Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Sound advice for conservative students and faculty 

The blogosphere has had a series of posts on whether academia has a left-wing bias that actively stops conservative faculty from speaking, advancing or even deciding to be academics. Even Brit Hume is reading stories about the dust-up at Duke. My co-blogger at Liberty and Power Steven Horwitz has been raising some very interesting points, of which I want to give three clips. First,
I have no doubt that there is classroom bias that is real, but I also believe that conservative students too often adopt the very victim mentality that they complain about in other venues. If the CRs came to me for advice, I'd tell them to forget about bringing guest speakers and to spend their time in some reading groups that can help them learn what they need to know to at least try to level the intellectual playing field with leftist students and faculty. I know I'd much rather teach a room full of smart, well-read lefty students than one full of anti-intellectual country club conservatives.
Thinking back to my days at Michigan, if I wanted to prove some faculty member wrong, it would have required some serious research at the library. Today, a student can just Google up a bunch of material in 30 seconds. Part of me would like to think that left-leaning faculty are more frequently being challenged in substantive ways by well-informed conservative students. I'm not sure though. If not, there's no excuse for conservative students not trying. The information is out there for the taking.
These are both true, and if one visits you will see both students who have decided that the teacher used the wrong books -- whose arguments are susceptible to Steven's critique that they should read other authors and challenge -- and those who claim to have suffered lower grades for not parroting the professor's viewpoint. If you said half the complaints on NoIndoctination are things students should handle themselves, I'd guess that's about right.

Steven also points to Tim Burke's post on how collegiality tempers intemperate outbursts from the left or right:

On the other hand, collegiality is a powerful cultural force in many colleges and universities, and its stultifying or comforting effects (take your pick) often have nothing to do with politics in any sense. A conservative or libertarian who is a mensch about his or her views and research may well be admired, even beloved, by liberal or left colleagues, and fondly regarded as valuable because of their views. On the other hand, someone like Daniel Pipes who is running around picking broad-brush fights with everyone whom he perceives as a bad academic, usually based on a paper-thin reading of their syllabi or even just the titles of their research, is going to be loathed, but as much for his behavior as his political views. A liberal or leftist who plays Stalinist Truth Squad in the same way is going to be equally loathed and avoided. I?ve seen departments where everyone treats a particular person as a ?politicized? pariah even though the political views of that person are exactly the same as the general distribution in the department, and it?s entirely about strident, personally confrontational, abrasive, self-aggrandizing behavior. Now it may be that conservatives, having been sneered at, are more inclined, almost out of necessity, to go on the offensive, and create a feedback loop in the process. But the mode of action is more important than the views.
But where does collegiality become self-censorship? Andrew Sullivan received a very interesting mail in return for his request for stories of overt exclusion of the right in academia.
Most of my criticisms of Democrats or veiled praise of Republicans are couched in terms that suggest personal distance from conservative points of view. Last year, I came up for tenure, and I realized then how thoroughly I self-censor. I was in the car with a close long-time friend and fellow academic (at another institution), and I told her how difficult it was for me to overcome this compulsion not to speak. I then spent half an hour telling her what I'd bottled up for thirteen years - that I voted for Bush, that I watch Fox News, etc. At the end of it, she said, "I knew your husband was a conservative, but I never realized you are, too." In fact, I'm fairly confident that this self-censorship is not necessary; my department has a live-and-let-live attitude on many things. But I continue to self-censor, largely out of habit, but partly because there are a few people in the department who could never get over it.
The advice one reads from all this: Be smart, be judicious, and be firm.