Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Are Students A Captive Audience? Constructive Disagreement And Classroom Politics

The perfect teacher.
Recently I was reading a discussion of the relationship between campus speech codes, sexual harassment, and free speech doctrine.  Because I am not a legal scholar I won't dwell on the details, but the dilemma for educational institutions is this:  how might one seek to regulate classroom expression that creates a hostile environment for students in a protected class without infringing on freedom of speech? Such utterances by a teacher or another student might include:  "Students of color are only here because of affirmative action;" "Tammy sure is easy on the eyes;"  or "Learning disabled people get extra time for the test, but I don't believe that anyone deserves accommodation."  (I made all these up, but I once knew a male prof who was famous for saying to any female student who had a hyphenated last name:  "Your mother must be one of those feminists.")

The answer to the questions I began with is this.  While individual speech acts in a classroom might be found to violate the right to work or learn in an environment free from harassment, speech codes do violate the right to free speech, as well as academic freedom. Furthermore, speech acts are only taken seriously as discrimination when perpetrated by a faculty member against a student.  In 2008 a member of the Dartmouth faculty sued on the claim that her students had created a hostile environment, and was mocked by the national press as a result.

Faculty are, in fact, perceived as having an almost uniquely destructive power to harm their students intellectually by forcing their views on them.  One way of thinking about this is what is called in labor law "captive audience doctrine," by which employees are forced to listen to political, religious or discriminatory speech.  If said employees resist, or refuse to participate as part of an audience for such speech, and are threatened with reprisal as a result, the captive audience doctrine might be invoked. (Note:  since the National Labor Relations Board is a mere shadow of its former self, actually winning a discrimination case or a grievance under captive audience doctrine is very difficult.)

Sound familiar to you?  This is more or less the principle on which conservative groups like Students for Academic Freedom ("You can't get a good education if they're only telling you half the story") and Minding the Campus assert that so-called "liberal indoctrination" in the classroom establishes a hostile environment for conservative students.  As the Student Bill of Rights published by SAF states,

Professors are hired to teach all students, not just students who share their political, religious and philosophical beliefs. It is essential therefore, that professors and lecturers not force their opinions about philosophy, politics and other contestable issues on students in the classroom and in all academic environments. This is a cardinal principle of academic freedom laid down by the American Association of University Professors.

In an academic environment professors are in a unique position of authority vis-à-vis their students. The use of academic incentives and disincentives to advance a partisan or sectarian view creates an environment of indoctrination which is unprofessional and contrary to the educational mission. It is a violation of students' academic freedom. The creation of closed, political fiefdoms in colleges, programs or departments, is the opposite of academic freedom, and does not deserve public subsidy or private educational support.
Contained in this statement, which mirrors what might appear to be a worthy standard for professional pedagogy, is language that points to a growing source of resentment among students:  faculty often tell them things that don't support, and even contradict, the world view that they brought to college in the first place.  What many teachers see as factual information, such students perceive as "opinions" that they must pretend to replicate, even if they have another "opinion."  What faculty see as reasoned argument that is well supported in the literature, and requires equally reasoned and well-supported argument to rebut, students can perceive as "indoctrination."

The two paragraphs I quoted above set the stage quite neatly for an application of captive audience doctrine to the classroom.  In the second, the faculty member's "unique position of authority" is emphasized, a position that is buttressed by "academic incentives and disincentives" (grades) that can be used to reward students who accept indoctrination and punish those who don't.

But are students always a captive audience?  Do faculty always hold a position of unique authority?  Does the fact of grading itself mean that the faculty member's unique authority is always already abusive?  And what are the implications of all of this for a liberal arts education -- which ought to be about debate, disagreement and transformation?

These may not be important questions for teachers of math and science (I am sure commenters will inform me on this point), but they are for those of us in the social sciences and humanities.  They are particularly serious questions for teachers of feminism, race, colonialism, post-colonialism and queer studies, who are repeatedly harassed by students and conservative organizations, and risk having the institutional support for their work withdrawn, because their work challenges centrist and conservative (and perhaps even liberal) views about race, sex, gender and empire.  However, a central issue for all social sciences and humanities scholars, regardless of field,  is that our very work and identities are built around the idea of constructive disagreement as a path to knowledge.  Useful disagreement depends on the notion that truth is not always an absolute value, and accepting the possibility that those things that are obvious are not always true.  If students do not believe they are empowered to disagree with us, and if disagreement itself is viewed as destructive in a classroom context, in what context can students be transformed into scholarly thinkers?  Conversely, if all student views -- no matter how factually incorrect of interpretively flawed -- have to be deferred to for fear of being charged with "indoctrination," under what conditions might a class acquire a body of knowledge about a subject, or a set of intellectual tools that constitute a recognized approach to that body of knowledge, at all?

Want some recommended reading?  Try Robert I. Sutton,  The No Asshole Rule:  Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't (2007)Reviewed here at Tenured Radical in July 2007.


Spanish prof said...

I work in literature, not in the social sciences. However, since I'm in a Spanish department, I'm usually assigned to those hybrid mixes called "Latin American Civilization" kind of courses. In theory, it means some kind of History-lite course but in Spanish. However, I do my own syllabuses instead of following a textbook.

I am as liberal as it comes, and I don't hide it from the class at all. I've also found that there is usually a well-constructed logical argument that will be ideologically opposed to what the student is saying, whether it's liberal, centrist, conservative, etc. Regardless of what I personally believe, in class I usually play devil's advocate.

So far, I think it's been more useful in opening student's mind than if I would not deviate from my own beliefs. One of the compliments I receive more often in my students evaluation is how my course was not just another "content" course, but a "critical thinking" one. My department has a senior project required for majors to graduate. The student can choose the faculty he/she wants to direct the project. I always get the most conservative ones and the most left-wing ones. I guess that means something.

And as liberal as I am, a few months ago I was the only faculty in my institution invited to a former student wedding where in the menu it stated that children would be served "freedom fries" (yep, apparently some people are still fixated on it). If I only left a small imprint in that student, and when somebody near her rants about all those damn liberals and she thinks, "Wait, Spanish Prof was really left-wing and she was awesome", I'll be satisfied.

Lucius Junius Brutus said...

It seems that, more and more, people are only interacting with people that think the same way as themselves. This is the phenomenon that has given rise to Fox News Channel where people go to hear their own ideas spouted back to them. It certainly goes against academic and scholarly tradition to expect one's tertiary education to support all the beliefs that he or she already holds.

I've done some adjunct teaching in the past and I find that students learn best when you bring challenges to their thinking--no matter what their prior thoughts are. Exposing conservative thinkers to liberal ideas and vice versa should always encourage constructive discourse in the classroom or anywhere else. Too often, our culture tells young people that it's best to stick with what/who you know!


rjblaskiewicz said...

"These may not be important questions for teachers of math and science."

Best example from when I was an undergrad of being a captive audience: I was a freshman at Notre Dame in Spring of '95, and everyone but me had taken off early for Easter break. My Korean calculus teacher, seeing that his class had gone from 80 to 5, decided that he would still teach us something. So he went into history:

"It used to be," he said, "that China was little brother, Korea was middle brother, and Japan was little brother, but now Japan is big brother, China is middle brother, and Korea is little brother." He looked around. "We hate the Japanese as much as you do, and we will defeat them...through the power of calculus!" He was dead serious. It was like he was showing us the sawed-off shotgun he was carrying under his trenchcoat. (He was not armed, as far as I know.)

I almost crapped myself trying not to laugh. Mercifully, he let the class out after his little screed about how awful the Japanese were, and me and a friend collapsed on the quad dying of laughter. It is one of my best memories of college, even though he was totally out of line.

In my own class, I teach argument and composition, so I play provocateur a lot, getting the students to debate and think. I challenge them all. I try to keep my cards close to my chest. I agree w/ Spanish prof that provocateur is an important role of the teacher.

HJ (deceased)

rjblaskiewicz said...

Damn. I totally messed up the brothers part of the story.

thewellwroughturn said...

Students are not captive audiences in the true sense of the concept. At best, the "captivity" they accept when enrolling in a college class is no different than any other forum people submit themselves to in other spheres of life.

And I refuse to teach with the facade of neutrality or to "play devil's advocate" solely as a heuristic. This is not the way that people engage in dialogue or critical thinking in non-educative contexts, so we shouldn't pride ourselves as teachers for doing this.

The real challenge I have faced is creating a safe space for students in the classroom to step forward with their own ideas. Of course, I am open to all ideas and welcome engagements with multiple perspectives. But too often, students feel pressured to conform to a certain idea (what they think I want to hear) and resist taking intellectual risks. This is the biggest area of my pedagogy that I look to improve.

Anonymous said...

We in science get accused of `indoctrination' too. Try teaching about global warming, or evolution, or the Big Bang theory...

Spanish prof said...


I don't play neutrality, but I don't understand why you say that "playing devil's advocate" doesn't foster critical thinking. All within certain parameters, for sure (if we are going to be discussing the Conquest and its effects, I won't assigned them to read contemporary racist texts that say that what Europeans did was right because they were of a superior culture). As Lucius Junius Brutus says, exposing students to ideas that challenge their beliefs works well from a pedagogical point of view. It forces them to construct a rational, well thought argument to oppose them. And that is what I expect from them in their assigments, and my grading reflects exactly that.

Anonymous said...

The Institute for Constitutional History's summer seminar is on academic freedom and freedom of speech, with a particular interest in whether religious schools are subject to the same or different standards. You should ask them to send you to join them as a special guest!

Anonymous said...

My favorite evaluation comment of all time included this little gem:

"She pushes this anti-slavery agenda all the time."

The class? US History to 1877. And, naturally, the evals are done right after the Civil War/Reconstruction sections.

Now I announce in my first day overview of the course that I do indeed have an "anti-slavery agenda so if my opposition to slavery and approval of the 13th Amendment is a problem, you might want to drop this section and find another."

My TAs in the past two years I've done this have been dumbstruck every semester by the fact that while most of the 300 or so laugh, 2-3 students actually do get up and walk out of the auditorium.


J. Otto Pohl said...

I think this may be a First World problem if even that.With very few exceptions my students have generally been apolitical. Getting students to talk at all has sometimes been a real challenge. When students have complained it is almost always about getting a grade less than an A.

TR said the examples she gave were hypothetical. Does anybody have any personal experience of students caring about the political opinions of lecturers? I just can not see students caring too much about such things.

Anonymous said...

J Otto - HELL yes.

Now I teach political science (international politics), so some of that is expected, and even welcomed as long as it is constructive and thoughtful. I make it clear to my students that my job is to help them learn to think for themselves, and not just to mimic me. We have all kinds of debates. I try very hard to make the level-best case for multiple viewpoints, and also to explain why one side is more compelling to me, when that is the case. Even though they may disagree, I tell them it is good to know how others think about an issue, and to recognize the flaws or weak points in your own arguments. I point out that most of us are not as ideologically dogmatic as we tend to think (and I offer evidence for why that might actually be a good thing). In a political science context, I think that is about as fair as can be.

Now in my nuclear politics class, and my war & conflict class, and my revolutions & political violence class, I sometimes get a certain "type" of student: often white, male, middle class or lower-middle class, with a huge appetite for military minutia. They assume I don't know anything because a) I am a liberal and b) I have not personally served in the armed forces and c) I'm not a dude.

Those students tend to be the ones who want to have ideology wars. These are the ones who, albeit rarely, have accused me of trying to "indoctrinate." They are also the ones who want to play military trivial pursuit or who seem to want to shock me by tossing out various penile terms for missiles and silos (there is some excellent feminist IR literature on this, btw). And they are the ones who have, for real, told me in class that women shouldn't study weapons systems, that women in general (and I, in particular) would be better off at home with the children, that liberals don't understand the "real world" and so shouldn't try to teach about it, etc. They are most likely the ones who write similar stuff on student evals at the end of semester.

I am not thin skinned, so hey, whatever. But these people seem to think that their views are the only ones that need to be heard, and that they come to school, already in possession of all the facts. Honestly, I sometimes do wonder why they are there since it is clearly not to learn new things, nor to explore alternate perspectives, nor to even strengthen their own arguments.

Thankfully, they are in the minority, and usually, their credibility with their peers drops precipitously shortly after they get going.

But, um, yeah. It happens.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

These may not be important questions for teachers of math and science (I am sure commenters will inform me on this point), but they are for those of us in the social sciences and humanities. They are particularly serious questions for teachers of feminism, race, colonialism, post-colonialism and queer studies, who are repeatedly harassed by students and conservative organizations, and risk having the institutional support for their work withdrawn, because their work challenges centrist and conservative (and perhaps even liberal) views about race, sex, gender and empire.

This sort of thing definitely arises in medical education, as there are massive issues of race, sex, gender, and privilege in the training of physicians and the provision of medical care within a system that is still under a heavy weight of paternalism, misogyny, and harrassment.

Historiann said...

Love Gretchen's comment above about her "anti-slavery agenda." I get that occasionally, but more frequently I get a lot of pious self-congratulation among students who think that in the twenty-first century it's a mark of special enlightenment to be anti-slavery. (It's a point of view that's pretty easy to sell.)

More often I get complaints about how what I'm teaching isn't "American" history because it's "only blacks, women, and Indians." But, whatever. My students are certainly not "captive audiences." At my uni, they have nearly limitless choices about how to satisfy all-university curricular requirements, and my upper-level courses aren't required of anyone. I'm no gatekeeper--students can vote with their feet (and make us all happier in the long run.)

kit10phish said...

I have taken classes where the instructor spouts off (politically) in a manner that I may or may not agree with. My science courses were no exception to this-in Animal science especially, issues such as small vs. factory farming and organic food came up continuously in a heated and biased way. I don't feel my rights are compromised in these situations, and at the very most, it is annoying. Unless the opinions expressed lend to a hostile environment/bullying I think it's acceptable--I am able to just disregard the things that may offend me as I do in every day life. As a student, I give up other rights (privacy, bearing arms, etc) because it is well-worth it in the end. I realize by signing up for certain courses I will be getting a lot of passionate feedback from the prof. Student's (excluding freshmen and transfers) tend to hear about the bigger personalities before registration, and I think sign up realizing what they are getting into as well. . .

Anonymous said...

Yes -- science for sure (or interdisciplinary topics that involve science) faces these problems, in ways that can sometimes even be more stark than social sciences/humanities. I have a fried in geology faced with teaching students who believe the Biblical "age" of the earth (at a SLAC) - how on earth do you teach in a way that doesn't offend those people and require them to give "answers" on exams that they don't believe?

Likewise, I'm a environmental social scientist who actually got reported to my chair once by a student who didn't like that I didn't "respect" the opinions of climate change deniers.

Anonymous said...

Did anybody see the recent article in Mother Jones (and extracted in The Week) regarding "motivated reasoning"?

One-sentence summary: Human brains are not open to evidence unless it is couched in terms that our emotions can handle.

GlassPen said...

suggested reading: an article in The New Yorker by Louis Menand that discusses the question of "Why We Have College" and touches on many issues that are regularly considered in this blog.

ladyelocutionist said...

In pedagogy course a few years back we read a fascinating psych article about cognitive stages of development, which argues that in the late teen years the concept of Opinion -- having one, respecting each other's opinions -- becomes paramount, but at the exact moment in which college educators are trying to teach student evidence based reasoning and analysis. So the claim of this article was that in order to develop effective pedagogical strategies, we need to respect the ideal of Opinion while differentiating it from evidence based analysis.

The "devil's advocate" approach that Spanish prof describes is really effective in this respect. It's *not* about teaching from "neutrality", but rather involves showing the difference kinds of arguments that can be drawn from a set of sources. And indeed, no two scholars will arrive at the identical argument from the same of sources, regardless of the similarity of their political perspectives &c &c. This is why integrating a range of sources into history course rather than relying on a single authoritative textbook can be so effective.

Spanish prof said...

@ladyelocutionist: Thanks for the compliment. I have no way to prove that my methodology is right, except the empirical evidence that says so. And it does prepare students for critical thinking in the real world: how much different is my approach to a situation where the former student is in a work meeting, they have to brainstorm a strategy for a company, he/she proposes something, somebody points to a flaw in the proposal, he/she has to think over it.... And the same would apply if it's the former student the person looking for pros and cons of an idea.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

As someone who has experienced having almost an entire class simply refuse to take the class described in the assignments and the syllabus, i.e., a class where they are expected to prepare beforehand and discuss material, I pretty much agree that classes can not only be hostile environments for the faculty member, but the captive audience argument is pretty much immaterial. The faculty person has to show up to keep his or her job, and really can only fail the students. The students, however, outnumber the faculty -- that certainly changes the entire dynamic, and I think also creates a hostile environment for those students who want to learn.

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