The Professor in Polarized Times: Challenges of Free Speech and Inclusion on Campus and in the Classroom

AHA Session 169
Sunday, January 5, 2020: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Empire Ballroom East (Sheraton New York, Second Floor)
Jonathan Friedman, PEN America
Eddie Cole, College of William and Mary
Johann Neem, Western Washington University
Elizabeth Niehaus, University of Nebraska, Lincoln
Jonathan Zimmerman, University of Pennsylvania

Session Abstract

It is no secret that Americans today are ideologically divided. Many fall farther from the center of the political spectrum than they did in the past, and view supporters of the other party as a ‘threat to the nation’s well-being’. This polarization has had a serious impact on the university, where few days pass without a new controversy relating to free speech or inclusion gaining national attention, amplified by commentators on the left and right to fuel outrage among their faithful. With new forms of scrutiny made possible by social media, professors face a particularly uncertain climate where the limits of academic freedom are being tested, and where their statements, views--and even their syllabi--can become fodder for polarized debate. Rarely in recent memory has there been so much pressure on the professor to conform to a particular expectation, to self-censor their public utterances, to serve as a role model for civic engagement, and to help their students navigate these social tensions.

Historians may disagree on the extent to which they have a particular role to play in this political climate-- for example, in de-escalating conflicts; building social solidarity; promoting dialogue and civility; advancing equity and social justice; informing public understanding; or generally serving as model citizens. But these are traditional expectations surrounding the role of the “professor” with which they must contend. In an environment where students from different political orientations are increasingly likely to criticize narratives with which they disagree, proclaim offense, stir up outrage, and demand change, there is a pressing need for history professors to be reflective about these challenges, and about both their symbolic and practical roles as campus actors. Particularly with so much national focus on free speech and inclusion, it is critical that professors consider how they can strike the right balance between these principles, and facilitate democratic learning environments where all feel empowered to voice their views.

This roundtable session aims to delve into these challenges by featuring an ideologically diverse group of speakers, each of whom will help contextualize our current moment. Panelists will discuss the history of free speech, inclusion, and the university, the recent polarization related to these principles, and the implications for classroom pedagogy. Questions we aim to consider in the session include: What are reasonable expectations of history professors in these polarized times--among students, deans, presidents, and the broader public--and what expectations are more difficult to satisfy? How have societal expectations of universities and colleges changed amid this polarization, and how are these institutions changing administratively in response? And how can professors react to these changing demands, particularly in their teaching practices? We hope to provide the audience with an appreciation of the seriousness of these challenges, as well as creative strategies for teaching students to engage and dialogue with those with whom they differ. In spurring a deeper contextual understanding of campus conflicts over free speech and inclusion, we also aim to advise history professors on how they might best navigate these expectations.

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