February 4, 2004

Politics in the Classroom: Ito and Iraq

Posted by Michael Arnzen at 10:35 in Theory.

Dennis Jerz, my colleague right down the hall at SHU, posts an interesting deconstruction of press "spin" regarding Elizabeth Ito, a teacher who was terminated for promoting her views against the Iraq War in the classroom.

Ito is predominantly seen as a victim in most media treatments of this event. But Ito has also become a politcal poster child regarding political speech in the classroom given the current war climate. The anti-war group, Not in Our Name highlights Ito as a sort of poster child of the Bush administration "coming after the teachers" in the wake of the Patriot Act and you can read the Ito Defense Coalition's website if you're interested in Ito's response to her termination.

Although he treats Ito as a stereotypically "out-of-touch campus radical consumed by an irrational passion for one ideological issue," Jerz sets his sights on the press release itself, unveiling how the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education bias their audience through writing. Although I think any superficial look at the FIRE's website will reveal their political leanings, Jerz' analysis is a pretty good lesson in journalism, and Jerz offers this as an example of how he teaches politically-ripe issues in the classroom. He prefers to analyze the representation of the truth, rather than scrutinizing the truth value of the event itself. This, at least, tries to approach objectivity by taking the attention away from the teacher's politics in order to examine the politics of the texts themselves. In a journalism course, this allows the teacher to show how press releases can -- and ought to -- be read critically by reporters and not just reprinted verbetim, because, "language has the power to heal and the power to destroy." I've done similar analyses in my own journalism classes. And I concur with Dr. Jerz.

But the more I scrutinize the Ito story itself, the more I think of the academic freedom issues that Ito's tale raises -- and that's what FIRE is really after. In many ways, all curriculum is political, all teachers are products of their ideology, and no content is free of bias. This is why academic freedom needs to be protected by structures like tenure. If a course is going to discuss political issues, I see nothing wrong with a teacher acknowledging his or her biases and leanings -- in fact, it seems more honest to me than a pretense toward pure objectivity. Naturally, a teacher can go too far in promoting their own views -- and Ito probably did -- and as a fan of the student-centered learning environment, I don't think the teacher should play a dominant role that would allow them to proselytize in the first place. But if we expect our students to have viewpoints and to support them in arguments we shouldn't pretend that we don't have viewpoints ourselves (note: I'm not saying my colleague, Jerz, doesn't already do this). The trick is to try to remain balanced and to be very conscious of the amount of power that a teacher wields in shaping the worldviews of his or her students. Teachers need to respect contesting opinions and alternative belief systems, whether political or religious. Such matters also depend on the class, of course -- my thoughts on this are more applicable to humanities courses, where politics become a matter of open discussion, rather than, say, to chemistry. But even in Chemistry, their might be debates about certain theories. In fact, every discourse community is a contested space where differences emerge. In some classes, particularly freshman composition, I try to make these differences more visible, so that we can dialogue about them and learn from one another.

Ito was also a first year teacher from what I read, which is typically a position with the least amount of power and the most amount of scrutiny and judgment that a new professor has to endure. I personally feel her administration could have "taught her a lesson" without terminating her contract. In fact, I would argue that most good schools do treat events like these as teachable moments -- where senior faculty consult with junior faculty about teaching options and appropriateness of politics in the classroom. (Some schools clearly differ on the level of appropriateness -- when I taught at the University of Oregon -- which was listed as one of the most "activist" campuses in the country -- I regularly saw teachers promote their own views in the classroom, especially graduate student teachers who were so political they had their own labor union). It seems to me that firing Ito was actually more politically radical (or reactionary) than Ito's expression of her beliefs in the classroom. But maybe it wasn't political in the usual sense at all. Maybe it was purely economic.

In looking into this story, I noticed that President Bush actually guest lectured at the school which dismissed Ito just a few months after she was fired.

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Mike, you're right -- in one version of my blog post I had a section on Ito's powerlessness as an instructor at the bottom of the totem pole, but I ended up compressing that into the "Teaching is not easy work" paragraph. It looks like Ito has had five years of teaching experience elsewhere, though the controversy happened during her first full-time year at this particular college. (http://www.progressive.org/mcwatch03/mc091903.htm). Only after she gave her anti-war speech did she receive negative feedback. Whoever had the internal administrative task of writing up her evaluation would have had plenty of material and motive to "spin" the evidence in whatever way would best serve the institution.

I suppose I think Ito and FIRE have a good enough case for academic freedom that I feel they shouldn't need to rely on quite so much rhetorical sleight-of-hand in order to make their point. I'd prefer that both sides lay out the evidence that supports their viewpoint and then let the public decide -- but the institution is citing Ito's right to privacy as their reason for not publishing all the details.

As Mike noted, this may simply be an economic decision... how many other teachers weren't hired back?

While checking news.google for an Elizabeth Ito update, I stumbled across an editorial in favor of an "Academic Bill of Rights"... the editorial quotes the press release I critiqued on my site, and uses the example of Ito's administration to make the author's support for the bill appear more moderate... but the closing paragraph comes on strong: "Whether some professors like it or not, for example, lawmakers have every right to ensure public colleges and universities have a grievance procedure to protect students from political zealots who belittle, intimidate or even punish them academically for differing views. Such professors no doubt are a small minority, but they exist." http://www.rockymountainnews.com/drmn/opinion/article/0,1299,DRMN_38_2624594,00.html

I don't want to spend too much time critiquing this editorial, but note the casual insertion of the term "political zealots," a meme that competes with the pro-Ito "she was fired for 10 minutes".

By the way, I found a much more informative and persuasive press release on Commondreams (http://www.commondreams.org/news2003/0912-12.htm)... I think I'll blog an update about it.

Posted by Dennis G. Jerz at 11:34 on February 4, 2004. #

Thank you Dennis! Great conversation. [Looks like the "comments" are back online, too... woo-hoo! Sorry for any frustrations, folks...]

Posted by Mike Arnzen at 12:42 on February 5, 2004. #

I read through the article at the beginning of Mike's blog. It seemed pretty balanced--balanced enough, at least, that I don't have a clear opinion on the Ito case. I've always felt that it was wrong to argue with students, try to cram a point of view down their throats. Students, presumably, have the gift of reason. They deserve respect. If a reasoned exhange of ideas doesn't change minds, invective won't. Should Ito have lost her job? Not for one incident. As Mike said in his posting, action by administration of senior faculty could work on this in a way that would make it better for everyone.

Posted by John Spurlock at 00:04 on February 7, 2004. #

John, I agree -- the article Mike linked to seems fair and balanced. I first came across this story via a press release that I thought was manipulative, and my gut reaction against being manipulated has colored my attitude towards the whole affair. But rather than write about what I think about Ito, I tried to focus on what I thought about sample documents the competing sides have produced -- which will probably be a good exercise for "Practice of Journalism" the next time I teach it (Fall 05, if memory serves).

Posted by Dennis G. Jerz at 00:57 on February 7, 2004. #

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