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Teaching Oversight

Teaching Oversight

A talented colleague has raised an interesting issue, and since he did it publicly I don’t think it’s inappropriate to comment.

Mills Kelly, in our History Department, has twice offered a course that involves students preparing a plausible public hoax and disseminating it (Wikipedia, etc.) for 10 days, after which it is explicitly disavowed. The course has drawn diverse external reaction. One can understand how exciting it is for student participants, and how much it teaches about the nature of historical evidence and analysis.

Mills proposed that the course be regularized, in terms of a standard optional offering, and the Department committee decided it would only agree if the hoax was not publicized externally. I have no basis for commenting on the merits of the decision—I can certainly understand it, given concerns about ethics, undermining confidence, etc.—though I probably would have voted the other way.

But the case raises complex concerns about academic freedom. Mills, in a carefully phrased blog, notes that department committees don’t vote on whether to allow research projects, implying that they should have no greater rights when it comes to teaching. And his account has raised cries of “censorship” even from colleagues here at Mason.

Open to discussion, but here’s my take. Teaching and research differ. Research ultimately gets checked in terms of wider professional reactions to the work—reviews, referees decisions in journals, etc. (And if research is never published, this has consequences, too.) Teaching just goes to students, who can’t judge on the same professional basis. I have had occasions when it turned out a course was using consistently outdated materials, and on the basis of colleague oversight we had to tell the instructor to change. There are recurrent cases, though I have not faced them directly, about teaching pretty demonstrably false stuff—holocaust denial, for example, and while judgments here are difficult students do ultimately need the protection of faculty peer evaluations.

All this must be done gingerly, with maximum latitude for faculty freedom; but I don’t think the system itself is faulty. At most, if cases multiplied, one might wish an appeal process, to some higher faculty committee that could take a second look, outside the confines of a single discipline.

But there’s no question that the issue is interesting, and may well warrant further debate. In the meantime I have every confidence that Mills’ creativity will generate something else to challenge our thinking about history teaching.