Sunday, January 27, 2008

What academic freedom means to me

Recently, Dr. Crazy posted on "Why I teach what I teach," which got picked up as a meme and became a discussion not only on commitment to teaching in one's discipline, but also a commitment to academic freedom. I got tagged to participate by Jennifer over at Mixed Race America (one of my favorite blogs), but I declined. As someone in administration and on the job market as we speak, I feel disinclined to name my discipline. As my regular readers know, mine is a professional field, relatively small (which is how my job seeking news got around nationally), and not so full of outspoken lesbians that I would not be quickly identified. That reality makes it challenging to respond to the meme.

That said, I realized, upon reading some of the responses, that I could discuss the academic freedom issues without naming my discipline. Honestly, my concerns around academic freedom stem less from my discipline and more from my personal identity as a lesbian and my research on LGBT issues.

I realized quite early in my teaching career that nondiscrimination statements that were bland and vague (ie., we won't discriminate against anyone for X characteristic) were fairly useless and not all that reassuring. What I wanted was protection in the classroom when I mentioned LGBT issues, or related a story from my own life that just happened to be about my relationship or my partner, or showed a film that used pro- or anti-LGBT organizing tactics as an example, or talked about my own research with LGBT people. Was that speech protected? I could certainly prove that the examples were educationally sound and appropriate, but would my chair, my Dean, the faculty senate, or the Provost get my back if students complained?

Over the years, I have had a small number of students complain about my "agenda." This term usually applied to my commitment to multicultural competency in educating my professional students, my discussion of oppression and discrimination, and my consistent questioning of issues of privilege. (These topics are actually accepted parts of the curriculum and the disciplinary expectations.) Usually, the complaining students had some other reasons for being frustrated with me--hard grading, challenging questions or critiques, etc. But the students found a way to get back on evaluations, comments to other instructors and administrators, and in word-of-mouth to peers focusing on who I am and what I do in the classroom.

I want a university nondiscrimination policy that explicitly discusses the right for all professors to use their judgment in the classroom, including the use of examples from our own experiences. I have only seen one policy like that, a departmental policy from a friend in a social science department. This policy actually named race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation as factors that should not impede an instructor from using personal stories or examples to illustrate a concept or clarify an idea. While I have always felt (implicitly) that this was the case in my own departments, I remember wishing my departments had adopted a similar policy. I have not seen an explicit policy of that sort on a larger (university or college) scale.

Further, most of the basic nondiscrimination policies on university campuses often do not discuss the protection and equal valuation of a professor's research area. My biggest fear in doing LGBT-related research was that I would not get tenure. Tenure committees are made up of faculty who reflect the same biases the institution does: valuing money-making research over other research, mainstream research over "alternative" research, and ultimately politically safe research over potentially embarassing research. They want mainstream journals and mainstream publishers. This reality presents a special challenge for those of us who do research on oppressed populations and/or in marginalized subject areas. I wasn't the only one who was worried about my research being considered acceptable because of its focus--tenure committee members, friends, and department directors also voiced their concern and suggested that I change my focus. Luckily, I applied for and recieved tenure at a school that was in a more LGBT-accepting community context (a progressive college town in the Midwest); had I still been in the more conservative South, I wonder what my chances would have been.

True academic freedom would value all research and teaching that contributes to knowledge and understanding or, in my professional field, better practice. That stand is what is laid out in the 1940 American Association of University Professors (AAUP) statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure and the 1970 Interpretive Comments. Yet, faculty are not provided with this statement upon entering the profession, nor are the tenure committee members provided this statement along with their charge. The untenured professors I know have never read about academic freedom and don't really understand the concept. If we are to take academic freedom seriously, we better educate our doctoral students, our faculty, our administrators, our advisory board members (and in public schools, our Boards of Regents) about these writings and the standards on academic freedom. Perhaps a resurgence of AAUP chapters** across the US would give us an opportunity to begin (or continue) this educational process?

Academic freedom informs everything I do: the decisions I make about the direction of courses, the texts and articles I use, the activities I require from students, the examples I invoke to explain concepts, and yes, the research I conduct and publish. Were it not for the guarantee of academic freedom, my life would be worse, as would the lives of my colleagues and students. I hope we can remember to enforce and value this freedom... before it is erodes. Perhaps we should offer that as one aspect of the new "college rating system" that is being pushed from the federal level? How does your school rate on enforcing and supporting academic freedom? Wouldn't that be a wonderful measuring stick?

**Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I am currently working on a project with the national AAUP, though one unrelated to academic freedom, but I am not currently a member. Having seen their important role, however, I may decide to join after this project is completed.

3 comments:

Jennifer said...

Thank you for this post--it is so important, and I think academic freedom is a topic that is under-discussed and under-appreciated. And as one of those untenured faculty, you are right--I have never read and didn't know about the AAUP statement on Academic Freedom.

And I'm glad you are working on this area (as well as the other topics you study/teach) because we do need strong voices speaking out on these issues.

Craig P. said...

I am so glad you decided to post on this (and thanks to Jennifer for tagging you!). Your point about what academics know (and don’t know) about academic freedom, including its history and importance, is in many ways the whole reason our coalition formed. We are all about educating academics and the general public (which is even harder) about why academic freedom is so critical to higher education.

It is also extremely critical given the attacks by the right-wing on disciplines and individual faculty who are looking at important issues such as gender, race, class and identity issues.

We will add your post to our inventory of posts on this meme about teaching and academic freedom.

Thanks—

cps @ Free Exchange

LumpenProf said...

I love your suggestion that academic freedom be used as one of the criteria for college rankings. It goes along nicely with a recent remark from Marc Bousquet that college rankings should also reflect the percentage of full-time, tenured and tenure-track faculty teaching classes.