Monday, November 24, 2008

Academic Freedom: The Professorial Right to Make Stupid and Dangerous Analogies and Get Spanked for Doing So

This is a busy time of year. And not a successful one for most of our students. Having just completed my massive pre-Thanksgiving essay grading extravaganza, I have been spending a lot of spare time gazing at puppy-cam--its all my brain is good for. Keep your eye on the one with the green collar--its trouble.

While others are fighting the good fight against the militarization of our discipline, I have been fighting the same much smaller, local version. The Sarah Palin/Sean Hannity/Brit Hume minority has been expressing its displeasure. Mysterious forces hit the College Democrats bulletin board (across from my office) systematically removing all references and celebrations of the Obama victory. Then one of the smallest blobs of intellect in the History Department decided to post on his door a right-wing blog accusing Obama of trying to build his own personal army of Hitler's Brownshirts. Posted next to the blog on his door were some nice (?) depictions of Hitler. If you are not aware of it, we have gun shows here in Texas--frequently.

Over at Contexts The Color Line blog has a nice summary of Post-Election Racist Incidents. With my heightened sense of awareness, I couldn't help but feel that our students did not need any faculty support for hate. But I am a supporter of free speech. So I embarked on a push-back campaign. had a nice critique of the "Brownshirt" accusation. I emailed it to the intellectual midget and hung copies on my door and the Democrats board. I noticed two days later he pulled his crap off his door. Score one for academic arm-wrestling and thanks to my brother for teaching me never to back down (until you have a free path to run like hell and you just can't take one more thump). Although, really, I wish he would have left it up. He said he thought it was a topic for discussion--so, let's discuss, dude.

Teaching here--in a Community College in a red state with colleagues with Master's degrees from the local University of Houston satellite campus--has challenged every perspective of academics, I have ever had. No one at the University of Virginia or Northwestern prepared me for this. Should sheer stupidity (assertions with no analytical validity, quotes taken out of context) be protected by Academic Freedom? In institutions which have no tenure system, no evaluative measure of the worth and quality of a faculty member, should we just let this stuff go?

Stanley Fish has a piece over at the NYTimes exploring a forthcoming book on academic freedom. Here is a brief summary of the argument:

Now, in a new book — “For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom,” to be published in 2009 — two distinguished scholars of constitutional law, Matthew W. Finkin and Robert C. Post, study the history and present shape of the concept and come to conclusions that support and deepen what I have been saying in these columns and elsewhere.

The authors’ most important conclusion is presented early on in their introduction: “We argue that the concept of Academic freedom . . . differs fundamentally from the individual First Amendment rights that present themselves so vividly to the contemporary mind.” The difference is that while free speech rights are grounded in the constitution, academic freedom rights are “grounded . . . in a substantive account of the purposes of higher education and in the special conditions necessary for faculty to fulfill those purposes.”

In short, academic freedom, rather than being a philosophical or moral imperative, is a piece of policy that makes practical sense in the context of the specific task academics are charged to perform. It follows that the scope of academic freedom is determined first by specifying what that task is and then by figuring out what degree of latitude those who are engaged in it require in order to do their jobs.

In critiquing the text Fish makes this argument:

Finkin and Post are correct when they reject the neo-conservative criticism of professors who bring into a class materials from disciplines other than the ones they were trained in. The standard, they say, should be “whether material from a seemingly foreign field of study illuminates the subject matter under scrutiny.”

Just so. If I’m teaching poetry and feel that economic or mathematical models might provide a helpful perspective on a poem or body of poems, there is no good pedagogical reason for limiting me to models that belong properly to literary criticism. (I could of course be criticized for not understanding the models I imported, but that would be another issue; a challenge to my competence, not to my morality.)

But of course what the neo-conservative critics of the academy are worried about is not professors who stray from their narrowly defined areas of expertise; they are worried about professors who do so in order to sneak in their partisan preferences under the cover of providing students with supplementary materials. That, I think, is a genuine concern, and one Finkin and Post do not take seriously enough.

Responding to an expressed concern that liberal faculty too often go on about the Iraq War in a course on an entirely unrelated subject, Finkin and Post maintain that there is nothing wrong, for example, with an instructor in English history “who seeks to interest students by suggesting parallels between King George III’s conduct of the Revolutionary War and Bush’s conduct of the war in Iraq.”

But we only have to imagine the class discussion generated by this parallel to see what is in fact wrong with introducing it. Bush, rather than King George, would immediately become the primary reference point of the parallel, and the effort to understand the monarch’s conduct of his morewar would become subsidiary to the effort to find fault with Bush’s conduct of his war. Indeed, that would be immediately seen by the students as the whole point of the exercise. Why else introduce a contemporary political figure known to be anathema to most academics if you were not inviting students to pile it on, especially in the context of the knowledge that this particular king was out of his mind?

Sure, getting students to be interested in the past is a good thing, but there are plenty of ways to do that without taking the risk (no doubt being courted) that intellectual inquiry will give way to partisan venting.

And you know for a brief moment, that sounded good. I transposed the Bush example, in my mind, to the Obama's Brownshirts scenario, and thought how nice it would be if Mr. Peabrain would be forced to be a good academic and not permitted to repeat such drivel.

And then where would we be? Here in Texas, I would be teaching creationism and the "all Muslims are terrorists" philosophy. lest I be accuse of "partisan venting". So, Stanley Fish, I am going to resist the appeal of your control issues and put my faith back in my students and the process of education. Most of them will figure it out--as long as we keep standing up long enough--before we run like hell.

Thanks to the World's Most Beautiful Sociology Professor for the picture of the board (pre-vandalism). As she says, its bigger and better now--cause we are the ones with the printers!

And, by the way, Bong Hits for Jesus!!!!!

(and, yes, I do think that Obama's desire to expand the Peace Corps and the State Department is imperialistic--but that is a different discussion)


larry c wilson said...

I must confess to a warm spot in my heart for George III Hanover.

I'm still not convinced that the American Revolution was about much more than colonial elites trying to maintain their economic power.

Anonymous said...

What an amazing blog you have! I will be teaching Anthro for the first time at the community college level. At other schools I have used an ethnographic project to good effect. Do you have suggestions/projects/assignments that work in a community college setting? Could you point me to other sites? Again what a great blog! I will be coming back.
PS my email is

Pamthropologist said...

Thank you for your kind words. I don't do an ethnographic project, having attempted on many years ago at Depaul University with not many positive responses. Then I read somewhere that it perhaps shouldn't be attempted as they are too inexperienced at the intro level and could cause problems with the research population, which I believe to be true. We have too many ethical obligations to attempt it at an intro level. But we can discuss more when finals are over. There is a new list of 100 anthro blogs I just got noticed of, will post it in after finals, maybe next week?

Pamthropologist said...

Excuse typos and hurried words. More to grade tonight and my fingers are tired.