Thursday, July 28, 2005

Operation Academic Freedom - confession of an ideologue

Well, it's a fair cop; the PA Senate Select Committee knows we have been ideologically unsound and made our students feel uncomfortable with their indoctrination. So to stave off further investigation, we should open up and feifu zi yan, confess the error of our ways and throw ourselves on the mercy of the committee.

I not infrequently teach "Astronomical Universe" Astro 001 - a general education classs in which hundreds of trusting young undergraduates are entrusted to my care to be made wise in the ways of the Universe.

The class mostly deals with well established astronomical facts, some history, and occasionally the direction and future of ongoing research. Mostly standard stuff: Copernicus and Galileo; cosmogony, age and evolution of the Universe; formation of stars and planets; age of the Earth and Solar System; evolution of life and the Biosphere; prospects for life on other planets; good stuff, exciting and well established scientifically.

But, I, as matter of an ideological absolute, do often make many of the students feel uncomfortable, if not actually threatened; my actions lead to some students receiving lower grades, because I insist that some questions have unique answers, as determined by me, independent of the student's beliefs or past educational experience. I do this as a matter of personal philosophy; I feel strongly that their educational experience would be incomplete and inadequate if I did not push them to face these issues, and to realise that their knowledge may be incomplete or faulty.

Now, I want to emphasise that to the best of my knowledge no student has filed a formal complaint over this issue with either the academic ombudsman, head of undergraduate studies, department head or dean. But, I do acknowledge having received verbal complaints and informal statements of discontent about this issue on student feedback forms. It is possible that students are either not familiar with the complaint procedure, or they feel uncomfortable challenging a faculty member.

But I say to these students, and the august Senators of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania: tough shit.

Astro 001, when taught by me, will continue to include exam questions requiring you to do arithmetic, quantitative reasoning and solving simple algebraic problems. If this makes you feel uncomfortable or threatened, deal with it. If you don't want lower grades, then knuckle down and study, you're the best academically this State has to offer. You could even come see me for help and advice.

This is an absolute matter of principle for me; I will not yield this prerogative to the state representatives - the curricular content and grading policy are decided by me, in my professional capacity. Mathematics are a critical component of understanding scientific reasoning and the chain of inference and hypothesis used in science. Teaching such matters is an essential part of the general education the students receive, as important as the dry facts of the Earth's age of about 4.5 billion years, or the onset and evolution of life and its dynamical interaction with the atmosphere and surface. The students must face mathematics and overcome what fears they have. I insist.

I hope that clears this issue up and the committee can dissolve.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I teach English. One of my colleagues was revilled in a now defunct (thankfully) conservative student publication for daring to have opinionsand expressing them in class.I've also had similar comments on my student evaluations, usually I suspect from students who become incensed at having received an A- instead of an A.

BTW, your family is beautiful.



4:20 PM  
Blogger Steinn said...

Thank you.

We've had some well publicised clashes here, nothing actually serious, but it could be made to sound bad in a partisan committee hearing.

I don't know of any actual instances of students penalised for holding a different opinion from the faculty.

Well, I know someone who some years ago at a west coast university was penalised for challenging a literature professor - the professor believed birth was painful for women as a consequence of sin, and did not take kindly to biologically informed arguments to the contrary.

10:15 AM  

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