"Be Paranoid": Will Administrators Back Faculty Teaching Controversial Topics?Historians in the News
tags: culture war, teaching history, academic labor, critical race theory
Brian D. Behnken, an associate professor of history at Iowa State University, says the controversy that has enveloped the nation over teaching “divisive” concepts has had a notable effect on his campus.
In June, Iowa’s governor signed a bill prohibiting public schools and colleges from requiring any training that teaches that the United States or Iowa “are fundamentally or systemically racist or sexist,” among other concepts.
The university responded quickly. The provost initially rejected proposed revisions of an undergraduate diversity requirement that Behnken and others had spent months developing, suggesting that some of the new learning outcomes could violate the new law. Then, the administration came out with a controversial set of guidelines for how to avoid violating the state’s strictures on racism and sexism training, and on diversity and inclusion efforts.
Just last week, administrators modified their stance, but in ways that Behnken still finds concerning. They agreed to adopt the new learning outcomes, but with the caveat that students did not need to meet all of them. Revised teaching guidance made clearer that most academic courses would not draw scrutiny if they are not mandatory, and as long as instructors who teach about concepts defined in the law make sure they are “germane” to the class, and students are free to express their opinions.
Who, Behnken wonders, will determine what is germane?
Behnken will be teaching a Mexican American history course this fall that deals with segregation and discrimination. He has no intention of changing what or how he teaches. But, he notes, he is tenured. For instructors who are in a more vulnerable position, he said, the law and the university’s responses have caused confusion, anger, and stress. Some are “sanitizing” their course content to avoid discussions of race.
Iowa State professors may feel like they are in the hot seat, but they’re far from alone. Conservative lawmakers across the country are saying that teachers and professors are discussing racism and sexism in ways that are anti-American, and blaming contemporary students for past events. While just a few states have passed laws that restrict college teaching, legislators in about two dozen states have introduced bills attempting to ban the teaching of “divisive” concepts or taken other actions that restrict teaching, and several have passed laws affecting public-school teachers. Even in states where such legislation would stand little chance, professors say they increasingly feel under surveillance.
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