Friday, July 06, 2018

Through the Looking Glass at Concordia University

It was in a class called Representations of Minorities in Documentary Film, the last elective I needed to receive my BA at Concordia University in Montreal, that I first realized something was very wrong. The class had just watched Sound and Fury, a 2000 Oscar-nominated documentary about deaf culture. The film follows a 6-year-old deaf girl named Heather and her family (several members of whom also are deaf) as they go back and forth on the issue of cochlear implants, a then-new technology that allows some deaf people to hear.

Heather wants cochlear implants so she can talk to people and hear lions. Her mother, too, opts for the implants. But when she discovers the implant will not be as effective for her, she changes her mind, and, without consulting her daughter, decrees that neither of them will be undergoing the procedure.

After the film ended, our professor asked students for their thoughts. When called on, I said that parents should try to make their children’s lives easier. If I remember my words correctly, I added: “They shouldn’t hold their children back from something that will help them grow.”

“You just feel that way because you’re white, cisgendered, abled, and privileged,” came the snarl from somewhere below. I looked down a few aisles to the front of the dark screening room. I saw the back of a mostly shaved head, with a lock of hair tied on top. I had never seen the back of this head before. And I never saw the front of it either, because the responder didn’t bother to look at me.

You don’t know me, I thought. What gives you the right to comment on who I am? My inner monologue started racing in my privileged Cape Breton accent. Ya, I’m right some privileged, b’y. I was abandoned by my mother, y’arse! I never knew my father. I grew up under a staircase, like Harry Potter. My hand shot up so I could respond. The professor ignored it. I kept it up and locked eyes with him, agitated. He looked away. The last few minutes of the class rolled on, with others talking about things I can’t even remember. The attack on my identity just hung there over the space, unchallenged, floating, settling into the upholstery of the chairs. Then the class was dismissed.

I walked out of the screening room feeling kind of shell-shocked. What was I to take from this? What were the other students to take from this? That the attack on my character warranted no rebuttal? That my race, my gender, and my sexual identity had all disqualified me from participating? The lesson seemed clear. My status as a mother of two young girls—unimportant. My opinions—unwanted. I learned the lesson so well that I did not again participate in that class for the rest of the semester.

My experience in that undergraduate film class was just a taste, an appetizer if you will, for the full-fledged graduate feast I was to consume at Concordia once my undergrad was finished.

Students at just about any other university can recite similar stories. Universities are in a state of crisis, but this crisis did not emerge overnight. It required an hospitable environment to take root. Some journalists and professors have dismissed the phenomenon as a form of moral panic, invented by right-wing provocateurs. They cite studies and statistics to reassure us that The Kids Are Alright. Well, that kid in the front row was not alright. And I am not a right-wing provocateur. My politics are progressive. Nor am I a professor or a journalist, nor have I conducted long-range longitudinal studies that ask students to self-report on their beliefs about free speech on campus. All I have is my own experience and the experiences of those fellow students with whom I have discussed the matter, and I can assure the reader that the crisis is real. 

During a professional development seminar, my program director appeared before our class and proudly announced that he had abandoned the entire field of philosophy, once his full-time calling. It was all “racist old white men,” he proclaimed. The class laughed. It was a laugh of recognition; they had heard this jazz riff before. In my department, it was normal and expected to mock and dismiss all white male thinkers as inveterate racists and misogynists. It did not matter how long ago they had lived, or how enlightened they had been compared to their contemporaries. Their opinions, their ideas, their entire contributions to world knowledge—all null and void. Aristotle? Gone. Kant? Gone. Hume? Gone. It was like a book-burning.

My program director was only playing to the crowd here, I realized, and the students loved it. It affirmed their beliefs. Plato and Hegel might as well have been Weinstein and Spacey—gone.

Men are not the only ones, mind you, who found their names, and their ideas, on the chopping block in that department. It happens to women, too—especially if they are white and hold the “wrong” opinions. To mention the name of the renowned author and feminist Margaret Atwood in a Concordia Media Studies class is to invite outrage. Atwood had picked the wrong side in 2015, when she insisted on due process for fellow author Steven Galloway after he was widely accused (falsely, it turns out) of sexual assault at the University of British Columbia.

Atwood is a bad feminist, I was sternly told in one session. She is bad for women. The discussion was over. The author of The Handmaid’s Tale—gone.

During another seminar of this type, aimed at helping us plan our careers, we were presented with the trajectories of three professors who taught in our department. The last of the trio began by describing her immigration to the Toronto exurb of Brampton as a child. Her first complaint was that all her classmates were white. She did not elaborate. She then suggested that white university professors are not capable of teaching sociology courses on the subject of race—just as I had been deemed incapable of having an opinion on deaf children.

Then, to howls of laughter from her student audience, she stood up, swung her arm out, and accused the entire Department of Sociology at McMasters in Ontario, past and present, of being “white racists.” All of them. For all time. The Sociology Department at McMasters—gone. The students loved it. They laughed and nodded.

Often, these moments got really strange. One afternoon, we were tasked with sitting in small groups to discuss a series of articles about the internet, one of which was called Taming the Golem: Challenges of Ethical Algorithmic Decision Making. As soon as we pushed our desks together, one of the group members instantly asserted that the article was “disgusting.” We waited for elaboration. There was none. She treated the assertion as self-evident.

The article contained many offensive words, she finally explained after much prodding. “Like…what?” I asked, genuinely confused.

“Cleansing,” she said. As in, “cleansing algorithms.”

I thought she was joking. She wasn’t. “Data cleansing” is a well-established practice in statistical analysis whereby redundant or inaccurate data is corrected. And in this case, the article, published in 2017 in the North Carolina Journal of Law and Technology, was authored by two academics who were concerned with the problem of bias being injected into automated decision-making algorithms, such as the type used to select the kind of content we see on Facebook. Algorithmic cleansing, in other words, has nothing whatever to do with ethnic genocide, the basis for the student’s complaint.

Two other members of the group jumped in on cue, though, nodding vigorously in agreement. They cringed at the word “cleansing.” Their shoulders tightened. They shook their heads. I tried to point out the article’s arguments, asking them if they disagreed with any of the actual content. They would not engage. “But don’t you agree with its recommendations?” I asked. They made faces. They acted as if my line of questioning was inherently problematic. To give this article’s authors a hearing, to grapple in the slightest with the ideas therein, was repugnant to them. It would give the authors a platform, give them legitimacy, and make us all complicit in their moral decrepitude, their language crime. I gave up. What could I do? The article remained undiscussed.

We were once assigned an article by Penn State professor Eric Hayot, called Academic Writing, I Love You. Really, I Do. It contained several short snippets of writing advice from famous people, such as this one from Kurt Vonnegut:

Do not use semicolons.
They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing.
All they do is show you’ve been to college.

A female student immediately spoke up. She berated the professor, in front of the class. Vonnegut’s joke was so offensive, she said, that she could not understand how such an article had been assigned. It was unacceptable, the whole article. The professor, it was clear, had been unprepared for this line of attack. He shouldn’t have been. Know thy cohort. Amazingly, this was the same program director who, just months previously, had dismissed all of philosophy for its whiteness and maleness, and here he was falling victim to the very climate of repudiation he had helped to create. Hoisted by his own petard.

In his defense, he did try to open this question up for discussion, but the students weren’t having it. “We can talk about this, right?” the director asked, nervous, a bit shaky as if he were about to be shot. He was sweating. The student had him.

“You shouldn’t have assigned this,” the student condescended to inform the program director. The rest of the class sat in dumb silence. I was gobsmacked. And I saw it in the professor’s eyes right away—he would never be assigning this article again. Vonnegut, one of the greatest modern critics of our inhumanity—gone. Hayot—gone. The dignity and authority of the program director—gone. So it goes.

More HERE 

Legal Group Appeals Ruling That Backed Opening School’s Restrooms, Locker Rooms to Transgender Students

A conservative legal organization is asking the full 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to review the May ruling of a three-judge panel against school privacy in upholding a Pennsylvania school’s opening of its locker rooms, showers, and restrooms to students of the opposite sex.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has already spoken: The real differences between men and women mean that privacy must be protected where it really counts, and that certainly includes high school locker rooms and restrooms,” Christiana Holcomb, legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, said in a statement.

The alliance, a nonprofit, public interest law firm, and allied attorneys are spearheading the appeal of the May ruling.

During the the 2016-17 school year, Boyertown High School in Boyertown, Pennsylvania, opened its restroom facilities and locker rooms to students of the opposite sex without warning.

On May 24, three judges on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia heard oral arguments over the lawsuit, Doe v. Boyertown Area School District, and subsequently ruled 3-0 against student privacy.

The three were Judges Theodore McKee, appointed by President Bill Clinton; Patty Shwartz, named by President Barack Obama; and Richard Lowell Nygaard, appointed by President Ronald Reagan.

Holcomb said Alliance Defending Freedom is asking for a full-court review in hope that a wider panel of judges will rule in support of students’ privacy.

“The panel’s decision is out of step with long-standing legal protection for privacy,” she said. “That’s why we are asking the full 3rd Circuit to weigh in on the valid concerns of these young students.”

After the 3rd Circuit panel’s ruling, Alexis Lightcap, a senior at Boyertown Area Senior High School and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said the panel’s ruling was a personal affront on her privacy.

“Today’s ruling was very disappointing, and made me feel—again—like my voice was not heard,” Lightcap said. “Every student’s privacy should be protected.”

The American Civil Liberties Union is representing Aidan DeStefano, a transgender student at Boyertown Area Senior High and with the Pennsylvania Youth Congress, a coalition of LGBTQ youth leaders in the case.

“It’s important that trans students are given the opportunity to defend themselves against these shameful attempts to isolate and stigmatize them,” Leslie Cooper, senior staff attorney at the ACLU LGBT & HIV Project, said. “Schools can and should provide extra privacy protections or private restroom or changing areas for any student who requests it. But no student has a right to demand that transgender students be segregated from their peers.”

But Randall Wenger, an attorney allied with Alliance Defending Freedom who is chief counsel at the Independence Law Center, said the case is about protecting all students’ privacy rights.

“No student should be forced into an intimate setting—like a locker room or shower—with someone of the opposite sex,” Wenger said.

“The Boyertown District could have crafted policies that respect the privacy concerns of all students and are also sensitive to the needs of individual students. Instead, the district failed to fulfill its responsibility and harmed students rightfully concerned about their bodily privacy,” he said. “The district must correct its policy—not only for our clients, but for all students within the district.”


Why parents, teachers overwhelmingly supported Sydney principal’s scathing newsletter

TEACHERS have revealed some of the abuse they cop from parents, including late night emails and demands for grades to be changed.

“F**K this,” screams a furious parent at a NSW primary school teacher. He wants his seven-year-old child’s grade pushed from a D up to a C.

“If you’re going to speak like that, this meeting is over,” snaps back the principal, who was sitting in on the meeting to support one of his teachers.

“If you’re not happy then there’s a school down the road that you can go to, we don’t need people like you here.”

Most people would struggle with being spoken to like that but for many Australian teachers it’s all in a day’s work, listening to parents making outrageous demands.

The NSW teacher, who spoke to on the condition of anonymity, said she’d been threatened by parents with affidavits and legal action and screamed at in front of her class of children — all in less than one school year.

The teacher said her meeting with the swearing dad had kicked off with an angry email in which he questioned her ability.

“Obviously there isn’t (sic) competent teachers at this school,” he wrote.

Things came to a head when the father walked into the meeting and let loose with a string of expletives — eventually explaining his fury came from not wanting his daughter’s life “to end up like mine”.

The truck driver dad is just one of the types of parents schoolteachers are being forced to deal with — all while trying to do their actual job of educating children.

The teacher comments come as the principal of an elite Sydney private school hit back at parents who crossed the line, warning them he’d expel their kids if they didn’t “chill”.

Beth Blackwood, CEO of the Association of Heads of ­Independent Schools of Australia, supported Dr Collier’s decision to take on the parents at St Andrew’s Cathedral School.

“It was courageous, he called it out,” Ms Blackwood said. “I’m delighted to see everyone is supporting his letter, including parents from the school.”

In his newsletter, Dr Collier warned parents he could ban them from entering school grounds if they continued to “verbally abuse, physically threaten or shout” at staff members.

The Sydney principal also reminded parents, who pay up to $30,000 to send their kids to the prestigious school, they weren’t entitled to making any demands.

“I am aware some parents, because they are paying fees, see the relationship with teachers as a master/servant relationship, such that they are entitled to make extravagant demands,” he wrote.

Ms Blackwood, who was a school principal in Perth for almost two decades, said she’d noticed a definite shift in the involvement parents wanted in their child’s school life.

“The reaction from parents is definitely more heightened than it has been in the past. There is a growing number of parents who aren’t respectful and they behave in a way that can only be described as harassment,” she said.

Ms Blackwood conceded parents — like the truck driver dad — were becoming increasingly worried their children would not find employment when they left school — and were shifting the stress onto their children and teachers.

“They want the best for their kids but there’s a raft of research that proves the overbearing doesn’t help, it’s not healthy,” she said.

“Helicopter parenting is not helping children. It doesn’t help them find their sense of self, improve their autonomy or resilience.”

The NSW teacher involved in the screaming match with the dad told she had recently received a phone call from a sobbing mother who had been told by her five-year-old he had no friends.

“I’ve had a lot of tears this year — from parents — about their kindergarten kids. They’re anxious about everything. One mum called me last week and said her kid has been coming home for the past two days saying they have no one to play with,” the teacher said.

“I tried to assure her the kid was in his first week of school — we were two days in — but she asked me, ‘I don’t know what to do, should we move schools?’”

“I told her, ‘they’re in kindergarten, we’re building their social skills, this is where they’re learning how to socialise with others’.

“They just take whatever their child says and think that’s exactly how it is. It probably didn’t even happen like that and it just puts extra work on us so now I’ve had to monitor that kid this week and I’ve had to go to the playground every lunch break — the only time I have to eat food myself — to see who this child is playing with so on Friday when I have a meeting with her, I can tell her if he looked happy,” she said.

This constant monitoring of children’s emotional states is another responsibility foisted on teachers, she said.

Ms Blackwood said parents’ ability to reach out to teachers directly through email had only made things worse.

“They’re so accessible now and it just adds to the social pressures and anxiety teachers face. Parents want access to teachers and they want it now,” Ms Blackwood said.

Her opinion was backed up by the NSW teacher who said an increasing number of schools were being forced to implement email policies so parent had to go through the school office first with teachers given 48 hours to respond.

“Last year I was emailed by a parent at 10pm as I was going to sleep. The next morning, at 8.15am when I was setting up things for the day, she came into my classroom and abused me and asked why I hadn’t answered straight away,” she said.

Another teacher, who works at a high school in the northern NSW, said she had received an email from the parent of a Year 10 student warning the school to stop studying Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Her reason? “It’s too violent and it’s making them become violent”.

The NSW primary school teacher was also recently accused of falsifying an eight-year-old’s attendance records because his mum wasn’t getting him to school on time.

After telling the boy to get yet another late note to account for his late arrival, the teacher was confronted by the child’s mother in front of her whole class.

“She ran into my classroom and in front of my whole class of seven-year-olds says: ‘Here’s your bloody late note’ and was screaming at me in front of all these kids and having a go at me for making him go and get legitimate late notes.”

Eventually the school’s lawyers had to get involved and the mother was informed she needed to get her child to school on time.

After Dr Collier’s scathing newsletter, some parents at St Andrews spoke to The Australian, wholeheartedly supporting the principal.

“People need to understand that they don’t own a teacher simply by paying fees,” one parent said. “It’s just rubbish.”

Dr Collier spoke on the Daily Telegraph’s Miranda Live last night where he again urged parents to “get some perspective”.

“These matters are often a small discipline issue or a bad grade but these parents represent that issue as the end of the world to their child,” Dr Collier said.

“What I urge them to do is get some perspective and to keep these things in proportion because the schooling journey is 13 years and it’s not good to, as one would say, sweat the small stuff rather than take the long view.”


No comments: