Saturday, January 17, 2015

Provincialism and Freedom of Speech in the Classroom

When I was a new assistant professor, one of my colleagues was the daughter of the Belgian ambassador to the U.S.  Several of the assistant professors had their offices in one cul-de-sac on the fourth floor in then Comm West (now Wohlers Hall) and partly for that reason, partly because we had a standing bridge game at lunch, and partly because there really weren't others to hang out with, we socialized after work as well.  Most evenings I ended up having dinner at her apartment or the apartment of another assistant professor who was a neighbor of hers.  That way I learned about fine eating and fared much better in that dimension than I had any right to expect, given the paucity of decent restaurants in CU at the time.  I would bring the wine, to hold up my end of the bargain.  We'd always have interesting conversation, sometimes on social or political issues, often about the Econ department, and once in a while about the students.

The other assistant professor and his wife were both born and raised in Illinois in a small town not too far from Rockford.  So we had a good mix in our small group (which sometimes expanded to include several other assistant professors in the department).  As for me, I was still getting acculturated to living in the Midwest.  This famous New Yorker cover gives a quick sketch of my then predicament.  (Though note that I grew up in Bayside, Queens while the picture is drawn from Manhattan.  Queens is to the east, part of Long Island, and out of the picture.)



While as a grad student at Northwestern some of this particular anxiety was relieved early on when it proved that a couple of my professors (Robert Eisner and Mort Kamien) were displaced New Yorkers.  And somehow it didn't manifest too much when I became a TA in my second year.  At this point, I'm not sure why.  I do recall comparing the NU kids to the students I knew at Cornell, where I had completed my undergraduate degree.  My impression, if I recall correctly, is that these kids were trying to be Ivy-League-like but most weren't quite there in my estimation.  Also, they displayed their wealth in overt ways (how they dressed coming to class is what I noticed) that was definitely not cool when I was at Cornell.  It is hard for me now to ascribe those differences entirely to New York versus Illinois.  Some of it may have been the presaging of Reagan becoming President and me not yet understanding that times were changing in America.  Nonetheless, I was quite successful as a TA.  The students and I got along.  Even if I didn't fully understand where their heads were, I did know microeconomics inside and out and was enthusiastic about teaching it.  That carried the day.

It was different teaching as an assistant professor.  For one, I was now at a public university and I had no prior experience with that.  For another, while there was a Business School at NU, its students were all at the graduate level.  The Economics Department was in Arts and Sciences at NU and it may have been the best department on the entire campus.  In contrast, at Illinois there were undergraduate students in the Business School.  To those students, Economics was not a prestige department.  And in the course I taught, Intermediate Microeconomics, I faced a good deal of skepticism about the relevance of the course from some of the students, particularly the mouthy ones, especially if they were majoring in Accounting.  I bombed in those classes and was grateful for being allowed to teach Math Econ or graduate Microeconomics, where I didn't face that resistance.

I offer up this teaching background to show I was primed for the message from my Belgian colleague, which is why I can recall it now.  She told me on more than one occasion that the undergraduate students were too provincial.  (At the time in excess of 90% were from the state of Illinois.)  I hadn't heard the term provincial used like this before so I needed to understand what she meant.  Our good friend and colleague who grew up in Illinois had led a much more insular existence than we had.  Was he provincial too?  Her answer - no, he wasn't.  In her mind provincialism didn't just reflect a limit on experience.  Many people have limited experiences through no fault of their own.  Provincialism requires a closed mind that is not willing to challenge preconceptions nor have experiences that might contradict those beliefs.  Our assistant professor friend was very open to possibility.  The undergraduate students she was referring to were not.

On this my Belgian colleague was surely more astute and sensitive than I was.  Her first language was French and she had a style that I would call European and clearly indicated she was not from the Midwest.  (For example, she regularly wore high heels.  No other woman I knew on campus did that, though admittedly it was a small sample at the time.)  In contrast, my speech doesn't have too many giveaways that I'm from New York City.  I could readily ascribe my difficulties with the students entirely to my course being too theoretical for their liking and the math being too hard.  I didn't need to get into cultural differences at all. My Belgian colleague was a more empathetic person than I was, but she struggled with these students, their provincialism being the best explanation for why that happened.

* * * * *

Fast forward 20 years.  I am now a campus level administrator and a member of the CIC Learning Technology Group.  One of my colleagues in that group is a member of the Accreditation Review Team for my campus and the Accreditation Review is focused on the campus getting rid of the mascot, Chief Illiniwek.  At each CIC meeting where I see my colleague, this is brought up as a topic, with the additional point made that until we do so we will drag the university down into the ground.  The dragging to the ground part proved a correct forecast.  It lead to the premature departure of our then Chancellor, Nancy Cantor.  It created a huge amount of acrimony on campus.  Many of the sports fans of Illini football and basketball insisted the mascot was not racist and was a respectful and true rendering of an American Indian tradition, in spite of protests to the contrary from Indian groups themselves.  It leads to division between the Faculty Senate and the Board of Trustees, where the Senate was for getting rid of the Chief and the BOT was not.    Eventually, the NCAA weighed in on the matter in favor of getting rid of the Chief, with meaningful sanctions to enforce this outcome.  But for Chief supporters it was a bitter pill to swallow.  This essay by Scott Jaschik, written in the wake of the Chief's retirement, gives a complete and balanced view of what happen.  It makes for a poignant story, even now.

Particularly interesting to read are the remarks by Carol Spindel, author of Dancing at Halftime, and her inability to explain why Chief supporters had such a hard time letting go.  It doesn't occur to her that provincialism is the heart of the matter.  It seems obvious to me from my perch that is the right explanation.

* * * * *

Fast forward again, this time by only a few years, and I'm now teaching a course where religion enters into the class discussion, my first experience with it.  The circumstances were somewhat beyond my capacity to deal with them.  Instead, after the course concluded I wrote a post that some colleagues at the time applauded - it got at issues that needed to be voiced but hadn't been aired.  The odd thing was this was a class for Campus Honors students.  Those students are among the best and the brightest we have on campus.  What I learned is that being clueless, unabashedly so, the signpost of provincialism, can co-exist with being a very good student.  Not all students are this way, I want to emphasize.  Soon thereafter I wrote another post about this class, Teaching Quiet Students.  These quiet students were actually more open in their writing and my sense is that they were more tolerant of others.  The provincialism I'm referring to here correlates with a brash sort of self-confidence. 

* * * * *

It is not difficult to come up with more current examples. I'm sure anyone who reads this piece will be able to offer up some of these, so I will not reproduce them here.  What I've already provided is sufficient to make the case that provincialism of the students (and others on campus) is an issue.  Given that, what should be done about it?

People will disagree on the answer to that question.  My view is this.  Students need to be exposed to ideas, many of them.  Which, if any, they embrace is up to them.  Students with provincial attitudes need to have their eyes opened.  But the choice to abandon their provincialism in favor of a more open minded approach is theirs to make.  Undoubtedly there would be risks in doing do, including the potential loss of current friends.  The movie Remember the Titans depicts these issues reasonably well.

There is one caveat.  And it is a big one.  It is to embrace the social equivalent of the imperative in the Hippocratic Oath - first, do no harm.  If the provincialism does harm to others in an obvious way, then the provincialism must be curtailed.  This caveat brings freedom of speech into question. 

Here let me segue into what motivated me to write this piece.  Yesterday Timorthy Egan had an Opionator column, Your Free Speech, and Mine.   I normally enjoy Egan's pieces.  He writes with some bombast, but he stakes positions that I mainly agree with.  This column, however, rubbed me the wrong way and I was bothered by it.  In particular, he takes on the Pope (somebody whom I wouldn't normally defend) in a way I thought was wrong.

Pope Francis, a voice of reason and progressive thought on most things, took a big step backward Thursday with his comments on expression. “You cannot provoke,” he said. “You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”

In fact, you can. Maybe you shouldn’t. Maybe such provocations are in poor taste, or degrading. Yet an enlightened society should be able to take the punch of satire and ridicule, even coarse satire and savage ridicule. It’s an evolving construct, to be sure, and may never find favor in the majority of the world’s countries.

My reading of what the Pope said is that we need to be guided by the Golden Rule.  The Golden Rule proscribes such behavior.  It is clear that everyone in society doesn't follow Golden Rule.  But given the Pope's moral authority, his minions should and he should preach behavior that is consistent with the Golden Rule.

Yet I realize that these issues are too large for me to fully get at here.  (I would love to get other pundits to weigh in on the larger question.  Maybe some would say that speech isn't doing - a sticks and stones kind of argument.  Perhaps others would argue that speech is sometimes doing, but the First Amendment trumps the Golden Rule.  I don't agree with either of these, but I am curious to know how First Amendment advocates reconcile it with other moral imperatives, with which the First Amendment may be in conflict.)   So insofar as I can make sense of these issues I wanted to make them smaller, in a domain where I have more direct experience with how the tensions between free speech and the Golden Rule should be resolved, in other words in the classroom. 

Let me give a straightforward example from the class I taught this past fall.  I asked the students a question.  One student, among the very few who were not shy about raising their hands in class, offered up the Bill Cosby situation as a response to my question.  I told him I was uncomfortable talking about Bill Cosby in class and we should move onto something else.  He seemed okay with that response.  Nobody else in the class said anything, one way or the other.

With this straightforward example representing close to my ideal of how to identify the line that should not be crossed, what should happen if a student brings up a topic that another student is uncomfortable with yet I'm okay with that topic.  Let me compound this with the observation that the majority of students are shy in the classroom - they don't say a word.  Some participate by listening intently, without otherwise contributing to the discussion.  If these students are diligent about attending class and doing the required work out of class, I need to have their backs.  That is part of the implicit contract in the classroom.  This means my antennae need to be out about questions or comments that might make some of the students in the classroom uncomfortable.  It doesn't happen very often.  But when it does I need to say something about me being uncomfortable or suggesting it is possible that some of the students might be uncomfortable with the comment, this is especially true when the example is not obviously germane to the subject matter of the course.  I do go off on tangents and I don't mind if the students do likewise, but if they have gone on a tangent that has caused others in the room to be uncomfortable, we need to move onto something else.

This is a form of censorship.  Let's recognize that.  But let's also realize that I censor students for quite different reasons - nobody is offended by what the student has said but it is not tied to the topic we are studying in a way I can discern.  I try to give students the benefit of the doubt when they go out on a limb.  But they need to show relevance in fairly short order.  Students understand this.  My classroom is not their soapbox.  I should add that because I have the students write online on a weekly basis and I comment on their writing, there is some trust built up as a result.   What I censor and what I allow are part and parcel of the ongoing dynamic in the classroom.  Mainly I'm imploring the quiet ones to speak up once in a while.  In that rare instance, I'm asking those who offer up something that might offend their classmates to willingly let the class move onto something else.

Can these thoughts be extended in a ready way to discussion on campus that is outside the classroom?   Doing so requires moving beyond the discretion of an individual instructor to campus codes and committees that adjudicate breaches to said codes.  Conservatives find this abominable.  Campuses have become bastions of "political correctness" and thus places of intolerance.  Free speech should not have to confront such limits.

I know this criticism.  Often I agree with it.  For example, I felt that our Chancellor made the wrong call in the Salaita case, though I also believe that she fell on a grenade doing this precisely because the BOT is itself too provincial. 

Yet in my core the Golden Rule trumps free speech.  Sometimes we should hold our tongues, in spite of what we believe.  The Golden Rule is not written into the Constitution.  It precedes the Constitution.  It should not be ignored.  If First Amendment advocates had to denounce the Golden Rule to support their position, would they still be so adamant about it?  My guess is that they wouldn't.  But as it is now, they try to frame things where the Golden Rule is not at issue.  That's what gives an unreality to this debate and is the problem I'm trying to get at with this post. 

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