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Academic Freedom and Student In-Class/For-Class Speech:

I'm on the UCLA Academic Freedom Committee, and we're discussing an academic freedom policy -- guidelines, not legally enforceable rules -- related to student in-class (and for-class) speech. As to outside-class speech, I have pretty well-settled views, but in-class speech has always puzzled me. I'd love to hear your input on this, though note that we're talking here about ethical guidelines, not First Amendment doctrine or proposed statutes.

There are three main complicating factors here, I think.

1. Some in-class speech, as well as most for-class speech, must be evaluated by the professor; and this evaluation, while it should be "fair" (whatever exactly that means), can't be entirely viewpoint-neutral. For instance, a geology professor can accept in a paper or on an exam the undefended assertion that the world was created several billion years ago, but he may properly mark down a similar assertion that the world was created six thousand years ago (set aside the special case when someone says "I believe it was six thousand years ago, but for purposes of this class I know we're supposed to say several billion years ago").

He's treating different viewpoints differently; but that has to be permissible, I think. Nor is the matter cured by focusing on the amount of evidence that the writer adduces: The several billion year answer may often rightly get full credit without any supporting evidence (unless the question is all about giving the evidence for this assertion). It

So outside class, we can generally demand that the university not impose any content-based restrictions on student speech (setting aside some narrow exceptions, such as threats). Even when subject-matter-based restrictions (e.g., only curriculum-related speech gets funding, access to classrooms, and the like) are involved, the rule is one of broad viewpoint neutrality. But I can't quite see how this would apply to evaluation of students -- even though I agree that some kinds of viewpoint discrimination are impermissible.

2. A professor must also be able to control the pace of class, and maximize the pedagogical value of the class, for instance by cutting off digressions or errors, or by stopping students from hissing each other and being otherwise rude. Sometimes an error or a rudeness may be an occasion for a debate, not for professorial fiat. But only sometimes; every professor decides which things to discuss in detail from all sides, and which things to just assert.

Thus, for instance, I'm not going to just assert that the First Amendment must protect advocacy of nonimminent violence -- in fact, I spend a couple of class sessions airing the arguments on both sides of that. But I do assert that the Supreme Court has held that the First Amendment applies to the states via the Fourteenth Amendment just as it applies to the federal government. If someone wants to argue that the Court hasn't so held, I'll just alert the class that this is mistaken, and offer to discuss it more with the student after class. If someone wants to argue that the Court was wrong, I'll say that there are serious debates about this, but this is a topic that we're not going to study in detail in class, except to say that the Court held what it held. (Again, I'll offer to discuss the issue more with the student after class.)

This means that claims of a student's "right" to present dissenting views in class, or even a professor's obligation to make sure that the discussion includes diverging views, can't be categorical (though I do think there is a good deal of merit to them). It has to be, in some cases, constrained by the professor's choices about what to discuss as a debatable point, and what to present as background facts that enable the other discussions. I agree that some such judgments by the professor would be wrong, but I can't say that all of them are.

3. A professor also has his own interests in speaking candidly, tempered by the professor' professional responsibility. So it's generally right to require that the professor be respectful to students personally, and to people and ideas he discusses generally. But that can't be entirely true -- a professor may express disdain or even disgust for, say, Nazi views, Communist views, and the like (especially when they are tangential to the core class subject matter), and sometimes expressing this disdain can help students go beyond the assumption "Wow, he supports free speech for the KKK, he must be a Klansman."

Likewise, I have a problem about astrology in my textbook; do I really have to be respectful of beliefs in astrology, at least when they are beliefs I mention rather than beliefs a student in the class is insisting on? For that matter, does a professor have to be respectful (not just not profane, but actually respectful) about beliefs in the 6000-year-old Earth? What about creationism? (Again, set aside the situation in which a discussion of evolution is the core subject matter of the class; being disrespectful of the rival view would keep that discussion from being sensible.)

Relatedly, there is the question of letters of recommendation from professors, an important part of the value provided by a university or graduate school education (see here for one interesting example). For instance, I wouldn't, of course, reduce a student's grade because he expressed anti-Semitic views outside class, or even responded to a question about Nazi speech with the view that, no, it's not as bad as I make it out to be.

But I wouldn't write a positive letter of recommendation for him: I would thus be discriminating in my passing out of praise in letters of recommendation based on the student's viewpoint, even the student's outside-class viewpoint. My sense is that there ought not be any ethical constraints on that; though I do think that it is intolerant and unethical to act the same way based on the student's belonging to the Democratic Party when the professor is a Republican, or the student's being pro-choice when the professor is pro-life. Again, then, neither a categorical "no viewpoint discrimination" / "no punishment of dissent" ethical principle nor a categorical "refuse to write positive letters of recommendation whenever you disagree with the student's viewpoint" ethical principle sounds right.

* * *

So my question: Can any of you suggest possible ethical guidelines that (1) would be clear and precise enough -- not perfectly, but enough -- to convey the message to a wide range of students and professors, and that (2) would mirror as faithfully as possible the Right View, whatever that is, about what professors should be ethically constrained from doing? Many thanks.

Dan Simon (mail) (www):
Short answer: No. Nobody here can, and academics, jurists and free speech advocates have been making complete and utter fools of themselves for decades by trying.

Slightly longer answer: "Free speech" is a difficult enough concept to define and enforce in a generally free, open context such as a democratic society. In a university--an institution that consists (or, at least, is supposed to consist) of a collection of scholars devoted to a number of ideals, such as academic excellence, peer review, rigorous adherence to exacting standards of research validity, and so on that are in direct conflict with the ideal of free speech--the additional imposition of "free speech" as an overarching value is a recipe for disaster. Academia's embrace of it in the 1960s was essentially an acknowledgement that it had, by abandoning its earlier ideals, ceased to be of any use to society, and was helpfully obliging its hosts by committing collective suicide.
6.5.2007 9:12pm
Apep (mail):
Two words: Frye and Daubert.
6.5.2007 9:17pm
George Weiss (mail):
regarding the letter of recommendation issue:

one could always make it clear that..while otherwise X was a fine student...i cant really recommended him b/c i'm black and hes a klan member..or im jewish and hes a nazi...or hes really smart and works hard...but hes really liberal/conservative and i don't like that.

that way..an employer has the all the facts..and can decide for themselves whether hiring a nazi or a democrat or someone who's pro life or a creationist is okay.

so the guideline for that would be something like..if your going to make a recommendation based on views thats fine..but make it clear thats why in your reccomendation
6.5.2007 9:18pm
George Weiss (mail):
i would also agree with almost categorical latitude of the prof to express utter disdain for dissenting ideas in class...as long as

1. there is nobody in class insisting on them
or
2. he says it respectfully

as long as 1 or 2 is met...i think he should get a free pass
6.5.2007 9:22pm
James Ellis (mail):
A little pertinent levity from the "overheard in new york" website:

Student: How come we're always talking about how the Jews were persecuted? Lots of people have been persecuted. My people have been persecuted, too.

Professor: Um...This is "Introduction to Jewish-American Literature".

Student: ...Yeah, but still.
6.5.2007 9:22pm
LTEC (mail) (www):
re 1: If the subject matter has aspects that virtually all experts agree on, then it is reasonable for an instructor to insist that these things not be lightly challenged. If the subject matter does not have such aspects, or if there are no experts, then it shouldn't be taught in the first place. (That's what blogs and lunchtime chatter are for.)

re 3: If the instructor has to talk about something not directly part of the subject matter, and his opinion of it is relevant, then he should clearly state that opinion, as an opinion, without snarkiness. For example, he should say, "Personally, I think George Bush is stupid." He should not say, "People's IQs are not increasing. Just look at the last two presidential elections!" The aspect of instructors imposing their viewpoint that I find most offensive is that they often do it in an offhand, snarky manner that not only doesn't permit disagreement, it doesn't even acknowledge that such disagreement is possible.
6.5.2007 10:11pm
Eli Rabett (www):
No one is under any obligation to write a letter of recommendation for anyone. If asked why you will not provide a letter, one simply says no. The best reply is because I choose not to. My policy is that I will not write any letter of recommendation unless the student waives the right to see the letter. On occasion, if I think it serves a useful purpose I will show the student the letter.

As to limits in class, one is within bounds to ask that the reasons for any statement be relevant to what is taught in the class and respectful of it. Pity the poor professors of biology, political sicence and religion.
6.5.2007 10:30pm
Elliot123 (mail):
Aren't the professors themselves smart enough to make their own ethical decisions? Aren't the university administrators smart enough to get rid of those who can't? Why does this group have to be told what to do? This is expected of managers in many businesses. Why can't professors do it?
6.5.2007 10:32pm
KevinQ (mail) (www):
So it's generally right to require that the professor be respectful to students personally, and to people and ideas he discusses generally.


Well, I don't think that's actually true at all. Respect flows between people. You can't have respect for an idea because an idea can't do anything to earn that respect, or to respect you in return.

What you can do is respect the student in your class who is offering an idea or opinion. If the idea is relevant and topical, even if it is wrong, then you can discuss the idea's merits with mutual respect. If, however, the student is offering an idea that is not relevant to the class, or is not clearly defined, then they are showing you and the rest of the class the respect you deserve, and they can be treated harsher.

The simple rule you're looking for is, "Show students the respect they deserve." Unfortunately, like all good bright-line rules, the trick is figuring out where that line actually lies.

K
6.5.2007 10:35pm
Esquire:
"For that matter, does a professor have to be respectful (not just not profane, but actually respectful) about beliefs in the 6000-year-old Earth? What about creationism? (Again, set aside the situation in which a discussion of evolution is the core subject matter of the class; being disrespectful of the rival view would keep that discussion from being sensible.)"

Not sure what "not just profane" means, exactly.

As for "respectful," one must wonder whether we would even be asking whether faculty should be respectful of other religions -- those which may not be so "PC" to ridicule. But, if we're really talking about letting any professor ridicule any religion, well, at least that would be consistent (if not necessarily advisable).

I do agree that faculty need total freedom to state their emphatic disagreement with any student's views they find abbhorrent (morally and/or logically). But (as debated ad nauseum in another thread, and commented on again in the GOP debate tonight BTW), they should really try to stop short of implying that the institution is "officially" pro- or con- any religious worldview (especially if it's a taxpayer-funded school).
6.5.2007 10:43pm
Andrew Okun:
For in-class speech, when you are not considering grading, it strikes me that the main ethical consideration is that the professor is the boss. She guides and paces the discussion, imparts what information she believes to be the content of the subject, explains what she believes to be the areas of legitimate controversy and corrects or silences error. Beyond ordinary fairness and common courtesy, which vaguely apply everywhere, the professor is boss ... he owes it to the students collectively to be in charge. At UCLA, that means a geology professor tells the handraising creationist that his views, in the context of geology, are fiction and not be brought up again lest time be wasted. At Liberty University, the same in reverse. That either institution has professors delineating their subject in that fashion reflects on the reputation of those universities and their value to society, which can be judged by other students before they go there.

It is different with regard to grades. A student should be able to master some externally defined body of material to get a good grade, regardless of their views expressed in class, membership in groups peculiar or noxious, or so on. It is the professor's obligation to give an A to a Jew, a Nazi, a communist, a creationist or anyone else who demonstrates master of that body of knowledge. If the student feels it necessary, in the young earth example, to add a footnote that it is all hogwash, that shouldn't change things. In any case, if the student cannot rely on some defined body of knowledge, the scope for a prof to play favorites or play games, or to be perceived to be doing so, is too much. There are probably subjects were this is tricky ... creative writing? But basically, you should be allowed to look at the hurdle while trying to jump it.

In letters of recommendation, I think it is fair to say a professor owes a student fair warning before sending out a stinker ... "avoid ... picks his nose and thinks pinker than Ted Kennedy." Beyond that, the student is asking the professor to convey a judgment to a third party. The professor has to be able to use their judgment whether the student should be recommended and what should be included. Indeed, the professor owes the third party a duty to be straight. A law professor giving a nazi student a reference ought to make a note of it, lest the law firm be in for a surprise. An engineering professor might not need to tell a bridge builder that the talented and qualified student he's sending him is a creationist, as it's not terribly relevant or offensive, but what about an applicant for medical school. Refusing to give recommendations to Republican students? That is unfair, but I don't know that you can state an ethical rule that bars it. It may just be a matter that reflects extremely badly on the professor, his judgment and his institution. Should a Liberty University professor be obligated to give a reference to a graduate who turns to satanism in her senior year?

Of course, I have never taught university, so I have no clue what I am talking about.
6.5.2007 11:01pm
LM (mail):
I think you hit all the right notes. I’d want to see it expressed as a nice little outline, but then if it were up to me we’d all be reading Shakespeare and Dickinson in outline form.

Since I happen to agree with you on the substance, that leaves only the minor task of codifying it succinctly without sacrificing precision. Better you than me.
6.5.2007 11:02pm
LM (mail):
By the way, I would love to see what you come up with and, if different, what is adopted. I hope you'll consider posting whatever you are allowed.
6.5.2007 11:13pm
Latinist:
No one is under any obligation to write a letter of recommendation for anyone. If asked why you will not provide a letter, one simply says no. The best reply is because I choose not to.

This kind of answer may be fine from the institution's point of view. But I think Prof. Volokh was looking for criteria that would help a professor decide, fairly and consistently, when to choose not to write a letter of recommendation (and if that's not what he was looking for, it would still be interesting).
6.6.2007 2:49am
RR Nickerson:
A very interesting post.

-----

As a preface, a quick disclaimer/background note (feel free to skip if you want): I'm neither a lawyer nor a professor, but I've thought about this quite a bit. First as a theoretical matter, I take a rather strong view toward free-speech, legally and philosophically, and speech in academic settings is an area of interest. Plus, I completed a master's in journalism about a year ago, after completing a couple bachelor's degrees from a small liberal-arts school. I discovered first-hand quite an amazing difference:

At the lib-arts school, I was definitely in the minority politically and philosophically, but it was quite an open place for discussion -- the same school where students waited 9 hours to vote for Kerry in '04 was where Alan Keyes received a standing ovation (and many hard but respectful questions) after a speech a couple years earlier.

Then, going to a ytop journalism school, I assumed there'd be similar openness -- after all, free speech is our job, in a way. Alas, quite a surprise came the first semester there: I was in a class on media theory, and the lecture turned to the theory that all reality is constructed. I made the mistake of raising my hand and arguing that all reality is not constructed. The professor (also the asst. dean) eventually stopped the discussion, saying simply that as far as the class is concerned, reality is constructed, period. Yup, quite... umm... intellectually thriving...

So, based on all that and some other reflections, a few thoughts on the question:

-----

I tend to always presume in favor of speech, so I'll do so here. This likely places me at odds with Mr. Okin's comment above -- yes, I think the professor is in charge, but in an atmosphere where one is trying to encourage intellectual discourse, that discourse shouldn't be wantonly restricted simply because one is "in charge." Therefore, I'd say that student-speech could be ethically restricted if in a situation that's one of the following:

1.) CURRICULAR DECISION: Discussion can be restructed to a certain, legitimate curricular topic. This would go both ways, though -- A student couldn't just veer off on a completely different topic, such as writing about Homer if a paper's due on Shakespeare. But a teacher also couldn't veer off topic completely, such as injecting a purely political commentary in place of a lecture. In the latter case, restricting the teacher's language is necessary to enhance the student's free speech, as having a professor who is clearly partisan and seems to see no difference between curricular and non-curricular material could lead a student to reasonably fear expressing a different political view for fear of academic retribution.

2.) QUALITY OF RESEARCH: Obviously, a well-written, researched and clean papre is better than a poorly written, sloppily researched rant.

3.) CENTRALITY OF THEME: Like Prof. Volokh mentioned, this would be the difference between arguing the specific topic of "whether the earth is billions of years old" versus arguing a secondary topic that rests on the theory of a billions-years-old earth. If the topic at hand is the age of the earth, then discussion should be open -- and a well-written and researched paper arguing for a 6,000-year-old earth should be accorded the same strength as a similarly written paper for a billions-year-old earth. Likewise with the question of socially constructed reality... But a later paper can be presented as such: "Assuming a billions-year-old universe, answer this..." Then, if a student essentially writes a paper assuming a 6,000-yr-old earth, the paper is marked down. The earth's age is the secondary topic, not the primary one.

4.) LETTERS: When I sought letters of recommendation, I never considered them to be obligatory in any way, and I don't think they should be. Letters should be a personal matter between the professor and student as people, not an institutional thing. The fist person from whom I sought a letter was my major adviser and a top professor in his field who knew me from several classes and so could judge my abilities -- but he and I also served on a church Vestry together and in other ways outside the classroom. Those personal experiences should just as much be able to be part of a letter about one's character and nature as one's ability to write a correct sentence. So I'd agree with those who say a professor can decline to write a letter for any reason. I'd encourage civility and courtesy from both student and professor, though. And I never would have presumed to ask to see the letter...
6.6.2007 6:23am
ATRGeek:
I think Dan Simon got it right--this sort of ethical issue just isn't subject to codification, and I think a casuistic approach is the best one can do.

So, I think an underdeterminative statement of principle (ala the First Amendment) is likely your best bet. I'd suggest something like, "Professors should allow and encourage the maximum amount of free expression of views which is compatible with the achievement of the pedagogical goals of the class."
6.6.2007 7:55am
Hoosier:
My guidelines for writing letters of recommendation for undergrads, for what they're worth:

American academia produces incredibly glowing letters of recommendation. (If you've ever seen one from the UK system, you know what I mean: "Mr. Lindsay-Featherstonehaugh is a quite sompetent scholar . . .")

SO--I ask if I'm capable of writing a letter for the student that would be effective in our system, taking "recommendation inflation" into account. If I can't, then the letter will put the student at a disadvantage, and I tell him or her that they would probably be best served by a letter from another professor.
6.6.2007 10:58am
mwl:
In my mind the essential qualities of in-class speech should be: Truth, Pertinence, and Civility.

Truth: Nothing should be said which is contrary to fact. A good example here would be Holocaust denial. However, it's vital here to distinguish theory from fact; theories may be challenged, but facts cannot.

Pertinence: All discussion must be pertinent to the subject matter of the class, and the topic of the day. Hence, religion has no place in a Geology class.

Civility: Discussion may lead to argument, but civility must be maintained. Curses, slurs, and ad hominem attacks are forbidden.
6.6.2007 12:13pm
arbitraryaardvark (mail) (www):
I don't have an answer, just some observations.
Are there any existing or proposed set of guidelines we can critique? Or maybe the start from scratch approach here is deliberate.
There are at least two models of class discussion - socratic and lecture mode. In socratic mode, in-class speech is for-class speech - the student is likely to be graded for class participation, is expected to come prepared and to advocate, in ways that are guided by the professor to teach the class the day's lesson.
In lecture mode, the students' role is more passive. I'm guessing the lecture mode is more common outside the law school. Different guidelines might apply based on this distinction.
As to creationism, I want to turn the hypo around. At ucla, or academia generally, it's the professor who is likely to be believe in intelligent design, and the student to be more open to hayekian world of spontaneously arising order.
The professor tends to be a liberal democrat influenced by Keynes and Marx, believing in an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good government which centrally plans the economy,and may be hostile to the student who views taxation as theft, information as costly, government as fallible or malevolent.
Part of the social function of the state university system is to indoctrinate the students with pro-government memes,
and ethical rules function within that context.
6.6.2007 12:43pm
jimbino (mail):
The atmosphere of law school and the legal profession in general is intellectually stifling. I'm happy to be a physicist who can imagine Niels Bohr's or Max Planck's absolute reluctance to give anything but a positive recommendation to folks like the Nazi Heisenberg, the female Meitner, the traitor Einstein and the libertine Schrödinger.

I can remember that I felt, and often enjoyed showing, great disdain for those of my law professors at UT Austin who let their liberalism, Catholicism, ignorance of science, etc., get in the way of their ascent to mediocrity.
6.6.2007 12:45pm
Henri Le Compte (mail):
Prof. Volokh:
You mention:

" ...I do think that it is intolerant and unethical to act the same way based on the student's belonging to the Democratic Party when the professor is a Republican, or the student's being pro-choice when the professor is pro-life."

A Republican professor? A pro-life professor? How are we supposed to think clearly about this matter when you give us such outrageous, oxymoronic examples? C'mon!
6.6.2007 1:05pm
David Drake:
James Ellis, LTEC and MWL, in slightly different ways, express the guidelines best.

To Eliot123--this is necessary because many professors and students don't know where the line is. My experience--as both a former student and a former professor--is that professors need the most guidance lest their classes turn into soapboxes for their own political or religious views unrelated to course content. Most students are sufficiently cowed by the need to get a good grade as not to challenge statements by professors.
6.6.2007 1:56pm
David Drake:
James Ellis, LTEC and MWL, in slightly different ways, express the guidelines best.

To Eliot123--this is necessary because many professors and students don't know where the line is. My experience--as both a former student and a former professor--is that professors need the most guidance lest their classes turn into soapboxes for their own political or religious views unrelated to course content. Most students are sufficiently cowed by the need to get a good grade as not to challenge statements by professors.
6.6.2007 1:57pm
ATRGeek:
mwl,

That theory/fact distinction is a bit of trick once you start talking about things which are not immediately perceptible to the senses, including historic events. And even with respect to the senses, the likes of Descartes or the Wachowski Brothers would raise some issues.

So, I think the best you can do is rely on "pertinence". For example, the occurrence or nonoccurrence of the Holocaust, or whether or not we are brains in a vat, are not per se improper topics for inquiry in some setting or another. Those topics just may not be sufficiently relevant in any given class.
6.6.2007 2:36pm
dearieme:
Friend to his class "And now we calculate the probability of a lightning strike on the storage tank". Objection from a student "That is not permitted. Allah decides whether lightning strikes the tank". And your recommended reply is?

(Mine was "You're in the Engineering School - the Divinity School is down the road.)
6.6.2007 3:20pm
Arete:
Just to recap:

(1) "A geology professor can accept in a paper or on an exam the undefended assertion that the world was created several billion years ago, but he may properly mark down a similar assertion that the world was created six thousand years ago .... He's treating different viewpoints differently; but that has to be permissible, I think. Nor is the matter cured by focusing on the amount of evidence that the writer adduces: The several billion year answer may often rightly get full credit without any supporting evidence."

(2) "This means that claims of a student's "right" to present dissenting views in class, or even a professor's obligation to make sure that the discussion includes diverging views, can't be categorical (though I do think there is a good deal of merit to them). It has to be, in some cases, constrained by the professor's choices about what to discuss as a debatable point, and what to present as background facts that enable the other discussions. I agree that some such judgments by the professor would be wrong, but I can't say that all of them are."

I guess it seems to me you've answered your own question: The professors' duty is not to each individual student's "right" to air a particular view or even to guarantee divergent views in a discussion; rather, their duty is to the quality of pedagogical instructiveness of the discussion itself (whether that discussion is the reporting back of argumentation on a written exam or paper or an in-class Socratic dialogue), given that it serves the course outcomes set forth for that course.

I can think of no other clearer or more precise manner in which to put this notion than this: Professors owe it to all students in a course to faithfully permit or constrain discussion as it "maximize the pedagogical value of the class", as E.V. himself put it, by making those “choices about what to discuss… vs. what to present as background facts that enable the other discussions”. Students’ views that do not contribute to maximizing that value should not be given equal time or weight by professors.

After all, this seems pretty standard: As a matter of fact, all language, all communication, is predicated on assuming some things to be true at that moment for the purposes of even having the discussion—we do this all the time. Deciding what to ‘admit’ as contestable points or not is really up to the professor because the prof is responsible not to one student alone but to the entire class for maximizing value. Maximizing such value isn't absolute but contextual, depending on (1) the quality and pre-knowledge of students in the course; (2) the primary subject matter &discipline represented in the course and those disciplinary debates relevant to that discipline and subject; (3) the amount of material or the number of course outcomes the instructor hopes to cover over the length of the course. In other words, there is a line there to follow, but it can’t be codified easily since each case is a matter of course context (including subject matter, students’ views (and how widespread they are), the professor’s own capacity for evaluating what ‘debates’ will benefit students and which ones will not, and so on).

So, for example, we generally won't debate the meanings of the term "irony" in a course on literature (though the lay person's understanding/definition is often quite different from the literary ones). Nor would we debate whether Shakespeare actually authored all of the plays attributed to his name or not. We won't debate these points any more than we might debate whether the earth is six thousand years old in geology, not because they are "simple" matters settled by experts in the field--this should not be our only or even our primary criterion for shutting down a point of discussion-- but rather, because the primary reason for turning away some point of contention is that it stifles the discussion as a whole. If our discussion is aimed at exploring whether Elizabethan capitalist structures are not only symbolized in but reinforced by Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar", then we get to assume several things in that discussion: (a) that the student has read the play for starters, but also (b) that the student is familiar with all that is understood by the term 'capitalist structures', (c) that the student is familiar with Elizabethan England, and (d) that the student is capable of analyzing and synthesizing all of these bases of knowledge into defensible positions. If we couldn't assume all of these matters for discussion, we couldn't ever get our discussion off the ground. That is, ultimately, the effect of trying to advance a six-thousand year old earth theory in the middle of a discussion of some finer point of geological discussion is that it paralyzes the discussion by unduly questioning one of the necessary assumptions, one that is so built in to that discussion that challenging it removes all possibility of staying 'on task' with that discussion. It is tantamount to a student objecting to a philosophy professor's opening statement, "Assuming that Kant's Categorical Imperative is a sound method for evaluating x, tell me..." That student might object, "But Kant's idea is wrong!" The professor is under no obligation to permit this outburst, and not because experts agree that Kant was absolutely right (they don't), but because the objection unduly derails the discussion at hand.
6.6.2007 3:29pm
p. rich (mail) (www):
There is no "correct" position, of course. But I would suggest:

Separating personal from impersonal, a multi-dimensional point. For example, the former has no legitimate place in fact-based academic discussion. Unless I have legitimate credentials in a subject area (or have independent legitimate substantiation for my opinion, which really doesn't alter the basic point), my opinion has exactly zero weight and should be recognized as such. One could even argue that opinions have no legitimacy by definition.

Positions that begin with "I think..." or "My grandparents came from... and..." have no substantive basis unless the question is, "What do you think?" of "Where did your grandparents come from?" - in which case all responses are valid. People MIGHT deserve respect, flighty opinions do not. Little Johnny is not entitled...

Separating feelings from thought. Otherwise the conversation begins as nonsense and degenerates from there. Feeling-based arguments are not subject to discussion, as they are only repetitious bi-directional monologues.

And so far as the prof's opinion: The exact same rules should apply, which means that, "I think Bush is stupid." has no place in the classroom either. Nor is Professor Johnny entitled...
6.6.2007 3:46pm
theobromophile (www):
Working backwards: Letters of recommendation should do more than reiterate that which is obvious from looking at the student's transcript. It should also do more than provide a breakdown of the grading scheme (ex. "Class participation is very important, and Johnny spoke almost every day,"). If professors aren't allowed to opine on the quality of such class participation or the creativity of the student, what point is there to even having those letters?

The relevant guideline would be pretty straightforward: a professor should warn a student about any negative aspects of a LOR before agreeing to write it.

In class discussions: Assuming that the debate is pertinent to the discussion, a professor could reasonably limit viewpoints to ideas which have withstood peer review. As far as I know (and someone will probably prove me wrong), no peer-reviewed articles have come out about how Allah causes lightning strikes or how astrology is pertinent to law. A geology student who writes on an exam that the earth is 4.6 billion years old need not put supporting evidence; a professor need not require students to explain every conclusion ab initio. A student who doesn't want to accept common premises, however, has imposed upon himself the duty to explain and provide evidence for his conclusions.
6.6.2007 4:25pm
Latinist:
There's a type of criterion that I think is important, but that people don't seem to be suggesting: the level of acceptance an idea has in society or within a given field. Intelligent Design might not be any more essentially plausible a theory than Flat Earth; but there are a lot of people who believe in the former, which might be a reason to discuss it, while discussion of the latter would probably be a complete waste of time.

Similarly, you can reject, say, Nazi ideology out of hand, not just because it's much, much nastier than support for the Republican or Democratic party, but also because there aren't enough prominent intellectual Nazis around to be worth debating. For the same reason, you might carelessly reject some harmless but crackpot theories (astrology, say), while respectfully discussing mainstream ideas that you find morally repugnant (like ideas contrary to yours about abortion, or the moral status of homosexuality).

Of course, if there's an idea way outside the mainstream that you think is true, or at least interesting, you might want to bring it up; I'm not sure how to fit that into this system.
6.7.2007 3:31am
dearieme:
"no peer-reviewed articles have come out about how Allah causes lightning strikes": I'll bet you're wrong. Not my peers, nor yours I dare say, but peers of each other no doubt.
6.7.2007 5:34am
Sarah (mail) (www):
Let's just use the decency standard: we know it's impermissible when we see it.

I don't have a well-thought-through theory about why it was bad that my geography instructor (who, incidentally, had a PhD from UCLA) felt the need to impose 7 weeks of anti-Israel rhetoric, and not one but two (out of three) paper assignments on neo-Marxist theories of global politics on a 15-week "Introduction to World Regional Geography" class.

I don't have a unified theory of academic speech to explain why I find it objectionable that the only extra credit the man offered was for students who would show up at his weekly peace rallies on the lawn just across from the main campus (which were held on "Teusday" every week. Drove me mad; he wrote it that way every single class session.) I can't quite articulate why it offends me that we never even talked about the political boundaries of Europe (15 weeks! We missed an entire continent and we had fifteen weeks to squeeze it in someplace!!)

And, I don't have a bright-line rule to reference when I say that it's a good thing that, in the end, my rather vehement objections to his idealogical claims (including my second paper, which was nothing but a refutation of the previously mentioned neo-Marxist theory) didn't keep me from earning an "A" that term.
6.7.2007 6:57am
Johnny Come Lately:
A Reason commenter just posted this quote, that I thought got right to the nub of this issue:

"To tolerate everything is to teach nothing"
- F. J. Kinsman
6.7.2007 12:08pm