In Chronicle of Higher Education, Michael Berube, a Penn State English professor, praises his own forebearance in tolerating a conservative student he calls “John” who dominated class discussion. His conclusion led many readers to think Berube is equating conservative views with mental illness.
Over my 20 years in teaching, I’ve had many conservatives in my classes. I think I’ve even had a few Stalinists, too. I’ve had many intelligent, articulate students who behaved as if they had a right to speak more often and at greater length than anyone else in the room; I’ve had versions of Reese Witherspoon in Election and Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series, who knew the answers to every question ever asked; I’ve had my share of blurters with very little sense of social boundaries, a few of whom may genuinely have had some degree of Asperger’s syndrome, with various autistic or antisocial symptoms. To all such students — indeed, to all students, those with disabilities and those without — I try to apply the standard of disability law: I make reasonable accommodation for them. The challenge, though, lies in making reasonable accommodations for students whose standards of “reasonableness” are significantly different from yours. Few aspects of teaching are so difficult — and, I think, so rarely acknowledged by people who don’t teach for a living.
Critical Mass analyzes Berube’s article here and here; the second link includes a response from Berube denying he was suggesting conservatives are disabled. Also see New Criterion, Discriminations, Cranky Professor, Tightly Wound and Eric Rasmusen. And probably a dozen other blogs by now.
As I read it, Berube isn’t saying conservatives are disabled; he’s patronizing all students who deviate from his “standards of reasonableness” or his rules of classroom decorum. The problem is that Berube’s “standards of reasonableness” are quite narrow. The student’s argument that Japanese-American internment camps were justified by the national emergency is not crazy. Wrong, I think. But surely no crazier than other ideas that were considered legitimate subjects for discussion, such as the idea that internment camps could be compared to Nazi death camps. The student also objected to black nationalism advocated by a character in a novel. Well, why read political novels if students aren’t supposed to discuss the ideas?
What Berube is really saying is that he was afraid to tell “John” that he was talking too much because “John” might complain he was being shut up for his political views. In my years as a newspaper columnist, many people criticized my work and my character and my intelligence and my patriotism. (With all those payoffs from Pravda they talked about, I never got a kopeck.) If you’re in a public position, you have to do what you think is right and take the heat. I didn’t have tenure either.
Update: Winston’s Diary, by a job-seeking grad student, describes the perils of being a non-leftist in academia and analyzes UCLA’s race, class and genderized literature classes.