This blog has taken a rather extended holiday, but I’d like to start it up again. How to start? Maybe with the definition of good writing I heard yesterday from the writer George Saunders, during a wonderful interview on Michael Krasny’s radio show Forum:
Good writing is when I read one sentence, and then I feel like reading the next one.
That’s actually a very high standard, so I hope you won’t apply it too strictly here. But before you stop reading, how about this sentence:
Today is the last day for department chairs in my College to complete an online survey on contingent faculty working conditions. I prepared the survey with our Faculty Council, which I chaired last fall. I also got suggestions from some of the part-time faculty in my department. Some of the questions are specific to our campus, but most are similar to other recent surveys on contingent faculty, as discussed in this story on “Questions to Ask on Adjuncts.” The idea is to collect information and promote discussion, and if we find that some departments are doing certain things better than others, then maybe simply publicizing the best practices can lead to easy improvements. (More difficult improvements are another matter.) I’ll prepare a short report based on the surveys, but I’m not sure what will happen after that. I’ll keep you posted.
Aside from that, I’ve been busy redesigning and now teaching my courses on Current Political Thought and Democratic Theory and Practice, the latter in both undergraduate and graduate versions. And I’ve got a couple of trips coming up:
Next weekend I’ll be attending the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Boston. I’m scheduled to present a paper on an exciting panel: “Role of Science in the American Democracy: Roots, Tensions, and Paths Forward.” The panel was organized by the Union of Concerned Scientists, as part of their recently started Center for Science and Democracy.
The week after that I’ll be giving a talk on “Political Advocacy and Discussion in the Classroom” at the annual CSU Teaching Symposium. I’ll be drawing on my blog posts from last fall on classroom politics. The conference program looks promising, and it’s not often that I get to sit around all day and talk with other teachers about teaching.
Commentators have been accusing California faculty of breaking state law and indoctrinating students by advocating for Prop. 30 in their classrooms. It seems that most charges of indoctrination and law breaking are either false or exaggerated, and it’s important for faculty and administrators to avoid overreacting by stifling legitimate classroom discussion. Anticipatory self-censorship isn’t pretty.
Depending on the course topic, trying to keep political discussion out of the classroom may also reinforce a real threat to university education, which is what political scientist Roger Pielke calls “stealth issue advocacy“: pretending to stick to one’s area of expertise while implicitly advocating a political position.
A friend pointed me to a recent example in a Los Angeles Times report on a Cal State Fresno professor who gave the following assignment to a class on California state and local politics:
Argue for virtues of Proposition 30 by referring to relevant parts of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s political philosophy (Note: You will not earn any credit at all just by saying what Prop 30 is all about. Your goal is to demonstrate that you can use J.J. Rousseau’s ideas and concepts to explain the rationale for Prop. 30.)
With an apparently boundless confidence in the virtues of dialog, the professor tried to defend the assignment on a conservative talk radio show. He barely got a word in, and the hosts kept yelling at him, but the professor managed to explain that his class actually discussed arguments for and against Prop. 30, and that his goal was for students to apply philosophical concepts to a current political issue.
One of the hosts objected: “Their writing this essay exam could influence their thinking on voting yes, something that Cal State Fresno would directly benefit from, so it’s a clear conflict of interest, and it’s a violation of the law.”
The professor said, “They are all adults. Having been able to articulate virtues, I’m sure they’ll be able to argue for cons, that is, opposition to [Prop. 30].”
On the question of influencing students, I agree with the professor. It’s silly to think that an essay assignment is going to change how students vote. It’s also probably misleading to view this assignment out of context, and it doesn’t sound like the professor meant to address the issue in a biased way.
But taken by itself, this assignment looks like stealth advocacy: it asks students to articulate one side of a political debate in the guise of a neutral academic exercise.
Stealth advocacy is rampant in everyday politics, and it probably happens a lot in the classroom as well, often without the stealth advocates even knowing they’re doing it.
According to the AAUP report on “Freedom in the Classroom,”
It is not indoctrination when, as a result of their research and study, instructors assert to their students that in their view particular propositions are true, even if these propositions are controversial within a discipline. It is not indoctrination for an economist to say to his students that in his view the creation of markets is the most effective means for promoting growth in underdeveloped nations, or for a biologist to assert her belief that evolution occurs through punctuated equilibriums rather than through continuous processes.
It’s true that these instructors aren’t indoctrinating their students, but it also looks like the economist may be doing some stealthy advocacy work. The biologist speaks to a dispute that is largely confined to evolutionary biologists, but the economist addresses a topic that is controversial in both the discipline of economics and everyday politics. The topic involves both expert disagreement and political controversy.
Faculty can avoid stealth advocacy on such topics in at least two ways:
1) Avoid the stealth: openly advocate a political position and, when in the classroom, do everything possible to ensure that other positions receive equal treatment; a classroom that includes advocates from all sides of an issue is often more “fair and impartial,” and probably more educational, than one that doesn’t include any.
2) Avoid the advocacy: present as much of the expert knowledge on the topic as possible, including claims typically emphasized by each side of the dispute, highlight uncertainties and disagreements within the field, and make clear that expert claims do not by themselves justify any particular political position.
Students aren’t sheep, and stealth advocacy isn’t going to indoctrinate them. But it undermines faculty credibility and public trust.
It’s been a week, and most of us still know almost nothing about the new CSU chancellor, Timothy White — except that I’ve gathered he goes by Tim. Searching the web for news about him, I’ve read about his personal and professional background, his salary, and the new medical school he got started at UC Riverside. I’ve also read that he likes to walk around campus on exam days and give out cookies. A UCR professor posted a highly critical account of White’s record there. And of course there’s the “Undercover Boss” episode, which, troubling as it is in some respects, probably says more about his qualities as a television actor than as a higher education administrator.
I haven’t been able to find any statement of White’s overall vision for the CSU. No explanation of how he intends to cope with our funding crisis. No discussion of how he will restore public commitment to higher education. When it comes to our two presidential candidates, I’ve gotten sick of hearing about all their “plans,” but I’d like to hear at least a few ideas from our new chancellor.
In the comments section of his blog, Chris Newfield posted a series of excellent questions:
- Will Mr. White fight tooth and nail for restored public funding for CSU? Can you cite speeches and incidents in which he went out on a limb to oppose the status quo for either system?
- Will he define 21st century educational quality for the CSU students he no doubt cares about, putting new money into high-end instruction? What was his special educational vision for UC and UCR?
- Will he oppose the stratification of CSU campuses, refusing to protect flagships as UC protected its flagships in part at the expense of UCR?
- Will he be open and upfront with the CSU community about the budget? Was he upfront with UCR about the real costs to the campus of a new medical school that the state will clearly not pay for as it did for the 5 existing UC medical schools and centers in their early years?
-Can he work with unionized faculty and other unionized employees? How did he do with them at UCR?
-Can he press for the general good rather than for prestige showcase projects, and bring people together rather than set one category against another?
According to a San Francisco Chronicle report, White said, “We have our work cut out, but I’m enormously optimistic. . . . We just have to find a way here in a difficult economy.”
One of the first things I read about Timothy P. White, the new chancellor of California State University, was that in May 2011 he appeared on the hit reality show Undercover Boss. So I watched the episode. There’s a preview on the website of UC Riverside, where Dr. White has been chancellor since 2008, and I found the full episode on both amazon video and iTunes.
Undercover Boss portrays high-level executives who go undercover to work for a week among their lowest paid employees. Disguised in ordinary clothes, the bosses learn quickly. They pick up trash and clean toilets; they struggle under irrational policies and uncaring middle-managers. These minor humiliations bring enlightenment. Each show ends with the boss first revealing the ruse, and then eliminating selected hardships, announcing reforms, and bestowing favors on individual employees.
One reviewer points out that Undercover Boss reenacts an old fantasy of the powerless: if only the powerful understood our plight, they would help us.
The boss walks a mile in the worker’s shoes. The boss attains wisdom, and the worker gets a new pair of shoes. The basic model is noblesse oblige and corporate charity, not workplace democracy and social justice.
The show’s obsession with personal experience obscures the political causes of the harsh working conditions it portrays. We’re told that workers suffer because the boss is “out of touch,” not because investors demand large profit margins and the workers lack effective legal protection and union representation. As one critic puts it, “The idea that the soul journeys of CEOs can redeem or restore American industry in an age of ruthless globalism makes for an enchanting bedtime story, but it’s hard to conceive of a goofier approach to—or a more misleading account of—What’s Actually Going On Out There.”
In most respects, the episode with Dr. White follows this standard script. White amiably goes through the requisite indignities. In front of a chemistry class of 250 students, he fumbles nervously with a microphone and mispronounces words while a student openly yawns; while sorting books in the library, he falters over the proper ordering of the letters o and p; at the university track, he awkwardly drops heavy equipment; and during his day as a campus tour guide, White repeatedly stumbles while walking backwards in front of a group of visitors.
The episode ends with White revealing his identity to the university employees who graciously showed him their jobs, followed by heart-felt conversations, hugs, and lots of tears. White and his new friends share personal stories that are truly moving, for an instant, before they wilt in the glare of publicity. Nothing real can stop the cynicism machine that is reality television.
Between the hugs and tears, White hands out presents like Santa Claus: loan forgiveness and scholarships for the student employees, a training opportunity and brand new track for the coach, and a Women in Science Scholarship named after the chemistry professor. These gifts differ in the breadth of their impact, but they’re all funded by private donors and remain within the basic narrative of the show.
White’s appearance on Undercover Boss thus reinforces the ongoing diffusion of a top-down, feudalistic, corporate management style in higher education.
But maybe there’s more going on here.
If White’s goal was simply to learn about his campus, he could have gone undercover privately. By doing the show, White may have been trying to educate not just himself but also the viewers.
If you subtract the bullshit associated with the show’s basic premise, what you see in this episode are talented, dedicated, hard-working students and faculty who truly care about public education and public service. The episode challenges the typical image of public universities as party schools, escapist ivory towers, or leftist indoctrination camps.
After revealing his identity to the chemistry professor, White tells her, “I was so impressed by the respect that these students have for you.” She later says, “It feels good to know that . . . if I work here until midnight . . . it means something.”
Yes, it certainly does. Welcome to the CSU, Chancellor White.
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.
Yesterday evening the provost’s office at my university sent the below email to all faculty. It’s about classroom advocacy and California’s Proposition 30, which if approved by voters on November 6 would raise taxes to fund public education, and if defeated would result in a $250 million cut to both the CSU and UC systems.
Dear Faculty Members,
The California State University Chancellor’s Office has asked Provosts to remind faculty that class time and classroom spaces should not be used for inappropriate political advocacy. Please bear in mind that under Cal. Gov. Code Section 8314, it is unlawful for any state employee to use or permit others to use state resources for a campaign activity. This includes making presentations about Proposition 30 unless a discussion of Proposition 30 is relevant to the regular course material. If you have any concerns about whether a discussion of Proposition 30 is relevant, please consult with your Dean before making any such presentation in class. This reminder from the Chancellor’s Office is consistent with the Faculty Rights and Responsibilities policy that was recently adopted by the Faculty Senate, particularly the policy entitled Faculty Responsibilities to Students in the Instructional Environment.
Thank you for your cooperation.
Charles W. Gossett, Ph.D.
Interim Provost & Vice President for Academic Affairs
California State University, Sacramento
Although this email doesn’t specify which kinds of advocacy are “inappropriate,” the author presumably disagrees with those who argue that faculty can use political advocacy in the classroom to promote the university’s intellectual goals. As long as faculty aren’t dogmatic, don’t stray too often from the course topic, and don’t pressure students to agree, political advocacy in the classroom can challenge assumptions and stimulate lively inquiry. If they proceed with care, and if their primary purpose remains intellectual rather than narrowly political, faculty can defend a political position and still inspire trust that they will grade everyone fairly regardless of their political beliefs.
Given how fragile such trust can be, I’ve tended to avoid political advocacy in the classroom. That’s easy when our topic is not overtly political, but it becomes more difficult when people disagree about whether a question is political in the first place. Is it political advocacy to say that anthropogenic climate change is occurring or that Mitt Romney’s economic plan doesn’t add up? For some it is, for others it’s not.
Whether or not students discern my political views (and if they read this blog I guess they will), it usually seems best to not argue my position in class, especially on questions that lie outside my expertise. And if I do argue my position, I try to argue the other side as well. I’m responsible for grading the students’ work, and even if — especially if — I were to have only one conservative student in a class full of liberals, or vice versa, that person would deserve every reassurance that I won’t penalize them for their political views.
But that doesn’t prevent me from introducing and moderating lively discussion of political issues. What we discuss is less important than how we discuss it. As long as classroom discussion gives a fair hearing to all reasonable perspectives, and as long as it serves the overall purpose of analysis and understanding, then lively debate is one of the best educational tools we have.
I checked the section of the California Code mentioned in the email we received yesterday, and it turns out that it doesn’t even refer to political advocacy. It states,
It is unlawful for any elected state or local officer, including any state or local appointee, employee, or consultant, to use or permit others to use public resources for a campaign activity, or personal or other purposes which are not authorized by law. (emphasis added)
The text goes on to define “campaign activity” as “an activity constituting a contribution as defined in Section 82015 or an expenditure as defined in Section 82025.” Those sections discuss financial payments and payments-in-kind, not political advocacy.
As a matter of fact, a few lines later in the same section, the California Code contradicts the provost’s statement that it would be unlawful for faculty to use state resources for “making presentations about Proposition 30″ (as opposed to presentations in favor of Prop. 30; and this section of the Code does not say that such presentations would need to be “relevant to the regular course material”):
(d) Nothing in this section shall prohibit the use of public resources for providing information to the public about the possible effects of any bond issue or other ballot measure on state activities, operations, or policies, provided that (1) the informational activities are otherwise authorized by the constitution or laws of this state, and (2) the information provided constitutes a fair and impartial presentation of relevant facts to aid the electorate in reaching an informed judgment regarding the bond issue or ballot measure.
The policy on Faculty Responsibilities to Students in the Instructional Environment also doesn’t ban classroom political discussion. It quotes the AAUP “Statement on Freedom and Responsibility”:
it is improper for an instructor persistently to intrude material that has no relation to the subject, or to fail to present the subject matter of the course as announced to the students and as approved by the faculty in their collective responsibility for the curriculum. (emphasis added)
This says only that faculty may not “persistently” introduce off-topic material, not that they may never do so.
The policy goes on to specify a series of thoughtful guidelines for ensuring a fair instructional environment. The only guideline that may seem to impinge on classroom political discussion states:
h. Faculty will provide thoughtfully prepared and delivered curricula that are purposefully related to the stated objectives of the course in question, consonant with the description in the University catalog.
This statement also doesn’t prohibit brief and occasional discussion of political issues, regardless of the topic of the course.
Moreover, given that Prop. 30 will strongly affect the learning environment on campus, it’s arguably “related” to nearly any course. As the AAUP report on “Freedom in the Classroom” explains, “Whether material is relevant to a better understanding of a subject cannot be determined merely by looking at a course description.” Even the most esoteric sciences are not entirely isolated from society. Discussing Prop. 30 in a biology class, for example, would allow students to consider how changes in science funding are shaping research in their field.
I don’t think university faculty violate any of their professional obligations by introducing Prop. 30 as a topic of brief, fair, and open discussion in their classes.
But I could be mistaken. Maybe I’ll discuss the matter in class today with my students.