USC’s highlighting of “field” as a racist word perplexes the students

January 13, 2023 • 9:15 am

Two days ago I reported that the University of Southern California’s (USC’s) School of Social Work had highlighted the word “field” as a racist term, for it was used in the phrase “field hand”, referring to enslaved people forced to do agricultural labor. Below is part of the memorandum issued by the School’s “Practicum Education Department”:

This is about as arrant an example of changing language for no good reason that I can think of, for who would think of the phrase “my field is psychiatric social work” as racist? And if you use “practicum”, which isn’t even technically correct, nobody would understand what you meant.

As readers here also noted, the phrase “field” in the agricultural sense goes back centuries, and, further, “field” has many other uses that can’t in one’s wildest imagination be seen as racist—like “field work” for ecologists. This is an example of an action that did not need to be taken, but also an example of how crazy the language policing has become. Words are getting deemed racist so fast that a good ideologue can’t keep up with the changes.

The memorandum has also confused USC students, too, as this article from Wednesday’s USC student newspaper, The Daily Trojan, notes (click to read):

The paper notes that the word’s earliest usage antedates its use in American slavery:

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the term “field work” can be traced back to 1767 in uses meaning “gathering statistics or doing research out-of-doors or on-site.” Merriam-Webster’s website says the term’s first-known use was in 1686, to mean “a temporary fortification thrown up by an army in the field.”

But what’s doubly confusing is that the school administration walked back what the School of Social work declared:

Twitter pundits quickly seized on the announcement, decrying it as “woke” virtue signaling.

“The university does not maintain a list of banned or discouraged words,” wrote Interim Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Elizabeth Graddy in a statement to the Daily Trojan Wednesday. We will continue to use words — including ‘field’ — that accurately encompass and describe our work and research.”

If that’s the case, then the School of Social Work is at odds with USC’s administration. When, then, is the word “field” to be seen as racist? I look forward to clarification from the Practicum Education Department.

What’s curious but predictable is that only a few students interviewed were willing to criticize the announcement about “field”. It looks like some were puzzled, but others thought that because “field” was declared racist, it must be racist.

Students — interviewed by the Daily Trojan on Tuesday both at random on the University Park Campus and specifically in the school of social work — seemed largely split on the school’s decision.

“I’ve never been in a conversation with another Black person that has had a problem with the word ‘field,’” said Leka Mpigi, a graduate student studying architecture. “But I don’t know if that’s because I’m of African descent; I’m not African American.”

Mpigi said she could see why the terms would be taken the way the memo characterized them, but suggested that USC might have “bigger problems” to focus on, specifically admitting more students of color.

“At this point, it looks like we’re fishing for something of relevance,” Mpigi said. “It feels like a stretch.”

Kudos to Mpigi for at least saying the obvious. She’s clearly savvier than the factotums in the School of Social Work.

Here’s a student bowing to authority and dissing free speech as well:

Paloma Williams, a junior majoring in design, said that if the phrases being replaced originated from slavery or have an offensive origin, she supports the decision.

“Free speech doesn’t make saying offensive things OK,” Williams said.

That last statement is wrong if by “OK” she meant “legal.”  Notice the revival of the old critique of free speech: it should be curbed when that free speech is deemed offensive.

Three other students who will go along to get along:

“I have no issue with [the change],” said Maya Borenstein, a graduate student studying social work. “The title of my courses doesn’t really affect me. I’m all for changing language if it’s what they think is correct.”

Borenstein said she doesn’t feel like the change is limiting her own speech. David Lerman, another graduate student studying social work, said he thinks it isn’t his place to judge whether a term is harmful or offensive because he’s white.

“Coming from a background where I had family members that grew up working fields, I don’t think that they themselves would find it particularly offensive,” said Rylan Jimenez, a freshman majoring in engineering. “It just seems a little ridiculous to me.”

Jimenez said he can’t speak for people whose families have been through slavery.

“I feel like I can see both sides of the argument,” said Rozheen Barekatein, a graduate student studying social work. “But at the same time, why are we calling it a ‘master’s program?’”

Barekatein sees the hypocrisy of expunging some words but not others. (After all “master” has been thoroughly demonized, as in the removal of the term “master bedroom” from real estate descriptions.)

But clearly the students aren’t as willing to take as hard a line against the term’s elimination as did readers here. That could be for three reasons:

a. The students are more woke than our readers and willing to accept changes in words deemed offensive.

b. The students are, as the paper notes in its headline, somewhat confused, and so are ambiguous in their thoughts and responses.

c. Many of the students think it’s dumb to eliminate the word “field,” but are too intimidated to say so.

I think the answer involves all three factors, but I hope that a.) is a minor one. But make no mistake about it. The School of Social Work may USE the word “practicum”, but I strongly doubt that it will catch on.


h/t: Anna


31 thoughts on “USC’s highlighting of “field” as a racist word perplexes the students

  1. If ‘field’ is seemingly offensive to that the Department of Social Work because it evokes the wok in the field the slaves had to endure then why do they also not do away with the word work. .The word field is relatively neutral, it’s the work the slaves had to do against their will that was the offensive part.
    But I guess then they’d have to rename their department..

    1. In the US, universities should just splinter into three sections and have a firewall in between each of them.

      Section 1 will be for all of the academic disciplines that agree to the Chicago Principles of academic freedom, or something similar.

      Section 2 will be for any academic discipline that does not agree to the Chicago principles or is found to consistently run afoul of them by the members of Section 1. I imagine that Section 2 will be a nice collection bin for the quasi-academic subjects such as social work, all of the grievance studies, and the education colleges. Anthropology will probably go there too.

      Section 3 will be for the so-called “student athletes” for the two sports, American football and basketball, that use higher education as their free minor league development program. Maybe the business college will go there too. These athletes will have no academic requirements whatsoever (of course they can enroll in classes on the side if they want). They will be able to negotiate pay and benefits just as well as any prospective employee. The teams themselves will operate as businesses…collecting ticket revenue and a negotiated share of the very substantial television revenue. Essentially, college sports will become professional teams that license the name and likeness of the school.

      As mentioned, there will be a firewall between these three sections. For example, a pronouncement from Section 2 that the game of chess is both racist and sexist because white goes first and the queen does all the work, can be totally ignored by the other two sections. Basically, Section 2 will be the East Berlin of academia.

      1. I would get rid of section 3 entirely. No athletic scholarships.

        I have no problem with getting rid of actual offensive words ( in technical fields there used to be master and slave devices but not so much now) but this is just desperate for attention.

        1. Section 3 would not have any scholarships. They are not students…they would just train for their sport. Their only connection to the university would be the fact that they pay to license use of the college’s name and likeness. Of course, if one of those athletes wants to go over to section 1 or 2 to take classes on their own time and dime, they could. But there would be no requirement to do so.

          Big time college football and basketball in US are already quasi-professional…this would just formalize it, and remove all of the cheating and conflicts of interest that currently exist to maintain the illusion that Joe Football gets an “athletic scholarship” for any reason other than he can run fast and hit people hard.

      2. You’ve been reading your DNA (Douglas Nöel Adams) on the history of the Golgafrinchans, haven’t you? When will “Section 2” get launched into the trackless void?

  2. Slaves worked in a field.
    They also: picked cotton, worked in those fields, and used shovels. Let’s ban all of those words, too!

      1. While we’re at it, because ancient Athens depended on the silver mined by slaves from the Larium Peninsula to fund it’s experimental political system of democracy, both silver as an element and democracy as a political system should become un-things.

    1. How do you know they are white? When you read the full unsigned USC Social Work document about “field” on Jerry’s post about it a couple of days ago, I think we are seeing the words of Black rulers. The obsession with the word “field” makes no sense otherwise. There’s no “diversity” dodge at all — it’s all narrowly focused on combatting anti-black racism. Is that the only ill that social workers ought to care about?

  3. The woke faction behave like a high-status clique of school kids, constantly and arbitrarily amending and adding to the rules of what’s cool and what’s not cool, ensuring that they maintain top ranking in the social hierarchy.

  4. Fascinating.

    ” “But at the same time, why are we calling it a ‘master’s program?’” ”

    …. I’m reading Noah Rothman’s book The Rise of The New Puritans book, in which he writes about “fun” things, which is a distinction, but I can see this :

    “A failure to critically deconstruct recreational activities as enthusiastically as one would a piece of legislation or a bureaucratic initiative isn’t just a display of willful obliviousness. It is a sin.”

    … he also writes the shared view with Puritans : it is a way of life.

    Thus, the woke way of life would readily focus on a question like the meaning of “master’s program”.

    I hope they find their answer!

  5. Surely if ‘field’ is problematic because of its use in the term ‘field hand’ then the word ‘hand’ should be similarly proscribed. Students should not be required to ‘hand in’ their course-work but rather should ‘submit’ i… aaagh, no!

  6. that USC might have “bigger problems” to focus on, specifically admitting more students of color.

    I think USC need to do some pre-emptive language correction here. They need to think of a racially offensive interpretation of “rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic” quickly, to prevent such invidious comparisons being made.

  7. Anyone who would actually be triggered by the word “field” needs to work on themselves, rather than forcing others to bend to that pathology.

      1. An entirely true and reasonable response.

        The first part of the two Chinese characters for ‘man’, if there is such a thing as man – I’m not a biologist, 男人, appears to be a combination of characters in ‘field’ and ‘force’; evidently, the problem is not restricted to just American English.

        I need to listen again to The Practicums of Athenry – is it an endorsement of colonial peonage? And should that be ‘practica’ rather than ‘practicums’ out of respect to the Romans? But wait, didn’t the Romans practice slavery? Or do I need a German plural, since the word appears to have passed through German on its way to English?

  8. No person is offended by the word “field” unless they have been convinced against all common sense to be offended.

    People who have never worked in a literal field, know nothing about history or slavery, and have never met anyone who was a slave, associate the word in their own minds with slavery.
    Even they are probably not being sincere. Besides finding things to be offended by, these people have no useful skills, but it is a lucrative dodge. Offense must be manufactured.

    I keep getting a picture in my mind of grievance studies followers creeping around universities and statehouses, reading the names off of statues and portraits, then perhaps actually going into a library to do research. Of course, their goal is only to find something that can be used against the person, or word in this instance.

    My views on this may seem a little extreme, but what these folks need is rustication, in the Chinese sense. Most of them are pretty keen on the idea of communism already, and might benefit from learning about this facet of the philosophy. It rids the universities of people who consider themselves to be intellectuals but who actually have nothing positive to contribute there. The rusticated also get to learn all about agriculture and the value of physical labor.

  9. In regard to the discussion under comment #3: the three campus sections, with firewalls between them, is how we used to think campuses were already structured. But a crucial firewall is coming down, with the introduction of DEI affirmations as a precondition for academic employment in STEM. At Berkeley, for example, 3/4 of the applicants for a position in life sciences were eliminated solely due to insufficiently woke diversity, equity and inclusion statements. This policy is a deliberate measure to expand the ethos of the formerly “quasi-academic” Section 2 to all fields (or rather all, uhhh, practicums). By the way, is the plural form “practicums” or “practica”? Perhaps Latin plural endings will soon be forbidden too, because of slavery, sexism, and naughty language in ancient Rome.

  10. Of course, “free speech” is now a “right-wing dog whistle”. (Just like “child safeguarding” and ” women’s safety” are supposedly “transphobic” canine rallying calls.) I really wish I was making this up…

  11. I’m willing to do my part, but I have to say that Quantum Practicum Theory, or even just plain old classical gravitational practicums, are going to take some getting used to. Will they still keep us from drifting away into outer space, at least? Will iron filings still demonstrate the presence of magnetic practicums? Cameras and telescopes used to have a f**** of view, but now . . . . Even the language police will be impacted. When speaking of the f-word or the f-bomb, is it f*** or f**** that’s the issue? I’m glad to know that there are people devoting their time to these vital matters, but I’m still a little confused as to why university resources are devoted to them. Maybe another course in sensitivity training and social justice will help sort it out.

    1. Excellent points.
      I say we do away with all F words altogether, thus eliminating any potential for harm, violence, offence, and general dizzyness.

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