Student-Teachers and the Limits of Academic Freedom

The news that this has been a slightly more abysmal year than usual for academic jobs in history has provoked a lot of justified (if impotent) outrage online. An important part of this has centred on the “adjunctification” of the university — the replacement of tenure-track positions with part-time, temporary gigs — and with the already dominant and still growing share of undergraduate teaching handled by underpaid, overworked, and insecurely employed adjuncts, rather than by the tweedy lions and rising stars whose reputations and images sell the university as a place of learning. Insisting that there is simply no prospect of improving the situation, when tasks are so perversely apportioned and so unevenly rewarded, is like insisting that the only way to play the game is to cheat.

While this discussion has been playing out for the umpteenth time, two incidents have brought the elite professoriate’s divestment of undergraduate teaching into contact with another worrying trend: the tendency of the manufactured crisis over campus “free speech” to bleed into policing instructors’ pedagogical decisions in the classroom — that is to say, their academic freedom. What links the two issues is that the instructors in both cases are not tenured professors, nor adjuncts, but graduate students: Stephanie McKellop, at the University of Pennsylvania, and Lindsay Shepherd, at Wilfrid Laurier University (in Ontario, for non-Canadian readers).

There is some irony in that the political drift of the two episodes, at least superficially, appears radically different. The alt-right, together with armchair “campus free speech” warriors, seized on McKellop as a representative of the worst of the academic left, identity politics, and so on. McKellop’s crime was to admit to using the technique of “progressive stacking” in the classroom — and to explain it on Twitter in what can only be described as clumsy terms, as the practice of calling on members of the most systematically marginalized groups first and white men “if I have to.” It seems entirely likely that McKellop’s preference for they/them pronouns counted as a significant provocation, or at least as confirmation of bias, in some of these quarters. Charges of “anti-white” racism — and calls for their removal from the classroom and from the program — quickly followed. The question of what actually happened in the classroom, ostensibly the core of the issue, went largely unexplored.

Shepherd’s misdeed, on the other hand, was to show her Communications Studies students tape of a televised debate about the use of gender-neutral pronouns, featuring University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson — a notorious proponent of physical violence as a mode of public discourse, a virulent (and creepy) critic of “leftist hegemony in academia“, and, not surprisingly, an opponent of all things “PC”, including such pronouns. One or more students complained to the professor supervising the course, and in a meeting with two professors and an administrator Shepherd was censured for creating a “toxic” classroom environment. Whatever her views before this episode — I have no evidence of them, beyond her own words — Shepherd now speaks, somewhat like Peterson, of universities as “echo chambers for left-wing ideology”.

As I have written here before, I have no problem whatsoever with denying people like Peterson a campus platform. Universities are meant to promote teaching and learning, not to be giant open mics for every self-promoting purveyor of “provocative” opinions. But there is an important distinction to be made between restricting access to campus platforms and restricting instructors’ freedom to use material in their teaching. (A sad irony is that both sympathetic and censorious responses to Shepherd have ignored this distinction, treating her as a proxy for Peterson.) There is, similarly, a substantial difference between what a university owes to a random outsider with noisy views — in a word, nothing — and what it owes to its own students and teachers, members of its community. Whatever the benefits or drawbacks of progressive stacking, McKellop rightly expected that their pedagogical choices would be respected as a part of their academic freedom in the classroom. That does not exempt them from feedback or critique, any more than any of us are exempt; but these should be just that — reasoned responses from students, colleagues, and teachers, not uninformed vitriol, and worse, from internet Nazis, overlaid by smug preaching from a dull op-ed pulpit.

Shepherd might similarly have anticipated that her decision to use tape of a televised debate — source material of a widely familiar, public nature — would fall well within the boundaries of acceptable material for a Communications course. Even if not, however, she should (both as a university employee and as a university student) have been able to count on the issue being addressed in some other way than a formal censure. Either she counts as an instructor, in which case her pedagogical decisions in the classroom are matters of academic freedom, to be protected as such; or else she counts as a student working under a professor’s supervision, in which case her mistakes are at least in large part her supervisor’s responsibility. In either case, her exposure to the sort of censure she has apparently received seems, at best, deeply unfortunate. For one thing, to treat formal censure and the attendant threat of unemployment as a mode of pedagogical supervision is to make a teaching tool of a graduate student’s precarity. As the media fallout unfolds, for another, the whole proceedings will almost certainly prove damaging for academia in larger ways — one more data point for Peterson’s bigoted propaganda as well as for middlebrow bleating from on high about “‘woke’ bullies”.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the honour to participate in a conference panel, alongside far more interesting colleagues, on the question of how Trump and Brexit (read: the present political climate) had affected British studies (read: academia). One of the more pressing questions that emerged was how the evident need for public engagement — and the push from universities for their faculty to develop larger public presences — could be reconciled with these same universities’ decidedly modest commitment to protecting their faculty from the backlash such engagement can generate. As we have seen more than once, even tenured faculty are not altogether shielded from the consequences of exogenous attacks. So much the worse for those lower in the pecking order. But when the “academics” subject to public attack are not faculty members but students, and when they are attacked not for public pronouncements but for pedagogical choices, what responsibilities do their teachers, their colleagues, and their universities have? How real will their academic communities turn out to be? To put it another way: does academic freedom stop when teachers are students?

11 thoughts on “Student-Teachers and the Limits of Academic Freedom

    • On what basis did you think that?

      As far as I understand it, and I’m no expert, Antifa is distinguished by using violence among other means to prevent Nazism from becoming an accepted part of public discourse at all. I have doubts about the method, though Charlottesville certainly lends it weight. But as far as I can tell I’ve said nothing about it here.

      If you’re referring simply to the denial of campus speaking platforms, which I have indicated support for here, there’s nothing inherently “Antifa” or indeed inherently violent about that. It can be as easy as not inviting someone to campus. Obviously specific cases play out differently depending on circumstances.

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      • >Antifa is distinguished by using violence among other means to prevent Nazism from becoming an accepted part of public discourse at all.

        So it’s legitimate to be a proponent of physical violence as a mode of public discourse only against those who are proponents of physical violence as a mode of public discourse? Who decides who is a Nazi, Is Jordan Peterson one of these Nazis, considering how he himself has been personally and continually targeted by antifa activities?

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      • Try reading my comment before responding next time. This started with your impression of “my” views, which you seem to think you know better than I do.

        Deciding where the boundary is between acceptable and unacceptable kinds of speech in general is not something I would do lightly. On the other hand the criteria for what should be welcome on a campus, which is a particular kind of space, is less problematic; it is an academic space and speech with no discernible academic value has no claim to a platform. Disciplinary standards and the membership of the community can help make that decision.

        Given Peterson’s views on violence I don’t think he has much ground for complaint. At worst, they are playing by his rules.

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  1. In that case, should Peterson be censured in his own university if his speech has “no discernible academic value” and if he doesn’t have much ground for complaint, in your view how much less of a Nazi should Peterson be to not qualify as a legitimate target of those who justifibly use physical violence as a mode of public discourse

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    • 1. Read the comment before responding, or your response will not be posted.
      2. I am not a spokesman for Antifa.
      3. I have not called Peterson a Nazi.
      4. How to handle Peterson is his university’s problem. If he has violated their standards then of course he should be censured.

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      • You stated “Antifa is distinguished by using violence among other means to prevent Nazism from becoming an accepted part of public discourse at all.” Which legitimates their own use of violence as a form of public discourse so If Peterson has no reason to complain about Anti-fascist activities against him, does this not logically conclude you define him as meeting the prerequisites within the mission statement? The recording akinned him to Hitler and Milo after all

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  2. If that’s the case then why would you distinguish their violent methods as public discourse from Peterson’s by course of preventing Nazism? And if Antifas views of Peterson don’t determine yours then why did you say he cannot complain when he is the recipient of anti-fascist activities? If you don’t have to be a Nazi in any case why distinguish?

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  3. Pingback: On Mendacious and Shitty Academic Punditry | memorious

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