A Spectre is Haunting College Campuses

A recent piece about trigger warnings is making the rounds online.

The article, written by Rani Neutill, details the escalating requests for trigger warnings she faced while teaching a college course on sex and film. She starts the semester providing trigger warnings before each film she shows in the classroom, but it isn’t long before two students leave in tears after a screening. They hadn’t done the readings for that day, leaving them unaware of the film’s content. After class, Neutill has a particularly odious encounter with one of the teary-eyed students, a white female African American studies minor. This student is a Good White Ally,™ scolding our author, a woman of color, about the importance of showing diverse representations of African Americans. It’s indisputable: this student is the worst.

At this point, we can see where the story is going: Neutill’s students request ever more contrived warnings about the course content, and she complies with their requests. This dynamic stifles the course, with Neutill eventually sending “a meticulous email detailing which scene I was showing, where in the film the scene was, and what the content of the scene included” each night before class. While she began the semester a proponent of trigger warnings, by the end, she’s had enough: these students refuse to engage positions they disagree with, using trigger warnings to foreclose any chance of their grappling with difficult ideas. Instead of developing analytical skills, Neutill’s students opt for coddling. The state of campus political culture continues to spiral downward and the front of the classroom is further lined with eggshells.

Now, the most important kernel in the article can go almost unnoticed – Neutill’s job security, or lack thereof. A “wandering postdoc” and “not so young woman of color,” Neutill is presumably under close scrutiny from her department. In her account, she’s challenged more often in the classroom and given more critical teaching evaluations from her students than her white male colleagues. These higher standards matter for her job prospects. While I won’t speculate on Neutill’s reasons for accommodating her students’ increasingly ludicrous requests, I can imagine myself swallowing the urge to abandon trigger warnings if it meant keeping my job. If I wasn’t confident that the university would back me up should these coddled activists file complaints against me, I might cede the ground to them, choosing the course of action that helps me keep food on the table.

And that’s the issue: I wouldn’t bet my paycheck on the university’s support. Workplace insecurity makes it hard for non-tenured professors, adjuncts, and graduate students to set boundaries in the classroom or challenge students on contentious subjects. The backdrop of eroding work conditions that disproportionately impact workers of color, women, and queer employees is central to Neutill’s story.

Articles like Neutill’s get a lot of play these days, not only from conservatives, but on the left as well. The question of whether there’s an instinct toward censorship among left-leaning campus activists has come up in conversations I’ve had with left-wing political organizers, journalists, progressive faculty, and campus activists themselves — and invariably, these discussions turn upon the spectre of an elite (nearly always female) social justice activist threatening our intellectual and political freedoms.

Now look, I’m a twenty-something who’s got a B.A. from one liberal private university and now works and studies at another — I’ve met this figure, she exists, and she does seem to be rolling increasingly deep on campuses. And by god, she’s easy to make fun of – after all, we’ve established that she’s the worst – privileged, too sensitive, always trying to prove herself the Best White Person in the room, even if that means potentially throwing actual people of color under the bus, or in Neutill’s case, out of a job.

That being said, she’s only one minor figure on campus. If we’re concerned about the stifling of campus intellectual culture, why leave out the other censorship-happy campus activists? Organized Zionists have been more successful than any other group at leveraging the censoriousness built into the university’s corporate structure — they cost Steven Salaita his job, are compiling a McCarthyite blacklist of Palestine solidarity activists, and continue to shut down SJP organizing across the country through appeals to administrative power. In addition, there are the white supremacists – it surely would be a mistake to leave out the guys who pressured Boston University to fire Saida Grundy for tweeting what amounts to critical race theory 101 (and while BU didn’t fire Grundy, the university definitely didn’t back her up either).

To focus on the social justice activist’s political shortcomings is to miss the forest for the trees – after all, the source of much of whatever power she and other campus censors have is the structural condition of the university; nothing silences a professor like the lack of a secure contract. Not even the biggest and baddest of college activists can hope to stifle discussion as pervasively as precarious working conditions do; to direct our ire at the activist but not the university misdiagnoses the problem from the start.

If we want the free expression of ideas, it’s legitimate to discuss the first figure, the lefty-liberal campus activist, but framing this conversation around labor conditions allows us to bring in the others who, not surprisingly, often go unmentioned in discussions of campus political culture. Perhaps even more importantly, this view demystifies the institution most responsible for this mess: the neoliberal university. Graduate students and faculty censor themselves for fear of being painted anti-Semites, hysterical man-hating feminists, “reverse racists,” and yes, to avoid being labelled “problematic” too. Yet, fundamentally, much of this censorship happens because we’re terrified of being perceived as too controversial and losing a job, or worse, not getting hired in the first place.

Making fun of misguided tactics from progressive campus activists is satisfying, but it isn’t constructive, not when the right already spills so much ink engaging in this flavor of activist-bashing. Instead, to the extent that students are using social justice discourse, intentionally or not, to jeopardize academics’ jobs, we need to identify and challenge this. If censorship and appeals to power are becoming instinctive tactics for college activists, we should advocate for bottom-up collective action instead. But most importantly, if more academics had access to collective bargaining agreements, long-term contracts, and tenure, attempts to censor difficult discussions, whether by social justice activists, Zionists, racists, or anyone else, would be much more likely to meet with just the sort of critical intellectual engagement we all so desperately desire.

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