In November 2018, an odd little article about a leaked internal memo at Leeds Trinity University appeared in the British tabloid the Express. According to the story, the university told professors not to use all capital letters in order to avoid “frightening” students:
Staff at Leeds Trinity’s school of journalism have also been told to “write in a helpful, warm tone, avoiding officious language and negative instructions”. Some blasted the move as “more academic mollycoddling” of the snowflake generation. An “enhancing student understanding, engagement and achievement” memo lists dos and don’ts – with “do” and “don’t” among words frowned upon.
Course leaders say capitalising a word could emphasise “the difficulty or high-stakes nature of the task”.
The memo says: “Despite our best attempts to explain assessment tasks, any lack of clarity can generate anxiety and even discourage students from attempting the assessment at all.
Other news outlets quickly got wind of the article, and soon think piece writers, evidently short on material, were jostling to be the first to offer their warmed-over take on how jettisoning capital letters is emblematic of the weakness and delicacy of today’s youth — such as this story, which bears the headline “Liberal College Bans Capital Letters Because They Trigger Students”:
A spokesperson for the university said that the memo was written to teach lecturers better understand how they might help students reach their full potential.
This isn’t the first case of “social justice” lunacy on British campuses this year.
In October, Kent University adopted a list of banned costumes that included anything that related to an ethnicity or religion.
Unfortunately, it appears that many of these pundits failed their classes in reading comprehension as well as headline writing; even the original story, misleading as it was (and failing to reproduce the full text of the memo on which it was reporting for context), mentioned no ban.
Leeds put out a statement refuting the claims, which despite being a perfectly rational response was mischaracterized as “a bizarre twist” by some tabloids:
In response to today’s comments in the media which allege we have banned capital letters (we haven’t!), we’re really proud of our approach to teaching and learning at Leeds Trinity.
Here’s why: pic.twitter.com/yGXh9JABNK
— Leeds Trinity Uni (@LeedsTrinity) November 19, 2018
We’re proud to offer a personal and inclusive university experience that gives every student the support to realise their potential. We follow national best practice teaching guidelines and the memo cited in the press is guidance from a course leader to academic staff, sharing best practice from the latest teaching research to inform their teaching.
For every assignment, academic staff have an ‘unpacking’ session with students so the students are clear on what is expected. The majority of universities do this. It is also about good communication and consistent style. For example, it is best practice not to write in all capital letters regardless of the sector.
As Leeds Trinity’s statement clearly says, sharing recommendations to best inform pedagogical practice is standard at universities worldwide, and despite claims made by “many social media users,” there is a very marked difference between making recommendations and outright bans.
Leeds lecturers also refuted the claim on social media — using capital letters to drive their point home:
— Dr. Alison Torn (@AlisonTorn) November 19, 2018
Pedagogy, or the study of teaching and learning as an academic concept, is far from settled; it is dynamic by its very nature, as both teaching and learning are dependent on social, cultural, and political contexts. Paulo Freire, who wrote the heavily influential Pedagogy of the Oppressed, had this to say about the concept:
Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.
This is not an easy concept to implement. Because of this, discussions about how best to teach and learn are ongoing at many universities, and recommendations (not bans) are made often.
In the end, this appears to be yet another case of publications taking universities to task over common pedagogical practices that tabloid writers have vastly inflated and distorted because they simply do not understand how academia functions.