Thursday, April 20, 2006

Is Activism in the Classroom Justifiable? Ajay Nair @ Penn

Two lines in an article in last week's Daily Pennsylvanian have caused a bit of a controversy:

One of the marchers, Penn Asian-American Studies professor Ajay Nair, said he recommended that students in two of his classes attend the rally.

"We've also invited community folks to come and talk about immigration," Nair said. "I've been getting my classes mobilized."

Here is Erin O'Connor's critical reaction at ACTA Online:

As one might expect, the spectacle of a professor working to "get his classes mobilized" was presented by the DP as completely acceptable practice--despite the fact that Nair's behavior is quite ethically questionable, not to mention pedagogically irresponsible. Using the classroom to promote political views is just what professors do; Nair can thus be forthright about it, and the paper can report it matter-of-factly, without surprise or comment.

Of course, it's not quite that simple. Nair is teaching a course called "South Asians in the U.S." this spring. One could easily imagine that a comment on the current immigration crisis could be relevant in a classroom with a strong emphasis on the sociology of a particular immigrant group. It might be appropriate to directly express one's political views if it's on-topic and well-defended

I got this through Tim Burke, who has some reservations about using one's classroom to "mobilize" one's students, but who nevertheless argues that context has to be considered:

Classrooms are spaces of exploration, but they are also spaces of constraint as well. Some subjects dictate certain kinds of gravity and weight by their nature. You don’t open up Holocaust denial in a class on the Holocaust. Perhaps for similar reasons you don’t open up an argument in a course called "South Asians in the US" that all South Asians should be sent home because the US is a white country. There are boundaries.

But yes, I do think that saying you’re "mobilizing" your students is at least a red flag moment that raises a concern about whether you’re really creating a range of possible outcomes, whether you’re teaching in an exploratory and thus empowering manner. The point is to red flag it for the right reasons.

I would never use my classroom to "mobilize" my students, but then all my courses have literature at the center, so it's hard to imagine that this particular situation would arise. The course Nair is teaching is in Asian Studies and is defined by different parameters, so different rules about how to handle politics are likely to apply. Still, though I don't think that political views are by any means always off-limits, I have to agree with Tim Burke (and in this case, with Erin O'Connor too) about the red flag that word ("mobilizes") raises.

Incidentally, in case you're wondering who Ajay Nair is, here is a short profile.


nomadeye said...

I don't agree with Tim Burke's viewpoint that Holocaust denial should not be taught in a Holocaust class. I am not a denialist, but the Holocaust occupies an important cultural space, one which is constantly being reasserted and defined in the media and within the classroom. As such, one should recognise that it is contested and examine the reasons and agendas of those who contest it. In doing so, students will be able to gain a broader perspective of how this event is understood by various groups.

In fact, why not also teach about the Armenian experience of 1915 and the Turkish reaction to this? This historical event is equally contested and could be an equally insightful pedagogical experience. Then again, one could extend this thinking and look at structural massacres such as those which statistics can highlight. The World Health Organisation studied the mortality indices following the first Gulf Conflict, and found that up to a million people died thereafter prinically because of the sanctions imposed. These are people who would not under normal conditions have died, and the spike in mortality indices were directly attributable to sanctions and continual air attacks on vital infrastructure such as water purification plants.

So the question of constraints is an interesting one which begs the question: how does a teacher know where to draw the line? How does one justify the exclusion of information that can inform a subject and enrich students' understanding even though at first glance it seems tangential? Perhaps one might answer that it ultimately depends on how intellectually curious and courageous the teacher is.

Amardeep said...


I think you might be misunderstandng Tim's point. When he says, "you don't open a class on the holocaust with holocaust denial," he's referring not to teaching ABOUT holocaust deniers, but to a professor actively espousing the view that the holocaust didn't happen. For the vast majority of historians I know, such a position isn't acceptabe. It's one of those cases (relatively rare, in history), when you simply say, "sorry, that's outside the pale -- we don't accept it as a viable position."

I'm pretty sure no one would have any objection to a professor simply mentioning all these different points of view. And the Armenian genocide and the effect of sanctions are much more complicated historical problems, over which there is much disagreement.

nomadeye said...

Thanks for clarifying that for me. I went back to the original statement, and I see now why I misread Tim's original statement since he didn't include a key word in it: 'You don’t open up (with) Holocaust denial in a class on the Holocaust' Small words, eh?

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Amardeep. That's really what I meant: not that you don't talk about Holocaust deniers in a class about the Holocaust (seems quite appropriate to me) but that you don't explore Holocaust denial as a legitimate thesis about the Holocaust that should be taught alongside the rest of the historiography; Holocaust denial is (or should be) bracketed off in that context as a phenomenon to be studied.

Tim Burke

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