Scary business: Students support demoted TA
Justin Gifford seems to be on a lot of "Most Wanted" lists.
Over the years there have been waiting lists for his classes, and he received a prestigious teaching award from the Seven Society in 2003. But ever since the arrest of his entire English class at the Blue Ridge Sanatorium, he's also had several people calling for his head.
On September 23, the ill-fated class made its way out to the abandoned tuberculosis hospital nestled at the foot of Monticello Mountain. Gifford says that by visiting the decaying site, owned by the UVA Real Estate Foundation, he was hoping to help his students turn detective stories into real-life goose-bumps. He had no idea he was going to do such a thorough job.
Since they thought they were on University property, the group took some liberties. They ignored "No Trespassing" signs, climbed over fences, and even pried open boarded-up doors before loading their cameras and setting off down the eerie hallways.
Tim Rose was none too pleased to hear of Gifford's shenanigans. As head of the University Foundation, Rose was the one contacted by police after a witness tipped them off to the presence of the intruders at a place that's frequently been the victim of vandalism and thefts of architectural artifacts. Rose told police to proceed with the arrests.
Charges were dropped within a week, and the University covered the court costs for the arrested students. But the fallout was far from over. Gifford sent a pointedly informal email to his distressed students, as empathetic to their pending legal plight as it was less than deferential to the Foundation.
"we cannot change what happened, but we can change what it means to us," Gifford wrote. "if this class is about anything, it is about a confrontation with the law and ghosts and feelings of dread and horror. i certainly felt enough dread to last me a lifetime when i saw the police coming at me with frowny faces down that dark hospital corridor."
Signed "Justin 'corrupting the youth' Gifford," the email was forwarded to a parent and eventually made its way to University officials.
"The email did not help him," says Gordon Braden, head of the English department.
Now, the celebrated young teacher is out of that job, and the students have found their course disrupted mid-semester. When they registered, they had been promised an exploration of the ways in which indefinite fears of a black insurgency influenced authors such as Poe and Melville.
"The course was not 'Detective Fiction'; the course was 'The Racialization of Detective Fiction,' which requires a deep background knowledge of race theory," says Elizabeth Rothschild, one of many students calling for Gifford's reinstatement. She claims that Gifford is one of only a few individuals adequately qualified to teach the class.
"The students quite literally revolted," says Gifford. Dissatisfied with the University's attempt to replace him with post-doctoral student Ken Parille, they brought the administration a petition with some 700 signatures.
In response, the University handed over responsibility for the course to Eric Lott, a prominent professor and Gifford's dissertation adviser.
"He's probably the only person who I'd say is qualified to teach this class, given the materials and the subject matter," says Gifford. "Short of my being in the class, this is the best thing that could happen to them, because they'll get an amazing experience under his guidance."
UVA officials are quick to point out that Gifford has not been fired, but rather "relieved of his teaching duties" and offered an alternative assignment.
"The position that I've been offered is not going to make me enough money to live on," he says. "If I were to go in and do the number of hours that it would require, I wouldn't have any time to work on my dissertation."
Although Gifford– winner of the 2003 Seven Society Graduate Fellowship for Superb Teaching, a $7,000 prize bestowed by UVA's most secretive group– retains his status as a graduate student within the department, he denounces the University's position.
"The thing that they've said in the newspapers is that they don't discuss personnel issues," he says. "But I've told them that they can discuss anything with regard to me. I'm the one saying, 'Let it all hang out.' "
On October 5, Student Council narrowly passed a resolution calling for Gifford's reinstatement. Braden and Rose declined to comment.
Rothschild, on the other hand, is decidedly less tight-lipped. "He's really touched a lot of people," she says.
If the hundred-plus supportive emails that Gifford says are crowding his inbox are any indication, his popularity may last for a while.
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO