BY BETH L. LUECK
This is a guest post by Beth L. Lueck, a professor of English in the department of languages and literature at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
When my younger son came home from a ten-month deployment to Afghanistan in February 2015, he discovered his mother at the center of a right-wing maelstrom of anger at an extra credit opportunity she had offered her students in a freshman English class. Even while he was being debriefed in Texas, he had inklings of the storm in Facebook postings; before this, I had tried to protect him from it, reasoning that he didn’t need to come home and, first thing, find his mother under attack.
But I was under attack, and two weeks later when I was giving an off-campus lecture on Harriet Beecher Stowe and sympathetic motherhood, where the audience was likely to be mostly people from a local retirement home and the nearby community, I expressed my fear that someone would speak out at the lecture, denouncing me for offering extra credit for students to attend—as protestors, observers, or participants—a rally featuring both Democrats and Republicans on the state’s plan to cut funding for the university system. Or worse—in my nightmares I imagined someone pulling out a gun and shooting me. Since I had been threatened by telephone and email, this wasn’t an unreasonable fear. I’ll never forget that lecture: as I read from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, explored the author’s emphasis on slave mothers and their children, and passed books containing period illustrations from the novel, my son stood in the back of the room, leaning against a wall, his arms crossed over his chest. As if he were at a checkpoint near Kabul, he constantly scanned the audience and the doorways, watching for trouble and protecting both his mother and the audience, many of them current and former professors at my university. (No, he didn’t have a gun.) There wasn’t any trouble, but I felt so protected in that hour—safer than seeing the local police cruise by my house repeatedly, than having campus police walk me to my car after my night classes, or watching a colleague check over a suspicious package I hadn’t ordered. The hundreds of vituperative emails I’d received, the phone calls I’d gotten (three calls from the same number, the final one adding, “And you’re ugly too!”), and the hate mail that arrived both at work and at home—it was overwhelming for a few weeks, but it did eventually taper off. I didn’t have Fox & Friends emailing to request an interview any longer, and neither the chair of my department nor my dean got any more phone calls demanding that I be fired.
(None of this would have been so intense, I believe, if I hadn’t run for office twice in the preceding two years. I’d run to offer voters a choice in a heavily gerrymandered district. I’d lost, of course, which I’d expected, but I had never anticipated the blast of fury from the right wing well after the election.)
And then it all started up again. With the dubious distinction of being one of the first professors to be named to the Professor Watchlist, there I was again—with my name and email address in the public eye, a brief description of my crime (no more factual than its initial appearance online; of course students had to write a paper to get extra credit—I’m an English teacher, for heaven’s sake), and an invitation to students to come after me (with a picture so I could be readily identified on campus). The online story in Slate was accompanied by an illustration of a professor with a target on his back. Given that the Wisconsin state legislature—now even more heavily Republican—is trying to pass a law permitting guns in the classroom on UW campuses, this is all too frightening. When I return to classes next week, will it start all over again? Speculating whether students in my classroom know I’m on the Watchlist. Wondering whether they believe what they’ve read or heard. Looking over my shoulder as I walk to my car after a night class. Feeling just a little nervous about being in my office when there’s no one else on my floor.
Given my still fresh memories of that earlier experience in the eye of the media, is it a wonder that I’m a bit anxious about the start of the new semester? That I hope the bill permitting guns in our classrooms fails—but that I want someone else to speak out in public about it rather than me? And although I wasn’t much comforted at first by the AAUP’s online petition of support for professors on the Watchlist, when I saw that over 10,000 had signed it in the first couple of weeks—that was amazing.
As a new administration takes over in Washington, D.C., one that has been openly hostile to the professoriate, faculty at colleges and universities need to stand together. Most of don’t have a soldier son or daughter who can stand guard over our classrooms—nor should we need that. Instead, we need to keep our message to students, to fellow faculty, to administration, and to the public consistent and strong. Education is about learning; it’s about being exposed to new ideas; it’s about debating openly and without fear.