Blind Man with a Pistol

Ah Rancourt! Ah Humanity!

In my haste and natural expectancy of instant compliance, I sat with my head bent over the original on my desk, and my right hand sideways, and somewhat nervously extended with the copy, so that immediately upon emerging from his retreat, Bartleby might snatch it and proceed to business without the least delay.

In this very attitude did I sit when I called to him, rapidly stating what it was I wanted him to do—namely, to examine a small paper with me. Imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation, when without moving from his privacy, Bartleby in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, “I would prefer not to.”

I sat awhile in perfect silence, rallying my stunned faculties. Immediately it occurred to me that my ears had deceived me, or Bartleby had entirely misunderstood my meaning. I repeated my request in the clearest tone I could assume. But in quite as clear a one came the previous reply, “I would prefer not to.”

Herman Melville, ‘Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street’ (1853)

Denis Rancourt, the embattled activist physics and environmental science professor who looks to lose his job at the University of Ottawa because of his unorthodox and subversive pedagogical philosophy, is becoming an international nuisance to his soon-to-be former employers. Rancourt (who, it should be said, has previously courted controversy by minimalizing global warming as an imminent threat and labelling it the concern of solitarily the ‘First World white middle class’) is under fire for ‘squatting’ a first-year Physics course, ignoring the department syllabus in authoring the course, dispensing with conventional grading (everyone was to recieve an ‘A+’) and focussing on ‘student-driven learning’. Claiming insubordination as an academic right, Rancourt found little sympathy from the university administration, who arrested him on campus and led him away in handcuffs. His plight has raised myriad questions about academic freedom and dissent.

In his weekly op-ed in the New York Times, Professor Stanley Fish has this to say on the subject of academic freedom:

In short, academic freedom, rather than being a philosophical or moral imperative, is a piece of policy that makes practical sense in the context of the specific task academics are charged to perform. It follows that the scope of academic freedom is determined first by specifying what that task is and then by figuring out what degree of latitude those who are engaged in it require in order to do their jobs.

It’s no surprise, then, that when Professor Fish offered his own editorial in put to Rancourt’s case, he reached the following conclusion:

It is the difference between being concerned with the establishing and implementing of workplace-specific procedures and being concerned with the wholesale transformation of society. It is the difference between wanting to teach a better physics course and wanting to save the world. Given such divergent views, not only is reconciliation between the parties impossible; conversation itself is impossible. The dispute can only be resolved by an essentially political decision, and in this case the narrower concept of academic freedom has won. But only till next time.

Professor Fish does not discriminate between the University and any other workplace. Indeed, his opening gambit suggests that since Rancourt’s behaviour would get him fired from a law firm, he should expect similar treatment from his faculty. It is as if Fish adpated his views on higher education from what Charles Dickens’ Mr. Gradgrind in Hard Times (1854) called ‘the one needful thing’:

“NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”

Yet Fish seems to take this caricature as—ahem—fact. Certainly, with an increasing dependence on corporate donations and emphasis on producing so-called ’employable’ graduates, the University has parted somewhat from its historical role as an essential ally of democracy. To defend against this erosion, we can turn to no more eloquent exposition than the Catholic Victorian philosopher John Henry Newman. In his discourses on The Idea of a University (1852), Newman argues:

Education is a high word; it is the preparation for knowledge, and it is the imparting of knowledge in proportion to that preparation. We require intellectual eyes to know withal, as bodily eyes for sight. We need both objects and organs intellectual; we cannot gain them without setting about it; we cannot gain them in our sleep, or by haphazard. The best telescope does not dispense with eyes; the printing press or the lecture room will assist us greatly, but we must be true to ourselves, we must be parties in the work. A University is, according to the usual designation, an Alma  Mater, knowing her children one by one, not a foundry, or a mint, or a treadmill….

[The University] will embody a specific idea, it will represent a doctrine, it will administer a code of conduct, and it will furnish principles of thought and action. It will give birth to a living teaching, which in course of time will take the shape of a self-perpetuating tradition, or a genius loci, as it is sometimes called; which haunts the home where it has been born, and which imbues and forms, more or less, and one by one, every individual who is successively brought under its shadow. (My emphasis)

Academic freedom, then, is not a workplace-specific mandate to render research and instruction more efficient, it is grease for the engine of democracy. It is the synthesis of fact and fancy, the petrie dish of society. Academics and students have a pivotal role to play in that construction. This is why education is an inalienable and universal human right, while working in a law firm is not.

No wonder, then, that Rancourt’s dissent haunts the university like Bartleby’s obstinance haunts his former employer. It seems to me that Rancourt is doing his best to uphold the spirit of Newman’s concept of the University. Granted, he is severely insubordinate—on such a shocking and incomprehensible level that the administration of the University of Ottawa appear at a  loss on how best to handle him. Indeed, Fish’s evaluation of Rancourt’s subversion as ‘comical’ coincides with the popular opinion, if the comments to any news story touching this case are to be believed. Rancourt stares at Bartleby’s dead brick wall behind the pale screen (albeit with a bit more panache), willing it to change with a simple act of defiance, as would-be peers and allies nonchalantly transfer him to the dead letter office, prison and anonymity.

4 Comments so far
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For the University of Ottawa – which may be true for all universities nowadays – to act as it did regarding Rancourt is actually coherent to its transformation into a machine that cranks out as many graduates as possible.

When the Harris government in Ontario ‘reformed’ the funding formula to its post-secondary educational institutions, it held universities to 3 measurable objectives: ensuring that students complete their programs in a timely fashion, secure employment and pay back their loans.

Comment by deBeauxOs

I am a member of U Ottawa Physics, although I don’t have any special knowledge about the situation beyond non Physics U Ottawa students and faculty. Many would like to invoke the narrative of the Educational Industrial Complex versus some idealized version of the university and academic freedom (like your Newman, 1852). The issue is more mundane, and U Ottawa is not “at a loss on how best to handle him [Rancourt].” He is being dismissed for not covering the curricula which he is contractually obligated to teach in a manner consistent with university policy. His politics are peripheral. We all have had profs. that have strong political views inserted off-topic into courses. However, because they covered the required material, they were not fired. I have taken university classes on sociological topics like subversion of authority, alternative pedagogies, and the role of education in society. All great interesting subjects, no doubt. However, its a great thing to teach in a Sociology class, not “squatting” in a Physics course. If he wants to design curricula on that topic he needs to quit Physics and apply for a position in the social sciences. There he can be judged by a peer group competent in his area of interest, and can develop curricula accordingly. Tenure gives a person academic freedom, lots of it, but you are still beholden to peers in your field.

Comment by willnesse

Hi willnesse, and thanks for the comment.

Obviously, I am not alone in thinking that Rancourt’s case speaks to larger questions of academic freedom and the right of dissent vs insubordination–we need only look as far as Stanley Fish’s article in the New York Times to realize that this ‘mundane’ conflict has captured the public imagination in some way. I find it very difficult to believe that if Rancourt’s behaviour was simply a matter of an unfulfilled contract that the University would have opted to have their professor taken away in handcuffs. It seems that Rancourt isn’t the only one with a penchant for hyperbole.

That said, it’s not really my intention to valourize Rancourt. I sympathize with his views on teaching, and with his efforts to undermine the ongoing corporatization of the university. Indeed, in the humanities, his pedagogy is not unheard of–Slavoj Zizek’s European Graduate School is similarly radical. But I’m not convinced that he is entirely genuine, or, more specifically, not without a touch of megalomania. However radical my beliefs, and Rancourt’s, might be, we could scarcely believe that Allan Rock would come into work this week and strike down a century of convention, touched as he was by Rancourt’s fever.

But what is truly at issue here is the value of dissent, and how this is best treated. Rock and the Governors of UOttawa seem to believe it is best treated with a very large and very flat stick. Didn’t this incident allow for the opportunity to open a dialogue at the university on its educational methods? That opportunity seems now lost. As to your suggestion that Rancourt should join the arts, why should teaching and the culture of science lie outside of a scientist’s purview? Shouldn’t Physics teachers be able to decide how physics teachers teach?

Finally, I completely agree with you that academic freedom, in the ultimate instance, should be decided by your peers–but with an open mind. I’m not sure that Rancourt received this privilege.

Comment by Blind Man

Rancourt gets press because he apes the corporation, seeking more than is reasonable. Meanwhile, good professors like Douglas Giles, who was fired by Roosevelt University in Chicago in 2004 for refusing to “obey” an unreasonable order not to talk about Zionism in a World Religion class, are ignored.

Giles fought Roosevelt and won. But Fish prefers to attack straw men such as this buffoon Rancourt.

Giles was teaching about Zionism because his Jewish and Muslim students both wanted to know about it. Rancourt doesn’t seem to care that most of his students would prefer grades, and most of them look to him to set priorities.

Stanley Fish systematically ignores people who don’t take unreasonable positions because he has no real dialectical skills. He doesn’t seem to believe that people can in fact come to the truth by way of conversation, therefore he prefers to mock people who are caricatures.

Fish won’t talk about David Noble, a former Smithsonian director who wrote a history of machine tools, FORCES OF PRODUCTION. Because Noble wrote the book from a pro-union perspective, he was hounded out of a job and now teaches, like Rancourt, in Canada.

Like Rancourt, Noble believes that the university should not serve employer needs exclusively, but Noble also believes in objectivity and truth. Fish tends to smirk at largeish truth claims, especially when they have to do with creating a better world; as far as Fish is concerned, this world, in which Fish is emeritus and comfortable, is just fine.

Comment by spinoza1111

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