Somewhere in my blog reading over the last few weeks I ran across a link to a brief piece in Double XX , the Slate.com “women's blog” that reported on a study of the effect of professors' politics on their students. Perhaps unsurprisingly to anyone who has taught college in the last twenty years, the researchers discovered little if any effect. Despite the hand-wringing of cultural conservatives, it appears that most college students are not indeed blank slates on whom radical professors simply write their left-wing politics; rather, students self-select into disciplines that tend to confirm their political biases. Or that's how I'm reading the report. (I must confess to not reading the full study, which I can't access without a subscription; I trust to Kerry Howley, the Double XX reporter, for an honest summary.)
I can't say that I'm surprised by these findings. Political affiliations seem to me remarkably robust, and while certainly some students make political shifts during their four years of college, many clearly do not. Still, I'm a little sorry to hear it. After all, when conservatives complained about liberal indoctrination, I could at least believe that someone, somewhere, thought that what I was doing mattered, even if they disapproved. My own fairly liberal biases are probably obvious to most of my students; I encourage feminist analyses of texts, I call attention to the ways race and class are inflected in the literature they read, I encourage them to interrogate the unspoken codes that condition their reading. And I usually feel fairly successful in those endeavors — but, if the study cited above is correct, they may simply stop at the classroom walls.
I spent the last weekend in northern France and Belgium, touring World War I battlefield sites with a group of college students studying in Oxford this summer. The tour is eye-opening in a number of ways to students who usually have little sense of the importance of WWI in the European (especially British) imagination. They see the tangible signs of the conflict everywhere—the roadside cemeteries, the seemingly endless memorials, the scarred (though beautiful) landscape, even the unexploded ordinance that farmers are still digging up, 90 years on. I doubt that the trip made a pacifist of anyone who wasn't leaning that way already—it's not, of course, designed to do so. I can't imagine any student returned from the trip and articulated a new political consciousness. But I watched my own children in amongst the graves, and knew that they were intangibly altered — more somber than usual, and more than a little overwhelmed. I know my own kids, so I can see the signs in them more clearly than in the college students I work with, but I imagine they, too, came back to Oxford (itself marked by the conflict, in less obvious ways) changed, if not in ways they or I could articulate.
I'm glad there are sociologists to study the effect — or lack thereof — of political indoctrination on college students. I wish we could get at the subtler changes, though, that must be going on during the students' years in college, the ways that their academic lives are intersecting with the social and psychological changes they are also undergoing. I know I'm not writing on a blank slate when I sit in a classroom or my office hours and talk with my students; they've already had life experiences I'll never know, and the hours they spend with me are a tiny fraction of their college days. Living and traveling with my students as I am this summer provides a clearer view than I get during the academic year of the variety of calls on their time, the difficulty they have some days achieving a work-life balance (after all, school is their work, and there's a lot more to their lives than that). Perhaps rather than writing on slate, or molding clay, we professors should simply see ourselves as opening doors. We provide experiences — within and sometimes outside the classroom. They walk through the door—and figure out for themselves what's on the other side.