Monday, September 19, 2016

Academic Freedom versus Academic Legitimacy: The Berkeley Palestine Class

A few days ago, Berkeley administrators suspended a course in progress titled "Palestine: A Settler-Colonial Analysis". As it happens, I'm relatively familiar with the course, and became aware of it well before it found itself in the middle of a national controversy. And so observing this chain of events has been like watching a car crash in slow motion. I knew it was coming, and knew it would be awful, but there was a depressing inevitability about the destruction.

I first became aware of the class when I spotted some advertisements for it which prominently featured those ridiculous maps. That inspired me to look into and read the syllabus, and what I saw was not exactly impressive. It was indeed entirely one-sided, taking a single conclusion as a given and not demonstrating an iota of interest in alternative vantages. Basically, it was not a course that did Berkeley proud in terms of its pedagogical merits.

At the same time, I also found out that the course was a "Decal"  offering -- courses designed and led by undergraduates, for undergraduates (this also put an end to my brief consideration of enrolling or auditing -- they're not open to graduate students). My understanding is that faculty review and oversight of these courses is relatively minimal (though I'm not sure about the exact amount of standard supervision). Most of the classes are on relatively fluffy topics, really more of a way to secure a few easy credits and explore a fun topic. They are not representative of the standard Berkeley offering; they don't say much of anything about Berkeley as a whole other than that we let undergrads design some courses, and some undergraduate-designed courses won't wow me with their sense of depth or nuance. So I figured there really wasn't much worth saying. You give undergraduates power to design classes, and some of those classes won't perfectly embody recognized pedagogical ideals. Quelle surprise.

Then, a few days later, mention of this course started to burble up on my Twitter feed. I did my best to give a fair, non-alarmist description: Yes, the class looks pretty one-sided, no, it's not reflective of Berkeley as a whole -- it's an undergraduate-designed class that will only enroll a dozen or two. At the same time, the subliminal message I was trying to send was much more straight-forward: Let it go. Just let it go. LetItGoLetItGoLETITGO.

Alas, nobody ever lets these things go. The hysteria machine spun into action, and then the class was suspended. The official rationale is that it failed to get certain approvals. This reeks of pretext, and it might not even be that -- this post, though overwrought at times, proffers compelling evidence that the class in fact fulfilled all the procedural requirements it needed. And the thing is, every step in the process was eminently predictable. Of course Berkeley is the sort of place that would produce a class like this, and of course we have faculty members who don't care enough inculcating good pedagogical habits that they'll give it their unmitigated approval. And then of course it will get out, and of course the usual suspects on the Jewish right will blow up in a hysterical overreaction to a tiny undergraduate seminar. And then of course Berkeley administrators rush into the worst, most panicked response possible and suspend the class without even contacting the course facilitator, making a mockery of academic freedom in the process, and then of course that suspension will become proof that it is impossible for even the meekest "criticism of Israel" to be aired in academia. (And then of course someone will call for a sit-in, because this is Berkeley and every damn thing needs to be a sit-in, and then of course Simone Zimmerman will propose having it at Berkeley Hillel, as opposed to the university office that actually made the decision, because some people haven't met a forest fire they didn't ache to pour gasoline on).

So my basic position at the moment is that I hate everyone. This is not for me an uncommon sentiment when it comes to either Berkeley decision-making or discourse about Israel and Palestine, so I guess you could say I'm used to it. But now that this bonfire has well and truly surged out of control, I guess I'll offer my two cents after all.

Right now, the debate has fallen into the usual rut: either the class was great and thus canceling it was an academic freedom violation, or the class is awful and thus canceling it was no academic freedom violation whatsoever. This dichotomy conflates two separate questions -- "was the class pedagogically sound" and "was Berkeley justified in suspending it" -- and it is that conflation which is worth breaking down. A few years ago I wrote a very short essay entitled "Academic Freedom versus Academic Legitimacy", and I've analyzed a few academic freedom controversies through that lens. The basic thrust of the article is that "academic freedom is a constraint on remedies": It does not block criticism of bad academic choices -- the decision to invite a certain speaker, or to construct a one-sided syllabus, or to forward a terrible argument -- it simply takes off the table certain responses. You can't ban "bad" speakers, or punish those who invite them. You can't fire tenured academics for publishing awful arguments. And you can't cancel classes just because their design is pedagogically objectionable.

So, on the one hand, it is perfectly valid and legitimate to raise concerns about this course and how it was constructed. As I said, I read the course's syllabus, and it had plenty in it to object to. The problem was not that it adopted a "colonial" or "settler-colonial" analytical frame -- I think there is a very interesting course to be written along that dimension. The problem was that it adopted that frame in a remarkably narrow, ideologically-blinded way. "Balance" is an impossible goal, but good pedagogy demands that when one centers a course around a given theme, one at least acknowledge a range of views that properly bear on its complexity. The course as it stands is akin to a class titled "Palestinians: A Made-Up People?" with 15 weeks of readings all answering "yep." A class like that would be an embarrassment, a joke, an obvious failure to meet reasonable pedagogical standards.

This is why when I teach my seminar on anti-discrimination, my syllabus includes an array of thinkers ranging from Cheryl Harris to Gerald Rosenberg to Charles Lawrence to Antonin Scalia to (a whole unit on) Clarence Thomas. Anti-discrimination is a big, important topic, and while I can't expose my students to all views (let alone all views "evenly"), I would be embarrassed if I only relayed to them those arguments which mirrored my own. To do that would be to confuse being a teacher with being an advocate; it would represent a failure to meet basic standards of pedagogy and intellectual inquiry.

But on the other hand, these objections simply have no bearing from an academic freedom standpoint. Academic freedom means that, sometimes, people are going to teach classes that I think fail to meet basic standards of pedagogy and intellectual inquiry. That comes with the territory. Academic freedom is a constraint on remedies; it means that, whether warranted or not, objections that a class is "imbalanced" or "biased" or even just pedagogically terrible cannot be rectified with a suspension or ban. That option is (or should be) off the table. The decision to suspend the course is flatly incompatible with any legitimate understanding of what academic freedom entails. and Berkeley should be embarrassed that it did it.

To be sure, it is reasonable to demand of members of the Berkeley academic community that they try to meet certain basic pedagogical standards when designing courses -- that they at least try to avoid narrow and ideologically lazy course constructions and present topics with an eye towards their full nuance and complexity. Decal, in particular, should be a venue where we try to inculcate young students with these academic values -- namely, that one's role when designing and teaching a class is different than when one is participating in one (let alone leading a protest rally). It demands something different out of us, and what it demands can be especially difficult to give if one is personally close to the subject matter. To the extent that a significant portion of the Berkeley academic community is indifferent to those values -- simply does not care about courses being thinly disguised agitprop or forums for indoctrination -- that would indeed suggest a deep and serious failing in our university. But again, "academic freedom" means that we are limited in the remedies we can bring to bear against such failings. Right now any conversation we might have about these "cultural" failings will be drowned out, appropriately so, by the more obvious breach of academic freedom.

And let's be clear: the erosion of academic freedom norms has ramifications far beyond Berkeley. Sometimes, as here, it will be a "pro-Palestinian" course offering that is suppressed; elsewhere, it will be "pro-Israel" or Jewish or Zionist scholars who are threatened with exclusion from the academic community. Too many people are quick to cheer one while angrily crying "censorship!" at the other. But true academic freedom has no fair-weather friends. Either you back it, or you don't. The decision by the Berkeley administration to suspend the class was wrong. I suspect it will eventually be overturned (perhaps with some token modifications to the course; almost certainly with quintuple the attention paid to its offerings than would have resulted if the "pro-Israel" right had Just. Let. It. GO.), and it should be. That doesn't mean it wasn't a problematic offering, or that it adequately embodied the ideals we should aspire to as teachers and scholars. But academic freedom is not restricted only to those curricular offerings which meet my standards of ideal pedagogy. If we have a problem with a Berkeley undergraduate course, our solutions must be consistent with the basic ideals of academic freedom that enable open inquiry and free discussion in the modern university.

UPDATE: I have on good authority that the course has been reinstated. There may be some minor changes to the syllabus wording, but apparently no changes in the reading. More (linkable) information once I obtain it.

UPDATE x2: Here is a Forward article on the reinstatement. Hopefully that brings this sorry episode to a close.


Anonymous said...

Students should not be getting college credits for taking undergrad taught courses. If they want they can set up a study club or a discussion group. That this particular course was problematic is beside the point and utterly predictable. What do they expect will happen when they let undergrad students teach college courses? Undergrads are know-nothing idiots who need to be educated, not educating.

David Schraub said...

But that's a separate question -- surely, whatever the rules are regarding undergraduate-led classes, they can't be applied differently based on political considerations. I don't actually have a huge objection to the Decal program, but even if I did, it would have to be an even-handed objection.

Anonymous said...

Mhm, seems I have a big problem posting here, but I'll try again: If I understand you correctly, your definition of academic freedom is absolute; i.e. it would also extend to teaching a course in Holocaust denial?

Anonymous said...

And, since I managed to convince everyone here that I'm not a robot ;) -- what about this: "According to the University of California’s Committee on Academic Freedom, “Professors who fail to meet scholarly standards of competence or who abuse their position to indoctrinate students cannot claim the protection of academic freedom.”"

David Schraub said...

It probably would extend to a course in Holocaust denial -- I really am pretty much an absolutist on this score. But while this class in my view did not live up to good standards of pedagogy, I would say that if we were to impose a standard of "competence" or "indoctrinat[ion]", I think those bars must be set very, very low. I don't think this course -- flawed as it was -- meets whatever standard might exist on that (while of course noting that we should not, as academics, aspire to only reach this bare threshold minimum).

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the clarification. In my view, your absolutist interpretation ignores that it's called *academic* freedom -- as e.g. different from freedom of (any kind of)speech; and I would think the qualifier "academic" must mean something.

Unknown said...

"usual suspects on the Jewish right"

You think only Jewish right wingers would object to a course like this? For real?

David Schraub said...

No, I think the "usual suspects on the Jewish right will blow up in a hysterical overreaction to a tiny undergraduate seminar." Notice how I, not a member of the Jewish right, have managed to level "objections" that I'd like to think stopped short of ridiculous histrionics.