Thursday, June 4, 2015

Extremism in Academia

From Barry Campbell's splendid Facebook feed (I'll even reuse his excerpt), a link to a Vox article entitled "I'm a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me."
"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.

In 2009, the subject of my student's complaint was my supposed ideology. I was communistical, the student felt, and everyone knows that communisticism is wrong. That was, at best, a debatable assertion. And as I was allowed to rebut it, the complaint was dismissed with prejudice. I didn't hesitate to reuse that same video in later semesters, and the student's complaint had no impact on my performance evaluations.

In 2015, such a complaint would not be delivered in such a fashion. Instead of focusing on the rightness or wrongness (or even acceptability) of the materials we reviewed in class, the complaint would center solely on how my teaching affected the student's emotional state. As I cannot speak to the emotions of my students, I could not mount a defense about the acceptability of my instruction. And if I responded in any way other than apologizing and changing the materials we reviewed in class, professional consequences would likely follow."

Stories like this are reported with increasing frequency these days, but I think the most important takeaway gets missed.

The left frequently points out the asymmetry of our political landscape; that the right grows ever more extreme, while the left more or less stays put. This may be true with economic issues (though sensible income inequality protest seems to be gradually degrading into mindless class demagoguery), but on social issues a scary, ever-growing throng of crazies on the far left absolutely rivals the noxiousness of their counterparts on the far right. A good deal of what I hear about (or from) academia these days makes me feel like freaking Sarah Palin, for god's sake (did I really just write that?). Extremism makes unwilling semi-extremists out of moderates like me.

Hmm. But my take might be completely wrong. This may not, in fact, represent the Stalinist endgame of liberal political correctness. Perhaps it's that colleges are priced so high that they're becoming extreme luxury goods, and administrators are simply tailoring their product to the sensibilities of wealthy, coddled student-customers who otherwise might be inclined to take their half-million undergraduate tuition dollars to competitors more willing to soothe their sensibilities and assumptions.

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