FULL TEXT: FORMAL COMPLAINT AGAINST GSU SOCIOLOGY CHAIR AND TEACHING DIRECTOR
By Matthew Cardinale, News Editor, The Atlanta Progressive News (February 22, 2009)
(APN) ATLANTA -- The following is a full text copy of the complaint that will be filed tomorrow, February 23, 2009, by the present author with Georgia State University. A full statement will be issued tomorrow as well.
BY MATTHEW CARDINALE, PhD STUDENT AND FORMER GRADUATE LECTURER
AGAINST DONALD REITZES, CHAIR, DEPARTMENT OF SOCIOLOGY
AND MINDY STOMBLER, LECTURER AND TEACHING DIRECTOR, SOCIOLOGY
AT GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY
ON FEBURARY 23, 2009
I am filing this complaint against the above parties at Georgia State University for their participation in what I believe to be an unjust, unethical, and discriminatory firing of me in July 2008 in my position as a graduate lecturer.
As I will explain in this complaint, I believe I was basically fired for teaching that not only gender, but also sex, is socially constructed, in my Introduction to Sociology course; for bringing in an intersex guest speaker, Officer Darlene Harris, against the wishes of Teaching Director Mindy Stombler; and for refusing to take the material out of my future course plans.
First and foremost, I am asking for a full review of the curriculum direction practices of the Lecturer and Teaching Director, Mindy Stombler. Stombler--based on my first-hand experience--has been engaged in preventing me as a lecturer from attempting to update an inaccurate and out-dated textbook definition of sex, a definition which excludes intersex people but continues to be taught in most available Introduction to Sociology textbooks.
At this time, I am also asking for a full University investigation into the circumstances of my termination. While I would not be interested in teaching again at GSU under the current leadership of the Sociology Department, I do believe filing this formal complaint is the best way for me to protect myself from retaliation by the Department at this time.
The complaint will include three sections: (1) an explanation of why textbook definitions of sex which exclude intersex people must be updated; (2) a factual review of events; (3) an analysis about why I believe the actions of Reitzes and Stombler were unjust, unethical, and discriminatory.
PART 1 of 3: INTERSEX IN THE CURRICULUM: THE LOUDNESS OF SILENCE
This summer, I taught my first Sociology class at GSU, as part of a Teaching Internship offered by Lecturer, Mindy Stombler.
In attempting to select a textbook that met all of my course goals, I was thoroughly disappointed. For one thing, I noticed that out of several textbooks I reviewed, only one of them explained that sex was a social construction [and yet, that textbook was weak in other areas].
All of the other Introduction to Sociology textbooks included a chapter on sex and gender; however, defined at least one of the terms problematically. Most introductory textbooks explain that gender—notions about how males and females are expected to act--is socially constructed, whereas sex, on the other hand, is "biological."
But somebody left out the asterisk on the word "biological." Our notion of two sexes is a social construction; that is, it does not come from biology, fate, or destiny, but is something our society arbitrarily defines.
For instance, how do we define sex? Sexuality scholars have noted that a person’s sex can be defined by hormones, by organs, or by genes. What is then the exact proportion of hormones by which we divide people into male and female? Does a person need to meet all three sets of criteria to be male or female, or will we accept two out of three?
Consider Atlanta Police Officer Darlene Harris, who was recently featured in Southern Voice magazine, the Atlanta-Journal Constitution newspaper, and the Atlanta Progressive News online news service. Harris, who has borderline female physical features and high testosterone, learned she also has male chromosomes.
To be sure, there is not only a third sex, but dozens of possible, and actual, permutations. Or to be more accurate, there is no sex at all; there is only our arbitrary categorization system, our system of values which inform it, and our societal obsession with classification.
Intersex people know who they are: they're the people that their creator, whether God, nature, or both, made them to be. It's the rest of us in society who have identity issues to deal with because of our attachment to the binary.
And so, the majority of available sociology textbooks are wrong, but that should not be surprising, because they have been wrong before. The pursuit of science and knowledge is supposed to result in the improvement of our understanding of our world over time. If we never updated our textbooks, then what would be the benefit of University scholarship?
While it is publishers, and not the Department, who are responsible for the majority of available textbooks being wrong, lecturers should be allowed to contradict textbooks with available information when appropriate.
PART 2 of 3: FACTUAL REVIEW OF EVENTS
1. In my Introductory Sociology class, during a chapter on Social Control, we discussed how various societal categories, including race, class, sex, and sexual orientation, are socially constructed in one way or another.
2. After class, two students proceeded to tell me that I should not be teaching that sex is a social construction because, as they put it, "hermaphrodites are mutations," "reproduction is the primary purpose of life," "only men and women can reproduce," and therefore sex is biological.
3. After this happened, I immediately called Stombler seeking support. Because Stombler was the Teaching Director and it was my first time teaching, I had called her about a dozen times over the summer seeking advice on various class matters. Cell phone records will confirm this.
4. I was shocked and deeply troubled when her response was that she agreed with me that sex was a social construction, but it was "too advanced for an Intro class." Instead of being supportive, she said she "wouldn't spend too much time on it" if it were her.
5. Because her advice was conditioned upon “if it were her,” and based on the fact that I am not her but a separate bona fide individual, it was clear to me that her advice was not presented as a directive, but as a suggestion.
6. The reason I chose not to accept her advice was based on my rejection of her assumption that it is “too advanced for an Intro class.” Because we do define both terms, sex and gender, in any Introduction to Sociology course, I believed that I had an affirmative obligation to my students to define both terms accurately and contradict the textbook if necessary.
7. Based on my scientific and ethical principles, I was not comfortable telling students that sex is biological, because societal institutions still play a role in defining how many sexes there are, who gets to fit into each one, and how to handle the anomalies.
8. Georgia State University is an institution of higher learning, whose mission promotes seeking the truth and opening our minds to think critically, not protecting our leaders of tomorrow from information that might make them uncomfortable.
9. This summer, Southern Voice magazine ran a feature about Atlanta Police Officer Darlene Harris, following her recent decision to come out as intersex. Harris was a colleague of mine.
10. Because my students had numerous questions about my previous lesson on sex as a social construction, I scheduled Officer Harris to come in and speak to my class on the day that we were scheduled to cover sex and gender.
11. Harris's guest lecture was a major hit. The students loved it and wrote touching thank you messages on a card (a photocopy is available). It was powerful and transformative for them to meet Harris. They say, seeing is believing.
12. The following week, Stombler conducted a focus group with my students, although she allowed half of the students to leave.
13. Prof. Stombler told me verbally on the day following her focus group with my students that it was a "mixed" evaluation and that the students had both positive things to say as well as areas for improvement.
14. When the course was over in July, Stombler provided feedback on my teaching as part of the Teaching Internship. At the beginning of the conversation she states that the Department Chair Donald Reitzes wants to speak with me and that I could contact him to schedule a meeting.
15. In this feedback, she angrily says she did not want me to teach about sex as a social construction because it takes too much time to explain it, and is too specific, in an Intro course. She says if I want to cover this in the future "the Department won't support you."
16. Stombler then cut off communication with me about the curriculum issue, refusing to discuss it with me any further which I believe was problematic. I believe that given sufficient dialogue about the issue that we could have some to a mutually acceptable curriculum plan related to this topic. However, she stated she did not want to discuss it with me any longer, and that we each had different positions which would not change.
17. Stombler also went through a list of other issues during the conversation which she gathered from her observation of me teaching [which she said looked pretty good] and a focus group with only half of my students present.
18. Stombler outlined several positive things and also some negative things, in a rather balanced manner about the focus group sampling. At no point did she state any overall negative assessment of my teaching. I emailed my notes from this conversation to myself as soon as it was finished, providing contemporaneous evidence of what transpired.
19. In this conversation, Stombler refused to engage in any meaningful dialogue—actually, no dialogue at all—regarding her focus group sampling of student feedback. Specifically, as I stated later in the meeting with Stombler and Reitzes: when Stombler and I spoke on the phone previously about the focus group results, she would state a point, I would respond, and then she would say, "Okay, the next thing I observed was…" or "The next thing the students said was…" In that sense, it was very rote, she was clearly not responding to any responses I had, and it was quite like talking to an automated system.
20. Stombler later agreed with this characterization of our phone conversation in our subsequent meeting with Reitzes, saying it was an accurate account of what transpired.
21. In my final paper for the course, I refused to remove the content from my lesson plans that Stombler had demanded:
"What I disliked about teaching was the lack of respect and appreciation from certain students in the class, as well as the lack of support from Prof. Stombler regarding teaching the topic of sex as a social construction."
"Regarding the second point, I am deeply troubled that Prof. Stombler is not supporting my teaching of sex as a social construction, saying that it is too specific and challenging of a topic for an introductory course. I believe that there are many topics which are specific and challenging but that this one has been singled out as being unworthy of class discussion. To me, if we are going to talk about the difference between gender and sex, and how gender is a social construction, but we do not talk about how sex is a social construction, then that is misleading to students and disrespectful to intersex people in this world. I am truly shocked that I am not being supported on this topic by Prof. Stomber [sic], when I had thought that she and others in the Sociology Department at Georgia State University saw sex and gender as an important area of study and discourse. I can see how it is easy to take this approach because intersex people are marginalized and in the minority, and thus are often outside of the public's sphere of awareness, but because I now have two friends who are intersex, I am not comfortable with leaving their experiences, and the theoretical implications thereof, out of an introductory course where sex and gender are explicitly discussed."
"As far as what I would do the same or differently... I would definitely not take the course material regarding sex as a social construction out of my lesson plans."
22. Stombler later criticized my final paper for the class.
23. According the syllabus for the course, Stombler promised that she would provide students the opportunity to re-write the final paper in the future, should she be unsatisfied with it. She never did provide me with that opportunity, which I believe is an unfair deviation from the syllabus, especially when her opinion about my final paper was later cited as part of the rationale from taking me off the course schedule.
24. The day before my meeting with Reitzes and Stombler, my name is taken off the course list for Fall 2008.
25. Officer Darlene Harris wrote the following email in an effort to convince Reitzes and Stombler to change their minds, which I forwarded to Reitzes and copied Stombler.
I wanted to take the time out to thank you for allowing me to speak to your Sociology 101 class on July 17, 2008. I do believe that it is imperative that Professors like yourself give a platform to people like me for the purpose of teaching and facilitating dialogue. This is what education is about, not only to learn from a text book but to be able to bring the text book alive with real life experience. I truly enjoyed your class and I do believe that they learned something and was empowered with knowledge about a subject that is starting to get national recognition. Although we as a society have a long way to go when it comes to acceptance of things not understood, the process must start somewhere. What better place to start then in the classroom with the minds that will lead us tomorrow.
Intersexuals are being interviewed in our newspapers, on television (the Oprah Winfrey show) and on radio. I think that people are starting to realize that biologically people like myself are not freaks but that we are human beings that are just different. Then again who IS the same....No one is like the next person. That is what makes us uniquely different. It is amazing what happens around us when others are uncomfortable speaking about a topic that is not understood. Dialogue is encouraged to stop and everyone begins to act like silence is the answer when it really is the opposite. When you don't understand you ask, when the answers don't come, you seek and in the end you learn. Along with this education comes with a mental freedom and tolerance that makes this world a more tolerable and enjoyable place to be, to say the least.
I thank Georgia State University for allowing me an opportunity to teach as well as be taught by it's students. I thank you again and if you ever need my assistance just call and I will be there.
26. No response to this email was ever received, which I consider to be extremely rude to Officer Harris.
27. At the meeting with Reitzes and Stombler, Reitzes states that my Fall class had been taken away from me. Reitzes had issues with my student feedback as well, but said I would not have been fired for that issue alone. It was my not accepting the advice of Stombler that did it. (Contemporaneous handwritten notes from this meeting are also available).
28. Cited as evidence that I was not accepting the advice of Stombler were two issues: my bringing in an intersex guest speaker, and my writing a final paper that did not incorporate her advice.
29. Specifically, in the meeting, Stombler charged that I brought in a guest speaker even though she told me not to.
30. I pointed out (see 4 and 5) that she never told me not to continue teaching about intersex this Summer, but that she simply said she would not spend too much time on it “if it were her.”
31. Stombler admitted I was correct that she did not issue a specific directive. Reitzes noted, if it had been him, “I would’ve said, don’t do it.”
32. The revelation that she had never issued a directive had no bearing on Reitzes’s decision. He refused to revisit the decision despite this and other refutations I had to Stombler’s complaints.
33. I also attempted to discuss why curriculum needed to be changed in our GSU Introduction to Sociology classes in the meeting. However, Reitzes refused to get into a discussion, although he did not seem to understand why sex was a social construction because I had to explain it to him. Moreover, my bringing up this issue did not result in any review of such an important substantive matter on his part.
34. I brought numerous examples of very positive feedback I had received from students over the course of the Semester, including emails and a personal note written on a student’s final exam (all of these are available for review). Reitzes refused to look at the majority of these, stating it did not matter.
PART 3 of 3: WHY THE ACTIONS BY REITZES AND STOMBLER ARE UNJUST, UNETHICAL, AND DISCRIMINATORY
While it is not transparent whether Stombler made a recommendation that I be terminated, it is clear that Stombler made a complaint to Reitzes which led to his decision to terminate my position. Technically, it is Reitzes’s decision as the employer as to who gets to continue teaching; however, Reitzes’s actions were at the very least based on assertions made by Stombler.
I predict that this complaint will cause some embarrassment to the Sociology Department, seeing as how the Department is currently attempting to promote itself in the media and publicly as a bastion of free thought and critical thinking. Because of this, I anticipate that Reitzes and Stombler will probably deny that my curriculum choices had anything to do with my termination. I believe—and evidence will suggest—that Reitzes and Stombler unfortunately have and will continue to manufacture other reasons for my termination in order to obscure the real reason.
First and foremost, Prof. Stombler did not seem to be completely truthful with me regarding her and my students' evaluations of my teaching. There were many inconsistencies in the statements she made to me, in that the statements changed over time.
For example, (see points 13, 17, and 18) Stombler did not, in her original conversations with me, provide any overall negative assessment of my focus group feedback, instead listing a mixture of positive and negative things. According to my contemporaneous notes of the conversation, the majority of feedback was positive and her own observation of my teaching was mostly positive.
This representation of my focus group feedback shifted over time. At the meeting with Reitzes, much to my surprise, Stombler now portrayed the focus group results as negative, despite (a) Stombler’s positive observation of my teaching, (b) the positive feedback I brought which Reitzes refused to look at, and (c) the fact that she had provided a much different assessment previously.
In this meeting, I stated that this assessment did not seem consistent with Stombler's earlier representations to me. Stombler shook her head no while I said this, but it is unclear why. Reitzes seemed uninterested in pursuing any discrepancy of facts on the part of Stombler.
But this is not the only area where her statements changed over time. It was quite shocking to be encountered, during my meeting with her and Reitzes, by a seeming laundry list of complaints she had about me, even when these issues had either never been brought up before, or when she had previously seemed to be in agreement with me on said issues.
For example, she made a statement about how my deviating from the textbook showed how I ignored the advice given by her in the Spring teaching course. If that's the case, then it is puzzling why Stombler supported me both in verbal conversations and during teaching colloquium, when I described the various instances in which I needed to deviate from the book. I believe that, if she genuinely had those concerns all along, she should have stated them when they arose and not after the fact.
It is important to note the chronology of the events as well. Recall (point 14) that Stombler had already announced Reitzes’s request to meet with me, before I even completed the final paper for her course. Therefore, it is clear that Stombler had already complained about me to Reitzes, based on events which transpired prior to our phone conversation at the end of the course.
Any complaints related to the paper I wrote after that conversation, in which I refused to remove the intersex lesson from my curriculum, therefore, are after the fact of Stombler complaining about me to Reitzes.
Again, Reitzes later said the focus group results would not have warranted termination, it was the issue of not taking the advice of Stombler that did it (see point 27).
My argument is that Reitzes should have some responsibility to do due diligence to make sure that personnel actions he takes are based on solid facts and justifications. Based on everything I’ve seen, Reitzes did not do that. Also, if presented with evidence that the justifications were based on misinformation, Reitzes should have an obligation to revisit those justifications, and thus, his decision.
In conclusion I am asserting the actions of Reitzes and Stombler are unjust, unethical, and discriminatory in the sense that it appears I was fired in retaliation for attempting to correct inaccurate information in our textbooks. Any other reasons cited by Stombler I believe, and evidence suggests, were manufactured after the fact. Specifically, Stombler’s assertions about my focus group feedback shifted over time. Stombler’s assertion that I disobeyed a directive was false [yes, she issued unethical advice which I did not accept, but not a directive]. And any other issues raised are those that magically appeared at the end of the semester.
I believe it is important to come forward because future instructors should feel comfortable pursuing a curriculum that is accurate, inclusive, and up-to-date, and not fear retaliation for doing so.
About the author:
Matthew Cardinale is the News Editor for The Atlanta Progressive News, and is reachable is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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