‘Stop talking right now,’ one instructor explained
“Anti-Racist Rhetoric & Pedagogies” was a professional development workshop for the University of Oklahoma on April 14. It was held over Zoom and is currently traveling farther than most development workshops ever will, for all the wrong reasons.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education got a copy of the recording and decided the workshop’s contents were sufficiently worrying to share it with the world. FIRE put out a news release on June 22.
Early in the recording, Assistant Teaching Professor Kelli Pyron Alvarez told the audience, which was limited to instructors and grad students, that they can effectively shut down viewpoints that they don’t agree with — in the classroom and on assignments.
“One of the fears is that we’re going to get in trouble for this, right? Like we can’t tell students that they can’t say something in class. But we can! And let me tell you how,” Alvarez said.
The seminar was not simply a presentation about how to keep order in class or make sure that some students don’t dominate all the time or bully their fellow students. Rather, FIRE charged:
The workshop in question trains instructors on how to eliminate disfavored but constitutionally protected expression from the classroom and guide assignments and discussion into preferred areas — all for unambiguously ideological and viewpoint-based reasons.
Alvarez said that undergrads in one of the low-level University of Oklahoma English courses that she teaches were “a little bit more emboldened to be racist.”
She thus set ground rules forbidding “derogatory remarks, critiques, and hate speech.” Also verboten were ill-defined “white supremacist ideas or sources,” unless the students are quoting those sources negatively.
To enforce this regime, Alvarez laid out a two-step plan that we might label “call out and report”:
1. “If they use any of those things, if any of those come through in their writing or in their comments, I will call them out on it.”
2. And if it happens again, “report them.”
To justify limiting the free speech of students, Alvarez cited an interesting source: the United States Supreme Court.
“The Supreme Court has actually upheld that hate speech, derogatory speech, any of the -isms do not apply in the classroom because they do not foster a productive learning environment,” she said. “And so, as instructors we can tell our students: ‘no, you do not have the right to say that. Stop talking right now.’”
In the real world, the Supreme Court has held that students don’t have a right to be disruptive in the classroom, not that they cannot explicitly disagree with their instructors. In Tinker v. Des Moines, the court wrote that students “do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
After some bad press, the University of Oklahoma has distanced itself from this workshop. The school’s Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer Belinda Higgs Hyppolite wrote to FIRE:
The University of Oklahoma unequivocally values free expression and the diversity of all viewpoints. In fact, these are central elements of the university’s strategic plan and at the core of what makes a great university. In no way does OU endorse or condone censorship of its students. OU is a place where students are taught how to learn, not what to learn. Every effort is made to ensure students feel that they belong.
The workshop in question is one of many professional development workshops put on by the English Department’s Composition Program. Participation in any given workshop is voluntary.
FIRE pointed out that the university has in fact held mandatory staff trainings in the past, which arguably enforced a political viewpoint through compelled speech.
IMAGE: Youtube screenshot