Big Brother Ain't Laughing

A CU-Denver online teacher pulls the plug on a student for an "obscene" essay.

Last month Cindy Martin, an instructor at the University of Colorado at Denver, asked the students in her Internet-based magazine-writing class to submit an introductory essay; she asked them to describe themselves with anecdotes that showed their "uniqueness." Student Scott Lafferty thought he did a pretty good job.

The 34-year-old Lafferty turned in a short, quirky essay noting that he hadn't been in school since he was sixteen because of horrible high-school experiences with a teacher he called "Mr. Death":

"Death failed me but I got straight A's on my G.E.D. and sent him a copy with this scrawled in blood: 'I know you lick your cat's butt because he's arthritic and can't do it himself, but I think you enjoy it. I've seen that wreckless [sic] gleam in your one good eye that says I can't wait to get home so my poodle can hump my leg.'"

After he posted his message on the class's Web site on September 2, other students sent enthusiastic support of his ribald humor. (In this online class, all assignments and discussions are conducted through the World Wide Web and electronic mail; students and teacher do not meet face-to-face.)

"I DO like your sense of humor, man," one student wrote only an hour after Lafferty posted his essay. "I think we all could open up a bit and groove as our consciousness spreads, like butter, baby!"

"I think your 'lick butt' phrase is hysterical," another student concurred.
Martin, however, was not amused. She called Lafferty's contribution "obscene," and he wound up getting booted from the class. Martin won't comment to Westword.

Just five hours after Lafferty posted his essay on the site, the wires started humming. Martin issued a stern warning about inappropriate discussion in the electronic classroom.

"Offensive or obscene language will not be tolerated in this class," Martin wrote. "Anyone who chooses to write in an offensive or obscene manner will be expelled from the class."

The next day, September 3, Lafferty wrote an e-mail to Martin asking for clarification of what she meant by "offensive or obscene."

"What exactly did I write that was so inappropriate?" he asked the teacher. "Lick a cat's butt? A poodle humping a leg?...There is no mention of this type of rule on the policies and procedures page. If these are your rules for posting on threaded discussions then I will try to abide by them. If, however, you intend to censor what you personally define as being 'offensive' or 'obscene' from creative assignments that will be turned into you, then please consider this a reluctant request to drop me from your (our?) class."

Martin replied: "Your discussion contributions today were obscene and disruptive. Because of the extreme nature of your language, I am requesting that you withdraw immediately from my class. I will contact the chairman of the English Department tomorrow to discuss the case. I suggest you make arrangements with CU Online to drop the course."

"Disruptive?" Lafferty fired back 25 minutes later. "I thought we had moved further in our universities than this. I thought we were open to new ideas, new ways of expression. Too much effort on your part, huh? If your petty and trite display today is any representation of the way universities treat their students, then I'll have no part of it, however, I don't believe this to be the case. You're probably just an uptight, rite (look it up) bitch that needs to relax." ("Rite"? Lafferty explains that he meant Martin was guided too much by ritual.)

This student-teacher flareup probably wouldn't have happened in a traditional classroom setting, says Jan Fernback, an instructor of electronic media at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

"People in cyberspace say things they would never say sitting across a table from each other," says Fernback. "If you insult a person, you can't see his reaction. You don't know if you've hurt the person. The black-and-white words seem pretty antiseptic. People are more willing to take risks. It's easy to call someone an asshole when you don't see them."

In Lafferty's case, the name-calling stopped, but the dispute continued to bubble. On September 4 Lafferty received a message from the director of CU Online, Terry Taylor Straut: "Pursuant to your request to be dropped from ENGL 3416 on September 3, 1997 by e-mail, you are withdrawn from the course."

Lafferty wrote back to say that he never requested to be withdrawn. Taylor retorted by quoting the earlier e-mail Lafferty had sent to Martin as proof that he wanted out of the writing class.

Meanwhile, university officials apparently changed their tune about why they wanted him expelled from the class. Lafferty says Rex Burns, chair of the English department, told him, "Anyone that calls my professor a bitch is out of here." Lafferty argues that he called Martin a bitch only after she asked him to withdraw from the class.

On September 10 Straut sent a letter to Lafferty's house saying that Burns withdrew him from the course because of the "bitch" comment, which Straut called a violation of the CU-Denver Code of Student Conduct.

Lafferty, however, says university officials used that as an excuse to kick him out; he thinks the real reason was his essay.

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