September 14, 2006

Peter Ratener, not the swiftest test item writer in the world

The math professor at Bellevue Community College is a fool at best to start out a multi-part question with the following:

Condoleezza holds a watermelon just over the edge of roof of the 300-foot Federal Building, and tosses it up with a velocity of 20 feet per second....

When originally written in 2004, the exam using this question provoked no response.  This year, when a colleague used the same exam, students complained, and it became a public debate in Seattle, with the local Urban League pressing the college to respond. Eventually, both Ratener and BCC's top officials apologized, and BCC docked Ratener one week's pay. FIRE is framing the issue as a First Amendment controversy and a matter of "an accidentally offensive math problem."  Inside Higher Ed reported the story this morning.

I suspect the arbitration of the case (Ratener's grievance is going through a collective-bargaining-agreement grievance process with the help of the Seattle Community Colleges Federation of Teachers) will depend instead on more mundane discipline questions, such as whether the college met the procedural standards for finding just cause to discipline Ratener, and whether suspending someone for a week right off the bat fits the definition for progressive discipline (Google search results). (My apologies for referring to Wikipedia and Google, but I don't have great links to those concepts at my fingertips.)

But I am bewildered at the phrase "accidentally offensive." Ratner acknowledged he made "an embarrassing and careless error" and framed his concern in the progressive-discipline context. That focuses on his conduct. FIRE's odd phrasing, though, suggests that what's offensive depends on intent. Maybe it comes in different flavors: accidental and I suppose deliberate. What about unconsciously offensive material? Coolly offensive and jazzily offensive?

It would be better to stick to the "this was stupid but not discrimination aimed at a class of individuals" distinction, which FIRE should know about.

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Posted in on September 14, 2006 7:39 AM |