Student views on classroom politics
Yesterday in each of my classes I briefly summarized some basic information about Prop. 30, doing my best to remain fair and impartial. And then I said that before we could talk about Prop. 30, we needed to talk about whether and how we could talk about it. I also briefly explained how the topic relates to the course themes and the university as a whole.
I then gave the students a worksheet to discuss in small groups. Their task was to imagine a professor making various statements during class. Which statements, if any, amount to political advocacy? Which of them, if any, are inappropriate for a professor to say in the classroom? Does it depend on any factors in addition to the statement itself? The statements included:
- Anthropogenic climate change is occurring
- Mitt Romney’s economic plan doesn’t add up.
- Barack Obama was born in the United States.
- Genetically modified foods are safe.
- Most university professors are politically biased.
As I expected, the students disagreed on whether these statements amount to political advocacy (except that, thankfully, nobody expressed concern about Obama’s place of birth). They also rightly pointed out that a lot depends on how the professor says something and the general context in which he or she says it. Such statements could be proclaimed from the mountain top or they could be offered as topics for discussion. They could be combined with evidence for and against, as well as discussion of how to assess the credibility and trustworthiness of competing claims. We had a lively discussion, and I came away with a few useful if not especially original impressions about student views on the issue:
- Many students like it when faculty advocate a particular political position in the classroom, even one they disagree with, as long as it’s clear that faculty won’t penalize students for disagreeing.
- Some students don’t feel comfortable challenging opinionated professors.
- Many students have had professors who seem to dogmatically advocate political causes, and the students don’t like it.
- Faculty cannot assume that students automatically trust faculty to evaluate their work fairly, but instead need to take steps to actively generate and preserve such trust.
Overall it seems that mistrust is a much bigger potential problem than indoctrination. The real danger is not political advocacy in the classroom, but a real or perceived lack of fairness. Most students probably take much of what their professors say with a grain of salt. And according to a major empirical study of politics on campus by Matthew Woessner (a self-described conservative Republican) and colleagues, “Very few individuals (students, faculty or administrators) report mistreatment as a result of their political views.”
Faculty can’t indoctrinate students if the students don’t trust us, and they won’t trust us unless they’re sure we won’t try to indoctrinate them. That doesn’t have much to do with faculty advocacy in the classroom.
Faculty can’t generate student trust merely by avoiding advocacy in the classroom, because that’s only one potential source of unfairness. Moreover, students are smart enough to know that many factual claims contain uncertainties, and silently concealing uncertainties is one of the most common forms of bias. Also, any selection of facts reflects the values of those who select them, and in some cases faculty may owe students an account of why they chose to present some facts rather than others.
And faculty probably won’t destroy student trust merely by advocating a political position, as long as they actively encourage students to challenge it. Faculty may sometimes deem it prudent to err on the side of impartiality, but it seems more promising to bring all relevant political voices into the classroom, rather than to try to keep them all out.