05 September 2014

Yet Another Open Letter! But this One Is to My Facebook Friend, Who is Tired of Being Told She Shouldn't Be Offended

You and I may never agree on the Salaita affair, but for what it’s worth: Of course you’re offended, and so are a lot of people.  Salaita expressed himself in ways that were vulgar, boorish, and deliberately provocative—and yes, people get provoked, quite reasonably.  What he’s being accused of is something very different from provocative ugliness, though: it’s hate speech. 

If he were, in fact, the rank anti-semite that he’s being presented as, on the basis of a handful of cherry-picked tweets that have been read out of context, I wouldn’t want him here either.   But a different picture emerges to those who are reading the tweets in the context of the conversations in which they emerged, looking at the whole of his twitter feed, and considering the evidence that was amassed about him as a scholar and teacher as his application made its way through the many circles of academic hiring.   Maybe they’re wrong.  Maybe there is additional evidence they should have considered or read more carefully.  There are many points in the hiring process where those conversations could take place—even at the point where Chancellor Wise was being pressured to withdraw the appointment.  Is it okay that he said those things on Twitter?  No.  But the conversation about whether saying ugly things on social media by itself justifies un-hiring him never happened.  We're to believe he's an anti-semite who will infect the classroom with his hatred because people who apparently haven't read anything but those few isolated tweets say so.

Why do I care?  Why am I willing to go to bat for this guy whose words, culled from his twitter feed, and amplified across a variety of hostile social media platforms, are hurtful to people I care about? 

Here are two reasons:

1.  The rank hypocrisy of the justification for this decision.  So many things happen that can make students feel unsafe.  How safe do students critical of Israel feel about voicing their sentiments in the wake of this decision?  How safe do Native students feel when they are surrounded by classmates wearing a racist caricature?  How safe do African-American students feel when benchmarks for African-American enrollment that were set in 1968 still haven’t been met?  How safe do foreign national students feel when an administration pours resources into finessing their transition to campus but provides no support to teaching faculty in meeting their learning needs, and when there is no recognition of the ways that the burgeoning numbers of such students will inevitably change campus culture?   The safety of particular groups of students seems to matter not at all—until suddenly it’s of overwhelming importance (but only for some groups).

2.  The implications for me, and the way I teach, and my precarious position.  In a column this week about the campus kerfuffle, the editor of our local paper, Jim Dey, asked,   
Who on campus is in such a vulnerable position? If there is someone, what are they saying or doing that would draw administrative disapproval? Assuming those unique conditions are met, what authority would anyone up the food chain have to punish them, given the protections that go with their jobs?
Well: me. If it can happen to Salaita, it can happen to me.  As a contingent, non-tenure-track faculty member, I can be fired by anyone up the food chain.  I use provocative speech when I teach. I drop f-bombs in class.  I voice racist attitudes in order to emphasize their presence in a text. I use vulgar sexual language to make visible the innuendo lurking beneath archaic euphemisms.The term “fag-hag” comes up every time I teach the novel Daisy Miller.  I press students to lay bare the sexist, racist, or homophobic assumptions they bring to a text.  When students get angry, I let that anger do some work in showing the real-world concerns at play in long-dead texts.  My methods usually succeed: students get what I’m doing, they understand my ironic use of opinions I don’t share, they’re open to the possibility that the world looks very different to people with different life experiences.  They engage with the readings in ways that they wouldn’t if I were more decorous.  But maybe I’ve just been lucky.  What happens when I offend a well-connnected student?  What if I fail a student for plagiarism, and that student is the child of a major donor?   What if a tuition-paying parent demands that I be removed from the classroom because of reports of my sexist, racist, profanity-laden behavior?  I would like to trust the judgment of my department head and college dean, who understand the rapid-fire give-and-take of the college classroom and the challenge of bringing obscure and difficult readings to life.  Only it seems they may no longer have the authority to back me up.

Wise didn’t bother to examine the context for the data Salaita’s opponents handed her, nor did she consult with anyone who might present an alternative view of the matter.  Why would anyone do more for me?   As an untenured and probably untenurable lecturer I have a far weaker claim to the protections of academic freedom and far less legal standing.  Firing me wouldn’t cost anybody anything.  At this point, I no longer care that much whether Salaita is reinstated.  Perhaps, at the end of the day, when the full totality of his public words have been read and argued over--he'll prove not to be such a loss.  But the terms on which he was un-hired matter very much to me, and I'm publicly supporting his reinstatement in order to put as much pressure as possible on those terms.  It’s now clear that whatever strengths I bring to the classroom are, under the right circumstances, for sale.

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