For those of you reading this while sitting in a classroom, I am so sorry. Signing up for a Friday class falls into the same category as getting a tattoo or applying to Princeton: it only seemed like a good idea at the time. Generally, Penn students spend those agonizing 50 minutes either trying to remember what happened the night before or making plans for the weekend ahead. Given these facts of university life, it's not all that surprising that my mind wandered in my political science recitation last Friday.
Even after so many doses of caffeine, I couldn't really concentrate on the strategic differences between coercion and deterrence. Instead, I thought of something perhaps more immediately relevant to college students than the consequences of nuclear brinkmanship. I thought about academic freedom. Obviously, my Thursday night was not an especially scandalous one.
According to the massive "Faculty and Academic Administrators Handbook," academic freedom for professors at Penn means all kinds of things. It's freedom of "inquiry, discourse, teaching, research and publication," and it also provides protection from restrictions in these areas.
As neat and obvious as the definition is, academic freedom becomes messy when the subject of politics is added to the mix. Over break, UTV kept re-running a debate between two Penn students on the matter. The girl felt that a professor's political beliefs have no place in the classroom, while the guy thought that a professor's political opinions can add to the learning experience as long as students are free to disagree. Mostly I wondered why the guy was wearing what looked like a clear, plastic top hat. Such is UTV.
But I've got to agree with the guy in the top hat. It seems that academics and politics are often inseparable. Professors at Penn do research and work in areas that interest them and that they feel passionate about, whether they strive to further stem-cell research or reform the Maldivian criminal code. If the words written every week on this very page are any indication, politics is something that people are passionate about.
It would be not only silly but impossible to ask professors to limit studies and research to areas entirely unrelated to political beliefs. The best classes to take are usually the ones that deal with the professor's specific area of interest. Why should professors exclude their relevant findings and beliefs from the discussion? Such statements add another dimension to the topic, and students should always be able to respectfully disagree with impunity. This is certainly not replacing scholarship with politics.
Academic freedom and politics in the classroom has become an especially hot topic in the area of Middle Eastern studies. Last Thursday, Daniel Pipes came to Penn and gave a talk on the subject of "Militant Islam and the War on Terror." Pipes is a guy who makes many professors across the country cringe. He's the director of the Middle East Forum, which is the organization behind the Campus Watch project, an organization that keeps track of what Middle Eastern studies professors say and write. According to Pipes, Campus Watch "monitors to improve."
Only a few of the articles posted on the organization's Web site are written or recommended by Campus Watch staff and represent its official viewpoint. The rest seem to be presented as some sort of "food for thought." While reading those articles, I tended to worry less about the methods and biases of the professor in question and more about the sanity of the author. How such critiques improve academic integrity in the field, I'm not really sure.
Campus Watch is commonly accused of McCarthyism, and the targeted professors generally feel that Campus Watch is imposing on their academic freedom. The organization's obsessive tracking of professors is definitely creepy, but it fortunately does not have the capacity to take any sort of action against professors for their academic pursuits.
However, the importance of academic freedom on campus is second only to the importance of freedom of speech. If Campus Watch wants to criticize professors for what it believes to be dangerous and faulty methodology that promotes false ideas about the Middle East, it's free to do so. If Daniel Pipes wants to come to Penn and publicly "guesstimate" that 150 million Muslims fit into his definition of "radical," well, he's free to do that, too.
Amara Rockar is a sophomore political science major from St. Louis. Out of Range appears on Fridays.