ON CLASSROOM “DISCUSSIONS” And Academic Freedom

I have been taken to task by some academics because I objected to Professor Robinson sending an email to his students in which he compared the Israel invasion of Gaza to the “Holocaust.” I have been told my comments infringe on the right to free speech by Professor Robinson and that subsequent comments by me that many students fear contradicting what professors say in class indicates that I am a vindictive educator who refuses to allow students to voice opposing viewpoints from my own.

Few who have commented actually examine the nature of what is termed a “classroom discussion.” Let me identify several versions of what is termed a “classroom discussion.”

1. Teacher Lecture With Discussion: In this form of “classroom discussion,” a professor presents a lesson and asks questions. Statistically, about 95% of the questions posed in this form of “discussion” consist of students recalling what the professor said in his lecture. A few questions ask for meaning, and unless the student is brain dead, the response is to repeat the point made by the professor.

2. Discussion About Readings: In this form, students are assigned a reading and the professor asks questions about what was read. Statistically, 95% of questions posed are for recall of what was read. Or, professors ask the ever famous, “what was the main point?” of course, the professor has his own idea as to what is the “main point” and students learn to give it back to him.

3. Present An Issue For Discussion: Ordinarily, the issue is related to what is being studied. However, teachers also pose an issue that may not directly be part of the curriculum. The quality of the discussion is related to student knowledge about the issue. Obviously, if they don’t know too much about the issue, students will struggle.

4. Present An Issue Arising From What Is Being Studied: This discussion arises from an issue that is linked to the course of what has been read or discussed in previous sessions.

5. Present An Issue That Is Controversial: “Should We Have The Death Penalty?” type of discussion in which students offer their views but do not have to support them with evidence.

Let’s examine what is meant by “discussion.”

The basis of a “classroom discussion” depends on willingness of students to voice opinions. But, if you examine time allocated between posing a question, waiting for a response, if none given, then posing the question to someone else, it comes to about five seconds. In other words, “discussions” favor students who are glib and speak quickly. A thoughtful student who needs time to reflect is punished by the system known as “discussion.”

Professor Robinson’s “discussion” centered around an issue that was not studied in class, students had no exposure to a multiple range of ideas, but were being asked to quickly respond. There is no doubt, the “discussion” awaiting Robinson would have involved a few students and would not be characterized by reflective thinking. I suspect there would have been emotional comments, and Robinson would have dominated and imposed his views due to greater knowledge of the subject. Please do not misinterpret my comment about “imposing views,” most professors do so because they know more than students.

Allow me to use a favorite classroom “discussion” topic: “Should the United States Have Dropped the A Bomb on Japan?” I have heard this “discussion” at least twenty five times. Students are asked their “opinion.” Of course, students have no knowledge of the military campaign in the Pacific, the deadly struggle to take the island of Okinawa which witnessed the introduction of Kamikaze pilots who killed five thousand, no information as to military estimates of casualties if an invasion occurred, and, no information as to the thinking of Japanese leaders even though we have English translations of Japanese Cabinet meetings. Teachers beam with pride as their students, “discuss.” Of course, the “discussion” is merely sharing of ignorance.

I suspect a “discussion” in the class of Professor Robinson as to whether the Israel invasion of Gaza was analogous to the Holocaust would have been analogous to the Atomic Bomb “discussion.” His students know nothing concerning Nazi plans for killing Jews, no knowledge of the stages of the Holocaust, etc.. I have been told students study the Holocaust and know about it. In most “study” of the Holocaust, students see a film, read Anne Frank and may have guest speaker who was a survivor of the Holocaust. They don’t know a damn thing about the process of the Holocaust. The remark by Professor Robinson has to do with the process of the Holocaust, not the experiences of those who endured it.

Is my complaint concerning the email a violation of academic freedom? I don’t believe Professor Robinson should be fired, I don’t disagree with his right to comment about anything under the sun. I believe he is guilty of poor teaching, lack of respect for his students, and allowing his emotions to take over in an academic setting. His remarks were flippant, he never offered his students an intellectual presentation, and took advantage of their lack of knowledge. There was absolutely no chance for an academic centered discussion concerning his remarks to occur in his class. He was emotional and was seeking emotional remarks from his students, not intellectual centered ones.

I have been a Dean, I have spent years as the head of our local chapter of the AAUP which guards the rights of faculty. Academic freedom also entails responsibility to the rights of students and to respect their right to an academic centered education. I have yet to read any comment from those who disagree with my views as to the rights of students to have professors who are engaged in the marketplace of ideas rather than emotional outbursts concerning the latest issue which arouses their concern.

I wonder if those who support Robinson would support a bigot who disparages blacks or Hispanics on ground he has a right to his opinion. Larry Summers, while president of Harvard, was blasted by the Harvard faculty because he made remarks they viewed as insulting to women. I disagreed with his views, but the Harvard faculty was furious and wanted him fired. I suspect when college faculty discuss “academic freedom” they mean there are ideas that can be expressed and their ideas that can not be expressed.

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