There are a few things that I tell my students on the first day of class. The first is that the syllabus is our contract for the semester. My job is to communicate those guidelines put forth on the syllabus effectively and grade fairly based on the grading information that I provide.
One important perspective that I give my students is that it is my job to do these two things. The rest is the responsibility of the student.
Because I teach courses in the social sciences and the humanities, it is important to me that I tell my students is that I am a liberal and that that I do not have a good poker face. I could not hide my political and social perspectives if I tried.
A “liberal,” to me, is the belief that there are forces outside of ourselves that cause us to have certain experiences in life because of our ascribed and achieved statuses. These statuses are our sex, race, ethnicity, and our socio-economic status.
Our achieved statuses are traits that reflect our achievement in life – things like our level of education and our material assets.
I contend that we are a compilation of genetic disposition as well as life experience. If you are not a middle to upper class male of western European descent, that “society” is detrimental to your social health.
I take into consideration that the rest of us fare differently to being a part of one ascribed or achieved status.
This is not to say that I don’t believe in personal responsibility, and the good that can come out of good hard work. But I do believe that some are at a disadvantage because of where they were born, or the color of their skin, or any other myriad of conditions of their lives. As a human community that we fail many people because of differences.
If you are a first year student, your college experience will be different from your high school classroom experiences.
At the K-12 level, the teachers are taught to teach the material without bias at the center of the information. Public school teachers cannot lay down their opinion because of the impression that they might give their students.
In college, however, there are different standards.
There is an expectation that the students are able to think for themselves.
Instructors can express their opinions in class, and if they are a good instructor they will state “in my opinion.” or “as a social fact.” which helps the students make up their mind as to their own opinion.
The First Amendment to the Constitution protects the opinions in the classroom and on campus, and instructors cannot be fired for expressing their opinion. The tenure system in higher education was instituted to further protect the rights of instructors.
What should not be endured is the disrespect of the opinions and experiences of the students.
Both parties should be able to start a phrase that starts with “in my opinion,” and both parties should be required to respect those opinions in the quest for “the truth.”
I contend that we learn nothing if we talk and discuss the issues with people who are like-minded.
We can feel good and high and mighty that we “know” what the truth is, but we learn little about the world when we look in the mirror. I come to the classroom with my liberal bias, and I invite students with a different perspective to join me in an intellectual song, which adds the harmony to the melody of learning.
As I admit to my biases and my humanity, which I have more experience with, it is important for students to understand this about themselves. We are all humans in the game that higher education calls the quest for “the truth.”
We live in a country that cherishes the freedom of speech and dissent.
The classroom and the campus are not and should not be the Ivory Tower that they once were thought to be: a haven outside of the realm of reality.
We should all be able to put our cards on the table, have a civilized debate, express our opinions and come to a closer examination of “the truth” with the noble quest for human understanding that, in the end, benefits us all.
Anne Marie Merline is an instructor for the university honors program. Her column appears occasionally in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.