Trumping the Academy

7 Dec 2015

Today, Donald Trump decided we should keep all Muslims out of our nation, and Inside Higher Ed reported that Erika Christakis will no longer be teaching at Yale University because she upset some people with an email about Halloween costumes.

You probably already see where I’m going with this, but I’ll spell it out.

Right-wing fascist Trump: “We don’t like your religion because some of the fringe elements turn to terror! Stay out!”

Leftist Yale students to Christakis: “We don’t like you saying we should learn to deal with Halloween costumes that are ‘a little bit obnoxious…a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive.’ Get out!”

So, somebody tell me why the left at certain universities isn’t starting to look seriously fascist. Trumping dialogue, if you will?

People have been asking me lately if I’m looking for another academic position since I resigned mine at Northwestern this year due to my dean censoring me over a branding concern regarding a 1978 blowjob.

There might be places where I would be safe to do the kind of research and teaching I do—the kind that pisses some people off sometimes. For example, I have a funny feeling my husband, who is now a dean, might put up with faculty like me. But I’m not seeing a lot of evidence that academia is in general a safe place to be a “radical” anymore. I’m not even sure if it’s a safe place to be a critic of anything dear to the corporate right or the political left.

When I worked full time, I won a teaching award from the undergraduate students in my school every year I taught there, for seven years in a row. Why?

It wasn’t because I told them what they wanted to believe. It’s because I messed with their heads—asking them hard questions, challenging their cherished assumptions, all the time pushing them to find and show the evidence and the reasons for their beliefs, or to change those beleifs to fit the evidence and rationality. I forced these science students to understand that clear writing is a sign of clear thinking—and that I wasn’t going to put up with fuzzy anything if they wanted to call themselves scholars, no matter how much they pleaded that writing and philosophy don’t really matter in the sciences.

For our science students, I created a new course on sex and gender, a course that violated several rules in the then-naïve university sexual harassment policy. (“You may not show nude photos in class.”) I wore my red wedding dress to that class, to teach about feminism. In my History of Medicine class, I sometimes got up on the table at the front of the room and demonstrated birth in different positions, to teach the difference between science and technology.

I banned the word “society” for years in my classes, because I got so tired of hearing my students blame “society” for everything wrong in the world, as if everything wrong was beyond their ability to fix it. I used to give my students work I called “head excavation exercises,” meant to force them to think about their own ideas, histories, thought patterns. I sometimes yelled, cursed, and cried in class. I made sexual jokes sometimes. I argued with students, and encouraged them to argue with each other. I sometimes baited them with crazy readings and films.

I often wonder, today, if I were still teaching undergraduates and teaching in the same way, would I be getting teaching awards like I did every year, or have my ass hauled down to the Office for Diversity and Inclusion, told I’m not allowed to make students uncomfortable?

Should Yale students be allowed to argue with Christakis about what she said? Absolutely. My sense is she’d welcome that in a heartbeat.

But shut her down, force her to stop teaching, scare her into probably looking at other jobs, because she dared to suggest we not get quite so upset by the occasional dumb costume?

The Yale students sound like they are in training to become my censoring dean’s replacement. And the whole lot of them are starting to sound remarkably like Donald Trump to me. (I swear, that dream I had in July, about my dean being Donald Trump was so prescient….)

The ivory tower used to be the place where we were supposed to be safe from the bullshit of the world. But now it’s fraught with purity campaigns, attempts to close borders to any “dangerous” and uncomfortable ideas.

This is the dark side of empowerment. And it is very, very bad—for education, for research, for democracy. It needs a strong corrective, and soon.

 

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