearing,” and in the AP story, Ito herself supplied “invective” and “rant” to describe what the press release characterizes as “discussing”.

Another passage from the press release is worth a mention:

President Green did not respond to FIRE’s letter, instead choosing to explain FTCC’s actions in a public statement posted on FTCC’s website. Green accused Ito of, among other things, “a lack of competence.” The college could provide no support for this accusation, however, and the statement was eventually removed from FTCC’s website.

We can safely ignore FIRE’s attempt to insert itself into the story here… but let’s look at the rest of this excerpt. By placing in close proximity the statement that the school did not support its claims that Ito was incompetent and the observation that the statement was removed from the website, the press release may give the illusion of an association between those details — the kind of potential misunderstanding a trained journalist would actively work against. Simply because the college has not offered proof does not mean that there is no proof. I am not a lawyer, but it doesn’t seem to me that the college is under any obligation to divulge the contents of a private personnel file. Note that in both versions of the story, Ito accepts partial responsibility — the press release only challenges the college’s inability to come up with evidence of her incompetence.

Although the college’s statement has been removed from the web, a Google search returns the URL http://www.forsythtech.edu/welcome/pressconf.html for the document. Given that the article was stuffed in the “welcome” directory (rather than a dated archive) and given the generic name “pressconf.html” one should probably not be surprised that this document has been moved. I can’t find any trace of it online (which helps Ito in her effort to paint herself as an ideological victim), but Google yields a cached copy. [Update, Sept 2009: the Internet Archive is now the only place I can find a copy of the Forsyth response to the Ito incident.]

The “other things” with which Ito is accused include the following:

First and foremost, this is not about freedom of speech, academic freedom, politics, or the war. This is not about a single incident. Frankly, the college and I do not care whether she supports or opposes war in Iraq. This is about a lack of competence, professionalism, and ability to meet standards of professional behavior. It is about a first-year probationary teacher who did not do her job adequately.

Elizabeth Ito was at times unprepared to teach class, dismissing her class early because of failure to prepare. She spent time on issues outside of the regular class content, failing to relate the issues to the curriculum, and did not permit students to express their opinions. She failed to respect diverse ideas of students and in their own words, “shouted them down” when their views differed from hers. It’s important to note that the complaints of her own students brought much of this to our attention. When her supervisors tried to address these problems with her, she would not accept their valid constructive criticism.

If FIRE makes the appeal to silence — arguing that, since the college hasn’t provided evidence of her incompetence, it must not have any — then perhaps we should note that FIRE does not say that the college has no evidence to support its claims that Ito lacked professionalism and professional behavior (terms mentioned in the same sentence as “lack of competence”); nor does FIRE object to the college’s claims that Ito was “at times unprepared,” that she did not respect diversity of opinion or relate material to the syllabus.

The administrator who defends the college’s actions by saying “We’re not here to spin out theories and sit around and blather about the world” is not exactly demonstrating intellectual curiosity; the quote makes me clutch at my heart and suck air in through my teeth. I don’t see him winning any “educator of the year” awards, though he might have a career in politics. Ito fits pretty neatly into the stereotype of the out-of-touch campus radical consumed by an irrational passion for one ideological issue — I’m trying to keep an open mind, but I’ve seen nothing so far that suggests otherwise.

Teaching is not easy work; I have made more than my share of mistakes, and I’m sure I’ll keep making them.

Still, I can think of all kinds of ways to combine a technical writing curriculum with a critical discussion of the military/corporate/political/legalistic complex — and one of the ways I did that was by critiquing press releases.

I introduced the iteration and testing of psychological warfare documents (surrender leaflets) dropped behind enemy lines. You may remember the story of a large Iraqi family gunned down in their vehicle because the driver didn’t stop at a checkpoint — because, according to an army specialist, the family misunderstood the meaning of a leaflet that was intended to instruct them to stay in their homes. I also used a document, full of passive verbs and nominalizations, written by a Nazi engineer recommending improvements in the efficiency of a gas chamber. I was conscious of the fact that I often had students who were freshly out of the military and sometimes still in the reserves, and one of my former students was actually in psychological operations. Ultimately, I tried to argue language has the power to heal and the power to destroy.

Update: Oops, corrected the link to the AP story. Thanks, Mike.

Update: CommonDreams has a much more persuasive, much more effective press release… if I had read “North Carolina Teacher Fired for Antiwar Remarks” first, I probably wouldn’t have been motivated to write this blog entry. The press release is marked as coming from the “Ito Defense Fund,” so the bias in the headline is perfectly expected. I heard a warning bell when I noticed that the author refers to Ito as “Elizabeth,” and John Slade, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, as “Dean Slade” rather than “John”. That’s a rhetorical strategy, designed to personalize Ito and emphasize her powerlessness in comparison to the administration — but unlike the FIRE article’s rhetorical efforts, this one works, and I suppose it’s very possible that the article simply records an existing power imbalance on the campus; but as a writing teacher I am probably so sensitized to the use parallel structure and gender issues that I wouldn’t take my reaction as typical. Nevertheless, the “Ito Defense Fund” release doesn’t characterize Ito’s classroom action as either a “rant” or a “discussion,” but instead says Ito “spent ten minutes at the beginning of her business writing class voicing her concerns.” I see nothing duplicitous or dishonest about that phrasing. The author of this piece describes Ito writing numbers on the board and inviting the class to respond to them. This is a good instance of showing details that lead the reader to make a conclusion — in this case, Ito was not a ranting nutcase, but was instead using current events to spark a discussion. (I take back what I said earlier about not seeing anything that works against the image of Ito as a stereotypical ranting radical — this was all I needed, and I was surprised that FIRE didn’t do a better job of describing the controversial event.)

The article doesn’t include any of Ito’s statements indicating that she is willing to share the blame, but rather notes that one of the students who complained about Ito “did not think Elizabeth should have been fired for her remarks”. None of this really examines the economic factors involved — was Ito, as a new hire, simply at the bottom of the totem pole during a time of budget cutbacks, or were there newer, less experienced (and less vocal) people hired the semester after her contract wasn’t renewed?

I’m going to hold onto these documents, and Mike Arnzen’s thoughtful response to this blog entry, for the next time I teach journalism.

I recently posted a comment on Mike’s blog in praise of “risk” as a criteria for grading student writing, and I feel I took a bit of a risk myself in writing this blog entry… but it’s been an exhilarating couple of hours.

Oh, gaack… it looks like the curricular weblogs are down. Well, I hope it’s just temporary. I’d better cut this off now…