Saturday, March 9, 2013

Boundaries: What is appropriate in the classroom?

Every so often, I will offer some thoughts about what I consider appropriate behavior for faculty who work in the behavioral and social sciences. One obvious truism is that we tend to assume multiple roles both within and outside our respective institutions. That is to be expected. Depending on the particular institution we may take on the role of instructors, advisors and mentors, colleagues, committee members, and potentially supervisors (depending on whether or not we have any administrative duties or if we have the ability to employ student workers in our offices). Outside of our professional lives, we of course may assume any of a number of other roles.

For today, I wish to focus on the classroom, whether in its traditional sense or the more virtual classroom of the standard online course. Regardless of setting, I view the classroom much like I view any other work setting. The overarching goal of any instructor should be to avoid creating conditions that would lead to a hostile workplace for students.

In my particular area within the behavioral and social sciences, much of the material that I might teach would be considered potentially controversial. Even in an introductory psychology course, some of what I teach within the scope of learning theory and research makes some assumptions that draw explicitly from Darwin's Theory of Evolution. And of course, there is plenty of material in social psychology that touches on sensitive topics such as prejudice, aggression, mortality salience, and whatnot. Depending on the particular brand of political correctness any individual student may subscribe to, it is quite likely that a few toes will get stepped on. It is unavoidable.

With that in mind, what I think is appropriate as a faculty member is to present the research, give examples of the research, but to avoid advocacy within the classroom students. The data presented will constrain what would be reasonable interpretations, and it is of course paramount that students are expected to understand what those limits would be. We cannot of course coerce them into explicitly adopting a set of beliefs that we ourselves may hold dearly ourselves, or to engage in behaviors that they themselves would ordinarily refrain from doing. Although there are occasions where faculty create learning environments that would be hostile, fortunately such incidents are fairly infrequent - certainly that has been the case where I have worked. Every once in a while a news story will come up that will understandably bug any of us - such as the instructor who insisted that every student in a class she was teaching sign a document promising to vote for Obama. Obviously, such behaviors on the part of any instructor would be inappropriate regardless of candidate or issue that a particular individual instructor might feel strongly about - and standard interpretations of academic freedom will not provide cover for said faculty members if and when students complain to administrators. My advice to any graduate student who is hoping to use his or her first post-grad-school position as a platform for recruiting activists and such should realize how badly they are misinterpreting the concept of academic freedom, and should ask themselves why they are even pursuing this career in the first place.