P.C. culture run amok on campus! NOT.

That old snag again?

That old snag again?

Eyal Press has written about his experiences teaching journalism at SUNY-New Paltz recently. Contrary to the most popular university-themed clickbait you might have seen at The Atlantic or The Huffington Post in the past academic year, he finds that complaints about “political correctness” fascistically controlling class discussions and about this so-called “coddled” generation of students to be overwrought.  Says Press:

I’d been hired to teach an undergraduate journalism seminar that focused on polarizing, divisive subjects: abortion, immigration, Islamophobia, the gun debate, campus rape. Issues likely to touch sensitive nerves, in other words, and to stir considerable discomfort among my students.

Several of the students in my class felt strongly about these issues. A few chose to write term papers that drew on personal experiences as well as on research and interviews they did. But no one in the class seemed uncomfortable talking about them. Nor did anyone object when I told them that, especially when reporting on issues close to their heart in which they had a personal stake, it was essential to talk to people whose opinions they did not share and to imagine things from multiple points of view, including views that disturbed or repelled them. None of the students called for “trigger warnings” to be placed on any of the books or articles on the course syllabus, despite the fact that several contained vivid descriptions of abuse and violence. When students aired criticisms of the readings in class discussions, the objections were about the quality of the work, not the offensiveness of the content.

This is what I’ve been reporting from my perch at a public Aggie in the West.  My students are far from privileged, and as Press reports, the issue they’re most worried about is the debt they’re accruing in pursuing higher education.  In a class he visited with 15 students, Press asked how many would be graduating with student debt.

13 of the students raised their hands. If few seemed concerned about “microaggressions,” it’s perhaps because they were too busy trying to keep up with their coursework while earning money in their limited spare time. The very real aggression they experienced was their financial bind.

cowgirlgunsign1Read the whole thing.  It’s thoughtful and based on serious engagement with current college students.  For that reason alone, I’m sure it will get a lot less attention than professor- and student-hating clickbait because it tells us that college campuses are places where faculty and students meet to engage serious issues and work them over thoughtfully and without undue rancor.  The vast majority of campuses are populated by students who are far from the privileged Special Snowflakes or parented-by-helicopters stereotype–so Press’s report will doubtlessly go ignored by those who resent the fact that universities still exist in all their (mostly) un-disrupted, unglamorous, peer-reviewed and hardworking persistence.



12 thoughts on “P.C. culture run amok on campus! NOT.

  1. Same as what I see. I’ve never had any negative feedback about content being slanted or ideological. When I used to teach the Protestant Reformation, graphically about the barbarity of it all, I worried (while half-hoping) that most students would infer that I was on the “other side” from whichever one they might identify with. But I never saw any evidence of that. In the substitute course for this masher, an American offering, the out-of-class final assignment alluded to in a previous post has at least one optional reading on offer for comment that could invite (but not require) self-identification and personal revelation by the answerers. And sometimes it does, more so than would have been the case back in my own wanna revolution days. Sometimes you don’t want to know where their tattoos are, and what they say, but nobody seems too stressed about any of it. And if they were, there are blander alternatives available.


    • HA-hahaha! See delagar’s comments below about teaching Reformation literature & history in her south-central state! Some campuses are more political than others, I’m sure, but it seems so quaint that some college students get all het up about the Reformation and whether we’re teaching’ it rite.

      It reminds me of my mother talking about a time and a place in which a “mixed marriage” meant one involving a Protestant and a Catholic!


  2. I’ve wondered whether it’s because I teach skills more than particular subject matter (and the students get to choose their own topics for writing), but I, too, haven’t seen any of the “new political correctness” among my students (who are also state-university students, many of whom started at community colleges, and nearly all of whom bear significant financial responsibility for their educations, and feel very real time and other pressures as a result). Even in my classes, there is some opportunity for such objections to arise. For instance, some students, especially those in the health sciences, choose fairly painful and/or controversial topics on which to focus their research. However, no student has, for instance, asked to be excused from reading another’s draft (which would be possible in most cases, though I’m not sure whether I would or should agree to it; it would probably depend on the reason. I’d be more sympathetic to a student in the early stages of recovery from, say, addiction or an eating disorder or post-traumatic stress who felt their recovery would be aided by avoiding too many reminders of the subject than to one who was unwilling to read about stem-cell research or research involving homosexuality or some other topic on more abstract moral grounds).

    It probably helps that the assignment is to review the literature, and the opinions they express are meant to be informed ones based on their examination of that literature (and to be about the state of the research as much or more than the topic itself). We do have some interesting discussions about whether they’re supposed to “include their opinion” (well, yes, of course; otherwise what’s the point in writing? But the constraints mentioned above apply, which I suspect takes their arguments out of what many of them mean by “their opinion.” But they’re nice about it, and mostly, I think, concerned about finding “reliable” sources and eliminating “bias” — concepts I also try to deconstruct, or at least push back at a bit).

    There are some very faint rumblings from students concerned about various manifestations of racism on campus (which do exist, and are well worth pointing out), and administrators concerned with supporting them, and I had one odd exchange at a workshop with a student services staff person over our very different views of a scenario we were supposed to be discussing (the basic area of disagreement was that the staff person was inclined to take a student’s report of what a professor said in class at face value, while I — based mostly on extensive experience of how well students seem to comprehend a variety of in- and out-of-class communications — thought the first step was to ask the professor what, if anything, (s)he recalled about the reported incident/exchange). But I’m just not seeing anything like the hostility to free speech, alternative points of view, etc., etc. that recent journalistic portraits of campus life include.


    • It really makes you wonder what the interest is in perpetuating this stereotype, doesn’t it?

      None of the answers I can think of make me feel very optimistic or good about our other major social institutions, like for-profit business, politics, journalism, etc.


  3. This is, of course, of a piece. Think of all of the cultural stereotypes that make us such easy targets in the political dialogue. The research scientist making $200,000 a year and foisting the 7 undergrad students they teach onto witless grad assistants. The blindly ideological lefty grading papers based on agreeing with their political views. Indeed, the whole idea that we are doing nothing but inculcating our students into supporting our political candidate when much of the time we’re just trying to get them to do the reading and to undetsrand that World War I came before World War II.

    Indeed, my handy rule of thumb: People who accuse faculty (either in general or in specific cases) are almost always more ideologically-driven than those they are accusing. Call it the David Horowitz Theorem.

    I too don’t see any of this so-called PC stuff (“PC” itself being an accusation that almost always says more about the accuser than the accused) on my campus. But you know, I’d be willing to bet that it barely exists as a part of daily life even in the elite liberal arts dedoubts where it is supposedly pernicious. There is no one capable of being more aggrieved than the right-winger bitching about the grievances of those with whom they disagree.


    • dcat–I think you’re exactly right about “PC being an accusation that almost always says more about the accuser than the accused.” I will admit that I instinctively recoil when people invoke it, especially because it seems mostly like an attempt to shut down a conversation rather than continue it.

      I read the whole article on Oberlin students in the New Yorker last week. I agree that their experience of Oberlin sounds deeply concerning, but I also know that we could find the same number of students–even other student activists at Oberlin–who would probably tell very different stories about their experiences. I don’t want to sound Pollyanna-ish, but compared to other institutions and industries, higher education has been and continues to be an engine for effecting progressive social change on campus and in the wider world. It’s far from perfect, especially when it comes to serving non-white and non-traditional -students, but compared with the for-profit corporate world, for example, it’s at least willing to be critical of itself and reflect.


      • I agree about Oberlin, but the problem is that the right sees all of academia as one big Oberlin, meaning they are confusing outliers with means. Oberlin is the current example. My go to has always been that conservatives like to pretend (or really believe) that all of academia is the Duke Literature Department circa 1991.

        I was once accused by a student of hating white people because I include a lot of civil rights in my survey class. Suffice it to say I’ve been accused of a lot of things. Hating myself is not one of them. For a certain kind of student, though, anything that shifts them out of their comfort zone even a little bit is a sign of hostility — ironically enough, this is practically the definition of a PC response.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I only rarely get complaints, and they’re only mild complaints, and they are never from the Left — my liberal / leftist students, I suspect, are just so relieved to hear someone saying something from the Left in the classroom, they wouldn’t much care what I said. (I teach in NW Arkansas.)

    No, the complaints I get, when I get them, are from Evangelical students, who are, I think, astonished to find someone not teaching the party-line they have been spoonfed their entire lives: that Evolution is a lie, the Liberalism is destructive, the Feminism is the real enemy of women.

    They don’t complain about these things, mind you. The complaints I get are much smaller, and usually odd — for instance, when I taught LGBT Literature, one student complained because Angels In America had “language” in it. (By which she meant cuss words.) And when I taught Working Class Lit, a student complained because I wasn’t presenting “both sides” of the story. (Because I didn’t give the pro-Corporate side, I guess? Unions hurt the ability of business owners to exploit workers? IDK.)

    My favorite was when, during World Lit, I taught about the Protestant Reformation, and a student complained because I taught that the original church was the Catholic Church, and that the Protestant churches had broken away from it. This, my Evangelical Baptist student said, was not true. The Baptist church was the only real church, and the first church, founded by Jesus, and it was wrong for me to teach anything else in the classroom.


    • Hey, delagar–it’s good to hear from you!

      A friend of mine who used to teach Western Civ 101, Mesopotamia through the Reformation, or something like that, told me that that was always her most *political* class precisely because of the ancient church/medieval church/Reformation story. At our uni, she would get mostly polite inquiries from her students from both sides, Protestant & Catholic.


  5. I think part of this phenomenon is simply that social media allows people to organize and publicize more protests. If 5 people in 1998 staged a protest about an obscure issue, that was that. Now, if 1 person stages a protest about an obscure issue, and they succeed at going viral, thousands of people in the Twitter echo chamber hear about it. Then it becomes a news item because whatever happens on Twitter must be reported in every other media outlet. It becomes this big PR saga for anyone who can try to connect their clickbait to it.

    I was an AAS major in undergrad at a state flagship. I also took a number of gender studies courses and most of the conversations people are having today were happening back then too. But they didn’t get national publicity the way they do today.


    • I think that’s a big part of it, twinkle. I often think back to the liberal arts college $hitstorms that hit my college ca. 1986-90, and what a ridiculed bunch of jerks we would have been seen to be (and perhaps were, at least some of us!) if we had social media back then.

      But I also think that part of this is that there are a number of white, male so-called liberals or leftists–like Bill Maher, for example, or most of the writers at The Atlantic–who feel empowered to tell nonwhites and women/queers to STFU and that we’re no fun and we’re killing the college comedy tour. Or something. As though that’s what college is all about? Wev.


      • “Only in comedy, by the way, does an obedient white girl from the suburbs count as diversity.” – Tina Fey in Bossypants

        College comedy tour aside, I am glad that people are having this dialogue. Straight white men don’t get to have the only voice in society, and neither does any other group.

        Liked by 1 person

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