Thoughts on Academic Freedom from the New England Regional SBL 2017

Below are my remarks delivered at a special panel on “Academic Freedom in the Age of Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces” with Prof. Tracy Lemos (Huron University College) at Yale Divinity School on April 1, 2017.


I would like to thank the Graduate Student Committee of the New England and Eastern Canada Region for inviting me to talk on the issue of academic freedom. I’d also like to thank Amelia Devin Freedman and the rest of the members of the Region for actually going along with it, against all reason. And they put me alongside Tracy, no less.

When we were first approached about speaking here on the topic of academic freedom, Robert Kashow informed us that part of the impetus for inviting folks to speak on the topic of academic freedom was the 2016 letter from University of Chicago Dean John Ellison sent to incoming freshmen. The letter went viral within the online academic community and created a storm of debate on the role and appropriateness of trigger warnings and safe spaces in college education.  Therefore, I’d like to begin with some general thoughts about trigger warnings and how they relate to academic freedom.

They don’t.  At least, not in any way that should really concern us as educators.

What did Ellison say that got people so upset? Ellison wrote:

“Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial and we do not condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

I will say that I am to a large degree sympathetic with the general thrust of Ellison’s comments in this letter: a college or university should be a space in which one’s ideas are challenged, where one is exposed to methods and questions of rigorous academic discourse, and in which being unsympathetic to certain ideas does not excuse one from learning about them.

However, Ellison’s fundamental error in my view, was connecting—or accepting a connection—between trigger warnings and academic freedom.  In my view, such a statement is likely rooted, at least in part, in the speaker’s distance or alienation from the actual college classroom. I’d like to make four points about trigger warnings and how they are presented by critics.

  1. Reports about the thin skin of this generation of students have been greatly exaggerated, if not outright invented. Numerous online commentators have bemoaned what they perceive to be the overly coddled and cloistered nature of the current generation of college students. Political correctness, we read online, has run so rampant that college students now cannot hear any content with which they do not agree without developing a “case of the sads” and subsequently demanding that they not be exposed to any material that might discomfit. While there are numerous anecdotes (whose basic reliability I do not question) related in support of such characterizations, I must say this is not my experience of the undergraduate classroom. I have not personally seen evidence truly distinguishing this generation from earlier generations in this regard.  I dare say the white students at Ole Miss prior to integration in 1962—and for quite a long time afterward—were rather more coddled and cloistered than the average college student today, less forced to confront people and ideas that they’d regard as strange or even dangerous to their worldview. While I do not deny that there have been incidents of vocal student opposition to being exposed to legitimate academic ideas with which they disagree, I do not believe this is either pervasive or new; nor is it limited to the political left or right.
  2. Both my personal experience in the classroom and my (admittedly limited) research into this issue agree: when used in the classroom, trigger warnings are almost universally something that the individual instructor has chosen to implement out of concern for student reaction to certain course content. I have not encountered the suggestion that university administrations are forcing this upon their instructors. To be quite frank, as a rule of thumb regarding American Higher Education, administrators tend to care little about enforcing any aspect of what goes on in the classroom—quality of instruction included—short of higher enrollment numbers. College professors are not being censored by Big Cuddly PC Brother. Overwhelmingly, the use of trigger warnings in the classroom is a choice by the instructors themselves.
  3. Trigger warnings do not stifle academic discourse by declaring certain topics out of bounds. Here I believe Ellison fundamentally misconstrues the origin, nature, and purpose of trigger warnings in the classroom. The idea of a trigger warning is first and foremost concerned with shielding people who have suffered a trauma from experiencing serious psychological pain and suffering by warning them that some content may trigger a recollection or a reliving (psychologically) of the traumatic event. Most of you in the audience are graduate students. You will have students in your classroom that are survivors of rape. You will have students in your classroom that have been the victims of violence. You will have students in your classroom whose lives have included trauma you cannot imagine. I am tempted to say that the question of trigger warnings and safe spaces can be summed up with the dictum: “first, do no harm.” But that isn’t quite right. We are not physicians; we are not therapists.  Our job is not to try and heal students with trauma, though if they choose to involve us it is our duty to try and make sure they get help. No, rather than “do no harm,” I think the fundamental idea behind the trigger warning is quite simply: Don’t be an asshole.  We are not mechanics pouring oil into machines; we are educating human beings, with human strengths and human frailties. The idea that in our interpersonal interactions we should be sensitive to not cause real pain in another does not amount to coddling. It amounts to humanity. Don’t be an asshole.
  4. Trigger warnings actually protect academic freedom. There are times when our teaching may involve not only difficult and contrary ideas, but content or descriptions that cause someone to recall or relive a personal traumatic event. The purpose of warning students that this material is going to be discussed is not to stifle this conversation; rather, the warning is what allows the discussion to take place. Now, I must say, I personally do not use trigger warnings in my teaching. At least, I’ve never thought of myself as using them, nor have I used that terminology to describe things I do in the classroom. But I do try and foster an environment of respect, even in those times when I purposefully try to make students uncomfortable by unpacking material that is frankly contradictory to their personal values or expectations.  But I do say things like, “The reading for next class has some real hard stuff in it.” I want students to speak up and tell me if something makes them feel uncomfortable or unsafe.  Because then we can figure out how to address those realities and make the student feel safe while still engaging the difficult material.  Trigger warnings and safe spaces are not about avoiding the hard stuff; they are about creating ways to ensure that difficult topics are discussed by encouraging the student to be an active participant, a vocal communicator, and to engage rather than withdraw.


Now, I do not pretend to have any special expertise in the topic of trigger warnings beyond that of being a university instructor who cares about creating productive learning environments in his own classroom, and following the discussion about trigger warnings and safe spaces that has been raging online.  The reason why I was invited, as Tracy has mentioned in her remarks, is that I have caused a certain amount of consternation and agita related to how our professional society, the SBL, interacts or fails to interact with serious threats to and breaches of academic freedom.  In my opinion, one of the clearest examples of a way in which our Society can position itself as a proponent and defender of academic freedom is by not associating with those bodies that disregard the principles of academic freedom, institutions that are actively constituted in opposition to free academic discourse.

Do the SBL and its Regions interact with such institutions? Yes. All the time. What finally pushed me into action on this issue was the host location for the meeting of the Midwest Region (my own Region) of the SBL which, for many years prior to 2017, had been Olivet Nazarene University. I will not go into all the details of the petition I began, the extreme anger that it triggered among some, and all the attendant details.  I’m happy to talk about it, but we need to leave time for your questions.  So, let it suffice to say that Olivet Nazarene has a publicly documented history of discriminatory treatment against LGBTQ students. Such discrimination by itself compromises the principles of academic freedom by seeking to completely remove and/or silence one entire class of person. Further, in 2009 Olivet Nazarene University fired a tenured biology professor, Richard Colling (first censured in 2007), for teaching evolution within a theistic, Christian context.

I would hope that any and every person who has ever cared at all about education can realize: when a biology professor is fired for teaching evolution, the institution that fires him is opposed to the principles of academic freedom. And yet year after year, the Midwest Region held its meeting there.  And, after holding their 2017 meeting at a different site, the Midwest Region circulated an online poll to determine whether or not they should return to having their meetings at Olivet Nazarene next year and into the future.

Now, in the wake of my petition and Tracy’s letter, the SBL Council has convened a sub-committee on academic freedom, which gives me much reason to be hopeful. And the members of this sub-committee have put in a lot of serious and hard work, for which I am extremely grateful.  That work is still not obvious to us because, well, this is how committee work goes, it takes time, and there’s no way around it.  But I am given pause, I have had my hopefulness tempered by some of the feedback that has come out so far.  In particular, the SBL Council held a session at the most recent Annual Meeting to field questions from the membership at large.  Of the 11 or so audience members in the room, only two people—myself being half that number, more if we go by weight—were not there representing conservative, evangelical publishing houses concerned about the hubbub involving InterVarstiy Ministries, and their subsidiary InterVarsity Press. InterVarsity, as Time magazine reported, had announced that they were firing all employees who disagreed with the organization’s opposition to gay marriage, and there was fear that SBL would care about this and block them from renting space at the convention’s book display (the SBL did not take any action that I am aware of).  While much of the time was spent soothing the concerns of publishers, I did get to ask about the state of the sub-committee’s work, and the answers I got were , in my opinion, a bit of a mixed bag.  For example, sub-committee member Greg Sterling (who is here today), in response to my question about whether SBL and the Regions should be hosting meetings at institutions that, for the sake of argument, fire biologists who teach evolution, emphasized that the SBL is simply unable to dictate policy to other institutions.  And of course, this is entirely true.  However, any affiliation with an institution that so egregiously disregards the tenets of academic freedom illustrates that the SBL, well… the SBL doesn’t care if an institution supports academic freedom or not.

There are real threats to academic freedom out there. While the SBL cannot change the policies of another institution, it can certainly choose to sever institutional relationships with them. It can cease lending its prestige to and associating its name with institutions that actively prohibit free academic discourse. That would be a very good, and very easy, first step toward a Society that actively cultivates and supports the ideals of academic freedom.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s