Does Wokeness Threaten Academic Freedom? | Inside Higher Ed

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Did University of Michigan professor Bright Sheng, a MacArthur Fellow and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, commit a racist act when he screened a 1965 film version of Othello featuring Laurence Olivier in blackface?

Were undergraduate and graduates students right to publicly denounce Professor Sheng or were they being oversensitive and overzealous?

Did university administrators succumb to campus wokeness by publicly declaring that Professor Sheng’s actions “do not align with our School’s commitment to anti-racist action, diversity, equity and inclusion” and referring the incident to the university’s Office of Equity, Civil Rights, and Title IX?

Call Professor Sheng naïve or obtuse, if you wish.  Call the student response utterly predictable. But the incident raises issues that all instructors need to ponder.  

Much of the current controversy centers on a rather narrow issue:  Whether Professor Sheng’s decision to show the Olivier version of Othello was justified. Arguments have been made pro and con.

It is certainly the case that Olivier’s use of blackface and exaggerated gestures was controversial at the time (New York Times critic Bosley Crowther likened his performance to “Amos ‘n Andy”). Other critics, including Pauline Kael, praised the film, noting that this version represented a self-conscious challenge to earlier adaptations that had downplayed the racial conflict and prejudice at the heart of Shakespeare’s tragedy.

But there are bigger issues at stake than whether a professor made a self-acknowledged mistake.  These include academic freedom, professorial prerogatives, and, above all, whether campuses, in their effort to create safe spaces and positive and inclusive learning environments, are in fact creating a toxic atmosphere that undercuts the ability of faculty to teach and conduct research without risk of official interference or professional disadvantage.

In the not-so-distant past, it was an almost unquestioned article of faith among academics that a major purpose of a college education was to make students uncomfortable and to challenge the received wisdom.  Times have changed, and a significant number of students now believe that out-of-touch faculty members are propagating and perpetuating harmful ideologies, and that the professors and the ideas they propound need to be called out.

The incident at the University of Michigan epitomizes two of the big pedagogical challenges of our time: How to balance a respect for students’ sensitivities and sensibilities with our professional obligation to question, challenge, and provoke and how much freedom academics should have in designing the learning experiences that they think their students need.

I don’t know about you, but I live in fear that a single misstep or misspoken phrase, a misunderstanding or a misplaced attempt at humor or political commentary, could result in an uproar or worse.

As a professor of American history, I believe it is essential not to sanitize or censor the past.  To this end, I regularly show clips from feature films that contain offensive content; display images, including photographs of lynching, that are profoundly disturbing; and require students to analyze primary source documents, some of which contain slurs.

I suspect every student is offended by some source that I include in the class.  I, of course, try to contextualize these pieces of evidence and explain my pedagogical purpose in including these resources in my courses.

But I wouldn’t be surprised if one or more of the hundreds of students I regularly teach consider my approach merely a way to offend and distress students under the bogus guise of enlightenment.

In my forty plus years in college classrooms, I can fairly say that teaching has never been more fraught or potentially volatile.  As instructors, we are judged not simply by whether we are engaging or entertaining or easy graders, but by students’ perceptions of our political or ideological perspective.

Our opinions and our language are subject to close scrutiny.  I, perhaps like you, have discovered how inflammatory terminology can be.  In U.S. history, words like “slave,” “slave owner,” “Indian,” and “tribe” have become potential land mines.

But irrespective of your discipline, booby traps lie in waiting.  Given today’s highly politicized, hyperpartisan environment, don’t be naïve or ingenuous.

  • In today’s classrooms, don’t expect deference.
    That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  In humanities classrooms, deference and obsequiousness have no place.  We should expect, even welcome, students who question our interpretation – though we hope that this is done respectfully, civilly, and with evidence. 
  • Don’t expect an apology to be sufficient.
    One take-away from the Sheng incident is that a regretful admission of error is often not enough to put a controversy to rest.  Almost any apology can be (and often is) dismissed as inadequate, insufficient, hollow, and unsatisfactory. 
  • Don’t assume that your training, expertise, reputation, and highmindedness give you the last word.
    The classroom is and ought to be an arena of contention, and in the marketplace of ideas gives no one, no matter how esteemed, should receive a free pass.
  • Should controversy erupt, don’t expect unequivocal support from administrators or colleagues.
    What you should expect is that your pedagogical decisions are likely to be questioned and second-guessed and criticized.  We may think of academic freedom as higher education’s bedrock principle, but in fact it’s only one of many competing values and priorities.  

All that said, don’t allow fear of igniting a controversy lead you to self-censor in ways that inhibit serious discussion.  Remember Sigmund Freud’s warning.  In discussing infantile sexuality, the father of psychoanalysis said that when we bowdlerize our language, we inevitably censor our thought.  

Expurgating language renders us incapable of seeing the world as it is.

So what advice might I offer?

1. Be sensitive to students’ sensibilities.
Anticipate potentially explosive issues.  That doesn’t imply evading or ignoring hot topics, but it does mean addressing these issues thoughtfully and transparently.

2. Build rapport with your students.
If you develop a good rapport with your students, many problems evaporate.  But if your classroom climate is adversarial and hostile, even small issues are likely to blow up in your face. Building rapport requires instructors to get to know their students and draw out their interests and concerns.  Listen, but also be responsive.  

3. Discuss your educational philosophy, terminology, and pedagogical approach.
Let your students know why you’ve chosen to teach the class as you have and why you’ve included potentially contentious or incendiary material.  Do encourage your students to question and criticize your approach.

4. Engage the controversies.
Gerald Graff is right: Higher education should be an intellectual battleground, where ideas are debated and contested.  Don’t shy away from difficult conversations and hot button issues.  But treat these difficult topics as controversies that need to be confronted, deconstructed, and addressed.

5. Warn students before introducing any potentially controversial content.
A warning, however, might not be sufficient if it doesn’t also include properly preparing students in advance by framing and contextualizing the content and acknowledging its disturbing elements.

6. Discuss the politics of knowledge.
In my U.S. history courses, some students, believe it or not, want a more patriotic, upbeat, comforting, and nationalistic version of the past, while others, not surprisingly, expect a much more critical, indeed, negative, perspective.  The best I can do is:

  • Present multiple and conflicting points of view on past events.
  • Place U.S. history in a comparative perspective, which helps students better understand the options and range of possibilities available at the time.
  • Show how present-day partisans use the past to advance their agendas.
  • Help students formulate more sophisticated and nuanced judgments, for example, about how people no less intelligent than us could perpetrate horrors that we find inexcusable, how history’s worst villains could believe that they were doing good, and how ideas that we find retrograde and repellent could have been widely embraced.

Public discussions about teaching in today’s highly politicized, hypersensitive classrooms are too often reduced to simplistic dichotomies:  Professors are said to coddle or pander or else offend, bully, abuse, traumatize, and (metaphorically) inflict violence.

We can do better.

Current parenting advice might provide some suggestions. If you want to raise independent, self-reliant, socially adept, well-behaved, and academically successful children, we are told, adopt an authoritative parenting style. Authoritative parents have high expectations for their children and set clear guidelines and boundaries, but are also flexible, highly responsive to their offsprings’ emotional needs, and emphasize frequent, open communication.

College students certainly aren’t children and professors mustn’t confuse their roles as instructors and mentors with that of mommy or daddy, let alone best friend. Still, we need to be authoritative, too.  That requires listening, engaging, explaining, discussing, and reasoning, being responsive to students’ views and needs, and, above all, recognizing their independence and giving them opportunities for self-expression and creativity.  

There is an Oedipal dimension to teaching that we’d be remiss to ignore.  We shouldn’t be surprised that students at times agitate and defy, overdramatize and overreact.  That’s part of youth and the process of growing up.

Our job is to be nurturing, responsive, supportive, and authoritative.  Our goal is not to expect gratitude in return (however nice that might be), but rather to produce independent, self-directed, self-regulated learners.  

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.



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