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Taking Sides

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After the 2016 presidential election of Donald Trump, Professor of Religious Studies Miriam Dean-Otting felt upset, but she couldn’t be sure everyone in her larger class felt the way she did. “I was caught between the desire of not wanting to be presumptive and the desire to be supportive,” she said. 

She did not share her personal thoughts about the election until Wednesday evening, when the five students in her seminar class were visibly upset, and she openly grieved with them. 

For many professors, the line between their personal lives and teachings in the classroom is not always clear. “If someone felt very happy, that was their valid response to the election,” Dean-Otting said. 

Anton Matytsin, an assistant professor of history, firmly decided against disclosing his many opinions about the results of the election to his students. He teaches early modern European history, so discussing his views on contemporary American politics in class seemed inappropriate. 

But what happens when the course material itself is political? Assistant Professor of Political Science Nancy Powers teaches a course about immigration that is based on her past experience working with immigrants. 

“In that case, I’ve got a position,” she explained. “I mean, I used to actively lobby for immigrants’ rights, so it wouldn’t be honest if I tried to hide that and pretend, ‘Oh no, I’ve got no opinion on this.’” 

Sometimes, course topics cannot be separated from current events, about which many people hold stances — not least, the professors themselves. Because of the nature of the subject matter, presenting them neutrally to students can come as a challenge. Many professors feel tension between the desire to be honest with their students about their perspectives and the desire not to silence opposing ideas. 

Powers shares her pro-immigrant stance on the first day of her immigration course, Immigration, Citizenship, and National Identity, and she is very open to being questioned about her views. “It won’t be a great class if we all agree with each other all the time,” Powers said. 

She has seen students try to dismiss opposing viewpoints in her classes. During one of her first years of teaching at Kenyon, Powers remembered, a senior in her Modern Democracies class raised his hand and remarked, “Uh, Professor Powers? Don’t try to be so even-handed. Everybody’s a democrat in here.” 

Powers remembered worrying that students from the minority position felt silenced. 

Since that moment, Powers has tried to encourage those in her classes to consider the possibility that others do not feel as they do. 

Professor Fred Baumann of Political Science strives to withhold divulging his political opinions because he prioritizes developing his students into critical thinkers. “What I care about is that students understand the questions. I care much less about the answers,” he said. 

Vernon Schubel, a professor of religious studies, respects other professors’ decisions not to disclose their religious or political beliefs but thinks that “just because you don’t bring up your opinions doesn’t mean that your opinions don’t bleed through. That’s the thing. I would rather people know.” 

Professor Emerita of Biology Kathryn Edwards’s class, Female Sexuality, touches on many socially contentious topics, such as the objectification of women in pornography, abortion, and societally-enforced gender roles. As an avid activist and feminist, Edwards is very upfront with sharing her personal viewpoints, because she believes silence is political. 

J. Kenneth Smail Professor of Anthropology, Edward Schortman takes the middle ground by only choosing to share his political stance on an issue if he believes it would not shut down discourse. “I think it kills conversation because people are then prone to say things they know I might find pleasing.” However, in his class called, Whiteness, Power and Race, he admits there are times when he cannot remain neutral, because it is dangerous: Neutrality comes across as affirmation. 

“When it gets into social issues,” he said, “when it gets into issues that have real implications for real living people, from which real living people suffer, then I’m going to be more critical of certain positions, which have been at the core of people’s suffering.” 

David Suggs, a professor of the anthropology, aligns with Schortman. He said there are times when choosing to withhold the expression of opinions is a form of intellectual cowardice. Suggs values authenticity. “What you see is what you get,” he said. “In my office, in my classroom, I am me.” 


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