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From the President: Button Up

By Cary Nelson

I was using my standard syllabus for my seminar in the poetry of Langston Hughes and Claude McKay during the fall 2008 election season. As serendipity would have it, the night Barack Obama won the presidency the poems my students were assigned to read included Hughes’s “Children’s Rhymes.” Here is the second stanza:

By what sends

the white kids

I ain’t sent:

I know I can’t

be President.

My students of course did not miss the astonishing irony; the 1951 poem was now out of date, but only by minutes. We had already talked about the election earlier in the semester. If you are going to teach poems by Hughes and McKay, you will find yourself dealing with race, politics, and comparative American history. I had asked the class weeks earlier whether the powerful accounts of racism these poets offer were still valid today, given the context of the 2008 election. I explained the so-called Bradley effect— the theory that African American candidates running against white candidates will earn less of the vote on election day than pre-election opinion polls predict—and suggested that comparing exit polls and results on November 4 might help us answer the question. I didn’t declare my political views at the time, because I didn’t want the class to discount the issue I was raising as a partisan concern, but I expect they fully understood where I stood. My values come through in myriad different ways, whether I announce them or not.

Of course, I could always fool them. Say that I were a political science or sociology professor and wanted to get my class to debate the McCain claim that any effort to redistribute income from rich to poor Americans represents socialism or worse. I could wear a McCain button to class and channel his arguments and physical anger, aiming to provoke them to disagree. In such performative moments, classes often set aside their existing impressions of a professor’s politics. If they accept a Hollywood actor playing against type, why not one of us? Next semester I might try wearing a “Palin 2012” button in a similar experiment.

My point is that a political button endorsing a candidate can reflect a specific pedagogical context. It can even be purely performative, revealing nothing about a teacher’s true beliefs. No matter. At least according to the official policy at the University of Illinois, faculty and staff cannot wear campaign buttons in the workplace. The one time I wore an Obama button to class last semester was the day I was discussing that very policy. That was the pedagogical context.
Many Illinois faculty and graduate student employees predictably felt the prohibition against wearing political buttons meant they were barred from revealing their political choices to their classes in any other way as well. If their students asked, one was to reply, “Mum’s the word” or “I’m not allowed to say.” Some faculty felt that wearing a campaign button through a whole class might give the unwelcome appearance of turning it into a political rally and chose not to do so, but a complete prohibition against acknowledging one’s candidate preferences violates both academic freedom and the Bill of Rights.

Thus the decision about whether to reveal your political views to a class is a matter of personal choice. Academic freedom protects your right to integrate your political views into the course subject matter. The 1970 clarification of the classic 1940 joint statement of the AAUP and the Association of American Colleges on academic freedom and tenure also allows for occasional discussions of controversial material extraneous to a course. That would cover brief political confessions as well. Wearing a political button or mentioning your political preferences in a department hallway would be covered by another text, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Each of us, of course, can work out our own personal ethical position on these matters. Many faculty members try never to reveal their political beliefs, and that is their right. Colleges and universities also benefit from lively debates about what pedagogical ethic best serves our students and our country. The problem arises when faculty or administrators try to impose their personal ethic on others. In an ideal world, we would each have enough strength of character to articulate our personal pedagogical ethic and discuss it with others. We wouldn’t need to have our individual views institutionalized and enforced.

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