Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Academic Freedom: Writing and Teaching Are Different

As I have argued several times, it seems to me there is a difference between what scholars can write (answer: anything, absolutely anything at all) and what they can "teach" (answer: stick to your subject, keep your political views out of the classroom except as a foil for discussion, never use political conformity as a grading criterion, and consider the impact of readings in terms of their pedagogical effect, not just your own "good" (meaning selfish) intentions).

So, I have read of the case of one Dr. Jonathan Bean. From the SIU-Carbondale student newspaper, and from some other sources, and another.

The gist:

Bean's History 110: 20th Century America class, an SIUC core curriculum course of roughly 270 students, studied the usual litany of readings by Rosa Parks, Malcom X and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. for its section on the Civil Rights era at the beginning of April.

Bean also distributed what he said were additional, optional reading handouts through his three graduate assistants assigned to the course. Among those papers was an abridged article from James Lubinskas of FrontPageMagazine.com titled, "Remembering the Zebra Killings," which recounted a series of 71 murders perpetrated by a group of black men against white civilians in San Francisco between 1972

and 1974. FrontPageMagazine.com also hosts writer David Horowitz, who visited SIUC last year on the subject of academic freedom at universities.

Bean had pulled the article from the FrontPageMagazine.com Web site and thought it would be material students could possibly go over in the course discussion sections.

At that point, Bean said, the wheels began to turn.

"It sparked what I called "handout hysteria," he said. "I handed it out on Tuesday. On Friday afternoon I'm called into the department chair's office, with a hysterical department chair waving the handout at me."

Bean said at that point he wasn't sure what had caused the problem.

"What I took away from it, the concern was about sensitivity," he said.

I am trying to put myself in the positon of the department chair. And here is what I would have said to Bean, if it had been my meeting. "Jonathan, this really comes down to presentation. I don't think you can give equal historical credibility and factual status to the material in this handout, compared to the other historical events you teach about in class. I'll back you up on this, but in terms of pedagogy this is a very close call. Documenting black violence against whites is quite possibly useful, but allowing the perception of moral equivalence (There were white racists and black racists, and so both sides were racists) is a gross misrepresentation. And, to use THIS source...That's not good teaching. I think you made a mistake, but it was an honest one. In any case, you can count on my support publicly."

The point is that professors have an obligation to be careful, not just to hand out random internet tracts in an attempt to be provocative.

On the other hand, if Bean had written something, even something where he expressed approval of the Zebra killings, or the Ku Klux Klan, or anything else, then he would have my full support. I would argue with him, but I would try to protect him.

Write what you want, but teach what you should.

(Nod to OY)


Anonymous said...

Munger has a point, IF Bean had drawn moral equivalency but he did not. Moreover, he cancelled the handout and issued an apology, at the urging of his chair, BEFORE his "colleagues" blasted away with a letter and advertisement.

Clearly, there was much more to this story than about a handout: There is the "tree" (cancelled handout) and the "forest" (real animous and actions behind the scenes to disrupt Bean's course and damage his reputation.

Finally, the administration (chair AND dean) kept Bean totally in the dark as to the origin of the complaint and violated all the written procedures for handling such complaints BEFORE excusing (with pay) his teaching assistants. That unjustified, arbitrary action jeopardized the education of 180 students and has sent a chill effect to other faculty. (If a dean can destroy your course and reputation for such a slight--overcome by cancelling and apologizing--then none of us is safe, is general opinion among faculty.

mungowits said...

All good arguments.

I would have supported him. I would have gone public with a protest over his treatment, and would have publicly resigned as chair, saying that I could not work for an administration that treated faculty that way.

(It helps that I really HATE being chair, of course, so the least excuse would be enough)

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