Academic freedom, my ahem

impostor

Academic freedom is the right of teachers and students to express their ideas in the classroom or in writing, free from political, religious, or institutional restrictions, even if these ideas are unpopular. (Source)

Some 20 years ago I began teaching at a community college in northern California, where I made up for in enthusiasm what I lacked in experience and skill. At the time, I taught several writing courses, with their state-mandated emphasis on “critical thinking,” and I accepted the challenge of opening a mind or two with whatever latchkey I could find in my bag of teacher tricks. It delighted me, I confess, to lob a juicy controversy into the middle of a classroom and to see how students would react—though always my goal was to encourage new, and perhaps more expanded, ways of thinking and feeling about a thing.

During those early teaching years, the only challenge to academic freedom that I experienced came as a result of a short-lived edict from college officials demanding that we turn in any student we suspected of being an illegal immigrant. I remember saying to myself, and to anyone else who would listen, that I would go to prison before I participated in such a betrayal.

Some years later, I was teaching at a northern Virginia university, where, because of 9/11, there existed on campus a burgeoning paranoia that apparently frightened the administration. As a result, we were told to keep our noses clean and our political opinions to ourselves. Although I have never been one to express my political views to students, this silencing did not sit well with me, but I did as I was told since I was an adjunct faculty member without the job security tenure confers.

After a hiatus of several years, I have recently gone back to teaching writing part time at a community college, and I am faced with another insidious challenge to academic freedom, one that is “undirected and driven largely by students” and that aims “to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense” (Source).

Now, it seems, one can be called to the dean’s office for using a word like “violate” in the classroom (even if in the context of teaching about the law) because it might “cause student distress.” And one cannot ask another where he or she was born for fear that such a question might somehow suggest this person “is not a real American.” And one might think twice about asking students to read classic works of literature like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby because the former “describes racial violence” while the latter “portrays misogyny and physical abuse,” which “might ‘trigger’ a recurrence of past trauma” in “students who have been previously victimized by racism or domestic violence” (Source).

While this backlash against teachers has received more recent press at four-year universities and colleges, those of us who teach at community colleges will no doubt soon need to begin fearing how an errant remark or a misguided reading assignment might affect the long-term emotional well-being of our students. A few days ago, I sent my students home with an assignment to read an article about why ISIS has been successful in recruiting westerners (our theme for the semester is “identity and belonging”). Now I find I am wondering about when I will need to proceed at my own risk should I again wish to assign a reading like this.

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2 comments

  1. The short answer to your question: I think, yes, the possibility of it being “only a matter of time” is very real. The “why” could be the theme of a book. We live in a polarized political state and a deeply litigious culture. I spent 37 years as a prof at Alcorn State U. An HBCU in south central Mississippi. I loved my job. I started in 1972 as an English Instructor and in 1990 became chair of the department, a position I held for twelve years.
    Once I moved into the ranks of administration, I learned that the admin gang would literally do anything to stay out of court. I became the admin’s best bud when I showed a penchant for solving student grievances against faculty.
    What empowered the students? One source of power, as you probably know, is money. Money rules. Funding for most state universities has been cut and cut and cut. The dean and/or provost view the faculty as lines on a budget page rather than educators. My greatest complaint the last ten years of my career was the insidious intrusion of politics into the university system. Once the administration retreated from the field of academia and rushed into the faster-paced arena of politics, they adapted the language of competitive capitalism. Students were termed “clientele” or “customers.” The president referred to himself as a CEO. The phrase “customer service” was seen everywhere. And of course, as all good Americans know, “the customer is always right.”
    Now in 2015, it’s a mine-field. I applaud you for your stance as an educator. The best advice I can give, from a low-level administrator’s position, cover all your bases, and be ready for anything. If a student blares out that she has nightmares about ISIS, then get to her in a one on one student/teacher conference as soon as possible. Usually you find out that her fears are really about something else.
    On the positive side, I think you’re a professor those kids need the most. Good work!

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