By Jan Schroeder, Associate Professor
During the holidays I was asked more than once by friends and relatives to speak about the Lindsay Shepherd case at Wilfrid Laurier last fall. It was clear that my loved ones expected me to denounce Laurier, defend Shepherd, and bemoan threats to free speech in post-secondary education. I was asked for my opinion of Jordan Peterson and his refusal to honour pronoun preference. I was asked about the effects of #metoo on university campuses, and whether it doesn’t sometimes happen that female professors abuse their power by sexually harassing their male students and why don’t we ever hear about that?
In most of these conversations it became clear that these friends and family members were aware of these issues via media pundits, who often have only a vague idea of what goes on in post-secondary classrooms. There’s a ton of clicks to be gained by portraying university students as intolerant and entitled, faculty as smug elitists. I heard myself debunking the myth that free speech and academic freedom is endangered on campuses by politically correct snowflakes who supposedly police our classrooms, thought, and speech. I heard myself questioning the adequacy of the “level playing field” as a metaphor for public debate. I wanted, but didn’t have the energy, to deliver a mini lecture on how reverse sexism isn’t actually a thing.
Most, if not all, of these conversations invoked Trump at one point or another.
These discussions left me feeling rattled, exhausted, and grouchy. I often didn’t feel prepared for them. I just wanted to be left alone to binge on high-carb snacks and complete massive jigsaw puzzles. Instead I felt pulled into the role of defender of post-secondary education, debunker of stereotypes, and patient re-educator. Of course, I could have avoided and diverted the conversation elsewhere, but to many of my family and friends, I am their face of post-secondary education, so it seems like it’s my responsibility to speak to these issues when they surface over dessert.
Of course, I cannot speak for “the humanities today,” or for every professor, every administrative decision, every classroom. Yet the nature of these conversations is such that I often feel like I’m arguing against a stereotype of myself, my colleagues, my profession, and my students. Wild generalization is the name of the game.
My friend and colleague Aimee Morrison over at Hook and Eye argues that we academics may be “research-smart,” but that we need to become more “culture-clever.” That we need to do a better job of seizing the conversation away from those who make a career out of maligning us and our students on Twitter and the op-ed pages. If we agree, her point also extends to the many face-to-face conversations we have about our work and our studies with those in our circle who are not closely connected to the university. These conversations are sometimes uncomfortable. It takes courage and energy to say the thing that might ruin the dinner party.
Face-to-face discussion is often unsettling, which is exactly the point of the kinds of healthy debates that are alive and well in university classrooms. My interactions with my students are what continue to give me hope.
How was your holiday? If you’re an instructor, were you asked about any of these issues and how did you respond? If you’re a student, were you asked to defend your decision to pursue a BA? Or to answer the age-old question: what are you going to do with your English degree?
Jan Schroeder is an associate professor of English at Carleton. During the holidays, she completed a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle of Van Gogh paintings.