Thursday, September 13, 2007

Freedom in the Classroom (2007): Balance

 
I'm discussing the Freedom in the Classroom (2007) report from the American Association of University Professors [Freedom in the Classroom (2007].

The first posting covered the issue of indoctrination and made the point that Professors have to allow for debate in the classroom [Freedom in the Classroom (2007): Indoctrination].

But allowing for classroom debate is not sufficient. I'd go one step further, I would insist that Professors actually address the contrary opinions in the classroom and provide references to the writings of other academics who present the other side of the controversy.

The reason for advocating this is to avoid indoctrination by default. If the students are unaware of the controversy—which they often are—then the Professor is guilty of bias by not alerting students to the possibility that they can hold a valid, but different, opinion.

I was recently alerted to this problem when I learned that our second year students had never heard of random genetic drift or punctuated equilibria in their first year biology class Organisms in Their Environment. This course is taught by members of the Dept. of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the course description is,
Evolutionary, ecological, and behavioural responses of organisms to their environment at the level of individuals, populations, communities, and ecosystems.
I think my colleagues may be guilty of indoctrination if they're only presenting an adaptationist view of evolution and not alerting our students to other mechanisms of evolution.

The AAUP report covers this issue as well.

Balance
Current charges of pedagogical abuse allege that instruction in institutions of higher education fails to exhibit a proper balance. It is said that instructors introduce political or ideological bias in their courses by neglecting to expose their students to contrary views or by failing to give students a full and fair accounting of competing points of view.
I completely agree with this charge. I think it's criminal if Professors don't bring up contrary views in the classroom. How do universities ensure that Professors present both sides of a controversy?
We note at the outset that in many institutions the contents of courses are subject to collegial and institutional oversight and control; even the text of course descriptions may be subject to approval. Curriculum committees typically supervise course offerings to ensure their fit with programmatic goals and their compatibility with larger educational ends (like course sequencing). Although instructors are ethically obligated to follow approved curricular guidelines, "freedom in the classroom" affords instructors wide latitude to decide how to approach a subject, how best to present and explore the material, and so forth. An instructor in a course in English Romantic poetry is free to assign the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance so long as the course remains focused more on John Keats than on Langston Hughes.
This is how universities and departments are supposed to work. Collectively, they draw up guidelines for courses in order to make sure that all the essential topics are covered. Once the course is under way, there should be some feedback between what's supposed to be taught and what is actually taught in the classroom. Unfortunately, this doesn't always occur. Even more unfortunately, it's not always true that the department as a whole is aware of some controversies.

In the case that I alluded to above, I'm not certain that the Dept. of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology thinks there's a problem with the way our first year course is being taught. Does that absolve them of the charge of indoctrination?
To make a valid charge that instruction lacks balance is essentially to charge that the instructor fails to cover material that, under the pertinent standards of a discipline, is essential. There may be facts, theories, and models, particularly in the sciences, that are so intrinsically intertwined with the current state of a discipline that it would be unprofessional to slight or ignore them. One cannot now teach biology without reference to evolution; one cannot teach physical geology without reference to plate tectonics; one cannot teach particle physics without reference to quantum theory. There is, however, a large universe of facts, theories, and models that are arguably relevant to a subject of instruction but that need not be taught. Assessments of George Eliot's novel Daniel Deronda might be relevant to a course on her Middlemarch, but it is not a dereliction of professional standards to fail to discuss Daniel Deronda in class. What facts, theories, and models an instructor chooses to bring into the classroom depends upon the instructor's sense of pedagogical dynamics and purpose.
Fair enough. One could perhaps argue that random genetic drift and punctuated equilibria, for example, are not essential topics in a first year course on evolution. But you'd have to be a damn fool to make such an argument. I think these are "theories, and models ... that are so intrinsically intertwined with the current state of a discipline that it would be unprofessional to slight or ignore them."
To urge that instruction be "balanced" is to urge that an instructor's discretion about what to teach be restricted. But the nature of this proposed restriction, when carefully considered, is fatally ambiguous. Stated most abstractly, the charge of lack of balance evokes a seeming ideal of neutrality. The notion appears to be that an instructor should impartially engage all potentially relevant points of view. But this ideal is chimerical. No coherent principle of neutrality would require an instructor in a class on constitutional democracy to offer equal time to "competing" visions of communist totalitarianism or Nazi fascism. There is always a potentially infinite number of competing perspectives that can arguably be deemed relevant to an instructor's subject or perspective, whatever that subject or perspective might be. It follows that the very idea of balance and neutrality, stated in the abstract, is close to incoherent.
We concede this point. Nobody is asking an adaptationist Professor, for example, to give equal time to punctuated equilibria and Gould's hierarchical theory of evolution. That would be absurd and it would go against one of the most important principles of good education, namely the idea that students should be exposed to the passionate opinions of experts in the field. I don't like the mamby-pamby, politically correct view that we have to be dispassionate reporters of facts in the classroom.
The ideal of balance makes sense only in light of an instructor's obligation to present all aspects of a subject matter that professional standards would require to be presented. If a professor of molecular biology has an idiosyncratic theory that AIDS is not caused by a retrovirus, professional standards may require that the dominant contrary perspective be presented. Understood in this way, the ideal of balance does not depend on a generic notion of neutrality, but instead on how particular ideas are embedded in specific disciplines. This is a coherent idea of balance, and it suggests that balance is not a principle that can be invoked in the abstract but is instead a standard whose content must be determined within a specific field of relevant disciplinary knowledge.
The authors of this report have clearly thought about these criticisms a great deal. They are to be congratulated on crafting an excellent summary of the important issues in university education. The point here is well-taken. The point about "balance" in the classroom is not to enforce strict bland neutrality. It's to make sure that the opinions of Professors are placed in the appropriate context of the discipline.

There might be a controversy about "appropriate context." Maybe there are many evolutionary biologists who believe that "balancing" adaptationism with silly ideas about pluralism is not required in order to maintain professional standards? How do we resolve that?

This part of the report closes with a succinct statement of a principle that most people don't appreciate.
If scholars must be free to examine and test, they must also be free to explain and defend their results, and they must be free to do so as much before their students as before their colleagues or the public at large. That is the meaning of "freedom in the classroom." To charge that university and college instruction lacks balance when it does more than merely summarize contemporary debates is fundamentally to misconstrue the nature of higher learning, which expects students to engage with the ideas of their professors. Instructors should not dogmatically teach their ideas as truth; they should not indoctrinate. But they can expect their students to respond to their ideas and their research. As students complete different courses taught by different professors, it is to be hoped that they will acquire the desire and capacity for independent thinking.
This puts some of the onus on the students. They have an obligation to engage in their own education and not to just sit there and soak up facts. This is not the normal politically correct view of university education. In that view, students can never be blamed for the problems in the universities.

(BTW, just for the record. There are lots of problems in universities and I think that Professors are to blame for most of them.)

5 comments :

  1. The purpose of our first year biology course is to homogenise understanding of evolution and general biology. As you can appreciate, freshmen students have diversely different prior educational experiences. The best way then to homogenise understanding is to present the simplest model which explains the most interesting features, namely adaptation. I also believe that punctuated equilibrium and genetic drift get some lecture time (perhaps your students forgot! I even remember mentions of allopatric and sympatric speciation), so I'll have to say your example is not totally valid. You are correct when you say adaptation is overwhelmingly the focus, but I don't think it's that horrible-- in physics, students learn about Newtonian dynamics well before learning about the principle of relativity even though Newtonian dynamics aren't used in actual physics. However, it serves as a model to build a more sophisticated understanding, much in the same way as upper year courses build on students' understanding of evolution.

    I believe my first year biology professors avoid most of your criticisms, so it might be a bit irresponsible to malign them without talking to them.

    ReplyDelete
  2. "our second year students had never heard of random genetic drift or punctuated equilibria in their first year biology class"
    I'm really surprised to hear this. I have taught introductory courses for Biology majors and nonmajors at 5 colleges and universities, and drift has always been part of the curriculum, and punk-eek usually (it's not really a mechanism of evolution so much as an empirical pattern in the tempo of evolutionary change). I have on my shelf right now 6 textbooks that are commonly used in introductory biology courses, and all devote several pages to drift as a mechanism of allele-frequency change (in small populations).

    On the other hand, look at the course description again:
    "Evolutionary...responses of organisms to their environment."
    If your colleagues take that literally, it could be argued that selection is the only mechanism of evolutionary response to the environment.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Dunbar,

    I asked 14 students yesterday and none of them had any significant knowledge of random genetic drift or punctuated equilibria. If they "forgot" then that just confirms that neither of those topics were important parts of the course.

    You are correct when you say adaptation is overwhelmingly the focus, but I don't think it's that horrible-- in physics, students learn about Newtonian dynamics well before learning about the principle of relativity even though Newtonian dynamics aren't used in actual physics.

    That's a horrible analogy. A better analogy would be to teach Newton's 1st Law but ignore the 2nd and 3rd.

    Adaptation is not a special case of random genetic drift and neither of them are subsets of species sorting.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I asked 14 students yesterday and none of them had any significant knowledge of random genetic drift or punctuated equilibria. If they "forgot" then that just confirms that neither of those topics were important parts of the course.
    If I asked second year calculus students at the beginning of the year what Newton's method is, I'm pretty sure that many of them would tell me they recognise the name but they forgot what it is and how to use it. My point is that it's equally or more plausible that your students did forget, and the course isn't just about evolution after all.

    That's a horrible analogy. A better analogy would be to teach Newton's 1st Law but ignore the 2nd and 3rd. A subjective description, but I can try again. In Newtonian dynamics, students are taught to approach relatively easy problems with basic tools such as free body diagrams. Only later do students learn how to use integral calculus and refined definitions such as defining force as the integral of dP/dt rather than F=ma. By analogy, learning about evolution through the mechanism of natural selection isn't a poor way to start. It's in popular culture, many kids have had some exposure to it. Hence it is later when kids are taught new definitions and taught more modern syntheses of information can they form a sophisticated understanding. I think it comes down to whether you think a slightly reductionist approach is useful in teaching a new subject.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Collectively, they draw up guidelines for courses in order to make sure that all the essential topics are covered. Once the course is under way, yhere should be some feedback between what's supposed to be taught and what is actually taught in the classroom. Unfortunately, this doesn't always occur. Even more unfortunately, it's not always true that the department as a whole is aware of some controversies.

    I can repeat myself from another posts in the series:

    ... I think of course descriptions as a means for communication, describing (obviously) the course before and after. The "contract" view [of some commenters] is mainly the statement that the description should be appropriate and the objectives suitable.

    The later ties into the compromise secondary function of course descriptions, as quality control. A setting one can use for analysis of QC is the process view of enterprises. (I'm not sure what it is called in english.)

    Whether one wants to see classes as often repeated and slowly changing projects, or as a fast changing batch process as research and educational methods progress, one can see that objectives (course descriptions) are but part of needed QC. So, not exactly firmly (or even enough as) "a contract".


    FWIW I can agree with Dunbar on one aspect of education recursion, you may never reach the central theories of physics as a student. You are certainly informed early on about the existence and basic properties of say general relativity and quantum field theory and how they tie in with the rest. But depending on where your studies take you, you may never learn these theories.

    How that translates to biology I don't know.

    ReplyDelete