Dartmouth Examines Limits of Speech

  • Susannah Heschel, chairwoman of the Jewish Studies Program, is amongst the professors at Dartmouth College who add warnings to class syllabuses for subject matter that may be sensitive to students. (Dartmouth College - Robert Gill) Dartmouth College — Robert Gill

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/24/2016 11:57:14 PM
Modified: 9/24/2016 11:57:07 PM

Hanover — Over the past few years, carefully worded statements have begun to appear atop syllabuses at Dartmouth College, popping up alongside reading lists and office hours.

“We will spend some time in this course studying anti-Semitism, Nazi Germany, and the Holocaust,” reads an outline for courses taught by Susannah Heschel, chairwoman of the Jewish Studies Program. “Those topics are obviously very unpleasant and if you feel they will trigger unbearable emotions in you, please reconsider enrolling in this course. I am happy to discuss the matter with you.”

“This course is rated R,” another professor’s syllabus warns.

Although the latter advisory evolved over many years of teaching experience, as campus controversies have swelled and subsided in the meantime, it and other qualifying paragraphs are a recognition of an increasingly touchy ongoing debate over speech and how to address it.

How, for instance, in an era when students demand “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces,” should institutions of higher education expose their pupils to sensitive material? And, outside of the classroom, how should they balance the regulation of hate speech with the preservation of free speech?

The University of Chicago last month took the issue by the horns, issuing a letter to new students that proclaimed the school’s “commitment to academic freedom.”

That commitment, wrote John Ellison, dean of students there, means that “we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

A “safe space” is a venue that protects marginalized people from violence or hate speech, allowing them to discuss their experiences without fear of reprisal.

Ellison’s letter, an unprecedented stand by a university on an already sensitive topic, set off untold controversy online and in the media. In contrast, Dartmouth has been loath to intervene as an institution.

“Dartmouth does not have a speech code,” spokeswoman Diana Lawrence said in an email last week. “With respect to ‘trigger warnings,’ pedagogy and classroom protocols at Dartmouth are determined by faculty on an individual basis; they are in charge of their own classrooms.”

But with freedom comes responsibility. Today’s academics are squarely in the sights of competing interest groups: those who seek to bring previously unrecognized issues of racial, social and gender equity to the fore, and those who feel that identity politics is suppressing freedom of expression.

Although the debate is enormous in scope, the opposing sides often focus their arguments through the narrower lens of trigger warnings. The concept evolved as way to alert students with past trauma to content that could bring it all back — and, for those with, say, post-traumatic stress disorder, provoke a reaction too strong to handle.

For Susan Brison, a Dartmouth professor of philosophy who holds appointments in the cognitive science and women’s, gender and sexuality studies programs, issuing these warnings is a matter of common sense.

Just as professors should not allow their students to talk over one another or treat one other disrespectfully, she says, it makes sense to give a heads up before showing something that someone might find shocking.

“That’s just common sense and decency,” she said in an interview last week, “and I think of what people call trigger warnings as being in the same category.”

All the same, when Brison makes her advisories, she doesn’t call them trigger warnings. And even though Brison, a sexual violence activist, has been outspoken about her own rape, in 1990 — enough to write a book about it — she has avoided publishing anything about trigger warnings or talking about them on social media.

“ ‘Trigger warning’ is a trigger for people,” she said. “They infer all sorts of things about who you are and what you teach and what your views are.”

Jinsung Bach, for example, is a senior who has written columns for The Dartmouth, the main student newspaper, condemning “political correctness” and the tactics of Black Lives Matter on campus. He says the practice has no place at a university.

“I believe that higher education is a place for students to be intellectually challenged,” Bach said in an email last week. “It should be a place where their beliefs can be openly questioned and where they have the opportunity to defend what they believe in, or change their stance as they take in new ideas.

“Trigger warnings deny students that kind of environment because they allow students to simply avoid things that make them uncomfortable, so they aren’t conducive to a good education. Instead we should encourage students to approach these uncomfortable topics head-on, no matter how painful they are.”

Bach and Brison do not disagree on all points. People have “a reasonable expectation to be safe in the classroom,” she said, “... but they shouldn’t have the expectation that they’re always going to feel comfortable.”

Nevertheless, Brison challenged the conception that postsecondary students are being sheltered and infantilized by speech codes that insulate them from discomfort or countervailing opinion. In her view, student and faculty these days are addressing “difficult subjects that weren’t academically respectable before,” including, for example, many unrecognized aspects of rape.

“I think it’s because they’re being more challenged than they were, 20 years ago, say,” Brison said. “... It’s not that nobody talked about rape in classes 20 years ago” — or racism, or hate speech — “but we’re bringing these very challenging issues into the classroom more often than we used to.”

Especially in philosophy, she added. “We’re not just talking about Plato.”

As those issues make their way into the classroom, and as students grow more vocal about how they wish to confront them, professors at Dartmouth and beyond have adopted a wide range of strategies to address challenging materials.

Some, like Heschel, the Jewish studies professor, offer a blanket statement at the beginning, trusting students to understand that the subject matter, by its nature, will be horrifying.

Other professors, like Veronika Fuechtner, the associate professor of German who assigned the “R” rating to her own class, ask students to question why they take offense, rather than avoid or reject an experience entirely.

“You might experience some of the materials we will be analyzing in this class as downright offensive for a variety of reasons,” reads the rest of the statement, which Fuechtner gives on the first day of a course about German humor — a fraught topic in a country where memories of genocide linger. “Analyzing how humor works, and especially why it works or doesn’t work for some individuals, groups or at some historical juncture, will be part of this class. Therefore it is crucial to the class that you articulate your reactions fully and that you keep an open mind in regard to the reaction of other course participants, which might not be the same.”

Fuechtner said she tried to get to know each student, including the student’s background and what brought the person to the course. She usually teaches small classes, which makes that easier, she said.

Like Heschel, she teaches on the Holocaust, and sometimes shows disturbing content. Students have a wide range of reactions, and Fuechtner’s style is to ask them about the effect a video or an image produces.

“I try to bring it to a level where you think about it, and don’t just react to it on an emotional level,” she said.

This has led to some tense, but productive, discussions. On one occasion, she took a group of students studying abroad to a concentration camp. Afterward, talk strayed to contemporary topics — Israel and Palestine, rape and the treatment of women on Dartmouth’s campus.

“My strategy is to let them have that argument and make sure that everyone can express their standpoint without being censured in any way,” Fuechtner said. “I try to ensure that it’s a cordial and open discussion. I think that’s the most productive. It can be emotional, but it should remain cordial. And disagreement is ultimately not a bad thing. It’s ultimately how we learn what our position is.”

Beyond Dartmouth, regional institutions have confronted this issue as well.

The University of New Hampshire in 2013 developed a “bias-free language guide,” developed by students and staff, that offered a set of guidelines to avoid language that could offend or marginalize community members.

Among a long list of recommendations, the guide advised those at UNH to avoid the term “American” to describe citizens of the United States. Used in that context, the word excludes those in South America, it said.

As the guide last year became the subject of news stories and heated debate nationally, the university president, Mark Huddleston, came close to disavowing the document.

“While individuals on our campus have every right to express themselves, I want to make it absolutely clear that the views expressed in this guide are not the policy of the University of New Hampshire,” he said in a written statement. “I am troubled by many things in the language guide, especially the suggestion that the use of the term ‘American’ is misplaced or offensive. The only UNH policy on speech is that it is free and unfettered on our campuses. It is ironic that what was probably a well-meaning effort to be ‘sensitive’ proves offensive to many people, myself included.”

The guide no longer appears on the university website; a spokeswoman last week said it had been taken down.

“It was not ever policy of the University of New Hampshire,” the spokeswoman, Erika Mantz, said in an email.

Like Dartmouth, the University of Vermont does not maintain a speech policy, its representatives said last week.

“UVM does not have a policy on trigger warnings, nor has it adopted a ‘speech code’ or bias-free language guide,” spokesman Enrique Corredera said in an email. “Faculty members, using their own judgment, are free to advise students of sensitive subjects at their own discretion.

“The University of Vermont, as an educational institution, vigorously supports freedom of inquiry and expression within the academic community and promotes a welcoming, safe and inclusive environment for all members of our community.”

The university has, however, waded into the realm of censoring hate speech. UVM’s “Bias Response Team,” a seven-member group that includes the university police chief, is charged with “responding to issues of prejudice and bias that negatively impact our community,” Corredera wrote.

The program, or specifically its ambit, recently has found itself the target of criticism from a faculty member who says its charge is too broad.

The Bias Response Team handles incidents involving behavior of a “threatening, harassing, intimidating, discriminatory, hostile, unwelcoming, exclusionary, demeaning or derogatory” nature that is based on a person’s identity.

The team has handled 10 incidents since its founding, according to the Vermont newspaper Seven Days, including three uses of a racial slur for African-Americans.

People whom the bias team found responsible in those and other incidents attended sensitivity training and, depending on the seriousness of the offense, also wrote an apology letter.

Corredera, for his part, noted that the response team “has not been involved in any classroom situations involving faculty.”

Closer to home, New London-based Colby-Sawyer College updated its sexual misconduct policy as recently as last month, a spokeswoman said.

Under the heading “Forms of Prohibited Sexual Harassment,” the policy offers as one of many examples: “Non-academic display or circulation of written materials or pictures degrading to an individual(s) or gender group.”

The policy goes on to add, in parentheses, “It is expected that instructors will offer appropriate warning regarding the introduction of explicit and triggering materials used in the classroom.”

Back on the Dartmouth campus, some students are hoping for a little more clarity as far as policy goes.

“What really has frustrated Dartmouth students, from what I can see, is a lack of communication from the administration,” said Carter Sullivan, a senior.

Although many undergraduates were upset by the University of Chicago letter (and others heartened), he said, “I appreciate that they at least laid it out there.”

Sullivan, a white man who acknowledged having a background of a certain privilege, said he didn’t take a side on trigger warnings, and hadn’t heard a professor use one.

Senior Hanna Balcha, a black woman, had.

Before playing video of a serial killer’s trial, for example, or delving into a case of sexual blackmail, one of her professors took the time to make what he explicitly called a trigger warning.

Balcha said she found the decision respectful, especially given the “ridicule” that has been aimed at the term.

Beyond the classroom, Balcha, as with Sullivan, said she wanted administrators to play a more active role.

“We definitely do not have the best system of making sure students are comfortable — especially students of color,” she said.

Balcha said that students, when made the target of anonymous online threats, often found the college unwilling to step in. Although Dartmouth has cracked down on some of the most egregious posters on Yik Yak (an anonymous mobile chat app) and Bored@Baker (a pseudonymous chat site), Balcha felt that most hateful and damaging speech went unchallenged.

She added, “We don’t have much censorship — and I guess that’s the point — but at the same time there are some things that don’t need to be said.”

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or at 603-727-3242.

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