Part 1—A fiery professor’s response: Last Sunday, March 22, the New York Times ran a somewhat snarky opinion piece about These Kids Today—more specifically, about their attitude toward “safe spaces.”
The piece was written by Judith Shulevitz. Last Thursday, we discussed the part of the essay which concerned a debate at Brown about sexual assault on college campuses.
Yesterday, that same New York Times published seven letters about the Shulevitz piece. One of the letters came from a professor at Wisconsin’s Madison campus.
For us, that letter capped a week in which we puzzled about the New York Times’ puzzling use of statistics, and about our nation’s highly tribalized pseudo-debates.
A range of reactions and views were expressed in yesterday’s letters. This afternoon, we’ll look at one letter which actually came from one of These Kids Today!
On balance, we thought that student’s approach was unwise—but then, he’s still a college student! The other six letters pretty much broke down as follows:
Two of the letters scolded These Kids Today. More specifically, students were scolded for their alleged desire to be shielded from unwelcome ideas.
The other four letters came from college professors. As a general matter, they defended the practices Shulevitz had criticized.
Students with therapeutic issues deserve to be treated with care, these professors said—and yes, we’re paraphrasing.
As we noted last week, we agree with that position as a general matter. But then too, there was the fiery letter from the Wisconsin professor.
We thought that letter deserved review. As we read it, we pictured the way such letters might serve the political interests of Wisconsin’s Governor Walker, who wants to cut state funding to the state’s university system.
We also puzzled about the letter’s one statistical claim. It called to mind our puzzling, ongoing non-debate about the rate of sexual assault on the nation’s campuses:
LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES (3/29/15): I am dismayed by Judith Shulevitz’s belittling response to student trauma. I teach an undergraduate class on “Sexualities and Race.” We discuss challenging issues like campus rape, human trafficking, pornography and sex work. “Scary ideas” certainly. Tragically, for some students these ideas are also scary realities. My students engage these issues with intellectual rigor and great courage. Yes, I give trigger warnings, and try to make my class a safe space.We agree with some of the things Professor McClintock said.
Five students in my class were recently raped. One sits at the back so she has walls behind her, close to the door in case panic overwhelms her. I wonder how Ms. Shulevitz would deal with a student triggered into a major panic attack. Or a student whose friend was murdered by a cop. Making cheap jibes at a safe room with “cookies” and “Play-Doh” infantilizes the real-life traumas these students face too young, and belittles their right to face these intellectual and personal challenges in safe ways.
The writer is a professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Whatever one thinks of the term itself, there’s no reason why a professor shouldn’t try to make her class a “safe place” for students. Professorial discretion may help create classrooms in which students with therapeutic issues can play fuller roles.
But wait—there’s more agreement! Like the professor, we thought Shulevitz may have laid it on a bit thick concerning the Play-Doh and the cookies in the “safe spaces” which were created at Brown. (And the videotape of the puppies!)
This doesn’t mean that the therapeutic/”safe space” approach can’t be overdone in particular instances. Obviously, this approach can be poorly executed, just like everything else.
This brings us to the professor’s statement about a class she’s currently teaching. It calls to mind our nation’s ongoing pseudo-discussion of sexual assault on campus.
In the highlighted passage, the professor states that five students in her “Sexualities and Race” class “were recently raped.” She also asks how a professor should deal with “a student whose friend was murdered by a cop,” although she doesn’t claim that she currently faces this problem.
Let’s start with that second possible circumstance.
We were struck by the heroic language affected by this professor. Beyond that, we thought we may have heard cheering from Walker’s political staff.
The professor asks how she should deal with “a student whose friend was murdered by a cop.” For starters, we would suggest that she make sure that the “murder” has been reported. But we’d also suggest that she give some thought to her fiery language.
Professor McClintock plays the hero with this fiery language. On a political basis, she also plays into conservative hands.
How many students at Wisconsin have had a friend “murdered by a cop?” We have no idea. But we’ll guess the number is small.
That said, our fiery professors have been heroically tossing that language around in the past several years. On campus, their daring behavior may turn them into heroes.
In the wider political world, this language has sometimes blown up in our tribe’s face—although our most heroic professors will rarely acknowledge such facts.
Pols like Walker thanks the gods for such exciting language. It makes it easy to tell a state’s voters that Our Kids Today are in the hands of These Professors Today—that the state’s exciting professors are pushing “agendas” on campus.
Heroic professors of this type may serve as a curse on progressive interests. This brings us the professor’s factual claim—the statement that five of her students “were recently raped.”
Needless to say, we have no way of knowing if this statement is accurate. We aren’t sure how the professor herself could know that this statement is true, although everything is possible.
That said, university postings seem to show that the class in question contains only 36 students. This calls to mind one of our nation’s puzzling non-debates and the statistical claims which fuel it.
Is a “rape crisis” occurring on college campuses? Over here in the liberal world, we keep saying yes.
Last year, Rolling Stone decided to offer the perfect example. Its astounding non-journalistic behavior quickly blew up in its face.
That said, dueling statistics are floating around about the rate of sexual assault on our college campuses. Here’s the problem:
These dueling statistics seem to paint wildly divergent portraits of the basic facts. And uh-oh! To all appearances, major newspapers like the New York Times simply aren’t up to the task of dealing with such statistics.
Last week, the Times floundered badly in several important high-profile areas:
On Wednesday, Catherine Saint Louis (and her editor) did a miserable job with some new statistics about the gender wage gap. Many commenters noted the problems with this news report.
On Tuesday, Matt Apuzzo presented some fascinating new statistics about police shootings in Philadelphia. At one point, though, he offered a rather strange assessment of one of those new statistics—and he failed to note the way his new statistics connect to recent high-profile discussions about police behavior in Ferguson.
Last Sunday, Martin and Haberman made a standard ridiculous claim about school closings in Chicago. Yesterday, Fareed Zakaria adopted a standard statistical ploy about the state of the nation’s schools, in a typically underfed piece for the Washington Post.
We were especially struck by the Times’ reports about the gender wage gap and about police shootings. We were also struck by Professor McClintock’s one statistical claim.
In one area after another, the nation’s Potemkin public discourse is riddled with puzzling statistical claims—about arrests and shootings by police; about sexual assault on campus; about achievement in public schools; about the gender wage gap.
In other high-profile debates, the most fundamental statistics are constantly going AWOL.
In all these areas, the assessment of basic statistical claims seem to be well beyond the skill level of our most famous newspapers. In part as a result, the nation’s different tribal groups just keep advancing their favorite tribal claims.
All too often, in recent years, the tribal group has been us!
Why can’t the New York Times do a better job with basic statistical claims? To what extent does the Times simply defer to preferred story lines?
To what extent do our fiery professors make themselves heroes while helping politicians like Walker? Is this anything like the gigantic fail by the Stone?
We’ll be asking these questions all week! By the end of the week, we’ll even look at the dueling claims about the rate of assault on campus—and about the large percentage of students who don’t even know they’ve been raped!
Our craziest claims used to come from the right. At this point, is there any chance that The Crazy is coming from us? And when The Crazy comes from us, do we undermine liberal interests?
Later today: The student’s letter