A Thank you to the University Ethics Office, because Ethics do Matter

Monday, October 6, 2008

posted under , by Unit for Criticism
Written by Margaret C. Flinn, Dept. of French and Unit for Cinema Studies

Like many University of Illinois faculty members, I was perplexed by what I found in my email one day this September. “The Fourth Issue of Ethics Matters!” says that
The law isn’t always as clear as we’d like, so here are a few specific examples to better define what is and what is not considered prohibited political activity (can’t be performed on University time without appropriate benefit usage1; and never on University property or using University resources).
Under a column entitled “Prohibited Political Activity,” one can read “Wearing a pin or t-shirt in support of the Democratic Party or Republican Party, or Democratic/Republican candidate.” And further along, “Specific examples of things that are expressly prohibited include ‘Attending a rally on University property specific to a political candidate or party—regardless of whether or not you are on University time.’”

I rapidly went from perplexed to angry and then wondered if I should be afraid. I don’t have tenure. Could this issue be parlayed by a student who perceived (rightly or wrongly) a difference in our political opinions (electoral or otherwise) into grounds for challenging a grade, or worse? At what point would the obviously heavy handed Ethics Office or some other administrative body decide that I had not adequately hidden my self away from the same students who expect that I be present, real and available? How exactly does the University Ethics Officer who drafted this newsletter imagine that classrooms work? What does this branch of the University think the purpose of a university is? Is it 1. a place where students learn to think critically about a variety of topics, engaging in the discourse of multiple disciplines? Or 2. a place where a for-fee state service generates diplomas in order to raise the earning potential of that state’s residents? Even if one embraces the cynical business model that increasingly dominates higher education in the United States, shouldn’t those buying the service have the best content possible, being formed as critical thinkers with a flexible intellectual skill set (see definition #1)?

So, what goes into making that best learning environment? Without attempting to enter into the distinctions between free speech and academic expression, I’m led to wonder…does the Ethics Office really mean to say my body is a “University resource”? When, because of my research area, my job most certainly includes challenging students to think critically about the politics of film, literature and popular culture, how can it be that I could not attend on-campus political rallies? Am I really supposed to be able responsibly to educate my students and push their own critical thinking if I am cut off from the processes that they are experiencing?

I teach some quite politically charged material. I try to maintain critical distance and a classroom atmosphere where everyone feels able to participate, where varying viewpoints are respected, but where it is still possible to engage in vigorous debate. Put any 20-30 individuals in a room and this is going to be a challenge! My hesitation and concern and wonder at how exactly I do my job is a good example of what Professor Cary Nelson means when talks about the potentially chilling effects of the Ethics Office interpretation of state policy.

This semester, for instance, I am teaching a class on film and new media art, primarily French, but with a good deal of comparative material. This class has already seen films that deal with: post-apocalyptic visions of nuclear war (Chris Marker, La Jetée), civil war in the former Yugoslavia (Jean-Luc Godard’s The Old Place), the social status of people whose main source of food is other people’s garbage (Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners and I), the French presidential election of 2001—where extreme-right candidate Jean-Marie LePen won a place in the final round, run-off election against center-right candidate Jacques Chirac (Marker’s The Case of the Grinning Cat, & Varda’s Two years later), the ban on Muslim headscarves and other prominent religious signs in French classrooms (again Grinning Cat), pornography and medical marijuana in California (24 Hours on Craigslist). Because Chris Marker also posted for a year on a political graphic arts information blog, unregardmoderne.com, and Marker’s Grinning Cat ends up being about the way a particular street art figure crosses from street, to film, to gallery, to newspaper, to the Internet and back, we looked for comparison at the L.A. Freewayblogger and locally at the BurmaShave style signs of Guns Save Life. Most of this is material I have taught before. In class discussions we talk about what makes any of this art. What strategies of mixing art and politics are “effective,” in what ways, and how—if at all—can this “success” be measured?

These classes run as seminars. True seminars, in the sense that while I have a set of questions I feel need to be explored and I have in many cases already researched and published on these films, the course does not have a single “thesis” of which students are supposed to be convinced. For those of us in humanities and social sciences, a presidential election year can provide the ultimate in “teachable moments”—students are independently, actively engaged in thinking outside of the classroom about the same questions we are posing inside the classroom. If they are not doing so, they can be encouraged to do so—examples from distant places and times become more meaningful when compared with the students’ lived realities, while in turn, the lived reality becomes the subject of more nuanced examination. I give such a lengthy description of my classes, because they provide a context that would have given me a perfect opportunity to perform my point and wear various articles of campaign clothing to class expressly for the purposes of discussion and comparison. Unethical if they are on my body, but OK if they are carried in and then displayed on a lectern? OK in the classroom because of the critical context that assures people I am not promoting a certain candidate, but not OK when I leave the classroom and walk home (at least until I leave university property)?

The current U.S. presidential election provides an example of a striking contrast in approaches to the mix of art and politics. The Obama campaign’s store features a series of prints (“Artists for Obama”), a CD of pop singers (“Yes We Can”), and a line of apparel and accessories by well-known designers (“Runway to Change”) that are significantly more expensive than the “standard” campaign gear. Meanwhile, clicking on the “store” link from the McCain campaign homepage opens a new window with a message that reads: “JohnMcCain08Store.com and ShopMcCain.com are operated by independent, for-profit companies. Proceeds from sales of merchandise do not benefit McCain-Palin 2008 and should not be considered campaign contributions.” Did Obama’s decision to forgo public money allow/necessitate the partnerships with these artists? How do “grassroots” ideals compare to the fact that most of the participating artists work in the highly commercial artistic industries of fashion and popular music? What comparisons or contrasts can be made between the Obama campaign store and a museum gift store? When does art or politics cease to benefit from these commercial strategies? These are all compelling issues that would be right at home in my class discussion…but what kind of minefield do I traverse to get there?

While it is easy to point to humanists or social scientists to show the limitations of the Ethics Office statements, I would argue that scientists have the same context, and perhaps an even more compelling reason to bring up electoral politics in their classes (by whatever means they deem appropriate—I trust them to be ethical). University students who are considering scientific careers and those who have chosen to study a particular science in order to fill a requirement alike can benefit from understanding how the science they are studying has come into the current body of knowledge—an extremely political process, as the case of Galileo Galilei dramatically illustrates. Should the ethics and politics of science be banished from the science classroom (studied only in classes dedicated to history of science or scientific ethics, that might not ever be taken by a broad range of students)? Where better than in core science classes to take advantage of an election year to discuss things like: How does independent research get funded? What happens when government funding is unavailable? How do conflicts of interest arise in corporately funded research? Who is chosen to sit on advisory panels for the benefit of lawmakers or government agencies? What are the consequences in terms of public health and safety? Maybe it won’t be on the final exam, but it will give some students a better understanding of the whys and hows of material that is on the exam.

So, these are the things that the Ethics Office’s un-nuanced statements could prevent from being discussed. Just as I as a faculty member have a responsibility to establish a propitious learning environment in the microcosms of my office and classroom, is it not the responsibility of the University administration to foster a macrocosm of that propitious learning environment for the campus? I take the Illinois State Employees’ ethics training every year. Some years there has been a quiz, some years one just has to be sure to “read” slowly enough. Every year I am deemed “compliant” and I print my certificate. And every year, while I read the scenarios described, I mentally multitask by composing a letter to….someone!?...detailing how irrelevant this is to my work as a State Employee. “My workplace” does not look, feel, smell or sound like any of the “state offices” in the scenarios. It cannot be protected from politics, electoral or otherwise, without doing harm to the purpose and function of that workplace.

Shortly after the Ethics Office newsletter, but before coverage in the Daily Illini turned the campus spotlight onto the issue, I decided to deal with my perplexity by discussing it with the students in the same class where I teach so much politically charged material. I thought this could be risky—previous weeks’ discussion had given me a sense that there were a number of sharply opposed political “profiles” present. I could be challenged with a direct question that I might not answer tactfully or carefully enough and the fairly positive atmosphere of the course so far could be shut down for the rest of the semester. But isn’t this my job? I also want to make sure that students understand the broader context in which I am teaching them and that if, along with other materials, I use an example from a current political campaign posted on youtube, it is not for the purpose of “electioneering,” but rather so that they see the connections between the way what they are learning in my class—usually about a different place or time—can be brought to bear on their own experience.

The ensuing class period was lively, intelligent, and nuanced. A wide variety of viewpoints were expressed, and the conversation segued neatly into that week’s assigned film and readings. It was the kind of “breakthrough” class where—in spite of a lecture hall fixed-seating arrangement—students began to talk to each other and not just through me. It was one of the best demonstrations of engaged critical thinking and mutual respect that I have seen in eleven years of teaching. I am confident that this particular conversation has set the stage for the remainder of this course to unfold at a much higher level than it might have without it—explicitly and implicitly those students told me and each other that they do want to be challenged and pushed to think harder and articulate their positions better. So, ironically, I owe thanks to the Ethics Office. The very lack of subtlety in their articulation of ethical behavior for faculty members at this university gave me the opportunity to see in action the kind of university that their interpretation of state policy threatens to diminish.

1From elsewhere in the memo, I take “appropriate benefit usage” to mean that one can take a vacation day in order to engage in such activities.


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