Recent posts on Edifess, an anonymous confessions page on Facebook, pointed to various controversial statements made by a University of Edinburgh social anthropology senior lecturer, Neil Thin, on his public Twitter account.
Subsequent student testimonies collected by the BlackED movement will be used to investigate allegations of problematic course content and biased marking.
The first of a series of Edifess posts expressed concern over the university’s commitment to tackling racism and sexism when at the same time, they employ lecturers who publicly state opinions that could be understood as going against these commitments.
“From advocating that anti-racism work is ‘divisive’, believing in reverse racism, to shamefully using the Sarah Everard case to say the streets have never been safer for women. We cannot allow this bigotry in our university spaces, and something needs to be done,” an anonymous student wrote in the first post.
Regarding his tweets, Thin told The Edinburgh Tab that they “were all clearly intended as constructive contributions to public debate on morally important issues of public interest.”
He added: “What I seem to be being accused of is not having views that ‘align’ with the views of the complainers. I see it as very important for the quality of university discourse, and for the social climate, for us all to try to discuss difficult issues in open-minded ways.”
Inspired by the debate which these posts sparked, several third year social anthropology students at the University of Edinburgh came together and wrote a letter to be sent to academic staff members in the department.
“As students of social anthropology, we pay to learn how to decolonise our thinking and create an inclusive society and environment by carrying out and learning from research that amplifies the voices of minorities.
“Yet a senior member of staff involved in the dissertation writing process is making public comments which contradict many of the allegedly core values of the anthropology department.”
The email also made clear that “This is not an attempted “cancellation” or a denial of freedom of speech, as we understand that staff do not have to preach what they teach, nor do we wish to attack Neil’s character.”
Rather, the issue they raise is with how Thin’s position as lecturer, personal tutor, and dissertation supervisor is influenced by his personal opinions.
The students wrote:
“Students of Neil have felt as though their ideas are being rejected for not conforming with his own, or that we cannot come forward with our experiences of institutional racism, sexism, or transphobia because his beliefs are associated with the department.
“On behalf of the third year anthropology students, we would like an explanation, and an appropriate response from the university.”
Other students joined the complaint with their own personal emails, which were sent to several professors and tutors including Linka McKie, the Head of School of Social and Political Science.
In a recent announcement to all social anthropology students, Head of Subject Lotte Hoek wrote:
“We have received the letter from our third year cohort and are aware of the messages on social media that followed. We are all very concerned about what we hear and see. We have and are taking action to address the many concerns raised.”
Speaking to The Student, Thin said that he is yet to be invited by the university to reply to any accusations, and that to encourage the process “in a more positive direction”, he has put himself on a waiting list with the human resources department asking for a mediation meeting with all concerned.
Through their Instagram page and submission box, BlackEd have been collecting testimonies from students voicing complaints about Thin’s behaviour as well as evidence of problematic feedback he’s given.
For example, one student wrote:
“This was my dissertation supervisor in 2019. My dissertation was on influencer culture and when I put in quotes from my informants about how minority influencers cannot gain the same fame and opportunities as white able bodied rich influencers, I got told it was irrelevant and to take it out. I didn’t and I got a 58 for all my hard work.”
A recent graduate also said:
“[Neil Thin] was the person in charge of our dissertation class. Many of us chose to write dissertations on gender and feminism that year. He marked all of them down and added comments like ‘this is too woman focused, what about men? Men are hardly ever the topic of academic discovery, feminism is overdone.’ He was actually reported and taken off of being a diss supervisor for any gender related essays.”
In a statement given to The Student, Thin said:
“Particularly for qualitative and interpretive work, and especially when this relates to politically or personally sensitive issues, it is almost impossible to offer robust feedback that carries no risk of offence-taking. In fact, a lecturer who shied away from the responsibility to challenge students’ views, or to challenge them to provide evidence in support of their arguments, would not be a responsible lecturer.”
One third year social anthropology student, who wishes to remain anonymous, told The Student:
“We would like a public apology from Neil Thin regarding how his behaviour has negatively impacted students. We would also like him to be more restricted from the dissertation process since he ran the dissertation ideas course alone last year. Of course there are still some possible domains in which he may be suitable as a dissertation supervisor. It would be ideal if all of his powerpoints and lectures were audited, in order to make sure they are appropriate. Essentially, students just need to feel safe knowing that their essays won’t be judged based on his views, but will be judged based on the marking scheme.”
Image: Wikimedia Commons