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.