American Association of University Professors

Higher Ground

Newsletter of the ISU-AAUP
Number 5, Spring 2009


Does a Professor's Politics Have a Place in the Classroom?

by Don Richards
Professor Stanley Fish has recently written a series of opinion pieces in The New York Times concerning the broad topic of academic freedom. In one of these articles he considers the question of whether or not a professor can properly express his own political views in the classroom without over-stepping the appropriate exercise of academic freedom. Fish's position is that he can not express personal political views, and that the point of the classroom is instruction and not indoctrination. I have mixed feelings about the first part of Fish's assertion. The focus of the classroom, after all, should be, as Fish suggests, on the academic discipline at hand and not on the professor teaching the class. The question remains, however, as to what amounts after all, to the "academic discipline at hand." In some cases this is more easily determined than in others. For example, a course in the Principles of Physics would only gratuitously include a professor's critical remarks on the President's macroeconomic policies. In a course on the Principles of Macroeconomics, such critical evaluation would seem to be entirely appropriate. Does the altered context, however, make the economics professor's remarks any less political than the physics professor's?

One can argue that the economics professor renders his evaluation apolitical by presenting a range of evaluations of the President's policies that are representative of the professional debate surrounding those policies. This is a defensible position though it leaves unanswered the question of how that range is itself delimited. The choice of what amounts to a ìwell-balancedî approach necessarily implies an inherently political (even if well-concealed) choice on the part of the professor. The students themselves are unlikely to be aware of the range of possible evaluative arguments. They are more likely to be aware, however, of the conventional wisdom on an issue. A professor who presents the range of critical arguments that falls within the majority received wisdom is unlikely to ever stand accused of taking a political position in the classroom. This, however, would be a false conclusion, since the failure to challenge the majority's received wisdom is itself its tacit endorsement. The seemingly "well-balanced approach" to intrinsically political issues also must confront the question from the occasionally reflective student who asks, "So, who's right?" At this point, the self-stylized apolitical professor may respond "Thatís not for me to say" or "That's up to you to decide." It seems to me, however, that responses of this sort sacrifice what we often like to refer to as "teachable moments." A more intellectually honest and pedagogically effective answer would make clear the professorís normative priors, would be advanced on the basis of cogent reasoning, and would be well supported by evidence. In failing to respond in this fashion, and in attempting to hide behind a false veneer of objectivity, the professor eschews an opportunity to provide a valuable example of critical thinking for his students to emulate. Critical thinking after all sometimes requires making choices.

How then does the classroom not become a mere vehicle for the political indoctrination of students? The first requirement is that the professor must strive for a proper balance between presenting the conventional wisdom in a discipline and personal, critical reactions to that wisdom. Where that balancing point rests precisely is hard to determine as a general matter. I think it is fair to say, however, that it depends in part on the breath of ambition appropriate to the class. A survey course dedicated to general thought and principles in a discipline will permit less "professing" by the professor than one more particularly focused. This seems necessary given that the finite amount of time involved and the need to allocate it in a proper survey of a discipline simply allows less time for critical interpretation and challenge. Recognizing this constraint, however, should not deceive us into thinking that survey courses are devoid of the evaluative preferences and political choices of the instructors who teach them. The injunction that professors make clear their normative assumptions then still applies.

It should be added that while it may be difficult (even impossible) to insist that professors assume an apolitical position in the classroom, the evaluation of student performance must be apolitical. There is nothing more disheartening to the pedagogic project or classroom experience than the feeling, correct or not, that the way to academic success is to mimic the political preferences of the instructor. To avoid this, it is essential that students understand and believe that their evaluation is based on their command of the material taught and not on their subjective feelings one way or another about what is taught. Finally, students must also understand that an instructor who does not address their own favored position on an issue, or addressed it in a way they find satisfying, has not thereby violated the principles of academic freedom. A student who finds a course or an instructor to be insufficiently "balanced" or otherwise satisfying always has the option of other instructors, or even better, of books. Ultimately, a successful instructor, in my opinion, is one who stimulates in his students this search for truth after the close of their formal professor/student relationship.

[Don Richards is Professor of Economics at Indiana State University, and a longtime active member of AAUP.]

Indiana Conference of AAUP
The Indiana Conference of the AAUP will hold it next meeting on Saturday 4 April, 2009. The location is the University of Indianapolis, and the conference will run from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. with a lunch included. The Indiana Conference is pleased to host Stan Jones as the keynote speaker. Mr. Jones is resigning from the post of Commissioner for Higher Education in Indiana at the end of April. He is exceptionally well informed on higher education issues for the state, and we expect he will provide illuminating remarks and cogent answers to your questions. Please make plans to attend this meeting. For details contact Rich Schneirov, President of the Indiana AAUP Conference: rschneirov@isugw.indstate.edu Directions and Maps are available at the following URL: http://www.uindy.edu/maps/ ______________________________________________________________________
Local Chapter Membership
If you wish to support the ISU Chapter of AAUP but are not a member, you should contact the current Treasurer Rick Lotspeich. Dues this year is set at $5, and set to rise to $10 for next year. Rick Lotspeich: Department of Economics, ISU; 237-2176; RickL@indstate.edu The Local Chapter does not receive any subvention from national AAUP, so any expense we incur must come from Local Chapter dues. In recent years our spending has been limited to support for outside speakers at our forums and paper for the local chapter newsletter.
Local Chapter Elections
New Officers for the ISU Chapter of the AAUP are elected every two years by the membership. This is the year for a change of officers. Nominations are now open, and self-nominations are welcome. Positions include: President, Vice-President, Secretary, and Treasurer. Elections will be held electronically in April. If you wish to nominate yourself or another person, send the name and office sought to the current President, Nora Hopkins: Department of Mathematics and Computer Science; 237-2133; hopkins@nora.indstate.edu


New ISU-AAUP Website
The new ISU-AAUP website may be found at http://www.indstate.edu/aaup. Besides links to the State and National offices, the site provides access to this Newsletter, invitations to our Open Discussion forums, notes on academic matters at ISU that the local chapter is advocating, a Salary-value estimator, a biographical sketch of John Dewey, and other items of interest to our colleagues. The website editor is Tom Derrick, and you may contact him and the other local chapter officers via the site.

About the AAUP
The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) is the only national professional voice and advocate for faculty rights and interests in the areas of academic freedom, tenure, due process, and shared governance. By defending professional standards, the AAUP benefits all college and university faculty, AAUP members and non-members alike. The AAUP's ability to represent and defend faculty interests depends on the support and active participation of all faculty. Membership is open to both tenure-track and non-tenure track faculty, including teaching assistants, and administrators may join as associate members. For more information, contact Rick Lotspeich (ext. 2176, rlotspeich@isugw.indstate.edu) or Don Richards (ext. 2179, drichards@isugw.indstate.edu). The national AAUP website is at www.aaup.org, and the website of the State of Indiana AAUP Conference is at www.inaaup.org.