Thursday, April 21, 2011

Please Don't Flame The Students: Or, How (Not) To Interact With Young Conservatives

Ellen Lewin, Professor of anthropology and gender studies at the University of Iowa, has become the object of unwelcome attention in the past several days.  After having received numerous emails from the Iowa College Republicans advertising various liberal-needling events, Lewin snapped.  The author and co-editor of numerous valuable books and anthologies in lesbian and gay studies replied:  "F**CK YOU, REPUBLICANS!"

Oh, the emails we wish we could take back.  Read about it in the Des Moines Register, and view the original emails here

What is OK -- and not OK -- to say to students?  Let me speak from experience, having never sent a written message to a student or group of students that was as elegant in its simplicity as Lewin's.  Last fall I did write a much longer email to one of the students responsible for the "affirmative action bake sale" held at Zenith on October 29 2010. This was a cynical event that -- in the name of anti-racism -- articulated all students of color as unworthy of having been admitted to the school under the high standards set by we white folks.

Following an inspiring meeting organized by students of color, I wrote one of the leaders of the group that sponsored the "bake sale" about why I was critical of it.  She passed the email on to numerous conservative websites which reprinted it with accompanying derisive commentary.  One described it as a "rant" despite an accurate reprinting of the original message. (Interestingly, some conservative commenters on the same website disagreed, describing my email as respectful and reasonable.) At National Review Online, my message to the student was characterized as "logically bankrupt" and "obviously an attempt at intimidation."  The name of the student was redacted in this article, presumably to protect her from others like me on the Zenith faculty, although if you Google "Cardinal Conservatives" her name is perfectly available.  The idea, of course, was to portray this student as a helpless victim of my excessive, unregulated power.  The narrative goes this way:  conservative students are brave for confronting liberal faculty on their candya$$ views; liberal faculty are not entitled to disagree with conservative students because it is inherently abusive for faculty to disagree with students about politics.

This is all to say that redacting the young woman's name was strategic on the part of the author, Mytheos Holt, a former Zenith student who specialized in baiting people for publicity when he was an undergrad and now writes for NRO Online and other conservative sites. Holt is, perhaps, best remembered by the Zenith faculty for having used the phrase "Arbeit Macht Frei" in a campus newspaper article about the Obama victory and having to admit afterward that he hadn't been aware that this was the famous phrase over the gate at Auschwitz (so much for a liberal arts education.)  The original article that contained these words also included an attempt to explain the depth of Mytheos's pain at John McCain's loss with the following simile: "my response to this election is probably quite similar to the response of the death row inmate who finally finds himself obliged to sit in the electric chair: no matter how long you have expected something unpleasant, it still hurts when it happens."

Having a private email, however dignified, reprinted multiple times taught me an important lesson that Professor Lewin has learned as well.  It is a common strategy for conservative student groups to make every possible effort to get in the faces of faculty in order to provoke a response that will "expose" our inherent desire to oppress them and limit the expression of their ideas.  Hence, when faced with such opportunities, however compelling, it is often best not to respond at all.  The kind of emails Professor Lewin got about such things as "The Animal Rights Barbecue" ought to go straight to Trash, and to the Spam file if you are computer-savvy enough organize it.  Looking back on it, I would still publicly support the students of color who organized against the "affirmative action bake sale."  They did a great job, and they deserved to know that faculty had their backs on an important social justice issue.  But if I had it to do over again I would not write an email expressing my views to that conservative student, nor will I ever do so again outside of an exchange related to academics. 

This is not because it caused me any official trouble, or because in retrospect I believe that writing a student about an action I disapproved of was actually abusive. I didn't mind that the email exceeded its audience, although I did think it was dishonorable of the student to distribute it without my permission.  I always like a little extra publicity from the NRO (it spices things up chez Radicale) or any other publication that chooses to link me.  No -- I would not write this email because it was a waste of time to accept an invitation to dialogue with conservative students when, in fact, all these groups want is more ammunition to pursue an endless culture war while the world burns down around all of us and Citibank turns our pockets inside out.

The student was not interested in generating a dialogue that did not privilege her point of view, with me or with anyone else.  Similarly, Professor Lewin's students did not genuinely want her to attend their event or talk to her about their opposition to animal rights.  Of course, "F**K YOU REPUBLICANS" can, by no stretch of the imagination, be viewed as an invitation to dialogue either, but I think what Professor Lewin meant was "Please take me off your mailing list."  Activist conservatives, particularly young ones who are trained by skilled organizers, view themselves as crusaders, not as citizens working to build democratic alliances.  They are only interested in generating publicity, not in working out solutions to common problems.  Part of that crusade is to provoke liberal faculty into what can then be publicized as intolerance and discrimination which, in turn, "reveals" them as hypocrites and liars.  So the next time you get one of these emails, imagine this voice booming over a loudspeaker:  "Sir, move away from the computer.  Now, sir....please.... step away from the computer......"

And if you can't seem to do that, at least pry the "F" key off your keyboard.


Anonymous said...

I like to think that most of those students given to spewing hate and being generally annoying are just immature and wil, hopefully, mature and come to regret their actions. I try my best to ignore them and not interact and respond in any way because that is a gift to them and will be seen as such when they grow up. Alas, sometimes being a professor is too much like being a parent.

Lesboprof said...

I really like Ellen Lewin--met her once years ago and was impressed, and so I have been thinking about a post related to this. Ultimately, I thought it was clear that it was unfortunate she responded to this at all.

On your comments: I think we faculty sometimes struggle--especially women/queer/people of color professors who were once embattled undergrads, grad students, adjuncts/ junior faculty--to see ourselves as people with power. We may still be embattled in our own professional lives, as well, regardless of our tenure status. So, when these student issues arise, we respond to them as if we didn't have positions of power within the university system.

Had my colleague at a former university who was a bigwig in the National Association of Scholars sent me that kind of crap, I really may have (wanted to) responded with a "fuck off" kind of email. But responding that way to student crap is too much. I am not a peer.

A Wobbly Historian (in training) said...

I'm a history student at Iowa and a frequent reader of your blog. I am unhappy that you're not an anarchist yet, but I am glad that you wrote about the contradictions inherent in the title of your blog. It shows a self-awareness that most history faculty lacks. Anyway, I've been waiting for this post! I just knew you would have something smart to say.

I though Lewin's response was the appropriate reaction and disagree about "fanning the flames." Americans are already polarized politically. It isn't as if her comments are going to upset the political balance of the nation. Having respected faculty members speak out against oppression and injustice also emboldens like-minded students. If we are going to build a movement--we need bold action to organize around. Ellen Lewin has given us such a moment. Also, I appreciated your take on Republican calls for "civil discourse." It really is complete shit. I mean Steve King represents this state... If anyone needs a lesson in civil discourse it's him.

NT said...

Provocation—the art of getting people in positions of authority (either real or perceived) to do stupid or intemperate things—is a time-honored political tactic of both the left and the right. It's a form of asymmetrical warfare.

Responding to provocation on its own terms is a guaranteed FAIL.

Clarissa said...

Telling off students is easy. You wield all the power and intellectual prestige, they are powerless. I'll respect you when you write "Fuck off!" to your university's president, provost or, at the very least, the Dean. Otherwise, this is like a hound barking at a mouse and feeling proud of the feat.

Anonymous said...

White (often wealthy) students are powerless? That's news to me. Thanks Clarissa.

Anonymous said...

As a professor who teaches LGBT psych, I used to get lots of emails that I know were designed to provoke me. The Young Americans for Freedom specifically invited me to their conservative coming out day. I politely declined.

This was followed my an email circulated around campus that I was a "hypocrite" and as a result of my "radical homosexual agenda", only support some students in coming out.

A true, true, story.

I responded by saying two things. 1) I teach my students to avoid hierarchies of oppression, and comparisons across social groups. Your email drew these comparisons, which are not only inappropriate but likely to only cause discord, not understanding.

2) I asked them to truthfully consider what their intention was in inviting me to the event in the first place. I invited them to meet with me to discuss their experiences about being conservative at a liberal university. I said that I was more interested in the nature of their lived experience versus broad brush comparisons with other groups.

That was the last I heard from the Young Americans for Freedom.

Anonymous said...

TT Iowa faculty member here, reluctantly writing anonymously. To clarify - the Repub email was sent to all faculty on a mass e-mail list, NonAcadStudOrg - see here for more information: From what it seems like from that website and the approval process, it looks like the organization could decide its intended recipients, one of which is "All Faculty" - I'm assuming that's what they were approved for. It was approved by the university, the VP for Student Services (which was listed at the bottom of the e-mail). Prof. Lewin's response was not sent to all. President Mason's, however, was, which of course made for a nice little mystery for those of us who had not been following the news.

I just deleted the e-mail, as I do with almost every single mass e-mail I get at work.

Annessa said...

Recently my email has began receiving emails from a Republican list serve in New Mexico. While I lived in the Land of Enchantment, twice, I do not support those causes. I'm fairly certain I know which tool did it, but it coincides with a rash of students sending me emails denouncing Planned Parenthood, abortion, health care. . . you name it. In all fairness, it's three students out of a hundred or so.

Point? I think it's a cross between fear, immaturity, and lack of social decorum. Needless to say, I'm too fried these days to spend much energy on curbing these moments. That, and there's this growing sense (among the students) that they can get dirt on you to use . . . they seem to think provoking us will earn them an A. A bizarre concept.

Anonymous said...

As Anonymous 7:43 suggests, there's a possibility that "professor vs. student" isn't the right way to look at this. Perhaps the gender politics on that campus are so intense that the (I'm guessing white and straight) members of the campus republicans feel more powerful than a queer studies professor. It's possible, right? If you look at the follow-up email correspondence between the campus republican student leaders and Prof. Lewin, the students refer to her by first name -- which is a little weird, and possibly suggests that in fact the students DON'T see her as an authority figure, which is the very problem.

Rosemary said...

I'm on the University of Iowa faculty and wanted to clarify one point: the email Ellen Lewin received was sent to all faculty, and too everyone with an address, as far as I know.

So I got it too, read through it, thought "What a silly and obnoxious email this is" as I noted the grammatical errors in it, and promptly deleted it. Maybe if she had received it at another moment, she'd have done the same thing. Or maybe if I'd received it at another, I'd have done what she did.

Anonymous said...

Professor Lewin's e-mail shows that she is so flabbergasted by being confronted by people who disagree with her that the only way she can possibly respond is by using obscenity. I was a conservative undergraduate at a very liberal campus, and let me tell you, we are used to being surrounded by people who disagree with us. The idea that we are exaggerating our situation in order to get media attention is, frankly, ludicrous. On many campuses it is not possible to express ideas that differ from those of the liberal faculty and the majority of the students without being told that one is too stupid to attend a university at all. My favorite comment was, "I can't believe you've been here for four years and you still think that way." This implies that the purpose of a university is to brainwash its students. In my case, this concerned views that are broadly supportive of the state of Israel, but, of course, other people will have their own issues.

Tenured Radical said...

Rosemary: I wrote about this in part because I thought, like you: there but for the grace of god go I.

The very privacy of email is dangerous in my view (alone, in our offices, whatever else has happened that day spinning around, thoughts move into fingers....) and of course, it is faux privacy. This is why, in olden days, people used to ask for their love letters back. They can be a beautiful record, or an embarrassing, ticking time-bomb.

I actually don't think it would be such a terrible thing for all university citizens to have mandated electronic civility trainings. It's like riding a motorcycle: I pretty much learned by myself, but when I was forced to go to safety school to be re-licensed, I became aware of a whole range of things about my relationship to the road and to other vehicles that had never occurred to me.

Tenured Radical said...

@Anonymous 11:54 -- in my view, Professor Lewin's email demonstrates that she is under a lot of stress, for reasons that we rightly do not understand. She really is not *that* person, and a momentary error in judgment doesn't make her that person. And she has done us all the favor of reminding us that civility over email matters, under all circumstances.

Anonymous said...

My current modus for similar emails from students in our major is to respond telling them it is an inappropriate use of university resources (true, we have a policy) and to suggest that they visit the campus writing center to learn how to write a professional correspondence because we expect professionalism from our graduates. They must reflect well on our program after they graduate.

So far that response has always generated an apology from the sender.

Similar emails from non-majors just get deleted. They generally result in a mass email reminder from computer services about inappropriate uses of campus resources. The volume of these has really diminished since they put that policy in place.

Tenured Radical said...

Nice. I think in the Iowa case, the email was approved by a central body before it was sent out, and the "Animal Rights Barbecue" thing makes you wonder what would push that office over the line: a wet tee-shirt contest for rape survivors?

Anonymous said...

Why do I suspect that roughly three months ago, Lewin was one of was the people appropriating a tragedy to prattle on about "the new civility" and those terrible, terrible Republicans with their nasty discourse?

Anonymous said...

The only significant issue is this.  The Iowa Federation of College Republicans Chairwoman Natalie Ginty attempted to suppress Professor Lewin's rights with an Apr. 18, 2011, e-mail to the Anthropology department Chair and other faculty members reading in part: "I believe that as her supervisors, you don't want her to speak to students with such vulgarity."  This attempt to exact professional reprisals against Professor Lewin for expressing her opinion (irrespective of the content of the opinion or the choice of words) is an abrogation of the principles on which the United States was founded.

AYY said...


I find it ironic that you believe the disclosure of your e-mail without your permission was dishonorable, when you have disclosed information about a former student without his permission.
Your e-mail was in response to a public event. It addressed an issue of community concern. There was apparently no prior relationship with the recipient that might reasonably have led to believe that the matter would be kept confidential. Whatever you might have intended, it could reasonably be taken as an attempt at intimidation. And besides, your point was that you wanted to publicly support the students of color who organized against the bake sale.

So what principled reason might there be for the recipient to require your permission before disclosing the e-mail? I suspect that your objection is not so much to the fact of disclosure but rather to whom it was disclosed. If it was disclosed to one who was sympathetic to your views, what basis would you have to have objected?

A large part of your post is an ad hominem attack on one of your former students. You haven't addressed the substance of his argument. If he posted something on the NRO website that you felt was misleading, could you not have attempted to respond at NRO or any of the other conservative websites that carried the e-mail? If you had tried to do so and they wouldn't allow you to, then your point about an unwillingness to engage in dialogue would have been better taken.

Those websites are not opposed to posting such responses, so it would not have been a futile gesture to try. But you didn't say that they denied you that opportunity.

You claim that conservatives are just interested in generating publicity rather than in working out solutions to common problems. You haven't nade the case that the problem is with them rather than the left.

Conservative students might have borrowed something from Alinsky's handbook, but if the left can do that, why not the right? The fact that they do something for the publicity value, or feel that they need to expose perceived intimidation, doesn't mean they're not interested in working out solutions. You seem to be making assumptions about conservative students that might not be true.

Tenured Radical said...

AYY: I found your comment in my spam file and just printed it. But:

"when you have disclosed information about a former student without his permission"

Not so -- everything I disclosed is true, is public knowledge, and is fully documented if you follow the links. Mytheos was never my student, and he's a big boy, believe me.

And no, I don't think it is honorable to share email w/o permission. As I point out in the post, however, it is a possible outcome, and people have to govern their behavior according to what they can tolerate in terms of publicity. I could tolerate the disclosure of the email because it was, in fact, civil, and didn't embarrass me.

Anonymous said...

Yes, dissemination of private correspondence without permission is unethical. Compare:

AYY said...

(Thanks for clarifying about the Spam filter. When I saw that it hadn't shown up at first, I was thinking the worst.)

Just wanted to clarify what I meant in view of your response. Yes much of the information about the former student you mentioned was public. But you also said that the former student specialized in baiting people for publicity. This strikes me as being your private opinion.

As for the e-mail disclosure, if the e-mail had been limited to personal information, like you prefer 7-Up over Sprite or the other way around, then yes, that's something that shouldn't be disclosed without your permission, unless maybe it's already public information, even though it's probably innocuous.

But the reason for that is to protect a legitimate expectation in privacy. You have the right not to have the world know whether you prefer 7-Up to Sprite because that's not part of your public face.

On the other hand, if you send an e-mail that addresses a public issue to a person with a different point of view who has not asked you to send the e-mail, and who might reasonably, even if not validly, view the e-mail as an attempt at intimidation by an influential faculty member who, with the possible exception of some sub-specialists who are well known among their fellow sub-specialists, just might happen to be the most well known Zenith professor in the entire freaking planet, then one would be justified in concluding that the same expectation of privacy cannot be tenably maintained.

Talking With said...

Here’s an interview with University of Iowa Professors Timothy Hagle and Kembrew McLeod, Matt Sowada, the conservative co-host of the political talk radio show American Reason on KRUI, and Rod Sullivan from the Johnson County Board of Supervisors about Professor Ellen Lewin’s “F— You, Republicans!” email response to the University of Iowa College Republicans campus-wide invite for people to participate in “Conservative Coming Out Week.”

Anonymous said...

As a professor at a State University, I am actually quite disappointed, but not surprised, by the dispositions expressed in many of the responses to this event. At my University, like most, liberal ideology has been institutionalized (think social justice, sustainability, diversity). It feels like the mission has changed, away from true education and scholarship toward social advocacy. So what do you expect from students with different points of view? I certainly would expect a willingness to have a reasoned and open intellectual dialogue. But that cuts both ways, and some of you are clearly not in the mood. I agree that some of the events sponsored by conservative groups are impertinent in their tone, but so are the liberal replies. This all sounds very dismissive, patronizing, and closed. Unfortunately the one type of diversity that is not tolerated on college campuses today is intellectual diversity. We are all so perfectly balkanized now. Bravo humanities faculty! You win.

Anonymous said...

And as a follow up to my comment above, it might be that conservative student groups and events are impertinent in their tone because they don't have proper mentoring from faculty. Faculty who could serve in that capacity are present on campus, but most are too afraid to support such groups in any official capacity. It is just too dangerous, even for the tenured ones. So the only real solution to this problem is to make the campus climate more open to true intellectual debate on political matters. Only then will the "gotcha" game lose its visceral appeal.

AYY said...

On his blog, PZ Myers said that he agreed with Prof. Lewin and used the same expression she did. I didn't read through all the comments but almost all of the first 90 or so, used the same expression Prof. Lewin did.

Anonymous said...

I might suggest that in fact, students should not know or be able to guess our political affiliation if we are being objective teachers. We should have an understanding of both sides of the political spectrum and be able to encourage students to be aware of diverse viewpoints. For us as teachers, this neutrality is quite challenging because we are often not aware of our own biases. Rather than attack conservative students, shouldn't we be willing to engage their viewpoints and listen to what they have to say? Perhaps aspects of their world view have merits that we should consider. Even in ideologies that some might consider racist, there can lie some valid concerns for fairness as seen from the non-minority side of the coin. Our challenge as teachers and as a nation is to understand the productive aspects of all viewpoints and look for common ground, rather than encourage further divisiveness.

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