Emmanuel Tamrat

Middlebury professors think about the role of neutrality and activism in the classroom.

Neutrality versus activism: professors face a conflict of pedagogy in the classroom

Middlebury professors think about the role of neutrality and activism in the classroom. (Emmanuel Tamrat)

The matter of professors bringing social justice and activism into the classroom has always been a point of contention in academia, and Middlebury is no exception. Professors in the social sciences have often found themselves deciding whether or not to remain neutral in their courses.

Kemi Fuentes-George, professor of political science, said he recalled feeling discouraged from involving activism in his teaching practices at the beginning of his career. 

“When I first started thinking about activism and my own take on the world, there were a lot of signals that indicated that professors should not have a political opinion, that we’re supposed to be completely neutral,” he said. “That’s a nice-sounding sentiment, but it’s completely wrong, because everyone has an opinion on everything.”

Fuentes-George said he formats his syllabus to talk about issues that are important to him and not just part of the political science canon. He includes a section in his class about colonialism and the scientific racism that has been used to justify imperialism. Fuentes-George believes that every professor brings a position to the classroom, and their perspectives should be acknowledged.

“My concern, especially after speaking with many of my co-workers, is that many of them do believe that their understanding of the world is neutral, unbiased and untainted by prejudices,” he said. “For people who think that way, it’s hard for them to recognize when they are acting in a biased or bigoted way.”

Professor of Political Science Bert Johnson acknowledged these biases but holds the teaching philosophy that classrooms need not be overwhelmed by personal political bias. 

“We certainly all carry biases with us, and I’m not immune to that,” Johnson said, “In political science, I’d rather know whether a scholar is sympathetic to rational choice theory or historical institutionalism than whether they are a liberal or conservative. That information places their professional work in perspective better than who they voted for in the last election.”

Professor of Sociology Jamie McCallum has participated in activism since he was 17 and continues to be involved as a professor on campus. He proposed the idea of a strike or teach-in among Middlebury professors, inspired by the #ScholarStrike movement, but did not pursue the plan further after gauging a lack of interest.

“I think that we’re facing the largest political and social crisis in the American political system of the last 60 years,” McCallum said in an interview with The Campus. “I think you should care about that.”

McCallum noted that his teaching practices are uncommon. “It sounds crazy, but I bet if you ask any non-social sciences, non-humanities faculty, ‘Could you teach a one-hour class on racial justice issues?’ they would have to do a lot of research,” McCallum said.

Professor of Education Studies Tara Affolter incorporates an exploration of civil rights issues in education into her classes. One of her courses, “Education in the U.S.,” dives extensively into the history of racist ideas and their effects on education.

“I can’t imagine teaching, at least teaching about education without focusing on race, disability and access,” Affolter said. “Those issues are central to the project of education. I would feel like I’m not doing my job if I didn’t do those things.”

For Affolter, building a classroom should involve constant consideration of perspective and bias, and she actively includes material that is not traditionally taught.

“We need to pay more attention to women of color, particularly Black women, who are producing the best scholarship out there on racial justice,” she said. “Who we listen to, who we center, who we consider as serious scholars, who we include in our syllabi… these all go back to the question of racial justice.”

Affolter said her passion for activism has not been tempered by her position as an educator. In 2017, she was arrested for protesting white supremacy at Jeff Sessions’ confirmation hearing for the Senate Judiciary Committee. Her experience with activism permeates her scholarship.

“There’s a critique out there that if you’re too involved in activism then you’re not a serious scholar, but I don’t buy that dichotomy,” Affolter said. “We’re in a really hard time, and the time to sit on the sidelines is over. Wake up, get involved, ask questions, don’t be afraid to be unpopular.”

Though Johnson first became interested in political science through activism, working on campaigns and attending or organizing protests, he has pivoted his approach since becoming a professor.

“Political science is a different matter,” he said. “Although I’ve continued my activist engagement in some ways, I’ve done so more privately since becoming a professor.” 

As a Black professor, Fuentes-George carries an extra level of awareness because racial justice issues impact him personally. 

“It’s mixed pressure because a lot of these issues affect me in a very personal way, so when people talk about racist incidents or when we bring racist speakers to campus, I am hyper-aware, especially as someone who’s been called racist things and who’s been threatened by racism,” he said. “A part of me feels like I have to get involved for my own well-being.”

Fuentes-George has been actively involved on campus and admitted that he feels more secure in his activism since gaining tenure. This summer, Fuentes-George published an op-ed in The Campus about a racist incident he experienced. At a predominantly white institution, Fuentes-George is caught between a pressure to be involved for his own well-being and an unease about coming across as the “angry black professor.” 

Fuentes-George said that he sometimes feels resentment that, within his department, he is the only faculty member involved in activism. 

“Why does it have to be the Black professor getting involved in all these things? Why can’t some of the white professors stand up and do something?” he said. “It’s complicated; to some extent I feel more pressure to be involved, and to some extent I feel more pressure to stay out of it. The pressure to get involved usually ends up winning.”