Tuesday, August 11, 2015

score one

Maybe this is "score one for common sense," I don't know.

So I was discussing with a colleague about syllabi. And he remarked: Given all that's going on in the country, I'm gonna put a statement in the syllabus asking students not to wear clothing with the Confederate battle flag to class, or symbols of white supremacy.

Now: the only time I ever saw anything on campus that was a white-supremacist thing was a mystery flier that was put up on the bulletin board (without approval from the campus office that approves such things for the activity bulletin board) and it was pretty quickly removed. And I don't remember students wearing the Confederate battle flag, but I tend not to pay that much attention to those things.

I don't like to come right out and say, "I believe differently from you (as in: it's freedom of speech and if someone is offended, they should start a discussion with the person wearing it, rather than my blanket-ruling everything) and so I think you're wrong" but I did think it was a problematic policy, and his hint that "maybe we all should do this" didn't go over well with me.

So I kind of arched an eyebrow and said, "Are you sure you want to do that? I'd deal with something like that on a case-by-case basis." (As in: if someone is being really in-your-face and offensive, I'd ask 'em to quit, but if they just quietly have a little patch on their coat, I'm not gonna say anything)

And I added: "I find the t-shirts some of the guys wear that have cartoons of women with big 'tops' and tight bikinis offensive, should I ask students to not wear those?" and he didn't really have a response. (And I would also find pro-pot t-shirts offensive. But again: I feel like it's not my place to police student t-shirts, unless it's (a) seriously vulgar or disgusting (as in: full frontal male nudity or extreme gore) or (b) clearly inciting problems (like, maybe, a t-shirt advocating killing people). And shoot, what about Che t-shirts? He killed lots of people. Not that I've ever seen, as far as I can remember, one of my students in a Che shirt. (Our students are a lot more likely to wear shirts with the Duck Dynasty guys on them)

I added: "Telling someone with a racist attitude that they can't wear a certain thing isn't going to change their attitude, and that's the issue here. And a certain proportion of people will see the request as a challenge, and it may create problems: you may get people wearing stuff they might not otherwise have worn, out of defiance."

I also mentioned that if you extended the policy to its extreme, you could see non-Christian students expressing offense at others wearing a cross or carrying a rosary to class (I've had a few Catholic students who either wore or carried one). And I DON'T want things to go there.

And he said: Wow, I never thought of that.

And we talked about it some more, and apparently I persuaded him not to include the policy - or at the very least, to hold off for this semester.

I also noted that we were both Northerners living in the South - and there is something that's seen as Not Cool about Northerners commenting on some aspects of Southern culture, and I could also see that causing a problem. I also find saying, "A student wearing a Confederate battle flag will offend the black students in the class and hurt them" to be kind of paternalistic - like the students can't confront the guy themselves or have such delicate feelings. Most of the students I've had down through the years, if they found another student doing something offensive, they either called them on it, or they said, "It's not worth getting upset over."

(Now I find myself wondering whether the person in question was harassed/teased much as a kid. I was, and it did make me grow a thicker skin and get better at going "meh, not worth being upset over" or "that just shows me what kind of a person THAT person is" and being better at sorting out the rare occasions when I DO need to say something to someone)

But frankly, I'm pleased I managed to persuade him, especially before the faculty meetings where he was thinking of suggesting it. And that I did it not by saying "You're wrong and here's why" but by saying, "Okay, let me suggest some of the consequences of this."

(And, honestly? If a student showed up in a vintage Dukes of Hazzard t-shirt with the General Lee on it, I'm NOT making 'em turn it inside out or something like that . This is NOT seventh grade and I tend to feel if someone wears something another person finds offensive, it needs to be discussed rather than hit with a blanket rule. And the other thing: if someone wants to pull the "I'm offensive to some people and I don't care, I won't be 'politically correct'*" card, well, other people need to understand that and they need to learn to deal with it, whether by avoiding or challenging or freezing out the person. Because there just ARE people like that in the world and you have to deal with them - I've worked with a few in my life and it sucks to have someone around you who equates being rude and unpleasant with being "real" - but you won't change them so you have to figure out a useful way to deal with it yourself.

* And I argue that there's a pretty thick line between "not being politically correct" and "being an a-hole." Not being politically correct is not excessively handwringing over "Do I call people from Mexico "Hispanic" or "Latino" or "Chicano" or what?" or not being politically correct is not pretending there is no difference between men and women. Being an a-hole is insulting someone and specifically saying stuff to them that they maybe have asked you NOT to say.

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