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A Canadian Professor Is Sanctioned After Asking for Free Rein to Swear in Class

Laurentian University professor Dr. Michael Persinger required students in his psychology class to sign a “statement of understanding” that lists words that could be used in class. He called it a "tremendous recruiting tool."

by Tamara Khandaker
Jan 5 2016, 7:15pm

Flickr Creative Commons

An Ontario professor has been suspended from teaching his class after his university found out he was asking students to sign off on his use of profane language in lectures.

Every year, Laurentian University professor Dr. Michael Persinger requires students in his first-year psychology class to sign a "statement of understanding" that lists words that could be used in class, the CBC first reported.

Until this year, the statement of understanding — which lists words like "fuck," "pussy," and "shitface" — had not caused any problems at the Sudbury institution. 

The neuroscientist, known in scientific circles worldwide for his research on the human brain, told the CBC he tries to expose his students to all kinds of words "because they influence how you make decisions and how you think."

Persinger could not be reached by VICE for an interview.

He said by using words that cause emotion, he can teach students about how that affects the brain's rational processes.

"I realize that the methods are not intended to embarrass or to demean but to encourage development of strategies so I will be minimally influenced by unpleasant experiences," says the statement of understanding.

Image of Michael Persinger via Wikimedia Commons

The document also asks students to acknowledge that language used in the course will "contain frank expressions and creative metaphors that reflect everyday life"

"The professor has informed me that if the course content might be offensive to me I can transfer to another section as early as possible," it goes on to say.

In December, Persinger was told by Laurentian's provost that he wouldn't be teaching the class — which he says he's been teaching for decades — anymore because his statement was in conflict with the school's respectful workplace policies. He says no further explanation was provided even after he asked for more details.

Persinger said not only that he's never had any issues previously, but that the statement was a "tremendous recruiting tool" and that his students enjoy that they can "ask any question they want, no matter how politically incorrect."

But Robert Kerr, Laurentian's vice-president academic and provost, says the issue is not one of academic freedom, but that Persinger asked students to signed a document as a precondition for taking his course although admission requirements are never supposed to be decided by a professor.

Regarding the obscene language, Kerr says that had the document not been brought to his attention by a student, "I would not have even been dealing with that issue."

This is the only class of Persinger's that has been affected, says Kerr. The professor continues his other teaching duties. 

Laurentian University's faculty union has filed a grievance on behalf of Persinger, saying that the school has violated the professor's academic freedom, according to the CBC. 

Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @anima_tk

Image via Flickr Creative Commons user Robert S. Donovan

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