Monday, October 09, 2006

Free to Be You and Me

Over the weekend I attended a presentation about the status of Academic Freedom in United States universities. Loosely defined, Academic Freedom refers to the right of professors in academic institutions to research and teach their beliefs without their livelihood being placed in jeopardy by those who disagree. At my weekend event, the speaker and audience did a great deal of hand wringing about the rising, and increasingly hysterical, attacks on humanities in the university. Something feels amiss, though, about how the left has decided to grapple with the newest threats to Academic Freedom.

For those who don’t know, the more recent salvos against Academic Freedom started in the early nineties with a former-liberal-turned-neoconservative named David Horowitz. In essence, Horowitz claimed that university-level humanities departments had become secret havens for Democrats. He further put forward (without any real evidence) the outlandish claim that these same faculty keep conservatives out, deprive them of funding, and openly indoctrinate their students to blindly vote Democrat. In an unexpected twist, Horowitz and crew claim their own Academic Freedom is being impinged.

I grow tired of those on the political right whining about their imaginary persecution. If we lefty faculty have the power to convert students’ political ideologies, we are doing a terrible job of it. Just look at the state of the nation – Do you really think that we would allow that to occur if we ruled the current generation of university students? Instead, university campuses are hot-beds of political indifference.

A faithful reader recently sent me a link to an editorial featured in the Chronicle of Education. A pale-knock-off of Horowitz, this author uses a dancing metaphor to discuss teaching. Dripping with condescension, he claims that academics on the left dance “an abomination: mimes pretending to defy gravity, tearing holes through figurative walls without even breaking a sweat, or collapsing in the middle of a performance into ironic 'metagiggles.'"

Meanwhile, he claimed that neoconservatives, like himself, “were enchanted by the unapologetically proud and earnest grands battements (big kicks) of old-school ballet. Here, indeed, was a physical form of expression that could do justice to the ideological elegance of the Ol' Gipper and 'trickle down' economics.”

Yet,he claimed that he had to “hide” this political/jiggy inclination as a junior professor. “What cruel institution,” you ask, “kept this man so terrified? Where did he suffer the yoke of liberalism? Where does this academic reside?” The answer: Brigham Young University.

Yes, that bastian of liberal thinking, BYU, allegedly kept this poor helpless neo-con in the political closet. I am sorry, but where could he have possibly been more comfortable? Bob Jones University? This silly editorial just suggests how conservatives have come to believe in their own imaginary persecution no matter their actual reality. They have mistaken being challenged in their beliefs with being silenced.

Don’t get me wrong. Many people of the left have a hard time letting the right speak. There have been some (though few) incidents in which the left has taken a low road and wrongly tried to silence the right on university campuses. These are not frequent, but do undermine the goals of universities as places of intellectual exchange.

In truth, however, I don’t think that neo-cons really care about the mission of universities. They use a thin veneer of academic lingo to mask their actual intent: to control knowledge. Neo-conservative academics are not interested in “leveling the academic playing field.” Rather, they want to bulldoze that field and build a gas station.

The left has not come up with good responses to these attacks. Either the left tries to “prove” their lack of bias (an always losing strategy) or they cave into the neo-conservative demands (usually as a way to prove their lack of bias).

In many ways, my history classes probably would be the right-wing’s worst nightmares. I eschew standard text books. Instead, I ask students to read histories about groups of Americans often omitted or given cursory attention in traditional U.S. histories. We read texts on Latinos, African Americans, gays and lesbians, Asians, and so forth. Contrary to neoconservatives’ fantasies, race, gender, and sexuality all influenced the way historical individuals came to understand the meaning of their life in the United States.

On more than one occasion, I have had complaints filed against me in the dean’s office accusing me of “indoctrinating.” The right’s vision of “not indoctrinating” seems to really mean that we should never hear or learn from people different from themselves. To my university’s credit, they have always supported me.

I think that we need to move discussions about Academic Freedom away from the defensive posture given to us by the right. Every new class has me start by explicitly outlining my background, sexuality, and historical perspective. I am as candid as possible with the students because, after all, my goal is to get them to engage and think about the materials in the class themselves. All of my cards are on the table. They can make their own decisions about my perspective. Contrary to popular belief, I am not looking to brainwash them into being mini-GayProfs (they usually become mini-GayProfs of their own accord).

Reading different historians' perspectives on race, gender, and sexuality offers students a particular set of tools. I don't claim that this tool box is an absolute guide to TRUTH. Our current methodologies will become outdated one day. Still, that tool box allows students to question social relations of power, government authority, imperialism, and resistance. Students have a chance to find out what that vision of the past looks like and for us to talk about it as a group. If it ultimately doesn’t appeal to some of them, that’s cool.

Our dancing editorialist, however, reveals something about his own teaching strategy as well. From his own words, it seems quite clear that he envisions the classroom as a place where he gets to indoctrinate students to his right-wing beliefs. He masks his intent with flowery language, but his mission is clear. With the freedom of tenure (“barely” earned, according to the author himself, suggesting a shaky research agenda (but that’s another issue), he felt at liberty to perform “an athletic, 15-minute-long, tightly choreographed celebration of the war on terrorism.” If we wash away the fanciful imagery, what he is really saying is that he used his classroom as a pulpit to announce his support of the current administration’s policies. Would Horowitz cry foul? Probably not.

You know what? I am okay with that, but not because I agree with him (obviously I think the man is delusional and probably belongs at BYU). Unlike those on the right, however, my own political ideology is not threatened knowing that he is expressing his viewpoint in the classroom.

My politics inform my research and my research informs my politics. It would be impossible for me, as a Latino historian, to disentangle those two components. Unlike the BYU Baryshinkov, though, I am not trying to dazzle or trick students into my political ideas. Instead, I think all of us on the left need to own our political perspective and be open about how it influences our teaching. Students are smart enough to decide what to do with that information.

Finally, there are many reasons why conservatives might not be in the humanities in great numbers that are less conspiratorial than Horowitz’s notions. One of the primary reasons could be that those attracted to right-wing politics are also inclined to want to make lots of money. Trust me – a career as a historian is not the fast-track to owning your own island. If I am lucky, I might be able to make a down payment on a Vespa – in ten years.

Another reason that conservatives find themselves outnumbered could also be related to the transformative power of learning itself. More education in the humanities means learning more about different people’s experiences and perspectives. At a certain point, that knowledge makes holding onto narrow, xenophobic, triumphalistic visions of the U.S. untenable.

Perhaps, though, the right-wing knows this to be true. That is why they want to stop universities from offering such knowledge.


pdxprofessor said...

like you, i'm a gay junior faculty member of color, and my college recently had horowitz on campus to deliver his drivel. to my surprise, the audience laughed aloud at many of his more outre statements, which really flustered him. i have to say that i have been dismayed by the seeming lack of political will among my students, but even they saw through the delusional web that he and his ilk are so intent on spinning. i think you're absolutely right about the transformational nature of education, particularly a liberal arts education, playing a part in the diminished visibility of conservative viewpoints on many college campuses. i'm sure you've had the experience of hearing students say, "i've never thought about it that way" when reading hooks or anzaldua or evven bataille for that matter. we see them change, yes, but not as a result of their indoctrination, but as a result of their education. and as a pedagogue i have to say that that's a damn good thing.

i also think that conservatives on campuses are so wedded to this idea of their victimization by a cruel and intolerant leftist majority that they take deliberately inflamatory stances that even further alienate them from their colleagues and students with less extreme viewpoints. take for example, the conservative student rag, the harvard spectator, which published an edition of its magazine with a shattered glass pink triangle on its cover after matthew shepard was killed. i mean, come on. as cornel west would say, that's just mean-spirited, and middle of the road students who could be swayed in either direction politically react to that mean-spiritedness and distance themselves from it.

of course, we can talk about what happens after the new illuminati we've labored so long over leave their academic bubbles, but that's a different conversation altogether. the point is that the right whining about any kind of lost or embattled cultural ascendancy at this point in american history is patently laughable. when i hear horowitz kvetching about the war on conservatives in the acaademy or fox news howling about the war on christmas i just want to throw up. it makes me wonder what will satisfy them if what power they've managed to acquire, by means foul and fair, is not enough. not to get all margaret atwood about it, but sometimes i think some of these folks' vision for america is not far from totalitarianism. and that should make everyone afraid.

good post on a hot topic. well, for me at least.

Chad said...

You hit on why some of the more prominent right-wing movements, whether neo-conservative or evangelical or Objectivist, worry me so much. They perceive the media and the university and other spaces as battlegrounds between competing, utterly exclusive ideologies. Not only do they think victory can only be achieved by stamping out their adversaries, but they assume all of their opponents have the very same perceptions. As you point out, their talk about bias is just a smokescreen; what people like Horowitz really want is to replace what they see as indoctrination with their own form of indoctrination. There can be no compromise. (Isn't it funny that, no matter the ideology or the time period, ideologues project themselves so much they can only see enemy ideologues behind every corner?)

dykewife said...

i think i'd enjoy taking classes from you, though i'm not big on american history.

u of s is full of left wing professors, thank goodness. one of the sociology classes i took, "aboriginal people and justice in canada" (used to be a native studies class but was moved to sociology for some reason) was taught by an aboriginal man from bolivia. our text was the manitoba justice inquiry and our pick of the treaties (but we didn't ever get to them). i loved that class. the subject matter was extremely interesting, the professor himself is a hoot and interesting in his own right, and he brought in speakers, movies, and documentaries (along with the creators) to augment the issues covered in class.

were it not for his class i wouldn't have been exposed to a history that was hidden from me by the mainstream education curriculum. what i got was written by the winners. he showed me an entirely different history and viewpoint that really helped open my eyes.

the neo-conservatives will always feel under attack. i've found that particular group to be paranoid to the point of mental illness. anything different from their way of thinking is seen as an attack. dirkheim's theories didn't come from nowhere.

keep right on being the left wing, radical dude you are. shake the world as only you can. keep those neo-conservative gits nervous. eventually the pendulum of thinking will come back to centre. i hope.

Margo, darling said...

Holy Patriarchal Suppression, Batman! Things sure have changed since I was there! I remember student-spies, paid by the university to make sure nothing untoward was said in classes. I remember almost peeing myself in fear, when, as a young MA candidate, (which in BYU's world equals a full-blown graduate teaching assistant), I got to the part of Modern British Lit. where I had to teach that feminist liberal rant "A Room of One's Own." Some of the students CHALLENGED me on the appropriateness of teaching this piece. Can you imagine? Women who want access to the library and to eat beef instead of boiled plums for dinner? Whores!

I wish I had seen this editorial. I would have sent it to my professor-friend who was fired for speaking at a NOW rally, or to the professor who was fired for describing Mormon missionary work in Latin America as imperialist.

Chris said...

See, you write things like this and I feel too dumb to articulate a reply.

Nice piece, though I think I'm now suffering from vertigo and whiplash after trying to follow all the leftrightleftrightlefts.

pacalaga said...

"bulldoze the field and build a gas station."
...sigh... I love you, GayProf. That was fantastic.
I wish I had some other input, but alas, as an engineering student, I was required exactly 8 credits of humanities, fulfilled by taking Portuguese from the hot blond guy. (Incidentally, gatinho is/was slang for "hottie" in Brazilian Portuguese.)

marsmsu said...

To expect academics to be objective is, of course, as irrational as expecting journalists to be unbiased. We're empirical beings, and for those who can't get a grip on that and the implications of that, is a sad thing. That said, it's only though the open discourse that we can have a better understanding, and those on the right and left who seek to eliminate that are fooling themselves.

Also, enjoyed the Mike Nesmith pic. Hey, hey...

GayProf said...

PDXProfessor: Thanks for coming by my little bloggy. The question of what happens to students after they leave university is an interesting one. At my home institution (one that has a reputation for being extremely conservative), they did a study of recent graduates. It turns out that students often successfully found jobs, but they disproportionately got fired in the first years after graduating. Why? Well, they simply could not handle or interact with the greater diversity of their work places. What they could get away with on a 90% white, middle-class, conservative campus simply didn’t fly in a business context.

On the plus side, this prompted the university to really reconsider what it meant to be committed to diversity. We shall see if it leads to long-term changes.

Chad: It’s true – I have no desire to “stamp them out.” Rather, I just want to have my own time and space.

Dykewife: I am not sure that I am radical, but I would like to see more diversity in the way U.S. History is understood (and also Canadian History, fyi).

Margo, Darling: You only confirm what I suspected about BYU. Sigh.

Chris: I think I have vertigo as well. A clear indication about the need to drink more.

Pacalaga: You bring up another good point. Most students simply don’t spend much time in humanities classes. With the need to get more and more complicated science and/or engineering training, humanities courses often hit the cutting room floor. It’s hard for us to “indoctrinate” students if we never see them.

Taking any class with a hunky instructor, however, was never a waste of time in my book.

Marsmsu: Nesmith was the dreamiest of the four, IMHO.

Roger Owen Green said...

"BYU Baryshinkov" - I'm a sucker for clever alliteration.

vuboq said...

I agree with Chris.

now, let's all go out to the pub for a pint of lager.

mmm. lager.

(*smooches from London*)

tornwordo said...

I find it so laughable that there is this perceived attack on University cirriculums. (curriculi?) My aunt just recently mentioned that her granddaughter decided against Washington state university because it was too liberal. (No I didn't ask what this opinion was based on.) Do these people just take as fact anything a neo-con utters? Isn't that the opposite of "learning"?

I just can't stop shaking my head.

Elizabeth McClung said...

I have always found it perplexing that American universities allow "free speech" which would be hate speech almost everywhere else in the western world. For example Christian Unions have been banned from several British universities for not acknowledging thier LGBT collegues as equals, while in the US, you can still get "student papers" with articles titles: "Return of the Sodomite Agenda" - Is this the American dream, to continue to create and perpetuate "The BIG LIE" like how the Jews must of betrayed Germany in WWI and how the "liberal" left has infiltrated and dominated universities, and the annual mocking of Queer, Gender, Women's and Ethnic studies under articles about "useless degrees" and "money holes by left wing agenda." Errrr? Is this because studing humans are a waste of time or just because studing CERTAIN humans are a waste of time.

Also - memo to the US, please learn what the world "liberal" means - as the ENTIRE US government is a Liberal ideology. But then again, since most college students seem unaware that a) other westerm countries have political systems different to thier own and b) there are several communist parties sitting in governing bodies I suppose I am not surprised - well, I am, just bitter and disappointed.

Kerry Soper said...

Hello everyone. I thought I should comment on this discussion since I'm the one who wrote that "editorial" in the Chronicle. Perhaps I did too good of a job of adopting that strange neocon persona since the piece was meant to satiric. (I regularly contribute satiric cartoons and short pieces to the Chronicle.) I think if you read it yourself you'll understand that there is no way way that there is a professor out there using ballet in history classrooms to communicated the ideological elegance of trickle down economics. I've included the piece below so you can understand my point. (For crying out loud, I suggest that other professors use accordians or clogging to enhance their own survey courses!)

My own politics (along with those of most of my colleagues at BYU) are closer to yours than you'd imagine. I was trying to poke fun at a variety of targets including self-indulgent personal essays, strange forms of active learning, and academic conservatives who are arrogant and paranoid.

I guess I'm a little distressed that some of you might have such a warped view of BYU that you could believe that such a person exists here. Oh well, I hope that you can change your perception after rereading this piece as it was intended--a bit of silly satire.

Thanks for posting this clarification.


Kerry Soper

Here's my email in case you have any questions:

The piece:

I will never forget the first time that I performed ballet in front of an introductory American-history class.

I was executing an especially energetic pas de cheval or "step of the horse" (not an easy task for a middle-aged man of my girth who fancies corduroy pants and flat-knit sweaters), which nicely illustrated some of the more draconian measures of the Marshall Plan that had been advocated by old-line, classical economists. The reverential calm of the large classroom (180 freshmen!) suggested that my point was being well taken. But then I heard it — a faint snigger from the back of the classroom.

The derision was obviously limited to that one ignorant student, but it was still too much for my fragile dancer's ego. My proud bearing — which had resembled, just moments before, the nobility of an exceptionally virile Lipizzaner stallion — collapsed, and I ran from the room loudly sobbing into my trembling hands.

It took me weeks of anguished soul-searching before I got up the courage to "promenade" my skills in front of a large group of students again. But as other talented professors can attest — those of you who can both "teach" and "do" — the performer's passion, once ignited, cannot easily be extinguished. Whether those few callow rubes in my survey classes liked it or not, I was destined to gracefully leap across the great gulf that sadly divides theory and practice in our métier.

I must admit, modestly, that I am a self-taught ballet dancer. Although I have spent countless hours (and worn out several pairs of sweatpants) perfecting my craft in front of a mirror in my basement, I would hesitate to compare myself with masters such as Nureyev and Baryshnikov. I am still, and always will be, an eager student of this demanding art.

I had been attracted to "the natural nobleman's dance," as I like to call it, from a young age. Sadly, however, a fragile constitution, sedentary habits, and a bookish personality prevented me for a long time from lifting my metaphorical toe to the barre. But then in my graduate-school days — that crazy, tumultuous period in the early 1980s when campuses were abuzz with the electricity of Reaganomics — I rediscovered my first love. My fellow graduate students and I felt so strongly about politics that we weren't content to just sit around and merely talk about what was happening in the country; we had to dance!

Some of my confused classmates — those whose politics pranced to the left, as it were — found themselves attracted to what was then in vogue on most liberal college campuses: a sort of ersatz miming or interpretive dance that had been corrupted by the free-form chaos of post-Marcel Marceauvian deconstruction. (It was an abomination: mimes pretending to defy gravity, tearing holes through figurative walls without even breaking a sweat, or collapsing in the middle of a performance into ironic "metagiggles.")

But my fellow neocons and I would have none of that. We were enchanted by the unapologetically proud and earnest grands battements (big kicks) of old-school ballet. Here, indeed, was a physical form of expression that could do justice to the ideological elegance of the Ol' Gipper and "trickle down" economics.

As a young assistant professor who had to hide his "tutu and slippers," as it were, from hostile colleagues, I chafed against the restraints of the traditional lecture classroom. Day after day I had to pontificate dryly as the students passively scritch-scratched into their notebooks — when all the while there was a whole realm of gloriously active learning waiting in the wings.

I often wonder how many of my early admirers in those classrooms noticed that I would occasionally, almost unconsciously, execute an understated détourné (a smooth turn made by pivoting on elevated toes) while moving toward the chalkboard to emphasize an important point. And did they appreciate that impish petit jeté (little jump) I could not seem to contain whenever I felt compelled to add a visual exclamation point to an argument? Who knows, but the suppressed smiles of admiration I occasionally glimpsed on some faces suggest that those rhetorical flourishes did not go entirely unnoticed.

Now that I have achieved tenure (by the skin of my lightly calloused toes, I might add), and learned to silence the sniggers — at least in my own hyper-focused, dancer's mind — I can share my talents in the classroom with abandon. At last students now benefit from witnessing some of the following visual clarifications in my large survey courses: the glaring flaws of Roosevelt's New Deal policies dissected with the help of a series of deftly executed entrechats (a startling jump in which the dancer's legs scissor back and forth with lightning-speed precision); a re-creation of the tension surrounding the Bay of Pigs crisis by remaining en pointe (elevated on the tips of my toes) for as long as possible (20 seconds on a good day!); the sad fall from grace of President Richard Nixon given metaphorical expression through a dramatic, lingering penché (a slow, graceful tilting of the body toward the horizontal).

I have to admit that I occasionally let my newfound spontaneity as a dancing lecturer get the best of me. For example, in class last week I dare say that I gave a young female undergraduate the thrill of her life when I pulled her from the front row and initiated an impromptu pas de deux. I wanted to illustrate the delicate peace negotiations between Anwar el-Sadat and Menachem Begin at Camp David in 1978. Her coy resistance to my effort to lead her through a series of sweeping tournés was actually the perfect embodiment of Sadat's early suspicions of the Israeli leader's diplomatic intentions.

I recently unveiled my pièce de résistance during a capstone lecture on contemporary American history (to be specific, a discourse on the budding legacy of the Bush administration). To the strains of Stravinsky's joyfully martial Rite of Spring, I performed an athletic, 15-minute-long, tightly choreographed celebration of the war on terrorism. For the first time I took advantage of all the space in the auditorium-size classroom and ended with a beautiful grand jeté (a long, horizontal leap, legs outstretched) over the heads of several awestruck students whom I had strategically placed on the floor in front of the lectern. I found this performance to be so emotionally and physically exhausting that I was forced to end the class 30 minutes early, right there on that high note.

I know that there will always be colleagues (and perhaps some of you readers) who look askance at my use of ballet in the classroom. But can any of us deny who we are, or where our strengths lie as instructors? By relating my successes in making American history come alive through the talents with which I have been blessed, I just hope that some of you will be empowered to bring your own hidden abilities (accordion? clogging?) into the classroom and the lives of our young charges.

And now I bid you adieu, make a slight curtsy, andwith one final, magnificent jetéexit stage right.

Kerry Soper is director and associate professor of American studies at Brigham Young University.

GayProf said...


Thanks for stopping by and for posting your editorial for reference. Readers will appreciate it.

I don’t think, though, anybody took your dancing metaphor literally. Also, I actually did appreciate your humor over issues that we all face in the classroom (professors often being forced to be more like performers than, well, professors these days).

All the same, some of the choices made in the editorial did suggest a fairly standard “woe-is-us” neo-con perception. Sorry if this was a misreading, but it gives me pause to really believe that a neo-con would have been censored at BYU.

Kerry Soper said...

Sounds good. I agree with your point that it would be highly unlikely that this fictional person would be censored at BYU.

It still seems, though, that you want to see this as a real editorial that can be used as evidence of actual attitudes or trends. That's my only lingering concern, that something I intended as satire be read as a real manifestation of the very thing it is trying to parody.

I'll leave it at that. I guess something like this takes on a life of its own and the writer can't stand over peoples' shoulders, telling them how to interpret it.

Thanks for letting me respond.