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Thursday, September 20, 2007

Politics of the Professoriate

I have read a few articles from the right wing recently complaining about the politicking of liberal professors. Until yesterday, I didn't really understand what the were getting at.

It makes sense to me to ground your teaching in real-world examples. If you're teaching a statistics class, then analyzing welfare statistics seems reasonable to me. If you're teaching biology, then debating the ins and outs of stem cell research seems entirely appropriate. Though they are common battlegrounds of today's political realm, as long as they tie in with the lesson, I think any controversy can be excused.

In my physics class, we are covering motion in two dimensions. Basically, ballistics. In a simple example involving range-finding, my professor segued into a review of the documentary Why We Fight and the Iraq War. He repeated a quote from the film regarding the success rate of so-called Smart Bombs and without much transition at all, stated that "we shouldn't be killing people."

It was an awkward moment, I thought, even though I happen to completely agree with him. I didn't see how the side note appreciably increased our understanding in any way, especially since Smart Bombs have on-board guidance systems and are not simply launched projectiles.

I have emailed him about the incident, and have yet to receive a reply.


Andy said...

Yep, it's this sort of thing that drives us wingers nuts.

If you're teaching physics, leave the political commentary out of it, and focus on what you actually have your graduate degree in.

No offense to our mutual friend Allen, but it seems like a lot of people who get the PhD title after their names all of a sudden feel they are a subject matter expert on everything. Ironically, having a PhD means you're an expert on an *extremely narrow* area of subject matter.

Mackenab said...

First, I agree that the comment by the professor was inappropriate. I would never make a comment like that in a lecture. Any politics discussed in my class is discussed by the students (usually before or after class). I listen, usually with amusement. (I find that undergraduate students on both sides tend to construct extremely simplistic arguments.) I think the VAST majority of science and engineering faculty feel the same way. I'm willing to talk politics with students outside of class if they bring it up, but they rarely do.

I don't think offhand, off-topic comments by faculty are what those who complain about the liberal professorate are complaining about, though. The primary claim they make is that academia actively disenfranchises people of certain political views from the professorate itself and discriminates against students who hold those views. That's a claim we can argue about, but in my opinion it is only tangentially related to professors who make off-topic comments in class. (Though such comments may be discriminatory in some cases. In the case Tony cites, though, I think the professor comes off more as an opinionated coot than as actually discriminating against students.)

What is often responded to as discrimination against a particular political view is a professor who actively challenges students' thinking (on politically charged topics) in class. In my experience (primarily as a student), professors who do this tend to challenge students on both sides of the aisle, though their own political views may lean left. When this challenge is then claimed as evidence of discrimination, it is really just playing into a right wing story about bias in academia.

I also think Andy's comment about Ph.D.'s is just prejudicial. People with Ph.D.'s are educated - just like most readers of this blog. They have, and are entitled to have, opinions on things in areas outside their training - just like everyone else. While a Ph.D. is usually awarded for deep achievement in an extremely narrow area, it DOES NOT mean that the person is ONLY an expert in a narrow area. And, I dare say the ability to achieve depth in a narrow field (whether or not this achievement is denoted by a Ph.D.) typically indicates ability to achieve depth in other areas, as well. A person with a Ph.D. can be an expert in subject matter outside their training, just like a person without a Ph.D. I don't think degrees have much to do with either the area or the depth of ones expertise.

BSB said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
BSB said...

As a polisci educator, this is a sensitive subject for me, but I agree that in a non-poltical class, any political commentary should be withheld (I'm sure there are exceptions to that, but that would be my view of a general rule).
On the larger discussion, I have to agree with Allen, although I think there are two separate issues here. Having a PhD doesn't make one an expert on everything, but it does make one a highly educated individual who is likely to have a well-informed view on a variety of subjects. (Disclaimer: I don't have a PhD, but my JD is the terminal degree in my field and so qualifies me to teach at the college level). Along with that come students who respect those views because they respect the instructor. I maybe get more of this in the polisci department than you need in physics classes, but my past attempts at neutrality have not been particularly succesful.
My policy in my first year of teaching was that while I might play devil's advocate on any issue, students shouldn't be able to always discern my political leanings because it wasn't my job to influence their thinking, just to cause them to think. The fact is, that doesn't work very well. Students who aren't truly engaged don't care anyway, but the ones who are see it as a cop out. They know that you don't believe each side of a discussion is equally valid, and because they value not your opinion but your methods and your thought process, they constantly challenge you to pony up with your views. Not, as most conservatives seem to think, because they want to be influenced and parrot back what an instructor thinks, but because they want to challenge those views and learn how to answer an intelligent argument. As Allen pointed out, they don't always get that from one another. My working policy is actually very similar - I take devil's advocate positions in class on every issue to encourage debate, regardless of my own view, but if a student asks outside of class, I give them what they're asking for. And no, I don't limit my area of "expertise" to legal issues just because that's my niche. At the same time, I would never presume to give my opinion on a question of, for instance, physics.
Politics is slightly different, though, because almost any educated person has an opinion. I don't have any closely held physics beliefs. I don't know if that makes it more permissible or just more tempting to delve into that area with students.
As for a liberal bias in institutions of higher learning, I think that's a chicken or egg kind of argument, and I'll just leave it at that.

Andy said...

Prejudicial? Maybe ... True? Hell yes.

Based on my experience, it does seem that terminal degrees attract personalities who like to argue about anything and everything, not just their specialty. Frankly, it's obnoxious.

Allen and I have had discussions about the egos of academics, which he attributes primarily to the fact that you must sell yourself (or at least your research) to institutions, so often the loudest and most controversial personalities get the choice professorships, positions, etc.

It is this cult of egoism that has driven me away from any immediate pursuit of terminal degrees. Don't get me wrong, I love learning, but I prefer to do it on my own time far away from institutionalized settings. If you have something to teach, I'll listen. If you have something to preach about, you're not worth my time.

Anonymous said...

"If you have something to preach about, you're not worth my time."

but maybe if one were willing
to *practice* what one preaches ...
oh, never mind.

Anonymous said...

hmmm ... well, i don't have a PhD, but I can tell you after many years of teaching that if you think your political stance (as well as lots of other biases you have) doesn't comes through in your teaching/classsroom -- no matter how hard you try to keep it "clean" -- you are kidding yourself.

Ever hear of the hidden curriculum ... everyone has one, whether he/she is conscious of it or not.

Darren said...

I have no problem discussing topics not related to the math curriculum in my class. To pretend that the world outside of my classroom doesn't exist, and that the only things that matter are sine curves and slope-intercept form, is silly.

I wouldn't recommend spending a good part of a class period off topic, but recognizing that we're all human--with ideas, ideals, egos, and feelings--isn't necessarily a bad thing. Yes, I need to cover my curriculum, but I don't think I'm limited to *only* the curriculum.

It seems silly that the only people not allowed to express an opinion are the adults.

Where those of us on the right get bothered, though, is when those on the left go beyond discussing--when such discussions become standard fare for the class, or when students are required to profess certain views in classes. I've written about such examples on my own blog, mostly under the labels of "social justice" and "higher education".