Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Freedom of the (Student) Press

There are always a few sides to a controversy.

Fair warning, though: this controversy is about boobs. More importantly, it's about free speech.

A few weeks ago, a professor at American University brought her baby to class. She's a single mom and her daughter had a fever, which meant daycare was a no-go. During her lecture, the baby got fussy, the professor breastfed the baby, and then class ended.

At least one student found the incident unprofessional, and word of what had happened in the class eventually reached The Eagle, the student newspaper for American University. One of the The Eagle's reporters reached out to the professor so the other side of the story could be heard.

Most of the news coverage of this event has focused pretty exclusively on whether or not it is appropriate to breastfeed in class. (Pull out your pitchforks, lacto-army, because I am of the opinion it's not all that appropriate. If you breastfeed in a restaurant or the library or on a bus, and people who may be uncomfortable -- which is their right -- have the option of looking away. No harm, no foul. Breastfeeding in front of a class of 40 students who are supposed to be following your every word, who won't be able to casually bow out without making a spectacle of themselves? Not the same scenario.)

But regardless of how you feel about public breastfeeding -- and in particular, public breastfeeding in front of a captive audience -- that is not really the issue.

The professor in question has written a long, rambling, defensive blog post about how the real controversy is the fact that a breastfeeding is just as normal as menstruating (true) and therefore the fact that a professor did it in front of her class, thereby discomfiting at least one student enough to drop the class, is presumptively not news (not true).

The professor in question described the student reporter who contacted her by (professional) email as a "budding reporter." Because if someone is just learning and practicing journalism, they are to be taken less seriously than a seasoned reporter.

The professor becomes incensed when when the reporter doesn't simply acquiesce to her request to drop the story.

To borrow a page from the internet:

The professor is annoyed that the student reporter has the audacity to show up at her class and then ask if she'd have time to answer some questions (ignoring, apparently, the fact that she could have simply said, "No, I don't have time" or "No comment").

She describes the student reporter as "chirping" instead of "speaking," because apparently you only have to treat women as serious humans when they're breastfeeding and giving lectures on feminism, and not when they're in college and trying to build their resume.

She explains that during the interview, she had to slap her forehead with frustration and roll her eyes at the "naive" and "sophomoric" student reporter, who works for a newspaper the professor deems "third-rate," by which I can only assume she means, "less deserving of freedom of the press." She explains that the newspaper has a "solidly anti-woman slant" and points to a 2010 column by an opinion writer (who may or may not be graduated by now) as her evidence.

* Pardon my interruption of my own recitation of the controversy, but as a former opinion columnist, I must say that if my entire student paper, and every student who wrote for it, was judged by the contents of the opinion page, we'd all have quite the schizophrenic reputation.*

The professor decries the "hostile" environment this student reporter is causing, ignoring the fact that her own actions also could be described as "hostile" by the student who was uncomfortable enough to drop the class -- which is why this is news, and why the reporter is looking into the situation. What's more, calling something "hostile" does not automatically make it so, and that goes double when the scenario involves the power imbalance between a professor and a student.

And finally, the professor apparently finds it incredibly unprofessional that a reporter might not immediately and personally respond to an email demanding that a story not run, and instead refer the matter up the chain to her editor.

Do you know what I find troubling and unprofessional? That this professor, who apparently feels like she is being made out to be "tabloid fodder" (despite posting the entire story herself online, with the names of herself, the reporter, and her daughter) over what is (in her mind) a "non-issue," feels no compunction about attempting to bully a student reporter into not reporting a story. The professor openly admits going to her department chair and other professors, asking them to lean on the student newspaper staff to kill the piece -- without a hint of irony that perhaps this, like breastfeeding your crying child while lecturing students on their first day of class, is not the most appropriate behavior for a professor.

Is it possible this story wasn't completely newsworthy? Entirely.

That is not the point, however much this professor wishes it were.

The point is that deciding that something is not newsworthy, without reading the story, and then exercising your influence as a professor  to censor student journalism, is the very definition of inappropriate in the academic setting.

Which is why I wish this story had involved anything but breasts, because if it had been about any other topic, I think we'd be able to see the forest for the voluptuous, lactating trees.


  1. PS, the other reason I find this professor a little disingenuous? The false dilemma she sets up between staying home with her sick kid and skipping the first day of class. Her TA offered to take the kid and was holding the baby until she got fussy, at which point the professor breastfed.

    What was she planning to do if the kid had gotten fussy at DAYCARE, which is where she would have been if she hadn't woken up with a fever? Did the professor, as I suspect, actually have some bottles of pumped milk or formula ready to go that the TA could have fed the kid ... except instead she decided to breastfeed and lecture on feminism at the same time. And MAKE. A. POINT.

    (end rant)

  2. Wow this professor has unprofessional written all over her. I am rather shocked that she would do something like that in front of her students.

  3. In general, I am theoretically on the side of moms breastfeeding wherever they feel like it. They are legally entitled to breastfeed wherever they are legally allowed to be. BUT, when you are employed at a job, it's unprofessional to do tons of stuff that you are legally entitled to do - wear sweatpants, eat a cheeseburger in front of the class, etc. etc. A law school administration that asked her not to do it again wouldn't be doing so arbitrarily just because they hate moms because there are lots of important factors that you mentioned. They are a captive audience, and also they are paying a shitload of money for this woman to lecture to them and anything that would keep them from getting the most out of the lecture is at the very least unfair to what are basically your paying customers.

    Since those reasons probably aren't important if she was breastfeeding in her office while writing, or even in the hallway or student lounge where nobody was paying to stare at her, it's likely nobody would make a fuss or care.

    But you are totally right that all the substantive arguments either way become irrelevant when instead of just responding to the article with more free speech to articulate the opposite viewpoint, she belittles and attacks the journalist and the student newspaper for making her look bad.

    1. Right - bringing your kid to your office, where she can't disturb anyone, isn't really that big of a deal, esp if it's a one-time thing. If she'd just had her TA watch the kid, instead of letting her crawl around on a classroom floor during a lecture, this would be a non-issue.

      But the big problem is the fact that all that flies out the window when you find out about her unhinged response to the student reporter.

      And I totally agree- just because you are legally entitled to do something doesn't mean it's professional to do that thing.

  4. I'm sorry, but there are places people eat and where you don't. Going off of the "I'm not going to breastfeed my baby in the bathroom, you don't eat in there, why should she?" mentality - I'M NOT ALLOWED TO EAT IN CLASS! There are places that are appropriate for eating, breastfeeding, pooping, sexing, etc. etc. for a reason. It's not because it's going to offend someone, but it's based on courtesy and propriety. Aside from the fact that she was breastfeeding a child in class, the child was sick. So she potentially infected the class with whatever illness the baby had. AND what in what professional situation is it okay to bring your kid to work/school? Stay home with your sick baby, take a sick day! Mother eff...

  5. like none of those college students had never seen a tit. i see more cleavage from the students on campus than i do from a woman breastfeeding.

    the baby can't go to daycare because she is actively around all the other kids spreading germs. i doubt a baby being held at the front of a lecture hall is risking the immune systems of an adult population.

    i think she was doing her best to BE professional. as she explains in her response, she didn't want to miss the first day of class so she took the baby with her. I commend her for being willing to tough out going to work because she felt it was best for the class, instead of taking the easy route and calling in sick.

    one my my male professors wears button down shirts unbuttoned halfwayway, and sometimes I can see some nipple (and lots of chest hair). Is that unprofessional? is it so bad that I can't focus? we see mens nipples all the time, it's weird that we get to upset when we see a woman's breast.

    I know your big beef is with her trying to stop the article from being published, but really, isn't that what most people would do? How many celebrities try to lean on magazines not to report stories? she knew the story would probably be unfair and forever identify her with the breastfeeding movement.

    Ru, you yourself have taken great pains to maintain your privacy, because you recognize the damage some bad press could have on your career. She only came out about it on her blog because she'd rather address it on her terms, if there was no choice about it.

    and somehow, i don't think anyone will be scarred for life from seeing a tit and some nip.

    1. Yes, my beef is the fact that she tried to use her position of power to stop an article from being published in a student paper. That is entirely inappropriate. No, scratch that. It's AWFUL. Most people would probably not want to be in a newspaper story, true, but that's not the point.

      She used her power as a professor, as someone with a wide readership, as someone with the ear of the head of her department, to come down on a STUDENT. Unacceptable.

      You're right, my blog is semi-anonymous, but my email address is right there if people want to talk to me, and my blog is always open to commenters. But I have NEVER, dear anonymous, posted the name of anyone else on my blog. I don't "out" people on the internet about anything (even funny, inoffensive things).

      This professor, on the other hand, has now described the student reporter in question as "naive," "biased," "unprofessional," "sophomoric," "anti-woman," (all quotes from her blog post) and claimed that she felt harassed by this 20-something undergraduate student and has NAMED her, repeatedly, after the student newspaper agreed to allow the professor to be ANONYMOUS in their story.

      Yes, it was a totally inappropriate use of her power as an educator to attempt to chill speech and bully a student on the internet.

      But while we're at it, I think it was completely, UTTERLY, unprofessional to bring her sick child to class in the first place, and totally over the top to start breastfeeding her while lecturing.

      There is no such thing as doing your "best" to be professional when what you're doing is presumptively unprofessional. I would not, in A THOUSAND YEARS, bring my child to a meeting with a client or court.

      No one will be "scarred for life" (excellent straw man argument, really top drawer), but when you PAY for a service, you should have the right to demand the very BEST version of that service. It isn't taking the "easy route" to call in sick, it's acknowledging that people deserve better than you half-assing it.

      I would not want my doctor to divide his or her attention between me, the patient, and their child -- nor my contractor, my electrician, my accountant, the teller at a bank, or a bus driver.

      I don't know who you are, since unlike me, you are completely anonymous, but I'll assume you haven't had a job where people needed you to exercise all your skills, and not just the skills that happen to be available after herding your kid away from the classroom's electrical socket and pulling a paper clip out of her mouth (both of these things happened before the breastfeeding incident.) If you get a chance between games of Solitaire, poll some of us out here in Real Job Land. Ask us how many of us have bosses who would be ok with us bringing our kid to work instead of making other arrangements.

      (Spoiler alert: the answer is none.)

      Congratulations, Madame Professor, you procreated, just like a few billion other people. Now deal with the consequences of having both a job and a kid, and stop pretending it's such an impossible dilemma. People deal with this ALL THE TIME.

      The university has publicly stated that she had vacation days to use in the event her child was sick and that according to policy, she should have used them. By her own admission the kid was scheduled for daycare (which means she must have had a backup meal plan) and her TA offered to either watch the kid or teach the class.

      Those are the options that a professional has.

      Bringing your kid to class and plowing through your lecture so you can run back home is not one of them.

      It's not about breasts.

  6. I am "anonymous" because I don't blog myself, but really enjoy your blog, and have been reading it for years. And yes, I have worked professionally for several years, and only play solitaire and mess around on the internet during part of my day. thank god for privacy screens, no one can see what's happening on my computer. sometimes in our office, people have to bring their child to work for a brief time. No one ever had a problem with it, because if the options were a. person leaves early and takes a sick day, and that person's work gets put on the backburner or b. they take their kid to the office for two hours and get the job done, no one ever had a problem with option B. Of course they could take sick time if they chose to, but sometimes the employee really wanted to make sure that specific assignment got taken care of that day. Of course I would prefer my accountant not bring his kids to work, but sometimes divided attention is better than no attention. I think most offices would rather be flexible and have a kid at the office for a short period of time, if it means getting an essential task done. If the professor bails on class, sure there is a graduate student there, but most people would probably prefer to hear what the Ph.D. has to say, even if she is a little distracted.

    I don't see my point about everyone being fine after seeing a breast as a straw man argument (I guess I am off-topic). The student quoted in the paper used the word "appalled". most comments about the whole incident used words like "disgusted" and "horrified". You didn't use those words, but my intention was to point out that most of the issue people have with her, and a focus of the article, is what a "problem" this was, and how really, as she repeated in her blog post, it's a manufactured controversy.

    I did not mean to suggest that you would ever "out" anyone on your blog. I meant that you too understand the need for privacy, and that we could probably all empathize with the horror of having this article be a part of our online presence. As far as her "outing" the reporter, if anyone saw her blog post, even if she didn't name the reporter, all it takes it looking up the original article to find the reporter's name.

    I agree that she bullied the student reporter, but I think most people would use their influence to kill an embarrassing article. I don't have children, but I understand she was trying to do her best, and just feel bad for the woman.

    It's clear that we have polar views on this, so I promise to refrain from commenting on your blog again.

  7. Oooh, ooooh, I have lots to say about this, but overall, I gotta say I don't really get the hullabaloo. This was a one-time pseudo-emergency last-minute call and I'm sure she'll never do it again. If this were her usual deal, like, every day in class, or even a couple of times in class, it's a whole different story, but once in a jam? I really don't get the big deal. Was it weird? Well, sure. But professors do weird things all the time ESPECIALLY in undergrad classes and ESPECIALLY in feminist anthropology classes, I bet. Part of their job descriptions is to push boundaries and be weird...well, not officially, but in my experience, and I know we both attended the same blessed institution and I'm sure you had your own batch of odd duck professors just like I did. And of COURSE what's appropriate in the feminist anthropology undergrad classroom is not the same as what's appropriate for an attorney to do in court or with a client. I don't think those are that comparable (unless you usually wear birkenstocks to court).

    Anyway, I agree that her reaction to the reporter/story is the crazy part, which is the focus of your post and I totally get. I don't think hauling your baby there in a jam is straight up batshit CRAZY crazy, just bizarre. I also want to know how old the baby was. Does it say anywhere? Bc if it's teeny tiny that's a lot different than an older baby who can eat things besides milk. Maybe I'd feel differently 5 years ago or in 5 years but now, in the thick of the kid/work/life balance myself, I don't get the mega controversy about the boob. (So maybe that means I'M the crazy one? Bahahaha.)

    1. Man, what's wrong with birkenstocks? I wore them today ... ;)

      Touche on that score. Professors do seem to get to engage in a lot of strange behavior that a normal professional would not get away with, but I do think there is some overlap in that all professionals ought to maintain some level of professional distance/boundaries from their clients. (You might tell a client you have a husband, you probably shouldn't mention if you're divorcing him, that sort of thing.) That will probably mean different things to different people in different contexts.

      Are the boundaries lower/different for a lot of professors? Probably, but I think they still exist. (Now thinking back to all my weirdest professors in college ...ahh, memories.)

      You're right, bringing your kid to class once is really not that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things -- but it bothers me that she doesn't seem to acknowledge AT ALL the possibility that it might bother others.

      (Going off on a tangent -- is it not ok for other people to be uncomfortable with our behavior? I think women should be able to breastfeed in public, but I think it's only fair to acknowledge that it makes other people squeamish, and they will try to avoid it. As long as it doesn't result in any actual confrontation for the nursing mother, I don't see why someone shifting in their seat in a restaurant or going a different direction in the park is a biggie. I don't see why we should force other people to be ok with the things we are ok with, does that make sense? And in the classroom setting, there was no opportunity for someone who didn't want to see that to avoid it, which just adds to the initial discomfort.)

      (other tangent: there's no official word on the baby, other than it was old enough to crawl and had enough hand-eye coordination to put a paperclip from the floor in its mouth.)

      But boobs aside -- if I were a brand new freshman, paying boatloads of tuition, and a professor on my very first day brought her child to class and let it crawl all over the floor until the TA offered to hold it, and then breastfed it during the lecture, I don't think I'd be bothered by the sight of a boob, but I'd seriously consider dropping the class and finding another one. I'm just not sure I'd feel super confident, without any other evidence, that this professor WOULDN'T do that sort of thing on the regular.

      It's unfortunate that this didn't happen three months into the semester, once she had established credibility with her students, because I think that's an entirely different matter. But college is full of unknowns, and I don't think this made a great first impression on anyone. Combine that with her unhinged reaction to the student reporter, and I would be very uncomfortable remaining in her class.

      In short - one time baby visit, weird but not a big deal. Baby plus nursing plus the TA offering to take the baby and declining plus the first day plus turning into a crazy person when her behavior is questioned = yikes.

  8. Oh, I can't even tell you how much I like this post. After seeing the topic and having already read the "rant," I got a little nervous because, well, people in your profession sometimes don't like people in my profession (I'm a journalist). And since I really like what I know about you, and I really like your blog, I just didn't want to be mad. (Also, yes, I'm a bit of an online stalker — and a good one! — so I know what you do and who you are. Sorry?)

    But you said it so perfectly! The professor's patronizing words, her egocentric attitude, the censorship attempts, her disregard for a fellow woman ... I could rehash everything you said, but you already wrote it so neatly. Thanks for putting my thoughts down — in a much more organized way than how they went through my head.

    1. Stalk away, friendo. I trust in your discretion :)

      Yeah, I think the lawyer-journalist (and particular the ____________ lawyer-journalist) distrust comes mostly from both groups feeling like the other side does not really "get" what we do. But I think the broad themes are very similar.

      (Lawyers especially are prone to that "I'm so misunderstood!" problem, and in a lot of cases I don't really see a way around it -- when, for example, 500 pages of briefing are condensed into four paragraphs intended for mass consumption, nuance will be lost. What are you going to do? The two goals are different.)

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