I've been wanting to tell this story for a while. But it's a big story, and a up until now, the rage that I felt when thinking about it prevented me from writing too much about it. Many people in my immediate and academic circles know full-well this story, and some of my skeptic friends only know bits an pieces (told in fragments, and heavily truncated because I didn't want to talk about it), but I think I can tell the story now, and in full (any errors and omissions are due entirely to errors of memory, not because of deliberate falsification). It's long, but I need to tell this story while I still have most of the memories. Here it is:
Early in my 4th year at my old university, Trent , I wrote an opinion-piece in our student paper (the original link, along with all the articles from that year have since been removed) criticizing my department (politics) for over-embracing post-modernism. My point was that although there is a value to post-modern analysis, its application into political matters should take a significant step back to more difficult issues of historical materialism and political economy. I found (and still do) that when we obsess on matters of identity to explain politics (also known as identity politics), we engage in little more than narcissistic academic navel-gazing. There's work to do, and post-modernism, identity politics, and phenomenology (that ruled the roost at the Trent politics department) had little-to-no praxis with which we could use. But this entry is not about post-modernism.
A sub-section (and largely un-related) of the politics department has graciously offered publish to the article on their own website. To read it, click here.
Well, the article itself set off what can best be described as a "shit-storm", but I would also classify it as a "hissy-fit".
The reaction from the student body was fairly mixed: of those that agreed with me, I found many surprising friends and allys in what would later become a fight. But if a person agrees with an article, chances are their voices of support are drowned-out by the angry voices of opposition: I've heard my name ridiculed by people in my own department, in related departments (such as Cultural Studies) and in entirely un-related departments (such as Nursing). The fact that the reaction spread far outside the boundaries of the Politics dept kind of underscored my point about the entire university being usurped by postmodernism, but I suppose that the irony was lost of those calling for my head.
But it was the reaction of the professors and administration that was especially damning, and taught me more in a few months about the academy's reaction to dissent and disagreement than 5 years of study.
I've debated internally whether or not I should say names here. I've decided to include their names because a) It's a matter of public record, b) it's my blog, and c) they did a lot more than simply "say" my name: they used official university channels to drag my name and reputation through the mud...so all I'm doing is telling what happened.
The then-head of the department, Professor Elaine Stavro (who taught a course that was actually named "The Political Imagination") devoted an entire 2-hour lecture in front of 40-50 of my fellow students to explaining to her 4th year students why I was wrong. Professor Nadine Changfoot (teacher of "The Politics of Creativity" and in another course had an assignment where she wanted the students to "bring in a physical manifestation of their inner-academic...in a 4th year course!) devoted 30-minutes of her 1-hour lecture in a similar way, also asking her students, "Which one of you is Steve Thoms?". Professor Veronica Hollinger (of the Cultural Studies dept) at least took the time to respond in the original forum (the student paper), but her argument wasn't an argument at all, but a bibliography effectively saying, "read this, then complain!" In the year that I wrote the article, I did not have any of these professors as my instructors. However, there was one of my detractors that I did have:
Professor James Driscoll, while teaching my class, "Law and Constitutional Issues" threw out the following line in lecture, "...The hell with Steve Thoms". I'll remind you, this was a tenured professor, during lecture time, at a public university, who was defaming one of his students, who was sitting right there. All because of an opinion piece in the student paper. I kept my cool during the remainder of the lecture and did not confront him until class ended. He confessed that he did not know who I was to look at me, and his eyes widened when I explained to him that I was the student that could go to hell. He re-composed himself, patted me patronizingly on my arm saying "its all in the same spirit". "Not really" I responded. I pressed on him for information, since he was the first department professor that I actually was able to talk to.
I asked him about a recent meeting that the politics department faculty had, where they called-in the editors of the student paper. I wanted to know why they called-in the editors of the piece, and not the original author. He didn't have an answer beyond "We're politics professors, we play politics". I asked why they threatened the editors with libel. He said "We did not threaten them with libel, but we did express concerns that there were some slander issues with the piece". Again, I asked "so why not take the issue up with the author?", and continued with "Can you point out a single instance of slander? Because there isn't any, and I think you, and the entire department shouldn't offer a thinly-veiled legal threat against two inexperienced editors when the author is waiting around watching everyone talk about him, but never TO him. I think the behavior of the departments betrays a lot if immaturity and insecurity and I think you owe me, and the student paper an apology"
Needless to say, he didn't take the call for apology well. He started walking out of the lecture hall, and that was the last time I saw him.
I decided that I couldn't let the issue rest there...a university professor can't talk about a student like that, and not let it go unchallenged. I made an official complaint to the then-Dean of Arts and Sciences, Christine McKinnon, who invited me in for a meeting. The details of the meeting are confidential, but I can say that I walked away furious, feeling like I had little-to-no recourse, and that the Office of the Dean was professionally and/or ideologically aligned with the politics department.
Over the next few months, I had heard countless other insults thrown my way, many of whom came from supposedly 'professional' professors of the department. I was well-within my rights to sue the university, and maybe I should have. I had hoped that we could settle this with words like adults, and I didn't want to use the legal system that the department was eager to use before trying to even engage in a dialogue. University was really tough on me after that. I lost a lot of sleep, my health plummeted and it was all underscored by a regular twitter of "Steve is an idiot" popping up every now and again, often from people in positions of authority.
I've toyed with the idea of going back to academics, but I keep thinking about that terribly poisonous experience, and then I remember that these days I'm very happy teaching music to kids. I may have committed academic suicide by writing this entry (or maybe an academic appendectomy or amputation might be more accurate), but I have never compiled my side of the story in writing before. It's been more than 2 years since the original article, and even though I've pretty much severed all my ties with Trent, I'm glad I finally got this out there.
I wonder if this will find its way to the computer screens of some of the professors and students* who thought it was very important to use university time/money to call me an idiot when they could be teaching students instead. Judging by their reaction, they will think about ways they can sue me, realize that they can't, and then dismiss me as a jaded former-student who tried to bite the biggest dogs in the yard. They may think of other ways to get back at me, because these are powered people who are not secure or mature, nor who can handle criticism from someone without power. They may have all kinds of power, but these days they have little power over me.
Some people in that department taught be well: I know my right to free speech very well, and I'm not concerned.
* I ask that unless you have a personal or professional relationship with the professors named in this article, that you do no send them this article. I don't wish to spam of flood anyone's inbox, even if they do deserve it.
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