Stanley Fish’s op-ed in today’s New York Times(1) argues that professors must separate themselves from their subject matter in the classroom. I believe we have some professional duties which require us to put our “selves” aside (for instance, not grading down students for disagreeing with us) but I also think that there are times when some unavoidable overlap occurs between the person teaching and the content. For instance, when a professor presents something he or she has spent her life on. More to the point ae matters of political import. Fish writes
Academic freedom means that if I think that there may be an intellectual payoff to be had by turning an academic lens on material others consider trivial – golf tees, gourmet coffee, lingerie ads, convenience stores, street names, whatever – I should get a chance to try. If I manage to demonstrate to my peers and students that studying this material yields insights into matters of general intellectual interest, there is a new topic under the academic sun and a new subject for classroom discussion.
Fish’s examples are all things that aren’t politically controversial. Essentially, he’s writing like he doesn’t have a body. Now substitute “sexuality” “race” “colonialism” “gender” and it changes a bit, especially for professors who are themselves not members of the dominant group in those categories. Academic freedom must indeed include the right not only to inquire, but to advance positions — in research and in the classroom — that are unpopular, controversial, and otherwise politically uncomfortable. Of course, students ought to have the same freedom to disagree with the professor by the standards of the field being taught. . . .
1. I won’t bother linking since by tomorrow you’ll have to pay for it. I always have to track down the Times’ online stuff through a library database anyway, so the link’s useless.