11 and the politics of university teaching
School of Journalism
University of Texas
Austin, TX 78712
work: (512) 471-1990
fax: (512) 471-7979
copyright Robert Jensen 2001
Canadian Association of University Teachers Bulletin, February
2002, p. A-14. Also posted on
and Common Dreams
December 6, 2001.
by Robert Jensen
At various times in my teaching career -- more than ever since Sept. 11
-- I have been advised by faculty colleagues that I should avoid being “too
political” in the classroom. To the degree that the advice is simply pragmatic
-- avoid being political to avoid being criticized -- I can understand it.
But I find the suggestion hard to reconcile with my conception of what higher
education should be in a pluralist democracy. Embedded in that advice are
several key reasons for this culture’s intellectual and political crisis,
and in the particular the failure of the contemporary university.
Teaching is political.
I teach in a journalism department, where I have a role in training people
who allegedly will provide the information citizens need to participate in
a democratic system of governance that is based on the idea that those citizens
are the sovereign power. Most journalists practice that trade in large corporate
institutions that are themselves at the heart of the system of power in the
society. Is there a way to imagine teaching journalism in a manner that isn’t
I use the term “political” not to mean partisan -- for or against any particular
politician, policy, or party -- but instead to refer to the play of power
in a society. Everyone lines up in some relationship to power, either in
defense of, or resistance to. Claims of taking a neutral stance -- especially
when made by privileged professionals -- are illusory; neutrality is simply
another way of supporting the existing distribution of power. (Just imagine
how we would examine a claim by Soviet academics that they were neutral as
to the system of power in their nation and were teaching so as not totake
political positions. What would we say about them?) To challenge poweris political.
To support power is political. To avoid the question is political.
Take the question of the forces that shape the news. One approach to that
issue is Edward Herman’s propaganda model, which highlights the role of ownership
and ideology in the formation of mainstream news. I teach that model in my
introductory journalism class because I believe it is the most compelling
way to help explain how commercial journalism works. My decision is informed
by my intellectual evaluation of the work, but no doubt my politics play
a role as well. If someone consciously rejects the model and refuses to teach
it, that decision is political in the same sense. And if one claims to be
neutral and avoids the issue, that too is political.
So, it is not the case of some professors being political and some not.
We all are political, which affects both what we take to be relevant intellectual
questions and how we frame the presentation of those questions. In a healthy
system, there would be ongoing engagement about such intellectual and political
matters among faculty members, who are bound to have differing views. One
or another of these views might emerge as more compelling than others. One
or another might emerge as dominant based on the interests of power. Butall
the positions are equally political.
How does one come to hold political opinions?
A deeper problem with the advice to avoid being political is the notion
that intellectual work somehow separate from politics. But we should ask:
Howdoes one come to hold a political position? Is it arrived at randomly?
Isit based on wholly arbitrary assertions? Or, does one have a clear argumentwith
credible evidence to support those opinions? If so, is there not alwaysintellectual
work behind a political position?
This culture too often treats political opinions as if they were merely
subjective judgments. Certainly some component of our political decision-making
includes statements that are subjective in some sense -- they are about principles
that cannot be proved by reason and evidence, such as the answer to the question
“what does it mean to be a human being?” But statements of such first principles
are the beginning of a coherent political argument, notthe end. The formation
and articulation of political viewpoints requiresintellectual work if those
viewpoints are to be of value in public dialogue.
So, if most of what we talk about in a journalism class is inextricably
political, and if it is important to provide a coherent argument for one’s
political judgments, professors should make clear their own political positions
that are relevant to the class and explain to students how they came to hold
those positions. That is not the same thing as proselytizing. It need not
be coercive but can be a healthy process in which professors model an intellectual
method that can counter the shallow, superficial political discourse that
dominates in news coverage, television talk shows, advertising, and political
campaigns. This should be one of the central goals of a university.
That task can, of course, be done badly. Professors can lose sight of the
need to create the most open atmosphere possible for that intellectual work
and political thinking. We can lose track of the central goal of helpingstudents
develop their own critical thinking skills. We can forget that ourjob is not
simply to tell students what opinions they should hold but tochallenge them
to think deeper about their own positions, or in some casesto think enough
to form opinions for the first time. I assume every professor,myself included,
at some point has made such mistakes. At that point, thecrucial question
is whether students feel free enough to challenge the professor. Has the
professor created a truly open and engaged classroom so that theclass can
help the professor correct herself or himself?
The bargain professors make
I take most of these points to be not terribly controversial. I have made
these claims often and have yet to hear a colleague offer a serious rebuttal.
If that is so, then why do people keep telling me to avoid being political
in the classroom?
It may be that the advice is shorthand for “you do a bad job of teaching
material that has controversial political content” or “I don’t like your
left/radical political positions and I wish you would stop teaching material
related to those positions.” If the former, then I would ask that my critics
tell me what they think I am doing wrong so that I can have the chance to
evaluate the criticism and make necessary changes. If theymean the latter,
then I would ask them to critique my political positions(and defend their
own) so that we could have an intellectual and politicaldiscussion that might
be valuable for all concerned.
After a dozen years of teaching, I have come to believe the reason for that
advice is much more troubling, and is rooted in the bargain with power that
allows us our privilege.
We should start by being clear that professors are an incredibly privileged
lot -- at least those of us who have steady jobs at reasonable salaries with
reasonable benefits. (More and more teaching work is performed by large numbers
of adjuncts and part-time instructors who do not have those protections,but
even they, by comparison with most of the rest of the population, haveconsiderable
privilege.) Professors are relatively autonomous and do workthat is generally
invigorating and enjoyable. I feel privileged, and I’mgrateful for the privilege.
As is almost always the case in hierarchical systems with unequal distributions
of power, such as the contemporary United States, people are given privilege
with the expectation that they will serve that system. It is my experience
that values such as a sincere belief in the value of free thought and liberal
education motivate people to join the university enterprise. But it is equally
clear that the system has its own demands. Because it is a liberal pluralist
institution, not a totalitarian monolith, there is some variation in howsuccessfully
individuals can resist the demands of the system. But in general,to the degree
that professors accept the existing configuration of powerthey will be accorded
the privileges with minimal interference. To the degreethey challenge that
power, rewards will be less forthcoming and the potentialfor interference
Rather than confront this, it is much easier for professors to imagine that
they are outside that system of power and can evaluate the world from some
more-or-less neutral position. It’s easier to say things such as, “I try
just to teach the facts, not my political opinions” and ignorethe way in
which every decision in teaching -- from the choices of subjectmatter and
texts to the way the course is organized and the way power isdistributed within
the classroom -- is deeply political.
Teaching is about our opinions. The relevant questions are: How well canwe
defend our opinions? How well can we articulate the unstated assumptionsthat
frame our questions as well as our answers? How willing are we to subject
our teaching to scrutiny? How well do we listen to feedback from colleagues
All of these questions have been very much on my mind since September 11,
but they also were very much on my mind on September 10. In that sense, nothing
changed for me in my teaching. But because of my antiwar writing and speaking,
and the heightened level of public visibility that has come with those activities,
the questions are also quite clearly on the mind of my critics and, I assume,
my students. Because of the intensity of the emotions around the events of
September 11, it has been more important than ever for me to foreground these
questions in my classroom.
Based on reactions in and out of class, I know that many students are angry
about things I have said or written outside of class, and about some discussions
we have had in class. I am well aware that I have made many students uncomfortable.
I do not consider that to be a problem, for I can’t imagine a meaningful higher
education experience that does not make students uncomfortable atsome point.
One shouldn’t attend university simply to have existingbeliefs reinforced.
Students should confront alternative explanations, includingthose that conflict
with their own deeply held beliefs. Inevitably, if oneis dealing with topics
that are important, that will mean students will beuncomfortable.
More than ever, this semester I have tried to monitor whether I present
material in a way that makes it difficult for students with contrary opinions
to speak. I have not always been sure I did all that I could to create the
ideal classroom. I have on some days left the classroom wondering whether
I talked too much and shut off student discussion too early; on other days,
I fear that, in the interests of airing the maximal number of views, I let
some studentsramble on too long in a manner that bored others. I thought
about those questions regularly before September 11. I hope I will continue
to ask myself those questions as long as I am teaching.
I cannot speak for my students; I do not know for sure that I have taught
in a way that makes the discomfort they might feel intellectually and politically
productive. But I do know that at many moments I have felt uncomfortable.
I assume that if I am in territory that challenges my own beliefs and forces
me to think more deeply about what I am saying in class, then at some level
I have succeeded.
Robert Jensen is an associate professor of journalism at the University
of Texas at Austin, a member of the
, and author of the book
Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream
. His pamphlet
“Citizens of the Empire”
is available at http://www.nowarcollective.com/citizensoftheempire.pdf.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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