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Teachers, Professors, and Obama Buttons--Skeel

Stanley Fish has an interesting op-ed in this morning's New York Times about whether a school or university can prohibit its teachers from wearing a button advocating a particular candidate in the classroom. Fish argues that such a rule would be upheld under the First Amendment, and he suggests that such a ban would be appropriate given that a teacher's views can have a coercive effect on students- shaping, for instance, how they answer an exam question.

I don't think I would be enthusiastic about a formal ban on buttons at the college or graduate school level (in elementary or high school, on the other hand, I would be inclined to ban them from classrooms). But I also don't think professors should wear them, for precisely the kinds of reasons that Fish suggests.

But this raises an interesting question. Given that ninety percent or more of the buttons would be Obama buttons, given the well-documented political tendencies of teachers and professors, does it really matter whether they announce this with a button?

Surely students already know that nearly all of their teachers support Obama and (to a lesser extent, perhaps) other Democratic candidates. Does it still make a difference? I think it does. A teacher or professor who holds strong political (or religious or philosophical) views can and should make a strong effort not to let these views influence how she grades her students. If she wears her views on a button in class, it seems to me to raise legitimate questions as to how hard she will try to separate her personal views from her grading.


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Comments ( 3 )

I wonder about the direction of the impulse here. It's true that someone who wears the political button will be seen by students as someone who values his or her political views to a very great degree. So there will be, in the absence of anything else, good reasons for students who disagree with that choice to be wary about running afoul of those views. But is there something distinct about button-wearing that wouldn't also apply to either: (a) expressing strong views on particular policy issues as a part of class discussion or (b) publishing one's views in a newspaper or, say, one of those blog thingies? In both cases, the professor has expressed a view and done so in a way that suggests he holds it quite strongly.

Moreover, doesn't this sort of reticence merely reaffirm the idea that students shouldn't trust professors with whom they disagree and, more broadly, that disagreement is somehow fundamentally at odds with common deliberation and even community? What I mean is that the professor who keeps his views to himself, even in the context of a class where those views are germane, implicitly teaches his students that running afoul of professors' views will indeed have adverse consequences and that we need to pretend that there isn't any disagreement in order to maintain our classroom collegiality.

Of course, I really just don't understand the purpose of buttons, bumper stickers, or yard signs. Except for my "Jindal 2012" signs I've got ready to go...

Just had a thought: maybe it would be helpfully clarifying if all profs were encouraged to wear a button?

These are great questions. There does seem to me a difference between wearing a button in class and, say, writing op-eds strongly defending a candidate or party. The reader of an op-ed can take or leave the view expressed. In my view, students don't perceive themselves as having the same flexibility. And in my experience as a student at least, teachers who wore a particular political view on their sleaves in class tended to be teachers who weren't particularly amenable to hearing contrary views. I don't think teachers should feel compelled to disguise their views, but I do think the context and the way the views are expressed matter.