Elephants Revisited

  • By Jeffrey Feldman '15
  • jfeldman15@amherst.edu

Volume XXXV, Issue 3, April 19, 2013

dumm website

Professor Tom Dumm is used to providing his opinions. His career relies on his ability to analyze, synthesize, and then expatiate—this much became clear to me as he peppered our conversation with references to Locke, Smith, and Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci. (If you’re like me, then you’ll probably have to look up that last name.) In the classroom, though, Dumm’s opinions—for which, he told me in an interview in early April, he’s “gotten in trouble in the past”—are not immutable or indisputable: He welcomes debate, because “having that hand go up to ask that supposedly stupid question…could lead [you] to a different sort of insight on the spot.” Dumm, in that statement, was criticizing the way in which online courses fail to meet the standards of the liberal arts academic experience—an experience whose dialectical nature he is very committed to. 

So when the barbed responses from students, professors, administrators, and alumni to Professor Dumm’s editorial in The Amherst Student poured in, he was a little surprised: “I was prepared for there to be criticism,” Dumm told me, “but I wasn’t prepared for all the other ad hominem insults.” (One online commenter laments, “The mentality of a 19th century slaveholder and yet an office in Clark House…”)

For Dumm, the response seemed almost fitting. “I think that we reached a certain kind of tipping point,” he confessed, “to where athletics has become a sacred cow of the college. And frankly, I would just offer in evidence the extreme reaction to what I wrote.” 

Professor Dumm has long been concerned about the connection between athletics and sexual misconduct. “As a teacher, I hear from students what goes on here,” he said. “I hear about people being discouraged from reporting because of the atmosphere—not simply in the Dean of Students’ office, but also teammates on athletic teams—regarding issues of sexual assault.” At an October faculty meeting addressing sexual misconduct, before the Special Committee on Sexual Misconduct had been selected, Professor Lawrence Douglas asked if athletic culture would be investigated in preparing recommendations. When Title IX consultant Gina Smith demurred, Dumm probed further, delineating his above-mentioned concerns and noting that Athletic Director Suzanne Coffey’s presence made making such comments “awkward.” Biddy’s response—“for the first time since I’ve seen her at Amherst College, [she] raised her voice”—“changed the tone of the meeting quite a bit right then,” Dumm said. According to Dumm, another professor “suggested that we want to be very, very careful not to stereotype any particular group of students at the College.” That professor and Suzanne Coffey were both later named to the Committee. 

All this aroused Dumm’s suspicions that it was “unlikely that there would be a thorough looking at the issue.” Though “The Elephant in the Room,” Dumm’s editorial, was prompted by the Committee’s report on sexual misconduct, it seems that his worries stem more from questions about the de facto mission of the College. In “Elephant,” Professor Dumm calls for “a critical examination of one of the most important extracurricular forces at our College.” This was a point that most responders and critics seemed to miss (or willfully ignore). 

“There’s always been a tension at Amherst College,” Dumm explained to me, “between the core of what we do, which is to teach and learn—not extracurricularly, but curricularly—and everything else that goes on here.” This is a point that came up several times during our conversation. I asked Professor Dumm what role he thinks extracurriculars should play in the Amherst experience. “It used to be the rule of thumb,” he said, that students should prepare for “four hours for every hour in class.” That’s 60 hours a week of total work for school alone—eight and a half hours of work per day, every day of the week. I couldn’t help but stifle an incredulous chuckle at this figure, a reaction that Dumm seemed to both expect and resent. “Are students even spending 36 hours a week on their school work? I don’t know.” 

Looking through the online comment threads on The Amherst Student, it seems that Dumm’s students, particularly athletes, have felt the tension play out in the classroom. One anonymous alumnus responder to Professor Ronald Rosbottom’s editorial “The Singing College,” noted, “If you were an athlete, you were told to at all costs avoid wearing any Amherst athletic apparel while attending Professor Dumm’s class…You should avoid referencing any connection that you had to Amherst athletics.” 

Indeed, as an example of athletics’ “outsized” presence at Amherst, Dumm told me about an incident in his first-year seminar he viewed as particularly egregious. On the first day of class, he had students introduce themselves with their names and why they came to Amherst. “More than one of them, about seven of them out of 15,” he noted with chagrin, “said that they had come to Amherst to play a sport.”  “That’s okay if that’s one of the reasons,” Dumm said, “but I really wish it hadn’t been the first.”

All the same, Professor Dumm denies allegations that he is anti-athlete. “I thought those were very serious accusations,” he said, “because they would indeed be something that should be actionable if it were true.” And, since only anecdotal evidence has been brought forth, the only actions that have been taken have come in the form of acerbic responses to his editorial.

The validity of the evidence Dumm provided in “Elephant” against the Committee’s claim that it would be “counterproductive to indict any one demographic” has been contested. The studies that “show” athletes perpetrate sexual assault and propagate rape myths at higher-than-average rates are possibly flawed and outmoded. However, I believe that Dumm’s underlying concern is valid—“the everything else,” as he calls it, particularly athletics, may very well have “outsized power” in this institution. The responses to “Elephant” have failed to disprove or even adequately address this concern. What they have done, however, is further stifle productive debate and contribution by those who now fear retribution from the Amherst outrage machine. Several untenured professors have “apologized to me for not publicly supporting my position,” Dumm said. “When you have people who are in serious positions of practical power who vociferously attack a tenured professor…that frightens them.”

The controversy surrounding Professor Dumm’s editorial has done more than simply alienate and anger athletes and their supporters—it has had serious implications on the openness of campus discourse, particularly with regard to professors, whose leadership determines and guides the academic tenor of this college. If professors lead with their opinions in the classroom, they should be able to do so outside the classroom. And yet, as we’ve seen, professors have much to lose from offering their perspectives, however valuable they may be. 

Our community displayed a remarkable lack of self-awareness with the tone of its discourse; the way in which we address the problems facing us actually prevents dialog by shutting out critical perspectives, because of our polemical, stick-to-your-guns form of argumentation. Frustrated with and resigned to this fact of Amherst culture, at the end of our meeting, Dumm shrugged. “You know, after working at a place for 28 years,” he said, “you’d kind of like to see it do better.”  

More from Dumm

Over the course of our conversation, Professor Dumm shared his insights on other timely issues.

On what is most troubling about the response to his editorial:

“What has worried me the most about the most recent turn in discussion is that some of my colleagues have seemed unable to make the distinction between an elective affinity—that is, choosing to participate in an activity such as athletics—and ascribed identities—being a minority, a woman, a gay person. I found that confusion, not by students, but by professors and administrators, to be very disappointing.” 

On dealing with tension in the classroom:

“… I felt a sense of real tension after it first appeared, in my Liberalism course, because I do have advisees and I know that they’re student athletes. And I think that to the extent that they were feeling insulted and upset, that they don’t feel quite that way anymore. And, you know, a little bit of acknowledgement in the classroom of the tension that’s there… you know I try my damnedest to be as direct and clear with people as I can, but also a little bit of humor can help. We were studying Adam Smith around the time this [“The Elephant in the Room”] came out. The Theory of Moral Sentiments…his huge thing is empathy. So, at the beginning of one class, we tried to imagine what it would be like to be a human being without empathy. So I asked the question, ‘Any of you lack total empathy for other human beings?’ And not a hand went up. And I said, ‘Now what would it mean to have no empathy for other human beings?’ One student raises his hand and says, ‘You’d be a sociopath…?’ I said, ‘Yes! Which is why given our latest tensions at the College, I’m really glad that not a single one of you raised your hand!’” 

On college rankings:

“The tendency on the part of the college to believe it is the best place in the world and hence bad things can’t go on here…strikes me as a really insidious thing. If I hear one more time how Amherst is the best liberal arts college in the world I think I will vomit. Cause we’re a good liberal arts college, we’re a really good one. Why do we have to be number one? What does it mean to say someone is number one? Are we really better than Williams? Are we really better than Bowdoin? Are we really better than Pomona? Or any one of another thirty, forty elite liberal arts colleges in the country? Come on. That’s the sort of thing that leads to real stultification and discouragement of criticism. It’s weird that way. One can strive for excellence and hopefully we do. But without the notion—which is an American pathology, and in fact I wrote about it in my last book—of being number one. Number one is bad…”

On massive open online courses (MOOCs):

“Actually, I think MOOCs are a very dangerous phenomenon, or they would be if they ended up becoming a viable alternative in terms of teaching, for several reasons. One: Massive online learning courses create a certain class of superstar [professor]…And then what happens? After that you’re down to a sort of proctor level? Who are these proctors who guide the offline discussion or who guide the exchanges that occur online? Two: Already, if you take a look at California, Governor Brown, as a cost-saving move, has just initiated the policy of having online courses for students who can’t get into the classrooms because there aren’t enough slots in terms of the classrooms for students to be in. Well that’s interesting. What does that mean? That means rather than that core investment in a new generation of scholars, or even the one course off at a time for gypsy academics, you’re just eliminating positions that otherwise should be filled. Now you can plead toughness of budget, but if you don’t fill those positions, which are for scholars…it’s the moral equivalent of eating your seed corn. Now what’s the role of a place of Amherst College in that regard? We will do just fine. But we’re pulling the ladder up from under…us in a large way.”