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Notoriously liberal presidential candidate Bernie Sanders held a campaign event at notoriously conservative Liberty University yesterday, and the temptation to hot-take proved too much for Jonathan Chait to resist:

This is, of course, absurd.

All students and faculty at Liberty are required to comply with the college’s doctrinal statement, which affirms the inerrancy of the Bible and the imminence of Jesus’s return to earth. Media that contains “lewd lyrics, anti-Christian message, [or] sexual content” is prohibited. Protests and demonstrations are banned from campus, and students are barred from engaging in political activity off-campus that “would contradict or otherwise compromise” the school’s “principles and policies.”

Open to dissenting views? A few years ago Liberty University denied recognition to a campus chapter of the College Democrats, declaring that because Liberty is “pro-life and believes that marriage between one man and one woman provides the best environment for children,” it would “not lend its name or financial support to any student group that advances causes contrary to its mission.” (And that was the cleaned-up PR version of the statement — the original email to the club declared that the Dems were persona non grata because “socialism.”)

Now, Liberty is a private university. It can restrict students’ speech rights pretty much however it wants. But there is not a single liberal campus anywhere in the country that prohibits students from possessing conservative books or movies in the dorms, that requires faculty to affirm their secular beliefs, or that denies recognition to the College Republicans on the basis of the GOP platform.

Liberty University is closed to “dissenting views” in ways that have no parallel whatsoever on the nation’s liberal campuses. There’s just no comparison.

Chait eventually realized that his original claim was unsupportable, so he — in his words — walked it back. But his new position was, if anything, even more ludicrous. As he tweeted:

We don’t have to guess what the scene Chait describes would be like, of course. Contrary to popular stereotype, conservatives speak on liberal campuses all the time. (Google “Santorum campus speech” if you don’t believe me.) And yes, often they’re picketed or booed or challenged in other ways. So why didn’t that happen yesterday?

Because students aren’t allowed to protest at Liberty University.

As the college’s code of conduct says, “student participation in on-campus demonstrations, petitions or picketing is prohibited unless approved by Liberty University administration.” Period. And Liberty’s students couldn’t even protest Sanders’ speech by staying away — attendance at the event was mandatory.

None of this is a secret, of course. The mandate that students attend Sanders’ speech was reported widely in the press, and Chait himself tweeted a screencap of Liberty’s ban on student demonstrations before he sent his final tweet. And anyway, since when is outrage a bad thing? Since when is noisy contestation of political views something to be regretted?

Jonathan Chait’s vision of a campus “open to dissenting views” is one in which high-profile celebrities with ideologies at odds with the student body are invited to speak, and one in which they are not subjected to challenge or disruption when they arrive. It has nothing to do with students’ rights to hold views that dissent from those of the administration, or from those of the larger society. When Chait thinks of free speech, he’s not thinking of the right to rabble-rouse, to confront, to Stick It To The Man. That’s not what free speech means to him.

And so Chait is ultimately no friend of free speech at all. He’s not a defender of the rights of left-liberal students to speak intemperately or aggressively on campus, and as we saw last night he’s no ally of conservative students who might want to do the same. He sees a college administration bringing in a contrarian speaker, forcing students to attend, and banning the expression of dissenting views, and thinks, that’s how a campus should run.

So can we stop pretending that people like Chait are supporters of free expression? Please?

Yesterday Vox printed I Love the Victorian Era. So I Decided to Live in It, an essay by Sarah Chrisman, a woman who has turned her life (and her husband’s) into an elaborate Victorian-era cosplay/roleplay. Because it includes lines like “Gabriel said watching me grow accustomed to Victorian clothes was like seeing me blossom into my true self,” the internet predictably went bonkers.

A lot of questions spring to mind about Chrisman’s decision to live as a Victorian, particularly since she’s far more specific about the modern conveniences she’s giving up than which ones she’s holding onto. Has she forsaken smoke detectors? Antibiotics? ATMs? What’s her stance on fluoride toothpaste? Does she take public transportation? How do they handle birth control? As I suggested on Twitter yesterday afternoon, you can’t actually live like a Victorian in 2015, because our society isn’t a Victorian society, and Chrisman’s project of mashing up the technologies of today with those of the Gilded Age — she prints out old newspapers from the internet to read in the tub! — marks her definitively as an enthusiastic citizen of our own miraculous age.

Chrisman and her husband are white, and the simulacrum of Victorian life they’ve chosen to enter is a decidedly upper-class one (though without the extensive staff her forbears would have enjoyed — kerosene has gotten cheaper since 1890, but servants have become a lot more expensive, what with minimum wage laws and child labor regulations and so on). This gave rise to another, more pointed, set of questions yesterday: Does Chrisman’s nostalgia extend to lynching? To eugenics? Phrenology? And what about Chrisman’s own role in society — what about the advances the last 125 years have brought to women? Does she want to throw those away too?

It turns out she kind of does.

Chrisman wrote a book a couple of years ago about her experiences as a Victoriankin, and though it’s mostly about corsets and how everybody’s a bunch of jerks for not understanding how awesome they are, she does find time in its pages to share her views on the social environment of the fin de siècle, and on that era’s women’s rights movement specifically.

Chrisman isn’t a big fan of the suffragettes, whom she considers violent and uncouth, and she’s unimpressed with the franchise itself. (She voted Gore in 2000, and regards that experience as an indication that Votes For Women have been oversold as a liberatory development.) As for more contemporary feminism, she writes that

“the really important work was done a long time ago, and a lot of what people have been trying to do more recently has been sort of counterproductive. I think that in a lot of the efforts that women have made to try to prove they’re the same as men, a lot of the power that women used to have has gotten lost along the way … in the past there was a lot better understanding that women can be different than men and still be very powerful.”

So there’s that.

The words “child labor” are missing from Chrisman’s book, as are “tuberculosis,” “pellagra,” and “cholera.” She mentions racism twice — once in the course of bemoaning the fact that modern audiences who are sophisticated enough to reject the racial caricatures of Gone With the Wind are hoodwinked by its calumnies against corsetry. (In another passage she compares myths about corsets’ ill effects to “the idea … that Jews eat babies.”)

But it’s the second reference to racism in her book that reveals her worldview. “Those who denounce contemporary cultures are denounced as xenophobes or racists,” she writes, “yet we have no word for those who treat the cultures of the past in this same manner.” She continues: “It is difficult for many people to grasp that lifestyles may have been different in the past, and yet still completely satisfactory to those living them.”

This is cultural relativism of the most simpleminded sort — an assertion of cultural equality via an erasure of cultural difference. (At one point in the book she denies that “any given generation or culture is truly either more or less prudish than any other.) And it cuts against the grain of her larger argument, too — if it’s bigotry to denounce aspects of past cultures, surely it’s also bigotry to denounce the values and habits of the present day that she herself repudiates.

Chrisman’s essay yesterday was mocked as a manifestation of privilege — the privilege of a woman who could look back at an era marked by tremendous suffering and injustice and see only her imagined self, happily occupying a position of wealth and comfort. As her book demonstrates, that solipsism wasn’t just a feature of the essay — it pervades her understanding of the era she longs for.

Chrisman argues that we should view the Victorian era a “completely satisfactory” time for those who lived through it, but of course that era wasn’t completely satisfactory, and of course no era is. The defects of the present day are acutely visible — and endlessly irritating — to her, while the defects of the past are effortlessly erased.

Because today, as much as she enjoys pretending otherwise, is where she lives.

Cooper Union is back from the dead.

This afternoon at two o’clock the New York State Attorney General will announce the settlement of a lawsuit filed by the Committee to Save Cooper Union, a group of activist students, faculty, and alumni against the Cooper Union trustees. The settlement will impose various reforms to Cooper Union governance, establish an independent financial monitor for the college, and begin the slow, difficult process of re-establishing Cooper Union as a free, healthy institution.

Today’s settlement is a huge victory for those who have fought to preserve the mission that Cooper Union has advanced since its founding a century and a half ago and a final repudiation of the failed administration whose financial mismanagement, fomenting of division, and punitive governance laid Cooper low.

The signs of rebirth at Cooper have been visible for months. Five of the most recalcitrant trustees resigned (in an extraordinary fit of pique) in June, and widely-despised president Jamshed Bharucha quit the following day. Other resignations and retirements followed, as it became clear that the Attorney General’s investigation of Cooper Union had real teeth.

There’s a tremendous amount to unpack here, and I’ll be writing much more in the coming days. In particular, the release of the full text of the settlement this afternoon will answer a lot of questions (and likely raise many others). In the meantime, though, a few highlights:

  • Today’s announcement doesn’t mandate a return to free tuition at Cooper, but it creates a variety of mechanisms designed to foster that goal, including a “Free Education Committee” of the trustees with a mandate of developing a plan for the re-establishment of a tuition-free Cooper. The committee will present its plan in January 2018, when Cooper’s annual revenue from its ownership of the land beneath the Chrysler Building will more than triple to $32.5 million.
  • Though the lawsuit asked that the state find Cooper Union had an obligation under its charter to remain tuition-free, the planned agreement makes no such determination. Under such a finding, tuition would have been reversed immediately and current students would likely have been entitled to sue for refunds, and it is not clear how Cooper would have absorbed the resulting deficits.
  • The Committee to Save Cooper Union said in a statement last night that the terms of the settlement agreement “provide far more power to the community and genuine oversight than CSCU could have possibly gained with its lawsuit alone.” Although the consent decree was agreed to by all the parties, the settlement also includes a cy pres, imposed unilaterally by the Attorney General, that amends the terms of Cooper Union’s governance documents in order to bring the college back into compliance with the spirit of its charter.
  • The agreement places two students on the Cooper Union board of trustees as voting members, along with several new alumni trustees. I will be particularly interested in seeing what provision the consent decree makes for the free and fair election of the student representatives, given that the Cooper Union trustees in 2013 refused to seat the student elected to the board as a result of a process agreed to at the conclusion of that spring’s student occupation of the president’s office.

More soon, but for now I’ll reiterate: This is a huge victory, one that many observers would have dismissed as inconceivable not very long ago. The administration that imposed tuition at Cooper and declared war on the college’s student, faculty, and alumni activists has been removed and repudiated, and the college’s governance has been remade according to a vision of community, inclusivity, and free education.

This is a historic moment, not just for Cooper Union but in the fight for free, democratic education in the United States.

One thing that makes it hard to talk seriously about politics with Freddie deBoer is his dogged insistence that none of his antagonists on the left are willing to talk seriously about politics.

Actually, let me rephrase that, because I’m actually not just talking about one thing here, but two — his insistence that his interlocutors are willfully misrepresenting reality, and his insistence that they refuse to address crucial questions raised by their positions. I think of the first as an “everybody insists…” move, and the second as a “nobody will address…” maneuver. I’ve seen him go back to those two wells over and over — everybody’s making obviously false claims, and nobody will grapple with obvious dilemmas.

The last time I tried to engage with deBoer here on the blog, it didn’t go well. But yesterday he wrote a piece on trigger warnings, a subject that I think is really important, so I’m going to give it a whirl again, and this time I’m going to take his “everybody insists” and “nobody will address” claims head on.

I’m not going to insist! I am going to address! We’ll see how it goes.

Everybody Insists #1:

“I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been told, with absolute confidence, that “no one is talking about actually regulating content!” Which just is not true … there have always been campus leftists who think that many types of speech that we generally acknowledge as legitimate political expression should be banned. … Stop telling me from the media bubble you live in that these attitudes don’t exist, just because they resemble a conservative stereotype.”

Yes. Those attitudes exist. There are people on the left who want to restrict certain speech. Why won’t we admit it? Well, I just did, and plenty of others have, but yeah, sure, we don’t often shout it from the rooftops.

Why not? Partly because the people who want to actually ban speech aren’t particularly powerful in, nor representative of, the broader left campus movement. Partly, in this instance, because trigger warnings are speech, not speech suppression, so the question doesn’t seem all that germane. And partly because the campus left’s critics are really really eager right now to cast any left criticism of others’ speech as opposition to free speech.

I’ve written about this before, a bunch of times. About how most of Jonathan Chait’s examples of hostility to free speech were actually examples of people engaging in political debate. About how Wendy Kaminer accuses those who call her a bigot of committing acts of censorship. More recently, in the latest high-profile attack on campus PC (an Atlantic magazine cover story) free speech activist Greg Lukianoff said that “a claim that someone’s words are ‘offensive’ is not just an expression of one’s own subjective feeling of offendedness. It is, rather, a … demand that the speaker apologize or be punished by some authority for committing an offense.”

This is ridiculous. Describing someone’s words as offensive isn’t censorship, or a call for censorship. It’s criticism. And the fact that civil libertarians have become so quick to conflate the two is to my mind an incredibly ominous development.

So yes, there are people on the campus left who want to suppress others’ speech. But no, they’re not representative of the movement, and many of the media’s favorite examples of this supposed trend are fabricated or distorted beyond recognition. So sure, I’ll say what you want me to say, but not without making it absolutely clear that I’m not signing on to a larger fraudulent narrative.

Nobody Will Address #1:

“Next, the relationship between PTSD and trigger warnings. There’s absolutely no clarity on a very basic question: are trigger warnings intended to help those who suffer from PTSD? … When we talk about ‘triggers,’ are we talking about PTSD? I have read thousands and thousands of words on this subject, and I have no idea.”

I was, I believe, the first American professor to share his syllabus trigger warning publicly. I’ve written in support of classroom trigger warnings in Inside Higher Ed, Slate, and The American Historian. I’ve talked about them on NPR, and been interviewed about them a bunch of places. My own syllabus trigger warning has been adopted or adapted by professors at a long and growing list of universities. So while I can’t speak for everyone on this subject, I think it’s fair to say I’m not just some random guy.

So here’s my attempt to provide clarity:

I’m not a mental health professional. I’m not competent to diagnose or treat PTSD, and it’s not my place to do so. But as I wrote in Inside Higher Ed, “it’s not just trauma survivors who may be distracted or derailed by shocking or troubling material.”

My own trigger warning has been shaped by my reading on the subject of trauma, and by my conversations with survivors of trauma, but it’s not intended as a clinical intervention and it’s not intended to be used only by PTSD sufferers.

Nobody Will Address #2:

“Nor is there any notion of how to handle cheating and abuse. … What are we supposed to do with students who frivolously claim to have suffered trauma? … What do we do to decide who can fairly claim to have suffered trauma, and access the special dispensation that might come with it?”

My syllabus trigger warning doesn’t provide students who invoke it with any special privileges, so this isn’t really an issue for me — and as I said above, my text has been pretty widely adopted, so it’s not an issue for those professors either.

Speaking more generally, there are three paths a professor can take when asked for an accommodation from a student — offer the same accommodation to everyone, require that the requesting student provide proof of need, or apply their own judgment. I can see any of those approaches working in a trigger warning context.

Everyone Insists #2:

“I have been told directly by people who are in favor of trigger warnings that to attempt to determine if someone really has PTSD, or some other, vaguer form of trauma, is to ‘revictimize’ them. So what are educators and institutions supposed to do? The closest thing I get to a response is ‘no one would  do that.’ No one would do that? Really? No college student would take advantage of a special dispensation you’ve created that inarguably gives them a certain amount of transactional power in their interactions with an instructor?”

Of course there will be students who try to game any system. But for the reasons I laid out above, that fact is irrelevant under some trigger warning schemes, and addressable under others.

Nobody Will Address #3:

“Then there’s the fact that, in the actual medical literature on PTSD, triggers are discussed not as intellectual subjects like rape or war but as sensorial impressions like a sound or a small or a play of light. Or the fact that there’s no extant medical literature that demonstrates that trigger warnings actually have provide demonstrable relief to the people who suffer PTSD. That stuff isn’t even discussed.”

Again, I’m not a clinician. But here’s an article in a psychiatric journal about Second World War veterans’ combat PTSD being triggered by fiftieth-anniversary commemorations of the end of the war. There are plenty of others like it. As for the question of whether trigger warnings could provide relief for PTSD sufferers, it’s my understanding — and again, I’m not an expert — that many practitioners recommend controlled, managed exposure to potential triggers as a way of reducing their potency. Controlled exposure to potentially traumatic material is exactly what my own trigger warning is designed to facilitate.

Nobody Will Address #4:

“Finally, there’s the rhetorical condition of the discussion we have. I think this piece from Lindy West emblemizes it:

Maybe we can all get flippant and condescending about trigger warnings after we build a world where more than 3% of rapes lead to conviction, where we don’t shame and blame people for their own victimisation, where men don’t feel entitled to women’s bodies, and where millions of people aren’t moving through life yoked with massive, secret traumas.

This strikes me as a classic example of a common progressive category error: this terrible injustice exists (and it does), so therefore you have to get on board with this heavy-handed policy that cannot possibly actually reduce that injustice. I am totally unclear as to how trigger warnings actually combat any of the problems that West identifies in that paragraph.”

West’s claim isn’t that trigger warnings will combat those problems, but that hostility to trigger warnings — specifically “flippant and condescending” hostility — stems from the same societal sources that they do. As she writes: “It’s almost as though, coded as feminine and largely associated with rape victims, the antipathy toward trigger warnings is about something else entirely.”

What she’s saying is that in order to have a serious conversation of the merits and demerits of trigger warnings, we must first acknowledge that a lot of the antipathy toward them is driven by deeper-rooted misogyny. You can agree with that argument or disagree with it, but don’t claim that she doesn’t make her case.

Nobody Will Address #4:

“How exactly is anyone supposed to have a conversation after a statement like that is made? How are we supposed to sort good from better when the rhetorical cudgels of rape, victim blaming, male entitlement, and secret trauma have been deployed?”

Like this. Like we’re doing right now. You have a conversation. You talk about the issue, instead of (or in addition to) complaining about how we talk about the issue.

Nobody Will Address #5:

“I genuinely believe that there is a meaningful common ground that people can find on this issue. But I have no idea how to find it, when as soon as you raise concerns with the practice, you’re relegated to the role of victim blamer and trauma denier. There’s no way to address this issue constructively under those conditions. None.”

If you want to have a constructive conversation about trigger warnings, Freddie, here we are. If you want to dig in and talk about pedagogy and student vs faculty power and classroom management and PTSD, that’s a conversation that’s happening, and it’s one you’re invited to join. If you want to join, join. If you don’t want to join, don’t. But don’t claim that nobody else is willing, because plenty of us are.

Last year, after quite a bit of discussion with friends and colleagues online, I added a trigger warning (or, as I describe it, a content note) to my syllabus. Here’s what it said:

Course Content Note

At times this semester we will be discussing historical events that may be disturbing, even traumatizing, to some students. If you ever feel the need to step outside during one of these discussions, either for a short time or for the rest of the class session, you may always do so without academic penalty. (You will, however, be responsible for any material you miss. If you do leave the room for a significant time, please make arrangements to get notes from another student or see me individually.)

If you ever wish to discuss your personal reactions to this material, either with the class or with me afterwards, I welcome such discussion as an appropriate part of our coursework.

I won’t rehash all the conversations that went into that decision — if you’re interested, you can read pieces that I wrote during the process here and here and here. But to summarize quickly, I was interested in giving my students advance notice of material that they might find unsettling, as well as guidance about their rights and responsibilities in my classroom.

I introduced the note for my summer classes last year and have revised it each semester since. Here’s how it looks now, on my upcoming fall syllabi:

Course Content Note

At times this semester we will be discussing historical events that may be disturbing, even traumatizing, to some students. If you suspect that specific material is likely to be emotionally challenging for you, I’d be happy to discuss any concerns you may have before the subject comes up in class. Likewise, if you ever wish to discuss your personal reactions to course material with the class or with me individually afterwards, I welcome such discussions as an appropriate part of our classwork.

If you ever feel the need to step outside during a class discussion you may always do so without academic penalty. You will, however, be responsible for any material you miss. If you do leave the room for a significant time, please make arrangements to get notes from another student or see me individually to discuss the situation.

As you can see, most of the text remains from the original version. Beyond various language tweaks, the major changes are these:

First, I added a sentence inviting students to discuss potentially traumatizing material with me before it arises in class. If a student knows that they’re likely to find particular course content challenging, I’d rather have that conversation in advance than leave us both to be surprised in the classroom — far better for us to strategize together before the issue arises than to react to it on the fly.

Second, and more subtly, I re-arranged the material. Where I had originally offered students the option of stepping out of the room before stating my willingness to discuss students’ personal response to potentially traumatic material, I now foreground discussion. The new version of the note centers dialogue — before, during, or after class — as central to the academic project.

I got the content note basically where I want it pretty quickly. There was, though, one element of the project that I wrestled with for a bit longer — how to discuss it in class.

Like most professors, I’m a believer in going over the syllabus point by point at the beginning of the semester. When we arrived at the content note, though, I initially tended to get a little flustered. Everything else we cover that first day — absence policy, grading, office hours — is familiar ground for both me and the students, but this is new territory for all of us. (I’ve asked a couple of times whether students had ever had a trigger warning in class before, and none has yet said yes.)

When I introduced the content note for the first time, I felt like I was bringing the session to a screeching halt. The note is intended as a quiet heads-up for the few students who may need it, but I initially tended to over-explain, leaving the impression that the course was going to be far more fraught than it actually is.

This spring, though, I came up with a more concise and focused way of addressing it. As an illustration of what I have in mind, I tell the class that the death of children may be a topic that comes up in the course, noting that a student who has lost a child or a sibling might respond differently to such material than one who hasn’t. It’s for helping to manage those sorts of situations, I say, that the content note is intended.

This specificity, it turns out, is really helpful. In the abstract, a syllabus trigger warning strikes a lot of students — and a lot of professors, and a lot of observers of higher ed — as weird, intrusive, and unnecessary. But when I introduce it in the context of parental bereavement and the murder of Emmett Till or Charles Darwin’s eulogy for his young daughter, my students tend to listen, nod, ask a couple of small questions, and then move on with me to the next item on the list.

I’ll continue tweaking the note and how I introduce it going forward. At this point, though, I see the experiment as a success.

About This Blog

n7772graysmall is the work of Angus Johnston, a historian and advocate of American student organizing.

To contact Angus, click here.

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