I took a student’s essay to bed last night. But I shouldn’t tell her that when I give it back to her.
That I had to work late on Sunday night might surprise those Americans who think “teachers”, especially “college professors”, have an easy life. It would not surprise the conservative politicians, who know better, but encourage that belief as much as they can anyway. But that’s a different essay.
My student might be amused to think I was reading her writing in my pajamas, or she might be annoyed that I might be dozing over her work, or she might be awestruck by how hard I was working. But the connection of bed and her and me in one sentence might trigger a different reaction, an uncertainty about what I really meant, a fear that I might be flirting, and a loss of trust in my academic role.
Among 20-year old American women, raised on the most lurid narratives that the private media can think up, that would not be such a leap. Years of weekly headlines about some teacher somewhere in the 50 states caught having sex with his students will already have raised question marks about male teachers.
So I shouldn’t say it. I can assure her that I took her work seriously without leaving any uncomfortable questions open. I can think carefully about every word I say. Political Correctness!” shouts the right. When being politically incorrect means frightening and perhaps misleading one of my students, for whom I am a major authority figure, why make that choice? When recognizing that precisely that kind of double speak has enforced some men’s sexual power and gives the rest of us a bad reputation, why choose that?
The whole political correctness chant, made up by the right as their major reaction to the human rights movements of the 1960s, is nonsense. Every human society advanced enough to have politics has rules about politically correct speech. I can say things in my classroom now that my own teachers would never have said, for fear of being labeled politically incorrect. They couldn’t reprimand a student for saying something disparaging about a black woman or a gay man, without concern that they would get in political trouble. Politicians were worried about talking too respectfully, too equally, about African Americans, women or homosexuals.
A racist and sexist society enforced these rules. I’m glad that the spectrum of political correctness has shifted in my lifetime. I have more freedom to speak the truth about history, and people with prejudices have less freedom to indulge them in public.
The real question was never whether there would be political correctness. It always has been “what kind?” Lately we have been hearing about new demands on our speech. Some students and some adults want teachers to issue disclaimers when we are about to say something that could be upsetting to some students. These notifications are called trigger warnings. At University of California at Santa Barbara, the Student Senate passed a resolution mandating such trigger warnings in syllabi, possibly for each class session, to alert those students who have suffered trauma, like sexual assault, that they may encounter upsetting material. The Oberlin College faculty guide about how to act in the newly aware classroom is lengthy, detailed, and guaranteed to make faculty uncomfortable. The list of subjects about which students should be warned has been growing much too rapidly: it now includes snakes, vomit, and skulls and skeletons (avoid Halloween!).
Conservatives have gleefully leaped on this scattered demand for trigger warnings to criticize the whole academic enterprise. Lindsey Burke at the Heritage Foundation said, “Issues like this are part of the reason students, parents and employers are increasingly questioning the value of a bachelor’s degree and even whether its time as a proxy of employability has passed.” Of course, it is not true that college education is “increasingly questioned”, except by those who are trying to discredit it.
Although I am in favor of carefully choosing my words, in and outside of class, I’m not in favor of trigger warnings. What’s the difference between the two situations I have outlined? For me the crucial distinction is that one interaction takes place in the classroom and one is personal. What we can say and ought to say to a class about our mutual subject is not the same as what we can say and ought to say to one of our students when we are speaking alone. I can tell the class “I love you”, but obviously not one student. I can describe in my course Holocaust events which might make students cry, as it often makes me cry. The point is not to upset them, but to show them what happened in the not-so-distant past, what its causes were, and how different kinds of people responded. If they are not upset, they are not paying attention.
But a student sitting in my office is a different kind of audience. I’ll take care not to bring up subjects with double meanings, that might maker her feel diminished or threatened. Life is upsetting enough without worrying that your teacher is hitting on you.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 5, 2015