Free Speech and the University

Free Speech and the University

A poster from the  NBD (No Big Deal) Campaign  promoting the proper use of pronouns.

A poster from the NBD (No Big Deal) Campaign promoting the proper use of pronouns.

Recent conversations around student activism, free speech on campus, and the pedagogical value of debate in the classroom reflect intensifying crises in the university as it engages more and more in the public sphere and is subject to attack from both within and without.

In early November, Chris Bodenner published “The Surprising Revolt at the Most Liberal College in the Country” in The Atlantic, looking at protests at Reed College against a mandatory humanities class, HUM 101. The stated goal of this course is “to engage in original, open-ended, critical inquiry,” but the students’ group Reedies Against Racism (RAR) criticized it for its Eurocentric syllabus. The article points out intimidating tactics used by students, which included personal attacks such as targeting a precariously employed instructor who is also a woman of colour, that do little to help their cause. The article states, “A major crisis for Reed College started when RAR put those core qualities—social justice and academic study—on a collision course.” Bodenner’s framing overlooks that social justice is part of academic study, and makes it seem like the students are sacrificing their learning in the pursuit of social justice. We should also consider, however, that the members of RAR are students who are still learning how to articulate and enact their politics; they need to be educated in effective forms of critique, including direct action.

Much has been written about this specific incident at Reed, and the curriculum is currently under review. What I’m interested in here is why this article at this time? Sit-ins and protests at universities are not new. While we cannot blame Trump for white supremacy, it is well-documented that hate crimes are on the rise and white supremacist groups are emboldened. Despite this increase in hate crimes and hate speech, articles like this make it seem like the real problem—or at the very least an equivalent problem—on campuses is lefty activists and not, say, white supremacists (at multiple universities across countries) putting razorblades behind their white pride posters so people cut their hands trying to take them down. Furthermore, Bodenner’s assertion that Reed is the most “liberal” college in the country allows the protests over HUM 101 to serve as a cautionary tale for what happens when liberals go too far. This incident with RAR provides fuel for false equivalencies between left and right in the vein of media portrayals of antifa.

External interests would like the university to be more like the public sphere—a marketplace of ideas rather than a site of collaborative knowledge production and critique—as the public sphere model can diffuse the academy as a force for critique. Of course, the university has never really been some kind of space of unalienated labour where meritocracy reigns, and certainly the current trajectory of academia is towards corporatization and the reproduction of the ruling class (consider the tax bill that just passed through the House and Senate, which actively undermines the ability of students without independent income to afford tuition). Yet we can and should identify differences between a street or park where people are protesting and a university campus. In a measured and cogent article in Vox, Robert C. Post looks at the issue of invited speakers who engage in hate speech, arguing that the First Amendment does not apply as it would in the public sphere. Post’s article is worth quoting at length:

The entire purpose of a university is to educate and to expand knowledge, and so everything a university does must be justified by reference to these twin purposes. These objectives govern all university action, inside and outside the classroom; they are as applicable to nonprofessional speech as they are to student and faculty work. To give a simple example, students are free to march with candles chanting, “No means yes, yes means anal,” in a park. The First Amendment gives them the right to do so. But no sane university would tolerate a student group marching through its campus shouting this ugly slogan.”

Because the university has specific goals, we must resist imposing the values of the public sphere when they conflict with learning or knowledge production.

Canadian academia was confronted this month with the issue of free speech on university campuses through an incident at Wilfred Laurier University. Teaching Assistant Lindsay Shepherd recorded and leaked a tape of being reprimanded for presenting a video debating transgender pronouns in a linguistics class. Shepherd has since come out saying that she used to be a leftist but is now moving to the other side, an apparent ideological shift that demonstrates a lack of conviction that would be understandable for a student who is still learning. However, rather than listening to opposing views, Shepherd seems to be doubling down on her position that identity is up for debate, an entrenchment in her position that is happening at the same time as she is gaining followers and being hailed a hero of the alt-right. She is also mobilizing the alt-right to attack people, including me, who are trying to bring clarity to the situation and defend marginalized students; she promotes the blacklisting of professors and has called the university a “mental institution.” I recommend Aadita Chaudhury’s Medium article as a necessary corrective to the mainstream media coverage that inaccurately frames this as a free speech issue.

We can draw parallels between the events and coverage at Reed and WLU. Should the Reed students have been using tactics that target individuals in precarious positions? No. Could the professors and university have handled the situation with Lindsay Shepherd better? Yes. Yet an important thing to keep in focus here is who or what is being served by how these events are being mobilized. Mistakes are inevitable. Resisting the mobilization of these incidents by the alt-right is not the same as praising the tactics of whom they’re attacking. We must respect our students and give them the space to learn: if we ask them to critique everything, that includes our own syllabus and pedagogy as well as the curriculum and university. Likewise, if students’ critiques demonstrate flawed analysis, punching down, sources of questionable veracity, or other errors, then we must correct them in an intellectually generous and pedagogically sound way.

What does it look like to respect students and give them a space to learn? I tell my students that they should be able to say whatever they want as long as it’s not a personal attack, and it is my job to explain to them why some of their statements could be hurtful or offensive. They are allowed to make mistakes because they are learning. As the person with authority, however, I should not be allowed to say whatever I want in the classroom—this is different from academic freedom in research. Moreover, I need to be mindful of creating a safe learning environment in order for them to feel comfortable to speak. There is a difference between instigating or staging a debate on human rights or people’s identities and carefully and respectfully responding to a student’s question about this topic and having a discussion: the former assumes rights are debatable and the latter teaches why they are not. The purpose of creating an inclusive learning environment—one which by necessity includes using students’ proper pronouns—is to allow students to speak up and to feel comfortable making mistakes and learning from them: an inclusive learning environment opens up speech rather than shuts it down.

Unlike the HUM 101 course at Reed, the critical analysis course I teach is departmentally mandated to include three texts “foregrounding issues of social and cultural difference” and at least one North American Indigenous text. Issues of social justice are thus embedded in the very form of the course, even as the syllabus varies widely from instructor to instructor. From the very first class I emphasize that neutrality is an illusion that reinforces dominant values and beliefs. I start at the very basic level of linguistic signs, emphasizing that the relationship between the words we use and those things in the world that our words purport to represent is arbitrary and mediated by ideology and convention. The imperative is to recognize what those values and beliefs are and whether they serve fairness and inclusion or marginalization and oppression—social justice here is not in opposition to academic study. Throughout the semester I ask my students to consider a central question: what is being naturalized? It’s not fair, then, to expect them to critique everything else but naturalize the operations of the classroom. There is no neutral space; instructors should always be transparent about the pedagogical goals and why a certain text or assignment is on the syllabus.

I ask my students to think systemically, and one example I use is the analogy of climate and hurricanes. That is, we can understand a system (climate) but the individual manifestations (hurricanes) are overdetermined. The slippage between a system overall and individual manifestations of said system is why it’s so easy for people to deny racism, patriarchy, and other systems of oppression—it’s the same formal move. When they are confronted with white supremacy and transphobia on campus in the name of free speech, I try to teach them the tools to place these positions within systems; for example, we talked in class about how the counter-response to posters saying “it’s OK to be white” should not be “it’s not OK to be white” but rather “define whiteness,” thus placing it in its proper context rather than falling for the trap of 4chan trolls.

I am still learning—and hope to be fortunate enough to continue learning my whole life—how to be an effective teacher and researcher and to express my positions clearly and persuasively. When truth and facts are threatened, the university can play a crucial role; we must stay vigilant against the defanging of the university as a critical force. To me, this requires respecting our students, creating a safe and constructive learning environment, maintaining ongoing discussions with colleagues and students about these issues even when the news cycle moves on, and clearly and relentlessly advocating for the critical role of university.


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