The McAdams controversy has reminded me about my own experiences as a TA and some of the mistakes I made when it came to imposing my own ideology in the classroom.
I used to believe otherwise. I used to believe that it was my responsibility to expose students to new ideas and that doing so force them to think about the foundations of their beliefs. There’s nothing wrong with that in the abstract. But I now believe otherwise. Those “new ideas” were not really all that new, and they meshed pretty closely to my political commitments. Worse, the way I “exposed” students to the new ideas resembled more something like a bully pulpit than any way to challenge them to think.
I remember in one class—I believe it was in spring 2006—I made some snarky comments about George Bush and his war on terror. These statements were of the “drive-by” quality. The discussion section would be about something else–say, the powers accorded to the presidency in the constitution of 1787, or Andrew Jackson’s (arguably) illegal actions as president–and I’d draw some comparison to Bush. Not that such comparisons are always or necessarily wrong, but here’s how I made them. One, I noted that (and these are pretty close to how I remember my exact words) “it’s easy after a terrorist attack to just give a speech and be praised for your bravery,” and I also once made some snide comment about waging war on “terrah.”
There were at least two things wrong with what I did. First, the class was on the history of the US from the “discovery” of the Americas to the Civil War. While it’s often appropriate to draw comparisons with the present-day in order to illustrate a point, my comments about the then-current president did little to advance that comparison. In short, what I said was actually irrelevant to the class. (If it had been, say, a course in the history of the US since 1968, what I said would have been wrong, too, but for slightly different reasons.)
Second, my comments represented my abuse of what I’ll call the instructor’s “bully-pulpit” position. As the leader of the discussion section and as the person with the de facto power to determine the students’ grades (most professors at USang-Onionswamp were hands off when it came to grading), there was little room for the students to be able to offer any dissent. If they had, they would have also had to face the fact that I controlled the debate in the classroom. Addressing the question of “whether or not it’s easy to simply give a speech after a terrorist attack and therefore be called brave” stacks the deck against anyone who wishes to argue otherwise.
There was at least one student in that class who was a Bush supporter. At least I think so, judging from his reactions to my comments. He probably felt put upon by my unflattering references to Bush. (Not that this necessarily matters, but he was also a pretty strong student, the kind whose aptitude might mean he’d a high B but who worked so hard and was so diligent and acquitted himself so well that he earned the A I gave him at the end of the semester.)
When I was an undergrad, I was much more conservative than I later became. I remember taking one course (history of the US since World War II) in which the professor was pretty obviously to my left on most of the cultural and political issues of the day. I remember her discussing the Roe v. Wade decision. Even though she obviously agreed with the decision, she was quite empathetic in summarizing why someone would have objections to it and why people felt affronted by the decision.
I wish I had followed her example.
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