More articles on Trigger Warnings and the University of Chicago

I’ve seen a few more articles pop up on the topic, all of them interesting in various ways:

–A generally thoughtful article by Cameron Okeke on what “safe spaces” at U Chicago actually mean to those who use them, and how their existence helped him survive casual racism at the institution. Key sentence: “But you do not get our “diversity” without safe spaces, trigger warnings, or some institutionalized form of respect for people with different experiences.” He goes on to make a number of great points, but unfortunately sets up “the babblings of rich, white, cis, straight men” as the opposite of the ideal, which sounds a bit off-base to me.

–An article in the WSJ (surprise surprise) by the University of Chicago’s president Robert Zimmer, basically running with the University’s definition of “safe space” and “trigger warning” as meaning students filing complaints at having to learn about things they don’t want to learn about (which, as I’ve explained before, is accurate to an extent, just not nearly as much as conservatives like to claim it is). [paywalled, so you’ll have to do a google search on it and access it via Google]

–And finally Emma Pettit, in the CHE, describes how three professors actually use trigger warnings in classes. Each professor uses them mostly to deal with trauma, or when covering texts and images that can rightly be considered traumatic. It reflects my own practice, particularly when teaching the history of warfare, or just history in general (the other day, for example, we discussed the Rape of Lucretia as a founding myth of the Roman Republic).

But I also agree with Professor Reineke that “something that offends and something that traumatizes are not the same.” And it is worth remembering that the AAUP, in August 2014, delivered a preliminary report on trigger warnings in which the context was a creeping, and very expanded, definition of “trauma” to include the kind of tabling of ideas that the University of Chicago was objecting to.

In any case, I kind of feel that both sides are mostly talking past each other, and will only emerge from this more convinced in the utter righteousness of their positions. Because we are all righteous people…


The University of Chicago Has Power: That Doesn’t Mean They’re Wrong

I suppose this should start off with a warning that I speak only as an individual and that some people are likely to be offended if they keep reading. [Also, the above image was pulled from a very good article by Soraya Chemaly on what trigger warnings are actually for.]

Like many of us, I suppose, I’ve been keeping a close eye on the debate over the University of Chicago’s “welcome letter” to incoming first years, in which they warned them not to expect “safe spaces” or “trigger warnings” at the university. Although the university later clarified that professors were free to alert students to disturbing material or not as they chose, and in fact the LGBTQ organization on campus is labeled big as day a “safe space,” the negative response was swift and strong. The University of Chicago, deliberately or otherwise, knows nothing about the actual meaning of trigger warnings or safe spaces, and was simply a smug (or insecure–opinions differ) power play to assert the importance of the administration. Etc., etc., etc.

I’d been gearing up to dive into the details of the controversy, but fortunately work intervened, and in the mean time The Atlantic published two separate columns by Alan Levinovitz and Conor Friedersdorf that, to my mind, effectively squelched the insufferable self-righteousness of the likes of Kevin Gannon and others (though Tyler B. Kissinger’s twitter thread is worth reading, as is Derek McGrath’s column above).

Now, I do trigger warnings myself, after a fashion, particularly if I’m playing a video clip that has a high level of violence. Basically, I see no point to playing shock jock in the classroom, unless it’s for a very good reason (emotion, after all, has its place in both human development and education). And yet, I rather liked the University of Chicago letter, because, however poorly worded it might have been, it was responding to real incidents in higher education.

And I have noticed two repeated claims in the progressive response to critiques of campus “political correctness.” One, no threat to freedom of speech exists in student activism (and/or we need to stand with students at oppressive institutions), and two, these critiques are “about power,” not about truth or justice.

The problem is, both are incorrect; one factually, the other logically.

One, as Friedersdorf thankfully points out, there is a lengthy list of earnest students demanding exactly the kind of things that U Chicago says it will not concede. See, the problem is that, while my progressive colleagues will tell you that this is a “red herring,” unimportant, or just downright “bs” (which means “lies,” but since these are actual facts they can’t say that), they can’t actually deny that these incidents happened. Whatever you may think of FIRE, the incidents they record, whether from faculty, staff, or students, are not made up. This is inconvenient for our social justice crusaders, and puts them, as Friedersdorf rightly points out, in the awkward position of creating a strawman and coming dangerously close to denying facts in evidence. Now, you can still say there are other and more important threats to freedom of speech on campuses these days, but denying the reality of these seemingly random incidents does your cause no favors.

And besides, Friedersdorf is 100% right when he says that

And contra Gannon’s protestations, it is not only proper, but inescapable, for a college to tell its students, “We’ll be the judge of what you need to know and how you need to know it.” It is the place of the institution to decide what, if any, classes will be mandatory; to hire professors; to decide what classes to offer; and to formulate major and graduation requirements. Insofar as institutions are transparent about the ethos that guides them, the matters on which they are open to debate, and what they consider to be their core values, prospective students will be best served.

And this leads me to my second point, and to my mind the more important one. Frequently the response to declarations such as U Chicago’s is that this is about power. Take Perry’s declaration from January, for example:

Any attempt to analyze a given incident of ‘politically correct’ action or repression must look not at what’s being demanded, but where power actually lies.

Perry’s and Gannon’s arguments both focus on the power of the university and administration, giving the distinct impression that because the university has more power than students any pronouncement by the university critical of student activity is wrong, because power. The reasoning seems to be a conflation of Acton’s dictum that “power corrupts” and of a belief that injustice can only be done by those with power. Hence, as my favorite historian Veronica Wedgwood noted, the assumption is that we, who have no power, are therefore not corrupt.

And yet, this is logically, metaphysically, and morally wrong. First, being “powerless” does not exempt your pronouncements from logical analysis or moral critique. Claiming that the speech acts of a group or individual are off limits to scrutiny because they are not running things makes no sense and teaching that is the opposite of liberal education; it makes a hash of the logical rigor I encourage my students to apply to everything.   Second, the justness or correctness of demands are not inversely proportional to subjective assessments of the demanders’ power. My own experience studying revolts and revolutions supports this conclusion: demands from less-powerful groups often contain clauses of dubious justness, however understandable the origins of the demands may be. This was captured perfectly in Batman vs Superman:

bvs 1

And third, to claim, as Perry and Gannon effectively do, that we who have power (such as it is) have an obligation not to critique the pronouncements of those with less power is morally wrong. I may spend most of my time silent because I am listening to those with less power or status, but no person has the right to tell me I cannot exercise my own judgment about public pronouncements because anything but agreement is “punching down” (a favorite phrase of some). When it comes to argument and debate, I “punch” in any direction I believe is necessary, because my conscience is not yours to command.

As JFK says in Thirteen Days, “There’s something immoral about abandoning your own judgment.”

And in my judgment, Levinovitz and Friedersdorf deliver reasoned responses to Gannon and others that tip the scales in favor of Chicago.

The “Crying Templar” Meme: Where does it come from?

A couple days ago somebody retweeted this post, which I thought was vaguely interesting and not unexpected. You see this weird medieval stuff from time to time, and it doesn’t make a whole heck of a lot of sense:

(Read the convo thread only if you want a dose of questionable opinions on the crusades; I covered this last February at length)

Then today I saw Dave Perry’s daily column about the post, and it seems that it’s hard to dig up where it came from. Which strikes me as odd. If it’s such a big “alt-right” deal, as Ahmed suggests, it should be getting around, right? But, no such luck apparently.

So, I did a bit of digging. The image seems to have no provenance, except for a post I found on the Google+ page “The Catholic Faith,” from April 2014–so it’s not new. That in turns tracks to an article from the website of the same name. There are two track-backs from white surpremacist sites, both of which have this curious sentence: “This is a meme that probably originated from /pol/.”  I have no idea what that is (dark net?? I plead ignorance here), but it would unlock the mystery as to the origin of the meme itself. [update: my tech-savvy brother informs me that /pol/ is 4chan…so, the murky web…]

The text, on the other hand, proved somewhat easier to track. It seems to come from a now-defunct Tumblr account called “trade network”, also posted in 2014 (as recorded in the attributions in this post). It was re-posted a number of times, mostly on Tumblr, with some blogging as well, in these accounts, among others, usually accompanied with GIF footage of Kingdom of Heaven and titled “for all white people”: here, here, here, here, here, and here (this last takes the post to task). There’s also this fascinating reddit thread here.

So, the image, quote, and description itself aren’t new, and, while clearly responding to the refugee crisis in Europe, don’t really stand out from the crowd of other such “medieval” posts and movements produced around that time (Sons of Odin, anyone?). Matching it with a badly-drawn picture of a crying Templar is interesting, but not much more than that. It certainly doesn’t represent some kind of “new troubling development” in our summer of discontent 2016, and is of minor interest. Unless it starts popping up everywhere, THEN that will be worth a second look.


The MIT Computer Pedagogy Study at West Point: Setting and Significance

It occurred to me that, while part 1 of my analysis of the MIT-West Point study was somewhat widely read, part 2, which delved into the study’s significance, was not. To that end, here are both parts in one post, so that you can read them together. Or you can click here, and save yourself the trouble: Part 1 set out to correct some serious misapprehensions about West Point pedagogy, Part 2 looked at the actual structure and results of the test.

Continue reading “The MIT Computer Pedagogy Study at West Point: Setting and Significance”

National Gallery of Art Revisited: Some Favorites

Facebook tells me that I posted pictures of my visit to the National Gallery of Art today six years ago. 2009 was a difficult year, but that visit to DC for July 4th was a bright spot.

Anyway, reviewing some of the photos reminds me of just what a treasure the NGA is. Here are some of my favorites:

  1. Pieter Pannemaker IThe Crucifixion c.1520.Pannemaker The Crucifixion
  2. Anon., often attr to Élisabeth Louise Vigée-Lebrun , Marie-Antoinette Marie Antoinette
  3. The famous Napoleon in his Study by DavidNapoleon by David , National Portrait Gallery
  4. Hubert Robert (French), The Ponte Salario c. 1775. I find this kind of landscape painting endlessly fascinating. Robert, The Old Bridge
  5. St. George and the Dragon, English 1370-1420St George and the Dragon
  6. Van DyckMarchesa Balbi, c. 1623. ExtraordinaryMarchesa Balbi
  7. Good old Hieronymus BoschDeath and the Miser, c.1485/1490. Note that he seems to have been a knight. Perhaps a multi-layered commentary not simply on the deadly sin of greed, but also un-knightly behavior?Bosch, Death and the Miser
  8. Saint-Gaudins, memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th, 1900Memorial to Shaw and the 54th
  9. CropseyThe Spirit of War, 1851. I want to know more about this painting.The Spirit of WAr
  10. Winslow HomerBreezing Up, 1873-1876, one of my all-time favorite paintings.Breezing Up

Turkey Aftermath: Notes and Articles

In the days after the attempted coup, or putsch, or whatever you want to call…whatever that was…there’s naturally been a torrent of information, misinformation, rumor, supposition, and analysis on what’s been happening in Turkey (including my two cents’). Some really good (e.g. Burak Kadercan, a very astute friend), some not so good (Tom Rogan, for example, is a bit naive). And then there’s Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institute via The Atlantic, asking whether it’s reasonable to expect the Middle East to ever sprout secular democracies (he has a good point).

I’m also starting to rethink the proposition that Ergodan planned this all along, for reasons some of the links below should make clear. This includes the behavior the putsch military personnel themselves–don’t watch the video of the tank running over people (it’s not the only video out there, fyi), but the behavior of the soldiers themselves makes no sense given their avowed mission. Anecdotally, I’ve heard through the grapevine that it’s widely believed/known in Turkey that Erdogan engineered things,  and that, as a friend put it, they’re upset that Western media isn’t reporting on it. On the other hand, Işıkara, Kayserilioğlu, and Zirngast present some compelling reasons to the contrary, which make more sense to me–the putschists knew Erdogan was about to clean house, so had to launch the coup prematurely.

Here’s a list of items that I have paid special attention to:

My top picks:

Eyewitness and on-the-ground reports:

Analysis that suggests Erdogan planned it all:

Traditional analysis that accepts the coup attempt at face value:

Financial analysis, because let’s not forget the important question of trade and international finance:



Kindness, Or, What is a Radical Act?

A somewhat different kind of column today, riffing off some thoughts inspired by an article in Times Higher Education. 

I read a great column today by Rachel Moss about the necessity of kindness as a human, a societal quality, in Britain post-Brexit, and the necessity of kindness in higher education. It reflects my own conclusions on life: we must be kind, at the very least. To be so requires cultivating, deliberately in my experience, certain qualities of character, mentality, emotion, and being that aren’t always apparent. Too often we commit the sin of Parzival, when he failed to inquire of his host the Fisher King what ailed him–he was so wrapped up in himself, that he had no thought for anyone else. Conversely, kindness can also sometimes consist in refraining from speaking or acting in certain ways.

What stood out as a bit of an odd note to me in the essay was how kindness was described as a “radical act” and that “our activism begins with an outstretched hand.” Why radical? Why does kindness have to be “activism”? (Out of curiosity, I googled “what is a radical act,” and the results were quite diverse.)

I’ve always seen kindness–caritas, charity–as a spiritual quality, a state of being, which transcends the particularizing labels “radical” or “activism,” because it does not answer to man or any particular cause, but only to that supreme spiritual power, energy, call it what you will, in which I still believe.  If caritas is radical or activism, it is so only in the context of the spiritual contest of good versus evil, which, at least according to my Catholic background, one does not particularize to an individual, because that is playing God with people’s hearts and minds. It is also, again to my mind, an intensely private thing–let not the left hand know what the right hand does, and so forth. To call kindness radical sui generis is to make it an explicitly public act, when, as I’ve told people, that’s between me and the good Lord. Why should one particularly care whether others disapprove of your action? (I’m aware of the counter-argument that Christianity itself was founded on such radical caritas, but there’s more to it than that.)

Of course, this is all well and good for “normal” times–what could be defined as when the public sphere, people’s personal beliefs, and political culture are in alignment. Whether or not individuals harbor hateful, harmful resentment against their neighbors, as long as the public sphere is policed in a humanistic manner and a nation’s political culture confines campaigns to issues and not ad hominems, kindness is not likely to be remarkable.

But when this alignment slips or worse spirals out of control, to be kind does become radical. I was just reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship yesterday, and Nazi Germany would be one extreme example where to show kindness could and in many cases did end up being a death sentence.

When I arrived in the UK the Saturday after the Brexit vote, everyone was rather shocked (or disgusted, or so disgusted they were over it). It took a few days for all the stories of racist and xenophobic incidents to accumulate, and the noteworthy thing was that the “leave” leadership didn’t speak out against them or condemn them. Like, at all (someone correct me if I’m wrong, but I was pretty well connected to the news during that entire time). It was a disturbing feeling to walk down the multi-cultural and multi-racial streets of London and think that there were likely people walking next to each other, one of whom really didn’t want the other there.

In that sense, Rachel Moss is right: with public order out of alignment, being kind to someone who doesn’t look white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant can be a radical act.

Or not, because the authorities have made clear that that kind of behavior will not be tolerated (and also the make-up of the “leave” voters has been caricatured, in my opinion, but that’s another topic). By practicing caritas toward others, you are in fact standing with, not against, civic leaders such as Mayor Sadiq Khan. Even Theresa May isn’t espousing xenophobic behavior, quite the opposite at the moment. So, against what norms does an act have to stand for it to be radical–societal, governmental, political, national? Or only against a nucleus of individuals in a given instance?

I’m of the opinion that not everything in life is activism, although it’s fashionable these days to say that everything is activism and one’s daily life choices cannot be separated from the public sphere. That’s a reductio ad absurdum: if everything is activism, then nothing is. I wouldn’t put kindness in that category, sui generis.

And I wonder what is lost when we transfer the validation of caritas to the public sphere. Kindness needs no justification beyond the transcendent religious or philosophical conviction that it is right, that it is universal, and that it is a matter of conscience. If that is to be a radical activist, then I fear for the state of the world.