The audio recording of a recent meeting at Wilfrid Laurier University, in Waterloo, Canada has captured the academic world’s attention.
A teaching assistant named Lindsay Shepherd was reprimanded by her supervising professor, as well as a “manager of Gendered Violence Prevention and Support” and one other professor. Her crime? Screening for two sections of her communications class a recorded TV segment in which Jordan Peterson, among others, debates a recent law concerning the use of gender pronouns. Nobody in the video criticized trans people; the question discussed was whether or not the law should require Canadians to use the pronouns that other people choose for themselves (Peterson said no). Furthermore, Shepherd didn’t criticize or disparage students of any kind in any way, nor did she even endorse Peterson’s view; in fact, as she later stated, she disagreed with Peterson’s view. In her classes, she simply presented a clip without taking a stance.
It can easily be argued that there exist video clips that cross a line, and should not be presented in a classroom. But when I watch this TV segment, I see a respectful, level-headed debate with a philosophically diverse group of participants on a controversial legal topic. In a later conversation, Shepherd emphasized that this debate is currently one of the hottest issues in the national discourse and that it’s important to expose students to these differing perspectives because they will encounter them once they leave the university. (The title of the course is “Canadian Communication in Context.”) Nevertheless, at least one of Shepherd’s students filed a complaint, which initiated a bureaucratic response process.
Shepherd recorded the ensuing meeting with her supervisors; you can find the complete recording and a partial transcript of the meeting here. At times, the transcript is reminiscent of scenes from dystopian novels by George Orwell, Franz Kafka, and other writers who experienced the Soviet system.
This story, however, has a surprisingly positive ending. After the recording was made public, the President of Laurier issued an apology. Shepherd’s supervising professor Rambukkana also wrote his own open letter of apology in which he goes well beyond the minimum required, and asks whether perhaps teachers should focus less on goals of social justice and more on exposing students to multiple viewpoints.
Below, we analyze the transcript of the meeting itself, and then reflect on the apology. We conclude with suggested next steps for those involved.
In the meeting, Shepherd asserted that she was neutrally presenting a topic (the legally mandated use of new gender pronouns) that is in the current public discourse.
Shepherd:[C]an you shield people from those ideas? Am I supposed to comfort them and make sure that they are insulated away from this? Like, is that what the point of this is? Because to me, that is so against what a university is about. So against it. I was not taking sides. I was presenting both arguments.
But her supervising professor, Nathan Rambukkana, didn’t want her to remain neutral.
Shepherd:Like I said, it was in the spirit of debate.
Rambukkana:Okay, “in the spirit of the debate” is slightly different than “this is a problematic idea that we might want to unpack.”
Shepherd:But that’s taking sides.
One side of this debate has seemingly become academic orthodoxy, which precludes the possibility that students might question it and think critically about it. In the words of Orwell from 1984:
Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.
Shepherd’s supervisors did not disclose any information about the complaint.
Shepherd: I have no concept of how many people complained, what their complaint was, you haven’t shown me the complaint.
Rambukkana: I understand that this is upsetting, but also confidentiality matters.
Shepherd: The number of people is confidential?
Even the policy violation was unclear.
Rambukkana: Do you understand how what happened was contrary to, sorry Adria, what was the policy?
Joel: Gendered and Sexual Violence.
Rambukkana: — Gendered and Sexual Violence Policy. Do you understand how —
Shepherd: Sorry, what did I violate in that policy.
Joel: Um, so, gender-based violence, transphobia, in that policy. Causing harm, um, to trans students by, uh, bringing their identity as invalid. Their pronouns as invalid — potentially invalid.
Shepherd: So I caused harm?
Joel: — which is, under the Ontario Human Rights Code a protected thing so something that Laurier holds as a value.
Shepherd: Ok, so by proxy me showing a YouTube video I’m transphobic and I caused harm and violence? So be it. I can’t do anything to control that.
These amorphous accusations are reminiscent of Kafka’s opening lines from The Trial:
Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.
At Laurier—and other universities—can teachers be disciplined for being anonymously accused of violating an undefinable policy? If so, this has chilling implications for teaching and learning. Teachers will have to guess at what policies might protect students’ sensibilities, and eye their classrooms with fear. Each student is a potential accuser, so teachers must plan their lectures with the most easily-offended student in mind, taking account of all topics that could cause offense. In fact, since 2015 we have been hearing many reports of teachers self-censoring, “teaching on tenterhooks,” and cutting potentially controversial materials from their syllabi.
Throughout the conversation, Shepherd continued to articulate the value of showing students conflicting ideas.
Shepherd: But when they leave the university they’re going to be exposed to these ideas, so I don’t see how I’m doing a disservice to the class by exposing them to ideas that are really out there.
The ideas are “really out there:” the clip Shepherd showed had recently aired on TV. But Rambukkana later explained that there are some perspectives for which a stance must be taken by the teacher. For example:
Rambukkana: This is like neutrally playing a speech by Hitler.
Asserting that everyone you disagree with is Hitler is a typical application of concept creep. While it is easy to argue that Hitler’s views should not be portrayed neutrally in the classroom, can the same thing be said of Jordan Peterson, a professor at the University Toronto whose ire is directed not at trans people but at a Canadian law mandating pronoun use? Is opposing a recent law regulating language use really comparable to carrying out genocide?
(Even the question of how Hitler should be portrayed in the classroom might be worth some open debate. When I was in high school, our history class had a unit on the Holocaust in which we were shown Nazi propaganda films and asked to discuss what made them so effective. This was at a Jewish high school, in which many students’ grandparents were murdered in the Holocaust. I’d argue we benefited tremendously from that class.)
Such shielding ultimately harms the students; arguably, the greatest disservice is done to the trans students themselves, for they would most benefit from being able to discuss the merits of the bill and debate the topic with those who disagree with them.
The supervisors settled on the requirement that Shepherd submit for advance review any videos she wants to show her students. They left open the possibility that more consequences may follow, because:
Rambukkana: Frankly some of the things that we talked about are a little problematic.
The committee didn’t seem content to let Shepherd maintain her stance. Throughout the conversation you can feel their drive to convert her; they cannot accept that someone would want to maintain a view of intellectual freedom that they consider “problematic.” As in 1984:
“You are a slow learner, Winston.”
“How can I help it? How can I help but see what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four.”
“Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane.”
Let us take the views espoused in this meeting and carry them to their logical end: Students at Laurier will graduate without ever having even heard ideas that run contrary to their own. When they do encounter people in the post-college world who hold those ideas, they will attribute bad intentions; they’ll assume that such people must either be insane, or as evil as Hitler. And thus when they, in turn, become supervising professors, they will make sure their TAs do not inflict any such views on their students, to shield them from insanity and evil. And so on. Until, perhaps, one defiant TA challenges them…
As mentioned earlier, this incident has taken a positive turn. Because of overwhelming negative media attention, the university president, Deborah MacLatchy, issued an apology to Shepherd on behalf of the university. It was minimal and pro forma; it reads like the apology of someone calculating political costs. It pivots away from the university’s bad treatment of Shepherd to condemn people on social media who targeted those involved “with extreme vitriol.” It ends by proposing a task force to look into a broad array of issues, including diversity and inclusion.
But Shepherd’s supervising professor did much better. Rambukkana went beyond the minimum necessary (apologizing for his mistreatment of Shepherd). Rather, he gave her the honor of actually listening to her arguments. He questioned whether it is appropriate for him to teach from a partisan social justice perspective, or whether it might be better for professors to be less heavy-handed and more open to “diversity of thought:”
Finally there is the question of teaching from a social justice perspective, which my course does attempt to do. I write elsewhere about reaching across the aisle to former alt-right figures as possible unexpected allies in the struggle to create a better more just society for all. But hearing all of the feedback from people and looking at the polarized response I am beginning to rethink so limited an approach. Maybe we ought to strive to reach across all of our multiple divisions to find points where we can discuss such issues, air multiple perspectives, and embrace the diversity of thought. And maybe I have to get out of an “us versus them” habit of thought to do this myself, and to think of the goal as more than simply advancing social justice, but social betterment and progress as a whole.
This willingness to question whether professors should teach from a particular political perspective is rare and commendable. Rambukkana recognizes that partisan teaching reinforces an “us versus them” mindset that is antithetical both to the pursuit of truth and to the pursuit of good public policy. Bravo to Professor Rambukkana.
We close with a few suggestions that might help turn this whole episode into something positive—something that makes Wilfrid Laurier University, and the academy in general, better able to live up to their stated principles:
1) We invite Lindsay Shepherd and Professor Rambukkana to join Heterodox Academy, a community of more than 1,300 scholars likewise committed to viewpoint diversity.
2) We suggest that Professor Rambukkana, and the other professors and teachers at Laurier, use the OpenMind platform to help depolarize their classrooms and foster mutual understanding.
4) We invite all readers of this essay to share their own stories of constructive disagreement; specifically, when a diversity of viewpoints led to productive outcomes. (Please share in the comments below, or email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
It isn’t easy to stand up to your boss—and maintain such level-headedness while doing so—especially when your career might be at stake. At the time, Shepherd couldn’t have predicted that this would be the outcome. So, just in time for (the American) Thanksgiving, we express our thanks to Lindsay Shepherd for her integrity, bravery, and sanity under the pressure of the orthodoxy.
It also isn’t easy to admit your mistakes, especially publicly; and it’s even harder to truly listen to another’s perspective and change your mind as a result. We give thanks to Professor Rambukkana for demonstrating humility and openness, as well as a commitment to improve Laurier’s learning environment for many students to come.
One last quote from 1984:
Being in a minority, even in a minority of one, did not make you mad. There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.
As this incident shows, individual actions of brave sanity will add up to a braver, saner academy.