I’m a liberal white faculty member, and I have a confession: I have no idea why other liberal white faculty members claim to be so afraid of their liberal students. In the past few months, anonymous (and sometimes not) white professors have started airing these fears, or re-airing them, as they are reminiscent of old complaints. The campus culture, they claim, has grown toxic, with faculty members carefully paring their syllabi to avoid any potentially uncomfortable material. A specter, they will tell you, is haunting universities -- the specter of political correctness, or radical liberalism, or identity politics.
The latest of these accounts, published recently in Vox under the pseudonym Edward Schlosser, is particularly unconvincing. Schlosser, an ostensibly liberal professor, conflates real problems -- the shifting of higher education toward a consumer experience (explained and deflated well here by Rebecca Schuman) and the absence of job protection for contingent faculty -- with ghosts conjured by paranoia. The generality of Schlosser’s writing doesn’t pass the sniff test; for example, he claims, “Personal experience and feelings aren't just a salient touchstone of contemporary identity politics; they are the entirety of these politics.”
That sentence doesn’t stack the deck so much as it replaces it entirely. And the oddly random anecdotes of feelings-driven radical liberalism don’t add up; as in many invocations of the dangers of student liberalism, Twitter is a central go-to demon. The fundamental irony of Schlosser’s essay is that he criticizes overreliance on emotional responses that students have, but the fear he describes ultimately seems like an overreliance on an emotional response by some white faculty members. Criticism from students -- whether it’s over the reading choices, the assignments, the in-class dynamic -- isn’t new, even if it develops out of students’ political perspectives or not. Instructors have to learn to meet that criticism and engage it respectfully.
Finally, people of color are starkly underrepresented among full-time faculty members and face authority challenges in the classroom that white male faculty do not, so the growing concern about what the white professoriate can and cannot say seems laughable to me. Plus, for what it’s worth, I’m a white male instructor unprotected by the tenure track, but I don’t feel the fear Schlosser describes, and my academic friends and colleagues, both tenured and not, at a wide variety of institutions, either don’t feel this fear or don’t confess it to me.
All that said, I do think Schlosser’s concern comes from meaningful, important questions: How do faculty members teach controversial material in an open, respectful forum where students can learn? And how can white male instructors approach issues of race, gender and sexual orientation with sensitivity? I teach first-year writing, creative writing and the personal essay, so each semester I regularly teach (and encounter in student writing) controversial material. If a student has raised a complaint about my handling of that material, it hasn’t been mentioned to me. I don’t assume to know every experience that might arise in the humanities classroom; I also can’t claim I’m the exemplar of how to encounter controversial issues in the classroom. Based on my experience, though, I have suggestions below on how Schlosser and other fearful faculty can teach controversial material.
Know, and admit, the limits of your authority. All instructors try to prepare as comprehensively as possible, but we all enter the classroom with our blind spots, our little (and sometimes big) ignorance. If you help students understand both the background of knowledge you bring as well as the uncertainties and questions you ask of a subject, they likely will understand your perspective more fully and engage with the questions you want them to consider. You won’t lose authority; rather, they’ll grow to see, via your model, how they can enter into complex problems and develop their own authority. They’ll also recognize the limits of their own knowledge, and that knowledge is fluid and limited.
Know, and admit, the extent of your authority.Faculty members are overwhelmingly, disproportionately white; department chairs more so. That’s the main reason I can’t take seriously this anonymous fear of retribution from liberal students: even at colleges with less diverse student populations, students still find more diversity among their peers than on the faculty. The resistance some white faculty members feel from students is, among other things, likely resistance to discovering the university as an ostensibly open environment that is still a sometimes unwelcome one for students of color. Even if we’re trying to be welcoming, white faculty members, myself included, are part of the problem, whether we like it or not. (NB: We should not.) Acknowledging that disparity as part of the process of teaching difficult material can help students discuss that material openly.
Know your place -- or, rather, know the place you’re in. While earning my Ph.D., I taught at an urban campus in the Midwest. In one first-year writing course, a student argued that affirmative action has given unfair opportunities to African-American students. In the course of the conversation, I asked the students what percentage of the student body they thought was African-American. One student, from a rural area, guessed 50 percent; no student guessed less than 25 percent. When I told them the percentage was actually under 10, well under the demographics of the city, state and nation the university was home to, they refused to believe me. (Had they looked around the room, they would have seen a single African-American student among the 18 of them.) When I showed them the university’s website, the look of confused resistance that spread on their faces appalled me; one student continued disagreeing, saying there must be some mistake with the website -- an administrator had told him it was 25 percent.
Had I been more aware of the place I was in, I would have understood their reactions better. A colleague reminded me later that the university was bordered on two sides by predominantly African-American neighborhoods; the custodial staff and service workers on campus were also largely African-American. Many of the students came from predominantly white neighborhoods and rural areas; they’d never seen so many African-Americans, so their imaginations likely multiplied those numbers.
Wherever we are, we should remember that academe is a shorthand for extraordinarily diverse kinds of universities. That’s why many of us resist when longtime tenured faculty from elite universities describe their experience as universal, a useful reminder that advanced age and advanced degrees don’t necessarily confer wisdom. Knowing your own college or university culture more intimately will help you work more directly with your students, whether the subject matter is controversial or not.
Recognize your own emotional reactions. Fear has a way of magnifying itself. Just because you’re afraid doesn’t mean the thing you’re afraid of is real. Along those lines, I’m skeptical of those who posit a split between the intellectual and emotional. Too many of the essays about fear of liberal students (especially Schlosser’s in Vox) posit the fearful faculty as reasonable and the student body as unreasonably emotional. Not only does the fear some white faculty members describe seem like an emotional embellishment, conceiving of emotion and reason as disconnected opposites does a tremendous disservice to both. Yes, reason and logic can be dispassionate, even at times disconnected from our emotional responses, but to pretend that they must be ever thus in the humanities classroom ignores basic human experience. If you pretend as Wendy Kaminer does that the utterance of the n-word by a white person has a negligible emotional charge, you’re committing an intellectual sin.
Explore your own bias, and never treat it as solved. I’m a white man born and raised in Arkansas. I’ve spent years working to understand the legacy of racism in my home state, and I’ve come to understand that, no matter how fully I try, I’ll probably never filter from myself the last dregs of that legacy. Exploring that bias -- via Harvard University’s Implicit Bias test, for example -- and acknowledging it to students can be a useful path to helping instructors and students recognize their own biases and develop a more complex understanding of their own emotional and intellectual responses.
When we discuss race in my classes, I tell my students of my background and acknowledge that, as careful as I try to be in thinking and speaking about race, I almost surely bring biases and emotional reactions I don’t yet recognize. In my experience, that engages them with their own experience and the intellectual material we discuss. Along those lines, instructors can benefit from presenting themselves as learners. Both the best and the most frustrating students have an inherent mistrust of authority, I think. As an instructor, I do, too. My greatest pleasure in teaching is being surprised and enlightened by my students’ work, especially their productive, constructive challenges to authority. And when they realize they’ve taught the instructor something, the students gain a useful confidence and foundation for the development of more complex ideas.
Teach difficult, controversial texts, paying particular attention to intellectual and cultural diversity. The avoidance of difficult material that Schlosser describes would be enormously counterproductive, of course, and faculty need to reconsider their syllabi in light of ongoing change. For example, I had long been proud to have a diverse list of poets and fiction writers in my creative-writing class. But when I reconsidered the syllabus last summer, I discovered that the poetry readings were less diverse and less focused on issues of race and gender than I had thought. So I adjusted the readings, adding in poems like June Jordan’s “Poem About My Rights” and short stories like Percival Everett’s “The Appropriation of Cultures,” excellent writing that drew the students’ attention to complex issues. Just as we discussed sound and sonnet structure in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur,” and image and figure in Marianne Moore’s “Poetry,” we discussed line breaks, anaphora, tone and race in Jordan’s poem.
As sometimes happens, I encountered student fatigue with discussions of race (in this case in a discussion of Jordan’s poem), only to discover what I think is often the source of that fatigue: many students see the beginning and end point of such discussions as “racism is bad.” When reluctant students saw how the issues were more complicated and required more inquiry, they became more engaged and moved to more compelling insights about the poem and about race.
Make clear the potential discomforts and challenges of the course material. To many, that might sound like a trigger warning, but it actually isn’t. On the first day of my classes, I mention that our reading (and possibly their writing, in creative-writing and personal-essay courses) will make us think in complicated, sometimes uncomfortable ways, about sexuality, race, gender and age, among other subjects. That isn’t a trigger warning; it’s simple politeness. Each class approaches its subject matter differently, and guiding students to your pedagogical approach helps them build the class dynamic more constructively. Trigger warnings, on the other hand, explicitly inform students about subject material that might trigger memories of trauma for those who’ve suffered that trauma. Though I don’t include trigger warnings, it’s frustrating that so many critics of trigger warnings conflate discomfort and trauma, ultimately misrepresenting the idea and design of trigger warnings.
If a student accuses you of hurting her/his feelings in a meaningful way, assume you’re in the wrong before you assume you’re in the right. This runs counter to the idea of “innocent until proven guilty,” but it’s a useful guide to self-awareness. (Bear in mind that I’m not arguing that departments should assume their faculty are in the wrong.) In academic and nonacademic contexts, I’ve seen plenty of people react immediately with a sharp defensiveness to all kinds of accusations, only to calcify that defense over time. (Full disclosure: I’ve been that person before and likely will be again.) Moving past the initial defensiveness, or converting the initial impulse into self-inquiry, can be useful in helping instructors consider their biases and emotional responses. Even if you and your colleagues decide you weren’t in the wrong, avoiding the defensive impulse will make you a more perceptive teacher.
What I’ve written above isn’t a comprehensive guide for scared white faculty; I’ve based it on my experience, so it’s necessarily limited. I’m trying to keep myself malleable in the hope of becoming a better teacher. Students will change over time; decrying the loss of some golden age while warning of some encroaching PC liberalism screaming across the sky does the students no good.
Charles Green teaches writing at Cornell University. He hopes that his bosses at the Politically Correct Policepersons Union will accept this essay in lieu of dues this month.
Assuming “Bothered” is still interested, Science Careers is offering new advice to the postdoc who asked what to do about a professor who tries to look down her shirt. The original advice offered by Science Careers columnist Alice Huang, a senior faculty associate in biology at California Institute of Technology and former president of Science’s publisher, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, attracted widespread criticism last week for being “sexist.” Huang wrote, “As long as your adviser does not move on to other advances, I suggest you put up with it, with good humor if you can,” and many readers accused her of treating possible sexual harassment casually.
Science pulled the column and later offered an apologetic editor’s note. Late last week, editors published another post called “Better Advice for ‘Bothered,’” referencing the pseudonym the postdoc used to asked her question. The advice -- ranging from a simple “Hey, I’m up here” comment to developing relationships with other faculty mentors and advocates -- is mostly crowdsourced from online commentary and social media posts about the original column. You can read it here.
A regional National Labor Relations Board office decided late last week that adjuncts at Duquesne University may form a union affiliated with the United Steelworkers. Adjuncts teaching at Duquesne’s McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts voted to form a union in 2012, but the Roman Catholic university argued that its religious identity put it outside NLRB jurisdiction. The university’s appeal was pending before the national NLRB for some time, but earlier this year that board sent back several similar adjunct union cases to their local NLRB offices for further consideration in light of the recent Pacific Lutheran University decision.
In that case, the national board determined that Pacific Lutheran adjuncts could form a union affiliated with Service Employees International Union, since their duties were not of a religious nature. The landmark decision also included new guidelines for evaluating such cases, and those guidelines were used to re-evaluate the Duquesne case. The local board office found there was “no evidence” that adjunct faculty are told they have religious duties, or that religion is a consideration in hiring, performance evaluation or course content.
In an open letter, Duquesne President Charles J. Dougherty said federal courts maintain that the NLRB “should not be determining whether we are religious enough by their own standards, and we intend to appeal the local NLRB’s decision” to the national board and federal courts, if necessary. In a news release, the United Steelworkers said the university’s interest in blocking the union appeared to be financially, not religiously, motivated.
The full University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents voted Friday to adopt a tenure policy to replace the one likely to be stricken from state statute, while rejecting one last opportunity to formally oppose planned Legislative changes to faculty terms of employment.
“The change in tenure policy comes without identification that a problem exists, without any gathering of data, without analysis or any public discussion of something that should be the Board of Regents' to determine,” said Regent Mark J. Bradley, proposing a faculty-backed resolution asking state legislators to eliminate controversial language that would make it much easier to fire tenured faculty members from an omnibus budget motion likely to be passed by state lawmakers by the end of the month. The motion also includes new limits on the faculty role in shared governance.
Bradley’s proposal echoed statements from faculty groups and some members of the regents’ Education Committee the day prior, who argued that the regents’ support for tenure is weakened if language otherwise limiting faculty power becomes law. But Regent Gerald Whitburn immediately moved to table Bradley’s motion. The board voted to table, effectively ending the debate. (The Education Committee also voted 4 to 3 Thursday to pass the tenure resolution without a proposed amendment asking lawmakers to remove the controversial language from the budget motion.)
Other board members said they supported tenure and that they were confident it would be protected by the new regents policy and forthcoming guiding principles to be established by a joint committee, including faculty members.
Faculty members expressed disappointment in the board on social media and elsewhere, saying that board policy will always be second to state law.
According to current state law, tenured faculty members in good standing in Wisconsin may only be laid off or terminated in financial emergencies. Proposed changes to state law would eliminate tenure and allow for the termination of even tenured faculty members under much broader circumstances, or “when such action is deemed necessary due to a budget or program decision regarding program discontinuance, curtailment, modification or redirection.” The budget motion specifies that individual professors laid off for such reasons would be entitled to a hearing before a faculty body, but that program changes or closures would not be subject to review in the hearing.
According to policy established by the American Association of University Professors, tenured faculty positions may be eliminated in cases of true financial exigency or when academic programs are eliminated for the good of the institution over all, with full faculty input. Faculty members should be reassigned to other programs to avoid termination whenever possible.
In a weekend op-ed in the MilwaukeeJournal Sentinel, Richard D. Legon and Susan Whealler Johnston, president and executive vice president, respectively, of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, warned state legislators against weakening the University of Wisconsin System through changes to tenure and shared governance.
“We'd be the last to deny the ultimate authority of a governing body of a higher education enterprise,” they wrote. “However, proposed changes that would result in a diminution of educational quality seem shortsighted. We urge caution on the part of the Legislature. Just as the success of any business is largely dependent on the talent of the employees it can attract and retain, so, too, is the success of any university. Don't risk turning the University of Wisconsin into a talent desert, damaging the state and its citizens in untold ways for years to come.”
Adjuncts at Trinity Washington University voted to form a union affiliated with Service Employees International Union, they announced Friday. The count was 74 in favor and 54 opposed. SEIU’s Adjunct Action campaign to organize adjuncts across metro areas began in the Washington, D.C., region and the union says 90 percent of the adjuncts in the city -- at five other universities -- are now affiliated with it. A university spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In today's Academic Minute, Lori Hunter, a sociologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, discusses the relationship between human migration and the natural environment. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.
What happens in Wisconsin will not stay in Wisconsin. Lawmakers here are moving quickly to hollow out the definition of tenure and strip away due process rights for faculty members and academic staff. For legislators in other states who want to dismantle public higher education, they might look here to find new plays for their playbooks.
It is not uncommon for legislators to threaten tenure or criticize public education -- many do it for sport. But what’s unique in Wisconsin is that the proposed tenure changes are not coming from a fringe coalition: they are coming from the Joint Finance Committee, the most powerful body in the Legislature.
I am a tenure-track faculty member in the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and have been in the state for only two years. I have a lot to learn and am naively optimistic that cooler heads will prevail and the tenure threats will wash over in time. But I cannot bring myself to a place of comfort; I am truly worried. And I am not just worried for Wisconsin, but for other states that will follow suit if this change actually happens.
Wisconsin is unique in that we are the only state (to my knowledge) to have enshrined tenure into state law. Moving this law from state statute to the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents policy would not be entirely uncommon in the national context. What is uncommon is how political our board is compared to other states -- the governor appoints 16 of the 18 members and colleges don’t have their own campus boards to interact with the system.
But even less common -- and far much more egregious -- is Section 39 of the Joint Finance Committee’s omnibus motion. It allows the Board to “terminate any faculty or academic staff appointment… due to a budget or program decision…” So instead of using widely accepted processes, faculty and staff can be terminated for “…program discontinuance, curtailment, modification or redirection, instead of when a financial emergency exists under current law.”
This undermines the core principles of shared governance, strips away due process rights and is an obvious assault on academic freedom. The board says its members will “adopt policies that reflect existing statutory language” and ensure faculty and staff will retain the same due process protections currently under state law.
If Section 39 of the budget bill redefines tenure, then the board must comply with the new state law.
This new definition extends far beyond the standard financial exigency criteria for termination of appointments and is out of line with the American Association of University Professors’ academic freedom guidelines. And the proposed change is happening without consulting the very stakeholders the law was designed to protect -- university faculty and staff members.
I know these tensions aren’tnew; we are constantly justifying our existence and under financial stress. I get that. But this is a bridge too far. It doesn’t matter if the regents use existing statutory language, because this omnibus motion would kill it all. It trumps regents policy.
If this policy change happens, it will set a precedent for other states to follow, so watch Wisconsin closely. Keeping Section 39 could set in motion a series of events that will threaten the university’s ability to recruit and retain faculty, generate revenue, and even threaten our accreditation status.
As much as I wish this were all political theater or a simple misunderstanding, it is not. It is a very real threat and one that has been years in the making.
Instituting the $250 million budget cut will create the conditions where the Board of Regents can exercise their new authority to fire at will. The long-term academic and financial costs will far outweigh the short-term political benefits, and I hope our elected officials have the ability to see that far down the road.
Nicholas Hillman is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Non-tenure-track faculty at Siena College voted to form a collective bargaining unit affiliated with Service Employees International Union, they announced Wednesday. The vote was 86 to 27 among adjuncts and 16 to 5 among visiting professors. Siena is the second New York campus in a week to approve an SEIU-affiliated adjunct union, after Ithaca College. Both drives are part of SEIU’s Adjunct Action campaign to organize adjuncts across metro areas.
Mara Drogan, a visiting assistant professor of history at Siena, said in a statement she hoped the union would help set new standards for faculty pay, benefits and working conditions across the Albany region and beyond. Siena said in statement to the Times-Union that as a Franciscan and Catholic institution, “we recognize and respect the dignity of work, the right of workers to organize and the need for all workers to make informed decisions.” The statement said the college was committed to “productive dialogue” with the bargaining unit.