June Sheldon was an adjunct professor of biology at San Jose/Evergreen Community College, teaching genetics. Here’s one account of a lecture she gave.
On June 21, 2007, June Sheldon, an adjunct professor teaching a human heredity course, answered a question about how heredity affects homosexual behavior by citing the class textbook and a well-known German scientist. She noted that the scientist found a correlation between maternal stress and homosexual behavior in males but that the scientist’s views are only one set of theories in the nature-versus-nurture debate mentioned by the textbook. Sheldon then explained that the class would learn in a later chapter of the textbook that homosexual behavior may be influenced by both genes and the environment.
In the class discussion, Sheldon noted that the nature/nurture question was complex. She said that from the nurture point of view, fathers who wanted heterosexual sons might choose to treat their wives with courtesy. She also argued that from the nurture point of view, a theoretical possibility is that some women might have chosen lesbian relationships after having had bad heterosexual relationships.
These all sound like reasonable discussions of the issue. Of course, they are all written after the fact, so maybe the presentation has been cleaned up a bit. After all, a student found the lecture to be grounds to make a formal complaint.
On June 21st, our session of Human Heredity class was based on a development chapter. Professor Sheldon began to talk about something that had no mention in the textbook. I found many parts of her lecture highly offensive and unscientific. She presented this information, however, as hard science.
She said that a German study found that pregnant mice, when subjected to severe stress, would produce gay male rates. She said that the scientists cut off part of the pregnant mouse’s tail and dipped her in scalding water. I later found a website explaining what I’m quite sure is the study she was referencing. The study only used one mouse in the experimental group and one mouse in the control group. Not only that, the study did not explain how they determined the offspring were gay.
Professor Sheldon said that there are hardly any gay men in the Middle East because the women are treated very nicely. That comment was inaccurate, baseless, and offensive. First of all, determining a gay population is very difficult, and somewhat impossible if the atmosphere in that region is completely intolerant to gays. Also, I found it offensive that she thought women who must have written notes from a man to attend school are treated nicely.
A student asked Professor Sheldon what causes homosexuality in women. Professor Sheldon promptly replied that there aren’t any real lesbians. According to her, women simply get tire of relationships with men and pursue them with women.
To conclude her lecture, she addressed the men in the classroom, saying that if they want a “nice,” and strong son, they should treat their wives very nicely (do things like “open doors for them”). And she said, if they wanted a “sensitive” son, they should abuse their wives.
Even after a month of waiting to cool down, I am still horribly offended.
There are some things in that account that are bizarre: few gay men in the Middle East? Women who have sexual relationships with other women aren’t “real” lesbians? Just by that account, I’d agree that there might have been some weird assertions in the lecture. However, I teach genetics, too, and I know that students often come away with very garbled interpretations of what I taught, and I have the exam scores to prove it.
It’s also odd that the student doesn’t like the study he or she thinks the professor referenced. The maternal stress theory of homosexuality is a real, if somewhat controversial (like every theory about homosexuality), idea that has conflicting evidence in support about a contributing factor to sexual orientation. It’s perfectly appropriate to discuss it in class, especially if the professor also acknowledges other theories.
There are some red flags in that complaint, too. Complaining that she was lecturing about “something that had no mention in the textbook” is an argument that irritates me no end. That’s the point of having a professor — they’re there to discuss ideas with you. A class is not an exercise in regurgitating facts from the textbook. It’s also suspicious that this is a subjective account written a month after the event. The student has been sitting there stewing in outrage for weeks, and then assembles a complaint? Bleh. Throw it out on those grounds alone.
Then there is the fact that the student complains over and over about being offended. What do you want? Feel-good pablum in which you’re affirmed in what you already know? If you’re offended, speak up and argue. This was a wonderful opportunity: ask the professor to back up details of the experiment in question (Sheldon has since said that she was talking about the work of Günter Dörner, which really does involve more than one pair of mice). If you’ve got information that says the numbers in the experiment were weak, say so, and ask her to look into it. This is another reason professors are kind of useful to have around — they’re more responsive than your textbook, or should be.
I’d like to see more concrete evidence of invalid instruction than this. How about an exam question that is graded wrong if the student argues that homosexuals are not more rare in the Middle East than anywhere else? How about copies of powerpoint slides that assert nonsense? Let’s see some evidence of errors of substance.
Unfortunately, this complaint has gotten Sheldon’s contract terminated. She’s an adjunct, the university has the privilege of not renewing her contract (although it looks like they didn’t follow their own grievance procedures), so there’s probably not much she can do to oppose this, but Sheldon has filed a legal complaint anyway. Good luck to her. If professors could be dismissed on the basis of a single student complaint that they were “offended” by the content of a lecture, there wouldn’t be any of us around anymore.
I can’t say that I’m at all impressed with SJCC’s commitment to academic freedom, or their excessive reaction to a single student’s complaint. There is something more going on there, and they aren’t being forthcoming about it.