The piece below has just been excised from the fourth (yes, fourth!) draft of an article I’m writing for the journal Radical Teacher. The editors and reviewers are right that it doesn’t really fit in the argument, but it’s too good not to put somewhere that people can see it. Enjoy!
Fall 2005 semester, first day of class
I’m teaching a general-education writing course called Writing for the Public Sphere. Halfway through the session, I’m explaining one paper in which students need to conduct interviews. A student asks about tape-recording, and I explain that any tape-recording requires signed consent on the part of the participant.
Pennsylvania’s state legislature has recently passed a resolution, H.R. 177, establishing the Select Committee on Academic Freedom, which is charged with investigating allegations of bias against conservative students by liberal faculty in state-owned universities. The resolution describes nothing of its procedures or goals; it suggests—actually, hints might be a better word—that remediation (without specifying what that might look like) may be in order. Because the resolution doesn’t explain procedures and leaves its own expected outcomes somewhat nebulous, faculty all over the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) are experiencing chilling effects. We’re hearing rumors that minions of this Select Committee (which many of us refer to as “The Star Chamber”) might ask any of us to appear in front of them, that we might be called out of class to do so, that our jobs might be at stake if they don’t like our testimony—all of which, I have to imagine, are good news to Representative Gib Armstrong, the resolution’s primary sponsor and friend of David Horowitz.
At about the same time, stories about Horowitzian stalking of liberal faculty are starting to pop up pretty frequently. Ward Churchill’s tenure/promotion case at the University of Colorado is reaching a fever-pitch, and we’re starting to hear inklings of similar problems for others. A handful of other state legislatures are considering legislation derived from—or provoked by—Horowitz’s Students’ Bill of Rights. Although none of them pass (at least not yet), the possibilities are frightening. Arizona, for example, nearly passes a bill allowing students to opt out of general education courses if they find the material politically offensive in January 2006. Keep in mind, as another piece of the picture, that Fall 2005 is also the peak of the Intelligent Design debate, particularly in Kansas where we’re waiting on a State Supreme Court decision regarding ID’s interjection into K-12 science curriculum (for a complete list of legislative efforts based on Horowitz’s Academic Bill of Rights, see http://www.freeexchange.org/____).
This first day I happen to be feeling my oats. So as a half-joke, after saying that recording somebody without their consent is a felony in Pennsylvania, I say, “By the way, that means that if anybody here is from the College Republicans or the Eagle Forum, recording me so you can prove I’m some kind of liberal wacko, you’re committing a felony and I’ll see you in court.” A student immediately gets up and leaves the room; I never see her again. A stunned silence falls on the room for a minute, during which I’m trying to decide whether I caught one, or whether I’ve simply irritated somebody who has decided she can’t work with me.
In my heart, I don’t believe I caught one—although it would make for a fun story if I had. Part of me feels a little bad about possibly driving away a student because of a bad joke. I teach at a public university that struggles to offer enough sections, especially of general education courses, for students to stay on schedule to graduate. Many students work full-time, many others substantial part-time hours, and I’d hate for somebody to have felt forced out of a required course on such grounds. It’s not my job to make students’ daily lives more complicated than they already are. On the other hand, if a student is that sensitive to what seems a relatively innocuous aside, I probably won’t work well with her either.