Sunday, September 23, 2007

Academic Freedom

One of the big topics on academic blogs lately is ''Academic Freedom''; I've sort of been avoiding discussing it because it gets to be rather boring and I'm not really sure that you could call this an ''academic blog'' anymore. Maybe back in the salad days when I was bitching every other post about TAing for absent-minded professors and sullen students; but alas, I decided that was probably not very interesting to read and have switched to topics that are universally agreed-upon as being totally fascinating, like fluctuations in the Canadian currency...

Ahem! Anyway, I was wondering if anybody would like to discuss ''academic freedom''- something that I find a bit like Santa Claus- I support it in theory, but doubt that it really exists. I think it might have been real for academics in the 70s, but honestly I think my generation expects to be treated like temps anyway. Tenure is on the way out, and in its place we seem to be getting these ''contract'' positions that make it much easier to get rid of the ''troublemakers''. So, I expect the worst. When I'm at the university, I'm roughly as confrontational and courageous as Franz Kafka.

Does academic freedom even matter for you math and science types? Do you ever offend anybody? In my professional life, I stick to a policy of keeping my damn opinions to myself, especially about politics and religion, and I've seen a lot of academics who do the same. And yet, all I ever hear about from the ''experts'' on the Internet is the radical left-wing professors who scream ''Say you love Chairman Mao!!'' at the students until they start crying.

Maybe I'm a wimp, but I just figure that, were I to start talking about politics in the classroom, and were one of my students to complain, I'd probably be fired quicker than you could say ''I love Chairman Mao''. Given the mix of gutless admins, anti-academic crusaders on the left and the right, and students who increasingly see us as ''the help'', I don't have the slightest bit of faith in ''academic freedom''. Therefore, I blog as ''Rufus'' and when I'm in the University, I make sure not to say anything that could offend any crybabies. My Grandfather used to call this ''keeping your nose clean''. But, as I've said, I'm one of those paranoids who, whenever I deal with any authority figure whatsoever expects to get tased.

So, should we fight for academic freedom? And what would it look like exactly?


Hiromi said...

Does academic freedom even matter for you math and science types? Do you ever offend anybody?

Dude, the evolutionary biologists are like Enemy #1 in some places.

Rufus said...

Oh yeah, of course. Does that carry over to universities too? Do the home-school kids even go to college?

And what about what you do Greg? Is that field contentious? Do you beat each other about the face and neck with blackboard erasers?

Hiromi said...

Does that carry over to universities too?

Not that I know of, but sometimes I fear what will happen to state-funded schools.

Do the home-school kids even go to college?

I think they go to Oral Roberts U or some shit.

Anyways, do you have any stats as to how many profs get the boot for unpopular views?

But even so, there's still some policing of academic freedom in terms of quality. I mean, you can't say just any old thing out of left field, but have to have some kind of level of intelligence that's accepted in your field. But even that could be considered censorship in a way, I suppose.

gregvw said...

Some branches of science can indeed be quite contentious, however, I am inclined to think that particularly math is one of the furthest areas removed from such problems. I don't know of any instances of anyone's math research being suppressed. We're more of a really loud eye-rolling community.

I am aware of squabbles specifically over certain high profile results, such as, most recently, the proof of the Poincaré
conjecture, where multiple people were claiming having done the important work.

Rufus said...

Hiromi- quality is a very important issue. I don't consider it a violation of academic freedom to drum plagiarists, liars, or those who falsify their sources out of the profession. That's why I was okay with Ward Churchill getting the boot.

It's a good question about how common it is. There seem, in my unscientific view, to be a handful who get fired every year. Some of the cases are reasonable, as with Churchill, but what's a bit troubling is how vague the issue is- what exactly qualifies as a punishable offense here? It seems to change from case to case.

Anyway, I'll see if I can find some links to groups that actually monitor the numbers.

Greg- somehow I can't picture a mathematician throttling someone. Do you ever get grief from outsiders? Are there faith-based mathematicians out there?

gregvw said...

Enough people have math phobias that we really get guff from outsiders.

I did have one born-again Math Prof who subtly hinted that the existence of exactly integrable nonlinear partial differential equations suggests intelligent design.

Rufus said...

Really? I can understand math phobias, but I'd think you could use that to your advantage by convincing them that you were some sort of wizard.