Offense-ive weapons

Yesterday I mentioned people who make a career of finding offense. Today I found an interesting case in Minnesota that suggests that what goes around comes around. A black professor has been reprimanded by the administration for making her classroom uncomfortable…for white men.

Minneapolis media and activists have been following the story of Shannon Gibney, a full-time adjunct professor of English. She says a student complaint about a recent lecture on structural racism triggered a meeting with administrators about her conduct and that the meeting was followed by a written letter of reprimand. She also says she was directed to the college’s chief diversity officer for sensitivity training.

So some white students don’t like the topic of discussion and complain to the administration about it, resulting in a reprimand for the black professor? On the surface this sounds suspicious. But only because of the races of the various parties. Would we bat an eye if this were about black students protesting against a white professor for making them uncomfortable? We’d probably assume that the administration had done its job, justice was served, end of story. But no, the roles are reversed here–and that seems to make certain people uncomfortable. Is the administration out of line? They don’t think so.

But the college denies her account, saying it never reprimanded her for talking about structural racism — what it calls an important topic for students and faculty.

There is clearly more to the story here. So let’s take a look at it. From Gibney’s own account:

Gibney described the incident in her Introduction to Mass Communications this way in a video interview with the student newspaper, the City College News: “[The white, male student asked] ‘Why do we have to talk about this in every class? Why do we have to talk about this?’ ” Describing his demeanor during the discussion on mass communication and politics as “defensive,” Gibney continued: “He was taking it personally. I tried to explain, of course, in a reasonable manner – as reasonable as I could given the fact that I was being interrupted and put on the spot in the middle of class – that this is unfortunately the context of 21st-century America.”

She said another white male student added: “Yeah, I don’t get this either. It’s like people are trying to say that white men are always the villains, the bad guys. Why do we have to say this?”

Gibney said she tried to explain that her topic was institutionalized racism, not individuals. When the students were still not satisfied, she invited them to file a racial harassment complaint, she said, and they took her up on it.

This was an Introduction to Mass Communication class. Institutional racism is not the first topic I think of when I think “mass communications class”. Not that the topic should necessarily be out of bounds, either. But what if the white student was not exaggerating when he suggests this is the topic of “every class”? Would that not constitute a hostile environment, if true? At the very least it would be a breach of contract, as the class is supposed to be about mass communication.

She claims the problem is that the students took personal offense to the topic, in spite of her assurances she was not attacking individuals. Yet if I were to regularly make generalized statements at work about women I doubt anyone would excuse me on the basis that I was not singling out anyone out individually. If you are going to discuss the failings of a particular group it’s not unreasonable to assume individual members of that group might take offense. Gibney is trying to hide behind an excuse that would never hold up were it applied in the other direction.

Clearly, if Gibney encouraged the students to file a racial harrassment complaint, she was not expecting the administration to take the students’ side. She either felt she was entirely in the right, or that the administration would support her. To her surprise, they did not. While they are typically closed-mouthed about the incident (not the only one for Gibney, either), they do make a rather interesting statement on the matter:

In a formal statement, the institution says it has never disciplined a faculty member for teaching or discussing structural racism.

“Conversations about race, class and power are important and regular parts of many classes at MCTC and have been for years,” the statement says. “At MCTC, we believe it is essential for our faculty to actively engage students in respectful discussions in the classroom regardless of topic and to create an atmosphere in which students may ask questions as an important part of the classroom experience. Questions from students in classroom discussions are an essential part of the learning process. We expect that faculty will have the professional skills to lead difficult conversations in their classrooms and will teach in a way that helps students understand issues, even when students feel uncomfortable or disagree with particular ideas. We also expect that students act appropriately in the classroom; a student who does not do so may be subject to removal by the faculty member.” (Emphasis mine)

Based on the context, it sounds like what Gibney was reprimanded for was her insufficient handling of the situation, not for the topic itself. The statement above makes it clear that the administration encourages students to question, and that her “being interrupted and put on the spot in the middle of class” is part of the educational process, and something she should be prepared for. If she’s going to bring up controversial topics that could make students uncomfortable then she needs to know how to conduct that discussion respectfully and delicately, encouraging the students to remain engaged.

The statement also states the expectations for student behavior. We have seen nothing, even from Gibney, that the students acted inappriopriately, outside of “interrupting”. They weren’t removed from class, certainly. They simply took her up on her invitation to file a complaint.

Whether or not we’re getting the full story here, one thing is certain: offense is a two-edged sword. Those who take offense are not immune to giving it. The more we push public discourse toward “We have the right to not be offended” the less room we leave for actual discourse. If we insist on continuing in that direction it’s only a matter of time before the only right remaining is the right to remain silent. In an age of social media, I guarantee very few will avail themselves of that.

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