Profs: political beliefs in class OK

A study conducted to determine whether students could detect the political leanings of their professors found that three-fourths of the 1,603 surveyed could – but the rate might be higher at UH.

Many professors said they see no problem informing their students about their political affiliation, so long as distinction is made between opinion and fact.

April Kelly-Woessner and Matthew Woessnerwill, political science professors at Elizabethtown College and Penn State-Harrisburg, respectively, conducted the study, "I Think My Professor Is a Democrat: Considering Whether Students Recognize and React to Faculty Politics," on their students, and their findings will be published in the next issue of P.S.: Political Science and Politics.

Honors College adjunct professor and coordinator of academic services Andy Little, who has taught a wide range of political science courses at UH, said professors should not feel inclined to keep students in the dark about their political opinions.

"I don’t see how the claim, that for some reason a (professors’) position ought to be hidden, is in some way therapeutic or good for the University," Little said. "It just kind of renders nugatory the whole conversation."

Like Little, associate professor of political science Ernesto Calvo doesn’t deem it necessary to shelter students from his political leanings. Calvo said most of his students can tell which party his beliefs align with, but that he makes a point to draw distinction between his views and established facts.

"If one is not explicit about statements that are not based on mechanism and facts but (are rather) based on political opinions, then every statement made in class appears to be an authoritative statement. That appears to me as a violation of principles."

Chemical engineering freshman Brian Le said he uses political science class to formulate and decipher his own political identity, and doesn’t fault professors for sharing their political experience with the class. Le nevertheless said he has reservations about professors’ potential of propagating opinion.

"Because he is the teacher, we look to him for knowledge," Le said. "If a teacher expresses opinion, then we might take it more seriously because most of us are used to teachers not really taking sides."

Other students, such as computer science freshman Gerardo Aguilar said they like hearing his professors’ stances on political issues.

Professors should be open about political positions to encourage and expand students’ political knowledge and interest, Aguilar said.

Calvo also said he believes students can benefit from a professor discussing his or her opinions in class.

"If you don’t make those preferences exclusive in class then there is a whole part of the political dialogue that you can’t talk about. Students need to be able to interpret when a statement is made from a Republican standpoint or a Democratic standpoint," Calvo said. "That is an important political value because that’s how you understand political debates."

Little agrees that without the exploration and contention of opinion in class, students’ education is incomplete.

Furthermore, should students find themselves so easily swayed by a professor’s personal statements, then those students value as member of a democracy may itself merit scrutiny, Little said.

"The premise of a democratic society is that . . . complete citizens ought to be rational and capable of processing arguments and coming to an answer that is a good fit for their interest. If they are not, they have no reason for voting in people to look after their interests," Little said. "If we shelter people from forceful arguments you don’t do any service to the contentious and free nature of a democratic people."

Additional reporting by Rachel Chan

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