Saturday, June 13, 2015

Fear and loathing in academia

I have been reading piece after piece about the stifling of opinion in American and, to a lesser extent, British universities through crippling political correctness, enforced by student activists setting themselves up as the thought police. One tutor has recently gone so far as to write a viral article claiming to be "terrified" of his students. This is so outside my experience, even after more than thirty years teaching, that I assumed that something must be seriously wrong with higher education in the United States. However, I couldn't help feeling uncomfortable about it and that sense of unease raised questions.

The main one was how typical was this? Is this general practice or are we facing another moral panic? I have seen a few bits of unpleasant idiocy over the years, but the overwhelming experience I have had of students is that they are nice, generally polite, and occasionally cut and paste stuff from the internet.

There are some real problems. This example of posh radical feminists getting skewered by a right wing magazine for their intolerance seems a bit overwrought, but the way in which radical groups have promoted misogyny, homophobia, and recruited people from British universities to become, for instance, executioners for ISIS is of far greater importance. The Kipnis case should also raise alarm bells. Then we have all this "infantilizing" stuff about safe spaces, trigger warning and micro aggressions, which has generated a huge press.

But it was still good to read this:  
I was a liberal adjunct professor. My liberal students didn’t scare me at all
Amanda Taub injects some sanity and tells everyone to calm down.
I covered sensitive topics in my courses, including rape, capital punishment, female genital mutilation, and disputed accounts of mass atrocities. Our classroom debates were contentious, and forced students to examine their own biases. I kept an "on-call" list that pressured students to participate actively in those discussions. I did not use trigger warnings.
I never had any complaints.
I bring up my own experiences as a reminder that if the plural of anecdote isn't data, the singular of it sure as hell isn't, either. The fact that I enjoyed my time teaching doesn't tell you anything about the state of education in America — and neither does the fact that the pseudonymous author of this Vox article is a liberal professor who is terrified of his liberal students.
And yet the response to his article, which as of this writing has now been shared more than 190,000 times on Facebook, shows it has struck a nerve. This is something people are genuinely concerned about — enough that the thoughts of an unidentified man from the Midwest feel like a revelation, as if some secret truth everyone suspected has finally been exposed.
In other words, it's truthy: it offers a conclusion that feels as if it should be true, even though it isn't accompanied by much in the way of actual evidence. In this case, that truthy conclusion is that the rise of identity politics is doing real harm — that this new kind of discourse, whether you call it "identity politics" or "call-out culture" or "political correctness," is not just annoying or upsetting to the people it targets, but a danger to academic freedom and therefore an actual substantive problem to be addressed.
Instead she nails the big problem - management.

The Kipnis case was triggered by the complaints of just two students. Why were they taken seriously? It's management that has been too terrified to deal with jihadi recruitment on campus and too venal to listen to senior academics warning it not to take the Gaddafi cash. It's management that has revelled in the power to stifle dissent (and raise their own salaries) bestowed on them by the new managerialism. But it's easier to blame students.

So yes, there is a classic moral panic going on, which is not to say that there are no egregious examples of illiberal idiocy taking place. But we need to remember that behind the "safe spaces" and demands for "trigger warnings" there are real issues. It is just that this isn't the way they should be dealt with. And I have come across students who have had difficulties with topics and comments that have been handled badly. The whole point is that these have to be managed professionally and individually, not by some crazy warning label applied to classic literature. That is what good teachers do. The first thing that I used to tell new tutors in adult education is that they had no idea what was out there in the classroom, that they needed to be aware and sensitive, and if they encountered students with problems to refer them back to us straight away so that we could get the right help in place. Tutors need supporting, not undermining.

So what about the students? Well, they are mainly young and middle class. Mostly, they are serious, depressingly earnest, and without much in the way of life experience. Youth is not a zealot-free-zone. I am not surprised they jump on ideological bandwagons. But as long as an institution is prepared to set and enforce standards for free discourse and mutual respect, the zealots would be little more than extremely irritating. Ah, but now, say the critics, they are treated as customers (presumably instead of as serfs) and that is why it is all going wrong.

There is nothing wrong with treating students as customers, after all they are paying a lot of money for a service and should expect to get something in return. The problems set in once another managerial orthodoxy comes into play - "the customer is always right." The obvious rejoinder is that that they are, except when they are wrong. Customers can also be unpleasant, bullying, offensive and violent. There are times we need to protect staff from them. The idea that the customer is always right, is wrong. To treat students as customers does not mean indulging their worst behaviour and prejudice. It doesn't mean supporting them when they are manifestly in the wrong. It means teaching them well and treating them fairly. The big problems arise when managers ignore this basic principle, shy away from defending social equality and intellectual freedom, and conform to the latest whims of conventional wisdom.

This whole assault on political correctness smacks of educational conservatism. It is couched in the language of the moaning about students that used to infuriate me. And look at its targets; equality and inclusion. Unconstrained censoriousness about bugger all, supported by managerial persecution of marginalised part-time staff, does not mean that we should not be trying to address inequality or finding a more polite and inclusive way of talking and thinking. It simply means that we should be doing it better.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Confusion reigns

We live in unusual times. Whilst the Guardian publishes apologias for Sepp Blatter, the place to go for hard-hitting criticism of the Tory government is, er, the Daily Telegraph.

Well, Theresa May's Psychoactive Substances Bill is a classic of incompetence. Matthew Scott comments:
... the Government seems to have decided that banning 500 substances is not enough. It must ban almost everything that gives pleasure.
And what a ban. Of all the many idiotic, ill thought out and pointless laws ever passed, this would be the one of the silliest. And its draftsmanship would make the asinine Dangerous Dogs Act look like the magisterial 1925 Law of Property Act.
The production, supply, offer to supply, import and export of any “psychoactive substances” will carry potential 7 year gaol sentences.
I suppose they have a point. The terrible scourge of nutmeg needs sweeping from our streets and off our custard tarts. Then we have to outlaw curries (not to mention rye bread). I mean, think of all those chilli addicted zombies, exploited by the cruel curry pushers to be found lurking on street corners, ready to pounce on the unsuspecting at the moment they are most vulnerable - that mysterious time known as "after the pub."

The sheer madness is that the Bill would ban everything unless an exception is made. This breaches the usual legal principle that a person may do anything that is not specifically prohibited by law. Instead people may not consume anything with psychoactive properties unless specifically permitted by law. And so the drafters of this legislation have to dream up exemptions to the blanket ban (coffee, alcohol and tobacco, for example), but they are guaranteed to miss something because the list of substances that "affects the person's mental functioning or emotional state" is virtually endless.

And the age of romance is well and truly murdered:
What stronger emotional response is there than that produced by the beautiful scent of roses delivered to the woman you love? Sorry, that very emotional response is enough to engage Section 3, and if you happen to hand them to her outside a school, or worse still arrange for someone under the age of 18 to deliver them, the Court is obliged by Section 6 to treat those facts as “aggravating features” for the purpose of sentencing. And don't think you could avoid the law by giving her perfume instead of flowers: the esters and oils in perfume are designed to seduce, which is of course an emotional response.
The legislation is lunacy and runs against basic Conservative principles. (As does the even stranger decision to force housing associations to sell their own private property against their will at a discount. At least with privatisation the state actually owned what it was flogging.)

Scott concludes,
The Bill is a textbook example of bad legislation, It is unnecessary, incomprehensible, largely unenforceable, and, by encouraging professional criminals into a new area of business it is likely to prove entirely counterproductive.  
It seems that the hubris of a massive victory achieved with all of 37% of the votes has sent the Tories crazy. No, hang on. Utterly bonkers.