By Mark Bauerlein
As reported here, the Senate Committee on Faculty Affairs at Penn State has revised the school’s academic freedom policy and submitted a new version to the president for approval. The proposed changes include, the Introduction says, “Converting the list of restrictions on academic freedom into affirmative principles.” To that end, the Committee has deleted the final two sentences of the old policy:
No faculty member may claim as a right the privilege of discussing in the classroom controversial topics outside his/her own field of study. The faculty member is normally bound not to take advantage of his/her position by introducing into the classroom provocative discussions of irrelevant subjects not within the field of his/her study.
Apparently, the Committee regards the “privilege” noted here as a feature of academic freedom; likewise for license to introduce “provocative discussions of irrelevant subjects.”
The revised version does have a related sentence in the preceding paragraph warning teachers against “persistently intruding material which has no relation to their subjects.” One might assume that the Committee removed the two sentences above, then, for reasons of duplication. But the Introduction doesn’t mention anything like “Avoidance of redundancy” in its list of intentions.
Or, perhaps, the Committee sees the old version as too open to abuse. A lively teacher who in a class on 19th-century American history continually invokes the Holocaust and Vietnam and the War on Terror might incite a jingoistic student to file a complaint. An unscrupulous administrator might then censure the teacher and convert what was an exciting, broad-ranging course into a humdrum exercise, with the teacher carrying around self-doubts for years. Once again, however, the list of intentions says nothing about clarifying the line between relevant and irrelevant or preventing administrator abuse.
It seems clear that the Committee considered the deleted sentences as something worse and redundant or vulnerable, namely, an inherent restriction on academic freedom. This puts the Committee in an uncomfortable position (should anyone step forward to challenge its work). Nobody wants to affirm that the right to “introduce provocative discussions on irrelevant subjects” is essential to academic freedom. Not only does that assertion raise embarrassing questions of competence and rigor. It also clouds the academic freedom of other people in the room, the students.
First, it throws the day’s session onto uncertain grounds. The syllabus lays out the course topic and assignments. Students know on what and how they will be graded. What they don’t know is what the teacher expects of them when outside matters enter the room. Most anything that happens in a classroom carries with it an implicit demand that students respond to it, and they can’t respond freely unless they understand what the expectations are.
Second, the provocative nature of the imported topic has numerous effects. It creates an antagonistic atmosphere in the room, turning students against students and (some) students against professors. Tough forensics in class are a good thing, of course, but unless the acquire a relevant standing, the challenge usually proves disruptive. Provocation also makes students wonder whether scholarly norms will be applied to their statements, or will political norms or simple emotion prevail? If students in an English literature class debate the meaning of the final lines of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” they will feel confident that they will be evaluated on how well they argue, not simply on what they maintain. Provocative outside issues tend to have real-world consequences, not just academic implications, a fact which tends to downplay the academic evaluation of student response. They raise the stakes of what you believe above how you argue it. Even the most open-minded teachers will struggle to expel that anxiety.
The Committee implicitly recognizes the problem with the latest vision’s phrase on not “persistently intruding material which has no relation to their subjects.” But does that qualifier “persistently” effectively handle the real target of the statement: the zealous instructor who can’t stay on point, who just can’t resist the urge to sound off on topical matters of the week, all the while wearing his ideology on his sleeve?