Monday, July 24, 2006

Not Protected by Academic Freedom: Bad Teaching

Not Protected by Academic Freedom: Bad Teaching

It probably comes as no surprise to anybody who comes by here, especially those of you who have read the past couple of posts and their comcomitant discussions, that I suspect Kevin Barrett of being a bad teacher. Admittedly, this is based solely on what I've read, and that may be a little sensationalist. But the Barrett discussion raises the question of academic freedom, as well. And you know? I don't think academic freedom is meant to cover bad teaching, intellectual dishonesty, or any of a myriad of other things.
Stanley Fish has his take on it in yesterday's NY Times. (sorry if you have to log in). I pretty much agree with what he says, except that I also think that academic freedom guarantees our rights to participate in off-campus activities that are protected by the Constitution without those activities affecting the security of our positions.

Hat tip to Gill Polack


New Kid on the Hallway said...

Yeah, I'm pretty happy to agree that Kevin Barrett is probably a bad teacher (or at least, of certain subjects). I mean, I can think of a course in which it would be appropriate to examine arguments that 9/11 was a plot of the US government (i.e. impact of 9/11 on popular culture or something like that); but not the course he's teaching, and never to *advocate* for that point of view.

Though this raises an interesting question: is a bad historian always a bad teacher? To what extent does evaluating teaching have to depend on content, as opposed to form? After all, someone can be a crappy teacher but still a good historian - is the reverse possible? I do believe that a bad historian is often a bad teacher - but is it invariable? or can some good be accomplished in the classroom by a bad historian? (these are honest, not rhetorical questions)

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Well, if by 'bad historian' you mean any of the definitions we've discussed over the past couple of days -- and especially as much more clearly stated by Ancarett here, I think it's going to be very hard for that person not to be a bad teacher. As I tried to say over at Air Pollution today (haloscan ate my comment), a lot of what I feel about what it means to do history badly is informed by my classroom experiences on both sides of the lectern. I have no problem with telling a student he or she is flat out wrong -- like the one in my medieval class who insisted that the Church didn't want, and forcibly prevented, The People from reading, so they could control every aspect of their lives. And I will sometimes say, "well, scholarly opinion disagrees with that idea -- even where individual scholars can't agree on particulars"

But I don't think that I can foster an intellectually active and safe classroom, if I appear to privilege one politically motivated interpretation over another. And frankly, that's one thing I want to teach -- that as scholars we do privilege scholarly arguments that we agree with, but (I hope) because the argument makes more sense, and not because we like the politics. And yes, because we are the products of our DVs and DMs and advisers, and they may be trained in certan traditions ...

If by bad, you mean 'non-productive', not necessarily. As long as the teacher keeps up with scholarship, I think that they can remain good teachers at the introductory levels at least. Clearly you wouldn't want a person who doesn't do research to teach grad students.

Jonathan Dresner said...

I think your caveat -- that out of classroom activities are covered -- is the thing that Fish (and Horowitz) clearly miss. I disagree that Barrett is necessarily a bad teacher of Islam because of his views about this one event; you'd have to actually know more about what he thinks and what he teaches to make that determination. But I also think that you have to be careful about defining "politically motivated interpretation": Barrett would say that his view of 9/11 isn't political, it's evidentiary, and informed by critical analysis of foreign policy.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

It's hard to know what Barrett teaches exactly, unless you sit in on the whole class (which, of course, is the problem with the ACTA report on the liberal madness!), but he has said explicitly that he will teach that 9/11 was a government conspiracy. Though it's true that we don't know from that statement *how* he'll teach it (i.e., can students disagree/take issue, or not). But yeah, the problem isn't necessarily that Barrett doesn't have evidence; each side of the issue has evidence, but they disagree on what constitutes evidence and how to interpret it. At heart, I do think all historians are politically motivated, in the whole the-personal-is-political kind of way. Usually, when presented with an example of someone's teaching, I feel it's possible to say when someone has crossed a line into the "bad teaching," but it's awfully hard to define that in an abstract sense.

And the thing is that critical distance plays a big part in this; if Barrett was talking about events in 300 BCE Africa, there would be much less furor (should be there be, or not? I don't know. But it would be less if he wasn't talking about 9/11).

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Distance is indeed an issue. THat also ties into the issue of evidence. AFAIK, there is no conclusive evidence at this point that 9/11 was a plot. There is a lot of evidence that it was a huge fuckup. If what he were teaching was "some people believe X, and here's why; here, OTOH, is the 9/11 report; and here are some other views" I think he'd be on less shaky ground.

And again, I don't debate that all people are politically motivated in the personal is political way. I think it can inform our scholarship in the ways you've described. But ... it's that doing history vs using history thing. From what I've heard of Barrett, and I admit I don't know the whole story, but if it is in fact true that he is teaching something as historical fact, rather than historical opinion, that's bad teaching.

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