Skip to main content

C'est la Z

Bringing Politics to your classroom?

While perusing Reddit this morning, waiting for the stuffing to bake, I came across this post. Apparently there was a todo at Berkeley involving a CS instructor. Specifically a grad student teaching their data structures course.

You can link from the first post to the Berkeley subreddit post and can listen to the video if you want.

It seems that this was the last day of class and the instructor decided to end class early, announce that he was going to share some of his own views so students should feel free to leave and then proceeded to give a very one sided diatribe on the Israel/Palestine situation and to say one sided is me being nice. The instructor said that his opinions were his own but also noted that this would be his last chance to share them. He also made a small attempt to tie it back to CS citing ethics issues albeit in a general sense and not tied in to the class syllabus.

This raises an important question. Should teachers bring politics into their classrooms and if so, how and when.

In my opinion, the instructor, in this case was extremely out of line and I'm not just saying this because my views on the issue are very much on the other side to his. I am in general, very pro Israel and believe that much of what we're seeing as pro-Palestinian PR is in fact antisemitic. The test to me is one, will they call out the barbarism of Hamas, two, will they acknowledge that Jews are also indigenous to the region and have a right to a Jewish state, and three, will they call out with equal vigor anti arab actions brought on by non-Jewish actors. Usually, but not always, the protesters fail on all three counts. I also feel that it's important for me to state that I'm very much against Israel's current right wing government and many of their policies and they likewise need to be held accountable.

Back to this Berkeley situation.

In this case, the instructor was way out of line. Why?

  • He's a CS PhD and has no actual expertise in the subject.
  • By ending class early, he used class time as well as his classroom to share his political views.
  • Even though he said the class was over and students could leave an instructor is in a position of power and students likely felt pressure to stay.
  • Similarly, his words carry more weight as he's in a position of power even though his words show only that he's been exposed to one sides propaganda (note, that this means he hasn't heard either the other side's propaganda nor factual nor history information). Of course I could be wrong on this one but his words certainly sound like I'm right.

Now, if this wasn't on school time or property it might be a different story. Similarly if this was really directly tied into a lesson it might be different. Most importantly, if he presented all sides fairly with factual information it might be different.

Alas, it wasn't.

If it were, though, it would still be tricky. I doubt I would have shared my recent Israel/Palestine post or maybe even this one had I not recently retired as it might influence the one or two stray students who might happen upon this blog.

It's also tricky because there aren't always two sides. I am of the opinion, for instance that the current Republican party is a serious threat to American democracy. There aren't two sides. There's no equivalence between "we want to raise minimum wage" on one side and "we think LGBTQ people are a threat." Sorry. No two sides.

Many issues, though are in fact nuanced even if the scales are weighted more on one side than the other.

The actual Israel/Palestine issue is one of those issues and in this instance the instructor clearly overstepped their bounds.

If I were to raise the issue in class (and I probably wouldn't given what I teach) I'd have to share historic context and resources from both sides, share my biases, and perhaps bring in someone to present the opposing side if I felt I couldn't be fair.

While not politics, I've always tried to take that stance on any subjective issue I teach. Not as serious at all but when talking coding style, I explain what I do, why I do it, what other people do and why and then it's up to the students to decide.

"Non-CS" issues certainly have their place in CS classes. We should be talking about ethics and equity and that should be across all our classes. We should also bring topical issues and other fields into our classes when we can. When we do, though we have to be careful that we're being teachers and not propagandists.

comments powered by Disqus