Wrestling with Neutrality

My student worker (we’ll call her Ann) sounded a little frustrated when I asked her how classes were that day.  A political science major with Capitol Hill aspirations, she had really been enjoying her classes as a first-year student so this seemed unusual.

“I’m really frustrated with my Intro to Poli Sci professor,” Ann said.  “He totally told us today that he’s a liberal, and I think that’s really unfair.  How am I supposed to learn political science through a biased teacher?  I don’t want to learn his liberal rhetoric.”

<Deep breath>

I thought a moment how to push back on Ann.  She and I had good rapport, and I wanted to maintain that, but I also wanted to use that rapport to suggest another perspective.  I asked her if, prior to knowing her professor’s dirty liberal secret, she had ever felt like he was trying to indoctrinate her to his perspective.  She said no, but that she’d probably notice it more now.  I asked her if she thought it was possible for a person to teach or explore perspectives they don’t personally hold.  She said she thought in political science this was particularly unlikely, and she added that she really hoped she would have gotten a professor who took a stance of neutrality.  I asked her if she thought it was really possible for someone who had enough interest in political science to study it as a career to have no personal opinions about it, and I followed that up with asking her why she thought he shared his affiliation.  Ann agreed it might be difficult to be neutral, but was adamant that professors should do everything possible to keep their positions unknown so they didn’t unduly influence students.  She felt he likely shared his affiliation because “it’s safe and popular to be a liberal at college,” and “conservative students [like herself] just know to keep quiet.”  I asked Ann to think more about how she would approach teaching the subject matter, knowing that she took a particular perspective, and I asked her to keep an open mind about her professor’s approach and challenge things she disagreed with in class.  After all, our office handles academic grievances, so she would know where to go if she truly felt discriminated against.  Despite her misgivings, Ann reported only discomfort and no discrimination as we checked in later.  Whether she came to appreciate the opportunity to learn from a professor with different perspectives and to hone her own perspective as a result, I’ll never know, and I felt a lingering dissatisfaction with this that sticks around every time similar conversations arise.

A stance of neutrality.  Ann had a point, but the point never sat well with me.  On one hand, I did agree with her intimation that a professor’s opinion has power over students, whether intentionally or unintentionally.  I didn’t like the suggestion that a professor may use that power to treat students unfairly or deny them any legitimacy of their perspectives, but I had to admit that if I was honest with myself, I knew that happened in classrooms all the time under different guises.  The more I reflected on this tension, the more I recognized that root of my unease was situated in my teaching philosophy.  I believe in a classroom environment where all ideas can be explored.  This doesn’t mean that all ideas can hold up under critique, but it does mean that without the safety to explore dissenting points of view our opportunities for learning are limited.  I was uneasy about the idea that my situational power as a professor would automatically mean avoiding neutrality was the only way to promote student openness.

Reading Parker Palmer’s A New Professional: The Aims of Education RevisitedI was returned to my conversation with Ann.  Palmer outright dismisses the notion of neutrality of knowledge, and indicts it for the danger doing so might cause.  Palmer is of course talking about life and death while I’m talking about critical learning, but the connection for me is clear.  One of my hopes for my students is that they will learn to be learners and continue to process their world, experiences, and interactions with awareness and critique.  Palmer pushes me to name that part of that process, so ambiguously described in my teaching philosophy, is education of the heart.  In his example, connecting the learning of the heart with the learning of the mind humanizes education, humanizes decisions, behaviors, and actions.  Changes outcomes.  Viewing knowledge and education as neutral and valuing the stance of neutrality indirectly sends the message (maybe directly sends the message) that our students should remain neutral in what they come to know, particularly if they have a voice that might influence the world.

I think of that conversation with Ann now.  I wish we were still seeing each other weekly to continue our conversations.  I would ask Ann what she wouldn’t have learned had her professor remained seemingly viewpoint neutral.  I would ask her if she would have believed he had no point of view and how that would have changed her interactions, for better or for worse.  I would challenge her to think of ways to share her viewpoints that still invite others to share their own.  I have not given up on the tense yet worthy possibility that I as a professor can share my non-neutrality and show students that I appreciate theirs.  Palmer has helped me to realize my defense is not only that I believe in it, but that the world needs it.

 

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