Campus Speech: Accusations, Harassment, Threats

Academic Freedom, Intellectual Freedom Issues

By: Frederic Murray

In the past year, a number of higher education faculty across the country have been accused, harassed, and in the worst instances threatened for things they have not said. These stories ring true and they ring hard, because it has happened to me. I’ve been hesitant to write about this, because my situation never became public, was resolved amicably, and I received nothing but support from my Administration. But since the spring semester of 2017 I have watched other, worst cases, of this scenario play out across our nation’s campuses.

Speech. Photography. Britannica ImageQuest, Encyclopædia Britannica, 25 May 2016.  quest.eb.com/search/132_1292227/1/132_1292227/cite. Accessed 21 Jul 2017. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Professors’ Growing Risk: Harassment for Things They Never Really Said,” highlights the cases of Sara E. Bond, an assistant professor of classics at the University of Iowa; Dana Cloud, a professor of communication at Syracuse University; Tommy Curry, a professor of philosophy at Texas A&M University; and George Ciccariello-Maher, associate professor of politics and global studies at Drexel University. Their stories are ably told and I would urge anyone reading this blog post to take the time to read this article.

As an information literacy librarian, whose responsibilities lie in providing instructional services to our campus, I have found myself dead center square in the debates concerning fake news. Fair enough, but my baseline approach to teaching hasn’t really changed. The outcomes we have for our library classes remained the same. In general:

  • Develop information-literate students familiar with the concepts underwriting this literacy as well as the skill set to navigate and utilize the libraries digital collections
  • Provide practical strategies on how technology can be used to enhance information literacy skills

The final, in-class assignment that I provide for our composition students, after three sessions in the library classroom, revolves around reading a short business article, developing keywords, selecting appropriate databases, and then locating three news articles, three peer-reviewed articles, and five e-books related to the topic at hand. The articles and e-books are archived in digital folders, and if time permits, all this material is exported to citation software to create a bibliography. By and large the students do well, some struggle, but most are excited and pleased at how quickly they can now find relevant material on any given topic.

This assignment got me into “trouble.” The article I assigned this past year is about a new company called Storyful. This company is in the business of vetting video content for media companies. They are digital fact checkers. It’s how they make their living. The article was published by Bloomberg Businessweek in January 2017 and is a fairly typical profile of an emergent and new type of business. It’s a good article for the students to use because it discusses fake news, technology, critical thinking and a number of other concepts that we explore in our three sessions.

But like the game of telephone where one person whispers a message to the ear of the next person through a succession of people until the last person announces the message, this assignment turned into something else. A student complained to his mother that I had assigned a research paper wherein the students had to research five lies told by Donald Trump. Once fully researched, they were expected to write their paper and turn it in or face failure of some sort. This parent, outraged, contacted a local, well-entrenched political representative, who then contacted our university president, who acting responsibly, contacted the provost, who then reached out to me.

I took a meeting with the provost and he spelled out the accusation that had been leveled. I told him what the assignment really consisted of and the matter died on the vine in his office. Even if I had assigned a “get-Trump” paper, it would have been my prerogative, because it’s my classroom, but there’s no good outcome for something so blatantly biased and aggressive. This whole incident wasn’t worth writing about until I realized this type of thing wasn’t going to go away anytime soon. As more and more aggressive and damaging versions of this scenario played out over the year on other campuses, it didn’t feel right to keep quiet.

Free speech on a college campus is a serious issue. What we say to our students, what they say to us, what we say collectively to each other in our classrooms, our lecture halls, to our guests and visitors, on and off campus, resonates, and it resonates loudly.

I don’t like being attacked. I don’t like my professional standards being questioned. It is galling to think of an elected political representative taking time to investigate a classroom. My response has been to double down on the pedagogy surrounding fake news. I have completed an initial literature review for a research article on this subject, and am in early conversations with a writing professor, one who specializes in digital literacies, to collaborate on the project.

I have upped my training by participating in webinars presented by the ALA’s Public Programs Office: Post-Truth: Fake News and a New Era of Information Literacy. I am scheduled for another ALA online workshop Fake News, Real Concerns: Developing Information Literate Students, and at the end of the month the Community of Oklahoma Instructional Librarians is holding a workshop on critical Pedagogy: Mission Critical: Laying the Groundwork for Understanding and Implementing Critical Pedagogy in the Library Classroom. I’m looking forward to meeting with my Oklahoma colleagues to discuss how we can strengthen our teaching.

Free speech on a college campus is a form of public engagement. And public engagement is always a challenge. Ask any of the professors named above. A good response is to sharpen your game and be ready. Tressie McMillan Cottom, a sociologist at Virginia Commonwealth University recently penned an insightful essay, Academic Outrage: When The Culture Wars Go Digital where she discusses a number of responses academics, or anyone really, should have in their back pockets. Master the platforms makes a lot sense because understating that “Twitter amplifies. Facebook brands. Tumblr remixes. Instagram illustrates” can go a long way in teaching us how the use of these new medias can be turned on a dime against the very idea of free speech.

While my own experience was with an old-fashioned lie, boldly told and blandly believed at its outset before it reached me, it gave me no pleasure to correct it. I am, however, looking forward to meeting, once again, with my students in the fall and spring semester (2017-18).

 


Frederic MurrayFrederic Murray is the head of Instructional Services at the Al Harris Library, Southwestern Oklahoma State University. He is a tenured faculty member and as an academic librarian has initiated the growth and expansion of information literacy classes across the campus curriculum. He has presented at state, national and international conferences in the areas of library pedagogy, digital textbooks, and the development of curriculum for Native American Studies. He serves as the managing editor for Administrative Issues Journal, a peer-reviewed, open access journal in its sixth year of publication. He believes deeply in the value of books and the inherent strength found in the human voice. Among his favorite authors are Lenny Bruce, Jimmy Santiago Baca and Carson McCullers. He can be reached at fredmurr@gmail.com

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