REGES: Defy the nonsense of indigenous land acknowledgments
How do you make the progressives on campus so “horrified” that they spring into action to defend their sacred ideology? Make an indigenous land acknowledgement that doesn’t match their view of history and watch them lose their minds.
How do you make the progressives on campus so “horrified” that they spring into action to defend their sacred ideology? Make an indigenous land acknowledgment that doesn’t match their view of history and watch them lose their minds. Let me describe how that happened to me.
Indigenous land acknowledgments have been common in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and they are now starting to crop up on college campuses in the United States. At the University of Washington, they are showing up all over the place. The diversity experts in the university's Allen School of Computer Science—where I teach—have produced a “best practices” document that encourages faculty to include these on their course syllabus. The document also suggests replacing the phrase “you guys” with “ya’ll,” but that’s a topic for a different piece.
At first, I ignored these land acknowledgments, but the more I observed how they were used, the more they reminded me of a prayer. At our annual faculty retreat this year our director opened with a solemn land acknowledgment. Why? As with a prayer, a land acknowledgment frames an event with the message that a particular ideology has dominance in the situation, and will be honored above others.
As the university says on its web page, explaining its suggested version:
"This language template is spoken by UW leadership during events to acknowledge that our campus sits on occupied land. We recognize that this is a difficult, painful and long history, and we thank the original caretakers of this land."
This is a blatantly political statement. My office and classroom are on occupied land? Then why don’t we give it back to the rightful owners? And if we’re not going to give it back, then why bother acknowledging them? Activists often say that making such an acknowledgment is a way to counter the erasure from our collective memory of the awful treatment Native Americans have suffered at the hands of European settlers.
There are many vexing questions about history and justice that could be explored in this area, but what does that have to do with a course syllabus and the teaching of computer science? Our diversity experts have put together a five-year strategic plan for DEIA (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Access) and the overview indicates that one goal is to “add education on DEIA, justice, and the societal implications of technology in a range of new and existing courses.” So naturally, they consider it a best practice to have a course syllabus remind us of the injustice that Native Americans have experienced.
There’s just one problem. What if you don’t agree with them? After all, if we are making an “acknowledgment,” wouldn’t you want us to say what we really believe? They can’t possibly be asking us to affirm something that we believe is false, can they?
I decided to test this by crafting my own version of the land acknowledgment:
"I acknowledge that by the labor theory of property the Coast Salish people can claim historical ownership of almost none of the land currently occupied by the University of Washington."
I don’t claim that this represents ultimate truth, but it is an alternative viewpoint that I value based on John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. I included this on my course syllabus for the winter quarter, and the reaction has been extreme. Allen School officials declared this to be “offensive” and said that they were “horrified” and promised to have it removed immediately. Our director said that it creates “a toxic environment” in my course. I have written elsewhere about how the school censored my syllabus, apologized to my students, and created an alternate section of the course so that offended students could be taught by a different instructor.
I suspect that most of my students wouldn’t have noticed this and didn’t care, but a small group of students has complained loudly enough that many people are discussing it. Judging from the discussion threads on Twitter and Reddit, I’d wager that this incident has led to more discussion in just two weeks of Locke’s theories on land ownership than we normally get in an entire year at UW.
I believe the progressives have overplayed their hand by going down this path. As a public institution, the University of Washington is bound by the first amendment. If the university encourages faculty to make statements in the form of land acknowledgments, then it must allow a range of opinions to be expressed. Any limitation on speech must be content-neutral. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) agrees with this assessment and they have written to the university decrying their censorship of me. The university has not yet responded.
I encourage other professors to try using the same strategy. This is a way to use their own rules to make them understand us better. You think it’s offensive to encounter a political opinion on a course syllabus that has nothing to do with the course content? You’re horrified? Welcome to the club. Conservatives have been experiencing that for years at universities all over the world. Perhaps they will agree that it is time to take the politics out of classroom teaching. Allow all of us to have our personal opinions, but don’t display them prominently where they don’t belong.
What will be the result? Perhaps a dazzling display of viewpoint diversity with all sorts of people providing their own version of a land acknowledgment. Or perhaps all of these silly performative prayers will disappear entirely.