The Brookes Learning and Teaching Conference site is live http://bltc16.ocsld.org/. I’m not going to be able to make it due to a prior commitment (an Iron Maiden + Ghost gig in Wroclaw – already booked when the conference dates were announced). It’s frustrating that two things I really want to go to are on at the same time – not least because I wrote most of the copy for the conference themes so I feel like I’ve shaped it a bit. That’s not to say they were my idea, we’d already agreed to include the three conceptualisations of space from the a recent project led by Kirsti Lonka (the keynote speaker) called 3 spaces http://www.3tilaa.fi/in-english/ i.e. mental, digital and physical, and the idea of liminal spaces had been bouncing round for a while in the discussions. All I did was pull them together and add some discussion points.
Since I won’t be there, I thought I’d do a series of blogs about the themes, so at least I’m making a contribution somewhere.
The discussion points for the theme of mental space are:”How do we address the mental space of students? Do we push students out of their comfort zone, and how far? Are embodiment, presence and identity important for learning? Are HEIs spaces without emotional conflict?” These were really prompted by a discussion I’d had with George Roberts, triggered by his blog a while back, http://rworld2.brookesblogs.net/2016/01/07/what-to-do-about-rhodes-and-other-evils/
It’s also a train of thought that was started by Warwick Students Union banning Maryam Namazie http://freethoughtblogs.com/maryamnamazie/ Though they backtracked once the media outcry started, it still doesn’t change the fact that a group of students, or at least one student acting on their own, thought that was OK. It raises all sorts of alarm bells about freedom of speech, and about how it is being undermined in the name of creating a safe space for students. What was even more worrying is that at Goldsmiths when there was a protest against her visit, the university’s feminist and LGBTQ+ societies wrote in support of the protestors, two groups that I’d have expected to stand for free speech.
On the other hand, I’m not totally in favour of free speech irrespective of the consequences. Inciting hatred of people can be threatening for those on the receiving end of the hatred. Inviting people who will then rail against particular ethnicities, or homosexuality, or particular individuals is something we should protect students against. There’s a tendency everywhere for people to say the most ridiculous or objectionable things and then follow up any criticism with “well that’s my opinion and I’m entitled to have one as much as you do”. I spend too much time looking at the bottom half of the Internet. It doesn’t do much for your opinion of humanity.
Well, you probably are entitled to any opinion you wish to hold, but I’d add the caveat, and usually do when I get drawn into these discussions, that you’re only entitled to share it if you can back it up with a credible argument, and some evidence. You have an opinion that America is the best country in the world? Well the UN Human Development Index says that it’s the 8th, so which study are you referring to? You’re citing the Bible or Koran as your supporting evidence? Then you’ll need to prove the existence of God for that one to count as a credible argument. Over to you.
So if someone wants to speak at your university, they need to have some academic credibility in order to get a platform to express their ideas. Where’s their study? What’s their evidence? Without that, then what are they doing there anyway? And why would we want to encourage our students to buy into unsupported dialogues?
If your students still feel threatened by what a speaker has to say, then we really need to start addressing why they’re so lacking in resilience. You are entitled to feel personally safe, free from the potential from harm, emotional and physical. Verbal and physical threats and assaults, or anything that might lead to them, shouldn’t be countenanced. But having your ideas, opinions and sensibilities threatened, that should be part of the normal daily existence of all of us. We should be encouraging our students to welcome those challenges, not shielding them from them. If something challenges your way of thinking, come up with an argument as to why they’re wrong, though preferably after you’ve given them due consideration as to whether they could be right. If that’s too much work, then learn to ignore them. Above all don’t take a discussion of ideas personally. Because then you become no better than a politician.
Where to draw the line about what is fair game for criticism is a tricky one. I’d originally thought that a good place to draw it is between ideas and people. Criticise ideas all you like, but lay off people. Then I heard Ricky Gervais’s interview with Conan O’Brien, just before the Golden Globes this year. Gervais said that for him the division is between what people do, and who they are. Make fun of what they do, but accept who they are. His routine at the Golden Globes ceremony about Caitlin Jenner is a perfect example of this. He refers to her pre-transition as Bruce Jenner, perfectly and chronologically accurate. He admires her for courage in transitioning, also laudable. Then makes a dig at the vehicular manslaughter she was accused of. ie what she did, not who she is. He walked that line spot on. That’s the line as universities we should be walking. Everything open to criticism, except when we’re talking about who someone is. Ethnicity, sex, sexuality. They’re not choices, they’re out of bounds for criticism. Religion, politics, economics; they’re choices and are fair game, providing you’ve got the evidence to back it up.