Professors Seek Diverse Discourse
September 17, 2004 5:28 PM
It is a Wednesday morning and McKenna Theater is packed full with students taking an American Politics course. Their professor, Corey Cook, paces on stage. He asks if anyone saw the Bush twins’ speech during the Republican National Convention.
“Were you impressed by that?” he asked. “They are very articulate and intelligent young women.”
Students laugh as Cook switched gears, this time targeting the Democrats.
In 2000, the Democratic Party talked about how they oversaw an 18 percent increase in wages over 10 years. What they failed to mention, Cook said, is the workday increased by 18 percent.
Political science professors at SF State face a dilemma in how to address their political leanings in the classroom. While many students engage in passionate political debates, these professors find themselves in a delicate balancing act -- defending both conservative and liberal viewpoints to encourage discourse.
While most professors do not explicitly state which political party they belong to, students said they can often identify their professors’ views by the topics, issues emphasized and language.
Faculty members said any expression of their own political leanings is done fairly and students are encouraged to share their own contrasting viewpoints.
“If I teach well, they will not know if I’m a liberal, a Democrat, a Republican, a conservative,” Heather said.
Instead, Heather said students must hear a variety of the ideas so they can make their own decisions based on reasonable and compelling evidence.
Faculty members said they are careful not to unduly influencing their students, especially when students look to professors for guidance in understanding complicated subjects.
“The goal of my class is to have intelligent discourse on issues of politics,” said Cook, a professor at SF State for two years.
Cook said many students do not agree with him ideologically and the best way to elicit candid responses is to speak his mind on the issues. Like many of his colleagues, he does not openly endorse a political candidate or give an opinion on specific topics.
He said his political perspective comes through in the discussion of issues he is interested in, like workers’ wages and the decline of the middle class, and political bias--whether implicit or explicit--is inherent in a politics course.
“I don’t teach my own politics,” he said. “My goal is to be critical toward the political system and make arguments.”
“Most professors don’t bring up [their political views] unless it’s a political forum class,” said Carlos Zepeda, president of the Political Science Student Association.
A registered Republican whose father is a political adviser to President Bush, Zepeda said his political science professors encourage him speak out because it causes other students to debate in class.
He said there was only one class where he was not given the time or opportunity to speak, although he declined to name the class.
“From my point of view there are certain professors who make it apparent they are from the left,” he said.
One such professor is Robert Smith. He teaches an American Politics class and said that depending on the class, he usually reveals his political point of view in the first week.
“It usually comes out during the first lecture, which is about bias,” Smith said.
A Christian black nationalist, he was influenced by the socialization process of the 1960s.
Smith’s view is that the best way to address bias is to state it and let the listener beware.
American Politics and Political Parties professor Francis Neely agreed.
“It’s impossible for ideology not to be in the mix or classes,” he said. “I generally don’t bring it up much.”
Neely often will not reveal his partisanship for the whole semester and seldom talks about himself in the classroom because “it gets in the way,” he said. He is concerned he could improperly influence his students’ thinking.
This is also a concern of Heather who said some students are impressionable, either still developing their ideology or holding conflicted ideas about issues.
“We don’t want them to be overly deferential to authority,” he said.
“I think it’s appropriate for professors to express their political ideas as long as they allow for the students to feel comfortable expressing theirs as well,” said political science major Stan Goff.
But fellow political science major James Ramirez, 29, said professors should keep their political leanings to themselves.
“When you’re in college, you’re like a sponge,” Ramirez said. “You should soak it all in and then decide what you want to remove and what you want to keep. … Someone who doesn’t know any better might take what [professors] say as gospel.”
“I don’t believe in pure neutrality,” said Nicole Watts, a political science professor at SF State since 2003. “I don’t think I am a neutral arbiter but I think that you can have opinions and not let them dominate a presentation.”
Of the seven political science professors interviewed, four said they will vote for Sen. John Kerry on Nov. 2. Two others said it depends on how close the election is and were considering voting for Ralph Nader. One said he planned to vote for Nader.
Five professors are currently members of the Democratic Party. The others were registered as Independents or were without a party. One called himself “too far to the left” for the Democrats.
Moreover, among some members of the faculty sharing similar political outlooks, the most heated political discussions are not always the product of the professors’ lectures but are often between students. Faculty members sometimes act as referees and try to prevent politics from getting personal.
“The students really provoke partisan discussions,” said Erin Scholnick, a third semester teacher’s assistant for Cook’s American Politics course.
She said the professors always welcomed such debates but strive to keep the discussion balanced.
Jon Sacco, a political science and pre-law major, called these interactions “healthy debate” encouraged by the professors who, in all the political science courses he attended, see these debates as adding relevance to the class.
“What is predominately a left-leaning [student] base is balanced out by the prickly nature of Republican [students],” Sacco said.
Political Science Student Association president Zepeda disagreed.
“I know for a fact that most students [who have a conservative perspective] won’t speak up because they feel the professor will downgrade them,” Zepeda said.
Conservative students usually remain silent because they “don’t know what it means to be a conservative,” Zepeda said.
Neely said he understands the trepidation of students who have a minority political view to speak up.
“No one is more conscious of this than I am in the classroom,” he said.
Teacher’s assistant Louise Hendrickson said students should tell the professor if they feel uncomfortable discussing their ideas in class. She said a professor cannot address a problem unless they are aware there is one.
Students who feel their side of a debate is being ignored are encouraged to bring up ideas in class.
“If they raise their hand and say I don’t think we’re covering this [topic], any professor, at least in the political science department, will say OK, let me talk about that,” Hendrickson said.
No matter what side of the political spectrum the professors’ ideologies fall, the debate surrounding political objectivity in the classroom persists.
“These issues aren’t black and white,” said Watts. “There aren’t easy answers and I want students to thrash around in that.”
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