Of Moral Panics, Education, Culture Wars, and Unanswerable Holes

via Wikimedia Commons

I demonstrate hope.
Or the hope for hope. Or just more unanswerable holes.
Mary Biddinger, "Beatitudes"

(I keep writing and rewriting this post.)

I thought I knew what I felt about the academic controversy du jour (a letter sent by a University of Chicago dean to incoming students, telling them not to expect trigger warnings, that academia is not a safe space, that open discussion requires them to listen to speakers they disagree with, etc.) — but I kept writing and rewriting, conversing and re-conversing with friends, and every time I didn't know more than I knew before.

Overall, I don't think this controversy is about trigger warnings, safe spaces, etc. Overall, I think it is about power and access to power. But then, overall I think most controversies are about power and access to power.


The questions around trigger warnings, safe spaces, and campus speakers are complicated, and specific situations must be paid attention to, because universal, general statements are too distorting to be useful.

(I keep writing and rewriting this post.)

Perhaps headings will help:

Academic Freedom
I want academic freedom for everyone at educational institutions: faculty, students, staff. That said, as philosophers have shown for ages, defining what constitutes freedom requires argument, negotiation, even compromise, because one person's freedom may be another person's restriction.

The University of Chicago dean's letter is primarily an expression of power and only secondarily about trigger warnings, safe spaces, and campus speakers. Though vastly more minor, it rhymes with the actions of the Long Island University Brooklyn administration, who locked out all members of the faculty union. Both are signs of things to come. The LIU action was union busting to consolidate administrative power; the UC dean's letter was the deployment of moral panic to consolidate administrative power.

Moral Panic
For the most part, the controversy over trigger warnings, safe spaces, etc. seems to me right now to be a moral panic, and much of the discourse around these things is highly charged not because of the specific policies and actual events — or not only because of the specific policies and actual events — but because of what they stand for in our minds.

Culture War
This moral panic plays into a larger culture war, one not limited to university campuses (indeed, the rise of Donald Trump as a political candidate also seems to me part of that larger war — and "war" is not too strong a word for it).

Tough Love and Hard Reality
Ever since I was in high school (at the latest) I have vehemently disliked the rhetoric of "tough love pedagogy" and "hard reality" that infuses current discussions of "coddled" students. I said on Twitter that such rhetoric seems to me arrogant, aggressive, and noxiously macho. I have not yet seen someone who advocates such policies and pedagogies do anything to get out of their own comfort zones, for instance by giving away their power and wealth and actively undermining whatever privilege they hold. I would take their position more seriously if they did so.

That said, I think it's important to recognize that "comfort" and "discomfort" are broad terms with many meanings, and that students will, indeed, feel a kind of discomfort when encountering material that is new to them, that presents a worldview different from their own, etc. That seems healthy to me and entirely to be desired. (Perhaps we are trying to fit too much into the comfort/discomfort dichotomy. Or perhaps I am trying to restrict it too much.) There must be a way to value the challenging, critical pedagogy of, for instance, Women's Studies courses and Critical Race Theory courses without valorizing the sadism of the arrogant, aggressive, noxiously macho teacher whose primary desire from students is that they worship him as a guru, and whose primary pedagogy is to beat the wrongness out of everyone who steps foot in his classroom.

Perhaps other people's words will help. Here are some readings for homework:
The Ahmed and Nyong'o pieces are foundational; even if we end up disagreeing with them (do we? who "we"?), they help us focus on things that matter. The piece by Kevin Gannon is good at seeing how the "surface veneer of reasonableness" works in the dean's letter, and Gannon is also good at suggesting some of what this moral panic achieves — who benefits and why. Angus Johnston's post is useful for showing some of the complexities of the issues once we start talking about specific instances and policies. Henry Farrell highlights how this controversy is part of the institution of the university. Henry Giroux and the undercommoners offer radical explosions.

(I keep writing and rewriting this post.
It is full of unanswerable holes.)

Moral Panic
My sense of the concept of "moral panic" comes from Policing the Crisis by Stuart Hall, et al.:
To put it crudely, the "moral panic" appears to us to be one of the principal forms of ideological consciousness by means of which a "silent majority" is won over to the support of increasingly coercive measures on the part of the state, and lends its legitimacy to a "more than usual" exercise of control. ... Their typical [early] form is that of a dramatic event which focuses and triggers a local response and public disquiet. Often as a result of local organising and moral entrepreneurship, the wider powers of the control culture are both alerted (the media play a crucial role here) and mobilised (the police, the courts). The issue is then seen as "symptomatic" of wider, more troubling but less concrete themes. It escalates up the hierarchy of responsibility and control, perhaps provoking an official enquiry or statement, which temporarily appeases the moral campaigners and dissipates the sense of panic. (221-222)
(Sociologists in particular have developed and challenged these ideas, but for my purposes here, this general approach to moral panics is accurate enough.)

There are a variety of fronts and a variety of causes being fought for in the wider culture war that includes (utilizes, benefits from) such panics as the current one (over the University of Chicago dean's letter). It is a war over the purpose and structure of higher education (and of education generally), it is a war over the meaning and implications of history, and it is a war over the meaning and implications of personal and group identities.

Kevin Gannon is onto something when he writes:
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the backlash against so-called “political correctness” in higher education has intensified in direct variation with the diversification of the academy, areas of scholarship, and -- most significantly -- the student population. Underlying much of the hand-wringing about the state of the academy is a simple desire to have the gatekeepers remain in place.
Add to that: the challenge that Black Lives Matter and other movements have made to the university status quo.

However, I think Gannon's argument soon falls into one of the traps this moral panic sets. Look where he goes next:
For every ginned-up hypothetical scenario of spoiled brats having a sit-in to protest too many white guys in the lit course, there are very real cases where trigger warnings or safe spaces aren’t absurdities, but pedagogical imperatives. If I’m teaching historical material that describes war crimes like mass rape, shouldn’t I disclose to my students what awaits them in these texts? If I have a student suffering from trauma due to a prior sexual assault, isn’t a timely caution the empathetic and humane thing for me to do? And what does it cost? A student may choose an alternate text I provide, but this material isn’t savagely ripped out of my course to satiate the PC police.
The trap here is the defense of "trigger warnings", because that's not really what the letter and similar statements are about. People ought to be able to disagree about pedaogy while agreeing that the dean here overstepped his bounds. If a magic wand were waved and all the controversial issues that the letter is ostensibly about were made to disappear into unanimous agreement, the underlying questions of power would still remain.

What we need to look at are what the dean's statements are doing. If this is a moral panic, then it is trying to bring more people over "to the support of increasingly coercive measures on the part of the state" (or, in this case, university administration) and it "lends its legitimacy to a 'more than usual' exercise of control".

The letter is about control: who has it and who gets to assert it. Here, the increasingly coercive measures are not on the part of the state, but of the university administration. The letter is attempting to mandate against certain pedagogical practices and certain behaviors by student groups and individual students. The dean has asserted control. He has asserted the power to speak for the entire university.

I think it is an error to fall into the microargument over "trigger warnings", etc., because the meaningful argument is about who gets to mandate what, who gets to speak for whom, who dictates and who is dictated to. On the issue of this letter, that seems to me an argument for the University of Chicago's faculty, staff, and students to have together. But it points to a larger question of the neoliberal university.

The Neoliberal University
Over the last fifteen or twenty years in the United States, we've seen the triumph of a structural shift in universities, one that takes their medieval guild structure and alters it to a more corporate, neoliberal structure where all consequential decisions are the domain of the upper administration, where students become consumers and teachers deliver content, where one must optimize processes and appeal to external stakeholders and achieve high performance to enable success.  (I think of it as the Triumph of Business School Logic.) In such a world, all value is numerical and everything can be measured with market reports. (For more on neoliberalism, I tend to refer to Philip Mirowski's Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste.)

This is not, of course, to say that individual groups, departments, or organizations within universities are themselves purveyors of neoliberal logic. Some are, some aren't. What I'm talking about when I talk about the neoliberal university is its institutional structures and, especially, the priorities and actions of the administration, which under neoliberalism becomes (or wants to become) more powerful than in earlier structures where the faculty had more influence and control over the university as an institution. Such structures, priorities, and actions may be influenced by various groups outside the administration (the Economics Department, for instance, might have a particular influence on the administration's ideology and the College of Liberal Arts might have little to no influence. Or vice versa). But basically, the neoliberal university is the university not of colleagues and peers and truly shared governance, but of Boss Administrator.

Boss Administrator

There are contradictions in all this, as a recent Harvard Magazine article on "Title IX and the Critique of the Neoliberal University" tries to show, saying: "An obvious response to the narrative critiquing the corporatizing university might then suggest that it’s invoked to protect the interests of the faculty over those of students and other university affiliates."

Such a frame, though, relies on the idea that the faculty, the students, and other university affiliates have inherently different interests, and that those interests are in conflict. It seems to me that things are more complicated than that. It seems to me that such a frame is already working within the assumptions of neoliberalism. The frame hides the many areas where the different groups that constitute a university can stand in solidarity — as I think they must if we are to have any hope of building a structure for the modern university that is not neoliberal.

While recent events have highlighted faculty vs. administration, we need to find better ways not only to undo as much of that dichotomy as possible, but to also increase solidarity with students and staff. Staff in particular can get lost in the arguments, and yet at every school I'm familiar with, the staff are the people most essential to the smooth functioning of everyday life. The staff must be included in any consideration of the work of the institution.

The neoliberalization of the university depends on, encourages, and exacerbates conflicts between the interests of the faculty, the students, and other university affiliates. They are different groups, yes, and different groups made up of different people, yes, and as such may always be coming at the goals of the institution from different points of view, with different values and different priorities, but that shouldn't destroy the idea of the university as a coalition, a union of differences. The neoliberal university destroys solidarity.

A Personal (and Utopian) Vision of the University
I keep writing and rewriting this post because I keep falling into the perhaps unavoidable and perhaps academic habit of pretending to perhaps know what I'm perhaps talking about.

No, that is not what I meant. That is not it at all.

Try this:

I cannot possibly pretend to have all the answers for how to escape the many binds that wrap universities in moral panics, culture wars, neoliberalism, etc. Not just because I am not omniscient. Not just because every institution has different systems and emphases, different quirks and qualms. But because—

(And yet of course injustice is structural and systemic. Of course.) 

My own life has been deeply shaped by the binds I'm (perhaps) pretending not to be all bound up in. Institutions I have devoted myself to continue to be warped and bruised (and occasionally polished) by them.

There have been some pretty deep bruises over the last year. 
I can't pretend I'm not writing from anger.
I can't pretend I'm not wounded in these culture wars.
And yet somehow I have some sort of hope.
Hope for what?
I'm not sure.

Here are some incomplete thoughts on my personal values and visions for academia, because I am an academic and thus must have a list of personal values and visions for academia, mustn't I? These mostly feel obvious to me, even (embarrassingly) banal, but perhaps articulating them is worthwhile:

I value a diversity of pedagogies and a diversity of course options for students. I think students will gain the most from having available to them teachers who are devoted to the pedagogy of the most traditional of lectures and teachers who are devoted to the pedagogy of the most radical of student liberation and teachers who fall everywhere in between. No teacher is great for all students, no pedagogy is great for all students. Had I the power, I would, for instance, eliminate all requirements for syllabi and simply require that teachers be thoughtful about their pedagogy and that they enter the classroom from a basic standpoint of respect for their students as human beings and as people capable of thought.

Public education should be free and open to the public. Society at large benefits significantly from open access to education. If we can fund trillion-dollar wars, we can fund public education. We simply choose not to. One of the engines driving the neoliberalization of higher ed is the lack of funding from the public. When there isn't enough money to go around, everything gets assessed first by cost. That will destroy all the best aspects of our universities.

Students, faculty, staff, and administration need to be able to find solidarity within mutual goals (and mutual aid). A diversity of disciplines, of epistemologies, of pedagogies, of life experience, etc. makes solidarity both challenging and imperative. The question I fall back on is: What can we do to strengthen our multiplicities?

I want academia to be a refuge for us all. This idea is inevitably solipsistic, because academia has been a refuge for me. How can I find values and visions beyond my own experience? (A university that was a true refuge might be able to show me the way. I think it has sometimes. Sometimes I've been oblivious, pig-headed, scared. But sometimes I've learned other ways. Yes, sometimes.)

Finally, I yearn for a university where curiosity is celebrated as a kind of pleasure, where knowledge is a value unto itself, and where intellectual passion is perceived as essential to the good life.

But What About Trigger Warnings, Etc.?
(Oh gawd, I don't want to talk about this.)

What's the issue?

Is this the issue?

This is not the issue.

It is an issue. As such, it should be discussed, and it should continue to be discussed, and there should be nuance to the discussion.

(Assignment: Compare the rhetoric of "trigger warnings" and "spoiler warnings".)

Discuss "entitlement". 
What does it mean to be entitled
Who gets to be entitled

I don't think "trigger warnings" (or, better: content notes) should be mandated or prohibited.

I don't think there is any practical way to mandate or prohibit such things without gross violations of academic freedom for everyone involved.

I could be wrong.

I am skeptical. I am wary.

What if, as has happened recently, such proposals come from students?

I think students should propose whatever they want. 
Proposals are good. They get us talking about what we value and why.
Students have a big stake in this endeavor of education.
Institutions function through discussion, compromise, experiment.
Students should be encouraged to enter the discussion.
They should be aware that there is often compromise.
They should be encouraged to experiment.
Experiments often fail.
Try again.

I use content notes myself occasionally when presenting students with material that is particularly graphic or intense (in my judgment) in its sexual and violent content. That just seems polite. I spend a lot of time on the first day of class describing what we'll be doing, reading, and viewing; and later, I usually describe upcoming material to students so they'll have some sense of what they're getting themselves into. But I do that with most material, even the most ordinary and least controversial. It rarely seems pedagogically useful to me for students to go into upcoming work completely ignorant of its content and/or my reason for asking them to give that work their time and attention.

(In terms of whether students have a right to have alternative material if they are concerned about the material's difficulty for reasons of their own experiences or opinions, I generally think not, because they are usually not forced into a course. I say "generally" and "usually" because there are times when requirements, schedules, and such converge to effectively force a student into a particular course, and in that case, yes, more compromise may be necessary, but such situations are rare. I think. I hope.)

Beyond the sort of content notes I use when it feels necessary, my own feelings are (sometimes; often) along the lines of the anonymous 7 Humanities Professors who wrote an essay a few years ago for Inside Higher Ed.

Yes, I have fears. I fear chilling effects. Yes. I think chilling effects happen. I think they come from all sorts of different directions. I think they are sometimes contradictory. Much depends on individual places, individual policies, even individual people.

A lot of the rhetoric around trigger warnings, safe spaces, etc. can be turned around and used for reactionary, regressive purposes. Jack Halberstam tries to show this in "Trigger Happy: From Content Warning to Censorship". (I know a lot of people reject Halberstam's ideas. Rejection is fine, but I think dismissal is hasty. Show your work.)

Among the points made by the 7 Humanities Professors, two key ones are:
  • "Faculty of color, queer faculty, and faculty teaching in gender/sexuality studies, critical race theory, and the visual/performing arts will likely be disproportionate targets of student complaints about triggering, as the material these faculty members teach is by its nature unsettling and often feels immediate.
  • "Untenured and non-tenure-track faculty will feel the least freedom to include complex, potentially disturbing materials on their syllabuses even when these materials may well serve good pedagogical aims, and will be most vulnerable to institutional censure for doing so."
The 7 Humanities Professors go on to worry that the use of trigger warnings will lead to an expectation among students of such things for any material that is even remotely potentially offensive or disturbing, and a backlash against any professor who does not provide such a warning.

I wonder, though: Does that kind of effect need to be inevitable?

(The idea of safe spaces and safe zones was important to the LGBT movement for a while. I remember the sense of comfort — good comfort, necessary comfort — I felt when I saw "Safe Zone" stickers on faculty office doors. "Okay," I would think, "I can engage with this person. They're less likely to reject my humanity." That was comfort. That was refuge. It allowed thought, conversation, and learning to start. I see those stickers less often these days, I assume because there is an assumption that they are no longer necessary, especially as more and more universities have adopted institution-wide anti-discrimination policies. Still, I smile whenever I see one of those stickers, even if it's fading, even if it's on a door no-one uses anymore. There was comfort. There was refuge.)

If there is a synthesis of my ideas here, perhaps it could be this: We must be especially careful and deliberate in what we normalize.

Most faculty are not trained psychologists or psychiatrists, nor should they pretend to be. I think pretending to be a therapist when you have no training in therapy is unethical and potentially extremely dangerous both for the faculty member and their students.

(Don't give in to the guru temptation. Kill the guru in you.)

And yet a lot of teachers are drawn to the profession for reasons that seem to lead them toward wanting to be therapists, and while (perhaps?) on a general level this might not necessarily be a harmful tendency, when teachers perceive of themselves primarily as therapists, they tread into dangerous waters. (I've seen this especially among acting teachers and creative writing teachers, but perhaps it is a common tendency elsewhere, too.) As Nick Mamatas has said, "Those who can't be a therapist, teach." This tendency should not be encouraged. Compassion, absolutely. Pretending to be a therapist, no.

I am not a therapist. I will not pretend to be a therapist. I am a quasi-expert on certain, very narrow, types of reading and writing. That is all.

There are resources on most campuses for students in crisis, and faculty should be familiar with those resources so they can direct students to them. (If a student's issues are too great for the resources of the university to help with, it makes no sense to me for the university or student to pretend otherwise, and in such cases a university should be able to compassionately and supportively say, "This is not the right place for you. We don't have the resources to help you here." Not doing so risks harming the student more. It is fatal for universities to try to be and do everything for everyone.)

Be Careful What You Ossify
From the Susanne Lohmann essay that Henry Farrell links to:
The problems to which the university is a response are hard problems, and there is no free lunch. Institutional solutions are generally second-best in the sense that they constitute the best solution that is feasible in the light of environmental constraints (in which case they are a defense), or they are less than second-best (in which case they are defective).

As a necessary by-product of fulfilling their productive functions, the structures of the university have a tendency to ossify. It is precisely because the powerful incentives and protections afforded by these structures are intertwined with their potential for ossification that it is hard to disentangle where the defects of the university end and its defenses begin.
Perhaps ossification is a better way of thinking about the ideas I've been circling around here than normalization, or perhaps they work together.

If ossification is unavoidable, even perhaps (occasionally?) desireable, then: Be careful what you ossify.

Chagall, "The Concert"

The university must allow refuge.

Refuge must allow the university.
(I keep writing and rewriting this post.)

Freedom from. Freedom to.

Safety from. Safety to.

(Or just more unanswerable holes.)

All pedagogy allows some things and censures others. What does your pedagogy allow? What does it censure? How do you know?

Ripeness Is All
GLOUCESTER: No farther, sir; a man may rot even here.

EDGAR: What, in ill thoughts again? Men must endure
Their going hence, even as their coming hither;
Ripeness is all: come on.

GLOUCESTER: And that's true too.


UPDATE [9/10/16]: Robin DeRosa created a Hypothesis link for discussion and comment on this post.

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