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Academic Discourse: A Students Perspective
By Shal Marriott, Eastern Ontario Coordinator

Universities right now have a crucial question posed before them: where do we go from here? In an environment where faculty members are facing increasing public pressure, and administrations are asking for resignations when a professor provides commentary in a magazine. A flame has been sparked, revitalizing conversations on freedom of speech and what the responsibility of a university is fundamentally as an institution. The contention on the topic serves to demonstrate an increasing awareness of division within the community of scholars. One that is not only affecting those presently employed within the field, but those aspiring to be. From this arises another question: what is the example being set for those undergraduate and graduate students who carry with them academic inclinations?  From this vantage point, it seems to be an environment that does not carry with it the best interest of thoughts and ideas. The best example of this is in online communications.

 

It is becoming increasingly disadvantageous for students to publish their thoughts or ideas online. Whether it is through social media, newspapers, or blogs, before one offers a commentary or contributes their ideas: they pause. Not because they are considering the merit of their own thoughts, not because they doubt the quality of the writing before them, but because of one pressing concern: “do I want to risk losing a position 10 years from now if this is read, just because I wanted to express the ideas my 22-year-old self thinks?” You would think that in many cases it wouldn’t matter. After all, what will a university care about my speculations on the Trudeau government as an undergrad? Yet you never know who will be a donor to an institution, or be providing funding for a Research Group. It becomes a matter of whether the context you expressed was not clear enough, or it could be found in some way to be offensive.

 

It is from this a clear answer emerges: no. It is not worth the risk. Becoming an academic is difficult enough as it is. With an overly saturated job market and high competition, you’re in an environment where any risk is too great a risk to take. Especially for a field that you aspire to be a part of and contribute within. What this is leading to is more than self-moderation, it is fear. Fear of losing it all because you wanted to offer an opinion. Fear of expressing your ideas and thoughts. Fear of being controversial, or going against common opinion to invoke passionate discussion. The only other option is silence. It is silence that increasingly seems to be the best option. And what a deafening silence it may be.

 

This is the example right now being set for students. It is a loss, not only for the students who are affected by being unable to express opinions, but for a society that wishes to move forward. This should be a time where students are discovering ideas and writing about them constantly, engaging in meaningful discussions with those who disagree. Especially when they can communicate with people from all around the world and in a variety of disciplines. Yet if this trend continues, more and more will students be moderating and scrutinizing their thoughts in order to make them as perfectly inoffensive as possible. Not just inoffensive, uncontroversial in any sense of the word. Not only online, but on campus. In classrooms. During discussion groups. This brings with it an implicit limitation which causes for a restriction on actual academic discourse. That is not to say that students should use such a power to be hateful or discriminatory. Self-awareness is an important part of existing in a political society and in a university. Merely that they ought not to be afraid to comment honestly on the state of the world they live in and offer their own reflections. The choice to engage in this intellectual parlance is becoming increasingly restricted as the risk increases for the potential harm it could cause to their future career as an academic.

 

I do not know what the future will bring on this matter, nor will this essay end in a series of recommendations or conclusions. Presently, the side of open discourse does not seem to be dominating the conversation. Although there are many professors fighting to try and protect it, that does not change the pressure that is becoming more prevalent for the expression of opinion. After all, who knows what could happen if you post your thoughts on Facebook. Or worse, start a blog. All I know for certain is that as a student who has academic inclinations, I want to be able to write freely. To express in words what I think and share those words with others in the “public square” of the internet. The societal limitation that is continually creeping in feels suffocating. As it does for many other students who face the same concerns that I do. For it will one day be our role as future academics to defend this ability to think and speak freely in order to ensure that universities remain institutions that promote higher learning and the development of ideas. We are the ones that will have to bear the burden of the results of the conversation presently taking place. The development of ideas is one of the reasons why many are so passionate about academia in the first place. It is too precious to lose, and right now we are already seeing it fading away.

 

Ultimately, if a post such as this is going to be the reason I get fired from an academic position in the future, because that future is one where wanting a genuine discussion on the state of discussions in academia is somehow offensive or against the purview of a university, then fine, I’ll go lecture youth in the Piraeus if I have to. Because that world is one where the purpose of universities has been entirely forgotten. Cast aside by the tyranny of public opinion and outrage. This is a world where ideas will be limited, and progress alongside it. Where the very reason why many of us hear the call of the academy will be lost to the wind. That is a world that I never wish to see exist.

 

If musings on a blog can in any way, shape or form contribute to ensuring that does not happen, then I’ll take the risk.

For more information:
Shal Marriott, Eastern Ontario Coordinator
phone: cell: email: smarriott@generationscrewed.ca