Teaching Today

The Fuss

How can professors best introduce provocative material in the classroom in an age of trigger warnings, microaggressions and tweeting? Michael Bugeja tackles the issue.

October 25, 2016
 
iStock/Christopher Futcher

I recently moderated a First Amendment panel at Freedom Fest, a largely conservative and libertarian conclave, meeting at breakfast with two speakers, Robby Soave, associate editor of Reason.com, and Charles C. W. Cooke, editor of the National Review’s website. Both were curious about political correctness on campus.

I was eager to have that discussion with two national journalists whose publications question the use of trigger warnings and microaggressions, two components of the current PC debate. I had another side to express: that the media may be focusing overmuch on incidents that seem to threaten academic freedom. I wanted to explain what the fuss is about and why professors like me provide advance notice about sensitive or politically charged content and also recognize the cumulative impact of microaggressions, or relatively minor biased words, phrases or topics.

I teach media ethics at Iowa State University. On the flight to Freedom Fest, I had been mulling over how I would introduce to my class a comment that Benjamin Franklin made in reference to whether slaves were people -- a contentious topic in the modern American classroom.

I had been reading The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution (1783-1789) by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Joseph J. Ellis. In a section on the Continental Congress debating taxation policy, a prickly topic at the time, Ellis discloses what no delegate wanted to broach -- slavery -- the proverbial elephant in the chamber.

The debate on taxation forced the issue of slavery to the floor. Here is how Ellis describes it:

“The delegates from the Southern states insisted that slaves were property like horses and sheep, and therefore should not be counted as ‘Inhabitants.’ Franklin countered this claim with an edgy joke, observing that slaves, the last time he looked, did not behave like sheep: ‘Sheep will never make any insurrections.’”

I wanted to use this exchange to update a lecture on roots of racism. But I was stumped as to how I might introduce it with (or without) a trigger warning. Like thousands of my colleagues, I give such warning regularly because we cover herds of elephantine subjects in media ethics, including sexual assault, religious extremism and race relations. Warnings provide context, not self-censorship or class dismissal. As such, I had been concerned that the word “property” might upset students of color because microaggressions can accumulate over time to a tipping point.

There is more here than meets the anti-PC eye. The word “property” was operative in the 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, deemed to be one of the worst miscarriages of justice in the United States. All students of color in my classes studied this case. Scott, a slave, had lived in the free territories of Illinois and Minnesota and sought freedom on that basis, only to be informed he was not a citizen but a piece of property akin to cattle.

My intent was to demonstrate that founders like Franklin foresaw the idiocy of this contention some 75 years earlier. Nonetheless, students of color cringe at the word “property” associated with their skin color and heritage. They have heard this term before. Repeatedly.

There is a popular video about stress noting that a cup of water weighs about eight ounces, until you hold it for an hour or longer. Then it weighs a ton. Weight doesn’t count; time does.

Explaining this to my Freedom Fest panelists, I beheld the look on their faces, from bemused to shock. Just say it! After all, I am a professor and students are paying tuition for the information. Why the fuss?

Let me be clear: I’m a journalism professor with deep, abiding respect for the First Amendment and academic freedom. I know the power of both, and power is at the heart of this discussion. Teachers may have a legal right to say or do something, but that doesn’t shield them from consequences or ethical ramifications.

After that First Amendment panel, the debate on political correctness arose again in the wake of a dean’s letter to freshmen at the University of Chicago stating his institution does not support trigger warnings or “intellectual safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

Two high-profile cases last year may have inspired that letter. At the University of Kansas, a communications assistant professor, Andrea Quenette, was the target of a complaint for using the N-word to explain how her campus differed from the University of Missouri, where racial tension had flared, fueled by hunger and football strikes with viral video of a faculty member calling for “muscle” to avert media coverage of a protest. That was Melissa Click, another communications assistant professor who sparked a firestorm about “free press v. safe zones” and “free speech v. hate speech.”

Quenette attempted to put that in context for her class, conceding that her whiteness may have color-blinded her. Her exact words are in dispute. According to an open letter, she supposedly said, “As a white woman I just never have seen the racism. … It’s not like I see ‘nigger’ spray painted on walls.”

Quenette reportedly admitted that she used the slur in context of a comparison and never intended to offend anyone. She was put on leave and later cleared of wrongdoing; ultimately, her contract was not renewed in her bid to gain tenure. (Click was fired.)

The point here is perspective about Quenette and Click (now a Gonzaga University lecturer). Click forgot the First Amendment not only permitted news media to cover protests but also allowed her and students to assemble. Quenette purportedly injected her view that lower graduation and retention rates for African-Americans might not be due to lack of institutional support but to academic unpreparedness.

It doesn’t matter whether Quenette said that or not. I have heard it repeatedly, even on site visits in my capacity as a team member for the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications. Chances are you have heard this, too.

Imagine yourself in the classroom waxing about academic unpreparedness, perhaps in the presence of students of color, during heightened awareness of racial tension on campus. Better yet, visualize being African-American and hearing it. Repeatedly.

“As an African-American student, I’ve always had to assimilate to a politically correct idea of who I am,” says Devon Jefferson, one of my former ethics students. Try as he might to blend in, “my presence was often met with bewilderment or challenge.”

He has lived with white political correctness throughout his education.

“For instance, many parents tell their children on the eve of their first day of school, ‘Be kind, respectful and treat others as you want to be treated,’” Jefferson also says. “Many minority students’ parents give their children the same exact talk before their first day of school. But there's so much more: ‘Don’t be loud. Don’t sing certain songs. Don’t repeat what is said at home. Don’t sag your pants. Show them how smart you are. Don’t get discouraged.’ Things like that go on and on forever.”

Microaggressions such as “You don’t act like a black person” or “Where are you from, really?” infuriate some listeners. An apt comparison is the ethnic joke, which endured into the 1980s. If you were Irish, Jewish, Polish or Italian, you didn’t label this microaggression. You told the offender to fuss off.

Now we teach in wireless classrooms. Every student carries a smartphone. Many tweet or post to Facebook opinions about remarks during lecture. Some check the facts of each statement that a professor makes to determine whether it is mere opinion (for which they are not paying tuition) or bona fide research (which they are paying to hear).

We do walk a technological tightrope in the wireless classroom. This is not entirely bad. Think back. Do you recall the daft claims that teachers made in high school or college and that you let go unchallenged? Perhaps you passed a snarky note to a classmate and got caught and pilloried. If only you had a smartphone then and nimble thumbs!

Social media keeps us faculty members honest during lectures. This post in Slate, “What’s the Worst Thing a Teacher Ever Said to You?” may jog your memory. But social media also is populated by knee-jerk imps and microblog jerks who compel some of us to validate lectures with links and exhibits.

This is why I post all of my lectures -- replete with data, videos, images and links -- on my ethics class website. I rely on the First Amendment to provide fact rather than defense.

That also explains why I had been pondering how to introduce the word “property” into a lecture that (a) tracks to Dred Scott, (b) showcases Franklin’s wit and (c) documents that our founders dealt with political correctness in their forum as I do in mine. Done well, I might even inspire some students to access Records of the Continental and Confederation Congresses and the Constitutional Convention.

This approach can be dreary and imperfect. Nevertheless, the focus in class must be on pertinent concepts expressed accurately so as to engage as many students as possible who pay my salary and amass debt in the process.

It is easy to make a stink about political correctness. It is also easy to expound on it without including the perspectives of underrepresented groups. It is difficult to introduce provocative information in the tweeting classroom knowing students might take offense for lapsus linguae. Many of us are doing that effectively in higher education, mindful of our words, although you seldom hear about us in news media, including those covering higher education. Mine is one case.

So when presenting Franklin’s edgy remark about sheep and insurrection, I will provide context with screenshots and documentation. I will field comments about Franklin as a slave owner (two personal servants) and note that his newspaper ran notices about indentured workers. Over time, I will say, he became an abolitionist, proving the conscience grows upon reflection.

Consider what drives the conscientious professor. We are paid by taxpayers, students and parents. Our time-honored role to enlighten the citizenry transcends how we may feel about the tedium of lesson plans.

That is what the fuss really is all about.

Bio

Michael Bugeja, winner of the 2015 Scripps Howard Outstanding Administrator Award, directs the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University. These opinions are his own.

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