Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Fighting the Not-So-Good Fight

I'm interested in the rhetoric of online tutorials for corporate employees, and I have written quite specifically about the ways that users can game the UCI sexual harassment prevention tutorial on this blog here and here and have argued that it is an interesting case of what Ian Bogost has called "procedural rhetoric" in the "What is Digital Rhetoric?" chapter in the forthcoming Virtualpolitik book from MIT Press.

However, UCI biologist Alexander McPherson has garnered a considerable amount of media attention for formulating a very different set of objections to this training. In a confrontational Op-Ed piece in the Los Angeles Times, called the "The sham of sex harassment training," Professor McPherson throws down the gauntlet and declares that he will refuse to participate in this employee-mandated training.

First of all, I believe the training is a disgraceful sham. As far as I can tell from my colleagues, it is worthless, a childish piece of theater, an insult to anyone with a respectable IQ, primarily designed to relieve the university of liability in the case of lawsuits. I have not been shown any evidence that this training will discourage a harasser or aid in alerting the faculty to the presence of harassment.

What's more, the state, acting through the university, is trying to coerce and bully me into doing something I find repugnant and offensive. I find it offensive not only because of the insinuations it carries and the potential stigma it implies, but also because I am being required to do it for political reasons. The fact is that there is a vocal political/cultural interest group promoting this silliness as part of a politically correct agenda that I don't particularly agree with.

As someone who has completed the training, I think that McPherson is probably putting forward a problematic argument, since many female colleagues who have been personally subjected to harassment in the workplace and yet were required to finish the tutorial hardly considered themselves guilty by association just by interacting with the software. Furthermore, as a feminist, I might argue that this training isn't actually "politically correct" enough, since it focuses on blatant harassment rather than more subtle and pervasive forms of discrimination based on gender and sexuality.

Now McPherson's own university web page for his lab has become a designated site for his fiery online rhetoric, where he posts selective reader comments from a story in the Orange County Register, "UCI prof risks job by refusing sexual harassment training," and rebuts an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that addresses his case, "New Lessons in Dealing with Sexual Harassment."

McPherson's whole site is an interesting expression of what has been the traditionally hands-off campus policy about faculty website discourse in the name of academic freedom at a university in which faculty members have posted controversial personal materials that run the gamut from obscene acronyms to heart-rending stories of personal tragedy on their .edu sites. One possible unintended consequence of this case might be calls for more decorum -- or censorship, depending upon your perspective -- on officially sanctioned UCI sites.

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