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On academic freedom and fearing one's students

Fri 12 Jun 2015 by mskala Tags used: , , ,

This was originally a Facebook comment, to one of my friends who had posted one of the original articles there, but a lot of other people in my circles are re-sharing the same articles, more general distribution of these comments is appropriate, and anyway Facebook is an untrustworthy platform. So, here's a repost. For necessary context, see the earlier articles from Edward Schlosser and Koritha Mitchell. Both of these articles have received a whole lot of circulation in the last few days, but I'm not sure they've received enough serious attention.

As one of my Twitter buddies said, the boldface words in the very first sentence of the Mitchell article go a long way to refuting it. The author has tenure. She's also a member of two heavily protected demographic groups. She's *not* going to be fired over one student complaint about legitimate course content. Some of us really can be. It's not so impressive to call out others for being fearful of, and doing what it takes to protect themselves against, dangers from which one is oneself at least partially protected.

A majority of university instructors - especially in the USA - do not have the protection of tenure and maybe don't even have the title of "professor". A growing fraction are sessionals, hired one term at a time, and in that job you may be only as good as last term's evaluations, which are written by the students. I'd think twice before calling anyone at the mercy of that system a coward, and not only because I am an untenured non-professor university instructor myself.

Nonetheless to some extent I agree with Mitchell's point. Saying what needs to be said, both in class and elsewhere, even if doing so exposes me to danger, is an integral part of my life's work. It's not something I can just opt out of because I'm afraid of the possible consequences. It can be said that teaching university courses is dangerous, but that that danger is an obligatory part of the job - as soldiers and firefighters and police and others who do important but dangerous jobs must face danger. It's not just for professors who are black women, either - saying the difficult and dangerous things is actually fundamental to the centuries-old academic tradition that the author of this article is so eager to pooh-pooh. Terry Pratchett's stories about the books chained to the shelves are funny but they're funny because in an important sense they are true.

It's also been very noticeable to me that "fake it 'til you make it" seems to work well when it comes to academic freedom. The "Breaking of Cyber Patrol" incident in 2000 (easy to look up if anyone wants to) was an excellent demonstration: I was only just a Master's student at the time, with even less official protection of my academic freedom than the very little I have now... and some pretty serious things happened, and when push came to shove? The University authorities closed ranks behind me and supported me completely. There are several possible explanations for that, but one of them is that because I behaved exactly like someone who had academic freedom, therefore that caused me to *be* someone who had academic freedom. Just as if I really were a tenured professor, even though my official rank within the system at the time was many levels below that.

Another slant on it is religious: witches do the hard things. Maybe others have the necessity of retreating in fear but I can't not say the things that need to be said, not even if doing so is hard.

But another entirely plausible explanation for my actions and experience is that I've been both lucky and foolish. I am probably able to remain foolish but there's no guarantee of how long I can remain lucky, and I'm not sure I am or anybody is in a position to demand that everyone else should be willing to do as I do.

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