What exactly is the problem with the University of Oklahoma’s “Anti-Racist Rhetoric & Pedagogies” workshop?

July 15, 2021

The University of Oklahoma chapter of the American Association of University Professors released a statement responding to our reporting on the university’s “Anti-Racist Rhetoric & Pedagogies” workshop for First-Year Composition instructors.

The statement — and subsequent commentary from chapter members — attacks FIRE and criticizes our analysis of the workshop. Revealingly, the critics have not tried to defend the actual statements made in the workshop. Rather, they defend the workshop broadly by projecting the stated goals of OU’s First-Year Composition curriculum without regard to what was actually taught in the workshop. 

In fact, the OU AAUP’s description of the curriculum’s goals is so divorced from the workshop’s actual contents that one has to wonder if the OU AAUP actually watched the same video that we did.

‘Derogatory remarks, critiques, and hate speech’ and ‘white supremacist ideas or sources’

The OU AAUP says this of the composition curriculum upon which the workshop is based:

The assignments are carefully crafted to invite students to write about issues that matter to them. The goal of the assignments is to help students understand how to speak and write to those who think differently from themselves–to explore multiple sides of an issue and to research how stakeholders of that issue are invested in it. ALL students must explore an issue from multiple sides, whether their initial position is progressive or conservative.

These are admirable liberal arts goals. But, the thing is, students here are being taught the opposite: that they can’t “explore multiple sides of an issue.” The workshop advises that students navigate veritable trip wires of forbidden and ill-defined thought and expression. One instructor endorsed banning “derogatory remarks, critiques, and hate speech,” as well as “white supremacist ideas or sources.” That instructor does so without ever defining what any of those terms mean. 

The history of speech codes on American college campuses is littered with endless examples of well-meaning college officials using precisely these kinds of vague and general terms to police thought and expression on campus. And since there is rarely an agreed-upon definition of these terms, they necessarily invite arbitrary and ideological enforcement. 

Let’s take “white supremacy,” for example. Some argue that American policing is a white supremacist institution. Is using certain law enforcement sources, such as crime data, off-limits then? What about generally supporting the police? The vice president of the OU AAUP, Julie A. Ward, who has been vocal in opposing FIRE’s conclusions about the workshop, condemned Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt last year for wearing a “thin blue line” neck gaiter, which she said represents “a racist symbol of white supremacy.” What about former President Donald Trump? He has been said to represent white supremacy, including by the leading theorist of anti-racism. Can students not cite the former president in their papers? 

The generalities used in the workshop conveniently evade any direct answers to these questions. Ward herself seems to understand the chilling effect of generalities as applied to expression: In writing about a new Oklahoma law that addresses how issues of race and gender can be taught, primarily in K-12 institutions, Ward notes that the law is “worded so generally as to discourage any discussion of race or gender in the classroom” — a claim with which FIRE happens to agree

Where the disagreement seems to lie is whether this particular workshop trains instructors to cross the line from instruction into indoctrination.

But Ward’s concern doesn’t seem to extend to the vague speech codes the workshop recommends for OU’s writing courses. And the consequences for students are real: One workshop leader remarked that if students don’t avoid these forbidden “ideas and sources in their work,” instructors can tell the students, “No, you do not have the right to say that. Stop talking right now.” If that doesn’t work, she says, “Report them for violating the Student Code of Conduct.” 

These punitive responses forgo valuable teaching opportunities that would show students how more speech and robust discussion of complex and controversial topics can lead to stronger arguments and better ideas. Instead they shut down hard conversations before they start.

As this article was about to go live, one of the workshop instructors, Kelli Pyron Alvarez, published an article in which she insists that she defines these terms and “offer[s] examples of what they look like” to her students. But she does not provide her readers any of those examples, making it impossible to investigate her claim. As for definitions, she has this to say:

I remind my students that, because they should be engaging in good-faith research and responses throughout the semester, they need to avoid obscenity, which is defined by Miller v. California (1973) as work that “taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” Essentially, any argument that invalidates or seeks to impede someone’s basic human rights or their identities is not an acceptable argument for students to make, as it lacks political and scientific value and is in direct opposition to basic human rights. 

That argument is nonsensical. Miller applies only to depictions or descriptions of sexual conduct, which her readers would know if she didn’t selectively quote the test the Court used to identify “obscenity” in that case. The test, among other things, limits obscenity to work that “depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct [emphasis added] specifically defined by the applicable state law.” The Miller case has zero to say about an “argument that invalidates or seeks to impede someone’s basic human right.”

From instruction into indoctrination

Let’s turn to the next argument in the OU AAUP’s statement. It cites historian Joan Scott to contend that:

the constraints upon free speech that govern classroom discourse are legitimized by the professor’s own academic disciplinary authority. Such constraints are not demands for “silent acquiescence in the face of indoctrination”; rather, they are the basis for training in critical thought, a training that will ultimately empower students to “question orthodoxy and challenge it from a position of knowledge rather than one of unexamined belief”.

Despite the statement’s suggestions to the contrary, there’s nothing in this argument with which we disagree. In fact, we spent an entire section of our reporting on this workshop discussing and defending those freedoms, writing that instructors: 

have wide latitude to manage the atmosphere and tone of the classroom. This may include inhibiting some student expression in class by directing classroom discussions, prompting students to write on topics of the instructor’s choosing, and preventing students from disrupting the class or talking out of turn.

We recognize and accept the necessary authority of instructors to exercise academic and pedagogical freedom within their classrooms. Unfortunately, much of the OU AAUP’s criticism of FIRE’s reporting omits this understanding, with the chapter president and vice president falsely claiming that FIRE advocates for “an anything-goes approach in the classroom” or an “absolutist view of speech rights at the expense of other interests.

Instruction becomes indoctrination “when instructors dogmatically insist on the truth of such propositions by refusing to accord their students the opportunity to contest them. Indoctrination occurs when instructors assert such propositions in ways that prevent students from expressing disagreement.”

Where the disagreement seems to lie is whether this particular workshop trains instructors to cross the line from instruction into indoctrination. 

The AAUP’s 2007 “Freedom in the Classroom” report argues that “It is not indoctrination when, as a result of their research and study, instructors assert to their students that in their view particular propositions are true, even if these propositions are controversial within a discipline.”

But, critically, the report then goes on to state that instruction becomes indoctrination “when instructors dogmatically insist on the truth of such propositions by refusing to accord their students the opportunity to contest them. Indoctrination occurs when instructors assert such propositions in ways that prevent students from expressing disagreement.”

Does the workshop in question not do precisely that when it advises instructors to tell students “who might be, like, entertaining the idea of listening to a problematic argument” that “we don’t have to listen to that”?

Or what about the real-life example from one of the workshop leaders in which a black student told her they wanted to explore Black Lives Matter? The leader reported telling the student, “That is not an issue that I would take up. [Black Lives Matter is] not an argument. It’s a fact, right? . . . You are not obligated to entertain or listen to an argument that is trying to tell you that your real experiences are not real, because the person making the argument has never experienced them.” 

What about the workshop’s suggestion that students can only explore certain sources if they are used to advance a particular ideological goal: to “dismantle” white supremacy?

Workshop attendees share FIRE’s concerns

Questions posed by attendees echoed FIRE’s concerns that the workshop was veering too far away from discussing the proper exercise of an instructor’s pedagogical freedom and into the realm of thought reform and indoctrination. Both questions asked during the workshop voiced these concerns.

One questioner asked whether “we’re quick to dismiss what we might construe as, like these harmful topics” or whether there are “topics or stances that we might be a little too quick to dismiss as dehumanizing.”

Another questioner asked about pronouns. They note that the “right” that people have to insist that others use certain pronouns when addressing them isn’t a right enshrined in the Constitution, and it’s being actively debated. “What do we do with those [topics] where the debate is still out there on whether something is a right or not?”

According to one instructor, students can write about the pronoun debate, but only if they come to the “acceptable” conclusion:

If they’re writing and their goal is like ‘Oh, I should be able to use whatever pronouns I deem acceptable for this person despite how they identify,’ then they are invalidating that person’s humanity and their existence. And that’s not acceptable. So I flat out tell them that. This is what this is doing. You need to pick something else. Because you’re not doing that.

Again, taking guidance from the AAUP’s own report, that’s indoctrination, not instruction. Are the instructors here not “dogmatically insist[ing] on the truth” of certain contestable propositions? Are they not “refusing to accord their students the opportunity to contest them”?

We further agree with the AAUP that, “Ideas that are germane to a subject under discussion in a classroom cannot be censored because a student with particular religious or political beliefs might be offended” — which nevertheless seems to be the precise impetus for the workshop’s advice to its attendees.

‘Democratic pedagogy’

The OU AAUP statement then argues that: 

F.I.R.E.’s claim about “indoctrination” assumes that college-level humanities instruction can be reduced to a binary model, one in which all knowledge can be encapsulated in the form of “questions” which have two “sides” for which one might abstractly advocate in turn. In rejecting this simplistic binary, the instructors of the “Anti-Racist Rhetoric and Pedagogy” workshop speak from the perspective of democratic pedagogy and are backed by the tradition of academic freedom.

To be fair, I am not quite sure exactly what the OU AAUP is suggesting here, but exploring multiple sides of issues is part of a liberal education. It also happens to be what the OU AAUP claims is the purpose of First-Year Composition: to “explore multiple sides of an issue.” The alternative is the “pall of orthodoxy,” the placing of certain “questions” as off-limits (the scare quotes around “questions” are the OU AAUP’s — not ours).

One instructor said students can write about the pronoun debate, but only if they come to the “acceptable” conclusion. Taking guidance from the AAUP’s own report, that’s indoctrination, not instruction.

The statement’s contention that the workshop’s instructors speak from the perspective of “democratic pedagogy” is also confusing. The statement doesn’t define “democratic pedagogy,” but a July 2008 journal article by Sheryl MacMath entitled “Implementing a Democratic Pedagogy in the Classroom” argues that it envisions “classrooms of open dialogue” in which “all human beings are morally equal, we are all capable of intelligent and well-informed opinions, and we can solve any problem if we work collaboratively.”

This sounds pretty admirable, but it does not sound anything like the classroom environment the workshop instructors advocate here, where they tell students to “stop talking right now” if they make the wrong argument, recommend referring students for discipline if they trip over various vague and ill-defined classroom speech codes, and see it as their responsibility to prevent students from even “entertaining the idea of listening to a problematic argument.”

The president of the OU AAUP joins the conversation

Before closing out, I want to take a minute to address another article critical of our position, this one from OU AAUP President Michael Givel, entitled “FIRE!”

Givel argues that:

The main gist of FIRE’s deeply flawed argument is that free speech includes the absolutist right to espouse any racist, sexist, and homophobic comments in a classroom. In a way this is also an argument that a student has the right to be a racist or sexist or homophobe in the classroom. I have taught for a long time in the classroom, and such vile utterances are and would and could be a major recipe for ongoing hyper-acrimony and disruption of the learning process itself.  It is tantamount to opening the gates to continual classroom chaos and anarchy.

To be clear, and as we stated earlier, FIRE does not advocate for an “absolutist right” for students to say anything they want in the classroom. That’s a straw man argument. At risk of beating a dead horse here, FIRE’s classic “Guide to First-Year Orientation and Thought Reform on Campus” states that “[a] professor may have ground rules to ensure civility and order, and a professor should insist upon mastery of a subject (while protecting a student’s right to reasoned dissent), but a professor has no right to demand ideological uniformity.”

The problem with OU’s workshop is that it instructs teachers on how to restrict academic arguments, not disruption. For example, it advises teachers not to allow students to explore the Black Lives Matter movement or pronoun debate in a class that specifically invites students to “write about issues that matter to them” and encourages them to “explore an issue from multiple sides, whether their initial position is progressive or conservative.”

Instructors in such a course should not get to arbitrarily label certain arguments “racist, sexist, and homophobic” and proclaim them off-limits. This is part-and-parcel of what FIRE President & CEO Greg Lukianoff calls the “Perfect Rhetorical Fortress”: determine what categories of speech — or even speakers — are off-limits, and then put any ideas you don’t want to listen to within those categories.

We should also note that when it comes to whether a student “has the right to be a racist or sexist or homophobe in the classroom,” the answer to that question is that yes, students have the right to hold whatever opinions they choose to hold. While Givel may be using this as a shorthand for expressing opinions in class rather than simply holding them (we hope), it’s important to remember that, as bad as it is to tell someone they may not say something, it’s far worse to tell them that they may not even believe it.

‘Shouting fire in a theatre’

Which brings us to Givel’s next argument: That allowing the “continual . . . chaos and anarchy” of free speech in the classroom “is like, well, shouting fire in a crowded movie theater”:

The analogy of shouting fire in a crowded movie theater was enshrined into law with the 1919 US Supreme Court case of Schenck v. United States. In the Schenck case, the US Supreme Court ruled that words that cause a mass panic like in a crowded movie theater are not protected under the First Amendment. There is a state role in balancing the interests between absolutist free speech and public safety and causing a significant mass panic or altercation. The prohibition altercations [sic] was later upheld in the US Supreme Court case of Brandenburg vs. Ohio in 1969.

This might be the tiredest argument for censorship that exists. It’s regularly trotted out to justify censoring everything from a play about comedian Lenny Bruce to Twitter trolls. Pick an idea you want to censor and then claim expressing that idea is like “shouting fire in a crowded movie theater.”

But these would-be censors often fail to understand the history — or even the actual wording — of their preferred metaphor. For one, Givel leaves out the very important “falsely” caveat to “shouting fire in a theatre.” Nobody argues that one shouldn’t shout “fire” if, in fact, there is a fire. 

For another, Schenck v. United States (1919) is rightly regarded as an abomination of justice: Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., in his majority opinion, compared the handing out of anti-draft leaflets during WWI by a group of socialists akin to “falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.” It was on this logic that Holmes justified Charles Schenck’s arrest for speech that today is soundly protected by the Constitution. One might reasonably argue that there was indeed a very crowded theatre, so to speak, in Europe at the time and some claims of “Fire!” were warranted. And even then, Holmes himself changed course on the question only a few months later, writing a famous dissent (along with Justice Louis Brandeis, another free-speech luminary) in Abrams v. United States (1919).

Regardless of what I or anyone else thinks of the Schenck case, the powers granted to the state by the Espionage Act of 1917 and ratified by the Supreme Court in that case were powers meant to be exercised during wartime. Unless Givel thinks his classroom is akin to a battlefield and student arguments about Black Lives Matter akin to burning draft cards, I suggest he abandon the “fire in a theatre” metaphor.

For a more comprehensive look at the widespread misuse of the “falsely shouting fire in a theatre” analogy, I recommend Ken White’s article, “Three Generations of a Hackneyed Apologia for Censorship Are Enough.”

A final note about speech codes

Givel goes on to say, “News flash. Absolute free speech that includes hate or hateful speech that intimidates and harasses is not permitted in a college classroom at OU. Not in the slightest.”

“We have a student misconduct code,” he says, “Abusive conduct—including intimidation, harassment, and humiliation—is prohibited, per se.” 

Yes, we are aware of OU’s speech codes. We catalogue them and give them a “yellow light rating” because they “too easily encourage . . . administrative abuse and arbitrary application.”

What’s more, Givel’s claim seems to miss decades worth of concern around speech codes and the way their vagueness and overbreadth invite censorship and a chilling effect. This is a concern shared by the AAUP in its 1992 statement “On Freedom of Expression and Campus Speech Codes”:

In response to verbal assaults and use of hateful language, some campuses have felt it necessary to forbid the expression of racist, sexist, homophobic, or ethnically demeaning speech, along with conduct or behavior that harasses. Several reasons are offered in support of banning such expression.

[. . .] 

But, while we can acknowledge both the weight of these concerns and the thoughtfulness of those persuaded of the need for regulation, rules that ban or punish speech based upon its content cannot be justified.

Givel’s right about one thing, though. Unlawful harassment — properly defined — is rightfully prohibited. And professors have wide latitude to restrict inside their classrooms what otherwise would be considered constitutional expression outside their classrooms. 

But, again (Is the horse properly dead yet?), neither we nor OU’s Anti-Racist Rhetoric & Pedagogies workshop leaders were talking about student expression that would rise to the level of unlawful threats, harassment, or discrimination. Such behavior would be vanishingly rare in any college classroom in the country. Actual disruptions and unlawful speech were not at the center of the workshop — indoctrination and thought reform were.

But again, you don’t have to take our word for it. There’s a video (and a transcript!), so you can watch it and decide for yourself.


Schools:  University of Oklahoma