“I can appear to people to be a nutcase,” says former UM linguistics professor Dennis Holt. “I mean, I may not appear that way to you now. But depending on what expectations are, well this is what happened in the classroom: I can flip into different modalities. The students had seen me in the modality as a linguistics teacher. They hadn’t seen the romantic poet side of me until I opened them up to it.”
The now infamous lecture to which Holt refers took place in his level 270 UM linguistics class on Friday, March 21. As he recounts the details of his presentation that day, Holt does not appear to be a nutcase, though his manner of speaking is eccentric. He draws on literary, linguistic and metaphysical analogies that rarely make their way into the vernacular of everyday conversation. As he recalls his days as part of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, Holt is cool and collected, though his eyes reveal a heavy sadness. Dennis Holt is not happy with the world in which we live.
Stated simply, Holt advocates a non-violent overthrow of the Bush administration. This is the aspect of his lecture that has drawn the most media attention.
“I’m just trying to push people to realize first of all what place we’re already in and jog them into a clear perception of actual reality, and then to think seriously about trying to change it,” says Holt. “And the obvious thing is to remove these guys from power because they have disconnected the apparatus of government from any kind of control [by] the actual people. It’s like the machine has taken off on its own.”
On Monday, March 31, after student and parent complaints to university administration, Holt was suspended with pay and has since been informed by Dean Thomas Storch that he will not be teaching at UM again. The only reason so far given for Holt’s dismissal is that the decision was made in the “best interest of the students.” After teaching stints at California State-Fresno and several New England colleges including Southeastern Massachusetts University (now UMass-Dartmouth) and Quinnipiac University, Holt has never faced a disciplinary measure from a university administration before. Still, Holt knew that his lecture might cause repercussions.
“I dropped a big rock in the middle of this social communication pond and the waves will not totally damp out for quite a while,” he says. “That was part of my intention.”
At age 48, Stephen Wells was among the older students in Holt’s class. Wells lives in Florence with his wife and two-year old daughter and is a recent transfer to UM. He recalls the controversial lecture vividly.
“I’ve been telling my friends about it because, in some ways, it’s the most amazing lecture I’ve ever heard,” says Wells. “He talked about living in Venice Beach and about somebody he knew down there who was a muralist. There was a mural of a street person who’d been murdered, and at one point he almost started weeping while he was talking about it, just for a second, and that was part of why it was such an amazing lecture…because Dennis Holt basically kind of bared his soul. He was almost too honest for what you’re supposed to be.”
Wells surmises that what shocked and frightened the students who complained was likely Holt’s admission of his time in a mental institution.
“I think that kind of shocked people because most people wouldn’t say that they’d been institutionalized, even if they had been. He was brutally honest about things.”
While Wells says that he, too, was shocked by Holt’s admission, he does not agree with the assessment of the complaining students that Holt was acting crazy.
“In the Missoulian, they mentioned something about bizarre behavior, but I didn’t see any bizarre behavior at all unless you call baring your soul bizarre behavior. He wasn’t talking like a monkey or threatening anybody or yelling. He just did the whole thing off the cuff.”
Holt says that this was the first linguistics class he’s taught at the university that did not deal strictly with linguistics, and it also would have been his last. If he had been allowed to return to class after spring break, Holt says he had already prepared what he would tell his students.
“I was going to say, ‘Well, apparently I’ve disturbed and confused some of you. My intention was not to disturb and confuse you but to alert you to what’s happening in our society and cause you to think more carefully about it and maybe do something about it.”
After that, says Holt, he would have “dropped the subject” and returned to a normal linguistics curriculum.
But Wells says that the lecture did have more to do with linguistics—particularly meaning and semantics—than has been portrayed in the media.
In fact, says Wells, “Nobody that I talked to said that they thought the lecture was horrible…On the other hand, I think it blew people away…I think it’s good to blow people away once in a while.”
Wells describes how, as he was turning in his homework, another student said, “Thanks for having the guts to say something.”
“I wonder who these people are who called and had their parents write,” Wells says.
Contacted on Friday, UM President George Dennison said he’d been out of town when the dismissal took place and was not familiar with exactly what had happened. The Independent was unable to contact Storch, who recommended Holt’s removal to Provost Lois Muir. Storch was attending to his terminally ill father, and unreachable last week. Ultimately, personnel decisions are made by UM Provost Lois Muir, who said that she could not speak to why Holt was removed from class.
“We don’t discuss personnel,” says Muir.
Muir did say that complaints against Holt’s lecture came from both students and parents, and that there were approximately six in total. Muir said that she does not know if other students in the class, aside from those who brought forth complaints, were contacted in order to determine their best interest, but that she personally did not contact any.
“Dean Storch worked with the faculty, the students, others in deliberating what was in the best interest of the students,” Muir says.
But if the students in the class were indeed contacted by Storch, Wells for one was left out of the conversation.
“As far as I can see, nobody went and asked the students if they thought it was in their best interest,” aside from, obviously, those who complained, says Wells.
To Wells, the “students’ best interest” depends on how you define the term.
“I’ve really grappled with this one, because this is my toughest class. I’m pulling ‘A’s in my other classes and I’m struggling to keep a ‘C’ in this class. Put it this way: In terms of getting a higher grade, it’s definitely in my best interest [to have Holt gone]. In terms of getting a better education, I don’t think it’s in my best interest at all.”
Asked if he thought some students might have taken advantage of an eccentric lecture to get rid of what may have been their hardest professor, Wells says, “I wouldn’t be able to say anybody complained because they thought it would be easier [without Holt], but I would be able to say that I talked to one guy who was ready to graduate with a double major and what he told me was that it was the hardest undergraduate course he’s ever taken.”
Though none of his students complained directly to him during the actual class, Holt says that he harbors no grudge.
“They’re cowed by the social relationship of the classroom,” he says. “And I apparently have such a manner that they hesitate to challenge what I say even when it’s obviously wrong. I’ve actually made mistakes in class and nobody’s corrected me until maybe afterwards.”
Does Holt think it was worth losing his position just to speak his mind?
“I hope so,” he says. “In my heart of hearts, I imagine myself as some sort of point man for a movement…and maybe other academics may follow.”
Several academics did follow Holt’s lead at a walk-out/teach-out on the UM Oval at noon on Wednesday, April 2. Professors Phil Fandozzi, Katie Kane, Paul Haber, Heather Bruce, Jocelyn Siler and Phillip West all harangued the Bush administration’s drive to war with Iraq before a group of approximately 100 students.
UM philosophy student Heath Watts spoke at the teach-out as well, and used his mic time to discuss Holt’s situation.
“Now we live in a society where students believe that the words of a linguistics professor are more frightening than the violent actions of the American military. We live in a society where the very mention of civil disobedience, our Constitutional right, causes a harsh and unwarranted action against free speech, academic freedom and the integrity of this university,” Watts said.
“The same students who believe that Professor Holt poses a danger toward them are in far graver danger from this government and its unelected, illegitimate President,” Watts continued. “If we do not stand against this government, the unfortunate precedent set by suspending professor Holt will spread throughout America’s universities, further increasing fear and ignorance in our youth.”
Holt attended the rally with a copy of Robinson Jeffers’s poem “Shine, Perishing Republic” in hand, but he did not speak.
“The mystery to me, as a student in the class is, is there anything that we don’t know about that is playing into this?” Wells asks. “Because if all it is about is his lecture there, then this is total jive…I’m left wondering if it’s squelching his political views, because from an academic standpoint, they don’t have a leg to stand on.”
Until the administration unveils exactly why Holt was let go, at least one UM professor will interpret the move as indicating that he’d better watch what he says.
Professor of Native American and African American Studies George Price was asked to speak at the April 2 teach-out by its organizer, Associate Professor of History Pamela Voekel. But Price eventually declined.
“I wanted to speak and thought I would like to sleep on it,” Price says. “I got up in the morning and there’s the Missoulian with a picture of this adjunct professor moving his belongings off campus. I read the story and thought, maybe that’s my answer. Not at this time. I’m an adjunct. I’m working on my Ph.D. and teaching at the same time and I’m not in a position of enormous job security here. Not that I think retribution would have been taken against me for speaking at the rally, but it antagonizes students to complain. And the other thing is that it’s an emotional topic and what if I got emotional enough to make ‘bizarre comments,’ as they say? What if I scare somebody or I get a student that’s disgruntled about class or something? I mean, these are just thoughts and maybe I’m a little paranoid.”
After choosing not to speak, Price admitted he was having second thoughts.
“It’s a sad thing to have to admit that I even considered feeling like I had to shut up for an indefinite amount of time until I get my Ph.D. And it made me mad, but I feel like I’d better be quiet for a while.”
Price stresses that his fear derives not from UM administration, but from the students.
“I don’t think there’s anybody in [the administration] who opposes free speech. I think it’s more just the general population of students. From what I understand, there was a student-parent uprising [after Holt’s lecture] and that’s something that could happen because I know that every now and then I get a student or two who feels that I’m bringing down America and Western civilization in my classes just by teaching the truth about history…I’ve got this big lecture hall with 250 people in it so every class I’ll get a handful that say some comments are too radical or too biased or too anti-American. I get about two or three of those each semester on the course evaluations,” Price says.
Price is clearly worried about the fate of outspoken professors. “I listen to some of these ultra-right radio commentators sometimes to know what they’re promoting and they’re talking about ‘university professors need to shut up or be silenced.’ They may be some kind of lunatic fringe but I’d bet that there are still people who think that the McCarthy era was a good thing and that it’s about time we had another one.”
Still, Price does not think the outlook is as bleak for dissidents today as it was at the height of McCarthyism.
“The thing that we have going for us now is the Internet and a massive network of alternative news sources such as the Independent, Free Speech TV, AlterNet…It’s harder, I think, to silence us now, but not impossible if we’re not standing watch and guarding those liberties.”
If there’s any certainty in Holt’s situation, it is that his lecture was liked by some students and disliked by others; those who disliked it were obviously more vocal. Still, as he puts his two-year old daughter to sleep, student Stephen Wells makes it known that, if his linguistics class staged a mutiny, it was anything but unanimous.
“What I said to him when I handed in my homework was, ‘Way to shake up the shit,’ because that seems like what it was, you know? …He was trying to shake up the shit.”