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.
Latest posts by Paula Marantz Cohen (Posts)
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