All posts filed under: Education

Incomprehension 501: Intro to Graduate School

Like any responsible book collector, I’m often forced to decide which books deserve a spot in my limited shelf space. During these purges, one type of book always gives me pause. These are the books I acquired during the two years I was a graduate student in comparative literature; books unheard of by most people outside of academia but, to many inside, akin to scripture; books by Walter Benjamin, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, Giorgio Agamben, György Lukács, and Slavoj Žižek, to name just a few from the pantheon. I’ve held on to some thinking one day I might return to graduate school to complete a PhD, and what would a graduate student be without his copy of The Origin of the German Tragic Drama? But with a tenured teaching position, two kids, and a mortgage, I no longer entertain such fantasies. Now I’m free to finally make a confession: I never knew what these books were talking about. The demands of my bourgeois existence grow with each passing year, and I didn’t want this little …

The Academic Mob and Its Fatal Toll

“I get the queasiness of no due process. But . . . losing your job isn’t death or prison.” Dayna Tortorici (Twitter)  “If you compare dissent via social media to lynch mobs, then you don’t understand dissent, social media, or lynch mobs.” Jen Sookfong Lee (Twitter)   In 1992, the ethics committee of the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University accused neurology and neurosurgery professor Justine Sergent of failing to properly obtain their approval for her work using radioactive isotopes to study the brain function of pianists. Sergent claimed no wrongdoing other than, at most, a technical mistake of not re-requesting specific approval to study pianists reading sheet music when she had already received approval to use the same technology to study brain function in people reacting to images of human faces. The following year she was officially reprimanded for the alleged breach but filed an appeal in arbitration. Over the next two years, Sergent’s dispute with the ethics committee grew bitter and she claimed it was based on personal grievances and not on the …

Damore, Diversity, and Disruption at PSU

I held my breath as the protesters stood up and began their walk-out. “Please, let it be peaceful,” I said to myself. In the weeks leading up to the event, we had received threats of violence. One person on social media said he would bring explosives. The university administration found the threats credible enough to send a team of armed campus police to patrol the lecture hall. As the protesters neared the exit, a woman suddenly lunged for the audio equipment, pulled leads out indiscriminately, and knocked some of the equipment to the floor. The microphones stopped working. Another protester shoved a student volunteer into the door. What caused this extreme reaction? Ex-Google engineer James Damore had been invited to speak as part of a panel discussion on diversity, held at Portland State University on February 17. As I had previously written in the Wall Street Journal, we were anticipating controversy. After the incident, however, the disruption and violent misconduct were downplayed. Willamette Week, a left-wing alternative newspaper, was dismissive: “[The Freethinkers] expected controversy. They warned …

The Evergreen Meltdown

A case report will often describe a condition that is an extreme or unusual version of what one might typically observe. In medicine, it can be used to illustrate and explore disease mechanisms and the underlying pathology of more common manifestations of an illness. What has transpired and continues to transpire at The Evergreen State College where I teach provides some important lessons. My college is now famous for its intense student protests, the bizarre ousting of biology professor Bret Weinstein, and the absence of public support for Weinstein from faculty and a college president who thinks he might be a white supremacist. But these are only clinical symptoms of a much deeper disorder that had been growing at Evergreen for some time, and is only at its early stages in many universities across the country. Evergreen’s prognosis is guarded at best, but it might explain what ails higher education in general. Earlier this month, in his annual State of the College address, President George Bridges announced that next year’s projected enrollment for Evergreen will …

Thinking Critically About Social Justice

Yesterday, the U.S. National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) released a memo written by an attorney, Jayme Sophir, which determined that Google did not violate United States federal law when it fired James Damore. Sophir reasoned that references to psychometric literature on sex differences in personality were “discriminatory and constitute sexual harassment,” and on these grounds, Damore’s firing was justified. Following the release of the NLRB memo, a number of scientists on Twitter expressed alarm at the justifications provided within the memo, which appeared to relegate the discussion of sex differences outside the realm of constitutionally protected speech. The NLRB’s determination has emerged after Damore, together with another former Google engineer, filed a class action lawsuit against the company alleging an institutionalised culture of harassment towards people with conservative or libertarian political views. Their complaint is eye-opening. Damore and Gudeman lay out in detail the many ways in which this harassment occurs: a pervasive environment of disparaging jokes and demeaning language amongst colleagues; a climate of bullying, mocking, and personal attacks from superiors and others in power; an open endorsement …

Is There Any Evidence that Trigger Warnings Work?

At Stockton University’s 3rd Annual Women in Academia Conference in 2014, Kristin J. Jacobson, a professor of American Literature and Gender Studies, gave a presentation entitled “Trigger Warnings! Best Practices and the Evaluation of Teaching.”1 Jacobson described trigger warnings as “largely accepted practice among faculty from a range of fields” for accommodating traumatized students in the classroom. This is a view shared by other advocates and users of trigger warnings who have come forward to justify their use. In an article for the New York Times entitled “Why I Use Trigger Warnings,” Katie Manne also contends that “the willingness to use trigger warnings” reflects best practices in the classroom. Rebecca Godderiss and Jennifer Root from Wilfred Laurier University, meanwhile, offer that dialogue among faculty is critical to establishing best practices for trigger warnings.2 Likewise, Francesca Laguardia and her colleagues at Montclair State University suggest that, were they to be given training on the prevalence of trauma and the biology of trauma triggers, most academics would be more open to incorporating trigger warnings in their classrooms.3 However, these perspectives operate on the …

The Cultural Diversity Case for Free Speech

American campus speech codes and informal speech norms discriminate against foreign students and faculty, and that’s an important but neglected reason why they should be challenged. Speech codes often claim to protect ‘cultural diversity’ on campuses, but they often do the reverse. They impose narrow American norms of political correctness on foreign grad students, post-docs, and faculty who can’t realistically understand what Americans will find offensive. From neurodiversity to cultural diversity In an article for Quillette last year, I argued that campus speech codes discriminate against ‘neurodivergent’ people who have Asperger’s syndrome, bipolar disorder, PTSD, ADHD, or other conditions. These disorders make it hard to understand and follow speech codes that prohibit saying or doing anything that others might find offensive. In a follow-up article, I outlined how neurodivergent people could use the Americans with Disabilities Act to challenge such discriminatory speech codes. These neurodivergent conditions are all heritable, and they make people’s brains different from the ‘neurotypical’ average brain, so they could be called ‘genetic neurodiversity’. But beyond genetic neurodiversity, there’s ‘cultural neurodiversity’: different …