Mark Johnson is an associate professor of Theology at Marquette University (Milwaukee, WI). His specialization is in St. Thomas Aquinas.

The Marquette Debacle (Part 2 of 2): Never Argue with the One Who Has the Mike

He is a fool who goes to a comedy club and heckles the comic into a fight. He’ll always lose that fight. Because the comic is always funnier? Because the audience will turn on the interheckler? No. The comic will win because he or she is in possession of the most powerful weapon of all; the comic is holding the microphone. Never argue with the person who has the mike.

The person who has the mike can drown you out with their own amplified voice. If you’re at a microphone yourself and they are in charge of that microphone they can have it turned off, rendering you silent, while they talk over the top of you from theirs, and direct the narrative with no input—clarification, correction, nuance—from you. You’re hosed.

We academics are aware of this phenomenon because in a way we are involved with it every day. As teachers, we have the status of an authority in our classrooms, with the attendant power, frankly, that that authority gives us. We never really have to explain this, if only because the behavior of the students indicates that they get it. Students come to class armed with devices used to capture what we say, to copy what we write on the blackboard, comply with the schedules we create, author the papers we assign, and take the exams we write. At a fundamental level, when we professors are in the classroom we have the mike. The students know that.

But the relationship is hardly adversarial, for we are in the classroom in the first place as givers, to bring the students from the state of not-knowing a subject to the better state of knowing it. The beautiful thing about teaching is that when a teacher gives knowledge to the student the gain on the student’s part does not require a loss on the teacher’s part. The learning process is not the emptying of one container into another, but is rather a dissemination of knowledge, a sharing of learning now common to both the teacher and the student, by the teacher’s planting of seeds into the fertile soil of students’ minds. It’s a win-win.

Still and all, the professor does have a primacy in this communication of learning—especially in undergraduate courses, and then especially in introductory undergraduate courses. So it’s up to the professor to bring students into the study of the new subject with deft planning, to till the soil well. No one technique is best, and professors regularly change their approaches to how they teach courses—indeed, such variety can be the spice of their teaching lives. But the variety cannot be infinite, if only because it is checked by two omnipresent facts. First, being human, students learn and communicate through language as do the rest of us, so the language of a given subject is one of the first things that need to be shared with them. Second, because students don’t yet know their way around the subject well enough to spot error or unexpressed bias on the part of the teacher, they are in a way vulnerable to a teacher’s malpractice. Seeing this dependence, Aristotle noted that “first, the learner needs to trust” (Sophistical Refutations 2).

Because trust can be rewarded or broken, professors need to be doubly-virtuous in their introductory teaching. They need to be virtuous in the sense of skillful by introducing new material to the students in digestible chunks, often starting with fundamental definitions and notions. Then, as the students master these items, qualifications and complications are added to what they now know, resulting in a fuller picture of, say, the founding of the American republic. But the adding in of qualifications and complications stems from a teacher’s strategic choice about which qualifications, and what complications, need to be present. Whether a particular choice is driven by classroom efficiency or because getting this particular point will require things the class won’t cover for a while, or because the jury is still out in the discipline whether such-and-such a qualification is a valid addition at all, it remains the case that other choices could have been made. The virtue of a certain fairness calls for an open presentation to the students, then, of the array of choices that could have been made, and their justifications. This is especially true in the humanities, where the subject-matter often touches their very hearts and souls—Marquette wants its undergraduate educating to be “transformational.” The best professors, then, often have become walking manifestations of their entire discipline, capable at the drop of a hat of explaining why this happened, and that didn’t—but why it could have.

Speaking of teaching. One major concern I have in the Jodi O’Brien controversy at Marquette University is that we may not be meeting the standards of our own profession when we engage in the controversy. Why is it that in matters of Marquette’s public affairs, and thinking about its Catholic mission and identity, we engage in academic practices that we would condemn if we saw them at work in our own disciplines? While it is true that, when teaching undergraduates, we must at times paint with very broad strokes—and then lament to one another how imprecise our teaching must needs be at this point in the students’ careers—why do we continue to paint with broad strokes when we speak of high-octane, highly-complex matters in the life of the University, such as the Jodi O’Brien affair is, an affair that begs for clarity where it can be found, and nuance at every turn?

The University’s Non-Discrimination Policy explicitly mentions “sexual orientation” as something against which it will not discriminate. Its Mission Statement mentions “support of Catholic beliefs and values.” Who decides the meaning of the words we insert into these quasi-constitutional documents? Is there an official Lexicon? Do we need something equivalent to the Académie française for Marquette? Or are the meanings to be gathered by osmosis—study or work at Marquette long enough, and you’ll just know what they mean?

What, precisely, does “sexual orientation” mean in our Marquette public discourse? I never got a memo. How ample is its embrace? If the phrase “sexual orientation” is taken to mean or include homosexual activity, then “sexual orientation” cannot mean the “activity that is productive of children.” If children are precluded, then doesn’t the word “sexual” essentially mean, “that which leads to, or aids in producing, orgasm”? And if “productive of orgasm” is what is principally intended, why need there be an “orientation” of one person to another at all?  Does the University’s non-discrimination policy on sexual orientation include sexual solipsism? Or, on the other side, a ménage à trois? À quatres?

What do the notions “discrimination,” “inclusiveness,” “diversity,” and “transformational,” even “homophobic,” distinctly mean when we conduct our public thinking with them? The act of hiring or ultimately tenuring someone at Marquette is an act of discrimination, but that is not usually what is intended when we speak of non-discrimination. Surely our desire to be inclusive calls for us to be open to a range of views on a given subject, but since practicality means that we cannot literally entertain all views—should we still try?— someone needs to make the call as to which ones get into our forum of consideration, someone, we hope, with the academic equivalent of discriminating taste. Who is that person or persons, and who sets them into that position of authority? If the response here is that it is the equivalent of “the majority of those in the institution” or “the majority of the particular department,” then who is to protect a discipline or university if its authorities fall victim to groupthink? Who will guard the guardians? Since diversity of thought (and not behavior) ought to be the principal currency of a university, do we actively seek to hire people in our departments who represent poles that help constitute the spectrum of thinking in a discipline? Or is diversity of thought not the diversity we seek? If not, precisely what diversity is, and why? (Note: I strongly suspect that a sociology of knowledge drives much of our thinking on intellectual commitment; at the very least this needs to be admitted, and defended). Since Marquette seeks to “transform” its students intellectually and morally, what precisely are we saying about where they start (their terminus a quo) and, more importantly, what are we saying about where they wind up (their terminus ad quem)? Does the transformed Marquette student share a “family resemblance” with other students? In what would that resemblance consist—I write this but two days before this year’s commencement? Shared views on politics? On religion? Epistemology? If “transformational” really just means “the student changed,” and we don’t predefine some clear shape into which we hope they will change, then aren’t we adopting an “all roads lead to Rome” approach to education? Pick any road you like; you’ll get there someday, no matter what. Or does that shared family resemblance mean at least in part that Marquette students will not leave here as homophobes? Would my thinking that homosexual activity (as well as certain heterosexual activity to which it is akin) is not compatible with the Gospel mean that I have literally lost my mind (“homophobia” = irrational fear of homosexuality)?

This barrage of questions must come across as a screed. I’ve come to this attentiveness to words and definitions throughout my career largely because, not being the sharpest knife in the drawer, I need concrete things to grasp onto as I work my way through the thought of others, whether those others be thinkers of the past or my fellow-thinkers in the present. Now and then I will even take an argument out of an article or a book and turn it into syllogistic form, to make sure I’m following the author’s thinking correctly—I owe that to the author and to myself. Logic (including how to construct good definitions) may be taught in our Department of Philosophy, but it is used, or sure as heck should be, in every single discipline. As the “art of arts” (ars artium) logic is the skill that grounds our thinking, for our thinking is the step-like connecting of one idea with another, and then another. If these ideas aren’t clear, then neither will our thinking be.

Words matter, and their meaning and use can exercise a powerful influence, even a tyranny, over the mind. Ask Jodi O’Brien. My colleague in the Department of Philosophy, Nancy Snow, wrote of her conversation with Jodi O’Brien, who had accepted Marquette’s offer to be Dean, because she felt that her understanding of the words I cited above—add to them the notion “Catholic identity”—were consonant with her persona and views. She must have been reassured when Snow told her, “life is good for gays and lesbians at Marquette. The institution has been on an inclusive trajectory.” Alas, the four-term fallacies resulting from equivocal understandings of “inclusive” and “trajectory” have interrupted a successful academic career.

There is work to do here at the University, work that includes us all. For if I, or we collectively, insist upon clear notions under which we operate while involved in academic programs, student life, and shared governance, then that insistence includes not only defining these at-times exasperatingly vague notions—sexual orientation, diversity, inclusiveness, transformational, etc.—but also defining with precision what our Catholic identity should look like. Logic and fairness demands this, too. When Fr Wild made the decision to rescind his earlier offer to Jodi O’Brien, he did so on the grounds that her writings were not a fit with Catholic teaching or our Catholic identity, at least for this sort of job. In logic there is the principle that “every negation depends upon a prior affirmation.” We cannot say, “this is not that” without first knowing what “this” means and what “that” means. We need to know what “Catholic identity” means for a university if we are going to say that some teaching, some activity, or some person for some job, is incompatible with it.

This much is sure: if we don’t incisively define what we mean when we talk, about our own disciplines or about University matters, we then set ourselves up to have definitions given to us by those who hold the mike.

We’ll be hosed.

Habits and muscle memory

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