Centerspread: The politics of a classroom

school of rockSamantha Steeves, a third-year St. Thomas student, felt uncomfortable with what one of her professors was teaching in her first year of university. She said the professor’s lectures toed the line into baseless opinion, mostly about religion.

“It was so heavy-handed it was almost funny. You couldn’t take him seriously as a professor because of his biases.”

Steeves said class discussion would often stray from course material into sermon-like messages of vice and virtue.

“He talked about birth control excessively when it wasn’t pertinent to the class. Sometimes it might be, but it never was.”

Another STU student – who has asked not to be named – felt cheated on a weekly basis by one of her professors last year.

The class was mandatory for her honours program so she couldn’t escape it or its opinionated professor.

“There were days when he would spend literally the entire class not once touching the course material,” said the student.

She felt her professor used his position as a tenured prof as his own political soapbox. She knows some students enjoyed what the professor was saying, but she also knew she wasn’t alone in feeling it was mostly unrelated to what they were trying to learn.

“We didn’t really cover the course material in any meaningful way. It felt like I was in a different kind of course than the one I signed up for.”

She eventually gave up on that class and opted to take the professor’s next course – which, again, was mandatory for her – online over the summer.

“I figured I would get a better understanding of the subject if someone else was teaching it to me who wasn’t busy pushing their own personal agenda.”

This student’s professor was using his right to academic freedom liberally. He would criticize other departments within the institution as well as the institution as a whole. While she realized these were partly his rights as a teacher, she felt he sometimes crossed the line into unprofessionalism. She said he was particularly contemptuous of the Great Books department.

“The things he would say about it were just rude. He would talk about how the professors were elitist and how he thought one of his GRID students in the past was a Nazi.”

Academic freedom, according to the Canadian Association of University Teachers, allows for “intellectual discourse, critique, and commitment.” Robin Vose, a professor at St. Thomas and the vice-president of the association, said supporting these principles is well worth the trouble, given the alternative.

“Historically it has allowed profs to criticize government policies and to discover dangers of products that were subsequently withdrawn from the market – despite massive pressure from governments and corporations (both of which seek to wield further power as major funders of universities) not to do so,” said Vose in an email.

Vose said he feels academic freedom should be all but unbounded. A professor should be able to run his or her class in whatever way they see fit. The only boundary, according to the STU professor, should be the law. He says if a precedent is set opposing such freedoms, the consequences would be “truly horrific.”

“I would much prefer to allow a few profs I strongly disagree with the right to speak freely nevertheless, rather than start down the slippery slope of giving somebody (University admin? Government? Student union? Rich donors? Religious leaders?) the power to pick and choose which ideas are no longer acceptable.”

Vose said students are welcome and encouraged to be critical of what they hear in class. This is an integral part of healthy academic debate in universities. Being presented with challenging or controversial ideas from professors is part of a student’s education.

“They should take themselves seriously not as aggrieved consumers but rather as junior participants who are entitled to exercise their own level of academic freedom,” said Vose.

If a student finds him or herself in a situation where a professor may have crossed a line, there are mechanisms in place to help them. Jeffrey Carleton, STU’s communications director, said the first step in resolving an issue with a professor is talking to them about it.

“We’re at university, not high school. Students are more mature and the professors are academic teachers and researchers,” said Carleton. “Professors like getting feedback because they, like anyone else, want to be as good as they can.”

If meeting with the professor doesn’t resolve the issue, the student can move on to the chair of the department, the deans and finally the vice-president academic. STU has formal written policies and procedures as well, but ideally problems can be resolved informally, according to Carleton.

Karla O’Regan, a criminology professor at STU, chairs the student academic grievance committee. The committee generally deals with issues like grade appeals but it also addresses issues of professors’ competence. She says students have far more power than they realize when confronting a professor.

“On a one-on-one basis students tend to feel disempowered,” said O’Regan. “But if a student feels strongly enough about an issue to pursue it to a senate committee, the issue is taken quite seriously.”

O’Regan said students are given the STU calendar and the class syllabus as a way to let them know what shape the class will take. They should have expectations and those expectations should be recognized.

“You can’t have the class be about the shale gas protests when it’s supposed to be about Shakespeare.”

Patrick Malcolmson is a political science professor at St. Thomas and a former vice-president academic. He believes academic freedom is useful in the pursuit of truth, but what a professor teaches should be limited to his or her field of expertise.

“I can’t see why I would be entitled to pronounce on my views on the cause of cancer or something. I’m a political science professor. I know zip about that,” said Malcolmson. “Why not take somebody off the street and put them at the front of the classroom?”

He thinks a professor should be given the benefit of the doubt, but tenure is not an excuse for delivering personal sermons. Malcolmson says a professor is paid to teach a particular subject and that’s what they should stick to.

“You’re not there as a demagogue or as a political leader or a religious figure. You’re not a prophet of some sort. You’re there as a professor of a particular subject, and that’s what you’re supposed to be talking about.”

However, he also says students should take their powers more seriously. When students voice concerns, professors listen. He says they should not underestimate their impact on professors and the institution as a whole.

“That would be something a professor would really lose sleep over. I would,” he said. “It touches everything you do, being a professor. It’s all about your life, in a way.”

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