Academic Freedom and Me

The complications of politics, culture, and academic freedom in one career.
By Ian Barnard

Prehistory 1

It’s the early 1980s, and I’m an undergraduate student at a notoriously liberal university in South Africa. Apartheid cabinet minister Piet Koornhof has been invited to speak on campus, but his talk is drowned out by radical students demanding, “Where’s your pass,” a reference to the passes that Koornhof’s cabinet department forced black South Africans to carry and that restricted their movements within South Africa. The apartheid government and its supporters, as well as liberal students, university administrators, and politicians, denounce the hecklers’ actions as a hypocritical violation of Koornhof’s “right to free speech”—this in a country where the same government that Koornhof represented had systematically attempted to silence the vast majority of the population for decades, where Koornhof’s voice was routinely broadcast by the state-controlled media, and where the policies he espoused were directly responsible for the racist violence perpetrated against black South Africans every day.

Prehistory 2

It’s the early 1990s, and I am a graduate teaching associate at a public research-intensive university in California. One of my students spits on me because he thinks homosexuality is disgusting. A few years later, I’m a lecturer at another California public university, where one of my student evaluations reads, “He’s a coldhearted faggot who comes on to all the guys in the class.” A few years after that, I’m teaching at yet another university in California. I’m hurrying along a busy campus walkway between classes when I hear the loud voice of one of my students who is walking in front of me and speaking to the friend alongside him: “My freshman English instructor’s a cocksucker,” he says with disdain to his companion.

I learn how to censor myself in class. I learn how reductive student evaluations can impede teaching with integrity and rigor, especially for (endlessly) probationary faculty.

Prehistory 3

I apply for a teaching position at a Catholic university in Los Angeles. The chair of the English department calls to offer me the job; the department wants someone who works in lesbian and gay  studies. I accept. A few days later, the English department chair calls again. She tells me that the dean—a nun—has decided that my work is “incompatible with the mission of the university” and that the job offer is being withdrawn.

Incident 1

It’s the twenty-first century, and I’m an assistant professor at a comprehensive California public university. A year after September 11, 2001, a Philadelphia think tank established a Web site to monitor faculty and institutions critical of U.S. actions in the Middle East. Individual faculty members are listed on the Web site as “hostile to America” and spammed with thousands of angry e-mails. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni condemns some faculty members for not voicing support for the Bush administration. The dean of students at Saint Olaf College in Minnesota warned faculty that “an intellectual discussion of the political ramifications” of the events of September 11 “was not helpful” for students, according to John Wilson’s article “Academic Freedom in America after 9/11,” published in Thought and Action. Progressive faculty across the country are harassed and fired. Foreign-born faculty seem particularly vulnerable. I don’t want to be accused of being a terrorist. I quickly remove the photographs of antiwar protests in Los Angeles from my Web site.

Incident 2

Flyers, pictures, and stickers have been disappearing from my office door. Some have been defaced. Someone has scrawled, “Just teach school! Fuck your liberal puke thinking!” My name has been blacked out on the list of department faculty near the elevator.

Incident 3

One of the students in my graduate seminar writes in an anonymous midsemester evaluation about feeling censored in class. The same person complains about “a lot of feminist/queer/etc. type of readings” in the course.

Incident 4

I have been asked to teach a course in queer theory for the honors program in my department. On the flyer promoting the course, I specify that students will be invited to work on critical and creative projects in the course. The director of the honors program whites out the word “creative” in the copies of the course description that are posted around the department, informing me that I may not allow students to work on creative projects in the course. Queer theory is to be allowed as long as it isn’t queer.

Incident 5

The student newspaper at the university where I teach reports on April 27, 2005, that a professor on campus has received a halfmillion- dollar grant from the U.S. Army to conduct research that “will advance military operations and help improve national security.” The story dutifully chronicles the glee of the award winner’s department chair. Nowhere in the newspaper or on campus does any critical debate take place about intellectual collusion with an army that is in the process of bombing Iraq.

Incident 6

I have developed a new graduate seminar on intellectual property, a topic that has in the last twenty years generated much interest and research in composition studies. Part of the work of the course involves engaging with scholarship that critiques conventional discourses around plagiarism in the academy, particularly those that construct plagiarism as the great moral turpitude. When I meet with my department’s personnel committee for my third-year review, a senior faculty member in the department who has not read any of the course readings harangues me. “Plagiarism is not something to be discussed and negotiated with students,” he screams. “Your job is to enforce university policy, not critique it.”

Incident 7

I ask a colleague from another university for feedback on a draft of this article. She advises me to delete some points that critique the institution where I currently teach. I make various changes to my notes.

Disjunction 1

The joint 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure states that teachers “should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.” In “Academic Freedom after 9/11,” John Wilson quotes the following 2003 memorandum from the vice president of instruction to the faculty at Irvine Valley College: “It has come to my attention that several faculty members have been discussing the current war within the context of their classrooms. We need to be sure that faculty do not explore this activity within the context of their classroom unless it can be demonstrated, to the satisfaction of this office, that such discussions are directly related to the approved instructional requirements and materials associated with those classes.”

One would hope that the current war is relevant to all university classes. If it isn’t, there’s probably something seriously wrong with the classes being taught. Tellingly, in the 1940 Statement, only unrelated controversial matter is forbidden from the classroom— apparently teachers may bring irrelevant uncontroversial material into their classrooms to their hearts’ content. The AAUP’s 1970 interpretive comment about this passage notes that “the intent of this statement is not to discourage what is ‘controversial.’ Controversy is at the heart of the free academic inquiry which the entire statement is designed to foster. The passage serves to underscore the need for teachers to avoid persistently intruding material which has no relation to their subject.” But this addendum only reinforces the problematic notion that there are areas that have “no relation” to one’s subject, a particularly vexing issue for faculty like me in composition studies, whose subject matter is writing—but writing about what?—and who are used to student complaints that we should be teaching English, not political science or women’s studies, when we assign readings and writing about socially relevant issues. Paul Bové, Robert Scholes, and other critics have explained the ways in which constructions of academic specializations are used by outsiders and by faculty members themselves to prevent intellectuals in the humanities, in particular, from commenting on issues of social and political import.

Disjunction 2

Faculty at my institution are enjoined to develop curricula that are intellectually rigorous, yet at the same time we are reminded that because our institution is a working-class university, the primary function of its programs should be to train students for the workforce. This is what students want and what we are beholden to provide. In a recent interview in Thought and Action, Noam Chomsky was asked about the growing “emphasis on the utilitarian value of higher education, the idea that people, especially poor people and people of color, need jobs and don’t have time for this idea of educating the whole person.” Chomsky’s succinct response: “That’s a point of view that belongs in dictatorships, not in democracies. It assumes that if you’re poor, you don’t have any need—there’s no justification—for you to be offered the opportunity to participate in high culture. . . . That is garbage.”

Disjunction 3

In the United States, witch hunts against academics almost always target progressive scholars and teachers. Likewise, when faculty curricula, pedagogies, and classroom utterances are attacked, it is usually progressives who are under attack; conservative faculty are seldom attacked for promoting right-wing views in the classroom. David Horowitz and his ilk, who claim to want college faculty to present opposing viewpoints in the classroom, are similarly selective and hypocritical. Would they insist that a professor who criticizes the September 11 attacks spend an equal amount of time defending the attacks? The Horowitz argument is also naive in its assumption that there is a neatly finite number of views (usually two) on any given topic. And its supposed championing of objectivity is grounded in several myths.

Myth 1

Objectivity is desirable. To insist that all positions be given equal legitimacy—assuming this were possible—is to ask members of the university community to abdicate our responsibility to ethics and morality. In studying the history of slavery, must we spend as much time arguing in favor of slavery as we spend explaining its horrors? This would be the worst kind of moral relativism and would make a mockery of the university’s commitment to scholarly rigor and civic responsibility. Feminist theorist Jacqui Alexander, the keynote speaker at the recent Los Angeles queer studies conference, invoked Iraq to remind us that we are living in a state of war and asked us what kinds of intellectuals we wanted to be. Do we want to be collaborators with this war, as so many academics wittingly and unwittingly are?

Myth 2

Objectivity is possible. The continued appeals to objectivity from faculty, administrators, students, and politicians across the political spectrum fly in the face of four decades of feminist theory, queer theory, ethnic studies, disability studies, and poststructuralist theory in many disciplines that has shown how work that claims to be universal is partial, how appeals to objectivity themselves are ideological. The fact that one of the questions on the student evaluation form in my department asks students whether they believe their instructor evaluated their work objectively indicates just how serious the disjunction is between research in our discipline and our pedagogical and administrative practices, not to mention the disservice we do to students by teaching them to unpack the values and assumptions underlying the texts and social structures they study and then implying that our own work is objective.

Every professor professes. Every instructor makes political choices as he or she decides which books to assign for a particular course, how to arrange the seats in the classroom, how to frame assignments, and which criteria to use in evaluating student work. None of these things is a given, and none is objective.

Myth 3

The university is liberal. In my own fields of teaching and research, numerous scholarly studies have argued how, for example, the teaching of composition socializes students into the values of corporate capitalism, how the radical potential of critical theory has been domesticated by liberal pluralism, and how multiculturalism has been depoliticized in order to render it nonthreatening—and this in one of the disciplines (English) most often accused of being hostile to conservatives! Context is everything, but context is what those constructing the liberal academy don’t see or choose to ignore. Just as it was obscene for an apartheid government minister to accuse a small group of powerless students of denying him the right to free speech, so it makes no sense to speak of a dissident takeover of a higher education system that continues to produce the architects and implementers of a state that has become the world’s biggest consumer, the world’s fastest destroyer of the environment, and the world’s preeminent imperialist power.

Ian Barnard is associate professor of English at California State University, Northridge, and a member of the Modern Language Association’s Delegate Assembly. His e-mail address is [email protected].