Dear students: please be careful before alleging racism -

Dear students: please be careful before alleging racism

Queen’s professor was unfairly relieved of his duties



Recently the Canadian Association of University Teachers came down hard on Queen’s University for their handling of the case of Michael Mason, a professor who was, effectively, ousted from the course he had come out of retirement to teach.

I don’t always side with CAUT, but they seem to be right on this one.

Reports indicated that Mason used terms like “japs” and “towelhead” in his class on the history of imperialism. Having been around the university world for a long time, I’m always skeptical of reports of profs saying indefensible things in class because, as far as I can tell, it generally doesn’t happen. Professors are typically a civilized lot and usually highly aware of the nuances of the language.

What has been happening lately, though, is that professors’ comments are being taken wildly out of context; then follows misguided outrage, and then, in turn, the normal interactions of shit and fans.

Thus it was with American professor Karl Walling whose comments on Machiavelli were misrepresented as Walling advocating for rape. In fact, he was trying to explain the renaissance author’s use of the idea of Fortune as a female figure.

So too was it with York’s Cameron Johnston whose comments about using tolerant language were taken for anti-Semitism by a student who didn’t get that the prof was giving an example of unacceptable speech.

And, no surprise, so it was with Michael Mason. It turns out that the so-called offensive language Mason used was not presented as the kind of language a civilized person should employ in normal conversation. Rather it was given as a way of explaining the deplorable attitudes of the time period in question. In more than one case, the offending language was actually Mason quoting someone else to illustrate racism in the period under examination, and how racist attitudes have sometimes persisted to this day.

But, perhaps because they have grown up in a time when the importance of linguistic sensitivity is stressed everywhere and always, at least some of today’s students have developed a hair trigger when it comes to offensive words. But the history of the world and its culture is filled with offensive words and ideas, and it is impossible to teach that history—and its literature and politics and nearly everything else — without sometimes citing offensive terms and confronting offensive ideas.

Of course, professors have a professional obligation to be reasonably aware of how their words might affect their students. But students also have a responsibility to listen to the whole context and ask to what end and for what purpose those words are used. It is simply irresponsible to hear a racist word and then go running to the Dean condemning your “racist” professor.

Not only does it mean that good teachers are finding themselves suddenly “on leave,”  but in the long run it will be a disaster for students themselves. Because sooner or later professors are just going to stop teaching anything that might be miscontrued as offensive. And then no one will have to worry about learning from a racist.

Because they won’t be learning at all.

Todd Pettigrew teaches English at Cape Breton University. Have a comment? Share it below.


Dear students: please be careful before alleging racism

  1. These same students came through a hypersensitive, ignorance driven curriculum in school and now they have no experience comprehending information involving words and subjects school boards and over protective parents strive to hide from them. Let the teachers speak about sexuality and racism this preparing them for the world, and university. Better yet, parents speak to your kids!

    • I think it has less to do with sensitivity and more to do with students paying attention selectively in class. Students think they can multitask, and be on facebook while also taking in a lecture. They can’t. Then they hear things they don’t understand and didn’t get the context for and they go nuts. This is not a case of bad education, it’s a case of bad attitudes towards education.

  2. I totally agree. I teach English Language Arts in Alberta and reintroduced Fahrenheit 451 back into my classroom because it epitomizes the way things are going. We need to cleanse reality for the sensitivities of the young, but those same young are sadly as sensitive to others as their reactive behaviour suggests. So like you suggest, slowly teachers/educators get tired of being the moving target for the ignorant who do not understand contextual references or do not think critically enough to discern information provided. So how is this different than what Bradbury was suggesting when Faber didn’t speak up and was slowly pushed out of the university and then hid in fear in his home?
    In Alberta, the government is being influenced by powerful lobby groups and from it sprung Bill 42 where parents can decide what can and cannot be taught in a classroom, based on the needs, sensitivities, beliefs and values of their child. Of course it is more complicated than that but what next??? What is more sad to hear is that universities are being as bullied as principals and school divisions by such individuals and not standing behind their professional employees. Who and when will there be those amazing leaders again who stand up to the petty, myopic minded “hair trigger” individuals. Why aren’t they the ones asked to leave the university, rather than the profs?
    Respectfully submitted

  3. I agree… but, look who the students have as role models in many cases: politicians (who often lie) and sometimes the media who perpetuate these lies without fact-checking.

    Is there not some sort of procedure for clarification of context? It looks like the people who made the decision to remove this prof caved in to a perceived politically-correct pressure to act. I thought universities were supposed to be bastions of ‘free speech’ – where students could learn to form their own opinions.

    Incidentally, is not the term “politically correct” taken from Mao Tse – Dong’s “Little Red Book”? – I believe I read it there in the ’60’s or 70’s.

  4. are there recordings of the lectures….hate crimes ….racism ….is not in discussing a topic is the slant that is given to the topic….students must be aware that the Canadian slant ..might be different than the jewish or the muslim or the catholic or the black slant………….but they must learn what each slant is… a university lecture might indicate that you are now going to hear a lecture on a topic with a slant towards or against one ideology or another……they should sign they understand that an Irish Catholic and an Irish Protestant dont look any different on the outside just as different sects of the muslim religion have strong hatreds taught to them though religion…these are called slants and may not be the slant of the lecturer but an opportunity to hear a slant and recoginize it as such…..I was amazed to hear a radio station have a strong anti current american administration bias on the air………..but there is free speech…

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