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Wednesday, Apr 24, 2024

Chemistry Test Question Invokes Nazi Gas Chambers; Controversy Ensues After Satirical Newspaper Makes it Public

UPDATE — Wednesday, April 10: Professor Jeff Byers will be taking an immediate leave of absence from his teaching duties, the Chemistry department announced in an email to Byers' students Wednesday afternoon.


Monday, April 8, 2019

A question posed on a chemistry midterm last month asked students to calculate “a lethal dose” of the gas “Nazi Germany used to horrific ends in the gas chambers during The Holocaust.” The test question was brought to public attention last Friday through an article in the student-run satirical newspaper The Local Noodle. The question has garnered widespread condemnation while The Noodle’s article has sparked controversy over the use of satire to respond to such incidents.

Chemistry Professor Jeff Byers, who has taught at Middlebury since 1986, posed the question in early March. Several students reported it to the administration the week before spring break. According to Dean of Faculty Andi Lloyd, the administration responded immediately by reaching out to Byers.

“My reaction was that the question was completely inappropriate and deeply problematic, and that follow-up was needed,” Lloyd said. “We’ve been focusing on the situation within the class itself, and that culminated in an apology to the class by Professor Byers last week.”

In an email to The Campus, Byers said he would not comment further on the incident, which he called an “unfortunate error on my part.”

Several students in the class said they were disturbed by the way the question was framed. One Jewish first-year, who asked to remain anonymous, said that the question was distressing to read, especially in the middle of a test.

“I was pretty rattled when I saw the question, as the Holocaust is not something to make light of, especially since I am Jewish and the problem involved us calculating how much poisonous gas you would need to kill people in a room,” she said.

Most students outside of the class did not know about the incident until The Noodle’s article was published online on April 5. The article, which circulated widely on social media, prompted the Community Bias Response Team (CBRT) — a group that responds to bias incidents involving students on campus — to send an all-school email on Sunday, April 7.

In its email, the CBRT condemned the test question, stating, “The use of this exam question failed to provide any critical engagement with the historical contexts and atrocities of the Holocaust. It asked students to engage in problem solving that mirrors calculations used to implement systematic genocide. Our students should never have been put in this position.”

[pullquote speaker="The Local Noodle staff" photo="" align="center" background="on" border="all" shadow="on"]If administrative bodies can publicly shame student publications who bring to light things they’ve kept quiet, that sets a dangerous precedent for our campus.[/pullquote]

The email also criticized The Local Noodle article. “We are aware that The Local Noodle published a satirical article about this incident,” the email read. “While satire can be an effective form of social critique, the article’s light handed references to and engagement with the Holocaust have caused additional harm.”

According to Renee Wells, the director of education for equity and inclusion and a member of the CBRT, the team was not planning to send out an email until The Local Noodle article elicited a campus-wide reaction to both the test question and the satire piece.  

“The incident occurred in a class, so the impact was on the students in the class. Thus, the focus of the response in this situation was to work to ensure the faculty member understood the harm done and addressed it with his students,” she said. “When we began receiving emails about the Noodle article and its impact, we realized that the scope of the incident had expanded to the entire campus community, so we sent out a campus-wide email.”

The CBRT did not reach out to members of The Local Noodle before the email was sent.

Some students and faculty expressed concern that the email equated the Noodle article with the original test question, including Maggie Clinton, an associate professor of History and a member of the Faculty for an Inclusive Middlebury working group.

Whether one found the Noodle’s article humorous or not, and I personally didn’t, student satire is hardly the same as exam questions given by a professor with a powerful gatekeeping role,” Clinton said, referring to Byers’s additional responsibilities as a member of the college’s Health Professions Committee, which evaluates students’ medical school applications.

“It’s unfortunate that the CBRT didn’t acknowledge either the power differential or the political difference between highly unethical and frankly horrifying exam questions, and a satirical response intended to criticize the posing of such questions in the first place,” Clinton said.

In a statement to The Campus, the staff of The Local Noodle wrote that the response from CBRT felt more like a public relations decision than an attempt to engage the issue. They also took issue with the fact that nobody from the CBRT contacted them in advance of the email.  

“To denounce a satirical publication in a school-wide email like this is a form of public shaming designed to close off a complex and sensitive issue to any meaningful discussion, which is what would actually be productive,” they said. “If administrative bodies can publicly shame student publications who bring to light things they’ve kept quiet, that sets a dangerous precedent for our campus.”

The Local Noodle responded to the email in a second article titled “Community Bias Response Team Gets Mad at Noodle For Making Them Do Their Job.”

Although The Local Noodle staff feel the CBRT mishandled the situation, many students found The Noodle’s article offensive. There has been active debate about the article in comments sections on Facebook, and several students have posted in the “Middlebury Memes for Crunchy Teens” Facebook page, both defending and criticizing The Noodle’s article and the CBRT’s response.

At the Student Government Association (SGA) meeting on Sunday night, a senator expressed interest in exploring the possibility of pulling The Noodle’s funding next year, but the idea was not further discussed. Senators also discussed the possibility of requiring the editors of all student publications to participate in mandatory bias training. As of press time, no official action has been taken on either front.

Senior Senator Travis Sanderson ’19 said that while he took issue with the article, he does not support revoking the club’s funding.

“The Noodle is a satirical magazine attempting to do its job,” he said. “It is The Noodle's right to engage in the type of humor that relies on trivializations of seriously traumatic and genocidal terms, like ‘the final solution,’ but I am nonetheless disturbed by The Noodle’s apparent total lack of empathy for the legitimate concern about such jokes' effect on community members.”

Talia Raisel, a Jewish first-year, was among those who found the Noodle piece hurtful. While she felt the original test question was “in bad taste,” her bigger concern was the headline of the Noodle article, which joked that the professor was “a real Nazi” about grading.

“Calling people Nazis who aren't literal Nazis has really trivialized the term,” she said. “Satire can be wonderful and effective when used properly, but there's still a line where satire loses its efficacy and just becomes a series of inappropriate puns, and I feel that this line has been majorly crossed.”

Jenny Moss ’20.5, the co-president of Middlebury Hillel, said that she was not offended by the Noodle article. Rather, she appreciated the way the piece highlighted the issue of bias and anti-Semitism in academic spaces and the lack of response from the school. She also feels the school should have addressed this issue publicly earlier, especially because in her experience many Jewish students heard about the incident before break.

“If I were to have written the Noodle article, I think that I might have dialed the rhetoric back and focussed more on the lack of apology from the teacher and the school,” she said.

In the wake of the controversy, Moss also invited students, faculty and staff to participate in upcoming events for Yom Hashoah, the Jewish day of Holocaust remembrance, to learn more about the history of oppression within the Jewish community. The events will take place in late April and early May.

Looking forward, the CBRT email noted that this event has highlighted the need for more training for faculty and staff to promote inclusivity in the classroom.

According to Wells, she will pilot this program starting in the fall and will offer workshops and facilitated dialogues to faculty and staff on a variety of topics.

“The program will provide a framework for faculty and staff to access resources, engage in critical conversations, practice inclusive strategies, and be part of a community working to integrate what they learn in the context of their everyday work,” she said. “It is important to create space to engage in open and honest conversations about our campus climate and to be thoughtful and intentional about ways we can make Middlebury a community that everyone feels included in and wants to be a part of.”

Wells invited faculty and staff to reach out if there are specific areas they would like to see addressed in the program.