Phi Beta Cons

Some progress

Here is an article in the latest issue of College English. It is written by an academic with sympathies for the Left, but who recognizes some of the ideological problems in the curriculum and the personnel. I don’t agree with many of its conclusions, but it is encouraging to see some insiders beginning to grapple with the issue. Here is one nice passage:

Ten years ago, when service-learning was just beginning to emerge on the scene of English studies, Brace Herzberg described the following overheard conversation between two students: “We’re going to some shelter tomorrow and we have to write about it,” [says the first student]. “No sweat,” [says the second]. “Write that before you went, you had no sympathy for the homeless, but the visit to the shelter opened your eyes” (309). Today, service-learning is an established part of English studies, particularly in composition, and we undoubtedly think about it in more complex ways. But “ventriloquized sentiments” of obedience and assent (Miller 11) are still passing for authentic learning in such scenarios, and those students who are unwilling to cough up “extorted confessions” of prejudice and transformation (Herzberg 309) are often displaced, silenced, or otherwise punished-if not for their politics or their recalcitrance, then for their imagined suspicions of liberal bias, however specious.
And let’s be honest: some of these suspicions do have merit. I’m reminded here of a panel at the Conference on College Composition and Communication devoted to service-learning that I attended some years ago, during which one of the speakers informed us that while he did not allow students to work with religious groups or the local Republican Party, he did allow them to work with politically liberal groups, such as the National Organization for Women and the local Green Party. When questioned about this policy, the speaker unapologetically responded, “My students know my politics on the first day of class. If they don’t like it, there are dozens of other sections of composition they can transfer to.” I know I wasn’t the only one in the room to be troubled by his answer, and such statements are apparently not unique. An almost identical episode was reported at the University of Colorado last year (see Hebel), and at Duke, history professor Gerald Wilson has caught heat for answering the student question “Do you have any prejudices?” with the retort, “Yeah, Republicans” (qtd. in Hebel). Wilson claims to have been joking, and I have no reason to doubt him . . .

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