"Reclaim Your Rights as a Liberal Educator." That's the title of a short essay in this month's Academe, organ of the American Association of University Professors. The phrase has all the imagination of a slogan unfurled at countless marches, but what it lacks in wit it makes up for in fortitude of the uniquely academic kind. Author Julie Kilmer, women's studies and religion professor at Olivet College, sounds the standard "they're-out-to-get-us" call and rallies her brethren to take back the classroom. We have, too, a vicious aggressor: conservative student groups that confront professors of perceived liberal bias, and they form a national network out to undermine the faculty, who come off as vulnerable and innocent professionals. While the professors uphold "freedom of inquiry to examine the worth of controversial ideas" and "teach college students to use analytical thinking in the development of new ideas," groups such as Students for Academic Freedom do their best to subvert the process. Worst of all, they "encourage students to bring complaints against faculty to administrators." To Kilmer, they are no better than spies, and they prompt her to wonder, "Each time a student is resistant to feminist theories and ideas, should I ask if he or she has been placed in my class to question my teaching? How is my teaching affected if I enter the classroom each day asking, 'Is today the day I will be called to the president's office?"
That's the result of conservative student activism, and there is much to note in the panicky chill that descends upon this feminist professor and so many others. That they should so exaggerate the power of students, assume the role of victim, and concoct scenarios of interrogation without offering the slightest factual evidence or acknowledging the special protections of professorial life bespeaks an anxiety deeply held. Such disproportionate responses suggest a psyche in action, the mindset of people who've nursed resentments for many years within the artificial havens of one-party departments, tenure, and a 30-week work year. (Do not believe academics when they talk about summer research work. Outside the scientists, most of them are idle or labor on books and articles that they don't have to write and that less than 50 people will read.)
With such vast disparities between the threat professors envision and the actual security they enjoy, one would think that more people would recognize the problem of ideological bias on campus. But they don't, and the reason lies in a campus advent that has nothing to do with psychology. Instead, it's a sweeping sleight-of-hand that liberal professors have executed in their discipline. We see it operating in this very essay in Academe, and in the sentences I just quoted. Did you spot it? Professor Kilmer worries that a student who "is resistant to feminist theories and ideas" may sit in her class as a "plant," someone to incriminate her and send her upstairs for punishment. That's how she interprets uncongenial students, and it's an astounding conversion. In her class, any student who contests feminist notions falls under a cloud of suspicion. The ordinary run of skeptics, obstructionists, gadflies, wiseacres, and sulkers that show up in almost every undergraduate classroom is recast as an ideological cadre. If a student in a marketing class were to dispute the morality of the whole endeavor, no doubt liberal professors would salute him as a noble dissenter. But when he criticizes feminism, he violates a trust. He doesn't just pose intellectual disagreement. He transgresses classroom protocol.
Behold the transformation. An ideology has become a measure of responsibility. A partisan belief is professional etiquette. A controversial outlook is an academic norm. Political bias suffuses the principles of scattered disciplines. Advocacy stands as normal and proper pedagogy. That's the sleight-of-hand, and it activates in far too many decisions in curriculum, grading, hiring, and promotion. I remember a committee meeting to discuss hiring a 19th-century literature specialist when one person announced, "We can only consider people who do race." For her, "doing race" wasn't a political or ideological preference. It was a disciplinary prerequisite.
The reason professors can declare such biases so blithely is precisely because they have acquired a disciplinary sheen, the mantle of professional criteria. In the subsequent essay in Academe, "Impassioned Teaching," women's studies professor Pamela L. Caughie of Loyola University (Chicago) asserts, "In teaching students its [feminism's] history, its forms, and its impact, I am teaching them to think and write as feminists." So much for the vaunted critical thinking professors prize, and the injunction that they question orthodoxy and convention. Caughie aims to produce versions of herself. And it's more than an ego trip - it's a professional duty: "I feel I am doing my job well when students become practitioners of feminist analysis and committed to feminist politics" (emphasis added).
We end up with indoctrination passing as proper teaching. When Kilmer states, "What happens to the feminist classroom when students challenge feminist principle?" we might respond, "An energetic discussion follows." But for Kilmer, it means disruption and intimidation. By her own admission, she can no longer distinguish honest disagreement from insubordinate conduct. That's what happens when disciplines admit ideology into their grounds. Accept the ideology and you're sure to advance. You're okay. Decline it, and you're not okay. You're not only wrong - you're illegitimate.
Mark Baulerlein is a Professor of English at Emory University and former Director of Research and Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts