Open Letter to Provost of Wilfrid Laurier University + Herbert Pimlott, Adria Joel, & Nathan Rambukkana
20 November, 2017.
I am writing you together because I would like to extend the transparency to you that you failed to extend to your student, Lindsay Shepherd.
I am a mid-career scholar, fellow Canadian, and I am shaking as I write this. I have now listened to this recording of how you have treated Ms. Shepherd and I am actually lacking words to describe my feelings over this. Orwellian, Medieval, the Inquisition, and McCarthism are the only concrete words that readily come to mind. And like those who stood with these movements believing firmly that they were on the “right side of history,” people who undertook these sorts of witch hunts had zero consciousness about the ramifications of the political machinery to which they were contributing. In short, I seriously doubt any of you have given your actions much thought.
As I listen to this recording I hear Prof. Rambukkana use the word “problematic,” a term which goes unexplained perpetually. Isn’t it problematic how “problematic” is being used, wouldn’t you say? You then take to challenging what are perfectly acceptable and reasonable teaching methods of Ms. Shepherd who asks if her job is to shield students from debate or ideas. Prof. Rambukkana then accuses her of contributing to a certain type of “teaching climate”, stating that she is “targeting” students due to their “gender expression” and “identity” which he claims is in violation of C16 and “the Canadian Human Rights Code.” Prof. Rambukkana goes on to say, “The spirit of debate is slightly different than being like OK this is a problematic idea that we might want to unpack…” Ms. Shepherd rightly points out that his suggestion is “taking sides.” Prof. Rambukkana continues to impugn Ms. Shepherd about allegedly having created a “toxic climate” using the term “positionality” which functions much like “problematic.” Prof. Rambukkana’s language is peppered with such vague terminology, which at this specific moment in the recording, is used to mean “something really bad.” What exactly? That’s up for grabs. When Ms. Shepherd asked about the nature of the complaint, what exactly the complaint is, and how many individuals have complained, this too is shrouded in murky answers. “Problematic” is used, at this point, for a third time and “unsafe” is not even defined whatsoever.
Ms. Shepherd goes on to defend her actions and states she does not see how her teaching methods are “doing a disservice” to the university since these ideas are already part of social currency. And she is perfectly correct — these ideas are in social circulation and at the vortex of current debate, both in and out of academia.
At this point in the inquisition, Ms. Joel steps in and takes a stab with her brand of harassment of Ms. Shepherd, accusing her, once again, of “spreading transphobia.” All these accusastions are made, of course, with zero substantiation. You know, proof. And then Prof. Rambukkana jumps in to say that all perspectives are not valid in the university and leaps to compare subtly her actions to white supremacy.
My mind is reeling from what I heard and I cannot get beyond this feeling that you four people got together to harass a person who was not only doing her job quite well, but you perverted what she was actually doing and instead accused her of “gender-based violence” and “transphobia”. The irony of two men and one women accusing a woman of gender-based violence! And when she announces, despaired, that she can do nothing about your opinions of her, Prof. Rambukkana then goes on to ask if she is OK, further trying to beat her down and to impugn her spirit at this point.
Prof. Pimlott chimes in towards the end, wanting to “offer a different perspective.” Despite Prof. Pimlott’s work in the field of pedagogy his function here seems to pummel Ms. Shepherd with more doxa: that “they” can be used in the singular. What happened to the “democratic process” of the classroom and the “self-reflective process” of the individual student as Prof. Pimlott has published on?
Then all three of you go on to make the claim that Ms Shepherd has “caused harm” to this/these unnamed, unnumbered student/s. Yet, not any proof of harm is given. I mean from my positionality, I seriously find this a bit problematic.
The recording on the CBC is cut off at this point and I can honestly state that what I heard makes me feel quite ill. This is a young scholar who should be lauded for bringing critical thought into the classroom and for rejuvenating a stale, totalitarian mindset which has taken hold of so many campuses across Canada and the United States. Instead of lauding such innovation, you created a cabal and organised a meeting with Ms Shepherd explicitly to harass her, to impugn her character, and to blight her spirit.
I can think of no crueler act that a professor can do to a student. It amazes me that any of you are left with jobs as you are individually and collectively an embarrassment to your profession.
As Prof. Pimlott likes to express in writing the ideas of Paulo Friere, it might be high time that all of you took heed of these ideas through praxis and perhaps learn from your student, Ms. Shepherd, who actually knows quite a bit more about pedagogy than you, the self-appointed Inquisitioners.
I do hope that you do the soul-searching so painfully needed in order to square your abuse of power with the texts you write and teach — texts which ostensibly are about everyone having access to their voice in the classroom and in civil society.
All the rest is totalitarian madness.