Lecturer Brings Protests, Podcasts into Classroom

Lecturer Brings Protests, Podcasts into Classroom

Hewson, we have a problem

Computer science students in COSC203 have voiced concerns (and confusion) over a recent ethics lecture and assignment by lecturer Iain Hewson. Despite ostensibly being a web, databases, and networks paper, students Critic Te Ārohi spoke to claimed that neither the lecture nor the assignment were entirely relevant to this. Instead, they veered towards vaccine discussion with a side of communism.

To the devoted reader, Hewson’s name may be familiar. In Issue 14 this year, Critic Te Ārohi reported on Hewson’s high- profile anti-vax views, including delivering anti-vax sermons at his former church, and his involvement in both the February Parliament protests (where he camped
for three weeks) and the anti-mandate protest held in the Octagon. While the computer science students we spoke to following the July rally claimed he didn't bring up any “extremist” views in class (bar the occasional comment about masks), this moderation seemed to take a sudden turn recently.

According to the students we spoke to, in one computer science lecture, Hewson brought up communism, “alternative” Covid treatments, and implied that Ashley Bloomfield spread misinformation about said treatments. One student we spoke to said that it was “so close to being anti-vax it was uncomfortable”.

As an example of “bad ethics”, he referenced the supposed increase in executions brought by communism after the Russian Revolution. COSC203 student Lily* noted this was an odd choice for a computer science paper: “We’re computer science students, we don’t really know history...why are you bringing politics, especially communism, into this lecture?” Some students apparently responded in kind, with Hewson allegedly walking into the lecture theatre before one lecture to find a copy of the Communist Manifesto waiting for him.

Asked for comment, Professor Brendan McCane, the Uni’s Head of Computer Science, told Critic Te Ārohi that “ethics is extremely important to all computing professionals and is therefore certainly relevant to a paper that focuses on web, databases, and networks.” While this may be true, Lily* pointed out that there were plenty of other options out there that Hewson could have pointed to as computer science related examples of poor ethics, such as the systemic racism built into artificial intelligence algorithms.

She said that the lecture “was basically him talking shit the entire time...the amount of times he pulled shit out of thin air to try and get across his point that had nothing to do with computer science, or software, or webs, or databases, networks – anything we’d learned about at all – was just like the whole lecture.” Another student, Tim*, disagreed, saying he thought “the lecture was really well-handled, but the essay felt really tacked on.”

COSC203 students were assigned an essay about misinformation and censorship, using the Wellington protest as a case study. According to Professor McCane, “since the web is a primary source of information for many people, the topic of misinformation is also relevant to discuss in such a paper.”

However, Lily* noted the strange additional resources listed to help, including “a fucking Joe Rogan podcast...I was like what the fuck is going on here?” Tim* shared Lily’s bewilderment at the “very anti-mask, anti-vax” podcaster being listed as a resource, saying “it’d be like if you cited a Logan Paul podcast.”

Jacob* said that although he didn’t “think someone going to a protest means they can’t do a lecture on ethics... it definitely felt in parts that he was pushing a bit of what he thought into it.” Tim* agreed, saying, “I guess knowing his perspectives on it, it sort of feels a bit weird that you’re being marked on your opinions [on the Wellington protest]”.

Other students shared Tim’s* concerns that “they could be marked down if their conclusions were different to the markers,” which were raised with the class rep. Prof McCane tried to allay those concerns, “assur[ing] students that we have a system in place to avoid such biases in marking, and it is clearly signalled in the revised assignment handout that students would not be penalised for coming to different conclusions to the marker.”

Following student feedback collected by the class rep, the teaching team “modified the assignment to the assignment to allow students to choose alternative topics.” The class rep said he was “really happy with how the department responded and changed the assignment”. He pointed out, though, that “Iain definitely didn’t spearhead the change, that came from above.”

Hewson is currently on leave and was therefore unavailable for comment in time for our print deadline. However, Prof McCane said he “will discuss the matter with him when he returns...We always expect high professional standards of our staff and I will be reviewing with staff how to decide what is and is not appropriate to include in lecture content.” We have extended an invitation to Hewson to provide comment, and will update this article online if it arrives.

*Names changed.

This article first appeared in Issue 26, 2022.
Posted 6:24pm Sunday 9th October 2022 by Nina Brown.