Professor “Edward Schlosser” (a pseudonym) wrote a thought-provoking article for Vox on Wednesday about the role identity politics plays in the college environment and how that role has changed dramatically in a relatively short period of time.
“The student-teacher dynamic has been reenvisioned along a line that’s simultaneously consumerist and hyper-protective, giving each and every student the ability to claim Grievous Harm in nearly any circumstance, after any affront, and a teacher’s formal ability to respond to these claims is limited at best,” Schlosser writes.
College professors are now in a position where they have to walk a very thin tight rope not to offend any student or face severe consequences.
“We’ve seen bad things happen to too many good teachers — adjuncts getting axed because their evaluations dipped below a 3.0, grad students being removed from classes after a single student complaint, and so on,” the author says.
“I once saw an adjunct not get his contract renewed after students complained that he exposed them to “offensive” texts written by Edward Said and Mark Twain. His response, that the texts were meant to be a little upsetting, only fueled the students’ ire and sealed his fate. That was enough to get me to comb through my syllabi and cut out anything I could see upsetting a coddled undergrad, texts ranging from Upton Sinclair to Maureen Tkacik — and I wasn’t the only one who made adjustments, either.”
Columbia University made headlines in May because its faculty is being asked to be more sensitive when teaching “provocative” or “controversial” topics. Some Greek Mythology stories — according to some students — like the story of Persephone (the daughter of Zeus who was kidnapped and forced to be the bride of Hades) contain subject matter that is too “triggering” to be taught in the classroom.
“This shift in student-teacher dynamic placed many of the traditional goals of higher education — such as having students challenge their beliefs — off limits. While I used to pride myself on getting students to question themselves and engage with difficult concepts and texts, I now hesitate. What if this hurts my evaluations and I don’t get tenure? How many complaints will it take before chairs and administrators begin to worry that I’m not giving our customers — er, students, pardon me — the positive experience they’re paying for? Ten? Half a dozen? Two or three?” – Edward Schlosser
IVN has covered the impact identity politics has on elections and the political process, but one thing that isn’t discussed much is the impact it has on society as a whole. From a cultural standpoint, we are not concerned about divisive and polarizing political remarks as much as we are about what may or may not be perceived as offensive.
Consider it for a moment. The media jumps on anything from celebrities, popular shows and movies, politicians, or other national and world figures that can be propped up as offensive — whether it actually is or can be taken out of context to sound offensive.
Cable news devoted entire news segments to discuss a rape scene in an episode of Game of Thrones. U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill made headlines for saying she was done with the show.
The scene itself did not actually show anything and was far from the most grotesque scene in the series to date (not even close), but the media thrives on triggering people’s emotions whenever they can. Incidents like the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson are instantly and automatically turned into issues of race even before all the facts are in. The narrative is spun and spun until it is engrained into the American psyche.
Edward Schlosser continues:
“The current student-teacher dynamic has been shaped by a large confluence of factors, and perhaps the most important of these is the manner in which cultural studies and social justice writers have comported themselves in popular media. I have a great deal of respect for both of these fields, but their manifestations online, their desire to democratize complex fields of study by making them as digestible as a TGIF sitcom, has led to adoption of a totalizing, simplistic, unworkable, and ultimately stifling conception of social justice. The simplicity and absolutism of this conception has combined with the precarity of academic jobs to create higher ed’s current climate of fear, a heavily policed discourse of semantic sensitivity in which safety and comfort have become the ends and the means of the college experience.
This new understanding of social justice politics resembles what University of Pennsylvania political science professor Adolph Reed Jr. calls a politics of personal testimony, in which the feelings of individuals are the primary or even exclusive means through which social issues are understood and discussed. Reed derides this sort of political approach as essentially being a non-politics, a discourse that “is focused much more on taxonomy than politics [which] emphasizes the names by which we should call some strains of inequality [ … ] over specifying the mechanisms that produce them or even the steps that can be taken to combat them.” Under such a conception, people become more concerned with signaling goodness, usually through semantics and empty gestures, than with actually working to effect change.”
“Herein lies the folly of oversimplified identity politics: while identity concerns obviously warrant analysis, focusing on them too exclusively draws our attention so far inward that none of our analyses can lead to action,” Schlosser adds.