Starting A Dialogue - Further Discussions of FIMS' Political Biases

Writing articles for Her Campus is an enjoyable and rewarding experience, but it is not often that a sequel article is considered necessary. My first somewhat controversial article, “Why Virginity is a Social Construct,” received some negative feedback when shared on the Her Campus national Facebook page, but was never the source of major critique or lasting change. However, since posting my last article, “FIMS Is Left-Leaning and It’s Problematic,” I’ve had more feedback than I ever expected. This reaction warrants a follow-up article to cover several Faculty of Information and Media Studies (FIMS) professors’ perspectives and to comment on how we may promote growth within our FIMS education.

In my original article, I included an instance in which fellow students reported feeling uncomfortable by what I referred to as “Liberal subjects” being presented as indisputable “fact” by FIMS professors. I argued that this bias could ostracize students who identify as more politically conservative. Before going further, I’d like to clarify my terminology. Although I only used the term once in the article, “fact” is not the correct term to use in my argument for bias in FIMS; what I meant was “unquestionable perspective.” I was describing situations in which a faculty member seemed to present an “indisputable” political opinion, leaving some students feeling as though their opinions would be disregarded if they did not reproduce that same political bias. Furthermore, in the original article I used labels like “Liberal/Left-wing” and “Conservative/Right-wing,” when what I really meant was “liberal” and “conservative”—very different concepts, as they do not refer to a specific political party or candidate, but rather to a set of principles. I didn’t intend to dichotomize the range of different political viewpoints, but it may have sounded that way. It’s difficult enough to cover even a small portion of this issue in one article, even without lingual ambiguity.

Promptly after I posted the original article, I received an email from the professor whom I’d cited as an example of causing some student unease in class. The professor contacted me to inquire about the incident I had described, involving what some students perceived as ad hominem criticism of Conservative candidate, Andrew Scheer. They were confused and slightly upset that I claimed some students had been bothered by this lecture and they felt I had cherry-picked an example without explaining the context—that they had, in fact, given a similar treatment to several other candidates of various political backgrounds. While it is true that they did address other candidates in class, the reason I used the Andrew Scheer example was because several of my peers had openly expressed discomfort at the seemingly disproportionate amount of time spent on Scheer versus the other candidates. While I didn’t mean to omit details of the larger context presented in class, I may have done so without thought and thus worry about having exposed this professor to potential criticism. I also didn’t intend to make generalizations about their teaching or imply that this style of lecture was the norm in their class. That said, this is not the only instance where some students have felt that a liberal education is being taught unquestionably in FIMS, I just chose it as one example. My intent was to discuss students' unease in a way that doesn't minimize their feelings, as can happen in relationships of unequal power such as that of educators and students. I cannot claim that all students present were similarly affected by this lecture, my intention was just to amplify the voices of some who may have felt cowed by the professor’s remarks.

Before meeting with this professor to speak about these issues, as well as potential improvements to the program that might be considered, I conducted an anonymous survey among second- and third-year FIMS students to collect opinions and suggestions. I asked whether they felt FIMS was imbalanced in incorporating all political views, if they had ever felt that opinion-based information was being presented as “unquestionable,” and what could be done to potentially increase FIMS’ inclusivity of a variety of content and perspectives. I received 41 responses, which is more than I expected, but recognize that it is not representative for a pool of around four hundred students.

 

As evident by the graphs, the majority of the 41 survey respondents appear to believe that FIMS is a fairly liberal program in which non-liberal views are not equally represented, and in which a politically-biased opinion has been expressed as unquestionable by a member of the FIMS staff. Of the respondents that did not respond in the majority, most stated that they “Haven’t thought about it,” while a smaller portion felt FIMS represents political viewpoints equally and FIMS staff have never presented a political opinion as unquestionable.

When asked to describe specific incidents, I received a large number of responses, but some trends became apparent. Several respondents cited the same example I used in the original article, involving Andrew Scheer, as well as the character-attacking nature of Trump presidency-related lectures in favour of an actual discussion about Trump’s policies, marketing strategies, or political economy. Many respondents commented on the promotion of liberal theorists and theories, such as Karl Marx, anti-capitalism, and disparagement of the creative industries, with an omission of alternative perspectives. Some students described pressure to regurgitate the same liberal stance they felt permeated the classroom, whether it reflected their personal views or not, in order to attain a good grade. Others felt that alternative viewpoints are considered “unacceptable...incorrect, and insensitive,” which resulted in self-censoring. A few respondents disagreed with the argument that FIMS is liberally biased, but the majority of those people cited unawareness of the issue as the reason for their opinion.

The crux of the survey was the respondents’ suggestions for how to increase diversity of opinion and inclusion in FIMS. Of the responses I received, there were a few common threads: many respondents recommended opening up the floor to students more often for class discussion, whereas others emphasized the need for overt encouragement to express alternative opinions. Multiple people suggested bringing in non-FIMS professors to provide their opinions on some chosen topics once in a while, as well as presenting more varied political perspectives on course content as part of the syllabus in order to allow students to formulate their own opinions.  Presenting a different perspective included introducing the positive aspects of the creative industries, as students expressed anxiety at the consistent “demonizing” of the very industries that most FIMS students hope to enter in the future. The easiest to implement and most requested suggestion was to have professors present a disclaimer at the beginning of term and during more politicized lectures that would ideally acknowledge three things: the presence of professor (human) bias; the existence and importance of alternative, equally credible opinions’ and the understanding that FIMS is a liberal program with content that purposefully critiques societal structures commonly linked with conservative viewpoints. In this way, students would understand not to take the content they learn as the sole valid perspective on an issue, and there would be recognition that it is impossible to expect anyone, including a professor or TA, to always maintain objectivity.   

I discussed these and many other topics with several professors and members of the FIMS administration. Almost everyone was supportive of my efforts to start a discourse on this topic although, understandably, there were also questions regarding my message and end goal. Ultimately, there were a few significant takeaways from these meetings, the first being the need to acknowledge the professor’s side of the story. The perspectives of FIMS staff, like the perspectives of all humans, are inculcated in personal bias so being wholly objective is impossible. While it is fair to expect professors to maintain a certain level of quality and breadth of perspective in class, proper facilitation of class discussion and coherent overview of complex (often political) theories and theorists, the perceived binary between students and professors can create the unfair expectation by students that these figures of authority are always objective and hence the course content they present is indisputable.

Several of the meetings with FIMS staff also included discussion regarding the difference between students believing they are only being taught one viewpoint versus students simply disagreeing with what is being taught. Elucidating the difference here requires recognition of our own biases, and an understanding that sometimes alternative perspectives presented in class might be written off because students don’t agree with or enjoy the content. This is one of the concepts that requires further discussion within the faculty as a whole.

It’s also worth mentioning that the members of the FIMS staff I spoke with did acknowledge the program’s liberal nature, but noted that in a generally capitalist Western society, much of the political climate outside of the program leans toward more conservative ideologies. Whether or not you agree, it is an interesting point when considering what alterations of the program might be made and how to best implement any future changes to FIMS policy or classroom environment. While I appreciate FIMS’ function as a more liberal refuge from wider conservative culture, diversity of opinion does not have to negate the program’s inherently liberal nature. Another point made was the lack of time and resources in class to explore all viewpoints, to which I would agree that covering everything is unrealistic. Instead, we could aim to encourage open-minded conversation in classrooms, in which multiple perspectives are considered, but not to the point where professors are pressured to address every possible viewpoint on every given issue.

Ultimately, what came of these meetings was a sense of understanding and the beginning of a dialogue between FIMS students and staff that made me hopeful for potential change, if that is what the student body chooses. It appears that my original article could be interpreted by some as hostile toward the faculty, or to individual professors, which I never intended. I believe that a certain level of student discomfort in class is a good thing—we come to university to have our opinions challenged, and this can be discombobulating for some, but it may be necessary. However, this discomfort has limits; it isn’t okay for students to self-censor because they feel their opinions are invalid or unimportant just because they don’t reflect the political biases of professors, course content, or the program as a whole. Listening to and presenting our varied perspectives is how we grow as students, people, and citizens, and it won’t continue without further conversation.

My voice, and those of 41 other FIMS students, should not be the only ones heard on this topic: we need to continue this discourse within the faculty, among students and staff alike. This is why the next step is already in progress: I’m in discussion with the FIMS administration and incoming FIMS student council executives to develop a forum-type event to discuss political biases and/or presentations in the program. I feel hopeful that addressing this issue of recognizing political bias in the classroom and encouraging discourse that includes varied points of view can spur change if more students begin to speak out. Any future updates on this event will be advertised by the FIMSSC on Facebook and other channels.

My goal in these articles was never to censor knowledge, L/liberal, or otherwise, or to further a C/conservative agenda, and I am not attempting to place blame on FIMS staff or administrators. Criticizing individuals is not productive and doesn’t generate positivity. My goal is to foster critical thinking, not to censor liberal ideas. Concepts presented in class should be open to question without fear of ostracization or dismissal, as long as they are presented in an open, honest and respectful manner. Political biases should be acknowledged and recognized as facets of the professor’s personal viewpoint—not as unquestionable tenets, but rather as one of many valid perspectives.

FIMS students and faculty strive towards the same goal—to make the program the best it can be for all. Political bias in education, student voice, and professor objectivity are too broad of topics to be covered in one article, or even a series of articles, but there is a lot of hope here for positive change. As an academic program that encourages students to question the dominant social structures dictating how we are told to live, FIMS provides a unique environment that is capable of fostering rational and logical critique, even of its own biases. My experience with FIMS staff has shown me that we are lucky to have faculty members who aren’t censoring students’ efforts to question their teaching practices; especially those who recognize that unintentional student ostracization might occur from promoting liberal ideas while omitting other perspectives in the classroom. Ultimately, our personal growth as well as that of the FIMS program can only happen when we challenge each other’s opinions, escape complacency, and refuse to tolerate the liberal echo chamber any longer.

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