Discussing Politics in the Classroom

Tempted to talk politics in the classroom? It may behoove you to take a look at “Frequently Asked Questions for Faculty in the Wake of the 2016 Election,” a document put together by American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

Some tips culled from it (bullet points are my headings, italicized text are quotes):

  • Political discussions should be on or related to the course material.
    The AAUP’s 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure affirms that… “teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject,” adding that they should be careful “not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.”…For faculty in public-sector institutions, courts have recognized that classroom speech that is germane to the subject matter can be protected by the First Amendment. The AAUP has emphasized that the definition of germane speech is an expansive and deferential one: “How an instructor approaches the material in classroom exposition is, absent breach of professional ethics, a matter of personal style, influenced, as it must be, by the pedagogical goals and classroom dynamics of a particular course, as well as by the larger educational objective of instilling in students the capacity for critical and independent thought” …On the question of how to determine whether material is “irrelevant” to classroom discussion, the AAUP’s statement Freedom in the Classroom concludes that “so long as an instructor’s allusions provoke genuine debate and learning that is germane to the subject matter of a course, they are protected by ‘freedom in the classroom.’” In other words, if a faculty member’s remarks are not simply ruminations on current events but are in fact about relevant political issues—for example, controversies about creationism that the faculty member links to the study of biology—they would be protected by academic freedom.

  • Professors should be careful in addressing students who share racist, xenophobic, homophobic, misogynist, or other intolerant views in the classroom.
    As the AAUP maintains in its 1994 statement On Freedom of Expression and Campus Speech Codes, “On a campus that is free and open, no idea can be banned or forbidden. No viewpoint or message may be deemed so hateful or disturbing that it may not be expressed.” Faculty members must insist, however, that due respect for others be paid in the expression of those views in the academic setting. If a topic raised by a student is not relevant or germane to the class, the faculty member may ask that discussion on the topic cease.Further, if the student addresses the class in an unduly disruptive manner, such as by yelling, the faculty member may ask the student to cease this conduct, and if the conduct does not cease the professor may use the techniques normally available to address a disruptive student. Hostility or intolerance to persons who differ from the majority must be strenuously condemned: “Members of the faculty have a major role in dealing with incivility, intolerance, offensive speech, and harassing behavior. They must condemn intolerance, and ensure that their actions set examples for understanding, making clear to their students that civility and tolerance are hallmarks of educated men and women”…As the AAUP states in Freedom in the Classroom, “an instructor may not harass a student nor act on an invidiously discriminatory ground toward a student, in class or elsewhere.” However, as that report also observes, it “is neither harassment nor discriminatory treatment of a student to hold up to close criticism an idea or viewpoint the student has posited or advanced.” Finally, faculty should be mindful not to disclose confidential student information in an improper forum.

  • Tenured faculty should support the academic freedom of contingent faculty and others lacking job security.
    Faculty who are employed on a term-by-term or fixed-term basis are much more vulnerable to administrative retaliation for even entirely reasonable measures toward classroom management. All faculty must support their contingent colleagues who are addressing disrespectful, irrelevant, hostile, or disruptive behavior in their classrooms…Academic freedom rights, according to the AAUP and the AFT, apply equally to all college instructors, including those on contingent or part-time appointments and those teaching as graduate students or research assistants while pursuing their studies… Contingent faculty members may be especially vulnerable in a highly politicized environment. All faculty must commit to ensuring that nontenured colleagues are supported and protected through enforcement of collective bargaining agreements, faculty handbooks, and other actions from political and popular pressures that lead to arbitrary dismissals or nonrenewal of contracts.

  • Political speech by professors outside of the university setting—extramural speech—is protected by academic freedom.
    The AFT believes that “members of the academic community—including all faculty, instructional staff and indeed all workers at the institution—are free to join or form associations or organizations; to organize and work with unions; and to state their views on any topic, subject only to the understanding that they do not speak on behalf of their institutions.” The AAUP, similarly, has long been opposed to punishing academics for their expressions as citizens. It also finds “no basis upon which an institution might properly discipline a faculty member for extramural speech unless that speech implicates professional fitness.”

  • Don’t be a silent bystander to acts of intimidation, threats, or violence on campus.
    “Members of the faculty have a major role in dealing with incivility, intolerance, offensive speech, and harassing behavior. They must condemn intolerance, and ensure that their actions set examples for understanding, making clear to their students that civility and tolerance are hallmarks of educated men and women” (On Freedom of Expression and Campus Speech Codes)… If the threats involve potential violence or damage to persons or property, faculty should immediately report them to the appropriate law-enforcement authorities. Threats, harassment, discrimination, or violations of institutional codes of conduct can be reported to the office of student affairs or the office of diversity. Finally, if the college or university knowingly fails to protect students from unlawful harassment it may violate federal, state, and local statutes and a complaint may be filed with a federal, state, or local office of equal opportunity; there may also be the potential to sue the institution…Faculty members are not obligated to endure threats or harassment, and they can take the same actions to protect themselves as they would take to protect their students…  Individuals who are harassed could seek to take individual action, such as suing the harassers for defamation or for other torts, but such suits can be difficult to win. Individuals can more quickly counter such actions by banding together, with the support of any available unions and professional organizations, to combat intimidation.

  • Check your institution’s policies and procedures, with a possible eye towards reform, if needed.
    The institution should have in place sound and fair disciplinary procedures consistent with AAUP recommended standards. AFT standards require that faculty must be provided full due process, including the right to union representation and a hearing before a neutral decision maker; that the administration must prove just cause for any discipline that is imposed; and that discipline should be progressive. Disciplinary processes and procedures may be included in campus collective bargaining agreements, faculty handbooks, or institutional rules and regulations.

The AAUP also suggests that faculty see “The Anti-Authoritarian Academic Code of Conduct.”

Comments and further suggestions, including instructive examples, are welcome.

Michael Pederson, “This is the end. Please turn back.”

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Doc F Emeritus
Doc F Emeritus
7 years ago

Excellent points. I think the key to remember is to try to be as calm as you can, stop, with care and tact, students who are commenting in very offensive ways that are outside the course content (they should be governed by the same standards as the professor), are racist – etc – to no point related to the class (such as, “well X, have you considered that many people would find your comment racist?” I also used the idea, if class related comments were the issue (such as in a discussion of Mill’s example of slavery as possibly justified in a utilitarian scheme such as Bentham’s), and a student made a racist comment — ask them “Could you explain the origin and how you came to this belief? What is the justification?” Then, proceed as Socrates might in questioning their answers – a learning experience.

But, if the student was dogmatically racist, sexist, etc, and spouted only unjustifiable prejudice, I moved past it by saying something like, “I can see you do not want to address the issue philosophically, so let’s move on.” What else can one do unless you want to get into denigrating and attacking the student. But you should also make it clear that if the student is factually wrong that he/she has gotten the facts wrong. Challenge their views, ask for justification, and make strong objections, while leaving the discussion open and making clear you are not just imposing a viewpoint.

To shut down discussion leads to backlashes such as the “War on Political Correctness” that us our new president (in part).