Students rally in defence of controversial Laurentian University professor
Current and former students of a controversial Laurentian University professor are rallying to his defence after he was pulled from a first-year psychology course.
Michael Persinger was removed from the class after asking students to sign a “statement of understanding” that warned the course would contain “coarse language and explicit content.”
In an interview with the Star on Tuesday, Persinger defended his teaching style and said he sometimes employs deliberately inflammatory metaphors in order to help psychology students learn to use critical thinking when confronted with disturbing language.
“To do that, they have to be able to be exposed to these words, and why they are that way, in a classroom,” he said.
The university’s provost and vice-president of academic affairs, Robert Kerr, said that the issue is not Persinger’s use of foul language but the fact that he asked students to sign an agreement before participating in the class.
Aurora Buckley, a 19-year-old gerontology student, said she switched from another course into Persinger’s introductory psychology class last fall after friends told her how good a lecturer he was. She was disappointed Persinger was removed midway through the academic year, because he was “such a great professor.”
Although Buckley signed Persinger’s “statement of understanding,” at the start of the course, she said she couldn’t recall reading one of the sample exam questions that accompanied it. It included a joke about a medical professor inserting his finger into the rectum of a boy’s cadaver.
When the Star asked her about the exam question, she asserted that it was “a pretty extreme example” of Persinger’s teaching methods and that he didn’t normally use such graphic metaphors.
She argued that the professor’s use of language served an educational purpose.
“I think what he’s doing is great and preparing us for the real world, which is what university is supposed to do,” she said.
“You have to be able to know how to handle yourself in situations that you might be offended in, be able to rise out of that and give your educated response.”
Autumn Daggett took the professor’s Brain and Behaviour course last fall. Although he didn’t ask students in that class to sign the statement of understanding, Daggett, 20, said he would sometime use profanity.
She recalled that on the first day of the class he introduced himself to students by asking them to repeat after him: “F--k you, Dr. Persinger!”
Daggett, who is majoring in law and psychology, stressed that Persinger warned students at the outset of the course that if they were uncomfortable with the language he used, then they should consider taking another class.
Although she considers Persinger one of the best professors she’s ever had, she acknowledged that some of her classmates sometimes took offence. Two students walked out of a lecture in which Persinger discussed religion, she said.
Persinger won an award in 2007 for being the country’s best lecturer, and his teaching methods are not new. Lindsay Berry took his introductory psych class in 2003, and remembers being intrigued when asked to sign the agreement warning about explicit content.
“It almost sparks some sort of excitement in you, that, wow, this is a lot different than any other class I’ve ever taken,” she said.
Berry, who now works as a geologist, said the course ended up being her favourite class at the Sudbury university.
“I found, because of the way that he taught, I managed to retain the information that he was trying to teach you a lot better. You were so focused,” she said.
The Laurentian University Faculty Association has filed a grievance against Persinger’s removal from the course.