“It was an oddball question for a Health Science class, eh?” writes my colleague, when I text her the article about the controversy surrounding Cal State University, Long Beach lecturer Matthew Fischer. “By the way, did you hear about the perv who was filming guys at the urinals in the men’s restroom? Never a dull moment at CSULB!”
She’s right, of course. There never is a dull moment (okay, some) and the question is an oddball one for a final exam in Health Science:
Which of the following gangs generally do the least graffiti?
A. Black. B. Asian. C. Hispanic. D. White.
Maybe the student who took a screenshot of this question and put a big blue circle around it before he posted it to Twitter, has a point. Maybe his professor is a racist.
But hold up. Maybe I’m dismissing Fischer’s case too easily. Maybe some context is missing? Maybe Fischer’s question isn’t as random as the media report is making it out to be?
“I’m guessing the kid didn’t attend class often enough to get the context,” my colleague writes. “Then again, some teachers are fucking nuts.”
After working at the university for fifteen years, both of these possibilities seem likely to me.
Oddball or not, certainly there must be some statistical answer to Fischer’s exam question. To assume it is racist is to assume the professor is suggesting that the answer to “which gang does the least graffiti” must be white? An assumption that to me seems pretty racist itself. Shouldn’t someone in the media at least try to find that out? Did any reporter even bother to ask him the answer to this question? Nothing in these slight articles, whose details are being recycled by ABC and NBC and the Los Angeles Times, suggests as much.
According to news reports, Fischer isn’t answering any more questions. Otherwise, I’d ask him myself. Then again…
“Tread lightly,” says my colleague, when I express interest in investigating the controversy. After all, I am an employee of the same university. Maybe she’s right. And what if it turns out Fischer really is a racist? I find his Facebook page. It says he’s from Huntington Beach, which notoriously has a white supremacy problem. Suspect. Or is it? 201,874 people live in Huntington Beach and most are not white supremacists. This is how easily one starts to write a false narrative.
I go back and read the article again.
Cal State University, Long Beach officials have launched an investigation into the conduct of a health-sciences education lecturer after a student this week posted a final exam question to Twitter that he said was racist.
‘The college takes situations like this very seriously…’ says Monica Lounsbery, dean of the College of Health and Human Services. ‘Once we have completed the investigation, we will evaluate all of the information and determine an appropriate course of action.’
Which leads me to my next question: what exactly is the university planning to investigate in this case? Whether Fischer purposely put this question on his final exam to offend his students? This would imply that he’s not only a racist but a masochistic dogwhistler, who can hardly contain his racism, risking his job for an out-of-context question in the middle of a Health Science final.
Then again, a quick two-second scan of the course description for the class H SC 411B Health Science for Secondary Teachers on the CSULB website reveals that his question may not be so out of context after all:
Contemporary teaching of health education in secondary schools; emphasizes coordinated school health, integrating health content and instruction into other subjects, drugs, sexuality, nutrition, child abuse, violence, community and human ecology. Based upon California Health Framework, meets state credential requirements.
Why did not one responsible journalist, department chair or administrator at least check the facts before making a statement?
And if there is context, what then would the investigation be determining? That an oddly framed question reveals the professor’s unconscious bias? That he’s guilty of thought crime? Unconscious thought crime? Is there any other corroborating evidence to justify opening an investigation? A questionable grade for a student of color? A previous incident? Will anyone at the university approach him in good faith and just ask him what he meant? And if he answers as he does in the article—in which he apologizes and says, “Wasn’t meant to be racist in the least. I’m sorry they were offended by it”—what will be the appropriate course of action? And what about the student who posted a final exam question on Twitter, which surely violates academic honesty codes of conduct?
Like my colleague and I, Matthew Fischer’s official job description is lecturer, which, here in the US, means an adjunct, part-time employee, with none of the protections of a tenured professor. Fischer has been teaching at the college for sixteen years—which means that every one–three years he is evaluated by a colleague in his department and every semester he is required to distribute evaluations to his students, who are presented with questions like Did anything interfere with your learning in this course?
It also turns out, after a little more digging, that he did provide the context to at least one reporter, in an article published by Inside Higher Ed.:
The query in question refers ‘to one of the leading causes of death (homicide due to gang violence) among teens,’ Fischer added, saying that the answer is Asian gangs: ‘Asian gangs are less likely to tag/write graffiti as they typically do not claim a geographical territory as some other gangs may.’
But a quick Google search already reveals him to be the Cal State professor who included a racist question on his final exam. A new comment on his Rate My Professor profile says, “This racist puts questions about gang graffiti on a health quiz.” Prior to this, if you scroll back in time, you’ll see that he’s a “super chill guy,” maybe a little too easy, maybe a little too jokey, maybe a little too disorganized. And if you go back even further, all the way to 2012, you’ll see another comment by a student that says, “If you get offended easily, don’t take this class.”
Perhaps, this will all blow over. I love my university and trust the good people there will do the right thing no matter the outcome. I can even understand the moral panic and the fear of looking racist by not taking such an allegation seriously. I feel a similar fear at writing this article. But I don’t think I should let somebody else’s life be ruined because of that fear.