Strategies on Academic Freedom

Handbook offers ideas for professors in Middle Eastern studies who find themselves under scrutiny or attack.
January 15, 2007

Post-9/11, many of the most intense debates about academic freedom have involved Middle Eastern studies. There have been numerous cases in which candidates for jobs or tenure have been opposed at least in part because of their views on the Middle East, with recent flare-ups at Barnard College and Wayne State University. At least 15 of the professors named by David Horowitz in his book last year on "the 101 most dangerous academics" study the Middle East -- a proportion that is notable when considering that Middle Eastern studies programs are relatively small, and most students never take a course in the subject.

In this environment, the Task Force on Middle Eastern Anthropology has issued a new handbook, "Academic Freedom and Professional Responsibility After 9/11." Most of the handbook would apply well beyond anthropology and the project was endorsed by leading scholars of the Middle East from a range of disciplines -- many of them professors whose work has been criticized by pro-Israel and conservative groups.

"In the post-September 11 context, untrammeled and free public debate about the relationship between the United States and the Middle East should be a key component of a concerted effort to prevent the reoccurrence of the horrific tragedies on U.S. soil, and to understand related cultural and political trends," the report says. "Yet an open atmosphere in which scholars and students can analyze the events and repercussions of 2001 have come into the cross-hairs of ideologues who argue that everything has changed or ought to change since September 11, including traditional bedrock American values upholding freedom of speech and public debate."

In recent years, the handbooks adds, there have been "escalating attempts to silence and marginalize university teachers who resist or challenge narrow black and white teaching."

Much of the handbook consists of basic information and suggestions, with explanations of policies issued by the American Association of University Professors and others on faculty rights. Professors are encouraged to learn their institutions' relevant policies, for example, so they have basic information before a controversy erupts.

Some of the most interesting material concerns the classroom -- how to prevent and deal with interruptions from those making unfair statements or denigrating the ideas of the instructor or others. The handbook repeatedly states that professors must be willing to be challenged on their ideas, and to welcome a range of views in their courses, but distinguishes between those kinds of challenges and personal attacks.

Many suggestions focus on preventive strategies. For example, the handbook suggests that professors consider guidelines for classroom instruction. "Reminding students of what constitutes proper and productive classroom participation goes a long way towards avoiding unconstructive behavior later on," the handbook says. Such information may also be included -- with other policies -- on a course syllabus, the handbook suggests.

Many classroom confrontations can be used for educational purposes, the handbook says. For example, if a student challenges the use of "occupation" by a professor, the professor might talk with the class about why that term is or isn't appropriate, and the "political claims" that might be associated with alternative terms, such as "disputed territories."

Technology is presented as a double-edged sword. Professors are advised that they might want to tape lectures that they know will be particularly controversial, so that they don't find their words later distorted. But professors are also advised that some students secretly and selectively tape lectures of professors they may wish to attack or to share with groups that may wish to draw attention to a professor's views. A good general rule, the handbook advises, is to have a policy on taping, announcing it at the beginning of a course, and making sure it is consistent with campus or state regulations.

At least one leader of a group that has been highly critical of Middle Eastern studies programs praised the handbook. "This handbook demonstrates the effectiveness of Campus Watch's efforts to
restore intellectual balance to Middle East studies. Surely, absent the work over the years of Campus Watch and critics of higher education, this new document would never have been written, and the abuses it attempts to correct would continue unchecked," said Winfield Myers, director of Campus Watch.

He added: "If professors heed the handbook's calls to create a classroom environment in which civil disagreement is welcome, inflammatory language is eschewed, and topics outside the purview of the subject being taught are avoided, we will witness a revolution in higher education; that is precisely what we have been working for."


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