How to Respond to Outrageous Exhibitions of Overblown Outrage

John K. Wilson has very succinctly highlighted the hullabaloo surrounding an innocuous e-mail by Rachel Slocum, a faculty member at the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse, which Chancellor Joe Gow has helped to escalate into a political controversy provoking all sorts of partisan responses from places well beyond the institution.

I think that it is very important for anyone who has been forming opinions at second- or third-hand to hear from Rachel Slocum herself. In the following “open letter” to the Chancellor and the campus community, she demonstrates a remarkably temperate tone in response to what must seem an extremely and even absurdly unsettling chapter in her professional life. Anyone who reads this “open letter” and comes away thinking that this is a professor intent on the political indoctrination of her students has been rendered tone deaf by his or her own extremist ideology.

In an earlier post to this blog, “So Now the Haters Are Worried about Hate Speech,” I complained about the extremely selective sensitivity of Far Right ideologues who in public utterance after public utterance have been blatantly and even proudly insensitive to any reasonable standards of civil discourse. Although the title and slant of my post are deliberately inflammatory—certainly much, much more inflammatory than anything written by Rachel Slocum, in either her original e-mail or the following open letter—I think that in many instances outrageously abusive rhetoric and outrageous abuses of rhetoric warrant a very strong response because anything less is tantamount to an acquiescence to verbal bullying.

This government shutdown has been a very overtly partisan political action. Insisting that anyone should pretend that it can be framed in nonpartisan terms puts us on a path towards an Orwellian state in which reality and the language with which we attempt to describe it become not just divorced from each other but, in effect, antithetical to each other.

In any case, like John K. Wilson, I find it very ironic that the Chancellor’s statements and his subsequent defense of his statements are actually much more politically problematic than Rachel Slocum’s supposed “offense.”


Open Letter to Chancellor Joe Gow and the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Community

My email to students was meant to be brief and accurate, a simple alert that there was a government shut down instigated by conservative members of the House and conservative actors in society. Reputable analyses have established this fact. The New York Times, for instance, reported that these actors had been planning the shutdown as a way to defund the Affordable Care Act since President Obama took office for his second term. The furor over debt is part of the long game played by conservative groups in this country who make no secret of their desire to decrease government spending on things like data collection by the US Census Department. For those students in my class experiencing the perhaps happy occasion of an assignment no longer doable, this was a moment when it might have occurred to them that their learning requires spending on government agencies like the US Census Department.

Any statement I might have said about the impossibility of doing the assignment would have been political. It is a political statement to say “the data collection assignment cannot be done in full” or “a government shut down has made it impossible to complete the assignment.” Leaving out something is as partisan as putting it in. All professors in any discipline have political positions, whether they say so or not. The political position always enters into class. A class that claims to teach “just the facts” is as political as one that teaches about social justice, although it is easier to hide politics behind the former.

The statements against me seem to position students as hapless and powerless in the face of rabidly political professors. College students must expect their ideas to be challenged and to have to deal respectfully with views contrary to their political perspective. Students are learning to think critically; if college teaches them anything, it is to learn to accept and reject ideas based on rigorous analysis. There is, finally, strong support for students at UW-L through mechanisms like evaluations, which give students significant power over the retention of professors.

Chancellor Gow’s behavior was politically partisan. He chose to acknowledge a political attack against a member of UW-L’s faculty made by right-wing organizations that have no standing at the University. It’s important to point out that it was outrage from conservative entities against my tweeted email that prompted action rather than the complaint of a student. The administration asked me to write a second email, but the Chancellor’s missive to the UW-L community was sent after I’d done that. In email exchanges with a supporter of mine, he argued that students were not encouraged to share their views, yet this was a clear offer I made in that second email. Ultimately these actions point to implicit support for conservative students and conservative entities, even though that may not have been his intention. Given this, the university community might worry about the trampling of progressive students’ free speech not to mention that of progressive faculty.

The university is pursuing two open records requests from WEAU news for emails dating 9/27 to 10/5 using search terms “Republican, Tea Party, government, shutdown, apology and Website.” The second request came from the blog Mediatracker asking for my benefit package and salary information, contract information from the point of hiring, this semester’s class schedule, and all syllabi. The University is honoring these requests.

Chancellor Gow’s email is a signal to students that the university approves of their efforts to publicly shame professors with whom they disagree. Although there are formal and informal procedures that allow students to register complaints against faculty, the Chancellor’s actions show no respect for that process. Had Chancellor Gow recognized those well-established procedures, he would have responded to external questions by citing the complaint process and encouraging the student to pursue that internal process before involving the media.

When I alerted the chair to the growing controversy, she did not offer to contact the student, directing her toward the complaint process. Instead she suggested I take the Dean’s advice (whose advice to write a second email I had not yet heard). The consequence of these lapses in proper procedure and the Chancellor’s email circulated to all students may make it difficult for me to command respect in the class going forward. While it’s best to understand that anything can be circulated online, before these tweets and the Chancellor’s response I had not been fearful to write emails to students, comments on assignments or responses on the class blog. Now I am.

In closing, I’d like to take this opportunity to bring the public up to date on the discipline of geography. The hate mail (available upon request) I’ve been getting lambasts me for teaching politics and history, not geography. College level human geography has never been about naming countries on a map. Instead, human geographers teach about the relationship between people and places. A place has a history, an environment and a social, political and economic location relative to other places. People are arranged and organized in society by the politics of race, class, ability, gender, age and sexuality. In critical geography today, these politics and particularly the relations of power that undermine the marginalized in society, are a central focus of our research and teaching. As with all of the social sciences and humanities, geography helps students to understand their place in the world.

I would like to express my utmost gratitude to those members of the UW-L community and people across the country whose words of support have kept me going through this ordeal.

Warm regards,

Rachel Slocum

October 10, 2013

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