Iowa State University is embroiled in a controversy this week that involves two of the favorite subjects of this blog academic freedom and freedom of speech. At the center of the controversy is ISU English Professor Chloe Clark who issued a syllabus for her English 250 class that banned students from expressing opposing to Black Lives Matter, abortion, same sex marriage or other causes or groups. She warns students that they will be dismissed and “I take this seriously.” Iowa State has intervened after an outcry and forced Clark to remove the language.
The syllabus reportedly contained that following warning (not just a warning actually, but a “GIANT WARNING”):
“GIANT WARNING: any instances of othering that you participate in intentionally (racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, [sic], sorophobia, transphobia, classism, mocking of mental health issues, body shaming, etc) in class are grounds for dismissal from the classroom… You cannot choose any topic that takes at its base that one side doesn’t deserve the same basic human rights as you do (ie: no arguments against gay marriage, abortion, Black Lives Matter,etc). I take this seriously.”
Sidenote: I could not find a good definition for “sorophobia” as a form of “othering.” I did find this reference to a work on “sorophobia” on the differences among women in literature and the need to stop “the process of destructive ‘othering’ and … to continue the process of recognizing difference while refusing to re-create negative images of otherness.” If anyone has a good definition, let us know. Notably, Clark participates in an online publication called “Cotton Xenomorph” which explains its “no creeps” policy as “anything with language of oppression. That means: prejudice, racism, xenophobia, classism, sexism, ableism, serophobia, fat-shaming, intolerance of religion, homophobia, etc.” “Serophobia” is a fear of people with HIV or contracting HIV. The Iowa State Daily did explain how Clark led a “Feminist Friday” focus group that discussed her use of “monster theory” to combat “othering,” or judging those who are different.
Putting nomenclature aside, Iowa State did take a stand for free speech and issued the following statement through a spokesperson:
“The syllabus statement as written was inconsistent with the university’s standards and its commitment to the First Amendment rights of students. After reviewing the issue with the faculty member, the syllabus has been corrected to ensure it is consistent with university policy . . . Moreover, the faculty member is being provided additional information regarding the First Amendment policies of the University . . . Iowa State is firmly committed to protecting the First Amendment rights of its students, faculty, and staff. With respect to student expression in the classroom including the completion of assignments, the university does not take disciplinary action against students based on the content or viewpoints expressed in their speech.”
That is a strong and commendable statement for those who are concerned about a rising orthodoxy and intolerance on our campuses. Of course, the “giant warning” of Professor Clark will remain a giant concern of students over her tolerance for opposing views even without the express speech bans.
Notably, like many academics who incongruously oppose free speech and free though, Professor Clark seems to display the very bias that she says she loathes. “Otherism” has been defined as “the exclusion of a person based on their perceived diversions from an acceptable norm.” That would seem precisely what Clark is doing in silencing those who depart from her own acceptable norm.
The controversy is reminiscent of another recent controversy (out of LSU) where Professor Alyssa Johnson asked her colleagues for the names of any students who they believe espouse hateful views so she could ban them from her classes. There is a sense of entitlement among such academics today in the enforcement of an ideology or orthodoxy. It is a view that comes from a cultural shift on our faculties not just in terms of ideology but pedagogy.
Recently, the American Association of University Professors gave an award to a controversial academic in recognition for work that “transcends the division between scholarship and activism that encumbers traditional university life.” I have no problem with the award or the professor’s advocacy. Indeed, I have defended the right of faculty on the left and right to speak freely on social media and in support of political causes. However, the idea that the division between scholarship and activism “encumbers traditional university life” was startling. There is a role for such a separation of our roles as advocates outside of the classroom and our role as academics inside the classroom. Our students come to learn not to be indoctrinated by our personal political and ideological bias. Professor Clark is the inevitable result of the erosion of that distinction. It is the difference between pedagogy and orthodoxy.