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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Adjunct Howell's Excellence

As a number of people keep pointing out, even though Kenneth Howell seems incompetent when it comes to teaching utilitarianism and Natural Moral Law theory, and even though he uses illogical, ignorant, and manipulative tactics to espouse Catholicism, he has been recognized twice for excellence in teaching (first in the Fall of 2008 and again in the Fall of 2009). This is supposed to show that he is competent, that his department hasn't had any problems with him before, and that he's only lost his job because of his views on homosexuality. Yet, the facts speak otherwise.

It's true that Howell was recognized for excellence in teaching . . . by his students. (See here: ICES Fall 2008 and Fall 2009.) These evaluations give no indication of the views of other professors or administrators at UI. They do not mean he's competent. They just mean his students think he's a good teacher. He must have convinced them that he knows what he's talking about. (To be fair, maybe some of the time he does.)

There has been ongoing disapproval of the unorthodox system through which Howell was hired. (See here.) It stands to reason that faculty who disapprove of that system have also been concerned about Howell's qualifications and abilities. True, there doesn't seem to have been any formal complaints filed against Howell before now, but that doesn't mean he's been doing a good job, or that his contract is not being renewed simply because he believes homosexuality is unnatural. It just means that the system has been a problem for a long time, but there hasn't been enough pressure to do anything about it. Now that Howell's offensive incompetence is out in the open, they're finally reevaluating the way they have been doing things. They're fighting for standard hiring practices, that's all. No more incompetent arms of the church flying in under the radar. That sounds like a good idea to me, and it's not an infringement of anyone's liberty.

Update July 20, 2010, 17:50 GMT: If you read the original complaint against Howell, it's clear that the issue has always been his teaching methods, and not his views on homosexuality. As I noted from the start, if the issue was just whether or not he was teaching views which are offensive to homosexuals, there would be a free speech case here. But that is not the issue. The issue is whether or not his teaching methods are in line with the standards and principles of the University of Illinois.

As per the issue of qualifications, here's a link to Howell's CV. He's got two PhDs: one in linguistics and the philosophy of science, the other in the history of Christianity (esp. Catholicism) and its relation to science. He hasn't maintained any devotion to linguistics, however. His scholarly work since the '80s has been almost entirely devoted to religious and theological matters, though he held some teaching positions in the '90s which were not directly related to religion. In any case, on paper, he appears to have the minimum qualifications to teach university courses on Catholicism and Philosophy; however, that doesn't mean the work he's done is any good, or that he's a competent professor. And it certainly doesn't mean UI should ignore the damning evidence and renew his contract.