I cannot bring myself to write a word about the debacle at Laurier. Generally, I am massively disappointed in the WLU administration, in the mainstream media coverage of this as “free speech”, in Shepherd’s overwhelming arrogance and bad faith throughout, and in her immediate supervisor’s really poor handling of the issue when it was flagged by the undergraduates in the TA section. I really feel for those students, the ones who took a real risk in bringing this to the prof’s attention and have seen their situation on campus rapidly deteriorate as a result of everything that’s happened since.
Looks like I’m writing some words. I can hardly express to you how much I hate doing this.
But I don’t want to debate free speech (not the correct issue), Shepherd’s “academic freedom” (again, wrong issue), or the “chill” against controversial speech on campus (bullshit), or even the overwhelming hypocrisy of, say, the Globe and Mail describing the travesty that was the response to Masuma Khan’s personal speech on Facebook (“very controversial”) versus the response to Lindsay Shepherd (“free speech advocate”).
What I want to discuss here is that it has been clear to me for a long time and is hopefully becoming clearer to a lot more people that academics may be research-smart but they’re not culture-clever and it matters.
Shepherd–with her surreptitious and leaked recordings, with her brand new Twitter and strategic follows, with her framing of a bad teaching decision as academic freedom and free speech, with her canny deployment of White Lady Tears (TM)–is absolutely, 100% running circles around administrators and professors of all sorts who somehow cannot frame a response to this that doesn’t advance an anti-intellectual, transphobic, misogynistic, white supremacist alt-right agenda. It’s an amaaaaaaaazing degree of incompetence. She doesn’t seem to be terribly smart, but my god, is she clever. And she’s totally winning at this in ways that make all of us lose.
Should she have been called into such a formal meeting with so many people in it with no real warning? No. Of course not: the optics are terrible and it escalated the issue really quickly. Probably, she should have been better supervised before that point. The recording is kind of damning: just listen to it, and if you kind of believe in “free speech” and “due process” and “academic freedom” you’re going to hear her as a victim.
Did the press coverage completely misunderstand her role in the university? Yes. It blindly repeated her claims of “losing her job” (she doesn’t have one; she has a stipend). It talked of formal reprimands when instead she was being asked to share her lesson plans in advance–look, when I supervise TAs, **I write the lesson plans for them**. It failed utterly to know the role of a TA in a course taught by a professor. It totes missed the point about what the course was meant to teach. It did not convey exactly how tremendously junior Shepherd is. It did not note that many people teach exactly the issues she does, but enframed in scholarship. It did not distinguish between cultural controversy and academic debate, which are two very different things.
It might have been corrected on these matters, but a herd of academics ran to their op-eds to foment about free speech and evil administrations. I could not have been more shocked if I’d woken up with my head stapled to the carpet. We might easily enough have filled in the media on the actual details of the working conditions and academic conditions and the difference between enframing a discussion of Peterson as somehow a very popular thing that nevertheless is not suitable as ‘debate’ because he is in no way an expert on these issues. And no serious scholar is debating whether we should respect trans people.
And why on Earth Laurier admin is apologizing to Shepherd so abjectly and publicly is beyond my capacity to understand. In so doing, they let her preferred narrative–free speech martyr in the land of dinosaur feminist ideologues–stand, and completely threw all the trans and genderqueer and enby students under the bus.
Progressive academics, we need to get clever. The battle for hearts and minds on Twitter and in the op-ed pages moves fast, and the agenda is being set by the alt-right. We need to get serious about learning how to effectively engage on these platforms, and fast. Because from what I’m watching, never have such a collection of highly educated and possibly even well meaning people undermined their own careers, scholarship, and values so quickly and effectively as they have these week, and made themselves look stupid losing a public relations battle to a 22 year old alt-right provocateur.
Me, I know I failed. The very first day this story showed up in the local paper, I knew exactly what was going to go wrong. I should have written an op-ed myself and I should have done it that day. But I was anxious and insomniac and I felt too angry to do it right. I figured someone else would take care of it. They didn’t. Only now are we getting better nuance here, and that’s partly my fault.
We can talk about how we can avoid doing this to ourselves again, and it’s something I’m thinking about a lot, and I’m going to sit in this corner by myself until I can figure out where to start. This mess is so big: I had no idea so many of us were so ill-equipped to put down an out-of-line, intellectually nonsensical MA student who inappropriately introduced a transphobic “debate” into a class on sentence structure. This should be a wake up call. I hope it is.