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'Freedom to Teach'

November 8, 2013

Individual professors largely retain the right to choose what they teach and how, even when they’re teaching sections of the same course as other professors. That’s the American Association of University Professors' take on individual vs. collective responsibility for course design, as laid out in its new statement on the matter.

“The freedom to teach includes the right of the faculty to select the materials, determine the approach to the subject, make the assignments, and assess student academic performance in teaching activities for which faculty members are individually responsible, without having their decisions subject to the veto of a department chair, dean, or other administrative officer,” reads AAUP’s “The Freedom to Teach."

It continues: “In a multisection course taught by several faculty members, responsibility is often shared among the instructors for identifying the texts to be assigned to students. Common course syllabi and examinations are also typical but should not be imposed by departmental or administrative fiat.”

Essentially, beyond the shared choice of textbook among professors teaching the same course, which may make logistical sense, other pedagogical freedoms remain “undiluted," AAUP says.

Greg Scholtz, director of academic freedom, tenure and governance for AAUP, said no particular incident or institution prompted the statement. Rather, who decides who teaches what was something the organization had been meaning to address, in the same statement, for some time. Previously, different parts had appeared in various AAUP documents -- but there is one notable change. The new statement includes entirely new language saying such principles "apply equally" to all faculty -- including adjunct faculty, who often feel that course materials are "imposed" on them, Scholtz said.

The statement comes at a time that technology makes it possible for multisection courses to get quite large, and when an increasing number of instructors may not be teaching such courses in structures that designate someone as the lead professor.

Don Eron, a full-time, non-tenure-track professor writing at the University of Colorado at Boulder, is part of AAUP's Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which drafted the statement. In his opinion, he said via email, individual vs. collective responsibility for course design is the "probably the central academic freedom issue" confronting adjuncts -- particularly for those teaching core courses, which are more likely to be subject to administrative calls for standardization across sections.

"Of course, there should be an agreement among faculty on common goals, guidelines, and requirements for these courses, but when these guidelines and requirements encroach upon the realm of pedagogy or curriculum, academic freedom is abridged," Eron said. "That does not augur well for the quality of instruction in these courses, or, for that matter, the future of the professoriate."

Considering what he called the "precipitous decline of tenure," pressured standardization of composition courses, for example, may be a "bellwether" for profession, he added.

Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, a national adjunct advocacy group, said adjunct faculty are more likely to be denied the freedom to participate “fully and equally in curricular and pedagogical decisions like those surrounding textbook decisions.” They’re also more frequently expected to engage in what she called “content delivery” than their tenure-track colleagues, regardless of their qualifications, she said.

Consequently, she called the new document a “very good, strong statement, and said she appreciated that it “simply and without qualification” says the principles apply equally to faculty both on and off the tenure track.

But, she said, even the most important statements have be followed up with “action and accountability.”

She continued: “The true test, as with all such statements, will be whether deans, department chairs and tenure line faculty truly appreciate and enforce its principles and recommendations.”

Ada Meloy, general counsel for the American Council on Education, said the statement seemed to make sense. Although collaboration among professors and, in some instances, with the institution is encouraged in academe, she said, "I think most institutions would recognize that faculty can have additional suggestions on readings to be presented to students."

Cary Nelson, a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and fellow member of Committee A, praised the committee's inclusion of language affording adjuncts freedom in course design, given that in many cases, adjuncts teach most or all of multisection courses.

That said, he added via email, the document could have included language protecting the views of those who fall outside the "democratic majority" in joint decisions.

"[My] own view is that we should have built in a recommendation that faculty groups negotiate with instructors whose pedagogical philosophies, teaching methods, or intellectual commitments put them at odds with the democratic majority," he said. "While overall expectations for what is covered in a multisection course need to be agreed upon, there is often a basis for compromises that recognize individual academic freedom in assignments, syllabus design, and textbook choice. A few of us urged inclusion of such provisions, but we lost the vote."

 

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