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Classroom Of Fear

Welcome to the Fall 2020 classroom, Professor (nadia_bormotova/GettyImages)

Earlier this week I wrote about a woke teacher who slipped up and asked on social media how teachers like him are going to succeed at “destabilizing” their students’ political and cultural opinions if they have to teach online, and parents might be watching. Fear of woke teachers, in other words.

Tonight I would like to say a word about teachers’ fear of woke students. Earlier in the day I was part of a group discussion online in which several conservative college professors voiced their dread of going back to teach this fall, in the new political environment on campus. I continued the discussion privately with one of the teachers, who told me that he is afraid to go to the classroom this fall. He knows that in his classes, he will be facing hundreds of students, any one of whom could decide that he or she was triggered by something the professor said, then run to the administration to lodge a complaint that he is racist, sexist, homophobic, or some other anti-woke offender. The mere accusation in this environment could destroy his career and his reputation.

I’ve been thinking about that conversation all day. It is hard to imagine having to work under such pressure, much less teach — an art that, if done right, requires challenging the perspectives of students, to get them to stretch their minds. I went back to this Vox piece by the pseudonymous Edward Schlosser, published five years ago, in which he said that he is a liberal professor who is terrified of his students. Excerpts:

The student-teacher dynamic has been reenvisioned along a line that’s simultaneously consumerist and hyper-protective, giving each and every student the ability to claim Grievous Harm in nearly any circumstance, after any affront, and a teacher’s formal ability to respond to these claims is limited at best.

He talks about the only formal complaint ever lodged against him: in 2009, by a conservative student who said that something the professor mentioned in class was “communistical.” The complaint was dismissed, as it should have been. More:

I have intentionally adjusted my teaching materials as the political winds have shifted. (I also make sure all my remotely offensive or challenging opinions, such as this article, are expressed either anonymously or pseudonymously). Most of my colleagues who still have jobs have done the same. We’ve seen bad things happen to too many good teachers — adjuncts getting axed because their evaluations dipped below a 3.0, grad students being removed from classes after a single student complaint, and so on.

I once saw an adjunct not get his contract renewed after students complained that he exposed them to “offensive” texts written by Edward Said and Mark Twain. His response, that the texts were meant to be a little upsetting, only fueled the students’ ire and sealed his fate. That was enough to get me to comb through my syllabi and cut out anything I could see upsetting a coddled undergrad, texts ranging from Upton Sinclair to Maureen Tkacik — and I wasn’t the only one who made adjustments, either.

I am frightened sometimes by the thought that a student would complain again like he did in 2009. Only this time it would be a student accusing me not of saying something too ideologically extreme — be it communism or racism or whatever — but of not being sensitive enough toward his feelings, of some simple act of indelicacy that’s considered tantamount to physical assault. As Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis writes, “Emotional discomfort is [now] regarded as equivalent to material injury, and all injuries have to be remediated.” Hurting a student’s feelings, even in the course of instruction that is absolutely appropriate and respectful, can now get a teacher into serious trouble.

Schlosser writes that today (remember, this was 2015), a student lodging a complaint would not object to Schlosser’s supposed ideology. He or she would complain about how something the professor said hurt their feelings — something that is impossible to defend against.


The current student-teacher dynamic has been shaped by a large confluence of factors, and perhaps the most important of these is the manner in which cultural studies and social justice writers have comported themselves in popular media. I have a great deal of respect for both of these fields, but their manifestations online, their desire to democratize complex fields of study by making them as digestible as a TGIF sitcom, has led to adoption of a totalizing, simplistic, unworkable, and ultimately stifling conception of social justice. The simplicity and absolutism of this conception has combined with the precarity of academic jobs to create higher ed’s current climate of fear, a heavily policed discourse of semantic sensitivity in which safety and comfort have become the ends and the means of the college experience.

Schlosser brings up two female liberal professors who outed and shamed a male colleague they accused of being creepy at conferences. They talked openly about how much they would like to ruin his career. Schlosser continues:

But part of the female professors’ shtick was the strong insistence that harassment victims should never be asked for proof, that an enunciation of an accusation is all it should ever take to secure a guilty verdict. The identity of the victims overrides the identity of the harasser, and that’s all the proof they need.

This is terrifying. No one will ever accept that. And if that becomes a salient part of liberal politics, liberals are going to suffer tremendous electoral defeat.

He wrote that in June 2015. A year and a half later, Donald Trump won the presidency, in part because some voters appreciated Trump’s hostility to political correctness.

Read it all. 

Schlosser wrote that before Nicholas Christakis was mobbed and shouted down on the Yale campus, and his wife Erika was driven out for the crime of suggesting that it’s not Yale’s business to police Halloween costumes to prevent adult students from hurting the feelings of other adult students. This was two years before Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying were cast out of Evergreen State for objecting to the woke mob. Think of all the things that have happened both in campus culture and in the culture at large since 2015. Nothing has gotten better than it was when Schlosser first wrote; it has, in fact, grown substantially worse.

Many of us who went to college in the Before Time treasure our classroom experiences with professors who challenged us and helped us to grow intellectually and morally. I pity the professors who now have to regard each student as a potential threat to their livelihood. I pity the students who really do want to be challenged, and to learn, but whose opportunity to learn has been crippled by the woke heckler’s veto that these puritanical woke rats exercise on many campuses.

Let me ask you readers who are teachers: are you afraid to go back to class this fall, in the current political environment? Why or why not?

UPDATE: A professor whose name and university I’ve agreed to withhold writes:

In response to your blog post today titled “Classroom of Fear,” I wanted to share a little bit about how we’re preparing at [major private university] for this fall semester. We, of course, did go through a special anti-racism seminar, but even the professor leading the meeting said something along the lines of, “The worst possible outcome here is for white students to fearfully repeat what they think is the One Right Opinion based on what one BLM account said on Twitter.” So, fortunately (at least in my department) even the most activist professors still keep faith in liberalism’s tradition of discourse and are worried about compulsory group-think.
When we met as a faculty about some of our classes being recorded (since most of us are using a hybrid model that blends some Zoom-teaching and some classroom teaching), almost all professors in my division expressed concerns about student retaliation — that our out-of-context comments in class might be reframed on social media in bad faith. We unanimously agreed that the classroom must remain an open space of experimentation and “exploratory bullshit,” a place where we can provisionally “try out” ideas without immediately accepting or condemning them.
The director of our program promised protection on the departmental level, but of course we all sort of know the upper administration would toss us over the bow if the situation escalated in a way that would reflect poorly on the university. My experience has reinforced what you’ve posted from others on your blog — that even the most liberal of professors are a bit frightened by their students. Among the professors anxious about student retaliation is one who teaches a class on sexuality and gender studies (with course content that pushes boundaries even for academia). Though I disagree with her on many fundamental issues, she’s been a supportive colleague, is an educator who cares deeply about her students, and is an incredibly effective instructor — yet even she is worried about an offhand comment in class being used against her by woke students.
So, I think my message here is this — that the majority of voices in my department still support classical liberalism in the humanities, but that we’re uncertain how much the upper administration will back us up if we become a public relations problem. It’s the bureaucratic encroaching upon the humanistic. As a conservative professor, I see the threat coming from neither the sexual liberationist profs nor the black activist profs (who have always engaged as good faith interlocutors with my own ideas and who I can cheerfully spar with over drinks at the bar—and will again, when the bars re-open). Rather, our real antagonist seems to be the university’s professional-managerial wing.
UPDATE.2: Another professor:
I’m responding to your post, “Classroom of Fear.” Given my position as an untenured faculty member and my growing concern with surveillance capitalism/doxxing, I haven’t felt comfortable registering a Disqus account so far. You just never know what could be uncovered and used against you, out of context, years later. You asked whether teachers were afraid to go back to class this fall. I’ll confess that, for the most part, I’m not. However – that’s shaped by a couple factors.

I’m working and teaching completely remotely this semester. Given the fallout in my discipline over the past year regarding accusations of systemic racism/sexism/homophobic/transphobia, etc., my biggest concern was faculty meetings and hallways interactions that could go south at a moment’s notice if I inadvertently let my non-wokeness show to the wrong colleague. Although we’ll have some meetings via Zoom this fall, it’s easier to keep quiet or turn off my screen on the presumption of a “bathroom break,” etc., than to sit around a conference table outing myself by my non-enthusiasm or non-indignation about the newest woke issue.

The two anecdotes I’m about to share below could out me, so I’d ask you not to publish anything potentially identifying, but they illustrate the types of situations I’m talking about:

Let me summarize these without the details. The professor talks about an instance in a department meeting at which everyone was encouraged to show public support for a progressive principle completely unrelated to education. Doing so violated the conscience of this professor, who did not join the affirmation. He fears that his failure to salute the flag, so to speak, was noticed, and that it will eventually be used against him.

The second anecdote involves an attempt to prevent the hiring of an extremely well qualified job candidate — a progressive, in fact — by throwing utterly groundless accusations of holding problematic opinions against him. It didn’t work, ultimately, but it was a struggle to defeat these scurrilous allegations made by a couple of professors. The fact that they threw a monkey wrench into the hiring process rattled others in the department. Without going into details that the professor asked me to withhold, I can say that this candidate almost failed to be hired, despite his scholarly record, and despite there being no evidence to back up the allegations, in part because the mere accusations made against someone with his identity profile (race, sex) were thought to make hiring him risky in this political environment.

Back to the professor’s letter:

Regarding fear of students, the content of my courses *somewhat* insulates me at this point. I teach courses in [field]. Were I teaching history, politics, literature, etc., I would be much more concerned. That said, there are certainly areas that could become flashpoints in the future. I’ll admit I touch on issues of race, sex, and sexuality less than I could in my teaching, simply because these seem so risky to talk about right now for anyone to the right of Robin DiAngelo. The study of [my field] touches on issues such as relationship formation, family structure, the relation between language and power, and so on. There is an increasing push in the field to “decenter” white, hetero/cisnormative perspectives and “center” BIPOC and queer perspectives. We are not yet at the point of syllabus reviews, but there are open calls for scholars and teachers to cite and assign works from scholars of color and/or queer scholars based on those scholars’ identities.

*Of course* I want to expose myself and students to the best texts, a number of which have undeniably been written by scholars of color or queer scholars. If particular scholars’ work has been ignored due to their race or sexuality, that needs to be recognized and corrected so that the field can benefit from their insights! But we now have citation lists circulating, basically saying, “Quit upholding white/straight/cisgender supremacy. Cite these articles. Assign these articles. Because of the racial and sexual identities of the authors.” That’s where I refuse to get on the train. I’m not hearing this from my students, at least not yet. But I wouldn’t be surprised if this becomes a more official push from the administrative higher-ups, who are falling all over themselves to justify their anti-racist bona fides in the wake of George Floyd’s death, and/or from my discipline more broadly.

To sum up: The pandemic has provided a welcome respite from the tension I’d likely experience if we were holding face-to-face courses and faculty meetings this fall. My hope is that passions die down by the spring, assuming we have a relatively “normal” in-person spring semester. If not, I do have concerns. I’m not paranoid, but I do think a lot these days about what it looks like to live not by lies, and where the lines are for me. I love my profession, and pray I can continue in it for the long haul. Do I expect to be able to? That’s an open question.

UPDATE.3: A reader writes:

Last year, I was hired as an adjunct prof to teach an American literature survey course at a Canadian University (I am Canadian). I taught the course in the winter and fall semesters of 2019. In the latter semester, I ran into some issues involving race.
 This course looked at a number of texts by Southern writers. One of the first texts we read was The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. We also looked at work by William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Tennessee Williams, among others. I am a big fan of Southern literature and love to teach it when I get the chance. In doing so, I like to challenge simplistic and stereotypical understandings of Southern history/culture (in so far as I am qualified to do so). One of the ways I did so in this class was to point out that there were a lot of whites in the antebellum South who not only weren’t slave owners, but who were wretchedly poor. In fact, I didn’t even dare to come right out and say this but referred to one of the Conjure Tales by Charles Chestnutt (a black author) in which a destitute class of whites is looked down upon by southern blacks. I figured a black author would be more credible on this issue than me, a white man. Yet, there is really no reason why this should have been controversial. There is plenty of solid historical scholarship on the subject. So, as a result of pointing out what is basically historical fact, I received a course review in which I was labelled “potentially alienating to people of colour”. The reason given was that, according to this anonymous student, I taught the class that whites were discriminated against more than blacks in the antebellum South. I, of course, did no such thing. My whole point in raising the issue of a white demographic that held no power and hence no ability to oppress was to get my students beyond simple black and white thinking when reading Southern lit, to introduce a bit of nuance and grey area and challenge liberal Canadian assumptions. Alas, with black and white thinking being as widespread and influential as it is today, this was a fool’s errand.
 I have been informed that I will not be teaching the course when it is next offered because it is going to a grad student. This could be totally legit. God knows English departments need to cut costs. I am, however, a bit suspicious. I also may have shot myself in the foot. Immediately upon receiving the review, I emailed the chair to get out in front of what I viewed as a baseless accusation. I have since been told by other adjuncts that it is entirely possible that no one gets to read the reviews but the professor of the class. In that case, the chair would not have known about it without my email. I tend to think otherwise, however, due to the chair’s response to my email in which he seemed well-aware of what I was talking about.
Whatever the case may be, a white professor needs to watch what he says in this climate in which historical facts that don’t fit neatly into the dominant black and white narrative are enough to get you labelled a racist.
Feel free to use any of this in your blog. But please don’t print my name.
Another professor e-mails to say he is not afraid — and gives permission to publish this with his name:
I’m a conservative poli sci prof and I think you’re wrong to believe teachers should live in fear. Every year or two I teach a seminar on Conservatism and I’ve never had complaints. In Spring 2020 my students read Sam Francis on race, Tony Esolen on sexuality,  alt-right pieces from Taki’s Mag and Jacobite, and plenty of less controversial texts and it was great. We had passionate discussions with no threats of cancellations or complaints.
I’m putting even more skin in the game next week. Progressive colleagues and I are team teaching a current events class with a set of policy debates where I plan to take an unabashedly pro-Trump stance (thankfully we’re not debating personality or quality of tweets, just policy). I’ll let you know this winter whether I still have a job. 😛
I think you underestimate our students. In my experience, if you treat them like adults and (this is key) help them see exposure to alternative views as a vehicle for self-discovery, they respond well. I won’t clutter your inbox with the idiosyncratic details of what I do, but if you’re curious I’m happy to talk.
Three other thoughts from an academic insider’s perspective:
1) The “adjunctification” of the university is fundamental to this kind of a discussion and I don’t hear it discussed enough by non-academics.
2) I agree with your correspondent that our colleagues on the Left are more cautious about controversial topics than I am. Multiple alternative hypotheses could explain this, idk. I also agree with him that they are not the immediate causes of cancel culture, but I think they indirectly created it, so I’m not as willing to let them off the hook.
3) Sweeping generalizations about administrators “caving to the mob” fail to recognize that there are many people of integrity in positions of power all across academia who diplomatically deflect cancel culture rather than yelling about it. By quietly defending their frontline teachers they’re living out their proper institutional roles rather than using their positions in the institution as platforms for self-promotion. Even if they vote Left, they’re acting like we conservatives think humans should act, and I would like to see that more widely recognized by people on our side. And no, I am not an administrator myself, nor do I have ambitions to become one.
George Ehrhardt
Appalachian State University
UPDATE.4: A reader writes:
It’s not just college, and it’s not just professors that have to fear the classroom. Until a few years ago, I coached policy debate as a volunteer in an urban debate league. The policy debate world had long ago been dominated by the antiracism totalitarians, but their control was strongest in the college debate world and weaker in high schools. There was a typical pattern where the craziest race, gender, and queer theory doctrines would start in the colleges, succeed among far-left professors there, and then would migrate down to high schools as college debaters ran camps for high school students and then judged the most prestigious high school debate tournaments. In our entire league of 50 or so schools, I knew of maybe 3-4 coaches or judges politically “of the right,” all external volunteers.
In 2018, I faced an accusation of racism that likely would have been devastating had it happened in today’s environment. A coach from another school made two accusations against me–one half-true, one completely made up. The half-true accusation was that in critiquing a round involving two black students, I made the comment that they should be happy to be students in 2018 rather than to be slaves in 1818 Georgia. The coach had left out that this critique related to an argument the students had made, based on Afropessimist literature, that America was inherently racist and the only solution was to “burn it all down.” In making that argument, the students said that “things have never been as bad for black people in America as they are today.” My comment was directly addressing that obviously false statement, and I was attempting to teach the kids to keep their arguments grounded in reality. Maybe a little too flippantly, but nothing worse than that.
(As an aside: The students and the coach had left out that I related a similar story from my own high school debate career as an example. I had argued, overly passionately, in a debate about capital punishment, “Why should Karla Faye Tucker, who had reformed and done so much good, be executed for one little mistake?” The ballot came back: “Hacking two people to death with an axe is not a ‘little mistake!'”)
The made up accusation was that in an elimination round regarding immigration policy, I said that illegal immigrants weren’t human. Elimination rounds are judged by a panel of 3 judges and have many spectators. If I had said that, everyone in the room would have been outraged, and rightly so. This was simply a slanderous accusation made, I think, because of personal animus.
Fortunately, the director of the league had known me for 5 years, and knew me well enough to agree that I hadn’t said anything wrong–though still, in a cowardly way, would not actually tell the accuser that she was flat-out wrong. Shortly after that incident, I adopted a baby and found a new and better job, and stopped volunteering for lack of time.
I thought of going back this year, as next year’s topic is criminal justice reform, and I’m a lawyer by day. I have a lot of knowledge to offer on this year’s subject. But why would I risk my livelihood to volunteer, knowing that an angry or misguided student or coach could take something I say out of context and try to ruin my life?

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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