Monday, August 20, 2007

Professors requiring students to attend a teach-in?

Look, I don't want to get all sternly moralistic and ranty, but I can't say I understand the unsolicited email received a couple of weeks ago and which I just now read. It is an invitation for what it calls a "teach-in" on the topic of climate change, peak oil, and global resource depletion co-sponsored at George Washington University by the organizations listed in the email, all of which might well do interesting work (as indeed I personally know to be the case of first two) but none of which could be described as academic or scholarly in the sense of disinterested; they are all activist organizations. Which is fine - I see much virtue in scholar-activism, and do a lot of it myself - until I get to this statement in the email:

"In response to faculty demand, we are offering full scholarships to students whose professors require them to attend the Teach-In. In return, we simply ask students to volunteer one 2-4 hour shift during the weekend."

My goodness, is it really okay for professors to require students to attend an activist teach-in? Is there really "faculty demand" for this? And is it really okay to "ask" those same students to "volunteer" (?) a shift during the weekend?

The program sounds, in fact, very interesting and valuable. If you look at the full program, here, it has a dynamite line-up of speakers from around the world - I might attend myself and would certainly encourage students to do so. It's a great program - don't misunderstand the source of my question.

But looking over the speakers and the program, I am doubtful that it is a genuinely disinterested, scholarly endeavor that a professor could or should require students to attend, at least not by my own professorial ethics, although I am open to hearing other views on this. There appears to be pretty deep agreement among the participants on the fundamentals of things; it appears to be explicitly political and activist. It does, after all, call itself a teach-in.

This is great for certain kinds of conferences, teach-ins, etc., where the whole point of the meeting is to discuss things from a certain point of view, from a certain starting place of policy. For example, one of these days soon I hope to help put on a conference that debates the idea of a national security court - and the explicit organization of the conference would be a first part in which the whole idea, good or bad, is on the table - but a second session in which participants discuss what such an institution might look like, if one set aside or suspended disbelief about the fundamental desirability of such an institution. Yet I myself would be dubious about requiring students, even as part of a class on national security, to attend that second session. But perhaps others feel differently, and perhaps that is a different case because such a conference would have many speakers willing and given a space to debate the whole idea.

That does not appear to be the case of the GW teach-in. It appears to start from a pretty fixed political point. And perhaps I am overreacting to the term teach-in - although it is not my term, but the organizers, which does serve to put its own activist spin on things. In any case, I have serious doubts that one ought to be requiring students to attend a conference that starts out from so given a political or policy point of view, much less volunteering them for service in lieu of fees.

But perhaps I am just putting the worst spin on this and there is some ordinary explanation. I am also curious about the views of other professors on the ethics of requiring students to attend outside events that have a large activist component and a serious political and policy commitment that is not really open for discussion.

Email text of 8/13/2007:

Dear faculty friends,

Would you like to bring your entire class to the Teach-In this fall, but can’t ask students to pay an additional fee?

In response to faculty demand, we are offering full scholarships to students whose professors require them to attend the Teach-In. In return, we simply ask students to volunteer one 2-4 hour shift during the weekend.

Individual scholarships are also available to students and community members who would otherwise be unable to attend. Please download the scholarship application form at

Please contact Janet Redman at or (202) 234-9382 x215 for information on class scholarships.



TEACH-IN: Confronting the Global Triple Crisis
Climate Change, Peak Oil & Global Resource Depletion

September 14-16, 2007
The George Washington University
Lisner Auditorium
730 21st Street, NW, Washington D.C.

Co-Hosted By:
International Forum on Globalization
Institute for Policy Studies
Global Project on Economic Transitions
George Washington University Progressive Student Union


Anonymous said...

Why is this even an issue? Requiring students to attend a teach in should result in the teachers dismissal.

Anonymous said...

This sounds a lot like a draft, doesn't it?

The Gaunt Man said...

First, it's not much of a "scholarship" if students are being "asked" to "volunteer" time. What they are actually saying is they will accept services in lieu of cash. That's not a scholarship, that's barter. They should say what they mean.

Second, I am always leery of any activity outside of the classroom that is mandatory. In rare cases I can see it as being an integral part of the coursework. For example, I once took a class, required for my major, on set construction for the stage. Part of this was a mandatory number of hours spent working in the scene shop above and beyond class hours. Obviously, this provided an experience that could not be given in the classroom enviornment that was directly relevent to the course material, and by passing me the professor was endorsing that I did, in fact, have a practical as well as theoretical knowledge of the material. Thus why it was acceptable to be mandatory.

In this case, I do not see how this program provides any sort of scholarly benefit that cannot be obtained in another setting, so making it mandatory is inappropriate. While it may be acceptable to mandate attendance at a conference of some sort, even one that obviously supports a particular position, the professor should not be allowed to dictate WHICH conference or position that is. If the goal of the requirement is to provide the experience of a scholarly conference, any will do.

Finally, requiring any sort of volunteerism is not only inherently contradictory, it is slavery, no matter how short the duration, and should not be countenanced in any enviornment.

Anonymous said...

I see the problem here. It's all in the language. First off it appears to be an extracurricualr conference that the students and/or faculty may find beneficial to their education and the faculty that would like to use this resource find it unfair to ask their students to pay the fee to attend. Fine. So the scholarship option seems a fair approach to alleviate the burden of cost for the student.

However, it also appears to me that it should not be a requirement for a class to attend the conference as it is extracurricular and should not be used as a tool of the faculty to prove or disprove the material they are presenting in their courses.

A responsible faculty member would point out that the conference was being hosted at the university and point out the various speakers & topics relevant to the course that that faculty member was presenting. Then the professor would point out the cost and option for scholarship and would point to where those interested should go to participate. Beyond that, the faculty should not push, pressure, coerce, hint, demand or otherwise force their students to attend.

Those interested will attend.

Anonymous said...

Look ... the planet needs help now. If I have students in my Global Studies class who I "invite" to attend this conference, and they don't want to attend ... that's a direct reflection of their ability to think clearly (i.e., the way I think), and so ... obviously ... they don't deserve good grades.

If they don't want to stand a shift to save the planet ... well then, why should I go out of my way to make their career go well for them?

In fact, as the trainer of the next generation, am I not doing the planet a disservice by allowing such students to earn the grades that will enable them to become our next leaders?

This is a no brainer folks.

Anyone of my students who don't want to attend don't have to ... just like I don't have to give pass them if I don't want to.

Everyone's free to do what they want here. There's no coercion.

Miguel Centellas said...

I seriously hope that last comment was sarcasm.

That said, I agree that "requiring" students to attend events is problematic. I have no problem w/ giving students a list of several activities and then requiring them to attend some number of them (their choice of which) on various issues. Conversely, I've given students the possibility of extra credit to attend events, even those that will certainly take a partisan point of view (often even events that take partisan positions I oppose).

But requiring students to volunteer time is even more problematic, unless the program is clearly part of a broader curricular program. For example, my wife is teaching an environmental studies course that has field work components. But this is clearly spelled out in the syllabus and is part of the course.

In short, I think the memo was perhaps poorly worded. It certainly is in a grey area. But I would hope that most faculty members understand their ethical obligations.

Anonymous said...

The fact that you aren't quite sure whether that last comment is satire is quite a commentary on the state of the academy.

Anonymous said...

I assume the comment at 6:23pm is not sarcastic. But then I've also been in classes where we were given a choice between "volunteering" at the AIDS clinic and "volunteering" at the environmental activism organization for a passing grade. And, the class where the only extra credit available was attendance at the prof's weekly anti-war rally (incidentally, we spent 7 of our 16 weeks during the semester -- where we were supposed to get World Regional Geography basics -- on how evil Israel is.)

Students ought not be expected to support, or appear to support, their teachers' idealogical stances (at least not in an academic setting.) But if teachers want that kind of thing to go on, it'd be great if they'd advertise it loud and clear on Admitted Students Night, in the admissions bulletin, and in the syllabus and course listing for the affected classes. Transparency being key to a free and open exchange (of both ideas and money.)

submandave said...

I agree that the e-mail is poorly worded and/or obtuse. If a student wasn't "required" but still wanted to take advantage of the "volunteer" for "scholarship" offer, could he/she? Why or why not?

Concerning the "requirement" of participation, I tend to side with Bob, that any required extracuricular activities should directly relate to knowledge/experience that cannot be gained in the classroom. As such, though, I can also see a professor requiring attendence without necessarilly advocating the content. For example, in a class on sociology and group dynamics it might be good case study to attend a protest/demonstration. By having all students attent the same event some degree of control over the subject is effected and allows student to compare and contrast findings. Likewise, a psychology professor may legitimately require students to attend a 9-11 truther presentation to study paranoia and delusion. In this case, I think this conference would be interesting to climatology, meterology or oceanography professors and allow the studets to either highlight often unreported information or to rebut with data/findings excluded from presentation. Likewise for communications and media professors.

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