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Margin Notes

Censure if you will, but let’s not censor

It’s important for academics to discuss uncomfortable points of view.


An opinion piece we recently published online and in the August-September print edition has garnered much feedback (12 comments online to date, which is a fair amount for us, a specialty higher-education publication in Canada). The article had the innocuous headline, “Internationalizing the Canadian campus,” but the subhead gave more of a flavour of what it was about: “ESL students and the erosion of higher education.”

The article, by professors Norm Friesen and Patrick Keeney respectively of Thompson Rivers University and Simon Fraser University, recounts their frustration teaching students with poor English-language skills – typically English-as-a-second-language, or ESL, students – or students whose “academic or cultural preparedness is not up to speed.” The presence of these students in the classroom “fundamentally changes teaching and learning, to the detriment,” they write. “Instead of engaging students in disentangling the nuances and subtleties of a particularly important passage from the assigned readings, one begins speaking to the class as one might speak to academically challenged teenagers.” Ouch.

Editor Peggy Berkowitz and I knew the opinion piece would be controversial. I must admit I was a bit squeamish about publishing it. But we felt the authors were sincere in what they were saying and had grievances that deserved to be aired and discussed. Universities in Canada are increasingly seeking to attract foreign students to come study in Canada and it is important that these students have the resources and support they need to succeed.

Several readers, not surprisingly, didn’t see it that way, calling the piece variously “xenophobic,” “utterly ignorant” and a “thinly veiled racist rant.” They’re entitled to their views. But what disappointed me was the suggestion by some that we should never have considered publishing it. This inclination to want to prevent uncomfortable views from being aired is unbecoming of the academic community. There was nothing in the piece, to our minds, that should have prevented it from being published. It was a judgment call, sure, but that’s what editors do.

Some who did find it objectionable nevertheless said they would use it as a “teachable moment” in their classroom, which strikes me as appropriate in the academic context. As well, some who did not quite agree with the views expressed by the authors did give them the benefit of the doubt. “I think certainly that we can listen to their frustrations without disparaging their institutions, their credentials, or their achievements,” wrote one commenter. And, in general, the conversation within the comments section has been quite edifying and deepened the conversation – which is ideally what one would hope for.

Some even congratulated us:


As a final note, readers may be interested to know that we did in fact censor ourselves by refusing to publish one comment about the article. Our main reason was that the comment seemed rather extraneous to the main issues raised by the opinion piece. There was also one particular phrase about “lower level cultures” which we felt was indeed borderline racist. I think we made the right call.

Editor’s note: The headline of the opinion piece referred to above, “Internationalizing the Canadian campus,” was incorrect in the original version of this blog post. It has been corrected.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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  1. David Kaufman / August 13, 2013 at 22:22

    As a strong supporter of international education, I have and continue to have challenges in this area in my undergraduate and graduate courses, as well as in my supervision of international graduate students. However, these challenges are far outweighed by the benefits that I and my other students gain, e.g., intercultural understanding, different perspectives, etc.
    What bothers me is the ‘knee-jerk’ reaction of my academic colleagues, who appear to be more interested in ‘killing the messenger’ than in engaging in a dialogue around this issue. Surely this dialogue can only lead to a better understanding of the issues raised and perhaps even generate some new ideas for addressing the concerns raised by Friesen and Keeney.

  2. Ian / August 14, 2013 at 11:53

    I praise UA/AU for keeping the Friesen & Keeney piece and most comments up; hopefully readers visit this page as well.

    Can we invite Friesen & Keeney or their institutions for comments? Not shooting the messenger, I ask where they come from: situations might be unique in a “graduate classroom” (not for a dialectic seminar) of Anglo/Western primarily-undergraduate or comprehensive universities.

  3. ESL teacher / August 15, 2013 at 03:06

    Leo, you explain why you decided to publish the article by Friesen and Keeney, and respond to some of the criticisms why it should not have been published at all. In a relatively recent article published in the Guardian, philosopher Slavoj Zizek commented on Kathryn Bigelow’s movie ‘Zero Dark Thirty.’ The topic of water boarding has absolutely nothing to do with the topic of the ESL student in the mainstream university setting but the piece does offer some comments about disseminating and publishing information and thinking that one can remain neutral. The publication of Friesen’s and Keeney’s article is in a way an endorsement of their views. One can’t simply report on ‘how it is’ (i.e. the authors had legitimate grievances and let’s help ESL students so we published it). The sort of thinking of not letting any ESL students into mainstream classes becomes normalized and down the road quite acceptable. Excluding people because of the perceived lack of language proficiency is wrong and, as Zizek put it, should not even have to be argued against.

    Here’s the link to the article:

  4. Craig Monk / August 15, 2013 at 22:45

    I’m sorry. I think I need to take issue with this comparison. Bigelow was arguing that *her depiction* was somehow “neutral,” and she was being called on that. I don’t think that Friesen and Keeney suggest anywhere that they have simply given readers a “slice of life,” a “what if” that might also be interpreted as supporting the status quo in our classrooms. Their bias is clear. I am one of the readers who has taken issue with their argument, and I have stated why I disagree with their conclusions, but I have also been critical of people who have used, say, the identity of one of their home institutions as the grounds to criticize them.

    Does their argument constitute racism? Is it hate speech? The editors of this journal, whom I know from personal experience to be persnickety, indeed, have outlined why they concluded that it is not so. And they have demonstrated that there is a line on this issue over which they will not cross. But on the near side of that line, are we not concerned that we eliminate unpopular speech? That we want to listen only to people who agree with us? That there is nothing upon which to reflect from a flawed argument?

  5. Gary G / August 21, 2013 at 14:54

    The article ESL Teacher links has, I think, a telling sentence: “But with torture, one should not ‘think’.” It is an anti-intellectual argument, a claim that on certain issues, our moral, visceral revulsion should be so great that we don’t need to even utter the words, and certainly have no cause for nuanced discussion.

    I find this position abhorrent, much like the other main claim (of the poster and the linked article), that neutrality is impossible if one publishes or speaks on a topic. That sort of “you’re with us or against us” is the mantra of every extremist looking to justify destroying the moderates, and I’d rather not see posters here “normalize” that polarizing language. But I certainly think ESL Teacher should be permitted to post this terrible, insidious thought here, all the same.

    Almost a trivial comment to finish up, but this corker: “Excluding people because of the perceived lack of language proficiency is wrong and, as Zizek put it, should not even have to be argued against” is, to say the very least, arguable. Shall we extend it to a perceived lack of preparation, or skill in subject areas?

    • ESL teacher / August 23, 2013 at 04:01

      Word such as ‘abhorrent’ should be used for abhorrent things such as murder, rape or torture, but to apply it to Zizek’s article, … it might be too strong. I believe the message is that sometimes, wrong is wrong. And problematizing wrong runs the risk of making it less so until we find ourselves living in a world where abhorrent acts become acceptable. (And I am not drawing any parallels between any authors here or their articles/comments.)

      But you are right, Gary, Zizek’s article is dangerous because the suggestion is that there are times when some topics should not even be discussed, when free speech and open debate is off the table. Which topics? When? Where does one draw the line?

      I don’t have a corker for this one.

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