Indoctrinator. Persecutor. Hatemonger. Racist. These titles now swirl around English professor William Penn’s name, and there’s a chopped and edited video circulating that falsely perpetuates these claims.
I first heard of Penn on an autumn night during my sophomore year. That night, at a poetry session, I had asked one of the featured poets a slew of questions about creative writing on campus, the different groups involved in it and the professors who taught it.
“Take Penn,” the poet said. “He’s a hard-ass, but you’ll actually learn something.”
I pressed him, and he cited several examples of Penn’s teaching style.
“Do the work,” he said. “Penn won’t hesitate on calling you out for slacking, and often he will speak his mind and say things to engage students. If you disagree, think about it and speak up. He’ll respect you for it, even if he disagrees.”
I spent the remainder of sophomore year taking introductory courses and university requirements in lecture halls packed with 100 to 300 other students. For many, our mentality going into these classes was, “I am stuck spending money on a required class. How does this material apply to my life?”
If the answer was unclear, we shrunk in our seats and doodled, did homework, texted or surfed the Internet for the class periods. Most points were earned solely for showing up. Most tests were multiple choice, and the questions on them were ripped and reworded from lecture slides that were posted online.
At the start of every class, instructors had a window of opportunity to grab their students’ attention before they competed with laptops and smartphones. To combat this, some professors banned laptop and smartphone usage, others engaged students with discussion and humor, and some ignored the issue altogether.
The next fall, I had the first of two courses with Penn. Class was loosely structured and conversational. It was driven by feedback and questions from students, which he encouraged. If students spoke, the discussions flourished. If students failed to speak, the discussions became Penn’s.
“Be forewarned,” Penn said to another class during the video in question. “I’m eccentric. I hate bureaucracy. I will say what I think. I in no way mean to offend you. If I do, I’ve said it (before), come up and tell me and I will apologize, and I absolutely don’t mean to offend you.”
“To have what Mitt Romney has, you have to be Mitt Romney” was a general example of character he gave to students in the video, and previously to my fiction writing class. I didn’t follow. My parents were Republicans. They would vote for Mitt Romney. It felt like an attack on them, yet I didn’t raise my hand and tell him that, as he had told us to do whenever something offended us. I ignored it. I chose not to communicate.
Penn often veered from course topic into politics and otherwise if he thought it necessary. He told stories. He made jokes. He always used language to challenge students to question him and dig deeper. Sometimes that language was shocking.
We studied meaning for much of that fiction writing class. Penn challenged us to look past ourselves and under the surface. He had a holistic approach to this, connecting meaningful fiction with how we viewed the world. To this end, he encouraged students to be involved in class as critical thinkers, not mutes or dumb devotees of his views.
He always respected student opinions and never singled them out for believing opposite him. Arguments between student and teacher, and student and student, always were grounded in objective criticism. If they evolved into personal attacks on students, the arguments were stopped. The fiction stories we wrote and discussed usually were the subjects of debate.
Before Penn would give his comments on a fiction story, he would open the discussion to the class. He was an upfront and honest person, and his comments displayed this. Students were encouraged to challenge his comments if they thought differently and, in doing so, productive debate thrived. To receive negative feedback was disheartening, but Penn always was willing to meet with students, go over comments and discuss ways to improve.
He shared insightful views on fiction writing and humanity’s search for meaning, and students always were challenged to reach their own conclusions. Among many examples, he taught us that people don’t want to read about characters who envy someone’s car because it was expensive or who fall in love with someone because they are “cool” or “hot.” These reasons, being cheap and cosmetic, fade in the long term. He taught us that lasting impressions are unique to each person, such as the way someone’s lip curls when they smile or the way they laugh at your jokes.
A year after that first course, his lessons still echo.
Was his teaching ever “inappropriate, disrespectful and offensive”? Yes.
Did he ever disregard his students when they told him he was “inappropriate, disrespectful and offensive”? No.
And might it have “negatively affected the learning environment”? That question was the students’ to ask.
Michael Kransz is opinion editor at The State News. Reach him at email@example.com.
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