Although I keep myself informed, I don't enjoy discussing politics, and I'm quite relieved that the election is over. TAs can stop ranting in the cubicles we all share; students can stop repeating things--with hands on their hips, essentially--they've overheard their parents or their roommates say; and professors can stop hinting towards, or blatantly announcing, their political agendas in class.
I was keeping pretty quiet over here in my little corner, feeling like I didn't have a dog in this fight, until I read this post from BitchPhd (click here). Granted, its obnoxious to have students wave around vague statistics about some political point--I know of one in particular from a previous semester who managed to somehow write into every paper something to the effect of 'America is the greatest place on earth and everyone should stop picking on us'. It was difficult, I admit, to stick to grading grammar and communicative skills in those moments. However, what I've run into much more often in my academic career, is the professor tying their political agendas into their lectures (some more subtly than others).
But there's only a few available reactions to a professor moseying off-course to make a random comment about political affairs:
- You agree with them. You smile, nod, maybe laugh, and continue listening. Nothing is written down in your notes, except perhaps "cf. Obama's campaign" which, later, means little to you in the larger spectrum of understanding European history, or what have you.
- You don't get it. You smile, nod, maybe laugh, and continue listening. Nothing is written down in your notes, except perhaps "comment made about George Bush...look up later"
- You disagree. You grimace, you check your watch. Maybe you smile politely, or just look out the window. You feel like an outsider because everyone else is smiling and nodding, whether they get it or not. Nothing is written down in your notes.
- None of the above. Rather than being concerned about whether you agree or disagree, you just don't find it germane to the discussion and would like to continue with the class that you've spent time preparing for.
Sometimes, depending on the severity or outlandishness of the comment, a disagreeing student is left unable to concentrate. A professor once joked about running for governor in ________. He/she said that their #1 platform would be to ensure that all Vietnam Veterans are tried as war criminals.
It was everything I could do to not get up and walk out of class. But I relied on this professor for a letter of recommendation. Biting my lip, I focused on writing the alphabet down--that is, until I broke the tip of my pencil. I consoled myself with the irony of the fact that the very reason I was able to afford being in this class to hear this bullshit was because of my father's "Bloodmoney" from chapter 35 of the G.I. bill. It was filtering into the university system and into this professor's paycheck. Don't worry, lunch is on my dad. Eventually, the professor concluded the rant and returned to the subject matter at hand (which, by the way, was in no way related to the remark about veterans). By that time, however, I was unable to concentrate on the discussion. My notes from that day are sparse and incoherent. *
This example is one of the worst possible outcome of talking politics in the classroom; albeit an extreme case. Why even go down that road? I don't make my political bents known to my students. It's not that I care whether they like me or dislike me because of it, it's that it does not apply to the subject matter of my classroom. Nothing a professor has ever said in a classroom, politically, whether I agreed or not, has informed my own opinions. It is a wasted minute of my education, as I see it, and I want it back.
*Later that week I swallowed my nerves and my potential letter of recommendation (because you see, professors, while students are not afraid of disagreeing with you on the outcome of a poem, they certainly don't want you to know that they disagree with your politics). I went to this professor's office to discuss the comment. I certainly did not imagine trying to sway opinions, or create a debate. I simply explained that comments of this nature prohibited me from concentrating on the lecture. Apparently, this was the right angle to play. To my knowledge, no Vietnam veteran comments have been made in this prof's classroom since this discussion about three years ago.