Thursday, November 30, 2017

On Lindsay Shepherd and Academic Freedom

If you haven't listened to the Lindsay Shepherd recordings, I highly recommend you do that.  If this hasn't come onto your radar, Ms. Shepherd, teaching a component of a writing course as a graduate TA, showed a segment from a Canadian public television show in which Jordan Peterson and a panel of others discussed the use of pronouns.  Shepherd was talking to her students about pronouns, and she naturally brought in the issue about them.  You see, Candadian law requires people to use another person's "preferred" pronouns.  This is in relation to trangenderism and the idea that people can choose what gender they are, and how you refer to them.  Under this law, even though I am a masculine male, I could demand that you refer to me as she and her, and you'd be compelled to do it.  Peterson objects to the law compelling him to use certain words, and he's skyrocketed to fame because of that position, that the law has no business telling people what they must say.  And I agree with him on that point, fundamentally, that law should never compel speech, and really, that's a separate issue than the one of politeness, that I ask you to refer to me as she, you'd be polite to do as I ask, but having the force of law behind my pronoun choice, that's another matter.  You can watch the entire program here.

All that aside, Shepherd showed a clip from a rather benign video that shows a civilized dialogue between adults about a contemporary issue, and something about that video caused a student to complain, not to her, but to her superiors, and she was hauled in before an inquisition of three superiors, two professors, and one human resources department of diversity officer.  You must listen to the recordings to fully appreciate what I'm writing about here, and in fact, what has prompted me to write about it.

If you listen, you'll hear Shepherd, who is only 22 years old, offer a wonderful defense of academic freedom, that no ideas are off the table, that there's nothing that can't be discussed and debated in the spirit of open and free inquiry.  That college students must have their fundamental presumptions called into question.  That they are adults, and college is the place where they learn to think, to process ideas and come to stronger, better ideas, and that can only happen when information flows freely.

In response, these professors argue the opposite.  They argue that some ideas are inherently dangerous and ought to be censored, that 18-year-old adults ought to be protected from some ideas on a purely arbitrary basis, and that by showing the clip, and this really takes the cake, by merely showing the clip (of adults, having civil discourse) Shepherd was guilty of "trans-phobia".  She presented the clips neutrally, in the spirit of generating debate and classroom discussion, and revealed none of her political leanings, preferring to allow the students to articulate their own thoughts, which is exactly the right thing to do, and exactly what I would have done.  Put another way, Shepherd did nothing wrong, but in fact, did everything right.  She operated with professionalism, and she participated in the venerable tradition of the academy, the spirit of argumentation and truth-seeking.

I actually wrote an email to the university's president about this matter, something I never do, because I don't care much about what happens outside of my walls, but this one struck close to home, the issue of academic freedom, about being an honest purveyor of truth, which I think is the professor's duty, beyond all others, to be a purveyor of truth.  And these professors in the recordings were lying.  Just flat-out lying.  They weren't purveying truth, but dissembling obfuscation and outright lies.  No professor should operate that way.  It is the highest offense, and though they have tenure and can't be fired easily, I called on the president of the college to find a way to censure them.  For their lies.  Professor's must not, cannot, lie.  Truth.  That's the only thing.

I got a form letter in response.

Nevertheless, and I've never written about this publicly until now, I spent six years laboring in what was essentially the kindergarten of higher education, an institution in which students were treated as customers.  The outstanding instructor award was called the "customer service award", and I shit you not.  And I learned, early on, to keep all readings, all viewings, to the most benign possible issues, because if a student complained, that was it.  I did something wrong.  Avoiding student complaints was paramount.  Exposing those students to ideas, to get them to write, to stoke their minds, to get them to actually put some though behind their writing, was off-limits, completely.  One student complaint and I was sitting in the deans office explaining myself.  It was just that bad, to the point that I was left wondering, what can I have these students read?  Do I need to bring in children's books?  Are Biscuit books controversial?  Are these students adults, or are they kindergartners?

This is reflected in the Shepherd recordings, in which a professor states, unequivocally, that freshmen must be shielded from some ideas, that they aren't ready for some ideas.  It's outrageous if you're doing your job to educate these adults, but that's where we are.  That's exactly where we are.

Well, doubtful that they gave Shepherd this training, and I certainly haven't received this training, but I'm calling for training.  If certain ideas and issues are off-limits for freshmen, I need to know exactly what those issues are.  I'm not trained for this.  My education is is rhetoric and composition, and my impulse is to teach students how to engage with ideas and create arguments and to participate in discourse.  My job, ultimately, is to teach students how to write well, and if you write well, you can think well, and these two are inextricable.  If I'm supposed to shield my students, I need training about this new freshmen kindergarten I'm running, because my training in rhetoric and composition has ill-prepared me to shield students from ideas.

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