Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The whining, it annoys me.

Many of you probably haven't noticed, seeing as how you have better things to do with your time, but Mike Adams, a columnist for Townhall, has just posted a missive that you might find interesting. I say this for two reasons: (1) You're reading this blog and thus, presumably, find the same things interesting that I do,* and (2) it's about teaching at the University level. Specifically, it's about the proper place of one's own religious faith in university level teaching and- here's a hint- what Adams advocates differs somewhat from conventional wisdom:

Recently, I received a rare student complaint over an e-mail I had sent to all my classes. In the e-mail, which welcomed all of my students back for a new semester, I characterized myself as an “outspoken Christian professor.” I admitted that I had been critical of some aspects of Darwinism and that I saw my students as more than mere “random mutations.” Finally, I said my Christian views would cause me to treat them differently – namely, by holding them all to a high standard that would help them find their purpose in life: a Divine purpose given to them by their Creator.

The remarks in this e-mail were all couched within the context of the story of a former student of mine. He had often come to class late and talked throughout my lectures – at least until he received a poor grade on his first exam. Afterwards, I castigated him for his conduct and told him he would never become anything until he learned to act like an adult and to fulfill his God-given potential.

In his letter to the department chair, the student claimed that it was inappropriate and offensive for a professor to reveal his religious affiliation in class. He said he was also offended by what he perceived as an inappropriate put-down of Darwinism. Finally, he expressed his concern that he would become a victim of religious discrimination because he did not share my religious views.

Right, so, to recap: Adams went out of his way to tell his students what his religion is, explained to them that his religion would impact how he taught the class, and took a swipe at a well-validated scientific theory based entirely on ideological grounds. Then, amazingly, one of his students actually had the stones to call him on it and, as a result, Adams feels oppressed enough to whine about it online. Poor Professor Adams! Students can be so mean.

If you hadn't guessed already, I have exactly zero sympathy for Adams in this case as I work very, very hard to not allow my personal religious convictions- which as some of you may have noticed are quite strong- from influencing my teaching. My job is to teach sociology,** not atheism, and that's what my university pays me for.*** Moreover, I strongly suspect that Adams would probably object (rightly) if I sent the following e-mail to all of my students at the beginning of each semester:


My name is Drek the Uninteresting and I will be your instructor this semester in Sociology 101. I have a lot of interesting readings lined up and think that we will all have a good time exploring social life together. My syllabus can be found on the course website and I will be available to answer questions by e-mail.

To give you a better sense of what you can expect, I am an outspoken atheist instructor. I am somewhat critical of creation "science" generally and intelligent design particularly. Thanks to my atheism, I consider my students to be quite a bit more than pathetic wretches laboring under the burden of original sin. I want you to know that my views as an atheist will cause me to treat you differently- specifically by holding you all to the sort of high standard that will prepare you for real life: there are no safety nets in this world, and no second chances, so I expect my students to give me their best each and every time.

See you soon!

Drek the Uninteresting

Offensive? Yes. Appropriate? Hell no.**** Comparable to Adams' little e-mail? Absolutely. Alas, Adams doesn't see this, preferring instead to descend into a bizarre tale from his childhood:

If he’d bothered to approach me directly, I could have told this student a little of what I know about inappropriate and offensive religious expression in the classroom. In fifth grade I had a teacher named Barbara O’Gara. Mrs. O’Gara was my favorite teacher despite the fact that I was then a Baptist and she was an atheist. Mrs. O’Gara made no secret of this fact. She mentioned it on the first day of class, and she mentioned it throughout the year.

During the course of the year, though, it never occurred to me to report Mrs. O’Gara for simply stating her religious affiliation. If it offended me, I simply dealt with it. Even as a fifth-grader, I sensed that this was how mature people handled things. She had a right to her feelings, and I had a right to mine.

Indeed, I often find that such a degree of introspection is common in fifth grade students. They are, after all, completely willing to challenge their adult teachers at the very drop of a hat! No doubt when Adams was a fifth grade student, he was already keenly interesting in potential violations of the establishment clause. As opposed to myself, who was mostly interested in Star Trek and playground time.

And then we come to the real crux of the issue:

That basic courtesy eluded this student, though. (It eluded my department chairwoman, too – she notified the Dean’s Office) Whether out of his fear that I wouldn’t tolerate his views (though nowhere in my e-mail did I say I would single anyone out for disparate treatment), or out of his zeal to suppress mine, he entirely missed the point that I was making – a point not unlike the one made in the Declaration of Independence. I simply added the concept of “purpose” to the list of gifts (like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) bestowed upon us by our Creator … and said that everyone in my class would be held to a high standard – the same high standard – to encourage their progress toward that purpose. [emphasis added]

Adams is angry because he thinks the student is suppressing his religious faith. Leaving aside the nonsensical babbling about the declaration of independence,***** the problem with a professor indicating his or her religious views in the manner that Adams does has little to do with free speech and everything to do with authority. A professor has the power to grade students up or down when scores are borderline. We have the power to prosecute or overlook potential disciplinary infractions. We can be sticklers about attendance or flexible. And these decisions can sometimes have dramatic consequences on students who are struggling to get into med school or to keep that scholarship. In short, we have power over students and they are right to fear our ability to punish them. As such, while I routinely exercise my right to free speech on the internet, I restrict myself in the classroom because my authority gives me an unfair advantage over those students who are to some extent at my mercy. It is to Adams' discredit that he apparently is blind to that reality.

Academia is certainly a place where people should be exposed to new and uncomfortable ideas. Moreover, the very commitment to ideas that many academics show makes it inevitable that, from time to time, we will disagree strenuously. Sometimes we may even view each other as bigots. Yet, intense as that conflict may get, we need to remember that our students are our students. We are here to teach them, to educate them, but not to convert them and especially not to preach to them, regardless of our faith.******

Sometimes it's about free speech but sometimes it's just about being responsible.

* The horror of that realization will strike you sometime today, have no doubt.

** I should probably note that Adams is neither a professor of theology nor biology, thus eliminating possible justifications for his actions.

*** I should also note- all jokes about grad student pay aside- that the whole research thing is an important part of the job description as well.

**** I'd like to observe at this juncture, as well, that my view has nothing to do with the fact that Adams was pushing a religious viewpoint. I expressed similar sentiments about a previous case that may have involved a professor unfairly ragging on religion in the classroom.

***** Fun fact! The Declaration of Independence, while an important document, has absolutely no legal standing in the operation of the United States. It is, in short, a diplomatic communique from a provisional government that preceded, but was distinct from, the U.S. Federal Government. One may as well base legal arguments on the Declaration of Independence as on a Denny's menu.

****** In case Brad Wright still reads this crap, I should note that I don't think that evangelicals should be suppressed or eradicated on college campuses. I think we're both aware, however, that we disagree as to the specifics beyond that vague assertions.

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Blogger Unknown said...

Very well said--it is not about what your religious affiliation is or isn't, but rather about using your power in the classroom responsibly. Simply amazing that any university professor doesn't see the inherent problem with announcing religious affiliation and stating that it will affect how students are evaluated. And that such a professor actually has the cajones to suggest that the student is in the wrong here!

And I love your version of the introductory email! Particularly the phrase "I consider my students to be quite a bit more than pathetic wretches laboring under the burden of original sin." Inappropriate as it is, I might have secretly worshiped any professor who made this statement to me when I was an undergrad.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009 7:33:00 PM  
Blogger Brad Wright said...

"Academia is certainly a place where people should be exposed to new and uncomfortable ideas"... that's certainly something that we can both agree on. However, it's seems that some academics would not include religious beliefs, or at least some religious beliefs, as the ideas that should be encountered.

Thursday, June 18, 2009 5:26:00 AM  
Blogger Drek said...

Hey Brad,

I think that college is a great place to encounter the diversity of religious beliefs in the world. I've even argued that religious speech in the college context should be protected, even when I personally find it revolting. That said, there's a difference between "exposure" and "preaching" and, likewise, a huge difference between the plethora of religious opportunities on many campuses, and having a professor use his or her position of authority to push something entirely outside the course material.

Just sayin is all...

Saturday, June 20, 2009 6:00:00 AM  

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