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.
Generally speaking, it is safe to say that most college commencements are the same. The students file past their camera-wielding relatives offering smiles and small, inconspicuous waves. A speaker invokes Robert Frost or Dr. Seuss or Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society to encourage the graduates to live lives of purpose and distinction. Degrees are conferred. A representative from the alumni organization urges these new alums to donate money to their school. The alma mater is sung. The young adults file back out.
And after, on the quad or the lawn or whatever the campus’s green space is called, the professors unzip their robes, remove sweat-soaked tams and complain about the heat. They shake hands with parents, pose for photos with their now former students. They pronounce positive judgment on the graduates’ plans for the immediate future. “Excellent.” “Oh, that sounds great.” “Hey, it’s a foot in the door.”
I graduated 16 years ago, from the very university where I have been teaching for the past three years. This is my final commencement, as my visiting assistant professorship is at an end. My second graduation, in a sense. I’m a middle-aged man now, but it doesn’t seem that long ago that my classmates and I stood on this lawn, sipping lemonade and talking with our relatives and mentors about what was to come. It was an exciting time -- the future was pure potential. We don’t realize, as students at commencement, that some doors are closing, or are already closed, that childhood is now finally at an end. The graduate will never take meals with a group of her best friends again. A mistake made at 20 may unexpectedly stay with a person for the rest of his life.
One may find oneself, at 39, grinning next to a 22-year-old as her mother snaps a picture, thinking, She doesn’t know, yet, that life is going to be just a little bit harder from here on.
Of course, I wouldn’t say such a thing out loud. There is no need to spoil this recognition of the graduates’ accomplishments. I remind myself to be happy for these lives that are really just beginning. I remember to be grateful for my own blessings and opportunities. Besides, I wouldn’t really want to experience my adolescence or young adulthood -- dating, career anxiety, acne -- again. The grown-up world may be hard and scary, but honestly, in many ways it’s still better. Or at least, it is for me.
What’s more, I think I know how to handle this world in a way that I didn’t quite know how to handle the world I lived in as a youth. So I sip my lemonade as the alma mater plays in my mind and the wacky kid coasts by on his skateboard, cap still perched on his head but gown unzipped to reveal his cargo shorts and fraternity T-shirt. And for God’s sake, I tell myself, it’s a celebration. Smile.
William Bradley is the author of a collection of personal essays titled Fractals,forthcoming from Lavender Ink. He's also looking for work, so if you need an essayist…
Last week, the New York Times's “Opinionator” published an essay in which Christy Wampole decried the present state of humanities scholarship by holding up the worst forms of conference behavior to ridicule.
Let’s be honest: all academics have groaned at plenary papers that go over the time limit or senior colleagues who assume their listeners will fully absorb their arguments even when delivered in a monotone with no attention to rhetorical context. These examples of inconsiderate academics are certainly not the norm, however, just as misbehavior or nastiness are not often the norm in any other professional arena.
Wampole herself admits to engaging in the narcissistic habit of answering emails during plenaries and having “listened for the first five minutes of the talk, just long enough to seize upon a word around which [she’ll] construct a pseudoquestion in the Q and A.” She includes herself among those who sometimes give a paper and then spend the rest of the conference at the pool bar.
To suggest as she does, however, that we should judge the quality or the future of the humanities by these unfortunate instances of a professional lack of grace is irresponsible. It is judging a profession by its lowest common denominator, and it obscures the good, important exchange of ideas and generation of knowledge that occurs at academic conferences year in and year out, throughout most academic careers.
It also feeds the worst stereotypes about academics that subsequently become fuel for political agendas across the country seeking to defund education at the great expense of America’s future.
Of late, public critiques of the humanities have taken the explicit form of assertions that the disciplines have no practical value or contemporary relevance in a technological world. Implicitly, such critiques also manifest in persistent funding cuts to arts programs, in calls for exclusively STEM-based initiatives to improve our educational system, in claims about the unemployability of humanities graduates, even in assertions by some defenders of the disciplines that humanities knowledge is primarily good for business, economics or public-policy makers -- which imply that such knowledge and experience has no value if it cannot be turned to moneymaking.
But in the last few years, there has also been what feels like an exponential increase in those willing to engage in national conversations that ask, and attempt to answer, tough questions about these issues. Academics and nonacademics alike have filled the pages of The New York Times, Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Atlantic and scores of other outlets with meditations on the costs of higher education humanities study, who is served, who is left out and the role of the humanities in shaping young minds or good citizens or brilliant scientists or desirable employees.
We are encouraged by this general willingness to engage in these tough intellectual conversations. At the same time, we are disheartened by the propensity of so many, both within higher education and outside of it, to rely upon the dismissive premise that academics largely exist in a secluded world in which they care only about their own infinitesimal research interests, which are esoteric at best, incomprehensible and a waste of taxpayers’ money at worst.
This is not to suggest we should not all, as professionals, always strive to make our practices better, to keep pace with the times, to question our own assumptions and habits, to identify honestly what is not working, and to change it where we can. However, it is to suggest that perhaps a better model for doing so is one that is based on the notion that academics -- as teachers, researchers, mentors and institutional colleagues -- go into their chosen profession with the desire to advance knowledge through collaborative means.
Contrary to the misrepresentation of academic conferences as attended only by dreary caricatures of the out-of-touch professor rambling on about irrelevant ideas, most conferences we attend are places where we try out ideas among our colleagues, launch collaborations, consider the pedagogical and public import of our findings, mentor graduate students, and participate in the transformations of our fields in ways that make us better teachers and better researchers.
Many of us value conferences for both private and professional reasons, as David M. Perry points out in his May 6 Chronicle of Higher Educationresponse to Wampole’s essay, and as Devoney Looser has recently enumerated in her Chronicle guide to conference etiquette. We, like both of them, encourage thinking about conferences as an important means of entry into our disciplinary communities.
Conferences help to provide what many faculty cannot find at their home institutions: a community of minds focused on a particular issue. For faculty members everywhere but the Ivy League or a very well-funded public university, inviting speakers to campus who can give lectures and seminars on the latest research ideas or programmatic innovations is not a given, nor is access to a world-class research library. These facts are especially true in the context of many states’ perilous hollowing out of the financial support for public colleges and universities.
As faculty numbers continue to shrink, academics often find themselves a party of one in their departments, working as the sole representative of a particular field, without immediate access to colleagues in their fields of expertise. Done well, an academic conference offers a chance for collegial dialogue of the sort that can lead to tangible progress. When faculty members attend conferences, students and their institutions also directly reap the benefits.
Conferences can be particularly important for scholars of color and others who find themselves disenfranchised by administrations and by institutionalized injustices on their own campuses. Although we recognize that unfortunately many conferences have a long way to go to truly support marginalized academic communities, we are encouraged by those we have seen working explicitly to foster this kind of inclusivity.
For many faculty members struggling with the isolation of being seen as a “representative” member of an underrepresented group, conference networking can be a crucial path for figuring out how to navigate their own institutions, for dealing with the microaggressions of students, administrators and other faculty, and for coping with the additional and unique responsibilities they often face alone of mentoring minority student populations or administering programs. Conferences also have the potential to be sites for the birth of activism, where communities both formal and informal unite to make changes in how things are done, how people are treated and how certain ideas are valued.
Conferences are, in other words, even more important for those not privileged by mainstream academic cultures than they are for the elites. A researcher at Princeton has regular access to communities of scholarship that would be completely unknown to most attendees of a scholarly conference. Perhaps most depressingly, such intellectual communities are often nonexistent for the contingent faculty who are rarely fully integrated members of their own departments and who, despite being engaged in rigorous research, cannot attend conferences even when they want to because their institutions do not support the professional development of these integral members of their communities.
Wampole submits that “conferences feel necessary, but their purpose is unclear.” While the exact form that conference collaborations take might usefully be retooled, their purpose in supporting innovations in research, teaching, administration or activism could not be more clear. The process of making a productive contribution to research depends upon knowing what people already know, and this is significantly aided by the feedback of other scholars working on similar or related questions. Even as we acknowledge the legitimate problem of the environmental impact of that much travel, we don’t think anything can fully substitute for the intellectual experience of hearing a good plenary talk followed by a vigorous debate that is the catalyst for deeper conversations throughout the conference. Published scholarship is essential, but it takes time to develop, and face-to-face conversations and the accountability conferences provide are a great way to incubate ideas that are just being formed.
Could conferences be better? Of course they could, but they are organized and run by groups of committed faculty members or the staff they have hired to help them, who do their best despite inevitable budget constraints and competing time demands. Instead of focusing on the problem of boredom, how about addressing truly meaningful problems, like the economic barriers to participation for graduate students and less financially privileged researchers, or lessening the impact of mass travel on the environment, or the lack of child care resources, or the way such conferences are misrepresented in the anti-intellectual popular media?
Here is the bottom line: conferences are created by the faculty they serve. They are not merely events where we put ourselves on display or where we criticize from an outside position -- they are collaborative ventures. Faculty researchers do not just attend their conferences; they own them. And so, we offer the following countermanifesto.
A Conference Manifesto for the Rest of Us:
(1) We will consider the quality of the conferences we attend as our own responsibility. If we are unhappy with the structure, we will contact the organizing committee or form a coalition to initiate changes to the obstacles that limit the conference’s success. (We know of one such coalition currently forming in response to a lack of female presenters at a major conference, and this is not an isolated example.)
(2) We will strive to be precise and productive. We will offer meaningful rather than petty critiques, strive not to generalize from extreme examples and, as much as possible, focus on useful alternatives rather than finger pointing.
(3) If we are not in a position of power, or we feel too disaffected to contribute to positive solutions at a structural level, then we will be the change we seek in our individual interactions. If a scholar presents a paper in which the larger purpose is not clear, we will ask him about that purpose during the Q and A. If it is clear that a speaker is having trouble articulating an argument, we will help her see what it is. We will attend as many events as we can, offer real feedback and participate in real discussions. Put more simply, we will continue to be generous.
(4) We will acknowledge academic generosity where we find it, namely:
in the organizers who laboriously put together meeting programs, speakers and events to foster collaborative dialogue and the exchange of ideas;
in the keynote speakers, senior colleagues and established scholars who routinely engage more junior members of the profession in meaningful conversations;
in the conference-goers who ask thoughtful questions;
in the professors who mentor students;
and, institutionally beyond the world of conferences, in the faculty who work to improve conditions on their campuses, in the anonymous reviewers who provide constructive feedback on essays and in the adjuncts who spend endless unremunerated hours facilitating learning.
(5) We will be humble. We will recognize that although humanists are excellent at being critical, we are fortunate to have these communities to help us improve our research.
(6) We will attempt always to get over ourselves. Our presentations may be great, but they aren’t perfect.
(7) And finally, we will be aware. We will continue to think carefully about how we use the resources invested in us as scholars. It appears to us that the humanities are at least beginning to be recognized as having both intrinsic and extrinsic values, and it is up to us to communicate those values to people who doubt both, rather than to reinforce stereotypes through exclusionary rhetoric or condescension. We posit that there is real value in the thoughtful public intellectual, and we will work to be scholars who are willing to ask hard questions about our own work, to engage in thorny debates about priorities, to radically reimagine what higher education might look like in the 21st century and to challenge the parameters or privileges of our own positions. We will make sure that we can clearly show why our work matters, because no matter how frustrating conferences can be, they are places where humanities scholarship does some of its most important work.
Cora Fox, Andrea Kaston Tange and Rebecca Walsh
Cora Fox is an associate professor of English and associate director of the Institute for Humanities Research at Arizona State University. Andrea Kaston Tange is a professor of English at Eastern Michigan University and editor of the Journal of Narrative Theory. Rebecca A. Walsh is an assistant professor of English at North Carolina State University and co-chair of The H. D. International Society.