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labor At-Will Employment Is the Real “Cancel Culture”

The “cancel culture” debate never focuses on at-will employment, which allows most American workers to be “canceled” at the drop of a hat — even those teaching in higher education.

A person sitting alone at a desk in the dark.
Like so many American laborers, most academic workers do not have just-cause provisions or other legal protections to turn to if they find themselves facing trial by spectacle online.,alex mccarthy

A specter is haunting academia — the specter of cancellation, ghostly in part because no one can agree about what it amounts to, much less whether it even exists.

There is further disagreement over what “cancellation” would involve if it in fact existed. Some understand it as a matter of cultural boycotts targeting prominent figures with questionable views, while others are more concerned about our tendency to treat social media platforms as de facto courtrooms.

But whether or not “cancellation” of either form haunts the hallowed halls of the university, something that manifestly can happen to you if you teach college courses is this: your students can take to Twitter to launch a vigilante campaign to get you fired

It happened just a few weeks ago, when an irate student tweeted out a screenshot of an email from one of her teachers. The email in question was, apparently, a response to an earlier email she had sent him. (I quote no student tweets verbatim in an effort to protect their authors from backlash, for reasons that will emerge shortly.)

The student didn’t post her own original email, so we are left to infer its contents, but it seems she was initially angry because she believed (erroneously, it turns out) there were no authors of color on the course syllabus. Her teacher replied informing her that there were in fact authors of color in several of the anthologies assigned, and he added that she was free to drop the class if its contents didn’t appeal to her.

By the time the student dashed off the vicious tweet that was liked and retweeted so many thousands of times, she seemed to be calling for the teacher’s removal merely because she objected to his tone. Her sentiment proved infectious, spurring more tweets, this time to the effect that teachers of college courses should cater to students who pay tuition.

Regardless of whether there is such a thing as “cancel culture,” there is certainly a “customer culture” in higher education, as many academics have observed. The customer is always right — and the academic worker is always wrong, at least whenever throwing her under the bus is expedient for her bosses.

Like so many American laborers, most academic workers do not have just-cause provisions or other legal protections to turn to if they find themselves facing trial by spectacle online. This is especially unfortunate given how many academic administrators view social media controversies as PR problems to be solved at their employees’ expense.

Precarious Teaching

I believe that it is almost always morally distasteful to try to ruin someone’s life by means of online bullying. But if such guerilla tactics are ever justifiable, they are certainly only justifiable when the figure they target is so powerful that he or she is otherwise insulated from consequences. Harvey Weinstein could only be toppled with the aid of a social media campaign because the institutions ostensibly designed to protect his victims were overwhelmingly stacked in his favor. The same can also be said of a small number of academic celebrities whose bad behavior is abetted by the wealthy universities where they have secured tenure.

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But the vast majority of academics are not like Thomas Pogge, who is alleged to have sexually harassed a number of students but is nonetheless enshrined at Yale. They’re more like me, a graduate student making less than $30k a year yet living in one of the most expensive cities in America. I am lucky to be a member of a union, but despite the heroic efforts of our bargaining committee, we still don’t have dental insurance.