Now, Cary Nelson of the AAUP and Tenured Radical both oppose the firing (or, more accurately, the nonrenewal of his contract), and that is usually good enough for me. I am a big proponent of academic freedom for instructors, regardless of the instructors' political or social loci. I am not about supporting only people who agree with me.
I also worry when universities seem more focused on staying out of trouble--and out of court--rather than sustaining fundamental principles about student learning and the importance of diverse perspectives to quality learning communities. As one university president I met explained it, "I certainly pay attention to the university counsel, but they don't make my decisions."
That said, I worry about where the line is placed between where academic freedom of faculty ends and indoctrination of students begins. It is easy to say that as long as we don't penalize students on the basis of their opposition to my opinion, I can say whatever I want. Perhaps we go further to say that we don't use clear hate speech, like calling a student by an epithet, in class. Yet, even if we allow that students shouldn't have a right to not being made uncomfortable or challenged in their perspectives, isn't there some further standard--about endorsing and promoting racist/sexist/homophobic/anti-religious perspectives that are problematic?
I think this argument comes into stark relief in this case, as it relates to teaching (about) religion. Perhaps that is the issue--are we supposed to TEACH ABOUT religion or TEACH religion? This was not a theology class in a Div School or Seminary. It was an introductory, undergraduate religious studies course in a public university.
If I were a student in this class, as an out lesbian, a feminist, and a Jew, I would expect to be occasionally offended, disgusted, and irritated by what was said in class. I should know that going in, if I knew anything about Catholicism at all. (My biggest childhood memories are of Catholic friends telling me I was going to hell and that dead babies were in limbo--neither of which seemed very fair to me.) But I would have expected to learn about the Catholic ideas about Natural Moral Laws and the Catholic beliefs about sexuality and gender. I would not have been disappointed in Howell's class, either, as he writes:
But the more significant problem has to do with the fact that the consent criterion is not related in any way to the NATURE of the act itself. This is where Natural Moral Law (NML) objects. NML says that Morality must be a response to REALITY. In other words, sexual acts are only appropriate for people who are complementary, not the same. How do we know this? By looking at REALITY. Men and women are complementary in their anatomy, physiology, and psychology. Men and women are not interchangeable. So, a moral sexual act has to be between persons that are fitted for that act. Consent is important but there is more than consent needed.I shudder to imagine my conversations with this professor, as I discussed whether my hands were "fitted" to manual stimulation of my lesbian partner and why so many heterosexual young women develop urinary tract infections engaging in "natural, procreative" sexual intercourse with their new husbands. (It is so common, doctors refer to it as the honeymoon infection.) Or how his "natural" understanding of clear gender divisions is ill-informed, based on our knowledge about the high rates of intersex conditions among newborns.
One example applicable to homosexual acts illustrates the problem. To the best of my knowledge, in a sexual relationship between two men, one of them tends to act as the "woman" while the other acts as the "man." In this scenario, homosexual men have been known to engage in certain types of actions for which their bodies are not fitted. I don't want to be too graphic so I won't go into details but a physician has told me that these acts are deleterious to the health of one or possibly both of the men. Yet, if the morality of the act is judged only by mutual consent, then there are clearly homosexual acts which are injurious to their health but which are consented to. Why are they injurious? Because they violate the meaning, structure, and (sometimes) health of the human body.
Nonetheless, if I had been in the class, I would have expected to be able to discuss these ideas and explain them in a sympathetic and summary fashion on exams. All the better to critique them in the future, I think.
That said, the patronizing crap at the end of the email to students would have rightly pissed me off. He writes:
All I ask as your teacher is that you approach these questions as a thinking adult. That implies questioning what you have heard around you. Unless you have done extensive research into homosexuality and are cognizant of the history of moral thought, you are not ready to make judgments about moral truth in this matter. All I encourage is to make informed decisions.Besides being patronizing, the closing advocates that I use in my own life. This is the part of his email that makes me uncomfortable. Aren't there valid arguments to say that Howell was not just expressing his opinion ("This is what I believe") but proselytizing? Can we hold the instructor to a different standard in the classroom than he holds in his role at the Newman Center?
I must go back to the issue about creating a hostile setting, though it is problematic in that it is beset with legal woes and argumentative hairsplitting. But really, what counts as hostile? What behaviors and statements are so egregious that they should be interrupted, and who gets to decide?
I had a friend in law school who took a criminal law class from an instructor who constantly made demeaning comments about women. When discussing cases, he often made snarky, sexist remarks about the women involved. He also brought up rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment more often than any other kind of criminal case, commenting frequently on the sex involved and belittling the seriousness and severity of the crimes. Students grumbled to one another and a few made some complaints to the other faculty, but everyone just sort of committed to getting through it. The final exam, however, was the coup de grace. One of the questions on the exam described a fictional case of rape in such lurid detail and in a way that was condemning and even made fun of the victim, that the women (and a few men) in the class decided they had had enough. The class went down to the Dean's office, exams in hand, and refused to complete the exam. It was a long time ago, but my memory says that the students were given a different exam and the instructor was reprimanded and changed out of criminal law to some other course.
I don't wish to equate these two examples--the sexist law professor (SLP) and the Catholic/homophobic(?) religious studies instructor (CRSI)--but can we use them for contrast? Is there any way to clearly differentiate the two? Should SLP get to be a jerk because of academic freedom protections? Does CSRI get a pass on saying anti-gay things repeatedly because he articulating his personal Catholic faith?
Another question for the religious studies department: Does the Catholic religious studies instructor teach the controversies? The changes in Catholic theological perspectives over time? Because there are Catholic theologians who do not embrace his interpretation of Natural Moral Laws, who offer different interpretations. There are disagreements within the Catholic church about homosexuality, the role of women and men in the church, the role of priests, etc.
I went to a presentation about Islam at a conference once, and the presenter was a young Muslim American woman. She was not a scholar on Islam, just a lifelong believer who was raised in the faith. She shared the tenets of Muslim faith and traditions with the group, which was fine, I suppose, but she purposefully ignored some of the areas where there are real disagreements between Muslims. Several people would ask questions, and she kept acting like there was only one way a "real" Muslim would answer. At one point I said, "But that is why we have fighting between Sunni and Shi'a, right, because of differences in beliefs within Islam?"
While one might teach "what the Church says" in church or bible study, aren't we asking for something more critical, more thoughtful, and more historically and intellectually grounded in our college classrooms?
As an aside to Tenured Radical, who discusses students' complaints about a documentary she shows about "ex-gays," I have to wonder how she prepares students for it. I imagine that there are any number of young queers who take her class on Post-1968 Sexuality partly because they want to be around TR--kickass academic dyke that she is. And I would not be surprised to find that they feel hurt and betrayed by the ex-gay movie, which reinforces what they see as the larger social narratives that oppress them. So. I wonder, does TR prep the class for the movie by talking about why she is showing it? What she wants them to look for in the film? Ask them to set aside their personal reactions (pro or con) to focus on the arguments or ways sexuality is discussed?
I have also shown some pretty anti-gay stuff in the classroom. In one class on policy, I had students view two videos: It's Elementary (pro-queer) and The Gay Agenda (anti-queer). I told the students that they would not likely agree with one or both of the videos, and that they might be angered or upset by some of the things said in the videos. I explained that my agenda in class was not to argue about these arguments presented in the videos. Instead, our job was to look at HOW the arguments were presented: what pictures, messages, images, sounds, and other presentation tools were used to persuade the viewer? How effective were they? Why did the creators of the videos make the choices they did? How were the videos used to organize and advocate for change? I actually didn't get any flak from students about either of the videos. And I would use just the anti-gay one if I only had time for one video, though I would be clear to set up for students that we are watching the video to see effective political advocacy in film, not to promote the message or ideas in the film.
Obviously, I don't have answers for this problem of how to decide what is okay and not okay in the classroom. For myself, I work hard to try to challenges students to try on different perspectives, to pick at weaknesses and strengths of different arguments, and to engage in civil, thoughtful discussion about thorny, challenging social and political issues. I also try to model respect.
I am sure that someone from the outside could look at my classes and accuse me of indoctrinating students into a liberal or progressive mindset, advocating homosexuality as normal or even good, or promoting a belief in the existance of systemic, institutional racism. And it is true that I give my students data and information that can support these perspectives. And yet... I also discuss the critiques of these positions, and provide students with information and data (what there is that is good) from the other sides. And I would argue that some of the students who like me best are conservative Christian students, who feel supported and encouraged by their avowedly lesbian, feminist, left-wing professor. I can live with that.
Check out the story (and the quotations of this blog entry and Tenured Radical's piece) at IHE.