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Students’ beliefs guide discussion

Jenn Metz | Friday, September 19, 2008

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of a series examining the place of politics in the classroom.

Fair, political discussion can take place in the classroom, though that discussion can be guided, whether subtly or overtly, by the beliefs of the professor.

Two University professors, currently teaching courses relating to the 2008 presidential election take the two different approaches regarding the presentation of their own opinions in the classroom.

Dr. Susan Ohmer, a professor in the Department of Film, Television and Theatre (FTT) teaches “Media and the Presidency” this semester, an FTT course cross-listed as a course in American Studies, Political Science, History and Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. She informed her students outright of her political beliefs – she is a Democrat – at the beginning of the class, and explained that students’ agreement (or disagreement) with her position would no in no way affect their grade.

On the other hand, Professor Darren Davis said he will not disclose his personal partisan beliefs to his students during the course of the semester. He is currently teaching “Political Psychology of Racism,” a junior political science seminar.

Associate Provost and Vice President Dennis Jacobs told The Observer that in cases where political debate is appropriate and relevant to course materials, the decision to disclose political affiliation “is certainly at the discretion of the faculty member.”

“I would say in many ways I would respect a faculty member who says ‘I will disclose my political beliefs,'” or anything from their background that helped form those beliefs “on day one just to get it out in the air,” he said. “Though, I’m not saying that all faculty members must disclose.”

There are certain classes, like those taught by Ohmer and Davis, in which political points of view “will shape and frame the debate all semester,” Jacobs said, whether the professor reveals their personal position or not.

An open policy

“It is a challenge to teach during a presidential campaign,” Ohmer said. The issues involved evolve on a daily basis, she said, and professors must “think on their feet.”

“It’s like trying to navigate a river, but usually the stream is not moving so fast,” she said.

Ohmer decided to only teach the course, titled “Media and the Presidency” during election years. She said her course draws a number of students with different opinions.

Thinking back to professors she had in college that would orate their politics and “attack, not educate,” Ohmer, who started teaching the course during the 2000 election, decided to remain neutral in the classroom.

“I think back to that now, even though my political loyalties have shifted, and I remember how that felt,” she said.

The first time she taught the course, Ohmer said she thought she “was being evenhanded” in concealing her political sympathies, “but students want to know where their professors stand because they are concerned it will affect their grade,” she said.

Now, she reveals those sympathies on day one. Ohmer told her class that she is a Democrat planning to vote for Sen. Barack Obama for president in November.

“I say ‘This is what I think, and I’m doing my best to be evenhanded, and if you think I’m tilting one way, let me know,” she said.

The purpose of her disclosure is “not to orate, not to preach, but to inform,” she said. Though at times remaining neutral in debate “is a struggle when I have strong opinions.”

Ohmer administered a secret ballot to her class to ascertain how the class felt as a group about the presidential candidates. She said the results – 22 for Obama, 11 for Sen. John McCain and one outlier for Fred Thompson – a write-in option – were not surprising given the nature of the course.

She said she believes the results of such a ballot would vary from college to college, and that one survey conducted in a business class showed more students in favor of McCain.

“It gives me a sense of where people stand,” she said. “It made me very committed to making sure the McCain supporters felt comfortable.”

In the humanities, she said, “teaching is a conversation – a conversation in which the professor is helping the students to develop skills, that says ‘here’s how we can work together to gather knowledge in this area.”

That conversation is more about sharing perspectives and listening carefully than to “rant and to rave,” she said.

“I do not profess to be any sort of paragon at all,” she said. “In a way, what we’re doing in the classroom models a discussion that would be helpful to have in politics in general.”

No disclosure…

Political Science professor Darren Davis also told his students something on the first day of class – that he would play devil’s advocate, taking different positions, but “those positions should not be confused with my own personal beliefs,” he said.

He does not disclose his personal politics for several reasons, the primary being he does not want to “tell students what to think.”

“My role is to teach them how to think,” Davis said. “I don’t want to indoctrinate them into a particular political viewpoint. We’re teaching young adults, and many of their beliefs are evolving. Professors have influence, and I think we need to be very careful.”

Davis said he is more concerned with what the class learns from the political science literature.

He said he also wants to make students feel comfortable in the classroom, regardless of their politics.

“[I want] a free-flow of ideas and discussion, as long as it takes place on a higher, academic level,” Davis said. “I want to create a classroom environment where every political view can be discussed.”

In order to facilitate this discussion, “my political views are always held in check,” he said. “I am neither liberal or conservative.”

Like Ohmer, Davis said he “hated those classes where my professors were opinionated, especially about politics.”

“I understand how that can be off-putting, how that can make students uncomfortable and intimidated,” he said.

When political oration takes place, “the understanding of what happens in reality is lost,” Davis said. “So if I were to just stand up there and proselytize and preach, the students are missing that objectivity.”

Another reason Davis, who has been a professor for 15 years, does not disclose his political beliefs is the issue of race.

“Because I’m black, there is an expectation of a certain political viewpoint,” he said. “And I like to keep students guessing.”

Students in Davis’ class, who may not have had black professors in the past, “may approach the class and automatically think that I may be supportive of affirmative action,” he said. “That’s a problem. They won’t ever know my views on affirmative action in the classroom because my views are pretty much irrelevant.”

… except on matters of faith.

Davis’ draws the line on his policy of nondisclosure when it comes to issues regarding his faith, he said.

“One of the unique things about Notre Dame is that I can openly wrestle and challenge with these issues,” he said. “I am not going to stand up in class and say students need to figure out on their own if genocide is reasonable.”

Citing abortion and the death penalty as other such issues, Davis said: “I’m going to take positions on those because those are related to what I believe, and this is what Notre Dame is about.”

He separates matters of faith from the political, and said the discussion on these issues “is always heated.”

The lines between faith and politics are drawn “in the way you present the material – how you cover it and how you approach it,” he said. “But to a certain extent, it can’t be separated.”

“I’m not going to try to force my beliefs on the students, but I’m going to communicate to them that I do have a position on those issues.”

While teaching at Michigan State – a public institution – Davis said he felt pressure not to raise these sorts of issues in the classroom environment.

“But at Notre Dame,” he said, “I feel comfortable, I feel encouraged to openly wrestle with certain issues and ideas that pertain specifically to my religious beliefs, not to politics.”

Catholicism and politics

Davis’ discussion of his faith raises another issue with the role of political discussion in classrooms at Notre Dame: the University’s religions affiliation.

In terms of political and religious beliefs, Dennis Jacobs, associate provost and vice president, said it is “dangerous to talk about the faculty as a whole.”

“Each [member] comes with a very complex set of values and opinions. You cannot try to aggregate the group,” he said.

Political party affiliation is “not a question” when the University hires new faculty, Jacobs said. “That is outside of the sphere of what a University does or is all about.”

The University is a Catholic institution, not a political institution, he said, and political alignment – either to the left or to the right – should not be connected with the University’s religious affiliation, as “elements of Catholic teaching fall on both sides of the political spectrum.”

“As such, open debate on the issues of the day, in light of Catholic teaching, should be a hallmark of Notre Dame,” Jacobs said.

That reflection, he said, “might lead people to a particular opinion that they then might express in the political process.”

Open discussion on a topic – whether political or not – and examining it through many different perspectives “is not only appropriate at a Catholic university, it is part of our mission,” he said.