Students, faculty debate issues of classroom politics

Political discussion between a student and a professor can be a delicate dance. So when are topics such as politics and religion appropriate in the classroom?

A panel of UAA faculty and students assembled to tackle this difficult question April 11 at Rasmuson Hall, where they presented their views of how controversial classroom debate can be stimulating and when it can be discouraging.

Issues involving conflict between a student and a professor are often mediated by Bruce Schultz, whose job as dean of students involves upholding academic freedom.

Schultz said that there are two parts to academic freedom: the right to teach and the right to learn.

“When those rights and responsibilities get blurred, I’m often involved with faculty members who are complaining about a student who might be disruptive, or I get complaints from students who are really concerned about the grades they receive in a course because they feel as though it wasn’t an unbiased learning environment,” Schultz said.

Aaron Burkhart, The Northern Light’s editor in chief, was asked to attend the panel in response to a November editorial that challenged readers to question whether or not discussing political issues in the classroom was always conducive to a learning experience.

“Off-handed remarks or jokes at the expense of the other political party doesn’t really foster discussion,” Burkhart said. The editorial pointed to a November 2004 report, “Politics in the Classroom,” that revealed a survey showing nearly a third of students at 50 top U.S. universities thought their grades were affected by political bias on the part of professors, according to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

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USUAA Sen. John Roberson III, who wrote a letter to The Northern Light stating he was concerned with “politically biased professors at UAA,” said normally he has no issues with discussing politics in the classroom, but what concerns him are the conversational comments made by professors in classes that are not political in nature.

As an English professor, Dan Kline said his assumption is that the classroom will always be a political space.

“The idea that it’s not political or the idea that it can be made nonpolitical is, to me, a delusion.” Kline said. “I think the free exchange of political ideas, whether it’s from my part or from the student’s part, is to be encouraged, not to be avoided.”

Kline said there are many strategies that professors use involving political discussion to fuel learning.

“I’ll deliberately switch positions in order to goad or prod or move a discussion in a different direction,” Kline said. “I think that honest disagreements should foster a discussion rather than close it down.”

Aviation technology professor Michael Buckland said he was asked to attend the panel because he is one of the few conservative professors at UAA. Buckland thinks hard-line politics, such as promoting political agendas or candidates, is not appropriate in the classroom, but he said most important issues of today are political issues that can’t be avoided.

“Students are coming to us and placing their trust in us to get an education,” he said. “They’re not here to be indoctrinated, they are here to be educated.”

Many classes that Buckland teaches involve strictly technical learning, but he said there are classes like aviation law where he thinks politics is appropriate.

“The first thing I tell people is that they all are completely welcome to air their views, but it needs to be done respectfully, and I explain that they are here to discuss ideas and not people,” Buckland said. “Then I’ll tell them openly my bias. I tell them that I come from the bias of a Christian conservative and this can influence what I might say and at all points they are absolutely entitled to argue the other side.”

Buckland said oftentimes political discussions don’t simply break down into partisan issues and that issues such as affirmative action, social justice and “the gay rights political agenda” need to be looked at from all angles.

“The university tends to hear only one side,” Buckland said.

Ben Cheeseman, a justice major at UAA, said he thinks many students regurgitate their professors’ political views in order to get good grades.

“Half the people that are taking the 300-level class are taking it because they have to, not because they want to,” said Cheeseman.

Steven Amundsen, also a justice major, said that while many professors acknowledge they are in a position of power, they don’t seem to realize how easy it is to coerce their students into withdrawing from discussion or even to drive students away from a classroom when their biases become apparent.

John Whitlocke, a UAA graduate, said he witnessed many students during his time as an economics major writing papers consistent to what they thought the professor’s views were, and they were uncomfortable because of that.

Amundsen said he feels best when his professors’ political views are not known to him because it is less of a cause for concern.

“If they are willing to set (political views) aside from class and not make the jokes and not make the comments, then it’s easier to trust what they are going to say,” Amundsen said.

Buckland said one drawback to not having professors’ political views voiced in the classroom is that you won’t get the benefit of their years of experience, which they may use to get their points across. Amundsen said that professors’ experience should allow them to take both sides of an issue in class without being biased.

Voicing an opinion opposite of a professor can be an intimidating challenge and a risk, but Kline said that is exactly what professors should be promoting.

“If you want to just get the A, fine, we’ve all done that. But to say that faculty shouldn’t do something because you know it’s going to be biased, I disagree with that,” Kline said. “The only way to test that is to take the risk of potentially screwing up, offending somebody, saying what you think and taking responsibility for a different perspective.”