Alice Dreger has concerns about the future of tenure at our universities. So do I. She describes three things that she worries are threatening the institution. Two of them are valid. The third is off-the-wall looney tunes.
Her first concern is right-wing manipulation of the funding of universities. This is a major problem, if we let it happen…and it is happening in states like Wisconsin.
Fed up with the left-leaning nature of universities, political right wingers, including the Koch brothers, have made reshaping academia a priority. In Wisconsin, Walker has made it easier for programmes and departments to lose funding at the whim of those in political power. Likewise, the Republican-controlled Board of Governors at the University of North Carolina recently closed the law school’s highly-regarded Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity.
Her second concern…let me come back to that one. It’s ridiculous. But her third concern is real.
The third part of the triumvirate? The corporatisation of universities. I experienced this personally when Northwestern University’s medical school dean censored an article I had edited and published because he was afraid it might violate a ‘branding agreement’ with the corporation who oversaw the running of the university hospital. (The article recounted an academic anthropologist’s story of consensual oral sex with a nurse after he was paralysed in 1978.) Our dean even set up a new ‘editorial committee’ comprised of overseers from his office and the PR department to ensure we didn’t publish anything else off-brand.
Ugh, yes. I’d throw into this the problem of the commodification of education, where we try to ‘sell’ the virtues of getting a degree as consisting primarily of getting a higher paying job.
But a larger part of her essay is dedicated to the second problem, and this is where it goes off the rails. You can guess where it’s going: there is a bizarre moral panic going on in which common ideas that support diversity are treated as horrifying instruments of oppression.
Meanwhile, on the left, identity-politics activists are using devices like ‘safe spaces’ and ‘trigger warnings’ to shut down speech they believe to be offensive and dangerous. In my campus visits around the US – aimed at emboldening the students, faculty, and administrators to push for academic freedom – I’ve been told time and time again about staff being reported by left-leaning students for teaching ‘uncomfortable’ ideas that have been taught for generations.
She will not anywhere explain how students complaining threatens the institution of tenure, and will not bring up any specific examples of professors losing their job for teaching uncomfortable ideas. But she has thoroughly bought into the bogus idea that “‘safe spaces’ and ‘trigger warnings’” have the purpose of shutting down speech. She’s got it exactly backwards.
I treat my classroom as a safe space to discuss relevant ideas. I have fervently anti-abortion students who take my developmental biology course, while I am loudly pro-abortion; but, in the appropriate parts of the course, I want them to be able to ask questions and state their ideas without getting shouted down. I’ve often had creationists in my evolution-heavy courses, and when they’ve been bold enough to speak up, I encourage their participation — they aren’t going to be punished for arguing respectfully, and I am going to deal more harshly with a pro-evolution student who gets abusive.
That’s what a safe space is: a place where you can talk about your ideas and concerns without the reflexive abuse and silencing that can so easily go on when an authoritarian says you’re wrong, or when there’s a majority that takes courage from their numbers to bash a minority. It encourages speech that might otherwise be suppressed.
The same with trigger or content warnings. It’s a way to prepare students for controversial or stressful material, not to help students avoid it. I guess, if Dreger had her way, I should just surprise students by projecting a wall-sized grisly photo of a deformed fetus on the screen, rather than first explaining that we’re going to discuss birth defects, and that we’re going to see some examples of the consequences of holoprosencephaly.
Ah, but she has anecdotes about the horrible consequences of these left-wing abominations.
For example, one faculty member at a prestigious liberal arts college told me about a colleague who was reported for teaching the ancient Greek tale Leda and the Swan. The alleged discriminatory offence? Not first warning students that the story includes a symbolic rape. Others at public universities described being reported for stumbling over students’ preferred pronouns. Some historic women’s colleges have given up trying to produce The Vagina Monologues because of complaints that the 1996 play doesn’t reflect the breadth of transgender experiences. (It doesn’t; it wasn’t written for that purpose any more than The Federalist Papers were.)
Wait. Her other two threats are about billionaires using their money to leverage bias into the university, and institutional activities that skew our perspectives away from the pursuit of knowledge, and the problem here is that students sometimes complain? Jebus. She’s saying she’s an advocate for free speech, and she has problems with students speaking freely? That makes no sense.
Look, students complain, and they have a right to complain; and they’re young and being exposed to a lot of new stuff, so sometimes their complaints are not exactly well-founded. I’ve had a student complain that, in a science course about the origin of life and evolution, I did not say anything about the Biblical account. He can do that. I will listen. I might even do something about it (although, in this case, he’d have liked it even less if I did discuss the place of the Bible in a science course).
So a student complained that they weren’t warned that “Leda and the Swan” includes rape. Was the professor fired? Was his tenure threatened? Because that’s what Dreger is writing about, yet she’s not making that connection. Was the complaint relayed to his colleague so that they could respond to it? Because that’s what I’d want to happen.
As for stumbling over students preferred pronouns…it’s happened to me, just this week. I erred in referring to a student, and they quietly reminded me of their preference. I felt bad, and I should feel bad about my mistake — it’s a small, easy adjustment for me that helps create an atmosphere of respect for the students in the classroom. So yes, please do complain and remind me when I screw up. And if I persist, that’s a sign that either I don’t care enough about the student to make this simple accommodation, or that I’m a willful jerk who is bravely defying a younger, less powerful person, and then, sure enough, I ought to be reported to the department chair, or even higher.
And when I say I feel bad about it, it’s about concern for the student, not because I feel that my job is seriously threatened. That would be an indirect consequence. My job is all about teaching people, and I can’t do that if I lack empathy for them.
As for The Vagina Monologues…this is not a classic play, part of the Western canon, to which all students must be exposed. There was a time when people would protest and be horrified when it was performed, and now, seriously, we’ve got people who think it is a crime when it is not performed? Come on. It was ground-breaking in its day, aspects of it are empowering to women even now, but there was a period when almost every university was putting on a performance every year, and honestly, it got a bit old. I doubt that a deep need to perform it again is being suppressed by angry transgender activists; more likely, the people who would perform it are looking for fresher, newer material that would also include other perspectives.
That play is not dogma. Why complain that it isn’t? Are any professors being threatened with loss of tenure for not sponsoring The Vagina Monologues?
It’s a weird essay. I felt like she had briefly tossed in two real concerns that damage academia so she could have an excuse to rage against a non-existent problem about pronoun usage that she felt deeply, personally irate about, and so she could argue about a couple of buzzwords that have right-wingers, who don’t understand the concepts any more than she does, upset.
So, apparently, to protect my tenured position, I have to do a couple of things:
Allow bullying and personal invective in my classroom as part of the learning experience.
Make my lectures abruptly shocking, and traumatize students more.
Ignore the way they request to be addressed. Perhaps I can just call them by number, and refer to them as “it”? “Number Seventeen will take the exam, and it will like it.”
Make sure the The Vagina Monologues gets performed every year, or maybe even every semester, if I really want to get promoted.
I fail to see how any of these things will lead to my personal gain, or enhance learning in my classroom.