Racism or placeism?: Mizzou prof relieved of teaching duties after remark to a student from Wuhan

So here’s a 1.3-minute video showing a virtual class with Professor Joel Poor, who teaches marketing at the University of Missouri at Columbia (“Mizzou”).  What he said here led to his being relieved of all of his teaching duties. (He’s not fired—at least not yet.)

The story is recounted in this article in Inside Higher Ed (click on screenshot to read):

If you’re at all attuned to the Zeitgeist, you’ll know that Poor’s comment about “Where’s my mask?” could, if you’re sufficiently Pecksniffian, be interpreted as offensive. But it was also interpreted as racist, though that’s a bit of a stretch since he seems to be joking about where the student is from, not the fact that he’s Chinese. Nevertheless, it was deemed racist after complaints, and Poor, though he still has his job, has been relieved of his teaching duties. He’s also being investigated by Mizzou’s Office for Civil Rights and Title IX.

Now I wouldn’t have made that comment, as it could be seen as a joke at the student’s expense, but it’s followed by welcoming banter from Poor and an offer to put up the student if he needs housing.  I see it as an awkward comment that, at the most, would have had the professor called into the chairman’s office with an admonition like “Please don’t make any comments like that again; they could be interpreted as humor at a student’s expense.” And that would be it.

Poor even tendered an apology, which seems heartfelt and even creative:

“During today’s 11 am class, I made a joke about needing to put on a mask after a student said he was from Wuhan,” Poor wrote to students in the class. “I made the joke in the context of where the virus started. This was put on Twitter without the context that I immediately followed up with ‘I’ve only been to Chongqing and Shanghai’ and then asking the student about potential problems traveling to/from the U.S./to China. To anyone who was offended by my comments, I sincerely apologize and I want to communicate unequivocally that I have nothing but respect and love for the Chinese people and especially my students from China. But the most important point you need to understand from a marketing perspective is that what I did was wrong and here is why.

“1. In marketing, perception is reality. It doesn’t matter if I didn’t intend to offend someone, the fact that I did is what counts. When someone tells us we did something wrong, we need to be humble, not defensive and learn from it,” he wrote. “2. I should have been more sensitive. Even though I am totally supportive of the Chinese people/students, the political context here in the U.S. is not. I should have realized that and refrained from commenting like I did.”

I doubt that this will help. Granted, one Twitter user said that Poor has previously made similar “sexist, racist, and/or inappropriate comments,” but those apparently weren’t reported, and so we have to judge him on this comment alone. I think he’s gotten a raw deal and should be reinstated with a warning to watch his mouth.

Such is the climate today that a prof can be relieved of his teaching duties—and since he’s an “Associate Teaching Professor”, that may mean his job—for a remark like the one above. I can imagine that if a white student were coming back from Wuhan, Poor would have said the same thing, and of course that wouldn’t have been racism, but placeism. And that’s how I see the comment—as placeist.

What these disciplinarians seem to lack is a sense of empathy and forgiveness. It’s not surprising, too, that some students have even called for Poor to be fired.

Here: let’s get some opinion:

If you want to sign a petition asking Mizzou to keep on Poor as a professor, go here.

h/t: Bill

54 Comments

  1. Posted August 26, 2020 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    There was absolutely nothing wrong with the remark, except perhaps that it wasn’t very funny. Even the Chinese government has admitted that the virus was first detected in Wuhan, right? It is clearly meant as a joke since wearing a mask wouldn’t matter over a video connection. He clearly has nothing against the student and even offered him a place to stay. Should he be admonished? Absolutely not. The person who made the complaint should be the one to be admonished.

    • Steve Gerrard
      Posted August 26, 2020 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

      I agree. I read the headline, then watched the video, and could not work out what the professor had done. I had to read the commentary before realizing it was the mask comment that he got nailed for. Sheesh. As if everyone else likes wearing masks.

    • Posted August 26, 2020 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

      Booyah!

    • Posted August 27, 2020 at 2:58 am | Permalink

      I’m glad I don’t work in a job where making bad jokes is grounds for disciplinary action. Printing my CV would take many trees.

      What’s that you say? Fired?

  2. GBJames
    Posted August 26, 2020 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    When bad jokes are firing offenses, no job is secure.

    • jezgrove
      Posted August 26, 2020 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

      All of my jokes are terrible (lucky that I’m self-employed). X

      • GBJames
        Posted August 26, 2020 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

        You will be outed to your clients! We have zero tolerance for bad jokes these days.

        • jezgrove
          Posted August 26, 2020 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

          My unfortunate clients are already used to my bad jokes. I recently proofread a report about moving to net-zero carbon by 2050 that said that the Scottish government’s proposals were “supported by concrete steps”, so I commented “I hope they’re made using green cement”. (To be fair, the increased use of so-called “green cement” was one of the measures advocated in the report…) The same report used a lot of acronyms and abbreviations but didn’t introduce their full forms for the uninitiated, so I inserted these at each first use of the shortened form. Then I came across “CGIAR” (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/CGIAR ) which no longer even has a full form. “Sometimes a CGIAR is just a CGIAR”, I quipped. They really should get a discounted rate for putting up with this stuff!

  3. Posted August 26, 2020 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    A completely innocuous and humorous response; Poor’s facial expression and manner of speaking demonstrates zero negativity towards the student. Indeed he even offers a place to stay because of the pandemic.

  4. Randall Schenck
    Posted August 26, 2020 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    If they fire people for stupid? But then few of us would have a job.

  5. Pliny the in Between
    Posted August 26, 2020 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    Public conversation seems to have evolved into something akin to walking through a minefield. There are no learning moments – just fatal consequences.

    Bias is so prevalent in our language and thinking that it’s hard to avoid committing any number of microaggressions on a daily basis. Unfortunately, the thought police can’t seem to differentiate ‘honest’ biases and just not knowing any better from blatant hatred and prejudice,so discourse dries up.

    Constant pressure and gentle nudges (some might call it education) work to mitigate these more common responses. Reserve the hammer for the things that deserve it.

  6. Posted August 26, 2020 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    tRump and his supporters make nasty remarks about kung flu and the China virus with impunity, and some poor schmuck might lose his job over a harmless joke. I hope he gets a lawyer.

    • W.T. Effingham
      Posted August 26, 2020 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

      +1 Very good point considering tRumpglodytes. In my neck of the (flyover) woods, “Wuhan Flu” is mild compared to the common vernacular that is often spoken with impunity.

    • Posted August 27, 2020 at 3:10 am | Permalink

      That’s because they (e.g. Trump) don’t care and the people they work for (e.g. Vladimir Putin) don’t care.

      I think that’s also why it seems to be liberals that are the targets for these sorts of issues because they do care and it’s much more satisfying to destroy somebody’s life than to watch your attacks fail to do any damage.

  7. Ken Kukec
    Posted August 26, 2020 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    Chrissake, it wasn’t the most comme il faut thing the poor sap coulda said under the circumstances, but it’s certainly no fireable (or even suspendable) offense.

    Somebody up the chain-of-command should’ve simply pulled him aside and said make like Jerry Seinfeld on your own time, buster.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted August 26, 2020 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

      Lemme add, I’ve got no problem with humor in the classroom, quite the opposite. But I think it ought not usually be had by a professor at a student’s expense. Foreign students are particularly vulnerable, I think, being strangers in a strange land and all.

      Punch up, is my motto. Make fun of the administrators. The bastards probably deserve it anyway, and it shows some guts.

      • Posted August 26, 2020 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

        That’s a reasonable argument to convince someone that such jokes are bad but not to defend someone against losing their job. Not unless it’s open mic night at the Laugh House, anyway.

      • Posted August 26, 2020 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

        I do not see how it is punching in any direction. Most Americans never heard of Wuhan before the corona virus. It’s what it’s famous for now. It takes some twisting to make this into anything but a light hearted joke about a place.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted August 26, 2020 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

          I’m not saying it was anything other than a lighthearted joke. But it did seem a bit awkward for the Chinaman.*

          _________________
          *

      • Mike
        Posted August 26, 2020 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

        I’ve stopped trying to use humor in the classroom. It makes my classes more dull, so I have to find other ways to humanize my interactions with my students. It’s possible to do. But the loss of joking as a mode of interaction is a big loss. In biology, jokes about sex, death, food, and competition are all great ways to help students connect with ideas about organisms, but such jokes are so likely to offend someone now that I deem them not worth the risk.

        • Posted August 26, 2020 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

          Yeah. Getting a laugh is not worth your job.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted August 26, 2020 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

          Christ, if you can’t make light of “sex, death, food, and competition,” what’s left — I mean, if those subjects aren’t inherently funny, what the hell is? 🙂

        • Steve Gerrard
          Posted August 26, 2020 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

          So the four F’s: feeding, fighting, fleeing, and mating, are verboten now?

      • Posted August 26, 2020 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

        I know and fully agree. I teach classes, and am I do make various jokes all the time. All fairly scripted actually. Lame jokes. Self-deprecating jokes. But I know well that if you want to see oxygen leave a big auditorium, make a light ‘affectionate’ joke at a student. I fortunately learned very early in my career to never ever go there.

  8. Posted August 26, 2020 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    I’m astonished that 20 readers, about 45% who voted (right now) thought he deserves “admonition to not make remarks like that again”.

    That was nothing at all. An off hand remark also doesn’t have to be funny to spare him from consequences. In addition, most such joke attempts or remarks are only mildly amusing at that moment, with rapport and context.

    Lastly, he clearly did not say this in a hateful or negative manner, even in that brief video, and it is not even clear what is exactly offensive. As is often the case now, it’s just vaguely associative.

    • Posted August 26, 2020 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

      I took it as advice to be more careful in a crazy world.

    • Don
      Posted August 26, 2020 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think he did anything wrong, but I did vote for admonishment. I also meant it as more a warning that people are overly sensitive rather than as a true admonishment. Plus then the admins could truly say they spoke to the professor about the incident.

      • sugould
        Posted August 27, 2020 at 8:01 am | Permalink

        Ditto. Voted/thought the same.

  9. Ken Pidcock
    Posted August 26, 2020 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    Classic example of what’s become the standard administrators’ response: If we don’t over-react, this could just get worse.

  10. Posted August 26, 2020 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    “If you want to sign a petition asking Mizzou to keep on Poor as a professor, go here.”

    Hmm, while I’m tempted to sign, the petition labels the joke an “infraction” for which there should be “no room in the classroom” (though it asks for him to have a “second chance”).

    I cannot agree; students should be adults, not snowflakes, and should be able to cope with a joke.

    • Posted August 27, 2020 at 2:26 am | Permalink

      Yes. Life is harsh – learn to accept blows – this was hardly one! If I’d been the student I would have asked how many Americans had died of Covid19!!!

  11. Posted August 26, 2020 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    A bit of context that probably escaped the poor prof or anyone not following the Chinese internet, is that Wuhan people have had tons of abuse heaped upon them since the beginning of the pandemic. So much so that when a foreigner makes a joke (even a good-natured one) about someone being from Wuhan, I can see how it might hurt. I myself would never joke like this in the presence of Wuhan friends.

    That said, firing him for that joke is also ridiculous.

  12. Posted August 26, 2020 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    He even offered the student to stay in his home if he had trouble. He acknowledged that Chinese students were having trouble crossing the US border. It’s clear his concern was with making sure the student had the support he needed.

    Truly: Wokeism is the death of humor.

  13. BobTerrace
    Posted August 26, 2020 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    I saw nothing there but a “dad” joke. Much of the conversation showed his concern for the caller. Firing him signifies that lunatics run the show there.

  14. Randall Schenck
    Posted August 26, 2020 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    The person who needs to be fired because of the virus and many other really illegal acts is Trump. No humor in this statement.

    Today in Des Moines Iowa the major has installed a mandatory mask regulation. I forget how many months ago that was done in Wichita. First class national action, eh.

  15. davelenny
    Posted August 26, 2020 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    Were I sufficiently woke, I would fire the professor for his racist apology. He loves all his students, especially those from China; this obviously discriminates against students from elsewhere.

    More seriously, what was the Wuhan student’s opinion? We aren’t told.

  16. Posted August 26, 2020 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    We seem more and more to be veering into Stalin’s USSR, where any offhand remark that’s interpreted as even potentially against the regime can get you sent to the gulag. My fear is that is may become more literally the case.

    • Michael Waterhouse
      Posted August 26, 2020 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

      I had a stark vision along those lines, of stony impassive emotionless faces, staring straight ahead saying that which is scripted.

      I hope the offended brigade get so upset that they leave.

      Even here many people think he did something wrong.

      As many did in the Tim Hunt affair which brought down a great scientist because certain types need to be offended.

      I see little chance that this phenomena will die off with so much tacit support.

  17. jezgrove
    Posted August 26, 2020 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    The student should have taken the wise words of the 21st century philosopher Taylor Swift to heart: “Shake It Off”. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shake_It_Off

  18. BJ
    Posted August 26, 2020 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

    It’s really scary to live in a world where you can never, ever make a mistake and ideological conformity is considered to be necessary at every moment of every day. This has even extended to one’s personal life, where, if someone happens to record you or report that you said something that could in any way be construed as [ ]-ist or [ ]-phobic, you could lose your job, friends, reputation, etc. It extends to your online life, where you could be doxxed and/or have comments you made taken out of context, or dredged up from ten years ago. And when someone loses their job, there are often several other people who suffer, especially if they’re supporting a family. Their spouse, children, and possibly parents and other family members all suffer.

    Is this really the kind of world we want?

    • Posted August 26, 2020 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

      I agree. I guess being a jerk, or simply not funny, isn’t even an option any more. 😉

  19. Wayne Y Hoskisson
    Posted August 26, 2020 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

    Seems like a sad time. I remember listening to Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and reading The Realist from Paul Krassner. The Disneyland Memorial Orgy poster brought a whole new dimension to wholesome entertainment. My very conservative father was a bigger fan of Don Rickles than I was. Moving from “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam” to “Paint it Black” in what seems like a moment. Now the Woke seem like the Undead, sucking life from what lives.

    IIRC Terry Pratchett noted in one of his books that, “It wasn’t the wrong revolution, it was the wrong people.” I guess it usually is people that are the problem.

  20. ivan
    Posted August 26, 2020 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

    They should relieve the administrator of their duties

  21. eric
    Posted August 26, 2020 at 10:01 pm | Permalink

    Remember when liberals supported reducing criminal and civil penalties, based on the notion that rehabilitation was far more useful than punishment?

    Remember when liberals had empirical evidence on their side, pointing out that evidence showed harsher penalties didn’t reduce anti-social behavior?

    • C.
      Posted August 26, 2020 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

      Yeah. They looked at all the dumb restrictive crap the conservatives kept trying to force on the rest of us and said “oh yeah? Hold my organic seasonal craft microbrew and watch this!”

    • GBJames
      Posted August 27, 2020 at 8:32 am | Permalink

      The folk you refer to aren’t liberals.

  22. Posted August 27, 2020 at 2:18 am | Permalink

    He was contrite. He was also supportive. Joke police… a poor joke as Wuhan has no Covid19 at present…


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