Winter 2019

Academic Freedom

Academic Freedom in the Classroom: Students and the Trouble with Labels

Managing a brief encounter with Campus Reform and observing how faculty members of color deal with attacks from the organization and its various supporters have me thinking not only about our specific vulnerability in this moment, when the humanities are under intense scrutiny, but also about pressures our students face in the classroom. So often faculty members of color specialize in subjects that, by their very design, challenge existing cultural narratives. And in this charged climate I fear there’s a tug-of-war that is as much about the work we do in literature classes—the analytic reading, interrogating language, playing with texts of all kinds—as it is about the politics ascribed to us. I worry that our students of all political stripes are growing up in a cultural moment when the point is to pick a side and defend it uncritically. Questions that were provocative fifteen years ago when I started teaching are now seen as a demand for political fealty that must be performed in class discussions and written work. Campus Reform seems to hover over us all.

Campus Reform describes itself as “a watchdog to the nation’s higher education system” whose purpose is to expose “bias and abuse on the nation’s college campuses” (“Mission”). Boasting nine million viewers in 2015 and supported by the Leadership Institute (Schmidt), the organization is explicit about its goals:

Our team of professional journalists works alongside student activists and student journalists to report on the conduct and misconduct of university administrators, faculty, and students. Campus Reform holds itself to rigorous journalism standards and strives to present each story with accuracy, objectivity, and public accountability. (“Mission”)

The Web site offers headlines that, in a clickbait world, seem more sensationalist than serious. Recent ones include “University of Utah Showcases Anti-Trump, Anti-conservative Book Art,” “Temple U. Board Chair: Tenured Prof Marc Lamont Hill Would Be ‘Fired Immediately’ at Private Company,” and “Antifa Vandalizes Purdue College Republicans Adviser’s Home with ‘Nazi Lives Here.’”1

The problem, however, isn’t just that these sensationalized headlines contribute to the general noise. Campus Reform’s reporting can lead to material consequences for the academics it targets—not just demeaning e-mails and death threats but career-altering or career-ending outcomes. I’m using the term target specifically because Campus Reform’s logo invites this description (see fig. 1). It pairs the design of a target with a broadcast signal, and the organization seeks to do both—to take aim at academics it sees as liberal and to amplify moments, usually taken out of context, to a conservative media network. The site’s articles are often the first step in a campaign to discredit scholars, and the work that scholars of color contribute to the academy is an easy target. The articles misrepresent and reduce the work of scholars and administrators by twisting the language of diversity and inclusion. In an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Peter Schmidt notes a wall at Campus Reform’s headquarters where it keeps track of its progress, including how many articles it has published, appearances on television shows—Fox News particularly—and, most important, its victories. Victories, according to Schmidt, are those moments when a Campus Reform article forces colleges and universities to punish a faculty member or change a policy. This is Campus Reform’s goal: to police the academy, seeking out faculty members and administrators who work to make it more inclusive.

campus reform logo

Fig. 1. Campus Reform’s logo

I know about Campus Reform because as the editor of Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure, a collection of essays and interviews by and about faculty members of color in the academy, I participate in several large communities composed of faculty members of color the news site often targets. I’ve also seen on Twitter and Facebook how these attacks unfold in real time and the amount of energy and restraint it requires to manage them. This is what I explained to an audience at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in September 2017 for a lecture I gave titled “Diversity in the Public Arena.” Using information from an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, I described how a comment made in one context is picked up by Campus Reform and makes its way through the right-wing distortion process until, through Fox News, it reaches a busy administrator suddenly asked to defend inflammatory language. Someone took a picture of one of my slides (see fig. 2) and innocently posted it on Twitter, and then I got an e-mail from Campus Reform politely offering me an “opportunity to comment” on the event with a list of three questions that, on their face, weren’t particularly problematic. Knowing the organization as well as I do, I didn’t respond to the request; I informed my dean and chair about the message, was thankful for the quick, polite response of encouragement, and moved on.

slide from lecture

Fig. 2. Slide from September 2017 lecture at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill


I’ve only been a bit nervous since that moment. My work and public profile keep me out of Campus Reform’s range, and I’m only mildly concerned that a student might take something I say out of context. What has stayed with me, however, is not just the ideology that informs Campus Reform but the guiding principle of the Leadership Institute, the organization that supports its efforts. Founded in 1979, the Leadership Institute is a conservative organization that specializes in training activists, particularly college-age students. One of its more striking characteristics is how it describes its goals: “The Institute doesn’t analyze policy; it teaches conservative Americans how to influence policy through direct participation, activism, and leadership” (“About”). As someone committed to teaching literary analysis and critical thinking I am almost as bothered by the emphasis on political influence over analysis as I am by the organization’s politics. And I’m worried that the former is crowding out critical inquiry in my classroom.

I teach at a public research institution and have been teaching my department’s introduction to literary theory course since I joined the faculty in 2003. It’s the course I’ve seen change the most, particularly in the last few years as national events have made their way to my class discussions. It began not with the 2016 election but with the murder of Michael Brown in 2014. The morning after the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, I was taken aback by how many of my students came to theory class visibly angry with me. In the days before Ferguson, these same students had gamely considered questions about race and representation, particularly in popular culture. The conversations weren’t easy, but they were possible, especially when leavened with self-deprecating humor on everyone’s part. The mood shifted the day after the Ferguson district attorney refused to file charges against the police officer who killed Brown. Students who had been wary but good natured arrived angry, aggressively so—quoting Martin Luther King, Jr., and defending police officers, furious about the destruction of property. Students of color, particularly those who are not black, made clear to me that they are not at all like Michael Brown.

My classroom has never returned to its pre-Ferguson state; each national moment has been reflected in student comments, regardless of the subject matter. After the 2016 election, as my Romanticism class discussed Mary Shelley’s Valperga, some students were in tears about the fate of the novel’s politically ambitious woman, seeing her downfall through Hillary Clinton’s loss. I had to end class early and watched as their classmates seemed quietly, perhaps bashfully, triumphant about the outcome. I keep getting caught flat-footed by these events and often have to find space in class in the aftermath to help us all find our footing again.

 I worry that for too many of my students there is a right and a left and their experience in the class relies too much on where they think the professor fits on the continuum.

In response to Ferguson, I worked with colleagues to assemble a general information primer that is being used around the country; but, as I pointed out to a reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education, this work falls outside my training, and I worry about the pressure it puts on my students (Zamudio-Suaréz). Increasingly they come in with a Campus Reform state of mind, regardless of their politics. As Aaron Hanlon explains, one of the pervasive lies about the humanities is that our faculty members are trying to push “left-wing ideas on students,” and I worry about how that lie is getting in the way of the work we take on in my classes. I worry that for too many of my students there is a right and a left and their experience in the class relies too much on where they think the professor fits on the continuum. I worry that they feel like they need to calibrate to adjust to me or feel honor-bound to resist me because they think I’m radical (the truth is that I’m pretty personally conservative). I worry about the students who feel pressured to take a stand in a classroom that might be at odds with the opinions of the people they care about. I recall the student who, near the end of the semester, tentatively offered that she liked what she was learning about in class but she couldn’t say anything to her coworkers for fear of being ostracized. She was wrestling to fit what she was learning in my class with how she would behave in a tight-knit work environment. A white student in a diverse classroom,2 she enjoyed talking with all her classmates, and I could see her carefully listening to her classmates of color talking about race and equity in the nineteenth century as opposed to where we are now. They wrote together in class and shared drafts of written work with one another. I was impressed with her bravery, even as I worried that she felt pressure to perform a kind of politics.

What I want for my students in the classroom is freedom to explore their ideas regardless of how the world might classify those ideas—freedom to ask questions free from fear of punitive judgment. I want them to feel intellectually challenged without feeling personally threatened. What I miss for them is the feeling that they can come to a sense of the world for themselves, one that doesn’t fall uncritically into camps before our work has even started. I feel this most keenly because I am currently the only black professor in my department. It has never been easy to be a black professor, even at an institution with a diverse student population, but being the only black professor in the department is a different kind of pressure. I’m not just managing stereotypes about race and feeling the burden of being the only black English professor some of my students will study with; I’m faced with students who have strong opinions about what they imagine my politics to be and a reflective defensiveness about what they think I want.

Even when my students’ assumptions about my politics and expectations align with my worldview, their assumptions make me uncomfortable. In the middle of a discussion about Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, for example, a student said to me casually, but not disrespectfully, that he got my point. He understood the “kind of radical left” thing I was doing, but it had limits in the real world, where he and his friends live. His entire posture was sympathetic to what he saw as my agenda; in other words, he wasn’t criticizing me or resisting me but was letting me know in a friendly way that here—on campus—is where my radical ideas exist. Some of his classmates nodded approvingly, signaling to me that they too understood the game. “Gender is a performance,” they were happy to say. I was struck by a kind of rote repetition and an almost complete lack of questioning or curiosity in the room. It worried me. I’ve spent my entire teaching career walking a fine line between, on the one hand, asking my students to see literary study as, among other things, a way to reconsider what they take for granted about language and representation and, on the other hand, promoting an explicitly ideological agenda. I never want to engage in the latter—in my estimation, that’s not teaching but proselytizing. No syllabus is neutral; but having taught primarily canonical classes and their less canonical counterparts, I know that the politics seem more pronounced in some courses than in others. It’s a delicate balance, and I’m especially mindful of all the roles it requires of me. While there are certain claims that brook no argument (I won’t entertain the idea that black people are genetically inferior to white people), sometimes my job is to help my students find ways to articulate ideas I don’t agree with so that we can think them through as a class. It also means advising confused students all along the political spectrum, not about what classes to take but about what else they might read.

David French, writing for the National Review, blames Herbert Marcuse’s essay “Repressive Tolerance” for the current political climate:

In the 1960s, the mob was the instrument of intolerance. By the 1990s, the mob had gained tenure. By the 2010s the mob and the mob’s children possessed enormous power and influence throughout the higher-education establishment, and that power and influence passed into Hollywood and into corporate America.3

I suspect that for some of my students I am the grandchild of the 1990s mob, what with my radical insistence that we study fiction in my Romanticism classes. In reality, I wrestle to neutralize my subject position in the classroom so that students can find their own way to learn the best questions to ask. I said during a talk at the University of Missouri that I believe if I teach close reading well students will find their way to truths that are inclusive. It irritated some people, perhaps because it sounds as if I’m hopelessly naive. My optimism says more about the students I get to teach than it does about me. They regularly write me later to talk about how they see the world differently because of our work together, or they seek me out after the semester is over to let me know how I changed their worldview. I think fondly of the student who came to me worried about my liberal agenda (those are my words, not his) and how relieved he was when I could help him frame his discomfort with no expectations that he choose a side. I’m not sure it’s my job to help him do that. I can only point him in the right (or left) direction and teach him which questions make sense and urge him to let go of dogma. I want that for all my students, regardless of their political leanings.

Mostly, I want them to read and write free from these misshapen culture wars. I want that for them because it leads to better reading and writing, but I also want that for the black faculty members I know who are charged with teaching classes that require students to confront ideas they’ve been encouraged to take for granted. I’m thinking specifically of Johnny E. Williams, a sociology professor at Trinity College who was targeted by Campus Reform over a comment he made about police shootings and race on Facebook. His college had to shut down for a day because of threats to everyone’s safety. He was initially chastised by his institution, and even when they affirmed his academic freedom they agreed a leave of absence would be better for him (Flaherty, “Trinity Suspends” and “Trinity Clears”; Mytelka).4 I saw it all happen in real time and was relieved when the matter seemed resolved, but a letter a colleague of his wrote to the Chronicle has stayed with me:

I’m ashamed to say that my first reaction was something like: “Holy cow! How could Johnny say something that stupid!” which, of course, was Campus Reform’s intended response. . . . Little of the coverage, for example, took seriously the fact that Professor Williams is a scholar of race in America who has written and taught extensively on how society organizes people into racialized categories. . . . What does it mean that faculty, students, alumni, administrators, and society at large . . . were so quick to assume the worst about our black colleague, yet willing to accept on its face the basic premise put forward by an organization like Campus Reform? (Kamola)

In my talks about diversity and academic freedom last year, I pointed to this moment as an example of an understanding I hope white academics will reach about the experiences of their colleagues of color, particularly in the face of increased hostilities in and out of the classroom. This honest response seems indicative of the deep ambivalence too many white academics have about ethnic studies, a carelessness when it comes to understanding what their black colleagues face in white institutions, and a curious detachment about their role in thinking through this particular political moment. At the forty-fifth Annual Shakespeare Association Meeting in 2017, Arthur Little, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, started his paper for a plenary panel focused on diversity in the field by recounting a conversation he overheard between two white scholars discussing the plenary panel session titled “The Color of Membership.” One said to the other, “I’m not very interested in that stuff.” That “stuff” must feel so far from that scholar’s world, even in the face of increasingly diverse student populations and regular calls for our work in the humanities to be more outward facing.

It turns out that the most radical moment in the class that started with Butler was not about gender performance. It wasn’t about postcolonial theory or even thinking about race and representation, though the class had to take a collective deep breath before we did so. The moment I felt the class shift was when we talked about surveillance and our university’s learning management system. We were reading “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” and, in moving through Michel Foucault and Lennard Davis, the conversation turned toward the purpose of education right now, particularly in the humanities. In a trillion-dollar student loan crisis, my students are aware that college can be as much about a credential as an education. I turned to the student who had gamely noted my radical identity politics and said, “Really, the most radical thing I think I’m doing is asking you to challenge me, your professor, about what I think I’m teaching versus what I am actually teaching. You should always be asking us questions about what we teach and why.” Students were startled, and then we talked about accommodation culture and the material conditions of their learning. In thinking about classroom structure through Foucault we went from the simple (how seats are arranged) to the very local example of how the new business school classrooms are designed. We explored the surveillance culture of the college classroom, and students, whatever their political leanings, were shocked to find that our learning management system (even the label sounds eerie in this context) allowed me to see when they’d been online. This tool that they saw primarily as a convenience suddenly felt more invasive. And then, a student broke free. As a class we were thinking about Foucault’s claim that “stones can make people knowable and docile” (172). The student said to me quietly, “So do grades.” It’s an observation that ended up challenging all of us and invited all my students to think about language and their own education and, most important to me, their own writing—not as Democrats or Republicans, radical leftists or right wingers, but as students. I suspect this would make Campus Reform nervous if they knew it was happening.

My hope is that my students will want to embrace a diverse world that honors personal choice.

I haven’t talked about Campus Reform with my students, but we have talked about learning in this particular environment. They know I’m writing this essay and are curious about how it will turn out. We know the challenge isn’t going anywhere. As James McWilliams notes, Campus Reform and its outrage ecosystem “advocate sticking to ‘the western canon’ and ‘the world’s best books’ while rejecting literature ‘that inject[s] progressive ideology and social justice frameworks into the classroom.’” That’s the wrong approach, one that pretends there was ever a time in literature that was ideologically pure. I will say here that along with Herman Melville we read Emily Dickinson in this class. My Art of Fiction class includes Charles Dickens. I teach a Jane Austen seminar, and my graduate seminar in Romanticism might seem radical but only if you subscribe to the rather bizarre idea that only six poets are worthy of serious inquiry, even if they weren’t all white. The point isn’t actually the texts but the teacher and how we guide our students through the readings not as passive recipients of narrative, poesy, or politics. French asks what must be a rhetorical question: “Will the age of Trump give the radicals an even longer list of grievances and an even greater sense not just of moral certainty but of moral urgency?” He’s framing the first part of the question wrong, but that’s a topic for another essay. What he doesn’t seem to understand is that it’s not just the radical faculty members who have a sense of moral urgency. Our students do too, all along the political continuum. Our shared moral agenda is not, I would submit, a byproduct of leftist politics; it’s about empty resistance to leftist politics with critiques that can’t stand against careful scrutiny. My hope is that my students will want to embrace a diverse world that honors personal choice. I understand that the first step toward that is asking careful questions in a space where they don’t feel like they need to take a rigid stance, pass a political purity test, or agree with their professor. I’m hopeful. After carefully laying the groundwork about what I saw as radical and responding to the challenge that grades make students docile and knowable, I was thrilled to see the same students asking one another questions about their ideas and interpretations, even when the questions weren’t easy ones. Some of them have let me know their personal politics (they range from conservative to radical), and I watched as students of all stripes pointed one another to our last primary text, Tsitsi Dangerembga’s Nervous Conditions, and wrestled with ideas about assimilation, the body as a war zone, and how gender is performed, free from restrictive labels. It looked like the honest intellectual wrestling I want for them. I couldn’t wait to read their final essays. I gave them the choice to write whatever they wanted and urged them not to worry about length. I asked them to write papers they themselves would want to read. The finals were, overwhelmingly, compelling, well-written, and thoughtfully argued. For their part, my students gave me a reading assignment (Watchmen), explaining its significance and why they thought it would be worth my time. They were so excited to give it to me, and it felt like an invitation to continue our conversations as we all try to make our way through. I have to be optimistic about what this invitation promises and trust that they will find their way.



1. Collected 4 December 2018 from a simple Google search for “Campus Reform.”
2. In any given class, regardless of the subject material, at least half the students are people of color, a mix of African American, West Indian, African, Asian, Asian American, Hispanic, and Latino/a. In 2016 Montclair State University was designated a Hispanic-Serving Institution.
3. Although I read French’s article, James McWilliams’s reporting led me to it.
4. In the aftermath of the Campus Reform attack, Trinity lost funding and students; see Blair.
Works Cited

“About the Leadership Institute.” Leadership Institute, Accessed 21 Dec. 2018.

Blair, Russell. “Trinity Loses Donations, Students after Facebook Posts.” Hartford Courant, 1 Aug. 2017,

Flaherty, Colleen. “Trinity Clears Threatened Professor.” Insider Higher Ed, 17 July 2017,

———. “Trinity Suspends Targeted Professor.” Insider Higher Ed, 27 June 2017,

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of Prisons. Translated by Alan Sheridan, Pantheon, 1984.

French, David. “Malign Marcuse.” National Review, 17 Apr. 2017,

Hanlon, Aaron. “Lies about the Humanities—and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 7 Dec. 2018,

Kamola, Isaac A. “Crashing the Academic Conversation.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 9 July 2017,

Little, Arthur. “What’s Shakespeare to Him or He to Shakespeare?” The Color of Membership Plenary Panel Session. Shakespeare Association of America Annual Meeting, 7 Apr. 2017, Hyatt Regency Atlanta.

Matthew, Patricia A, editor. Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure. U of North Carolina P, 2016.

McWilliams, James. “Conservative Media Is Waging a War on the Humanities, and It’s Succeeding.” Pacific Standard, 16 July 2018,

“Mission.” Campus Reform, Accessed 21 Dec. 2018.

Mytelka, Andrew. “Trinity Professor Whose Comments Drew Threats Is Put on Leave.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 26 June 2017,

Schmidt, Peter. “Higher Education’s Internet Outrage Machine.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 8 Sept. 2015,

Zamudio-Suaréz, Fernanda. “Her Students Asked about Police Shootings. So She Created a Guide for Them.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2 Nov. 2016,

Patricia A. Matthew is associate professor of English at Montclair State University. She specializes in nineteenth-century British literature, British Romanticism, and the history of the novel. She is also an expert on diversity and inclusion in higher education and the editor of Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure (U of North Carolina P, 2016).

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