Why our physics courses had to change

MIT recently announced that it was removing renowned physics professor Walter Lewin’s lectures from both MIT OCW and edX following a sexual harassment allegation from a woman in one of Dr. Lewin’s edX classes. According to the announcement, MIT’s decision is based, in part, on the desire to prevent “any further inappropriate behavior.” As OER curators and content framers removed somewhat from MIT’s immediacy to the situation, Saylor is in a different position than MIT, but we have nevertheless made the decision to remove Dr. Lewin’s materials from our site as well. We didn’t come to this decision lightly, but rather considered our role in disseminating educational materials in our 21st century context. As curators of open content providing a stamp of approval for our educational resources, Saylor relies in no small part on the reputations of our outside content providers, and we encourage our learners to trust our content and our courses.

Using Lewin’s videos despite MIT’s decision that Dr. Lewin shouldn’t be trusted to have MIT-sanctioned interactions with students would be a cavalier attitude for us to take. By continuing to ask students to trust his instructional materials, Saylor would be turning a blind eye to the gravity of sexual harassment and the gendered context within which such harassment often takes place. STEM fields, such as physics, already have pervasive gender trouble. According to the American Physical Society, women earned fewer than 40% of Bachelor’s degrees across STEM disciplines in 2012 and only 19% of the Bachelor’s degrees awarded in physics. While there are, without a doubt, a wide variety of factors contributing to this gap (e.g, internalized stereotypes, gendered differences in high school educational experiences, lack of a sense of belonging, to name just a few), minimizing the significance of Dr. Lewin’s offense will certainly not help close the gap. Removing materials that may contribute to an invidious environment might.

Looking through Dr. Lewin’s videos, Lewin’s teaching persona, his performance as physics professor, comes across loud and clear. With sustained critique, we might fruitfully interrogate the ways his performance might be connected to gendered power inequalities, and could, perhaps, even productively reinscribe these videos as sites of resistance to the status quo. However, Dr. Lewin’s videos (and STEM learning artifacts in general) are not generally subjected to such critical inquiry. Instead they are the recommended learning materials for mastering physics, and as such, we specifically suggest considering them as neutral vessels of facts. And since they are presented as such, and we would like to continue to encourage people to learn physics from our physics courses rather than asking physics students to both understand kinematic equations while simultaneously critiquing the culturally constituted nature of the materials from which they should learn those equations, we have removed them from our site and replaced them with alternative materials. The videos are the meat of the instructional content, created by a professor who was asked to be disinvolved with students because of sexual harassment. There are suitable replacements from others who haven’t been similarly barred from having sanctioned instructional interactions, and not removing the videos places a higher value on the videos than on sensitivity and respect for learners.

All of which is to say, we removed Dr. Lewin’s videos, and no longer rely on his materials in our courses out of a commitment to integrity and gender equality. Study on.

Photo Credit: From Thomas GuignardCC BY-NC-SA 2.0

5 thoughts on “Why our physics courses had to change

  1. December 19, 2014

    Paul Morris Reply

    I am somewhat conflicted in regard to this affair and its fallout.

    As we don’t actually know the details of the complaint (and are unlikely to do so given the need to maintain the anonymity of the complainant, the confidentiality of the enquiry and the reputation of MIT) we should tread carefully. MIT’s definition of sexual harassment covers an awfully wide range of offences from inappropriate flirting to the grossest abuses of power. However, as Dr Lewin retired from formal teaching some years ago and has taught only non-credit bearing MOOCs in recent years, many of the aspects of the regulations are not relevant. We can probably conclude that it was found his “conduct [had] the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with another individual’s . . . academic experience, or of creating a hostile . . . academic . . . environment.” (https://titleix.mit.edu/policies/sexual_misconduct#Sexual Harassment – edited for context.)

    I can understand that MIT would want to distance itself from a former employee who was bringing the institution into disrepute. In this regard it might be appropriate to strip him of his emeritus professor status–an honorary title which nevertheless implies academic and institutional recognition. I can also understand and support action to prevent his access to the platform (edX) where he demonstrated behaviour found (by an internal enquiry) to be unacceptable.

    I can also accept that MIT might no longer want to host the Lewin lectures (recorded some fifteen years ago) in its OCW archive–even though there would be no real possibility of inappropriate contacts resulting from such hosting of non-interactive material–as this might be thought to imply continued support.

    I find Saylor’s position more difficult. If it were simply left at “We don’t want to be associated with this person” then that would be regrettable but honest and straightforward. Worrying about students needing to critique “the culturally constituted nature of the materials” seems disingenuous if not dishonest. Nowhere in MIT’s statements (nor in any discussion I’ve read) has it been suggested that the content of the lectures is anything less than exemplary or, to use the blog poster’s words, “neutral vessels of facts”. These videos have been carried and promoted by MIT for 15 years without any suggestion of an inimical subtext (and the lectures presented in person for decades before and after).

    It is sad to lose materials which are almost universally recognised as being exceptionally engaging without making any concessions in rigour. Those, including myself, who are disappointed should, however, remember that Dr Lewin is the author not only of the materials but also his own downfall. Of course, as the videos were released under a Creative Commons licence they will remain available so long as anyone chooses to distribute them. Students may continue to use the resources but it is probably no longer appropriate to set them as a required part of a course. This is not because there is anything wrong with the lectures but because doing so “places a higher value on the videos than on sensitivity and respect for learners”–a statement from the Saylor posting with which I have to agree.

    Finally, I should add that the sequence of Khan Academy presentations now offered in PHYS101 is a very poor substitute for the earlier materials. The Open Yale PHYS 200 lecture series seems to better cover the ground required for PHYS101 and I would imagine that their PHYS 201 would similarly cover PHYS102 although I’ve not looked in any detail. Professor Shankar may not employ as many bells and whistles as did Dr Lewin, he is of recognised academic standing and presents solid and informative lectures–and they are released under a CC licence. I would find these far more engaging than the Khan Academy material (although one might like to retain those as an option for revision purposes).

    http://oyc.yale.edu/physics/phys-200 & http://oyc.yale.edu/physics/phys-201

    To summarise in a couple of sentences:

    It was probably correct to remove the Lewin lectures but Saylor’s explanation for the action was unnecessarily complicated and further muddied by references to social constructs. There are other materials available but the selection of the Khan Academy lessons seems a poor and possibly hurried choice.

    • December 31, 2014

      Lindsay Murphy Reply

      As you suggest, replacing Lewin’s videos with ones from Khan was a quick fix, and we will take a closer look at the Yale lectures you mention (as well as other physics OER videos) to find the best possible replacements. Thanks for another viewpoint on this complex issue.

  2. January 8, 2015

    David Spencer Reply

    “By continuing to ask students to trust his instructional materials, Saylor would be turning a blind eye to the gravity of sexual harassment and the gendered context within which such harassment often takes place. ”

    This statement is nonsense. Physics is natural science, and sexual harassment is social philosophy. One has nothing to do with the other. If Saylor had initially deemed the lecture material accurate and reliable sources of information, then nothing external should change that. What the man may or may not have done 15 years after recording the lectures has nothing to do with the legitimacy of the lectures. I concur with Paul Morris’s statement.

    Saylor has the right to make any decision it chooses regarding content, but the reasons given for that decision are disingenuous and ill-conceived. You are calling into question the character of the source material, where as the actual concern regards public perception of your institution.

    Just tell it as it is, the lecture materials are perfectly sound, but you are afraid of guilt by association.
    In other words, your dedication to educational excellence is a facade.
    You are more interested in social activism and political correctness.

    • January 20, 2015

      Sean Connor Reply

      Thanks for your take, David, and apologies for the delay in response. I wanted to mull this over for a bit before responding.

      In this instance, I think that doing nothing actually represents the lesser risk to our public image — it seems likely enough that we could have kept the lectures and never heard another word, and I expect this whole situation will be forgotten, if it was ever even known, in non-academic circles. This is not to argue that we are being especially brave in making our decision, though — but we did make the decision and did not want to gloss over it in silence, which we felt was a more pernicious kind of censorship.

      We can reasonably argue over the degree to which the person delivering the material affects the material itself (obviously, we have our opinions), but we can imagine, perhaps, much more clear-cut cases where the person delivering the material is so universally scorned that the quality of the material becomes irrelevant and to keep the materials online would be a public outrage. Clearly, we drew the line far short of universal public condemnation, and we do (respectfully and humbly) stand by that decision.

      But we are positively arguing that the material, besides being scientifically or pedagogically correct, is also valued very much because of who delivered it; if the material can be “tainted” for the better, it can be tainted for the worse, as well. We arrived at a consensus decision to divest, but I believe the guiding principle was that a decision to do nothing and a decision to delete were equally “active” decisions, once we conceived that we had a choice. We made the call with our own perceptions primarily in mind rather than those of the public — so we contend, anyway.

      In brief, we fully stand by our reasoning, provided in earnest, though we know others will disagree and (I hope clearly) welcome points of view in conflict with ours.

      We do want to state that we are indeed dedicated to educational excellence first and foremost, though we have always balanced that primary goal with a number of considerations such as cost and availability, and only very, very rarely considerations such as those above.

  3. January 26, 2015

    Sean Connor Reply

    Detailed updates to this story available at the links below:

    Inside Higher Ed — “We All Felt Trapped”
    https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/01/23/complainant-unprecedented-walter-lewin-sexual-harassment-case-comes-forward

    The Tech — “MIT says it removed Lewin videos for fear of continued harassment”
    http://tech.mit.edu/V134/N62/lewin.html

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