My Former Professor Is Now On A Watchlist For Teaching Feminism
By Larisa Manescu
“Racist = People who give hate speech (strikethrough). No, not just this”
“White supremacist country. State. University.”
“Bob’s Challenge: Don’t Play The Neutrality Game”
I was going through an old journal a couple of months ago when I found scattered notes from my very first journalism class at UT Austin, a class taught by Professor Robert Jensen.
Almost two years out of college, I’m not surprised that he’s one of four UT Austin professors and nearly 200 professors across the nation listed on Professor Watchlist, a project intended to “expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.”
His offense? Writing about the need to address “toxic notions about masculinity in patriarchy” in order to put an end to violence against women.
The truth is, in the classroom, as in his writing, Professor Jensen is provocative in a way that can make people uncomfortable.
When you call fraternities “rape factories” (a note I jotted down my freshman year in 2012) at a school heavily invested in Greek life, you’re going to get backlash. The knee-jerk reaction is one of defensiveness, not an eager “Tell me more.” But Jensen was reflecting on the larger implications of Greek culture, not identifying every 18-year-old pledge in the classroom as a rapist. Now that we’re finally having the long overdue discussion about campus sexual assault in 2016, that reflection is more necessary than ever — the earlier, the better.
Incoming in-state freshmen, fresh out of the Texas public high school system, come to UT campus with a filtered version of history. They often haven’t been exposed to the academic ideas of patriarchy, historical oppression, and rape culture, and they’re accustomed to these concepts being dismissed as high-brow liberal gibberish. Made-up terminology. “Just words.”
But while this vocabulary may come off as pretentious, what the words reflect is real. By the time we’ve passed through college, many of us have had legitimate, non-imaginary experiences that personalize these abstract terms. I fell into feminism when the aftermath of a sexual assault my freshman year left me feeling more ashamed than supported. I didn’t know the term “rape culture” until college, but I began to trace its presence back to my early teens, once I learned what the concept represented.
Jensen’s class — along with his writing and campus lectures — emphasized a belief that has been a guiding light for my own writing: More often than not, maintaining objectivity in journalism is upholding the status quo.
In 2012, when some professors in the journalism school told students in an early reporting class to not attend LGBTQ rallies for fear that we’d lose our “journalistic” reputation, I thought of Jensen and went anyways, rainbow-clad and unapologetic.
In 2016, I look at my old journal notes and they’re as relevant as ever.
It shouldn’t be considered “radical” to strive to be a decent human being, to firmly know when you’re on the right side of history and follow that truth. If you acknowledge history, it’s impossible to deny the systematic, worldwide disregard for women’s well-being that has persisted to the present-day. Knowing this, teaching through a feminist lens isn’t biased. Not teaching through a feminist lens is.
When I put out a request for reflections on Jensen’s impact in a Texas Journalism FB group, I thought I’d receive responses that echoed my own, from current and past students who felt empowered in their political thought through his teaching. Instead, I received personal testimonies about how his concern for his students extends beyond the classroom.
Sunny Sone, a UT senior majoring in journalism, shared her experience:
“I’ve known Jensen about three years, and it took him a year to learn my name. He’s not forgotten it, even though I’m no longer in any of his classes and I rarely venture up to the UT journalism offices anymore, he still takes the time to shout a greeting when I pass him in the street. I don’t agree with his politics, and, honestly, as a student, I frequently tired of his morning grouchiness and need for absolute silence. But I can testify to the fact that he really, truly cares for his students. I’ve got a lot of memories to speak to that, but there’s one moment that really sticks out, very personally — I was going through a rough semester and I had a meeting with one of my professors to discuss a piece of writing I already knew wasn’t my best. Walking through the hall after the meeting, we ran into Jensen on his way to lunch. We all exchanged greetings, and, just before he left, Jensen threw out: ‘She’s smarter than she lets people know. Don’t let her get away with it all the time.’ He didn’t know how much I needed those words, and they were given freely and without hesitation. He’s loud and opinionated and he’s not afraid of pissing people off — but he is a fair and kind man, and I respect him deeply.”
Jillian Bliss, a 2013 UT journalism alumnus who now attends Southern Methodist University and is a PAC Board Member of the Texas Young Republicans Federation, offered a similar experience:
“I’m not going to lie, the first time I heard him talk I was a little worried. I was dating a man in the military and his lecture had something to do with how the United States shouldn’t be involved in Middle East affairs. That being said, I am very open minded to others’ beliefs and wasn’t going to let my personal situation get in the way of understanding Professor Jensen’s point of view. I learned so much more in his class after that day, and am so glad I opened up. Anyway, a few months later I had a very strange encounter with someone I’d previously interviewed for The Daily Texan, but did not expect to be in touch with beyond that article. He was not a UT student but came to see me on campus and almost ended up stalking me. I had just left Jensen’s class one of these days and became scared because this was probably the third time I ran into this man. I knew Jensen had office hours in the comm school at the same time, and went to his office. I told him the situation and we both called campus police. I’m not sure what I would have done that day had I not gotten past that original lecture where his comments were so controversial. It may go too far to say he saved my life, but I can certainly say his concern for students impacted my career from that day forward.”
Alex Vickery, who graduated from the School of Journalism in 2014, reflected on Jensen’s impact on her professionally and personally:
“My first journalism class in college — well, my first college class ever — was Critical Issues in Journalism with Bob Jensen. Despite the 8 a.m. start time, his class confirmed that I had chosen the right major. He treated us like professional journalists, and expected the work of such. I will never forget when I visited him during office hours and he told me I had chutzpah — that word stuck with me and oftentimes pushed me to work harder, whether on a story or on bettering myself. When I later took his Media Law & Ethics course, I not only learned how to be an ethical journalist, but to take that role seriously. He taught me that it’s a journalist’s job to keep those in power in check. He taught me to open my mind to opposing viewpoints and to challenge my own thinking. He showed me that journalism is, and always will be, important. And most of all, he showed me that I have what it takes to succeed.”
Like Jensen said in his own op-ed for the Dallas Morning News, his name on the watchlist isn’t going to directly affect his safety, job, or reputation. He’s well-aware of his own privilege as a white, male tenured professor. I’m not looking to defend his honor because he needs the defense, but to offer an intimate perspective into the humanity of someone who is no stranger to controversy; someone who, for deigning to teach about the patriarchy and toxic masculinity and rape culture, has been criticized for being too radical and liberal an influence on the minds of young people.
Professors like Jensen don’t brainwash — they just care. They care about bettering their students (of all political leanings), bettering education, and bettering society as a whole.
In flipping through my old journal, two notes now catch my eye.
On one page:
“Just because a person is a nice person, doesn’t mean they can’t have subconscious racist thoughts.”
On the other:
“Trustworthy. Honest. Open. Good reporting is approaching people different from you and giving respect for your subject. It’s listening.”
These timeless lessons feel more important than ever.
I scribble a new note: “It all started here.”
Editor’s note: After publishing this piece, it has come to our attention that some of Professor Jensen’s stated views are at odds with The Establishment’s commitment to sex worker and trans rights; we do not endorse these beliefs.
Lead image: flickr/Kumar Appaiah