National Column: Wilfrid Laurier TA’s case is ‘problematic’

by Thomas Walkom

To listen to the recording of Wilfrid Laurier University student Lindsay Shepherd being interrogated for her political sins is to be reminded of how crazily insular the academic world can be.

Shepherd is a graduate student and teaching assistant. Her sin was to show a first-year communications class a video snippet from TV Ontario of two professors debating grammar.

If that sounds weird, you haven’t been paying attention. Grammar, particularly the use of pronouns, has become deeply politicized.

Some transsexual people prefer that they be referred to with gender-neutral pronouns such as “they” or “ze” rather than “he” or “she.” That, in turn, has led some universities to adopt gender-neutral pronoun policies.

All of which is to say that when Shepherd ran her five-minute TVO clip featuring pronoun traditionalist Jordan Peterson debating another professor, she unleashed a storm.

Peterson, a University of Toronto psychology professor, has become the bÍte noir of the non-traditional pronoun crowd for his adamant refusal to say “ze” instead of “he” or “she.”

He, in turn, has called the pronoun issue a plot hatched by Marxists and power-mad university human resources officers.

As the Star has reported, he’s made a good chunk of money from this by crowdsourcing his controversial lectures online.

But I digress. The point is that Peterson’s views on pronouns are viewed by some as transphobic. So when Shepherd dared to air the TVO segment featuring him, someone complained.

The teaching assistant was hauled before a three-person panel made up of her supervisor and boss, Nathan Rambukkana, another professor named Herbert Pimlott and Adria Joel, Laurier’s acting manager of gendered violence prevention and support.

The trio interrogated her for more than 40 minutes.

Shepherd had the wit to record the proceedings. It makes for depressing listening.

She is asked if she is a former student of Peterson (answer: no). She in turn asks what specific complaint has been launched against her and by how many people. She is told that is confidential.

Throughout, the guiding assumption of her inquisitors is that she did wrong by exposing impressionable first-year students to Peterson’s views on grammar.

The only question to be determined is whether she sees the error of her ways.

Peterson, she is told, has been championed by the right-wing website The Rebel. The Rebel is connected to the alt-right. Need one say more?

Shepherd pleads that she was exposing students to both sides of a real debate that is going on in the real world. That, say her inquisitors, is the problem. Indeed, they say – using a word that comes up a lot in this session – it is “problematic.”

Peterson’s opinions on grammar, one of the male professors tells her, are problematic because they haven’t been peer-reviewed. Responsible social scientists don’t present views unless they have been subjected to appropriate scholarly scrutiny.

Besides, he says, how can there be a debate about grammatical rules? They are rules. Accepting that there are two sides to the grammar debate is like accepting that there are two sides to the climate-change controversy. Problematic.

The other male professor presents her with hypothetical questions. Would she be willing to air a debate that featured a white supremacist? What about Hitler?

The gender violence manager tells Shepherd that she may have contravened the university’s gender and sexual violence policy and caused harm to trans students “by treating their pronouns as invalid.”

Perhaps, suggests one of the males, Shepherd could have skirted trouble by pointing out to the class beforehand that Peterson’s views on grammar are seen as problematic. “I should have used that word,” she says. “Problematic.”

In the end, the inquisitors warn Shepherd that there could be further consequences. She may have to face a formal inquiry. She must provide her supervisor with advance notice of anything she might say in her tutorials.

She is to be banned from raising “original content” in her tutorials. Instead, she is to focus on the mechanics of writing, such as punctuation. Her supervisor will monitor her behaviour. Since the media began reporting on this, the university has backpedalled frantically. Laurier’s president publicly apologized to Shepherd. Rambukkana issued an open letter to his teaching assistant, saying he has rethought some of his opinions.

Shepherd is still a teaching assistant. But she told CBC Radio she is shunned by her fellow grad students and department.

“It’s like I’ve been turned into some kind of Jordan Peterson,” she said. It is all very problematic.

Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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