UPDATE: As reader Rhonda reports in the comments, Inside Higher Ed reports that Washington State has spoken out against these language bans. An announcement from the University President says this (in part):
Over the weekend, we became aware that some faculty members, in the interest of fostering a constructive climate for discussion, included language in class syllabi that has been interpreted as abridging students’ free speech rights. We are working with these faculty members to clarify, and in some cases modify, course policies to ensure that students’ free speech rights are recognized and protected. No student will have points docked merely as a result of using terms that may be deemed offensive to some. Blanket restriction of the use of certain terms is not consistent with the values upon which this university is founded.
Free speech and a constructive climate for learning are not incompatible. We aim to cultivate diversity of expression while protecting individual rights and safety.
To this end, we are asking all faculty members to take a moment to review their course policies to ensure that students’ right to freedom of expression is protected along with a safe and productive learning environment.
Here I go again, making an unholy and uncomfortable alliance with conservatives. According to PuffHo, the site Campus Reform is dedicated to “providing resources for young conservative students.” And indeed, some of the articles are pretty invidious, at least to me. But one of them, pointed out by reader Cindy, caught my notice because it discusses university courses that seem to be violating students’ freedom of speech in the name of political correctness. And it provides documentation to back up those claims.
What bothers me about agreeing with stuff on sites like Campus Reform is that I don’t subscribe to conservative values. I like to think of myself as a liberal and social progressive, neither of whom are that site’s consumers. But then I remember that conservatives can be right about some things, too (granted, not many!). And I remember as well that conservatives probably differ in their motivations for writing pieces like this, for they are using the free speech trope to mock college professors’ liberal ideology, while I (or so I like to think) oppose the suppression of speech of all stripes, except when it incites violence. That said, I feel that the report below, in which students’ grades are threatened unless they conform to a particular liberal ideology, has a chilling effect on discussion.
When I first read the title—”Professors threaten bad grades for saying ‘illegal alien,’ ‘male,’ female” —I thought this was either a joke or an exaggeration, but it’s neither. It’s a report on how liberal ideologues at Washington State University are slanting dialogue in their classes by acting like language and thought police. If you doubt that the article’s claims are true, just go to its links to see the syllabi. An excerpt:
According to the syllabus for Selena Lester Breikss’ “Women & Popular Culture” class, students risk a failing grade if they use any common descriptors that Breikss considers “oppressive and hateful language.”
The punishment for repeatedly using the banned words, Breikss warns, includes “but [is] not limited to removal from the class without attendance or participation points, failure of the assignment, and— in extreme cases— failure for the semester.”
Breikss is not the only WSU faculty member implementing such policies.
Much like in Selena Breikss’s classroom, students taking Professor Rebecca Fowler’s “ Introduction to Comparative Ethnic Studies” course will see their grades suffer if they use the term “illegal alien” in their assigned writing.
According to her syllabus, students will lose one point every time they use the words “illegal alien” or “illegals” rather than the preferred terms of “‘undocumented’ migrants/immigrants/persons.” Throughout the course, Fowler says, students will “come to recognize how white privilege functions in everyday social structures and institutions.”
I don’t like the term “illegal alien”, either, but I wouldn’t dream of penalizing students who use it.
In an email to Campus Reform, Fowler complained that “the term ‘illegal alien’ has permeated dominant discourses that circulate in the news to the extent that our society has come to associate ALL unauthorized border crossings with those immigrants originating from countries south of our border (and not with Asian immigrants, for example, many of whom are also in the country without legal documents and make up a considerable portion of undocumented immigrants living in the country).”
“The socio-legal production of migrant illegality works to systematically dehumanize and exploit these brown bodies for their labor,” Fowler continued.
White students in Professor John Streamas’s “ Introduction to Multicultural Literature” class, are expected to “defer” to non-white students, among other community guidelines, if they want “to do well in this class.”
In the guidelines in his syllabus, Streamas elaborates that he requires students to “reflect” on their grasp of history and social relations “by respecting shy and quiet classmates and by deferring to the experiences of people of color.”
Here’s that bit:
The piece continues:
Streamas—who previously generated controversy by calling a student a “ white shitbag” and declared that WSU should stand for “White Supremacist University”—also demands that students “understand and consider the rage of people who are victims of systematic injustice.”
. . . Several other WSU professors require their students to “acknowledge that racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, and other institutionalized forms of oppression exist” or that “ we do not live in a post-racial world.”
Seriously, the students have to pledge to that acknowledgment? Yes, there are surely some forms of institutionalized oppression, but there are also institutionalized responses to oppression, like Title IX rules against gender discrimination. But making students agree to a predetermined conclusion, and not discussing it, or figuring out what kinds of oppression are institutionalized, what kinds are personal, and so on, is odious. It’s just as if a conservative taught a history class and required her students to acknowledge that “the main cause of the Civil War wasn’t slavery, but the rights of states”, or an economics professor who required you to acknowledge “that the untrammeled free market is the best economic system.”
It’s thus ironic that Michael Johnson, who runs the “Race and Racism in US Popular Culture” course, also says this on his syllabus:
Remember that discussion in this class isn’t about proving, embarrassing, showing off, winning, losing, convincing, holding one’s argument to the bitter end – it’s about dialogue, debate and self-reflections. Listen to others!
Yes, listen to others so long as they’ve already acknowledged the pervasive institutional oppression! How free, really, is a student going to feel in such a class? I strongly suspect that they’ll have to toe Johnson’s line if they want a decent grade.
The article continues with a statement by the estimable FIRE organization, dedicated to defending students’ Constitutional rights:
Ari Cohn, a lawyer with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, told Campus Reform he considers such requirements to be contradictory, even given the sensitive nature of the courses.
“It is notable that one of the syllabus provisions warns: ‘The subject material of this class is sensitive and controversial. Strive to keep an open mind.’ How are students supposed to approach these sensitive and controversial materials at all, let alone to keep an open mind, if they have to fear that a misconstrued statement, or one that unreasonably offends a classmate will lead to a grade reduction or even removal from class?”
Exactly. Clean up your act, WSU! But I suspect that syllabi like these, and debate-quashing ideologies, are pervasive throughout American academia. And sadly, most of these are probably taught by left-wing faculty like me—but ones who use their classes to politically brainwash their students. In the end, the grade is what will condition these students’ behavior.