Tuesday, March 21, 2006

How to Get Reported by Students of Academic Freedom

As promised I have more to say about the SAF handbook on how to start up an SAF cell on campus. What I will focus on today is what they consider to be "violations of the AAUP conduct code." Before enumerating these violations, I just want to note an odd phrase (well, at least odd to me) that SAF uses, which is "lesson plan." They claim "According to the AAUP's professional guidelines, professors have an obligation to present their students with a diverse range of scholarly opinions on subject that they teach and should not deviate from their lesson plan . . ." First of all, I have no idea how to put together a "lesson plan." I am a college professor. We are not required to take a bunch of education courses that teach us how to put together a lesson plan. We might come up with an outline of the material we will lecture on, or we might just come in with a list of questions to start discussion. As a college professor I operate with the assumption that the students are mature enough to do the reading I have assigned, to ask me questions if they don't understand the reading, and then to participate in class discussions that test out hypothesis, consider counterarguments, or pursue the consequences of a certain line of argument. I view the students to have a rather active role in their own education in college. I don't see my role as one who merely transmits what is already in the reading to them during a class period. That is a waste of all of our times. They can read, so class is for getting to the nuances of positions or considering how Aristotle's Politics might clarify what we mean by "equal treatment under the law."

Enough of my rant on the idea of "lesson plans." Now to the violations:

(1) Assigning required readings or texts covering only one side of a controversial issues (e.g. texts that are only pro-or anti-affirmative action)

If you read my post from yesterday, then you already know that the SAF group has no explicit criteria for determining something like what a "controversial" idea is. Ideas are fundamentally politicized, put forward by those with an investment in a particular view, and therefore I am not sure what counts as "controversial." Is a controversial idea one that is put forward by those less in power? Does evolution count as a controversial idea? Do news stories that claim prisoner abuses in Abu Ghraib or Gitmo count as controversial? Who decides what is or isn't controversial?

(2) Introducing controversial material tht has no relation to the subject of the course (ex: making remarks on political issues in math or science class; lecturing on the war in a class that is not about the war or about international relations)

We still don't really know what counts as controversial. However, I can't help but find these examples of what is not appropriate to discuss in class. Why on earth can't scientists or mathematicians talk about politics. Why shouldn't my friend Jack, the Astrophysicist talk about the Mars mission? Can't a mathematician point out poorly reasoned studies? How about global warming? Is that a "controversial issue." And for goodness sakes, of course people not teaching war or international relations can talk about the war. Give me a reason why it is inappropriate for me to ask my students about the justification of war in a moral issues course?

(3) Compelling student to express a certain point of view in assignments (e.g., at a college in Colorado a professor assigned students in a mid-term evaluation to explain why George W. Bush was a war criminal).

This is going to sound crazy, I know, but I just don't see what is wrong with that assignment. Every year I regularly make students adopt positions that they don't personally hold in order to be able to understand counterarguments to their position. For example, I have my students debate every year whether or not God is guilty for all the unnecessary pain and suffering in the world. I first who wants to defend God. Then I make those students prosecute and vice versa. I do the same thing with moral issues. When you ask a student to be able to defend a certain viewpoint, they still have to do a good job to earn a good grade. Its not like the assignment merely says True or False: George W Bush is a war criminal.

(4) Mocking national political or religious figures in a one-sided manner (e.g., singlin out only liberals for ridicule, or only conservatives).

Cool, does this mean Harvard students are making complaints about Harvey Mansfield? Seriously, though, what constitutes "mocking national political or religious figures"? If I claim that President Nixon was a crook, do I have to also add that Bill Clinton lied about getting a blow job from Monica Lewinsky? First of all, it seems to me that mocking anyone is a rather ineffective way to teach your students how to critically consider the acts of such national/religious figures. Ad hominem attacks are poor arguments. But, I think this "violation" is simply too vague to make any sense of it.

(5) Conducting political activities in class (e.g., recruiting students to attend political demonstrations or providing extra credit for political activism-type assignments).

This reminds me of a story a colleague just told me at lunch. He asked his students if any of them had participated in any protests for any reason before. Only one had. He then asked what would get them so fired up that they would attend a political rally. They all said: "if you give us extra credit." What is wrong with asking students to attend a political rally or speech? What if you gave them extra credit for going to hear G. Gordon Liddy speak (which I did)? Or, how about listening to Jonathan Kozol's speech? I gave students extra credit if they wrote thoughtful analyses of the lecture, without telling them whether or not they should agree or disagree. What if I was an anthropology professor and asked students to do field research at an anti-war rally? What's the problem here?

(6) Grading a students' political or religious belief (e.g., grading a student more leniently when they agree with the professor's viewpoint on matters of opinion)

I can't deny that this is a real problem. I have experienced this, I assure you. Try writing a feminist criticism of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit at Boston College with a misogynist professor. I also though wonder what evidence would be sufficient to show that the teacher graded a student down because he/she disagrees with many positions the professor introduces in class. What happens if a student is just a poor writer or does badly on a test and nonetheless claims it was payback for being conservative. How would we verify that this sort of malice was at work? I think there are ways to do so, but I would like to hear what they are.

Well folks, these are my latest thoughts on the vacuousness of SAF's language. I will regale you tomorrow with my own experience of being singled out for being an evil liberal indoctrinator. Should be good stuff . . .stay tuned.