Non-Tenured Faculty’s Freedom Of Speech

Bing posts an interview with AAUP president Cary Nelson about academic freedom concerns of contingent faculty:

Being “contingent faculty” myself, I must first say I appreciate at least that Nelson is concerned about us and how we are doing.  But I do not think I heard in what he had to say any concrete information or specific allegations against specific universities for capriciously firing opinionated faculty who were simply provoking their students to challenge their beliefs.   Mostly he’s just prattling on about banal truisms about the need to be free to provoke students to think. I must be missing something but since when is that really a foreign concept in college classrooms?  Who are these administrators who will be shocked, shocked to learn that students are being provoked to question their beliefs?  Sure, at the most extreme religious schools that’s often the case, but who but the extremely religious intend to teach there anyway?  They’re not the norm.

Over the last 7 years I’ve been “contingent faculty” in 5 colleges within 3 universities, including 3 colleges of one Catholic university and 1 in another Catholic university. I’m also an outspoken atheist who has never once been asked to stop or start teaching anything I wanted to teach my students.  No one’s ever demanded to pre-approve or even pre-examine a single syllabus.  The non-Catholic school at which I teach is a state school and there’s no evil state bureaucracy looking over my shoulder there either.

Do I choose my words carefully so as not to offend my students accidentally or unnecessarily?   Of course I do.  But that’s part of being a responsible public speaker and whether or not job insecurity helps keep me on my toes I should be conscientious about that anyway.   Do I bend over backwards to make sure my students don’t feel threatened with my presentation of ideas that they may disagree with?  Of course I do—because I’m in a power relationship to them and therefore I need to be extra careful not to stifle their ability to feel free to explore ideas for themselves because of unnecessary fear of my prejudices affecting their grade or prematurely dismissing their thoughts.

And in the classroom my role is not to “profess,” but rather to inform my students, walk students through arguments, elicit their own ideas, and then help them develop and analyze their own ideas and those of the philosophers we study. Very rarely does that mean teaching them what I think or steering them towards my own conclusions.   It usually means just helping them develop their good lines of thought and find the flaws in their weaker ones.  And quite often that even means actively helping them develop arguments for positions I disagree with or helping them see flaws with arguments for positions that I do agree with.

Outside the classroom, I am a vehement, gloves-off debater who cares very much about the truth and the specific positions people take.  But inside the classroom I care about only one thing: my students’ abilities to critically and philosophically analyze questions for themselves.  I just graded several dozen papers yesterday and I probably could not tell you which student came down on which side of which issue in the vast majority of cases.  Why?  Because as I read them all I focused on was the character and quality of their arguments and focused on that while grading them.  Afterwards which particular side they took was irrelevant to me, that’s the business of their private conscience.  All I worry about remembering are their points of strength and weakness as writers and as reasoners.

And at least so far that attitude has served me just fine.  And on the rare occasions in which there is a pedagogically useful opening to introduce one of my own lines of thinking which does not come from our readings and which may be controversial, my students have always responded civilly, open-mindedly, constructively, and helpfully.  Last fall I even proposed an idea from my dissertation for discussion, even explicitly let them know it was my own pet theory, and had nearly every student but two or three rip it apart for me.

Maybe I’m just really, really lucky to have had over 1,1000 open-minded students who all coincidentally could take intellectual challenge without having to try to get someone fired.  Maybe I’ve been unusually fortunate to have unwaveringly supportive administrations.  But I doubt it.  I think students know the difference between someone who is challenging them to think critically and someone who is trying to force them to think like they do.  And I think as long as faculty also get the difference, whether they are tenured or not, they should not have any undue anxiety.  Does that mean there is no pressure and no worry when choosing one’s words?  Of course not.  But if it is pressure to treat your students as well as possible and if its result is students who excel given the freedom to think for themselves, then that’s not a bad pressure to cope with.

Finally, I do not at all mean to say that tenure is not an extremely important way to assure systemic respect for freedom of thought in the academy.  Increasingly there are theocratic politicians looking to politicize what happens in the classroom and try to influence what is taught not through persuading academics of the rightness of conservative or theological ideas but rather through imposing political pressure.  that’s a growing threat not to be taken lightly.  As long as those external political pressures exist, the vitality of academic freedom needs to be safeguarded with formal, legal defenses like tenure.

But how contingent faculty are treated needs to be assessed with hard data and not vague anecdotes about how much anxiety they feel.  Because all I have to offer to that is my own anecdote:  I’ve been contingent faculty for 7 years and the only pressures I’ve felt have been ones that have helped me be a more properly conscientious teacher and they’ve all been self-imposed and have not come from administrations.  And, again, that’s even while teaching at schools with official religious affiliations and publicly funded schools alike.  And finally it’s teaching a subject that raises questions about precisely some of the most controversial topics (religion, morality, God, abortion, euthanasia, etc.).

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