“Retain the power of speech no matter what other power you may lose … Do what you will, but speak out always. Be shunned, be hated, be ridiculed, be scared, be in doubt, but don’t be gagged. The time of trial is always. Now is the appointed time.”—John Jay Chapman, 1900
Recently, the course outline of an Iowa State University English professor was leaked to the media and caused an uproar. In the outline for a writing course, English 250, the instructor warned students not to disagree with certain progressive subjects, including Black Lives Matter.
The particular instructor, Chloe Clark, states in what she dubbed a GIANT WARNING that “any instances of othering that you participate in intentionally … are grounds for dismissal from the classroom,” and that “You cannot choose any topic that takes at its base that one side doesn’t deserve the same basic human rights as you do (i.e. no arguments against gay marriage, abortion, Black Lives Matter, etc.).
She included a list of prohibited isms and phobias, including the puzzler “sorophobia,” and told students that class discussions would focus on the idea of the monster, the ultimate “other.”
When I first saw the headlines, I was confident that the professor’s warning was without legal foundation: No professor has the authority to dismiss a student from her classroom merely for writing an essay she disagrees with. Within a day, Iowa State University was forced to announce that the instructor’s warning had been removed from the course outline, and assured students that their free speech rights were protected in all Iowa State University courses.
I suspect that this assurance offers little comfort to students who must deal with this authoritarian teacher. And she, alas, is not unusual in the hallowed halls of academe, where many professors long ago gave up on the pursuit of truth, or even of basic skills in writing and analysis, to embrace instead the much sexier pursuit of social justice.
The ironies and self-contradictions in the instructor’s statement would be cause for laughter if the problem she represents were not so pervasive and damaging.
It’s not at all clear from her interdiction how anyone could be “othered” by a student writing an essay read only by the course instructor. Who does Chloe Clark think will be harmed if a conservative black student, for example, writes an essay arguing against the anti-capitalist and anti-family stance of Black Lives Matter, or if an evangelical Christian student seeks to defend the logic of pro life, a logic that is actually centrally concerned, contrary to the instructor’s claim, with protecting the “basic human rights” of the unborn child?
It seems that it’s sanctimonious Clark herself who cannot bear to read arguments that offend her.
The instructor’s position clearly violates the “basic human right” of free speech, which we used to think was a core value of higher education. But that’s an old-fashioned view that hasn’t held sway at universities for a long time, and it almost certainly won’t matter to Clark or to most of her woke colleagues.
Professor Clark would also not likely care if it were pointed out to her that her commandment against “othering” is in itself an act of “othering” of conservative, religious, and centrist views. She is happy to silence and shame those who have not yet embraced the principles of her gloriously anti-oppressive classroom.
The instructor’s course description is also embarrassingly retrograde in its pedagogy. Any writing instructor worth her salt should allow students to experiment in writing, to try on arguments and styles of self-presentation, never with the assumption that the arguments being put forward necessarily reflect the real beliefs of the person doing the writing, which is frankly none of the instructor’s business. The instructor should have no interest in judging the ideological positioning of the writer, only in judging the effectiveness of the written argument.
Moreover, every teacher worth her salary knows that only when students can vividly imagine the counter-arguments to their own chosen position, and can fully discern the logic of their rhetorical adversaries, can they effectively think through their own positions.
The fundamentals of sound argumentative strategy include appealing to shared values, demonstrating fair-mindedness, conceding legitimate points to one’s opposition, and finding common ground despite differences of belief. Not for this teacher, obviously. Not for most woke teachers nowadays.
The fact that Iowa State has confirmed that, indeed, Clark lacks the power to dismiss students from her classroom due to ideological differences is something of a relief. But is it really? She’s still an ideological bully, still someone who believes that the classroom is a place for indoctrination rather than education. She is such a bully that, if she had her way, she would outright prohibit students from exploring ideas she rejects.
What are the chances she’ll be able to grade students fairly if they fail to toe her ideological line? What are the chances that she will leave politics out of the classroom, focusing instead on the issues she is paid to teach? Not a snowflake’s chance in academic hell.
Janice Fiamengo is professor of English at the University of Ottawa. Her latest book is “Sons of Feminism: Men Have Their Say.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.