How Higher Ed is Censoring Content

On the first day of school, college students are handed a syllabus from each one of their professors. Each syllabus contains an outline of what the course is about, what students can expect to learn during their time spent in the course and the expectations for the student. Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? But some professors have drawn attention to themselves over their syllabi and how they are being used to communicate expectations for their students.

Let’s take a look at a few examples of what we’re talking about.

  • Selena Lester Breikss, a Washington State University graduate student who teaches An Introduction to Women’s Studies, wrote in her syllabus that gendered or biased words could result in removal from class, a failure of the assignment or a failure of the course.

  • John Streamas, an associate professor of critical culture, gender and race studies at Washington State University, included a similar statement in his syllabus.

  • Rebecca Fowler, another graduate student from Washington State University, would like to continue showing students why using words like “illegal alien” is problematic.

  • Nancy L. Bishop, who teaches Women in Poverty at North Carolina State University, wrote a syllabus that told students that generalized pronouns and other biased references would no longer be acceptable in her class. Sexist language would be docked in assignments.

  • A professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley indicated in their syllabus that students should refrain from saying, “God Bless You” when someone sneezes in class. Their syllabus went viral back in September.

Professors and Higher Institutions Not Seeing Eye to Eye

It’s understandable that professors would want to encourage students to use gender-neutral and inclusive terms when speaking and writing, particularly in courses like women’s studies or ethnic studies. But are professors crossing the line when they tell students that they will be docked points for using certain words like “mankind,” “illegal alien” or “chairman?”

After criticism stirred up in August after some of the above syllabi were shared on social media, Washington State responded by saying that any blanket policy that docked points for using terms that could be viewed as offensive was not supported at the school. The university admitted that it supports learning about diverse perspectives but also has the responsibility to protect the freedom of expression for students.

Some teachers were surprised by the university’s response. They felt that they should have been better supported by the school and believe that it’s up to them to teach their students that certain terms are not OK. The professors also state that they’re not trying to control what their students say outside of class. They just want to set a basis for the types of terms that will be used in their particular classroom.

It seems that both sides have a point.

Language Guidelines: An Alternative?

Terms that could be viewed as offensive will exist in our society for a while, so we can’t expect to change things overnight. Rather than docking students for using certain terms, or making it mandatory in the syllabus that certain terms not be used, it’s a friendlier approach for syllabi to include language guidelines. The guidelines are merely suggestions, not requirements. Students are not ordered to use the language but rather encouraged to be considerate of others.

The University of Pittsburgh has already started with this approach, and the feedback from students has been positive so far. Still, some have their reservations about whether or not this mindset is killing the very essence of the college experience. Isn’t the college setting the place where intellectual freedom is celebrated and the creation of knowledge is fueled? There was a time when things that were once controversial are now the norm thanks to academic freedom.

If we try to control how students should talk and limit their freedom of speech, will that hinder their creativity? Their passion for innovation? And where do we draw the line? If colleges turn down certain assignments, topics or speakers for fear of being offensive, then students can rebel against anything they view as upsetting. If nothing sensitive or emotional is presented, the college campus will become a very dry place.

Final Thoughts

The point of sensitive material is not to cause anxiety in students or trigger negative feedback. It’s to cultivate healthy discussions where students talk things out, listen to new perspectives and share ideas. These discussions aren’t meant to change student beliefs; they’re meant to help them develop a more comprehensive understanding of our world and the many perspectives within it. Isn’t this what leads to tolerance, understanding and acceptance?

College is not intended to be a product customized to the needs of each student. It’s a place where students come to communicate ideas, express their creativity and enhance their skills. It’s one of the few places left for this type of learning, and higher institutions must be prepared to stick to a standard of academic freedom while also being considerate to student needs.