I’ve been trying to figure out why a blog entry by Erin O’Connor (whom I’m glad to see is actively blogging again at her own site, as well as continuing her participating at Actablog) has been gnawing at me. (Her ACTA entry she points to is a better starting place for discussion, as it is more detailed and specific.)
She compares the response of the Penn State administration to a planned demonstration on immigration issues by the College Republicans to Ajay Nair, who is teaching a course at the University of Pennsylvania, urging his students to attend immigration rallies, saying that he’s been “getting his classes mobilized”.
Some in the Penn State administration have made it clear that they don’t care for the particular protest: words like “unfortunate” pop up. At the same time, they’ve been clear in saying that the College Republicans have a right to do and say whatever they like. The ACTA piece infers that one of the administrators “wishes” he could suppress them. I dislike that kind of telepathic mode of interpretation. What they concretely say is that some people will find this protest offensive, that civility in a college community should include consideration for what other people find offensive. They also say that students and faculty and others can say whatever they like.
I am somewhat sympathetic to an argument that there’s something vaguely off about what Nair’s doing, and something vaguely off about what the Penn State administration’s saying and doing. So why does O’Connor’s ACTA entry bother me? I think whatever’s wrong with the two gestures, it’s not the same kind of wrong.
The symmetry that’s implied between the two episodes strikes me as a very common kind of linkage in many complaints about academia. Why it irritates me modestly when the point made is somewhat valid and made reasonably, and irritates me a lot when it’s made manifestly unfairly, as it is by Horowitzian types, is that what is lacking is an affirmative or clearly enunciated
Without a lot of specific clarity about what “best practice” involves, these criticisms can be potentially unreasonable, unfair or at their worse, actively destructive to the real reform and improvement of higher education.
Let’s start with the case of “mobilizing the classroom”. At least some of the people who complain about politicization of the classroom also complain about the irrelevant, over-intellectualized, over-theorized, unreal, self-absorbed, ethereal nature of much scholarship and teaching in the humanities and social sciences, about the distance between the world and the academy.
What is the course in contention in this particular case? (I think) it’s “ASAM 209: South Asians in the US”, which is noted as a community-based course within the Penn curriculum. (I’m not particularly fond of some formulations of “community-based learning”, but that’s a topic for another day.) Given the subject of the class, don’t the current debates about immigration seem powerfully relevant? If they’re relevant, in a disciplinary context that values direct contact with events, experiences and witnesses, doesn’t it seem like a good idea to get students to come to the protests?
Then there’s the statement that Nair was quoted as making about “mobilizing”, and a clear sense of his own advocacy. Is that objectionable? Well, if it is, then isn’t a huge range of what college faculty do objectionable? Isn’t it objectionable for O’Connor to be advocating about educational policy? Isn’t it objectionable for me to making polemical arguments about the current government of Zimbabwe in my scholarly writing? Isn’t it objectionable for any faculty to have any stated opinion on public policy? or aesthetics? or on how to build a better bridge? You can’t object to Nair having an opinion on the grounds of expertise: “South Asians in the US” as a course is closely connected to the competencies and work that Penn hired him for, including directing student programs at the university.
In the absence of a strongly articulated theory about the nature of the classroom, criticisms of this kind of statement cannot simply stand as self-evident indictments. Worse, if made carelessly, they could easily lead to an even further loss of academic relevance, a perverse demand that academic discourse be even more disconnected from the world. The problem is not with a professor who has opinions about what should be done, or that directs people to attend rallies, or with a course has a slant or angle to it. My course “History of the Future” raises questions about whether contemporary futurism is determined or shaped by the past it inherits. It puts into sharply critical perspective the authoritarian strain in much futurist thought. It makes fun of experts who casually predicted that we’d all have personal jetpacks by 1995. Are those acts of advocacy or bias for which I should be reprimanded? Is Erin O’Connor over the line if she frames a course intended to “trouble” the concept of the Victorian novel?
Obviously not: that’s exactly what pedagogy should do, and if you look at the course blog for her course on that topic, you can feel confident about the productive results.
So what’s the theory of pedagogy that we ought to be articulating, the ethical statement? What is the line that should not be crossed by a professor in a classroom? It is not connecting the course to the world. It is not asking people to attend to or observe undeniably relevant events. It is not even having a declared advocacy or opinion. It is not having a “slant” or conscious argument in the course presentation.
The sin here would be to create a course where all the answers are dictated in advance, where there is no exploration, where every time the course is taught, the journey is entirely dictated as a command exercise, where the professor not only has an opinion but makes clear an expectation that everyone must share his or her opinion in order to be a legitimate part of the course. The sin is to fail to protect, to fail to actively produce a kind of pluralistic space within the classroom. This NOT a space of “tolerance”. I hate that formulation, because it takes every student as a sort of fixed identity with fixed opinions who must be made to feel comfortable or safe. Classrooms are unsafe space, and should remain so at all times. What I’m talking about is an expectation that everyone at all times, including the professor, is expected to navigate the entire range of conceptual possibilities, open questions, and actively argued premises that fall within the course’s boundaries.
You can’t tell whether or not a course has those attributes by knowing that a professor urges people to attend rallies or regards himself as having a strong position on a matter of public concern. I’m not even sure that the sense that the class is “mobilizing” should be seen as such. I teach a course on 20th Century history in equatorial Africa that looks in particular detail at episodes like Leopold’s regime in the Congo, the genocide in Rwanda and the rise and fall of Mobutu’s regime in the Congo. I mean to put moral, ethical and political questions at the center of that course. I myself am profoundly skeptical, even cynical, about many formulations of humanitarian intervention or development, but I would be pleased at the “teaching outcome” if a student who took that course felt “mobilized” in some respect by it and took that sense into some kind of activist project. I don’t require or even advocate that outcome, but it’s a success all the same, because it means the student is putting the course to use, processing knowledge in some respect. For the same reason, I’d be equally happy with a student who became a legislative aide and pushed major cuts to some development assistance. But I wouldn’t be happy with a student who flew to the Congo to join a militia and participated in butchering peasants and wrote me years later that he found my teaching invaluable.
Not all outcomes are good ones: I daresay that O’Connor might be nonplussed if one of her students came to the conclusion that Victorian literature is all unadulterated shit and should neither be taught nor studied. Classrooms are spaces of exploration, but they are also spaces of constraint as well. Some subjects dictate certain kinds of gravity and weight by their nature. You don’t open up Holocaust denial in a class on the Holocaust. Perhaps for similar reasons you don’t open up an argument in a course called “South Asians in the US” that all South Asians should be sent home because the US is a white country. There are boundaries.
But yes, I do think that saying you’re “mobilizing” your students is at least a red flag moment that raises a concern about whether you’re really creating a range of possible outcomes, whether you’re teaching in an exploratory and thus empowering manner. The point is to red flag it for the right reasons.
The same for Penn State’s administration. What about those Penn State administrators? Are we suggesting that administrators should never take sides or have an opinion about issues within their institutions? Or that what the administrators said when they noted that some would find the College Republican protest offensive was factually untrue? Are we seriously going to say that it is not the job of university administrations to mediate disputes, to smooth rough edges, to try and ensure that conflict doesn’t interfere with the ongoing business of the institution? That can’t be what’s objectionable about the administrative statements: those are all legitimate functions. What’s wrong with an administrator saying, “I disagree with either the form or the content of this action, or this protest?” I want a college president to be able to say, “I really dislike what Ward Churchill [or insert the name of any professor whose opinions you dislike] said.” All the people who were defending the right of Larry Summers to have strongly voiced opinions on a variety of subjects should not find themselves automatically heading the barricades when ACTA sounds this particular alarm about Penn State, or if they do so, it should be for very precisely the right reasons.
Administrations should mediate. They should manage. They should have opinions. What they should not do is enforce restrictions or restraints on speech. When does having an opinion become a kind of restraint, if a far less dire or worrisome one than something as formal as a speech code or quasi-statute? When it invokes the will of the community, or speaks on behalf of a collective whole. If a college president has an opinion, it should be his or her opinion, not an ex cathedra statement that invokes the weight of the entire institution. Now of course good persuasive articulations of an opinion sometimes invoke the opinions of others, but there is a difference between a reasoned use of other people’s opinion as part of persuasion and a claim to act on or speak on behalf of many.
This is a partly a functional distinction: good mediators are wise not to appear to take sides. When an administration sets out to mediate, they have to avoid appearing to be advocates. When they set out to advocate, they’re part and parcel of the exchange of ideas and knowledge within a university, no different than any other group or individual.
Again, it’s important to get this right at the deep level. It’s ok to suggest that civility is difficult to maintain when one constituency sets out to provoke another. It’s also ok to have an opinion. What you shouldn’t do is try to do both at the same time. Moreover, doing both at the same time is a fundamentally different kind of mistake from the errors of a flawed teacher in the classroom. The comparison is misleading, and invokes some kind of implied general hypocrisy among academics. Not to say they’re not hypocritical about many things, including academic freedom, but this isn’t one of those moments where it’s the same basic issue that’s on the table.