Department divided

James Heggen

Behold, the power of YouTube.

Recently, a pair of satirical videos titled “The English TA Experience” were posted on YouTube. The videos have since been taken down, but not before they caused a stir within Iowa State’s English department.

In the videos, there are several mock interviews with English teaching assistants discussing how they grade and conduct their English 250 classes. In one part of the video, a TA being “interviewed” said he tries to make his comments push his students to suicide. In another clip, a TA talks about a student’s grade being improved, implying sexual favors.

In another clip, a TA jokes about class sizes, saying he got “a couple to drop” and was hoping to get more to do so.

Andrew Judge, graduate student in English, was responsible for making the videos.

Judge said he made the video in response to frustrations with the English TA program. Originally, he posted the videos on YouTube, but he then took them down after another TA asked Judge to remove the videos until the end of the semester, because a student had asked him about them. The plan was to put the video up after the end of the semester, but when a professor asked Judge to see it, he decided to make the video public again.

After the video was posted, Judge said he was called into a meeting with four administrators within the English department.

He was not told what the meeting was about beforehand. Charles Kostelnick, professor and chairman of the English department, Barbara Blakely, director of ISUComm Foundation courses (English 150 and 250) and associate professor of English, Constance Post, director of graduate education and associate professor of English, and David Roberts, associate professor of English, were all present at the meeting.

“I felt like I was a criminal and these were judges, you know, coming in to tell me what I had done wrong,” he said. “I did not appreciate the way they talked to me and the way they treated the whole situation.”

In the meeting with Judge, Kostelnick said he and the others in the meeting shared their concerns about the video. Kostelnick then requested that Judge take the video off public viewing but did not discuss any possible consequences if he did not. Judge agreed to switch the viewing back to private.

Neal Bowers, distinguished professor of English, spoke to Judge on April 22 and found that the video had been taken down. Bowers told Judge, if he was willing, to put the videos back up and list him as a consultant.

When Kostelnick found Judge had put the video back up, he said he told him he was “disappointed” in him. Then, each graduate student involved with the video was called in for a meeting.

In these meetings, Kostelnick shared his concerns about the videos, which included possible consequences of future employment outside of Iowa State. Kostelnick indicated that if he were a potential employer, he would have concerns if he did not have a context for the video.

“I call it just plain intimidation tactics,” Bowers said of the way the department dealt with those involved.

Kostelnick said in a prepared written statement exactly how he felt about the video and the implications it involved.

“The video denigrated the students that TAs are entrusted to teach by containing explicit suggestions of violence against students who do not comply with their instructors,” he said. “The video also suggested that the standards by which students are evaluated are arbitrary, including sexual criteria.”

He also said in the statement the videos “undermine the credibility of instruction in courses that students are required to take” and that “these attempts at satire are not funny or instructive.”

Kostelnick said one of the big issues he had with the video, which he learned about via e-mail from Michael Whiteford, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, was it was available for public viewing. This could allow someone who did not know the context of the videos to view them, he said. Even though the video was labeled as satire, people may not take it that way, he said.

But Bowers did not see this as an argument.

“Are you going to give up your free speech because some people have no sense of humor?” Bowers asked.

Judge said he couldn’t have imagined anyone taking the video seriously because it was labeled as satirical but didn’t want to fight about the video and agreed to take it down.

However, Kostelnick’s negative feelings toward the video were not because he can’t take a joke.

“I love satire,” he said.

Bowers said he heard about the videos a few weeks ago when some graduate students in his class were discussing it. After he viewed it, he said he really enjoyed it.

“I thought they were a hoot,” he said.

Bowers also rebutted the argument the video could harm potential employment.

“It would have a positive influence on me,” he said if he were a potential employer considering hiring anyone involved with the video. “It shows a high degree of intelligence, it shows an understanding of visual communication and it shows a thorough appreciation of irony and satire. Those are high levels of comedy.”

Bowers even said he received an e-mail from a retiring lecturer that she would use the video as an example of visual communication.

Kostelnick doesn’t see this as only a free speech issue, even though some in his department do.

“I see it as a workplace issue [also],” he said.

For Neal Bowers, the issue is a clear case of free speech.

“What we have here is the people with the most power beating up the people with the least,” he said.

Bowers compared what is happening in the English department in regard to these videos to the situation on the national level in a post-9/11 era, where civil liberties are being sacrificed in the name of security.

In e-mails between Kostelnick and Bowers, Kostelnick said after the shootings at Virginia Tech last year, things need to be looked at differently in regards to campus violence.

“It really, really troubles me that what we see, what I see being played out right here on the campus in my department is a repugnant national agenda of repression of civil rights, and it’s being a given a specific local application by Charlie Kostelnick and the people above him who have allowed him to do that,” he said.

The atmosphere has changed in how people deal with the issue of campus violence in wake of the Virginia Tech shooting last year, Kostelnick said.

The video has been taken off YouTube. However, Judge did not take it down. Judge was planning on doing so, but when he went to take it down, it had already been taken down by YouTube administration. Judge said when attempting to use to the link, there is a message that reads “This video has been removed due to terms of use violation.”

Judge said YouTube has banned the actual files, so attempts to put the video back up were unsuccessful.

However, the video is not completely off the Internet. There was a Facebook group made that has both videos posted in full.

And Judge said he’s not done.

“I imagine that’s not going to be the last video I make,” Judge said.