Unless we demand otherwise, that is.
I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: a significant majority of the advice that floats around out there for people on the academic job market — the people who will, someday, make up the professorial class, though more will fail to ever ascend to that rank than will succeed — amounts to “watch what you say.” It’s expressed in countless different terms, but so much of it boils down to telling young academics that they can’t take public stances on issues of controversy, whether political or academic. After all, it only takes one person on a job search committee who didn’t like that essay you wrote….
Part of the reason why I’ve grown so dissatisfied with complaints about “political correctness” on campus, despite being associated with those complaints myself, is that they fail to recognize the self-fulfilling prophecy aspect of all of this. The notion that young academics must watch what they say, for fear of offending students, becomes the tool that accomplishes the effective silencing of young academics itself. I’ve very rarely been told “it was wrong that you wrote that, that argument is unacceptable” by faculty. I have constantly been told “you shouldn’t have written that, because someone out there will find it unacceptable.” I know they mean well. And they may very well be right. But such warnings inevitably become the means through which the conversation is narrowed. Yes, I still maintain worries about the way in which some student activists have attempted to police on-campus expression. But the actual power they have over my own expression has been limited. The power of faculty, who sit on academic job search committees, who work as editors, or who are otherwise in positions of power within academia, is direct and enormous. And while I am confident that the large majority of them believe in and would fight for the concept of intellectual freedom when those conflicts are stark, I also think that as a class many of them are subject to the notion of “baggage,” the vague sense that someone with a public political profile isn’t worth working with when there are so many academics desperate for recognition.
To the degree that I think students do regulate speech on campus, I think it’s through the preemptive fear of adjuncts and grad students. That’s why, when people complain that real examples of student policing of speech are rare, they’re right but somewhat missing the point. What I worry about is the adjuncts and grad students who avoid the potential controversies in the first place.
I wrote a piece in Politico, on polygamy. I thought it was a strong argument on an issue of relevance and importance to our current political situation. I thought my argument was forceful without being at all disrespectful or aggressive. And while I understand that polygamy remains an unusual idea for many, I don’t at all see the notion of legal group marriage as outside of the boundaries of acceptable political opinion for a university employee. I wasn’t, after all, arguing for the inherent inferiority of certain races or denying the Holocaust. The story did remarkably well, in terms of traffic. I believe it got half a million views in something like a day or two. Now I don’t expect to ever get any credit as an academic for that visibility; I long ago gave up on the hope that the average academic would see engaging in that way as worthy of reward. But I maintain a naive belief that this kind of work could at least not actively hurt me. Yet I have heard from several people, always second hand, that some faculty members feel I shouldn’t have published such a thing if I ever want an academic job. Always with that second order remove: why, it’s not that I would forbid you engaging in this way before you’re hired, of course, but some people wouldn’t like it, so….
Like interdisciplinarity, the concept of the public intellectual is beloved in the academy only in theory, not in practice. In theory, interdisciplinarity is seen as the future, as we more and more recognize the artificiality of disciplinary and department lines. In theory, interdisciplinary academics can apply to jobs in a variety of departments. Too often, though, they are people who are looked on as outsiders by everyone. When applying for a job in a department other than the one they got their degree in, their application may very well be shunted immediately into the deny pile for failing to meet minimum qualifications; when applying to a job in their home departments, search committee members may well say “is s/he really one of us?” The pubic intellectual thing seems similar to me, at this point. Everyone likes the idea of public engagement, and most recognize the need to demonstrate to wider audiences the value of our work. But it remains completely unclear to me how young academics are supposed to engage without risking the kind of controversy that, job market advice constantly insists, can torpedo a career before it starts. The best I can come up with is to maintain an active but banal Twitter feed.
Ultimately the story is the same: if you actually care about free expression on campus, you can do far more good by supporting the labor conditions of academic workers than by yelling at undergraduates. Restoring declining tenure track lines will do more to protect free expression on campus than anything else. Supporting adjunct unions will too. Unfortunately, for too many who complain about the real dangers to free expression on campus, support for faculty, union rights, and worker power writ large are ideologically untenable. Which is why we need a left-wing response to illiberal attitudes on campus, to ensure that these issues are confronted in a way that maintains the actual spirit of academic freedom, rather than merely using that spirit as a cudgel with which to beat passionate student activists.