On Mendacious and Shitty Academic Punditry

[I have meant to write a blog post about this almost since my last one went up, but Twitter threads keep coming out instead. What’s below is an amplified version of one of them, so apologies in advance to Twitter followers of mine who tire of harangues. The title repurposes, not unfairly I hope, a phrase my former colleague Justin Smith translated from Deniz Yücel to describe what has come to be known as “whataboutism”.]

Academic freedom and freedom of speech are not the same thing. Deciding what sources are appropriate for a class and indoctrinating students are not the same thing. Guiding a seminar discussion and policing people’s thoughts are not the same thing. Punditry that equates these is either uninformed or, more credibly at this point, simply dishonest. Most of what has been written by the Canadian pundit class in particular in the last few weeks (and much further back, in other contexts) on the issue of campus “free speech”, in fact, derives its force from confusing these things. As a guide to real problems in academia such commentary is, for lack of a more diplomatic word, worthless.

To suggest that pointing this out is the same as denying that there are problems in academia is also dishonest, by the way, though it has often been done. Academic freedom is indeed threatened. Pedagogical choices are often fraught. Discussions can be run badly and shut down too soon — or, sometimes, not soon enough. Procedures are liable to be unclear, poorly known, poorly designed, or abused. Universities sometimes have bad policies and sometimes violate the good ones they have. But treating all of these as “free speech” issues, and taking faculty and students who question this as agents or victims of indoctrination, is not only wrong — it’s also counterproductive, if better universities are actually your aim. (Are they?) Unless you plan to cleanse the university wholesale of its present inhabitants, caricaturing them is not a particularly convincing entrée into serious discussion of academic reform.

Meanwhile, it throws open the door to a variety of lazy digs and vicious attacks, which focus not on addressing any of the specific, substantive academic questions at issue (pedagogical choices, classroom management styles, supervisory procedures, and so on) but instead on identifying, characterizing, vilifying, and attacking enemies: principally, faculty members and students. So instead of, say, discussing the pertinence of different sources to specific pedagogical goals — the academic issue at the heart of the Laurier incident — or best practices for TA supervision (the procedural issue that, so to speak, gave it traction) we have national pundits pushing half-assed armchair psychology and fomenting conspiracy theories about leftwing faculty, student victimology, suspicious trans numbers, “reverse racism”, and so on.

Now, think what you want, but anyone who claims that pundits singling out graduate students for online attack or hosting disquisitions on the faddishness of trans identity is about protecting the right to have opinions on campus is either lying or deeply deluded. Even among people who know nothing of universities, it should at least raise suspicion that the people who wind up getting targeted in these blow-ups — no matter the circumstances of the incident in question, and no matter who did the talking — turn out to be the same virtually every time. (This may be the sole respect in which Masuma Khan and Lindsay Shepherd make for an illuminating comparison — not because they are parallel cases of repressed speech, but precisely because they are not. Khan faced repercussions and vilification for her “arrogant” and “reverse racist” use of social media; Shepherd became a “free speech” hero for running a class in a way her course supervisor disapproved of.) Each new case, whatever the facts, is an occasion for renewing the attack on the same marginalized targets. The script is too predictable to have much relationship to reality.

And what has been the practical upshot of the latest case? The ostensible victim of the left-wing, postmodern, neo-Marxist thought police has been granted — besides full apologies from the professor and administrators involved — instant celebrity, a massive media platform (most recently including a meandering and inadvertently hilarious diatribe in the National Post), and enthusiastic on-campus and online support from the alt-right. Critics, including faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate organizations, have been singled out by national pundits for abuse and bullshit psychoanalysis, increasingly the stock-in-trade of national commentary on academia. You can guess which side claims the “free speech” mantle. It’s not the side that cares whether research or teaching go on in universities. It’s the side that cares, at most, about creating “a shitstorm” that keeps it relevant, and, at least, about hitting the same old targets with the same tired digs.

If you can’t tell whether pundits are concerned with education or just building a brand, here are some questions to consider: what exactly is their vision of how universities do, or should, work? What is their idea of teaching and research? Is there a coherent, specific idea, or just an enemies list? If they claim to be against “safe spaces” and for building “character”, do they also denounce “arrogant” speech from people of colour or whine about “ad hominems”? If they claim that “specialization” is a problem, “jargon” useless, and “expertise” elitist, do they also claim that STEM (science, technology, engineering, and medicine) fields are more substantive than humanities?

If they denounce “theory” and assert that faculty are teaching “postmodernism” or “cultural Marxism”, do they show any sign of knowing or being able to show what these things are? If they insist that “all perspectives are valid”, do they have any vision of how disciplinary methods and norms are to be taught? Do they have any model of pedagogy at all, other than a vague attachment to undefined “debate”? Do they have any idea of how research might proceed in any field while somehow eschewing both expertise and specialization? Do they seem to know anything, or care at all, about how any of these utterly incompatible and often incoherent demands might be met in practice, or reconciled with a university’s mission?

Or do they just enjoy being at the centre of a shitstorm that others will have to clean up?

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