I wrote a letter this afternoon to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on the website.
Not sure if it will be published. I am putting it here. After a day or so, I’ll send it along to other local newspapers, if needed.
Recently the conservative student organization movement, Turning Point USA, launched the website Professor Watchlist. Through scouring news outlets and soliciting anonymous tips, Professor Watchlist provides pictures and brief bios of professors who run against the ideology of Turning Point USA.
In response, the satirical website Professor Watchlist Redux lists Jesus of Nazareth, Martin Luther King, Jr. and other incendiary teachers who bucked the trend and upset a large swath of the population through advancing different ideas.
I must admit, Professor Watchlist seems to have admirable aims. TPUSA has adjusted their stated mission within the past couple of days, but I found the most recent one on December 9. TPUSA “will continue to fight for . . . the right for professors to say whatever they wish” but highlight professors who “advance a radical agenda in lecture halls.”
Let’s set aside for a moment concerns about academic freedom and the vitality of introducing students to a kaleidoscope of thought that may run against dominant cultural norms. Let’s instead think about the tactic of TPUSA with their list, a list grounded in lack of transparency and anonymity on who makes the final decision to place Professor A on the list and a list grounded in fear-mongering instead of open dialogue.
With historical hindsight, other lists launched by organizations to highlight those with contradictory opinions have not fared well. In the 1950s, emboldened by the rabid fear of communism, senator Joseph McCarthy gathered his list of communists and communist sympathizers. Almost 70 years later, it would be hard to argue such a list advanced freedom of thought, facilitated open and honest dialogue, and helped heal a divided country under an umbrella of compassion, curiosity, and commitment to social justice for all.
Sure, Professor Watchlist and McCarthy’s blacklist is not a clean analogy. There are differences between the two, but at the heart it seems both are grounded in a fear of difference, in a belief that intellectualism and global awareness and commitment are traits to be feared and avoided, that listing names publically is the best way to silence those with whom you disagree.
I searched for my name on Professor Watchlist but found no results. I wasn’t surprised. My work focuses on how best to teach writing, specifically how best to work with struggling student-athletes on their writing. Nothing subversive there. Or, to use the words of Professor Watchlist, nothing “radical.” I haven’t publically advocated for gay marriage, the ACLU, universal health care, or suggested that because I am a white man, I benefit from institutions built by other white men, as an instructor at Calvin College argued in an op-ed in his school’s newspaper. The instructor made the list for his written comments. I haven’t publically advocated against allowing guns on campus, which landed my colleague Dr. Matthew Boedy on the list.
But these kind of lists have the opposite effect on me. Now I am thinking my research and teaching and thinking need to be more radical. Certainly I am committed to treating all my students with kindness but isn’t the advancement of knowledge in a free democracy always going to be radical?