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.

Category: Elsewhere

About the Author

Gabriel Conroy (conroy, fka Pierre Corneille and corneille1640) is an ex-graduate student. Now he writes blogs! He has a solo blog--Ye Olde Republicke. The views expressed by Gabriel (or Pierre, or corneille1640) are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of his spouse, employer, or his co-bloggers at Hitcoffee.

12 Responses to Living the bully pulpit

  1. Brett says:

    I walked out of a couple of classes like yours when I was a (biology) graduate student, around 2003-2005. Walk in to a lecture purportedly about NMR and see the powerpoint slide with that picture of President Bush next to the chimpanzees? OK, I’m done here. The lecturer is obviously going to waste my time with this bullshit and I don’t need to be quietly pissed off while everyone laughs at people like me. And you know, while I was a big Bush supporter back in graduate school, I’ve gotten a lot less Republican since then, and I’m pretty sure that the constant stream of derision I got as asides from people like you kept it from happening earlier.

    • fillyjonk says:

      In my mind, that kind of thing (the slide in the biology class) falls into the category of “inappropriate snark” and doesn’t belong in the classroom.

      I’ll cover topics that may cause controversy among students (I’ve had discussions with students about evolution, including a rather stressful one where the student INSISTED I had to be an atheist (I am not) because I accepted biological evolution) but I don’t believe in snark, and I don’t believe in the wink-wink, nudge-nudge, “we’re all people that think the Right Way, so I can say this and know you will all agree.”

      And I’ve got way too much information pertaining to the topic I’m teaching to cover to make political commentary that might also come back to bite me later on.

      • Brett says:

        That last bit is what gets me most now that I’m an (adjunct) professor and teaching my own classes. It’s a struggle to fit everything I want to cover into 90 minute lectures, and I regularly have to drop important topics because I just can’t discuss them in enough detail to get the students to understand them. And that guy back in 2004 wasted a few minutes of every lecture with a let-us-come-together-and-laugh-at-the-conservatives slide? It makes me think even less of his priorities than I did at the time.

    • “and I’m pretty sure that the constant stream of derision I got as asides from people like you kept it from happening earlier.”

      You’re probably right.

      • To follow up and elaborate: I agree that such remarks at best only rally people who already agree and don’t go about converting anyone to the view of the one who makes the remarks.

        I now mostly reject the view that it’s an instructor’s prerogative to convert anyone (unless we’re talking about getting a student to see the complexities of a situation, which I definitely was not doing with my own comments).

  2. trumwill says:

    I’m glad you’ve learned the error of your ways!

    At least yours was a class in which politics were relevant. I had it from one of my IT professors. It wasn’t too bad.

    I think a frequent error a lot of young professors (and teachers at lower levels) make is the assumption that their perspective is one of “new ideas” (that they haven’t heard before). Which may be the case sometimes. It would not surprise me if Cibolia Tech (the large western land-grant where I assume you taught this course) had a disproportionately conservative student body. Even so, I suspect that your insertions (as you describe them) were not particularly novel to them.

    It reminds me a bit of what I hear from some younger people, where each new teacher they got wanted to free their minds of what “they’ve always been taught” (that America is good, GW could not tell a lie, etc) that they never actually got the other version.

    Anyway, I am genuinely glad that you have re-evaluated your use of the pulpit. It’s to your credit. A lot of professors never get there.

  3. trumwill says:

    Granted, I was an unusually well-informed person going in to college. Not as well-informed and intelligent as I thought, but compared to my classmates… yeah.

    The only professor who really hit me with new ideas that stuck actually was putting radical things out there, and he knew it and his class was structured accordingly in a “God dammit you’re going to listen to me” sort of way. Which he had to, otherwise all of us who knew better would just talk over him with repeated “That’s ridiculous!” before actually listening to what he was saying.

    But he was, as I said, crazy. And he presented the material in such a way as to sound crazier than he was (“Most of the states not of the original 13 should never have been granted statehood” and “Burning witches was right and proper” and “We should have a game show where Americans have Nerf guns and immigrants try to get through an obstacle course to get citizenship”) in order to get to the less controversial points he was making (“All states are not created equal” and “Cultural solidarity matters” and “Our immigration laws are utterly ridiculous and inhumane.”). On the other hand, his crazy presentation plays a role in why I remember those lectures still. And why, of all of the college professors I had, (a) he was among the only ones I stayed in contact with and (b) he has left the most indelible imprint on how I see the world (even if I do not, in fact, approve of burning witches).

    • I do think there’s a place for that type of instruction. I also think there’s a place for class in which an instructor announces, “I believe X and in this class I’m going to argue for X,” but then makes it comfortable for students to challenge him/her and demands that those who agree with him/her prove their point

  4. A 4 says:

    Ah, putting the “Bully” in bully pulpit. Never thought about it in those terms before.

    As a student, I hated snarky, assume we all have the same perspective political statements, and tried to avoid them back when I was teaching.

    I may have even been successful (but maybe not). I do remember talking to a student once, about a faculty member in another field. This professor was concerned about the under-representation of a certain ethnic group among males in pornographic movies. His proposed approach to the problem was to make pornographic movies. I remember the student being very surprised when I suggested, outside of class, that this really may not be an appropriate use of a scholar’s time.

  5. Kirk says:

    Having been an adult student, I pretty much rolled my eyes whenever my professors or classmates got political. It all just seemed so cliche to me.

    One thing I did get from the experience, is to wait for someone to ask my opinion before giving it. To this day, no one has ever asked for it.

    • That’s one of those lessons, the truth of which I accept wholeheartedly, and yet I violate it all the time.

      However, I would like to think that if I went back into teaching, I would probably (I hope) better in that respect.

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