Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Sarcasm Police

Peter Wood's disturbing attack
on the AAUP draft statement on politics in academia reveals a lot of what's wrong with the conservative approach to academic freedom. There's plenty to criticize in what Wood details, but I'll focus on just one thing Wood writes: “Overbearing sarcasm, attempts to humiliate, favoritism, factionalizing students and setting them against each other in an effort to advance a political agenda—all apparently fair pedagogy and no grounds at all for 'adverse action' in the AAUP’s view.”

Wood is revealing the kind of speech code he wants to see at universities to punish faculty (what else could we call a demand for “adverse action” against such faculty?), and it should be disturbing to everyone concerned about academic freedom. I have no idea what “factionalizing students” means, or even why it's a bad thing (uniting students to agree on everything seems far worse). But the idea that someone might trust college administrators to punish or fire faculty for the inexplicable thoughtcrime of “factionalizing students” is incredible. Equally vague are the prohibitions on “favoritism” (would this prohibit a teacher from praising a student in class unless all students are praised equally?) and “attempts to humiliate” (I can imagine the professor from “The Paper Chase” being hauled before a Woodian disciplinary committee right now). Perhaps my response is a prohibited form of humiliation because it's too effective at showing what a dumb statement Wood made.

But by far the worst idea in Wood's statement is the idea that professors should be punished if they use “overbearing sarcasm.” I know there's a lot of bad things in academia today--low standards, bad teaching, etc--but I had no idea that sarcasm was the biggest threat we face. Of course, Dr. Wood is not completely repressive: he does not wish to ban all sarcasm, just the “overbearing” kind, and I'm sure we all know “overbearing” sarcasm when we see it.

Oh, I'm sorry, is my sarcasm getting too overbearing to be allowed in academia? Please, Dr. Wood, don't turn me in to the sarcasm police if any college ever hires me. I promise that in the future, I'll give an idiotic idea like a proposal to ban sarcasm the full respect that it deserves.

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