Off the books
The Times' 'investigation' into university reading lists is a hit piece in search of a target.
The Times front-page headline — subsequently watered down online — makes a big claim: Universities blacklist ‘harmful’ literature. It reflects what the paper was hoping to find when it began its fishing expedition (“This newspaper sent 300 freedom of information requests (FOIs) to officials at all 140 UK universities…”) but not what it ended up with. The “censorship” that the online headline talks about1 isn’t there but, having decided upon an angle, the reporters and their editors ploughed ahead, framing minor changes to reading lists as ‘proof’ that…
Universities have started removing books from reading lists to protect students from “challenging” content…
To understand how The Times’ Head of Investigations, Paul Morgan-Bentley, and its Social Affairs Editor, James Beal, went about constructing their tale, you need to see their questions. Luckily, one of the academics who received them — Kim A. Wagner, Professor of Global and Imperial History at Queen Mary University of London — posted the requests on Twitter on July 28. This is what Morgan-Bentley wrote:
Note: My questions relate to texts on university modules, including but not limited to novels, plays, poetry, non-fiction works, historical books and criticism. Please can you answer the questions in relation to the last three academic years (2019-20, 2020-21, 2021-22) and for courses within the studies of English, History, Drama and Modern Languages.
1. Please can you provide a list of texts that have been removed or withdrawn from course reading lists because of concerns about their content?
2. For each of these texts, please can you state which modules they were previously taught under and whether they have been/were withdrawn permanently or temporarily?
3. For each of these texts, please can you provide the reason they were withdrawn from reading lists (eg contains graphic depictions of sexual assault etc)?
4. For each of these texts, please can you state whether it was removed from a course reading list in response to complaints/concerns raised and, if so, a description of where the complaints or concerns came from? To be clear, I am not asking you to disclose details of individuals who complained. Instead, you could state in general terms that the complaint came from, say, students, or from the student union, or from the UCU, or from a lecturer, or a named external consultancy etc)
5. Please can you provide a list of texts on module reading lists that students have been told they can choose not to read — and instead read an alternative text — because of concerns about their content?
6. For each of these texts, please can you state which modules they are usually taught under and whether this option not to read them is/was a temporary or permanent decision?
7. For each of these texts, please can you provide the reason an alternative text is/was provided (eg contains graphic depictions of sexual assault etc)?
8. For each of these texts, please can you state whether alternatives are/were offered in response to complaints/concerns raised and, if so, a description of where the complaints or concerns came from? To be clear, I am not asking you to disclose personal details of individuals who complained. Instead, you could state in general terms that the complaint came from, say, students, or from the student union, or from the UCU, or from a lecturer, or a named external consultancy etc).
The hopeful references to the UCU are particularly of note given the arrival of the story on the same day that the union is launching a major campaign on pay, pensions, and working conditions. But those issues along with the destruction of entire university departments are more complicated than ginning up yet another confected censorship scandal.
Despite The Times extensive list of demands and blanket approach to FOI requests, the article contains only two examples of texts being withdrawn from reading lists — Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad from a third-year creative writing module at the University of Essex and Strindberg’s Miss Julie from an English Literature course at the University of Sussex.
The University of Essex course, The Beginning of a Novel, (incorrectly called ‘Beginning the Novel’ in The Times report) is about students creating their own fiction (65% of the marks are assigned to developing an outline and draft chapter of their own work) and reflecting on how other novels influence that process. In a statement sent to The Daily Mail, the university said:
It is completely untrue and misleading to say Underground Railroad has been banned or blacklisted. Underground Railroad is available in our library and remains an option for inclusion on future reading lists in relevant modules. Books covering themes and issues around slavery are on the reading lists for many other modules. Underground Railroad was replaced on one reading list for a creative writing module about the development of the novel, as another book was viewed as better suited to the learning aims.
The Times’ original article included a statement from the university that said Whitehead’s book had been replaced in part because “another book was viewed as better suited to the learning aims” but it is buried deep in the copy.
The same follow-up piece from the Mail includes a statement from the University of Sussex which says the FOI response sent to The Times was incorrectly worded and that Strindberg’s play — which involves suicide as a major theme — was temporarily removed from the reading list “following student suicides”.
Even if there were not a range of reasons for removing The Underground Railway and Miss Julie from those reading lists, The Times would have been left with very thin gruel if they were the only examples it could muster. So Beal and Morgan-Bentley bring in books that students can opt out of reading (even when no students have) and those given content notes (the writers prefer the ironically-more-triggering-to-right-wingers term “trigger warnings”) to bulk it up.
The Times also solicited a quote from Margaret Thatcher cosplay enthusiast and Tory leadership candidate, Liz Truss, in which she burbles:
Real life doesn’t come with a content warning — we can’t protect people from difficult ideas for their whole lives, nor should we try to.
They entirely miss the point. A content warning flags issues in a text/source. It doesn’t do this to ‘protect people from difficult ideas’, it does it to warn people who have first-hand experience of particular types of trauma. It’s for those who already know about that content personally.
The Times’ outrage that students are offered alternate texts when novels include depictions of sexual violence can be boiled down to a demand that people who have suffered those experiences must be required to relive them in order to pursue academic study.
From the use of “blacklist” in the original headline to Trevor Phillips decrying “a disguised campaign of thought control” in an accompanying comment piece and the paper’s leader column declaring that students who value content notes “need a finishing school instead”, The Times is peddling its own cheap ideology while pretending to be engaged in a defence of free speech. Just not everyone’s speech…
That it is an attack on academia and individual academics is made even clearer by an outraged news story headlined Academics wanted prying investigators to ‘eff off’. In it, Morgan-Bentley names people who replied to Professor Wagner’s tweet about his FOI request and frames frustrated comments as attempts “to encourage colleagues to withhold information from The Times about their reading lists.”
The print headline for the main section of the ‘investigation’ offers an example of the spin applied by The Times. A quote from the copy given by a single University of Essex student (“They think we are children and are coddling us".”) becomes They think we’re children and try to coddle us, say students. Two of the three students quoted in the piece are named as Conservative Party activists.
Digging into the details of the story is a largely fruitless endeavour though. The top line claim — universities are banning books — is now being echoed by The Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail, as well as being discussed on broadcast outlets including Radio 4’s easily-led Today programme and the Murdoch-owned Times Radio, Talk Radio and Talk TV.
The deliberately constrained slots given to discussions of the story on TV and radio will mean that many people encounter its claims as facts to be debated rather than lines to be analysed or disputed. It will not be the detail that lingers but the deceptive headlines and sub-decks. An army of zombie ‘facts’ have been shocked into life today to join countless others that many people feel must be true.
Words like “audit” and “investigation” give The Times report a weight that its tissue paper thin ‘findings’ can’t support, but the bet the paper is making, aided and abetted by broadcasters, is that most readers and listeners will not demand extraordinary evidence to back up the extraordinary claims.
This is a story about reading but it relies on assuming that most people won’t bother.
… who I also happen to be married to.