The Impartiality Contract

I’ll be teaching my social philosophy course again this summer, which takes a turn through some very controversial issues—the justification of rights, oppression, racism, sexism, linguistic privilege, theories of punishment, &c. So I am thinking of beginning the term with a clarification of my policies about impartiality. In particular, I abide by the following two principles:

I will not be impartial in my presentation of material. A philosophy class is not a venue for indoctrination, but I make no promise that I will present material in an impartial manner. My selection of topics is meant to stimulate my students, but not to present every side of an issue. I will not always disclose my views on a topic, but I will not always refrain from doing so, either. There are several reasons for this.

For one, I don’t think every ‘side’ of the issues we cover deserves a defense in the classroom. I don’t think that Nazis or people who deny the value of logic or reason need their arguments aired clearly and respectfully in every class where they might be relevant, and if I do defend their arguments for the sake of a discussion I won’t do it with an impression of earnestness. So some viewpoints will be left out or marginalized because I don’t think they’re worth considering. That’s not to say we won’t discuss immoral viewpoints or bad arguments—not at all!—but I am trying to teach my students to think well, and I won’t present the bad as if it were good.

Relatedly, I want my classroom to be a particular kind of safe space (insofar as I can make that the case in a classroom). Making my own views clear on certain matters will, I hope, bring some comfort to some students, and make it clear what they can expect from me in one-on-one or confidential conversations.

For another thing, it’s just bad pedagogy to aim for impartiality. I have to make a decision about how to make the material comprehensible in the short time that we have, and some viewpoints and complications will be glossed over. That’s for the benefit of my students (philosophical education involves raising ladders that can be thrown away once they’ve been climbed, right?). So some viewpoints will be left out not because they’re unworthy of serious consideration, but because we have limited time and effort in the course of the term or because of pedagogical demands.

Finally, I don’t think it’s possible to be perfectly ‘impartial’ about any complex topic without specifying a sphere of common opinion or a metric for partiality, which is heavy weather. Ultimately, when considering which viewpoints to address I consider my educational objectives—what content I think my students should be exposed to, which skills I want them to develop, what I want the tone of the classroom to be, and to some extent of course what I think of as right and wrong. That being said…

I will not punish you for the substance of your views. I will impose no sanctions—in classroom policies or in my grading—for holding certain beliefs. That’s right. If one of my students is a literal Nazi and says so, believes that allegiance to an ethnically pure state is paramount and that impure people should be interned or killed, and if they defend these views from a place of conscience, it will not affect their grade and I will not remove them from class. More topically, I won’t dock someone’s grade for being a libertarian or even a white supremacist.

In fact, dissent from the views presented—mine or those of the authors and thinkers I assign—is very important for a philosophy class to work. So I positively encourage productive dissent. This can come in at least two forms: students might disagree with a view or argument under discussion, and even if they don’t disagree they might explore objections. If a student disagrees with a view under discussion, she should test her reasons against those of others. If a student doesn’t understand a view or argument under discussion, considering objections and opposing viewpoints will help her to improve her understanding.

That being said, it’s not the case that anything goes. I will remove students from the classroom if they are repeatedly disrespectful of their classmates, or if they express their views in a way that is cruel or hurtful. So even if a student is a conscientious white supremacist, I the use of slurs or dehumanizing language is still, of course, inappropriate (the mention of such expressions is allowed, with special care).

Furthermore, I expect my students to become familiar with the views and arguments presented in the lectures and readings. A student who does not believe in structural oppression must still be familiar with assigned readings by Iris Marion Young, and must engage with them thoughtfully and charitably.

I have generally followed these guidelines whenever I’ve taught—though in most classes I am very circumspect about expressing my own views. But I think it is probably worthwhile to make these policies explicit at the beginning of the semester. I’ve discovered in the past that some of my students were unsure about the extent to which they were permitted to express disagreement with the lecturer or the readings, and I think these two principles set the stage for critical thinking and lively discussion. The first principle, that I will not be impartial regarding to the subject matter of the class, will probably irk students but it will help to encourage them to question the readings and what I say. The second principle, that I will not sanction students for their views, gives express permission to think out loud and to express their questions and skepticism. Of course, students don’t take in what I say just because I’ve said it. But I have a hunch that discussing these two policies together might help us all to start off the term on the right foot. I’m looking forward to seeing how that goes.

By the way: in my last post I mentioned Adam Ragusea’s discussions of journalistic objectivity and impartiality in his podcast The Pub. The discussions spanned segments over several weeks, but the latest episode of The Pub is a recap of all that material. So if you’re interested, it’s all in one place now [Edit: the episode has finally been posted]. Ragusea is not a philosopher, but I think his discussion reflects precisely the kind of sensitivity to abstract distinctions that we philosophers should be encouraging outside the discipline. Listen if you’re a true nerd!