Ron DeSantis banned AP African-American Studies. The President’s of Florida’s 28 state colleges announced they would not support “any institutional practice, policy or academic requirement that compels belief in critical race theory or related concepts such as intersectionality.” [Note: Taking a class on a topic does not compel belief. That’s not how education works. It is how fascism and theocracy try to work though!]. You can read more about the attacks on learning in Florida in The Nation from Victor Ray. It’s pretty bad.
I wanted to hear more about what’s going on with professors in Florida (and remain interested! Email me). I want to know what it’s actually like trying to teach under this kind of pressure. Meet Jo (not their real name). Jo is a professor in the humanities at a large public university in Florida who started their job fairly recently, choosing to move to Florida despite multiple job offers because “every job offer I had was in a Republican state.” Still, it was hard, they told me. “I was so excited about this job offer. It was a dream offer. And yet if I accept this job, do we buy a house? Do I move my family to a state where if my child is trans I will move? Do I move my child to a state where I might get fired?”
The firing is not hyperbole. There are specific regulations in process to use these laws to justify stripping professors of tenure or denying them tenure in the first place. And yet, courses go on. So what to do?
When Jo started coming up with their courses, they were advised specifically “not to teach any class with the word race or racism in the title or course description.” The fear is that lawmakers and their staff will pull up a massive trove of course information and use basic search functions to find words that trigger further scrutiny. So Jo made their “course title and course description as generic as possible, hoping the students know me well enough. If have a generic title, I can say ‘well this semester’s focus is … [the actual topic Jo wants to teach].” They also had to turn in their “book list months in advance so [they] can be sent to the legislature. Allegedly so that costs are transparent for students who may enroll in our class.” That’s reasonable, of course. Jo wants students to be able to assess costs. “But it’s also a way to survey all faculty.”
When Jo brought up their concern with senior colleagues, they were told that no professor in their department assigns any book that is remotely controversial, but instead assigns only excerpts. This troubles Jo in part because, “If assign a book by a black woman, for example, she’s not getting royalties.” Still, if any book that is required or recommended has to be on the syllabus and is easily searchable, then the only solution is to keep that list bland. “I’ve never worried where taught before that my syllabus might get taken out of context and get me fired,” they said.
All of this is draining and scary, which Jo says is the point. “Even if I make the conscious decision I’m not going to change the way that I teach, it still affects your mental health and quality of your life” they said. Ultimately, Jo just wants “to do what I’m paid to do. I don’t want to be worriedly reading the news to know which of my colleagues may get fired. If I request [certain] books from the library, is that going to get me? If I choose the wrong course title, does that mean I get fired. I’ve never had to think about that.”
And the threats are not just professional. “I previously have never had to think – if I assign this, would someone bring a gun to my classroom. I’ve had colleagues in the state of Florida get a lot of death threats for their teaching [or] if they write op-eds.”
Books vanish from the syllabus. Words like “race” and “racism” vanish from courses. And even if what happens in a classroom itself doesn’t change, the overall chilling effect is clear.