Academic freedom includes the freedom to say, “No.”

Last week, the President of the University of Texas at Austin wrote a campus-wide e-mail. While such things usually do not make news, this time it did because of its subject. Both the Chronicle of Higher Ed and Inside Higher Education covered it because educational technology is not usually the stuff of Presidential attention.

I found it interesting how the coverage of the story differed. While the Chronicle made Williams C. Powers’ note/report seem like an order [“Get Used to Sharing Digital Content,” began the headline.], IHE‘s coverage made it sound much more benign:

Now it’s time for broader input, Powers said – and the call may be one that faculty appreciate, since they haven’t always been invited in.

Well, I’ve read the whole message now, and I can see the source of the confusion.

Powers touches all the bases that concerned faculty members would want to hear from a university president interested in reforming pedagogy. For example, his very first line is:

Face-to-face interactions among students and professors can never be fully replicated in cyberspace.

Later he writes:

Our faculty and academic units control the curriculum. Our faculty and academic units are responsible for ensuring that online resources, courses, certificates, and degrees reflect the content and rigor appropriate for a leading national university. Without compromising our deep commitment to the academic freedom of a world-class faculty, we should recognize that these technologies amplify the visibility and impact of individual faculty and staff as representatives of the University on a global scale.

So why then does this note bother me so much?

I’ve called educational technology issues the “academic freedom crisis of the twenty-first century” because I think how faculty present information to students is just as important as what information they present. If administrators force us to use tools that prevent faculty from teaching what we want to teach as well as we can teach it, they don’t need to tell us what to teach in order to prevent us from getting our message out. If those tools can be used to replace faculty entirely, then even our content choices will become irrelevant because we won’t have anyone around to hear our message. So what bothers me most about this message is its very limited definition of what academic freedom is.

I think academic freedom includes the freedom to say “No, I’m not interested in using that particular pedagogical tool.” Suppose you think your class is fine as it is. Suppose you don’t have time to learn the newest technological doo-dad. Suppose you don’t think that particular doo-dad is useful for your discipline. This kind of pressure from the top would then be most unwelcome.

But every good professor should use technology when teaching, right? I happen to agree, but every professor should also have the right to decide precisely which technologies they want to use. For example, Powers touts flipped classrooms in his report. Honestly, you couldn’t pay me to ever flip my history classroom because my students won’t have any time left to do assigned reading. However, I’ve been spending hours last week and this to prepare a wiki for my graduate students.

My classroom. My choice. If it’s not that way for you now, then there’s something wrong. If technology makes that a problem for more people in the future, then we need to have a really large discussion about what academic freedom really means in order to prevent that problem from becoming worse. While I appreciate President Powers’ well-meaning efforts to keep the University of Texas relevant, I’m afraid they’re more driven by economic concerns than they are by the quality of the pedagogy there.

10 thoughts on “Academic freedom includes the freedom to say, “No.”

  1. Pingback: No MOOCs were harmed in the making of this post. | More or Less Bunk

  2. Jonathan,

    Let me probe a little bit. What’s the difference between asking faculty to teach online and asking faculty to teach on a Tuesday evening in the Fine Arts building? I know very well that online teaching is not the same as face-to-face, but faculty can often (very legitimately) say the same thing about particular room arrangements or the schedule of a class, and we don’t generally consider time or place to be a matter of academic freedom on the same level as ordering faculty to teach or omit certain subjects.

    • Sherman,

      In most cases, your class won’t change whether it’s in the Fine Arts Building or the Psychology Building. I actually teach my survey class w/ PowerPoint (all pictures, virtually no text) so I can’t teach the way I want to unless I’m in a smart classroom. However, my colleagues who don’t teach that way can still teach anywhere and simply not turn the computer on.

      With respect to teaching online, I don’t think that’s the issue here at all. Nobody has to be compelled to teach online because there are plenty of adjunct faculty all over the country who’ll jump at that opportunity (btw, I’m not approving of that situation, it just is). The question is what role should administrations play in picking the technological tools you use for whatever class you teach, online or otherwise.

      • I’m all in favor of not mandating specific tools such as PPT (Lisa’s story of that mandate is horrific, and stupid of the administrator). But you point to the slightly different issue of a type of classroom. Suppose your college assigned you to a non-smart classroom. Is that a violation of your academic freedom? And suppose your college said that it was going to do the right thing by students and make sure all faculty are full-time, including for online courses. Would it be justifiable to assign faculty to teach online… not tell them they had to use a specific tool such as Articulate, but say “this semester, you’re going to get a little extra time and assistance, and you’re going to be teaching online”?

      • Sherman,

        Interesting argument, but if we didn’t have smart classrooms I never would have started PowerPointing in the first place. Is it a violation of academic freedom to make someone teach online? I’m going to say no, but making someone teach online who doesn’t want to is nonetheless a disservice to students and terrible labor policy.

      • I’m not sure that providing specific equipment is relevant other than understanding the investment faculty make in specific technologies (and that’s true for all transitions in various technologies; someone’s previous investment is going to be eroded).

        Whether and how to change assignments is always a matter of tact and diplomacy. I’ll agree on that. On the other hand, to privilege some faculty who wish to avoid Duty X (whatever that duty is, such as teaching at 8 am or online or on Saturdays or in the Old Building), one risks undercutting an important argument in favor of faculty governance, which is a commitment to common goals. For years in my college, full professors were allowed to exempt themselves from the college T&P committee just by claiming they were busy that year. That screwed up the process enormously, until a revised governance document eliminated the exempt-yourself practice. This may be out of personal experience, but I’m inclined to view individual desires to avoid X or Y skeptically. If the faculty member argued at the outset that X or Y was pedagogically wrong, that’s different, but to be silent until YOU were asked to do X or Y? That’s an unconscientious objector.

  3. “Honestly, you couldn’t pay me to ever flip my history classroom because my students won’t have any time left to do assigned reading.”

    While I’m agnostic about flipping, per se, I think the point about reading is so key I’m amazed how rarely it is made. So many discussions of ed tech, indeed, seem to presume it’s possible to just layer on more things to do, without other things being dropped. Sorry, V., there is no Santa Claus.

    • We need to find out whether there is historical justification for “academic freedom” meaning how things are taught, not just what is taught. Opinions on this may or may not be helpful.

      But the argument that teachers should use the approach that is best for them is crucial, whether instructional technology is involved or not. At college and university, most instructors are able to tap their pedagogical strengths. Anything that limits this independence risks turning good teaching into bad. Some teachers teach best through lecturing, some through group work, some through constructivism, some through creative use of internet tools and methods.

      And it’s not about disciplines, either, or departments. I often hear that this or that tool isn’t right for biology, or English. But any tool can be used for any subject if the individual instructor finds the tool appropriate the his/her pedagogy.

      And, Sherman, the difference is that I can use any of my effective pedagogical methods on Tuesday night in the Fine Arts building, but online I must use online tools to create that pedagogy in the online format. I know that it’s possible with web technology, but I might need time and training and motivation and comfort with the web to do it – I don’t need all those things to teach in a different room.

      This is why I argue that, despite the inspirational potential of technology tools, we must start with pedagogy, the goals and strengths of the individual teacher.

      • The AAUP was begged by faculty from the SUNY University at Buffalo — including a candidate for AAUP ASC Chair — to support academic freedom for a Kosciuszko Foundation fellow, technically an adjunct at Buffalo but a professor in Poland, when his department chair was insisting he must use Power Point and never use Wikipedia in the classroom.

        The adjunct professor was non-renewed mid-year because he insisted on both content and pedagogy academic freedom in a class of students well below standard lecture size.

        The SUNY union president abandoned him because he was an adjunct and the SUNY Chancellor had told UUP at Step 1 of a grievance to respect SUNY’s “right” to fire an adjunct at any time — even for improper reasons covered by contract, apparently. AAUP abandoned him because he was a SUNY adjunct abandoned by his AFT union in the midst of joint AAUP-AFT organizing: a major fund-raising activity. (We can surely expect more of this deference to union bossism with an AFT AAUP Executive Director, now, can’t we?)

        In any event, academic freedom has always been freedom of both content and pedagogy, in the spirit of the Yeats poem with the following quote: “How can you tell the dancer from the dance” — but one should realize that traditionally (and in some court cases), in multi-section courses where it is the department as a body which is determining the content and the pedagogy of the course, instructor claims to academic freedom are less defendable as an individual right.

        Of course, the whole reason for having academic freedom language “bargained” into a public employee union’s contract is to thereby overcome the First Amendment limitations on employee speech spinning out from the Garcetti case (itself built on Waters v. Churchill and other “Supreme” proclamations). But do “company unions” have the guts to defend this “bargained freedom” even when they have it? In the case of SUNY and United University Professions — and even AAUP — the answer was clearly no. Also, at the time of the case mentioned above at Buffalo, UUP was both an AFT and an AAUP-related union, proclaiming subservience to administration rather than allegiance to the collective bargaining contract.

        So much for AAUP principles in the digital age — especially for adjuncts in the corporatized university. But be aware that this is not exclusively a problem for part-time faculty, for AFT and now AAUP are establishing very solid track records that the organizations will sell anyone’s academic freedom for the opportunity to “bargain” for the almighty closed-shop “percentage of salary” agency fee.

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