With academic censorship on the rise in the United States, it’s hard not to feel a sense of impending doom. In Florida, governor Ron DeSantis recently passed laws against programs which teach “that systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States and were created to maintain social, political, and economic inequities,” as well as outlawing diversity programs and weakening the security of professors’ tenure (via the Associated Press). Book bans in schools, especially K-12 schools, are becoming exponentially more common in districts all across the country, and LGBTQ+ representation and Black history are among the most targeted. The state of Florida also disallowed the teaching of AP African-American studies, a course created to educate advanced high school students about African-American history and culture. However, New York State hasn’t been in the national news for any similar reasons. We asked two Alfred University professors whether they think academic censorship threatens us here in the northeast, and here at AU. A big thank you to them both for taking the time to have these conversations! Questions and answers have been edited for brevity and comprehensibility, but not content.
Dr. Mallory Szymanski, a professor in AU’s history department, specializes in both Black history and LGBTQ+ history, and is currently teaching an African-American history course. She also attended the University of Florida for both her undergraduate and graduate education. I talked to her about Florida’s ban on AP African-American Studies, and the general fear surrounding academic censorship right now.
Rain: What are your thoughts on what’s happening in Florida?
Szymanski: I went to college and graduate school at the University of Florida, so my alma mater is at the center of a lot of debates about this, and my feelings about it are complicated. I know a lot of people who are living and working in those trenches. I read news stories from my cozy home in New York which try to inflame me and make me think, “Florida bad, New York good.” And that’s a false dichotomy. As you know, the Florida legislature is interested in curbing what young people learn in school. This is not new. Florida has been a site of book banning terror and education fascism for a long time. A notable moment would be in the 1960s, when the Florida State Legislature tried to root out gay teachers from the schools, even in higher ed. There’s the fear that if young people get information about Black history or LGBTQ+ people, then society will crumble. And, in a way, they’re right, because knowledge is power, and if we know what really happened, we can change things, we can revolutionize. I resist an urge to say ‘oh, what a new strange phenomenon,’ because there’s a long history of this kind of stuff. Even in moments where book bannings aren’t political flashpoints, they’re still happening. What makes today’s situation different is that we’re seeing the culmination of decades-long efforts to wage culture wars that have now arrived in our school boards and classrooms. Social media and other media outlets are used to inflame fears that have always been there. Florida and Texas tend to get the focus, but those same political agendas are showing up at school boards in this part of the state and, like, in the suburbs of Rochester. We’re not immune to it in the state of New York.
R: In terms of higher ed, what can the state really do to censor higher ed?
S: I think there’s a persistent myth that all faculty are trying to turn students into communists, and I always joke that if I had that much influence, I would use it to get students to do the assigned reading for class. Anyway, I think there’s a lot of showmanship happening with New College (a liberal arts college where the Florida government removed and replaced the Board of Trustees over concerns about “wokeness”), where there’s a sense that the state will have enough time and energy to come and do the same thing to all our universities. I wonder how much of that is fanfare, increasing the fan base of DeSantis ahead of his probably-not-gonna-be-successful presidential run, trying to drum up support from his base.
R: Would you call that like a threatening maneuver? Or more of showboating?
S: I don’t know yet. It’s probably too soon to tell, at least for me, with a historian’s mind. I know that the history curriculum at state schools is already changing to comply with state policy. One strategy is to bury people in paperwork. When the state says, ‘promoting diversity is a problem,’ they make everybody revise all of the things that say diversity on them. This is just one example, and I know people have had to retool a lot of their materials. That takes an enormous amount of time, and attention, and meetings, and just saps the energy of people who might otherwise have been teaching really brilliant classes, mentoring students, and publishing their research–or fighting state censorship. So you distract people, bury them, derail their morale. It’s a strategy, and it’s not sexy, so it’s not something the New York Times is publishing.
There are other adjustments. Some Florida faculty are just not teaching their African-American history classes, others have revised their course content to avoid discussions of race or racism. They’re waiting to see what happens next. They won’t put anything on their website or syllabus that would draw the attention of the state legislature. It’s scary. So I think what you said about threatening stuff is true, the possibility of the state coming in and making havoc is what causes people to have to toe a lot of lines so that they don’t come under the threat of the government. Because ultimately, especially with state schools, as you probably know, the funding is in the balance, and without funding, you can’t do much of anything.
R: What about Alfred? Do you feel like there’s any kind of threat to higher ed in NY?
S: Certainly. It’s not the same as it is in Florida, but it just seems like we’re just a little bit further behind that schedule. Our governor probably won’t say “you can’t teach Black history,” but certainly there’s some sense that some students, parents, or community members might find things that we learn in class to be inappropriate, or offensive. I mean that on all sides of the political spectrum, this is not a one-sided thing. I do not feel threatened on a day-to-day basis, but I do think about it, I teach classes all the time where we are talking about Black liberation and white supremacy– things that if you caught the wrong part of it, or took some part of it out of context, plastered it on Fox News, could make Alfred the next media sensation. The networks working to attack higher ed are all linked together. Professorwatchlist.com will link with Breitbart, which will link with other extreme news sources that reprint each other’s stuff, so if you Google something, it appears in multiple sites and looks to the casual observer to be legitimate. It creates the sense that professors are out there brainwashing people with this stuff about privilege and Black liberation. That looming fear has existed for a long time, I mean… I do my job anyways? I do the work with integrity, because I think that’s what’s important. And I think students by and large see that, and know that, and trust that I’m genuine in my effort to engage students in critical thinking, create community, and grow together in power.
R: Has that background noise of like, “this could happen to you,” has that changed how you teach or what you teach in any way?
S: Yes and no. I guess, yes, but I’ve been teaching classes on sexuality and gender and feminism and queer history for like– this is year 16. The longer I do this work, the more ordinary it becomes to me. But it’s not ordinary for students. It’s often their first time hearing some of these terms, or learning about these things, so each semester it’s a fresh start in that way. In class, I’m not dealing with the state legislature or the larger political climate, I am engaging with students as human beings, and inviting them to think about, why is this so political? Why are these ideas so dangerous? Do you want to know about them? If so, stay in the class, if you don’t, that’s okay, lots of people don’t want you to know these things either. But my personality is, if someone says, “this is dangerous, don’t read this,” I’m like, give it to me. I at least want to find out what it is, so I can decide for myself. So, I don’t know, I guess I’d have to think about that one a little more to make sure I give you the most honest answer, but I do think about it.
R: So you think about it, and it affects what you put on your syllabus, or…
S: Yeah, no, I don’t know. If I get picked up by Fox News, it’s going to happen, but my syllabus has an anti-racism statement in it that talks about my own white identity and interest and dismantling my own racism, and expressing solidarity with people in various spaces of oppression, and that I care about you as a person, and if I screw it up please let me know.
R: So you think if Fox News is going to pick you up then they’ve already got enough info?
S: It’s already out there, that and, I mean, I hope that doesn’t happen, but I’m more at peace with it if it does. I don’t mean to overstate my own importance, it’s just that they don’t really care about the details as long as it makes for an incendiary soundbite or headline.
R: Do you feel like what they’re doing is intended to stop the conversation?
S: I think so, yeah. Because if we don’t have access to that kind of information, that kind of conversation, then it’s easier to believe the incendiary hype stuff that’s playing on our emotions. Media is really good at getting us to be enraged, or angry, or sad, or whatever, and we often don’t have the patience and presence of mind to really think through things and not just hear the first YouTube video that comes up with a loud voice and big graphics, you know? Higher ed forces us to sit in a hard chair for over an hour and listen, and write, and think, and read books, ideally, and when you have the patience to do these things, it can take the edge off of ideas a bit. We see the erosion of critical thinking skills and that patience. Instead, people are getting these PragerU videos that are very over the top, they’re politically motivated, and they’re attractive looking videos. They’re well done with lots of visuals and stuff, and they’re easier to take in, and when people don’t know that we should think critically about all the sources we take in, a snazzy video looks legit to people. So, yeah, stifling the conversation on all levels is a clearly stated strategy that some conservative political organizers have been saying they are going to use, starting with the school boards, since the seventies and eighties. And they’re really successful at it, so here we are, you know, it’s not a surprise, and it’s not even a secret, like, they said they were going to do it, they’re doing it.
R: How worried should we be as a general public? What should we be doing?
S: I mean I think- I think we need to be worried to the point that it activates us to do things based on our particular skills, interests, and position in society. So, not all of us need to go and, you know, march on Washington. Not all of us need to go and talk to students in their classrooms about this, or write letters to their Congresspeople, or show up to school board meetings, but we all need to do something. We don’t need to be so worried that we just turn inward and go oh, this is too hard, I’m just going to go watch Netflix and eat pizza only. And I’ve been there, I do that. We get too overwhelmed by how awful it all is, we’re too worried, so we do nothing. So, I think we should be worried, but I don’t want to contribute to the inflaming of rage and say we need to all be so alarmed, because I think it has the unintended consequence of making people feel immobile and helpless. We aren’t helpless. People have power, that’s what history teaches us, and when we get together, when we talk to each other, when we care for each other, that’s when we figure out the way through. We help boost each other’s skills and talents up and help encourage each other like, get to that meeting, come on, it’ll be fine, I know you’re tired, let’s go, I’ll come pick you up.
Dr. Susan Mayberry, a professor in AU’s English department, specializes in Early Modern literature and African-American literature. She is currently teaching courses about banned books and censored literature, and I talked to her about a book ban controversy that occurred in the local Alfred-Almond Central School District, and her thoughts on book bans.
Rain: What happened with The Things They Carried being banned at Alfred-Almond?
Mayberry: The way I found out about it was the then-chair of the English department, Lou Greiff, found out from a professor of education at the time, whose wife was the AP English teacher at Alfred-Almond. She had planned to teach a Tim O’Brien novel; I cannot remember whether it was The Things They Carried or In the Lake of the Woods. And she knew that it might make some parents uncomfortable because it has profanity, it has obscenity and it has violence, and several parents objected– well, it must have been more than several– but enough parents objected to the school board that they informed her that she couldn’t teach the novel. And she had, as I understood it, provided an alternative assignment, but the board simply said “no way, you can’t do it.” And, you know, she was not happy, so she told her husband, and he told the chair of the English department. And we [the English department at AU] met about it, and see, I hadn’t read it, but I object to book banning on principle. So at that time I knew I didn’t want it to happen, but I didn’t have a case. At the time, Lou Greiff taught a course on the literature of war, and he too was in Vietnam, he was a supply officer. Anyway, he wrote a letter to the board defending the option to teach the course, and I remember that one of the members of the school board went to the church where we took our children, and he asked me, “Susan, what do you think?” And I said to him, I haven’t read this one, but I object to book banning on principle. Particularly when you have an expert, you know, she’s a trained English major with a master’s degree, and she knows what she’s doing. I said, what I will tell you is that I cannot imagine how you could teach a Vietnam War story without violence and obscenity– I just don’t see how it could happen. And he thought about it, and anyway, I don’t know how it happened, but the school board decided to allow her to teach the novel. What was marvelous, we were able to entice Tim O’Brien to come and do a reading at Alfred University, and he read from The Things They Carried. Something tells me that [the book that was temporarily banned] was In the Lake of the Woods, so this must have been around 1990. But it was a very successful reading, and from what I remember, several members of the school board came to the reading. The AP English teacher brought her class, and you know, it kind of had a happy ending. I’m not sure whether those parents were happy, but they always had an alternative, it’s not like they kind of backed them into a corner. It’s dicey, but that’s the story.
R: Do you think that that was a symptom of a larger societal problem then? At that point in time?
M: Not in the way it is today. The feelings by some people were always there, but they had not been given permission, the culture wars had not come out.
R: So you think the dam broke, in a sense?
M: Yeah, and I hope it’s a good thing. The issues are there, if progress is going to be made, they have to be dealt with. Some people are never going to change their minds on either end, but reasonable people listen to each other– and I think the thing that always got me is that the people who objected to many of these banned books had never read them.
R: You’ve often said in class that anything you teach could be on the syllabus for Censored Lit. What should we be doing about that? Should we be fighting against book bans?
M: Well, when I said that, what I meant was that any provocative literature, any complex art is going to disturb, that’s what it’s meant to do. Therefore, over the years, anything that disturbs is going to upset some people and they’re going to try to do away with it. I don’t think that’s going to change, because the function of art is to make people think. I mean, I’m not going to argue that internet pornography should be taught in high school, and yet at the same time, if kids aren’t made aware that there’s pornography on the internet, how do they defend themselves? I’ve always argued for age appropriate stuff being taught under the guidance of sensible instructors.
R: So you don’t think we should ban anything?
M: Well, I’ll never say never, because I think kids are going to find internet pornography whether you ban it or not.
R: So do you think banning is ineffective?
M: Yeah, I kind of do, I think anytime somebody says they’re going to ban something, I wanna go see it. I mean, I’m not arguing for a course in high school on internet pornography. But I think kids are going to find it, and if parents don’t talk about it, and acknowledge it, then they’re really going to want to find it.