When professors get political in the classroom

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By Chloe Henson

Campus News

During the school year, students regularly spend several hours each week listening to their professors. Professors are supposed to inform and educate students, as well as help them build skills that could last a lifetime. But whether they express them or not, all professors have their own beliefs about the subjects they teach. Given their responsibilities to students, is it appropriate for professors to express their political opinions during class?

Jeffery Anderson-Burgos, a student at Holyoke Community College, said professors have brought up topics in his classes before that he agrees with, but that he understands may have conflicted with other students’ beliefs.

“While some of the professors that I’ve had I could say probably were speaking truth from my own perspective, I could imagine that there are students who have different political views from myself who might have been uncomfortable with topics that were brought up that seem to express what the professor’s political views were,” he said.

Shastri Akella, a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst studying migration literature, said he hasn’t really encountered professors here who speak candidly about their political leanings.

“Not over here in the U.S. When I was studying in India there were some classes that were very explicitly political, but not over here,” he said.

Another graduate student at UMass, Daniel Williams said he thinks it’s pretty taboo for professors to discuss their personal politics.

“I think there are ways at kind of hinting at it just by the things they bring up in class or the literature they have you read or the way that they speak about certain topics. But definitely not whether they’re Democrat or Republican, I don’t think anyone would ever share those things,” he said.

Professor Scott Blinder, who works in the political science department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said a professor’s political opinions aren’t really relevant when it comes to educating students. Professors are there to teach subject matter and discuss issues, but not to discuss their own personal feelings.

As a professor, expressing your political views could also potentially influence a student’s initial response to a topic, and make it more difficult for them to share their points of views.

“If you want to have an open exchange and open debate on whatever the topic is that you’re dealing with, you don’t want to come in too heavy-handed and you want students to express their own views,” he said.

However, when asked what the pros of professors sharing their values were as well as the cons, Blinder said there could be some circumstances in which it might be good to know a professor’s beliefs in the interests of disclosure. If the issue is a political one, as opposed to a social scientific issue, it may be useful for the professor to tell students about their beliefs, as long as it is not done in a very partisan sort of way.

“Not to be heavy-handed about it and say ‘this is the way I think and it’s how you should all think.’ It’s just so students have an idea of where the professor is coming from,” he said.

As a graduate student, Williams said he feels comfortable with discussing his politics in class, but this could be different for undergraduates, he said.

“I think a lot of times undergrad students tend to want to say or write what they think their professor wants to hear. In grad school, I think the dissenting opinion is really emphasized,” he said.

“Politics” is also much broader than partisanship, Blinder said. When it does come to the social sciences, it is important for professors to present evidence in class that may not conform to some students’ beliefs. This could also apply to subjects in the sciences that have been politicized, such as climate change or evolution.

“In these cases it would be a mistake to avoid teaching the material, or to avoid presenting an accurate picture of the accumulated scientific or social scientific knowledge in the area, for fear of being perceived as ‘political,’ ” he said.

It can be difficult for students to tell whether a professor is being “political,” Anderson-Burgos said.

“It’s kind of a subjective thing, I think. One person’s political view is another person’s truth,” he said.

One study conducted by Professor Matthew Woessner of Penn State Harrisburg and April Kelly-Woessner of Elizabethtown College found that most of the 24 professors who responded to survey requests tried to appear neutral while they were educating students.

The study, titled “I Think My Professor is a Democrat: Considering Whether Students Recognize and React to Faculty Politics,” concluded that students were able to discern how their professors identified politically. Most of the professors identified as either moderate or strong Democrats. But the study concluded that a professor’s political affiliation had no real influence on students’ party loyalties, even if they were able to discern which way their professor leaned.

While this is just one study and isn’t conclusive, it does suggest that maybe students won’t be too influenced if they can pick up on their professor’s political party, given that their educators aren’t too overt about their opinions.

Akella and Williams both said neither of them would mind if professors told students about their political beliefs.

“I guess within a certain context it’s fine for a professor to share their political opinion,” Akella said. “I think it depends on the occasion and how they’re doing it. If it’s not explicitly to say ‘oh you should vote for this party,’ anything else other than that I think is fine.”

Anderson-Burgos said he believed hearing his professors express political opinions had actually furthered his education. Students live in a world where they will be exposed to perspectives that are not their own, and encountering topics that don’t conform to your views is part of the educational experience, he said.

“Even if topics make somebody uncomfortable, or you disagree with what is being talked about, even then they’re getting an education because they’re getting a view into perspectives and world views that don’t match their own. You don’t really learn educationally, and you don’t really learn as far as life skills, until you are exposed to things that are beyond what you know,” he said.

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