On pedagogy, controversy, and the unintentional road to revolution

Edward Schlosser, a self-identified liberal (presumably of the ‘bleeding heart’ variety) who has been fortunate to find a job teaching college, and who is writing under a pseudonym, complains that he has been forced to narrow his curriculum to avoid offending even similarly-inclined liberal students.[1] What he observes is something I’ve noted in wider society, particularly recently.

This isn’t, to be clear, a case where a particular ‘hypersensitivity’ is present today that was entirely absent a few years ago when I taught public speaking. I think, for example, of my old favorite professor, Robert Terrell, who not only refused to respond meaningfully to a charge that in supporting Democrats over Republicans, he is complicit in multiple forms of criminality, including war crimes,[2] but complained that he felt I was ‘stalking’ him. The problem is more of an increasing tendency in a range between those opposite poles. I fear, however, that the development of this tendency threatens to cross a threshold.

This shift in student-teacher dynamic placed many of the traditional goals of higher education — such as having students challenge their beliefs — off limits. While I used to pride myself on getting students to question themselves and engage with difficult concepts and texts, I now hesitate. What if this hurts my evaluations and I don’t get tenure? How many complaints will it take before chairs and administrators begin to worry that I’m not giving our customers — er, students, pardon me — the positive experience they’re paying for? Ten? Half a dozen? Two or three?[3]

When I taught, I plunged right in where Schlosser now fears to tread. As an example of how brutal I was about this, I required that a significant portion of the class disagree with the position that each student would argue for in her or his persuasive speech (the third of three). That was meant to guarantee some fireworks at the end of each speech in the question-and-answer part, but also fireworks I had my students practice managing with impromptu speeches on current issues after the main business in each class had been dealt with. My pedagogical purposes here were improving classroom participation and critical thinking.

By and large, it worked. It worked not so well in the final quarter, when the classroom I had was directly across from the department chair’s office and I was going through comprehensive exams to earn my Master’s. This particular class, too, was more conservative overall than many of its predecessors.

And indeed, I got one of those evaluations like the complaint Schlosser cites about not presenting both sides of an argument.[4] Was that complaint, rather than California State University’s extreme budget crisis in 2009, the reason I was not hired to teach for the summer following my graduation, as apparently was traditional and expected? I’ll never know.

Now Schlosser says of his students, and I would say of wider society, “It’s not just that students refuse to countenance uncomfortable ideas — they refuse to engage them, period.”[5]

There is a larger problem that I think Schlosser fails to appreciate:

Consider a tweet I linked to (which has since been removed. See editor’s note below.), from a critic and artist, in which she writes: “When ppl go off on evo psych, its always some shady colonizer white man theory that ignores nonwhite human history. but ‘science’. Ok … Most ‘scientific thought’ as u know it isnt that scientific but shaped by white patriarchal bias of ppl who claimed authority on it.”

This critic is intelligent. Her voice is important. She realizes, correctly, that evolutionary psychology is flawed, and that science has often been misused to legitimize racist and sexist beliefs. But why draw that out to questioning most “scientific thought”? Can’t we see how distancing that is to people who don’t already agree with us? And tactically, can’t we see how shortsighted it is to be skeptical of a respected manner of inquiry just because it’s associated with white males?[6]

I should acknowledge right away that this is the kind of correction (the text quoted here is a revised version) that reflects poorly on Schlosser. He used poor judgment both in, according to that editor’s note, originally misrepresenting that Twitter user’s views and in linking to the tweet such that she was targeted with threats. Vox has promised to delve into the problem of harassment of women on line in the future.[7]

But also, the western paradigm of science can be criticized generally for its location of authority within the western (colonial or neocolonial) academic and for the restrictions it imposes on what knowledge is acceptable, and how that knowledge may be obtained. These practices offend people from whom we need to learn and exclude evidence which should, if we are to be intellectually honest, consider thoroughly rather than dismissing out of hand.[8] These attitudes do not only offend indigenous people, but impair relations even between medical practitioners and patients.[9] So Schlosser’s critic has a larger and more important point than he apprehends.

All that said, I have also noticed that I am now subject to ad hominem attacks for the simple reason that I am white and male.[10] It seems that if one is not white and male, increasingly, one is excused from the possibility of being racist or sexist, allegedly “because,” in Bahar Mustafa’s words, “racism and sexism describes [sic] structures of privilege based on race and gender.”[11] One might notice that Mustafa is apparently unaware of examples such as Rwanda, where people of color have committed genocide,[12] and Burma, where the Rohingya Muslims are not even recognized as citizens and are now being subjected to genocide by south Asian Buddhists.[13] Mustafa’s attitude is blatant hypocrisy that points to another problem.

The problem I sense with a possible fourth wave of feminism, one dominated by victimized people of now-subaltern color and genders and initiated in response to the failure of the third wave to fulfill its mandate to better address and respond to a complexity of social location,[14] is that instead of overturning structures of oppression, they may be seeking simply to replace one kind of oppressor with another. So instead of anarchy, we end up with the same authoritarianism but with some—only some—vengeful former victims in charge. Some might recognize this scenario from Zimbabwe: Sure, many white property owners face seizure of the lands they possess as a legacy of colonization, but it is also a problem that some Black opponents of Robert Mugabe face ongoing oppression.

Further, when we refuse to engage with the oppressor’s views, we eliminate any possibility of persuading the oppressor. We have laid the ground for violent and very bloody revolution, which admittedly, seems increasingly probable anyway,[15] but will likely result in massacres.[16] We ought to be hoping for a way to achieve change through peaceful means even if, as I have made clear, it seems likely that nonviolence will be inadequate.[17]

Part of this is going to mean refusing a hierarchically invidious monistic division of people into categories of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ based on demographic characteristics. It happens I have been developing an understanding of critical theory since I returned to school in 2003. I won’t call myself an expert: In critical theory, one may be good at a particular perspective, but probably never even a majority of perspectives.[18] And the designation of ‘expert’ requires a general applicability, certainly more general than I’m able to represent.[19] But I think first, the idea that some people should be heard and others not, is inherently oppressive; and second, that I have something useful to contribute to the conversation.

Correction, June 6, 2015: As originally published, I forgot that Edward Schlosser is a pseudonym. I have corrected the citations and added a phrase to the lead sentence reflecting that fact.

  1. [1]Edward Schlosser [pseud.], “I’m a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me,” Vox, June 3, 2015, http://www.vox.com/2015/6/3/8706323/college-professor-afraid
  2. [2]David Benfell, “Raining on Terrell’s parade,” Not Housebroken, December 17, 2012, https://disunitedstates.org/?p=5266
  3. [3]Edward Schlosser [pseud.], “I’m a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me,” Vox, June 3, 2015, http://www.vox.com/2015/6/3/8706323/college-professor-afraid
  4. [4]Edward Schlosser [pseud.], “I’m a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me,” Vox, June 3, 2015, http://www.vox.com/2015/6/3/8706323/college-professor-afraid
  5. [5]Edward Schlosser [pseud.], “I’m a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me,” Vox, June 3, 2015, http://www.vox.com/2015/6/3/8706323/college-professor-afraid
  6. [6]Edward Schlosser [pseud.], “I’m a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me,” Vox, June 3, 2015, http://www.vox.com/2015/6/3/8706323/college-professor-afraid
  7. [7]Edward Schlosser [pseud.], “I’m a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me,” Vox, June 3, 2015, http://www.vox.com/2015/6/3/8706323/college-professor-afraid
  8. [8]Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, eds., Collecting and Interpreting Qualitative Materials, 3rd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2008); Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, eds., The Landscape of Qualitative Research, 3rd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2008); Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, eds., Strategies of Qualitative Inquiry, 3rd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2008); Norman K. Denzin, Yvonna S. Lincoln, and Linda Tuhiwai Smith, eds., Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2008)
  9. [9]David Benfell, “Measles madness,” Not Housebroken, January 29, 2015, https://disunitedstates.org/?p=7247
  10. [10]David Benfell, “In succumbing to the politics of exclusion, some feminists recreate the very structure that oppresses them,” Not Housebroken, May 13, 2015, https://disunitedstates.org/?p=7519
  11. [11]Bahar Mustafa, quoted in James Rush, “Goldsmiths Students’ Union diversity officer explains she cannot be racist or sexist because she is an ethnic minority woman,” Independent, May 12, 2015, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/goldsmiths-students-union-diversity-officer-says-she-cannot-be-racist-or-sexist-to-white-men-because-she-is-an-ethnic-minority-woman-10244520.html
  12. [12]Robert H. Jackson Center, “The Influence Of The Nuremberg Trial On International Criminal Law,” n.d., http://www.roberthjackson.org/the-man/speeches-articles/speeches/speeches-related-to-robert-h-jackson/the-influence-of-the-nuremberg-trial-on-international-criminal-law/
  13. [13]Marwaan Macan-Markar, “After Persecution, Rohingyas Face Erasure,” InterPress Service, October 3, 2013, http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/10/after-persecution-rohingyas-face-erasure/; Graeme Wood, “A Countryside of Concentration Camps: Burma could be the site of the world’s next genocide,” New Republic, January 21, 2014, http://www.newrepublic.com/article/116241/burma-2014-countryside-concentration-camps
  14. [14]see, for example, Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 449-451.
  15. [15]Rudyard Griffiths, “Chris Hedges: ‘The system of global capitalism is breaking down’,” Globe and Mail, May 22, 2015, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/munk-debates/chris-hedges-the-system-of-global-capitalism-is-breaking-down/article24566539/
  16. [16]David Benfell, “Considering revolution,” Not Housebroken, May 26, 2015, https://disunitedstates.org/?p=7565
  17. [17]David Benfell, “It’s time to shut up about nonviolence,” Not Housebroken, April 29, 2015, https://disunitedstates.org/?p=7488
  18. [18]Virginia L. Oleson, “Early Millennial Feminist Qualitative Research: Challenges and Contours,” in Landscape of Qualitative Research, eds. Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, 3rd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2008), 311-370.
  19. [19]Linda Martín Alcott, “The Problem of Speaking for Others,” in Who Can Speak? Authority and Critical Identity, Judith Roof and Robyn Wiegman, eds. (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois, 1995).

3 thoughts on “On pedagogy, controversy, and the unintentional road to revolution

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.