Wednesday, September 12, 2007

AAUP statement on freedom in the classroom

Readers who don't belong to the American Association of University Professors may not be aware that this professional organization that watches over issues affecting university life has recently published an important statement on pedagogy and classroom freedom.

I reproduce Cary Nelson's email below, with links to the statement itself and to Michael Berubé's endorsement.

The intellectual independence and integrity of higher education’s classroom faculty have been under attack for some time—by the press, by conservative commentators, and by politicians. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) is convinced that it is time take back the classroom on behalf of academic freedom. In a clear and carefully reasoned historic new report, we counter these attacks and lay out the principles of responsible college pedagogy. The full report, Freedom in the Classroom, is available in the September–October issue of Academe , our journal of record, and online.

The report differentiates instruction from indoctrination. It addresses demands for “balance” in the classroom and offers a very specific and limited disciplinary rationale for the relevance of balance. It argues forcefully that college instructors have the right—and, some would argue, the responsibility—to challenge their students’ most cherished beliefs.

The report also takes up the most controversial issue, politics in the classroom, and offers an analysis for your consideration. We adapt an example from a 2007 New York Times column: “Might not a teacher of nineteenth-century American literature, taking up Moby Dick , a subject having nothing to do with the presidency, ask the class to consider whether any parallel between President George W. Bush and Captain Ahab could be pursued for insight into Melville’s novel? Might not an instructor of classical philosophy, teaching Aristotle’s views of moral virtue, present President Bill Clinton’s conduct as a case study for student discussion?”

No matter what the discipline, no matter what subject matter or historical period a course description defines, we suggest, the field of contemporary culture and politics is available for comparison, analogy, and contrast. To say this is to reaffirm the life of the mind, to assert that in human culture anything may potentially be connected to anything else.

This e-mail is being sent to more than 350,000 faculty and academic professionals in the United States and to tens of thousands in other countries. Not all faculty and academic professionals have the sort of academic freedom we value, but they all need to hear these principles articulated and affirmed. We encourage you to read the full report, discuss it with your students and colleagues, send us your comments, and join our efforts to disseminate this message.

See Michael Bérubé’s essay "Why the AAUP’s New Statement ‘Freedom in the Classroom’ Matters" online in the September 11 issue of Inside Higher Ed.

Cary Nelson
AAUP President

EDIT: These words from Berubé's essay were especially resonant, touching as they do the kinds of conversations we have here at ITM and which many of us attempt in our classes as well:
Class discussion can go in any direction whatsoever. Students can pick up on a professor’s analogy ... and run with it anywhere they like; every day, they bring to the classroom their own analogies, obsessions, fully-formed arguments, and passing concerns, as well as the ideas that just popped into their heads a few minutes ago. And in response, professors can pick up on students’ responses and take them wherever on the syllabus — or wherever in the world — seems most pedagogically promising.

This is so common and ordinary a feature of college classrooms that it should need no defense. Quite literally, it should go without saying that college classrooms are places where students and professors can pursue illuminating analogies, develop trains of thought, play devil’s advocate, and make connections between past and present.

I'll also add that the whole issue is a sobering reminder of the difference between teaching at a state-funded university in which legislators or a board of visitors or some such feel it is their moral duty to scrutinize individual classrooms and root out perceived evils; and a big, private university that doesn't have an intrusive board of trustees (a mixture of benign neglect and faith in faculty here at GW). Lynn Cheney, ACTA, and their shrill Vanishing Shakespeare! [exclamation point added to better convey the actual tone of the report] would like to change that, turning alumni into front-line activists against evident decadence and decline ... but so far as I can tell such epic tempests (<-- note Bard reference) have been confined to very small tea cups.

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