You may have read about the UCLA professor whose class was taken over by 25 of his students and other protesters on grounds that he was guilty of racial “micro-aggression.” Among other things, the professor, Val Rust, was accused of micro-aggressively undermining student advocacy by explaining that the word “indigenous” isn’t capitalized.
Rust is a UCLA professor emeritus of education teaching the dissertation course in the Division of Social Sciences and Comparative Education (a course to help students fine-tune dissertation proposals prior to the research and writing). The sit-in’s leader, Kenjus Watson, in a written statement, claimed that Professor Rust (not mentioned by name) corrected the student’s grammar in a way that reflected an ideology while repeatedly challenging the value of dissertation proposals that addressed social identity and the dynamics of oppression, power and privilege (Rust called the proposed research too subjective). According to Watson, Professor Rust’s persistent ideologically-driven criticisms and detailed corrections created a hostile class environment.
Quickly Adding More Professors
Rust was also vilified for insisting on use of The Chicago Manual of Style in seminar papers, even though some students preferred the American Psychological Association format. The UCLA administration quickly responded by adding three professors familiar with race and ethnicity studies to join Rust on a panel overseeing the remainder of the course. Collective leadership in place, students will now consult individually with professors to defend dissertation proposals.
Obviously, the agitated students have a valid point insofar as English grammar ain’t fixed in stone or universal. Publishers and universities all have idiosyncratic style sheets and scholarly fields often vary in documentation rules. Further add evolving PC–no academic would dare write the old-fashioned “chairman” lest women be discouraged from seeking positions of power.
But, this brouhaha is not really about scholarly or grammatical conventions (a legitimate issue); it is what Watson and others call racial micro-aggression and, be warned, it is the Next Big Thing on the PC agenda. The mechanics of racial micro-aggression are elucidated in Tori DeAngelis’ 2009 paper “Unmasking ‘racial micro-aggressions” issued under the auspices of the American Psychological Association. Micro-aggression involves the “everyday insults, indignities and demeaning messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned white people who are unaware of the hidden messages being sent to them (italics added and the incorrect grammar is as stated).”
So Hard to Teach the Whites
Needless to say, eradicating such harm will be difficult. Quoting a Columbia University Teachers’ College Professor of Psychology, “It’s a monumental task to get white people to realize that they are delivering micro-aggressions, because it’s scary to them….It assails their self-image of being good, moral, decent human beings to realize that maybe at an unconscious level they have biased thoughts, attitudes and feelings that harm people of color.” Of the utmost importance, research now shows its debilitating impact on people of color in both job and academic performance.
Uncovering racial micro-aggression has, predictably, generated an academic cottage industry (over 4,000 “hits” in Google Scholar). The vocabulary has been refined so, for example, there are “micro-insults”–asking a colleague of color how she got her job hints of affirmative action and thus lower hiring standards. There’s “micro-invalidation”– inquiring where an Asian was born since the question implies possible foreign origins. Such questions, though superficially benign, can incapacitate. Querying an Asian if she excels at math might “trap” the recipient in a stereotype. And on and on ad infinitum.
The arrival of micro-aggression mania on campus is a god-send for under-employed PC folk. Happily for them, racial micro-aggression easily applies to every campus grievance group save, naturally, white males. Publication-hungry academics can submit research to journals like Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology (among others) always anxious for cutting-edge indictments of whites. In the meantime, stamping out this unconscious hostility will require armies of skilled campus counselors and newly hired administrators to apply insights from this burgeoning exorcise-the-devil industry. And, conceivably, textbook publishers may want to hire grievance group leaders to scrutinize textbooks and certify them “100% micro-aggression free” (the parallel is the Kosher certification). That micro-aggression can never be fully cured is but icing on the PC cake.
Questions May Be Seen as Hostile
But, leaving aside the usual bureaucratic bloating that comes from achieving social injustice, the real nefarious impact will occur in classrooms and faculty colloquia. Especially in the humanities and social sciences, the vigorous give-and-take vital to university life will become muted or banished altogether. No more “hostile” questions to embarrass fools or requests to document some iffy, off-the-cuff assertion.
This is not about imposing a much needed civility on raucous “hurtful” intellectual discourse. With racial micro-aggression banned, a professor will now “help” students (especially those of color) by suffering their nonsense lest he accidently invalidates him or her as a human being. No more sarcasm or put-downs, even involuntary looks of incredulity or snickering. It’s a happy face “thank you for sharing with us that 2+2= 5.” Chalk up another victory for the feel good self-esteem movement. And, as Professor Rust will attest, this generosity even applies to accepting personal feelings and speculations as serious scholarship. Put into trendy pedagogical gobbledygook, professors don’t impart knowledge; they merely coax students to express what they already know and then help validate their sagacity.
This is an easy recipe for escaping personal responsibility: students of color perform poorly because they are the blameless victims of invisible professorial micro-aggression. Event better for those who want to undermine intellectual life, micro-aggression will be a lose/lose proposition for professors (especially white males). If the instructor offers extra help to struggling students of color, this stigmatizes the recipient as deficient vis-Ã -vis white classmates. But, refusing to offer such assistance may be an unconscious sign of insensitivity to the society-imposed obstacles faced by struggling students of color. And woe to the teacher who imposes high expectations on students of color. Or too low expectations. Or advises the student enroll in a remedial class.
It’s great for student sloth, too. Why struggle to get it right if there is zero risk of being embarrassed by one’s instructor? And forget about tough deadlines. After all, why should everybody adhere to the same (white) Calvinist work ethic? And with so many diverse paths to knowledge, how can professors possibly deduct points from an essay for lack of citations, garbled arguments and creative spelling?
Obviously, cleansing universities of racial micro-aggression will disproportionately harm students needing extra help, if not a kick in the pants, which often means African Americans and Hispanics lagging behind their white and Asian classmates. Ironically, many professors may secretly welcome this New World Oder since it absolves them of carefully reading and correcting awful papers and having to engage overly sensitive, ill-informed activists. Just keep quiet, hand out undeserved decent grades, pass everybody and let the next professor (hopefully) correct the garbled nonsense.
I can only imagine Kenjus Watson’s Ph.D. thesis given that no prudent supervisor will have the courage to criticize anything he said that contravenes today’s dodgy racial orthodoxy. Everything will be accepted as contribution to knowledge. In fact, by speaking truth to power Kenjus may soon be a rising academic star and once hired he will undoubtedly instruct others to follow in his ill-advised footsteps. One can only picture what this next generation of alleged scholars will have to say.