U profs use politics to enhance learning

Professors said they are not taught to deny bias but instead to use it to complement learning.

Bryce Haugen

In this raucous election cycle, eluding politics can be difficult – especially at the University.

“The personal is political,” University geology professor David Fox said, quoting a decades-old feminist phrase.

The anti-war activist political discussion brews in his classroom even when he brings up global warming, evolution or the history of the Earth.

“Any decision towards how you present history is political,” he said.

Because political discourse is inescapable, University faculty members said they strive to create fair and productive discussions, regardless of their personal views. In the Graduate School, professors aren’t taught to deny bias – instead, they’re taught to use it to enhance learning, faculty members said.

Fostering dialogue

According to the University Board of Regents’ Academic Freedom and Responsibility policy, faculty members and students must be able to “explore all Avenues of Scholarship, Research, and Creative Expression and to speak or write as a public citizen without institutional Discipline or Restraint.” The policy also states that faculty members should make it clear they are speaking personally and not on behalf of the University.

Adding complexity and perspective to the way students think is a fundamental part of the educational philosophy at the University, said Ilene Alexander, University Preparing Future Faculty program director.

Preparing Future Faculty is a nationally recognized two-course graduate program administered by the University Center for Teaching and Learning Services. In the first course, teaching assistants learn how to make discussions meaningful by bringing diverse views together in an inviting way. In the second, the future professors apply what they’ve learned to real classroom experiences.

“The goal is to use your perspective to bring out more voices, rather than using it to stop a conversation,” she said.

Some University professors said they are careful not to

offend students in political discussions.

“I’d probably talk politics different in a bar than in the classroom,” said Arun Saldanha, a University geography professor who moderates a feminist speaker series.

Saldanha said his role in the series is different from that of the participants.

“I’m not going to be really outspoken, but I’m also not going to hide my perspective on things,” he said.

University sociology professor Teresa Swartz said faculty members shouldn’t “hide behind a veil of objectivity.”

“We should be open and honest about where we’re coming from but obviously not be degrading to other beliefs,” she said.

Preparing Future Faculty teaches graduate students to recognize the value in their own biases, using it to spawn discussion rather than stifle dissent, Alexander said.

“You need to be frank about ideas – not to squelch thinking, but to open up thinking and analysis,” she said. “It’s not ‘You’re wrong, I’m right.’ It’s trying to get at characteristics and traits of how we come to think about an issue.”

“It’s not very often that a professor says something overtly biased,” said Alexander, who is also a teaching consultant at the center. She said complaints from students are rare.

One student, College Republican vice chairman Tony Richter, said he thinks there is a definite liberal slant on campus. He said a professor once gave him an unfair grade because of political differences.

“I’ve also had good experiences with teachers I disagree with ideologically,” he said. “Those are the teachers who allow for balanced viewpoints.”

Learning through politics

Rather than dodge politics, professors said, they incorporate them into their curriculums.

Jan Estep, a University art professor, said she asked students this semester to produce works of a political nature.

“It’s an exercise to see what it feels like to be more overt in their political sensibility in their art,” she said.

Swartz said politics is also a useful tool in her race, class and gender class.

She said she does not use the classroom as a place to air her political beliefs, but she does see it as a place to advance civic learning and civic responsibility.

“What does it take to be a responsible citizen? I want students to think critically about the issues and how candidates are talking about them,” she said.