Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Other Piece of Academic Freedom

I don’t know the merits of the Louisiana case of the professor who was fired for cursing.  But the idea of it brings up a side of academic freedom that doesn’t get much discussion, although it’s actually much more real in my world than some of the higher-profile stuff.

“Academic freedom” and “free speech” are not the same thing, although they’re often confused.  Academic freedom is about doing a job. The idea behind it is that the job of faculty is to get at the truth, even if the truth is unpopular, so they need the room to explore unpopular ideas.  But the ideas they explore are supposed to be relevant to the subject they’re teaching or researching.  That’s where academic freedom splits from free speech.  Free speech allows for irrelevance; if I want to publish a blog devoted entirely to weighing the artistic merits of Britney Spears’ early work as compared to her more recent stuff, I can’t be arrested for it.  But if I devote an entire semester’s worth of classes to Ms. Spears when I’m supposed to be teaching, say, Modern European History, I’m not doing my job.  I could properly be sanctioned for that.

Relevance would be the lens I’d recommend for something like the profanity case.  In a Civil Liberties class, for instance, there are times when profanity is at the heart of the dispute.  You couldn’t really cover the issue without it.  Similarly in history classes, some pretty horrifying stuff is at the heart of the subject.  Some primary source material will include, say, racial slurs that would be unacceptable out of context, but unavoidable in context.  If you study American history without covering racism, you have not studied American history.  It strikes me as reasonable that biology classes would cover sexual reproduction, or that sociology classes would cover family arrangements that some might find shocking. Remove, say, adultery from art and literature, and you miss a lot. Relevance can cover some pretty bracing things. I’ve had that conversation with folks in dual enrollment programs, who may expect that we’ll sanitize content for high-school-aged students.  We don’t. We don’t go out of our way to sensationalize, but yes, a history class that mentions feminism might very well mention abortion as part of the scope of the movement. It’s part of the subject.  If that’s too shocking, don’t take the class.

The high-profile academic freedom cases tend to be around hot-button social issues.  But on the ground, the more frequent issues are around relevance.  This is the professor who devotes far too much class time to stories about his family, or about the strategies of his favorite football team.  

In those cases, there’s no free speech issue, really.  There’s no law against talking about football, nor should there be, even for Cowboys fans.  But there is a job performance issue.  Class time is scarce, and the deference that we expect students to show while in class is based on a bargain: show up and follow the rules, and you’ll be taught what the course description says you’ll be taught.  Different faculty have different styles, but the goals of the course should be the same regardless of who teaches it.  Those are the dreaded ‘student learning outcomes’ of a given class.  If students in Prof. Smith’s section of algebra come away having learned what they were supposed to, but students in Prof. Jones’ section come away mostly having heard tales of her family, then we have a performance issue with Prof. Jones.  She has abused her academic freedom, and in so doing, has left students without the class they signed up for.

In my own experience both as a student and as an administrator, this kind of abuse of academic freedom is far more common than the high-profile kind.  It’s hard to measure, at least in the short term, because we give wide latitude on digressions and metaphors -- rightly so -- and in the absence of third-party grading, any given professor can write off poor student performance to high standards.  In sequential courses, it can show up over time -- if Jones’ students crash and burn consistently in the next math class, when everyone else’s do fine, then you have a pretty good sign that something is wrong.  But in standalone classes, this sort of thing can go on for years.

I land on the side that grants a pretty expansive view of relevance.  Anecdotes can provide helpful metaphors, or they can provide the social glue that makes a class cohere.  A few minutes spent on a seemingly irrelevant story can be a sort of icebreaker, or can lead the discussion in unanticipated, but productive, directions.  The acid test, for me, is whether the students get what they need. If a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, I have no problem with it.  But I’ve seen classes that were nothing but sugar, and that’s not the same thing.

Non-directed profanity strikes me as potentially useful or potentially distracting, depending on the dose.  It’s a bit like garlic.  A little bit at the right moment can add something, but pour it on and it drowns out everything else.  Admittedly, that may reflect a regional taste; New Jersey isn’t known for politesse.  I could imagine some regions being a bit more circumspect about it.

Getting habitual digressors to focus can be a real challenge.  But it’s not a free speech issue.  It’s a job performance issue, and should be treated accordingly.