U.C.L.A. Unbecoming?

The U.C.L.A alumnus who offered to pay students to record lectures of left-leaning professors in order to expose these academics “as liberal partisans who do not tolerate dissent in their classrooms”, withdrew his offer after being told that it violated school policy.
The alumnus’ offer brings to mind the Columbia Unbecoming campaign. The assumption underlying both cases is that academic discourse – when presented to students in the classroom- can always be separated from political discourse and be kept neutral and objective (this ‘always’ must apply to the fields of history, sociology, politics, economics and so on). If this assumption is false, then trying to make teachers “objective” and “non-political” could become a very dangerous project resembling McCarthyism.
I’d love to hear what the Columbia Unbecoming folks, such as Ariel Beery, have to say on the matter.

8 thoughts on “U.C.L.A. Unbecoming?

  1. Just to post quick before shabbat: I think the project is unethical, personally. If a student out of their own motivation would like to complain about a professor, it is within that student’s right. I’d even go so far as to say that it is the responsibility of the student to give feedback about their professor’s performance, good or bad. But to offer to pay students to report? That’s just unethical.

  2. I think that, when it comes to Social Sciences, or General Arts programs, it is VERY hard to take the politics away from the course content.
    If people are liberal, then so what? So long as they allow meaningful dialogue with students who do have dissenting opinions then the class can stay democratic.
    Also, so long as the class stays relatively on topic, then it is useful. If the class is being used as a springboard for the professors’ political opinions, and nothing else, then there is a problem.
    I agree with Ariel when he says that the students should have a right to complain if the quality of the course is not up to par with their expectations. I don’t think that being monitored for teaching quality is a bad thing – you don’t want course directors getting too self assured about what they can do in class.
    Those are my two cents…

  3. The assumption underlying both cases is that academic discourse – when presented to students in the classroom- can always be separated from political discourse and be kept neutral and objective (this ‘always’ must apply to the fields of history, sociology, politics, economics and so on).
    That’s certainly not true. It is only true if the assumption that Asaf makes, and which underlies his characterisation of the options available, is also true — that one either obtains the single higher truth, or else one abandons any semblance of balance. Asaf’s assumption is wrong, though. The spectrum is rather wider. Outside of strawman caricatures, “objectivity” has never meant some hackneyed attempt at knowing what is unknowable. It has meant representing what is generally known accurately; representing the state of debate fairly; and representing each side of each debate at its strongest, not at its weakest.
    On that standard, yes, those academics who come to class with political axes to grind are certainly lacking in objectivity, and as a result are certainly failing their students in their duty to instruct. That’s because they present one set of arguments (that which they agree with) at its strongest, but fail with respect to alternative or opposing arguments by pillorying or insulting them or leaving out logical possibilities or any other of a number of logical fallacies.
    If this assumption is false, then trying to make teachers “objective” and “non-political” could become a very dangerous project resembling McCarthyism.
    This conclusion is wrong on the facts — it depends on a fallacious division of ideas into either objectively true or all of one standard — but, second of all, it is also wrong on the methods. Censorship, and McCarthyism involve the exercise of power to close down the expression of ideas. When one does not have the power to close down the expression of ideas, we do not call it “censorship” or “McCarthyism”. We call it “criticism” and “debate”.
    Classrooms, as Asaf points out, are political arenas, and public spaces. Professors who speak there should expect to be challenged, and argued with, and criticized — even outside the forum of the classroom. That is the academic tradition, and it is a healthy thing. If the major threat to academic was truly the threat that a professor’s words would be reported and challenged outside the classroom, then academia is in awfully good shape.
    It’s not. That’s not the major threat to academia. The lack of funding, and shift of all funding to corporate sponsors, is. But why pay attention to that when there’s a right-wing boogieman to be hacked away at?

  4. Good point, hum.
    The point that is often lost in the debate over academic freedom is that freedom must be a two-way street. That is, if one has the freedom to profess one’s opinions, one must also respect the fact that others will have their own opinions, and should have the right to profess them in whatever forum permits. Since a classroom is by nature a controlled environment, the professor has the power of censorship–but within reason. That is, a professor may not censor ideas selectively within a classroom based upon the political opinions of the students professing those ideas. If a professor does such a thing–as was the case at Columbia–the professor him/herself is guilty of McCarthyism at its worst: the silencing of dissenting opinions in the hopes of maintaining a politically “pure” environment.
    If students feel that they are unable to state their opinions within the classroom–either because they were not permitted to do so due to structural considerations (i.e. the class was a lecture with no discussion) or due to political litmus testing (i.e. Zionists were denounced before they could make their case)–students have the right and even the obligation to raise those issues within the public forum of ideas. Otherwise, students would be no more than vessels to be filled, automatons, and not the scholars-in-training that they are supposed to be.
    To sum up, the problem with many of those who decry any attempt by students or alumni to debate opinions put forward by professors is that they do not truly believe in the open-nature of the market of ideas. For these people, who more often than not have political views in line with the professors they are defending, thought should be left to the professionals, and the ignoramuses sitting on the other side of the lectern should speak only when spoken to. That, however, is not academic freedom, but thought-tyranny of the worst kind.

  5. Everyone knows that humanities courses are almost impossible to teach from an “objective” viewpoint. Such a course should be taught from the intellectual view of a professor who has put much time and research into interpreting and analyzing events and social trends. This is because not everyone experiences an event in the same way.
    There is also a way of crossing the line and distorting facts and coming up with bizarre, hateful, and downright wrong analyses of events. This is something that does happen, often with the intent of inciting fervor about an issue. This is when a professor takes advantage of his/her position, lets personal politics and feelings get in the way of a thoughtful analysis, and takes the place of a rabble rouser.
    While no intellectual endeavor can really be unbiased, a professor should strive to offer explanations and analyses that are as close to objective as possible in order to understand events and trends as correctly as possible. By making baseless accusations and inciteful comments, Professor Massad, for example, neglects his responsibility and abuses his position.

  6. The issue is not one of “objectivity”, rather the issue is one of diversity. The post author is correct in pointing out that the appearance of “objectivity” is elusive and sometimes a mere deception. One of the safeguards against abuse is to ensure a politically diverse faculty. With this reform a lot of the conservative complaints go away. Nonetheless the administrations remain head strong and will not diversify their liberal bastions. All the studies I am aware have shown a political beliefs of tenured faculty to be slanted serverely left. The 90% democrat ratios embodied in some faculty are obviously extremely out of line with the population at large. Therefore it must be expected that the under represented conservative faction is going to protest. This problem would go away if liberally biased faculties would merely open seats to dissenting voices.

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