'The Knowledge-Politics Problem'

In the ongoing debates over professors’ politics, right-wing critics make much of the fact that many surveys have found professors -- especially in the humanities -- to be well to the left of the American public. This political incongruence is frequently used as a jumping off point to suggest that professors are indoctrinating students with leftist ideas.

March 20, 2009

In the ongoing debates over professors’ politics, right-wing critics make much of the fact that many surveys have found professors -- especially in the humanities -- to be well to the left of the American public. This political incongruence is frequently used as a jumping off point to suggest that professors are indoctrinating students with leftist ideas.

Neil Gross, a sociologist at the University of British Columbia, is one of the leading researchers on faculty politics, and he recently finished a new analysis of these issues (to appear in a forthcoming collection of essays by different scholars) finding that the conservative critics are correct about humanities’ professors leanings, but incorrect about their views of what classroom responsibility entails.

In fact, Gross finds -- in a study based on detailed interviews of professors’ in various disciplines -- that faculty members take seriously the idea that they should not try to force their views upon students, or to in any way reward or punish students based on their opinions. And this view is shared by professors who see their politics playing a legitimate role in their research agendas, not just those who view their research agendas as neutral.

The aim of this new research is, in part, Gross writes, to shift the discussion of professorial politics away from the unsurprising (many professors are liberal) to “a more systematic” study of how “academicians in various fields and at various points in time understand the relationship between their political views, values, and engagements and their activities of knowledge creation and dissemination, and to how such understandings inform and shape academic work and political practice.” It’s not enough to simply document professors’ politics, Gross writes. What is needed is more attention to how professors handle the “knowledge-politics problem” in their work.

Specifically, the findings in the interviews Gross conducted raise questions about the assumptions of some critics of academe that one can draw conclusions about what goes on in classrooms based on the political and research writings of professors. And Gross is releasing his findings as David Horowitz steps up promotion of his new book naming the "worst courses" in America.

The 57 professors interviewed by Gross and his research team for the study come from five disciplines: biology, economics, engineering, literature and sociology. All of the professors were part of a much larger survey Gross conducted (along with Solon Simmons) for a 2007 report on the politics of faculty members. That report was notable for including a broader cross-section of faculty members than many other such studies (Gross and Simmons included community college professors, a group widely ignored by other studies for example), and for finding professors to be more moderate – albeit still liberal leaning – than many other studies did.

With regard to research agendas, the Gross interviews found that literature professors were quite dubious of the idea of objectivity and quite open about the link between their politics and their research. In biology, economics and engineering, objectivity in research is taken for granted. And in sociology, the results are somewhere in the middle.

Gross frames his contrasts with two quotes -- one from a literature professor and one from an electrical engineer. The literature professor finds it hard to believe that any field is truly objective. “In everything from journalism to the sciences … claims and appeals to objectivity tend to do more to mask interest and situatedness than they do to actually assist in knowledge in any way,” says the literature professor.

But the engineer -- in a joke that Gross writes he heard repeatedly in doing this research -- offers a very different take. “One of the beauties of engineering ... is there is no such thing ... as a Jewish volt, there is no such thing as a Republican ampere. ... There’s no such thing as a conservative kilogram. Or an atheist heater. You know, the atheist looks at the volt meter and it reads 1.26 volts, the ardent Christian conservative reads 1.26 volts, the Muslim reads 1.26 volts. There is some measure of objectivity in this profession.”

On the question of teaching, Gross finds only a few professors who have the goal of changing students’ views. He quotes one professor proud of exposing his students to progressive ideas that they would not otherwise encounter, and who has the explicit goal of changing opinions (although he also says that he encourages students to challenge his views and does not punish those who disagree).

But the actual divide, Gross writes, isn’t between professors who try to change students’ views and those who do not, but between those who are open about their politics and those who are not. Those who don’t talk politics in the classroom, a group Gross calls the “political neutrality camp,” adopt their position for one of two reasons, he writes. Either they think the subject matter of their course makes their politics irrelevant (a subgroup Gross calls “accidental political neutrality”), or they believe that it is best for classroom dynamics if they keep their views to themselves. This latter group he terms advocates of “cultivated political neutrality.”

Professors in this group believe that they may exert too much influence over classroom discussions and students’ views if they are active participants in discussions in which they reveal their views.

Those professors who believe that they need to reveal their views -- a group Gross says favor “political transparency” -- tend to consider their approach sound pedagogy, not just a chance to opine.

Gross quotes a sociologist at a community college: “I’m a sociologist. I’m going to talk about race and racism. I’m going to talk about sex and sexism. I’m going to talk about social inequality and class in the United States.” However, she adds that she is conscious of the potential for her views to skew discussion, so she takes specific steps to encourage contrasting opinions to be offered. She says: “I really try to be inclusive. I don’t try to push a particular agenda or a candidate or anything like that. If I find that I have said [something to this effect], I will quickly ... say, ‘You know, this is just my personal opinion and I respect anybody else’s opinion and you don’t have to agree with me in order to understand the material that I’m trying to convey to you.’ ”

While Gross found sociologists and literature professors to be more politically transparent than others, this was not universal, and there was plenty of political transparency in other disciplines.

By institutional type, Gross found more “cultivated neutrality” at research universities than at community colleges. He speculates on two possible reasons: “This may reflect the greater authority that professors at elite institutions understand themselves to have -- an authority that may lead them to be especially wary of indoctrination – or the lesser intimacy that typically obtains in such institutions between students and instructors.”

Peter W. Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, which has in the past expressed concerns about politics in the classroom, said he has not had time to study the Gross paper in detail, but offered some analysis of it. Wood praised Gross as a "rigorous" researcher who has made important contributions to the study of the professoriate, but found fault with parts of the new study.

First, Wood said that Gross was unfairly implying that the criticism of academe is coming from conservatives. Wood said many of those worried about these issues are "classic liberals" in the sense of Kant and Mill.

Second, Wood said that the study is limited in that it looks at professors' views of themselves. The analysis by Gross "strikes me as very realistic about what professors say," Wood said. But what actually takes place in the classroom is "beyond the reach of this study."

Wood said he believed some professors do, as they describe their approaches in the Gross study, manage to talk about their political views in ways that do not close off other ideas or intimidate students who disagree. But Wood said that he believes many other professors "are fooling themselves" into thinking that they do.


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