Yale University Professor to Stop Teaching Amid Outrage Over Email

9 Dec 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Campus political correctness is no threat, it’s a wish for a better future.

Yale University lecturer Erika Christakis had decided to stop teaching at the Ivy League school less than six weeks after sparking protests by telling students they shouldn’t be discouraged from wearing Halloween costumes that could be considered “culturally appropriating.” “I have great respect and affection for my students, but I worry that the current climate at Yale is not, in my view, conducive to the civil dialogue and open inquiry required to solve our urgent societal problems,” Ms. A Yale University faculty member who sparked protests when she said students should be free to push boundaries with Halloween costumes, even to the point of offense, resigned from her teaching position, the school announced Monday. “Her teaching is highly valued and she is welcome to resume teaching anytime at Yale, where freedom of expression and academic inquiry are the paramount principle and practice,” the school said.Students at Princeton, the University of Oregon, the University of Maryland and more have demanded the names of racists and slaveholders be wiped from campus buildings and programs. Christakis came under attack in October for her response to a request from the Intercultural Affairs Committee that students avoid wearing racially insensitive costumes, such as Native American headgear, turbans or blackface.

Erika Christakis made a “voluntary decision not to teach in the future,” according to a statement from the university obtained by The New York Times on Monday. The educator made waves ahead of Halloween after sending a lengthy letter to her students addressing a mass email from the college that raised concerns over appropriate dress options. “American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience,” she wrote to her students in response in an email dated Oct. 30. “I wonder, and I am not trying to be provocative: Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious,” she added, “a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?” The communique was quick to ignite protests across campus, as well as calls for both her and her husband, a fellow educator, to resign, which the school’s president promptly rejected. Nicholas Christakis, her husband and a professor of sociology who defended her argument, also announced that he will go on sabbatical for one semester. The school also has been dealing with criticism over a residential hall named after John Calhoun, a prominent slave-owning politician, questions about how minorities are treated on campus and allegations that a woman was turned away from a fraternity party because she was not white. Specifically improving diversity in the faculty, uplifting ethnic studies and also have sensitivity training for all Yale students and faculty,” student Katie McCleary told WFSB-TV.

Some critics have expressed concerns that cultural sensitivities may have gone too far on campus, as The Christian Science Monitor reported last month: But many of the student’s expressions also shifted the conversation to another debate: whether college campuses are becoming “places of censure and prohibition.” As Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic wrote: “It ought to be disputed rather than indulged for the sake of these students, who need someone to teach them how empowered they are by virtue of their mere enrollment; that no one is capable of invalidating their existence, full stop; that their worth is inherent, not contingent; that everyone is offended by things around them; that they are capable of tremendous resilience…” The fundamental issue is plotting that point at which offense becomes unacceptably invasive to others, and that is a target that moves as society changes. The zeal with which students have called for these changes—and their surprising success—is reminiscent of the debate over the Confederate flag in the wake of the Charleston shootings this summer. In July, Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis, who writes about gender identity and sexual politics, was investigated after a sexual discrimination complaint was filed against her following an article she wrote about student-professor relationships.

Initial calls to ban the flag were met with resistance, but were quickly overcome by a swelling tide of voices both online and in real life demanding the flag be outlawed and removed. But “free and unfettered” speech is increasingly coming up against a new generation of students, some of whom have an expectation that they have a right not to read or hear ideas that differ from their worldview or make them uncomfortable.

What began in the 1990s as political correctness – a desire not to offend others – has now morphed into what one academic observer calls “empathetic correctness” – a desire never to be offended. It’s not mine, I know that.” Christakis’ email (as well as a reportedly racially charged incident at a frat party on campus) sparked protests and outcry over racial insensitivity at the school.

The couple will continue in their posts as master and associate master of Silliman College—positions similar to overseers of student residence halls. By generating a conception of what our world could be, we believe, we might defy the status quo, buck the momentum of centuries of flawed civilization and move in a different direction. But in the case of the events at Yale, for example, it was a seemingly well-intentioned letter to a college of students that precipitated the eruption of what has turned into a bitter argument over cultural sensitivity and exclusion.

It argues that by sheltering students from “dissenting” views (lately, code for racism), universities are inhibiting students from developing critical thinking skills, making them into “illiberal” ideologues. A line from a recent open letter to Cornell University illustrates this anxiety to a tee: “We are now raising a generation of coddled, narcissistic, self-absorbed, thin-skinned young people, permanent ‘victims,’ who will be ill-equipped to function effectively in the real world outside the shelter of the academy,” Cornell alum Lee Bender wrote. It reduces the students to selfish automatons, devoid of perspective and the ability to think freely, when there is no proof that these students are any less prepared to go out into the world and thrive as they fight for what they believe in. Additionally, in its paternalistic concern, the argument dismisses the symbolic statement students are making by refusing “free speech” as a justification for disrespectful behavior and inequality.

Trigger warnings, which arose on feminist blogs in the 2000s as a way to forewarn readers of potentially upsetting content, have been the target of this argument in the past. A trigger warning “not only indicates that the content that follows is about rape, but signals that the narrator is asserting her narrative into a feminist space.” This operates as a signal of respect for others in the space and an acknowledgement of the effects and reality of trauma.

Likewise, the email from Yale faculty asking students not to wear offensive costumes is a symbolic declaration of minority students’ right to live in a community where they are not demeaned by other students’ decisions to wear headdresses or blackface, as much as it is an attempt to control students’ choices. Finally, Friedersdorf notes that “what happens at Yale does not stay there,” referencing the fact that Yale students go on to become world leaders and guide research in their fields. That’s why it’s important, contrary to the prescription that Yale stop coddling these students, that Yale support their ability to imagine the world as it should be by encouraging them to be socially responsible in addition to thinking freely.

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