Saturday, June 6, 2015

Emotional rescue

My last post covered a Connecticut high school teacher's forced resignation after a student complaint over an explicit Allen Ginsberg poem chosen by a classmate for in-class discussion. Is the situation any different when college courses come under the same scrutiny? When I raised this on Facebook, some asserted that those in their late teens were in AP English, still under the choices the teacher made for them, and despite the aegis of UConn over that material for credit, they were a captive audience. So, consider Edward Schlosser's cri de coeur after nine years at a "midsized state school."

In Vox, he titles his essay "I'm a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me." (Thanks to an Lisa Flowers for this notice). He starts by noting a shift since 2009. Back then, someone objected to what was perceived as the professor's liberal bias. His supervisor heard him out, and the matter was filed away, and no repercussions reverberated. But now, identity politics reigns. "The student-teacher dynamic has been reenvisioned along a line that's simultaneously consumerist and hyper-protective, giving each and every student the ability to claim Grievous Harm in nearly any circumstance, after any affront, and a teacher's formal ability to respond to these claims is limited at best."

Schlosser tells us that recently, "I have intentionally adjusted my teaching materials as the political winds have shifted. (I also make sure all my remotely offensive or challenging opinions, such as this article, are expressed either anonymously or pseudonymously). Most of my colleagues who still have jobs have done the same. We've seen bad things happen to too many good teachers — adjuncts getting axed because their evaluations dipped below a 3.0, grad students being removed from classes after a single student complaint, and so on." If Edward Said or Mark Twain or Upton Sinclair offend the reader or hearer, they are expunged, lest complaints result in the firing or non-rehiring of what, after all, has grown to 3/4 of American faculty, those lacking protection of or promotion to tenure.

The climate has changed. Racism or ideological factors, rightness and wrongness of ideas in the curricula, dominated earlier complaints. Now, the sensitivity of the student's emotional state matters.

The author locates this transition not so much in the manufactured "outrage" (as I put it) dominating press coverage of incidents as to hyper-sensitive, paranoid students and campus "conduct codes."
He credits the conflation of cultural studies and popular media writers in the media. They desire to "democratize complex fields of study by making them as digestible as a TGIF sitcom." They peddle a facile "adoption of a totalizing, simplistic, unworkable, and ultimately stifling conception of social justice. The simplicity and absolutism of this conception has combined with the precarity of academic jobs to create higher ed's current climate of fear, a heavily policed discourse of semantic sensitivity in which safety and comfort have become the ends and the means of the college experience."

After citing some experts, he notes how exaggerated attention to passing trifles becomes. (Consider how much the purported gender roles of the latest Avengers flick are dissected, or I'd add if he does not, today's breathless headlines of Bruce-to-Caitlyn Jenner's "courage" or a Duggar's disgrace vs., say, the challenges ahead re: global warming given recent, depressing data, or the enduring collusion between bankers and politicians.) "Personal experience and feelings aren't just a salient touchstone of contemporary identity politics; they are the entirety of these politics. In such an environment, it's no wonder that students are so prone to elevate minor slights to protestable offenses." As attacks on philosophy or physics by those claiming concepts invented by tired old men express only Eurocentric shortcomings, we cower.  "All the old, enlightened means of discussion and analysis —from due process to scientific method — are dismissed as being blind to emotional concerns and therefore unfairly skewed toward the interest of straight white males. All that matters is that people are allowed to speak, that their narratives are accepted without question, and that the bad feelings go away."

See the article for evidence of this, albeit via Twitter, that Schlosser shares (or he did until the woman complained of threats--that proof has since been removed, although it helped his thesis). This reductive regression reminds me a bit of Alan Sokol's send-up two decades ago in his po-mo hoax to Social Theory. Schlosser reveals his bonafides: "We can't overcome prejudice by pretending it doesn't exist. Focusing on identity allows us to interrogate the process through which white males have their opinions taken at face value, while women, people of color, and non-normatively gendered people struggle to have their voices heard." Yet he admits, logically, how "we also destroy ourselves when identity becomes our sole focus." Conservative Catholic critic Anthony Esolen agrees when he states that we cannot equate the ethnic or racial makeup of a person with who he or she is, beyond labels.

I doubt if Schlosser and Esolen would find a lot in common, but if Schlosser as he claims does try to balance liberal with conservative voices in his assignments, I'd hope they could find common ground.
"If we are to know that human being, we should not begin with race or class or “gender,” that category invented by social critics who avert their eyes, prim and prying at once, from the frank and plain reality of sex. We certainly cannot end there. If I say, 'Who is John?' you cannot answer me correctly by saying that he is six feet tall, 150 pounds, with Italian and Irish ancestry on his mother’s side and African American and Latino ancestry on his father’s side, with a family income of such and such a year, voting in such a pattern, living on Maple Street and selling insurance. These are all things about John, but they are not John, the man. It does violence to the man to reduce him to such categories. It is an act of contempt for his humanity. It reduces him, not so that we may get to know him, but so that we can manipulate facts about him while not getting to know him at all. It is a study in subhumanity." So Esolen challenges, in his riposte to the race, gender, class theory overtaking all.

Schlosser tacks firmly to the left. But he accepts that attacking the right, or those who have preceded us and who live among us as the establishment, still have their own place at the discussion. Why push them away, to distance them further, in the spurious pursuit of illogical presumption? In conclusion, he admits: "Debate and discussion would ideally temper this identity-based discourse, make it more usable and less scary to outsiders. Teachers and academics are the best candidates to foster this discussion, but most of us are too scared and economically disempowered to say anything." I have written about this issue before and continue to because it weighs more heavily against those of us committed to the liberal arts, those who pass on the humanities in a career-driven, bottom-line world.

We are threatened from above by STEM-propelled reforms that seek often, if unintentionally, to shunt aside the "soft" subjects. We are weakened around us by theory-obsessed pedagogues who replace book-learning and critical thinking from close readings and informed discussions with cant and slant. We are faced by those enrolling with us who often have trouble decrypting the clouded messages of what canonical as well as radical texts and sources convey from thousands of years of human thought. Against this, and growing semi-literacy when it comes to print and visual media, we strive to focus on big questions and tough issues, evading easy solutions or prescribed "PC-correct" content.

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