What John Streamas says was the most miserable hour of his life started with something small: a few words in a syllabus. Streamas is ethnically half-Japanese, and teaches in Washington State University’s Department of Critical Culture, Gender, & Race Studies. When he sat down to design his syllabus for a class on multicultural literature—a class which showcases writers like Sherman Alexie and Octavia Butler—Streamas included a line in the course policies section about being inclusive, and didn’t give it too much thought.
“Reflect your grasp of history and social relations by respecting shy and quiet classmates, and by deferring to the experiences of people of color,” a section of the original syllabus read. And so it remained, Streamas says, for years.
Streamas says he never imagined what came next.
The syllabus caught the attention of conservative media site Campus Reform, who Streamas said emailed him on a Thursday in late August 2015 about his syllabus, specifically about his use of the word “defer.” Streamas was surprised at the attention, especially over this word. He hadn’t thought there was anything controversial about what he wrote.
“It’s a literature class and we’re reading books by writers of color,” he said. “If you’re reading a novel written by a novelist of color, when you’re reading the book you’re automatically deferring to that experience.” Also, as Streamas puts it, deferring is a normal part of life—children defer to parents, and soldiers to their higher-ups. And he notes that the word has connotations of respect and being voluntary.
But this wasn’t how Campus Reform saw it—nor Fox News, which ran a three-minute video on the syllabus featuring Campus Reform editor Sterling Beard.
“It’s back to school time all across the country, but some college students at Washington State University are in for a rude awakening,” the broadcast began.
The Campus Reform and Fox News stories also focused on two other professors, Rebecca Fowler and Selena Lester Briekss, both graduate students teaching in the same department as Streamas. According to the syllabi for Fowler’s class, students could be penalized for using words like “illegal alien.” Briekss’ syllabus advised students not to use terms like “tranny” or “referring to women/men as females or males.”
“The contortions are endless,” the Fox News host remarked in the video, in which Campus Reform editor Beard was asked to comment on the syllabi of the three professors.
“The problem is when you’re engaging in controversial material that these courses cover, even if you want to honestly question or want to learn, you always run the risk of offending a fellow classmate, especially if you are expected to defer to the experiences of non-white students,” Beard offered.
The host of the Fox News segment finished by saying, “Alan Bloom, the professor, wrote about the closing of the American mind decades ago—it seems like it’s only getting worse.”
Streamas said he never watched the Fox News broadcast when it ran on a Saturday last August. The following Monday, Streamas, Fowler, and Breikss were called to separate meetings with administrators. He didn’t know what it would be about, but he was told it would include the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, two co-provosts, an Attorney General representative, and the chair of Streamas’s department.
“I kind of figured it was bad news but I was hoping when I went to this meeting that they were going to tell me, ‘Hey, we heard Fox News raised this thing over your syllabus but we’re supportive of you’—I was hoping that’s what it would be.”
“Their minds were already made up,” Streamas said. With a laugh he added, “In that sense it was not a meeting, it was more like a sentencing.”
According to Streamas’ account, administrators asked him to change his syllabus. The meeting was supposed to last a half hour, but lasted 55 minutes instead, because Streamas said he argued.
The objections of the administrators seemed to be that some people could misconstrue the words in these syllabi.
“The logic of that is if this were a math class and I had a student who thought that 2 plus 2 equals 35 then by her logic I would have to revise my syllabus for that student, which nobody ever does,” Streamas said.
Streamas said administrators denied the meeting had anything to do with the Fox News story—but he notes that the meeting involved only professors named in that story, and only the phrases in their syllabi identified in the Fox News and Campus Reform stories.
Streamas later changed the syllabus to “deferring to each other’s experiences.”
“To me that just proves the word deferring is not a problem word, and that what they really were upset about was the idea of deferring to people of color,” he said. “You expect that of Fox News because they’re racist, but you don’t expect that of administrator of your own university.”
Streamas considers himself an idealist. He entered teaching to reach masses of people, especially people of color, he said.
Over the following weeks, Streamas was sent masses of hate mail. One of the worst emails he received contained profanity, multiple uses of racial slurs against African Americans and Latino American immigrants, a call for “White pride,” concluding that “Trump will build a fine wall!” At one point, a man called Streamas to tell him he knew where he lived.
Attacking a literature class is uniquely harmful, Streamas believes.
“When you control the way literature gets taught, in a way you’re controlling the literature. And to my mind you share the same kind of politics as people who would burn books.”
Streamas also feared that the administrators responsible for conducting annual review of his work would not judge him fairly.
For her part, Fowler said the Fox News reports left out the context of her work. Though it’s in her syllabus to punish students for using terms like “illegal immigrant,” she said any sort of punishment would be more symbolic than substantive. Out of 1,000 points needed to get an A, for example, she might dock just one or two. Fowler works as an advocate for undocumented immigrants, and she said she is always concerned about ways these people are dehumanized. Her aim is to break students’ reflexive habits in language.
“They made it an issue of free speech, and that’s nothing new,” she said of the Fox News broadcast. “Really it’s about how hate speech is somehow preserved.”
Fowler said she immediately agreed to change her syllabus at the meeting, and the administrators seemed relieved she didn’t challenge them. “But I knew the writing was already on the wall—what was I going to say?”
The next day, when Fowler handed out syllabi to her class, she told her students about the changes and why she didn’t agree with them, using it as a teaching moment.
“Then I felt sick to my stomach that I never, ever said, ‘this is wrong,’” Fowler said.
The three syllabi attracted national attention when the Washington Post covered the controversy. In response to that article, Washington State Rep. Matt Manweller introduced legislation in Olympia that among other things would prohibit universities from punishing students for committing microaggressions, or face a minimum fine of $500.
A letter signed by John F. Stephens, executive director of the American Studies Association (ASA), was sent a letter to WSU administrators— the university’s dean, two provosts, and interim president Dan Bernardo, expressing its concern about Streamas’s treatment by Fox News and Campus Reform, and urging the administration to support him.
“At ASA, and as individuals, we are all too familiar with the power of conservative media to wrench a phrase from context and manufacture hysteria,” the letter read. “Given a long track record of such instances, particularly involving Fox News, it ought to be a best practice for administrators to proceed with great patience, caution, desire to come down on the side of free speech, and circumspection in avoiding seeming acceptance of the substance of the attack.”
The letter went on to defend the language in Streamas’ syllabus as an example of necessary critiques of whiteness mounted by ethnic studies scholars like Streamas.
WSU College of Arts and Science dean Daryll DeWald declined a request for an interview for this piece. In response to a request for comment, WSU interim co-provost Ron Mittelhammer referred to a letter to Stephens of the ASA, signed by President Bernardo.
The body of the letter is two-paragraphs long. In it, Bernardo acknowledged that WSU administrators met with Streamas to clarify the meaning of “defer” in his syllabus, and asked him to change it. The letter goes on to say that administrators did not force this action, and the only purpose was “to protect free speech rights, most notably those of our students.”
“It was evident that Professor Streamas’ intent was not to stifle speech but to create a respectful environment for all students in the course. We appreciate that he took the concern seriously, and we consider the matter resolved,” the letter read.
Streamas contends that saying he wasn’t forced to change his syllabus is disingenuous.
“They applied all kinds of pressures—which, given their race and positions, I would regard as racialized and gendered—to get the syllabi changed. That may not be ‘force,’ but it is certainly harassment and coercion,” he wrote in an email.
Streamas sees the way he was treated as racial harassment, as it targeted the work of himself, a person of color, for censorship.
“These three white administrators, who know nothing about the politics of race and gender, which happens to be the very field in which we specialize, were committing the very injustices about which we teach,” he added.