Friday, September 14, 2007

Free Jazz in the Classroom

The American Association of University Professors’ Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure has released a white paper on academic freedom in response to contemporary criticism. The contemporary criticism, for those outside of the world of higher education, refers to the efforts led by David Horowitz and other prominent conservatives to use the notions of intellectual freedom and intellectual diversity to neuter professors who are speaking about things they don't like. In the period between the invasion of Iraq and Katrina when conservatives had the ability to brand those they disagreed with as treasonous and evil and could count on widespread support from the media and culture to allow them to crackdown, they created an enemies list and in addition to the judiciary, college profs were towards the top.

Good commentaries on the report can be found at Inside Higher Ed by former blog-star Michael Berube and at Adventures in Ethics and Science.

One of the issues addressed is "Persistent Irrelevance":

The group calling itself Students for Academic Freedom (SAF), for example, has advised students that "your professor should not be making statements . . . about George Bush, if the class is not on contemporary American presidents, presidential administrations or some similar subject." This advice presupposes that the distinction between "relevant" and "irrelevant" material is to be determined strictly by reference to the wording of a course description. Under this view, current events or personages are beyond the pale unless a course is specifically about them. But this interpretation of "relevance" is inconsistent with the nature of higher education, in which "all knowledge can be connected to all other knowledge." Whether material is relevant to a better understanding of a subject cannot be determined merely by looking at a course description.
Berube picks up the thread and lays out the breadth of topics and analogies he uses in the classroom. Joseph at Sharp Sand refers to it as "teaching as jazz," a metaphor I like. The idea here is that a form of teaching that ought to be valued, especially in this era when we realize the interconnectedness of disciplinary information is the ability to weave together insights and understanding from a variety of places.

Not only do we need to encourage cross-disciplinary exploration allowing faculty the freedom to move seamlessly between seemingly irrelevant ideas in order to find those places of intersection, but if we expect our students to become synthetic thinkers, dynamic problem solvers, they need to have this sort of bent of mind modeled in the classroom.

But, the opponents will argue that this is a strawman, that they are talking about topics that are not woven into the larger tapestry of the syllabus. Here, too, I could not disagree more. As regular playground denizens know, one of the most used pedagogical clubs in my bag is precisely persistent irrelevance. I begin every single class by carving out time for any question, especially those that are irrelevant to the course matter. Students are to be educated, not merely technically trained. They need to understand that almost any question at all will have interesting implications and can be thought about in ways they hadn't expected. They need to see that people think about things that are not in their field of scholarship and can speak reasonably and in an informed manner about them.

And this includes politics. I do not shy away from clearly voicing my opinions on political matters in the classroom. I explain the situation, the historical context, the reasoning behind the competing views, and why I think one is better than the other. I am unapologetic about clearly and explicitly advocating my viewpoint. But it is not about indoctrination. I do not say, "and you should believe it because I say so," but I do give reasons for my view. The objection that it is still a form of coercion because I am in a place of authority when I say it is certainly something that ought to be considered, but the fact that prominent members of the campus Young Republican organization explicitly come to me to write recommendations for graduate school seems to indicate that they are not afraid of being penalized by me for the difference in political views. One can advocate within the classroom setting if one is being explicitly clear about reasoning and evidence and if one explains clearly and respectfully the views of the other side before producing the reason why you don't buy it.

But, of course, that is exactly what the contemporary critics don't want. They hide behind the ideas of "academic freedom" and "intellectual diversity," trying to game us the same way the intelligent design folks say they want open minds. They don't want open minds, they want it all, but given that they've lost it all they're willing to settle for a tie as a first step in further undermining the teaching of evolution. In the same way, the conservatives are not really interested in intellectual diversity, they want it all and when they think they've lost it all, they settle for a tie to start the slow creep of killing the views they don't want.

The key example of this is the debacle at UCal Irvine. As the first dean of their new law school, they snagged Constitutional law star Erwin Chemerinsky, only to rescind the offer when opposition arose from a conservative donor. Conservatives have no problem trying to railroad folks they deem as the enemy. At a conference here at Gettysburg, a conservative group was brought in to give a step by step how-to tutorial in getting liberal profs canned. It's a shell game, it's three card monty. It is not only a crime against intellectual diversity and academic freedom, but it is a double crime in trying to hide behind intellectual diversity and academic freedom in parading around in their clothing while trying to undermine them.