Friday, September 18, 2015

Alice Dreger and the policing of academic thought

Misguided feminists are dictating what academics may publish

The latest brouhaha to come out of Northwestern University, the Illinois institution beset by censorship scandals, is one that has seen Alice Dreger, a renowned professor of medical humanities and bioethics, resign over a controversial journal she edited. It’s a skirmish indicative of the underlife many academics feel confined to these days, a state of affairs that has seen the curtailing of the combustible and imperfect forces that drive innovation in the sciences, technologies and humanities.

The conflict began for Dreger when she guest edited Atrium, the journal of the medical humanities and bioethics programme at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine. In an issue titled ‘Bad Girls’, she included an article by William Peace, an adjunct instructor in Syracuse University’s honours programme. ‘Head Nurses’ was about Peace’s experience in a physical-rehabilitation hospital in the Seventies, a stay that lasted more than a year and brought him into close contact with a lot of young female nurses. (He suffered from a neurological disorder that left him a paraplegic at the age of 18.)

Peace wrote about a reasonable fear he had then: namely, if being in a wheelchair for the rest of his life would prevent him from having sex. Although it was a question no medical professional seemed prepared to answer, an answer existed. With a wonder that is still discernible, he describes the time a nurse came to his bed in the middle of the night and fellated him, an experience he recalls with warmth and gratitude.

Peace elaborated, saying that, at the time, the youngest nurses – recent graduates – were sent to teach young paralysed men like him how to insert and remove catheters. An intimate procedure he found humiliating – especially since he found some of the nurses attractive. There was an upside, however. These nurses were also poorly paid, worked long hours and were assigned the least desirable tasks.

The end result, Peace reports, were relationships of mutual empathy, the kind that develop naturally between young men and women when they are thrown together for months at a time, working under difficult circumstances and toward challenging goals. Peace spoke to that emotional context in the article, a context that included encouragement, frankness and, of course, physical contact.

There were two significant critiques of ‘Head Nurses’. One came from Dreger’s dean, Eric Nielson, who felt he was protecting Northwestern Memorial Health Care, the corporation that had recently acquired Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine. The other came from feminists Rachelle Barina and Devan Stahl at, the website of The American Journal of Bioethics.

When it came to Northwestern, Nielson was concerned about branding and had the article removed from the online version of Atrium. It was ironic: the medical school, which was once free of the interventions of corporate world, had for a decade allowed Dreger to explore edgy experiences typified by Peace’s narrative. However, a new dependence on corporate funding apparently changed that. On her personal blog, Dreger quotes a message to the faculty at the medical school, emphasising how it has now become a medical ‘centre’:

‘Starting today, the look of your campus-access badge will reflect our Northwestern Medicine identity… This will be a powerful symbol to our community and visitors that we’re working together as one unified medical centre… Carriers of both the NU Wildcard and the NM ID badge will still have access to all the benefits of the Wildcard advantage programme, including dining and retail discounts.’

Dreger joked in the blog that if she’d kept her job, she would have also kept her 15 per cent discount at participating restaurants. I spoke to Dreger about the incident, and, levity aside, she made the point that ‘academic freedom is fundamentally the opposite of a brand’, and that, while brands are about singular messages, ‘academic freedom is about having the potential to be off-message’. Peace contends that his writing about sex, as a disabled man, is at the root of his critics’ discomfort, and is precisely why a journal like Atrium should publish him.

Feminists Barina and Stahl argued that ‘according to Peace, his nurse initiated the blowjob without his request. Nevertheless, it is hard to see her act as radically distanced from the cultural expectations placed on her to care for and affirm the manhood of her male patients through the use of her body. Moreover, her act perpetuates the assumption that women best care for men by putting their bodies in the service of unreciprocated sexual pleasure.’

They wrote a follow-up to this, after the controversy became public, insisting they oppose censorship, stating that a subsequent article, written by Peace in the Chronicle of Higher Education, situated his experience in a clearer and more sympathetic context. Despite their belated disclaimer, it’s hard to see Barina and Stahl’s responses as ‘radically distanced’ from a censoriousness designed to keep Peace out of a conversation – about sex and disability – that he initiated.

On a more prosaic level, Barina and Stahl also assert that Peace’s accommodating nurse did not experience reciprocal pleasure while engaging in fellatio with him, a curious assumption, especially since the woman is no longer alive to deny it. However, I doubt a denial would even have a place in their argument. And that’s because they are relying on an assumption which stems from the broader belief that heterosexual sex is all about power and therefore inherently bad.

But Barina and Stahl got it wrong in another way: they misunderstood the disability context Peace was writing in. What the disabled will tell you themselves is that their physical conditions require different lexicons of eroticism, not all of which are intelligible to those who define sexual pleasure purely in orgasmic terms. Peace’s discussion surely pushes towards a broader lexical knowledge of disability and this is apparent by how he starts his story: ‘It was late at night and I had pissed all over myself and the bed.’ He describes how it felt to fail on an ADL – an activity of daily living – and how, as a young man, asking for help was difficult. So if a power dynamic did exist between Peace and the nurse, I would argue it was lateral and that her gesture needs to be understood in that context.

Having cared for a disabled parent, I understood Peace’s intentions in ‘Head Nurses’. I know that talking about urinating, defecating and pleasant sensations all at the same time is part of the compression that characterises discussions about disabled bodies. I recognised that when my mother’s occupational therapist stressed the importance of giving myself enough time to perform a proper toilette for my mother in both the morning and evening. The tactile pleasure my mother would derive from it, she said, was important to her emotional wellbeing. It’s a conversation I’ve had with those who work in physical rehabilitation; they’ve taught me to appreciate that having a diaper changed, when one is old and frail, can actually be a pleasing experience. It’s a subversive thought, one that challenges conventional notions about the horrors of old age.

I remember the feminist slogan from the Seventies – the personal is political. Maybe it’s still true. But as Peace and Dreger’s experiences show, it can also be code for ‘Hold on, there are some dumb rules coming your way’. I wonder when those of us who care about the vulnerable became afraid of those who claim to do so with more zeal. When did we cede our freedom to the academy’s most misguided alarmists?


Obama defends free speech on campus??

Speaking at North High School in Des Moines, Iowa, yesterday President Barack Obama said he did not think colleges should block guest speakers who are “too conservative.”

Obama made the observation during a question-and-answer session with students and their parents.

Before answering the question, the president said: “When I went to college, suddenly there were some folks who didn’t think at all like me.  And if I had an opinion about something, they’d look at me and say, well, that’s stupid.”

Here is an excerpt from the president’s presentation:

    "When I went to college, suddenly there were some folks who didn’t think at all like me.  And if I had an opinion about something, they’d look at me and say, well, that’s stupid.  And then they’d describe how they saw the world.  And they might have had a different sense of politics, or they might have a different view about poverty, or they might have a different perspective on race, and sometimes their views would be infuriating to me.  But it was because there was this space where you could interact with people who didn’t agree with you and had different backgrounds that I then started testing my own assumptions. And sometimes I changed my mind.  Sometimes I realized, you know what, maybe I’ve been too narrow-minded.  Maybe I didn’t take this into account.  Maybe I should see this person’s perspective.

     So that’s what college, in part, is all about.  The idea that you’d have somebody in government making a decision about what you should think ahead of time or what you should be taught, and if it’s not the right thought or idea or perspective or philosophy, that that person would be -- that they wouldn’t get funding runs contrary to everything we believe about education. I mean, I guess that might work in the Soviet Union, but it doesn’t work here. That’s not who we are.  That’s not what we’re about.

    Now, one thing I do want to point out is it’s not just sometimes folks who are mad that colleges are too liberal that have a problem.  Sometimes there are folks on college campuses who are liberal and maybe even agree with me on a bunch of issues who sometimes aren’t listening to the other side.  And that’s a problem, too.

    I was just talking to a friend of mine about this.  I’ve heard I've of some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative.  Or they don’t want to read a book if it has language that is offensive to African Americans, or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women.  And I’ve got to tell you, I don’t agree with that either.  I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of views.

    I think that you should be able to -- anybody should -- anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with them.  But you shouldn’t silence them by saying, you can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say. That’s not the way we learn, either".


Support for Higher Teacher Salaries Drops When People Find Out How Much Teachers Earn

Americans consistently underestimate how much is spent annually to educate children in the nation’s public schools, including how much teachers are being paid.

But when they are told the actual amount, the percentage of the public that supports increasing teacher salaries drops from about two-thirds (63 percent) to less than half (45 percent), according the ninth annual Education Next poll.

“When the public is informed of teacher salaries, support for increasing salaries declines,” the EdNext poll found. “Support drops even further when the public is reminded that an increase would be funded by tax dollars.”

The poll was conducted in May and June by Professors Paul Peterson and Martin West of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

“People estimate that their local school districts spent $6,307 per child when we know from U.S. Department of Education statistics that it’s actually twice that” – or an average of $12,440 per child, Peterson told

“The response has been very consistent from year to year,” he said, adding that the steep drop in public support for more education spending is significant.

“You don’t get an 18 point difference very often,” he noted.

Americans also guessed that the 4 million public school teachers in the U.S. receive an average yearly salary of $38,294 – considerably lower than the actual average of $55,510, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Peterson said the poll questions did not include other teacher compensation, such as health benefits and pensions.

The 4,083 respondents, which comprised a nationally representative sample, were divided into two groups. Both groups were asked whether teacher salaries should decrease, increase, or stay the same, but only members of one group were also given the current average teacher salary in their state.

Peterson attributed Americans’ low-ball estimates on per-pupil expenditures and teacher salaries to a general lack of media coverage of the issue.

“About 50 percent of a local school district’s expenditures come from its own resources. The rest is from the state and federal governments,” he explained. “But what people think about is the money raised from the local tax base.”

Peterson concluded that the more information on current expenditures Americans have, the less inclined they are to support higher taxes in order to further increase spending on education.

“If they are aware of how much money is being spent, they might also have higher expectations,” he added.


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