Australia’s QUT has been in the grip of a very public controversy recently which dovetails between issues of freedom of speech, academic ethics and the transparency of university processes. The controversy came to light and media attention on 11 April this year when two QUT academics, John Hookham and Gary MacLennan, published an article in The Australian entitled ‘Philistines of relativism at the gates’. In it, Hookham and MacLennan very publicly took issue with the ethics of work being done by PhD candidate, Michael Noonan:
A time comes when you have to say: “Enough!”, when you can no longer put up with the misanthropic and amoral trash produced under the rubric of postmodernist, post-structuralist thought. The last straw, the defining moment, came for us when we attended a recent PhD confirmation at the Queensland University of Technology, where we teach. Candidate Michael Noonan’s thesis title was Laughing at the Disabled: Creating comedy that Confronts, Offends and Entertains. The thesis abstract explained that “Laughing at the Disabled is an exploration of authorship and exploitation in disability comedy, the culmination of which will be the creation and production (for sale) of a six-part comedy series featuring two intellectually disabled personalities. “The show, entitled (Craig and William): Downunder Mystery Tour, will be aimed squarely at the mainstream masses; its aim to confront, offend and entertain.” (Editor’s note: the subjects’ names have been changed to protect their privacy.) Noonan went on to affirm that his thesis was guided by post-structuralist theory, which in our view entails moral relativism. He then showed video clips in which he had set up scenarios placing the intellectually disabled subjects in situations they did not devise and in which they could appear only as inept. Thus, the disabled Craig and William were sent to a pub out west to ask the locals about the mystery of the min-min lights. […]
At the seminar we were told there was a thin line between laughing at and laughing with. There is no such thin line. There is an absolute difference that anyone who has been laughed at knows. We must admit with great reluctance that at the seminar we were alone in our criticism of the project. For us, it was a moment of great shame and a burning testimony to the power of post-structuralist thought to corrupt. It is not our intention here to demolish the work of Noonan, an aspiring young academic and filmmaker. After all, ultimate responsibility for this research rests with the candidate’s supervisory team, which included associate professor Alan McKee, the faculty ethics committee, which apparently gave his project total approval, and the expert panel, which confirmed his candidacy. […]
What we have instead is the reality that cultural studies is in the grip of a powerful movement that we call the radical philistine push. It is this same movement that has seen the collapse of English studies and the consequent production of graduates who have only the scantiest acquaintance with our literary heritage. It is also undermining the moral fabric of the university.
So, what starts with ethical questions about a particular thesis, quickly becomes a much more generic complaint about the corruption of education by poststructuralist and postmodern theory and approaches. I know nothing of the people writing or mentioned in this article, but have to say after reading the piece I wasn’t swayed; my sympathies were more with Michael Noonan than anyone else, because as a PhD candidate I know I would have been almost destroyed by such public denouncing of my work. This, I should add, is not a comment on the quality on the work being or proposed – I know nothing beyond the article above and the surrounding debate, and haven’t seen any of the footage mentioned – but rather a comment on the process and the reasonable expectation that any criticism of a candidate’s work be handled within the university as long as possible. I’m not saying there is never a case for ‘going public’ with dismay about certain research, but from what I’ve read I believe Hookham and MacLennan took that step far too early. More to the point, combining criticism of a specific project with a very generic attack on a particular body of theory and its influence on teaching seems a less than generous way of dealing with the work of a PhD candidate.
The issues raised here also beg serious questions about transparency and universities. There is a lot of talk about the need to transparency of research outcomes since (most) Australian universities are at least partially publicly-funded. I quite agree with that notion. However, I think the idea of the processes of a university being taken public under the rubric of transparency tend to skew what makes it into the public arena. Selectively releasing aspects of a process (such as an ethics review process and confirmation of candidature) around research which clearly relies on careful contextualisation is bound to produce a one-sided picture. Tellingly, when Hookham and MacLennan’s article was republished in Online Opinion, the were comments from a student – using the handle WWSBD – who’d had Noonan (the candidate) as a lecturer, praising his efforts to educate student about people with disability. Moreover, this is the only place I’ve seen Noonan himself comment publicly:
I am at the student at the centre of Hookham and MacLennan’s attacks.
I thank WWSBD for understanding and appreciating my work in its context. I appreciate the words of Anecdote, who understands that a work must be seen and placed in context before it should be attacked. And I am disappointed for bedwin, who has lost all respect for me on the basis of an uninformed and incorrect article.
Much has been assumed about my project, my integrity and my intentions. Very little of it is based on truth. The simple facts are these: the excerpts I showed at my PhD confirmation seminar were presented in the context of exploring and discussing issues of authorship and representation in disability. My project seeks to empower the disabled, to give them a voice through comedy. Each clip was prefaced with my own thoughts about whether or not this had been achieved.
As a sessional staff member at QUT, I can think of nothing more deplorable than attacking a student’s incomplete research in a public forum. Hookham and MacLennan have made no effort to read my PhD confirmation document (it was offered) and they rejected my attempts to meet and discuss their concerns.
To date I have not sought to respond to their attacks in print. But I refuse to be further bullied and vilified before the public, my peers and my students.
However, the story doesn’t end there. Earlier this month The Australian report that Hookham and MacLennan are now facing a disciplinary hearing at QUT for their public comments, with the university arguing that the two unfairly attacked the candidate and his supervisory team. Now, whatever their views, Hookham and MacLennan seem to have a reputation as inspirational teachers themselves, and the news of their censure galvanized some of the QUT student body to defend their actions on the basis of free speech. The student campaign is visible through it’s “Save Our Lecturers” MySpace page. Moreover, over at Martin Hirst’s blog, he has posted ‘Freedom of Speech disabled at QUT’ which points to this documentary which is now available at YouTube:
[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/cEucGUEQFwA" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]
(Hirst is a friend of Hookham and MacLennan’s, and his post also contains the full text from Hookham and MacLennan’s original article in The Australian, as well as some additional commentary from The Australian and subsequent letters to editor.)
The YouTube documentary clip, by QUT student Adrian Strong, is very compelling; Hookham and MacLennan both come across as intelligent, compassionate teachers and academics who have good cause for concern. My point here is not to judge the debate being documented in this clip – although I imagine it would be extremely compelling for many people. Rather, in the era of participatory culture and digital media, this clip is indicative of a very profound change which can see debates and arguments that once would have remained closed suddenly being open to public viewing and public debate. In such an era, digital literacy is extremely important – the ability to create, edit and share such a clip is a key part of the ability to make a case in the public eye. It’s no surprise that QUT, which has Australia’s most renowned Creative Industries faculty, should be the source of the first such debate in Australia (to my knowledge, at least).
Illustrating my point, I just noticed another posted by the same YouTube user who posted the clip above (and thus, I presume, also be Adrian Strong) which talks in even stronger terms about a perceived campaign of censorship at QUT:
[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/67MiKw0s3XY" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]
(Again, let me reinforce, I don’t know enough about the other things going on to really judge this debate, but I do know that the perception of censorship certainly doesn’t add to the reputation of any university. However, like the first clip, without any further rebuttal, this clip is likely to be very persuasive to viewers.)
[Cross-posted from TamaLeaver dot Net.]