I decided to write this blog post about why I am open about my political stance in the classroom partly because I haven’t read much from others on this topic and partly because I’m aware that some academics explicitly strive to keep personal and political values out of the classroom.
“…as we’re thinking about Thatcher’s ‘no such thing as society’, Cameron’s Big Society or Brexit, be mindful that I’m coming at this from a left-liberal stance and that a right-wing academic, stood here, teaching the very same content, might draw on very different evidence or talk very differently about the impact of these different political events….”
I don’t wear my political stance as a pin badge, but more often than not, it crops up in a lecture or seminar that I’m teaching, particularly those classes on topics within social, health and community psychology. When I do make mention of my left-liberal values, it is not because I crave a soapbox or wish to virtue-signal or convert others (surely that’s what Reddit is for?). Instead, I mention my political values for the following reasons.
1. To encourage critical thinking
How can I expect my students to critically reflect on the content they read if I’m not critically reflecting on the content that I teach? For me, critical thinking starts with awareness of my own biases and reasons for selected teaching material. I need to be aware of the particular narrative that I am deciding to tell in the classroom.
2. Because I’m not a robot
Yes, there are personal and professional boundaries to adhere to but I am not a robot. I will inevitably turn to anecdotes from my personal and professional life to illustrate abstract ideas when I see one or more lost expressions in an audience. Some students work well with abstract ideas, many will, however, need the occasional concrete example in a lecture on intersectionality, reflexivity or critical consciousness. I’ll talk about my life-pre academia, my research assistantships, conversations with friends, trips to the supermarket, my cats…. and my political stance (though rarely all in the same 50-minute lecture!).
3. To be transparent
For me, being transparent goes hand-in-hand with being engaging, interesting and sincere. This bit is easy because I’m not a robot (see the previous point!). We talk extensively about research ethics and the need for transparency with participants, whether from the outset or in a debrief, but what of transparency in the classroom? I’ll confess, I’m not aware of pedagogical literature on the value of transparency but I’m sure readers who do will direct me to it.
4. Because knowledge is rarely truly objective
This point is likely a divisive one and will attract different reactions based on academic discipline and ontological stance. As a primarily qualitative social scientist, it is no wonder that I adopt a somewhat social constructionist stance. For me, much of knowledge is relative and socially constructed. For example, when I teach about the dominance of quantitative methods in psychology, I teach students about the historical and political context within psychology gained momentum as a science. Accepting that knowledge is constructed, comes with a responsibility to reflect upon how such knowledge is constructed. Such responsibility may weigh less on the shoulders of my natural science colleagues’ shoulders (though I’m sure Thomas Kuhn would disagree with me).
5. Because of the left-liberal bias in academia
Interestingly, I’ve been called all sorts of things in more anonymous realms, due to my questioning tone causing offence to those both on the left and right of the political spectrum. Still, too few speak out against the closed-mindedness of the far-left, in addition to the more obvious closed-mindedness of the far-right. It is no secret that the majority of academics and students in the social sciences align with left-liberal values. It would be easy to be unreflective and simply preach to the converted with no mention of the ‘others’ who hold different values. This, however, would not represent the world beyond academia. I don’t want to teach in a socio-political vacuum. I want to teach in a way that equips young adults for the messy, diverse and often confrontational world ahead of them. So bring on academic year 2019/20 “Hello, I’m Dr Katie Wright-Bevans and I’m a lefty-liberal”.
Original illustrations thanks to the talented James Fox