Some Teaching I Have Known

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.

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16 Responses to Some Teaching I Have Known

  1. hestal says:

    And then, from out of nowhere, Hestal, that snake-in-the-grass, slithers in and hisses, “criteria — plural, criterion — singular.” Then he slithers away making sibilant soft sounds as he seeks secret shelter.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Fixed! Thanks!

  3. Alan Jacobs says:

    Tim, you don’t say this explicitly, but am I right that you would agree that your teacher’s grading practices were inappropriate? Would you go so far as to say that they were unprofessional? Worthy of criticism on student evaluations? Worthy of censure by his department chair?

    It’s an interesting question: what price are we willing to pay in one area of the complex job of teaching in order to get excellence in another? My inclination is to think that we should be willing to pay a pretty high price, whereas I fear that ACTA is joining in the great chorus of the American preference for (as Crevecoeur put it) “a pleasing uniformity of decent competence.”

    Also: my judgment on the appropriateness of the explicit political orientation of your professor would depend somewhat on context: if a department (or a whole university) strongly inclines in one political direction, then I am willing to tolerate a professor’s openly political slant if it goes the other way. When professors push hard with the departmental grain, I find that more distasteful, because at a certain point that becomes intellectual bullying.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    I think they were in the most minor way inappropriate, an extension of his personality and affect, and not worthy of the least objection by me or anyone else. Something to tolerate, shake your head over, be bemused. If he’d failed me or given me a really bad grade, that would be one thing, but taking me down a slight notch, no big deal. Much ado about nothing.

    Which is to say I agree with you: ACTA is calling for such a heavy regulatory hand (though they protest that this is not their goal, and point to their previous reports as evidence) that the effect of their criticism would be to smooth out all the interesting character and diversity of teaching and scholarship, all the eccentrics and outliers and characters.

    I find this especially weird coming from someone like Erin O’Connor, who has always been so clear about the damage that ham-fisted regulatory schemes like “speech codes” can do to free inquiry. I dearly wish that we could get some more consistent insight about the nature of institutions into these conversations, rather than this kind of partisan Punch-and-Judy stuff where it’s ok when it’s YOUR side proposing regulation and monitoring, and not ok when it’s THE OTHER GUYS.

    I agree with your point that a professor who is something of a gadfly is less abusive in some sense than a professor who is pushing a politics that takes itself to be the basic norm. This is something that Garry Wills wrote about beautifully in Nixon Agonistes: the professors that held themselves up as the objective, non-political figures were sometimes the most noxiously bullying in their politics, precisely because they took themselves to represent or speak for what was unquestionable and normal. This is a point ACTA could work to their advantage (and that Withywindle has been making here) but it’s a subtle observation, I think, and requires some nuance in developing its implications.

  5. Doug says:

    Do you (all) trust ACTA, or a similar organization, to do subtlety and nuance?

  6. Alan Jacobs says:

    So it seems to me that ACTA’s report works with the idea that there are two kinds of teachers: those who are “subjective” and “political” and who therefore deserve censure of some kind; and those who keep their politics out of the classroom and are, to that extent anyway, commendable. This reminds me of the philosopher Bernard Williams’s remark that “we suffer from a poverty of concepts,” or, in this case, categories. Your posts, Tim, seem to be elaborating the following categories:

    1. Teachers who are both incompetent and overly politicized (e.g., Ward Churchill).

    2. Teachers who are competent — who have significant command of their discipline and work within its protocols — but whose political commitments significantly weaken their teaching (e.g.., by leading them to ignore alternative explanations for phenomena).

    3. Teachers whose political commitments not only inform their teaching but energize it in ways that compensate (and in some cases more than compensate) for their occasional blind spots and prejudices.

    4. Teachers whose political (or moral, or philosophical) commitments provide the narrative and structural drive for their courses — that is, contribute signally to the strength and coherence of their teaching — but who are aware of the dangers of one-sidedness and strive to discipline their own discourse and the discourses of their students accordingly.

    5. Teachers who manage to hide or submerge their political commitments — make them invisible — and achieve the kind of Olympian objectivity that Withywindle so prizes, but nevertheless teach vividly and powerfully.

    6. Teachers who either have no political commitments or efface them completely, but in such a way that their teaching has no discernible point of view and is therefore colorless and boring.

    7. Teachers who are thoroughly incompetent but in ways that have nothing to do with whatever political positions they take or fail to take.

    I think ACTA recognizes only #5 as truly excellent — whereas I tend to suspect that #5 is one of the rarest of all pedagogical types, if it exists at all outside of mythology. Give me #4 or #5 any day.

  7. withywindle says:

    Tim: I still await your answer on some questions I had the last time around:

    “Do I take it correctly that you accept 1) that academia, in principle, does and should incorporate mutual monitoring as an aspect of its professional ethics; 2) that academia could, in principle, extend this monitoring to include aspects of classroom pedagogy including encouragement of free inquiry by their students (no agit-prop) and intellectual openness (no partisan narrowness)? If you are willing to accept these two principles, then I would encourage you, as said before, *to develop yourself* an institutional system of monitoring that takes into account your worries about mutual respect and proportionality …. Let us grant there is no current standard of pedagogical malpractice; let us grant it will be difficult to develop one; do you believe it is impossible? Do you believe the profession shouldn’t even try?”

    Not to beat a dead horse, but you are still writing on the same subject, and I do think your answers to these questions are relevant.

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    I think yes, we could have some form of monitoring or quality assessment that we do not presently have. I think we could look for encouragement of free inquiry and intellectual openness in that process, but I don’t accept your parenthetical definitions of those two values, for reasons I made clear in the other thread and in this one. I think the thing to think about is how to make teaching more visible and shared as an activity: I think a system of monitoring that involved a designated monitor coming in to a classroom to watch and record a given teaching session would be: a) extraordinarily expensive if it was done on the scale required to be fair; b) intrusive and artificial. As you noted with the other examples of professional monitoring, most monitoring of doctors and lawyers happens as a routine outgrowth of the kind of work they do (e.g., surgery or diagnosis often happens in the presence of other professionals, a paper trail is created that’s extensive; law often happens in a courtroom, and records of legal consultations are often created as the consultation occurs). So that’s really what we need, rather than people with notepads sitting in the back of classrooms. How do we get it? How about making publically accessible class weblogs an expected or conventional part of most courses, for one example? Encouraging team teaching would be another possibility (though it’s extremely expensive to do routinely). Posting of detailed syllabi as a requirement. And so on: doing what we can to make teaching transparent and transcribed would, for me, be enough to constitute a useful system of monitoring.

  9. withywindle says:

    Well, please 1) suggest the above to the Swat faculty; 2) suggest to the AAUP; 3) mention on the ACTA blog that this is the sort of monitoring you are now advocating to make institutional. Let ACTA know someone in academia is taking them seriously, though proposing different solutions! — and as I’ve said before, any monitoring which could *provide quantitative information* would allow you and ACTA to argue on more than anecdote.

    I support your suggestion. I’m open to the idea that more monitoring is necessary, but I support this practically. Consensus!

  10. Doug says:

    My mom’s experience as a public school teacher is that classroom monitoring is indeed intrusive and artificial, and is not done on the scale required to be fair. It’s a pretend solution that turns out to just be wasteful.

  11. texter says:

    The list you drew up, Alan, is very helpful. Thanks. I can see why #4 and #5 are appealing. Personally, I can see myself stimulated by #3.

    One thing that is sometimes missing from these discussions is that students (especially earlier in their studies) don’t always know what (we) believe, even when (we) think we do. I am speaking for myself when I was an undergraduate. Students come from all kinds of households, where they have been exposed to various levels of engagement with “the political” (an amorphous concept that need fleshing out). The classroom is surely a space for exploration. Professors with points of views may better aid a student in his/her exploration than a blank slate.

  12. SamChevre says:

    I too find Alan Jacobs list very helpful. In my observation, #3 is great, and even #2 is sometimes great–but it is absolutely key that there be #2’s and #3’s in all directions.

    My observation as an undergrad was that #4 was common, as was #4; #2 was common in certain disciplines, which tended to be the most politicized. The problem was that points of view generally considered conservative (the British Empire was generally better than its successors, the American South was justified in secession, literature should be studied for its beauty, religion is preferable to non-religion) were not represented among the #2 and #3 classes, and were thinly represented elsewhere. #1 and #7 are definite problems, but are rare; I think the problem with academia is too many #3’s who all agree.

    Or, to put it differently: it is possible to get a good understanding of economics reading only John Kenneth Galbraith and Milton Friedman; it is much harder to get a good understanding reading only Adam Smith, Samuelson, James Buchanan, and Friedman.

  13. Timothy Burke says:

    I think Doug is correct that the example of K-12 public schools is sufficiently alarming to warn us off any system of “outside monitoring”. It’s frequently used to crack down on whistleblowers, dissenters, innovators–there’s a district that’s been in the news recently here where that kind of reporting was used by a corrupt principal to shut up his critics within the teaching staff. Whatever we need, it’s got to be about a general commitment to transparency . In many ways, that protects rather threatens. Take the example of the ACTA report: when you go and actually look at the descriptions, departments and so on that they’re pointing to, I think you instantly see that many of their criticisms are unfair, selective or informationally impoverished.

  14. abstractart says:

    Since I’ve been an undergraduate more recently than others in this thread, I really should say that it’s a matter of tacit agreement among my peers that two otherwise equal papers that disagree on some matter of opinion will be graded on how closely they match the professor’s opinion.

    Which isn’t an accusation of systemic bias or a left-wing conspiracy or anything, just a matter of simple human nature. People hold the opinions they do because those opinions seem to them to make more sense than other opinions. An argument that fits what they believe resonates more than an argument that goes against everything they believe. It’s easier to see the connections between facts that uphold your worldview than ones that don’t.

    Good academics and good thinkers in general cultivate the ability to think with enough detachment that they’re not chained by this, but even then, it’s easier to tell the difference between a very good argument against your beliefs and a rather weak one for your beliefs than a quite good argument against your beliefs and a sort of good one for your beliefs. Some profs are more openly and stridently in favor of absolute fair play and being especially self-monitoring in cases where students are arguing from a completely different place than theirs — Tim is one of the best profs I’ve had in terms of commitment to that perspective — but I’ve had other profs, whom I’ve learned just as much from, who have been quite open about the fact that if you hold certain ideas you’re going to have to work damn hard to defend them in class compared to holding ideas the prof already agrees with.

    A lot of discussions I’ve had in my years at Swarthmore have had to do with the fact that, after all, absolute objectivity is a myth and that good teaching with a political agenda is better than bad teaching without — just as good journalism with a political agenda is better than bad journalism without, or good literature with a political agenda is better than bad literature without. I personally suffer from an allergy to overt political agendas in the classroom — my own reactive nature betraying me more than anything else — but I do think campus conservatives are out of line when they claim such atmospheres make it impossible for themto learn.

  15. Timothy Burke says:

    Thanks for that, Arthur. I think this is what Alan’s pointing to above: a professor who is open about a particular political or intellectual inclination and challenges students in those terms can potentially be a spectacular teacher who raises the level of everyone in the class, as long as they play the game fairly. I mentioned in another post a professor I had who was an intense, passionate anti-historicist, a devotee of close reading in literary studies. I found him frustrating for much of the class, but on the other hand, I put WAY more effort into my final paper for his course than I would have for any similar course, to make the strongest possible case I could for a historicist reading of The Odyssey. And he liked the paper a lot as a consequence.

    In some ways, the damage to students from a faculty that are non-thoughtfully political (e.g., who assume rather than argue a politics) is often to students who agree with their assumptions rather than students who disagree. It’s why a certain kind of liberal student who takes many courses in the humanities at many universities is in for a fairly bruising encounter with the larger social and political realities around them when they graduate, while a conservative student may have had their powers of political reasoning sharpened by having to push against views they disagree with. This is another really odd thing about some of the drift of the complaints about “politicization”: in some cases, they read to me just like the complaints of various identity groups for teaching that gives them an institutional “safety net”, that builds up their identities, that protects them from the world. In some cases, this feels to me like conservatives are asking for the same thing: teaching that affirms and soothes them.

  16. Chris Segal says:

    That’s a great point, Tim. I’ll throw in that I think that the issue of developing rigorous reasons for the holding of specific views (political but also academic and theoretical) is a key component in higher education, and one that institutions such as Swarthmore sometimes come up a little short on in the political realm. I don’t know that it’s necessarily Swarthmore’s job to teach us to interrogate our current political leaders and our political ideas the way it teaches us to interrogate texts or specific historical theories, but it wouldn’t hurt to make what political discussion there is more explicit.

    But I think that homogenous student culture is a much bigger issue, and possibly a more appropriate area for a change. For instance, in 2004 I watched one of the Bush/Kerry debates in a Swarthmore dormitory with about fifty students who cheered every time the President said “um,” and I watched another one in a dorm at the University of Maryland, where the students in attendance included both Bush and Kerry supporters and also students who seemed genuinely interested in the debate as a forum for political ideas rather than a sort of circus (whether or not it was is debatable, of course). After the debate a political science professor led us in a discussion. You can imagine which debate screening was more useful for me to attend. I don’t mean to fault Swarthmore, and I certainly was often off campus and might have missed great thought provoking events, etc, but I do think that open, serious controversy (about substantive events, mind you – not just student council elections) is something that Swarthmore needs more of.

    I suspect that you agree with me here – I remember a series (maybe there were two?) of panels run by Why War? in the fall of 2002 where you argued from a pro-war position so that it would be represented. But I do have the feeling that not only were almost all of my classmates at Swarthmore liberals, they were fairly inarticulate liberals as well. Which is a shame, and a real waste.

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