Category Archives: Free speech

Free speech, messy epistemologies, and the reframing of the WLU controversy

A trimmed down, edited version of this article was published in The Conversation.

Free Speech rally at Wilfrid Laurie University

The Lindsay Shepherd controversy has opened the Pandora’s Box once again on the notorious, vitriol-ridden “free speech” debate across Canada. It has largely consisted of tired arguments penned up in op-eds advocating that the university has become home to left-wing authoritarians who muzzle the speech of those with whom they disagree. Such debates have become so politically noxious that Andrew Sheer, leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, has jumped on board—calling for a political response to the free speech crisis in universities. Furthermore, Lindsay Shepherd has become an alt-right darling in the amplified calls for free speech on campus; she now has roughly nineteen thousand followers on Twitter and is consistently feeding the fire with toxic tweets. One tweet reading, “Confirmed: WLU is a mental institution”.

Debates about free speech have a tendency to become unnuanced and flat as they typically amount to blanket statements that call for the unbridled and unrestricted ability to say anything. As I explored in an article for Vice, such an understanding of free speech is complicated sociologically when superimposed on a society already stratified along vectors of identity. Free speech becomes even more nebulous when we read the sub-text of free speech advocacy which often cozies up with white supremacy, transphobia, and sexism.

I want to shift the discussion about free speech. Instead of focusing on why the academy needs free speech, I would like to ask how free speech is reasonably deployed in the scholarly pursuit of knowledge production. This analytical shift will allow us to move beyond romanticised notions of free speech and academic freedom and consider the various ways in which knowledge emerges and becomes entangled in institutional practices and professional obligations.

This debate has by-and-large ignored the ways in which knowledge is produced and shaped within the academy. I would like to suggest that the epistemological insights of science, technology, and society (STS) can provide a scaffolding to understand the complexities of free speech in practice, as opposed to free speech in theory. Epistemology is the study of knowledge production. Despite the centrality of knowledge in all our social encounters, epistemological issues are often undervalued. Donna Haraway illustrates the importance of the structures of knowledge in this beautiful quote, “It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with, it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties.”  The various shapes of the in-between matter that inform how we understand the world have consequences for how we frame free speech.

The production of knowledge in the academy is laden with formal and informal processes that shape how knowledge is produced, debated, disseminated, and taught. The sociologist, John Law, provides a useful framework for approaching knowledge production in the academy. He draws our intention to the messiness of the world in practice;how human emotions, scientific methods, institutional priorities, research ethics boards, peer review committees, professional reputations, class syllabi, employment contracts, graduate student committees, and codes of conduct become entangled when we go about the business of saying or writing something. When we talk about free speech, these constraints are made opaque despite their centrality in shaping how we talk, write, and debate.

A graduate student, depending on their discipline and department, will typically take graduate courses, be employed as a teaching assistant (TA), and research their independent thesis work. In order to guide a budding scholar through the complexities of academic research and politics, a grad student works under a committee. Such committees are made up of professors who have been rewarded PhDs for their familiarity and experience as academics. One of these committee members is the grad student’s supervisor who very closely guides that student’s academic work. All research produced for the student’s thesis must be rigorously checked by their supervisor and committee. This leads to a painful process of sending in drafts and receiving back red marks. Such a process shapes what knowledge is reliable, rigorous, and fair, and what knowledge is inappropriate, poorly thought out, and not defendable. If a student ignores their committee, they will likely fail their thesis defense and not receive a degree.

If a grad student were to write their own independent research, to give it credibility they would need to submit it to an academic journal. All reputable journals use a peer-review process where a committee of scholars assess the quality, reliability, and credibility of academic work and reject work that doesn’t meet academic standards. Poor research is sent back to the grad student to be revised or sent elsewhere. And some work is rejected for not meeting the criteria of the peer reviewers. Grad students need to have tough skin, as we will get torn to pieces several times a year.

There are other ways in which academic knowledge is reasonably shaped. Research on human subjects is tightly controlled by General Research Ethics Boards (GREB) that are informed by federal policy and legislation. If a grad student ignores GREB, they could be expelled and have their credentials revoked. Academic conduct is held to a Code of Conduct and other university policies that shape how scholars can interact with each other. And ultimately, the university must abide by the Criminal Code and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that protect people in the scholarly community against hate crimes and discrimination.

Finally, a grad student typically becomes a TA to help fund their studies. This is an admittedly precarious job that usually have students working overtime with no extra pay. The TA signs an employment contract, works under a professor who teaches the course, and does not have any authority to teach their own content. TAs do not have the same academic freedom as professors. Aadita Chaudhurry, a PhD student at York University, penned up an article that appropriately delves into how Shepherd failed at her obligations as a TA. Grievances with professors are often mediated through a public service union that advocates on behalf of the grad student.

These formal restrictions on how knowledge is produced are complemented with informal occupational norms that are enforced by students, faculty, and administration. This is the everydayness of the academy. A grad student can’t just write anything. Everything a grad student does in public (including their publications) are informally assessed by colleagues and professors. Miscalculations or poorly thought out work can negatively impact the future of a grad student.

To engage in proper research in the academy is to maneuver through the tangled red tape of policies, expectations, institutions, regulations, and professional obligations. This has a grad student dancing and staggering back and forth through research and teaching and negotiating and compromising on the substance of their scholarly practices. This is the messiness of epistemology in practice. These processes are all swept away in popular debates around free speech in the academy. Such arguments are far too easy because they ignore how the academy functions as a complex institution and community.

And don’t get me wrong. None of these processes or practices are immune from criticism. But that is an entirely different discussion than the one being advocated by Lindsay Shepherd. Academic freedom is certainly important, but so are the ways in which it can and cannot be practiced. University administration, faculty associations, and student and labor unions are constantly in friction over how these limits should take shape. These are discussions that are always already happening and do not get near the press attention that Shepherd’s employment bungle has attracted. If the academy is in crisis, its critics are focusing on the wrong issues.