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An article appeared in The Guardian today suggesting that students in British universities are being subjected to linguistic policing, and threatened with losing marks if they dare to employ non-politically correct terms in their essays.  I’m not familiar with the requirements of Hull University’s course in the study of religious activism, but this article demonstrates some assumptions which I’ve often seen in discussion of academic freedom and “political correctness” on campus.  So I thought it was worth addressing more broadly.

Firstly, there seems to be a basic misunderstanding of what courses, modules, assessments and marks are in a university system like Britain’s.  The general sense prevalent in pieces like this seems to be that an academic essay is a statement of the truth on a particular topic, and is to be given marks accordingly.  The facts are at once much more boring and much more productive: an essay is an assessment intended to measure the learning that has taken place, and to see how far the student has attained the learning outcomes of the module.

See, I wasn’t lying when I said it was more boring.  But seeing an essay as an attempt to capture the truth of a subject makes it deeply sinister to hear lecturers telling students what words to use.  Seeing it as a measure of learning outcomes makes sense of that.  Learning outcomes tend to be things like “the students will be able to demonstrate a grasp of critical debates over the last twenty years in historiography” or “the students will be able to analyse the film text from a technical point of view”.  They’re not about determining the right answer which a student has to produce for the requisite applause, they’re about the skills, tools and knowledge which will enable them to do their own intellectual work in the field.  A much more exciting prospect, to me at least.

So if the rubric on this assessment says students need to use gender-inclusive language in their essays, that is probably a technical specification.  Saying they’ll “lose mark” if they don’t sounds as if academics are threatening students who disagree with them.  But it’s not threatening for me to remind my undergraduates that a close-reading formative is not the place for debates in psychoanalytical theory, or that they need to reference their sources properly.  It’s not a threat because I’m not telling them they need to agree with my view of the world or I’ll punish them, I’m calling their attention to the requirements of the assessment.

I’ve had situations in the past which I can see might have looked as if I were discriminating against a student for their views, if one assumed that essays were judged as statements of a correct worldview.  One springs to mind: as a graduate student I was marking essays on the Creation and Fall narratives in Genesis.  I had a very clever essay explaining the justice and righteousness of God which Genesis reveals.  But I had to give it a relatively low mark, as theodicy was not the topic of the assessments.  Literary criticism was, and not enough of that had taken place.  I made time to speak to the students about their essay, and they could see both why the essay hadn’t achieved the mark they had hoped for, and that I wasn’t penalising them for their theological views.  I’ve also had cases where the reverse has happened, where I’ve given a very high mark to an essay in which views were expressed with which I disagreed, and even which might even seem faintly unfair to a particular scholar or source.  Luckily learning outcomes and rubrics (which include things like gender inclusive language) protect the students in both kinds of situation.

I’ve undertaken quite a lot of training in the last couple of years alongside my work, and I’ll admit that sometimes I felt frustrated by the rubrics and the assessments.  I wanted to write eloquently and profoundly on what I reckoned on the topic in general, rather than being cramped by the specifics of the assessment requirements.  But I did recognise that those assessments were designed towards learning outcomes intended to give me a grasp of both the knowledge and skills I’d need.  Without undertaking the assessments in that particular form (however imposing my general thoughts on the topic might be) I wouldn’t have the necessary tools to deepen my understanding and come to my own informed conclusions.

The second, allied, misunderstanding I think the article implies, is that universities are places where young people (and other people) can be instructed in the vision of the universe of which our society approves.  This is not true on the micro-levels of learning outcomes, and it’s not true on the macro level of course design, university governance or academic practice.  I’m afraid the sort of article which complains of “linguistic policing” reminds me of people who complain when Cambridge puts a Winehouse lyric on a poetry paper, or when a study is released of linguistic patterns in videogaming.  They seem to believe that university life consists of telling people what books are better than other books (insert social practice/ art form/ historical phenomenon, etc) and seeing that they approve of the right ones.  I don’t think this is an opinion which can survive sustained contact with the practicalities of academic life or the hugely rewarding activity of teaching undergraduates.  This is not academics or students do all day: we research, analyse, discuss.  We do not spend our time deciding which thing is better than which other thing.

That seems to me the misunderstanding which underlies this article and many like it: that universities are for instructing people what to believe, and that they’re doing it wrongly.  There are very good reasons why a course of religious activism might have requirements when it comes to writing assessments.  Again, I should stress that I don’t know this course, but it’s a social science field, so rigour in communication is likely to be at a premium.  Writing “man” when you mean “humans” is likely to lead to sloppy thinking and inaccurate arguments.  Language is one of the means by which we construct our social world with others, and one of the tools with which we analyse those constructions: being very precise about it is not a bad thing.

I’d add that, in my experience, students writing about literature and religion need a strong sense of language to keep them writing neutrally and analytically about powerful and intriguing texts and events.  The reason I discourage phrases like “it was oft performed at the Globe” or “there were but two options facing Donne”, when they appear in student writing, is because it sounds like the student is taking on the language of their material, and with it their patterns of thought and feeling.  I think it’s better for them to write essays from their own scholarly position, without ventriloquising their sources.  (And when I notice the same effect in my own writing, I try to correct it.)  That doesn’t preclude them having enormous sympathy with their texts and authors, or having deep and transformative encounters with them.  On the contrary, I try to enable that as much as I can.  But those encounters aren’t the province of marks, and it’s important that they’re not.