Monday, August 31, 2009

August Events in the Case

No major developments in the civil case; blog posts looked at the following items:

  • a California case of a wrongfully convicted man, but which also illustrated that the conviction of the innocent doesn't necessarily suggest prosecutorial misconduct;
  • the Gerst Program at Duke, which provides an oasis of liberal arts learning amidst the race/class/gender dominated sea in Duke's humanities and social sciences departments;
  • a letter from two Duke graduates, noting the striking contrast between the response of the administration and faculty "activists" to the Lombard and lacrosse cases;
  • a low-work proposal from Group of 88 stalwart Cathy Davidson, who will allow students to grade themselves, even as she admits she doesn't much like grading;

I'm awaiting a couple of responses to a long post that will appear tomorrow.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Gerst Oasis

Despite the many problems in contemporary academia, working within the system is almost always preferable to seeking solutions imposed by legislators. A good example of the unintended consequences of outside intervention came a few years ago, when legislatures in several states (Ohio and Florida most prominently) considered an academic bill of rights. Despite the ostensible purpose of the measure—ensuring that extraneous ideological concerns didn’t infect classroom instruction—debate in both states got bogged down by the troubling efforts of Christian conservatives to challenge how science professors were teaching evolution. The legislators, in short, were behaving as far-right versions of the “diversity” extremists who dominated the Campus Culture Initiative.

Working within the system, of course, doesn’t mean that the faculty majority exercises total control, freed from all checks and balances. Administrators determined to promote wide-ranging debate on campus can take into consideration the position’s likelihood of promoting pedagogical diversity in awarding new faculty lines, rather than simply authorizing the hiring of yet another race/class/gender specialists. Trustees can and should take seriously their position as final decisionmakers on personnel and major curricular decisions, rather than simply rubber-stamping dubious decisions presented to them by the faculty. (For a good example of trustees looking the other way, to the detriment of their university, see the Columbia University decision to tenure the notorious and dubiously qualified Joseph Massad.) Alumni can and should carefully target donations to ensure that their moneys do not simply promote the groupthink mentality that too often dominates humanities and (some) social sciences departments.

Faculty members exercise predominant control over curricular matters. Remote indeed, therefore, are the chances of students receiving a pedagogically rich array of offerings from, say, such one-sided Duke departments as African-American Studies (80% of whom were members of the Group of 88) or the Cultural Anthropology (60% of whom were members of the Group of 88).

That said, one positive development in recent years has been the creation of academic programs reflecting the ideal of liberal learning. Such initiatives have included Duke’s Focus and Gerst Programs, which Russell Nieli profiled for the Pope Center in 2007. As Nieli noted, “In the early 1990s, several discerning faculty members and administrators realized that the university had gone badly astray and sought to reinvigorate the university’s undergraduate curriculum.” The results were the Focus Program, which pairs faculty members with students in interdisciplinary offerings; and the Gerst Program in Political, Economic, and Humanistic Studies. The program “aims at fostering an understanding of the central importance of freedom for democratic government, moral responsibility, and economic and cultural life,” by focusing “on the theoretical foundations of freedom and responsibility, the development of liberty in the Western and particularly the American historical context, the role of freedom in political and economic institutions, and the character of morally responsible behavior.”

Faculty participating in the Gerst program come from a variety of pedagogical perspectives. As is appropriate given the aims of the program, the faculty list includes a member with a race/class/gender perspective on the American past (Group of 88'er William Chafe). But, as also is appropriate, a race/class/gender perspective doesn't dominate, as so often is the case throughout Duke's humanities departments. Participating faculty come from a range of perspectives and departments, including Political Science, English, Classics, and Economics.

The Nieli article shows how a motivated donor—Gary Gerst (Duke Class of 1961)—could combine with talented faculty members to produce a first-rate program that ensures students a diverse viewpoint in a campus where (as we all learned in the lacrosse case) politically correct anti-Western fetishes and race/class/gender attitudes are overrepresented. (As Gerst correctly noted, Duke is no worse than most elite institutions in this regard, “but I see no reason why people who don’t agree with what is going on continue to shell out money to their universities” to perpetuate the status quo.) It’s also no surprise that the Gerst Program based its operations in the Political Science Department. Even though it includes Group of 88 extremist Paula McClain, the always excitable Kerry Haynie, and the renegade (non-tenure track) Kim Curtis, Political Science has shown a diversity of ideological and pedagogical approaches lacking in most Duke humanities and social sciences departments.

Even initiatives like the Gerst Program—oases within contemporary academia—operate under constant threat. Consider, for instance, the fate of the University of Texas’ Western Civilization and American Traditions program. Popular with donors and students like, the program was one of several profiled last year in the New York Times. The note in the Times that the Texas program was popular with conservatives, however, stirred the ire of “activist” faculty on campus, who quickly succeeded in bringing about the program director’s dismissal and neutering the program’s key objectives. The new program director indicated his fidelity to campus sensitivities, explaining, “The name ‘Western Civilizations and American [Traditions]’ sounds really right-wing.”

One theme of this blog has been the importance of the parental role in higher education, especially at elite universities. The college experience, obviously, is critical for fostering independence and intellectual growth for all students. But—to a far greater extent than in previous generations—parents also have a responsibility to ensure that their children actually get the education for which the parents have paid.

Many elite universities have programs like the Gerst Program (Brown’s Political Theory Project is another good example of a commendable curricular initiative). Both parents and prospective students need to search out such initiatives, since, unfortunately, they cannot presume quality instruction across the board.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Six* Items

[update, 4.33pm, two additional items:

1.) Courtesy of Harvey Silverglate, this depressing column from Rodney Balko, on the lingering effects of prosecutorial misconduct in the 1980s witch-hunt day care/"child molestation" trials (where Wendy Murphy got her start as a prosecutor!).

The book that had the most impact on my analysis of the lacrosse case was Dorothy Rabinowitz's No Crueler Tyrannies. As in the hoaxes that Rabinowitz exposed, the lacrosse case featured the presumption of guilt, the lack of evidence was simply presumed to mean the defendants must be guilty, and the purpose of the trial became (to paraphrase Pres. Brodhead) giving the defendants their one chance to "be proved innocent."

2.) A mindboggling dissent filed by Justice Scalia this week, in a death penalty case:

This court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is ‘actually’ innocent. Quite to the contrary, we have repeatedly left that question unresolved, while expressing considerable doubt that any claim based on alleged ‘actual innocence’ is constitutionally cognizable.

The statement was all the more troubling coming from Scalia, who has shown occasional libertarian instincts on civil liberties issues.]

Forbes is the latest national publication to produce a college ranking list, and I doubt that this item will make Duke alumni mailings. Duke is ranked 104th, behind Hendrix College (Arkansas), Berea College (Kentucky), St. Mary’s College (California) and conservative favorite Hillsdale College in Michigan.

The lead reader comment: “Unfortunately, though I greatly valued my Duke experience, I would not recommend Duke now to any high school senior. The takeover of the faculty by hateful race/class/gender extremists, as personified by the Group of 88, has essentially destroyed the university.”


Ranked below Duke, however, is Cornell University.* This semester, graduate students in Cornell’s African-American Studies Department get to work with a new director of graduate studies—Group of 88 extremist Grant Farred. Farred is best remembered as the 88’er who denounced Duke students as racist for registering to vote in Durham; and who published a book with the preposterous thesis that Houston Rockets center Yao Ming was “the most profound threat to American empire.”

Imagine how fairly Director of Graduate Studies Farred would deal with a student whose dissertation, say, cast a skeptical eye toward the use of racial preferences in education or in the workplace.


Last week, I noted that if the Bruce Lisker case had occurred in North Carolina (and if Lisker were African-American), the disgraced ex-DA Mike Nifong’s defenders would seize upon it to claim prosecutorial misconduct. In the minds of Nifong defenders, the conviction of people who actually were innocent (at least if they are African-American) is in and of itself evidence of prosecutorial misconduct. Of course, the state’s ethics requirements make no such holding.

As if to prove the point, the Nifong publicity blog “justice4nifong” is up with a post claiming that Wake County prosecutor Tom Ford committed “actions . . . far more egregious than what former Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong was accused of doing in the Duke Lacrosse case.” Those “actions,” from the post, appear to be Ford attempting to negotiate a plea bargain with one of the defendants. No one appears to have claimed that Ford withheld exculpatory evidence; or ordered the police to violate their own procedures; or made dozens of ethically improper public statements; or lied to a judge.

It would, I suppose, be too much to expect defenders of the disgraced Nifong to have any understanding of ethical standards.


[Updated, 3.57pm]: I have steered clear from the Lombard case. But the contrast between the campus reactions to it and to the lacrosse case is striking, and the subject of a sensational letter in today's Chronicle from two members of the Class of 2008, Hamish Russell and Drew Braucht:

In the wake of Frank Lombard's arrest on child sex charges, it is interesting to evaluate the response of Duke's administration and faculty and the city of Durham. What if President Brodhead, the Trustees, the faculty and the city reacted in the same impetuous way they did the last time a member of the Duke community was accused of such a heinous crime?

Imagine it now: Students take out full page ads condemning the faculty and administrators as a whole; the Trustees suspend all Duke officials from normal work; protests are staged outside of the Allen Building to chant obscenities and taunt any individual attempting to enter; people that previously had no interaction with the administration are suddenly thrust into positions to analyze the "administration subculture on child sex and how it proliferates in the general Duke population."

Based on the precedent set in Spring 2006, in which the lacrosse team and entire student body were systematically maligned, this seems like the rational way to handle controversy and crisis on the Duke campus. And given that no one has admitted any wrongdoing in the wake since (aside from President Brodhead's "heartfelt" address at an obscure Fall 2007 law school event), one is led to assume that no lessons were learned from that ordeal.

In no way do we condone the charges brought before Frank Lombard, and the evidence seems quite condemning. However, this isolated event has again brought to light the hypocrisy and lack of culpability still embedded in the Duke lacrosse scandal, a reality that continues to negatively affect the fabric of the Duke community.


Hat tip: J.H., O.S.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Lisker Case

A few years ago, TalkLeft’s incomparable Jeralyn Merritt (one of the first high-profile legal commentators to raise questions about Mike Nifong’s misconduct) flagged a Los Angeles Times magazine article about a convicted murderer named Bruce Lisker. The lengthy article is well worth reading: it’s impossible to come away from it without believing that an innocent man has spent more than 20 years of his life in jail for a crime he didn’t commit.

Last Friday, U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips accepted the recommendations of a magistrate judge and vacated Lisker’s conviction. (Here’s a link to the magistrate judge’s report—which, like the Times article, is well worth reading in its entirety.)

Between the Times article and the magistrate judge’s report, the Lisker case provides an unusually well-documented example of a miscarriage of justice. It also illustrates how the lacrosse case differed from most cases of innocent people being charged with a crime they didn’t commit.

Lisker, an adopted son of older parents, had a troubled childhood. He used hard drugs in junior high school, fought constantly with his adoptive mother, was briefly sent to what seems to have been a reform school, and at age 17, dropped out of high school. He persuaded his parents to rent him a cheap apartment not too far from their house, and, by his own admission, continued his downward spiral of behavior.

On March 10, 1983, Lisker went to his parents’ house—to, he said, borrow a car jack. When his mother didn’t answer the door, he said he looked in the living room window, saw his mother’s prone body, and entered the house. Lisker saw his mother stabbed in the back, took two knives out of her back (getting blood on himself and his sneakers in the process), and called 911. Detective Andrew Monsue responded to the call, interrogated Lisker (without initially reading him his Miranda rights), concluded that the young man was lying (in large part, the detective claimed, because the alleged glare of the sun meant there was no way Lisker could have looked into the window and seen his mother), and arrested him.

Monsue’s initial reaction was not unreasonable: Lisker had motive (he had repeatedly quarreled with his mother); was found, covered in blood, at the scene of the crime; and failed a lie detector test (for which he had volunteered). But the detective’s subsequent behavior provided an almost textbook case of “tunnel vision” by the police. Having decided that Lisker was lying, he interpreted all of the evidence through the prism of Lisker’s guilt. So Monsue simply assumed that all of the bloody footprints on the scene belonged to Lisker, rather than having them checked. (Twenty years later, when a criminalist finally did examine the footprints, it was established that one set of the bloody prints didn’t belong to Lisker.) The detective went out of his way to document “evidence”—notably the alleged glare on the living room window—that made Lisker look more guilty. (It turned out that, given weather conditions on the day of the murder, the body would have been visible through the window.) And remarkably strong evidence that a casual acquaintance of Lisker who had a violent past, a drifter named Michael Ryan, was the actual murderer Monsue either ignored or didn’t investigate.

At trial, prosecutor Phillip Rabichow repeatedly made statements that he might have believed but which turned out to be false. He told jurors that since Lisker had lied about seeing his mother’s prone body, nothing else the young man said could be true. And, Rabichow added, since no one else’s footprints had been found at the scene, who else but Lisker could have committed the crime? In both instances, Rabichow had trusted the evidence package that Monsue had provided to him. But these statements were not true.

Lisker’s attorney, meanwhile, proved so incompetent that he couldn’t even get the evidence about Ryan admitted to the trial. After 10 hours of deliberation, a jury found Lisker guilty of second-degree murder, a sentence for which he has remained in jail until his release this week. The local DA’s office hasn’t decided whether it will retry him: how such a move could serve the cause of justice is unknown.

One obvious similarity exists between the Lisker and the lacrosse cases: police officers “recalling” “facts” they hadn’t documented contemporaneously, so as to paper over holes in the prosecution’s case. In the lacrosse case, of course, this pattern most clearly emerged with the Gottlieb “notes,” the typewritten document—most of which Gottlieb subsequently admitted he produced in July, months after the events it allegedly described—that conveniently filled some of the myriad holes that already had emerged in disgraced ex-DA Mike Nifong’s case.

In the Lisker case, such “recollections” occurred much later, as federal courts and the LAPD’s Internal Affairs unit started looking into the prosecution. Monsue “recalled” that the new owners of the Liskers’ house had discovered the money allegedly stolen from Lisker’s mother in the bedroom formerly occupied by Bruce Lisker—which would have conveniently filled a major hole in the case. (If robbery were a motivate for the crime, as the state claimed, and if Mrs. Lisker were in fact robbed, then why did the police not find any money on Bruce Lisker?) The only problem: the new owners said they hadn’t found any money, and that they certainly hadn’t told Monsue about it.

Other undocumented “recollections” included the police photographer “recalling” arriving on the scene several hours before his notes claimed (which was an important element for the “window glare” evidence); and two of Monsue’s subordinates “recalling” that they might have stepped in blood at the scene, thereby providing the footprints that weren’t Lisker’s. The magistrate judge bluntly concluded that both Monsue and the police photographer had knowingly provided “false” testimony.

But the differences between Lisker and lacrosse far outweighed the similarities between the two cases.

In the Lisker case (and, indeed, most instances of innocent people being wrongly incarcerated), prosecutor Rabichow didn’t improperly assume personal command of the police investigation; in the lacrosse case, prosecutor Nifong did.

In the Lisker case (and, indeed, most instances of innocent people being wrongly incarcerated), prosecutor Rabichow didn’t make dozens of ethically improper public statements; in the lacrosse case, prosecutor Nifong did.

In the Lisker case (and, indeed, most instances of innocent people being wrongly incarcerated), prosecutor Rabichow didn’t instruct the police to run a lineup that flagrantly violated the department’s own procedures; in the lacrosse case, prosecutor Nifong did.

In the Lisker case, Monsue appears to have randomly accepted the call, and had no documented behavior of disproportionately arresting 17-year-old people named Lisker; in the lacrosse case, of course, Gottlieb had a documented record of disproportionately arresting Duke students.

In the Lisker case (unlike, it should be noted, many instances of innocent people being wrongly incarcerated), prosecutor Rabichow didn’t conspire to conceal exculpatory evidence; in the lacrosse case, prosecutor Nifong did.

Despite these myriad differences, if Lisker’s case had occurred in North Carolina (and, of course, if Lisker were African-American), doubtless the disgraced Nifong’s de facto propaganda agency (justice4nifong) and extremists among the Group of 88 would be demanding that the State Bar open proceedings against Rabichow. Politically correct reviewers (and even respectable figures who should know better) would draw strained comparisons between Lisker’s treatment and that of the lacrosse players.

Yet, in the real world, even in what the L.A. Times described as a “haunting” case like Lisker’s, the intent of prosecutors matters when evaluating questions of misconduct. And while it seems pretty clear that Monsue deserves disciplinary action (and equally clear, given the LAPD’s culture, that Monsue will be allowed to skate by), it’s hard to see, at least based on the facts uncovered by the magistrate judge and the L.A. Times, what ethical allegations possibly could be brought against Rabichow.

So if innocent people like Lisker can go to jail for decades without a prosecutor committing any misconduct, why did Nifong have to break so many rules to prop up a case for a year? Three explanations come to mind:

First, and most important, Nifong not only had to manufacture evidence to send innocent people to jail, he had to manufacture evidence of a crime with which to charge them. To manufacture evidence of the “crime,” Nifong needed to conspire to withhold the exculpatory DNA evidence, work alongside ex-SANE nurse-in-training Tara Levicy so that Levicy would constantly shift her story, and whip up public opinion into a frenzy so locals wouldn’t look too closely at the facts he was presenting. To manufacture evidence against those he charged with the non-existent “crime,” Nifong needed the police to break the rules regarding the photo lineup, which then supplied the only evidence he would present against the three people he falsely charged.

Indeed, the single scariest legacy of the lacrosse case is that an unethical local prosecutor has enough power to charge people (with the motive of advancing his political career) even when no crime has taken place.

Second, unlike the Lisker case, the lacrosse players had excellent attorneys. They couldn’t stop Nifong from bringing the case, but their aggressiveness did force him into lots of errors (the Gottlieb memo, the handling of the DNA evidence in fall 2006 court sessions, the bizarre public statements in fall 2006) that intensified the ethical improprieties with which he would be charged. If the lacrosse players had passive, incompetent representation like Lisker did, Nifong simply would have sat back and done nothing as the case ground to trial.

Third, and much unlike the Lisker case, the institutions in society we expect to stand up for civil liberties—the media (except for the N&O once Joe Neff took over as their lead reporter, and the AP), the academy, civil rights organizations—by and large exhibited little interest in the question. To the contrary: the Times, the Herald-Sun, the Group of 88, the North Carolina NAACP, and other such groups seemed more interested in propping up Nifong’s case than in demanding that all citizens, regardless of race, class, or gender, receive equal treatment under the law.

Monday, August 10, 2009

A Bit More from Davidson

On a few occasions over the course of the blog, I’ve mentioned the 2004 Duke Conservative Union survey, which revealed that an 17.75*-1 majority of Duke humanities faculty members were registered Democrats.

Surveying professors’ political registration is, at best, a blunt instrument in determining the pedagogical atmosphere on campus.* (To take an obvious personal example, if I taught at Duke, I would have counted in the overwhelming majority of registered Democrats.) But in a campus environment committed to self-reflection, the overwhelming margin—and those revealed in similar surveys, such as one at the University of Iowa—would have, at the very least, triggered some questions about hiring practices. (Imagine, for example, how people like the Group of 88 would have greeted a survey showing that that the Duke humanities faculty was 18-to-1 male.)

Some questions that the DCU and similar surveys should have generated: Are humanities departments—awash in a groupthink mentality, and hostile to hiring those who might challenge the status quo on campus—abusing the self-governance that the hiring process provides, to screen out qualified candidates perceived to have “undesirable” ideological viewpoints? Or, more likely, have humanities and (some) social sciences departments become so pedagogically top-heavy with devotees of the race/class/gender approach that they have effectively screened out a significant percentage of applicants? John Burness unintentionally conceded as much in 2004, when he rationalized the DCU figures by saying that the “creativity” in humanities and social science disciplines was dominated by issues of race, class, and gender, leading to a “perfectly logical criticism of the current society” in the classroom.

Regardless of the reason for the political and ideological imbalance, the reaction to these figures by defenders of the campus status quo essentially proved the critics’ case. Among the more infamous comments was that of then-Duke Philosophy Department chairman Robert Brandon, who mused, “If, as John Stuart Mill said, stupid people are generally conservative, then there are lots of conservatives we will never hire.” After a torrent of criticism greeted his remarks, Brandon, entirely unconvincingly, claimed he was making a joke.

A reader recently forwarded me the response to the DCU survey from Cathy Davidson. The Group of 88’er’s comments lacked the soundbite quality of Brandon’s statement, and so attracted little attention at the time. But they embodied the same sneering dismissal of those who have exposed the pedagogical and ideological one-sidedness that dominated Duke during the lacrosse case and that dominates so many humanities and social sciences departments today.

Davidson denied that a job candidate’s political or ideological agenda ever had played a role in a personnel decision in which she had participated. (Of course, there’s no way to check this claim, since all college and university hiring decisions are confidential.) So how did Duke get figures like those in the DCU survey? The “pool “of conservative applicants was “too shallow.”

How did Davidson propose remedying the problem? She did not recommend anything, of course, that would prevent the Group of 88 from replicating itself in future hires. Instead, she suggested, the problem was a cultural one: “If part of being a Republican is belief in free market and capitalist values, why would you spend four year of colleges earning straight A's in order to go for six or seven years of graduate school in order to compete with 200-300 other applicants for the rare plum of a tenure-track job in the humanities with a starting salary of maybe, if you're lucky, $45,000 a year. In my years of teaching, I've had many students tell me they would love to be an English major but their parents insist that they go to medical school or law school or into business.”

But, earlier in her article, Davidson had ostentatiously proclaimed, “I've never seen the numbers [about partisan affiliation of Duke students] and I hope never to.” So of what relevance were her stories from students to a discussion of partisan imbalance in the academy? Since Davidson claimed not to know the political affiliation of her students, how did she determine that the “many” Duke students who poured their souls out to her about being pressured by their parents to “go to medical school or law school or into business” were not actually Democrats?

Nonetheless, Davidson offered, she was willing to make some recommendations to address the problem. “Short-term: Heritage Foundation or the American Enterprise Institute can start lucrative graduate fellowship programs for young Republicans.”

And what, precisely, would be the chances of these people getting hired be in departments dominated by people like Cathy Davidson, given—if nothing else—the ill-concealed condescension that she revealed in her comments?

“Long-term: you've got to get them earlier. How about Head Start for Homer? Programs in affluent gated communities so baby Republicans can learn the joy of classics, not the joy of derivatives training.”

Actually, in 2008, Barack Obama outpolled John McCain among the highest-earning voters—suggesting that this scheme would likely increase the number of Democrats in the academy. In any case, had Davidson conducted a survey of “gated communities” to determine that children in such communities had an insufficient appreciation for Homer? If not, on what did she base her recommendation?

Put yourself in the position of a moderate—much less a conservative—applying for a job in the Duke English Department, and discovering that the person who wrote dismissively about “Head Start for Homer” in “affluent gated communities” was one of the three people on the search committee. How likely do you think that this Group of 88’er would treat your application fairly?

And, keep in mind, Davidson is generally considered among the more respectable of the Group of 88.

*--word change to clarify; corrected from 18-to-1

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Davidson Does Grading

Cathy Davidson occupies a unique place in the history of Duke’s response to the lacrosse case. Widely perceived as among the more moderate of the Group of 88, Davidson humiliated herself by penning the first apologia for the Group’s action. In her January 2007 op-ed, the Duke English professor invented a past that never existed, claiming that in the first two weeks after the case broke—a time when both local and national coverage was overwhelmingly slanted against the lacrosse players—the media was in fact “rampant” with “racist and sexist remarks,” with those intent on “defending David Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann . . . reverting to pernicious stereotypes about African-Americans, especially poor black women.”

Davidson, in short, revealed herself to be either a shameless fabricator or (much more likely) someone so steeped in the groupthink atmosphere that dominates Duke’s humanities departments that she actually believed that the early media coverage was favorable to the lacrosse players. When reality clashed with her own words, the Group of 88’er retreated to fulminations against those she labeled “hooligans.”

Davidson was back in the news this week, courtesy of a column by Scott Jaschik in Inside Higher Ed. The topic? The former administrator’s . . . unusual . . . approach upon her return to the classroom. Asserted Davidson, “I loved returning to teaching last year after several years in administration . . . except for the grading.”

Most faculty members don’t particularly like grading. And the issue of how to link grading to measuring a student’s overall performance isn’t an easy one. In my undergraduate classes, I normally use a mixture of exams, papers, reading-based quizzes, group assignments, and participation.

How did the 88’er respond to the problem of coming back to the classroom but not much wanting to grade students’ work? “I'm trying out a new point system. Do all the work, you get an A. Don't need an A? Don't have time to do all the work? No problem. You can aim for and earn a B. There will be a chart. You do the assignment satisfactorily, you get the points.”

And how to evaluate whether a student has done the work? “Since I already have structured my seminar (it worked brilliantly last year) so that two students lead us in every class, they can now also read all the class blogs (as they used to) and pass judgment on whether they are satisfactory.”

Those concerned with the issue of grade inflation would doubtless raise eyebrows at this clause from Davidson’s grading policy: “Revision and resubmission results in full points. Everyone who chooses to do the work to the satisfaction of his or her collaborative peers in the course will receive an A.” What about the course exam? “In lieu of a final exam, students will write an evaluation of the class.”

A cynical person might wonder if Davidson’s scheme is nothing more than an attempt by a professor who earns a six-figure salary and teaches no more than four courses annually to get out of grading, a task that she admittedly deems unpleasant.

But Davidson denies a claim of laziness, and instead posits that her approach represents cutting-edge pedagogy—a strategy necessary for “21st century” education, as opposed to a “Machine Age” approach. “I can't think,” writes she, “of a more meaningless, superficial, cynical way to evaluate learning than by assigning a grade. It turns learning (which should be a deep pleasure, setting up for a lifetime of curiosity) into a crass competition.” (Competition, it’s worth noting, is something strongly frowned upon by politically correct pedagogues in the contemporary academy.) Moreover, the 88’er adds, “every study [emphasis added] of peer review among students shows that students perform at a higher level, and with more care, when they know they are being evaluated by their peers than when they know only the teacher and the TA will be grading.” Davidson doesn’t cite any studies in her syllabus, nor does she explain how she has consulted every study on this topic.

Davidson’s pedagogical colleagues rave about her approach—and also offer a glimpse of the race/class/gender agenda behind the Group of 88’er’s scheme.

NYU professor Lisa Duggan (whose website describes her first research interest as “queer and feminist theory”) tells Davidson that she has “done something like this with my big undergrad class, Intersections: Race, Gender & Sexuality [of course] in US History, for years now. [Students] do all the work, at a ‘good faith’ level of quality (earning a check [!!] from their TA), show up on time to all classes and participate in discussion sections—they get an A. Grades scale down from there. The greatest thing about it is that many students without previous educational privilege *love* it and often do extremely well when not being judged in the usual way—reading a book a week, writing response papers every week, and ultimately participating at grad student level. Entitled students who try to skate by on a good prose style do not like it at all... :>). “

In other words, the Davidson/Duggan scheme improves the grades of “students without previous educational privilege” and disadvantages students who write well. What happens if those “students without previous educational privilege” might expect to leave college having received instruction on how to write at a high level? Well, apparently, they’re out of luck.

Riché Richardson, one of Davidson’s former graduate students who now teaches in the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University (where she is a colleague of none other than Grant Farred), pays fealty to Davidson’s “brilliant pedagogical vision” and her “courage.” Indeed, for Richardson, “knowing [Davidson] has been a blessing.”

Having been thus blessed, Richardson apparently doesn’t see the need to explain why Davidson’s “professor-doesn’t-grade” scheme is a good idea. Richardson did, however, find the time to inform IHE readers that she was “tenured (with unanimous votes in my departments) in both the University of California and the Ivy League.”

One IHE commenter pointed out the obvious: “If students need to take upper level courses which require they understand facts, this method likely fails.”

But facts, in Cathy Davidson’s world, are malleable things. After all, this is the same professor who told us all it was a fact that media coverage in the first two weeks of the lacrosse case was “rampant” with “racist and sexist remarks,” with those intent on “defending David Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann . . . reverting to pernicious stereotypes about African-Americans, especially poor black women.”

[Hat tip: C.G., L.H.]

Monday, August 03, 2009

July Events in the Case

All three sets of attorneys provided a forceful rebuttal to the Duke/Durham claim that the recent Iqbal decision justifies dismissal of the civil cases. In one of the briefs' better passages, "In supplemental briefs, the wrongdoers behind the Duke lacrosse case—one of the best-documented episodes of police and prosecutorial civil rights abuses in modern history—contend that their misconduct can never be the subject of a federal action because the pleading requirements of Rule 8(a) present an insurmountable barrier. They declare that the well-known facts of the Duke lacrosse case are 'implausible,' and that the Court should simply disbelieve them and dismiss the case before discovery even begins."

The brief filed by disgraced ex-DA Nifong appeared to retract his apology to the falsely accused players, and his previous admission that no evidence existed to justify his procedurally improper prosecution.

The list of signatories to the May 1, 2006 Sociology Department letter revealed some of the biggest names in the department, including the current and former chair. In the comments thread, one (anonymous, of course) commenter expressed outrage that the recently unearthed document would be analyzed at all, since the letter was more than three years old.

Houston Baker--the very same man who was willing to publicly denounce his own school's students based solely on the word of the police--suddenly positioned himself as a sharp critic of trusting the version of events presented by the police.

Duke Magazine interviewed several Group members, offering a combination of extremist thought and unintelligible prose.

Wendy Murphy managed to insert herself into the Gates scandal. No word yet on whether she is claiming that the Cambridge Police has refused to release all secret documents.

ESPN covered a troubling sexual assault case involving a college soccer player in California.

And the winner of the 2009 Philip Merrill Award for Outstanding Contributions to Liberal Arts Education was announced.