Beyond Words and Waivers

Screen Shot 2016-01-07 at 11.46.35 AMThe case of Laurentian University Professor Michael Persinger follows a number of recent academic freedom cases at Canadian universities, including my own. His case raises interesting questions about academic freedom, political correctness, and respectful environments. As in all cases, it is important to not take his words out of context, but to consider what was expressed, why, how, and to what effect.

All we know so far is that Professor Persinger was¬†removed from teaching a psychology course for requiring students to sign a waiver agreeing to his use of certain words, including slang terms for genitalia, sexual intercourse, and sexual orientation. These might be the only ones on his list that are generally considered to be “vulgar,” or to risk eliciting personal feelings of shame, objectification, arousal, or trauma in some of his students. There are no such racially charged words on his list. Other words on his list include “politician,” “solipsism” and “precarious.”

I have used most of the offensive sexual terms on Professor Persinger’s list in my own courses. I research and teach social bias and discrimination, and these words are used in sexual harassment to derogate others based on sex. I do not use these words out of context, or directly, but rather discuss how they are sometimes used at work, why, against whom, and to what effect. My purpose in referring to these words in my teaching is to educate students about hierarchy-enhancing behaviors that reinforce inequalities between social groups. It is important for students to learn how to recognize, combat, and prevent such behavior in the workplace.

Professor Persinger says he uses these words to promote critical and free thought, and to make students aware of their reactions to uncomfortable or offensive concepts, while he teaches neuropsychology. His research and expertise may reveal this practice to be important to learning and illustrating key concepts in his field. I can imagine, for example, an instructor asking students to ponder their emotional reactions to certain terms as a learning exercise about how emotion and cognition interrelate. Testimony from some of his students suggests his unusual methods made his course and its concepts memorable.

I can also imagine, however, an instructor using these terms in gratuitous ways that create a hostile learning environment. Unfortunately there are instructors who “get off” on using offensive terms in class, on making students under their power feel uncomfortable, and who gain popularity with students who themselves derive benefits from, or think it’s “cool,” talking raunch. When I look at the words on Professor Persinger’s list, it seems the students they are most likely to cause discomfort in are women and sexual minorities. Careless use of such language could create a hostile learning environment for members of these groups.

An example exam question Professor Persinger provides in his waiver reads: “…her underwear is remarkably damp and a strangely familiar odour of fresh proteinaceous material drifts into her senses. The most likely region of the brain that was stimulated would be…”. I am not an expert in his area, so I do not know how this graphic prose about a woman’s sexual fluids fits into his scholarship. I do know that such a question on an exam runs the risk of seeming gratuitous, making the professor seem “creepy” to some and “cool” to others, and interfering with the comfort, concentration and performance of students in the former group.

Words alone are not the issue; they must be considered in context. Academic freedom does not mean faculty can indulge in language for personal entertainment or gain at the expense of a respectful environment for their students. It does protect the right to responsibly discuss controversial ideas and to challenge student’s thinking. Attempts to discourage speech that demeans vulnerable groups led to backlash deriding such efforts as “politically correct;” attempts to blindly allow all speech not matter what is also misguided. The question is not which words are being used, but how, by whom, and to whose benefit or detriment.

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