The most important educational opportunities at a university revolve around the sorts of lively debates that take place in classrooms. Beyond exams, papers and presentations, in-class discussions provide an invaluable forum for the exchange of ideas between students and professors. Ideologies are modified and strengthened when students’ varying perspectives are presented. The role of the professor or the graduate student instructor in these debates cannot be overstated; they provide guidance and expertise. Of course, the role of the professor or the GSI comes with substantive responsibility.
One of the University’s strengths is its vocal, liberal tradition – a tradition that involves many members of the faculty. The opinions of the University’s faculty is important to the character of this school, but these opinions must be wielded carefully in the classroom. Students, particularly those supporting “unpopular” views – pro-life, pro-death penalty, pro-Drug War, anti-affirmative action and other traditionally conservative ideas – are often forced into uncomfortable silence during classroom debates when the professor or GSI forcefully lays down his opinion. If a student is concerned that his views are in conflict with the instructor and that this conflict will be reflected negatively in his grade, an unfortunate chilling effect can occur in classroom debate.
Given the current national and international atmosphere in which heated debates regarding Afghanistan, Israel and the Middle East take place often, it is important for faculty to recognize the importance of ensuring that all students feel at ease discussing their opinions. This does not entail faculty members censoring themselves inside or outside of the classroom. An introduction to the course wherein the instructor explains that students’ grades will be based on the strength of their arguments and not the political leaning of their arguments is enough to facilitate an open and honest debate.
There have been rising concerns among students that the quieting of opposition in classrooms is becoming more prevalent. As tensions regarding the United States’ anti-terrorism actions rise, in-class discussions have often shifted toward international politics. Instances where professors or GSIs vehemently attack Israel, for example, serve to alienate pro-Israeli students and foster one-sided discussions that fail to live up to academic honesty and integrity.
This is not an issue that requires any dramatic actions by the University. It only requires that professors and GSIs remain cognizant of the fact that they control the grades of their students and that the manner in which their opinions is presented can have a dramatic impact on classroom discussion. These in-class debates provide an invaluable learning experience for students and faculty – if and only if the debate is kept open for students of all ideological backgrounds.