When Professors Bring Politics to Class · 19 September 2004

Filed under: Press Coverage

Are Bush, Kerry, and Election 2004 too racy for the classroom?
By Michael Lopresti --The Yale Herald, 09/17/04

It has happened to everyone. You're sitting in class, drawing little 3-D boxes in your notebook, when all of a sudden you're startled back to attention when the professor at the front of the lecture hall makes a quip about this year's presidential election. Generally, most students are grateful for the comic relief and chuckle along with the rest of the class. Those students whose politics aren't in line with the professor's-conservative students, most often-might be seen rolling their eyes or crossing their arms in front of their chests.

In class,the tendency of professors to discuss the election in brief asides, indirectly and often flippantly, is perhaps a result of the fact that many members of the Yale community view the election as a taboo subject within the classroom. Regardless of whether you view such discussion as appropriate or inappropriate, the 2004 presidential election is hard to escape on a hyper-politically aware college campus like Yale. For proof, one needs to look no farther than the chalk messages on Cross Campus and buttons on suitemates' messenger bags. It should come as no surprise to find that Yale professors of all departments are as engaged in the 2004 presidential election as students. In fact, mentions of the election-both direct and peripheral, both serious and glib-seem to be creeping into classes all over campus, regardless of subject-from English to economics to en-gineering.

The official position of the University on what should and should not be brought up in class is that there is no official position.

"What is discussed in the classroom is the prerogative of the faculty,"Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said in an e-mail, "so there is no specific 'administration's policy,' per se, other than our long-standing policies on free expression at Yale." As a teacher, Dean Salovey finds value in any topic that might come up in class that bears significance to the subject matter of the course. "Discussing the presidential election because in some way it is relevant to the topic of the class is appropriate, even desirable," he said.

Many professors on campus make a concerted effort to leave this year's presidential election out of the classroom. But for those who choose to take on the subject, there is a fine line between that which is pedagogically relevant to the subject at hand, and that which might be viewed as pure politicking. In such a divisive election year, students and professors throughout the campus are even more aware of the need to find the right balance in the classroom.

Some Yalies complain of professors whom they believe have gone too far in class. A student in a literature course, who preferred that his name be left out of this article, related the following story:

"[A professor] mentioned during one of his classes, as a side note which was hardly even tangentially related to the subject at hand, that he was rather sure that he knew for whom both Hegel and Kant would vote in the coming election. Kerry, of course, was implied by this, though his name was never mentioned, and [the professor] quickly added that, while such a topic might be interesting to discuss, there were more urgent matters at hand."

While the student found it rather improbable that anyone would be able to determine which American presidential candidate two long-dead German philosophers would vote for in this year's election, he was also miffed by what he felt was a superfluous political jab.

"A small incident, certainly, but indicative of a tendency to insert less-than-sophisticated leftist political commentary into the classroom without any particular explanation," the student said.

Another student, Rachel Goodman, TD '05, told of a professor who, in class, encouraged all of his students to register to vote. The professor was greeted with laughter from the class when he stated that he did not care which candidate the students voted for.

"Everyone laughed, because he clearly does [care], and he responded, 'Well, OK, maybe I do...'" Goodman said.

The vast majority of anecdotes such as these involve left-leaning professors taking potshots at the conservative right. While no specific information is readily available on the political affiliations of the Yale faculty, most students and professors agree that the average professor at Yale, with certain notable exceptions, is decidedly liberal-at least more liberal than the average American. Therefore, when the presidential election is brought up this way in classes, some conservative students are left feeling marginalized.

"My preference is to leave politics outside the classroom," said Eliana Johnson, SY '06. "As a conservative, I know I'm in the minority at Yale, and usually prefer to remain quiet rather than argue with people in class."

Johnson's feelings are certainly not uncommon either at Yale or on other college campuses across the country. As a result, at least one national advocacy group has been formed to address the issues of politicized college classrooms. The conservative group Students for Academic Freedom (SAF) is a "national coalition of student organizations whose goal is to end the political abuse of the university and to restore integrity to the academic mission as a disinterested pursuit of knowledge," according to the group's website. The website provides copious amounts of literature decrying the pervasive influence of liberals on American academia, and its primary mission is to promote intellectual diversity on the faculties of major American universities. Although there is not yet a chapter of the organization at Yale, the existence of SAF is a testament to the fact that the politicization of the college classroom is a major concern among at least some students.

There are other members of the Yale community who don't necessarily see anything wrong with a professor expressing his political views.

"I actually don't think it's inappropriate for professors to make their political biases clear," said Goodman. "It is, of course, inappropriate for them to make students feel like their own opinions must conform to be valid. But our Yale education is all about learning to notice bias even in the statement of fact, and that process is made much easier when a professor lays his or her bias on the table from the beginning."

There are many professors at Yale who would argue that instances of overt politicization in the classroom are the exception rather than the rule, and even that these instances are, perhaps, too infrequent. They believe that there is a great deal of academic value to be had in studying the presidential election in the setting of a classroom, and some of these professors are endeavoring to take on the topic of the 2004 presidential election directly.

David Mayhew, Sterling Professor of Political Science, is teaching a course this semester called "United States National Elections." According to Professor Mayhew, the upper-level seminar in the political science department "serves the purpose of illuminating and explaining national elections," and provides students in the class with an opportunity to discuss elections in a rigorous academic forum.

Mayhew is firm in his belief in the importance of examining elections in a course. "It's important to explain what happens. National elections are some of the most important undertakings in our history. It's quite in order, not only for political scientists, but also for historians, economists and sociologists."

In terms of how he broaches the potentially inflammatory topics of presidential elections, Mayhew thinks his style is something of a no-brainer. "I approach the subject dispassionately. I'm an analyst, not an advocate, and my class is not a pep rally," he says. So far in the course, he has found that his students have been able to follow his lead in maintaining a civil demeanor during discussions.

Mayhew's course is one of several being offered in the political science department this year that takes on the subject of presidential elections directly. Others include Professor Stephen Skowronek's popular lecture course "The American Presidency," Professor Matthew Green's seminar "Money and American Elections," and "Elections and Representation," which will be taught next semester by Professor Justin Fox.

Julia Azari, GRD '08, is serving as a teaching fellow for Professor Skowroneck's "Presidency" course. "Basically, my main goal in teaching this class is to get students to think critically about governmental institutions and understand the complexity of the institutions," she said. She is not necessarily averse to allowing partisan discussion to take place in section, as long as this discussion adheres to the rules of classroom discourse. "If partisan debate breaks out among the students, I'll let that ride until we get terribly off-topic, probably, as long as the debate is substantive and relates to presidential politics. My role is to facilitate," she said.

As Professor Mayhew pointed out, the election can (and does) come up in classes that don't necessarily take it as a primary topic. Elizabeth Dillon's seminar in the English department, for example-a course called "Democracy and Literature of the American Renaissance"-addresses American democracy and literature of the nineteenth-century, but has, at times, veered off into discussions of modern-day politics as they relate to the themes of the course, according to students in the class.

Branford College Master Steven Smith, who is the instructor for the political science course "Introduction to Political Philosophy," can see ways in which this year's election might be brought up during one of his lectures. "It might come up in my class, but not directly. I often try to draw on current events to make a point," he said.

Smith, like Mayhew, firmly believes that this year's election is an important issue worthy of being addressed in an academic setting. "I think it is a big election, and deserves to be examined. The last election was kind of run-of-the-mill. There didn't seem to be any big issues at stake, and the difference between the two candidates did not seem great. For the first time in a while, there are big issues at stake in this election," he said.

However, when it comes to debating the issues at stake in this year's election outright, he isn't sure that the classroom itself is an appropriate location. "The classroom is not a place for political debate. Why should it be? There are so many places at Yale to address political issues. The classroom is a place to get away from the most current of current events-a place to put things in a larger context," he said.

In recent years at Yale, major world events have prompted myriad academic forums, panels, and lectures to which all members of the Yale community were invited. Both the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and the United States' decision to enter into war with Iraq in the spring of 2003 inspired individual academic departments and the administration at large to organize events through which faculty and students alike could engage these issues in an academic setting. Many people on campus believe that events such as these are the ideal way of directly addressing the issues at hand in this year's presidential election.

"Addressing the election in an academic setting outside the classroom is ideal, in part because it's voluntary," Eliana Johnson said. "In class, professors-and students-have a captive audience, and professors are clearly in the positions of authority. Outside the classroom, I think it's great for those students who want to talk and argue, and for professors to opine."

Forums and their ilk are the answer for Master Smith as well because he believes a Yale course is no place for a campaign rally. "I don't know if I hide my political views, but I never endorse a candidate. I would much rather have students guess my preference. I do think that it's kind of inappropriate to be overtly political in a classroom environment."

To whatever extent a professor chooses to engage the election in class, Dean Salovey believes that is it important for students and faculty members alike to be conscious of Yale's policy of free expression. "When engaged in such a discussion, it is important to respect all points of view," he said. "I do not think it is necessarily inappropriate for the professor to share his or her opinion too, but I do think this must be done in a way that does not have a chilling impact on students, whose opinions might differ, from feeling free to offer their opinions as well."

Every four years, presidential elections present a dilemma to both students and teachers. On one hand, the campus community is acutely aware of the historical significance of the process of electing a president, and there are those that believe that it is important to examine this process in a classroom setting. Yet on the other hand, students and professors alike all hold their own personal beliefs about the issues at stake in the election, and there are those who believe that the classroom should be a place where partisanship is put on hold. In a divisive election year like this one, it is even more imperative for students and professors throughout campus to find the right balance of politics and academics in the classroom. Graphics by Gene Smilansky and Betsy Moore