fbpx


How Much Academic Freedom Should Students Have?

/ 21 Sep 2021

How Much Academic Freedom Should Students Have?

(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).

Faculty members often fight for their freedom. This is especially urgent and important when civil liberties are limited or under attack. Working for an American university in the Middle East, I am well aware of attempts to silence dissenting voices and enforce conformity in Arab countries and the United States.

Professors anywhere like to demand the maximum autonomy in their teaching and research. Many of us would love to choose our own path in how we contribute to knowledge and the world. We like to pick our means of dissemination (whether paper or podcast) and oppose any censorship of what we say and write. Committed to the value of diversity, we should respect and cherish a variety of forms and thought.

Yet how often do we give our students the same freedoms we claim for ourselves? Do we allow them to create anything from a poem to an essay to a visual artwork in a course—and with any message? I have tried to do so while teaching history at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Qatar since 2013—and have so far gotten away with it.

I tell my students that I provide the content, but they select the skills they want to develop. In a course on European history, for instance, they will learn about the usual revolutions: the Scientific, the Industrial, the French Revolution, et cetera. I attempt to familiarize them with current academic debates through material produced by leading scholars. However, they can decide what to make of these topics.

If a student wants to become a filmmaker, she could write a screenplay set in eighteenth-century France. If another pursues a degree in painting and printmaking, he can create an image reflecting on the legacy of a particular turning point in history. Each student can focus on what they want to get better at: whether writing or drawing or another activity. In the process, they make up their own mind about the past.

The Problem of Grading Fairly

Do I allow one student to write a poem and another to craft an essay for the same assignment? Yes. But can I even attempt to grade fairly, if one submits a movie script and another a painting? Are these media incommensurable? Probably yes. It is certainly impossible to create a unified rubric across all visual and textual genres. The allocation of points or percentages to a piece of work thus risks being arbitrary.

The most scholarly evaluations shy away from numbers. I have not come across any serious academic journal whose book review section includes ratings like four stars out of five, or 80 percent. Most periodicals accept or reject a manuscript or demand revisions verbally, not numerically.

The most scholarly evaluations shy away from numbers. I have not come across any serious academic journal whose book review section includes ratings like four stars out of five, or 80 percent. Most periodicals accept or reject a manuscript or demand revisions verbally, not numerically.

If I cannot claim objective standards in my grading, does this mean my classes are either a free-for-all or subject to tyranny? You would probably have to ask my students to find out the truth. Their anonymous course evaluations suggest that many of them cherish the liberties they have. They hardly ever ask me for a detailed recipe for an essay with a guaranteed A. There is none.

Perhaps they are also aware that a sophisticated metric would not necessarily protect them from oppression, as it still contains the biases of its creator. What I offer is the kind of individual evaluation that I also use in writing book reviews: highlighting at length the good aspects of a particular work while pointing out any flaws or areas for future research.

The Value of Multiple Critiques

It is crucial to have more than one reviewer to avoid bias. To judge the value of a film, we should listen to the opinions of different critics. Multiple and diverse readers can also offer a more holistic assessment of a text.

As I may know about some areas of history, but lack expertise in many forms of artistic expression, I am even more dependent on others. For the evaluation of a student’s work, I try to harness the intellect of everybody in the classroom, including occasional guests. Luckily, at an art school, everybody is used to critique sessions. The only difference from the studio next door is that in my history classes, essays are more frequently on display than drawings.

[Enjoying this article? Subscribe to our free newsletter.]

So, I would tell my students: while you can do whatever you want for your assignment, you need to expect criticism from everybody. As a facilitator, I try to encourage empathy and add a positive spin to peer feedback. However, a creator needs to accept that their work might be misunderstood once it is out in the world. A school can provide a safe space for such lessons, before students fully embark on their careers.

No teacher can remove all the constraints on students’ lives. The Covid-19 pandemic has meant that virtually everybody is working under conditions that are not of their own choosing. However, teachers in any country should expand the existing freedoms for students rather than narrow them further.

Jörg Matthias Determann is an associate professor of history at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Qatar. He can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter at @JMDetermann.




No CommentsJoin the Conversation

What Others are Readingالأكثر قراءة

Copyright © 2018 Al-Fanar Mediaحقوق © 2018 الفنار للإعلام

arabic

Copyright © 2018 Al-Fanar Mediaحقوق © 2018 الفنار للإعلام