Tuesday, January 03, 2006

We do TOO get to be liberals in class 

It's been sport to take shots at the Modern Language Association (MLA), a meeting of humanities profs that seems to go out of its way to be tone-deaf to the world around them. Critical Mass two years ago even featured a hilarious satire ... go here for the last installment. Best if you read them in order.

So it comes as no suprise to me that MLA has managed to make itself look even sillier with its attempted rollback of academic freedom. Inside Higher Ed begins our review:

There were panels on �Academic Work and the New McCarthyism� and discussions on teaching issues related to war criticism.

At a Friday session, titled �Criticism and Crisis: Twenty-First Century Intellectuals and the Politics of Academic Freedom,� the focus was how to build broader support among the general public for academic freedom.

One professor said that as a �so-called intellectual,� she feels disconnected from the public sphere, which she sees increasingly being influenced by a news media that has little understanding of the principles of academic freedom. A professor from Texas said that some conservative students in his classes �think that we�re brainwashing them.�

...Robert Jensen, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, said that in defending themselves, a turn to making claims of neutrality is a mistake. �It�s just not true, and it�s not going to work,� he said. �Instead of retreating to neutrality, I think we should explain to the public what we do when teaching � and that teaching is not simply about politics.

�Don�t hide your political observations � describe why you came to view what you do.

�If we take that tact, I�m not saying we�re going to win,� he added, �but at least if we lose, we lose with some principle.�

I think I would like Prof. Jensen, a man who wants to die on a hill he thinks is worth defending, and which I think is worth taking. The reason I believe it is worth taking is because he is using his position to assault academic freedom as understood by the AAUP, as I discussed here yesterday (as it seems I do every day.) That statement includes a statement that faculty members should avoid "teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject." Rather than stretch their subjects to make them include controversial matters, the MLA voted yesterday to ask AAUP to remove any references to controversy in the AAUP statement on academic freedom. This does nothing less than give them license to say whatever they damn well please. (This from the Chronicle of Higher Education today, subscriber link here.)

Scott Jaschik from Inside Higher Ed, writing at FrontPage Magazine, has details on the vote.

The original version of the measure from the Radical Caucus suggested that the AAUP alter its policy on academic freedom �to convey approximately the following notion: �The AAUP hereby asserts the freedom of each faculty member, tenured or untenured, part-time or full-time, to determine, according to his or her own professional judgment, what is relevant to the subject matter he or she teaches, and to teach accordingly.�

Cary Nelson and others active in the AAUP urged leaders of the MLA caucus not to so directly tell the professors� group how to conduct its business. So the Radical Caucus resubmitted its motion with language saying that the MLA urges �the AAUP to strengthen its protection of free and critical teaching.�

The ultimate concern, said Barbara Foley, a professor of English at Rutgers University at Newark, is language in the current AAUP policy saying that instructors should generally avoid discussing material that has �no relation to their subject,� which Horowitz and other supporters of the Academic Bill of Rights have cited to discourage, for instance, professors who oppose the Iraq war from discussing their political views in a geology or Spanish course.

What�s important for the AAUP policy to recognize, though, is that such language provides �insufficient protection� for humanities scholars, since �our subjects have porous boundaries� and the best classroom discussions should have few limits in where they can go. It is also important to recognize, Foley said, that fewer professors have the protections of tenure today than they did 40 or more years ago.

Where do I go here? The fact that there's a group that has to call itself the Radical Caucus of the MLA? (Had someone used the word "Maoist" already?) That an English professor thinks it's OK for geology professors to lecture their students on the morality of the Iraq War? Or the imperialism of the claim of "porous boundaries"?

I keep wanting to bury the Academic Bill of Rights, and these muttonheads keep dragging it out of the grave and making the case for it themselves. If you are going to be members of a profession, and claim to be so, have some professional standards and hold each other to them. Sheesh.