conversations with Paula and Roberteducation

Can professors really keep politics out of their classes?

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Paula: Having read the discussion of how teaching evaluations affect tenure in universities in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, I was struck by the implicit assumption on the part of the aggrieved teachers and of the reporter that it is fine to air personal political views in class — that this is part of the initiation of students into various viewpoints.

But it has always been my assumption that the role of the teacher is to hold back — at least to some degree — on personal views so as to give the students a chance to explore more objectively. I suppose this is the conventional, traditional view, though as some profs point out, the seemingly “objective” view can also be implicitly politicized.

Still, I see objectivity — or nonalignment (perhaps a better way of putting it) — as the ideal. I do think that so-called “enthusiasm” is sometimes a euphemism for zealotry. When enthusiasm is linked to a particular political position it is not a positive value in a teacher and can instead be a form of bullying and coercion — and students can rightfully resent it.

  Robert: I want to challenge the premise of your statement above. I did not find in the article the implicit assumption that you found that it is fine to air personal political views in class. What I got was the implicit argument of the instructors that their courses required uncomfortable discussions of race and gender and privilege and that they paid a price because some students were uncomfortable and unhappy with the views about (white and male) privilege discussed in the class.

The woman who teaches the history of black minstrelsy is going to probably assign a lot of readings that describe and decry racism and white people’s attitudes towards blacks and how they got impressed in minstrelsy. The second teacher had one student complain “she supports gay rights.” Now it may be that this teacher didn’t have readings from “another side” or an opposing position to those who found media bias and slant against gay people, etc. But should that be necessary?

This is a tricky topic it seems to me because (and you know I had to go here), I find the teaching of most American history (until very recently ) and world history and European history completely politically biased and dishonest, ethnocentric and nationalist and jingoistic. It’s just that the people who would object to this don’t have the power that these white students have in complaining about these “radical” teachers. The biases were so inherent that the professors never had to explicitly state them.

Disciplines contain within them various assumptions, implicit slants, etc. Sociologists do not see the world like economists do or like historians do, and just as there are courses like the ones these women teach that are inherently slanted towards a certain critique of America, there are other courses slanted towards a certain defense of traditional institutions and practices.

I remember noticing this as an undergraduate. The conservative professors in the government department at Harvard started with certain premises in their courses; liberals started from different premises. Is a premise different from a personal political opinion? I don’t know.


Paula: Your points here are well taken, and they don’t entirely oppose my own. I do realize that many courses have traditionally been taught with an inherent bias, a bias that was so pervasive, so built in, as to pass as objectivity, and that we now need to counter that sort of thing. But that doesn’t mean that we should counter it with a political bias in another direction. How precisely we can teach without imposing our own views is not entirely clear to me.

You’re right that if you teach a course on black minstrelsy, you’re going to have to address issues of racism and exploitation in American culture. But it’s one thing to introduce those issues, another to take a
self-righteous position with regard to them, to make students feel personally to blame, or to milk victimhood in order to assume a position of superiority. I feel, for example, that the Holocaust has been taught with a bit of that sort of attitude in the past. The subject needs to be taught but the teacher ought not to be proselytizing or dictating how the thing should be taken. It’s not like I feel there should be readings saying the Holocaust didn’t happen — any more than I think we need readings against gay rights or in favor of slavery. It’s just that the facts ought to speak for themselves and that how students understand them in a wider context ought to be left to them.

I’m entirely in favor of filling in the blanks in American — and world — history that previous pedagogy has left out. But I’m not for grandstanding or ramming how students are supposed to feel about those facts down their throat. Part of respecting students is respecting the fact that they can come to judgments on their own if they are encouraged to read widely and critically. Those judgments may not entirely coincide with our own but I believe that if presented well they will be comprehensible to us and may even alter our own views and fill in blind spots that we may not be seeing.

My sense of the instructors in the article was that they may have been doctrinaire in the way they presented their material — that they were not only excited by their subject but by their position on their subject. It is a difficult distinction to make sometimes, and I know I myself can slip into the preacherly style. But I don’t think it represents my best moments as a teacher.


Robert: I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here. I’m sensing that the teachers in this article did not make room for students who might challenge the premises of their courses. Any course on race or gender needs to allow this room, and I’m thinking it’s a big mistake when teachers don’t think carefully about how to set up the course work and readings. Also I’m wondering if they made gratuitous statements about race and class before their students.

Two of my favorite professors in college were politically conservative. Sometimes their conservatism spilled over into the courses they taught. In fact, I would say that their conservatism was fundamental in some ways to what they were teaching.

This did not bother me or my friends at the time because we knew both of these people were spectacularly smart and interesting. And there was room in their classes to reach conclusions at variance to what the professors reached. They also avoided extraneous comments about controversial issues that could be divisive.

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8 Responses to “Can professors really keep politics out of their classes?”

  1. Scott,

    Great comments. .

    Here’s part of what I think happens: students hear an opinion or what appears to be “an opinion” of the professor and they assume they have to toe the prof’s line. I think 95 percent of professors would prefer a thorough, sophisticated paper that reaches conclusions opposite to their own views than a poorly researched paper that parrots their own views.

    I know I would. I know you would as well.

    Funny, I once had a student apply the logic of a class reading to reach the conclusion that Bush was right to invade Iraq. Now I had then and have now a different opinion of this war altogether, but I was blown away by the student’s application of what we had discussed in class. His defense of the war was a wonderful extension of an argument presented in class.

    The sad/tragic thing is that I’m not sure the student “got” my comments about his impressive thinking. I wonder if he thought I simply agreed with his conclusion. I confess that as an undergrad, I didn’t always get this distinction.

    I don’t think the current generation of college students feels confident about confronting their teacher politely in the classroom or afterwards. Certainly afterwards, a student could approach any instructor and explain the discomfort the student feels with the gratuitous remarks on politics by the professor.

    This should really be an opportunity for a conversation, an ongoing conversation.

  2. Sorry, Robert, my comment was accidentally deleted (my fault). You read it, but to provide others with context for your reponse, I was wondering about courses like the ones we teach (freshman writing), which do not require political content or a focus on race and gender, but which often have such a focus anyway, by virtue of the course’s mandate to teach critical thinking as part of teaching writing, and by virtue of the interests of the faculty members and the content of most anthologies used in these courses. I was wondering how common it was for instructors nationwide to turn writing classes into one-sided discussion classes. I wrote a lot more than that, now gone.

  3. I deleted it but then recovered it, more or less — Robert’s response above references this comment here:

    What about cases in which the instructor’s political or ideological viewpoint is not relevant — or essential — to the course content?

    Certainly if a student signs up for a course on Queer Theory, it should not come as a shock that traditional gender roles and values will come in for some criticism (though one would hope — perhaps against the odds — that the instructor would provide for the kind of space to disagree that you both mention above and would not ram an agenda down students’ throats). At least such courses are often electives at high levels within certain majors and not core requirements, so students are not generally forced to take them and when they do take them, they do so with the knowledge of what the courses entail — not that this should give license to an instructor to beat students up, but it does at least mean that students are not being blindsided.

    Then there are courses that many students must take outside of their majors because they meet core requirements, like introductory sociology, in which a certain slant might be implicit, as Robert says. In courses like this, again, one hopes that instructors don’t take that implicit slant as an excuse to indoctrinate students in a political agenda or to intimidate dissenters. Some point-of-view on the part of the instructor might be understandable, but I believe that even sociological theories can often be taught without turning a course into political advocacy and certainly without stumping for, or even mentioning, specific candidates.

    Then there are other courses — freshman composition is one — that are taken by nearly all students and that have no reason to have political content. However, because students are supposed to be improving critical thinking skills along with writing skills in these courses, and because these courses often focus on controversial topics and argumentation, I wonder how many instructors use it as an excuse to talk about the war, or corporate malfeasance, or current events, in order to advance whatever ideological or political agenda they happen to have. Those who do so harm the rest of us and also their students. It causes some students to resent their instructors and to associate literature and writing with one political ideology or party.

    By the way, textbook publishers are complicit in this — many freshman composition anthologies are far from balanced and have a focus on social issues from a left-ish viewpoint that has nothing to do with critical thinking and less to do with writing. These courses are not about race and gender, but in some cases a substantial portion of the textbook is. Publishers believe (correctly?) that this is what instructors want in their freshman readers. Could part of the cause of this be that some people teaching these courses don’t know how to, really, teach writing? Or don’t want to teach writing? — that’s too hard. It is easier and more entertaining and better for the instructor’s ego to just riff on politics to a captive audience. How this helps students write well is a mystery.

    I should note that I believe that my colleagues do know how to teach writing and also that I’m not aware of this being a problem where I teach. But given the content of the textbooks popular nationwide and the complaints floating around the blogosphere and the general sense among many that a political agenda is being pushed in the classroom, especially in the humanities, I wonder whether this sort of thing is common or rare in literature and writing classes generally across the country.

  4. Scott,

    I’ll give you an example of how politics can come up in a freshman writing class or in a technical writing class.

    I’m always encouraging students to apply what they read to their own lives or to find the pattern in what they read and see if they can match that pattern to something happening out in the world.

    So I (and assume others) get going on analogies. In the course of drawing up analogies, I may or may not get into contemporary politics. Usually, I’m trying to not take a cheap shot at anyone. I try to use examples where there is a rough consensus among people. Or if I don’t, I will highly SOME PEOPLE SAY ….

    My hope (and when it works well) is to focus on the pattern of thinking and not on the content of the specific example.

    The point is that in freshman writing I find that politics can easily come up. I taught Garcia Marquez’s “Chronicle of a Death Foretold” and the book is basically about a murder that everyone in a town knows is going to happen and yet no one intervenes to stop it. That is an easy set-up for analogies of all sort. This is the book that prompted my student to say Bush’s decision to invade Iraq (I guess Bush and the Congress would be more accurate) was a way of not sitting back and allowing something bad to happen (Saddam Husseing getting stronger and more dangerous).

    Don’t you get into analogies every now and then? Certainly some of your own interests and ideas come up as part of these analogies.

  5. Robert, sure, I make analogies and introduce my own interests when it helps to explain something to students. I agree that in a class that focuses on critical thinking and argumentation, there will often be political ramifications. I try not to make it about candidates or parties, and whenever possible, I try to not make it political at all (when I cannot completely avoid it, I am careful to include explicit disclaimers that I don’t expect students to share viewpoints and I try to be even-handed). I prefer to leave politics out of it. Analogies from human behavior or even sports can sometimes work just as well. But I am not arguing that some kind of political context or reference to current events is always wrong, not in a class that is about argumentation and evidence, etc. There’s nothing wrong with bringing the real world into the classroom.

    My concern is that too much of a focus by the instructor and the textbook on these social and political issues from more or less the same ideology tends to undermine credibility of the instructor to a good number of students and is responsible for the perception out there that the instructors in the humanities are not serious or even particularly interested in their own subject matter — a discussion of Chronicle of a Death Foretold (which I loved) might mention parallels to contemporary issues, but I would hope that the discussion of the work centers on the work itself and doesn’t turn into a full-period debate over Iraq policy, especially with the instructor taking sides and silencing or embarrassing the opposition (which I know you would not do). In compositon, I wonder how often this sort of thing takes the focus off of writing, which is after all what we’re supposed to be teaching. Nuts and bolts stuff, which too many students struggle with as it is.

    I for one am glad that my literature instructors in college were generally focused on the works themselves. They didn’t use Shakespeare as an opportunity to push Freud or Marx on us. We read Swift without it turning into a critique of America. I did, though, have an instructor in an American Lit survey course, that I took as a freshman, who used the course as an opportunity to air views on politics and race and gender. Somehow we’d end up in a conversation about how the boy band New Kids on the Block was stealing from New Edition, just as Elvis had stolen from Little Richard, or something. This took time away from actually discussing the work of Walt Waltman. It also turned off students, who concluded that literature instructors weren’t all that interested in literature, so why should students be interested in it?

  6. Robert, Paula, in light of this discussion of politics in the classroom, I wonder what you think about this story about teachers wearing campaign buttons in class in elementary through high school, as well as college.

  7. I’m afraid this looks like one of those stories that is more headline than story. From reading the story, I can’t tell if 10 teachers around the country are wearing these buttons or hundreds of thousands.
    And are the ones wearing these buttons wearing them in the classroom or after-school?

    There is no data or even hint of data in the story. I don’t think there is anything to comment on.

  8. The data (lack thereof) isn’t the point of my mentioning the article. The idea of teachers in a high school or elementary school wearing buttons supporting candidates is related to our discussion above that touched on how politics might be introduced into the classroom in an inappropriate way, due to the power/influence relationship between the professor (teacher) and the students. Even if the data showed that wearing the buttons was not widespread, the issues are whether the teachers should be or can be prohibited from wearing them and even if permitted to wear them legally, whether it is the sort of thing that teachers should not do.

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