Email #274: “production facility for Democratic beliefs”?

According to the Pew Research Center, 58% of Republicans think colleges have a negative effect on the country and 72% of Democrats think they have a positive effect. Dartmouth social science professor Sean Westwood explains the division: “Colleges are simply seen as a production facility for Democratic beliefs and Democratic ideology.”

Do you agree with that perception? I ask because I am an English professor at Washington and Lee University, and today is our first day of fall classes. If you have read any of my letters, you know that I hold a range of progressive political beliefs, and so you may assume that I use my classroom as a pulpit for them. But it’s one of my political beliefs that teachers should not abuse their professional positions by expressing their personal political opinions to their students who have no choice but to listen and would be wise to at least feign agreement to the person grading them.

I was in high school when John Lennon was murdered, and my P.E. teacher was so opposed to Lennon’s politics that he spent a period of our Health class lecturing us about how bad a person Lennon was and why no one should be upset that he was dead. I wasn’t a particular fan of Lennon at the time, but I was offended that my teacher felt he had the right to inflict his opinions on his students when the topic was unrelated to our course.

Instead of expressing my opinions, I spend most of my class time encouraging my students to express theirs, and then only on the course-related topics that are the focus of our discussion. I encourage them to support their opinions with evidence. I encourage them to disagree and to be persuasive but also to be open to changing their minds when someone else presents ideas and evidence they hadn’t considered yet. Does that make my classroom “a production facility for Democratic beliefs and Democratic ideology”? Only if Republicans are ideologically opposed to conversation, open-mindedness, and the expectation that opinions must be supported by evidence.

Last semester a student in my first-year writing seminar liked to wear a “Make American Great Again” cap to class. I didn’t comment on it. He participated actively, listened closely to others, and enjoyed challenging others’ ideas as well as having his own ideas challenged. He was also one of the hardest workers in the class, was a gifted writer, and achieved one of the highest grades. By the end of the semester, he was considering majoring in English, which I encouraged. I offered to be his advisor, but said he shouldn’t declare his major too soon. Part of the point of attending a small liberal arts college is trying a range of new courses and fields to discover areas of interest you didn’t know you had.

At the end of the semester, he told me how much he enjoyed our class and said he hoped to take more classes with me in the future. He also stopped wearing his Trump cap. I never asked why.

Do you think I indoctrinated him into my Democratic ideology?

Author: Chris Gavaler

Chris Gavaler is an associate professor at W&L University, comics editor of Shenandoah, and series editor of Bloomsbury Critical Guides in Comics Studies. He has published two novels: School for Tricksters (SMU 2011) and Pretend I’m Not Here (HarperCollins 2002); and six books of scholarship: On the Origin of Superheroes (Iowa 2015), Superhero Comics (Bloomsbury 2017), Superhero Thought Experiments (with Nathaniel Goldberg, Iowa 2019), Revising Fiction, Fact, and Faith (with Nathaniel Goldberg, Routledge 2020), Creating Comics (with Leigh Ann Beavers, Bloomsbury 2021), and The Comics Form (Bloomsbury forthcoming). His visual work appears in Ilanot Review, North American Review, Aquifer, and other journals.

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