All posts filed under: Education

Words Lose Their Meaning at Wilfrid Laurier University

I know that references to George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 have been overused in reference to the current crisis over freedom of expression at Wilfrid Laurier University. But I’m hoping my position as a Laurier professor will win sympathy from readers so that that they might indulge just one more tip of that hat to Orwell. Orwell wrote 1984 not as a standalone work but as the fictional counterpart to an essay he had written titled: “Politics and the English Language.” The piquant ideas of the essay, published in 1946, were repackaged in more accessible form two years later in the exciting narrative of his novel. Though different literary forms, the key message of both works was the same: beware any person or group that redefines words so that they no longer align with facts, common sense, and common usage. In the novel this idea is made blatantly obvious in the paradoxical mottos the totalitarian government requires its citizen to recite, such as: “War is Peace” and “Slavery is Freedom.” In the essay Orwell is …

“Problematic and In Poor Taste”

On Wednesday 6 December, a German graduate student named Yannick Brandenburg sent out a call for papers to all members of the Liverpool Classics e-mail list. The list is public, so Brandenburg’s message can be read here in full. In short, his e-mail informed the list’s subscribers that a conference would be held at the University of Wuppertal in Germany next autumn, entitled “(un)documented – Was bleibt vom Dokument in der Edition?” and that it would address such questions as “What significance do particular disciplines attribute to a document/documents?” and “What effect does the conceptualization of the document have upon editorial practice?” Brandenburg invited interested researchers to submit “an abstract of no more than 500 words, together with a short CV and contact details.” The discussion that followed (which can also be found in the list’s public archives) is transcribed below, unaltered: Andrew Feldherr Professor and Chair, Department of Classics, Princeton University Thu, 7 Dec 2017 13:10:58 Given the political situation in my country at the moment and the real tragedies that are being visited daily upon …

“White Women Tears”—Critical Theory on Lindsay Shepherd

Two weeks ago, I analysed an incident at Wilfrid Laurier University, where teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd was reprimanded for playing a video clip from a televised debate on the compelled use of gender pronouns, and I connected it to the influence of Critical Theory in academia. Last week, I defended Jordan B. Peterson—a Canadian psychology professor who was part of the debate Shepherd played and who became a central figure in the Laurier media coverage—against criticism that he’s a far-right ideologue who misunderstands what he’s criticising. In this article, the final one in the series, I examine what I perceive to be two important flaws in Critical Theory, and show that understanding these flaws helps make sense of the seemingly inexplicable reactions to the Laurier incident by some students and faculty. *    *    * As I mentioned in the first article, Critical Theory is a methodology developed by a group of Marxian social scientists during the early-to-mid 20th century, motivated by the belief that traditional scientific methodology—which concerns itself with describing, explaining, and …

When Racism is Disguised as Anti-Racism

When I started my graduate education at Portland State in 2015 after a long hiatus from academe, I attended an event titled, “Students of Color Speak Out.” The university president encouraged all students, staff and faculty to attend the event, organized in reaction to alleged racial tensions on campus. As a student of color and the gay son of refugee immigrants, the event’s premise interested me. As I sat in the front, I listened to students detail their daily trauma of existing on a campus that was majority white. Students representing many ethnicities repeatedly shared feeling unsafe. I was confounded because their anecdotes spoke of an experience that sounded similar to those who lived in apartheid-era South Africa or Jim Crow Mississippi — not something I remotely recognized in ultra-progressive Portland. Still, I was sympathetic and recognized that my personal experiences may not be shared by others. My optimism was challenged once I began to pick up on the theme connecting the speeches. It was the visibility of white students, or more broadly white people …

Resisting the Postmodern Ascendancy: An Interview with Ernest Suarez

The Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers (ALSCW) is an academic association which meets at its annual conference (until now in the United States) to discuss literary matters. It is attended by a broad range of literary types: university professors, novelists, and poets, not to mention school teachers. In addition to the excellent quality of the academic endeavors conducted at its conferences, what makes the association noteworthy is that it has an appealing contrarian quality. It was set up to counter what its founders saw as a negative trend in the study of literature, which emerged over the course of the 1970s and ‘80s. The Association describes its own history as follows: In 1994, a group of professors of literature, critics, and imaginative writers, tired of lamenting the overly politicized debate about literary study in the academy, joined together to create a different kind of organization, one aimed at combating this intellectual partisanship. The founders represented many unique perspectives and literatures from ancient to modern, but shared a common exasperation with the narrow theoretical …

In Defence of Jordan B. Peterson

A few days ago, Canadian author and English professor Ira Wells published an essay expressing concern about popular Canadian psychology professor and social critic Jordan B. Peterson. The essay was written in the wake of an incident at Canadian university Wilfred Laurier, where a teaching assistant was reprimanded for playing a short clip of a televised Peterson debate over the compelled use of gender pronouns. (I analysed the incident in Quillette last week.) Regrettably, Wells’s essay is littered with inaccuracies and casual insults, accompanied by a moralistic undertone that is sure to turn off Peterson’s supporters, and perhaps even neutral observers. Nevertheless, I think he succeeds in condensing many of the common criticisms of Peterson, which makes the essay worth responding to as the foundation for a genuine debate of these issues. I suggest reading it if you haven’t already done so. Wells’s main criticisms, as I understand them, are as follows: Peterson is celebrated in the news media as a champion of free speech and liberal, democratic values, while in fact promoting a far-right …

The Politics of Science: Why Scientists Might Not Say What the Evidence Supports

Suppose a scientist makes a bold claim that turns out to be true. How confident are you that this claim would become widely accepted? Let’s start with a mundane case. About a century ago, cosmologists began to realize that we can’t explain the motions of galaxies unless we assume that a certain amount of unknown matter exists that we cannot yet observe with telescopes. Scientists called this “dark matter.” This is a bold claim that requires extraordinary evidence. Still, the indirect evidence is mounting and most cosmologists now believe that dark matter exists. To the extent that non-scientists think about this issue at all, we tend to defer to experts in the field and move on with our lives. But what about politically contentious topics? Does it work the same way? Suppose we have evidence for the truth of a hypothesis the consequences of which many people fear. For example, suppose we have reasonably strong evidence to believe there are average biological differences between men and women, or between different ethnic or racial groups. Would …