lists & learns
(or, the never-ending saga of the going-in-all-directions-at-once fallout of having CM at MC, as told through a disconnected series of observations and stories, which is hopefully, but not necessarily, building at some point in the indeterminate-but-certainly-distant future into an all-encompassing theory of speech, diversity, and divisiveness at college, CharlesMiddleMurray: a Reflection, in 6 volumes.)
racists against the clock
Even though there haven been no updates over the past few days, I have definitely been writing. Anyone reading the ongoing coverage of the protests in the mainstream media will have noticed that there is a clear process of piling on the students (see, e.g., Frank Bruni’s piece in the NYT, or Andrew Sullivan’s in NYmag — sorry no links, because I don’t support giving platforms to dumb stuff, etc.). While people certainly have a right to their opinion (“free speech!”), what bothers me is less the opinions themselves (as much as I disagree with them) than with the matter-of-fact, taken-for-granted aspects in which it is clearly assumed that a) free speech is an abstract, universal principle that holds across all space and time and b) students are spoiled, sheltered, and selfish. My disagreements here should not come as much of a surprise to anyone at all familiar with my positions.
So far, so good. Nothing new to see here. But here’s a surprise: I am doing something about it.
Learning the valuable lesson that anger and annoyance may be the most potent fuel for my writing, I was driven to take several unprecedented steps…
- I was struck with the strange but unwavering idea that I needed to write an op-ed for the NYT to offer a counter-narrative to the several, but mutually reinforcing versions they have offered so far. Whether we can call this embracing, accepting, or merely suffering through my newfound public role remains to be seen.
- Realizing that an argument about taking the students more seriously would likely work better (not to mention be better) with more student input, I reached out to two former students (one known, another known only through this process) to collaborate with me on the piece. Collaborating on writing is one of the many writing processes I value in the abstract, but which creates endless stress for me in practice. I can happily note that this collaboration was great, forcing me to overcome (if, to be sure, only temporarily) a lot of my anxieties and work together with others, hearing and accepting their feedback, and offering my own. Whatever else comes of this, the process of working together with them was fantastic. Thanks to them.
- Getting an op-ed into the NYT is a high bar to cross. I never once really thought it could happen at first. Initially, however, I felt so strongly someone had to make this argument, I ignored those chances and opted to give it a try. If nothing else, it would be a different writing format to experiment with, a clear change from the meandering, musing style I am “perfecting” here. As the writing process went on, however, I came to more fully believe that there was a real chance this would work, that we could get this published. Maybe a necessary illusion. Perhaps the adrenalin rush of working with others. Or possibly something else entirely. Whatever the reason(s), I was feeling optimistic.
- If this were a piece of fiction, we’d end on a high note: the NYT welcomed the piece, it’s running today, and that life is getting better all the time. Nope. The editor was nice enough and supportive enough, but not interested enough. We were not going to get the last word in the NYT. (And I know that the window of interest for this story is fast closing for the national audience, so it’s time to move on, etc. etc. etc. However, I can’t help but feel angry (there’s that word again) at the NYT coverage for giving so much space to those telling us why the protesters were wrong without offering room for voices taking another side (and yes, I know they did have a story with student voices, which seems to contradict this point, but let’s be honest, there is a power dynamic at work here, and, like it or not, it would help to have some non-student provide a counter argument in addition to the student descriptions of the event).)
- The story does not end there. Even though the window was closing at the NYT, it kept getting re-opened as other places tell more stories of people upset with the students (see, e.g., the story in Inside Higher Ed about statement against “campus illiberalism”). A colleague responded to my goal of writing an op-ed for the NYT by advising that the best strategy might be to stop stirring the pot, to let the story settle down to take some heat off the college. Good advice, but it’s hard to let sleeping dogs lie when people keep waking them up. Just as people often tell us the “best protest” of CM at MC would have been a total boycott, they miss how hard it is to keep something from happening when there are so many points of defection that need to be managed. Even I think it’s a good idea to stop talking about, I can’t stop others from doing it, so we might as well pile on.
- Moreover, there really is a need to get this out as soon as possible, more important than the news cycle. As the story closes at the national level, things close in on campus. The trustees are coming to town this weekend to talk about next steps. We definitely want our ideas out there before that happens. (Ignore, for a moment, the fact that the trustees likely do not care what we think.)
- We are trying other outlets. As any real writer (not that I’m one, but I’ve read some) could tell you, it’s hard to get things published. Period. It’s even harder when a) there is a time crunch, b) every publication’s rules are different (especially word length), and c) you can only submit to one publication at a time, which means sending a lot of emails out there to gauge interest, mostly unanswered. Typical, but stressful.
- Of course, if all else fails (we’re still hoping!), there’s always our trusty Medium. So keep your eyes open for something soon…
- Update! Inside Higher Education just accepted the piece, which is great because it will reach an important target audience (academics and the people who control them), IHE has been more even-handed in their coverage of CM at MC, it won’t be paywalled, which makes it easy to share with non-subscribers (looking at you chronicle of higher education…), they have a quick turnaround (it runs tomorrow, i.e., before the big weekend trustees’ meeting), and they even pay for the article. Exciting.
- Here’s the link to the story.
A week ago a faculty member at MC circulated a letter in support of free speech, asking for faculty supporters to sign. (Full disclosure: I didn’t sign. This was a principled position, but I also want to note that I wasn’t actually paying attention to my email, and missed it when it first came out. This should remind us to be careful about reading too much into these letter-signing campaigns, especially into the absence of signatures, since they can mean a lot of things, or nothing at all — not that this is stopping people who are using these as data to justify attacks and harassment.) As described in the IHE article mentioned above, a similar effort is being spearheaded by famous academics (on different ideological sides! finally a cure for our partisan problems — ganging up on college students!).
But what, exactly, are we signing up for? We are being asked to be loyal to ideas of free speech, but what kinds of loyalty are we asking ourselves to extend to our students. Again, this is neatly (if not particularly nicely) being framed in terms of the universal/abstract right of speech, which we should all defend, as opposed to the particular/embodied preferences of our students, which we should kind of recognize, but not let it get in the way of more abstract rights. If we accept that free speech should be better treated not as abstract and universal, but rather as similarly particular and embodied (something, I accept, is not accepted by all), then we should ask a few questions about these demands for loyalty. In being loyal to rights of speech and civility, who has the right (and/or the power) to defend (or enforce) that loyalty? That is, who stands behind this abstract principle? How does this call for loyalty reinforce existing power relations, the same power relations that the students at MC were challenging (and don’t forget, they were protesting not just CM but also MC for the way they (mis)handled this event (and other issues of diversity on campus).)
I don’t have good answers (yet!) — just observing how this process is currently playing out based on how power, privilege, and inequality get masked though talk of abstract rights. Something to keep an eye on.
Here’s one more terrible paradox the students have found themselves in (or, better said, one that others have placed them into): giving platforms for racists is good when the college does it but bad when the students do it. What do I mean? Many make the argument that the students protesting CM have only made him stronger, by raising his national media stature and allowing him to sell more books, spread his ideas, etc. Thus, if their goal was to deny him a platform, they failed, their protest failed, and they are all a bunch of huge failures. Q.E.D.
But let’s think again about how supporters of CM’s visit think about platforms. Remember, they were all too willing to give him one in the first place. Why? They argued that it was good for debate, that it would allow students to come up with good arguments to debunk his claims, that he would wither under the harsh spotlight, that we would all emerge with sharper critical skills. Students would realize that their ideas (e.g., racism is bad) are good because they have been challenged, since without such a challenge, they could never really be certain that their ideas were, in fact good, and could only rely on their crazy ideological position (i.e, an anti-racist belief system) to know that racism is bad. Until then, they couldn’t ever be sure! That would be a huge loss for them, damaging their learning and socialization into full adulthood and citizenship. We cannot let that happen, as it would be a huge disservice on the part of the people put in charge of (educating) them.
In this case, a platform for CM is good, and it would be an affront to all that is virtuous and wholesome in the world to take it away. Sunshine is, after all, the best disinfectant.
But if student protests enlarge his platform, all of a sudden he wins, they lose, and racist ideas are unleashed on the world, certain to rain down upon the oppressed. Now the platform, which was initially a fair fight and a space for critical engagement, is the opposite. Now sunshine, rather than disinfecting, is life giving.
I understand there are scale issues, but those scale issues also exist at the national level, with more skilled experts who could take down CM, etc. Moreover, CM already had a national platform, so it’s not like the students created it.
It makes me suspect that this is not just about platforms, but about who has the power to give and take them. If it is faculty (or media), that’s one thing. But students?
science and sensibility
While on the subject of letter signing campaigns (see above on loyalty), I just want to make note of a rather annoying aspect at play in the lead up and aftermath to CM at MC: where were/are the (natural) scientists? As I look over the members of the faculty willing to publicly voice concern over CM’s visit (and this is before such a stance became more “controversial” as faculty rushed to distance themselves from unruly, uncivil students), the natural science faculty are strikingly underrepresented. (Again, please note my previous statement not to read too much in absent signatures. But there’s other evidence out there in this case.)
What debates are they willing to allow on their own sacred topics? Why does controversy only count in the realm of so-called “soft” issues? Part of this is about bigger questions about the boundaries of science (do the social sciences count? why (not)?), or whether “true” science also rises above the non-objective “politicization” which plagues the world of the humanities and social sciences (see, e.g., debates around the planned science march in DC).
Of course, the natural sciences have always been politicized. And that’s never been clearer than right now, with the attacks on climate change science only the most obvious example (see also the new budget proposals, slashing funding for research). When will Middlebury invite CC deniers to give them a platform? What about intelligent design advocates? Teach the controversy! And will they ask for other faculty support when those times come?
It’s important to think about this not as just an assault on the soft humanities and social sciences, but on the university and liberal arts more generally. Thus, a little solidarity would help. You know, first they came for the… and all that. They are coming for us now, but you’re next. You don’t have to trust my discipline, but trust that.
fit: to be tried
A good fit. This nebulous quality is asked to do a lot of work at places like MC, as it defines the indefinable nature of our community. While fit is frequently framed as a positive attribute, it is just as often an object of suspicion, the insidious catch-all reason for inviting those who don’t otherwise seem to be right for the place, as well as the excuse given for excluding those who have, on the surface, done everything right.
This is a story about fit — who fits at MC and who doesn’t. Most importantly, it is about who questions whether they fit at MC and who never feels the need to even entertain the question, some to the point of not even realizing that it even could be a question for them at all.
A small college like MC likes the people here to fit. At the same time, (we claim) we like difference and diversity. The tension between these two gets sidestepped too easily by saying that difference is the new fit. That’s not completely untrue, but it ignores the unresolvable contradictions between them. Yes, unresolvable. That’s not a bad thing, but it is if we ignore it and hope that it goes away. We can’t because it won’t.
One way to describe the protests is in terms of the students who don’t feel like they fit on campus, who are protesting questions fundamentally about their fitness to be here. Having to debate (again and again!) their fitness to be here has unsurprisingly raised new (and not so new) concerns about whether they will ever really be a good fit for MC. And if you don’t fit at MC, why would you stay? How would you stay?
I don’t fit here. I know this, although usually it is just in the back of my mind, forgotten in the everyday demands of work at the college. In fact, the one place where I not only forget that I don’t fit but actually really believe that I might just fit is in the classroom. In addition to the ideological leanings that already far overdetermine my support for the student protesters, I believe it is my experience of not fitting, of knowing that I will never really fit, but still wanting to be here, to contribute, to make the best of it, that draws me to their side. Because even if I don’t really fit, that doesn’t have to mean I shouldn’t be here. In fact, it is because I don’t fit that (I usually think) I should be here. But it is not easy, and some people are more than happy to keep it that way. (Note — I get away with not fitting a lot more than many of the students who feel this way, so I don’t want to conflate the experiences, merely to point out some elective affinity that makes it much easier to empathize. Note, too (or note, 2?), that this is not saying that those who do fit are incapable of empathizing (and certainly not off the hook for having to make the effort).)
These continuous reminders and remainders of my “bad fit” status have been inescapable throughout this unfolding debacle. Nowhere I have I felt this more powerfully than this week, as I experience more directly the harassment directed at the faculty standing with the students. But I will open that can of worms in a follow-up essay.