Monday, February 02, 2004

Advocacy in the Classroom and Tenure

K C Johnson's comments on a potential tenure scandal discussed in this Erin O'Connor's post made me want to discuss "academic freedom" a little bit. I've read the materials posted by Francisco Gil-White, an assistant prof. of psychology who does additional advocacy work on purported U. S. war crimes in Yugoslavia as well as being an advocate against anti-semitism. Gil-White seems likely to have his tenure denied and, as best one can tell from the materials posted, this denial is due to his using class time for discussion of his political work.

I can't have a real position on the merits of the specific case, since I don't have all the info, but it's worth discussing what should and shouldn't be in the classroom.

First, this would never be an issue if the professor were in History, or Political Science, or probably even English (though if he were a medievalist and were using class time on the 20th century, people might wonder). But since I don't have an insider's knowledge of "BioCultural Psychology," I can't opine on what belongs in the discipline or in the specific courses.

But the discussion of politics during undergraduate class time isn't as simple as either of the major camps seem to think. One camp, the "it doesn't belong there if it's not the subject of the course" seems on the surface quite reasonable. 'Teach Psychology (or Bio, or 18th century novels) and shut up about Iraq already' would be the understandable reflex of many in the blogosphere. But that approach, if taken to its logical conclusion, means that one manipulates or dissembles in front of one's students. I have a good friend who does this: he's proud that at the end of a course, the students have no idea what his actual political leanings are. He plays Devil's Advocate for either side, he attempts to keep a poker face, etc.

I'm sympathetic to this approach (and it's basically what I do), but I wonder if letting students believe something that's not true (i.e., that I don't have an opinion on issue X) is an honest thing to do. Is that, at its heart, good, honest pedagogy?

On the other hand, while I respect the political passion that some teachers carry into the classroom, I wonder if it is the best use of the students' time and, more importantly, if it isn't an abuse of the teacher's authority. No matter how you try to disguise it, you as the professor have the power in the classroom situation, and passionate politics can come close to forced indoctrination or, just as bad, coerced play-acting by the students, which is the reflex of the problem of play-acting by the professor.

It also should be the case that there is certain content-material that needs to be covered in any course. If the politics gets in the way of students understanding this material, no matter how important or passionately held the politics may be, then the students are not getting everything they need from the class. Of course there's a balance to be struck between simply learning material and learning how to think about it, but that balance needs to be discussed and interrogated: by students, mentors, departments and administrators as well as professors.

But in the end, and I'm afraid that this won't be a popular sentiment in the blogosphere, I think that we need to give professors near-dictatorial power in the classroom and trust them to do the right thing, even though some will fail that test. Not because professors are necessarily any more virtuous than anyone else (far from it), but because no one has devised a good and fair system of checks and balances, and the alternative--controlling professors via administrators who don't know the subject matter, or within-institution ad hoc peer review--is possibly a cure worse than the disease. That's the problem with trying to deal with these kinds of problems via tenure review. Better to have a good mentoring program that nips them in the bud (although it seems like such an approach was tried). The good news, if there is such, is that most professors I know are immensely influenced by student evaluations and peer comments not so much because they're scared of not getting tenure, but because they genuinely want to improve.

But this begs the question of what happens when you get someone who abuses his or her power in the classroom, and for that I don't have an answer, except to say that if I honestly believed someone was doing that, I would vote against his or her tenure regardless of scholarship or evaluations.

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