For centuries, the academic space in Western countries like Canada, have been dominated and shaped by intellectuals that come from particular identities while others go unacknowledged. In recent years, disciplines like socio-cultural anthropology, women and gender studies, media, and English literature have highlighted the often Eurocentric topics of discussion and research that centre the perspectives taught in courses. Moreover, having awareness of the positionality of educators and students in relation to the communities they inhabit is often brushed aside. As a result, lecture material discussed in class often lacks recognition of the oppressed groups. Furthermore, in a classroom setting, professors are in positions of power. This means that they are given a certain level of personal autonomy when it comes to selecting material for their syllabus. This can create certain levels of tensions that might exist within the student-educator dynamic. Tensions, if unresolved, might go range from a misunderstanding to acts of violence.
Last month, psychology professor Jordan Peterson from the UTSG campus had refused to use non-binary pronouns to acknowledge faculty members and other students who belong to trans, gender-fluid, and two-spirited communities. It all started with a video Peterson posted on YouTube late September titled “Fear and the Law” in response to work that is being done to pass Bill C-16, which recognizes gender identity and expression as a human right therefore making hate crimes against the transgender communities illegal. In the video, Peterson expresses his dismay for the bill and says that he personally refuses to use pronouns like “they” because he does not understand folks who do not conform to the gender binary — a binary that says one can only be either male or female. He also says that the gender spectrum (one’s notion of gender as fluid and not dichotomous) is incorrect. One of the overarching ideas that govern his disputes is his understanding of gender and sex, which Peterson says are not independent of each other.
Since posting the videos, Peterson has organized rallies to advocate his views as an act of freedom of speech. This law mandates an individual’s right to express their opinion without the fear of government retaliation. Although it should be acknowledged that Peterson should be granted the opportunity to articulate his views and ideas, it is also important to understand the context behind this enactment. Many times, those who exercise their right to freedom of speech do so because they have been systematically rendered oppressed and powerless. For a professor who holds a position of authority to be speaking about the transgender and non-binary community that has been refused the basic right of being respected and to be acknowledged seems like an action of violence against their well being and safety. It is important to understand that practicing your right to freedom of speech should not prison those of others.
Women’s and gender studies professor Donna Gabaccia teaches her class about the clear distinction between biological sex and gender identity. Her lectures reflect the scholarship that acknowledges that gender is a social construction and that in order to dismantle the rigid gender binary, one must think of gender as existing on a spectrum. Gabaccia says, “I don’t think cis-gendered (an individual whose gender identity matches what they are assigned to at birth) people really appreciate the levels of everyday harassment and violence that intersex, gender queer, homosexual people encounter on a daily basis. Their identity becomes an issue all the time for them – from walking down the street to any kind of social interaction. They have every reason to fear for their personal safety when they experience this kind of dismissive, resentful, response from their teachers. Does the university feel like a safe place to them afterwards? No it does not!”
In his video, Peterson also says that those who do not identify with a particular gender have done so on the basis of ideological purposes. Feminist philosophy professor Lynda Lange says that she “[believes] that all research that involves human subjects has been subject to ethics review for quite a few decades now; however, I note that Professor Peterson’s views are not expressed by him as a subject of any research of his, nor does he reference any other research that would support his views. They appear to be just his own opinions. As such, he is free to express them, but he must accept that others — whether individuals or institutions – are also free to challenge them and disagree. UofT has taken the position that this is a question of human rights — in anticipation of a federal law that will almost certainly soon be enacted. Personally, I agree with the position of the UofT administration.”
Peterson claims that there is a lack of evidence of non-binary people disregards many cultures that do recognize a third gender. In India and other parts of South Asia, ‘hijra’ is the legal term that refers to trans women in government documents and laws. When asked for her opinion, health studies and anthropology student Diane Hill says, “As an Indigenous student, situations like this can be problematic because our origins do not begin with gender binary or gender roles. I have learned from elders and speakers that our names and identities do not constrict us to the gender binary. There is a deep understanding of two-spirited people and notions of gender fluidity and the existence of spectrum as opposed to binary. In a lot of teachings for different groups, all beings are to be respected regardless of gender identity. I think this is an opportunity for UofT to include Indigenous knowledge into the world of academia.”
These issues raised the possibility of whether or not professors and faculty members should receive equity and diversity training in order to be more aware of the different identities that students occupy in a given classroom. On campus, anti-oppression training sessions are offered to students through the Equity and Diversity Office. This year, the Department of Student Life has made it mandatory that all student clubs and organizations have this training before they are afforded certain on-campus privileges. When asked if this type of training is offered to faculty, all of the professors that were interviewed said that it simply does not exist.
Anthropology professor Alejandro Paz says, “I think that systematic workshops that deal with these issues can help in many ways, but only to a point. First of all, it is very important that the university is giving these issues its support. Administrators are talking to trans and anti-racism advocates on campus, and hearing that they need this kind of support. It sends a message to everyone, and pushes us all to consider the kinds of privilege that afford us our positions. At the same time, we need vigorous public discussion about the kinds of discrimination and violence directed at trans people, as well as at racialized people, and we need to think inclusively about how to overcome that discrimination and violence. For this to happen, you have to include those most affected, not shut them out. That would seem obvious, and yet suddenly there are some who do not want to talk about their own privileges, and so they dismissively and erroneously call such inclusion a sort of “political correctness” or “radical left” politics. They want to shut down any public discussion, and unfortunately, however they understand their motivation, they are also fanning public expressions of hatred against trans and anti-racist activists.”
This issue of bringing in a formalized and structured training into consideration may change what kinds of perspectives are brought into discussion and how to navigate controversial issues. There are many instances where students feel as though the way professors handle topics may seem inconsiderate to groups of people. Fifth-year international development student Daniela Spagnuolo says, “In the classes I take, we talk about gender fairly often in my classes, sometimes with more consideration and complexity and sometimes with slightly less, but I will never forget one class where the professor, a white male, completely shut down all discussion in a lecture on gender and basically only presented his point of view — on pink and blue slides. I think overall we need to engage more with the complexities of gender throughout the university from policy, to trainings, and within courses themselves. We can always and should always do better to make sure we create an environment for positive learning experiences within the university since this is the space in which we gain the skills, knowledge, and attitudes we will be bringing to our careers and beyond.”
Philosophy professor Ronald De Sousa discusses another view on what type of training faculty members should receive. He says, “I think personal differences are far more important than cultural differences. I have very little patience with this idea that you give people trigger warnings. What happens is that everybody gets super sensitive and responds to everything as a source of a potential slur. We’re here to share ideas and look at different ways of experiencing the world and some of these might be extremely offensive, and in those cases we should be able to confront those views and say why we find them offensive and if so, be able to justify our response with reason — if we can’t, we have to get over it.”
He continues, “What I object to is [Peterson’s] incredibly ill-informed views about gender and sex. I also object to the way he describe his opponents’ views as ideological. His views are ideological and they don’t have any roots in any kind of objective, scientific research…These are exactly the type of ideas that I try to undermine in my courses. What distinguishes philosophy from any other subject is that in philosophy nothing is sacred. It seems to me that that’s the sort of training that anybody should receive. People should understand that in a university, we should expect diversity as ideas and also expect the diversity in our audience.”
It is apparent that the power dynamics that exist between students and professors do more harm than good. Gabaccia shares that for her, “It’s really a simple issue for respect, even if that law or that policy did not exist. I can’t be an effective teacher if I have an adversarial relationship with my students. They are not asking me to teach material that I don’t want to teach, they are simply requesting that I address them with their preferred terms. Why wouldn’t I do that, as a teacher? Teaching is about communication, and communication requires mutual respect. There should a more dialogic approach of learning.”
The dichotomous relationship between the professor as the “knowledge bearer” and the student as the subordinate learner creates a harmful interaction that still continues to be perpetuated in classrooms. The notion the teacher’s opinions are sacred and has more intellectual merit than that of the student has to be dismantled. The publicity and media attention that this issue has garnered makes us wonder if this is a narrative that is practiced in elementary schools and how those are dealt with. It is important to understand that professors may hold certificates that recognize their scholarly endeavours does mean they are experts at every aspect of academia. The pursuit of knowledge does not stop once an individual is acknowledged is a teacher of a discipline. As professor Gabaccia explains, a dialogic approach, in which student and professor learn from each other rather than maintaining a hierarchy might help resolve these tensions that have persists.
It is about time that we discussed the power dynamics that exist between professors and students. This is a crucial thing to do in an effort to create spaces in which the opinions, experiences, and identities of both are recognized as valid and equally important.