Come to a roundtable on academic freedom: Reading The Fine Print: Understanding Academic Freedom (MLA 2019). It takes place on Saturday, January 5th at 5:15 in the Hyatt Regency Chicago, Room “Columbus KL.” 

***This session will be live-tweeted (#s608)***

Academic Freedom is an “indispensable requisite for unfettered teaching and research in institutions of higher education” that has been seen as a cornerstone that enables our work since 1940. It is framed as the “core mission” of the American Association of University Professors. But the elements of it that are linked to a “professional standard” are ultimately described as “tied to custom and practice.” They are separate from a legal definition, which requires an understanding of both constitutional and contract law that many of us simply do not have. What this ultimately means is that most members of the Modern Language Association work without a technical or practical understanding of what “academic freedom” really is. We labor under a belief that we are protected by a legal and professional right that makes it possible for us to fully engage in the classroom and in public forums, even if our work challenges traditional modes of thinking or raises difficult questions. But then we see a rescinded job offer—or a graduate student is removed from a classroom after being doxed. If we turn to published essays in hopes of answers we are met with titles that range from the explicit “Academic Freedom Has Limits. Where They Are Isn’t Always Clear” to the more pointed “Can the Adjunct Speak?” And in this context it seems both pressing and timely to outline and then analyze the reach and limitations of  “Academic Freedom.”

This panel takes its departure from an assumption that “Academic Freedom” does not actually extend to all the people or places that many of us imagine it does. Its real and imagined protections have also been troubled by external pressures and internal conflicts that are complex enough to merit a thirty-four page report on its “current legal landscape.” The classroom no longer seems safe even for professors with tenure, in a moment that Twitter can substantially alter an entire career. Any given exchange can be publicized widely, which makes it difficult to use the classroom as a space for intellectual exploration and genuine exchange. Finally, this is even more problematic for adjuncts and graduate student laborers, who are often asked to teach transformative but emotionally and politically complex courses in fields like ethnic studies or queer theory without allegedly requisite protections, which threatens both individuals and entire fields.

This panel seeks to address a series of related questions:

(1) What does academic freedom actually cover?  

(2) What are its paradoxes, ironies, and contradictions?  

(3) Who actually has academic freedom?  Do its protections extend to professors without tenure?  

                  What about graduate student laborers?  

(4) How can we protect ourselves (especially our most vulnerable professors)?

(5) How can we protect the University (especially its most vulnerable areas of study)?

Our hope is that while people may never develop a clear sense of what their rights and protections are, they will leave with a stronger foundation: an overview of the reach, limitations, and complexities of academic freedom, along with some sense of where to turn if their work as professors is threatened.

While professors of all ranks often don’t have anything resembling a clear sense of what academic freedom actually covers, this problem is compounded for lecturers, adjuncts, postdocs, and graduate students, who often teach without these protections or clear policies about what, exactly, we are allowed to teach in the 21st-century university.

The participants:

Jeff Hole (Associate Professor of English at the University of the Pacific) will be talking about his concept “permanent contingency”. He will look particularly at the intensification of managerialism and the continued erosion of shared governance and tenure.

Laura Goldblatt (Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Virginia) will talk about parallels between the acceleration of contract labor for service workers and the casualization of labor and what that means for academic freedom. She will use the events at UVA on August 11th, 2017 as a way to illustrate some of the dire consequences of this particular combination.

Doug Steward (Director of the Association of Departments of English at the MLA) will look at why/how some fields or methodologies are more vulnerable to attacks on academic freedom. The very scholarly norms that appropriately enforce disciplinary rigor may also be used to punish heterodox methods that reenvision a field.

Michael Berube (Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature; Chair, University Faculty Senate Pennsylvania State University) will focus specifically on extramural-speech cases that are especially tricky because they involve students other than the students in one’s classes.

Jennifer Ruth (Professor of Film Studies at Portland State University) will address several topics, including the benefits and tensions of a unionized campus with regards to academic freedom, the difference between rolling contracts and teaching-intensive tenure with regards to academic freedom, the question of whether Faculty Senate Resolutions or other blanket statements regarding academic freedom really do anything to protect contingent faculty speech, and the issues arising with the spread of Offices of Global Diversity and Inclusion in relation to academic freedom.  





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