Missouri State University in Springfield found itself in the worldwide news this week for reasons that could not have pleased its Board of Curators.
Assistant Sociology Professor Alicia Walker was in the process of soliciting 3600 pictures of penises, along with their precise measurements, from volunteers nationwide. Walker was apparently hoping to analyze the relationship between size of the appendage and self-esteem, a spectacularly useless bit of data gathering even if she had managed to pull it off.
Sociology Departments, however, have no sense of what the word “useless” means. On the Missouri State site, Walker’s lists as her professional interests: “Meaning-making within intimate relationships; navigation of gender expectations; and social inequalities in education.”
By sociology standards, this is pretty substantial stuff. According to the department’s web site, “The Missouri State’s department of sociology and anthropology offers majors and minors for students interested in culture, collaboration and community issues.”
Inside the bubble of the Missouri State Sociology Department, Walker’s study must have seemed to be a potential career maker. Although alleged to be experts in human behavior, Walker and her colleagues were unprepared for the ridicule that greeted the news of her study.
When the story first broke, university brass defended Walker’s study, saying it was a “legitimate area of research and she is conforming to all the guidelines of participant security.” When the waves of laughter washed up at the university’s shore, that support eroded quickly.
Within a week, the university was assuring Missouri citizens that the survey “has been closed to further activity” and that the hundreds of images Walker had already gathered were secured and destroyed.
“I made this decision voluntarily,” Walker said of her decision to end the study–as if she had a choice. Protecting her own self esteem, she added, “I continue to believe the relationship between penis size and self-esteem is an important site of scientific inquiry, but the public reaction to the project threatens the reliability of the survey responses. The reliability of the study as a whole has been compromised.”
One can almost forgive Walker her confusion. On accepting the gig at Missouri State, she appears to have misunderstood what “Show Me” meant.