American professors threaten grades of students who don’t conform to the Official Class Ideology

August 31, 2015 • 12:20 pm

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:

Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 11.53.49 AM

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.

h/t: Cindy

91 thoughts on “American professors threaten grades of students who don’t conform to the Official Class Ideology

    1. Does it logically and reasonably follow that an “alien trespasser” is (allegedly) doing something illegal?

      What if the U.S. gave a(nother) general amnesty (the first in 1986, IIRC?), and then effectively secured its borders so as to enforce immigration law? Would that satisfy reasonable people?

      Or shall the Immigration and Naturalization Service be wrapped in cellophane and the U.S. border widely-opened and let the chips fall where they may?

      1. I don’t think “effectively secured (our) borders” is really that feasible. Any realistic and workable immigration strategy has to accept/account for some non-zero illegal immigration.

        How much is tolerable? What would you say to 0.5% of our total population per year? 0.1%? 0.01%? Think about your answer to that question. Then think about the fact tat the current rate – which the GOP is absolutely screaming about – is around 0.3%. I think what this means is that no feasible immigration policy will be acceptable to them. Because we have a perfectly reasonable rate of immigration ‘cheating’ now, and yet they find it intolerable.

  1. In our effort not to give offense to anybody about anything, it would be fitting and proper to refer to a person previously classified as a murderer as a non-law-abiding human life terminator.

    If liberals believe in anything it has to be freedom of speech. Going back to at least the 1960s, there has existed an element on the left, out of a genuine sympathy for the oppressed, who are willing to use authoritarian methods to suppress differing views. This group has had little influence, except on college campuses, because compared to far right-wing, there numbers have been small. Still, true liberals need to resist the authoritarians on the far left as those on the far right.

    1. It should be “their numbers” instead of “there numbers.” I hate making silly grammatical errors.

    2. I agree – the far left authoritarians need to be called out just as much as those on the right. They have their place – extremists bring issues to the attention of all, and by promoting discussion, they drag the middle further to the left, resulting in societal improvements. But when extremism becomes institutionalized, it’s no better than any other form of institutionalization.

    3. Well lots of people with different and sometimes contradictory ideas will call themselves liberals. I don’t think we free speech advocates necessarily own the label. However, personally I would tend to agree with you; I would call the professors that the article discusses leftists or left-wingers, not liberals.

      1. In my comment I tried to distinguish between those on the far left and liberals. Although both groups are on the left, they have little use for each other. A typical liberal may very well support Bernie Sanders or even Hillary Clinton. The far leftists view these two as nothing more than corporatists. Liberals believe in the capitalist system, although their vision of it is quite different than that of the right wingers. They believe in a regulated capitalism and social justice; not one in which business can do whatever it pleases and whoever gets screwed, too bad. The far left believes in a radical restructuring of society through the destruction of capitalism, although the specifics are usually left vague. Its agenda has absolutely no chance of being implemented any time soon.

        I have been following the doings of the far left and far right for nearly fifty years. In my estimation, either would be highly dangerous if it ever gained power. The far left is few in numbers. The far right is composed of much greater numbers and controls the Republican Party. It is by far a much greater threat to a democratic country in which economic and political power is not controlled with an iron fist by a small elite.

  2. What a minefield. So in Comparative Ethic Studies, “white males” is an explicitly acceptable term (as opposed to “the white man”). But in Women & Popular Culture, “referring women/men as females or males” is unnaceptable. How does anyone keep up?

    1. While it’s certainly important to be circumspect about what one says, too many people seem to think words have magical powers. If we simply stop using certain words, all sorts of problems will vanish. It’s indicative of poor, superficial thought.

      The issues these professors are trying to address with their verbal nitpickery are issues that are nested deep in human psychology. Finding synonyms for “male” and “female” won’t do anything to ameliorate the discrimination the LGBTQ community endures.

        1. I’ve often found that those who are extremists about what language to use have more prejudices than the rest of us.

          IMO we mostly just need to be respectful of others and give everyone space to express their opinions. If a young person is racist, for example, that often has more to do with the opinions of those they’ve been brought up around before attending university. Discussing that in a non-threatening way and making people think about their attitudes is far more effective than the language police approach.

        2. “I think there’s also a signaling aspect: these professors are signaling their PC bona fides.”
          I think that’s absolutely true, and partially why, as I mentioned in another post, I’m not terribly supportive of the whole “gender pronouns” issue. I suspect the same types are spearheading that, and by enthusiastically supporting that I may be tacitly supporting them here.

        3. I think there’s a “terrible teacher” aspect to it: a professor whose strategy for getting students to think outside their boxes consists of punishing normal speech isn’t very good at getting students to think outside their boxes.

          Seriously, I would think that any sociology professor worthy of their title could get people to think about society differently without having to resort to such tactics. At least on the long term; I can see a place for using these gimmicks as a one-day exercise (“today, nobody use racial terms; let’s see if you can discuss the topic without them”), but not as a semester-long strategy for getting people to think differently.

    2. You can’t show your moral superiority if everybody could keep up. You need people to falter so they can be condemned.

      Alternately language is an ever-changing activity, where meanings and normative attitudes signalled by words change over time. So what words are in favour / discriminatory depends very much on the history of that word’s use in a wider society – it’s an unobtainable goal to keep up! Not to mention that the fluidity of the process is going to lead to contradictory rules, something not lost on ideological opponents of liberalism.

  3. Reblogged this on Nina's Soap Bubble Box and commented:
    Orwellian to reduce the phrases allowed to describe and express

    Nuro Lingistist Programmibn babble to let people think that saying one way makes it so

    people need to expect to be exposed to different frameworks of thought and not assume what they grew up with is what’s best for everyone else

    1. Liberals are optimists about human nature. They think mankind can improve. Conservatives think humans are essentially doomed forever.

      1. I shouldnt even use the term ‘liberal’, as that pertains to a special class of political theory about rights of man (think David Hume, JS Mill, Rosseau, etc)

        The modern ‘liberal’ has no association with the classical meaning. The modern liberal (think Obama, Sanders) dont view human nature as optimists. This is nonsense. They view society as something to be shaped by a large and overbearing government.

        The ‘speech code’ idiocy we are all witnessing is a natural extension of this world view, where regular people cannot be trusted with their own free speech, as controls and regulations need to be imposed from top-down in order to chisel out a more ‘humane’ and empathetic society full of special snowflakes.

        A famous Russian novelist Mihail Bulgakov (author of Master and Margarita), wrote a short novel on this ideology of improving mankind with governtment mandates and regulations, the novel is called “Heart of a Dog”. I urge everyone to read this allegorical tale.

          1. anything too much *-wing will have censorship and groupthink. GOP has religion and had McCarthyism, Democrats have suppression of free speech and thought and increasing groupthink.

            1. To denigrate all Liberalism on the basis of the behaviour of a few, especially with the evidence of dozens of liberals (including, of course, the author of this post) condemning the behaviour is just wrong.

              To say Obama isn’t optimistic flies in the face of the evidence – he clearly believes that given the choice, people will choose to live in a free democracy for example – it’s what his re-establishment of diplomatic ties with Cuba is based on for a start.

              The right-wing idea seems to be to keep doing the same thing and expect things to change. There are always extremists, and to tag all because of the bad behaviour of some is unreasonable imo.

  4. Sigh. I think it’s fine to point out terms that have accreted layers of negative connotation. There are some terms that are clearly racial insults that I would ask people not to use in discussions in my classes. I don’t recall that anyone has ever used such clearly offensive terms in any class I’ve ever taught.

    I tend to say ‘undocumented’ instead of ‘illegal’ because I sympathize with the nuance of the difference is classification. I hear people use the word who do not intend a negative connotation and also those who do intend one. These terms, particularly in a course about cultural and social stereotypes, might be better discussed than simply banned.

    I was a bit puzzled about ‘male’ and ‘female’ being on the proscribed list. The reference is, I believe, to comments like, ‘Females are always so whiney about everything’. This is considered, in the current twitterverse, to be more misogynistic than ‘women are always so whiney about everything’. Those two statements, because of the negative stereotype referenced, seem equally offensive to me, but I have to say that ‘female’ does sound a bit more negative in this context.

    I’d like to hear comments from the professors who wrote the syllabuses in question. The intent seems to be that they want students to be polite and not call names. Da roolz of this website are similar. one can get banned for name-calling. I’m not sure why the courses mentioned seem to go beyond saying that not only is name-calling not OK, but neither is using anything less than the most up to date politically correct speech.

    1. As you say, it would be better for the professor to just lead a discussion about “illegal” vs “undocumented”, and some of the other terms mentioned. They might learn something as well as their students.

    1. Forgive the possibly stupid question, but, could they so file only if it were a public university, as WSU is?

      If so, as a matter of principle (and not of current constitutional constraints), why shouldn’t students be able to similarly file at a private university?

      1. The First Amendment provides that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech[.]” That prohibition has been held to apply, through the Fourteenth Amendment, to the states. It is inapplicable to acts by private individuals and entities.

        1. “It is inapplicable to acts by private individuals and entities.”

          Would you say that that is the main reason conservative/private corporate tyrant types wish to privatize any and every thing they can?

      2. Filipo,

        It does not apply to a private university for the same reason it does not apply to you if you make rules for the conduct of guests in your own home.

        Public universities are run by government, no one can escape the power and authority of the government. Thus any institution run by the government must abide by 1st amendment.

        Private schools do not have governmental authority. They can say “if you don’t like our rules, don’t come here”. Just like you can for your own home.

        You might say “couldn’t WSU say the same thing?” But WSU is funded by taxes, which no one (in theory) can escape.

        1. “It does not apply to a private university for the same reason it does not apply to you if you make rules for the conduct of guests in your own home.”

          Since you bring that up, I’ve had that used on me by a certain relative over the years. She imposes her rules on me when I visit (nowadays purely out of a sense of familial duty), but doesn’t apply them to herself as regards what she feels free to say to me under her roof. I’m apparently supposed to keep my bloody mouth shut and keep a poker face in response. (I visit her. She never visits me.) It’s not every host who treats his/her guest well.

  5. I have two big issues with conservatives who pen articles like this (and I’m not saying I entirely disagree with the point of this author in this case):

    1) They hide behind free speech to make deliberately insulting remarks, usually targeting minorities, women, gays, immigrants, etc. They usually attack people, not ideas (like we do to religion), and use dog whistles (e.g., “states rights” to signal their racism to other racists).

    2) They use these arguments to keep open (or reopen) settled issues in science (like the reality of evolution), history (“Civil War was not about slavery”), etc. I know someone like Larry Moran would strongly disagree with me here, as he thinks universities should have “anything goes” policies as long as it’s on topic.

    1. I don’t think anything should go. That’s how society works. Some things are allowed, other things aren’t. But I don’t think these words rise to the level of things that should be verboten.

    2. What do you mean by articles “like this”?

      And are you implying that Jerry is a conservative?

      No one “hides behind” the 1st amendment to make deliberately insulting comments. If they are openly expressing their opinion, they are not “hiding”.

      The 1st amendement simply says we cannot put them in prison, fine them for expressing their view. Nor can we censor them from saying those insulting things.

      The rest of us also remain free (and protected by the 1st amendment!) to tell them what they said was stupid, insulting, that they made an ass of themselves, and so forth.

      The proper answer to *bad* speech is *more* FREE SPEECH — our freedom the point out what is wrong with the bad speech.

      So, yes, I absolutely support the right of bigots, KKK members, neo-Nazi, even ISIS supporters to *speak*, to express their horrific opinions.

      And I support the rest of us to tell them what insufferable twats they are.

      1. By “hide behind” the 1st Amendment, I mean “selectively invoke the 1st Amendment to shield themselves from criticism”. The right wing, as we know, ignores the 1st Amendment (especially the Establishment Clause) all the time. When they DO invoke the 1st Amendment, it is usually to defend some racist, sexist, etc., spreading hate speech. For example, I absolutely support the KKK’s right to say vile things, but do I have an obligation to give them a venue? And if I refuse to give a venue, am I taking away their 1st Amendment rights? And if I exercise MY 1st Amendment rights by calling them assholes, am I taking away their rights? Obviously the answer is no. If I take them to task for being assholes, I’m not saying I don’t think they should have the RIGHT, but they’ll will write articles setting up that straw man. By invoking the 1st Amendment, they try to take the focus off the hate part, and put it on the speech part.

        Jerry helped shut down the IDiot at Ball State last year. Was he trampling the guy’s 1st Amendment rights? I don’t think so.

  6. I think it’s stories like this that influence the opinion I had about gender pronouns (that it’s much ado about not much). It’s the same group of people who are making the hardest push for such changes, and it annoys the heck out of me to ally myself with them. It gives their opinions undo credibility. It’s one thing being allied with them supporting gay rights, gender equality, and opposing discrimination, it’s another being allied with them on issues that aren’t as obviously problematic.

    1. Probably not. However, students who use the equal sign too liberally might be marked down. For example, 2x = 10 = 5. Poor presentation of their thought process,

      Another example, liberalism = mental disorder. 🙂

    2. Glad you asked that. Wondered myself.

      Once dealt with fifth grade male human primate “oppositional defiance.” If I said “up,” he said “down.” Finally, I said to him, “Sir, let’s see if we can find something we can agree on.” I said, “Two plus two is four. Do you agree?” He replied, “No, two plus two is five.”

  7. Sorry you felt compelled to start your blog with a statement of your liberal credentials. I thought that the issue could stand on its own merits as describing a ludicrous situation at WSU, and didn’t need you saying that even though you’re a liberal you were appalled. I hope that most of your readers have enough common sense to deplore the situation at WSU without such a statement, and would condemn the situation even if it was heard on Fox. Common sense, or the lack thereof is where you find it. Labels should be avoided.

    1. I only wanted to explain why it distresses me to be on the same page as a bunch of people whose views, by and large, I deplore. Also, I think liberals often have different reasons for promoting free speech than do conservatives.

      1. I agree with Wilson, labels should be avoided. Nevertheless I understand your need to declare your liberalism. Me too would hate to be called right-wing. But in truth, in some aspects we think as right wingers while in others as left-wingers.
        The problem with left-wing ideology nowadays is that the label has been hijacked by post-modern ideals. Your post describes just one of thousands of examples of post-modern abuse. It is really a disgrace.
        I would urge anyone to read the book “The victims’ revolution” by Bruce Bawer. It is eye opening. He shows that the humanities that used to promote “secular humanism” was replaced by the ideology of victimization. For instance, students no longer go through the classics in literature classes, but are politically indoctrinated with post-modern bulshit.

    2. I’m uncomfortable, too, aligning with conservatives on this issue (though I’ll pinch my olfactory organ and do it) — mainly because the American rightwing has been wrong on … well, pretty much everything in the nation’s history: from slavery to Social Security, from the military-industrial complex to Medicare, from the Red Scare to Civil Rights to Vietnam to prayer in public schools, just for for starters.

      And real proponents of free expression have always been thin in the ranks of the Right; there isn’t one in the score of current Republican presidential hopefuls I would trust on free-speech issues.

      1. I don’t know too much about American history, but wasn’t Abraham Lincoln a Republican? Were not Democratic Party quite divided with majority FOR slavery (especially in the South) while Republicans were against slavery? And are not Democrats associated with the left and Republicans with the right? So, though many times American rightwing was wrong, it wasn’t wrong in the matter of slavery.

        1. The 19th Century Republican party was not “right wing”. That came later. Comparing Democrats and Republicans no with those times is not productive.

          The big shift happened in the middle of the 20th Century. The old Confederacy (the south) shifted from completely Democratic to completely Republican. The attitudes of the (mostly white) people did not change much, just their party alignment.

    3. The problem is that in this day and age, if you don’t set your credentials upfront, it’s the first thing people will question if you challenge their beliefs. It’s all too easy (and sadly all to common) to simply dismiss criticism as being what those on the other side of the ideological divide do.

      I would love to be able to debate propositions in a veil of ignorance of where the speaker is coming from,because that way it would force people to address the issues at hand rather than as a matter of competing ideologies. Unfortunately this is not the world we live in, and there’s only so often you get attacked personally as a mouthpiece of an ideology you don’t adhere to before you start to preface criticisms with where you are coming from. That said, flashing your credentials doesn’t always work either because you can just as easily be accused of lying or not understanding the belief you profess to. “You say you’re a liberal, but if you really were you wouldn’t be making this argument.”

  8. “It was as though some huge force were pressing down upon you – something that penetrated inside your skull, battering against your brain, frightening you out of your beliefs, persuading you, almost, to deny the evidence of your senses. In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality, was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense. And what was terrifying was not that they would kill you for thinking otherwise, but that they might be right. For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable…what then?”

    – 1984, Eric Blair aka “George Orwell”

    Replace “Party” with “University”, replace “kill you” with “expel you” and you can see the horrid reality of the situation.

    1. This analogy doesn’t work imo. We’re talking about a few classes at a university, not the whole of society, and failure of classes, not expulsion. (And even if we were talking of expulsion, there’re other universities.)

      What these professors are doing is wrong, and there is plenty of acknowledgement of that. There doesn’t appear to be any fear about speaking out about the situation.

      The students who hold the views you espouse are unlikely to even want to take these classes, and they don’t appear to be compulsory.

      Because of the backlash, WSU may even have to take steps to deal with the issue.

      1. the problem is that its not just a ‘few’ universities, this is a widespread problem across many campuses from harvard to NWestern.

        this atlantic piece exposes this reality,

        Also its not just school admins that are doing this, this movement is driven by students themselves that demand their schools institute this nonsense.

        This is the generation that will drive this country in 10-15 yrs time.

      2. ” . . these classes . . . don’t appear to be compulsory.”

        I wondered about that. Can’t imagine many have to take the courses, especially STEM types.

      3. Maybe so, but far too often, the administrations of these universities see students as consumers who have mortgaged their futures, or more often, their parents`futures, and so had better be coddled and, when necessary, cuddled, short of harassment, of course.

        Not all admins behave in this way. U of Chicago has very principled stand on free speech, and when students at Berkeley tried to get Bill Maher banned, the uni stood up to them. Must have had Mario Savio spinning madly in his grave (or urn, though that seems more difficult).

  9. 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

    Does she really think that forcing a student to use ‘undocumented migrants’ instead of ‘illegal alien’ is going to get them to think about Canadians rather than Mexicans?

    Its just absurd. Yes, you can demand your students avoid certain phrases. You know what happens then? The ‘code words’ they use become synonymous with the forbidden phrases. This won’t make them think more broadly, it’ll make them equate ‘undocumented migrants’ with ‘illegal hispanic alien.’

    1. Indeed, this is exactly what has happened in on-line discussion of some topics that the Chinese authorities have banned on social media in China. Euphemisms and code words (e.g., for Tiananmen-related dates and events) develop to allow chatting and commentary on banned topics. A cat-and-mouse game then develops between censors who ban the original terms and their code words, and commentators who develop the next generation of code words. Everyone understands the code, and everyone knows what’s going on, and no ideas change as a result of the use of a different set of code words.

    2. Next they’ll be banning the phrase ‘undocumented migrant’. What will be next on the euphemism treadmill? (Pinker ‘The Blank Slate’, 2003).
      ‘Sea kittens’ is already taken.

  10. I can attest to the fact that there is still a segment of conservative opinion in this country that champions individual rights, especially free speech, without a hidden agenda. It does seem to be shrinking, though. There are in fact areas of common interest between liberals and conservatives, but you wouldn’t know it from the way the two parties conduct themselves. (At the same time there are also people on both sides who are not champions of individual rights.)

    That said, it is sadly believable that there are educators out there who would pre-define a discussion in such a way that it precludes establishing a true consensus, and is also insulting to the students themselves. This is, of course, not education, but indoctrination. I would not be surprised to hear that offending students were expected to go through a public self-criticism.

      1. ‘Segment’ is an appropriate geometric term if you think of left-right as an axis orthogonal to libertarian-authoritarian (e.g. The libertarian right quadrant is a space rarely inhabited by political parties, perhaps for the same reasons that wolverines don’t form herds.

  11. I think my school has all the professors use a template syllabus. Right now I’m pretty happy about that. WSU sounds like a university to run from really.

  12. Just out of curiosity, would this behavior be okay in a class named “Political Correctness”, where the syllabus hopes to teach students how to be politically correct. Because, in a way, it’s like a foreign language that has to be taught just like Spanish or French. We say Eskimo until someone tells us that Inuit is more considerate (for whatever reason that is).
    Or is the real issue just an imposition of values of the Professor on his students? Which kinda seems like the reason professors in the humanities go into academia, right?

  13. Reminds me of religion. The powers that be, professor/priest, start making up rules that the underlings must follow, or be punished. No room for dissent. No room for allowing others to think for themselves. Not even room for difference of opinion. Simply declare yourself absolutely right/inspired, then impose your standards/will on subordinates.

  14. JAC, yes these WSU stories might be just the tip of the iceberg. Thank you for continuing to write about the damage caused by suppressing various types of speech.

    You wrote: “..I (or so I like to think) oppose the suppression of speech of all stripes, except when it incites violence.”

    I get the impression from some of your other WEIT writings that you share my view that false and misleading commercial speech (e.g., product labeling and advertising) is another instance of speech that should be suppressed (with consumer protection laws and law enforcement). Agree?

    And I think you would agree that free speech is a poor justification for teachers/instructors to promote pseudoscience in the classroom (which I think is more common that most good scientists realize).

  15. A spectre is haunting academia — the spectre of free-speech. All the powers of higher education have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: professors and administrators, students and their parents, post-modernists and liberal squishes.

    Where is the group in opposition that has not been decried as anti-egalitarian, and as a menace to student self-esteem, by its opponents in power?

  16. With apologies to Phil Collins, Mike Rutherford, and Tony Banks:

    It’s no fun being an illegal alien.

    Search for Genesis Illegal Alien on Youtube and shake your head!

  17. Ahhh moralists – what’s important is getting people to acknowledge their view of reality by whatever means necessary. This is the kind of thing that is mocked mercilessly when it’s one’s ideological opponents (e.g. pledges of allegiance, displays of patriotism) but it’s never a problem when it’s a cause you personally believe in.

  18. I would think that if the lecturer is doing their job properly on those issues, the students would come away with a more enlightened attitude on those topics, and any affirmations of a position are unnecessary. Lecturers challenging students on their views is what higher education is for – hopefully arming them with the knowledge and thinking tools to be an informed citizen.

    1. I fully agree with your comment. Education is not about comforting people in their own views and prejudices. I once read a statement from a French teacher saying that “the only way to prevent children from being racist, misogynist etc was to teach them what the Enlightenment has taught us”. That includes humanism – which would rule out racism and xenophobia – and the scientific revolution – to wipe out superstition and unjustified beliefs from them mind.

  19. Lefty radical Saul Alinsky wrote ““He who controls the language controls the masses

    This IS the tool of left wing authoritarianism. Of course they don’t see it that way, like most authoritarians they’re just making people ‘do the right thing.’

  20. As a side point, I really get annoyed about the objection to the term ‘illegal alien’. It is (regardless of one’s position as to how the immigration issues should be handled) an accurate descriptive term. This is an attempt to blur the significant distinction between people who arrived lawfully and those who did not. Maybe we should use the term ‘undocumented drivers’ or ‘undocumented doctors’ to avoid offending unlicensed people.

    Same with the offense at anchor babies. Children of immigrants in general are not anchor babies, but there is a very real subset of people who have slipped in during pregnancy specifically to take advantage of a technicality in the law. I see no reason why this term should not apply to them.

    1. “…to take advantage of a technicality in the law” – yes, most reprehensible (I guess) to do something that’s flagrantly legal like that.

      If you can possibly do it, it’s buying a special kind of lottery ticket. Even if there’s no intention of becoming a permanent resident yourself, the alternative is having zero chance of your kid growing up to be POTUS.

    2. The “anchor baby” is also a myth. Children born in the U.S. must reach 21 years of age before they are permitted to petition to have their parents granted legal-resident status.

  21. I wish the professor whose syllabus caused all this ruckus could comment on her intent and express her rationale. This whole affair is getting a lot of play on websites that I read, usually wearing protective clothing, to keep up on what the toxic right wing is up to. of course, the wingnuts take on this story is rather vile. I, OTOH, would like to think that this is a misguided (and heavy handed) attempt to encourage students to look at subtle forms of cultural bias that can have on attitudes and decision making. Does she really think (metaphorical) hand slapping is the best pedagogical approach to this issue?

  22. I agree with one of the previous commenters that liberals, if anyone, should be the loudest defenders of free speech. I also abhor that the radical left has absconded the term, progressive.

  23. ” 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.” ”

    Surely I’m missing something here, though. Doesn’t this behavior simply boil down to “don’t be a dick”? Respecting people who find speaking up to be a challenge (and not interrupting them), allowing people with experiences outside the range of your possibility to have those experiences accepted at face value… isn’t this really about being an adult? Admittedly, too few adults do these things, but they are certainly worthwhile goals. Or does this professor mean something totally different, and I just don’t get it?

Leave a Reply