Freedom of Speech in the Classroom

by Steve O’Boyle

I'm Feeling Lucky!

I’m Feeling Lucky!

At no other time in history have people had access to more information than in the current era. Within seconds we can become pseudo-experts on most any topic, from Satanism to Zen, from the Kama Sutra to Lollapalooza and or even an upbeat biopic of Leonard Cohen (say it like co-en, then it works). This is not news to you (or at least I hope it’s not), but it is an important yet puzzling piece to recent controversies concerning freedom of speech in the classroom.

In the past year, there have been several incidents where university professors have been sanctioned for the words that they used in their classrooms while attempting to explain academic ideas. One incident that made national headlines involved a highly regarded sociologist named Patti Adler, a full Professor at the University of Colorado.

Patti Adler.

Dr. Patti Adler.

In her intro-level Deviance in U.S. Society class, Dr. Adler spiced up her lecture on prostitution with “a skit in which many of Adler’s teaching assistants dress[ed] up as various types of prostitutes. The teaching assistants portrayed prostitutes ranging from sex slaves to escorts, and described their lifestyles and what led them to become prostitutes” (DailyCamera).

Adler is described in the article as having an unorthodox and engaging teaching style. “Students recounted how Adler showed up in class in a bikini to illustrate deviance or dressed as a homeless person to make the same point.” However, the prostitution lecture got—well, some negative attention—and at the time the article went to press, it looked like Dr. Adler was at risk of being forced into early retirement over the controversy. She was in jeopardy of losing her job for trying to teach her students in a way that was engaging, entertaining, and most of all, memorable. That is to say, for trying to do her job.

Prostitution skit in Adler's class.

Prostitution skit in Adler’s Deviance class.

I do realize that some of you may not think this is a big deal, but as someone who teaches sociology at UNCG—a discipline that includes an entire area devoted to social deviance—well, as my old not-very-good mechanic used to say about my POS Jeep, “Man, this is troublematic…”

So if we offend a student in class—not directly of course, but by making them feel uncomfortable while trying to teach them important ideas—we might be severely sanctioned for this? Knowledge that is controversial, and can take a student out of their comfort zone, is off limits?

Do I have your attention yet?

Do I have your attention yet?

Students are now exposed to more controversial envelope-pushing cultural ideas and images than ever before, and at much younger ages (scholars call this phenomenon “the internet”). So I find it a bit perplexing that these kids—who could never understand a teenager’s absolute thrill of finding their parents’ porno mags in the sock drawer, but (or perhaps because) they can now google any sex act and have a “how-to” video before their eyes in seconds (and long before their first real date)—these students are so much more savvy than I ever was at their age, but now I have to watch what I say more than ever in the classroom?!

And to complicate things further, because of the limitless access they have grown up with (and the seconds-long attention span that accompanies it), it takes more effort than ever to keep the attention of these Millenials without grabbing their attention—with ideas and language that wakes them the #@%$ up, and stops them from just sitting there in class half asleep, hoping whoever they’re trying to hook up with will respond to their inane text with a “k”…

"wnt 2 hookup l8r?"

“n class. bored. wnt 2 hookup l8r?”

So what to do? I’m going to follow the advice university counsel Skip Capone gave a few years back, after some legal challenges at other institutions—some of them blatantly political (here’s a link to the slide show, which is clearly dated).

My CYA strategy? Define germane to the class, then when comes the time to talk about the touchy stuff, refer them back to that term. Then show them the link from the controversial stuff (i.e., the fun stuff), directly to how it relates—or is germane—to the academic topic. Finally, address the class with “so do you see the connection here?” When they say “yes,” you’re covered.

One response to “Freedom of Speech in the Classroom

  1. The one thing I like about professors is that many of them have passion for what they teach. I personally think that Prof. Adler’s technique is wonderful because the true issues are not buried in the “sand.” We do not have to participate in these true evils of society, however we should be aware and knowledge of these ills to know they exist. A lot of times, that knowledge is ignored in the written word. Live examples bring it to life in some cases–just depends on how live the example is. In a collegiate setting. Professors are continually having to reverse the garbage that was learned from horribly incorrect text books and out dated secondary education. Scientifically and mathematically, they secondary education setting has kept up but in the liberal arts, reasons, philosophy and theological aspect… way behind! Life is not scientific it is a passion–a series of unexplained emotions. Liberal arts helps explain, create, live, understand, the passions of life. This comes with freedom of speech in the classroom through the students and the professor. If a person takes offense at something a professor does, (1) examine why you as the individual feel that way, (2) be objective because the professor would appreciate it, (3) learn from it, write about it, put it on paper–never know how it will come out once you read it, (4) be real about yourself, how long are you as the individual going “to tell the teachers boss” and not solve an issue yourself, and (5) there are other professor colleges that would be willing to assist, like an adviser, if there is a communication problem because you and or a professor. Also as a student, you don’t have to believe in or agree with the professor. At the same token, students need to stay awake, alert and learn.