Students’ opinions clash on UW Oshkosh English professor’s conduct

Heidi Docter and Kaitlyn Scoville

A UW Oshkosh professor who has received two harassment complaints by students within the last three years has many positive reviews on Rate My Professors and mainly full classes every semester. For many of those who have had James “Duke” Pesta as an English professor, it’s either a love or hate relationship with the teacher and his classroom conduct.

The first complaint was filed in May 2017 when a student alleged that Pesta, then an associate English professor, discriminated against them based on their political identity and used hate speech in class. Later that year, the university decided Pesta did not harass or discriminate against the student.

The second complaint arose after an open forum on March 18, 2019 to address bigotry, hate, homophobia and racism on campus following a social media post.

The 2019 complainant alleged that the professor retaliated after the student spoke up about the professor-student dynamic in his classroom, without naming him, at the open forum. A few weeks after the open forum, the student reported that the professor continuously diverted class time to discussing her comments at the event.

The 2019 complaint was rescinded, but at the time UW Oshkosh Provost and Vice Chancellor John Koker criticized Pesta’s classroom management.

“By your own account, you spent much class time talking about issues related to the public forum that were unrelated to the stated curriculum on your class syllabus,” Koker stated.

The Advance-Titan contacted Pesta comment via email seven times over the course of the semester with no response.
According to UWO HR, Pesta began as a professor in 2008 and received tenure in 2014.

Andrea Toms, a graduate student for English, has taken or audited 10 of Pesta’s courses over the last five to seven years. He is also her thesis adviser, and Toms said that Pesta encourages using one’s freedom of speech in the classroom — something she said she doesn’t see in other classes.

“You can challenge professor Pesta, even rudely so, and it does not affect your performance in the class,” Toms said. “This is a rare phenomenon on this campus. Professor Pesta honors his promise to let all students speak without fear of censorship or grade reduction.”

Toms also thinks that what’s common among other English professors is they only lecture on how they perceive the texts in class.

“As an English major, that’s very frustrating because if we’re all going to reach the same conclusion of any texts that we investigate, you can do that at home for free,” Toms said.

Toms also said that Pesta is unlike what she thinks UWO sees in a professor.

“He stands outside the scope of what the university deems socially acceptable,” she said.

Furthermore, Toms believes that though there may be differences in the classroom, it shouldn’t be a deterrent to how people treat each other, and that’s how she wants Pesta’s classes to be understood.

“We don’t have to all get along or have the same social, political or religious viewpoints to be able to function together,” Toms said. “That is how you grow as a person; that’s how you grow intellectually.”

Toms said that students who may feel uncomfortable in Pesta’s classes need to understand that the works are to be understood in several perspectives without dismissing them.

“Name one person in history who got to where they got by being comfortable,” she said. “You don’t have to embrace what a person is saying. I think there should be an understanding, a civil degree on both sides that we should be able to say, ‘Hey, I disagree where you’re coming from, but thank you for sharing that with me.’”

Pesta asked several students to write about their perceptions of his classes in response to the complaints, and 25 students replied.

Aaron Preston audited Pesta’s spring 2017 Shakespeare course and wrote one of those letters, and clarified that Pesta did not once ask students to write anything specifically.

Most of the students’ letters noted a large “IF” Dr. Pesta wrote on the marker board at the start of every class period, emphasizing that the beliefs of the authors in the curriculum may or may not exist. And, as several works of literature had to do with God and religion, the “IF” represented that the beliefs were true only if God existed.

Much of the content discussed in Pesta’s courses revolved around Shakespeare, who dates back to the 17th century, and historical literature from the 1900s or hundreds of years ago.

“In terms of the content of [English 392], the biggest challenge to overcome was the specific literature that we were exposed to — which consisted of Christian-based writers,” Jacob Covey, a double major of English and history at UWO, who attended Pesta’s English 392 course in spring 2017, said. “These writers focused on problems of their time, and looked to grapple with them through a perspective not otherwise focused on in a university setting.”

“What I love about his approach is that he likes to teach from the historical content,” Toms said. “It’s not saying that you can’t have a Marxist or feminist perspective at all, but it makes sense to learn about these books from their historical foundation.

Preston said that Pesta believes that assessing the historical context of literary works is more important to address first before connecting it with modern times.

“One of the things he talked about was that one thing that frustrates him as a literary professor today is that we tend to read our context into books that are written hundreds of years ago,” Preston said. “But these are historical books written in a historical context based on what was happening in the world at that time.”

However, Preston said that one thing about Pesta’s classroom philosophy stuck out to him.

“He says your education should serve as a window to help you see beyond your own self and to see beyond your own ideal, to see what you have thought or believed in the past, rather than a mirror that simply feeds back to you what you already know and already believe,” he said.

Covey said in his letter that it was “one of the most equal and open environments that [he] ever experienced.”

He has also taken English 396 in spring 2016 and English 347 in fall 2016.

In the letter, Covey stated that any assignments would not receive a downgrade if a student chose to write and defend their own views.

“These journals were to be our personal responses to the portion of the book assigned for that day — regardless if it was positive or negative,” Covey said. “Dr. Pesta told us that as long as the pages were written, nobody would be docked points for what they had said — so long as it was relevant to the book.

Furthermore, “though our opinions were sometimes challenged and tested by both the text and our fellow peers, the arguments had always harkened back to the words written on the page,” Covey said.

Covey also stated in his letter that Pesta had posed warnings throughout the course, asking several times if anyone was uncomfortable.

“None had replied during the semester,” Covey continued in the letter. “Even so, he would encourage students to email him or see him during his office hours to speak about any hardships or issues associated with the class.”

Overall, though, “Dr. Pesta’s method of teaching ran directly in-line with the text, and he made sure we felt both intellectually challenged as well as comfortable and safe to voice our own opinions and thoughts on the stories and concepts they focused on,” Covey concluded in his letter.

Preston said that even though not every student may have the opportunity to take Pesta as a professor in their college careers, he encourages everybody to take a professor who is similar to him.

“He wants me to become a better student, a better thinker and a better citizen,” Preston said.

While Pesta has received shining reviews from some students, others are more critical of his classroom conduct.

Kelsey Beauchamp, a UWO senior who took Pesta’s Shakespeare class in spring 2019, said Pesta made her “incredibly uncomfortable.”

“That August before the semester started, my grandfather committed suicide,” Beauchamp said. “I remember he’d say comments about how people that committed suicide were cowardly or weak.”

Beauchamp said the atmosphere Pesta created in the classroom didn’t exactly allow for the freedom of speech he advocated for, a complaint evident in other student accounts as well.

“I won’t ever say he prevents students from arguing and trying to share their own opinion” she said, “but I think what needs to be acknowledged is the atmosphere of his classroom.”

She said Pesta “would read kids’ journals out loud” anonymously, and “he would kind of mock” them.

Beauchamp said “he was just very domineering in class,” so “it made kids kind of scared to voice their opinions.”

When asked if she ever talked to Pesta about her concerns, Beauchamp said “God, no. I knew how he felt about someone like me, you can go on [his podcast] and you can see how he talks about the LGBT community.”

Pesta co-hosts a podcast called “The Dr. Duke Show,” from FreedomProject Media, that focuses on several topics along the political spectrum.

“When you do have a public presence that makes it known what your political views are, to the extreme that students in minority groups acknowledge that you might not agree with their humanity completely or at least their ability to have certain human rights, I don’t think it’s up to the students to approach him,” she said.

“Even as a gay person, I don’t really care what my professors’ political views are,” Beauchamp added. “What’s different with Pesta is that he crosses that line of holding political ideologies and then bringing them into the classroom.”

An anonymous student who also took Pesta’s Shakespeare course in spring 2019 reiterated many of Beauchamp’s concerns.

“Duke Pesta claimed that he approached the class as a ‘radical free speech environment’ where anyone can say anything,” the student said. “And that sounded good.

“But he didn’t seem to own up to that promise over the course of the semester,” they said. “He kind of picked out every student who did a feminist reading of ‘Measure for Measure,’ and he said, ‘This is totally wrong.’ And with some derision, like, ‘You don’t really understand Shakespeare if you would make a point like this.’”

They said “when he does things like that, he kind of takes control of the conversation,” and “it really killed that environment of openness and free speech that he seems to be advocating for.”

The student also discussed a time when Pesta offended them in class.

“[Pesta] said the natural outcome of atheism today is suicide culture, which is really horrifying and really offensive to me as an atheist.”

According to the student, in a discussion of “Macbeth,” Pesta discussed the condoning of homosexuality as comparative to condoning pedophilia.“

Now we’re suddenly getting into places like condoning homosexuality and pedophilia as though they’re the same thing, but they’re really not,” the student said.

Sam Diemel, a student who took Pesta’s Shakespeare course in spring 2018, filed a complaint against Pesta in 2019 that was later rescinded.

“[Pesta] is an absolutely fantastic educator for the few moments that he wants to talk about the class content,” Diemel said. “But, in general, I would say [he’s] really distracted with an alternative agenda that doesn’t have anything to do with the course.

“Anyone who tries to even slightly challenge him and gets shut down; he really is very teacher-centric and he’s the authority in the room,” Diemel said.

Diemel said she didn’t feel uncomfortable for herself while in Pesta’s class, but for the others in the class.

“There were openly and non-openly trans and gender nonconforming students in my class who I knew well,” she said. “I was uncomfortable all the time because I knew that the things he was saying were directly attacking some of these people.”

Diemel said she also didn’t feel comfortable discussing Pesta’s conduct with him directly because she said “he is very good at maintaining himself as the leader in the room.”

When asked if Pesta brought up contemporary issues in his classes, all three students said he did.

“He’s really against modern people trying to force our modern views on Shakespeare,” Beauchamp said. “And the irony of that is in most of his classes, he focuses on [complaining about] socialism and Marxism, modern ideologies and our view on God.

“Personally, I think if we’re not going to be talking about modern views, we shouldn’t be talking about any modern views including his own; that’s kind of how his teaching is,” she added.

According to Diemel, “It felt like he was looking for an excuse to bring up those issues. He would essentially say, ‘OK, in the play that we’re reading right now we’ve got something to do with marriage. Speaking of marriage…’ and then he would say a bunch of things about how the sanctity of marriage is being ruined today.

“Technically you’re relating it to the course material, but that is not enlightening my view on Shakespeare at all,” she added.

In regard to how Pesta used his class time, all three students brought up frequent, lengthy rants that took up class time.

“In my notes I have parts where I say, our class started at, I think, 11:30, and I’d say ‘it is now 12:15 and he hasn’t even started talking about Shakespeare yet’; he never stayed on topic during class,” Beauchamp said.

As for Pesta’s past dropped complaints, the anonymous student said they think the nature of the university’s investigation is partially to blame.

“It seems like the reason he gets away with it every single time is because the university accepts written submissions as evidence,” they said.

“But I guarantee you if we had more people actually going into his classes and seeing exactly what he is saying, assuming he wouldn’t actually change what he says, then the university would probably come to a different conclusion.”

Beauchamp didn’t choose to file a complaint because “after he had mentioned how many complaints had been filed against him that it didn’t matter what I had to say.”

It’s disappointing because the one day he did teach he was a wonderful professor,” Beauchamp said. “I would have enjoyed him if he had remained on topic and taught us Shakespeare.”