Monday, October 13, 2008

Fish & Teachers & Buttons, Oh My!

Stanley Fish is a favorite of liberal arts grad students, so maybe this only intrigues me, but I was drawn to his column about free speech in two separate cases, one a public school ban and the other a university ban on teachers wearing political buttons or even placing political bumper stickers on cars that will be parked in faculty lots, or attending political rallies.

Fish does his usual thorough and critical job of sussing out the real issues at hand. He points out that the injunctions against bumper stickers are ridiculous, especially given the size of the university in question. He also makes clear distinctions between teachers’ conduct in those areas that can reasonably called a workplace (the classroom) and those that can’t (walking across a campus). And he honors the long-held standard on student and teacher free speech, namely that administrators have a prevailing interest in maintaining order at their institution, which can trump free speech right on campuses.

And, I have to say I end up generally agreeing with Fish. I can’t support the injunctions against bumper stickers or attendance at rallies. But, I know that when I was a teacher (ENG101, or freshman composition, at a large state university), any intrusion of my own political views into the classroom had consequences.

We talked about this a lot in pedagogy classes and workshops, especially given our department’s general encouragement of critical pedagogies, which place high importance on the political realities of students and teachers and encourage reflection on both. My stance had been full disclosure, reasoning that the only way to empower my students to examine and feel free to disregard my own political bent was to be completely open with them, and to vocally acknowledge their power to disagree.

As much as I still feel that approach has merit, it did create problems. If there was a point of disagreement with a student, the openness pf my political views became a source of friction. I can think of one student in particular, a 27-year-old non-traditional student majoring in science who had just transferred from a Montana land grant school. He had absolute faith in his own analytical reasoning, and could neither except it when I pointed out where his rhetoric didn’t and couldn’t support his position nor when I encouraged him to embrace some degree of uncertainty in his writing. By the end of that term, he was calling me a communist in class and going on back-row diatribes about how it might be fine for the humanities to embrace uncertainty, but the sciences dealt in rational fact, which rendered the class useless to him.

Maybe I would have lost this student anyway (he did manage to get into arguments with several of my colleagues when he stopped by my shared office after my office hours, and his attempt to get me in trouble with the department chair had to be headed off by our Composition Director, who had already had numerous frustrating interactions with the student). But, without a doubt, the fracture between us was accelerated by his interpretation of my political views.

And yet, I do feel a hesitancy here, mainly because it feels like these rules will more directly impact Obama supporters. Maybe this is only true in public schools, as the Democrats have long counted the teachers’ union as a supporter; there seems, and I have no reason to believe this than my own experiences on a handful of campuses, to be a wider range of political belief within college faculties.

It’s a tricky line to walk. As much as I can understand the reasons, it bothers me that schools are not seen as a place where students can learn how to be active, engaged and respectful citizens, with their teachers as examples not of ideology but conduct. Perhaps it is just one more sign of the fractured, divisive nature of our political system that political engagement and public support for a candidate or movement or organization is seen more as potential cause for disruption than an opportunity for instruction.

1 comment:

the beige one said...

I think this is also representative of how the general role of education has diminished during the fractured times.

The cliche of the school system as cookie cutter factory continues to become an entrenched ideal.