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Humanities Center hosts “Triggers, Cancel Culture and Academic Freedom” panel

On Tuesday, April 11, a panel of faculty spoke in the Weitz Center for Creativity on their experience teaching in the “age of cancel culture.” The discussion, titled “Teaching at Carleton during the New Culture Wars: Triggers, Cancel Culture and Academic Freedom,” was hosted by the Hollis L. Caswell Professor of Educational Studies, Deborah Appleman, Associate Professor of Art History Ross Elfline, Associate Professor of History Amna Khalid and Associate Professor of Educational Studies Jeff Snyder.

Appleman introduced the talk, addressing her new book titled “Literature and the New Culture Wars: Triggers, Cancel Culture, and the Teacher’s Dilemma.” According to the author’s website, the book “calls for a reacknowledgment of the intellectual and affective work that literature can do, and offers ways to continue to teach troubling texts without doing harm.” Afterwards, all panelists were given ten minutes to present their thoughts and experiences as educators on the use of trigger warnings and academic censorship. 

Snyder was the first to talk, asking the audience their opinions on the value of a liberal arts education. The educational studies professor argued that a student who graduates unchanged is a student the college failed to educate. 

“There is an inescapable fact that we must contend with, and the fact is as follows: There is no growth and development without growing pains,” said Snyder. “Discomfort is a feature, not a bug, of a liberal arts education.”

He proceeded to quote the college’s statement on discrimination and academic freedom, which states: 

“Often, the educational process is disturbing and unsettling; when one’s ideas are under attack and one’s values are being challenged, the effect may be simultaneously painful and highly educational.”

Khalid succeeded Snyder, making quick use of her time by asking her students in the audience to give up their seats and move toward the back, leaving space for other faculty and staff. The history professor pointed to a “DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) Inc.” as the reason why certain vocabulary like “microaggressions,” “lived experience,” “the intent-impact gap,” “inclusive excellence” and “trigger warnings” are so prevalent nowadays.

“You know the language of DEI Inc. when you hear it. It’s a combination of management consulting buzzwords, social justice slogans and therapy speak,” said Khalid.

Khalid discussed a resolution the Cornell University Student Assembly passed recently, which forced faculty to provide warnings on sensitive content, such as sexual assault, self-harm, racial harassment or homophobic violence. The university’s president vetoed the resolution. Khalid then discussed a personal anecdote in which a student, after being assigned a racist primary source reading, asked her for coping advice. 

“I thought about how to respond to her, and I took it as an opportunity to think deeply about how we explain the value of engaging with distressing material,” said Khalid. “So here’s what I said: ‘I often try to remember that if my ancestors had to contend with the reality of colonial brutality, the least I can do is read about it to make what they went through still relevant to our present.’”

Ross Elfline, the next speaker, explained his opinions from an art historian’s point of view. He pointed toward artwork like Andres Serrano’s “Immersion (Piss Christ)” that has caused outrage due to its content, suggesting this censorship is not new. He spoke of his time as an adjunct professor, when a religious student took offense to Elfline showing Robert Mapplethorpe’s “Man in a Polyestersuit” in a survey class on art since World War II. While his then-employer agreed Elfline did not break any rules, he claims he was offered fewer courses and received threatening messages. 

“While I continue to teach Mapplethorpe’s work, there is other work … that I simply don’t teach anymore. Why is this? In a word, I’m tired. The framing necessary to explain to students why I’m showing [the artwork], why I’m asking them to withhold judgment, prejudges the work for them,” said Elfline. “They’re primed to be offended and, all too often, they follow the script given to them. In brief, I’ve had to pick my battles. And because my field … is riddled with them, I can’t fight them all, but I remain committed to fighting some.”

Appleman followed, once again reinforcing the necessity of discomfort in learning. She discussed the author Sherman Alexie and his downfall following sexual harassment allegations. 

“Sherman Alexie was accused of having relationships with women that were exploitative and inappropriate. He was censored nationally and all of his appearances canceled. All of his books disappeared from most school libraries in the United States. He is no longer being taught,” said Appleman. “Someone would say ‘Well, that’s okay, why don’t you read the books of Tommy Orange, he’s an engaging native author?’ but would we say ‘Oh, Hemingway, we’ll just substitute him with another white male author?’”

The panel proceeded with an audience question and answer portion. One student questioned whether the lack of trigger warnings would cause different groups to receive a different education based on lived experience. 

Khalid responded:  “I think we make assumptions about how people are going to react based on identity, and that is problematic because we assume everyone who looks the same has the same experience. Also, we assume that if we see police brutality on a Black body, Black students are going to be traumatized by it. I can imagine that this would be an opening for Black students to talk with white students about some of the issues that they don’t get the chance to talk about and to actually begin that conversation. So I would push back in saying this would only be a learning experience for white people. I think it’s also a conversation opener; the point is to have a discussion about it.”

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