The Shape of the Gordian Knot: Advocacy and the Classroom

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 theory of advocacy and politics in relation to pedagogy that would specify what is and is not legitimate. Instead, what we get is a kind of running episodic commentary that implies a consistent ethos or vision of best practice but that vision is largely absent or inferred. You can find a somewhat consistent theory through organizations like FAIR and ACTA, but even then, there is some distance between the large-scale defense of “academic freedom” and what that actually means in terms of how people should teach, speak and act within academic environments.

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.

This entry was posted in Academia. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to The Shape of the Gordian Knot: Advocacy and the Classroom

  1. withywindle says:

    The pedagogical theory is, What Would Trilling Do? –and some basic knowledge of the lack of simple equivalence between political engagement and political activism.

    Now, I have far more sympathy for Horowitz et al than you do … but leaving that aside, the fact that the administrative and professorial actions are distinct in kind, doesn’t rule out the possibility that they are alike in ideological bias. Your talk of mediation and opinions is all well and fine, but somehow the skew always seems to be left-liberal–and the disparate impact does begin to seem to be a significant pattern.

    Fundamentally, I do want American universities to have opinions–but I want them to reflect and endorse the broad American consensus, not only one partisan fraction thereof. Its the repeated institutional inability to manage that particular hat trick that troubles, and convinces one that there is an institutional problem.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    To be honest, that’s partially the argument that worries me: if the connective tissue between the two cases is, “Professors are too liberal!”, it’s not a fair connection. Erin’s ACTA entry implies that it’s a problem with professionalism, that there are things you shouldn’t do as faculty or administration. If it’s a problem with the political views that people actually hold, what kind of useful instruction does that give to current faculty and administrations about what kind of conduct they should pursue? “X number of current faculty need to take up Y ideological opinions in order to have universities be a perfect mirror of existing opinion within the United States?”

    This goes back to the bias argument at a different place, namely, what is the reason that humanities faculties, for example, trend leftward? How do you manage the trick of getting an ideological balance to precisely reflect America? Quotas? If I explicitly designated that the next 50% of hires in the humanities at a given school should be conservatives of some kind, just how would I go about accomplishing that, given that there are almost certainly insufficient numbers of appropriate candidates in the hiring pool? Start offering special scholarships to avowed conservatives to come and do a Ph.D in English literature?

    In order to reflect the American consensus, you’d also have to do a lot of social engineering work on professional faculties that trend to conservatism. More liberals and leftists needed in economics departments, for example. Get some liberal fellows into Hoover.

    I agree that methodological, intellectual and political diversity is a good thing in the academy, and that we don’t have much of it. I think the reasons for that are complex and multifaceted, but that a certain smugness, an insulated attitude, sometimes contributes to the problem.

    The answer is in the kind of professionalism I’m describing. If the ironclad professional obligation of a professor is towards exploratory pedagogy, then there is the possibility that any student, of any political leaning, could take from a class material that excites or engages them in their own direction. I think a libertarian, a religious conservative, a liberal or a radical could all get something energizing and challenging out of my History of the Future class. If a class on the experience of immigrants left enough exploratory room for a student to feel that need statutory or enforcement controls on immigration are in fact necessary, you could say the same.

    If that professionalism is in place, then we can be much more certain that there’s an honest market at play in the choices of students who pursue doctoral training. (As well as all other students in terms of making use of the instruction offered.) If all of my colleagues everywhere lived up to that professionalism, and still the students drawn to the humanities did not reflect the American consensus, what would you have us do at that point? Pursue markedly UNconservative institutional solutions, suborn the market, ignore the autonomous choices made by people? Would you argue for the same in all professions? (Law, medicine, business) At what point do you accept that some of the social pattens which exist in American society are the product of authentic choices and preferences which reside in the habitus of people?

    The link between these incidents you propose, even if one accepts the observation, doesn’t instructively tell academic professionals what they should do instead, doesn’t define what is unprofessional or boundary-crossing about their behavior. It just says, “You appear to have the wrong opinions”. That, I guess, is my fear about what Erin may seem to be thinking, and why I think it’s important to offer instead a prescriptive description of academic professionalism.

  3. Alan Baumler says:


    I think I am generally in agreement with you, but I think the citadel of professionalism thing needs to be thought out a bit more and I’m not sure how to do it.

    I agree that a faculty that “looks like America” is impractical and I would say probably a bad idea. We are however, in the education business, and although you are not quite in the same position as a Jr. High American Civics textbook you have to sort of expect that people will want to shape what we do. Part of the whole culture wars thing is people who are vaguely unhappy with the state of things looking for a place to define what is wrong and where you could apply a lever to change it. University faculties and curriculum are a perfect target. We can’t fall back on the local control defense, we make up our own curriculum so these are really our choices, rather than ones made by some amorphous curriculum process. More importantly we really do claim to be interpreters of American and world cultures. We want everyone to listen to us (not that they do) and also to not attract the attention of David Horowitz.

    Given that I think that professionalism is a thin shield. No matter how much more professional and open we become, and I agree we could do better, it can’t ever be enough. Biology has a very professional method for choosing between creationism and evolution, but that does not help them much when they are criticized. Pointing to a professional, non-ideological structure for reaching our situation can work in debates inside academe, but not so well outside of it.

    I guess the big difference here is that you are more interested in making a better academy, and I, at least in this post, am more interested in defending it as it exists, or at least defending it from people I don’t think will make it better and don’t have its best interests at heart. But on your question, do you really think that there is some more professional, less group-think-y structure that we could set up that would make things better in any sense? I think it would clearly not make things better in the sense of making David Horowitz go away. Some of the people involved in this debate are interested in ideological results rather than coming up with a process that will validate whatever results we get. I think you may be chasing a chimera. The academy will always be different from society. Part of this is that parts of society have beliefs that an academic academy can never reproduce (creationist biologists). Part of it is that society has no real views on a lot of things that academics should have views on. I suppose if it was explained most Americans would want American History taught around the presidential synthesis, which no good academic historian would do. Maybe the biggest problem is that the academy can’t reflect society as a whole because no part of society reflects society as a whole. Engineers think energy problems are best solved by building more power-plants, businesspeople are impressed by the power of the free market, and academics like to think that we can think (or blovate) our way out of problems and have, both professionally and personally, a lot of liberal attitudes. I can’t imagine any process that would yield us an academic department that was both a good academic department and had serious reservations about putting a lesbian in front of a class of impressionable youth. True the academy likes to think we are the world, but maybe we should re-think that and figure out what we are.

    P.S. I am not connecting withywindle to D.Ho.

  4. Neel Krishnaswami says:

    Timothy, you wrote, “In order to reflect the American consensus, you’d also have to do a lot of social engineering work on professional faculties that trend to conservatism. More liberals and leftists needed in economics departments, for example.”

    Actually, professional economists are somewhat more likely to left-leaning and Democratic than the general public. Perhaps you disagree with the professional consensus within economics about what the facts are and what good methodological practice is, rather than with the political and ideological beliefs of economists?

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    I don’t think we disagree. I do think that maybe a more consistent commitment to exploratory pedagogy and exploratory scholarship would widen the inputs into academia in several respects, open up what are now sometimes insidiously closed markets. I think this is more applicable to the humanities and the social sciences. I would feel much more confident about the possibility that a “conservative” style of literary criticism could flourish under the same criteria of evaluation if we were teaching more consistently in a way that opened literary criticism to a richer set of challenges, readings, and uses.

    There’s another piece to this problem, and that’s communicating more effectively about why our histories or humanistic analyses or technological insights or scientific paradigms don’t correspond to some popular expectations about what the content of academic knowledge ought to be. I think there’s a good reason, for example, to question whether American history is best understood as a chronologically linear succession of presidential administrations, a good reason that can easily be communicated to wider publics. What I think we shouldn’t do is just come to the conclusion that “they” won’t get it and so why bother?

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    Neel: I think it’s plausible for someone to characterize the professional consensus within economics as having an intrinsic politics to it, and reading that politics as aligned with free-market forms of conservatism. I don’t necessarily share that view (nor do I see it as an intrinsic problem if that were so). This is a sense of the political that I think isn’t the same as “what’s your party affiliation”, which strikes me as an even more chimeric kind of “reflection” to desire, that somehow university faculties should map as closely as possible to existing distributions of party affiliation in the larger public. (Quite aside from the fact that I don’t think party affiliation is a good map of the “American consensus”, why should a state university in a “blue” city, for example, map against the political affiliations of a national population? What’s the population against which faculty affiliation should be properly mapped? The immediate community? The larger county or region? The state? The area of the country? The whole nation?)

  7. too_many_logins says:


    Perhaps Erin was misinformed a bit.

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    Let’s put it this way: the president of Penn State is making an empirically accurate statement when he says that protest plan is going to be offensive or objectionable to many people at Penn State. Which is not a reason necessarily for the College Republicans to rethink their plans: it all depends on what they’ve got in mind, about their intent. But I’ve advised student groups here at times when I think their stated objectives and their tactics don’t match up: what’s wrong with doing that?

  9. withywindle says:

    A division between political engagement as a scholar or public intellectual and apolitical inclusiveness as a teacher would be a good start.

    I think you misunderstood my initial point. Our points of view are not only narrowly partisan, but also more broadly American, and still rather distinct from other views around the world; many of our internal political debates reflect shared values. It wouldn’t hurt liberal professors to conceive of their own attitudes and identities more broadly, to teach as Americans rather than as liberals; or, if teaching as liberals, to teach that conservative values are part of a shared American consensus, where one can disagree without hatred. Too damn many professors can’t seem to enter a classroom without saying Republicans and conservatives are evil, stupid, insane, scum, Nazis, etc.

    I suppose what it comes down to is that a uniform liberal professoriate wouldn’t be so bad if they could manage some minimal civility and good manners, at the very least in the classroom.

    (I can almost predict a reply that X Republican or conservative isn’t mannerly either. To which I say, so what? Set a good example.)

  10. Simon Shoedecker says:

    I think there’s a difference between expressing your own opinion on an issue and issuing exhortations to your students in the classroom as to what you think they should do about it. Expression and exhortation are different rhetorical modes.

    I further think there’s a difference between that exhortation and going out and saying you’re “mobilizing” your classroom. An exhortation may always be declined, even if it’s to an effectively captive audience. But a mobilization, even if only rhetorical, enlists the students in the struggle against their will and defines any who decline as deserters. That I find morally objectionable.

  11. Timothy Burke says:

    Yes, Simon. That’s why I agree in the end that I don’t care for the reported rhetoric in the specific case that Erin O’Connor is commenting on.

    Withywindle: Ah, sorry I didn’t quite get you on the first go-round. Yes, I actually would agree that it’s important to restrain oneself in that respect. I went to a meeting in December 2001 where one of my colleagues talked about how disturbing she found all the flags she saw on lawns when she was travelling in the South. Now the interesting thing is that I don’t think most of the people shared her distress, but also, no one was really going to start up a fight about it. More importantly, it obviously didn’t occur to her that there could even be disagreement or discomfort with her observation in the form she voiced it, e.g., where it was unimaginable that anyone could have another point of view. That’s what you’ve got to avoid, I think, is that sense that it’s impossible that anyone could dissent. I don’t think there could be any objection to having an opinion (and maybe even to a cheap crack or two) if there was a sense that the welcome mat was out for any and all points-of-view and possible other sensibilities.

  12. Neel Krishnaswami says:

    Hi Timothy, I’ve taken so long to respond because I don’t know how to respond without sounding aggressive or combative, and I don’t mean to. Please read the sequel as offered in a spirit of genuine curiousity:

    Why do you think that economics needs more leftists and liberals? What problem do you see; is it a cultural problem within the profession, or do you think it’s something else?

    My own belief is that leftists and liberals who become economists tend towards free-market opinions, for the same reasons that religious Christians who become biologists mostly believe in evolution — the particular expertise they acquire makes them aware of a truth. However, the hypothetical characterization you offered — that economics tends to supports free-market conservatism — is only half true. Markets, sure, but not conservatism. Those two don’t have a necessary link.

    My first job out of college was working for Yale’s Robert Shiller. He had a company that existed to produce the financial information needed to dramatically expand the range and scope of derivatives markets. Bob Shiller wanted to do this because he wanted people to have much better social insurance than they currently do, and he thought we needed the appropriate derivatives markets to make those protections financially sustainable. The revealing but inaccurate way of describing his worldview is that he was like a cross between a New Deal Democrat and a hedge fund manager. It’s revealing and inaccurate because it’s funny on its face — to most people, those two worldviews are obviously incompatible, and mixing the two is “clearly” going to produce nonsense. But he had a subtlety, depth and rigor to his thinking that I find astonishing even today; it was the exact opposite of incoherence. However, I think this kind of perspective fits poorly into the usual systems of language when talking about politics — the typical liberal or leftist only uses the word market with a negative connotation, so economists tend to get categorized as conservatives regardless of the actual content of their beliefs.

    There’s an interesting parallel here with the observations Alan made about the relationship between professional norms and debate outside the academy, but I should stop before I go on too long.

  13. Timothy Burke says:

    I absolutely do not think economics needs more liberals. Sorry if that’s not clear, Neel. I’m observing that for the people who claim that we need the professoriate to reflect the range of American political opinion, that if they were taken seriously as a mandate, that might have some effects that they don’t expect. E.g., they think that’s about getting conservatives a space in the humanities, but it also might mean getting radicals a space in business schools. To me, this is one reason why the idea that the professoriate should reflect the “American consensus” is a non-starter. There are reasons besides “bias” or groupthink that many in the humanities identify as they do politically, and the same for economists, etcetera. It’s true that academia in general could value intellectual diversity more than it does, but I really think it’s a mistake to articulate that in terms of a need to “reflect the American consensus”. That’s pretty much the thrust of this whole entry: that such a response is a mistake.

    For myself, I don’t see any political problem with economics. I would probably tweak the discipline for some of its limitations (overreliance on theories and models which are casually seen as having real-world application, for example) but that’s not a political critique.

  14. flizzo my nizzo says:

    Some people thrive on rubbing the porcupine in the wrong direction.

Comments are closed.