Thursday, September 27, 2007

A tale of two instructors

There is an interesting article titled "Adjuncts and God: Why are 2 instructors out of a job?" in this week's Inside Higher Ed. The first instructor, Steve Bitterman was reportedly fired from his job teaching Western Civilization at Southwestern Community College in Iowa for saying that Adam and Eve is a "fairy tale." The article quotes Bitterman as saying:

“A few of the students thought I was knocking their religion by not promoting it,” he said. “They were upset that I didn’t say that the Bible was literally true.” Bitterman said that he treats the Bible as a historically significant, important work, but that he does not accord it status beyond that. “That really seemed to come as a shock to some of them...”

The second instructor, Phil Mitchell was reportedly fired for his conservative views. including about religion. He is being defended by the Colorado chapter of the AAUP which reports on this case on it's website.

The AAUP says of this case:

"The American Association of University Professors, CU Chapter, finds substantial evidence that: A history of antipathy toward Dr. Mitchell’s political and religious convictions existed within the CU History Department. CU backed off Dr. Mitchell’s 2005 termination because, when challenged by media inquiries, the administration and tenured faculty could not document cause for his firing. Their stories changed several times, as each story proved ... An improper culture exists at the University of Colorado, wherein most of the faculty can be fired at any time for any reason, or for no reason, thus encouraging the administration and tenured faculty to suppress the academic freedom of the majority. Dr. Mitchell’s termination violates numerous Laws of the Regents protections of due process, shared governance, and academic freedom, as well as his First Amendment right to free speech."

In both cases, there maybe more to the situation, but from the outside it sounds like the notion of academic freedom is being trumped in the minds of some administrators by a desire to avoid lawsuits. There is a line between academic freedom and just plain offensiveness, but I think administrators need to realize that teachers develop particular points of view on topics related to their disciplines. Administrators and students need to remember that education at the college level is all about developing critical thinking skills and that means questioning one's assumptions and beliefs.

Sometimes that means dealing with the challenge of trying to understand beliefs and assumptions that are different from your own. Some times even the best intentioned instructors cross the line between good teaching and out and out boorishness, and our academic systems need to be a bit forgiving if instructors are going to be able to not just teach content but also the points of view important in their disciplines.

In Bitterman's case treating the Bible along with other religious texts is a standard way of looking at these texts from a historical perspective. In Mitchell's case, his conservative beliefs certainly color his approach to history and I see nothing wrong with him explaining those beliefs that are relevant to to his approach to history. In fact the students need to know that. Just students need to know how Bitterman's beliefs that the Genesis is not to be taken literally color his approach to history.

Teachers need to be free to teach their understanding of their own disciplines and not have to constantly watch where they tried lest they get fired because someone is offended. At the same time teachers have a responsibility to provide a safe space for student disagreement and challenges. Administrators need to take some responsibility too. They need to provide training for instructors on how to approach students with diverse cultural and religious belief. And administrators need to insure that academic freedom is maintained. After all instructors can only teach their best when they feel they are in a safe space.

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