"TEACH CUNY" AND THE CLASSROOM

by Tony O’Brien, Queens College

 

PSCcuny
NEWS BULLETIN

APRIL 2001

 

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TeachCUNY reaches 18 campuses, 100s of classrooms

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New PSC Committee on Diversity Begins Work

Health and Safety Update: It's in the Air

New Faculty Speak Out at Brooklyn College

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Lights Out for Edison 

Spotlight on Adjunct Concerns at Legislative Hearing

Washington State & California Take the Lead on Adjunct Equity

What the Statistics Say

What the Adjuncts Say

ACTing Out: Giuliani & Media vs CUNY (with bibiliography on testing)

"Teach CUNY" and the Classroom

How Not to Teach at CUNY

The Past Year and the Union's Future

Against Common Sense

 

 

 

 

 

Teaching about the relation of CUNY working conditions to the students is protected by academic freedom, and by the provisions of our collective bargaining agreement. But the fact that it is legal does not resolve the question of whether it is right. The "Teach CUNY" day of action was of course voluntary, and each of us had to decide this question for herself or himself.

One question that faculty confronted concerns the nature of a university labor contract: Is it merely a set of self-interested demands for faculty and staff welfare, quite divorced from student interests? Or is it—and in this case the PSC urgently insists that it is—a document devoted to rebuilding CUNY and therefore also devoted to our students as much as ourselves?

Another question has to do with the extension of a teacher’s authority to advocacy of any sort. Here the nature of our authority in the classroom has to be examined carefully. We are teachers, not preachers or thought police, and students—though obliged to be in class—are not a passive congregation of believers nor a flock of dupes. They are, rather, thinking adults with (typically) a good deal of life experience and resistance to persuasion. They are skeptical and critical listeners, able to judge a position and an argument, and vigorous discussants, ready to argue the point. They will hear what we say, weigh it carefully, and think about their response all along the scale from enthusiastic support to outright rejection.

This is what "Teach CUNY" meant in an individual classroom—to present facts, history, institutional structure, arguments, and ideas about organizing for what we need, for students to discuss and respond to. That is something quite different from imposing a particular view of the CUNY situation purely by force of our authority as teachers. What IS that authority, anyway?

Academic freedom, in its classic 19th-century German formulation as the freedom to learn and the freedom to teach (Lernfreiheit, Lehrfreiheit), implies that a university teacher’s authority is earned by its valuable relation to existing knowledge, earned in performance, and judged by peers and students both. "Teach CUNY" was fully in that classical spirit of academic freedom. From that point of view, to pursue the self-reflexive question of how my course, my classroom, and its intellectual concerns are related to the institution in which it is located is to inquire into the very conditions of the possibility of academic freedom, especially in the new circumstances of the restructured university.

Finally, more recent thinking in the humanities and social sciences about the knowledge industry and the institutions where knowledge is produced encourages acknowledgment of the always already socially and politically inflected dimension of university teaching. It is an older, problematic liberal idealism that would segregate the university classroom from the political and ethical tensions of contemporary life. To many of us, the freedom of the classroom is always contested and claimed by competing ideas, passions, and interests; and it is ethically better to acknowledge that and be open about the ideas, passions, and interests one deeply cherishes as a teaching intellectual than to postulate an implausible neutrality free of commitments. That openness certainly implies openness to contrary arguments in the classroom and even an obligation to lay such arguments before students. Examples of the justifications given by politicians, journalists, and trustees for the attacks on CUNY were in fact included in the "Teach CUNY" materials available on the PSC Web site.

Much more might be said. We are all learning as we go along as academic unionists, for whom "the union" is us, not an entity at 25 W. 43rd Street. To make the union an active rank-and-file organization, to build the pressure for a decent contract, means to rethink a good deal in our academic lives, including our relation to students. The PSC means to do that very carefully and with wide consultation, in our structures of leadership and in our press. In this discussion, we may discover some unexpected sources of renewal as academics in the academic labor movement.

An earlier version of this article is on the PSC Web site, www.psc-cuny.org.