Juliet Moser: To speak or not to speak

Without a doubt, GW is a political campus. From students interning on Capitol Hill to congressmen speaking at the Marvin Center, GW is the school for future policy-makers, movers and shakers. Common summer jobs include campaigning and canvassing, and political science students seem to dominate campus – but maybe it’s just that we’re much louder than everyone else.

All of this politicking begs the question of when and where politics belong on a university campus. No matter how hard we may try, humans are not objective – but it is not only students who show bias in the classroom. Professors are the single largest cause of this – from deciding on reading selections to choosing which students to call on, teachers set the tone of a course from the very first day of class. Unfortunately, this condition often conflicts with a university education that should strive to provide unbiased, objective learning experiences.

Professorial politics includes not only political leanings but also mindsets and backgrounds, both educational and personal. These prejudices demonstrate themselves in conscious and unconscious ways – from how an argument is introduced in class to giving short shrift to one approach. Sometimes it is subtle, but sometimes a teacher overtly favors only neo-Marxists, post-1970, left-handed feminist thinkers. Even determining when there are two sides to an argument or whether or not there is more than one approach to a topic is a political decision.

Without conscious manifestations of opinion, it can be difficult to figure out the political leanings of a professor in a non-political class. Yet it may not always be critical to do so – your chemistry teacher’s opinion of the current administration hardly relates to your coursework. It seems to me that the hard sciences have less trouble with politics in classrooms. Equations don’t frequently leave much to debate (yet I may be too quick to jump to conclusions, as climatology is a science).

But when a professor does demonstrate a bias, students face the difficult decision of how to react. To speak or not to speak? If a comment is made in the middle of a lecture, or assigned readings tilt inappropriately in one direction, what’s a student to do? In many cases, teachers seem to be the ultimate authority and students generally don’t want to risk their grade to prove a point.

Statistics regarding experiences in the classroom are hard to find and fuzzy when located – poor classroom experiences may go unreported due to embarrassment, self-protection or modesty, and it is impossible to measure such a qualitative experience. But it is certain that going to a department chair or dean of a college is an intimidating task, and lodging a formal complaint could require mountains of paperwork.

Professorial politics strike me as more relevant in classes where discussion is required and contentions surround a topic, such as an economics or a philosophy class. A teacher or TA taking sides can silence students or cause them to question the validity of their own opinions. Gently nudging or even outright pushing of students to choose one side over another limits the diversity of opinions in a discussion, opinions that are critical to exposing logical flaws and challenging everyone to structure their arguments carefully.

In recognizing that all individuals are fallible and incapable of true objectivity, I hope that students and teachers alike try to approach the classroom as a neutral setting, an arena for debate and discussion. I would never advocate limiting academic freedom, freedom of speech or freedom to do what you damn well please outside of the classroom. But I would caution those teachers who choose to make their politics known how that information affects student perception of the teacher – and perhaps of the topic.

A wisecrack about former President Bill Clinton’s sexual infidelities or President Bush’s mispronunciations may get a giggle out of some students, but it has the potential to quash discussion, intimidate some and anger others. After all, in a classroom, teachers are the ultimate deciders.

-The writer, a senior majoring in international affairs and political science, is a Hatchet columnist.

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