SPEAKING FREELY


Posted by Professor Simon Levy


Dear Ellen,

I write in regard to the posts (especially the original posts) on your SpeakingFreely website. To borrow a line from Michelle Obama: for the first time in my W&L career, I am really proud of my colleagues. If I am ever tempted to consider myself a good writer, I will look back at what you, Melina, Theresa, Domnica, and others have written here. If I am ever tempted to consider myself brave or outspoken, I will look especially at what Robin has written. Together you have put into much better words than I could all the disgust, rage, and other emotions that I've been feeling for the past months -- especially in conversation with colleagues who JUST DON'T GET IT about this whole mess.

The only thing I would add or re-emphasize is the chilling effect that such episodes, and attempts to deal with them in anything less than a swift and decisive manner, must necessarily have on not only the social climate here, but also the learning climate. We in the physical sciences and mathematics do not often have the opportunity for serious discussion of societal issues in the classroom. I will tell students that Alan Turing was persecuted to death for being an openly gay man in the stifling conformity of post-war Britain, but this shameful fact has little or no bearing on the validity of his accomplishments in founding the field of computer science. At the one opportunity I did have for discussing gender issues in the classroom -- a gender-and-language reading for a linguistics course that I taught in 2006 -- I was mystified by the silence of the women students on what was obviously a very controversial gender issue. Fortunately for me, a couple of women stayed after class to talk to me about another assignment, and I mustered enough courage to ask them directly why nobody but the men had ventured an opinion on the reading. (The class was evenly split, 12 men and 12 women.) One student replied, and another confirmed, that every woman in the class was afraid of what the other students would think if she expressed an opinion on a gender issue. Two years ago I did not appreciate what that awful fact really meant. I do now.

I understand that in the past there has been an occasional voice asking for the removal of the name Lee from our institution. At this point, I suggest that the change might make sense, but not necessarily for the reasons one might think. No, it is because we have failed, on this and other occasions, to live up to Lee's "one rule": RULE, not teaching moment, or occasion for excuse-making, or hand-wringing, or the umpteenth desecration of poor old Martin Niemoller. I have to wonder how Lee would have acted after hearing the language used in the Bracket, let alone seeing it in print under a masthead bearing his name. On second thought, I don't.

Sincerely,

Simon


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