Part I of some further thoughts on academia, teaching and politicization.
Undefined complaints about inappropriately “political” teaching worry me for the same reason that speech codes worry me. They worry me the same way that a draft policy on sexual harassment that we once considered here at Swartmore worried me. The draft policy invited anyone who thought they knew about inappropriate sexual conduct by faculty or staff to report this conduct to the provost. It emerged during the discussion of this provision that some of the faculty drafting it felt that almost any sexual relationship within the community, even between faculty members, was inappropriate, regardless of whether one of the two had a direct supervisory responsibility to the other. So what they were asking for was an open invitation to anyone, to any and all perceptual or conceptual understanding of what constitutes “harassment”, to compel the provost to formally investigate the conduct of others.
Equally, if you don’t have a tight, precise definition of what constitutes “politicized” misconduct in the classroom, if you manage to get a system in place for monitoring and intervening into classroom teaching, you’re going to despoil a lot of good teaching as well as constrain some bad teaching. Moreover, because you’re only interested in “politicization”, you’re going to misperceive what makes bad teaching bad.
I can think through this most clearly in the context of teaching I’ve actually seen or experienced. As an undergraduate at Wesleyan, I took several classes with a remarkable professor who specialized in the British Empire. He was one of the most memorable teachers I’ve ever encountered: eccentric, mercurial, challenging, inventive. He was also unmistakably “political” in that he didn’t hesitate to make his views on imperialism, geopolitics, and the knee-jerk leftism of his students known at any and all opportunities. Yes, that’s right: he was in many ways a conservative, or at least “anti-leftist”. I was often one of the targets of his barbs, and I loved it. He challenged me, and with a terrific sense of humor. “So! There’s one of the chaps who is against penicillin!” and “Ah, I hear you’re against imperialism. So when may we expect your protest march against the Arab conquest of North Africa?”
Yet, under the bill of particulars we’ve heard about lately, a humorless leftist student would have had every right to report him to the politicization monitors. His digressions weren’t advertised in his course descriptions or his syllabus. They were occasionally about events or issues that had nothing to do with his classes. And yes, he sometimes graded you with his politics in mind. I poured my heart and soul into a final paper in his course on imperial military history, and got marked down because he couldn’t “feel the blood and guts” through my analysis, because he had a particular, and somewhat political, vision of what military history ought to be and sound like. This was a wholly unannounced (and yet not unanticipated, if you’d gotten used to his style) criterion for the assignment. I talked to him about it, but I left it at that, with no less admiration or affection for him as a teacher. Any definition of professionalism that would invite me to report a teacher like that is a self-inflicted wound, a demolition of the systemic value it claims to defend.
Another undergraduate professor I knew, not in either of my majors, had a more cult-like following from activist students, and his syllabi were much more brutally constructed to exclude anything resembling a challenge to his own fairly particular views. I sat in for a week on one of his classes and decided to skip taking it for that very reason. So that’s a case where I think you could say something about his professionalism, and yet, even there, the students that he inspired and motivated were affected profoundly by him, and did some surprisingly open-ended things with what they got from his classes. If I were to say that his professionalism was lacking, what I would say is more precise by far than the standard of his being “political”: it is that his courses were not constructed around a principle of exploratory learning, that they were delivering preordained truths. But the classes and teachers I’ve seen about whom that could be said are for the most part not guilty of that sin because of “politics”. I’ve seen classes that could be appropriately criticized in that way which are resolutely apolitical, in fact, many more so than the overtly “political” ones.
Yet another undergraduate professor I had taught a course on the history of sexuality that certainly would have triggered the ACTA alert from its course description. Moreover, this professor was an active member of several groups of politically radical historians. Yet his pedagogy was as fastidiously open-minded as anything I’ve seen. He didn’t let students who seemingly agreed with him off the hook. He played devil’s advocate against all sides, was a studiously Socratic presence in the classroom. He sought to unsettle all the settled positions, including his own. Moreover, he taught about methodological problems in the discipline of history through the lens of sexuality. Even a student with no interest in the history of sexuality itself would have derived great utility from the course: it was “good to think” in terms of historical knowledge in general.
As a graduate student, I was a teaching assistant several semesters. In one of the courses I worked in, a perfectly decent historian got up and gave mind-numbingly boring, dry, detached lectures about his field, essentially declining to ever offer a reason why the subject should matter to the undergraduates. No one would ever report him for being political, but what he did worried me far more than if he had gotten up and insulted a Republican political candidate gratituously. The harm of that kind of teaching is deeper, longer, more corrosive. Rather than making a segment of the class feel silenced, and falsely cossetting another, this professor killed an entire area of knowledge for virtually his entire class, smothered it, gave them nothing to react to or think about.
Erin O’Connor points to a report by a student about a class where the pedagogy didn’t match the description. This is the kind of data that I think ACTA’s report should have been interested in, and should have been thinking about collecting or investigating beyond the limited usefulness of self-reporting at websites. O’Connor’s entry is a good example of why course descriptions aren’t necessarily good guides to what happens in the classrooms, which is the entire substance of ACTA’s apprehensions, about what happens to students in classrooms. In this case, in fact, going beyond the course description works to the benefit of ACTA’s argument. Neutral descriptions sometimes conceal misconduct in the classroom (though I’d continue to insist that descriptions which appear political, especially by ACTA’s undefined standard, sometimes correspond to challengingly open-minded pedagogy).
The misconduct in the case that O’Connor links to could be called “political”, but my inclination would be more to call it simply bad teaching. When I arrived at Swarthmore, one of my colleagues in the Education Program brought in a videotape that had been prepared at Harvard that was designed to sensitize us to diversity issues in the classroom. My problem with the videotape wasn’t so much its politics as the fact that every staged example of “insensitive teaching” was really just a case of bad teaching. The worst was a staged example of a professor in a course on American constitutionalism talking about the Lincoln-Douglas debates and getting annoyed by an African-American student who wanted to talk about the issue of slavery in the debates. The tape was stopped and we were asked what the professor had done wrong. I said, “The professor’s problem is that he’s an idiot: how could any historian regard slavery as irrelevant to a discussion of the Lincoln-Douglas debates?”.
I don’t think I made any friends that day by breaking the script, but this is the issue that ACTA is missing out on when it comes to conduct in the classroom. Just as critics of the attempt to criminalize “hate crimes” have observed that a person who commits assault with racial hatred as a motive can be convicted already of assault, and given a more severe sentence because of his motive through judicial discretion, that “hate crime” is an unnecessary legal elaboration, so too is “politicization” often an unnecessarily contentious and problematic way to talk about what is in the end simply bad teaching. If we set out instead to talk about what the best practice of pedagogy is, we’d end up with a clearer proportional picture of what violates best practices. When we set out instead in pursuit of an ill-defined or tendentiously close-minded conception of “political” teaching, we not only miss the forest for the trees, we risk doing enormous harm to the kinds of teaching that realizes academia’s best possibilities.