Pop Quiz: Modeling professionalism

I seriously want to pull my blanky up over my head and pretend the semester isn’t starting.   But I have to be a professional.  At the time this post goes up, I will have taught my first class this fall so I hope all want well.

In fact, I expect my students to behave professionally, and I hope that my behavior models that mode.  What does professionalism mean though?

I generally explain I expect timeliness, effort, and behavior that does not disrupt the learning environment, but that’s the limit on what I specifically describe.  I do mention disagreement is allowed but it should be respectful.  I verbally explain that means that there are no insults to people when these disagreements happen.

I have just seen the dust up over the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne over the withdrawal of an offer (by saying the Board of Trustees would not get to vote to confirm the appointment) to a professor that was all but working there (accepted offer, resigned previous post) after they saw some of his tweets in a critical article in the Daily Caller.  These tweets were harshly criticizing Israel, especially in regard to the current hostilities, and did contain profanity.

There’s been a lot of argument over this event, with one side citing academic freedom and freedom of speech, and the other stating students could be uncomfortable with expressing opposing views given the tenor of the tweets, and could fear reprisals from this professor.

The chancellor of U of I released a statement which stated in part:

Tenure also brings with it a heavy responsibility to continue the traditions of scholarship and civility upon which our university is built.

In a response, the California Scholars for Academic Freedom wrote in an open letter:

But neither “decorum” nor “civility”, highly subjective judgments in any case, have any bearing on the essential right to freedom of expression.  Censure or censorship of such political rhetoric would seriously infringe on the range and manner of allowable expression and subject any professor who participates in the public sphere to an alarming degree for precarity, merely for practicing the kind of public critical exchange that we hopefully still encourage our students to engage in as citizens.

Putting aside the argument about whether or not social media presence should directly impact employment if that presence is personal rather than professional, is the expression of profanity and harsh statements inherently unprofessional?

In a post that lists what colleges should expose students to, English professor Kirstin Wilcox states students need to be uncomfortable to learn.  Where does discomfort cross the line into a threat?  When does passion and advocacy of a viewpoint on the part of the leader of a class become unprofessional?  How should we model disagreement to sow students how to disagree especially about hot button issues?  What is going too far?

One thing I will not tolerate in my class is any attempt to debate evolutionary theory by creationists.  I state that very clearly, and if such a derailment starts, I cut it off immediately.  I abide by my own rules and do not argue with the specific students lest it become disrespectful, I just stop the line of discussion and move on.  Would that be threatening to those students arguing creationism?  Is it “uncivil”? (I have had such students tell me I’m going to hell in their course evaluations; that seem to me to be uncivil – telling me I’m going to suffer for eternity…)

Is civility itself required for professionalism?  Is civility the same thing as respect (of the person, not the ideas)?

Here’s my question to you: what is professionalism?  What should we expect from our students, and are those expectations different from what we expect from ourselves?

The Pop Quiz is a question posed to you, the Scholars of Doubt. Look for it on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in the afternoon (ET).

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Apostrophobia is a college professor at a women's college in the US. She teaches biology, does pedagogical research on her guinea pigs (aka students), and has an existential fear of misplaced apostrophes.


  1. August 25, 2014 at 8:39 pm —

    I feel like you should word that differently. I assume you cut off any attempt to debate creationism by students who support evolution, as well? There are two sides to this issue, and we should respect creationists’ views. The key distinction to be made is what science says or can say about the supernatural. Which is nothing. Science doesn’t tell us that God didn’t create everything in 6000 years, just like science doesn’t say that God DID. Science deals with the natural world and can’t reasonably make claims either way about untestable hypotheses. By appropriately addressing why science can’t and shouldn’t be used to address the supernatural, you can foster evolution-believing students who can respect their peers, and creationists who understand what and why evolution is as described in science. There is no great war between religion and science, nor between “evolutionists” and “creationists”. Both views can be and are simultaneously held without logical contradiction.

    At least in my opinion.

  2. August 25, 2014 at 8:47 pm —

    I do not respect the creationist views in my science classes, and I am referring to the ongoing debate in US society where “creationism” seeks to discredit the theory of evolution and replace it with a story of a 10,000 year old earth and God as an active shaper of humans and other life. I do not refer to religious beliefs about the origins of the universe that do not seek to displace what science has discovered but leaves a place for god.

    There most definitely IS a great war between religion and science here in the US in terms of teaching good and accurate science. It has been going on since well before the Scopes trial and was recently seen in Dover PA, among many other places. many states STILL are trying to allow science teachers to proselytize rather than teach good scienceIf you have not encountered that, good! i have though and I will not allow it in my classroom.

    • August 25, 2014 at 9:00 pm —

      Just to be absolutely clear, given a re-read of your comment; science most definitely DOES tell us that the earth is more than 6,000-10,000 years old. Stating otherwise is ridiculous in the face of the scientific evidence. There is no need to discuss the supernatural in science classes, and there is certainly no need to state that some supernatural being *might* have created an earth that just looks old. The evidence is sufficient.

      • August 26, 2014 at 5:57 pm —

        I merely mean that you should probably discourage students in your class attempting to use scientific evidence to “disprove” creationism. Science can neither prove nor disprove creation. Science can present (a ton of) evidence to suggest that, absent an outside force, the theory of natural selection is the current best model to scientifically explain the fact of species changing over time. Using science to argue that natural selection is the best scientific model is appropriate: arguing that because of this evidence, your beliefs about creation are definitely wrong is not. Science and religion are different ways of knowing, and when I teach, I prefer to note carefully that I don’t place Science on a pedestal as being better than religion for all things. I note specifically what science can and can’t do.

        I don’t and wouldn’t discuss creationism in a science classroom, but I definitely WOULD discuss how science works and why you can’t use supernatural ideas in a science class (while still being free to believe those non-scientific ideas without logical contradiction). Letting students with strong religious convictions understand WHY science has concluded (thus far) in favor of natural selection without telling them that they are wrong is, in my view, vital.

        • August 26, 2014 at 8:41 pm —

          If it had ever happened that a student tried to argue science disproves a god, yes I would stop that discussion as well. However, it has never happened and I doubt I will ever see it. I show the process of science in a lot of different ways, but I will not use creationism either way as it is such a political hot button and thought stopper. Your argument in your first comment that there is no war between the two ideas is not accurate, though I think I see what you were trying to say now. There’s no war based on merit, but there surely is one based on political and religious motivations that continues in the repeated efforts of creationists to propose and pass laws allowing religious teaching of a young earth, humans as special creations of god, etc. in science classes.

          I do not discuss my beliefs or anyone’s in my science classroom; it’s not appropriate. In this forum I will say that for me personally the “different ways of knowing” argument fails when the religious way contradicts reality. I reject any argument that flies in the face of the evidence.

          I have also made it clear what I was referring to as creationism thus you are attacking a straw man about what you assume I believe. I teach nothing about “creation” and I certainly do not say any non scientific story is wrong in my classroom. I present the evidence which the class discusses scientifically. I simply prevent any non-science tangents. (I would also suggest your belief that I use natural selection to say creation is wrong demonstrates a lack of understanding of natural selection.)

  3. August 26, 2014 at 9:58 pm —

    Oh, no, you misunderstand me. I’m not attacking you or assuming anything about your classroom. My concern was entirely based on this comment: “One thing I will not tolerate in my class is any attempt to debate evolutionary theory by creationists.” I feel it would be more clear to say “One thing I will not tolerate in my class is a creationism vs. evolutionary theory debate.” That wording may make it more clear (to readers on the internet) that it is the -debate- that’s not appropriate, not the creationists. I certainly agree that the vast majority of the time, it is creationists starting the argument, though just the other day in my high school physics class, some less religious students were crossing the line of appropriateness on this issue. I didn’t want to stop the debate outright, because I wanted to point out the distinction, which I did. My point was a semantic concern, not an ideological one.

    I suppose I also wanted to argue for “ways of knowing,” but I agree with you there, too. If Ken Ham wants to try to use the sword of science to justify his theories, then he’ll ‘die by the sword’. But if your religion, say, posits that God started the universe and set evolution in motion, or that God created the world as we know it 6000 years ago with all the modern scientific evidence already in place, but we have no way to tell but through faith, what can science say to that? Why would a scientist even care to dispute something untestable and unprovable?

    • August 26, 2014 at 10:58 pm —

      Ok cool. BTW, I was planning on stating that this exchange has also mostly modeled professionalism, in that we have had a pretty serious discussion with contentious ideas and managed to be on topic of the discussion and not attack the person (we both use the you/your pronoun in ways that could be seen as attacking), just the weakness in the ideas. So thanks for that.

      As I said in the last comment I made, I have never had a student try to argue evolution as better than/replacing religion in class, and you rightfully pointed out that omission in the original post. The debate *can* also be teachable depending on the group, though I have never been in such (I have only worked in really religious areas, which unfortunately is the bulk of the US).

      I have personal issues with the idea of “punting” on religion that clearly violates what we have learned about the universe, but I do see your point regarding that. I again want to be clear that I do not present my personal beliefs or let students use their own as arguments in a science class.

      • August 26, 2014 at 11:17 pm —

        I wish I had been more clear in my initial post, but that is the nature of written conversation.

        Perhaps my experiences are different because I am a high school teacher in the Bible Belt. These students are required to come to school and I consider it part of my job to make sure all my students feel comfortable and safe where possible. I find discussing science and religion (and a few other belief systems) as different ways of knowing help me reach students with more extreme religious views. To some extent, science is great at describing natural phenomenon as well as idealized laws of nature, but science itself isn’t particularly good at answering other sorts of questions: “What is the meaning of my life?” “What happens when we die?” “What is the nature of consciousness? (at least for now)”

        Many people want or need answers to these questions that go beyond a purely scientific interpretation, and I don’t blame those people for that.

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