Instructional freedom, Or The Day Lindsay Shepherd became #lindsayshepherd

One year ago today, Wilfrid Laurier University graduate student Lindsay Shepherd walked into a tutorial she was leading and showed a clip from TVOntario’s The Agenda featuring Jordan Peterson. He was, as usual, going on about his distaste for genderless pronouns. A week later, after apparently receiving one or more complaints, Shepherd’s course supervisor, another professor from her department, and a staff member from the university’s Rainbow Centre (it supports LGBTQ students on campus) took her to task for creating an antagonistic learning environment for transgender students. She secretly recorded that meeting and made the recording public. Since then, much virtual ink has been spilled on the issues of academic freedom and freedom of speech at universities. The controversy only intensified when a month later it was made known that no student had even complained.

Photo by Ted Eytan. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

The ramifications have been many, and they continue to linger (you can read more here and here). Even though Wilfrid Laurier University bore the brunt of the reputational hit, all of higher education was tainted by the controversy. The province has a new premier, Doug Ford, who made an election promise to mandate free speech policies at all higher education institutions. His government is following through on that pledge, even though the higher education sector thinks “we are nowhere near a free speech crisis in colleges and universities.”

The focus of all the commentary in the press, on Twitter (where #lindsayshepherd was trending for quite a while), and throughout the Wild World Web has been on political correctness at universities run amok. Less has been written, however, about the general situation of graduate students as instructors at universities. That has been bothering me ever since I first heard that Shepherd had been hauled onto the carpet for apparently doing what good teachers try to do - engage their students on topics of importance, help them find connections with other issues, get them to develop their own perspective on what they’re being taught. I’d like to consider some aspects of that part of the story.

To his credit, Professor Nathan Rambukkana apologized to Shepherd in a public letter about how he treated her in that notorious meeting, noting that he didn’t do enough to mentor and support her. He indicated that colleagues and officials began inserting themselves into the process. Frankly, they had no business there, and they should have let the instructor and his TA work out any differences between them. 

In his letter, Rambukkana also talks about “teaching from a social justice perspective”:

Maybe we ought to strive to reach across all of our multiple divisions to find points where we can discuss such issues, air multiple perspectives, and embrace the diversity of thought. And maybe I have to get out of an “us versus them” habit of thought to do this myself, and to think of the goal as more than simply advancing social justice, but social betterment and progress as a whole. While I think that such a pedagogical approach must still work not to marginalize some students, I think the issues are too complex to leave as a binary with protection of students on one side and protection of speech on the other.

He seems to be arguing that teaching is about justice, which I like, but that the steps have to be small ones so that everyone feels able to participate in the dialogue. This in effect is the role of the classroom, isn’t it? To provide the kind of space where everyone can come together and think things through in an honest and open manner. This kind of environment is not easy to achieve, but the alternative - calling people out for thinking “wrong,” for example - won’t foster much growth, intellectual or personal. We can criticize Rambukkana for many things (how sincere is his apology, written before it became public knowledge that no students had complained?), but the sections of the letter dealing with teaching matters are worth pondering.

Other talking heads also got into the act, and some of their comments on the teaching aspect of the affair left me troubled. Alex Usher of Higher Education Strategy Associates wrote a blogpost in which he stated flatly that Shepherd did not have academic freedom, nor should she. Many would support the view that, as Usher puts it, “Academic Freedom is a protection of faculty rights based (at least in theory) on disciplinary competence.  TAs have rights of free speech of course, but those don’t protect your job if you annoy  your employer.”

Drawing of Lindsay Shepherd by Der Spatz. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

I have to disagree.  I note that the policy at my institution (University of Waterloo) is quite clear on this point: “the University supports academic freedom for all members of the University community.” The Memorandum of Agreement between the university and its faculty association reiterates this: “The academic freedom of any person shall not be infringed upon or abridged in any manner.” There is no distinction based on rank or status. In both documents there is language about the responsible exercise of this freedom, as with any freedom. [I should note that our faculty association is kind of divided on this point. Some of them take a page out of George Orwell’s Animal Farm and interpret the issue along the lines of “all members of the university have equal academic freedom, but some have more equal academic freedom than others.”]

My point is that you can’t put someone in a higher education classroom, give them authority over that classroom, even if it is just a tutorial, and not protect their academic freedom. If you can’t grant them that basic independence, you might as well just put a robot in the front of the class. Or a tree stump, for that matter, if your goal is to stifle intellectual advancement.

One person whose commentary on the teaching aspect made more sense was Clifford Owen, professor of political science at the University of Toronto: “In these difficult times, professors are called more than ever to perform their duty of mentorship. Whether in supervising students' theses or their teaching, we must put their intellectual development first. In the case of teaching, that means both modelling best practices on the one hand and encouraging our teaching assistants (TAs) to find their own voices on the other.” Amen, brother! Collaborate with your TAs, help them understand all the ramifications of what they teach, show them some respect and view them as colleagues-in-training, not workhorses who save you from menial chores or mindless ciphers who will adopt your ideological positions. 

Whether in supervising students’ theses or their teaching, we must put their intellectual development first.
— Clifford Owen

The debate around Shepherd has died down somewhat. She has finished her Master’s degree, but is still connected to the university through a lawsuit she recently launched. (Peterson has sued the university as well.) But I still find the whole controversy unsettling: I don’t like how Shepherd was treated, I don’t like her subsequent flirtation with the extreme right, and I really don’t like her association with white nationalist Faith Goldy. But for me, an instructor who knows he has an enormous responsibility to his students, graduate and undergraduate alike, and who also knows he doesn’t always get it right, the Shepherd affair has mostly been an unhappy reminder of just how easy it is to forget our responsibilities as teachers. It serves as a reminder of how important it is to maintain intellectual and instructional integrity, to work with and not against your students, and to contribute as your ability allows to the creation of a learning space that encourages us to think about all issues facing our society.

This is the fifth of my nine contributions to the eCampusOntario 9x9x25 challenge.