Are Students A Captive Audience?
Constructive disagreement and classroom politics: a provocation
Although I’m not teaching this year, others are. If you know someone who is interested in the politics of higher education, please:
A few tears ago, I was reading a discussion of the relationship between campus speech codes, sexual harassment, and free speech doctrine. Because I am not a legal scholar I won’t dwell on the details. But the dilemma for educational institutions that seek to support social justice and free speech is this: how might one seek to regulate classroom expression that creates a hostile environment for students in a protected class, butwithout infringing on freedom of speech?
Utterances by a teacher or another student that might draw our concern include: “Students of color are only here because of affirmative action;” “Tammy sure is easy on the eyes;” or “It’s unfair that learning disabled people get the special privilege of extra time for a test.” I made all these up, but faculty do say the darndest things. I once knew a male economics professor who was famous for saying to any female student who dared to take his class and who had a hyphenated last name: “Your mother must be one of those feminists.”
While individual speech acts in a classroom might be found to violate the right to work or learn in an environment free from harassment, it is also true that university speech codes violate the first amendment, as well as academic freedom. Furthermore, speech acts tend only to be taken seriously as discrimination when directed towards a a student by a faculty member. In 2008, a member of the Dartmouth faculty sued on the grounds that her students had created a hostile environment, and was mocked by the national press as a result. And yet, any Black colleague will tell you that white students routinely question the authority of, and disparage them. And s recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Eduction discussed the many failures of university administrations when student threaten female professors.
Yet it remains that faculty are in charge of the enclosed spapce of the classroom, and are thus perceived to have an almost uniquely destructive power to harm students by forcing their views on people they will also evaluate. One way of thinking about this is what is called in labor law “captive audience doctrine,” which describes a situation in which workers are forced to listen to political, religious or discriminatory speech as a condition of employment. If they are punished for resisting or refusing to participate, these workers might sue under the captive audience doctrine, although winning such a case is difficult.
But it’s a useful concept for understanding the right-wing trope of classroom indoctrination by leftist professors. The idea that students are a captive audience is more or less the principle on which conservative groups like Students for Academic Freedom (“You can’t get a good education if they’re only telling you half the story,”) and Minding the Campus assert that faculty have created a hostile environment for conservative students on many campuses. As the Student Bill of Rights published by SAF states:
Professors are hired to teach all students, not just students who share their political, religious and philosophical beliefs. It is essential therefore, that professors and lecturers not force their opinions about philosophy, politics and other contestable issues on students in the classroom and in all academic environments. This is a cardinal principle of academic freedom laid down by the American Association of University Professors.
In an academic environment professors are in a unique position of authority vis-à-vis their students. The use of academic incentives and disincentives to advance a partisan or sectarian view creates an environment of indoctrination which is unprofessional and contrary to the educational mission. It is a violation of students’ academic freedom. The creation of closed, political fiefdoms in colleges, programs or departments, is the opposite of academic freedom, and does not deserve public subsidy or private educational support.
This language points to a growing source of resentment among conservative students: faculty often tell them things that don’t support, or that even contradict, the beliefs that they brought to college. What many teachers see as factual information, students perceive as “opinions” that they must pretend to replicate, even if they have another “opinion,” in order to get a good grade. What faculty see as a reasoned argument that is well supported in scholarly literature, and that requires an equally reasoned and well-supported argument to rebut, students can perceive as “indoctrination.”
The two paragraphs I quoted above set the stage quite neatly for an application of captive audience doctrine to the classroom. In the second paragraph, the statement empohpaszies a faculty member’s “unique position of authority,” a position that is buttressed by “academic incentives and disincentives” (grades) used to reward students who accept indoctrination and punish those who don’t.
But are students always a captive audience? Do faculty always hold a position of unique authority? Does the fact of grading itself mean that the faculty member’s unique authority is always, and already, abusive? And what are the implications of all of this for a liberal arts education, an experience that ought to be about debate, disagreement and transformation?
These may not be important questions for teachers of empirical fields like math and science, but they are for those of us in the social sciences and humanities. And they are particularly serious questions for teachers of feminism, race, colonialism, post-colonialism and queer studies, who are frequently harassed by students and conservative organizations, and risk having the institutional support for their work withdrawn, because their work challenges centrist and conservative (and perhaps even liberal) views about race, sex, gender and empire.
But there is more at stake, which is what kind of conflict is in the classroom is permissable. A central value for all social sciences and humanities scholars, regardless of field, is that our very work and identities are built around the idea of constructive, fact-based disagreement as a path to knowledge. Useful disagreement depends on the notions that truths change, and on accepting the reality that things that seem obvious are perspectival and not always true.
If students do not believe they are empowered to disagree with us, and if disagreement itself is viewed as destructive in a classroom context, in what context can students be transformed into scholarly thinkers? Conversely, if all student views — no matter how factually incorrect of interpretively flawed — have to be deferred to for fear of being charged with “indoctrination,” under what conditions might a class acquire a body of knowledge about a subject, or a set of intellectual tools that constitute a recognized approach to that body of knowledge, at all?
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