In which we get distracted from real problems by personal outrage over pronouns

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.


  1. cartomancer says

    Having done some work during my doctoral studies on attitudes towards teaching and education in the 11th-12th centuries, I am struck by how familiar this complaint seems. Stuffy, old-fashioned academics in the Twelfth Century – a period of profound change in European education (it was when these strange, new-fangled University things started to emerge!) – tended to decry most viciously the habit of modern students to insult and compain about their teachers.

    In the minds of people like Serlo of Wilton and Manegold of Lautenbach it was only seemly for students to sit respectfully and drink in the authority and example of their masters. Which was a very Roman attitude, really, embodying it did the ideal of aemulatio – education as copying worthy older people’s examples. This attitude towards education was adopted by the early monastic schools in late antiquity (particularly Cassiodorus’ foundation at Vivarium) and became the standard in monastic and secular schools of the early Middle Ages. The emerging currents of Scholasticism in the Twelfth Century promoted a different, more disputative, less reverential model of learning – embodied most famously by Peter Abelard – which put a good few traditionalists’ noses out of joint. Ironically it was, partially, the increasingly secular, transactional nature of higher education that fostered this approach – when university masters were paid professionals rather than monastic elders the whole relationship was different.

  2. Snarki, child of Loki says

    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.

    It’s been happening, off and on, since 1981, and has been a major factor in the explosion in tuition.

    Okay, correction, it’s been happening since 1968, when Reagan and other RWNJ governors decided that “campus leftists” were the enemy.

  3. Siobhan says

    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.

    If you follow Dreger’s work on gender variance it starts to become apparent that she has had an axe to grind for a long time. She’s still salty that J Michael Bailey was accused–and never entirely cleared–of wrongdoing during his vulgar work on trans women in The Man Who Would Be Queen. This pattern has repeated itself a few times: 1) cogent argument about topic A; 2) teh trans r evul; 3) cogent argument about topic C.

    I’m, uh, “not fond” of her.

  4. anbheal says

    Yeah, it really reads like a smoke-screen for “Get Off My Lawn” right-wing crankitude. First off, as many pointed out during the U Of Chicago poop-flinging, safe spaces exist everywhere. You can’t barge in on the Dean and interrupt his meeting. His office is a safe space for him. A lock on the front door of your house makes it a safe space (except for paranoid conservatives, who additionally require a small armory to feel safe against the rampaging hordes of young black men, so common in the leafy lanes of gated suburbia). Cable providers all offer means of preventing your children from accessing certain channels, and a remote-control in your hand allows you to change the channel to a place where you feel more comfortable. A safer space. And, ahem, before every single program aired on American television you have trigger warnings as to content.

    As for Leda, I’m not buying into the anecdote. It’s leaving something out. The Leda story is only a passing mention, with regard to the birth of Helen (and to a lesser degree her sister, Clytemnestra, and her brothers, the Gemini twins). Is it possible someone got upset about not being warned? Maybe. And if it were a fine art class, there probably should be warnings about Europa and Leda and The Sabine Women and other common rapine motifs in Renaissance paintings. But I simply don’t believe any professor’s tenure was threatened over failing to mention that Zeus was a real asshole before going over a minor mythological parentheses in which Zeus was a real asshole.

    The essay is shadow-boxing, in pursuit of a pre-conceived conceit that college kids aren’t conservative enough for The Heritage Foundation these days. Oh, and that LGBTQ is a thing.

  5. qwints says

    As for The Vagina Monologues…this is not a classic play, part of the Western canon, to which all students must be exposed.

    Disagree, and neither of us are particularly qualified to make that call. It belongs in the canon the same way The Second Sex and The Feminine Mystique do alongside the critiques of those works.

  6. Siobhan says

    Also The Vagina Monologues has been performed my trans women, and there’s certainly not a unified opinion as to whether this is good or bad, so is Dreger complaining that disagreements exist?

    …in a university?

  7. says

    …one faculty member at a prestigious liberal arts college told me about a colleague who was reported …

    Don’t know why, but that part made me think of this…

    Dark Helmet: “I am your father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate.”
    Lone Star: “What does that make us?”
    Dark Helmet: “Absolutely nothing!”

  8. says

    I never want to become that old in the head, I never want to become that old in the head, I never want to become that old in the head that I think the younger generation are just spoiled know nothings while I believed the perfect things at that age and those things are still perfect now.
    I never want to stop learning, I never want to stop learning, I never want to stop learning.

    And now I have a terrible confession to make: I, personally, killed academic freedom and freedom of speech because I once wrote an email to a professor suggesting she use a trigger warning or different order with a certain picture.
    The class was “Introduction to cultural studies”, a lecture I really enjoyed because I already knew a lot of the material and it deepened my understanding of the literature and concepts.
    The prof in question is also very, very dedicated. She was actually in hospital for most of the lecture and recorded it from her sickbed.
    In one lecture the subject was the construction of gender and race in popular media and her example was the Dolce and Gabana gang rape add (Google if you don’t know it. The title should sufficiently warn you). She simply had an unfortunate timing, introducing “this add”, showing it and then talking about the content and how it is commonly referred to as the “gang rape add”.
    I listened to the lecture at home and my reaction to that image was to simultaneously trying to jump up and hug my knees, which doesn’t go well. My understanding of the subject matter was not enhanced by this. Fortunately it was a recording and I could get back once my knee had stopped hurting. So I had the audacity to write a mail suggesting that she give people a heads up about what they’re going to see.
    So, yeah, if you hear that academic freedom is dead in Germany you know who’s to blame

  9. Vivec says

    Color me unsurprised that Dreger is one of these people whining about like, having to consider other people’s trauma. Has she moved on from advocating for the transgender autogynephilia hypothesis yet?

    Also, her whole freeze peach nonsense is ironic, given her history of whining when other people use their free speech to criticize her or deny her a platform.

    In short – she’s not just a stopped clock, she’s some kind of glitched digital clock that only spits out the right time once a year.

  10. says

    Vivec @10

    Yeah, heard her name and knew exactly which part of the swamp she was going to go into. I’m so fucking done with Dreger and all the bullshit apologia she’s done in her long war against trans people and for general old person yelling at clouds bullshit.

    Like, oh yes, let’s listen to a whine about how hard pronouns are from the woman who defended “research” that involved misgendering a bunch of trans 6-year-olds, and deciding which one was more or less sexualy attractive and individuals who ran literal reparative therapy clinics, abusing hundreds of trans kids in the hopes of forcing them to be cis.

    And especially done as her and her defenders works have been used by the literal religious right to deny trans people’s rights.

    Like, yes, I’ll stomach your “mean trans bullies” bullshit whiny ass crap while YOUR words are being cited by the state of North Carolina in defense of their bill that says it’s illegal for me to take a fucking shit in a public building and that it’s legal to throw me out of housing or out of jobs simply for being trans.

    Yes, let me weep for the everpresent injustice that must be occasionally having someone dare to contradict you to your face and say your favorite shit isn’t as peach keen rosy as you thought and you might have to change and adjust to the modern world if you don’t want to look like an asshole.

    Just so fucking done with her and her kind fucking over me and my kind and playing like she’s the victim because we said ouch.

  11. Vivec says

    But like, some nonviolent protesters bought tickets to her event and then didn’t show up, more proof of teh ebil trans agenda amirite?

  12. Silentbob says

    @ ^

    No, no. “Agenda” doesn’t sound scary enough. These days you have to say “dogma”, or for extra scariness “doctrine”. (Extra points for working in “mantra” and “McCarthyism”.)