August 11th 2020
Welcome to the Fall 2020 classroom, Professor (nadia_bormotova/GettyImages)
Earlier this week I wrote about a woke teacher who slipped up and asked on social media how teachers like him are going to succeed at "destabilizing" their students' political and cultural opinions if they have to teach online, and parents might be watching. Fear of woke teachers, in other words.
Tonight I would like to say a word about teachers' fear of woke students. Earlier in the day I was part of a group discussion online in which several conservative college professors voiced their dread of going back to teach this fall, in the new political environment on campus. I continued the discussion privately with one of the teachers, who told me that he is afraid to go to the classroom this fall. He knows that in his classes, he will be facing hundreds of students, any one of whom could decide that he or she was triggered by something the professor said, then run to the administration to lodge a complaint that he is racist, sexist, homophobic, or some other anti-woke offender. The mere accusation in this environment could destroy his career and his reputation.
I've been thinking about that conversation all day. It is hard to imagine having to work under such pressure, much less teach - an art that, if done right, requires challenging the perspectives of students, to get them to stretch their minds. I went back to this Vox piece by the pseudonymous Edward Schlosser, published five years ago, in which he said that he is a liberal professor who is terrified of his students. Excerpts:
The student-teacher dynamic has been reenvisioned along a line that's simultaneously consumerist and hyper-protective, giving each and every student the ability to claim Grievous Harm in nearly any circumstance, after any affront, and a teacher's formal ability to respond to these claims is limited at best.
He talks about the only formal complaint ever lodged against him: in 2009, by a conservative student who said that something the professor mentioned in class was "communistical." The complaint was dismissed, as it should have been. More:
I have intentionally adjusted my teaching materials as the political winds have shifted. (I also make sure all my remotely offensive or challenging opinions, such as this article, are expressed either anonymously or pseudonymously). Most of my colleagues who still have jobs have done the same. We've seen bad things happen to too many good teachers - adjuncts getting axed because their evaluations dipped below a 3.0, grad students being removed from classes after a single student complaint, and so on.
I once saw an adjunct not get his contract renewed after students complained that he exposed them to "offensive" texts written by Edward Said and Mark Twain. His response, that the texts were meant to be a little upsetting, only fueled the students' ire and sealed his fate. That was enough to get me to comb through my syllabi and cut out anything I could see upsetting a coddled undergrad, texts ranging from Upton Sinclair to Maureen Tkacik - and I wasn't the only one who made adjustments, either.
I am frightened sometimes by the thought that a student would complain again like he did in 2009. Only this time it would be a student accusing me not of saying something too ideologically extreme - be it communism or racism or whatever - but of not being sensitive enough toward his feelings, of some simple act of indelicacy that's considered tantamount to physical assault. As Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis writes, "Emotional discomfort is [now] regarded as equivalent to material injury, and all injuries have to be remediated." Hurting a student's feelings, even in the course of instruction that is absolutely appropriate and respectful, can now get a teacher into serious trouble.
Schlosser writes that today (remember, this was 2015), a student lodging a complaint would not object to Schlosser's supposed ideology. He or she would complain about how something the professor said hurt their feelings - something that is impossible to defend against.
The current student-teacher dynamic has been shaped by a large confluence of factors, and perhaps the most important of these is the manner in which cultural studies and social justice writers have comported themselves in popular media. I have a great deal of respect for both of these fields, but their manifestations online, their desire to democratize complex fields of study by making them as digestible as a TGIF sitcom, has led to adoption of a totalizing, simplistic, unworkable, and ultimately stifling conception of social justice. The simplicity and absolutism of this conception has combined with the precarity of academic jobs to create higher ed's current climate of fear, a heavily policed discourse of semantic sensitivity in which safety and comfort have become the ends and the means of the college experience.
Schlosser brings up two female liberal professors who outed and shamed a male colleague they accused of being creepy at conferences. They talked openly about how much they would like to ruin his career. Schlosser continues:
But part of the female professors' shtick was the strong insistence that harassment victims should never be asked for proof, that an enunciation of an accusation is all it should ever take to secure a guilty verdict. The identity of the victims overrides the identity of the harasser, and that's all the proof they need.
This is terrifying. No one will ever accept that. And if that becomes a salient part of liberal politics, liberals are going to suffer tremendous electoral defeat.
He wrote that in June 2015. A year and a half later, Donald Trump won the presidency, in part because some voters appreciated Trump's hostility to political correctness.
Read it all.
Schlosser wrote that before Nicholas Christakis was mobbed and shouted down on the Yale campus, and his wife Erika was driven out for the crime of suggesting that it's not Yale's business to police Halloween costumes to prevent adult students from hurting the feelings of other adult students. This was two years before Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying were cast out of Evergreen State for objecting to the woke mob. Think of all the things that have happened both in campus culture and in the culture at large since 2015. Nothing has gotten better than it was when Schlosser first wrote; it has, in fact, grown substantially worse.
Many of us who went to college in the Before Time treasure our classroom experiences with professors who challenged us and helped us to grow intellectually and morally. I pity the professors who now have to regard each student as a potential threat to their livelihood. I pity the students who really do want to be challenged, and to learn, but whose opportunity to learn has been crippled by the woke heckler's veto that these puritanical woke rats exercise on many campuses.
Let me ask you readers who are teachers: are you afraid to go back to class this fall, in the current political environment? Why or why not?
UPDATE: A professor whose name and university I've agreed to withhold writes:
In response to your blog post today titled "Classroom of Fear," I wanted to share a little bit about how we're preparing at [major private university] for this fall semester. We, of course, did go through a special anti-racism seminar, but even the professor leading the meeting said something along the lines of, "The worst possible outcome here is for white students to fearfully repeat what they think is the One Right Opinion based on what one BLM account said on Twitter." So, fortunately (at least in my department) even the most activist professors still keep faith in liberalism's tradition of discourse and are worried about compulsory group-think.When we met as a faculty about some of our classes being recorded (since most of us are using a hybrid model that blends some Zoom-teaching and some classroom teaching), almost all professors in my division expressed concerns about student retaliation - that our out-of-context comments in class might be reframed on social media in bad faith. We unanimously agreed that the classroom must remain an open space of experimentation and "exploratory bullshit," a place where we can provisionally "try out" ideas without immediately accepting or condemning them.The director of our program promised protection on the departmental level, but of course we all sort of know the upper administration would toss us over the bow if the situation escalated in a way that would reflect poorly on the university. My experience has reinforced what you've posted from others on your blog - that even the most liberal of professors are a bit frightened by their students. Among the professors anxious about student retaliation is one who teaches a class on sexuality and gender studies (with course content that pushes boundaries even for academia). Though I disagree with her on many fundamental issues, she's been a supportive colleague, is an educator who cares deeply about her students, and is an incredibly effective instructor - yet even she is worried about an offhand comment in class being used against her by woke students.So, I think my message here is this - that the majority of voices in my department still support classical liberalism in the humanities, but that we're uncertain how much the upper administration will back us up if we become a public relations problem. It's the bureaucratic encroaching upon the humanistic. As a conservative professor, I see the threat coming from neither the sexual liberationist profs nor the black activist profs (who have always engaged as good faith interlocutors with my own ideas and who I can cheerfully spar with over drinks at the bar-and will again, when the bars re-open). Rather, our real antagonist seems to be the university's professional-managerial wing.
UPDATE.2: Another professor:
I'm responding to your post, "Classroom of Fear." Given my position as an untenured faculty member and my growing concern with surveillance capitalism/doxxing, I haven't felt comfortable registering a Disqus account so far. You just never know what could be uncovered and used against you, out of context, years later. You asked whether teachers were afraid to go back to class this fall. I'll confess that, for the most part, I'm not. However - that's shaped by a couple factors.
I'm working and teaching completely remotely this semester. Given the fallout in my discipline over the past year regarding accusations of systemic racism/sexism/homophobic/transphobia, etc., my biggest concern was faculty meetings and hallways interactions that could go south at a moment's notice if I inadvertently let my non-wokeness show to the wrong colleague. Although we'll have some meetings via Zoom this fall, it's easier to keep quiet or turn off my screen on the presumption of a "bathroom break," etc., than to sit around a conference table outing myself by my non-enthusiasm or non-indignation about the newest woke issue.
The two anecdotes I'm about to share below could out me, so I'd ask you not to publish anything potentially identifying, but they illustrate the types of situations I'm talking about:
Let me summarize these without the details. The professor talks about an instance in a department meeting at which everyone was encouraged to show public support for a progressive principle completely unrelated to education. Doing so violated the conscience of this professor, who did not join the affirmation. He fears that his failure to salute the flag, so to speak, was noticed, and that it will eventually be used against him.
The second anecdote involves an attempt to prevent the hiring of an extremely well qualified job candidate - a progressive, in fact - by throwing utterly groundless accusations of holding problematic opinions against him. It didn't work, ultimately, but it was a struggle to defeat these scurrilous allegations made by a couple of professors. The fact that they threw a monkey wrench into the hiring process rattled others in the department. Without going into details that the professor asked me to withhold, I can say that this candidate almost failed to be hired, despite his scholarly record, and despite there being no evidence to back up the allegations, in part because the mere accusations made against someone with his identity profile (race, sex) were thought to make hiring him risky in this political environment.
Back to the professor's letter:
Regarding fear of students, the content of my courses *somewhat* insulates me at this point. I teach courses in [field]. Were I teaching history, politics, literature, etc., I would be much more concerned. That said, there are certainly areas that could become flashpoints in the future. I'll admit I touch on issues of race, sex, and sexuality less than I could in my teaching, simply because these seem so risky to talk about right now for anyone to the right of Robin DiAngelo. The study of [my field] touches on issues such as relationship formation, family structure, the relation between language and power, and so on. There is an increasing push in the field to "decenter" white, hetero/cisnormative perspectives and "center" BIPOC and queer perspectives. We are not yet at the point of syllabus reviews, but there are open calls for scholars and teachers to cite and assign works from scholars of color and/or queer scholars based on those scholars' identities.
*Of course* I want to expose myself and students to the best texts, a number of which have undeniably been written by scholars of color or queer scholars. If particular scholars' work has been ignored due to their race or sexuality, that needs to be recognized and corrected so that the field can benefit from their insights! But we now have citation lists circulating, basically saying, "Quit upholding white/straight/cisgender supremacy. Cite these articles. Assign these articles. Because of the racial and sexual identities of the authors." That's where I refuse to get on the train. I'm not hearing this from my students, at least not yet. But I wouldn't be surprised if this becomes a more official push from the administrative higher-ups, who are falling all over themselves to justify their anti-racist bona fides in the wake of George Floyd's death, and/or from my discipline more broadly.
To sum up: The pandemic has provided a welcome respite from the tension I'd likely experience if we were holding face-to-face courses and faculty meetings this fall. My hope is that passions die down by the spring, assuming we have a relatively "normal" in-person spring semester. If not, I do have concerns. I'm not paranoid, but I do think a lot these days about what it looks like to live not by lies, and where the lines are for me. I love my profession, and pray I can continue in it for the long haul. Do I expect to be able to ? That's an open question.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod's commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.
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