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September 22, 2016

Professor bias hurts students and staff

Earlier this week, the article “Do professors lean to the left?” ran on the front page of the Massachusetts Daily Collegian. The article mostly concerns itself with an analysis of the standard phenotype of college professors. Among other things, the article asserts that according to recent studies, college professors may be more socio-politically moderate than previously assumed.

At first, this sounds like a fairly positive front-page headline. Logically, the more moderate a professor is, the less slanted and unbalanced his teaching will most likely be. Therefore, a fairer and better learning environment is created for the student.

However, soon after reading the article, the devil’s advocate portion of my brain lit up, and I asked myself: Is there no case to be made in favor of socio-political bias in professors?

In my opinion, there certainly is. As odd as it sounds, it may actually be beneficial to college students for professors to lean one way politically, whether it is to the left or to the right. As an aspiring journalist, it seems to me that the issues concerning the concept of perfect objectivity seem to have some parallels between the realms of media criticism and higher education. Just as in the profession of journalism, objectivity in teaching is something to be stressed and sought after. However, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing, and objectivity is no exception to this adage. When taken to the extreme, perfect objectivity on the behalf of the informer robs all informative output of a contextual frame, therefore rendering the information itself less meaningful and less useful to the informed.

A professor with little or no lean would strike me as a personification of perfect objectivity, or, in other words, a professor whose message would have less meaning than a professor with significant lean. Let me qualify this statement, however, by saying that I do not endorse any sort of actual political bias in any educational environment. Razvan Sibii, a media criticism and media ethics professor in the journalism department of the University of Massachusetts, said on the subject, “I do believe that professors should work hard at not allowing their personal political opinions to influence the way they grade papers or conduct discussions.”

Failing a student or purposefully drowning out ideas based on political affiliation is obviously not only highly unethical but extremely detrimental to students in any educational environment. But a professor with considerable lean is more likely, in my opinion, to give a more meaningful informative message. This is because doing away with the concept of perfect objectivity allows for a less vague frame for students to contextually gather information from.

“I do think that students can benefit form hearing about a professor’s ideological leanings,” says Sibii. “Whenever appropriate, he/she should disclose his/her ideological investments always keeping in mind, however, that the class is not about them, but rather about the students and their reasoning process.”

In college, students should not only be receiving an adequate education, but should be doing so in preparation to actively participate and achieve success in the real world.  As our society becomes more and more media-based, one’s interaction with the real world becomes more and more about one’s ability to identify, deconstruct and reconstruct messages directed at oneself regarding the origin, context and significance of said messages. The real world is set apart from the ideal world by the fact that it is filled with slant, bias and subjectivity.

Considering this, it is absolutely necessary for higher education to prepare students to decode and draw meaningful information from the barrage of socio-political media-based messages from countless sources found in the real world. There is no better or more appropriate place to learn these highly abstract and intangible skills than in college. However, to do so, the leanings of college professors must not be suppressed or concealed. Rather, they should be embraced and acknowledged, not only for the sake of the free flow of ideas and information, but so that students gradually learn to extract proper and valuable meaning from said ideas and information.

Obviously, it seems easy at first to construct an argument against having a college professor with considerable political leanings. As the introduction to the Collegian article seems to imply, professors could potentially turn leanings into bias very easily. This would make the professor possibly take on the role of a preacher rather than an educator, using his position as a bully pulpit to convert students to his ideologies instead of teaching them.

However, there is a considerable difference between a professor having substantial lean and exercising bias in the classroom. As was previously stated, punishment or praise towards a student based solely on political affiliations is wrong.  Yet it is possible for a professor to express and make students aware of his or her ideologies without actually pushing them on the students. Even if a student could not disagree more with a professor who openly expresses his or her ideologies, that student arguably benefits greatly by learning from the professor about the other side of whatever issue is at hand.

Without formally and appropriately addressing the ideologies of one’s professor in a higher learning environment, a student will never learn to properly dissect and make use of the plethora of informative relationships available to them. In order to prepare for the real world, a place that is filled with information that is fused with slant and opinion, a student should be able to practice disseminating significant meaning from informative messages that arise from real human ideological opinions and viewpoints. Provided this, students will then not only be much more well informed, but will also learn to better construct their own meaningful and informative messages based on their own opinions and ideologies.

If students can approach their professor’s opinions and their leanings with this mindset, it will prove to be supremely advantageous for their learning process.

Dave Coffey is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at dscoffey@student.umass.edu.

Comments
4 Responses to “Professor bias hurts students and staff”
  1. Zach Oelschlegel says:

    There is a difference between stating one’s opinion and blatant indoctrination, which is what many professors at UMass have resorted to when teaching their classes. The most poignant example during my years came in Econ 104 my sophomore year, taught by Richard Wolf.

    Wolf’s Marxist bias was front and center, every lecture, as he railed about the evils of capitalism, which made for very entertaining lectures. Looking back six years and having studied other economic perspectives, his lectures were complete indoctrination. Anything that could further his agenda was used: China was a communist country with double digit growth rates, even though any economist could tell you China’s real rise was due to capitalist ideas such as private property and profit. Horrors from the communist world were duly ignored, and any stat would be twisted to further this agenda. Even his analogies were laughable: “imagine you had a girlfriend as unstable as capitalism. You’d get rid of her, wouldn’t you?”

    To ask a student to call out some of Mr Wolf’s inaccuracies in the middle of a 300 person lecture is a stretch, at best. Very few 19 year olds are academically advanced to challenge a Marxist heavyweight in such a setting. Most are willing take it all as fact, as I was at the time.

    From what I read, the Econ department is more or less full of Marxists, with contrary opinions few and far between. To hear economics from only that perspective is dangerous. Professors should be allowed to air their opinions…but to think students would be able to debate topics like Marxism against such men is wishful thinking.

  2. anonymous says:

    I don’t find your argument and the preordained prejudice towards Professors very amusing. I have extended family who are in this field and they have never once slanted their teachings to benefit a particular point of view. In fact they are the ones who have taught me about how important research ethics are. Just because college professors research doesn’t endorse you personal point of view doesn’t mean it is part of a larger conspiracy. Parent’s and Family have the strongest influence on Students not professors. What you are doing is tying to turn every fact in academia into a partisan battle.
    There are many people that are afraid of the free flow of information. Especially those that have some sort of power in this country. It’s there fear that they will be proven wrong that has prompted this current attack on Academia. An attack you have fallen for and gotten caught up in.

    There is a study done by a conservative couple Matthew Woessner and April Kelly-Woessner on the subject on Professors influence on students politics. They published their findings in PS: Political Science and Politics, the journal of the American Political Science Association. They found that changes in political ideology could not be attributed to proselytizing professors but rather to general trends among that age group.
    I suggest you give this study a good look over before you make such unfounded accusations

  3. Jerry says:

    “…doing away with the concept of perfect objectivity allows for a less vague frame for students to contextually gather information from.” This is exactly the problem in colleges today. It seems to me that this is founded upon the idea that students are too stupid or ignorant to put the ideas and information that are presented into a meaningful context themselves. It ignores the experiences of the students, some of which may have a wider range of experience in the world than their professors.

  4. James Harbour says:

    Yes, professors have an extreme leftist bias. Anyone who thinks otherwise has not spent significant time in academia.

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