The Campus Speech Wars
You have conservative students, so teach them
In the coming weeks, I want to write more about the meaning of free speech, how we understand free speech differently depending on how and where we are positioned, and whether our difficulty in listening to–and understanding–each other is a crucial context for exercising our first amendment rights. But since it is the beginning of the semester for those of us who teach, I want to start with the heightened conflict over speech last year among students at places as different as Middlebury College and the University of California at Berkeley. My question: are faculty doing enough to make sure that conservative students are being listened to?
These conflicts between students have their own history and context, one that is specific to the role higher education plays as a location for cultivating citizenship. For example, Young Americans for Freedom was founded in 1960 as a vehicle for uniting campus conservatives and libertarians, and has been followed by the creation of numerous other campus outreach groups that represent a long-term investment in students by the American conservative political establishment. Such groups focus primarily on nurturing future cohorts of conservative leaders, and secondarily on countering radical student organizing and what they view as a professoriate dominated by liberals who exclude conservative ideas from the classroom.
Today, well-funded campus conservative groups abound. Some of the visitors to liberal campuses–Ann Coulter, Milo Yiannopoulos–who have been greeted by enraged students and local antifa, are funded by such organizations, since few student groups can afford the five-figure speaking fee that such people command. But these controversies, in and of themselves, also become opportunities to demonstrate liberal hypocrisy about free speech when it comes to hosting far-right speakers (yes, we fall for it every time), and to put conservative campus leaders in crisis situations that they need to learn to navigate to become the activists of the future.
What these controversies also do is highlight the difficulty that students on the left and students on the right have in speaking to each other at all. But this kind of hostile stalemate is not an intractable problem unique to campuses. As usual, the adults are implicated. This time last year, one of the big themes on Facebook was whether anyone who had voted Democratic would be able to speak to, or breathe the same air, as those who had cast their votes for Donald Trump. This wasn’t just academics. Thanksgiving and Christmas visits nationwide were canceled over political differences.
But academics had a particular platform for venting their dismay about Trump, and not everyone used that platform wisely. Student groups also expressed their horror with the new administration (full disclosure: I participated in a number of student-led demos at The New School). Thus, a series of stories in the press revealed the unsurprising news that students who had supported Trump on predominantly liberal campuses were being mocked and discriminated against by other students, and felt generally unsafe in expressing their views. Several weeks prior to the election, The Atlantic (October 16 2017) ran a story about undergraduates who alleged that they had been intimidated by their peers:
“It’s scary feeling like I can’t walk around campus with a Trump shirt on, or a Trump hat, because I’m afraid of what people might do,” the 22-year-old chair of the college Republicans at DePaul in Chicago, Illinois, said in an interview. “At this point, we’re the most hated group on campus.”
Some conservative students struck back by exposing other students, and faculty, to hate. One way to do that is to extract words from the more private context of a campus, or a classroom, and release them to Internet yahoos who are glad to heap abuse on anyone they become aware of. In February, for example, an Orange County College student was sanctioned for having secretly videotaped and posted to YouTube a professor describing Trump’s election as an “act of terrorism.” (Orange County Register, February 15 2017.)
What generally follows after such an incident is that the teacher is mercilessly harassed for speech that is unremarkable on campus, but a political crime off campus. It’s a pretty terrible thing to do to someone, no matter how angry you are at them.
And yet, our sympathy for the victim of online shaming shouldn’t stop us from asking why this teacher thought that was an appropriate thing to say to any of her students, because it wasn’t, and it simply isn’t true that electing Trump was an act of terrorism. It expresses a feeling, perhaps, that describes the dread with which many of us greeted an actual Trump presidency. But is was not a factual response, even to the most frightening policy outcomes that actually awaited many students and their families, such as deportation, the intensified policing of communities of color, and the loss of health care.
But the real problem is that it equated students who had voted for Trump with those policies in a way that few would connect, say, a vote for Hillary Clinton with a vote for killing innocent civilians with drones.
My point is this: conservative students have a right to be respected too, and making them listen to baseless assertions that they are complicit with an act of terrorism is an abusive use of a teaching position. Worse–and I know you are going to think this is corny–when you express a passion in a way that stigmatizes students, you are pre-emptively withdrawing your affection from them, and it hurts. All students want to be liked, even–perhaps especially?–by teachers they disagree with.
Yes, even conservative students want to be liked by their liberal professors. Putting a professor’s rant on YouTube is sometimes calculated and deliberate, and part of larger conservative campus strategies to stigmatize the professoriate, but it is also an act of retaliation that comes from a deeper emotional place.
Campus conservatives also become embattled when faculty and administrators tacitly, or explicitly, sign off on their events being stigmatized and attacked. One conservative journalist I know recalls an event he and his fellow Queens College students sponsored on Muslim immigration to Europe, shortly after the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh in 2004. Members of the campus Muslim students association, he remembers, disrupted the event, mocking the organizers with anti-Semitic slurs and threatening violence. The administration did little to mediate the conflict that quickly escalated between the two groups. “After the whole experience, my reputation in the school was destroyed,” he told me. “The president of Student Life let every club know that I was a troublemaker and should not be worked with.” Discouraged, he dropped out. Several years later, “When I tried to apply back to the school to finish my remaining credits and earn my degree, I was denied.” He has never finished his degree.
Thus, the fractious atmosphere in our country more generally speaks to our classrooms, and our classrooms have the potential to inject new vitriol into the political divisions that plague the nation. And students get hurt for trying to participate in big discussions.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. College professors have a critical role in shaping classrooms, as well as setting the tone for a campus environment where conflict can be resolved and students can disagree without being ostracized. I was reminded of what a critical role we play earlier today when the Google alert I have on my name produced an article by a George Washington University student journalist that is openly critical of faculty carelessness towards students. In “Professors need to keep their word and stick to the syllabus,” GWU senior Sydney Erhardt asks her professors to treat the syllabus like a contract, not adding and subtracting things in ways that are expensive and inconvenient. Erhardt cites several cases in which colleges have been taken to court for sloppy and inaccurate syllabus practices and–bless her heart–cites a blog post that I wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education in October 2012 as an example of best practices. You can read it here.
Thanks to Sydney, I would like to update that post with some political best practices that might help make our classrooms a little more purple.
- Put conservative texts on your syllabus when and where they are appropriate. Students are often awakened to a passion for conservatism by compelling authors — Booker T. Washington, Barry Goldwater, Stephen Carter, Ayn Rand, Phyllis Schlafly, William F. Buckley, Milton Friedman are but a few examples of primary texts I have used, but secondary texts are important too. Why shouldn’t students who are liberal, or radical, read these authors? Why shouldn’t they understand the ideological differences in your field? Indeed, many of your conservative students don’t know some of the key authors that their views are grounded in. Having your students talk about their beliefs through a common text is a basic humanities skill.
- Don’t refer to conservative views as “unpopular.” It’s patronizing, it undermines the notion that such views are based on real ideas, and–I hate to tell you–these views are actually popular somewhere, if not in your classroom.
- When you do teach conservative texts, don’t tell the class that they need to read them so that they “will know how the enemy thinks.” I can’t tell you how many times a colleague has dismissed some of my syllabus content by making that remark. In fact, see what you can do to eliminate, and call out extreme language like this, period. Conservatives have belief systems, it’s true, and when they become policy, programs that liberals believe in are often endangered. But when you identify someone like Barry Goldwater as your enemy, you identify the students attracted by his ideas as the enemy too. Remind me to tell you about the honors student I had back in the nineties who was writing a thesis on Ronald Reagan, and believed he had to keep what we referred to as “his dirty books” in my office so that other students would not ridicule him.
- When a student asks a question, or makes a statement, in class that you are privately appalled by because of your own political beliefs, do not undermine that student or tacitly encourage other students to pile on. Rescue that student: an arrogant tone can sometimes conceal a student’s deep fear about saying what they really think. Encourage that student to develop that view in a way that is linked to the day’s lesson; argue on that student’s side if you need to; create an assignment or alter a lecture if you need to to get more evidence before the class so they can discuss it. But do not ever, ever, objectify a student in front of others for their political views, or treat such views as risible. They are your students, not members of a political group you are trying to purify.
- Teach as though there were more than two political sides to everything. Because there are. Furthermore, conservatism and liberalism have shifted dramatically over time, both internally, and in their relationship to the political parties that might be active in any given country. This might mean becoming a little more educated in the intellectual history and present of conservatism than you are already: as a United States historian, I am often shocked by the number of American academics who aren’t aware that the Republican Party hasn’t always been the exclusive home of conservatives.
- Avoid making one or two students your conservative spokespeople. Teach the class: make everyone participate. We don’t lift this rule for politics.
- Don’t imagine your class as a political enterprise to begin with. The point of college classes is to learn a subject, as well as the methods, literature and intellectual interventions that attend that subject and make it useful. The fact that you are offering a class in something that has contemporary resonance at all is incredibly important, and gives your students tools to be civically engaged, knowledgeable members of their community: don’t blow it by making your class a conversion experience that excludes people who don’t want to be converted.
- Offer yourself as a sponsor for conservative groups and events. Faculty are supposed to be available to all their students. What if, instead of a contact in an activist organization in the Beltway, students had a faculty member to help them strategize their events and create bridges to a wider audience for their ideas? There is a reason that students do resentful, cruel things like exposing a teacher to public ridicule–they don’t feel powerful, heard or effective on their own campuses just for being themselves.
Claire Potter is professor of history at The New School, and executive editor of Public Seminar. You can follow her on Twitter.