What struck me most after reading Austin Broussard’s opinion piece, “Yale must find balance regarding academic freedom” (9/27) was the feeling that members of the Yale faculty are unlikely to change in regard to including their opinions in class. Instead, I wondered whether the inclusion of these personal opinions by professors can improve the education of students. As Dean Salovey is quoted in the Yale Herald (“When professors bring politics to class,” 9/17), can such discussions be “even desirable”?
Before we discuss the benefits of professor opinion, it is necessary to understand why Yale professors are unlikely to stop offering their opinions. First, for those Yale professors who routinely tout their personal opinion during discussions largely unrelated to those matters, these professors will certainly not change their ways. Second, for those other professors who occasionally offer personal opinions in class, it is precisely that: occasional. Even if these professors were to keep this issue of academic freedom in mind, it would likely not have time to register, given the impromptu nature of those occasions when they offer their opinion. Moreover, since Yale professors do not seem to be compromising or changing the curricula of their classes with their personal opinions, it is unnecessary to create academic regulations regarding academic freedom within the classroom. At this point the original question can be reformulated thus: since it does not seem as if the faculty will stop including opinions, can the students take the initiative to make the most of these opinions?
Let us take the case of an instructor who includes personal opinions but always takes care to make sure that they are relevant to or offer insight into the material at hand. This is a clear example of how students can use this as an opportunity for educational improvement. Because these issues are presented in an intellectual forum, students should be encouraged to take these issues up and debate them, especially if they disagree. Even in large hundred-person lectures, I have seen students raise their hands and attempt to respond to a certain argument the professor has made. The student-professor relationship should never be considered a one-way street, where the knowledge imparted by the professor must be considered incontestable. As scholars, we should feel completely natural, not fearful, in tactfully questioning those opinions we neither understand nor agree with.
Now take the case of the professor who adds personal opinion into his class, largely in the context of discussions where the opinion is irrelevant. The student has two choices in this situation. The student can merely disregard the professor’s statements, just as he would do a peer’s with whom he disagreed. This usually reflects disinterest or merely slight annoyance on the part of the student as to what the professor is saying. Admittedly, this does make the professor’s choice to include opinions rather frustrating. This frustration, however, is on the level of many frustrations students may have to deal with regarding professors. For example, some professors cannot write legibly, making it difficult for students to follow the material. Yet there is nothing to be done about this, much in the same way nothing can be done about those professors who include their opinions in class. Students should already know that these are just opinions, and if the professor is not a specialist in that field, these opinions should not be thought of so highly as to make someone uncomfortable with his or her own views. Nevertheless, this option of merely disregarding the professor’s comments is not one that improves education.
The other option available to students is to take it upon his or herself to discuss this issue with the professor in class, after class or during office hours. If the issue is one that interests the student, especially if the student disagrees with the opinion of the professor, it would be a valuable intellectual experience to approach the professor and ask the basis for the professor’s opinions. Even if the professor is not a specialist in the field, it is probably very insightful to hear the opinion and justification of someone who is clearly very intelligent. I can admit that this may seem rather daunting for many Yale students, but it should be enlightening. If done tactfully, worries about annoying the professor and being penalized are rather empty. In other words, when professors do not offer a discussion forum for the students in class, students can create this forum on their own.
There is no burden on students to take this extra action and explore the opinions offered by professors, whether related to the class or not. However, we are students at an incredible University whose professors offer insight and opinion that can add to our understanding and broaden our knowledge. If my professor said Hegel and Kant would probably vote for Kerry, I would want to know why, especially if it helps me better understand Hegel or Kant. Students can and should view the faculty as a resource for their improvement. When professors offer opinions without creating a setting for academic discussion, Yale students should try to do so on an individual level.
Arpit Garg is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College.