Last semester I taught English 113, an advanced composition course for first-year students. In order to enroll in English 113, students must place into the course by scoring high on an AP test, or they must submit a successful portfolio to the English Department over the summer. As a result, the vast majority of the students in my class were bright, confident, and savvy about the business of getting where they wanted to go. I mean, these students dedicated a portion of the summer vacation to composing and revising a writing portfolio—they were exceptional students all around.
So, when one of my students visited my office hours to talk with me about a paper, I was a little surprised at this portion of our conversation:
Me: This paper is your second about political issues. Are you thinking about a career in politics?
Student: Um, maybe. I’m not sure yet.
Me: Well, you might consider taking a few courses in political science at any rate—then you can get a taste without having to commit to a lifetime.
Student: Yeah. I want to take some courses. Actually, I wanted to minor in political science. But I’ve heard the professors are extremely *fill-in political leaning* there.
Student: Well, I’m very *fill-in opposite political leaning* and I’m afraid that would affect my grades.
Me (shocked): I mean, I can understand that—but these people are professionals. They will evaluate you on your work, not your beliefs.
Now, I should tell you that the students in my English 113 classes were not shy about making their opinions known. They knew how to present their positions on any given topic. And this student was no exception.
The reason I bring this incident up now is that I’ve been thinking about politics in the classroom. As a teacher, I try to avoid bringing politics into my classroom at all costs. I very consciously “play neutral” in an effort to circumvent any and all political discussions. Granted, this semester I’m teaching an advanced composition course focusing on life narratives, so it’s a little easier to skirt the issues, but even when I teach first-year writing, I try to be as balanced as I can.
Lately, however, this position has me feeling weird and maybe even a little duplicitous. Why should I have to extract a part of myself every time I stand up in front of my students? And conversely, why shouldn’t students in my classes have the benefit of seeing that, as a teacher, I can have political beliefs but not allow them to affect my grading policies? I mean, really, it is possible to disagree with someone and still perform your job. And furthermore, wouldn’t it be better for students to know who I am and how I feel just in case I am using my political beliefs as a compass? (I’m not, but what if I was?!?)
I also agree in large part with this blogger; ideas do matter, and if a college writing classroom doesn’t qualify as a safe place to raise issues and ideas and talk about them, to engage in debate and to understand how arguments are constructed, deconstructed, and/or deployed, then I don’t know where else students will learn these things. (Certainly they learn them outside of the academy, but with perhaps more serious consequences for missteps.)
However, there are more reasons to leave my politics out of the classroom. First, sometimes they simply don’t belong. There’s no reason students need to know how I feel on gun control if we’re discussing elements of autobiography. Second, I would hate it if a student didn’t feel comfortable in my class, or avoided taking an English class altogether, because they perceived me to believe one thing or the other.
But sometimes I’m just plain scared.
Recently, the Ohio Legislature floated this bill for an Academic Bill of Rights. This part of it worries me a great deal:
(C) Faculty and instructors shall not infringe the academic freedom and quality of education of their students by persistently introducing controversial matter into the classroom or coursework that has no relation to their subject of study and that serves no legitimate pedagogical purpose.
What, exactly, do they mean by “controversial matter”? And what qualifies as “legitimate pedagogical purpose”? It’s not at all clear to me. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the ruling became more or less rigid with each individual case.
And then there’s this little gem: a new feature at Miami University. Ethics Point. Any student who has a complaint about a teacher can submit an anonymous report to this site. So now I’m under constant threat to avoid “controversial matter,” to make sure every minute of my class serves a “legitimate pedagogical purpose.” Is it any wonder, with such constraints in place, that I chose to keep my politics under wraps?
But I can’t make up my mind…am I failing myself and the students in my classes by not being “real,” by not offering a good example of a teacher with political beliefs, by not opening up my classroom to political discussions so that students can engage with each other in a relatively low stakes environment? I go back and forth all the time.