The Chronicle of Higher Education’s new issue presents an essay by Robert M. O’Neil, professor emeritus of law at the University of Virginia, offering counsel to professors on “What Not to Say in Class During an Election Season.” It begins with an anecdote:
Think of the Duke University history professor Gerald Wilson’s response several years ago to a student’s question during the first meeting of his survey course. When the student asked, “Do you have any prejudices?” Wilson quipped, “Yeah, Republicans.”
The students dropped out of the course and complained, which is all too bad in O’Neil’s view, but “Wilson’s jocular remark, and the student’s reaction to it, call attention to a deeper and more complicated dilemma.” Let’s pass on the “deeper dilemma.” Wilson’s jocular remark?
It seems hard to imagine O’Neil would have settled on such an exculpatory adjective if Wilson had quipped, “Yeah, feminists,” or “Yeah, gay-rights activists.”
O’Neil’s advice to faculty members is definitely not an echo of Stanley Fish’s Save the World on Your Own Time. Rather, O’Neil thinks “occasional references to politics or ideology should be permissible,” and he cites last September’s egregious AAUP report Freedom in the Classroom as warrant for professors to signal their political views to students. But O’Neil is alert to the trouble this can cause if the professor is caught too openly promoting his politics. The burden of his article is how to do so without getting caught.
For example, he suggests the locution, “Just because I am supporting _______ doesn’t mean any of you should feel constrained to follow.”