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Monday, August 29, 2016

Restating the Seemingly Obvious

The NYT ran a story last week about the University of Chicago's unambiguous refusal to coddle its students, or allow the heckler's veto:

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own,” John Ellison, dean of students, wrote to members of the class of 2020, who will arrive next month.

So what. A restatement of, particularly in the university setting, should be the glaringly obvious.

Except, as any mild familiarity with that clown car we charmingly refer to us a liberal arts education, it is instead a pointed reminder to any potential students to look elsewhere for cosseting and indoctrination.

Except for the reflexive nod in the direction of journalistic bias — in what regard is The Federalist conservative? — the story is pretty well balanced. Along the way, they quoted Kevin Gannon — aka The Tattooed Professor — who teaches history at Grand View University in Des Moines. Trigger Warning: Elitism, Gatekeeping and Other Academic Crap certainly let me know what to expect, and I was not disappointed.

There are several paras of bloviation and cant, and the assumption that the University of Chicago's letter was an effect without cause.

Then, and I'm sure you, too, saw this coming from a semester away:

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the backlash against so-called “political correctness” in higher education has intensified in direct variation with the diversification of the academy, areas of scholarship, and-most significantly-the student population.

Because racism and sexism.

Then he provides the rationale for trigger warnings:

For every ginned-up hypothetical scenario of spoiled brats having a sit-in to protest too many white guys in the lit course, there are very real cases where trigger warnings or safe spaces aren’t absurdities, but pedagogical imperatives. If I’m teaching historical material that describes war crimes like mass rape, shouldn’t I disclose to my students what awaits them in these texts? If I have a student suffering from trauma due to a prior sexual assault, isn’t a timely caution the empathetic and humane thing for me to do?

Aside from the obligatory nod in the direction of racism — progressives must have a quota to fill — he calls into question either his professional competence, or his students' intelligence. Could be both How so? If Prof Tats is competent then his syllabi will describe the course and associated materials in sufficient detail to let students know what they are getting in for. Syllabi are themselves trigger warning.

Competently prepared that is.

Meaning students don't need trigger warnings. If they exercise sufficient due diligence, that is.

And that is before getting to the information problem: how are professors to know their students' sensitivities?

But wait, there's more. Just as coercion follows socialism, so censorship follow progressive academics:

To move from the hypothetical to the real, the Virginia Tech students who protested their university’s invitation to Charles Murray to deliver a lecture weren’t some sort of intellectual gestapo, they were members of a community calling out other members’ violation of the community’s ethos. Murray is a racist charlatan who’s made a career out of pseudoscientific social darwinist assertions that certain “races” are inherently inferior to others.To bring him to campus is to tell segments of your student community that, according to the ideas the university is endorsing by inviting Murray, they don’t belong there. This isn’t a violation of academic freedom. It’s an upholding of scientific standards and the norms of educated discourse-you know, the type of stuff that colleges and universities are supposed to stand for, right?

Translated: disagreement is verboten.

Prof Tat has no qualms about stopping other people hearing about something with which he clearly has no knowledge.

Not that has ever been a barrier to progressives; after all, every idea they have is true because they have it.

Perhaps the UoC was really just engaged in trolling, as both the story and various comments charge. Alternatively, the UoC may have perceived a coming collapse of universities as a concept, and wants to distance the UoC brand as much as possible.

Oh, and providing fair warning that students whose SJW zealotry inclines them towards thought policing, to either restrain that zealotry, face expulsion, or go elsewhere.


Bret said...

So there are three things in the UoC statement:
1. Trigger warnings
2. Speaker invitations
3. Safe spaces

On #2, I agree nearly unconditionally with UoC.

On the others, though, I think it's a matter of balance. On trigger warnings, Gannon says, "trigger warnings or safe spaces aren’t absurdities, but pedagogical imperatives." I think they're neither. I mean if a horrific scene in some book is coming up in tonight's reading, is it really so terrible for the prof to give a little heads up? Isn't that a trigger warning? What's wrong with that?

Regarding safe spaces; how about your dorm room? Shouldn't that be a safe space? Or should people be allowed to knock on your door 24/7 to pound you with their ideology? Even the cafeteria: isn't it reasonable that you could go eat without being hammered by others? Isn't peace and quiet in some places a reasonable thing to offer students?

The problem becomes where EVERY space is a safe space; where every possible thing needs a trigger warning (the main character in this book is a heterosexual, white male - the horrors! the horrors).

So I think it's mostly a matter of balance which seems to be outta whack on most campuses, at least from what I read.

Clovis e Adri said...

I am particularly against the trigger warnings, but not for any political or ideologial reason.

The surprise element is pretty important in a good narrative. Teaching is, in many senses, about telling stories. I think they are made poorer if you restrict the oratory tools available.

As for Bret's comment, I do not get how your dorm room can not be anything other than a safe space. Aren't you supposed to have control over whom you allow there?

erp said...

Students usually have roommates and some schools provide quads with rooms off a central sitting area ...

I remember a female student who worked for me (and this was over 30 years ago) whose roommate was turning tricks over a summer when they both had a campus jobs.

It wasn't easy to get her moved to another room without creating an uproar -- hard thing to prove and being over 18, they were legally adults and could invite whomever they wished into their room.

Bret said...

Yeah, that definitely wouldn't qualify as a safe space. I had roommates who'd bring girls into the room and have sex with them while I was there - I certainly didn't feel unsafe, but it was rather annoying, especially if they were noisy. :-)

Hey Skipper said...

[Bret:] So there are three things in the UoC statement:
1. Trigger warnings
2. Speaker invitations
3. Safe spaces

On #2, I agree nearly unconditionally with UoC.

As do I. Interestingly, at the avowedly progressive Crooked Timber almost all the attention focused on 1 & 3 which, IMHO, are trivial compared to #2. (However, this NYT article is more critical.)

I can't fathom why sufficiently detailed course descriptions don't, by definition, serve as trigger warnings.

And I can't fathom why women, gays, lesbians, transgenders and people of color haven't figured out that insisting on safe spaces for women, gays, lesbians, transgenders and people of color doesn't convey to everyone else that women, gays, lesbians, transgenders and people of color are hot house flowers.