‘Cancellation’ Narratives Mistake Symptoms as Causes

Poor training in teaching is one of several deeper organizational problems underlying issues like cancel culture and self-censorship, Kyle Sebastian Vitale writes.

October 5, 2022
Two long skinny pieces of yellow caution tape, in an X, printed with the word "CANCELLED."
(ComicSans/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

As the fall semester gets underway, so does another season of cancellation of controversial ideas and speakers and self-censorship. These new campus realities, so goes the narrative, have a chilling effect on learning and research. Solutions for eradicating them range from empowering students to adopting free speech policies.

Yet this narrative too often mistakes symptoms as causes.

Many in higher education hold out hope that fixing cancellation, tribal animus and scholarly monocultures will rectify our classrooms and research—but even these can be symptoms of a deeper, thankfully more fixable problem: poor organizational structure. Senior administrators must recognize that campus issues like cancel culture and self-censorship are often symptoms of deeper organizational problems.

It’s hardly a new observation that, in corporatespeak, colleges and universities are ailing companies. As Temple University president Jason Wingard writes, our attrition rates would send a corporate entity into meltdown. Yet we remain unaffordable, have trouble articulating our value and struggle to even organize our central teaching premises (check out Jonathan Zimmerman’s The Amateur Hour for more).

Given the reality of our organizational and operational weaknesses, are any contributing to our cultural ailments? Poor training in teaching—employee training—is one. An illustration of an all-too-common pattern that constantly repeats on many college and university campuses may help:

An instructor is teaching undergraduates a literary scene involving violence between people of different races. Students are quiet, but the instructor forges ahead. Eventually a student expresses deep discomfort. The instructor apologizes, offers an opportunity for discussion and attempts to move on. Later, students email the dean demanding the instructor publicly apologize and undergo training. The school newspaper, and then a national journal, picks up the incident.

Versions of this incident occur all the time. Too many faculty members lack the guidance and practice to convert discomfort into teachable moments. Nor have enough students been appropriately primed for the hard work of learning. Instead of a teachable moment, the college or university experiences a misunderstanding that redirects resources and focus for days or even weeks as the story and the misunderstanding gain momentum and play out on the national stage.

Better preparation won’t solve everything, but weaknesses like this cannot be ignored. If your garden yields weeds, you don’t add new flowers and fertilizer. You tend the soil, clearing and balancing nutrients to ensure the system can support the right flora.

What is our soil lacking?

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University presidents, other senior administrators and academic leaders should consider:

Training for tenacious instruction. Training in teaching and pedagogy remains uneven for graduate students and sporadic for faculty. Most instructors are thus on their own to cultivate debate and tolerance, while fielding headier demands for diversity, equity and inclusion-related content. Yet how might our case study play out if more instructors mastered cooling emotions, teasing nuance and tenaciously signaling courage and humility?

Senior leadership must commit institutions to rigorous training informed by the free exchange of ideas. This means incentivized experiences so graduate students and faculty practice building healthy classroom cultures, learn how to defuse tensions and problem solve their teaching challenges together. Check out this crowdsourced list of graduate programs that require training in teaching for ideas and inspiration.

Elevating institutional outcomes. While achieving an equitable learning environment is admirable, overmessaging on belonging can idolize student comfort. How can an organization devoted to new ideas achieve its goals if clients expect to remain in their comfort zones?

Institutional missions must signal a commitment to the rigorous exchange of ideas in student-facing materials. As Roslyn Clark Artis, president of Benedict College, recently said, “It should be an institutional learning outcome that our students be exposed to ideas that are inconsistent with those they come to the campus with.” Emphasize debate in promotional materials. Ensure that first-year experiences emphasize bold inquiry. Create cultures of intellectual curiosity in residence life. Many students yearn for and will respond to these ideals.

Addressing our labor crisis. Contingent faculty are often prone to caution and self-censorship. Short-term contracts and competitive talent markets disincentivize uncomfortable classroom discussions or resistance to student demands. This massive demographic (more than 60 percent of our teaching workforce is contingent) unintentionally feeds the new reality.

Senior leadership in higher education must make it easier for all instructors to take risks in the classroom. Craft surer contracts that can survive some complaints or controversy. Encourage new ideas by guaranteeing non-tenure-track faculty members a seat at department meetings. Deepening the confidence of our full talent pool improves the odds that students experience high-value discussion and shakes up norms preserved by the tenured minority.

We have become too complacent with arrangements in higher education that are built on a poor organizational structure, and a culture of cancellation and censorship is our reward. Changing it will mean the hard work of owning past mistakes and fixing them.

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Kyle Sebastian Vitale (@kylesebvitale) is director of programs at Heterodox Academy, a nonprofit organization that promotes open inquiry, viewpoint diversity and constructive disagreement in institutions of higher learning.

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