Case Study - Politics

Overt Political Viewpoints

This course was offered at the University of California, Berkeley under English R1A, designed to provide undergraduates with enhanced skills in reading and writing. The original course description, published in the course schedule, was as follows:

The Politics and Poetics of Palestinian Resistance. Since the inception of the Intifada in September of 2000, Palestinians have been fighting for their right to exist. The brutal Israeli military occupation of Palestine, an occupation that has been ongoing since 1948, has systematically displaced, killed, and maimed millions of Palestinian people. And yet, from under the brutal weight of the occupation, Palestinians have produced their own culture and poetry of resistance. This class will examine the history of the Palestinian resistance and the way that it is narrated by Palestinians in order to produce an understanding of the Intifada and to develop a coherent political analysis of the situation. This class takes as its starting point the right of Palestinians to fight for their own self-determination. Conservative thinkers are encouraged to seek other sections.

Complaints from students and faculty prompted administrators to address the issue. The chair of the English department, acting on the recommendations of a faculty committee, urged the instructor to rewrite the course description so that it used less combative language and did not exclude students with a certain political bent.

Stop. Before reading any further, what do you think?

Should this course be protected under academic freedom? Or should the professor rewrite the course description and rethink how the course will be taught?

What Actually Happened

The instructor did as requested and rewrote the description:

This is a course on Palestinian resistance poetry. It takes as its point of departure the Palestinian literature that has developed since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, which has displaced, maimed, and killed many Palestinian people. The Israeli military occupation of historic Palestine has caused unspeakable suffering. Since the occupation, Palestinians have been fighting for their right to exist. And yet, from under the weight of this occupation, Palestinians have produced their own culture and poetry of resistance. This class will examine the history of the Palestinian resistance and the way that it is narrated by Palestinians. The instructor takes as his starting point the right of Palestinians to fight for their own self-determination. Discussions about the literature will focus on several intersecting themes: how are Palestinian artists able to imagine art under the occupation; what consequences does resistance have on the character of the art that is produced (i.e. why are there so few Palestinian epics and plays and comedies); can one represent the Israeli occupation in art; what is the difference between political art and propaganda and how do the debates about those terms inflect the production of literature; how do poems represent the desire to escape and the longing for home simultaneously (alternatively, how do poems represent the nation without a state); what consequence do political debates have on formal innovations and their reproduction; and what are the obligations of artists in representing the occupation. This 1A course offers students frequent practice in a variety of forms of discourse leading toward exposition and argumentation in common standard English. The course aims at continuing to develop the students’ practical fluency with sentence, paragraph, and thesis-development skills but with increasingly complex applications. Students will be assigned a number of short essays (2-4 written pages) and several revisions.

According to Robert Post, a nationally recognized law professor with expertise on academic freedom, these revisions were the right ones to make. Academic freedom does permit instruc- tors to present subject matter with a certain political orientation but does not allow them to exclude certain classes of students from the classroom because of it:

The determining criteria should be whether the course description meets professional standards, i.e., it must be educationally justified. The faculty member can indicate the particular perspective or political framework from which a particular subject matter is being taught, but it should not be so forcefully stated as to be threatening, nor designed to exclude certain kinds of students.

Conclusion: This case demonstrates that academic freedom extends to students as well as instructors and to course descriptions as well as in-class activities.