Does Academic Freedom Mean a Self Divided?

7 Feb


Stanley Fish & Cary Nelson

Stanley Fish and Cary Nelson squared off in the 8th Rube Great Debate at UCSB on Thursday night. Fish is the provocateur, always ready to stir folks up with strong words and strong opinions, and he made a superior effort to rile the crowd up in favor of his particular idea of academic freedom. For Fish that idea can be summed up as “do your job. This maxim hides all manner of nasty assumptions, but from it stems his belief that the classroom is a unique sphere where the professor’s identity is cloven. In the classroom a professor is, in at least a few ways, not allowed to be the person they are beyond the blackboard. Nelson, long-time president of the AAUP, offered a more expansion vision of academic freedom, one that protects at all costs the intellectual enterprise. The adventure of teaching and learning is often whimsical and creative, and its unpredictable features mean that we need to include a host of things that Fish would claim were “not your job.”

The boundaries of the object at issue, the imposing construct of “academic freedom,” seems to extend in two directions. Fish suggested that this continuum has as its poles “academic” and “freedom,” and this does correspond in some ways to the distinction between Fish and Nelson. For his part, Fish stresses the academic character of academic freedom. In other words, the space of academic freedom is narrowly bounded by what can reasonably called academic. We can debate pedagogical value of syllabus content, but the measuring stick is always whether it meets the academy’s expectations for what constitutes academic material. In some ways this is a fairly stodgy approach to the academic merits of course content–it sees the classroom as insulated from current events and social trends, as well as professorial and student opinions thereof. I can imagine that Fish’s experience as a instructor of Law renders this in fairly contractual terms. The contract of the syllabus shall not be broken! To waver from the path it has divined is a mortal sin that reveals one’s (momentary) inattention to one’s job.


Would you believe this protects academic freedom?

Nelson stands on the other side of the academic/ freedom continuum. Feeling that students often need to be offended (read: challenged), he is expansive in his view of what professors can do to get students to think beyond their comfort zones to get at the heart of the materials at hand. Frankly, I find Fish’s vision of the classroom fairly sterile in the way it treats students, as if they could be plucked out of the collegiate experience and secured in a bubble for the duration of a class period. Nelson’s approach, by contrast, recognizes that students lives in and out of the classroom intersect in ways that make students invested in the learning process. To ignore the possibilities afforded by a free hand in making connections with students wherever they present themselves is to ignore the humanity of our students by treating them as partners only in a conversation between the academic material and themselves. There can be no such cone of silence for academic freedom for Nelson–even as there are similar measuring sticks (academic worth) for digressions, tangents, and whimsical connections. The act of instruction here accounts for one’s job including the mission of the universities and colleges as they not only build interpretative, critical thinking, or other skills  but also the way higher education shapes the character and identity of young adults. We cannot, for instance, neglect that just as Christian colleges hope to graduate spiritually strengthened young Christians, there is a similar (albeit extraordinarily diverse) project at work in secular institutions of higher education.

Despite the differences I’ve outlined between Fish and Nelson, I must confess that both exist on a fairly narrow swathe of the academic freedom continuum. They share a respect for the autonomy–both pedagogically and intellectually–of the professoriate when it comes to making decisions about course content. And even though their emphasis falls on different aspects of academic freedom, they both strongly believe in its necessity for protecting professors from political machinations. Greater freedom and rigorous “academicizing” (Fish’s word) are two ends to the same goal.

For me, however, I find that both parties seem all too eager in their desire to approach the self of the professor as in essence divided between the academic and non-academic spheres. For Fish this should already be evident, but for Nelson there are indeed limits to the purview of the academic self. During the Q&A the question arose of a evolution based scientist (say a biologist or paleontologist) who outside of the university setting lectures about their belief in creationism. This belief, even though spoken outside of a professional setting, may–and I stress may–cast doubts about said scientist’s professionalism. Could they be fired? Chastised or reprimanded by their peers for their beliefs? Nelson suggested that because of the way in which this extra-academy belief related to professional activities in the academy there was less protection for that professor’s lectures. This example was entirely hypothetical, and while I understand that personal beliefs can be bracketed when one teaches, there are times when one’s personal beliefs could be an obstacle to professional respect and validation.

In short, there are issues here that arise when we pretend that professors have two selves–one for the classroom and academic sphere and one for everywhere else. It is this division that so frustrates many bloggers who want to keep their blogging selves anonymous and separate from their professional selves. (A source of much discussion recently thanks to Ann M. Little/Historiann’s excellent post about pseudonymous blogging, and something I’ve discussed before in relation to Edward Blum’s belief that young scholars are putting themselves at risk by blogging using their own names.) In part I began to blog under my own name because I was frustrated with the way in which I was dividing my professional identities (into a official identity and an anonymous identity). I agree, at least in part, with Mark Zuckerberg’s assertion that folks on Facebook should be limited to a single profile because they are in the end a single person. The fractured, segmented modern identity complex is perhaps most evident on Facebook, where we all try to create subcultures for our various activities. After all, why do my graduate student peers want to see pictures from my high school reunion and why would I share my latest modern musical tastes with my extended relatives?

I can hear the howls of replies already: But there are limits to the intrusion of my personal life (and opinions) to my classroom! How dare you hope to bring down the wall that props up my professional identity by revealing that in my spare time I am an accomplished circus clown or champion yodeler! In fact, I’m hoping for no such breach. I don’t insist that you bring all of your selves into the classroom (and I’d prefer that you did not). All I expect is that we stop the farce of pretending that academic freedom requires us to erect indestructible walls between our professional and personal identities. It is not required–we chose these divisions and we maintain them when bringing our personal identities into the classroom is not relevant or compromises ourselves or our students. It’s one thing to prefer to keep one’s personal life private, but it is another thing entirely to pretend that it doesn’t exist or that it could never have a bearing on our professional work.

Nelson’s approach seems closer to this ideal of a single self than Fish’s, but neither seems comfortable when describing the ways our personal life can appropriately enter the classroom. I don’t want to pretend that I see teaching as something out of Dead Poets Society, but the best teachers in my own education have used the classroom in ways that changed me as a person and not simply as a student. Their methods have included quite a bit of personal intrusions–from anecdotes to explanations of history as it happened to them and so on. These moments are the ones I remember and cherish from my education, and I wouldn’t trade them now for a narrower experience that was more distinctly academic. I don’t know that in my own teaching I will ever go out of my way to introduce my personal experiences into the discussion, but I will  certainly won’t avoid considering it because right now in the academy academic freedom means that if I believe some pieces of my personal identity are relevant to the academics I will exercise my freedom to include them. Nelson will approve and Fish will not, but that’s the point, right?



One Response to “Does Academic Freedom Mean a Self Divided?”


  1. Social Networks & Collaborative Teaching Sites « A Lively Experiment - February 9, 2011

    […] providing a secure, private network for the kind of relationships students and teachers have. In my previous post I said that I wanted to avoid repeatedly dividing or segmenting my identity. Relying on Facebook to […]

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