MLA Notes: Academic Freedom, Jobs at Community Colleges

January 3, 2006

The issue of academic freedom was everywhere at this year's Modern Language Association meeting, in Washington. There were panels on "Academic Work and the New McCarthyism" and discussions on teaching issues related to war criticism.

At a Friday session, titled "Criticism and Crisis: Twenty-First Century Intellectuals and the Politics of Academic Freedom," the focus was how to build broader support among the general public for academic freedom.

One professor said that as a "so-called intellectual," she feels disconnected from the public sphere, which she sees increasingly being influenced by a news media that has little understanding of the principles of academic freedom. A professor from Texas said that some conservative students in his classes "think that we're brainwashing them."

Many in the audience readily admitted that humanities professors tend to be liberal, but the overwhelming sentiment was that their personal ideologies shouldn't be something to be hidden -- and are definitely not a reason to be attacked.

Robert Jensen, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, said that in defending themselves, a turn to making claims of neutrality is a mistake. "It's just not true, and it's not going to work," he said. "Instead of retreating to neutrality, I think we should explain to the public what we do when teaching -- and that teaching is not simply about politics.

"Don't hide your political observations -- describe why you came to view what you do.

"If we take that tact, I'm not saying we're going to win," he added, "but at least if we lose, we lose with some principle."

Echoing Jensen, Timothy Andres Brennan, a professor of cultural studies and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota -- Twin Cities, said that academics "shouldn't back away from the authority that we've earned."

Jensen noted that he's received criticism from the president of his university, Larry Faulkner, for a series of controversial opinion pieces he wrote indicating that the 9/11 attacks were "no more despicable than the massive acts of terrorism ... that the U.S. government has committed during my lifetime," and that he was ranked as a highly liberal professor by a group called the Young Conservatives of Texas.

Still, he said that neither incident has had very much effect on his life. He noted with irony, however, that the student ranking drew much more attention from the news media, the general public and other faculty members than his rebuking by his president, which he considered to be a much more serious matter. He said that only one of his colleagues rose to defend him publicly when "attacked" by his president.

Even with both incidents, "I continued to do what I was doing and teach what I was teaching," he said.

Jensen posed something of a challenge to the largely professorial audience when he noted with sarcasm, "I'm not sure if contemporary faculty members deserve academic freedom because they make little move to defend it  Professors are among the most cowardly people in the world and many refuse to use their prestige to defend academic freedom."

He added, "We have to tease, prod, embarrass and shame those who have [the prestige] to use it more forcefully to defend academic freedom."

                                   * * *

Geoffrey Way will soon finish his master’s in English at Clemson University. He likes teaching, and wants a break before going on to his Ph.D. The thought of teaching at a community college has hung in the back of his mind, but he isn’t quite sure what it takes to be a community college professor, or how to pursue a job. None of his professors went to or worked at community colleges. “You just never hear about community colleges,” he said.

If graduates of four-year institutions are to pursue work at two-year colleges, they have to know more about, and fully understand, the teaching experience and necessary skills at a community college. To that end, professors on a panel at the Modern Language Association’s annual convention called for collaboration between faculty members at two and four-year colleges that can give graduate students a peek into the community college world.

Part of the reason for the general lack of collaboration to date, panel and audience members said, is the feeling among community college professors that their four-year counterparts look down on them. “This is the first [MLA] session where I didn’t cover up my badge,” said Rebecca Mills, an assistant professor of English at Hillsborough Community College, in Florida.

Sean Patrick Murphy, an English professor at the College of Lake County, in Illinois, said colleagues told him he would be met with discouraging responses if he approached university professors about starting a partnership. “All but one of the 13 professors I approached signed on to the grant,” Murphy said. “And the one is just not a nice person.” Murphy said community college professors have to reach out to their four-year colleagues, who often don’t know anything about two-year institutions. As a result of his outreach, Murphy started a program with DePaul University that prepares graduate students for teaching at community colleges, and sets them up with classroom internships at Lake County.

Though Murphy met with success, people who attended the panel generally agreed that four-year professors not only know little about community colleges, but often view a professorship at a community college as a fallback position.

One way to make a dent in that perception, according to Howard B. Tinberg, an English professor at Bristol Community College and editor of the journal Teaching English in the Two-Year College, is to have more community college professors publishing. “Research of two-year professors does not appear in journals,” Tinberg said. He added that administrators at two-year colleges need to have incentives for faculty members who publish, and that more of those faculty members need to get to conferences like the MLA.

Tinberg said that plenty of two-year professors do or can do pedagogical research fit for journals like College Composition and Communication. “We have to have the conversation on paper to connect people” and to make sure community colleges aren’t below the radar of four-year institutions, Tinberg said. Georgia A. Newman, professor emeritus of English at Polk Community College, in Florida, pointed out that most research about teaching humanities simply leaves out two-year colleges.

Getting the word out that two-year colleges want young talent was on the top of all of the panelists' agendas. It worked with Way. “Even hearing a little about it here made me believe there are opportunities out there if I go looking,” he said.

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