Progressive Microaggressions


Are we progressive professors guilty of our own species of microaggression? Fredrik deBoer says yes.

DeBoer teaches at Purdue and blogs about culture and higher ed. In a recent post, deBoer worried that his progressive colleagues seem strangely willing to mock and belittle their conservative students. Not in the classroom. In spite of conservative laments about overt professorial hostility, deBoer claims that most left-leaning faculty “are so sensitive to the impression that they’re biased against their conservative students that they bend over backwards to accommodate them.”

But deBoer accuses his allies of a curious blind spot. They tend to mock conservative students on Facebook and other social-media outlets. DeBoer comes to the smart conclusion:

People are really, really invested in consistency and fairness. And if academics don’t make a huge improvement in projecting them, they will be the razor with which our throats are slit.

He’s referring to two particular recent episodes. At Duke, some conservative students protested against a leftist summer reading assignment. At North Carolina, a student accused the school of coddling terrorists.

As deBoer reports,

many academics I know have reflexively, unthinkingly laughed off these conservative complaints. They’ve bombarded social media with “lols” and “wtfs.” They’ve mocked these students as rubes. They’ve given every outward appearance of not even attempting to evaluate these students’ claims with the same care, sensitivity, and fairness that they evaluate the claims of progressive students invoking the language of trauma and triggers. In other words, they’ve rushed to confirm every complaint conservative critics of the academy have made, and the most damning one in particular: that we treat our progressive students with more kindness and approval than our conservative students, and that we use the formal procedures of the university to do it.

I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. DeBoer’s warnings, but I think he could take it one step farther. Not only do my fellow progressive academics tend to assume too much about their campuses and their social-media worlds, but they do so out of a woeful and widespread ignorance. Some of us assume that young people will somehow naturally sympathize with left-leaning ideas. We couldn’t be more wrong.

If the campaign against microaggressions has any moral heft, it is because it is at heart a campaign against ignorance. Yet as sociologists such as Elaine Howard Ecklund have argued, many scholars display shocking ignorance about their own students.

Even if we progressive professors are polite to our conservative students, are we guilty of microaggressions that only the students themselves notice? Do we betray our own ideals by failing to learn more about our students’ backgrounds? Are there things we don’t even notice about our classes that might make conservative students feel unwelcome?

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  1. Your conclusion is correct. Unless one has lived in the world of a true conservative, especially a religious conservative, it is difficult for progressives to reach out to those conservatives effectively. Add that into the mix of the more liberal students who find “triggers” in every assignment, and what is a good professor to do? We need a robust debate on issues of the day. Instead, all we seem to do is unleash ad hominem attacks at each other. As one who has progressed out of Fundamentalism and conservatism, but who is still asking questions (I’m a moderate), it can be very frustrating. How do we reach the ideal of dispassionate engagement? I don’t know. I’m just glad that I’m not a professor. It’s really hard, and carries with it a high level of responsibility–molding young minds.

  2. Having spent 12 years in different academic environments, I came to the conclusion that the professoriate has a lot of people who learn to put on a kind of secularity as a matter of professionalization, especially if it means they are moving up socially. They pretend not to understand religion and traditionalist or conservative cultures, yet when you look into their personal lives and histories you find not only religious observers but a large number who grew up in or around a conservative, religious community. They may have been part of a liberal or secular segment. They overwhelmingly went through some type of liberalizing, secularizing journey in their education. Yet they pretend that where they have arrived is their native identity.

    The truth about Americans — even those who become academics — is they’re overwhelmingly religious and most live and die within 50 miles of their birthplace. This is a deeply conservative country, where the liberal party — even at its leftmost in the past — would be a center-right party in Europe. It’s also hard to imagine any other elite or mainstream sector of the culture where American-Arab-Israeli relations are followed closely and have been a source of intense conflict for decades ahead of and on a different level than the Evangelical infatuation with Israel.

    • Salient points, as always.

    • I should clarify that I’m sure the general religiosity and mobility/connection to family and place is proportionally less among academics than the general population, but I would be surprised if it is radically different. In the Ivies, I have no direct experience with those cultures, but I did pay attention to their faculty politics and was aware of individual biographies and perspectives on religion and political issues. (Personal disclosures and religion became very trendy in the humanities in the 1990s.) There were obvious Boomer generation rifts among Ivy-trained faculty who were my professors at different grad programs, and these rifts very much reflected the remains of the old cold war left vs. right.

      In one department at a state university the right was Episcopalian, Catholic, and heavily male (I’d call them the high humanist old guard) while the left was more defined by African-American, Middle-Eastern, and Jewish scholars. In the humanities, or at least literature and history, the national professional associations seemed to have been taken over in the 1970s-80s by a majority of hardline materialists who saw little place for religious faith in the lives of serious, educated people. This led to an internal reaction where by the 1990s it was fashionable to study religion in-depth and take it seriously as a social reality that sometimes serves progressive ends. There were also more acrimonious reactions where alternative professional associations emerged to support “traditionalists” — the “old historicists,” “humanists,” and often more conservative and religious scholars. This was probably a little more amplified in the area of early modern studies, where the establishment associations could have a distinctly secular, leftist, and more or less politely areligious atmosphere — kind of a “we’re past all that” air. Other associations, conferences and journals that are by no means small or marginal are entirely “secular” have cultures where religion is not only taken seriously but seemingly respected and sometimes practiced without offense. This would not be explicit, but it would be apparent in the higher representation of people from schools with a religious tradition behind them (not so much the CCU types, however) as well as the mention of religious services available during a weekend conference, sometimes with scholars who are also ordained members of a particular faith tradition leading the services. This would be treated as normal and pass without comment in one major conference, whereas its establishment counterpart would be embarrassed if not outraged by such things.


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