This article has been updated. Please see below.
Education as Self-Fashioning (ESF) professors reported Terry Castle, the Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities, to administration members after she read aloud and publicly criticized a student’s senior seminar paper while critiquing student writing in general at a Nov. 9 ESF lecture.
The incident was reported to Richard Saller, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences; Debra Satz, senior associate dean for the humanities and arts; Harry Elam, vice provost for undergraduate education (VPUE); and Martha Cyert, senior associate for VPUE, according to Dan Edelstein, associate professor of French and Italian, who teaches the ESF seminar “Learning for a Public Life.”
“We were uncomfortable with what happened as a matter of professionalism,” Edelstein said. “We felt that it was our duty to let people know, people who are in our chain of command, and so that’s what we did.”
According to students who were at the lecture, Castle used selections from the student’s paper as an example of poor writing among college students.
“She read aloud one run-on sentence with inflection in such a way that she seemed to be looking at in a very condescending manner,” said Stephen Goodspeed ’16. “She said that she simply hadn’t been taught to ameliorate this kind of writing because it was at such a low level.”
Students in the ESF program are required to attend a series of four plenary lectures given by professors from other universities about liberal education. After these lectures, ESF faculty invite Stanford professors to comment on and moderate discussions about the previous week’s lecture.
Castle, along with Joshua Landy, associate professor of French and Italian, was invited to respond to a Nov. 2 lecture given by Princeton professor Alexander Nehamas titled, “I Would Rather Fashion My Mind Than Furnish It.”
Castle was only expected to comment on Nehamas’ lecture, but instead she also chose to read aloud a paper from one of her senior seminars and criticize it in front of the ESF class, commenting on the difficulty of teaching students with mediocre writing skills.
ESF professors did not anticipate the sudden shift in the discussion with Castle’s tangent about the decline of student writing.
“I think perhaps some of our surprise simply came from the fact that it there was no very obvious connection between her statements and Nehamas’ lecture,” Edelstein said.
After reading aloud from the paper, Castle made several more general remarks about how today’s college students lack collegiate-level writing skills.
“She essentially said that we as college freshmen aren’t as advanced in rhetoric as students from 10 years ago,” Goodspeed said.
Edelstein said that Castle’s statements were completely unexpected, as the professors did not ask her to submit a preview of what she planned to say beforehand.
“If I knew in advance that this was her view about student writing, then I probably would not have thought it wise to share that view to the students in what was also a [Program in Writing and Rhetoric] writing seminar,” Edelstein said.
Writing instructors associated with the ESF seminars sent emails to students after the lecture assuring students that the ESF professors did not agree with all of Castle’s ideas and that their work would not be publicly criticized.
“It is also highly irregular for a faculty member to read part of a student’s paper without that student’s permission to a group — especially for the purpose of claiming that the student may be fundamentally unteachable,” Melanie Conroy, one of the writing instructors, told Edelstein’s students in an email on Nov. 11.
“Rest assured that your papers will never be shared without due warning, and if we do reference them, it will be to show an example of good student writing,” she added.
Edelstein said that professors also discussed Castle’s comments with students in seminars during the week following Castle’s lecture.
“We did not want our students to think that it was not possible for them to make any gains in their writing or get the sense that they were somehow impaired permanently in their writing abilities, which is not at all what we believe and not at all what we’ve seen,” Edelstein said.
Several students who attended Castle’s lecture were more intrigued than disheartened by her remarks.
“I appreciated the fact that she was honestly critical of something. The reason I appreciated that was since I had stepped foot on this campus six weeks earlier, I had basically not heard a single critical word about anything,” said Erica McDowell ’16.
Goodspeed agreed, and said that sometimes the ESF program is “a little too uplifting and a little too much of an intellectual safe haven.”
According to Edelstein, ESF professors chose not to follow up with Castle about her comments.
“I think we were more concerned with our students,” Edelstein said. “None of us really felt like it was part of our role as faculty to be policing other faculty. What worried us was that the students would feel dispirited in their attempts to write.”
Castle was not available for comment by time of publication.
Nov. 30 – Castle, in an emailed statement to The Daily, has provided the following response: “It was certainly not my intention to disparage students but rather to express my frustration at what I perceive as a general decline in writing skills. I would be more than willing to debate these issues with students, professors or in any public forum.”