Laura Kipnis Melodrama

I post this at the blog because I realize that Facebook doesn’t reach as far as I thought. People like Chad Pearson, of all people, seem unaware of the class implications of recent controversies over academic freedom. This saga begins with Laura Kipnis’s piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education, dated February 27, which created enough buzz to become “The Laura Kipnis Melodrama” at New York Magazine a week later, in an article by Michelle Goldberg, and which has now spilled out as a Title IX complaint against Kipnis at Northwestern University. “Today” here means Monday the 23rd.


I introduced the Laura Kipnis Melodrama to my classes today at Rutgers-New Brunswick. The results were surprising, fascinating, and edifying, in that order.

In both classes, I started by asking, “So what do you all know about ‘trigger warnings?’” In the first class, ‘Historiography: The History of History,’ a 300-level course, mostly juniors, nobody had ever heard of them except the women. I know, it sounds sheltered.

But then I asked, for no reason, “How many of you have jobs?” Everybody. Hmm.

So then I told them to haul out their laptops or phones, go to the New York Times Sunday Review from yesterday, read the piece by Judith Shulevitz, and tell me what you think is going on.

Too much silence ensued, so I explain the back story—-Kipnis’s essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the mattress-bearing protest against her on Northwestern’s campus, the follow-up Nation piece by Michelle Goldberg, and the Title IX-inspired petition now filed against the benighted professor.

Then I ask, “Do you think there’s a difference between elite institutions like Northwestern and a public university like Rutgers? A difference determined by class—-OK, the social origins of the student body?”

The students uniformly nod, they know where they come from, but they’re appalled, and they quite eloquently defend the professor’s right of free speech (academic freedom as a principle is not something they know or care about, which, to be honest, is true of me as well).

I keep pressing them on the possibility of predatory professors, but they keep fighting back, saying, more or less, that “we don’t need your protection”—-in this instance, “your” meaning the boss, whether the teacher or the dean or the provost.

In the second class, ‘Modern Social Theory,’ another 300-level course, it gets even more interesting, because there are three ardent libertarian-anarchists, two ex-cons (one of them a veteran), a wannabe cop who once worked in the Title IX office at Rutgers, and a representative cross-section of political personalities in between, balanced evenly between males and females.

We start the same way, but three of them have already read the Shulevitz piece and linked back to the Kipnis CHE essay. Everybody has a job except the ex-cons (because they can’t). Here, too, the students silently acknowledge the class difference implied by the evidence Shulevitz adduces, but again they’re appalled, left to right, and not on their own behalf. Or they’re bewildered. After the former Title IX employee reads the Rutgers code aloud for us, everybody is at least offended by the powers wielded in their name.

One of the women says, “I never heard about this until right now, this ‘trigger warning’ thing.” Another, she who wants to be a cop, says, “You don’t call it that at work, but it’s the same thing, you can’t make people experience what makes them crazy, or, I don’t know, just vulnerable. Weak. Something.”

PTSD enters, stage left and right. Everybody’s got a friend who served in Iraq or Afghanistan who now plays video games and paintball knowing that the triggers are waiting. We talk about how words have power that is sometimes equivalent to that of weapons and other material forces, so for the moment we’ve boarded H.M.S MacKinnon. The conversation subsides, we’re all sitting there wondering where we go from here—-how to get off this deck and get a different view of the horizon.

Then the quiet woman who didn’t know about trigger warnings says “Feminism has been hijacked.” And from the back of the room, one of the ex-cons yells “That’s exactly what she says!”

“Who’s she?” I ask.

“Laura Kipnis,” he says, triumphantly, waving his phone, “I’m reading her thing in the, uh”—-he peers at the phone—-“the Chronicle of Higher Education!”


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