The Dunce PartyRoundup
tags: Tennessee, teaching history, critical race theory
Rachel Bryan is a PhD student in literature at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Her research focuses on poverty and the working class in Southern literature. Her selected essays can be found at snakeandtree.com.
TENNESSEE’S SPRING LEGISLATIVE session featured a barrage of draconian bills—almost all of which passed. In the words of Democratic State Representative Gloria Johnson, “We have a ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill worse than Florida’s” and “a vigilante abortion bill worse than Texas’. A bill that makes your friends and family $10k if they rat you out.” Add to that an attempt to define common-law marriage with a restriction excluding same-sex couples, which briefly made national news because it was initially drafted without a restriction against underage marriage. Both chambers of the Tennessee General Assembly have lopsided Republican majorities: twenty-seven to six in the Senate and seventy-three to twenty-six in the House. With a Republican governor in place, there are no obstacles to enacting the GOP’s regressive agenda.
Of course, a crackdown on teaching history is a key part of this agenda. Across the country, bills banning “critical race theory” have been passed as the right leans harder into thought policing. Tennessee passed a law against CRT in public K-12 schools last year, a largely symbolic measure, as critical race theory is not taught in primary school. But this session, lawmakers aimed higher—at higher ed. A bill passed by the legislature in March and signed into law by Republican Governor Bill Lee in April creates new restrictions on how public colleges and universities can promote diversity and teach about race and racism.
What is significant about the new legislation is its commitment to vagueness. The bill sanctions “divisive concepts” while also claiming to promote “diversity of thought” on college campuses and it attempts to do so by, paradoxically, suggesting that discussing oppressive power structures in class might promote the idea that “one race or sex is inherently superior or inferior to another race or sex.” In other words, the new law suggests that discussing racism is an act of racism.
The law also mandates that universities in the Tennessee system limit their diversity offices and employee training. The legal code now includes hogwash like this: “A public institution of higher education shall not: (1) Conduct any mandatory training of students or employees if the training includes one (1) or more divisive concepts.” Under this logic, the already limited mandatory employee trainings for Title IX and sexual harassment in the workplace might face intense scrutiny. Further, the attempt to rid out “divisive concepts” does not make it clear whether students can reject classroom instruction, including on exams and written papers, and still receive a passing grade. According to the legislation, “A student or employee of a public institution of higher education shall not be required to endorse a specific ideology or political viewpoint to be eligible for hiring, tenure, promotion, or graduation.” Does this suggest that students who reject a historical viewpoint—which is inherently political, as all history is—will also be encouraged to reject historical facts?
This isn’t some abstract, nugatory law for me. I teach a southern studies-themed course at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. On the first day of the semester, I make it clear that we will discuss issues of race, sex, sexuality, and class, and that we will use these topics to launch research projects about southern culture and history. If students are uncomfortable discussing these topics, they are free to take any of the other almost 150 sections of the course with themes ranging from “Myths and Monsters” to “Inquiry into Food.” Students often shuffle through classes to find the right fit, and they are not required to stick to a specific section that might cover a “divisive” concept.
Yet just as students have the freedom to choose courses, I’m trained to make choices about what to include. Now, in the coming academic year, Tennessee law is meant to intimidate us from the discussion of power dynamics by labeling it “race or sex scapegoating.” The law defines this term as “assigning fault, blame, or bias to a race or sex, or to members of a race or sex, because of their race or sex, and includes any claim that, consciously or subconsciously, and by virtue of a person’s race or sex, members of a race are inherently racist or inclined to oppress others, or that members of a sex are inherently sexist or inclined to oppress others.” While that kind of language pretends to a high-minded neutrality, it could be interpreted to restrict conversations about white supremacy on campus. And in its typical vagueness, the language does not specify if it applies to teaching history, literature, or any course in the humanities that might dissect, analyze, and explore the faults, behaviors, and experiences of people. Some of whom might be racist.
A few days before the Tennessee House voted, I brought up the proposed legislation in my class to gauge student feedback. We read the House bill and students voiced their opinions on it in relation to our class. I asked them one question: How will we teach southern studies under this proposed law?
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