School

I’m a Longtime Professor. The Real Campus “Free Speech Crisis” Is Not What You Think.

I’ve never seen classrooms like mine in the pages of the Times.

An empty lecture hall.
Lucia Gajdosikova/iStock/Getty Images Plus

I’m a college professor, which is one of those jobs that people outside the profession love to ask you about. For the better part of a decade, most of those conversations have been about one thing: free speech. Are universities, once sites of pure, open intellectual discourse, no longer so pure? What is the future of this endeavor I’ve dedicated my life to, if my peers and I are afraid to speak our minds?

In one way, this interest makes sense. An enormous amount of high-profile media coverage has been dedicated to what is said, or not said, on certain campuses: students upset by Antigone at Oberlin (a subject that garnered a 5,000-word feature in the New Yorker); a lecturer resigning at Yale over the wording of an email about Halloween costumes (a New York Times feature, and many more); the “Letter on Justice and Open Debate” in Harper’s, signed by professors at Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, and Northwestern (among others). The latest entry in the genre is a March piece in the New York Times by a senior at the University of Virginia, who reported that student dogma made her self-censor. Like so many of its ilk, the piece spawned outrage in her defense from some and scorn from others—another chance to relitigate what is accepted as the issue in higher education in America.

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Each time this happens, I wait for someone to ask me about it. And I always tell my interlocutors the same thing: I don’t recognize my school at all in the conversations about what conversation is apparently like at universities in America. I never have.

I teach at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. We’re a school of nearly 8,000 students between grad and undergrad. We’re historically a regional school for southern Massachusetts, and though we’ve had some academic milestones in recent years, we bear more of a resemblance to the majority of the roughly 5,300 institutions in American higher education than, say, Oberlin, Yale, Berkeley, or the University of Virginia.

Think of how many of those 5,300 schools you’ve actually heard of. Now think how many you’ve seen mentioned in conversations about what does, or should, happen in a college classroom. U.S. News and World Report’s top 25 colleges—where, inevitably, most of these stories are set—have around 250,000 undergraduates enrolled per year. There are roughly 16 million undergraduates around the country at any given time. Those other 5,275 schools with millions and millions of students are where the vast majority of college learning in America happens. Whatever side you take on various arguments about speech at elite universities, you’re participating in a conversation that willfully ignores this truth.

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A large portion of our student body at UMass–Dartmouth is first-generation college students. Many are first- or second-generation immigrants, and many others come from white working-class families. This combination reflects the makeup of the university’s surroundings but also higher education across the country. By 2016, more than half of all college students in the United States were the first in their family to go, and by 2020 more than a quarter were either immigrants or the children of immigrants. It is impossible for classroom conversations not to reflect that diversity of background. And all of this is saddled with the weight of the unfamiliarity of the college experience, the enormous promise that our culture heaps onto the achievement of getting into college followed immediately by the anti-intellectual skepticism increasingly associated with the actual practice of higher learning. Plus, just for good measure: the debt.

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For a professor at a school like mine, the tension created by these circumstances defines the job. The trick isn’t convincing students to drop their dogmas. It’s convincing them that the stuff we’re talking about could matter in lives already complicated by many other things—that they could create a space of excitement or pleasure, one worth the commitment. I think their sense of the purpose of college is constantly shifting, and often under stress. My conceptions of my own teaching, my values and goals, are always under scrutiny and changing as well. Each class is an act of enormous shared challenge and, ultimately, faith.

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I teach in an English department, primarily creative writing and journalism classes. My courses are all built around discussion. What I find most foreign in accounts of “free speech” on campuses is the depiction of militancy among students, a monolith of kids who, in these representations, apparently show up at age 18 secure in their views and voice and the power of that voice in an academic setting. Instead, what I observe to be the biggest hurdle for my students is the challenge of allowing themselves to speak, which means feeling at home, engaged, and empowered enough to validate their own perspective as worthy of the discussion. At the beginning of each semester, there is reticence to get into debates in class, but it isn’t coming from some sense of political fear and self-silencing. It’s an act of negotiation, the students coaxing themselves toward a feeling of agency, security, investment, and hopefully community. In my experience, students work really hard to make others feel welcome because they’re going through the same process. They are, by and large, far gentler with one another’s ideas than their own.

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For a lot of students, studying the humanities means giving themselves over to their passion for reading, writing, and discussion, while constantly being asked by themselves and others to defend these acts as worthwhile. I would (often do) argue that they are, but either way this tension permeates every discussion—sometimes explicitly, sometimes not.

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I had one student I taught in three separate courses who made it very explicit. In each class, he was present, curious, a really good writer; I think he liked what we were discussing and took it all seriously, but there were at least a few days each semester that began combatively, with him reminding me about the tens of thousands of dollars of debt he carried, pushing me about what the point of all this was. Couldn’t he just get an associate degree for this stuff? Why did he have to keep facing down four years of expensive uncertainty? Other students invariably joined in. This never stunted the conversation about whatever text I’d assigned, but it did put a charge on it, an entry point that many of them shared that was part of our discourse, even if that hadn’t been my goal. I had to bring a level of risk and personal investment to the table that it would’ve been much easier to shelve in the name of authority. I don’t know that I ever had a good enough answer for this student. I did, however, watch him grow as a thinker and a writer, almost in spite of himself. I wish he’d been able to enjoy our conversations more, even as he gamely participated. I wish there was a concrete way to prove to him, and myself, that this was all worth it.

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Less dramatic examples of this underlying dynamic pop up constantly. Earlier this semester, in one class we ended up having an unplanned conversation about how often students use the word pretentious as a catchall term for “snooty,” and how they mostly turn it inward: worrying that their ideas are too pretentious, abandoning an essay because they were going for something different that might reek of the word. It was a conversation, ultimately, about permission, about this need to feel like the things they’re working on, hopefully throwing themselves into, are worth the time, are doing something beyond self-indulgence. Pressure—a good pressure, I think—was again put on me to essentially defend my class. And again, I have no idea if I convinced anyone, but they were generous and good-humored in the conversation, and I really enjoyed the essays they turned in that week.

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To think that these students might be there in bad faith, or are just looking to pile on someone who doesn’t get the same things they do, borders on disrespect, especially when they are often so unsure of their own ability to get it, even as they’re thriving. That takes real intellectual and emotional work, and many are undertaking this challenge while working full time, or caregiving full time, or both; on a number of occasions over the years, students have parked their kids in the back with some headphones because they couldn’t find child care. During pandemic learning, students were Zooming into our discussions from ROTC training barracks, or their car while dropping their mother off for treatment, or a patient’s bedside during a long hospice shift.

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As in the haunted depictions of “the college classroom” in much of the press, students are often remarkably open about their backgrounds and may bring their cultural identity, or queer identity, or neurodivergent identity, or race, or religion, or mental health into our conversations—but not as a cudgel. It’s simply a part of the complex circumstances that shape their perspectives. I’m not going to enumerate examples here; these are their stories that they’re generous enough to share with a classroom community. But I can say that in nearly every class period, a student will bring a facet of their own identity to their reading of a particular text. This used to worry me; I’d think we were drifting away from the safety and rigor of objective discourse into some minefield of interpersonal slights. But I never saw those fears manifested. I am forever impressed by the respect with which they treat one another’s lives. No wonder this image of an uber-liberal, hyper-focused mob snarling back at me in the classroom rings untrue. Who has the time?

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Am I romanticizing here? Some, yes. I’m sure plenty of my students would give less rosy depictions of my classes, and I am not at all immune to complaining about my job. But far more romantic is the generalized idea we have of what college should look like, one that plenty of academics have internalized—blazers and scarves, teensy seminar classes where everyone is breathless with the intensity of debate. If we pretend that’s the ideal, anything that falls short of the fantasy is an act of betrayal, and then we don’t have to negotiate with the realities of the college classroom as it is now, or the deep flaws that always existed within the ideal.

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The notion that conservative white voices might feel uncomfortable in a classroom like mine doesn’t hold up in comparison to the reality that, even at a relatively diverse campus like mine, these provocative conversations are often had in predominantly white classrooms. Throw on top of that the overwhelming whiteness of my department faculty, myself included—that is a threat to open, rigorous academic discourse. Or what about the fact that my experience is shaped by the increasingly rare luxury of tenure? When more than half of college classes in America are taught by underpaid, temporary adjunct professors, the idea that mean students are really what threatens the future of college and academic discourse is laughable.

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There’s just so much to cover in thinking about the challenges facing higher education in America. It’s an industry at an inflection point: The future feels entirely, terrifyingly uncertain. Which is why devoting so much space to coverage of the freedom that certain wildly ambitious people on wildly prestigious (and rich) campuses do or don’t feel is so misguided. It continues this fantasy that academia’s concerns are elite, a semantic playground for those who have the time and luxury to play. There are so few true ivory towers. Alongside them, millions of people are trying to teach and learn, under duress, and largely invisible.

Correction, April 16, 2022: This page originally stated that a lecturer was fired from Yale over the wording of an email about Halloween costumes. She resigned. 

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