Saturday, March 31, 2007

Fish is in too deep

Nothing like a Stanley Fish column to brighten your day! The illustrious Dr. Fish states in his March 24th New York Times Op-Ed that he wants academics to stop teaching advocacy.

An issue at a social work program in Missouri serves as his case in point. The program was sued by a former student, Emily Booker, who complained that she was punished for not signing a letter written by her social work class supporting adoption by gay and lesbian adults . She says that she was persecuted for her Christian beliefs, and that she was brought up on grievance charges. (Read more specifics from her legal complaint online.)

I don't know everything about the situation--in fact, all I know is what I read in her complaint and in the newspapers. Neither does Fish. Neither one of us has heard the teacher's perspective, the school's response, or the university's findings from their internal investigation. So, I am uncomfortable speaking on the specific issue. Instead, I want to speak to Fish's main point, which seems to be about taking the "teaching of advocacy" out of universities. He writes:

For what the professor was requiring of his class was public advocacy, and it doesn’t matter whether an individual student would have approved of the advocacy; advocacy is just not what should be going on in a university.

Once advocacy is removed from the equation — once issues, including gay adoption, are objects of study rather than alternatives to be embraced — the beliefs, religious or otherwise, of either students or professors, become irrelevant.

Now, I teach advocacy. Truth is, it is the main focus of one of my courses. Advocacy is a skill; you have to learn how to do it. There are books and articles written about how to do it. Moreover, like any skill, students have to practice it. So, I have my students advocate on bills and policies of importance to them. I do not require that students adopt a particular position on an issue. I have taught advocacy skills to the leaders of the campus anti-abortion group and the pro-choice group. We have students in our program this year who are advocating on opposite sides of the same bill. What matters is less what they support and more how they support it.

We do challenge them to consider the values embedded within the legislation they support, as well as their own values and the values of the discipline. They also have to consider values and ethics issues in their own advocacy approaches.

While developing a nuanced analysis of political and social issues is important--I teach them to do that, too--students have to learn how to act on their beliefs. Analysis is simply not enough.

And Fish is being purposefully obtuse when he says that issues like gay adoption are "objects of study, rather than alternatives to be embraced." They are both. In fact, in Missouri, there was another case of note: a well-educated lesbian couple, one trained in counseling and the other in child development, were refused the right to be foster parents in 2005. When they challenged the decision by the foster care administrators, a decision based on an unwritten agency rule, they won and the decision was overturned. As a result of their win, Missouri legislators made noise about introducing a bill restricting gay and lesbian couples from adopting or providing foster care. This was the bill the students' letter addressed.

This bill had sides: pro and con. Advocates take a side--that is what they do.

For those who take a practical approach to education, it is important to note that there are jobs for "advocates." People with advocacy training work for groups like ACLU, FIRE, NARAL, Concerned Women for America, and other advocacy groups, as well as political parties and community groups. These groups need people who know how to do advocacy, who have experience doing advocacy, and who are comfortable with advocacy.

So, how did Fish get into this position of arguing against teaching advocacy in the first place? It seems that he wanted to find some way to deal with Horowitz and his nightmare bills, one of which found its way into the Missouri state legislature. In taking on Missouri House Bill 213, the Emily Booker Intellectual Diversity Act, and the student experience in question, he looks for common ground with Horowitz' argument--offering a critique of classes invoking or discussing professors' and students' beliefs--and uses this as a way to draw a line a little less egregious than Horowitz' Academic Bill of Rights. He wants to toe the line between Horowitz and the rest of the intelligentsia by removing the teaching of advocacy.

While I appreciate his desire to save us from the excesses of Horowitz, I think Fish--an English scholar and public commentator--is swimming out of his depth. Perhaps he should learn a little more about the goals and objectives of social sciences like political science and professional disciplines such as social work, education, medicine, and public health. Advocacy training is academic, and it belongs in the university.


What Now? said...

I think that you and Fish are actually agreeing, but there's some language slippage that's causing problems here (which I noticed in my first reading of Fish's column last weekend). I think this is a matter of teaching the art of advocacy in your course material (as you do) and a particular advocacy as the course material (as in the case Fish is discussing). The former seems excellent and the latter problematic.

Lesboprof said...

I appreciate your generosity in your reading of Fish, but I don't think it is so clear. It seems to me that Fish wants to cut politics out of the classroom, including any political perspectives voiced from the instructor or the discipline.

For example, when I teach my policy courses, I make students aware of my own policy advocacy as a professional in my field. They do not have to share my perspectives, but they can hardly see themselves as having a political perspective to advocate if I do not. Further, I offer myself as an example of how to integrate professional ethics with political action.

Further, like other professional fields with a code of ethics and a professional advocacy organization that has a political action committee, social work does require practitioners to base their practice (not their personal beliefs) in elements of the code.

Yes, as spelled out by the complainant, Emily Booker's case seems quite egregious. Yet it is also a problem if students who are going to be social workers, doctors, nurses, teachers, or other helping professionals, just say they will not work with groups of people or support equality of treatment for them. They cannot do their work in an ethical way, and perhaps they should not be in the field.

That is not to say that religion is not also to be respected, and that the same students have to work with people of different religions. And if the elements of the case are as specified, the teachers did make mistakes.

But back to Fish and his point. Having a class write the letter, were they all in agreement, would have been perfectly fine IMHO. It would have been a good practice of advocacy skills--advocating a position that is in accordance with social work ethics and the national professional organization's position on this issue.

merjoem32 said...

Interesting post. Since I was raised in a predominantly Catholic country, I am inclined to support any advocacy campaign that is against abortion. However, I understand that there are circumstances where abortion is the mother's only chance of surviving a failed pregnancy.

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