Many of you are probably already aware of this little bit of faculty ethics and free speech excitement over in Illinois. If you aren’t, here’s a few reactions: here, here, here, here and, oh what the heck, one more, here (particularly since this one underscores the oddity that BAM! grad student employees are now employees, not students, despite all the years of denying them that status).
Now that we are all up to speed, let’s look at the issue a tad.
For what it is worth, I think this is the most ridiculous reading of ethics I’ve yet seen, and I have struggled with this particular issue rather directly as a college administrator. I agree with Sybil Vane (see first “here” above) that students desperately need to move past the belief that there is an inalienable right not to be offended. Then again, that’s true of a great many faculty too; we are a reactionary bunch sometimes.
I, for one, think offense and discomfort are fabulous.
As AAUP pres, Cary Nelson, points out, “faculty often move back and forth between employee responsibilities and personal acts within the same time frame” (23 September 2008).* Such as, say, in this blog, where I direct my students for writing examples, but also include personal information. They’d be hard-pressed to miss my political and or religious leanings (I guess), but I also address such matters in class: I can agree with you and fail your paper, and I can disagree with you and still score the paper an A. My opinion and the quality of your writing, dear students, are entirely different subjects.
But, sometimes the knickers are in a twist for good reason. Personal remarks regarding religious and/or political beliefs in grading comments? Yeah, I can see how that would undermine a student’s confidence in what was exactly was being assessed. Letters that proselytize–not so good. Gray area, but if in the classroom or using the roster to generate a mailing list, I’d still fall on the side of ethically murky (and did, when it came up)–at best. Office space is a bit personal…isn’t it? I have family pictures and “wacky” posters and bumper stickers; none are particularly politically minded (I think…I’m sure some could be interpreted as such).
A button, T-Shirt, bumper sticker or participation in a rally? Such “ethical problems” (HA!) suggest that we also shouldn’t have faculty sponsors for religious and/or politically affiliated student groups, yes? And, I would argue that those student groups (and rallies and what-have-you) are exactly the place for such engagement. Classroom (a closed environment) as bully pulpit? Of course not. Rallies (an open environment)? Sure, why not?
We are human beings after all. And, damn it, sometimes students need for us to be humans. Professor-people who are OCD or rape-victims or feminists or suicide survivors or teen moms or religious or who-knows what else; yes, you can be these things and still make it through to the next day AND engage in civil and sane conversation. And you can survive college, even in light of such. That’s why I discuss some of my (we’ll be generous here) idiosyncratic behaviors in this blog, because my students do have access to it–and they need to see that I am walking and talking the same shtick I use in class. I do write for the sake of practice; I do realize that life gets in the way of school, but I also got through those moments with a modicum of dignity and success intact.
And that goes for politics, too. Given the overall apathy of our student body, I rather enjoy seeing them get spun up about, well, anything, and allowing them to see that profs have political opinions and that (heavens above!) some of them might not even be “those damn liberals” that my students keep writing about. [Caveat: funniest admin moment last year–>two students came to see me ON THE SAME DAY to report that their professor (same professor) was overtly political and was therefore unfair. You see where this is going, right? Yes, one complained that said prof was clearly a right-wing nut and the other–same class!–that prof was clearly so far left that he couldn’t possibly understand her.]
The ethical line for a state employee is nevertheless murky; when do we have to rein in our politics (or whatever) lest we accidentally or intentionally misuse the power relationship we share with students? I think what bothers me most about this conversation is the underlying assumption that differing beliefs means intolerance or unwillingness to accept diversity of opinion. That somehow my support of one candidate would translate to unfair grading practices or some other gross misuse of faculty power.
The assumption of that serious a division speaks volumes, and every one of them is pathetic.
*Favorite Cary Nelson moment: called the situation “bullshit.”