The Irascible ProfessorSM
by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
main thing that I learned about conspiracy theory, is that conspiracy theorists
believe in a conspiracy because that is more comforting. The truth of the
world is that it is actually chaotic. The truth is that it is not The
Iluminati, or The Jewish Banking Conspiracy, or the Gray Alien Theory.
The truth is far more frightening - Nobody is in control.
The world is rudderless." ....Alan Moore
Commentary of the Day - February 11, 2013. Can We Give Professor Conspiracy the Boot? Guest commentary by Sanford Pinsker.
"Conspiracy theorists" with teaching posts at our colleges and universities have a good deal. They can spend their early afternoons hatching up lame brained scenarios (no "hard evidence" is required because conspirators systematically destroy it) and still pull down a hefty paycheck. Those without academic credentials expose or explain conspiracies without institutional support. Countless numbers of them graze through the blogosphere on their own time and usually in their parents' basements.
By contrast, academic conspiracy mongers have enough imagination to know that a lively imagination, rather than rigorous research methods, is all they need. Take James Tracy, a tenured professor at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) in Boca Raton, Florida. He teaches a course called "Culture of Conspiracy" and made his conspiratorial "street creds" by claiming, both in his class and on his blog, that the horrific massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School either was much exaggerated or perhaps didn't happen at all. According to Professor Tracy, many, if not all, of the first responders were "crisis actors" employed by none other than members of the Obama administration. Why so? Because there was an ulterior motive linking lurking just beneath the "carnage." I'll get to that in a few sentences.
The media (predictably enough) fueled the flames with wall-to-wall coverage and the result, according to Tracy, is a country now ready to rip the guns out of every American hunter's hand. It's what President Obama had in mind all along.
Apparently some of the students in Tracy's class were appalled and said so. They also spilled the beans to a reporter from a local newspaper and in short order Tracy was basking in the light that fifteen minutes of fame generates.
As if on cue, a spokesperson from Florida Atlantic University distanced the university from their conspiracy-theorist-in-residence: "James Tracy does not speak for the university," declared Lisa Metcalf, media director. But the damage had already been done. More than a few FAU parents must have rolled their eyes and wondered what their tuition dollars was buying. Indeed, anybody with young children or grandchildren must have wondered why the possibly deranged Tracy didn't get the boot.
The reasons he is still teaching about conspiracies far and wide is (1) that he has tenure and (2) because his opinions, however loopy, are protected by the First Amendment. True, the university could charge him with "incompetence" (something harder to prove in a court of law than you might imagine) and in the process drag FAU through the judicial mud in a way that might mark it as a school that hires incompetent professors. (Good luck on your next fund-raising drive.)
On the hand, firing Tracy just might have a beneficial effect, not only in terms of removing someone with a tenuous grip on reality from the classroom but also in assuring the public at large that the university comes clean about its mistakes and corrects them.
Let me hasten to add that I don't have a shred of sympathy for Tracy. In my forty-plus years of college teaching I have run into more than a few Tracy types and like second-hand smoke, they manage to give hard-working, thoroughly professional teachers an unwarranted black eye. When people call the entire teaching profession to task, they have professors such as Tracy in mind. So, it's not just a matter of how outrageous and insensitive his conspiracy theory is, but also about how his narcissism cheapens the entire teaching profession.
No doubt some people will remind me that making judgments about a professor's opinions is a slippery slope. Today, there is Tracy but what about tomorrow? If academic speech is not protected and protected absolutely -- some professor, somewhere, is going to be hounded out of the classroom. Perhaps because he or she expressed an unpopular opinion about global warming or gay marriage.
Here, a few distinctions are in order: if Tracy had separated his personal opinions from his professional judgments and, moreover, if he had kept FAU far away from the former, there would be little to talk about. As a citizen, Tracy has every right to express whatever wacky opinion he wishes. But in the classroom, there is something very wrong about a professor who tries to provoke questions by pointing out that newspapers, including the New York Times, did not publish photographs of the bullet-riddled students on the front page, and above the fold.
Thus far, FAU has not given Tracy the boot, nor do I think they ever will. This does not surprise me but in the spirit of Professor Tracy's question raising, let me ask two: how did he get a tenured post at FAU and who approved his course in "Culture of Conspiracy?"
© 2013, Sanford Pinsker.
Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor at Franklin and Marshall College. He now lives in south Florida where he thinks about weighty issues on cloudy days and occasionally reviews manuscripts for publishers.
The Irascible Professor comments: My friend Sandy Pinsker raises some interesting questions in his article The IP notes that James Tracy is a tenured professor of communications. As such, he has a special obligation to instruct his students about the need for objectivity and verification of sources when making claims about the news media. In this case it seems that Tracy did neither when he labeled both the attacks on 9/11 and the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School as "drills that went live." The IP also agrees with Sandy that academic speech deserves a high level of protection. And, that simply espousing controversial or contrary views should not be grounds for dismissal. Likewise, the examination of conspiracy theories can be a legitimate academic exercise, provided it is done with sufficient objectivity. But, to use the classroom to put forth one's own conspiracy theories with little or no supporting evidence is beyond the pale. A physics professor who preached that the earth was flat or that the earth was the center of the universe would soon be out of a job. Likewise, a communications professor who suggests that the well-documented murder of 20 elementary school children was a "drill that went live" ought to be looking for some other form of employment in the IP's humble opinion.
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