On Staying Politically Neutral in the Classroom

When I started teaching college students, nigh on two and a half years ago, I didn’t really know what I was doing (not that I especially know now). I wasn’t a particularly great college student as an undergrad, and that was 1989-1992 anyway (meaning: little recollection of specifics), so pedagogical examples to draw upon were limited to those profs in my MA program. Luckily, I had quickly learned just who I wanted to emulate and who I very specifically did not. Those in the “do not emulate” list were those who were hell-bent on pushing their own scholarly agenda to the detriment of our own scholarly development, or who wanted to lead us toward “the right answer” with little regard for students gaining or practicing the skills to determine “the right answer” or to realize that there isn’t really a “right answer” anyway. Not a big fan of that.

Although at SJSU I was only teaching the first semester of a two-semester Freshman composition sequence, in which students wrote eight essays in various rhetorical modes (narrative, descriptive, compare-and-contrast, etc.), I still didn’t want to be That Instructor—the one who “made” students write on certain topics or in a certain style or with a certain point of view (unless that was the assignment, like “argue the side of X, then argue the side of Y”). For each essay, students had two or three prompts to choose from and could argue for one of their own if they so chose. I didn’t feel the need to bring hot-button issues into the classroom just for the sake of doing so. What would have been the point of discussing, say, gay marriage during the unit on description? This is not to say that if conversation strayed toward controversial issues I stopped it—I didn’t—but we didn’t really stray into that territory. Everyone was focused on mastering pesky things like thesis statements and commas.

I started teaching around the same time that Michael Bérubé’s What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts?: Classroom Politics and “Bias” in Higher Education was published, and I snapped that up immediately because a) it sounded good and useful, b) I’ve always liked Bérubé’s blog and c) he’s Michael Bérubé. I mean, come on. We should all know a little bit about “Dangeral Studies,” shouldn’t we? Anyway, between the profs I trusted, and examples of classroom interaction seen throughout Bérubé’s book, I felt confident that my gut instinct wasn’t a wrong one—if I was to be a decent teacher, I had to be as politically noncommittal in the classroom as possible, and it would be possible because what exactly do my personal politics have to do with thesis statements and essay organization? Nothing.

When I came to WSU, I didn’t teach composition during my first semester. They like to ease us into things; typically in the first semester, PhD students in the English Department grade for a World Civ class (General Education requirement of all students). So, I spent a semester grading essays by students struggling with historical content, the concept of essays in general, argumentation, their own voice, their own points of view, their parents’ point of view, etc. I vividly remember more than a few student essays about “the sin of homosexuality” according to their bible, their pastor, their parents—in response to prompts like “What technical developments in early Chinese civilization do we see in the world today?” Obviously, I could just instruct them to focus on the actual question in cases like this, but in other cases I had to mark the errors in argument and support for plenty of things that didn’t match my political or (non)religious perspective. That’s all I marked: errors in argument and support. I am pretty sure that I taught a lot of College Republicans and fundamentalist Christians how to fine-tune their argumentation skills so they could better tell me how I am going to hell, but I have to say that I’m okay with that because that’s my job.

When Toria and I embarked upon our composition extravaganza in Fall ’08, our goals were to make sure students could think, read, and write critically…period. Our course “theme” was simply those goals, as achieved by working with philosophical texts. We did not structure our composition course, like some do, around, say, critical race theory. Again, we have enough to tackle with thesis statements and gaining tools to even understand and articulate what something like “critical race theory” even means.

We never had a conversation about this, come to think of it, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that she would agree that it didn’t matter the conclusions students came to about the moral or ethical issues presented—just that they came to some conclusions and could back them up with logic and support. We are both what you might call “rabid liberals”—plus I have the whole gay thing going for me—but we didn’t want the good work done in our classrooms to be negated by any of the students thinking that their liberal teacher was marking them up or down based on political perspectives rather than actual critical thinking/reading/writing. Speaking for myself only—although this likely happened to T as well—again I found myself in the position of teaching some students how to articulate and support arguments that I personally found distasteful. But atheist liberals and Christian conservatives got the grades they deserved based on the work they produced, not whether or not we agreed with them.

Since we knew our students pretty well, we knew their political and religious perspectives (for the most part). I don’t know that they all knew ours, actually. I mean, I think mine are pretty clear just by looking at me, but Toria could probably pass for anything she wanted. She could also just throw down the British passport and screw everyone up, but that’s beside the point. The point is, although we knew our students and we know what they produced and how they grew as writers and thinkers, I didn’t know for sure that the whole attempt at staying neutral was working in the ways I intended it. But recently I learned at least one student’s thoughts on this matter. When asked about the difference in approaching papers for their World Civ class versus their English class, one student wrote:

I did approach GendEd differently. In GenEd I wrote as Liberally as I could, because my teacher was a softy for liberals. My English teacher on the other hand actually valued individual opinion, so in English I wrote according to my personal beliefs and actually backed them up.

So I guess the moral of the story is that indeed, when given an opportunity and environment in which to explore their beliefs, many of which are not yet fully formed, and when given the tools and support to articulate said beliefs, students actually have opinions! And it’s okay when they’re different than yours! Who knew?!?

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4 comments on “On Staying Politically Neutral in the Classroom
  1. Bryce LiaBraaten says:

    Great post. I know a few people that really should read this. You bring up a great point about Politically Neutral and education. I personally have been in classes in which the teacher has and teaches an obvious bias. It reminded me of a show I saw on PBS about a elementary school teacher. He was being honored for some teaching award… Anyway it showed him teaching a lesson on geology to 5th graders. In the whole lesson he only asked questions. Through these questions the students were guided but responsible for their own learning. The teacher had an obvious love for learning and curiosity for the way the world works. I think this is the most valuable thing a teacher can give their students.

  2. JM says:

    Thanks, Bryce!

  3. Toria says:

    Since this is partially about me, I feel I should take a moment to emerge from my commenting cave and say that I agree with everything you’ve said. A tiny non-teacher part of me dies when a student writes homosexuality being an abomination, or how ridiculous it is that creationism isn’t taught in public schools. But my primary concern is (and has to be) that my students learn to think and write clearly. If they’re going to advance a belief, I want them to do it well. I don’t want them to be let down by their writing. (This is why I am so adamant about not using “in today’s society”.)

    I guess this teaching philosophy stems from my belief that learning to write well makes you a better person (even if it’s a gradual process). There’s only so much we can do in a single semester, and I think it’s better – more productive, at least – to encourage good thinking habits as a top priority. Also, I remember hearing from a friend in college that she would automatically fail a paper if she implied any doubt about the existence of God. If you’re afraid of your professors,or believe their primary concern is something OTHER than intellectual merit, how can you learn from them? Our job is to cultivate learning, not clone mini versions of ourselves (there’s not enough pink in the world to clothe so many mini-Torias anyway).

    On a completely unrelated note, that’s pretty exciting, the idea that I could pass for anything I want. Once, in Copenhagen, someone mistook me for a Dane and I was SUPER excited. Geeky tourist moment of triumph.

  4. JM says:

    I am glad you did comment, precisely because it is partially about you. Also, because we agree. 🙂 Just kidding, Internets! But really, I just like to see it in writing that there still are people out there in academia who believe their job is to cultivate learning, not cloning (unless of course, they’re geneticists, but that’s a different topic…).

    And you’re right: not enough pink in the world to clothe billions of mini-yous.

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